All About Chemistry
by Mosca

One: Observable Phenomena

"So, who do I have chemistry with?" I said. Abby and I were taking our lunch break in the hospital cafeteria. I was hoping that if I stared down my chef salad long enough, it would start to look edible.

Abby stirred her iced tea with a straw. "You mean at work?"

"Where else?"

"Okay." Abby was quiet for a minute, still stirring her tea.


"Lemme think."

"You have to think?" I said.

"Yeah. Wait. God, you're impatient."

"Well, I want to know."

"I don't want to leave anyone out," said Abby.

"There's enough to leave people out?"

"You know want I mean. Anyway. Mark Greene, obviously."

"Obviously?" I said. "That's obvious?"

"Obvious as in everyone thinks you have a history, so--"

"We do have a history," I said. "It's just not the history everyone thinks we have. In any case, he's married, and if something was going to happen, it already would have. Next?"

"Mahesh Shah."

"The intern?" I said. "God, he's like, twelve years old."

"Yeah, but cute."

"Fine, he's cute, but--"

"Oh, you've thought about it," Abby said.

"I have not!"

"Have too."

"Maybe... once or twice," I said. "Thought about it."

"I think he's got these sort of Mrs. Robinson fantasies about you."

"Abby, I'm not old enough for anyone to have Mrs. Robinson fantasies about me."

"You are if they're twelve."

"Fine. Also not happening. Next?"

Abby fidgeted. "That's... it."

"No, it's not."

"Yeah, it is. That's it."

"I thought you had this whole long list for me," I said.

"Well, there's lots of crushes and little one-sided things, but that's different. You asked about chemistry. And that's it for obvious chemistry."

"You're lying," I said. "There's one that you... don't want to tell me, or something."

"No. Really."

"Yes, really!"

"You don't want to know."

"So there is one..." I said.

"Yeah, but you don't want to know," Abby said. "Really. You're better off not knowing. They're better off if you don't know."

"Okay, now I'm really curious."

"And that's too bad, because I'm not telling you."

"Yes, you are."

"No, I'm not."

I rested my chin in my hands and leaned forward towards Abby. "Tell me," she said.

"I'm telling you, you don't want to know."

"But I do," I said. "I'm a big girl. I can handle it. Tell me."



"I think... I think Weaver has a think for you," Abby said carefully.

"Weaver? Has a 'thing' for me?"

"Maybe. I think so. The way she looks at you and stuff, yeah."

"What kind of thing?" I said.

"The kind where you figure it's never gonna happen, so you kind of put it in the back of your mind and get on with your life."

"Oh," I said.

Abby sipped her tea. "I told you, you didn't want to know."

"I thought you said... the one-sided stuff didn't count, though."

"No," said Abby. "The one-sided stuff doesn't count."

"But Abby, I'm not-- I'm straight, Abby."

"I know, and that's why--"

"Then how can you think that I want--"

"This," Abby said, "is why I really, really didn't want to tell you."

"So you think I've got some kind of unconscious crush on Weaver."

"No, I think there's... some kind of weird energy."



"Well, I think you're nuts," I said. "So I guess that makes us even."


So of course I spent the whole afternoon watching Weaver. The ER was a mob scene: mostly just minor illnesses and injuries, but lots of people around, demanding service like they were in line at White Castle. There wasn't much opportunity for quiet observation. I kept it up over the course of the next few days, but even when I had the chance to watch, it didn't do me much good. Weaver was totally unreadable. She was a cold, efficient, screeching departmental administration machine. She was sweet to her patients and permanently irritated with her colleagues. She treated me no differently from anyone else. There was nothing in the way she looked at me. I wasn't sure why Abby had said what she'd said. Maybe to get a rise out of me, see how I'd react. But there was no truth in it, just the usual games and the exhausting gossip and the need to go up on the roof and gasp for air even though I knew there would be a colony of smokers there. No place was private anymore. I had wanted to see Abby as some kind of exception. But Abby was no better than me. She played the game.

Everyone played the game except for Weaver. Sometimes she'd get dragged in, but that would infuriate her. And her stubbornness-- her refusal to succumb to those rules-- made people hate her. That was why anyone played along in the first place: if you didn't gossip and giggle and take everything like it didn't matter, then people wouldn't like you. Weaver seemed to have chosen to forfeit early rather than keep watching her step. And I realized that this was maybe what Abby had seen. Weaver was the road not taken. I envied that. I wasn't above the bullshit, but Weaver was.

I felt like I needed to apologize again. I'd meant it the first time, and maybe Weaver would have believed it if not for Carter's stupid fucking juvenile prank. I found Weaver during a lull in patient intake and asked if we could talk for a minute. Weaver looked like she was trying to find a way out of it. But she said yes.

There were people everywhere. Every exam room had a patient in it, and the lounge was full of residents. Weaver and I settled on the drug lockup, which was too narrow a space and pushed us too close together. "I wanted to talk to you about..." I began, but I wasn't sure how to finish the sentence. I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about the way I've been acting lately. I haven't really been much of an adult."

"If this is about two weeks ago, then really--"

"No, it's about... in general," I said, finding my stride a bit. "I feel like I'm being pitted against you, and that's not-- that's not fair."

"No, it isn't, is it?" Weaver said. There was a long silence, like we were both praying the other one would say something. "It's all right," Weaver said finally. "I can't expect you to take my side."

"Why shouldn't you? I'm an attending. I should be supporting you."

"It's okay. I'm used to the friction."

"I just... don't want to create more than there already is."

"Good. Neither do I."

"I... I'm tired of the screwing around and the hooking up and the backstabbing like we're still in high school," I said. "I'm not expecting the two of us to be friends, but..."

"Are you calling a truce?" Weaver laughed.

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, that's what I'm doing."

"All right," Weaver said. "Truce." We shook on it.

"I know you're not happy with some of the admin duties that Romano gave me," I said. "Do you think maybe... we could sit down and... rearrange things?"

"That would be... helpful," Weaver said, sounding like she'd just accepted a date.

"I didn't-- I didn't ask for that extra responsibility. I don't even really want it--"

"I don't mind," Weaver said. "Gives me more time with patients."

"So when should we..."

"I'll have a look at my schedule and let you know, okay?"

"Okay," I said. "Um. Thanks for... listening and... I guess we should both get back to work."

"No," said Weaver, "thank you." She took up her crutch and reached for the door. "Oh, and Susan?"


"I know it was Carter who put the... toy in my locker."

"The dildo?" I blurted.

"Strap-on," Weaver said. "It had a harness."

"Whatever. Did he tell you, or--"

"He used to have my locker," Weaver said. "I never changed the combination. He knew I would know he did it."

"Well, good, because--"

"Susan, I never thought it was you."

"I didn't say that I thought..."

"I know."


"I'm... I'm sorry I assumed that you were taking sides against me," Weaver said.

"I can understand why you did."

"Doesn't excuse it."

"Still, I... apology accepted."

"Maybe we should..."


"So I'll, um, let you know about meeting about the admin duties and..."

"All right," I said. Weaver was out the door before either of us could say anything else. I wasn't sure what to do with myself; I wasn't sure what to do, period. It might not have been chemistry, but there was something so thick in the air that I could have scraped it off of the drug cabinets.


I became preoccupied with Mark's illness, to the point that I hardly noticed how smoothly things were running at work. I watched him lose control of the muscles in his face and refuse to admit to anyone that this was the end. At work, I was on autopilot, although no one seemed to notice. But I blamed myself for my aloofness: I had let myself become so invested in a single patient that the others had ceased to matter.

Restless one night, I counted all of the paperwork I had to do. It became urgent enough in my mind to keep me from sleeping. I threw on jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, packed my laptop into its case, and drove to the hospital to take care of my responsibilities. It was the first time in a while that I had found myself worrying about something unrelated to Mark, and I wanted to keep my mind there.

I was in the lounge getting a stack of forms together when Weaver walked in. "What are you doing here?" Weaver asked.

"Couldn't sleep," I said. "I thought I'd get something done."

"Luka and I were going to take care of those for you," Weaver said. "We figured maybe this month you ought to go easy."

"I'm going crazy either way."

