Alex slung the old duffle bag over her shoulder and pulled the last of the brown boxes filled with books and records out of the back seat. It had started raining while she'd been driving – a heavy, blotchy, fall rain – and the windows had misted over. Absent-mindedly, her books balanced on her hip, Alex drew a large heart on the inside of the car door before slamming it shut.
What was comforting about Piper's apartment was that it was always so clean. A faucet might be dripping in the kitchen sink, but there were no dishes to be washed. The living room smelled of soap and coffee. Even the small table and sofa seemed to be standing there with a purpose, emanating comfort.
Alex stacked the box she was carrying on top of the other boxes, pulled off her wet grey hoodie, and shook the rain out of her hair. She pushed the duffel bag in direction of the bedroom and started removing her books and records onto the small table by the sofa, setting them in neat piles. On some, she wiped the drops of water off with her hand. Outside, the rain went on drumming dramatically, the kind of rain you only see a few times a year, if not in the movies. Alex slipped a record out of its case and placed it on the cheap plastic record player she and Piper had gotten themselves as a kind of housewarming present, though the apartment wasn't new, and there hadn't really been any moving. It was just their apartment now; that was all.
Alex nodded her head to the song. It was an old one, a real good one – the kind one can't help but sing along to. A feeling of ease and content was sliding through her body.
Some space had been cleared on the bookshelf. Alex lifted her books, one stack at a time, and placed them in the empty spaces. She had only brought the utmost necessary of her favorites and their titles caught her eye now, filling her with pleasure. She folded the cardboard boxes and put them under the sink, pulled a battered copy of Charles Bukowski back off the shelf, and flopped down onto the couch with it.
When Piper opened the door later that evening, she stopped in the doorframe for a moment, key in lock, just watching Alex with her book couch, wrapped in a blanket, album covers scattered on the table. Another record was playing. Alex cleared her throat and shifted her glasses. She could barely contain her smile.
"What?" she said.
"Tom Waits, huh?"
They watched each other, lips pursed to keep them from grinning too cheesily.
As Piper went to the kitchen counter to unpack the groceries, the song skipped. Alex pushed herself up from the couch and went over to Piper.
"Well I got here at eight and I'll be here 'till two," she muttered along with the song and ran her hands over Piper's hips from behind.
"Hey," Piper said. She turned quickly and gave Alex a shy, breathless smile. It bloated Alex's heart, and she buried her face in Piper's hair.
"This feels like –," said Piper, leaning into Alex, "y'know what this feels like?"
"Whatsit feel like?" Alex pulled Piper around so that they could look at each other's face. Piper lifted her arm up around Alex's shoulders. They were starting to slow dance.
"I'm your late night evening prostitute?" Alex whispered against her hair, chuckling as she did.
"Honey, you got the wrong song."
They giggled into their kiss, their mouths shaking as they closed over each other, their teeth clashing lightly as they bobbed up and down to the music. The rain was still coming down outside. The kitchen was hardly big enough to dance in, and they bumped into the table.
"Doesn't it feel a little like a honeymoon to you?" Piper was smirking as she said it, as though embarrassed by what she had just said.
Alex pulled back with a laugh, her eyebrows raised. "We're just missing a sunset beach, a poolside hotel and the sparkling wine, don't you think?"
"Shut up, we've got Tom Waits."
They pulled close again. Alex kissed the side of Piper's neck.
"It does," she muttered, fighting her smile, "it does kind of feel like a honeymoon, doesn't it."
She chuckled again. "I thank my lucky stars, Pipes."
"My brother played Tom Waits at his wedding," Piper said quietly into Alex's shoulder, "that was a great wedding they had."
"Well," said Alex, "We've got our tiny Bedstuy apartment, and a gigantic old Victorian house for the weekend that eats a monthly thousand dollars in taxes, and I've just barely got a job, but we've got my mom's record collection, and great stories to tell, and most importantly we've got each other, right?"
She had pulled back and watched Piper nod, Piper's little nose wrinkling the way it did before she laughed. It made Alex's insides throb with love. She whistled to the next song on the record and caught Piper's beaming eyes. "What?"
"Are those tears in your eyes?"
"You are crying, you little sap."
"Says the woman who drew a heart on our car door."
But they drew in to each other and smiled into each other's shoulders, giddy for what felt like no reason.
That night it kept on raining. They cancelled their dinner arrangements and had a picnic on Piper's bed - Alex's bed now, too - of sandwiches and cranberry juice spiked with icy vodka. Having switched off their laptops and phones, they played cards and kept the record player running until they could barely sit upright. Then they lay in a heap and watched the window. The heater made its strange, creaking sound.
