Summary: Maureen, Joanne, the hottest summer in years, and the unanswered question between them. Maureen/Joanne. Post-RENT. Movie-verse.
Warnings: as far as I remember, nothing (unless you're offended by the content of RENT, of course, but that would make reading a story about it pretty silly)
Disclaimer: I do not own RENT, any of its characters, including and especially Maureen and Joanne, or any of its settings. And I don't own Mark or Roger either, for the record.
Summer again. Hot August in the city, a wave of unbearably high temperatures, mercury at the top of thermometers, the whir of cheap garage sale fans through every open window. Sweat stains soaking through clothes. Empty glasses with melted ice slowly sweating. Tangled sheets at the foot of the bed.
"I used to love this time of year," Maureen's voice slowly murmurs from the other side of the room. "My parents had this sprinkler in their backyard," (it's always 'their' yard, 'their' house, 'their' life, never 'mine' or 'ours') "and I would go out there every day, just to run through until I was soaked." Her lips turn up in a miniature version of a smile. "But it was never this hot in the suburbs in the summer."
"Newspapers say this is the hottest it's been in years," Joanne answers. She is lying on the couch with one arm falling limp over the side, and her other hand carefully balancing an ice pack to her forehead. She feels vaguely dead. This is the most subdued she has ever seen Maureen, so she knows she's not alone in feeling her energy sap away—but at least Maureen still has the ability to move.
Slow, plodding footsteps move from the window to the couch, and suddenly Maureen's face appears above her. "Well, we can't just sit around here all day," she says.
"And why not?" Joanne answers. There's a bit of an edge to her voice now because Maureen has taken the ice out of her hand and is walking back to the freezer with it.
"Because," she says, her tone signaling the end of the sentence, the end of the argument. It's a tone Joanne knows well; she's barely listening for watching the mist from the freezer wafting gently out to touch Maureen's face. Then the door closes and—"because it is boring and not productive. I thought you were all about being productive."
"Not in weather like this! Are you insane, Maureen?" Her indignation is such that it gives her the energy to sit up, and her eyes follow Maureen across the room to the phone. "What are you doing?"
"I'm calling Mark and Roger. We're going over to their place," Maureen answers, as the tips of her fingers hit the numbers that she knows by heart. She's not even looking at the phone; she's looking at Joanne, and it's that look, the kind that, though it comes attached to no sane or normal or useful idea, will be enough to convince Joanne every time.
"Oh yes," she says, in one last burst of protest before the heat and Maureen conspire against all resistance, "because it is a never ending party of excitement at the Cohen-Davis residence."
Maureen isn't listening.
"Mark?" she says, "Roger? If you're there, pick up. It's Maureen. Joanne and I are bored and we're coming over. You both better be wearing pants when we arrive."
Then she hangs up. In five minutes, they are out the door.
Knocking has no effect, but Maureen is not coming all the way here just to go all the way back. Luckily, she has the key.
"It's been two years since you moved out, why do you still have that thing?" Joanne asks her, not that she's really complaining—the only thing she wants to do is collapse again on the nearest available cushion, and there is a couch conveniently located just on the other side of the door.
"Hey, I lived here way too long just to throw out the key for a silly reason like moving out," Maureen answers, and shrugs, and slides open the door.
The place seems strangely deserted—hardly un-lived in, but quiet, still. By the time Joanne realizes what it is, Maureen has checked Mark and Roger's messages (there's only hers, at which she frowns in disappointment), their cupboards (at which she wonders aloud if they are out shopping) and their refrigerator.
Joanne has never been here with just Maureen before. She has never seen the loft without its two signature inhabitants, standing behind the counter eating cereal at noon, or pinned to the chair by the familiar acoustic guitar, or opening every single window on the last day of winter, so that the cool, crisp, fresh wind can blow out the thick, stale air of the dying season.
"I can't believe them," Maureen is saying. Her head has disappeared inside the refrigerator. "They are such typical boys—nothing to eat, nothing to drink—" she glances at Joanne over the top of the door—"nothing alcoholic, anyway—" then pops her head back in again. In another second she is standing up with a two-gallon plastic container, half-full. "But we do have soda. Would you like some, my dear?"
Joanne smiles. "I would love some."
The soda is gone and Joanne is thirstier than ever. She can feel the sweat dripping in solitary drops down between her shoulder blades. As long as she is stationary, it is bearable. But she wonders why she is now stationary at someone else's place, instead of her own.