"Listen, I-- there's this diner in Greektown where I go sometimes to get that stuff done when the hospital is too distracting and Doc Magoo's is full of doctors."

"I don't know," I said. "I've got my laptop and..."

"They don't mind. I bring mine all the time. The place is full of UIC grad students doing the same thing."

"Do they... have those stuffed grape leaf things?"

"Probably," Weaver said. "Usually I just have them keep bringing me Turkish coffee until sunrise."

"So it's where? On Halsted?"

"Yeah, on that main strip where it's all restaurants. I think it's called Zorba's. It'll be the only place open."

"Wanna join me?" I heard myself say.


"It looked like you were leaving anyway, and..."

"I really ought to..."


"Sleep," Weaver said.

"Come on. Please?"

Weaver sighed. "All right," she said.

We were quiet in my car, and even quieter at the restaurant. We ate and did our work like strangers who happened to have been seated at the same table. I reminded myself that I was at least getting my resident evaluations done, and the grape leaves were good, and the coffee was strong. Once in a while, I'd look up at Kerry, then go back to my work before Kerry could return my gaze. I was supposed to be writing about Mahesh Shah's rapport with patients, but my mind got stuck trying to determine exactly when Weaver had stopped being Weaver in my mind and started being Kerry. I was wondering if that was what Abby had meant by chemistry. If so, then chemistry didn't mean much of anything.

"What?" Kerry said.

"Oh, what? Nothing. I was just-- nothing. Sorry. I guess I spaced out for a minute."

Kerry half-smiled, obviously not satisfied but willing to let it go. It wasn't like she ever told anyone anything. She returned to typing furiously. It didn't surprise me that Kerry could type so fast, but she seemed to be writing passionately. Kerry was working, definitely, but it wasn't the kind of work she was going to hand over to the hospital. She was writing in a diary. Or composing an epic poem.

"Dr. Shah presents himself to patients as compassionate and concerned. He listens carefully and thoroughly to patients before drawing conclusions. He still seems to get overwhelmed by some cases, especially those that involve a lot of blood or vomit, and he has trouble dealing with mentally altered patients. He's very good with children." It seemed pretty flat, but resident evaluations weren't supposed to be epic poetry.

"The sun's starting to come up," Kerry said.


"Sun's starting to rise," Kerry repeated.

I turned in my chair. A strip of yellow-orange lit the bottom of the sky. "I didn't realize it was so late," I said.

"They're gonna start serving breakfast soon."

"I'm on at seven," I said. "I'd better--"

Kerry motioned to the waiter for the check.

"Do you need a ride home?" I said.

"I'll take the El."

"No, really, it's not a problem."

"I live all the way up in Andersonville."

"That's not far out of my way," I said. "I was all set to take you out to Lake Forest or something."

Kerry gave a little laugh. "I could never live that far out of the city," she said. "I had a house in Oak Park for a while, and it was like living in exile."

I grew up out there, in the West and Northwest suburbs. Nowhere as nice as Oak Park. Now, I only went out that way to visit my parents. The Ike seemed like an expressway to Mars. "I know what you mean," I said.

Kerry acquiesced to accepting a ride. "So, do you do this often?" I asked, once they were in the car and under way.

"Do what?" Kerry said.

"Stay out all night in diners, pouring your heart out into your computer."

"It was just work."

"Didn't look like it," I pressed. "You looked like... you were enjoying it too much."

"I keep a journal," Kerry admitted. "Maybe... that's what you saw."

"Say anything about me?"


"Sorry. That was... none of my business."

"Most of the time, I just write about my day," Kerry said.

"I always wanted to keep a diary," I said. "Every time I tried, I wrote two or three entries and then forgot about it."

"You... can't feel like you have to write something every day," Kerry said. "Only... when you have something to say."

I found myself suddenly without a word. I concentrated on driving and on the soft drone of the car radio. "And you may ask yourself, 'How did I get here?'" It was a fair question to ask as I passed the Drive's North Avenue exit and, out of the corner of my eye, watched Kerry watch the sunrise.

"Should I keep going up Sheridan once the Drive ends?" I asked.

"Yeah. I live right on Sheridan."

Quiet again. The radio station cut to commercials.

"It's going to be a pretty day," I said.

"I'll be sleeping through it," Kerry said regretfully. "I've been up for--" she checked her watch-- "27 hours."

"Oh, God, I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't realize--"

"I would've been up anyway, getting that stuff done. It was... it was nice to have company."

"Thanks," I said.

"Thanks for inviting me."

"Well, I couldn't not-- not after you--"

"Yes, you could have," Kerry said. "You easily could have."

We arrived at Kerry's building, and there was nowhere to park, of course. I pulled in front of a fire hydrant and put my emergency flashers on. "Sweet dreams," I said to Kerry, who was gathering her things together.

"Thanks for the ride," Kerry said. And for a moment, we were looking at each other, not saying anything. I could hear the blood pump past my ears. And in the space of that moment, I would have let Kerry kiss me. I would have kissed back. Right there, illegally parked, with the mostly risen sun baking my arms through my sweatshirt, I would have kissed my female boss, and I would have liked it.

I returned to reality, in which I was not kissing anyone. Kerry was opening the car door like she hoped she could leave unnoticed. "See you-- see you at work," I said.

Kerry managed an "Mmm-hmm" before climbing out of the car. I pulled back onto the road without watching Kerry go. I hated Abby for noticing, for knowing, for not lying when I had pressed her for an answer. This was too hard. This was fucking impossible. There were things I didn't want to know, and this was high on the list.


For days, I watched women wherever I went. I needed to prove to myself that this wasn't some kind of perverse Weaver-only situation. Most of the women I saw didn't do anything for me, but there were a few: a woman in tight jeans at the grocery store; a cop with long braided hair extensions and eyes that went on forever, directing traffic near the community center where I took my yoga lessons; the actress who played Ling on "Ally McBeal." I realized that I'd never paid attention. There'd always been enough men that I'd liked and wanted, and I'd never considered any other possibilities.

Strangely, the discovery made me feel better. The moment in the car with Kerry had terrified me, but now I saw it in the scheme of something greater. I was attracted to Kerry because I was sometimes attracted to women. In that context, everything made sense. I could go out and choose to date men, knowing there was another, more difficult option that I was choosing not to take. I could decide to be straight, even if once in a while my eyes wandered in another direction. And if I ever got curious, I could go to a bar, pick up some girl, and get it out of my system. Nothing had to change.

But it changed anyway-- because of Kerry. Because Kerry was there at work like a little red-headed flag. Kerry was no longer annoying because she was shrill and short-tempered, but because I had important things to think about, like whether Mark was right now still breathing, and then Kerry would walk by and I would be wondering what Kerry's breasts looked like. It made me feel adolescent. I wanted to blame Kerry, but that wasn't fair. I was going to have to get over my stupid crush.

Or. There was the other option. The one that involved facing Kerry and letting her know. The one that could at worst destroy my career and queer my relationship with my boss, and at best could result in some kind of clandestine romance. There were times when the idea tempted me. I'd sit imagining ways to ask Kerry out, or just to get her into bed. Then, I would get angry with myself for even thinking that way, and I'd push away the fantasies.

And time passed. And Mark died. It was late spring and drizzling appropriately, and I was so numb I couldn't react. I felt guilty for not having been with him, even though he'd been in Hawaii and happy. I cried once in an exam room, the day after I heard, and after that there was nothing left in me.

Two nights later, I had the night off. I hated myself for feeling nothing. I thought I should be doing something dramatic: tearing my clothes and cursing the gods. Instead, I was wide awake at two in the morning and craving gyros. I was too distraught to drive, but taking the El at that time of night was just asking to be mugged. There was no traffic on the way down to Greektown, just squad cars and the occasional fellow late-night lost soul. I wanted to know where they were going. I wanted to know what they had lost.

I had no reason to expect Kerry to be at Zorba's. Part of me hoped for it, but I didn't expect it. I was going purely to get myself out of my apartment, to get myself to eat and relax and not hate myself for my failure to mourn. Anyway, Kerry's presence would mean facing my sexuality issues and my crush-on-the-boss issues, and I was pretty sure I didn't have the emotional resources for that. Besides, she had a girlfriend, or something that had looked a lot like a girlfriend when they'd shown up at the Lava Lounge the day Mark died.