"It feels good to have your stuff here," Piper said, finally. "Strange, because it's you moving in with me, not the other way around. It feels like I moved in with everybody else I was with 'till now. You, Larry," she shrugged.
Alex shifted a little, her head resting on Piper's lap.
"What about Ella?"
"We found this place together. It's different. It was us being - I don't know, thrifty."
"And now?" Piper picked a strand of hair out of Alex's face, "now it's like home. Don't you think?"
Alex shrugged and smiled. Yes, of course, it felt like home. She finished the last sip of her sweet cocktail. Her parole was finally up; she was a free woman at last.
She wasn't thinking of her mother's house, out there in the countryside, dark and alone. Later that night she dreamt of it, though, in the way you might dream of ghost houses in Hammer Studio horror movies. Alex woke, grumpy and thinking of all the extra taxes she was paying for the school district.
Ella's old room was going to be a kind of study, they had agreed. Piper would migrate her work onto a desk in there, once they got one, and while Piper was at her organization's headquarters downtown, Alex could use it for herself. The room was empty for now except for Piper's books, which they had moved there a few days before, but Ella's absence alone gave the whole apartment less of a student vibe.
Alex frowned at her own thoughts. Why had she always had such a problem with Piper's friends? If Alex had met Ella first, she thought, they'd have probably hit it off perfectly.
"We really need shelves," she muttered after breakfast, when Piper was packing up her things for work. Alex caught the words 'Privatization' and 'Detention Centers' on one of the memos, and felt her insides recoiling.
"I know Babe," Piper said, kissing Alex before heading to the door, "we need you to have your own income first, though. Right?"
"Right," said Alex, "let's find an ex-con a job."
She laughed, snarkily.
"Alex," Piper said, and left. With Ella's volunteered assistance, Alex had come in touch with a small chain of second hand stores that sold second hand books and CDs all over New York. Over the summer, there had been an agreement to have Alex come work for one of the larger outlets in Williamsburg – she would oversee the small café in the business, and she was supposed to assist with making the orders of second hand books and journals that would be sold at the store. It was a trendy job, the kind a grad student would want for a few years before going on to something else.
But of course, she wasn't exactly a young person, and there was something about her own vague dissatisfaction that made Alex feel like a whiny spoilt child. It was a better job than what her mother had held when Alex was a kid, she reminded herself, and poured the rest of the breakfast coffee into one of Piper's yuppie travel mugs. Maybe, she thought to herself, in a few years or so, she could take out a loan and start her own business of second hand and rare books. It wouldn't have to be in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It would attract costumers for itself alone. Alex could already see the store: tall, lit shelves, an odd leather armchair and lamp, extra displays of a rare copy of William S. Burroughs, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, some Beat poet – exhibiting good and edgy taste, yet also literary and decent enough for people like Piper's family to appreciate. Alex could practically see herself pitching the business to an investor.
It was drizzling and cold outside, and she was in Bedstuy, walking down Nostrand to her first day of work. The sidewalks were covered in muck and wet leaves. It would take a good deal of money to acquire that kind of a store, she thought to herself.
Alex checked her phone before she got to the subway. Rita, former employer from the mermaid café, had called, twice, and it was only nine in the morning.
"Can you jump in for a shift tonight?" Rita sounded stressed. Alex felt just a little bad for her. She had quit in July, and it was October now.
"Sorry," Alex said, "I've moved. To another state, even. What's wrong with Jean?"
"That Jean!" Rita growled, "...Discovered she's been peddling around her new boyfriend's dope, selling it to customers. She'd made the whole bar look like some kind of sham business."
"Oh shit," said Alex. She started to laugh. Jean must have gotten that boyfriend recently, because Alex had never heard of him.
"It's not funny," said Rita. They said good-bye and hung up. Amusement rumbling through her chest, Alex felt compelled to call Jean, just for a laugh. But then she wondered whether that made her look like a terrible influence, and what if someone found out – Rita certainly had – and linked Jean to her, and to her past –
Still, she felt a little proud of Jean, and it took her a few hours to shake it off. When she did call Jean, it was late into the afternoon and she was having a salad in a cardboard box at the back of the store, after having spent most of the day shelving books and checking the inventory.
"I just found about three different copies of Narcissus and Goldmund" Alex said, "I had to think of you."
Jean giggled in response.
"So I heard you got fired from the Mermaid café?" Alex continued.
