Rita in Love.
Rita crossed another name off the list. "Don Massinger," she said.
Ish sat down across from Rita. "For Don ..." She brushed a strand of sleek dark hair behind her ear. Rita could see that her eyebrows were misaligned, probably due to Ish's waxing them in the bathroom after a glass of wine, and the imperfection made her even more adorable. She wanted to crawl across the table and draw Ish's mouth inside of hers.
'Td say 'Happy Holidays, Don. You have a good heart and we feel blessed to have you in our lives.'"
"That's kind of intimate, isn't it?" Rita sniffed. "I mean, 'You have a good heart?'"
"My family said that all the time," Ish said. "That's my grandmother's phrase."
"How about just 'We feel blessed to know you?'" Rita begged.
"Sure. Say what you want." Ish turned her back. Her knife slipped and tapped against the cutting board.
Rita held her breath as she wrote the lines. The words carne out coiled and tight, a sentiment expressed through a clenched fist.
Rita had never been in love like this before. Ish made all the other women in her life recede into childhood. Next to Ish she made sense for the first time, as one half of a whole. When she pictured Ish greeting Don in the hallway, throwing her arms around him and air-kissing both cheeks, she felt the floor vanish beneath her. Grand emotional gestures terrified Rita, who resisted holding hands, and to whom "I love you" was as hard to say as "I did it, Your Honor." Rita watched her raise a strawberry to her lips. But it Ish had a choice--woman or man--couldn't she slip out at any rime, move to another city, get married, and disappear?
She put down her pen. It had been too long--that's why her thoughts were getting tangled up and chasing each other around the room. She thought the gram she had picked up yesterday would have carried her through the weekend, but either she was getting worse at cutting rails or her tolerance was building. Rita always ended up with nothing, especially when she thought she still had enough.
Rita stood up. "I'll go mail the rent."
"But the post office is closed."
"Then it'll go out first thing in the morning." Rita flipped her coat around her shoulders. "So we can sleep in and get all cozy."
"It's almost nine," Ish pleaded.
"It'll just take a minute, baby." Rita kissed her on the cheek and left the room before Ish could protest.
At the mailbox on the comer, Rita waved bye-bye to the envelope that carried another investment in their time together. A bank of fog had crawled across the sky, giving the city its refracted glow that made her feel monitored as she climbed into her car and retrieved the baggie from the glove box. The staff at the Indian restaurant was getting wise to her, and when she passed the coffee shop the chairs were already stacked on top of the tables.
Rita didn't use at home. Even though Ish seemed to understand-sometimes letting Rita sleep all day, or sighing and looking away when she pocketed a fresh straw-she felt like an invading shadow when she brought it inside. So when she needed to buy more, she picked up on her way home from work, or waited for Ish to fall asleep. Then Rita would drive to South City, to a gravel pit next to the railroad tracks where she had once walked all night rather than go back to her grandparents' house, even placing her head on the track and praying for a train. And then she would return to the Western Addition, past rows of gingerbread Victorians, to the apartment with the organic mixed greens in the refrigerator and the sleeping woman in black satin sheets, to the life she never thought she deserved.
She trotted past the motorcycle Ish bought with her mother's life insurance payout, and dragged herself up the steep and chipped wooden stairs. Her lungs fired like a bellows and her body felt old, and rickety, and held together with pins. Their living room curtains were still swept open, and any stranger on the sidewalk could have seen all the way to the tip of the Christmas tree. Rita frowned. She'd had this conversation with Ish before. What if someone saw two women living together in the city? Ish never seemed that concerned, rolling her eyes as she flicked the curtains shut. Often Rita woke up at night and sensed someone standing over her.
They had chosen the apartment for its loveliness; it was both smaller and darker than others they'd visited, with a railroad floor plan that left them stumbling through the kitchen at night to find the bathroom door, but it was beautiful, with reddish wood floors that gleamed during the day, and, in the living room, a ceiling medallion of plaster-relief grape vines and winged cherubim, which Rita swore moved. The tree filled almost half of the living room, overshadowing the divan and lamp where Ish read her research notes at night, where the light softly filtered through onion-skin paper and forwards-backwards handwriting. They had filled the apartment with furniture prised from swap meets and antiques fairs, and Rita, who loved to restore things, spread a pile of newspapers across the living room floor and spent a weekend stripping and sanding and resurfacing. She had borrowed the old-fashioned glass ornaments from her grandmother months ago, set up a tray table in the living room, and touched away every molecule of dust with a box of Q-tips. Glinting stars and jewel-bright candy bells emerged.
