A/N: I really struggle with the final chapters of a story, but we're almost there, guys. The ending is written and I just have a little work to do on chapter 23. Thank you so much to JJ who listens to my champagne creative problems and helps me figure them out so I can keep posting.
Chapter 22: Hide Your Love Away
Previously on Dandelion: Britt and Closet!Santana had passionate sex but didn't talk about how Santana bailed on Brittany and hurt her feelings. Lab!Brittany freaked out about impulsively quitting her job and Santana for some reason thought Britt had cheated on her, but in the end they calmed down and Santana offered to cook Brittany dinner to help her feel better. Shy!Santana came out to her parents and, shockingly, they want to meet Brittany.
I had just settled down on the couch next to Santana when her phone rang. I cringed, hoping it wasn't Rachel who would ruin our night in. I just wanted to feel normal around Santana for once.
I hoped Santana would consider not answering, but of course she did. Of course. Everything that can go wrong between us will.
"Hey," Santana said.
Her voice was gentle and soft like it usually was when we were naked together after we had sex. I didn't like her using that voice with someone else. Even though when we first met she assured me she wasn't attracted to Rachel, I felt like any sharing of her came at a detriment to our relationship.
We were so isolated, I was one step from locking her in a tower. And yes, I knew it was fucked up. But it was how I felt.
Santana listened to Rachel for a moment before she said, "I'm hanging out with my friend Brittany, but you're welcome to join us. We're just gonna have some dinner and wine and watch a movie. Nothing special."
Why was hanging out with me suddenly "nothing special"? I thought that our way of saying "I love you" was to say "you're special." Now I didn't know how we said I love you. Maybe we didn't. Maybe she didn't love me.
Rachel spoke for a moment, and I got the sense she was objecting to the invitation as much as I was. Why was Santana inviting her friend to my house? Why was she interrupting our first normal night in in weeks?
"I know, but you need a distraction," Santana said into the phone. Pause. "Of course you're welcome here."
Santana looked up at me with an expression that dared me to indicate any objection. I gave an unconvincing nod, and Santana looked away.
"Brittany says you're totally welcome."
Knowing I had no choice but to play the role of considerate stranger, I sighed and went to the kitchen to get a third wineglass. As I took it from the cabinet, I felt a spark of anger. I just wanted Santana to myself for the night. I hadn't gotten to be around her when she was this calm in weeks. I loved this side of her so much, and I didn't know when I'd see it again. I was feeling really deprived.
Because I knew I couldn't expect Santana to read my mind any better than I could read hers, I decided to say something. Maybe she didn't know how important it was to me to get some mellow time together. So I walked back into the living room and said delicately, "I was really hoping we'd get to spend some quality time just the two of us tonight."
Santana immediately went on the defensive. "We spend plenty of time alone together."
"I know," I said, trying not to get defensive back. "But it's been pretty crazy lately, and I was looking forward to just being chill."
Santana gave me a judgmental frown. "Rachel's really freaking out about her cancelled engagement. I have to take care of her. I thought you'd be happy I'm introducing you two."
I backtracked. Santana had a point; it was promising that she was willing to bring her two worlds a little closer together, even if she wouldn't say explicitly that she and I were a thing. Maybe Rachel knew her well enough to guess.
Maybe I'd misjudged Santana. Maybe this was her way of slowly incorporating me into the rest of her life. Maybe she was hedging towards coming out a little bit. The possibility bloomed brighter than I'd expected. "I am happy about that," I said, giving her a weary smile. "Sorry. You're right, you should help your friend out."
Santana gave an indignant nod of acceptance and turned back to flipping through Justine's DVDs. My hope propelled me forward to place a juicy kiss on her cheek. I really did appreciate her introducing me to her friend. I hoped it was the beginning of a new chapter for us.
When Rachel arrived twenty minutes later, she was a wreck. I'd only glimpsed her once a few months earlier the night I'd met Santana. I didn't really recognize her, but she was in pretty bad shape. Her makeup was streaked and smudged and her hair was unkempt and her eyes were pink.
"Aw, babe," Santana said, rising from the couch to hug Rachel in the doorway.
I was surprised by Santana's gentleness and caring for someone besides me. In my mind, aside from occasional banter with Justine, Santana mostly kept to herself and didn't get too close to people. But seeing her arms around Rachel and the concern on her face, I fell a little bit more in love with her. She had such a big heart, and she cared for people deeply. She was just private and selective about it.
Santana broke from their hug, giving Rachel one last squeeze on the shoulder before turning to me. "This is my friend, Brittany," Santana said. "She's pretty much the shit, and she'll take good care of you. Or mix you really strong drinks until you forget what's-his-name."
I tried to smile at Rachel and ignore the fact that Santana had called me her friend. This wasn't about me right now. This was about Rachel.
Rachel sniffled and tried to smile at me. "Hi, Brittany," she said. "Nice to meet you."
"Come on in," I offered, gesturing into the living room.
I couldn't help but want to help this poor, bedraggled creature in her misery. I'd gone through a rough breakup years before, and I remember it felt like dying. I wanted to help Rachel feel like she wasn't dying.
But it's a little weird when you just meet someone. I didn't know if she'd want to talk about it or be distracted or make smalltalk. So I offered her a glass of wine, which she accepted, and let Santana take the lead.
