Michelle caught the bus to the University District, which made a stop near the "Student Ghetto." Michelle hadn't really paid attention to the neighborhood the last time she'd been here. The old brownstone buildings and Victorian-style houses must have been beautiful in her grandmother's day; now they were run-down; weeds had overtaken the yards, and the concrete was cracked in many places where overgrown trees had lifted the sidewalk. She passed one house where some "frat boys" -- or possibly jocks -- sat on the porch drinking cheap canned beer; hard-rock music blared out of the place at a decibel level that would rival a jet engine on takeoff. Jee-zus! Is that supposed to be fun? she asked herself. Michelle was not a beer drinker, per se, although she liked an occasional micro-brewed ale; domestic brands (especially the canned variety) made her sick. As far as hard-rock was concerned, Michelle barely considered it "music."
"Hey, baby! Come party with us!"
Michelle looked over at them. "No thanks," she called out.
"Hey, fuck you, bitch!" called another boy, drunkenly. He and his companions burst into laughter.
Michelle shook her head and walked on. And this is the next generation of society's leaders? Gods help us. Of course, had she thought about it, she would have realized that drunken college students were not a new phenomemon...
She finally came to the building where Tammy lived. Probably should have called her first, she thought, but oh, well...
She shook her head as she entered the dilapidated old house. Shame she has to live like this...but not much longer, if I have anything to say about it...
She climbed the stairs, stopped in front of Tammy's door and pushed the buzzer. She wasn't entirely surprised to find that it produced no sound. She rapped on the door.
"Who is it?" came Tammy's voice, weakly.
"Tammy, it's Michelle. Open up."
Silence for a moment, then: "Just a sec."
A minute or so later, Tammy opened the door, wearing a robe and oversized sunglasses. "Come on in," she said, somewhat listlessly.
Michelle looked at her quizzically. "Tammy, why are you wearing shades indoors on a cloudy day?"
Tammy replied, "I -- I just put some medication in my eyes. It makes them sensitive -- you know?"
Michelle nodded. Bullshit, she thought. "Are you okay? Here, let me look -- " she made to take the sunglasses off, but Tammy turned away quickly.
"No -- I'm fine."
"You're not fine -- what's wrong? What was up with you last night?"
"Nothing -- I just didn't sleep very well -- "
Michelle shook her head slowly. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
Tammy shook her head. There was silence for a few moments. Michelle put a hand on Tammy's shoulder; slowly, she turned, put her arms around Michelle and leaned against her, cheek-to-cheek. "I'm glad you're here, mija," she said.
Michelle held her for for several minutes. "Are you crying?" she finally asked.
Tammy shook her head, but the dampness Michelle felt on her face where Tammy's cheek touched it belied her.
"Look, honey," Michelle said, "I don't know what's going on -- but I think you should come stay with me for a few days."
"Mija, I couldn't -- " Tammy sniffed.
"Yes you could. And you're going to," Michelle replied firmly.
"I don't want to be a bother -- "
"Honey," Michelle said, "I love you! It is no bother! Now, come on -- go pack some things and let's go."
Slowly, Tammy turned and went into her bedroom. Michelle sighed and looked around the surroundings; the torn furniture (what little there was), the threadbare carpets and badly scuffed hardwood floors; the cracked plaster, stained ceiling, and dingy curtains. True, by some world standards (say, Bangladesh or Haiti) this was affluence; nonetheless, Michelle hated to see her lover living in such a "dump."
Not much longer, thought Michelle. Not if I have anything to say about it.
They arrived at Michelle's apartment about forty-five minutes later.
"Are you sure you don't mind me being here?"
"I mind it when you're not here," Michelle insisted. "Now come on...relax, make yourself at home." She noticed that Tammy was still wearing the sunglasses, despite the fact that the day had turned cold and rainy. "Honey, do you have to wear those in here?"
Tammy nodded. "I told you -- "
"Yes, yes -- the medication." Michelle still didn't believe it; she decided, however, not to press the matter for the time being. Michelle proceeded to make a late lunch for the two of them, and they spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the sofa, holding hands and sipping tea while watching Michelle's videotaped episodes of The Young At Heart. Tammy had spoken very little since they had arrived; Michelle's feeling that something was very wrong grew stronger.
As the last episode on the tape was ending, Michelle reached over and began kneading Tammy's neck and shoulders. Tammy sighed and leaned forward. "Gracias, mi amor," she murmured.
Michelle said, "Are you sure you don't want to tell me what's going on?"
"What makes you think there's anything going on?" Tammy replied.
