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A Breath of Spring

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“Oh, Emily, hello.” The words jolt me out of my reverie.

“Babe?” I exclaim, surprised to see her.

“Well, I had no idea you’d be here today.”

“Yeah.” Supervising clean-up after the Harvest Festival is part of my duties as President the Coventry Women’s League. I’m not going to shirk that, even after what happened last night.

“Well, I mean, how are you?” Babe asks.

“I’m… I’m fine.” One of the oldest and most frequently repeated lies in history. “How are you?” I force myself to ask, not wanting to be rude, even if I’m in no mood for conversation.

“Oh, I’m busy as a bee in a bonnet,” she says, which seems odd, seeing as how it’s increasingly obvious she’s only here to talk to me. I laugh nervously, and neither of us knows what to do with the awkward silence that follows.

Finally, I force myself to ask the question, trying to make it casual. “Hey, how’s, uh, how’s Jolene?”

“Jolene is leaving for Nashville today,” Babe announces. Clearly this is what she came here to tell me.

“Really? Today?” Is this my fault?

“I just dropped her off at the bus station. Y’know what, she might still be there, in case there’s something you might want to say to her.” Babe’s words couldn’t be more pointed if she’d delivered them with an arrow.

“Well, I…” I’m not ready; not yet.

“Emily, Jolene might not be perfect, but I don’t think she deserved all that.”

I sigh. I know I hurt her, not just with the things I did and said last night, but before, when I pulled away. If something good came out of yesterday, it’s that I finally put the blame where it belongs: on Aaron, not Jolene. I should tell her that, even if I’m not yet sure what else I need to say. I nod absently at Babe, turn, and hurry in the direction of the bus station.

Of course, I’m too late. I get there just in time to see the bus pulling away. I even catch a glimpse of Jolene on board, but she doesn’t see me waving to her. I curse myself for being too slow. It takes a few seconds before I think of pulling out my phone. A text message is too impersonal for the conversation I wanted to have, but it’s all I’ve got.

I’m sorry for telling Willa. I’m sorry for a lot of things. I wish you the best of luck in Nashville. I hesitate for a moment, then add, I’ll miss you.

I look away at first, worried that there won’t be a response, but when I look back at the screen, the three dots appear… then disappear… then reappear, finally to be replace by four words.

I’ll miss you too.

It’s not much, but it’s enough.

It quickly becomes clear that Aaron isn’t going to shift on us going to couples’ counseling. He doesn’t even seem interested in putting any effort in us ‘fixing things ourselves.’ He just wants everything to carry on the way it was, and I’m no longer willing to accept that. I want more. If I can’t get it from my husband, then I’ll need to look elsewhere.

Willa makes an attempt to reconcile with Hugh, now that the woman he was having an affair with has left town. That lasts until the PI she hired – just in case – discovers that Jolene was simply the latest in a long string of infidelities. After that, we become divorce buddies, even though we’d never really been terribly close before.

We meet a couple of times a week, and drink copious amount of wine, while bitching about how things are going. In fairness, it’s mostly Willa doing that, as Hugh seems determined to make their divorce as protracted and painful as possible. Some part of Willa seems to be enjoying it, though; the part that wants to win, that wants to make him pay.

Mine and Aaron’s, on the other hand, is largely just an amicable discussion of how to separate our assets and share custody of Jed. He’s happy for me to keep the family home, and more than happy for me to have most of the responsibility for our son. He wants to get a small apartment in the city, closer to the hospital; enough space for him to have Jed to stay some weekends, but certainly not full time.

Jolene occasionally asks for updates; our initial messages were followed by a few more over the next week, and they soon became increasingly frequent. Now, we exchange multiple messages a day, and talk on the phone at least once a week. I have my friend back, even if she’s gone. I sometimes wonder if I don’t miss her more than I do my ex-husband. She’s the first person I call after the divorce is finalized, even if it’s Willa I celebrate with.

It’s also Jolene that I call when I hear that Aaron is dating one of the nurses he works with. “Just to complete his mid-life crisis cliché,” she says, and I can’t help but laugh. Somehow, she always manages to make me feel better. “You should come visit sometime,” Jolene says, later in the call. “Dump Jed on Aaron and his new girlfriend for a few days, and come to Nashville; I’m sure you could use a break. If you promise to watch me doing a set, then I’ll show you the sights, and a few of my favorite bars.”

“That sounds pretty good, actually,” I tell her. Especially the last part; Willa’s idea of ‘celebrating’ was a couple of bottles at wine at home while bingeing some new anthology show on Netflix that’s based on country music songs.

The fact that I don’t have a full-time job yet still rankles – although I did manage to start picking up some freelance work over the winter – but it means that I have no trouble making time for a getaway. Aaron complains about the short notice of me telling him that he’ll be taking Jed for Spring Break, but as he bailed on the last couple of scheduled parental weekends, all I need to do is start muttering about how maybe it would make more sense for me just to have sole custody, and he’s suddenly co-operative. It’s actually good to know that he does still care about our son.