Santana ushered Rachel to the couch and offered to let her choose the movie. Rachel flipped through Justine's DVD binder halfheartedly, still sniffling, before looking up at Santana, eyes starting to water. "This was the movie we saw on our first date," she said, words starting to squeak as she tapped a page in the binder. "I miss him so much!"
Trying not to be heartlessly bitter that our calm night was now marked with hysterical crying from what I was quickly learning was a dramatic stranger, I poured Rachel a glass of wine and tried to find all the compassion I could.
I don't think my presence was helpful, though. Whenever Rachel surged into a new fit of crying, Santana would glance up at me with an apologetic grimace and explain whatever Rachel was crying about before focusing back on Rachel, assuring her that this anguish was temporary. I learned that Rachel and Brody had been dating for a year, and I was secretly a little relieved that they'd called off the wedding. Who gets married after knowing each other less than a year? That's just crazy.
But then again, if Santana asked me to marry her, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.
I also learned the Brody and Rachel worked together, so Rachel's professional life was just as miserable as her personal life now. She blubbered that she wanted to quit, but Santana rubbed her back and shook her head.
"You worked hard for that job, Rachel. Don't give it up just because it sucks right now. If it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be worth it."
Rachel sniffled and nodded, admitting Santana was right and that she wasn't actually thinking of quitting, but she wished she didn't have to see Brody's stupid face and his stupid muscles for just a few days. Either that or she wanted him back, that face pressed to hers and those muscles wrapping her up.
As Rachel shuddered and wheezed about the pain of her lost love, I became more confused. Hadn't she called off the engagement? The way she was talking, it sounded as though she'd been left at the altar. I decided that Rachel was the loudest, most dramatic, and confusing person I'd ever met, and even with Santana's explanations, I wasn't going to understand. I just gave Rachel little pouts and tried to think of some advice. But I didn't really have any advice. I'd never broken up with someone before. Only been dumped. Rachel sounded like she'd been dumped, so I gave whatever lame advice I had.
"Maybe you should find a new hobby," I suggested. "Fill up your time."
Rachel took a breath and wiped her face, nodding. "I meant to get in shape this year, but I didn't because I was always with Brody," Rachel said, starting to squeak again.
Not wanting her to completely dissolve, I offered a compliment.
"Well, you look great," I said, referring to her body. Her face and hair were a mess, but I could tell she had a nice body under her sweater and yoga pants. Not that I was checking out Santana's friend. Girls just notice those things, you know?
Rachel sniffled and said, "Thank you." She dabbed at her eyes with a scrunched cuff of her sweater and looked at Santana for guidance.
"Maybe take up running," Santana said, jumping on my suggestion that Rachel get a hobby. "Brittany swears by it."
I nodded in agreement, remembering how good it had felt to run the other morning. "Fresh air does you a world of good."
Rachel sniffled a moment longer and said, "I don't have any nice workout clothes. Only leotards and dance shoes."
"That wouldn't be so weird in this city," Santana joked, and Rachel choked out a laugh at the image of her running in a leotard and ballet slippers. I giggled with her, glad to see a hint of a smile on her face.
Then I remembered that I had some nice workout clothes that were too small for me. My sister had sent me some of her favorite brand for Christmas, not realizing that I wasn't as petite as she was anymore. Figuring I had no better use for them that to try to stop the flow of tears in a heartbroken girl, I said, "I have some nice jogging pants that are just your size if you want them."
Rachel shook her head. "I can't take your clothes," she mumbled.
"No, they don't fit me. They were a gift from my sister. All they're doing is taking up closet space."
Santana smiled at me and patted Rachel's knee. "Try them on."
Rachel sighed, not wanting to put any more effort in the weird politeness game that people played sometimes. When people are in that much agony, they don't waste time with that.
I stood, grateful to have something to do other than sit and listen to a stranger cry while Santana gave her undivided attention. I went into my bedroom and opened the closet, trying to remember where I'd last seen the jogging pants Kimi gave me. I didn't see them anywhere, so I started looking under piles and in the duffle bags that I always tried to keep organized but somehow never did. As I began my search, I heard Santana start to talk in the living room.
"Being single isn't so bad," she said. "It can be really fun, actually."
Rachel must have looked skeptical, because Santana kept talking. "Remember in college when we were both between guys? We had so much fun."
Rachel sighed, then said, "We did."
"We can do that again now," Santana said, sounding cheerier than I'd heard her in days. "We can go slut it up at every club in the city, if you want."
My heart sank at the brutal reminder of how closeted Santana was, and further still at the realization that Santana would be spending less time with me in the coming months while she hung out with Rachel. But perhaps the biggest shot to my heart was hearing her say that being single was fun.
As someone who was technically single but emotionally very not single, I couldn't have agreed less with Santana's statement that being single was fun. Being single was not at all fun. I disliked being "single" intensely.
And yet here I was, rooting through my clothes for a pair of ill-fitting jogging pants to give to my "friend's" friend.
Santana continued with her soft reassurances that drove a knife through my heart. "Don't worry, Rachel. One of these days we'll both find someone."