The hallway was narrow and dark, and shadows pooled in the chipped crown moldings and in the pockmarks left by Ish's high heels on the softwood floor. Rita didn't trust the hallway. Sometimes she walked through cold spots and wondered it they were Ish's mother, guarding her daughter's happiness, or her own father, making sure Rita didn't start trouble. She passed the bedroom, where Ish's cat Bill raised his head from the center of their four-poster bed, his languid green eyes focusing on Rita.
At the end of the hallway, Ish dropped clean red strawberries into a cluster of champagne flutes. Her party dress constricted her bate back and shoulders. She was surrounded by a few tea light candles and by the postcards she had brought back from her junior year abroad in Italy. Rita had flipped over each of the postcards to check the inscriptions for coded messages from the handsome Italian men she imagined surrounding Ish on a stone balcony, all of them laughing, drinking wine, and wasting hours conspicuously. Ish had promised they would both return to Italy, and Rita longed to be accepted into Ish's happy memories. Rita clasped her in a hug. Ish jumped, anda berry skittered underneath the stove.
"Hello, honeypie," Rita purred.
Ish wrestled herself away from Rita. "Yon," she laughed, "are a whole world of trouble. Go get dressed."
"What about the--" Rita began. But the last of the Christmas cards had been written, the envelopes had been sealed and stamped in blue wax, and the pile of crumpled mistakes had been cleared away. Sullen, she retreated to the bedroom.
Their bedroom didn't have a door, and so Rita dressed in her suit behind the four-poster bed. They were both going through a Victorian vampire phase, and their bedroom was decorated with ornamental knives and black lace ribbons and a full-length gold-leaf mirror. Her suit carne from last spring's Edwardian Fair, black velvet with a silk cravat and a tinge of bloodthirstiness. Their leather handcuffs hung from a comer of the bed, and Rita brushed against them as she kicked of her jeans. Ish had promised her a scene as soon as finals were over, and Rita shivered at the memory of the carpet fibers rough against her cheek, the complaint of her shoulders bent back, the welcome square of Ish's boot heel against the base of her skull as her mind went gratefully quiet. Claim me, Ish. Restrain me.
The waistband of her trousers slipped down around her hips and the cuffs dragged on the floor. The jacket hung off her like a garbage bag. Rita frowned into the mirror and pressed the base of her cheekbone. She hadn't thought she'd lost so much weight. She saw a brief flash of her mother's face emerging from her own, the way she had looked during the summer of forged checks and court-ordered rehab, and she recoiled. But it she couldn't snort she'd spend the party retreating into a comer, snapping at Ish's friends, and showing everyone the extremity of Ish's bad taste in women. She dug into her coat for the baggie. Maybe she could do it quietly, in the closet.
Bill pressed against Rita's legs, sending her stumbling into the wall. She gave him a quick swat, which he dodged with a newfound precision.
"Rita?" Ish called.
Rita stuffed the baggie into the inside pocket of her suit jacket. She adjusted the shoulders until the jacket didn't look that bad.
Ish caught her in the hallway and pressed a bottle of champagne into her chest. "Will you fill up the glasses for me?" she asked. Her eyes said Please, Rita. Please.
Rita had never poured champagne before, and she assumed it would be like refilling Ish's wine glass at dinner. She held the base of one flute to steady it, and poured in a generous slug. White foam exploded out of the glass and filled the tray. Rita cursed and waited for the foam to settle. Another pour yielded more of the same, and by the time Rita filled half the glasses she had to set them all on the counter and empty the tray into the sink. A pool of champagne touched the comer of one of Ish's Italian postcards, and its handwritten date melted and leaked into the paper fiber. Rita pressed the card between two folds of a clean washcloth, but couldn't lift the mark. She filled the rest of the glasses over the sink and had to open the second bottle.
