Slow takes the plunge, heading to Elle’s college campus to clear the air between them.
I sat in my truck, chewing the inner lining away from my cheek for what must have been hours. Checking my watch, I saw it had only been about twelve minutes. You’d think I’d have realized by now how fluid time was. I braced myself against the steering wheel, pushing my shoulders into the back of the vinyl seat. It didn’t change the view outside my window. Didn’t lessen my anxiety, either. A girl could hope. I’d told myself last night that if an autumn storm descended on the area, I wouldn’t make the trip. No thunderstorm had developed and I had grudgingly left the garage at noon. Maybe if I got to the college later in the evening, Elle would have made plans. Maybe she’d already be out. It took about six hours to drive the distance, and I hadn’t called ahead.
It had been a soggy season. I looked out over the rumpled campus grounds, victim of the latest windstorm. Tree branches and leaves were scattered everywhere, and I saw a maintenance crew about a block away still cleaning it up. My breath fogged up the driver’s window, and I ran my sleeve across it. Picking up a piece of notepaper, I checked the address I’d found in the school directory. Peering through the smear of condensation at the dorm building in front of me, I frowned. Same place. Damn. I’d spotted her red convertible — top up, of course — in the lot when I’d pulled in. She could be out with friends, right? It was a Saturday night. A young college lesbian had to have found someplace to hang out on the weekends. I wasn’t in college, and I certainly had.
As Daddy would say, “Shit or get off the pot.” Mama always smacked him when he swore. For a brief second I felt the pang of missing them. Then I did what I always did — namely putting them out of my mind. I’d gotten pretty good at that over the last two years. “Shit or get off the pot,” I repeated to myself. Sighing, I pulled the keys from the ignition and opened the door. The wind was still strong; I’d had to fight it all the way here, the truck shivering and rattling from side-to-side down the two-lane highway. A gust seemed to blow through me as I stepped out of the truck and pocketed my keys. I grabbed my denim jacket and slammed the door. No turning back now. I trotted up the stairs, putting on the jacket as I followed a couple of college kids into the building.
I stood in the entryway, looking around. A set of stairs stood across from me, and the area around it was open and airy with lots of tables and chairs and couches. It looked sort of like MacDougall’s Cafe, actually. Despite it being a Saturday night, the place was well-populated, too. A couple dozen folks hung out here, studying or reading or talking. There were vending machines and a small kitchenette to my right. I smelled microwave popcorn and stale bean burritos. I hadn’t had the presence of mind to grab Elle’s letter from the truck, but that didn’t matter. Despite my acting all uninterested, I had the address memorized before I’d gotten the blasted thing open last May. Spent a lot of time having dreams about making the trip, too, but that’s neither here nor there. All the people lounging about were my age or a little older, so I didn’t stand out any. Swallowing my fear that Elle would actually be in her dorm room, I headed for the stairs.
The first thing I realized was that there were both men and women living on each floor, so this wasn’t strictly a women’s dormitory. I didn’t know whether to be comfortable with the idea or not. I’m not sure I could live like this, sharing a bathroom with a passel of other girls, running into half-naked men coming out of the shower like the one I’d just passed. Guess it’s a good thing I’m not college material. On the fourth floor, I studied the numbers on the rooms. Had to backtrack once, but I soon found Elle’s door soon enough. Like all the others along the hall, it was painted a glossy green. There were flyers plastered on it — meeting information for the Women’s Center, a couple about local bands playing in the area, and something about the women’s soccer team. On the wall beside it was a brass plaque with two names on it. “Shipley” was on top, the i dotted with a circle.
I froze, not even registering the second name. Perhaps I got there too soon. What if she’s inside? I stared at her door like an idiot as people passed around me on all manner of errands. No doubt I received some weird looks as I pretended to be a statue with fist poised to knock, but I was too busy freaking out inside to notice. Elle lived on the other side of this door. For all I knew, she was in there right now, studying or listening to music, maybe napping or getting dressed for a night on the town. I mentally slapped myself. It’s Saturday night! She’s not here, moron. That gave me a slight reprieve as I considered turning tail and running. She’d never know I’d been there, and Kelly wouldn’t keep giving me the expectant eye. I could honestly say I made the effort. It might not get my friend off my back, but this could afford me a break until winter was over. Before I could make up my mind, the door in front of me flew open. I stared at a pretty brunette who blinked at me with round emerald eyes.
My hand had been half-raised to knock while I had debated. Now I opened my fist and waved at her in mute shock.
A puzzled smile crossed her face. She cocked her head quizzically to one side, looking every bit the friendly puppy, her gaze sweeping down and back up. Her smile broadened and her eyes became wider. “You’re Slow!”