Rachel let out a sigh of resignation. "I don't know why you're still single, Santana," she mumbled.
"Just haven't met the right person," Santana said dismissively.
With that dagger to the heart, I sunk to my knees, huddled in the doorway of my closet, never more glad that the door blocked the view from the living room.
No matter how many silent reassurances her lips and body gave me, I was starting to feel like nothing to Santana more often than not.
I took a long hot bath before taking the bus to Santana's house. The steam cleared my mind of some of the anguish and anxiety that had clouded me since leaving Dr. Turner's. Santana was an unexpected source of clarity.
When I arrived at her house, I was surprised to see her living room illuminated with candles, soft, soothing music playing in the background. The house was unusually warm and the windows were steamed, no doubt from whatever she was doing in the kitchen. She was wearing an apron and a strand of hair hung next to her face, giving the impression she'd been working feverishly in the kitchen for hours. Which obviously she hadn't, since she'd left my house only two hours earlier.
"Hey, baby," she cooed, pecking me on the cheek. "I'm glad you're here."
"Me too," I said. But as I said it, I felt a surge of anxiety. This was an awfully romantic setup.
But as she kissed me tenderly on the cheek again and I smelled the savory aroma of whatever she was cooking in her hair and on her skin, the anxiety faded. I loved spending time with her. Hours passed so quickly, and whenever we said goodbye, I felt like I'd just returned from a long, relaxing vacation. She was rejuvenating in a way that no other person in the world was to me. Her beauty and generosity and intellect were just bonuses.
"Can I help with anything?" I offered, gesturing toward the kitchen.
"No," she smiled. "Do you want a glass of wine?"
"Yes," I said, almost desperately. I had been so worked up this afternoon, I was still coming down.
Santana chuckled at my eagerness and led me into the kitchen where she took out a bottle of my favorite white from the fridge and poured me a big glass. I sat at the little breakfast nook table, and when she brought the glass over to me, she bent down to kiss me on the lips once more.
"Enjoy," she said.
I stretched up to give her a surprise second kiss before taking a long sip of the chilled, buttery wine. The anticipation of the warmth and relief it would provide me made me even more relaxed.
"Hey, why weren't you at work today?" I asked.
"I worked from home," she said, glancing up as she stirred something on the stove. "I'm going to that conference tomorrow."
"Oh right!" I said. I felt guilty for being so wrapped up in my own mess that I'd forgotten Santana was leaving this weekend. "Are you excited for that?"
"Actually, I am," Santana said. "Some of my friends from Columbia are going to be there, and I haven't seen them in a long time."
I took another sip of wine and nodded. As I swallowed, I realized how much I still had to learn about Santana. Sure, I knew the crinkle of her smile and the timbre of her laugh and the way her skin glowed in candlelight, but I didn't know as much of her history as I wanted to.
I was about to ask which friends she'd be seeing and where they worked when Santana lifted a pan off the stove and spatulaed the contents onto a plate. She pinched some kind of garnish out of a prep bowl and sprinkled it on top. She was so focused and efficient in her movement, I didn't want to interrupt her concentration.
Quicker than I realized, she'd plated our meals and was walking toward the living room. She beckoned with her head and I stood, bringing my wine glass with me as I followed her. She set the plates on the coffee table, though not as we usually sat after our dates; she set them as though she expected us to sit cross-legged on the floor.
As soon as I sat, I realized I liked this setup more than a regular table for us. It felt intimate and a little silly. Santana was so poised and polished, sitting on the floor with her made me feel special, like she didn't feel she had to be so put-together around me. She was letting down her guard, which made me more inclined to do the same.
Santana went back into the kitchen and came back with napkins, utensils, another wineglass, and the rest of the bottle of wine. She sat down and poured herself a generous glass of wine, lifting it to clink with mine.
"To new adventures," she said with a wink.
Feeling the surge of excitement and anxiety my newfound unemployment promised, I gave a forced smile and echoed, "To new adventures."
I took a sip, never breaking eye contact with her, then set down my glass and contemplated the plate before me. Steamed green beans, mashed potatoes, and a fancy, fragrant chicken breast all looked equally delicious. I looked up at Santana and saw she was eating her mashed potatoes first, so I took a bite, grinning at her and wiggling my eyebrows in approval. She smiled in return and we ate quietly for a minute.
Then I remembered her talking about her conference and how I'd wanted to ask more about her friends. I wanted to know more about her in every sense, which reminded me of the thing that had been bothering me since the night I'd introduced her to my friends. Feeling relaxed enough to be candid, I said, "I felt really embarrassed yesterday when you talked about your parents cutting you off. I didn't know you being gay had anything to do with it. It made me feel like I didn't know you that well."
Santana smiled, but it looked guilty. "Well, I may have exaggerated because I wanted to impress your friends."
"Oh?" I said, relieved I wasn't completely negligent.
"My parents didn't take it well, but the reason we don't talk anymore is because I was pretty harsh with them during the fallout. I was a very angry, mean person back then."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I'd seen Santana lash out a few times, but she had always been remorseful afterwards. Mean wasn't a word I'd use to describe her.
"I blamed my parents for a lot of things that weren't their fault. Even though they can be ignorant and stubborn, they didn't deserve most of the things I said to them."