"Well -- there's last night on the phone, for one," Michelle said. "And you haven't said more than ten words since we got here -- and, what's with the sunglasses? It's evening -- " without warning, Michelle reached up from behind Tammy, took the sunglasses by the arms, and lifted them off Tammy's head. Tammy reached up to stop her, but it was too late.
"Dammit, Mishi -- " Tammy turned.
The black and blue mark under Tammy's right eye spoke volumes. "My god, Tammy -- what happened?"
Tammy turned away. Michelle put a hand under her chin and turned her face back towards her. "Did Antonio do this to you?"
"Look, mija, it's not what you think -- "
"Goddamn that lowlife sonofa -- "
"Mija, it was an accident! Really!"
"Right -- you just 'accidentally' ran into his fist."
Tammy shook her head slowly. "Look, you don't even know Tony -- "
"Oh, I got to know him a lot better than I wanted to."
"Mija, you can't judge him just by what I say -- "
"I don't have to."
"What do you mean?"
Michelle looked at Tammy for a moment. Finally, she said, "Look, if you must know -- I wasn't going to say anything about this -- "
"Your ex-fiance came to see me at the library today."
"I see..." said Tammy quietly.
"You don't seem surprised."
Tammy looked up with a pained expression. "Tony just couldn't understand about..."
"About -- the way things are. He can't see that..."
"That you and I are lovers? Oh, I daresay he does..."
"I really don't want to go into it." Michelle sighed and looked down at the sofa cushion. "It got pretty ugly."
Tammy reached over and put her arms around Michelle. "Oh, mi dolce...I'm so sorry...did he hurt you -- threaten you?"
Michelle chuckled. "I'm afraid he got the worst of it..." She went on to describe the incident, leaving out some of the more graphic details.
Tammy stared at Michelle, open-mouthed. "My god! What were you thinking?"
Michelle shook her head. "I wasn't thinking at all," she admitted. "I was just -- enraged...ye gods, I don't think I've ever been so angry in my life."
Tammy continued to stare at Michelle. She moved away slightly. "There's a whole side to you I don't even know..." she said quietly.
Michelle reached over to her. "Tammy, don't move away -- "
Tammy still shrank back. "My god, what happens if I cross you the wrong way -- ?"
Michelle shook her head in protest "Honey, please! I would rather die than ever hurt you!" She took Tammy's hands gently; Tammy began to relax. "Look -- I was angry -- I was frightened -- I thought he was going to..."
Michelle hesitated. Finally, she said "I thought he was going to -- beat me, or something." She decided that Tammy didn't need to hear about the way Tony grabbed her, or how she'd been afraid of being raped. Tammy doesn't need that, she thought. She regarded the bruise on Tammy's beautiful face. I'm just sorry I didn't finish him off. She touched the bruise slightly. "If I'd known he'd done this to you -- "
Tammy reached up and covered Michelle's hand with her own. "It's all right, mija. It's over and done, now." Then, she added, "I really don't believe he meant to do this."
"How did it happen?"
"He -- got angry -- he found out about us. I don't know how. He -- pushed me...I fell against the corner of the table..."
Michelle gathered Tammy in her arms and held her closely. "Well, look...whether he meant to or not, it's not going to happen anymore." She kissed Tammy on top of the head. "Not if I can help it."
Tammy looked up at Michelle and beamed. "Will you always come to my rescue when I need it?"
"Any time, sweet one," Michelle said with a smile. "Will you always come to mine?"
"Always, my love..."
Later, Tammy lay in a warm bath while Michelle sat at the edge of the tub, bathing her gently.
"Mmmm...that feels wonderful, mija," Tammy murmured as Michelle ran the soft washcloth over her breasts. "I love the way you touch me."
Michelle kissed Tammy's neck tenderly. "I love the way you feel," she replied. In the back of her mind, she remembered the incident with Antonio this morning, and couldn't help contrasting it with what was going on at the moment. How could such unmitigated rage and violence exist side-by-side with such incredible love and tenderness inside the same person, she wondered. As she moved her hands gently over Tammy's soft body, she recalled one of her history classes at PLU. The ancient Celtic peoples of Gaul and Hibernia -- her own ancestors -- had been people of extremes; one moment, tender and passionate, the next moment, violent beyond belief. I guess that's pretty much me, Michelle decided. I sure like the tender and pasisonate part the best, though, she thought, leaning over to kiss Tammy's mouth.
