Two people. Their voices like silk.
She is brown with hair bleached the burnished gold of firewood. He is peach, his eyes a vein under cool skin blue.
“Arden, because.” Her chrome covered chest rises. “And, and I don’t want to be married.”
Arden leans back and places a ringed fist to the underside of his pointed chin. It wobbles. His gold-foil beard does little to cushion thin skin from the bite of a rare gem. “Vida.”
“When did you . . . decide?” he asks.
Vida sighs. She sits at the edge of a pickle green cushion, legs crossed, a puzzle in her shadow red skirts. A crescent moon hangs. Reminder and omen. They are polite smiling slivers of themselves. Shells.
Someone gulps but neither of their stares confess. Their bodies are just there. They feel not, dare to want not, and wait. Still, as if examined by an MRI machine. Enclosed. Thank God no one here is claustrophobic. Just . . . Unhappy.
“It’s –” Vida begins as Arden says, “Can we try –” and air is no longer there.
Her jaw locks, audible and nauseating. “You shouldn’t grind your teeth,” Arden advises. It comes out languid. He yearns for snark, contempt – fucking anger.
“I’ve hurt you,” Vida says. Her chin is high. She should look crestfallen, put her remorse on display but the gesture would be clumsy and read insincere at best, cold at worse. Care is a practiced thing. A muscle. All muscles need use to grow, rehearsals to remember and to perform well. “The bed bugs –,”
“I know.” Arden looks down for them both. He shifts forward and clasps his hands, skin still crawling from the uninvited guests in their bed, immigrants from Vida's time in another. “I figured. Whilom was always – he’s an untidy guy.”
Vida chomps down harder. “That’s generous. I slapped the shit out of him.”
He looks up. There is a thin eggshell crack, faint and sharp, in the corner of his thin lips. An almost unkind smirk. “Glad to hear you’ve still got passion for something.”
Her eyes shut against the feather semblance of an attack. She wants to bear this. Knows she should take what little malice he can muster, willingly, but self-preservation and selfishness coexist like identical twins with shared names.
“Do you love him?” Arden asks. His forehead, wrinkled with time and distance, worries into a frown.
“Ah,” Arden says and his head bobs skeptically.
Vida drives her teeth down on her stiff tongue until pennies and Himalayan salt surface, red like her heart. “That’s not why,” she says.
Gardenia Rose Vassar was twilight and mint tea with ambry syrup. She was fresh lemon and cut garlic.
Gardenia, or Arden – as she preferred to be called – was salve on wound. Good for Vida.
They nestled on a matted shag papasan. Their combined weight should have been too much for its old bamboo joints, but it held strong. Strong as their hold on each other. Vida never questioned their closeness. Abrupt as a ball to the face on a basketball court, they fell for each other in an instant. They picked up that ball called love and played toss with it. No one kept score.
The first of many fouls.
Arden was different and powerful, even, in her lean frame. Gentle despite the efforts needed to command all the length of her limbs, golden hair, and the boulder blue weight of her uncut eyes. They worked together and it was taboo, dating a colleague, but who cared?
Their interest in one another meant earlier mornings that impressed bosses and facilitated chance encounters in bathrooms and coat closets. Longer hours were good for business – to check last minute emails while never quite wrapping up rapturous conversations, sure to be carried back to the home they were making for each other. Homes they never had before.
They were women, smart enough and eager. Naïve. Clumsy and unabashed. Stubborn.
On the papasan, their kisses commingled with whispers about senior positions, promotions, exponential salary increases, opportunity, and life. They felt for hands, hips, and necks in light and in darkness, never in search of perfection. The bumpy scars, the peach fuzz and coarse hair, the acne – healed and crusted, the musk, the pockets of cellulite, Vida’s extra and Arden’s need, the callused feet and two soft skins . . . whole, broken, and sublime.
In the soft hitch of withered joints, time happened. The papasan’s base and bowl collapsed and crumpled and it was thrown away. A sign. It was ignored. The end of a season – replaced when it should have given way to another.