"Oh," I said. I wasn't sure how to respond to that. It was alarming to see someone so poised and image-conscious admit to being in the wrong.
"Maybe one of these days I'll have the balls to start fixing things with them a little bit," she said, glancing down at her plate.
Still feeling awkward, I tried be encouraging without being judgmental or pushy. "If you set your mind to it, you can do just about anything."
Santana looked up with a grateful smile before taking another bite. After chewing she said, "I'm turning twenty-six in a few months. Maybe that'd be a good thing to work on in the second half of my twenties."
I nodded and took another sip of my wine, giving her a polite, encouraging smile.
"Sorry," she said, shaking her head. "Tonight's about you and I'm making it about me."
"No, it's nice," I assured her. "I like hearing about your life."
She nodded and contemplated her food for a minute. "What else do you want to know?" she asked.
It was a rare moment where she was completely unguarded. But I didn't want to spook her, so I said, "Tell me about your friends you'll be seeing this weekend."
Santana perked up, readjusting herself on the carpet before saying, "Well, I haven't seen Marcy or Claire for almost a year now. We ran the student paper together in our final year at Columbia… We were in the newspaper office until sunrise sometimes, and we'd be so tired that we'd be all loopy and strung out on coffee and jelly beans. Then, because we were totally crazy, we'd go for a run on the Esplanade before heading to class. I honestly don't know how we survived on so little sleep."
Santana's face strained with the happy memories of her time in journalism school. It was nice to imagine her being so silly.
"You're fun when you're that silly," I said, smiling.
Santana giggled and took a sip of her wine. Then, studying it, she took another big sip. "If we're not careful, I'll get a little silly tonight." She winked and took a third sip.
Wanting to encourage her, I picked up the bottle of wine and leaned forward to fill her glass almost to the brim. Then I set it down and winked back at her.
But her mouth parted in playful objection. "You better fill up too, missy," she said, nodding toward my almost-empty glass.
Already warm with the relief of my first glass and Santana's easy company, I filled my glass and lifted it to clink with hers.
Two hours later, the wine bottle was empty and we were both sated and tipsy, leaning on our hands as we made goo-goo eyes across the table at each other as we talked. The conversation flowed so naturally, and I almost didn't notice when she started telling me about her exes. She told me about each of them, and why each relationship hadn't worked out, and what insecurities and gifts they'd each given her.
And because she was so open and candid, I found myself doing the same. I told her about Damon and Vance and Maggie and every insignificant person in between. We had the whole ex conversation and it didn't feel scary or intense or too much. Everything was on the table and I had never felt more connected to her.
The only thing we didn't talk about was sex.
A sudden lull happened and I realized that it was almost midnight and Santana had a conference to go to in the morning.
I sighed and stood, picking up our dishes and taking them into the kitchen. When I came back into the living room, Santana was brushing a few crumbs off the table onto the floor.
"Thanks for cooking for me and distracting me from my horrible choices," I said, starting to mumble.
Santana stood up and walked toward me and linked her hands together behind my back. "Any time," she said. "I love spending time with you."
"Me too," I murmured, leaning forward to kiss her. "I wish it wasn't so late and my house wasn't so far away..."
Santana pressed her forehead to mine for a minute, eyes closed. She kissed me again, slower.
"Stay," she murmured against my lips. She pulled back enough to look me deep in the eyes. "Sleep here with me. Just sleeping, I promise. I can even sleep on the couch if that would make you more comfortable. I just..." A sheepish smile passed over her face and she looked down. "I want to know what you look like first thing in the morning." Her eyes lifted back to mine and I swear they sparkled. "I've never seen that."
I didn't even think twice before saying that it would be silly for her to sleep on the couch in her own house. I trusted her and I didn't want her to be so far away from me for so many hours when she was about to leave town. I wanted to know what she felt like in sleep.
We got ready for bed with innocent, hushed excitement. She loaned me a shirt from her high school cheerleading days, and the way it draped over my shoulders and breasts and stomach with such softness assured me that I'd made the right choice.
But the softness of that shirt was nothing compared to her body draped against mine in her big, welcoming bed. Her sheets were smooth and smelled of her perfume and skin. She moulded herself behind me, wrist hanging over the narrow of my waist, hand placed gently on my stomach. It felt grounding and right, like I was meant to sleep like this with her every night. And though I couldn't help myself from rolling over to give her long, slow, toothpaste-flavored kisses, I eventually rolled back into that so-right spot and sighed a happy, tired sigh. She kissed the nape of my neck three times with her kiss-raw lips, and a few minutes later, I felt her go slack against me, breath deep and steady and warm. The last thing I remember was the smile that spread through my chest as I was drawn into sleep with her.
Santana rushed toward me, overjoyed. As she settled on the couch a cupped my face in excitement, I felt something creep up inside me, something much different than the cold, hard dread I'd felt the whole time she'd been on the phone. I didn't know what it was until Santana said, "Did you hear what I said? They want to meet you!"
Every fiber of her being vibrated with happiness, yet I didn't absorb any of her joy. If anything, I shielded myself against it. Coming out to her parents was a sign that we were moving forward with our relationship. We were taking steps to be more serious and keep moving in a forward direction.
