Angie tends to think of her neighbor Peggy as unflappable, practically invincible. Part of this comes from the woman’s stiff-shouldered stance: the war’s over but Peggy still carries herself like a soldier. She talks like one, too -- in clipped sentences, using utilitarian words.
But Angie knows it’s a mask, like the ones she puts on when she reads for a character at an audition. Angie becomes other people for fun; Peggy seems to be doing it for survival. The war’s over, but the going’s still tough, especially if you’re a woman. The world order has changed, sure, but the men still keep women locked out of all the important work. That status remains quo. Peggy, with her mask of fearlessness, or ruthlessness, just might be able to bust through the locks, Angie thinks. If any one of them had a shot, it would be her.
Peggy can’t wear the mask all the time, and she doesn’t. Not around Angie, not anymore. Sure, the woman still has her secrets, but she will relax when Angie comes round to her apartment with a slice of pie and a bottle of cheap booze. During their nights in, when they sit on Peggy’s bed, dangling bare feet off the edge, listening to jazz on the radio, turned down low so Ms. Fry won’t find them out, Angie has seen Peggy laugh, in a completely unrestrained, fit of uncontrollable giggles, accidentally letting out a snort way. She’s seen her friend cry, in an unstoppable wave of sadness, complete with little hiccups.
That night Angie had just held Peggy until she fell asleep. Eventually, Angie herself had drifted off too, and awoken early the next morning in a tangle of limbs. Peggy had thrown a leg over Angie’s and curled her arm around the other woman’s waist, effectively trapping her bedmate. Angie didn’t mind. Peggy’s breath on her neck, in its consistent, still-asleep rhythm, was surprisingly comforting. That hand on her waist was warm, so warm that Angie felt her entire body heat up, from her toes to the top of her scalp. And Peggy, even while sleeping off liquor and tears and wearing yesterday’s rumbled clothes, smelled lovely.
So Angie didn’t wake her friend up, not right away. She just lay there enjoying the moment, knowing that the opportunity may not present itself again, until Peggy awoke, bleary-eyed and very confused. But she didn’t make any moves to disentangle herself from Angie.
“What happened last night, Angie?” she said hoarsely.
“You don’t remember?” Angie asked, concerned.
Peggy had never gotten blackout drunk in Angie’s presence before. But now that she thought about it, the other woman had been knocking them back a lot faster than usual. Angie hadn’t been able to keep up with her. That was the first sign that something had been wrong, and Angie had dismissed it. Peggy usually made a glass or two last the whole evening and Angie was often the one who got drunk first.
“Not really, no.”
“Maybe that’s for the best. You were inconsolable. Cried yourself to sleep. And, um, I was holding you, and you wouldn’t let me go. So I just slept here, I hope that’s alright.” Angie explained in a rush, hyper-aware of how close the two of them were.
“Of course,” Peggy said softly.
Angie’s heart seized up. Peggy’s tone was usually all angles; this rare moment of tenderness felt like a caress. It gave Angie the courage to ask the other woman something personal.
“So...do you wanna talk about it? Whatever it is that made you upset? If you can remember, that is.”
Peggy inhaled sharply, eyes shut tight. Angie began to regret her question. It was too much. She braced herself for Peggy pushing her away, in both the literal and emotional sense. She expected Peggy to tug her hand away from Angie’s waist, eyes flashing with anger. She’d then kick Angie out of her room, slamming the door. And all of this would be over. These nights in together, Peggy’s visits to the diner, everything.
But then Peggy cleared her throat to speak.
“I have a pretty good idea what that was about, yeah. I, uh, lost someone in the war. A year from yesterday was the day. The two of us, we were going to go dancing. He didn’t know how, but I was going to teach him.”
It all starts to make sense to Angie. Of course it wasn’t just her military training that made Peggy so closed off. It was grief, too. Sadness had a way of closing up people’s hearts, Angie knew. She had seen it. Her grandma had become withdrawn after her husband had passed away last winter. Angie had asked the woman why, and she’d responded, in broken English, that she just didn’t have much to say anymore. Sorrow had taken away her words.
