"McArthurs', this is Emily!"
"Hi, Emily, it's Rumisiel."
"What - Rumi? What do you want?", snapped Emily.
"Wow, nice to know people love to hear from me..."
"I'm expecting a call from Ash, okay? She should call any minute."
"Uh, yeah, so, she hasn't called you?"
"No, so can you please get off the phone?"
"Um, would she normally have called by now?"
"Yes! Like, usually by an hour ago."
"Um. That's bad."
"Huh?" Concern abruptly blunted the edge in Emily's voice.
"Well, she called me earlier, and sounded... bad. I was kind of worried, and wanted to make sure she was OK."
Emily's heart started pounding faster. "Bad? Bad, how?"
"Uh, she was tearing me a new one out about... you know, her usual complaint."
"She called you from Germany to complain about being a girl?"
"Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. But then, she flipped from mad to all depressed and hung up. I tried to call back but she wouldn't pick up. I'm kind of worried."
A zooful of wild fears about Ash's mystery night at the university had been milling around Emily's head all day. Now one question promoted itself from sick curiosity to horrible dread: Could lesbians rape a girl?...
"Right. I'll call her. Thanks, Rumi." Emily hung up without waiting for acknowledgement.
~ x ~ x ~ x
From: xr4ti at hotmail com
To: emily_mcarthur at mail com
Date: 10:26 PM January 27, 2005
Subject: RE: Is everything OK?
Hi, Em. Sorry I couldn't talk tonight. I didn't mean to worry you. I'm fine.
- To: xr4ti at hotmail com
- From: emily_mcarthur at mail com
- Date: 10:10 PM January 27, 2005
- Subject: Is everything OK?
- Are you OK? I've been trying to call you and you're not picking up. Rumi said you sounded down when you called him. If you want to talk about anything, call anytime... or just call to tell me you're OK, please?
- - Em
"What the hell?" Emily protested at her computer screen. "That's supposed to be an answer?"
~ x ~ x ~
Rumisiel's voice rang out from the Uptons' front hall. "That was the Doc! They've landed, they're at Logan!"
"Oh my gosh! We've got to hurry up!" Eponine started rolling the cookie dough more frantically.
"Don't worry," advised Logan. "It's over two hours from the airport, assuming they've even got their luggage yet." He frowned thoughtfully into the recipe book.
Emily wandered out of the kitchen, to where Rumisiel was hanging up the phone. "Why'd you have to make this into a big complicated party, anyway?", she complained.
"It wasn't me!", Rumi protested. "Missi just showed up and started inviting people!"
Missi's voice rang out from the living room. "So leave, if you don't want to welcome Ash back!"
Emily went to the living room's arch. "I was going to welcome her back! Just, without this whole party fuss."
Missi was lying on her stomach before a butcher-paper banner spread out on the living room floor. She glared up at Emily. "Mm-hmm, I'll bet you'd like to welcome her alone."
Ignoring the taunt, Emily stepped closer. The homemade banner read
WILKOMMEN ZU HAUSE
DOC UND ASH
Missi returned her attention to drawing hearts and flowers in the hollow letters of "ASH".
Emily frowned. "Why are you doing that?"
"I'm adding decoration," replied Missi, without looking up.
"That's not - she won't like that."
Missi switched to a green marker to draw a daisy stem. "I think she will."
"I know Ash, okay? Draw little cars or German flags or something."
"Hey, Emily, you know something interesting?" Missi capped the marker and blew on the ink. "She's..."
She stood up and stretched. "not..."
She handed the marker to Emily. "yours."
Missi left the room, flouncing into the kitchen. "I want to lick the bowl!"
Em stood still for half a minute, clenching the marker. Finally, she threw it against the wall. It clattered to the floor.
~ x ~ x ~
"So this Italian doctor - his English is terrible and his German is worse - he's trying to buy a sausage at this little one-man sausage stand, and he goes up to the guy..."