I wasn't exactly sure where that was, though. I didn't know what she felt about taking steps to become more serious. I didn't know what that would mean in terms of her family, and in what I had to tell my own, and what I would have to do about my job. Because, despite wishing those things weren't problems, they were.
I found it hard to swallow, much less respond to Santana's jubilant question. I gave a shaky nod and was relieved when she wrapped me in her arms, squeezing as she rocked back and forth. She hummed in content, seeming to float out of her seat as I sank with dread.
I felt so guilty. I should have be overjoyed for her. And yet some sinister force, some ugly part of me was making this all about me and what sacrifices it meant I would have to make. I was so paralyzed with dread, I could barely croak out, "Now?"
She giggled and pulled back, beaming as she tucked her hair behind her ears. "No, silly, they're in San Antonio. But they're planning to come visit sometime this summer."
I swallowed and gave what I hoped was an encouraging nod. Summer was still a ways away.
But since I'd left school, I'd realized that time was more elastic than I thought it would be. The sweaty hours inside the Booth or Box seemed like months or minutes, and sometimes I felt like I went to bed in March and woke up in September. I'd started stripping as a temporary, filler job to pay off loans and have fun while I was young. Yet here I was a year and a half later, still at it, with no plans to leave anytime soon. I'd found a way to make it work, never bringing Violet home, never letting Brittany enter the neon sphere of work.
And sometimes time's elasticity made me hold things more dear. The past eight months with Santana had flown by. I didn't feel confined or regretful or anxious about where we were.
Until now, that is.
Now she wanted me to meet her family, which I realized was a bigger step than I wanted to take. No matter how proud I was to be with her, I didn't know if I was ready to reciprocate the gesture. Introducing her to my family made our relationship feel so definite, as though I was subjecting her to a final vetting process. My family knew I was in a relationship with a woman, but bringing Santana around felt like committing to more than just where we were right now. It felt like the final step before a marriage proposal. And given that we could legally be married in California now, that thought was terrifying.
I'm only twenty-six. I'm not ready to be married. Marriage feels so absolute and so certain. Other than Santana's love for me, nothing else in my life is certain.
Besides, who would want to marry me now? I thought back to the night I'd told Kimi about my job and how she'd said in so many words that no one would want to marry me or have children with me if they knew I'd been a stripper.
And as much as I'd wanted to tell her she was wrong, I wasn't so naive as to think that it wasn't a little bit true. I knew most people had misperceptions about what I did. Most people think I'm some depraved junkie with daddy issues who just never got her life together. And I suppose there are some strippers like that, but I don't know many. Most of the strippers I know are fierce and beautiful and intelligent, and I counted myself lucky to be their friends. They would make the best bridesmaids and godmothers and consultants on every matter related to marriage or otherwise. But the attitude that they're not good people is everywhere, and it had started seeping into me, no matter how much I resisted it.
I must have looked lost and worried, because Santana tilted her head and looked at me in concern. "You okay?" she asked.
Swallowing, I nodded. "Yeah. That's great, baby," I said, trying not to sound panicked.
Santana saw right through me, as always. "You seem anxious."
Knowing I wouldn't be able to fool her, I admitted, "Parents kinda freak me out."
Santana rubbed my knee and nodded. "It's okay. They're not coming anytime soon, and I'll make sure you don't have to spend too much time with them. Dinner and dessert, tops."
I took a breath and nodded, letting me guilt over my selfishness drown out my anxiety for a minute. "I'm really happy for you," I said. Because in all honesty, I was. I was so relieved and happy for her when I could hear that happiness over my own issues.
Santana's smile returned in full. "Me too," she said. "Shall we go celebrate?" she asked. "I'm in the mood for ice cream."
"Sure," I said, relieved to be able to move toward a distraction. "I'll get my keys."
We went out to ice cream, giving each other quiet smiles between bites. But I was so distracted, I couldn't finish my serving. Santana scooped mine up, almost bouncing in her chair. I felt I was about to crawl out of my skin. It was the first time I could remember actively wanting to be alone when I had her around. Usually being around her was as refreshing as being alone, but not today. Today she was a reminder of all the things I wasn't proud of and all the things I was afraid of.
When we got back to her apartment, she looked at me with a sneaky expression and pulled me into her. I was glad she didn't notice how distracted I was, but when she started undressing me, I knew I was heading in a dangerous direction. No sooner were we naked on the couch when I found myself sealing my eyes shut tight, imagining I was somewhere else, imagining fantasy people touching me in exotic situations. I was as far from that couch and the woman I loved as I could be, even though we were naked and pressed against each other. We both came, though I had some difficulty, and afterwards there was no relief or happy warmth to bask in.
Santana knew something was wrong. She'd known before, but she'd still tried to have sex with me, and now I felt horrible for not stopping her.
"Everything okay?" she asked, sounding sleepy and sad.
And even though it wasn't, I took a breath and said in my most convincing voice, "Yeah. I'm just distracted and tired."
Santana stroked my back, combing through a few locks of hair, fingers tugging a tangle apart.
"Okay," she said, sounding sad. "Let me know if there's anything I can do."
Heavy with the guilt and discomfort I felt, I let out a weary breath and didn't reply.