Tammy responded with an eager tongue, drawing Michelle into the warm water. Slowly, Michelle peeled off her now wet clothing and slipped into the bath; their bodies came together, writhing and splashing as they made love, moving their hands all over one another, mouth-to-mouth as they sought each other's tongues.
An hour later, wrapped in towels, they went into Michelle's bedroom. The night had gotten quite chilly; Michelle pulled the quilts off the bed and lay them on the floor in front of the fireplace, then lit the fire. Still naked, Tammy knelt down on the quilt. Michelle took something out of her nightstand, then came over, dropped the towel, and knelt down in front of Tammy, facing her. By the firelight, they gazed into each other's eyes for several minutes, caressing and feeling each other's smooth, supple skin. They moved closer and closer, until their naked bodies were in full contact. Michelle reached down and picked up the object she'd brought from the nighstand; a small jar. It contained scented oil, which she proceeded to rub onto Tammy's breasts and stomach. Still gazing into her eyes, she opened her mouth and extened her tongue ever so slightly. Tammy did likewise; the two women touched tongues as they massaged and caressed each other's bodies, rubbing the jasmine-scented oil all over each other.
Eventually, they crushed their mouths together passionately, losing control; their bodies became so entangled, it would have been difficult to tell where Michelle started and Tammy ended. When her climax came, it was a slow burn, increasing in intensity until Michelle felt as if she would explode. She threw her head back and cried out, clutching Tammy to her tightly. The fell back togther; Michelle stroked the inside of Tammy's thigh as they continued to kiss and suck each other's tongues. Slowly, she moved her hand up her loins, and began gently stroking and massaging the places that were the source of Tammy's pleasure...
Tammy moaned softly, undulating faster and faster, until she came with a squeal of ecstacy. Then the two women were still...slowly, they dropped off to sleep, and did not awaken until morning.
Michelle took Tammy out to breakfast to her favorite spot, the Cafe Nervosa, where they feasted on omelets and blueberry bagels with cream cheese and orange marmalade. Michelle was happier than she had been in days; Tammy seemed back to her old loving and mischievious self. Both women had come with ravenous appetites; whether it was their lovemaking the night before, their happy mood, the fact that they'd eaten very little the day before, or a combination of all of these, neither of them could say.
"Actually, if you're going to eat a huge meal, morning's the time to do it," Michelle commented.
"This place is wonderful," said Tammy between mouthfuls. "Wish I'd known about it before."
Later, as the walked back to the apartment, Michelle said, "I'm going down to the library for a few hours. You can tag along, or hang around the apartment and veg if you want."
"Actually, I was going to go out for awhile -- few things I need to do."
"I see," said Michelle. She gave Tammy a look of concern and doubt, saying, "Well -- be careful. Here -- " Michelle opened her purse and fished out a key " -- this is my spare key. Don't lose it, please."
Tammy took the key and smiled. "Thank you, mija. I'll be home when you get back."
Michelle beamed. "You mean, my place?"
Tammy put a hand to her mouth. "Oh -- I said home, didn't I -- ?"
"It's okay, honey." Michelle put a hand on her shoulder. "I want you to think of it as your home too...if you want."
Tammy looked at Michelle quizzically, then shrugged. "Well, anyway -- thanks for letting me hang out here for a few days."
"Thank you for being here." Michelle took her hand and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I love you. See you this afternoon." With that, Michelle turned and walked in the direction of the library.
She got to her desk that morning to find a memo on it. It was Angela's handwriting. All it said was "Lianne -- 555-9006. 8:10 AM." Michelle picked up the phone and dialed the number. A man's voice, obviously half awake, answered.
"Uh -- is this 555-9006?"
"Yeah -- whaddya want?"
"Uh -- I'm Michelle Devereaux at the Salish County Public Library. I'm calling for Lianne Davies."
"Yeah, well, she ain't here." Michelle heard a young child crying in the background. "Hang on -- hey, shut the fuck up!-- okay, sorry. Yeah, she went out this mornin'."
"I see...look, have her call me as soon as she can."
"Yeah, sure." There was a click, followed by the dial tone.
Dear gods, I hope that wasn't -- she didn't finish the thought. Instead, she pulled out some of her computer disks and began some of the tasks that had been interrupted the day before.
"Good morning, Miss Devereaux," said Angie, walking in with a steaming cup.
Michelle looked up and smiled. "Hi, Angie."
Angie sat on the edge of Michelle's desk and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You feelin' better today?"
Michelle patted Angie's hand affectionately. "Loads," she affirmed. "Thanks for covering for me yesterday."