Ash took a glance around her living room, crowded with about half the population of Tempest. Despite her Dad's reputation for creepiness, he was keeping the guests entertained with anecdotes from their trip. It seemed like a good time to get away without seeming too rude. She slipped into the garage and opened the XR4Ti's hood.
Moments later, the door from the house cracked open and Emily peeked in. "Ash? Is it OK if I come in? Or do you want to be alone?"
"No, of course! Come on in."
Emily entered gingerly. "Are you sure? Because it... kind of seems like you've been avoiding me."
Ash exhaled, wiped her begrimed hands against one another, and stood up from the engine compartment. "Not... I'm sorry, I know I haven't talked much, it's just... it's been a rough couple of days."
Emily cocked her head hopefully. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Ash sighed and bit her lip.
Em probed nervously. "Did something... bad happen at that LGBT thing?"
"No", Ash shook her head. "No, not really..."
"Something... good, then?" Emily winced at a mental image of Ash in the embrace of the German intern.
Ash snorted. "Certainly not that."
"No German girlfriend?"
"God, no. Oh, jeez, Emily." Ash turned to her. "No, nothing like that. Nothing really happened there, OK? Just, talking. Talking that got me thinking, and I don't like the thoughts."
"What sort of thoughts?"
"I - Em, I can talk to you about almost anything, but not about this. I'm sorry." Ash looked back down into the engine.
Em's lip trembled a little. "Did I do something wrong?"
"Huh? No! No - it's nothing - no, Emily, you haven't done anything wrong, nothing about this is your fault... You're exactly the way you're supposed to be, the only way you can be. It's all... I'm the problem here, not you, OK?" She dropped the hood shut with a clang. "I should probably go back in and be sociable."
~ x ~ x ~
"Thanks for taking me out again!" Molly held up a filmy blouse and pursed her lips at the price tag.
"Sure." Emily drummed her fingers on a mannequin's thigh. "Don't you ever want to do something besides go shopping, though?"
Molly tilted her head. "What else is there?"
They shopped a few more minutes while Molly made little "hmm"s and "ooh"s.
"Uh, Molly? I was wondering..."
"What do you think somebody's trying to say if they say, `I'm the problem, not you`?"
Molly looked sharply at Emily. "Whoah-oh, red alert! Classic boy breakup line!" She scowled. "You have a boyfriend? Had a boyfriend? Without telling me?"
"Wha - n - no! No, of course not!"
"Well, `It's not you, it's me` only has one meaning: a boy's breaking up with you. So c'mon, let's go gorge on ice cream and bitch about guys."
"It's not... how can somebody break up with me if they're not my g-boyfriend?"
"You tell me!", challenged Molly.
"I... no, it's definitely not at all like that."
Molly sighed and looked back to a rack of cropped jeans. "Fine, then. You don't want the benefit of my experience with boys, so be it. Oh, well, I guess it saves me the calories..."
~ x ~ x ~
As she rounded the corner onto her own block, Ash noticed a moving truck parked across the street and two doors down from her house. A woman in the back was handing a cardboard box down to a woman on the street. A joke sprang to mind that Maria had translated for her:
"What does a lesbian bring on a second date?"
Ash surreptitiously studied the women as she passed. "What, I think I've got gaydar now?" She could imagine Maria jumping out, welcoming the two to the community, and inviting them to some vegan lesbian festival.
Then she spotted Emily's car parked in front of her house, and her heart leapt a little. She went inside, and Emily looked up from the dining room table. "Welcome home, Ash!", she chirped. Two milk crates full of paperwork sat before her.
"Hey... what's all this?" Ash slid into a seat beside Emily and set her backpack down.
"College! Eponine's finished all her applications, so she said you could use her catalogs and brochures."
"Oh, yeah, I've been getting some of those in the mail..."
"And have you been keeping them? Together? And organized?"
"Well... I was going to get around to that..."
"There is no more `around to it`, Ash! Some places have their application deadline this week! You need letters of recommendation, admission essays... you've got to move!"
"Oh, yeah..." Ash slumped back and stared up at the ceiling.
"Ash, you promised you'd apply!"