A month went by and I relaxed a little bit, though I still felt myself withdrawing from Santana more often than I meant to. I felt bad about it, and our sex life suffered more than it should have. Because it was the easiest excuse, I blamed my job. She tried not to tense or object when I'd rise from her bed to go to work, but I felt it. I knew she didn't like my job. The problem was that most of the time, I did like my job. It was starting to become a problem, but we never talked about it. We didn't talk about any of our problems. It started to feel like a swelling wave that would come crashing down at some point.
It was right before Valentine's day when Kimi called one afternoon while I was at Santana's. With the wedding only coming up the first weekend in August, she was calling frequently now. I was secretly relieved I wasn't her Maid of Honor, since being a bridesmaid seemed to be the maximum amount of work I could handle. I didn't have to plan her bachelorette party, and thank god, because the cupcake workshop followed by a Broadway show that Victoria planned for her was nothing I would have come up with myself. Maybe it was because of my job, but I was surprised to hear there would be no male strippers or even a penis cake. But knowing my sister, that would have been uncomfortable for everyone there because she would have disapproved.
"Hey, Britt," Kimi chirped into the phone. I was glad she was in a good mood. I wouldn't go so far as to call her Bridezilla, but sometimes she got really worked up over insignificant things, like the place settings and the different flavors of icing on each level of her cake. The one time I dared to try to calm her down by saying that in twenty years she wouldn't remember what limo company she hired to take her and John from the church to the reception, she sighed in frustration and told me I wasn't helping. From then on out, I just listened and assured her I knew she'd make the right choice.
"Hey, Kimi," I said.
Santana was laying with her legs across my lap reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, a book someone in her coming out group had suggested to help her learn her lesbian history. Every once in a while she look up and tell me an interesting tidbit or story. It was sweet to see how she was immersing herself in her new identity.
"How's it going?" Kimi asked.
"It's good," I said, tapping Santana's knee with my fingers absentmindedly. "Just relaxing."
"Are you with Santana?" Kimi asked.
"Yeah," I said, apprehensive as to why she wanted to know.
"Cool," Kimi said. "You guys are always together these days."
The way she said it was meant to be encouraging, but it came across as judgmental. She thought I had no life outside of my relationship.
Which honestly, made me nervous sometimes too. I had invested so much time and effort into Santana, I didn't have much to fall back on if it didn't work out.
"Not always," I said, trying to convince myself. "I hang out with other people too."
I glanced at Santana, glad she was engrossed in her book. I wasn't saying anything mean, but it felt like a weird conversation to be having in front of her.
"Well, I can't wait to meet her," Kimi said, sounding genuine this time. "She sounds like a sweet girl."
My anxiety surged. Kimi assumed she'd be getting an introduction. Which wasn't a bad assumption, but something about it made me squirm.
"She is pretty sweet," I said, glancing at Santana.
Santana must have known I was talking about her, because she flipped her book back onto her stomach and made a silent kissing motion before smiling and going back to her reading.
"I was calling to see if you've gotten your invitation and what you thought of the design," Kimi said, once again making her wedding the point of a phone call.
"I did," I said. "It's beautiful, Kimi. You made a good choice."
Kimi sighed in satisfaction. "Oh good. Now send in your RSVP card so I can start working on the seating chart!" she said, only half joking.
"I will, I will," I said, trying to stave off Kimi's impatience.
"You know, you'll have twice the odds of catching the bouquet," Kimi said with a playful tone.
Confused, I said, "What?"
"Because there's two of you!" Kimi said, as though it was opposite. "Your odds are doubled because Santana will be there too."
I felt myself chill and my stomach tense at Kimi's implication. I hadn't realized Kimi was assuming Santana would be my date to the wedding. I had tried not to think about that.
"Oh…" I said, glancing sideways at Santana. "I'm not sure she's coming."
I cringed, anticipating Kimi's reaction, hoping Santana didn't know I was talking about her.
"What?" Kimi asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "I thought for sure you'd want to bring her."
"No, I do," I started, feeling guilty. There was no one I wanted to bring to the wedding with me besides Santana, but I wasn't sure I wanted to bring her. We hadn't talked about her going with me, and I didn't want her introduction to my family to be at such a high-pressure event. The thought of even having dinner with Santana's parents was enough to give me an anxiety attack, and the thought of bringing her with me to my sister's wedding wasn't much better.
"So what's the problem? Does she have to work?"
"I, um… I don't know," I said. "I'll figure it out."
"Okay," Kimi said, sounding skeptical. "Is everything okay with you guys?"
"Yeah," I said. As I said it, I felt like I was lying. Nothing was wrong with us that I could put my finger on, but I was so uneasy about our relationship lately, it didn't feel entirely right. I just found myself second-guessing everything.
"Okay…" Kimi said, still skeptical. "Let me know if you want to talk about anything."
It was a sweet offer, but one I knew I wouldn't be taking her up on.
"I will," I said. "And your invitations really are pretty."
We chatted for a few moments about nothing of consequence before hanging up.
Once I set my phone down, Santana lowered her book and looked out the window, pensive. After a few minutes, she said in a quiet, sad voice, "Why don't you want me to go to the wedding?"