"Any time, sugar." Angie winked at her; Michelle raised an eyebrow, but smiled nonetheless.
"Say, did this woman say anything when she called?" Michelle said, holding up the memo.
"Not really -- except she wanted to talk to you. Who is she?"
"She's taking Cherie's old job," Michelle answered. I hope.
"Oh, she's your 'project.'"
Michelle nodded. At that point, the phone rang. "Michelle Devereaux," she said.
"Hey, Michelle -- 's Lianne."
"Hey you -- look, I've got great news -- "
"Yeah, me, too."
"Yeah...my old man and me's gettin' back together."
Suddenly, Michelle's insides turned cold. "The man who left you and your kids?"
"Yeah...I think he's gonna take care of us from now on, so I won't be needin' the job -- "
"Look, Lianne," Michelle cut her off. "Can you hold on for a sec?"
Michelle put her hand over the reciever and looked up at Angela. "Angie, could you excuse me for minute?"
Angela nodded and left. Michelle turned back to the phone. "Hi -- you still there?"
"Okay, I'm going to put this as nicely as I can...are you out of your fucking mind?" she said softly, yet vehemently.
"Whoa, lady -- where's this comin' from?"
"Look, Lianne -- I busted my ass to get you hired here -- "
"So they are gonna take me on?"
"Only if you show up next Monday at eight o'clock."
"Well...ya see, the problem is -- "
"What? Lianne, this job is your ticket! You pass this up, and you deserve what you get!"
"Hey, c'mon -- I'd like to take it, but..."
"But what? Lianne, this is a great opportunity for you!"
"Well, the problem is, my old man doesn't want me workin'."
Michelle rolled her eyes. "Lianne, look. That sonofabitch used to hit you -- "
"Hey, watch what you're sayin' -- "
"No -- no, I won't!" Michelle paused and took a deep breath. Calming herself, she said slowly, "Look, Lianne, I care about you -- I want to see you get up on your own two feet." There was no response. Michelle added, "Lianne -- don't do this to yourself. I need your help down here, and your kids need you -- and..."
"I just wanna tell ya, I appreciate what ya done for me -- "
"Then show me, dammit!" Michelle replied. "Be a real woman instead of poor-mouth, helpless victim! Get down here Monday, and help me -- more important, help yourself!"
There was another pause. Finally, Lianne said, "Look, I dunno...I'm gonna hafta talk it over with my old man -- "
"Lianne, I'll be blunt," replied Michelle. "To hell with your old man. What did he ever do for you besides hit you, hit your kids, and run out on you? Tell me that!"
"Hey, the guy can change -- "
"Yes, and if you believe that, I've got some beachfront property in Quadra Bay I'll sell you for five dollars. Lianne, men like that don't change. You deserve something better -- don't you believe that?"
Again, there was a lengthy pause. "Lianne -- are you still there?" Michelle asked.
Michelle sighed. "I'll be here waiting for you Monday. If you still want the job, be here at eight." With that, she hung up the phone, and buried her face in her hands.
Angela walked back in and put a sympathetic hand on Michelle's shoulder. "Everything okay?"
Michelle looked up. "I like girls -- I'm gay, I'm a lesbian, okay? I accept that." She sighed. "I even like it. But..."
"But what, sugar?"
"I -- never wanted to be one of those malcontented militant dykes that totally hates men."
"Yeah -- so?"
"Angie, I'm starting to hate all of them."
Michelle added, "I never wanted to hate men -- I mean, after all -- men are people too...right?"
Angela raised an eyebrow. "Just barely," she muttered. "Look, sugar -- men aren't all bad -- "
"Just 99% bad. Where have I heard that before?" said Michelle with a grin. She shook her head and turned back to her computer. "I can't believe I used to date them."
"Well, babe -- we all make mistakes." Angie sat down on the edge of the desk again. "I heard a little bit of your conversation."
Michelle looked up out the corner of her eye. "So...?"
"All I want to say is...that chick's gonna have to take some responsibility for herself. You did what you could -- and if she really wants it, she's not gonna let some uppity guy stand in her way. So don't beat yourself up -- okay?"
Michelle looked up at Angie and smiled. "Thanks," she said, taking Angela's hand and giving it an affectionate squeeze. She watched as Angela walked away. Stranger things have happened, she thought. After all, there was a time I could barely stand that woman.
