Dinner Party

© 2008, Andi Marquette

[the following story contains adult language and situations]

Shay looked up from her laptop and stared out the window. Another beautiful desert evening and here she sat, pounding away, so she could say she actually got some work done today. She had to finish this damn essay for the anthology or the editor would have a hissy fit. Almost done, but definitely time for a break. Shay switched over to her email, idly scanning the “from” messages in her inbox, none of which were the one she half-expected to see. “Whatever,” she muttered as she stood and stretched. Helen had apparently turned out to be a freak. And not in a good way.

The front door stood open and Shay pushed through the screen door, grabbing her long-sleeved black shirt to wear over her tank-top as she did so. She stood on the low-slung porch that faced the quiet residential street, watching a cat across the street roll around in the dirt underneath a wisteria bush. She inhaled, smelling fall in the high desert air, in the chill that nightfall sent as it settled over Albuquerque. A black Honda CR-V pulled into the driveway of the house next door to Shay’s left and she smiled as it rolled to a stop and its driver got out.

“Hey, neighbor,” Brisa said.

“Hey,” Shay greeted her. “You look nice. Meeting with the museum board?” Brisa always looked good, but especially so when she wore her New Mexico-style skirts and blouses. Today’s ensemble consisted of a black broomstick skirt and a rich maroon blouse. Not for the first time, Shay admired Brisa’s physical appearance, though it was the entire package that made Brisa as attractive as she was.

Brisa smiled as she approached, carrying her black leather briefcase. “Close. Visiting dignitaries with deep pockets.”

“Ah. Even better.” Shay leaned against one of the Spanish-style columns on the porch and slid her hands into her jeans pockets. “So did you score big bucks?”

“Hopefully. I’ll know more next week.” She stopped at the bottom of the three steps and looked up at Shay, puzzled. “I thought you were going to Taos for the weekend.”

“So did I.”

“Uh-oh.”

Shay nodded and smiled ruefully. “Yep. Helen wigged on me.”

“Feel like sharing?”

“Maybe.”

“Wine and chocolate?” Brisa cocked an eyebrow and gestured with her head toward her own house.

Shay laughed. “Yes to the former, probably to the latter.” Wild Friday night at Brisa’s. Eating chocolate and talking about my dating travails.

“Give me a few minutes to change out of my business trappings and then come over.” Brisa started moving away then stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes.”

“Then I won’t worry about you and I’ll see you in a few.”

Shay remained on her porch, waiting while Brisa unlocked and entered her own house, knowing that Brisa would not only put out wine and chocolate, but probably some chips and a bowl of guacamole she’d made that morning, along with a small tray of cheeses and fruit. Brisa was never half-assed about food, but she was so grounded about it that the most elegant spread she created always felt like intimate comfort food. Shay loved it when Brisa had her over, no matter the occasion. Thank god her neighbor had lots of dinner parties, too. Good food and interesting people.

She stood for a few minutes, watching the sunset stain the Sandias shades of pink and maroon that melted into violet shadows on the mountains’ faces. Soft music emanated from the open windows that fronted Brisa’s porch and Shay listened for a bit, trying to identify the artist. Sheryl Crow. Brisa’s musical tastes always surprised her. Shay pushed off from the column, locked her front door, and took the walkway she’d created out of paving stones from her porch to Brisa’s, through the yucca, sage, and lavender that Brisa had planted for her. She opened Brisa’s screen door and entered “el santuario,” as Brisa’s son Arturo jokingly called his mother’s home, which somehow managed to combine the festive vibe and colors of a Mexican cantina with the mellow energy of a Spanish courtyard.

“In the kitchen,” Brisa called out and Shay dutifully removed her flip-flops and latched the screen door before she padded across the thick Zapotec-style rug on the living room floor. Brisa had already put food out on the heavy wooden coffee table in front of the couch, Shay noticed, as she went through the dining area and beneath the arched doorway into el corazón de la casa, as Brisa referred to the kitchen. “Pour yourself a glass,” Brisa instructed without turning from the tiled counter, where she was slicing a mango on a small wooden cutting board. She had changed into faded jeans and a loose denim shirt. Her dark hair hung free of its tie, falling around her shoulders.

Shay picked up the open bottle of California red wine from the counter to Brisa’s left and poured it into the empty wine glass Brisa had put beside it. She set it down and watched Brisa work on the mango. Shay liked the way Brisa didn’t hide the gray at her temples or the crows’ feet at the corners of her dark eyes. She reminded Shay of some of the women she saw in Bollywood films. Elegant but somehow playfully down-to-earth, with a youthful energy that seemed sometimes at odds with her years. Brisa was about Helen’s age, actually. But for some reason, Brisa seemed younger, and more open to a wider array of people. Shay took a sip of wine and sighed contentedly. Fuck Taos, anyway.