When she asks Maureen this, the answer is an unsatisfactory, "You're right." Maureen never says those words—not right next to each other, at least—not in that order—but now that she has, Joanne feels less happy than expected.
"I am?" she says. "You want to go home now?"
"No." Maureen is standing up again. Maureen is dragging Joanne up again. "If we're going to be here, we might as well take advantage of the absence of our esteemed—or, since I am talking about Mark and Roger here, not-so-esteemed—hosts."
"In other words, you want to go through their stuff. You want to spy on them."
Maureen is already pulling back the curtain to Mark's room. "Just call it a reconnaissance mission," she is saying, and Joanne follows her. She tells herself that she only wants to stop the mission before it gets out of hand, but really she is curious. And by now, too, a little bored.
Mark's room—which, Joanne realizes very quickly, and with a bit of an unpleasant twist to her stomach, was once Maureen's room, too—is a messy sort of organized, and exactly how she would imagine Mark's room to be. Maureen gives her a tour.
"This is Mark's desk," she starts, pointing out a large, square table, which seems to crowd over half the space. It is covered in reels of film and stray pieces of paper, letters, resumes, envelopes, addresses, spare camera parts, and miscellaneous video equipment. Everything for the aspiring filmmaker set to sell his first documentary to the world.
"Nothing terribly interesting," Maureen is saying, and moves over to a short, two-shelf bookcase, which rests next to the window. "This would be his library," she continues, and gestures in turn to, "the three books he found interesting during his short foray into college life," "cheap used novels he bought at the bookstore Collins and I found," "photo album, housing the impressive collection of black and whites taken by one Mr. Mark Cohen, during his high school years" "music collection, obviously the less extensive of the two housed within the loft but notable for this—" and she pulls out one tape from the pile as she speaks—"the rare first (and only) demo of the Well-Hungarians. Lead singer: Roger Davis." She puts the tape back and then, with a quirking, happy smile on her face, rests her hand gently on a cleared space on the top shelf. "And this," she says, in her best solemn voice, hindered slightly by the unwavering upturn of her lips, "is where he keeps his beloved camera. Sometimes, I think he would sleep with it in his bed, if he weren't afraid that he might roll over on it and break it. And speaking of beds—"
She takes the two necessary steps to the bed, and unveils it in a sweeping gesture, as if she were a prize girl on a game show, grinning and fake. "And this is where the famous Mark sleeps. On a mattress that is uncomfortable, lumpy, and old. I speak," she adds, in a low, confidential tone, "from experience."
Joanne frowns at her, but Maureen misses the accusing grimace, because she has found the one unexpected treasure in the cramped, familiar quarters. "And this is a fan," she says, unnecessarily, as her fingers begin a strangely seductive journey up the long support stand, over the metal cage. "This is a wonderful, beautiful, strangely not-cheap-looking fan. And it is calling to us! This, Joanne, this is why we came here! For this!"
"Don't you think you're overreacting?" Joanne answers, as she slips between the bed and the table to stand next to Maureen. But then Maureen flips a switch, and, as a high blast of cool wind hits her square in the face, she whispers, "Never mind."
After a few minutes, she manages to tear herself away, and lies down next to Maureen, who has fallen down on the bed. They stretch out their limbs, close their eyes, bask in the first cool breeze they have felt in a seeming eternity.
"Where do you think he got this?" Joanne asks. She doesn't really care, but she's afraid to fall asleep, afraid that, in her unconsciousness, she would not be able to enjoy fully this newfound relief.
Maureen gives a small, snorting laugh. "His mother probably mailed it to him from Scarsdale."
Joanne smiles too. After a few minutes pass, she asks, "Do you think Roger knows?"
Maureen's eyes open, and she glances at Joanne, her face set in a curious expression, as if she were a teenager ready to hear a bit of scandalous gossip. "You think Mark's holding out on Roger?" she practically whispers. The tone of her voice makes Joanne want to laugh, so she does, and soon Maureen joins her, and soon they are rolling with laughter, which seems now to come from no one source, but from every funny moment and accidental joke of both of their lives.
When they stop moving, they are lying close to each other again, and Maureen has wrapped her arms around Joanne. Joanne tangles her fingers in Maureen's hair. They kiss slowly, a sweet kiss, a small kiss. And pull away. And smile. But when they kiss again it is not slow, or sweet, or small, but ever growing, until they are caught up in what Maureen often calls their unstoppable force.
There is a spring sticking up out of the mattress. Joanne has just noticed it now, and she tests its edge carefully with the palm of her hand. It is dull yet, but she wouldn't want to roll over on it in her sleep.