That evening, Michelle sent Tammy to the store to pick up a bottle of Riesling while she finished cooking. While she was gone, she set her table in a way that would have made Martha Stewart's formal dining room look like a logging-camp mess hall. She then lit candles, put on her CD of The Complete Works of Gabriel Faure, and proceeded to dress up as if she were going to La Maison Blanche. She picked a short sleeved dress of midnight blue silk, which fell to just below the knee, but had a slit up the side. Then she put on her pearl-imbedded belt, the choker with her grandmother's cameo, dark blue stockings, high-heeled pumps, and a silver bracelet. Her makeup was lightly, but perfectly applied; she teased her red curls with the pick and allowed her hair to fall loosely around her face and shoulders. Tonight, she thought. Tonight, I want everything perfect. Finally, she went to her nightstand and took out her grandmother's jewelry box; she took out the gold and silver ring and slipped it on her finger.
Tammy came in just as Michelle was putting the finishing touches on the table. "Ay, caramba! Mija..."
Michelle looked up. By candlelight, she was the vision of an ancient Celtic love-goddess. "Hi, sweetie," she said.
Tammy came up to her and handed her the bottle of wine. "You -- are so beautiful," she murmured.
"Thank you," she said. "I -- I just thought it would be fun to -- dress up a little tonight."
"Yes," Tammy replied. "Is dinner ready -- ?"
"It'll be about thirty minutes or so," Michelle said.
"Then I think I'll join you." She said with a sly wink. With that, she disappeared into the bedroom. Michelle looked after her, feeling like her chest was going to cave in. She had never felt so in love in her life. In fact, she realized that, before Tammy, she had never been in love, period.
Tammy returned just as Michelle was pouring the now-chilled wine into glasses. Tammy had outdone herself; she was wearing a dark red, sleeveless blouse and a black skirt; she had adorned herself with a gold necklace and ankle bracelet, and tied her black hair back with a silver comb.
Michelle held her arms out to Tammy; they shared a lingering kiss, then Michelle picked up the glasses, handing Tammy one. She raised it slowly. "To you and me," she said.
Tammy touched her glass to Michelle. "You and me," she echoed. They drank, gazing into each other's eyes the whole time, then kissed again.
"Hungry?" said Michelle.
"Starved," Tammy concurred.
"Let's do it, then."
The two women seated themselves, and Michelle started pulling the lids off the various pots. "Just help yourself -- this one's your favorite -- "
"Arroz y pollo," Tammy said, delightedly. "And -- Caramba! -- spiced plantains! Where did you -- "
"There's a Carribean market over on the South Columbia River Highway," Michelle replied. "These -- aren't all Puerto Rican dishes, I'm afraid -- "
Tammy took her hand. "Mi amor, it's so sweet of you...you must have spent hours on this."
Michelle blushed. "Not really," she admitted. "I took a few -- ah, 'short cuts.'"
"Well, it all tastes wonderful," Tammy declared. "You're very good at this."
"My cousin thinks I should open a restaurant," Michelle said.
Tammy shook her head. "Too much work."
"That's what I said."
Forty minutes later, they had finished. Michelle began clearing the dishes.
"I'll help with that," said Tammy.
Michelle held her hand up. "Don't you dare," she ordered.
"Sweetie, this will take you forever -- "
"I said no," Michelle re-iterated firmly. "Really -- I'm prepared. This won't take but a few minutes." She bent over and kissed Tammy. "Now sit, finish your wine, and relax."
Michelle's philosophy of K. P. duty was to "clean as you go," so loading the dishwasher and putting up leftovers took only fifteen minutes or so. She returned, poured the last of the Riesling into their respective goblets, and sat, pulling her chair over closer to Tammy.
Tammy smiled. "Thank you, mi amor," she purred.
"You like it?"
"Oh, yes," said Tammy, "but that's not what I meant. I mean...thank you...for everything."
"I loved doing it," said Michelle.
"You've taken such good care of me these last couple of days...I'll...never forget you for it."
Michelle raised an eyebrow. "That's an odd thing to say."
"You'll never forget me...usually, someone says that when...they think they're going away."
Tammy was silent for a moment. Then she said, "I've been admiring your ring...where did you get it?"
Michelle realized she didn't often wear a ring. She slipped it off and held it up to the candlelight; the rubies and sapphires fairly glowed. "It was my grandmother's," she said.
"It's beautiful," said Tammy.
Michelle smiled at her. "I'm glad to hear you say that." Slowly, she took the ring between the fingers of both hands and twisted it, separating it into its component halves. Gently, she took Tammy's left hand and slipped one of the rings onto her finger.
