by tahlia

i. i'm just a question knowing my answer, i hope i'm wrong

"Oh, my God. You're getting laid."

And Sam nearly choked on her martini.

She cleared her throat, staring straight at Lola and trying to play dumb. "What?"

Her friend leaned back in the small, secluded booth where they always sat. Somehow, a cigarette had materialized between her lips. "You heard me. I can see him all over your face." She held out her hand. "A light?"

Sam handed over the lighter from her back pocket. "You can keep it. I'm trying to quit, anyway."

Lola raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. "Oh?" She lit her cigarette and tossed the lighter on the table in front of them. "Oh, hon, you're definitely getting laid."

There wasn't much use denying it. "Yeah," she conceded. And just the word sent her mind back, remembering the feel of his hands on her thighs; that passion, pent up for years and then suddenly released--

Lola was laughing. There must have been a smile on Sam's face.

"Anyway, he's just...a guy."

"A guy for whom you stop smoking?"

She'd never thought of it that way, but, "Yeah."

Lola was nodding, unconvinced. "A guy."

There was only so much of this circular conversation that Sam could take. "Yes."

"Bloomberg wants to ban this, " she mentioned, and the end of the cigarette lit up when she inhaled. Blowing smoke in a controlled stream of air, she leaned forward. "Someone I know?"

"No." She left it at that.

Lola sighed. "Okay, fine. You don't want to talk about it."

"Thank you," Sam sighed.

Of course, she knew Lola could only hold her tongue for a little under ten seconds. Like clockwork, her friend asked lightly, "Well, the sex has to be pretty good, right?"

Sam tilted her head. "Did I tell you the story about how my air conditioner stopped working this morning? In the middle of this heat, no less."

"Jesus, it's like pulling teeth."

The best part about having a best friend who owned a bar was the invisible tab. Sam's eye caught the attention of the bartender - Henry, a sweet man, divorced, had been with the place since it opened a year ago - and all it took was a small gesture with her chin and he was on his way to refilling her martini. There was never a question about price.

"He's just a guy, Lola."

She took a drag. "Yeah, but they usually have names, too. Sometimes they even do things for a living."

Sam knew how this worked. Once she smelled blood in the water, Lola was going to circle the boat until God-knows-when. It was all about damage control. "He's, uh, a guy from work." She made sure to punctuate it with an expression that read, 'there, are you happy now?'

"From work." She rolled the scrap of information around for a moment before leaping. "Oh! That cute guy you brought her once when that guy went missing, what's-his-name? With the crazy hair and the accent?"

She had to suppress a snort. "Danny. And, uh, no, it's not him."

"Ah." Lola leaned back again. "Good, because for your own sake, I got the distinct feeling the man's batting for the other team, if you know what I mean."

"You met him for five minutes. You did not get that feeling."

"I have vibes about these things."

"If I remember correctly, the discussion was about matchbooks."

"Well, I had vibes about this."

Sam shook her head. "You had no such vibes."


ii. i know the answer, it's four in the morning, i'm right again

One night in July, the cooler temperatures come with a thick layer of humidity that takes relief away; the kind when bare arms and exposed legs are crying out for coverage, but the feeling of fabric on skin - literally clinging to it - is more than uncomfortable. Add to that the closeness of hundreds of people shuffling through booths of jewelry and cheap, knockoff purses, and it's almost unbearable. It's no wonder that the sight of the familiar restaurant is like a godsend to her.

It is too hot for the tea they serve, but she drinks it anyway, along with a plate of dumplings.

Her chopsticks are holding the last one when she feels her cell phone vibrating in her pocket. The woman behind the counter sees the phone in her hand and just shakes her head. Sam understands. In a second, the ringer will go off, so she quickly digs out a ten-dollar bill from her pocket and leaves it on the table.

It's noisy outside when she answers it, and she can barely hear him ask, "Where are you?"

She gazes up the street, where the tops of government buildings peek over apartment buildings. "That place in Chinatown." And she knows that he knows where she is.

He makes some kind of sound. "Alone?"

She is staring down at her feet. "Yeah," she replies quietly.

It's all they say.

She leans against the window and waits for him. When the woman in the restaurant starts staring at her, she moves into the small shops on either side, always keeping one eye on the sidewalk. She's holding a fake Pucci scarf when she sees him pass by: she has to duck out of the store and call after him before he stops.