I felt so guilty and sad at her tone, I wished I hadn't answered the phone in front of her. She had known I was talking about her, and worse, she'd heard me all but dismiss her.
"I do," I said, trying to sound convincing. "I just didn't know you felt about it. It's a lot of pressure, and you'd be meeting my family and tons of my friends from growing up…"
"Of course I want to go," Santana said, still looking hurt. "Your family sounds so nice."
"They are," I said. I was getting more and more uncomfortable as each excuse I'd made was overturned and revealed to be empty.
"Do you not want me to go?" Santana asked.
Overwhelmed with guilt and knowing no reason would be good enough to make her feel better, I leaned sideways and kissed Santana on the cheek.
"Of course I want you to go," I said, giving her the most genuine smile I could muster.
Santana sighed in relief. "Good," she said. "Cuz I already have my dress picked out."
Her certainty and enthusiasm did nothing to calm my nerves, but there was a tiny bit of relief in knowing that I hadn't hurt her feelings with my confusing ambivalence about our relationship.
A few months later the one year anniversary of our first date, Santana called me at work and asked, in a very polite, formal way, if she could have the honor of taking me out to dinner. It was so sweet of her, hearing the way her voice strained with professionalism and excitement. She sounded young, but mostly nervous. It made me nervous. Why the fuss for the occasion? Was she planning something radical? I felt fear shiver through me at the possibility.
Santana arrived at my apartment five minutes late but looking radiant. She'd put on sparkly earrings and was wearing a different shade of blush that matched the plum blouse of ours she was wearing. Her nails were freshly lacquered and each eyelash seemed to have its own extension.
She looked, in a word, perfect.
She drove cautiously downtown and pulled into the valet of the Hyatt. She handed her keys to the valet, and put her hand up, stopping another attendant from opening my door. Her heels clicked as she walked the faux cobblestones in front of the headlights, and her soft grasp on the handle opened my door before she gave me her hand, helping me out of my seat. I had never felt so cherished or wooed - that's what she was doing, wasn't it? She was wooing me - in my life.
At her exceptionally chivalrous behavior, I grew even more nervous. But nervousness isn't always negative, is it? Sometimes nervousness is just sparks and energy that feels good, but still disrupts your ability to think linearly or sit still. I was filled with that now, and as she laced our hands together and walked inside, I felt like she was promenading me. Obviously she wasn't - our hands were tucked between our bodies as her other hand held her clutch, her steps small and rigid in her heels. But it felt ceremonious to me. We'd never done anything like this.
She led me to the glass elevator. I was mesmerized by the twinkling lights around the hotel lobby, peeping through the interior foliage as we lifted up into what felt like the sky.
We walked into a restaurant at the top of the hotel, and she gave them her name. We were immediately led to a beautiful table with her last name on a little card in the center and a bucket of champagne on ice beside it.
I sat down, in awe of the effort Santana had put into making our one year anniversary so special. The host told us the specials for the evening and reached to open the champagne. Before the champagne had been corked, I felt dizzy and realized something was different about this restaurant. Or rather, the city around it. Our surroundings were moving. Santana smiled when I gripped the armrests of my chair to steady myself.
"It's okay," she hushed. "It rotates. You get to see the whole city while you eat. It's beautiful from up here."
She was talking about the city, but she was staring directly at me. I tried not to blush.
Santana kept her eyes glued to me as the waiter corked our champagne. I was kind of amazed that this beautiful, sexy woman who could sometimes be so shy was going through all this for me, her stripper girlfriend. Because, no matter how hard I fought it, that word and all its negative connotations had weaseled its way into my identity. Like a smudge across the top of a pristine blouse that I only wore when I wasn't working, the word stripper, with all its baggage, was now part of me. Beautiful, proper girls like Santana didn't date strippers. And yet here we were, a year in, and she was showering me with gifts I felt I didn't quite deserve.
The funny thing was I could easily have afforded these luxuries on the money I made at Jez. The fact that our fancy night out in a high rise hotel was being paid for by someone who didn't have as much money as I did was what made me feel I didn't deserve it. A nice bottle of champagne in a fancy restaurant was commonplace for lots of strippers and the people they dated. But Santana... Well, Santana was different.
We were halfway through a plate of bell pepper and onion crostini when a tall man came to our table. Thinking it was our waiter, I turned to politely smile at him. But instead I was greeted by the face of the last person I ever expected to see.
His jaw had widened and his shoulders were unbelievably broad. He still had his dimples and the hint of rosiness in cheeks. He was sporting a five o'clock shadow and was dressed in the nicest suit I'd ever seen him in. Nicer than the suits he'd worn to prom with me and nicer than most of the suits of the guys who came to see me at Jez.
He was older and even more handsome than I remembered.
It was Damon.
He was looking down at me with his too-kind, distrustful smile. Or rather, maybe I couldn't trust it.
"Hi," he said, almost timid.
My mouth was full of food, and I'd forgotten how to chew. I flushed icy cold as I stared up at him. I'm sure I turned white as a sheet. The half glass of champagne I'd drunk did nothing to help orient me. Why was he here? Why was Damon, the one person I dreaded ever encountering again, here? Why now?
Now the night wouldn't be about me and Santana. I didn't know if I'd even be able to look at anyone, much less Santana. I would probably fall out of my chair and curl up on the floor, passed out, as soon as he walked away.