Tammy's eyes grew wide; she gasped. "Oh, mija -- "
Michelle put a finger to Tammy's lips. "Wait." There was a pause; Tammy's warm brown eyes locked with Michelle's blue ones. She slid the other ring back onto her own finger, then took Tammy's hand again, interlacing their fingers and stroking the back of Tammy's hand gently with her thumb.
Michelle took a deep breath and continued: "I -- I love you, Tamara Luisa...I know we haven't known each other very long, or been together very long -- "
"Yes, that's -- "
Michelle cut her off. "Now, hear me out. I guess what I'm trying to say is..." she rolled her eyes. Why is this so hard? she chided herself.
"Just say it, mija."
Michelle took another deep breath. "Tammy, I want you to come here and stay with me."
Tammy's eyes grew wide. "You want me to -- "
"Move in with me. Live here with me." She paused.
Tammy said, "Mija, I don't know what to say..."
"Tammy, I love you. If our dysfunctional, narrow-minded society recognized 'same-sex' marraiges, I'd say we should get married. Well they don't -- and I know what people are going to think. Frankly, I don't care. I love you and I want to share the rest of my life with you." There. I said it. Michelle gave a small sigh of relief.
Tammy looked down and said nothing for almost a full minute. Michelle finally reached over and touched her face; it was wet. She tilted Tammy's head up and looked her in the eye. Tears were streaming down her face.
"Tammy, I'm -- " Michelle started.
Tammy cut her off. "Kiss, me, Mishi," she said, with a quaver in her voice. "Kiss me -- then come to bed and make love with me like it was the last time we'll ever see each other."
Slowly, Michelle leaned forward, joining her open mouth to Tammy's in a long, probing kiss. They then got up from their chairs. Michelle picked up a candle from the table, and slowly, hand-in-hand, they moved to the bedroom.
It was long and delicious between them; like their first night together six weeks before, they held each other, then sat on the bed, slowly undressing each other as they kissed and caressed each other. They wound up kissing every inch of each other's naked bodies, tasting each other in every concievable spot...as the fire between them grew, they wrestled and writhed together, wrapping their legs around each other, their tongues locked deeply in each other's mouths. There lovemaking ranged from sweet tenderness to wild, almost desparate passion as they shared their bodies with one another, pouring out their ecstacy and taking from one another what fed their mutual desire...moving from one climax to another, they made love for hours until exhaustion overtook them.
Still naked, Michelle wrapped Tammy her arms as they began to doze off. Michelle kissed Tammy on the shoulder, cupping her breasts from behind as Tammy placed her hands over Michelle's, stroking them tenderly. Before long, Michelle's breathing became slow and regular.
Tammy waited another twenty minutes or so before gently removing Michelle's arms from around her body. Slowly, silently, she slipped out of the bed, pulled on her clothes, and threw the rest of her things into the suitcase she'd brought. Before she left the bedroom, she looked down at Michelle's sleeping form. She bent down and kissed her neck gently. "Adios, mija." After that, her vision blurred; tears were again streaming down her cheeks.
After a brief stop in the living room, Tammy went out the door and disappeared into the pre-dawn mist.
Michelle awoke slowly. Remembering the night before, she smiled lazily, eyes still closed. She rolled over to put her arm around Tammy -- only to find the space next to her empty.
"Tammy?" Michelle sat bolt upright. It's okay, Mishi -- she's just in the shower, or making coffee, she tried to reassure herself. Nonetheless, a gray feeling had begun to gnaw at her insides...
She got up and pulled on a robe. "Tammy?" she called as she went into the hall. No sound from the bathroom...no smell of espresso brewing...a feeling of panic was welling up within her. "Tammy, where are you?"
Michelle went into the kitchen -- Tammy was not there. She poked her head into the living room. "Tam -- " then she saw the envelope.
Slowly, dreading what she would find, she picked up the envelope marked "Michelle." It felt strangely heavy; she opened it and withdrew the contents.
It was her grandmother's ring. And a note:
Please forgive me.
There was nothing more.
"Hey! Watch it, you crazy bitch!" yelled the hapless cyclist as Michelle swerved, missing him by inches as she whipped her car around the corner and onto the street leading into the Student Ghetto. Her tires skidded on the rain-slick pavement; only sheer luck kept her from losing control altogether, slamming head-first into a light-pole. She pulled up in front of Tammy's building, tires screeching as she slammed on the brakes. She jumped out of the car and ran headlong into the building, dashing up the stairs two at a time. She banged on Tammy's door.
"Tammy! Open up!" She continued pounding. "Tammy, it's Michelle! I have to talk to you!" She pounded again. "Tammy! Please!"