So of course, Kerry was there. She was alone in a booth, typing at light speed, oblivious to my entrance. I felt inadequately prepared, walking in with only yesterday's Tribune and the latest issue of Jane magazine. I couldn't decide whether to take a table by myself or to bravely sit down with Kerry. The waiter stood behind the counter, staring at me impatiently.

I decided that it was worth my time to at least say hello. Kerry looked startled and unwelcomely interrupted. "Oh-- I just didn't expect--" Kerry said.

"You didn't expect me to come back?" I said.

"Well-- I--"

"I like this place," I said. "I... I was just... going to sit over there." I cocked her head towards the counter. I liked sitting at counters in diners; it was like I could see all the machinery of the place.

"You could..."

"Oh, no, I wouldn't want to--"

"No. Go ahead. Sit here."

"Really, I--"


"As long as I don't talk to you?"

"You can talk," Kerry said.

"That's not really... what I wanted to do," I said.

"It's all right if you want to."

"No, I-- I wanted to read. My apartment was getting claustrophobic."

Kerry seemed to accept that, and she returned her attention to her computer. I read my newspaper and, when they came, ate my gyros. The food was satisfying in a way that food hadn't been for a while. For a couple of hours, I felt almost stable. And then, without warning, Mark's death hit me. They say it's like that. You're fine for days, and then all of a sudden, you're in a restaurant, and it's four in the morning, and you lose your shit. Silently, I walked out of the diner. When I got outside, I broke into a run. I reached my car and locked myself inside. I thought I was going to cry, but when I leaned my head against the steering wheel, my eyes and my mouth were dry, and my own arrhythmic breathing filled the small space.

It was some amount of time between five minutes and an hour when Kerry pounded on the passenger window. "Are you okay?" Kerry shouted.

I reached over to unlock the door. "I'm a... a little shaky," I said as Kerry opened the door and sat down in the passenger seat.

"Because of Mark?" Kerry said.


"I-- Here's your paper and your magazine. I wasn't sure if you wanted them or not."

"Oh... um, thanks."

"I paid for your food, too."

"Oh, wow, you didn't have to-- I'll pay you back. How much was it?"

"Don't-- don't worry about it. I wasn't sure if you were coming back, and I didn't want to..."

I leaned over to the passenger side and kissed Kerry softly on the lips. Kerry clattered backward desperately, tangling herself on her crutch. "Don't," Kerry said. "Don't do this."

I hadn't planned on telling Kerry in quite this way, but it was too late now. "I-- I'm sorry," I said. "I... meant that."

"I don't... think you did."

"I want to--"

"No. Don't. Don't."

"I want to prove it to you," I said.


"That I meant... that."

"You didn't. Susan, I don't know if you're... looking for someone to comfort you or... but-- but tomorrow this will not seem like a good idea."

"I've been wanting to kiss you," I said, "since before I needed someone to comfort me."

"I just don't think... it's the right time," Kerry said.

"Then we'll go on a date. A real date. We can... go bowling." I said it because it was the most absurd activity I could think of. Except maybe bungee jumping.

"I can't bowl," Kerry said, righting her crutch and scooting out of the corner she'd backed herself into.

I laughed. "Obviously."

"We could-- we could have lunch sometime," Kerry said. "In a couple of weeks. When-- when things have calmed down."

That was better than I had feared this would turn out, at least. "Sounds good," I said.

"We'll-- we can talk about it later on," Kerry said.


"Are you-- are you going to be able to get home all right?"

I nodded.

"I'll-- I'm going to--" Kerry stammered, then gave up on language altogether. She opened the car door. Then, like an afterthought, she kissed my cheek gently before getting out of the car. I thought I could feel a spark where Kerry had kissed me, and it seemed to tingle the whole way home.

When I got back to my apartment, I bellyflopped on my bed and let myself cry. It might have been for Mark. I wasn't sure.


The first date was fine. It was nice. We managed to find things to say to each other, enough to prevent awkward silences. She said that she and her girlfriend were taking a break or keeping their options open or something that she didn't really understand but which translated to broken up. She said it had been one of those relationships where no one is really happy, but it dragged along anyway. She said it helped to be out with someone else.

Still, it was nothing special until I offered to walk Kerry up to her apartment. In the otherwise empty elevator, we kissed so passionately that it took us a moment to notice that we'd reached Kerry's floor. I leaned against the Door Open button until the elevator buzzed in protest. Kerry slipped through the closing doors, and I was descending back to the lobby before I could know whether Kerry would have invited me in. Not sure what to do, and not even sure which seventeenth-floor apartment was Kerry's, I went home. I called the next day, prepared to apologize, but Kerry just invited me over for dinner.

"I don't even know why you want me here," I said when I sat down at Kerry's dinner table.

"I'm trying not to look a gift horse in the mouth," Kerry said.

"What do you mean?"

"When I first... realized I might be gay, I was going back through my life, trying to figure out if I'd been attracted to women before and not-- not thought of it that way at the time. You were the first person I thought of."

"Like-- back when you were chief resident?"


"Oh, God. When I came back, it must have been..."

"Kind of jarring."

I pushed bits of salad around with my fork. "You-- you were in love with me all that time?"

"I was in something," Kerry said. "I think 'love' is pushing it."

When we'd finished dessert, I leaned across the table to kiss Kerry. Kerry kissed me back until I thought we might both fall forward into the remains of dinner. I came around the table to continue the kiss. I stroked one of Kerry's breasts through her blouse; the nipple hardened under my fingers.

We fumbled our way to Kerry's bedroom and tumbled onto the bed. Kerry leaned her crutch carefully against the nightstand. "You've never done this before, have you?" Kerry said, running her hands under my shirt.


"With a woman."


"Relax. I'll... go slow." Kerry shrugged me out of my shirt and unfastened my bra. If this was slow, I wanted to see fast. But I liked the way Kerry caressed my breasts with firm lips, teased my nipples with a strong tongue. Unable to see to unbutton Kerry's blouse, I rode it up instead, then traced a finger down her spine. I could feel Kerry shudder with unexpected pleasure. Kerry circled my hipbones with her fingers. "You've got to tell me if it's... working," she said from between my breasts.

"It's working," I said impatiently. Kerry unzipped my pants and slipped her hand under the waistband of my underwear. She pressed her thumb where the lips of my vulva joined, and I let out a moan.

"Keep doing that," Kerry said.

"Doing... what?" I gasped.

"You're too quiet. Don't back down from me."


"Don't say 'okay,'" Kerry said. "Do it."

I was about to say, "Okay," again, but I thought better of it. "Don't stop," I said instead.

"Wait-- I ought to-- there's Saran Wrap in the kitchen--"

"You're kidding, right?"

"No-- I-- never mind."

I leaned upward to kiss Kerry gently. "'Sokay." I played with the top button of Kerry's shirt. "You've got too many clothes on," I said.

"I-- wait--"

"What am I going to see that you don't want me to see?"

"No-- I-- I wanted to... I wanted to go down on you first," Kerry said.

"I-- okay. I'm sorry. I assumed you..." I was unbuttoning Kerry's blouse. I slid my fingers under one of Kerry's bra straps and trailed the strap down Kerry's arm. I kissed Kerry's bare shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. Just let me..." Kerry flicked my clit with her fingers, and I was happy to kick off my pants, wriggle out of my underwear, and let Kerry take over.

I'd been eaten out before, of course, but always as kind of an afterthought: grudgingly, as part of boyfriendly duty, or as half-assed repayment for blow jobs. Which is not to say that I was one of those women who lay back numbly and waited for it to be over. I loved it. I came stronger and harder that way, with the stroke of a tongue, however inept, across my clitoris. My freshman year of college, when I first figured this out, I was so into the idea of cunnilingus that I developed a reputation in my dorm. I would fuck any guy who went down on me first. Sadly, this probably hampered my social life.

And it's easy to say that with Kerry it was different, for obvious reasons of anatomy. But tongues are tongues, and when you're on your back with your eyes vised shut and your knees in the air, gender makes a lot less difference than you'd expect. No, it was different and better with her because she'd wanted it so much and for so long. Because it was clear to me that she'd lain in bed after long shifts and wondered what I tasted like.