"That's an exaggeration," Jean said, "Rita told me to come back next week, that's all."
"She sounded pissed."
"Oh yeah," Jean sounded like she'd gotten the worst of it, "it's a real shame, though. It was going so well."
"No it wasn't," Alex said, "obviously. If it had, you would never have gotten caught."
"You got caught," Jean said quietly.
"Everyone gets caught – eventually. It took ten years and a breakdown to get me caught. And besides – it wasn't all my fault."
Jean was quiet. Her breath crackled on the line, as though she was thinking about something.
"Alex," she said, "Could we talk about this? Because I'm not comfortable discussing it on the phone, okay."
"Does discussing mean there's something in it for me?"
"Yeah," Jean said, "definitely."
"Come to New York, then. Come during a weekday. We can go for a walk in the park and you can explain your business plan. Okay?"
"Okay. I can make it next week, I guess. Tuesday."
"Tuesday it is."
That evening, Alex brought home cheap Indian food and beer, and they watched a Joan Crawford movie on Piper's laptop.
"How was the store," Piper said, and Alex shrugged grumpily.
"I'll just wait," said Piper, "I won't ask any more questions, I'll just wait and see what happens."
"It's fine," said Alex. It had been. She could always tell when people were impressed with her. And she knew her tattoos, mock confidence, and eyeliner helped. Then she said: "I just wish I was in charge, y'know."
Piper set her plate on the table and dragged her legs over Alex's lap. Automatically, Alex reached forward and massaged Piper's bony ankles underneath her woolly socks. She could feel Piper playing with her hair, and looked over for a second, smirking.
"You will be," Piper said, "Okay? I know you will."
Alex rubbed at her eyes underneath her glasses. She was happy, and she knew it.
Friday night, Piper's younger co-workers threw a party in a bar in Soho. Alex and Piper held hands, and Piper introduced Alex, loudly, as "my girlfriend". Out of the corner of her eyes, Alex was sure she saw some of Piper's colleagues whispering at each other, glancing at them over their shoulders with awed looks on their faces. Alex tried shrugging the feeling off.
"How about challenging your co-workers to a table-top soccer tournament?" she muttered to Piper. Having played so many games at Litchfield, day in and day out, they managed to beat everyone else. Eventually the others gave up and left them to it.
"I didn't think I'd ever want to play this again," Piper yelled after scoring another goal. She was the meanest player, shooting the ball so hard it occasionally bounced right back into the field. Alex wasn't so bad herself, but Piper beat her, loudly, in the very final round they played against each other.
"So aggressive," Alex snarled as Piper scored and won 10-4. They had two shots of tequila each, smiling wildly at each other as they did, and took a taxi home at two. The party was still going on, and was, it seemed, just getting started, but they somehow didn't care. They didn't even dance.
"Jesus Christ," Alex said, pushing her glasses up over her head as the cab pulled off over the cobblestone streets, "will you look at us? We're fucking old."
"Don't say that," Piper drawled, clawing onto Alex's lap, "I hate it so much when you say that."
"I know," Alex's head was spinning a little, aching at the temples, "it's like - what else is in store for us, y'know? Hey!"
Piper, suddenly weirdly sober, was quietly staring into the distance, thinking about something.
She said it automatically, as though it had occurred to her the second she uttered it: "Kids".
"I mean it, Al -"
"Pipes," Alex said, and she felt as drunk as ever, so much that she felt mysterious water clouding her eyes, "Pipes, you need money for kids."
"I know that," Piper said simply, "I'm sure my parents would help. They helped with Cal."
"Sheesh," Alex muttered, "who says I want your parents to help."
They were both quiet for a bit. Alex felt comfortably fuzzy, the uneasiness of the conversation only surfacing every now and then, only to be drowned again out by the lights and echoes of the city around her. They crossed over the bridge. This was her favorite part of the trip.
"I mean," Piper still sounded lucid as ever, and she nodded as though completely awake and serious, "I mean, we would have to adopt, y'know?"
"I know," Alex said. Then she shook her head, "Christ, Piper - I'm not having this conversation now."
"Fine," Piper snapped lightly, "fine, let's have it tomorrow then."
And with that, she curled up and fell asleep, her forehead resting in the nook of Alex's neck. Alex would later have to haul her up the steps of their brownstone and up the rickety stairs into their apartment. For now she watched the dark houses passing outside the window and drew drunken circles in Piper's limp palm, relishing the feeling of Piper's weight against her, the brush of her hair against her cheek.