“So.” Brisa stopped slicing and threw a glace at Shay. It was her signal for Shay to start talking. “She bagged the weekend with you.” She continued slicing the rest of the mango.

“And then some.” Shay stared into her glass, slowly swirling the liquid around. “She got weird last week — I think I told you that. She said I was too young for her.”

Brisa put the slices of fruit into a bright red ceramic bowl then turned to appraise Shay, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Christ, you’re forty-two. What the hell does she want?”

“Thank you, Bri, for the reminder about my age.” Shay raised an eyebrow at her.

Brisa winked. “Well, please. She’s…what? Fifty?”

“Fifty-two.”

“It’s only ten years. Now, if you were thirty, I might agree with Helen.” She carried the bowl of mango to the living room, set it on the coffee table next to the chips, and sat down.

Shay followed, settling in on Brisa’s right. She took a piece of mango and bit into it. Perfectly ripe. She swallowed then chased it with wine. “She had a valid point.”

“I’m all ears,” Brisa said as she picked her own wine glass up from the table.

“She said that it might not necessarily be about age, but rather about life stages. She has her teenaged daughter, after all, and she told me that most of her close friends are mothers because they understand the whole mother thing –”

“I’m a mother. And I consider you a good friend. Try again.” Brisa took a sip of wine, regarding Shay over the rim of her glass as she did so.

“She said she wasn’t sure she wanted to expend the energy getting to know someone new.”

Brisa made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “Cop-out.”

Maybe. “Well, she does run her own store and she’s a single mom — ”

“I raised Arturo on my own, went to graduate school, and worked almost full-time. And amidst all of that, I met lots of people and made lots of friends.”

Shay made a “these are all good points” gesture with her free hand. “But did you date?” Christ, Brisa was gorgeous. She must’ve had offers, but did she have time for dating when Arturo was growing up?

“Of course. And every now and again, I’d have an interlude.”

Shay stared at her and then laughed. “I’m sorry — an…interlude?” She reached for a chip and dipped it into the bowl of guacamole.

Brisa shrugged. “A little somethin’ somethin’, as you generally call it.”

Shay grinned, trying not to think about Brisa in an interlude. Whew.

“Yes, I dated casually and every now and again, I’d consummate. Nothing but casual, since I didn’t want to stress Arturo out, thinking he’d have to get attached to someone new. I started seeing Angie seriously when Arturo was a senior in high school, but she never spent the night until he was out of the house.” She took another swallow of wine and picked up a piece of cheese from the tray she’d set out.

“I didn’t realize you saw other people before Angie.” And then Shay caught herself. Well, why wouldn’t Brisa have seen others? She was beautiful. Charismatic. Smart. Funny. Just an all-around together kind of woman. And just way too hot for her own good. Shay figured she was lucky to have settled into a nice friendship with Brisa. Otherwise, she would’ve had a lot of long frustrating nights the two years she’d known her.

She reached for another slice of mango as Brisa gave her an “oh, please” look. “I just wanted to be careful and make sure Arturo didn’t have too much to process about his mom as he grew up.”

“Well, there. See? I understand Helen not wanting to bring all kinds of people around while her daughter’s still at home.”

“Ah, but why, then, did she play this game with you? Leading you on, then the strange emotional distances? If she was that concerned, she wouldn’t have contacted you online and initiated anything. Nor would she have given you all the mixed signals, about being lonely and just wanting someone to talk to and then in the next breath, told you she’s attracted to you and would like some physical contact with you.”

Shay smiled wryly. “Maybe I’m just that sexy. She couldn’t resist me.”

Brisa laughed. “Maybe. But Helen played you. As sexy and smart as you are.”

Shay ignored the last comment, though she liked that Brisa said it. Coming from her, it was a high compliment. “But I don’t think she’s intentionally mean.”

“Doesn’t matter. She wasn’t respectful of you, nor was she clear about her wishes. What did she say about this weekend?”

Shay took a bit of cheese, trying to savor it but Brisa’s scrutiny killed her enjoyment of the taste a little. She sighed. “You’ll love this. She finally admitted that the whole time she’s been corresponding with me, she’s actually been doing another woman in Taos.”

Brisa shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“She told me she felt weird and creepy about it, because she didn’t want anyone to find out about it, especially not her daughter. She told me it was strictly for sex, but she said that she has a habit of getting into really fucked-up situations and then doesn’t know what to do and this was one of those.”