"Hi," I managed, mouth still full of crostini.
"It's good to see you," he said, ducking his head to convey his sincerity.
Good to see me, my ass. If it was good to see me, he would have called or written sometime in the last seven years. He wouldn't have broken up with me in the first place if it was good to see me. If I had once been so irresistible that he had to stay up until two in the morning talking to me even though he knew we'd see each other first thing in the morning, he had to be lying now.
Good to see me. Fuck you, Damon.
"Yeah," I said, trying to loosen the rigidity that had overtaken my body.
"What have you been up to?" he asked, giving Santana a polite glance.
I saw Santana glance at me and remembered she was there. There was no way Damon knew who Santana was. I'd admitted to him that I found girls attractive in high school, and his response had been respectful. But I doubted he thought I'd ever date a girl.
"I, um..." I stumbled over the words. Taking off my clothes for hundreds of men that aren't you. "I'm working in the entertainment industry," I mumbled.
"Oh yeah?" he asked.
I nodded, but couldn't speak.
"She wants to go into Public Health," Santana offered, bragging for me.
Damon's face spread in a look that could only be described as surprised pride. "Wow," he said, hushed and sincere.
I hated that sincerity.
"That's awesome. What type of entertainment?"
This was the question I never wanted to answer to anyone who had known me in my past life.
I thought about the times I'd timidly undressed in front of him and tried to convince myself that my confidence being naked in front of strangers now would make him feel special, as though he got to witness the opening of a flower. But it wouldn't. If anything, he would be sad for me, sad that I wasn't doing something with my brain. Just like my mother would be if she ever found out, and like Kimi had been, and so many others. No matter what I did, someone would always be ashamed of me.
"I'm a dance instructor." It was my go-to vague answer.
"You don't say," Damon said, as though he was genuinely intrigued. "How'd you get into that?"
It was a harsh echo of the question Dr. Turner had asked me on that night I'd thought was a date. How'd you get into this? I had asked myself that question so many times.
"Just stumbled into it."
I didn't add the part about stumbling into it in six inch platform heels.
"That's awesome," Damon said.
There was an awkward pause, and I couldn't bring myself to look at Santana or Damon. I studied the bubbles in my champagne glass, wishing I could disappear like they did when they reached the surface.
Damon seemed to realize it would fall to him to fill the gap in conversation. Santana was looking at me as her polished fingernails worried the edge of the tablecloth.
"I'm in town on business," Damon offered.
"Oh," I said. I didn't ask what kind of business or how long he'd be in town.
"Would you want to meet tomorrow night and catch up?" Damon asked.
I was frozen again.
Part of me really, really wanted to say yes. Maybe Damon would give me back that feeling of impervious childhood, innocence, and protection. The irony of a stripper wanting those things wasn't lost on me. But I desperately wanted to remember the trusting, faith-filled person I had been before he sat me down and delivered his gentle, rehearsed breakup speech. Maybe if I met with him, he'd explain why he'd done what he'd done. Maybe I'd have some answers and I could finally understand why.
But at the same time, I knew it was more likely that I would end up feeling empty and confused and reduced to the lowly stripper I'd become. I bit my lips, buying time. I knew a gentle breeze from Damon could knock me over.
Santana gave him a soft, apologetic smile. "We have theater tickets tomorrow," she said.
It was a lie, and one that shocked me. Santana could tell I didn't want to have a drink with Damon. She could see little things that Damon couldn't see. Was it possible that she loved me more than I thought she did? It didn't seem possible. But she could see things in my eyes that Damon, who had known me when I had been more open and trusting, couldn't see.
"Shoot," Damon said. Though, the way he said it, I was pretty sure he knew Santana was covering for me. That shoot was the only regret I'd heard from him since he walked away that day. Somehow, it was satisfying.
"Well hit me up sometime," he said. "I'd love to catch up."
I nodded, mumbling, "Okay. Bye." I stared at the tablecloth until I saw him walk out of sight in my peripheral vision.
I exhaled as quietly as I could, just as Santana's hand darted across the table towards me. Her hand was so delicate, graceful with the sparkle of her bracelet, and yet commanding. She was commanding me to take her hand. I did, and hoped I wasn't shaking too much.
"We can leave if you need to," she murmured. "I don't want anyone making you uncomfortable. Tonight's about us."
I shook my head. I didn't want to ruin the romantic evening she'd set up for us anymore than Damon already had. I gave her a reassuring squeeze, mostly so I could retract my hand. "No. We're staying."
Santana nodded, ducking her head to study me for more clues. "Only if you're sure."
"I'm sure." The words weren't lively enough to convince even myself. But she took them at face value, thankfully.
I picked up my champagne glass and took a long, slow sip, letting it sparkle on my tongue. I set it back down, making sure it rested exactly on the wet ring it had been in before.
We ate quietly for a few more minutes while I tried not to squirm before I figured it was acceptable to excuse myself to the bathroom. Since the restaurant was turning, I had a hard time finding it, but I did eventually. There I locked myself in a stall and leaned against the door, anxiety coursing through me furiously as I took deep breaths of the industrial citrus scent that filled the bathroom.