Next to her, she can feel Maureen stretch—slow, languid, satisfied. She sighs lightly, and laughs out, "If Mark ever finds out we had sex in his bed, he'll kill us." She doesn't sound terribly concerned about this possibility.
Joanne can feel Maureen, now, pulling at her shoulders, forcing her to turn so that they are face to face again. "Joanne—Pookie—come here," she says. Then she looks into Joanne's eyes and asks, in a serious voice that only she can use so close to bubbling laughter, "Are you happy?"
She has an intent, searching expression on her face. She is beautiful. This is what Joanne thinks to herself, in that moment. God, this girl is beautiful. She's the most beautiful girl in the world.
They're lying in Maureen's ex-boyfriend's bed, with his fan whirring in the background, and the unavoidable force of the city in the summer all around them. Her skin is slick with sweat. She licks it off of her lips. Maureen's fingers are digging into her arms, a tiny bit harder each second, enough to leave bruises.
"I think this may be one of the happiest moments of my life," she answers, and the scariest part is that it's true.
She's afraid, for a fraction of a second before Maureen answers, that she will laugh. And she does smile, as if she's about to joke or make fun, but the smile is too warm and her eyes are too bright, and she kisses Joanne, lightly and softly, a brush of lips. "Good," she says. "That's good. I want you to be happy. That's—that's all I want in the world."
Joanne doesn't believe this, and says so. She doesn't notice the passing shade of hurt that mars Maureen's face for just a second, before she loosens her grip on Joanne's arm, and slowly rubs her hand up and down Joanne's skin.
"It is true," she says.
Something about her, about her tone or her expression or her touch, Joanne isn't sure which, or if it is a combination of them all, makes her feel guilty for her doubt. She is about to apologize, but Maureen speaks over her weak attempt, bringing her closer again, so that Joanne can feel Maureen's breath on her skin. "I was thinking," she says. She seems almost nervous as she speaks. "I was thinking…I know it's a little crazy but…"
Seconds tick by, slowly dripping through the humid air, dripping like the sweat between her shoulder blades. A car horn honks outside. There is a loud shout. Maureen blinks. Joanne blinks.
"Yeah?" she says.
Then Maureen breaks the spell they have been weaving. She takes her hand from Joanne's arm, rolls over on her back so that they no longer touch at all, and puts a hand to her stomach. She is staring appraisingly at her navel. "I was thinking I should go on a diet," she says.
Joanne's voice is harsh, annoyed; she is adding her own exclamation points after her question marks. This is such typical Maureen. She sounds as if she's going to be serious for once, but yet again it proves to be an impossible task. Sometimes she's so childish; she has the attention span of a five year old and—
"I think I should go on a diet," Maureen repeats. She says this as if it was the most normal thing in the world to say at that moment. She grabs at her stomach, pinches it between her fingers, scowls down at her body and continues, "I know what you're thinking. I've never been able to sustain a diet for more than, hmm, a day—"
This isn't at all what Joanne was thinking, but she lets that point go.
"But this time I definitely think I'll be able to do it. I mean, I'll have real motivation this time." She shoots a glance over at Joanne, and flashes her a wicked grin.
"And what motivation would that be?" Joanne asks, exasperated and annoyed and taking the bait for no other reason than because she does not wish to prolong the conversation unnecessarily in its new, unsatisfactory version.
Maureen smiles, that same annoying smile again; then she pinches the skin of Joanne's leg and says, in her best cute, playful voice (it's the last voice Joanne wants to hear at the moment), "You."
She waits a moment before answering.
"I'm your reason to go on a diet." Her tone is more disgusted and annoyed than questioning. But Maureen pulls herself up into a proper sitting position and answers as if it was the most innocent comment in the world.
"Of course," she says. "I want to look my best for you when we get married."
Joanne is rarely speechless. She has been at a complete loss for words maybe twice in her life. She guesses. Maybe the number is lower than even that, because she can never remember having a feeling like this before, like every time she opens her mouth she has to close it again. There just aren't any words.
Maureen is looking at her expectantly.
Joanne manages out a syllable or two of dumb inability to understand, and then Maureen puts her hand over Joanne's, gives it a tight, reassuring squeeze, and clears everything up.
"Joanne," she says, "I'm asking you to marry me."
Joanne knows her answer—which is nothing less than an awkward stretch of silence—is not what Maureen had been hoping for. Finally, Maureen asks, "Do you not want to marry me?"
Stuttering is not something Joanne does very often, either.
"Maureen, I wanted to."