“And she no doubt told you she felt guilty for not telling you sooner.”

Shay didn’t respond at first, instead opting to chew the rest of the cheese. She finally nodded.

“Why didn’t she tell you sooner?”

“Don’t know. She said that it was someone she didn’t want anyone to know she was sleeping with and it was just about sex, but she absolutely could not have her daughter finding out about it.”

Brisa shook her head sadly. “Probably someone already involved, then. Or someone her daughter knows in a different context.”

“I have that feeling, too. Anyway, she apologized for canceling the weekend — and basically whatever the hell the situation was between us — and for making me feel as if she was leading me on.”

“She was leading you on. What did you tell her?”

“I told her I was a little frustrated and I wished she had told me sooner so that I could’ve revised my expectations. Then I told her I didn’t want to get physical with someone who was clearly confused about things. Not that I care that she’s screwing someone else. I’m in casual mode myself. I just would have liked to have known. I told her I liked her and if she wanted to continue writing to me, she could.” Shay shrugged and sipped her wine before she continued. “Then I wished her luck. Haven’t heard back since. Probably won’t.”

Brisa studied her for a long moment and Shay internally squirmed at the appraisal. Brisa then leaned in close and kissed her on the cheek.

Shay looked at her, surprised. “What’s that for?”

“Being a very kind, sweet woman. And much wiser and more mature than Helen.”

Shay resisted an urge to touch the spot on her cheek where Brisa’s lips had been. A strange little tingle lingered on her skin. “Thanks. So why am I feeling sort of bummed about this? It’s not like we even dated all that long. And it’s not like we did anything super physical.” She reached for a chip, dismissing the little thrill Brisa’s kiss had provided.

“Because you’re such a kind, sweet woman. You always give people the benefit of the doubt and whether Helen’s an asshole or not is irrelevant. Her motivations aren’t healthy.” She took a slice of mango out of the bowl and dipped it into the small container of salsa nearby.

Shay chewed, thinking about Helen and the first time they’d met for dinner in Santa Fe. It went well, she thought. Helen kissed her afterward, and though it hadn’t knocked Shay off her feet, it left her with a warm, pleasant glow on the way back to Albuquerque. And then two days later, Helen’s emails had cooled. Until the next week, when they met again for dinner. By then, her emails were ardent again. Then the day after dinner, cool.

“I couldn’t get a read on her,” Shay admitted.

Brisa squeezed her shoulder. “That’s your first clue that something’s not quite right with someone.”

“It was weird. I have no doubt that she’s not intentionally mean, but it’s like she has so many walls up that what little bit gets through doesn’t have a context to hang on. Instead, there’re all these fragments. Like broken glass from a window frame, but you’re not sure how to arrange them to get a sense of the whole thing.”

“Nicely put. You must teach writing at UNM or something,” Brisa teased, squeezing Shay’s thigh.

“Something like that.” Shay laughed and stood, picking up her nearly empty wine glass. She looked at Brisa’s, which was empty, and raised her eyebrows in a question. Her thigh sparked where Brisa had touched it.

“Please,” Brisa said, and Shay took her glass into the kitchen as well, where she filled them both from the bottle. Brisa’s cell phone rang and Shay heard her answer it. From Brisa’s greeting, it was probably Arturo. Shay set the bottle down and waited, giving Brisa a little space to chat, and giving herself a little space to quell the strange little currents racing through her blood.

Yes, she’d crushed out on Brisa in the past. A few days here, a week there. Nothing she couldn’t handle. Besides, everybody who met Brisa fell for her on some level. She’s a friend. So quit it, Shay remonstrated herself. Besides, it would be too weird to hook up with her. Living next door and all. What kind of hook-up would that be? Temporary? Permanent? Weird. That’s what kind. Shay was not in a space for a long-term commitment. But then, neither was Brisa, or so she’d said… Stop it.

She took another glass out of the cabinet and opened the fridge so she could retrieve the pitcher of filtered water Brisa kept on the top shelf. She filled her glass and returned the pitcher to the fridge, then studied the photos on the door. Arturo as a boy, then a teen. A picture of him with Angie when he finished his second year of college at New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Arturo with Brisa. They shared the same pronounced cheekbones and dark hair, though Arturo’s eyes were blue, from his father, whom Brisa had divorced soon after Arturo’s birth.