Kerry had one hand under my tailbone, tilting me upward. She started out with long upward strokes from my vaginal opening to the tip of my clitoris, and after a few she started curling her tongue around at the end and sucking on my clit. I kept talking, mostly things like "that's good" and "keep going," because I was afraid that she'd stop if I got quiet. She found a sweet spot in that shallow place between my inner labia. When I came, she was rolling her tongue in there, pressing hard and deep, just on the good side of hurting me. And coming was almost a disappointment, because I knew she'd stop when the orgasm subsided.

She didn't quite: she gave me a few decelerating licks while my body calmed. "I'd go again," she said, "but I think you wore out my jaw."

"Let me kiss it out of you," I said, and I kissed her until she seemed restless, ready for her turn. "I don't know what to do," I said.

"Just... wing it."

"See one, do one, teach one," I said, and she laughed.

She seemed reluctant to let me undress her. I could understand why, but she was going to have to let me at her eventually. It was dim enough in the room that I wouldn't be able to see her body clearly anyway. But if anyone had a reason to be self-conscious, it was a woman who had made a game of hiding the nature of a very obvious disability. It reminded me of something Chloe liked to say: when you tell one person, it isn't a secret anymore.

My own uncertainty gave me an excuse to spend a long time on her upper body. Her bra had gone slack on her arms, and it more or less fell away when I unhooked it in the back. Kerry had a swimmer's body, all muscle from the wide V of her trapezius through to her flat abdominals. When I kissed her sternum, the skin was soft, like it might turn to powder. I wanted to taste as much of her as I could. I wanted her to trust me.

I was running my tongue along her belly, and she said, "I like this. Nobody ever does this." I wasn't sure that she'd intended for me to hear her. In any case, my mouth was busy, and she'd just asked me not to stop. I was doing something right. I could do this.

I slipped my hand down the front of her pants, my face still buried in her ribcage. In the curls of her pubic hair I could feel that she was damp. I must have frozen, because she asked me if I wanted her to walk me through it. Like it was a procedure. I laughed and said yes.

I helped her out of the rest of her clothes. She propped her back against the headboard at an angle. I started at her belly, where I'd been before, and I traced her lower abdomen with kisses. These were the things that I had not expected to be different: texture, flavor, the easy topography of curves. She guided me downward with her hands on my shoulders. I found her clitoris with my tongue, and after that it was mostly corrections: harder, faster, a little to the left. I thought that I was disappointing her. "Sorry," I said.

"Don't apologize," she said. "Don't you ever apologize to me." I realized that she was breathing hard with arousal. She was pressed so hard against me that I couldn't have wrestled free from her. I stroked her clit with my tongue, and I didn't hear any more complaints, just rhythmic and escalating sighs until she came.


"It's your fault anyway," I told Abby over another uninspiring cafeteria lunch.

"My fault?" Abby said.

"The whole chemistry thing. Remember?"

"You acted on it."

"Wouldn't have if you hadn't put the idea in my head," I said.

"You forced it out of me."

"You brought it up."

Abby knew when she was beaten. "So how long has this... thing been going on? A month?"

"A little more than that," I said.

"That makes her your girlfriend."

"She's not my-- I mean, we barely even talk. I'm not even sure if we like each other."

"But you've been sleeping together for a month."

"Yeah, but--"

"And you haven't slept with anyone else while you've been sleeping with her."

"No," I said.

"If you've been fucking someone for a month, and in that time you've been monogamous, it's a relationship, whether you like it or not."

"What is that? The 'one month rule'?"

"Not a rule," Abby said. "More of a philosophy."

"That's too bad. I was starting to believe in your rules."

"You mean you..."

"We had sex on the second date," I said.

"You're kidding."

"Nope. Second date rule."

"I'm not sure it should count if you're..."

"Why not? Chemistry is chemistry," I said with a burst of conviction.

"So... there was chemistry."

"Fireworks," I grinned.

"So what's the problem? I mean, aside from the fact that it's Weaver and we're all going to make fun of you forever."

"Nobody is going to make fun of me, because nobody is going to know."

Abby looked at me seriously for a moment. "All right," she said.

"She'd kill me if she knew I told you."

"All right," Abby said. "So... what's the problem?"

"We don't even talk to each other. There weren't really any dates after the second one. We get together, and then we..."

"Fuck," Abby finished.

"And eventually it's going to get old, and we're going to start to hate each other. Which we can't, because we work together. And..." I paused. "Because I don't want to hate her."

"So stick with it until it's starting to get weird, and then break it off," Abby said.

"I'm not there yet," I said. For the time being, I was enjoying it. Kerry made the future impossible to think about. When I was with her, there were only the heat of touch and the high of orgasm, and when we had sex I knew that we were both shoving the consequences from our minds. Kerry was smart enough to have played over our crash-and-burn ending in her mind. We had an unspoken agreement not to talk about where this was going. That should have filled me with fear, but I loved having her only in the moment: taking in her hands and her tongue like I could have them forever. I wanted her too much to start to resent her. I wanted her too much to let her go.


Two: Exothermic Reactions

"We need to break this off," Susan was saying, like she'd been rehearsing it in front of the mirror for days. "We need to. Before we start hating each other. Because I don't want that, and I don't think you want that either."

We were in an empty exam room in the middle of a slow shift. Susan had apparently decided to dump me in a way that would make us both as irritable and distracted as possible for the rest of the day. I guessed that now that she'd gotten tired of me and whatever experiment I represented for her, it didn't matter to her who knew about us.

"You're right," I said, because she was.

She looked at me skeptically. "Are you sure?" she said. "Are you sure this is all right with you?"

"It was going to have to end sooner or later."

"So we're..."

"Friends?" I suggested.

"Sounds good to me," she said.


She laughed loosely. "That was way too easy." But we were still standing there. She'd taken my hands in hers when she'd started talking, and our hands were still clasped. It had been easy, except for one inconvenient fact: we worked together. In a normal relationship, we'd have been able to walk out of that room and never see each other again.

She dropped my hands and raised her own to brush my cheek. "So what do you say?" she said. "One last time?"

"Maybe we shouldn't..."

"You know, we never had sex at work?"

"There was a reason for that," I said.

"Not a very good one." She kissed me, a little roughly. I knew that if I wanted, I could push her away and tell her that the end was the end, but the truth was, I couldn't resist her that easily. And I didn't want this to be the end. I didn't want to go into this knowing that after this afternoon, I wouldn't get to have sex with her again. It didn't seem fair somehow. Whatever our differences of personality, we seemed to fit together perfectly while we were fucking.

We both climbed onto an exam bed. Susan had to help me up, and as she did she slid her hands under my shirt. Usually, by the time we got to foreplay, I was already wet with the thought of what I wanted to do to her. But that day my mind hadn't gone there beforehand, and I was distracted by the fear that someone would walk in on us. I had never felt safe with Susan; then, I felt outright paranoid.

She said to me what I'd said to her the first time we slept together: "Relax." She kissed my neck softly. "Or do you not want to do this? Should we just... leave it here?"

"I... I don't know," I said.

"Kerry," she said. Not a question, but a command.


"I want you to know-- I want you to know how much I'm going to miss this. You opened me up. I will not regret a second we had together."

"Me neither," I said.

"But I'm not in love with you, and I don't think I can be. And I think we both... deserve better than that."

"Do we?" I said.

"You do," she said, and she kissed me.

"Then so do you." I kissed her back. "You know, I bet there's some KY in one of those drawers."

She told me to stay where I was while she looked. I hated being left useless like that, even when it was simply a situation in which no one needed my help. I pulled my knees to my chest, pleased to find that it was one of the days when I could. A sharp pain shot down from my hipbone to the inside of my knee, but I held the position, fighting it. I knew I was setting myself up to be sore for the rest of the day.

Susan hopped back up onto the exam bed with the tube of KY in her hand. "You look so small," she said, and I let go of my knees. She said, "Let's come together, if this is going to be the last time."