A door up the hall opened and a older man's head poked out. "I think she moved out," he said.
Michelle's heart fell. "When?"
"I dunno -- a couple days ago -- she had a suitcase -- was takin' off with some woman -- "
That was me,you idiot, thought Michelle.
" -- and there was some guy here this mornin' -- "
Michelle stopped cold. "Dark hair? Mustache -- sort of Latin-looking?"
"Yeah...I think that was him..."
Oh my god, Michelle thought. Out of desperation, she tried the doorknob. It was unlocked.
Slowly, she went inside. "Tammy?" she called weakly, even though she knew there would be no answer. She went into the bedroom. The bed had been stripped of all the sheets; dresser drawers stood open and empty. Michelle opened the closet; all that remained were a few wire hangers.
Dazed, she wandered into the living room. An empty jack showed where a phone had once been plugged in. Michelle's eyes dropped to the floor. A notepad lay there. Slowly, she picked it up. Nothing. Except...
Her heart started pounding as she looked at the faint impressions on the blank top page. She remembered a trick she'd seen Detective Rawls perform on The Young At Heart during the storyline involving the attempted murder of millionaire industrialist Victor Moudourakis...
She clutched the notepad to her chest as she ran out of the empty apartment without bothering to close the door behind her. She fled out into the rain and jumped back into her car. Hands trembling, she opened the glovebox and took out a pencil; she lightly scribbled over the top page. Slowly, the impressions began to appear.
Braxton was little more than a truckstop on the interstate about a hundred miles up the Columbia River Gorge. Michelle had driven up this road a few times in her life; the scenery -- snow-capped mountains, lush pine forests, exotic rock formations and waterfalls, and the great river running through it all -- was some of the most spectacular in the country. Michelle barely noticed it as she pushed the little red convertible for all it was worth. She thought of very little during the drive beyond looking for the Braxton exit. She really had no idea if Tammy would even be there.
But it was all she had to go on.
Gradually, the pine forests and mountains began to give way to brown rolling hills and sagebrush; the rainclouds thinned out and the sun began shining hotly as the mountains gave way to the high desert of eastern Oregon. Finally, she saw what she was looking for; Exit 102; Highway 295 -- Wind River, Yaktata, Braxton.
She came to the end up the off-ramp; the sign labelled "Route 295" pointed north and south; to the north lay Goldenton, Topawanish and Yaktata; to the south was Braxton and Wind River. Looking off to her right, she saw the audacious red sign:
Slowly, she guided the car over to the parking lot. She spied the green Dodge Viper roadster; she drove over and parked next to it.
Hesitantly, she got out of the car. Suddenly, she wasn't entirely sure why she was here; what was she expecting? Tammy had stolen away in the middle of the night; that action alone should have said everything that needed to be said. If a man had done this to her, she would have been angry, to be sure; even hurt. She would nonetheless have soon shrugged it off, said "good riddance," and gone on with her life.
But she had never loved a man the way she loved Tammy. If Michelle was going to lose that love, by the gods, she wanted to know why. And if Antonio was with her?
I kicked his ass once, I'll do it again, thought Michelle.
Slowly, she climbed the stairs to the second story. She counted the room numbers; 202, 204, 206...she finally came to the one marked 230 and knocked.
"Tammy, open the door -- I know you're in there." She knocked again. "Tammy, we need to talk...open the door..."
Slowly, the door opened. The Tammy that greeted Michelle's eyes was a stark contrast to the radiant beauty she had made love with the night before; She wore a threadbare robe; her hair was in disarray, and her eyes were red and puffy from crying.
"What are you doing here?" she said, unsmiling.
"Were you just going to sneak out on me without even a good-bye?" said Michelle.
"How did you find me?"
Michelle chuckled. "I think you know."
Tammy shook her head. Michelle pulled out the notepad and held it up. "You left this."
Tammy stared at the notepad dully. Finally, she opened the door all the way and turned, walking back into the darkened room. Michelle entered, closing the door behind her.
"How did you know Antonio wouldn't be with me?" Tammy asked listlessly.
"No..." Tammy sat on the bed. "He would kill you if he knew you were here."
"Not if I killed him first," Michelle growled.
"Dammit, Mishi, stop it! Can't you see this is tearing me apart?" She buried her face in her hands and began to cry.
Michelle sat down next to her. "What?"
Tammy turned to Michelle. "The two people I care about the most in the world -- and all they want to do is kill each other!" She turned away and continued crying.
Michelle was silent. Finally, she said, "You still love him, don't you?"