New apartment furnished natural wood floor to chandelier ceiling, with luxury. Minimalist but expensive. Expenses. Blessedly managed with ease. In that world of comfort and wealth, a novel type of need grew apparent. It could no longer be shoved aside.
Without the pressures of basic survival Arden was free and able to become who he was meant to be.
Vida was six years old, and her brother was a liar. “A crush?” she asked, disgusted.
Tyson laughed, “That’s what it’s called!”
How could anyone call what she felt for her best friend Grace a “crush.” Vida did not feel like a squashed bag of chips.
She watched a daisy dance in the wind as her brother ran inside their apartment. Daddy had said, “flowers bloom.” They unfold supple petals under the sun and bathe in light. Vida felt like that yellow centered dancer when she thought of Grace.
Heat radiated from the stove, breakfast half-baked on its surface. Six blue flamed burners alight. A lot of food for two but Vida would bring the extra to work for the janitor and his pregnant wife in the building over and –
“What?” Vida asked.
Arden cleared his throat and placed a hand on the small of her back. “I have been – I wanted to talk to you about . . . I am so grateful for you. We, we’re a family and I –”
“What the fuck are you saying?” Vida interrupted; her voice unsteady.
The eggs cooked to hard rounds and the bacon burned. Arden tried, “It means –
“For us. What does this mean for us? Are you saying you don’t . . .” Vida’s voice trailed. She shut each burner off, a turn at a time: the pancakes, the berry compote, the potatoes, and the fat coated café con leche which had over-brewed.
Vida turned around, hands covered in grease and flour. She placed them both in the center of his now flat chest and pushed. He took a step back, unbothered by the stifled force. “Why the fuck are we married?”
“I,” Arden started. “I did-didn’t – I wasn’t sure. I never knew . . . I could be me. In this way.” His voice was breathless. His hands busied around his body to accentuate what was carved away to reveal the man beneath the stone. “I only know I love you and I . . .”
“But I’m not enough,” Vida questioned and asserted, jaw set and hands in fists.
Arden’s bottom lip trembled, and he reached for her white knuckled hands. He smoothed them until they twitched. “I love you. Nothing has to change.”
“Everything has –”
“I just wanted you to know but I . . . we are all we have, Vi. Please, nothing has to change.”
Vida Emilia Santos finally understood her brother. To love was to be crushed
“My assistant? Shit, Vi.”
It has been two years since he last used this pet name. Three since Vida first requested a divorce.
Arden kneads at his eyes.
“You haven’t cared about any of the others.” Vida’s eyes are glossy. As many bodies as she has shared in the days, months, and years that followed Arden’s revelation, she still feels alone and in want of Arden. He is the only man she has ever loved. The only man to challenge labels she dawns with pride, ever since she was six years old and fond of a girl named Grace.
Gardenia, a person as frightened, broken, and ready to make something of the little they had, a lesbian of her own heart. Her equal, her love. Her “never existed.”
Were there rule books for this. Could she be a lesbian and love a man?
A man, wanting to be a man in every way. Even in tastes that did not suit his own palette. A child, not in the body they needed - yet - but who could leverage the height they lucked into and the love they found with a woman to make their parents see what they never saw. He was a man. He could have and keep a wife. Wrong or right, just like his father.
But he was nothing like his father.
“You slept with another man just to, to what?” Arden snarls, irritation finally ignited, and he stands to close the distance between them. Upset, not because of the slight but because of Vida's masochism.
Vida rises. Sorrow, now a welcomed guest, wrapped round her shoulders. Those shoulders jut up with a start when the first firework roars a vibrant shadow on the polished concrete patio. “Every year, I ask you to end this. I just needed you to see I am losing myself loving you. I -,” Vida does not finish.
Music lifts like smoke in a house. Voices, excited and relieved, cheer at once. Their neighbors, strangers, everyone rings in the New –
“Fine. This year.
“You say that every -,”
“I mean it. This . . . time.”
Vida hopes he does. Arden does too.