We half-undressed quickly. There was no point in taking off our shirts when we might have to get our clothes back on in a hurry. She put her hand on my ass and guided me on top of her. Susan seemed to like that I was lighter than she was, that she could cover herself up in me without relying on my strength to keep her uncrushed. I think it made her feel powerful, even with my one hand pressing her shoulder down and the other, sticky with superfluous lubricant, stroking her clit hard. She kept her left hand at my hip so that the joint wouldn't buckle. She already had one finger inside me, moving rhythmically while she rubbed my clit with her thumb. I wanted to get my fist inside her and fuck her so hard that she'd feel me for the rest of the day. But time was not a luxury we had, and it still took a long time to get her relaxed enough for that. We settled for three fingers each. I found the rough spot high inside of her, and she writhed against me. I was biting my lip to keep myself quiet. This place demanded silence, and I began to resent that. I wanted Susan free to scream and moan and beg me not to stop. When I came, she couldn't tell because I kept quiet and she was close. I let her keep going until after her own climax. I wanted her soft hands inside me a little longer.

She started putting her clothes on without a word. I told her that I was going to need a minute for my leg. "Yeah," she said. "We probably shouldn't walk out together anyway." I watched her hips swing as she headed towards the door. I wanted to grab her and stop her; I wanted to tell her that I wasn't ready for her to go yet. But I wasn't that brave, and I told myself that it would only have made things worse.


I must have looked like a wreck all that day, because Carter stopped me at the end of the day shift and asked me what was going on.

"Nothing," I told him. "I'm fine."

"No, you're not," he said, "and why won't you ever tell me anything anymore?"

"Because telling you anything is like sending out a memo to the entire hospital."

"I wouldn't do that to you," he said.

"Yeah, well, you do it to everyone else."

"I wouldn't do it to you," he said. "Not if it would hurt you."

I made a show of rummaging in my locker.

"Kerry. I know that you can't sleep with the door open. I know that the can opener goes in the knife drawer. I know that you've seen 'The Sound of Music' three dozen times, and you still cry when Captain Von Trapp sings 'Edelweiss.' And I had to find out you were gay when Chuny told me you'd kissed some woman in front of the admit desk! How is that fair, Kerry?"

I looked up at him, and for the first time in too long, he was John who read bad science fiction novels, who crammed quarts of 2% milk into the fridge and drank straight out of them, who warbled U2 songs in the shower. And I realized that I missed that person. I'd gotten into a bad habit of letting my friendships slacken, maybe as a result of watching Jeanie get so sick and having to remind Gabe who I was. I had one college friend left, and he lived out in California. My contact with Carol Hathaway had been reduced to yearly Christmas cards, and I never seemed to get around to answering Mlungisi's letters. I was letting the same thing happen with John, who was right there and healthy. And although I knew why I'd been keeping my distance, it no longer seemed like a reasonable excuse.

"It's not fair," I said to him.

"Well, we can agree on that," he said.

"But you know--"

"No, Kerry. That was you. I wasn't going to let it get in the way."

"Yeah, it's easy for you, isn't it? Fuck all the women you want, and--"

"It wasn't like that," he said. "You know it wasn't like that."

"It was just... I was afraid that if..."

"I know," he said. "But don't you think... we're out of the woods now?"

"Why? Because of Abby?"

"Well, that, and because you..."

"I-- I should have told you," I said. "I guess... I wasn't really ready to tell anyone yet. Not even when... Sandy ambushed me. She was angry that I wasn't out. I was going to... take things at my own pace, and it just... didn't work out that way."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"For what?"

"That she hurt you," he said.

"I got over it," I said.

"Are you hungry?"


"Have you eaten dinner?" he said. " I was thinking we could... talk for a while."

"I was-- I've got leftovers, and--"

"Just-- just across the street. Doc Magoo's."

"I kind of... avoid that place," I said. "Bad associations."

He nodded in understanding. "We could go to that Thai place across the street from the Art Institute."

I knew that he would keep trying until I said yes, so I agreed and got it over with. When we got to the restaurant, John informed me that I wasn't leaving until I told him everything.

"How are you going to keep me here?" I asked him.

"I'll take your crutch," he said. "I'll hide it in the men's room." I wouldn't have put it past him.

He didn't lecture me when I ordered a beer. I half-expected him to chastise me for self-medicating. I knew that was something I did, and I knew that was what I was doing. I was encouraging myself to talk. Maybe he understood that.

We chatted about work for a while: traded stories of goofy cases and med student mishaps. We had a passive-aggressive argument about who had the rights to the last segment of spring roll. ("No, really, you can have it." "No, I'm not even that hungry.") By the time the main course arrived, he was shooting me looks like he was worried we'd be there all night.

Sometime while we were attacking the pad thai and the panang chicken, I started talking. I told him about Kim: about getting kissed on Christmas Eve and lying awake the rest of the night, re-evaluating my whole life to make sense of that kiss. I told him about nights spent sitting in dyke bars, too shy to strike up a conversation with anyone, and about Sandy, who had forced me to be brave. And I told him about Susan.

"So you slept with her?"


"A lot?"


"I can't believe you slept with my ex-girlfriend," he said.

"It had-- it had nothing to do with you."

"I know," he said.

"If I'd known you were still--"

"No," he said. "We were never really more than friends anyway. Friends who kissed."

"You have a lot of restraint," I said.

He shrugged. "No chemistry."

"Yeah, well, we didn't have that problem."

"So why'd you break up?"

"We both knew it wasn't going to last," I said. "Susan wanted to break it off while we could still be friends."

"And you?"

"Part of me was willing to keep going until we hated each other."

"I know the feeling," John said.

"But we're better off," I said. "It's better that we don't."

"Hate each other?"


"Speaking from experience?"

"I never hated you," I said.

"No, but you--"

"You did it too," I said. "You always acted like you were ashamed to have any kind of a relationship with me."

"I-- I had no idea," he said. "I had no idea I made you feel like that."

"I never said anything."

"Which of course..."

"Was the problem all along," I said.

"So you'll talk to me from now on?"

"If you promise to listen," I said.

We split the check, then spent an embarrassing fifteen minutes wandering the neighborhood looking for his car. When he dropped me off at my building, he got out of the car and gave me a long hug.

"Was that your brother?" the doorman asked when John had left.

"No," I said. "Just a friend. We... hadn't talked in a while."


Susan and I were only cordial at first. There is a tension that lingers after any passionate relationship ends. But those wounds faded quickly, and we started spending time together as friends: grabbing lunch for each other at work, showing up at Zorba's in the wee hours in the hopes that the other would be there. Women who work hard and live mostly alone have a certain sorority. Resisting the urge to climb all over each other, Susan and I found that connection.

And so Susan and I were getting along well, and John and I were having the kind of friendship that involved actually speaking to each other, and Susan and John, who had no chemistry as lovers, were so natural around each other as friends that it was easy to see how they might have gotten confused. And because Abby was more or less involved with John, not to mention friends with Susan, she was suddenly a lot nicer. And through Abby, and because we'd always liked each other anyway, Luka was warmer towards me. It was a strange feeling, having people on my side this way. I'd always told myself that I was better off not trying too hard to make friends, that I would get more done if I didn't concern myself with whether people liked me. I still believed that, but I liked feeling like it wasn't me against the world. It was nice to be part of the conversations in the doctor's lounge, and actually understanding the constant inside jokes made them less grating. I hadn't intended to change the way I administrated, but that happened, too: I found myself spending more time asking for opinions, and I found that more of the staff offered those opinions. Work had, for a long time, been something I enjoyed in theory but not in the everyday succession of conflicts. Now, even on the days when everything went to shit and I was yelling my head off, it was a retreat.

I was glad to have somewhere to go, because the rest of my life was throwing me curves. Gabe was getting worse: losing his temper violently, having toilet accidents, wandering off and getting lost in his son's neighborhood. His son called me somberly to tell me that Gabe's care had become too much for him. I helped move Gabe into the nursing home while Gabe shouted abuse and called me by his sister's name. I was reminding myself why I couldn't give up on him when, looking thin and ancient as he sat on the hospital bed in his new room, he said, "You're Kerry, aren't you? Of course you're Kerry. I don't know why I thought you were Barbara. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," I said.