Shay drank a quarter of the glass of water and continued looking at the photos. Angie was cute. Tall with long blond hair. Kind of sporty but elegant, somehow. A good match for Brisa, at least on the surface. Shay remembered Angie’s energy, since she’d met her after Shay moved in next door to Brisa. Sort of butchy, which seemed a nice counterpoint to Brisa’s earth-mama vibe. She remembered when it ended with Angie, about three months after Shay had moved in. Angie had been staying overnight at Brisa’s quite a bit, two or three times a week, and then it just stopped. “Differences that became exacerbated over time,” Brisa had told her flatly, though Shay thought she had heard a wistful sadness in her voice. Brisa had lots of dinner parties after her break-up. Shay suspected they were part of how she dealt with what happened.

“Shay,” Brisa called. “Are you being your polite self and loitering in the kitchen while I was on the phone?”

“I just really like your kitchen,” Shay shot back as she carried the two glasses of wine to the couch. She handed one to Brisa.

“And you should. Best room in the house.” She smiled and took the glass. “Thank you. Arturo says hi.”

“Hi to him. When will he be in town again?” Shay reclaimed her seat next to Brisa and took a sip from her glass.

“He’s too busy with that damn graduate work. Maybe Thanksgiving, if his girlfriend doesn’t drag him to her family’s in Palo Alto.” Brisa sighed with an overblown “woe is me” inflection.

“He’s still dating Bridget?”

“Ay, dios mio. Sí. She’s too needy, but he seems to like that. Maybe he wants a woman to need him.” Brisa looked over at Shay. “Maybe I was too independent a woman for him.”

“Bullshit. Men need strong women in their lives. He just hasn’t figured it out yet. It’ll be over by the end of the term.” She said it with one nod, demonstrating her certainty. “After all, he’s a young studly guy. Trying a few different types out. Like some women I might know.” She raised an eyebrow at Brisa, who threw a piece of mango at her. Shay caught it and ate it then wiped her hand on her jeans. “Thanks. I love a woman who throws fruit.”

“You and Rita Mae Brown,” Brisa teased. She sipped her wine then shifted into a more serious demeanor. “I’m sorry Helen didn’t work out. I know you’re in a casual dating mode, but it’s never fun, to get played like that.”

“She had a good point, about the energy you might expend to get to know someone. Everybody’s busy. People are weird. Lots of sorting through to find the genuine aspects.” How the hell does anybody ever hook up? Even if it’s just for sex?

“I might concede her that. But there’s a difference between genuinely feeling like you need your own emotional space and being afraid of building intimacy. Some people are unable to engage in different levels of intimacy, and don’t have appropriate boundaries. If she were truly healthy, she’d be dating you casually, enjoying your company, and not giving you mixed signals or claiming things like you’re too young. And she’d be honest about what she wants and that she has others she’s seeing, as well.”

“True,” Shay agreed. “Oh, well. Maybe next time.” She ate another chip. Dating can totally suck.

“And along those lines, I’m having some friends over for dinner tomorrow. I thought you’d be out of town, so I didn’t mention it. But since you’re not…” She put a playful little inflection on the last part of her statement.

“Yes. And thank you for inviting me, the pathetic single girl next door, to your ultra-fabulous dinner party.”

“Glad your sense of adventure remains intact,” Brisa said cryptically. “And you never know. Just because you arrive alone doesn’t mean you’ll leave that way.”

Shay looked at her. “Bri, you know how I feel about set-ups.”

“Who said anything about that?” Brisa ate a piece of cheese and chased it with a bit of chocolate. She reached for her wine, avoiding Shay’s gaze.

What was she up to? “Is this one of your ‘throw a bunch of people together and see what happens’ kind of parties?”

“Aren’t they always? And how could I set you up with anyone? I thought you were going to be in Taos this weekend.”

“You could call some other single lesbian tomorrow that you keep stashed in your friend closet,” Shay said, only half-joking. She knew of at least three straight couples who had met at one of Brisa’s gatherings. And according to her calculations, four sets of lesbians had met at a Brisa party and ended up dating. Two of those sets were still coupled.

“I never set people up.”

Shay raised an eyebrow.

“Not intentionally. Sometimes things just happen.”

Shay raised her other eyebrow.

“Would you stop? You’ll know everyone at this party. So stop worrying about some kind of set-up.” Brisa rolled her eyes in exaggerated impatience.

“I’m sorry,” Shay relented. I’m just clearly not in the right kind of space for dating.”

“Yes, you are. You’re just having to sort through a few candidates.”

“Okay, maybe dating. Maybe even sex. But I’m just not long-term material right now.”

“I know. It’s one of the things I like about you.”

“What? That I’m not looking for long-term?”

“That you’re honest about it. I like a woman who knows when she’s not ready for something,” Brisa said as she nudged Shay’s foot with her own.