After an awkward silence in the middle of everything, she says, "Please tell me you didn't--"

"I was working." Off her look, Jack smiles, "Actually, I wasn't, but. You know."

It is intimate and it is illicit. She almost feels ashamed.

They start walking, but their destination is nowhere in particular. "This isn't your neighborhood," he says.

"It isn't exactly yours either."

He tilts his head at the small concession. "What I meant is, the dumplings aren't that good."

A vendor is waving an armful of purses and yelling about half-price; she ignores him. "I had a craving."

"For dumplings?"

For you. "For a cigarette."

They reach Canal Street. There's a brief exchange of "Where do you want to go?" "I don't know, where ever you want to go," followed by more silence, as they cross the street without a decision. Somehow, they end up at a table in one of those sidewalk cafes in Little Italy.

At least here, the beverages are served over ice.

When she looks up at him, she sees it in his eyes: the words he's been rehearsing over and over. She could hear them in his footsteps the whole time, and now she can see them; feel them in his awkward silence. "Jack?"

His eyes meet hers. She thinks - no, she knows - it's the I-have-kids speech. The we-can't-do-this-anymore speech. Never mind that he called her. Quietly, she readies herself.

"There's something..." He clears his throat. "I didn't..."

The I-didn't-want-to-be-that-guy speech; the one about you-deserve-more.

Of course that's when the waitress comes with their desserts, fresh from the refrigerator. When she leaves, he's laughing, probably at himself, and shaking his head. "Never mind."

She is confused. "What?"

"It's not important," he sidesteps, and the issue is no longer up for discussion.

Just then, his foot brushes against her ankle, and not so accidentally either. She would argue anyway, but her stomach starts flip-flopping. Sometimes she lets him manipulate her like that, because she doesn't care.

"We got DNA back from the Robbins girl."

She swallows and tries to think of a response. Emily Robbins, missing for two weeks before turning up beaten to death in Jersey. Lovely. How can he do that: casually throw around work while also doing that to her? "A match?"

He smiles, knowing full well how hard it must be for her to think. "One John Klein, from Brooklyn. Arrested two years ago for aggravated assault of an ex-girlfriend."

She is already thinking about his hands making their way up her shirt when he refuses to let her pay her half of the check. Honestly, she's not sure how she survives the entire subway ride back to her apartment with his hand resting dangerously close to her thigh. She stands before the train slows at her stop, and she stumbles, because she's not holding on tight enough. Conveniently, his hand is on her waist.

She nods at her neighbor, who's leaving just as she opens the door, and tries not to look embarrassed. But he's already inside, and Mrs. Bolton doesn't notice her neighbor's boss lingering in the hallway.

She leans against the closed door, fingers behind her and feeling for the dead bolt. They stand there, watching each other. Her chest heaves from the walk up and because her apartment is as humid as the air outside. And because...

There's only the sound of the fan in the window and the one on the floor whirring loudly; white noise. The hollowness makes her feel the need to apologize. "Air conditioner broke." It's a lame attempt.

He says nothing, only moves quickly to her, cutting through the pretense. And then, suddenly, it is a burst of all lips and tongues and hands, everywhere. It's like a first kiss, and a second and a third and fourth, except it's more driven than that, because he knows exactly where to go.

Somebody upstairs has a stereo on, bass so high that she feels it in the walls, and it's fitting when he presses her completely against the door; her spine is perfectly straight. He tastes like sweat and heat and that coffee they were both drinking. And, of course, his hands are under her shirt, trying to navigate her skin and the tank top's built-in bra.

On the threshold between the living room and the bedroom, he takes to untying her linen pants. Hands grope in the darkness - two sets of hands - because it's far too hot for lights.

They hide in the shadows until dawn.


iii. candle is blue, can see me through, i'm colorblind

Lola put out her cigarette. "Anyway, I called you last night."

"Yeah?" Sam took a sip of her martini. "I didn't get your message."

"Because I didn't leave one."

She nodded. Lola looked directly into her friend's eyes, and asked deliberately, "So, where were you?"

"Chinatown," she replied, without hesitation.

After all, it wasn't a lie.


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