"Have you decided on a specialty yet?" he said. "You know, I always thought you'd make a great ER doc."

When I went home, I fried all the chicken in my freezer. Then, too upset to eat any of it, I cried all night.


A few days later, I brought my computer to Zorba's in the hopes that I could write a few things out of my system. At home, the blistering whiteness of a new text file had been too much for me. I'd started getting e-mails from people who regularly read my journal, asking why I hadn't updated in over a week. I wasn't sure which was weirder: that I had dedicated readers, or that I was more willing to share the details of my life with these distant strangers than with anyone I knew in the real world.

It was this-- this, and not the underlying terror of Gabe's condition-- that I was writing about when Susan sat down. She might have been there without my noticing for five or ten minutes; the waiter came, and she ordered, and I looked up.

"I didn't want to disturb you," she said when the waiter had gone. "It looked like... you were writing something important."

"Not really," I said.

"Is everything okay?"


"You've been kind of... distant," she said. "At work. If it has something to do with me, Kerry-- if you want me to back off--"

"It has nothing to do with you."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course."

"Because if you want to tell me, you can."

"Let it go, Susan," I said, despite knowing that she would understand if anyone would. She had watched Mark Greene the way I was watching Gabe: Mark had been like Gabe on fast forward, a quick deterioration and then gone. But I was too tired to talk, and Susan wasn't that kind of friend.

I was ready to leave a couple of hours before dawn. Susan followed me out. "I wasn't planning on staying much longer anyway," she said.

"Stop worrying about me," I said. "I'm all right." But her car was on the way to mine, so we walked a few yards together.

"I hope, whatever it is, that it works out okay," she said when we got to her car.

"It won't," I said.

She gave me a hug that started out as an I'll-see-you-later hug, a supportive-friend hug. But it went on too long for that, and soon she was kissing the top of my head, and I had my lips at her neck. And then we had our tongues down each other's throats, streetlit with my back against her Volkswagen.

She shifted me aside just long enough to open the car door and toss her things on the passenger seat. She flipped the front seat forward and pushed me into the back. I felt childish, making out with my ex-girlfriend in the cramped back seat of her parked car. We hadn't forgotten how to touch each other. When her warm tongue teased my clit, I saw how violently I'd talked myself out of wanting her. I wondered if when I agreed that I could never love her, I'd spoken too soon, or if it was just the orgasm talking.

She called a few weeks later to ask me if I wanted to drop by her apartment. There was no pretense; we knew what we were agreeing to. We were just friends, but every once in a while, we could make an exception. It wasn't like either of us was seeing anyone else.


I met Nina at a conference. I'd been asked to sit on a panel on creating better resources for Differently Abled staff. I despised that kind of tokenism, not to mention the phrase "differently abled," which always made me wonder whether we were including the double-jointed. But it wasn't the sort of thing you turned down, and I seldom had to say much. There were worse reasons to skip work.

Nina was a linguist doing research on communication between doctors and patients. She had short, loosely curly black hair and smooth translucent skin, and as I watched her present her paper, I thought she was so beautiful that she was surely straight. Married. With kids. Lots of them.

Shyly, I approached her after she gave her paper. I offered the usual compliments: interesting research, useful findings. To my surprise, she mentioned that she'd seen me at the panel discussion, and she thought I'd held my own against the torrent of rhetoric. She told me that a lot of doctors seemed to forget that they worked with human beings, not complex plumbing systems, and that I seemed to be one of the exceptions. I asked her if she wanted to get a cup of coffee after the conference ended for the day. We sat together at the keynote lecture and passed notes like eighth graders.

Nina was wonderful. She was the kind of woman who got prettier the more you looked at her. She was brilliant, sophisticated, and witty. She was the first person I'd ever dated who was thrilled when I told her I had season tickets to the Lyric Opera; she laughed with admiration when I told her I'd made a hefty donation a few years earlier in order to get better seats. Her college-professor schedule was flexible, and she'd show up at County sometimes just to say hi, often with a bouquet of flowers or a good lunch in tow. She was way too good for me, but she seemed to see something in me anyway.

The two of us had been together for about a month when Susan made one of her late-night phone calls.

"I think... I have a girlfriend," I said.

"Oh," said Susan. "I-- I didn't know."

"We could... Zorba's," I said. "If you-- if you just wanted to get out of your apartment."

"I don't think that would be such a good idea," Susan said, and I thought of the back seat of her Volkswagen. "I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't apologize," I said.

She said goodbye, and she hung up. And I realized that part of me missed her terribly. A very specific part.

It wasn't to say that sex with Nina wasn't satisfying. Nina was good at anything she did. Being with Nina was easy, almost effortless: she was so kind and so free of danger. Maybe it was the wildness that I missed. With Kim and with Sandy, the very idea of sex with a woman had been transgressive, but that uncertainty and novelty had passed. And Susan-- well, she was an altogether different story. There was a song that I couldn't place that kept looping in my head. Something from a musical, probably. The only lyric I could remember was, "Some girls you marry; some girls you love." Nina was definitely the kind of girl you married. I wasn't sure what Susan was.

Still, I stayed with Nina for a fairly long time, maybe longer than I should have. Susan met some guy in her yoga class, and there-- we were both seeing other people. We were still friendly at work, and we still ran into each other at Zorba's once in a while. We congratulated ourselves on our self-control: we could be faithful to our lovers despite the temptation of one another.

And I would like to say that Nina was a perfect saint, and that I was perfectly cruel. But I was a good girlfriend-- so good that it was clear to anyone who knew me that I was being dishonest with Nina. I made time for her and held back my criticisms; I bought her things and took her places and kept her happy in bed. It killed me to know that I would never be able to love her. Nina should have been the right girl, but when I tried to picture us in ten years or even in six months, I couldn't see anything at all.

There was one weakness in our relationship that I could capitalize on and blow out of proportion. Nina didn't like my friends. Or, more precisely, she didn't like the relationships I had with my friends. Some, she tolerated: Gabe, because of his frailty, and Susan, out of respect for the strange lesbian custom that encourages us to remain close with our ex-lovers. But Nina wished I hadn't started going over to Jeanie's once a week to cook dinner and play with Carlos. Jeanie still looked healthy, but she tired easily; those few hours of help and company did her a lot of good. Nina and I sustained an icy argument because I would not cancel on Jeanie to accommodate Nina's Symphony tickets. And Nina hated John. I wasn't sure what the problem was: a bitter reaction to John's good-looking heterosexuality, envy of our closeness, or a simple clash of personalities. Or perhaps she sensed that we'd once violated the Platonic nature of our friendship. Whatever it was, she would roll her eyes at the mention of his name and ask why I bothered with him.

John called in the middle of a winter night so cold that I couldn't blame him for having fantasies about raiding the medicine cabinet. He and Abby had gotten into a fight a few days earlier, and she wouldn't return his phone calls. "I tried Peter and got his voice mail," John said. "I don't know what I'll... I don't think I ought to be alone."

So I got in my car at three in the morning and hauled him back to my place. He hadn't eaten; he hadn't slept. I stayed up with him for a few hours, made him some eggs, listened when he wanted to talk. He didn't want to say much. Whatever had gone on with Abby, he wasn't ready to share it with anyone. He found some movie on TV to watch. Eventually, he mentioned that he was feeling kind of tired, and I set him up in the guest bedroom. I called him in sick, then drifted off on the couch, relieved that I had the next day off.

The intercom buzzer woke me. It was Nina: John's crisis had made me forget that I'd made plans with her. I invited her up, knowing she'd be livid when she saw I wasn't ready to go. As I waited for her to come up to my apartment, I realized that I wasn't going to be going anywhere at all, not while John was still asleep. And I knew that 'livid' wouldn't come close to how Nina would react when I told her that.

"I'm not going to leave him to wake up alone," I said, when the argument had not quite escalated into a screaming match.

"What do you want me to do? Wait?"

"You'll have to," I said. "I need a shower."

"I can't believe you forgot," she said. "It's not like you."

"I was busy keeping a friend from killing himself. Excuse me for forgetting about a date."