Shay sighed plaintively and moved her foot slightly, away from Brisa’s. The contact between them was sending little jolts up her calf. “Are there any emotionally together women out there who would be just fine with a fling? With sex every now and again? No pressure? Or is that too much like a guy?”

Brisa laughed. “I have no doubt there are women like that.” She poked Shay’s foot with her foot again. “Perhaps you’ll meet one sooner than you think.”

Shay took a piece of cheese off the tray, relieved when Brisa moved her foot. “Well, I probably wouldn’t know what to do with an emotionally healthy woman if she hit on me. I probably wouldn’t even know she was hitting on me.”

Brisa made a noncommittal noise and sipped her wine. Shay looked at her again. She was definitely up to something. Shay was attuned to many of Brisa’s mannerisms, and Brisa employed a sort of innocent air when she was planning something. In this case, it was a set-up, Shay was certain. Brisa had invited a few people to this gathering, and now that Shay had accepted the invitation, Brisa probably would call a few more single women to stop by. Shay tried to be irritated, but couldn’t. Brisa never pushed a hook-up. She just liked setting things in motion. If people ended up meeting at her parties and having a good time afterward, where was the harm in that? Besides, it would be fun, maybe, to actually date someone local. Maybe she’d be reasonably grounded.

“I’m glad that you didn’t go to Taos,” Brisa announced as she stood and picked up the empty bowl that had held the guacamole. “Helen isn’t worthy of your prodigious charms.” She flashed Shay an odd little smile and headed for the kitchen.

Shay picked up the bowl of mango along with the cheese and chocolate tray and followed Brisa. She set them on the counter. “All right. Who is she?”

Brisa looked at her, an angelic expression on her face. “Who?”

“C’mon, Bri. I know how you get about stuff like this. Who’s the woman you have in mind for me? I’ll tell you if I think you’re on the right path.” Shay started putting the remaining slices of cheese into a plastic container, waiting for Brisa to respond.

Brisa sighed with mild frustration. “There are several women coming to the party. You know them all. At least three are single– Leanna, Erin, and Maria.” She ate a piece of chocolate and wrapped the rest up. “Erin thinks you’re the hottest thing going, by the way.”

Shay laughed. “I guess that’s nice.”

Brisa glanced at her, smiled devilishly, and continued, “I believe she said that she would love to run her fingers through your hair. And she really likes green eyes.”

Shay cleared her throat and rinsed the tray off in the sink as Brisa started laughing. “Seriously. Maybe I’m not in a dating space,” Shay said defensively. “And maybe she wants the damn U-Haul.”

Brisa shrugged and ate one of the last pieces of mango. “I’m just letting you know that women other than those who are emotionally unavailable find you attractive.” She reached over and ran her own fingers playfully through Shay’s hair, something she’d done many times in the past, but on this occasion, pinpricks of fire broke across Shay’s scalp in the wake of Brisa’s touch. A blush flared across Shay’s face. Jesus. What the hell?

“You do have great hair,” Brisa said matter-of-factly as she lowered her hand. “Erin likes that sporty butchy thing you’ve got going on.”

What about you? The thought burst unbidden into Shay’s consciousness and she hid her discomfiture by loading the dishwasher. “Well, glad it appeals to some.”

“It does.” Brisa poured the last of the wine into Shay’s glass, less than a half-inch. “Thanks for letting me know what happened with Helen.”

Shay picked up the glass, relieved to have a barrier between her and Brisa. Weird. “Thanks for letting me gripe about it.”

“You didn’t. You were working through it.” She took the glass from Shay and drank some, then handed it back.

“Do you need some help setting up tomorrow?” Shay asked, forcing herself not to think about what Brisa had just done. Shit, she does that all the time with me. Why is it turning me on?

“I might send you out on an alcohol run. Are you going to be around?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to finish up an essay. Just call me if you need anything.”

“I will.” She took the glass out of Shay’s hand and set it on the counter and hugged her before Shay could prepare for how Brisa felt against her, how the curves Shay couldn’t see beneath the jeans and baggy shirt conformed to her own body, or how Brisa smelled sort of like jasmine.

Shay hugged her back, hoping Brisa didn’t pick up on anything. “Thanks,” she said again as she pulled away. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Brisa smiled and squeezed her forearm. “Thank you. Sweet dreams.” She followed Shay to the front door, where Shay put her flip-flops on, thinking her feet should’ve been cold but they weren’t. Every part of her was a lot warmer than necessary. She left, waving at Brisa again, and retreated to the safety of her own house. It was just another crush, and it made sense, given what had happened with Helen. Just some weird projection shit on my part. Still, she was glad she’d be at Brisa’s the next night. Even though Brisa was trying to set her up with Erin, it would probably be fun. Brisa’s parties always were.