In all of the months since they got back together, they have not mentioned marriage once. They have not spoken of their disaster of an engagement, the reception at the country club that Maureen had argued against for two weeks beforehand, the bartender with the thin chain necklace or the startled gasp than ran the room when Maureen jumped up on the table. The truth is that Joanne has been afraid to talk about it. It would only serve as another reminder that, though she cannot imagine her life without Maureen, she can never hope for commitment or permanence, when her love breathes open air laced with risk and excitement and flies free always, without chains.
It is fitting that they are in Mark's bed, because he knew this feeling once too, and he warned Joanne of it, all those months ago when she still could have left, if she had thought to.
No, that's a lie. There was a never a time when she could have left. She's lived for Maureen since the moment they met.
"But you don't anymore," Maureen finishes. "If the answer is no, Joanne, just say it." Her voice is cold now, cold enough almost to make Joanne forget the burning red mercury climbing up past the 100 mark.
"It's not that simple," Joanne says, she tries to explain, even as Maureen kicks herself off the bed. "I'd love to say yes, but you know what will happen. It will be like last time."
"No, it won't. It will be different."
She's being stubborn again. Maureen gets these moods, sometimes, moods where she becomes like an obstinate child, moods where she makes arguments devoid of reasoning and maintains them as if they were the highest truth in the world, moods Joanne used to hate before she started recognizing them in herself, too. Maureen is picking her clothes up off the floor.
Joanne sits up straight, leans back against the wall, and curls her legs up against her body in an unintentionally defensive pose. "Why are you even asking me this now?" she asks. "It's like you're mad at me just because I was surprised. You can't just ask questions out of the blue like that, like it doesn't mean anything. It's too…sudden."
Maureen pauses with her shirt halfway over her head. Then she pulls it down gruffly and snaps, "Everything we do is sudden. Our whole relationship was sudden. That shouldn't be a problem. You're just making this too complicated. You either want to spend your life with me or you don't."
Joanne knows that she should argue. She knows that she should say that Maureen is the one who is afraid of commitment, that Maureen is the one who can't make it twenty-four hours without flirting with someone else, that Maureen is the one who cheated, that Maureen is the one who should have to listen to this speech, not Joanne. But Maureen is already out the door. And even if she hadn't left, even if she had stood and stared and waited for an answer, any answer, Joanne still wouldn't have said a thing.
The room is cool now, and she dreads leaving and going outside and feeling the hot sun and thick summer air weighing her down again. But the thought of Mark or Roger coming home and finding her makes her twitch. So she stands up, gets dressed, turns off the fan, locks the door behind her as she goes.
Maureen is waiting in the apartment when Joanne gets back. She is sitting cross-legged on the floor, sheets of newspaper spread out in front of her. For a moment, Joanne is more surprised than anything else—surprised that Maureen is home, surprised that she is reading the Times, surprised that, when she glances briefly at Joanne, there is no emotion on her face.
"Hi," Joanne says.
Joanne walks to the freezer and takes out her ice pack. Then she lies down on the couch, balances the ice gently against her forehead. She kicks off her shoes and stretches her toes. She closes her eyes. Maureen turns a page of the paper, and there is the slight rustling sound of shifting newsprint.
"My favorite season is spring," Joanne says. She has carefully timed the silence to stretch to an almost unbearable point. She glances at Maureen to see if she has noticed, but she shows no indication of noticing, and all she answers is:
"The weather's warm, but it's not hot like this," Joanne continues.
"And it's all about new beginnings."
She could say a lot more, now, if she wanted to. She could tell Maureen about tennis lessons in early April; about shopping with her mother on the first warm days of the season, in a time when their tastes still almost matched; about crushes on beautiful rich girls, played out with high school fervor beneath newly flowering trees. But she doesn't say any of this. Instead, she is silent for a few beats longer, as Maureen closes the pages of the newspaper, stands up and walks across the room, as if she had a purpose in her movements, as if she did not notice Joanne's eyes following her.
"I'd like to get married in spring," Joanne says.
She'd thought that would get Maureen's attention. She turns now to Joanne and bites her lip. "Now who's the one," she asks, her voice almost shaking, carefully forcing itself flat, "who can't ask a simple question?"
Joanne shakes her head. She's smiling a little, despite her intentions. "I'm not proposing, Maureen," she says, "I'm accepting."
When the phone rings, they let the machine answer.
"Maureen? Joanne? This is Mark. Look, I know you were at the loft today. I don't want to know the details, but just tell me—should I go looking for a new mattress…?"