After dropping Jed off with his father – and my car for a long overdue service – I catch the bus to Nashville. I arrive there mid-afternoon, giving me plenty of time to check into the hotel and head to the place where Jolene works. Like at Baby Blues, she tends bar as well as singing. She may only be doing a warm-up act, but at least it’s steady work, and gives her a ready opportunity to test out the songs she’s been writing on a live audience. Of course, as the bar she works in is a tourist trap, her sets mostly consist of covers of songs by famous country artists – everyone from Tammy Wynette to Taylor Swift – but the owners let her include a couple of her own songs every night.

As I haven’t told Jolene that I’m coming, I time my arrival for just before she’s due to perform. I manage to snag a seat at the bar with a decent view, order a Margarita, and sit back to enjoy the show. Jolene comes on stage to cheers and whistles, likely due to the fact that her outfit is every bit as skimpy as the one she was wearing the first time we met; my eyes are immediately drawn to her ample bosom, and I feel a heat rising in me. Don’t get me wrong, I noticed her cleavage before; it got my son to take an interest in learning the guitar, and precipitated my ex-husband’s mid-life crisis, but this time I capital-N Notice it.

Sure, our text conversations have certainly had flirty undertones these last few weeks, and I have… idly speculated about where that might lead, but I wasn’t expecting this instant rush of attraction. I haven’t felt that since college where, yes, I did kiss a few women, but then I fell in love with Aaron, and stopped looking at anyone else. Now, I’m definitely looking again. My eyes don’t leave Jolene, but it’s not until after her third or fourth song that hers find me in the crowd. They widen, and then she returns my small wave with a broad smile.

After her set, Jolene comes over and pulls me into a hug. I return it, intensely aware of all the places our bodies are pressed together, and if I hold on perhaps a little too long, she doesn’t seem to mind. “Damn, Emily, it’s really good to see you,” she says after I let her go, then ducks round behind the bar. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I wanted to surprise you,” I tell her.

“Well, you certainly managed that. Look, I have to work, but…”

“I know. I’ll have a Skinny Margarita, no salt please.” The same drink she made me the first time we met, and from her smirk, I can tell she remembers.

“Comin’ right up, sweetheart,” she drawls, surprising a laugh from me. Of course, as soon as my drink is ready, she has other customers to attend to, but that’s alright. I sip my Margarita, and watch the other performers, sneaking occasional glances at Jolene as she mixes cocktails for the bar’s patrons.

I’ve had several more drinks – which I paid for myself, despite the best efforts of several men – by the time the headline act finish their set, so it’s with slightly muddle-headed confusion that I look around to see Jolene’s gone. She appears a few moments later with a jacket and bag. “So, are you ready to go, or did you want to stay a little longer?” she asks.

I look down at my empty glass, struggling to remember how many others there were. “I think I’ve had enough to drink.”

“You’re such a lightweight,” she says, teasing me. “C’mon let’s get out of here.” She helps me down from the bar stool and leads me outside, where the fresh spring air clears my head a little. I realize that she’s still holding my hand, and that I don’t mind that at all. “Where are you staying?” Jolene asks.

I give her the address of my hotel, and we amble slowly in that direction. We talk about our lives over the past few months, catching each other up on all the things that never made it into our endless chain of messages.

“This is me,” I tell her, all too soon. I’m reluctant to let go of her hand, let alone see her leave, so I ask, “did you want to come up?”

“I wish I could, but I have an early start tomorrow, and there’s stuff I need from home.” There’s definitely regret in her voice, though. “How long are you in town?”

“A couple of days, at least. I have an open ticket, and Jed is with Aaron until next Sunday, so…”

“Cool. You’re welcome to drop by the bar tomorrow evening – as long as you don’t mind sitting through the same show as tonight – and then after that I’m free on Monday and Tuesday, so I’d love it if we could hang out.”

“That would be awesome,” I tell her.

Jolene smiles, gives my hand a final squeeze, then leans forward to plant a kiss on my cheek. “You have my number,” she says, then turns, and walks away.

I just stand, and watch her go, fingertips pressed to the spot where her lips touched my skin, like a lovestruck teenager.

I allow myself the luxury of sleeping late the next morning, before visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame; come evening, I go back to see Jolene perform again. This time, there aren’t any free spots at the bar, so I end up at a small table, tucked away in a back corner of the room. I watch Jolene sing, my eyes drinking her in as my Margarita sits forgotten in front of me. When she finally spots me, her smile is dazzling. After she leaves the stage, I pull out my Kindle; partly because, as Jolene said, the other acts are the same as yesterday, and partly in the hope it’ll send out the message that I don’t want any company. It even works, mostly, at least until after the final encore.

“Whatcha reading?” comes the inevitable question.

“A book,” I say without looking up.

“What book? I bet it’s some stupid chick-lit.”

“It’s called None of Your Business, and I’d like to read it in peace.”

“Wouldn’t you rather have some company?” he asks, pulling out the chair opposite me.