"Right. OK. Let's see what we've got."
"I'm going to assume this one is right out." Emily dropped a booklet labelled "Wellesley College" onto the "no" pile.
"Oh..." Ash wondered how the filing system would cope if, by some literal miracle, she got refiled back to normal while enrolled at an all-girls' school.
"Hey, Em...", she ventured hesitantly.
"At school today, Kenny was asking me about you."
"You know, one of the Old Road racers... the one with the glasses?"
"Oh, yeah, OK... why?"
"Well, he wanted to know if you had a boyfriend..."
"Pfff!" Emily snorted and picked up another catalog.
Ash swallowed. "I think you should go out with him."
Emily dropped the catalog and stared at Ash in open-mouthed disbelief. "What?"
"Well, you know... he's into cars, he's a nice guy, he's kind of smart..."
"You want me to go out with a boy?"
"Well... why shouldn't you?"
"Because...", she sputtered. "You were jealous when I went out with Casper!"
"And I said I wanted you to go out with him anyway. Me being jealous has nothing to do with whether you get to have a boyfriend."
Emily kept up the stare.
Ash continued, "You like boys. Tempest is full of boys. So take one of them, already!"
"I don't want just some boy. I want someone I actually, you know, like?"
"I didn't say you have to marry him. Just go out with him. Have a dating life, you know. How are you going to find one you really like if you stay away from all of them?"
"I can't believe I'm hearing this. You're being so weird lately." Without warning, Emily stood up and left the room.
Ash put her fist to her mouth and nibbled a knuckle. To herself, she muttered, "I have never, ever tried to take another guy's girlfriend. Never would. Never even been tempted. I need a way out here, Emily."
~ x ~ x ~
Ash opened her front door. "Hi," she offered to Emily.
Ash cleared her throat. "Um, come in. Look, I'm sorry about yesterday. I really didn't want it to be an argument..."
"Yeah, that's OK," said Emily, as Ash took her coat. "Just, no more Kenny, OK?"
"Okay." Ash sat down in front of the pile of college materials.
"So, ready to tackle this again? Sorry to do this to you day after day."
"No, it's OK - you're right, I've got to hurry up and get it done. Thanks for helping."
"Sure! So, where were we?"
"Actually, I was thinking... is there something here from University of Michigan?" Ash stood up to finger-walk over the folders in a milk crate.
"Yeah, I was thinking, if I do end up wanting to do something like automotive engineering, that would be the logical place, right?"
"But I don't want to go to Michigan!"
Ash stared down at Emily, who looked away, blushing.
"We're talking about my college here... not yours... right?"
"Right, right, of course." She picked up a catalog, then dropped it. "It's just - "
"Well, I was thinking. When I went visiting colleges - last time around - I remember this girl at Brown who told me that the most important thing is to make sure you get a good roommate, someone you get along with really well. And I was thinking - if we chose colleges in the same city, then maybe we could get an apartment together once I go. Maybe I could even try to skip a year and go to college early... which is to say, only one year late..."
"You want... to move in together?"
"Right, because I already know we're best friends and get along really well. We'd be perfect roommates!"
"You want to move in together."
"Sharing a one-bedroom apartment will probably be cheaper than living in the dorms anyway."
"Right, just like we were roommates at your Mom's house, remember? And that was great, right?"
Ash remembered nights spent awake, staring at Emily's sleeping form. "Yeah, great."
"... uh, you know, if you wanted to." Emily bit her lip shyly.
"Um, I'm kind of hungry. I'm going to get a snack. Want me to bring you something?"
"No, that's OK."
Ash went into the kitchen, found a cookie, and collapsed into a chair beside the window. She craned her neck to peer out at the moving truck, still parked across the street. She chewed absently as she asked under her breath, "One bedroom, Em? How many beds, then? Two? ... One?"
"What are you up to, anyway? Am I ever going to know?"
Years of joy? Torture? Both?
Am I even capable of saying no?
She shook her head and returned to the living room and its piles of paperwork. "Where was that UMass Boston folder, again?"