When the doorbell rang, Rita jumped, and the bottle of champagne slipped out of her hand. It bounced off the edge of the counter and landed unbroken on the floor, where it emptied in arterial spurts.
"Honey?" Ish called. "Is everything all right back there?"
"It's tine," Rita answered. She unwrapped half a roll of paper towels to wipe it up. The soles of her shoes peeled from the floor, and she wrestled the mop and bucket out of the cubbyhole next to the refrigerator. Now? Can I do it now? But there were too many voices in the living room, and Rita couldn't risk one of Ish's friends sashaying into the kitchen and finding Rita with her head down, a plastic straw up her nose, and a yellow line of crank on the kitchen table. Instead, she brought out the tray of champagne.
Ish was making grand gestures with both arms, trilling her voice, sitting on the couch between her sociology-department friends with her legs crossed and one boot-toe pointed to the ceiling. Rita took a glass of champagne and leaned against the arm of the couch. When Don arrived, Ish merely shook his hand and didn't meet his gaze. Rita sized him up. He was growing a paunch underneath his sport jacket, and she never knew what Ish saw in that beard--it reminded her of a tangle of pubic hair, and she felt there was something obscene about wearing it in public.
Rita passed her drink from one hand to another as the room filled. She rarely talked while among Ish's friends. She smiled. Nodded. Laughed at jokes, bur did not make any. She watched Ish gently disentangle herself from an imminent argument over whether trans-sensual was a legitimate sexual identity. This was what scared her about Ish's social circle: they all seemed to be playing a high-stakes game of critique in which poor performance was punished with social ostracism. And Ish's friends were the ones given the benefit of the doubt, included on leases, admitted to colleges. Watching them, Rita felt something enormous and unfathomable floating high above her. Ish glowed as she ricocheted off them, and she wondered once again whether Ish didn't keep her around for ornamentatsion: a real working-class dyke, like the kind they had in the fifties! Rita rolled the stem between her thumb and forefinger, and caught herself. Her head was pounding so hard that the lines of the cornices in the room flashed electric white. She wasn't going to make it through the party.
Rita stood up. "Can I get you another, Don?" He smiled and shook his head, brushing that pubic beard across his chest. Ish's smile pulled tight. Don't you date. Don't you date. "Anyone else?" Rita asked.
Luckily, a few other guests sent her to the kitchen for another round. In the bathroom, Rita tapped the last of her powder onto the toilet seat, knelt in front of it, and lined it up with her straw. She'd chopped it Thursday night bur didn't have anything to refine it with, and she braced herself for the sharp shot in the back of her head. Sssssst. Rita coughed, and gagged, and pressed her fist to her mouth. She wasn't peaking right away anymore, and so she wiped down the toilet seat with careful anxiety. On Thursday she had driven halfway back to San Mateo to kick the kid's ass before she noticed that she was glittering inside and doing a hundred and two. She washed her face twice, and buried the baggie and the straw in the garbage can, beneath a week's worth of paper trash and makeup sponges.
Back in the living room, Ish had melted into the soft spot in the center of the couch. The two women on either side of her were getting married this summer, and Ish chatted with them about off-white dresses and bare feet and Santa Cruz. The necklace Rita had given her on their third date glinted under the candlelight. As Rita delivered the glasses of champagne, she saw Ish as though at the other end of a long tunnel, or from beneath a mile of water, Ish as a foreign country, a body full of sloshing chemicals and champagne becoming piss and hormones sending out chemical signals. They would never go to Italy. She knew that one day her moment of shelter would end. Already bottles of wine clattered empty in the recycling bin as soon as Ish brought them home. From late-night bike rides and Saturday picnics, they would retreat into separate rooms. The girl's name would be Alyson, and Ish would meet her through the internet on one of those nights when she would open her laptop computer and wall herself off from Rita, the glow of the screen deepening the hollows beneath her eyes. Rita's cheeks would collapse and her breasts would disappear. One day Ish would come home with an eviction notice and restraining order, with her father waiting behind her on the landing. Rita clenched her teeth and gazed into her champagne glass, at the bubbles helplessly rising to the surface to explode. And then it kicked in, and a wave of confidence and joy lifted her out of the shallows, and before long she was regaling the room with a toast.