#

“Shay, could you put these on the table?” Brisa handed her a tray of taquitos garnished with goat cheese and cilantro. Several people milled around the kitchen, talking and laughing.

“Sure thing.” Shay took the tray, glad to be doing something other than trying not to look at Brisa. She’d waited until several people had already shown up before arriving, thinking she’d be able to avoid Brisa, but Brisa found her and greeted her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, taking the flowers she’d brought from the farmers’ market so she could put them in a vase for the table. And both gestures left Shay tingling all over. Damn, she thought as she maneuvered the tray into an empty place on the table. She’d have to ask Erin out just to put a lid on the Brisa crush.

Then again…a perky little thing was currently hanging on Erin’s arm, gazing adoringly up at her. Never mind. Shay smiled and waved a greeting at Erin, who smiled back.

Brisa brushed past Shay and set another tray on the table, this one loaded with tamales. She squeezed Shay’s forearm and smiled. “Dig in,” she said, low and melodious, in Shay’s ear and her breath was hot on Shay’s cheek. What the hell? Is she flirting with me? No. No way. Brisa was just really touchy that way. And she’d been that way with Shay the whole time they’d known each other.

So why did it suddenly feel different? Brisa headed back to the kitchen and Shay watched her, butterflies tracking through her abdomen. At the doorway, Brisa turned and caught Shay’s eye. She regarded her for a few moments, smiled, and entered the kitchen. You idiot. It’s different because you’re fucking lusting after her like a teenager in heat. It had nothing to do with Brisa, who was just being Brisa. But it had everything to do with Shay, who had just had a weird experience with a woman. She was just injecting her own meanings into things that Brisa had always done. If all that shit hadn’t gone down with Helen, Shay wouldn’t be turned on by every damn thing Brisa did and said.

There. Issue analyzed and solved. So who was Brisa trying to set her up with? Erin was sort of busy. Probably Leanna or Maria, then. Shay grabbed a taquito and went in search of one or both of them to properly distract herself. She ended up finding Maria and chatted with her for a while along with two male colleagues of Brisa’s from UNM’s art museum. Maria was cute, Shay decided, but the sparkage level between them wasn’t much. At least from Shay’s perspective. But Maria was interesting, and Shay enjoyed their conversation.

Maria excused herself to get something to eat and Shay stood idly watching the dynamics of the people who had come. Around twenty, from Shay’s estimate. Brisa’s “dinner parties” were often just parties, where no one really sat down to eat. Instead, people wandered through the house, chatted in the living room or kitchen, maybe hung out on the back patio, often cruising by the table in the dining area to grab more food.

Shay finished the one beer she’d had all evening and took the bottle into the kitchen, where she rinsed it and placed it in the recycling container Brisa had moved into the kitchen for the party. Two women and a man were admiring a painting on the wall. Shay recognized them as friends Brisa made when she worked at the Indian Health Center at the UNM hospital complex. She nodded at them and set to rinsing out the other bottles that had accumulated on the counter.

She jumped when someone came up behind her and put a hand on each of her hips. “Thanks,” Brisa said, gently squeezing before removing her hands. Fire roared down Shay’s legs.

“Sure,” she managed, finishing up the last bottle. She put them all in the recycling bin while Brisa chatted about art with the other people in the room. Shay glanced over at her, deciding she might as well get all the cheap thrills she could, before she went home and buried this crush in the unrequited pit. Like an elephant graveyard, Shay thought, before she left the kitchen and started picking up bottles and glasses that guests had abandoned. She took them back to the kitchen, where she recycled the bottles and rinsed the glasses before putting them in the dishwasher.

Nearly ten, by the clock above the doorway. A few other people had started bringing dishes in from the dining room and Brisa was divvying up food in the kitchen, making sure people left with some. Those who came to Brisa’s parties knew they’d be leaving with food, so no one argued the point. Shay snagged one of the last taquitos before helping Maria clean off plates and trays.

She focused hard on Maria, trying to conjure a spark comparable to the ones Brisa’s touches had been generating, but to no avail. Damn. Maria was nice. Cute. Funny. Smart. Worked as an educator at the Hispanic Cultural Center. Shay took Maria’s card and thanked her for talking, though secretly she wondered if she was doomed to be sexually attracted to emotionally unavailable women like Helen or off-limits women like Brisa. Shay heard Brisa laugh from the living room.