"It's not just today, Kerry. It's all the time. You're so busy I hardly see you, and when you finally do have time, all of a sudden there's some emergency that you have to put ahead of our relationship."

"I'm not putting it ahead of our relationship, I--"

"I'm just saying I think you need to think about where your priorities are," she said.

"I know where my priorities are," I said. "Right now, they're with a guy who's been here for me since long before you were in the picture, and who's going to be here long after you're gone."

"You're really going to put your drug-addict ex-boyfriend ahead of me?"

"He's not my--"

"Because if that's how you feel," she said, "there's no reason for me to be here at all." She slammed the door as she left, probably trying to wake John. I knew that she was being dramatic because she wanted me to call and apologize. She wanted me to promise that I'd make her the center of my life. But I knew that she didn't matter enough to me for that to be possible. I would never call her, and she would vanish into the spirit realm of bad breakups.

John wandered into the living room, scruffy and shirtless, stretching. "So I guess we're two for two now," he said, smiling weakly.

"Put a shirt on, Carter," I said.

"Why? Do you want me to go?"

"I'd kind of... like to be alone, yes."

"Alone with your misery and a bottle of vodka?"

"Something like that," I said.

"No," he said.


"No, as in, if I'm not allowed to clean out the medicine cabinet over a woman who may very well be the love of my life, you're not allowed to empty a bottle of Absolut for a woman you've spent weeks looking for a way to unload."

"It... it wasn't like that," I said.

"Did you love her?"

"I-- I wanted to."

"I think," John said, "this calls for hot dogs, Hostess cupcakes, and a couple of cheerleader movies."

"You're entitled to your opinion. Go put on a shirt."

"Only if I get a ride to Blockbuster and Dominick's."

I put my coat on over yesterday's clothes. John came back from the guest bedroom fully clothed and bundled up for winter. It was too cold to walk even the few blocks to the video store and supermarket, so it was too cold for anyone else to be shopping. We came home from our excursion with two cheerleader movies, two beauty pageant movies, an impressive assortment of junk food, and one pack of cigarettes, because according to John, American Spirit Lights don't really count.

Four hours and two Kirsten Dunst movies later, there was a grove of Diet Coke cans on my coffee table, a bouquet of empty Cheetos bags and cupcake wrappers in the trash can we'd moved from the kitchen, and half a package of hot dogs bubbling in the microwave. All the refined sugar and preservatives were making us philosophical.

"Kerry, are you sure we bought relish?"

"It's in one of those bags," I said. "Want me to look?"

"No. Wait. Here. Under the buns."

"That sounded very wrong, John."

"Why'd you get relish and pickles?"

"They're not pickles. They're hot peppers."

"No," he said, "I found the peppers. These are definitely pickles."


"Damn right."

"Put them back in the bag. We can donate them to the lounge fridge or something."

"What, like, 'Sorry, we ate all the cookies, but here, have some pickles'?"

"People'd eat them."

"You could put old lutefisk in there, and someone would eat it," John said. "That's not the point."

"I heard Malucci put Carol Hathaway's breast milk in his cereal once."

"See? That's my point."

"You don't have a point."

"I have a point," he said. "I have a good point."

"Well, what is it?"

"She misses you."



"What's that got to do with the lounge fridge?" I said. "And isn't she still going out with that yoga person?"

"It's got everything to do with the lounge fridge, and no, they broke up a couple of weeks ago. Beautifully. In yoga class. She told him she was tired of being told how to feel, and he didn't give good enough head to make up for it."

I laughed. "Sounds like her." I was annoyed that she hadn't told me she'd dumped her boyfriend, but I understood. We hadn't seen each other much in the past few weeks, and maybe she hadn't had the chance to bring it up. Or maybe it was too much temptation, and we were better off thinking of each other as off-limits.

"You should call her," John said.

"Maybe I will."

"You should. Didn't we get ketchup?"

"Who puts ketchup on hot dogs?"


"You can't put ketchup on a hot dog."

"I can put whatever I want on a hot dog. I can put peanut butter on a hot dog."

"But you wouldn't. Because it's wrong."

"But I would," he said. "Because it feels so good."

And we doubled over laughing, and I was thinking maybe, maybe I would call Susan.


Where Susan was concerned, "maybe" almost always meant "yes." I was on the phone with her a few days later. I'd been rehearsing my end of the conversation for hours beforehand, but I didn't have the chance to use any of the lines I'd prepared. "Susan, it's me," I said when she answered the phone.

"I'll be right over," she said, and she hung up.

The living room no longer looked like the aftermath of a passing tornado. Still, I kept finding Cheetos and Cap'n Crunch in between the couch cushions, and a faint cigarette odor was still hanging around. To Susan's eyes, the place would be spotless. I wondered, suddenly, what would happen if we got back together and stayed together. She'd leave things everywhere and irritate me. Maybe, if the mess came from her, I'd learn to find it endearing. No, she'd just have to learn to put her stuff away.

When she got to my apartment, the first thing I noticed was how hard I'd been trying not to think about how beautiful she was. Her cheeks were still pink from the cold. I could see where she was starting to get lines around her mouth and in the corners of her eyes. It had taken me some time to see how much she'd changed in the five years we hadn't seen each other, but I knew it all now: the weight she'd gained; the weariness etched in her face. But what I really saw were the bright blue of her eyes and the fullness of her lips, and seven years waiting for God-knows-what, when with a little less denial we might not have wasted so much time.

And there we were, about to do it again. I couldn't this time: I couldn't give myself over to her and just let her go. I was tired of pretending that she didn't mean anything, without really even knowing who I was trying to protect. If I was in love with her, which was a strong possibility, I couldn't keep lying to her. There was no right girl out there somewhere. The right girl, or as close to right as I was likely to get, was there in my apartment, shaking her hair out from her wool hat. I didn't know why I had let myself think I could do better than this.

She took off her boots and her socks, and then she just kept going. She pulled off her sweater, stepped out of her pants, and took off her underwear. I wasn't sure if she wanted me to touch her, but I was satisfied just to look at her, naked in the doorway, her body drinking in the heat.

"I read everything that you wrote about me," she said.


"Your journal."

"You weren't really... supposed to read that."

"It's on the goddamn internet, Kerry."

"How did you...?"

"I asked Carter," she said.

"I-- I don't know whether to kill him or thank him."

"Thank him," she said. "Later."

She pulled me to my bedroom and stripped me down. We knelt on the bed, kissing messily, her hand firm on my hip to keep me from losing my balance. I'd put the bottle of lube on the bedside table so I wouldn't have to go searching for it. I reached around her for it and squeezed some lube onto my hand. "Oh, cold," she said when I touched her, but when I pressed my thumb into her clit, she groaned and went back to kissing me.

I pushed one finger into her and moved in and out until she was begging, "Come on, give me more." It was impossible to say no to her while I had three fingers inside her, and she was asking for the rest of me, as much as I could fit. I poured lube on my knuckles and folded my thumb under. She dug her nails into my hip. I made a few little thrusts, but she was doing most of the work. "Oh God, Kerry," she said. "Don't you... ever... get a... girlfriend... again." I wanted to think that those words meant something, even if a few seconds later she was bucking against me and naming every god in heaven.

I drew out of her, and she pulled me with her as she collapsed on to the bed. We lay on our sides, facing each other. She stroked my hair. "Where's the lube?" she said.

"Oh, it's-- I think it's on the table where--" I reached over her and felt around for it. "Here."

She took it from me and put it back on the table. She bit me on the shoulder playfully, then started kissing my neck and my breasts. When she pressed her lips into my sternum, I thought she would leave a bruise. Susan never treated me like she was afraid of hurting me. She knew that physically, I was almost unbreakable.

Susan held me steady with one dry hand and brushed my clit with the slick fingertips of the other. I remembered how tentative she'd been the first time we'd had sex. She didn't seem to be worried about getting it wrong anymore. I felt the familiar restless tingle of arousal and pushed my hips forward into her hand. I didn't want her to go so slow. It occurred to me that I had a voice. "Harder," I said. "Harder, and a little bit-- there." She was rubbing my clit fiercely, and I thought that she planned to just jerk me off. But she took her free hand off my back, so gently that I didn't notice, and pushed a finger into my vagina. I moaned with surprise.