“Did you lose anybody in the war, Angie?”
“My cousin. But he was practically my brother, the way we were raised together. Lived just across the street. He, uh, used to tease me something fierce. I hated it, but now I want more than everything for him to just be here, even if it means he’s gonna be calling me names. And he taught me how to fight, after some boys from school were bothering me. Well, they never bothered me again.”
Angie had told anyone about Georgio before, partly because no one had ever asked. Sure, she was friendly with many of the girls at the Griffith, but her conversations with them were all pretty casual. In that sense, Peggy was her only true friend outside of the loud familiarity of her childhood street, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. The whole block had cried when Angie’s aunt and uncle had gotten the telegram about Georgio.
“I bet they didn’t. I can just picture you, in the schoolyard, scaring the hell out of those idiot boys.”
Peggy was staring directly into Angie’s eyes when she said that. She was smirking, too. It made the hairs at the base of Angie’s neck tingle.
“I broke Joey Jackson’s nose in that fight. He was too embarrassed to tell his folks that it was me who had done it,” she stammered.
“I would have loved to have seen that.”
Again, that smirk. Angie was thoroughly flustered.
“Maybe we could recreate the scene. Joey Jackson still lives in my old neighborhood. His wife might not like this, though.”
“Probably not. I can just imagine it, to save him from another broken nose.”
The two women were then silent. It wasn’t uncomfortable, this quiet, not really. But Angie was still on edge, unnerved by Peggy’s closeness. Peggy had propped herself up on one elbow, but her other arm remained around Angie. It would be so easy for Angie to turn in Peggy’s embrace and then the two would be nose to nose. And then…
Somehow, by some force outside of her control, because Angie’s never been that brave, she’s never made the first move, especially not with women, where the situation is so precarious, but somehow, she found herself face to face with Peggy. Her heart was pounding in her ears. This was such a risk, especially since Peggy had just mentioned an almost sweetheart who was decidedly male. What were the chances that Peggy was like her, liking men and women? But then again, Angie was so sure that she wasn’t making this up, that Peggy had to feel this electric connection too. Evidently she did, because Angie felt Peggy’s hand move from her waist to cup her cheek. Angie blushed brilliantly and leaned in to her touch. And then…
Their lips met tentatively, shyly, as if neither of them could truly believe that this was actually happening. Angie pulled Peggy closer, melting into the heat of the other woman’s body. With a groan, Peggy deepened the kiss. There was no going back now, no brushing this off as a friendly gesture. This was desire. Somehow, this wasn’t enough for Angie. There were still barriers between the two women; the fabric of Peggy’s shirt was becoming a nuisance. Angie’s fingers frantically freed it from Peggy’s skirt and dragged themselves across a toned stomach. The woman was clearly still maintaining an army-style workout regimen. Angie flushed, thinking of all the ways Peggy could use her strong body to give Angie pleasure. She could probably hold Angie up against a wall and ravage her, for instance.
Peggy broke off a heated kiss and chuckled, as if she could read Angie’s mind.
“What’s so funny?” Angie demanded, jokingly indignant.
“Oh, I just can’t believe this is happening. I had myself thinking that you would never reciprocate my feelings.”
“I promise you, English, this is completely real,” Angie said, lying back on the bed and pulling Peggy down with her.
“Someone is going to knock on this door any second to call me down for breakfast,” Peggy protested.
“It’s a Saturday, for Christ’s sake,” Angie groaned.
“I suppose I can feign illness. It’s not too much of a stretch, I did drink far too much last night.”
“They’ll be coming to my door too…”
“Perhaps they’ll buy that we both have headaches?” Peggy proposed.
“I hope so. I just want to lie here all day with you.”
“I do as well.”
Gloria from across the hall did come and knock, but she accepted Peggy’s explanation easily enough. The two women did in fact stay in bed for as long as possible, only getting up to rummage through Peggy’s cupboard when they couldn’t hold off their hunger any longer.
They finally went down to the dining room for dinner, showered and dressed in fresh clothing, unable to contain the smiles on their faces.
Peggy’s fingers traced small circles on Angie’s thigh for the duration of the meal.