Off-limits. Why was that? Because Brisa’s a friend, hello! So what was wrong with being physically attracted to a friend? Shay mulled that as she sorted through leftovers, keeping what she knew Brisa would want to save, disposing of some, and wrapping others for guests to take home. She’d attended enough of Brisa’s parties and cleaned up so many times afterward that she knew Brisa’s kitchen like her own. What was wrong with hooking up with a friend now and again? Safer than sex with a stranger. Physically, at least. But what happened if the friend wasn’t emotionally able to handle sex? See yuh to the friendship.

Shay washed and dried another tray. That would suck, losing Brisa’s friendship.

“Thanks,” Brisa said on Shay’s left, and the palm of her hand pressed against Shay’s back for a moment, leaving what Shay was certain was a burn mark. She dried her own hands and went out into the living room, wondering if Brisa had any clue, the effect she was having on her neighbor.

The table was clean and things were back in order. A few stragglers were saying their goodbyes to Brisa and Shay waved, picking up a last empty glass from the coffee table, which she carried into the kitchen and washed out.

She heard the screen door open and close, and voices from the porch. Brisa seeing the last of the party-goers off. Almost the last. Shay knew she needed to finish up as soon as possible and got back to her own house, knew she needed to get the hell out of there before she said or did something she’d regret. She dried the glass and put it back in the cabinet even as she heard the screen door close and then the heavy inner door shut, as well. Shay focused on cleaning the serving bowls, hearing Brisa turn the music up a bit. Something Brisa had done quite a few times in the past, when Shay had stayed to help clean up. It made sense that Brisa would do these things, after all. Shay lived right next door. Perfectly natural that Brisa would close the front door and turn the music up. After all, it was cool out. And she liked music.

So why the hell does it feel different? Shay scrubbed the second bowl, rinsed it, and dried it then reached for the third. She slung the dish towel over her shoulder, trying to hurry so she could go home.

“I thought that went well,” Brisa said from the doorway.

“I thought so, too.” Shay rinsed the third bowl, and Brisa took the towel off Shay’s shoulder and started drying it.

“Thank you. I really appreciate your help,” Brisa said as she put the bowl back in the cabinet.

“Wasn’t all me. But you’re welcome.” She flashed a smile. “You wine and dine me, I’ll clean up.”

“Nice trade.” Brisa dried another bowl and Shay surreptitiously studied her as she washed the last one, wondered what Brisa’s hair might feel like, spread across her bare abdomen and breasts. She gritted her teeth. Stupid, thoughts like that. And dangerous. Shay really needed to get home before she tested a boundary that should not be crossed.

“– why not?” Brisa asked.

“Sorry?” Shay responded, surprised.

Brisa looked at her, puzzled. “I said that I was talking to Petra, from the Art Department, and she wasn’t sure whether she should apply for a grant from an affiliate of the donors I spoke with yesterday. Where were you?”

“Uh…” Somewhere I really should not have been. “Just thinking, I guess.”

Brisa put the last bowl away and regarded Shay quizzically. “Coffee?”

No. God, no. “Sounds great. Chocolate?” I’m insane.

Brisa smiled, and the motion echoed the slow groove of the music. “You know where it is.” She started boiling water for the French press while Shay took a bar of imported dark chocolate out of the fridge to warm up. Just a normal evening with Brisa. They’d done this dozens of times.

“Well, it seems Erin was a bit preoccupied,” Brisa said as she spooned coffee into the press. “Though it won’t last long.”

Shay laughed. “So you’re saying I still have a shot at her?”

Brisa smiled and closed the lid on the coffee container, fastening it. “Erin is one of those women who doesn’t want to admit she’d much rather date casually. So she falls into bed with women and then feels obligated to remain with them, since, oh, my god, they’ve had sex. I know a lot of women who get stuck doing that.”

Shay opened the wrapper on the chocolate bar. “She should, thus, not have sex with anyone.”

“Not until she’s clear on what she actually wants. If Erin were honest with this latest, she’d say she’s not interested in long-term but she is interested in sex. Like some people I know.” She threw a glance at Shay then picked up the kettle from the burner and poured water into the press. Steam encircled it and wound up Brisa’s hand. She set the kettle back on the stove and placed the press’s plunger carefully in the mouth of the press, trapping heat within so the coffee could brew.

“There’s nothing wrong with sex,” Brisa said, as she turned away from the press and faced Shay. “So many women have such baggage with it, and understandably so. Still, it can be a wonderful release, and part of a shared journey between people who are clear about why they’re engaging in it with each other. Sex doesn’t have to mean marriage. Nor does it have to mean obligations or expectations. I get so tired of that.”