Crap! Was she stating the obvious, or had Elle described me so clearly that her roommate was able to identify me, sight unseen? I heard someone exclaim inside. As my mouth hung open, fingers still waggling, I looked over the woman’s shoulder. Elle come into view, wearing a sports jersey in the college’s colors. My mind completely disconnected at that point as I took Elle in with my eyes. Green and gold looked good on her; it brought out the green tones in her hazel eyes. Her hair was pulled back into a braid, the wisps coming free at the temples tempting me to reach out and brush them behind her ears. Inside, a tiny voice wailed. She’s not supposed to be here. It’s Saturday night!
“Slow?” Elle came forward, opening the door wider to accommodate both of them. “What are you doing here?”
A question. That required speech. My first attempt was a squeak, so I cleared my throat. When I found my voice, it was a little too high-pitched, but at least it didn’t shake. “You invited me.”
“Last spring.” Elle seemed just as shocked as me. “You didn’t call.”
“I know.” It suddenly occurred to me that maybe I was interrupting. Had I waited so long that Elle had found someone else? Maybe this roommate shared more than just a room. How is it that I came by late in the hopes she’d gone partying, but now I was frantically against the idea?
The roommate giggled, her head swinging back and forth as she watched us. Elle seemed to remember the woman’s presence at the same time as me. She gestured to the brunette. “This is Sydney. Sydney, this is Slow.”
“I kind of figured that.” Sydney reached out and took my still-waving hand to shake it. “I’m so glad to finally meet you! I swear, you’re all Elle ever talks about.”
Elle’s pale skin flushed, and she looked away. I felt a moment of pleasure, quickly squashing it with the reminder that we weren’t lovers any more. She stepped past Sydney, breaking her death grip on my hand. “Do you want to go get some coffee or something?”
“Um. Yeah, sure.”
She grabbed a sweater from a hook by the door, forcing me to step back to let her out of the room. As she guided me down the hall, Sydney stepped out to wave at us. “You kids have fun! Have her back before midnight, Slow!” Other people in the corridor turned to watch, and it was my turn to blush with heat as we hit the stairwell.
We didn’t speak to each other until we were back outside the building. The maintenance crew hadn’t made much of a dent in its work, letting me know that it hadn’t been more than a few minutes since I’d last seen them. On the front stoop, Elle paused a half second before going down the stairs and turning onto the path that led through the debris. I dutifully followed, casting a wistful glance at my pickup and escape as we passed.
“I’m sorry about that.” Elle glanced over her shoulder at her dorm. “Sydney’s got a big mouth.”
I shrugged. “Some folks do. That’s just the way of it.”
She seemed perplexed that I didn’t take offense. Or maybe it was my “country-boy” charm. Though I looked like most everybody else here, I knew I was out of place. I didn’t think like these folks, like Elle. Slow Movin’ doesn’t just describe my speed of movement. I puzzled over my feelings as we followed the path until it opened up onto a brick courtyard with lots of benches and the like. Maybe Kelly was right. Elle seemed different now. Was it because she felt more mature here or that I felt out of place? I didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad one. The college library was across from us, and there were two shops to our left — a coffee shop and a fast food restaurant. Elle took us to the former. It was a busy place, and we had to stand in line. While we did, we studied each other out of the corner of our eyes. It was a lot like that first day at the river as we kept sneaking peeks and looking away. It didn’t feel as much like a game this time, though. When we made it to the front of the line. I let Elle order first but added mine to her order and paid for it. That seemed to please her, but it felt odd. Once we got our drinks, we stepped back outside into the last of the day. It hadn’t gotten quite dark enough for the streetlights to come on, but I expected it soon. Elle found us a bench nearby, and we sat down.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to see you.”
I shrugged again, unable to help feeling pleased despite our awkwardness. “I should have called, I know. I’m sorry.”
Elle waved dismissal. “No, it’s okay. I’m glad you came.” She peered down at her cup, running a finger over the brand letters imbedded in the plastic lid. “I was thinking about writing you another letter.”
I wanted to ask why she didn’t just come by the shop again before remembering what had happened last time. Chewing my lower lip, I suddenly found my cup just as interesting as she’d found hers.
We sat in silence for a time. “So, how have you been doing? Still working at the garage?”
“During the day, yeah.”
The distinction caught her attention. “What else have you been doing?”
I gave her a shy smile. “I play music several nights a week in the city. Some Fridays at a coffee shop, and three nights at various venues.”
Her pensive expression opened up with joy. “Oh, Slow! That’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you.” Her jubilance couldn’t be contained, and she gave me a hug. It felt mighty good, and I was sad to see it end.
“Thanks. I have a friend who owns the lesbian bar there. She’s taken me under her wing a bit, helping me make connections.”
A pensive expression clouded Elle’s face, and she looked away, the awkwardness returned in full force. “That’s great.” She didn’t sound all that happy about it, though.
The silence sank deep between us. I passed the time watching people come and go in dribs and drabs. The wind died down a bit, though I smelled a hint of rain. I wondered if I’d be fighting a downpour on the way back home. Good thing the shop was closed tomorrow — I wouldn’t be home until after midnight at this rate. I doubted I’d be able to sleep when I got back anyway.