Tammy looked up again. "Oh, mija -- it's not as simple as that..."
"You're leaving me to go with him -- "
"Not to go with him!"
Tears began coming to Michelle's eyes. "Then, why? Why are you leaving?"
Tammy didn't answer for several seconds, as she continued crying softly. Slowly, she looked at Michelle and said, "You've seen how I live...I can't live that way anymore."
Michelle took Tammy's hands. "Tammy, you don't have to! You can live with me! I will take care of us -- "
"I don't want you to take care of me! Don't you see that?"
Michelle said, "I don't understand -- "
Tammy sighed. "Mija, if I came and lived with you, I would be your 'kept woman' -- "
"Tammy, that's crazy!"
"Well, that's how I would feel!"
The two women were silent for a long time. Then, Michelle said, "Tammy...I love you..."
"Oh mija...I love you!" She put her arms around Michelle and hugged her. "The problem is...I'm having a hard time loving myself."
Tammy gave a bitter laugh. "Look at you, Michelle...you're a confident, strong person...you're successful at a career you love...you help people..."
"Tammy, you're part of that. I -- "
Tammy held her hand up. "Michelle, you were all of that before I came into your life. I had nothing to do with any of it." She smiled sadly. "I think that's part of why I came to love you like I did. I mean...yes, that first night, I just thought you were cute...sexy...and funny."
Tammy continued: "I -- I didn't really plan for what happened between us. And I surely didn't plan on falling in love with you."
"Neither did I," said Michelle quietly.
"I guess what I'm saying is -- I want to be everything to someone I love like that -- someone...like you..."
Michelle shook her head. "Tammy, you don't -- "
"Yes, mija -- I do. And I can't. Not right now."
Michelle put her hands on Tammy's face. "Sweetie, I -- "
"It's why I have to go."
Tammy sighed. "I'm -- I'm driving back to Miami -- "
Tammy nodded. "I told Antonio I -- needed some time by myself. He -- he flew back to San Juan this morning. I'm taking his car to Miami...I'll visit my sister for a few days while they load the car on a freighter, then I'm sailing to Puerto Rico."
Michelle was stunned. Tammy put a hand on Michelle's arm. "I -- I don't expect you to understand...but there are things -- look, you know how Tony felt about us."
Michelle rolled her eyes. "Too well."
"Mija, he's just the tip of the iceberg. People hate women like us. Michelle, if we -- continued...if I lived with you...it wouldn't take long for people to figure out who -- and what -- we are. You could lose everything you've worked for...and I would never be more than a six-dollar an hour cocktail waitress."
"So you're going back to San Juan to be with this guy?"
Tammy shook her head. "I don't know...I loved him once -- "
"More than you love me?"
"Mishi, that's not fair. I wouldn't even compare the two of you."
Michelle wiped her eyes. "I still don't understand..."
Tammy slipped her arms around her. "I hope...someday....you will." She kissed Michelle tenderly. "I love you so much, mija..."
"Then why are you leaving me?"
"Because I love you."
Michelle and Tammy made love one last time there in the motel room, though it was sad and distant -- like ghost dancers on a barren, wind-swept plain. Afterwards, they held each other on the bed -- not speaking, simply looking into each other's eyes, caressing each other slowly. Finally, Michelle got up and began to put on her clothes.
Tammy propped herself up on one elbow. "You can spend the night here with me, if you want."
Michelle looked at Tammy, and slowly shook her head. "I need to go. If -- if I stay the night, I -- I don't think I'll be able to handle it in the morning."
Tammy nodded. "I understand." Slowly, she got up from the bed and pulled on her robe.
They stood near the door for a long time, holding each other. Tammy began trembling; Michelle felt tears pouring down her own cheeks. They looked at each other.
"Will -- will you be alright?" Tammy asked.
Michelle sighed. "Do I have a choice?"
Tammy smiled sadly. "I love you, mija."
"I love you."
They shared one last, lingering kiss. Finally, Michelle turned, opened the door and left the motel room, pulling the door shut behind her without looking back.
She walked quickly to her car. She was numb; her actions were almost mechanical as she inserted the key into the ignition and started the motor. Slowly, she drove out of the parking lot, onto the highway, and down to the interchange with I-88 going west.
Slowly, the afternoon sun slipped behind rainclouds as she traveled west, and the high desert transitioned back into the coastal mountains and lush pine forests of the Columbia River Gorge.
Michelle watched the raindrops spatter onto her windshield, and wondered if there would ever be sunshine firstname.lastname@example.org