Shay broke a corner of the chocolate bar off and handed it to Brisa. “I like that view. You should maybe write a paper or something. ‘Sex, theory, and the single girl.’” She broke another piece of chocolate off for herself and took a bite, catching and holding Brisa’s gaze, hoping she didn’t reveal her shift in perception but hoping, too, that she did. And in a flicker of an expression, a little smile on Brisa’s lips, Shay saw potential.

” ‘Sex and the Single Girl,’ maybe,” Brisa said, laughing, as she pushed the plunger down while Shay took two cups out of the cabinet and set both on the counter so Brisa could fill them, which she did. Shay got the milk out of the fridge and poured a splash into each cup. “Cheers,” Shay said, taking one of the cups and tapping it against the other. She sipped the coffee, savoring its flavor as she swallowed, rich and full-bodied, warm and inviting. Like Brisa. Like what she sensed was unspoken between them and hinted of possibility. One of those moments, Shay knew, that came all too rarely and passed all too quickly, and she saw it reflected in Brisa’s eyes, in the recognition of a converging path, and a question, too, about what Shay might do about it.

Shay set her cup on the counter and reached, slowly, to brush her fingertips over the backs of Brisa’s hands, as they held her cup near her lips. And Shay moved closer, so she could touch Brisa’s cheek, and trace the line of her jaw, and the way Brisa’s skin felt beneath her fingertips triggered something deep, something forged in the spaces between want and need and Shay dropped her hand, leaving room both emotional and physical for the next moment, whatever it might bring.

Brisa put her cup on the counter next to Shay’s and Shay hung on the boundary she’d just breached, watching Brisa’s movements, wondering whether she’d misjudged or revealed expectations that had no business in their relationship. But Brisa placed her hands on Shay’s hips, where the hem of Shay’s shirt met her jeans, and she pulled Shay closer, and placed her cheek against Shay’s and the smell of jasmine mingled with that of hot coffee.

Shay closed her eyes and moved her head, so that her lips met Brisa’s cheek, and her arms encircled Brisa’s waist, something they’d done so many times in the past, but never like this. Brisa turned her head, so that her mouth was barely a breath from Shay’s and Shay took the invitation, grazing Brisa’s lower lip with her own, then she let her mouth track along Brisa’s jaw, toward her ear and back, and Shay brushed Brisa’s lips with hers, the sensation not unlike a feather trailing over bare skin, but leaving flames in its wake.

“I can stop,” she said quietly, pulling away, watching Brisa’s face, gauging her reaction, aching in places that had flared suddenly alive.

“I know.” And Brisa kissed her, a light, teasing exploration that left room for much more. “So can I.” She pressed her cheek to Shay’s again, and her breath was warm on Shay’s skin. “Tell me what you want,” Brisa said softly near Shay’s ear, her words setting brushfires through Shay’s torso, her fingers digging into Shay’s hips.

“Whatever you’ll give.” Shay nuzzled Brisa’s neck. “And I’d like to return the favor,” she whispered.

“Please do.” Brisa rested her lips against Shay’s neck then stepped away, releasing her hold on Shay’s hips. She extended her hand and Shay took it, their fingers automatically entwining as Brisa led her to the bedroom.

#

Shay took her glasses off and closed her eyes and she rubbed her eyelids for a few seconds before she saved the document and closed it. She also still had a few more essays to grade, but they could wait. It was Friday, after all. Her cell rang and she reached across her desk and checked the ID.

“Hey,” she answered, smiling. “How’s Santa Fe?”

“Tedious,” Brisa responded. “But it was an interesting gathering and we might be able to showcase some pieces from the estate after the first of the year.”

“So it was useful.” Shay stood, grabbing her cup, and headed to the kitchen, where she still had some coffee left in the pot.

“Very. I’m on my way home now. Are you bored enough to stop by? I was hoping to entice you with leftover lasagna.”

“I don’t get bored. I am, however, frustrated with freshman student essays.” She poured half a cup of coffee.

“All the more reason to stop by. There’s not much that lasagna won’t fix.”

“True. Although I’m not sure it’ll help my freshmen students write better. Oh, I’ve just revised the title of that article you should do,” Shay said as she walked into her living room.

“Do tell.”

” ‘Food, Sex, and the Single Girl’.”

“In that order?” Brisa asked, and there was a hint in her voice that Shay recognized, a timbre she’d used the night they’d spent together last month, and one that Shay knew left channels open between them, but required no more than time.

“Reading my mind, I see,” Shay said, watching out her front window as evening cloaked the half-bare trees across the street, opening a few channels herself.

“So I hope.” And Brisa’s voice was warm and low in Shay’s ear. “See you in an hour.”

done

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