Elle broke the quiet. “I miss you, Slow. I miss having you in my life.”
Nodding, I stared at my cup. “I miss you, too.”
Her fingers were warm from her coffee where she laid them across my exposed wrist. It was nice to feel her touch again, brief as it might be. “I know I hurt you, but I was just a kid. I’ve grown up a lot since then. So have you. Why won’t you give us another chance?”
How could I explain it? It had been over a year since she’d showed up at the garage wanting to make amends. A year since we’d bawled like babies in each other’s arms. The first time she’d left on her own; last time I escorted her to her car and out of my life. My cheeks puffed out as I released a deep breath. Shit or get off the pot. “Elle, I’ve been around the block a few times since you left, so to speak.” I snuck a peek at her to make sure she understood what I meant. The line between her eyebrows had become more pronounced, so I knew she did.
“Is there somebody else?”
“No!” I covered her hand with mine. “Nobody permanent, at least. Just…” I trailed off, trying to figure out a polite way of saying I’d had sex with pretty much any woman who’d have me. “Slut” was such an ugly word. “I just…I’ve slept around a lot since then.”
She swallowed, jaw firm. I saw the muscle jumping there. I bet if the wind hadn’t been rustling the leaves overhead I’d have heard her grinding her teeth. “I see.”
This feeling two ways about a thing annoys the dickens out of me. What did Kelly call it? Ambiguous? How can a body use a single word to describe the mishmash of being glad Elle was jealous of those other women and angry because she didn’t have the right? Ever since she’d left me my emotions had been confused like this. It had been so much easier in the beginning when I simply loved her. I patted her hand and released it. “Anyway, I remember you always talking about getting out of town, getting a college education and moving to the city. Most the women I know in town had the same ideas when they were our age. And look at them.” I couldn’t look at her any more, so I watched the people coming and going at the cafe and coffee shop. Bad enough I pulled Kelly’s “our age” card. Above us, the streetlights finally came on, blinking as the halogen fired up. “They’re still there. They never made it and they’re miserable.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” Elle’s fingers tightened on my wrist, drawing me back to her. “You think it’ll happen to me, too?”
I set my coffee cup on the ground between my feet, taking her hand in both of mine. “Elle, I’ll just bring you down. You don’t want to be with a grease monkey the rest of your life, living in the suburbs and being part of Wednesday night’s bowling league. You want to live in the city and have a career, an exciting life.” She opened her mouth to interrupt, and I tugged her hand to stop her. “You always used to talk about Hollywood or New York, traveling the world, seeing Europe. You’ll never get that with me. You’ll only get shopping at Morton’s Grocery Emporium every week, a job as a bank teller and a mortgage on a ranch house. That’s no life for you.”
She took a moment to digest my words. “Are you telling me that you’ve rejected me to save me?” The line between at the bridge of her nose became more pronounced, and alarm bells rang in my head. She pulled free of me, set her cup on the ground, and stood. Hands on her hips, she towered over me. “Answer me!”
I leaned back on the bench, eyes wide. “It’s what’s best for—”
A finger came up to wag beneath my nose, cutting me off. “Don’t you tell me what’s best for me! I’ve had enough of that from my parents. Give me a little credit, Slow. I think I know what I want out of life and it’s you.” Blinking, I stared at her. Those last words were nice, but her tone made me wonder if I should worry or not. I opened my mouth to respond, and she verbally ran right over the top of me. “So get off your high horse, missy, and pay close attention. You do not decide anything for me. We can have a life together if we choose, but we are both responsible for ourselves.”
High horse? Me? I growled and pushed up to my feet, forcing her backward. “If I remember rightly, you were the first to go down this road, ‘missy.’ You’re the one who decided we couldn’t be together, not me.” I took a step forward, making her step back as alarm washed over her face. I heard my cardboard cup fall over, and the smell of coffee became stronger. “I was willing to work it out, but you broke up with me and ran off to college. You!” She dropped her chin, staring at the ground. Despite the apparent concession to my argument, her jaw muscle still jumped as she struggled to regain some control. My anger backed off a bit as I watched.
Elle looked up, pinning me with her hazel eyes. Her gaze was clear and strong, her brow smoothing. “I know, and leaving you was a mistake. I know that now. I was panicked then, we both were. Our entire lives were falling apart, and it was easier to run away than deal with it. Nothing I can ever do or say will make up for it.” This was different. She took a deep breath and stepped closer, retaking my hand in hers. “That doesn’t change how I feel about you, Slow. I love you.”
The Elle I remembered would have continued to rant and rail, then marched off in a huff. Not that she ever did that with me so much, but I recollect her being angry at others over the years. Maybe Kelly had been right; Elle had grown up some since living home. Visiting her away from our old haunts had given me a chance to see who she was becoming. I still wasn’t sure what that could mean in the long run, but for the first time in months I felt a trickle of hope in my heart. “I love you, too. But I don’t know how to fix this.”
“That’s okay. I do.” She closed the distance between us and took my lips with hers.