“If I wanted company, I wouldn’t be reading a book and pointedly ignoring everyone.”

“If you don’t want company, why come to a bar?”

“I’m meeting someone,” I tell him, relieved to see Jolene approaching.

“Yeah, right, some imaginary boyfriend who’d want you,” he says, dismissively, and that really rankles me.

“Ugh, no; my Girlfriend.”

Right on cue, Jolene bends over to kiss my cheek. “You ready to go, sweetie?”

“I sure am,” I say as I slip my Kindle into my purse, then get up to take her hand. The creeper has a somewhat comical expression on his face as we leave him behind. Somehow, we manage to contain our laughter until we’re outside.

“So, I’m your girlfriend now?” Jolene asks, teasingly.

“Sorry, I just wanted to puncture that asshole’s ego. I’m not going to get you into trouble, am I?” I hesitate, before asking the question I’ve been studiously avoiding. “You’re not seeing someone?”

“Nah, the boss’s son is out, and she’s proud, so the bouncers have a zero-tolerance policy on homophobia. And… after Coventry, I decided I wanted to figure some things out before I started dating or, well, anything. You?”

“No; the divorce only just went through after all.”

“Right. I… I’m really sorry about that.”

“Don’t be; you didn’t do anything, other than be hot. If Aaron hadn’t fixated on you, sooner or later it would have been some other woman, maybe one he would have actually had an affair with. At least this way, we managed to end things amicably.”

“You… think I’m hot?” Great, that had to be the one thing she picked up on.

“I’m not blind, Jolene.” She shoots me a long look, and I feel like she’s seen right through me.

This time, when we get to my hotel, she’s the one who asks, “so, are you going to invite me up?” By way of reply I pull her in the direction of the elevators.

Once we’re in my room, I get nervous, not sure what to expect – or what I want. I sit on the bed of the queen bed, because the only other place is the chair tucked under the desk, and I feel like I should leave that for Jolene. Instead, she sits down next to me, looking as unsure as I feel.

“What you said earlier… I just need you to know that I think you’re hot too.” She can clearly read the skepticism on my face, because she continues, “and I don’t care that you’re a few years older than me,” more than a few, I think, “or that you have a son – who I think is great, by the way. None of that matters, because it’s you. I felt something back in Coventry, but I had plenty of ways to hide from it. I don’t have anywhere much to hide here.”

The naked vulnerability in her expression gives me the courage to ask for something I didn’t even know I wanted until yesterday. “I’d really like to kiss you right now. Would that be okay?”

“Yes. Please.”

I lean in, and gently press my lips to hers. A few moments later, I feel Jolene’s hand on the back of my head; not urgently, just caressing. Some time later, she pulls me down onto the bed, and we lie there, facing each other.

“When did you say you have to leave?”

“Next Sunday.” I’d already decided to push back my departure as far as possible. “I have to take Jed home, he has school.”

“So… we don’t need to rush into anything tonight.”

“Or even tomorrow night, but…” I want her; not right now, but neither do I think I can wait until the next time we’re in the same city.

“Then we’re on the same page,” Jolene says. She cups my cheek and kisses me again. I don’t want her to ever stop.

“Stay here tonight, anyway?” I ask.

“I’m planning on spending the next seven nights here. I have a small room with a lumpy bed. And… it’s a shared apartment, so we’d have no privacy.” I shiver with anticipation at the thought of the things we might do which would need privacy, and pull her close.

On Sunday morning, we barely get the room key dropped off before checkout time, then we slowly walk to the bus station, hand in hand. “Think you’ll be able to sleep on the bus?” Jolene asks.

“Normally I’d say no, but after last night… like a baby.”

“Sorry,” she says, then grins. “Not sorry.”

“Me either,” I tell her. “This whole week has been…”

“…life changing?” she suggests.

“That’s one way of putting it.” I still can’t feel like I’m getting by far the better end of the deal. “Last chance if you want to back out, no hard feelings.”

“Just stop, Emily. It’s honestly sad that you can’t see how awesome you are. I don’t know what else I have to say to convince you.” Then, Jolene stops, tugging me back to her, then taking my other hand as well. “I love you.”

For a moment, I just stand there and gape at her. For all our roundabout discussions of our feelings, and about how we both want to spend more time together, that’s the one thing neither of us has actually said. Once I’m over my shock, I don’t need to think about what my response will be. “I love you too.”

That, of course, leads to more kissing, followed by running, when we realize that the bus which just went past us was mine. We make it to the station just in time for me to board, but with no opportunity for further farewells. By the time I’ve stowed my bag and found a seat, we’re already on our way, but there’s a message on my phone: Miss you already <3

The way those three simple words make me feel confirms that I’ve made the right choice. Of course, I don’t relish the thought of explaining my new relationship to Jed, Aaron, or Willa, but those are problems for another time. For now, Jolene and I will have to make do with occasional visits when we can get away from our other commitments, but hopefully, some day…

With a smile on my face, I let the bus’s motion rock me to sleep.