"Too hard?" she said.

"No-- just maybe-- lube it."

"You're dry tonight," she said. "Don't be nervous."

"I'm not nervous."

"And don't lie to me," she said, and she kissed my nipple. She got two fingers in me, and we were back in business. I dug my hands into the soft flesh of her thighs. She was up to three fingers, and she was making deep, fast thrusts. "Damn it," she said. "Would you loosen up?"

"You forgot how long it takes," I said.

"Did I?"


"Maybe it's... I want to hear you come. I don't want to wait."

"I could... there are other ways to..."

"Skin a cat?" she said.

"You know," I giggled, "making me laugh isn't going to speed things up."

"Isn't it?" she said, and a bright red burst of pain shot in.

I bit my lip until the pain felt good, full, full of her. I kept whispering, "Don't stop," because she could have done anything else to me and I wouldn't have cared. And it was like that as I came: "Don't stop, Susan. Don't stop. Don't stop."

We held each other for what seemed like a long time. I thought we might fall asleep that way, and I wouldn't have minded it. "God," I said. "It's been a while."

"Yeah, well, we were seeing other people," Susan said.

"We did a pretty good job, didn't we?"

"Yeah," she said. "We were faithful and everything. I mean, I was."

"Me too. In a... Jimmy Carter kind of way."

"What? Oh. 'I've been unfaithful in my heart.'"


"Same here," she said.

"Not what I meant, though," I said.

"Then what did you mean?"

"Nina didn't like fisting," I said. "She... didn't want to... hurt me or something."

"Oh. She was one of those?"

"She was really... conservative in bed. I-- I bought a vibrator. And I was excited about it-- it's got a nice feel, adjustable speeds, the motor in the middle so you get it all the way through..."

"Well, I'm interested."

"I can-- it's-- it's in the drawer, if you want--"

"No," she said. "Save it for next time."

I gave her a quick kiss. "So there's going to be a next time?"

"I want there to be," she said. She kissed me back. "Go back to trashing your ex."

"I... I'd been planning it all day. So once we were in bed, I got it out while she wasn't looking and just sort of... ran it up her back." I danced my fingers up Susan's spine, and she gave me a squeeze. "She snapped. She lectured me about how sex toys are tools of the patriarchy."

Susan buried her head in my chest and laughed. "How long did you stay with this woman?"

"About-- almost five months," I said. "Four of them trying to convince myself that she was good for me, so I shouldn't break up with her."

"Yeah, I was having that relationship."

"He was that bad?"

"Carter told you everything, didn't he?" she said.

"Not... everything."

"That man needs a muzzle."

"It wouldn't help," I said. "He'd use Morse Code or something."


"John's a good judge of character, though," I said.

"He didn't like Nina, either?"

"She didn't like him."

"Are you sure she's human?"

I wasn't sure what to say, so I kissed Susan instead. This, of course, became an excuse to make out. Touching her was still easier than talking. It was the easiest thing in the world. "Stop," I said.

"Is something wrong?"

"We-- we shouldn't-- we need to talk to each other. If this is going to work."

"If what's going to work?"

"Us," I said.

"Are you saying you... want to get back together?"

"If-- if that's what you want."

"Do you think it'd work?" she said.

"I miss you," I said. "I miss you so much, and I-- I can't imagine finding anyone-- anyone better than you. And I tried."

"I'm not that special," she said.

"That's relative." I pulled her closer to me, so her breasts were pressed into mine. I leaned my forehead into hers, and we were breathing in unison.

"You-- this is so-- if someone had told me seven years ago that you'd be the one-- that I'd fall in love with you-- I would have laughed," she said. "I would have been offended. I would have thought, anyone but-- but here I am next to you and-- and I've spent months wanting to be here. With you. And now that I'm with you, I don't want to be anywhere else."

"Are you-- are you in love with me?"

"Not in a head over heels, 'all the birds are singing just for me' kind of way. I'd be fine without you. We were fine. But-- but when I'm with you, I'm better than that. Every time I've... been in love with someone, I felt like I could leave them-- like if I walked away and didn't see them, I'd get over it, and it wouldn't hurt that much. And it worked. I fall hard, I move halfway across the country, and I... pick myself up again."

I thought of the way Mark Greene was when she'd left for Arizona. Like she'd ripped his heart out. But I could see that she would have hurt him more by staying. He wouldn't have gotten over her so easily. And I thought that I might be able to give her what she needed: someone who could walk away from her and be fine. Someone who would not demand to be loved too deeply, but instead would be surprised by it, and pleased. I'd lost a lot of lovers by withholding too much of myself. But Susan was the kind of person who ran away when people offered her too much. There were parts of me that she would never have, but I would never ask her to surrender herself to me. Perhaps, knowing that, she would be able to stay.

"I don't need you," she said. "I can live without you. But I don't want to. I know that if I left you, I'd keep falling in love with you over and over again. And maybe that's-- that's what it means. That's what I've been looking for. Because I've never felt that way about anyone."

Her eyes were tearing up. I kissed her cheekbones; I smoothed her hair. "So-- so-- are we on again?" she said.

"I'd say so," I said.

"Well... okay. Good."


We shared a lingering kiss, as if to seal the deal. Then, suddenly, she tunneled under the covers.

"What are you doing?" I said.

"Celebrating," she said. And her tongue was back between my legs where it belonged.


We didn't need any further discussion to know where we stood. After a week or two of trying to schedule ourselves more time together, we realized that we ran a greater risk of getting tired of each other. We'd leave work together and fall into bed the minute we got to her apartment. I started giving us competing night shifts so we wouldn't become one of those couples who never made time for anything but each other.

At work, she kept me grounded, made me smile. We'd let our knuckles brush as we passed in the hallway, and sometimes that was enough to keep me going until the end of my shift. I stiffened the first time she slung her arm around me in the doctor's lounge, but once I persuaded myself that there was no danger in confirming what the rest of the staff already knew anyway, I didn't hesitate to show my affection for her. If anyone objected, they did so when Susan and I weren't around. Our relationship didn't seem to faze the staff, to be honest. They'd all seen stranger.

Gradually, I came to see parts of myself as hers. Being open with her was almost restful. In not prying-- in allowing me to keep things private, or to reserve them as the domain of John or Mlungisi or Jeanie-- Susan encouraged my trust. I accepted that there were things that I would never know about her. I accepted that there were things that I didn't want to know.

In spite of that, she had me, knew me in a way that I hadn't let other people know me. I thought of my past lovers and how they'd tried to reshape me into their image of what I ought to have been. Susan loved me anal-retentive and impatient and short-tempered and awkward, just as I loved her jaded and selfish and impulsive. I'd fallen for her because of who and what she was, and often that was enough to keep me from letting her flaws get to me. Or maybe it was the fact that love allows us to see the strengths that lie behind those imperfections of character. When she got on my nerves, I could remind myself: she was wryly funny, self-aware, spontaneous.

And she loved me back. For a while, I was loath to believe it, but she did. That made up for a lot.


Zorba's became our place, one of those things that I only shared with Susan. We'd go together from time to time, but usually it was one or the other of us. More often than not, one of us would show up to find the other already there. Even when I was there alone, I felt her there: it was like we left behind an energy of some kind that hung around waiting for us.

The waiters at Zorba's normally minded their own business, but one early morning, one of them approached the table where I was working alone. "I've got a question for you," he said.


"You and that... other woman who comes in sometimes. Are the two of you... dating or something?"

"Yeah," I said. "More or less."

"That's kind of sweet," he said. Then, he turned to the counter and shouted, "Hey, Nicky! You owe me twenty bucks!" The waiter went back to the corner of the restaurant where the employees hang out, but he came back about five minutes later. Shifting his weight from foot to foot, he told me that it didn't seem fair to keep his winnings to himself, so he was giving me a $20 credit.

The waiter had just returned with my free food when Susan walked in. She eased into the seat across from me without needing to say hello. I caught her trying to steal my french fries and stopped her hand with my own. I swirled my thumb in the palm of her hand. And I knew that I could not possibly deserve better than this.


Silverlake: Authors / Mediums / Titles / Links / List / About / Plain Style / Fancy Style