I counted each of the days that passed without her calling. When it reached two weeks, I resigned myself to staying single permanently or becoming straight, as I had no trouble attracting glances, free drinks and distasteful text messages from men.
"It's your hair," my housemate Alicia said, after another weekend of watching me mope. I had already cleaned out the refrigerator twice, displeasing Alicia when I threw out her macrobiotic yoghurt, arranged my earrings in alphabetical order of their colors, and had nearly memorized the newspaper.
"What's wrong with my hair?" I glanced in the mirror and couldn't find any obvious lesbian repelling characteristics. It was blonde, thick and untamed; other than pinning flowers into it, I left it well alone. "I thought you liked it." I had asked Alicia many times over the week what was wrong with me, a question that she shook off airily, but I'd asked again when she was distracted and this time received an answer.
"It's gorgeous," Alicia said patiently. "The trouble is that you don't seem to think so. You need me to do something radical so you see the beauty. Then other women will, too." She was a part-time hairdresser and good friend, who delighted in identifying problems and offering to solve them.
I looked doubtfully at her. "Last time we did 'something radical' I was fired."
"Yeah, yeah," she said, "but do you want to find a woman?" She glanced at me with a coy expression, knowing I wouldn't argue.
So, despite my previous resolution to resist her persuasive offers, I read a book as she combed, layered, highlighted and blow-dried my long hair.
"There." She wore a satisfied smile and my stomach curdled with anxiety. "You look gorgeous. Have a look and tell me what you think." She stood up to leave the room. " We're going out tonight - I want you to see how differently women will respond to you."
I waited for her to leave before walking over to the mirror; I couldn't stand someone watching me evaluate myself. I peered at my reflection and my first impression was that I resembled a rich housewife, with a sleek 'do' and vacant expression. "Alicia!"
She rushed in, dishtowel in hand. "What?"
"Okay. I appreciate your hard work, really. But this," I pointed upwards, "isn't me." It wasn't her, either. Alicia's hair was similar to her clothing and attitude; there was lots of it, in no apparent order or theme, but it was attractive nonetheless. She had at least three different colors of hair: bronze, scarlet and chocolate brown.
She rolled her eyes. "Is that it?"
"I guess." The shock was already dissipating; I could never stay mad for long, no matter how hard I tried. I ran my fingers through my hair, unwittingly spreading the smell of ammonia and burnt hair through the room. I had to admit it did look different and even nice - although I wasn't going to tell her that.
In the evening, I insisted on wearing dull, unflattering clothing. I felt that my hair made enough of a statement. Any more accentuating features and I would cross over into tacky. Alicia turned off the television when I entered the living room and stared at my attire.
"Before you harass me, let me explain. I chose these clothes to ensure that it is my hair that women react to and not a cleavage exhibition." I waved my hands down at my shirt's neckline, which was an inch higher than the requirements of a Catholic school uniform.
"Tara, you are such a dork," she said woefully. "Okay, let's go test out our hypothesis."
As we walked through the darkening streets, preferring the exercise to driving, we discussed Willow. Alicia was amused by my obsession. "You've only met her once. At a Ren Faire," she emphasized, as though I ought to reconsider my interest in the girl. "Did you really expect that you two would fall in love, buy a house and have lots of babies?"
"Uh." I shrugged my shoulders, hoping she would be kind.
"You did? Aww." She rubbed my shoulder in her unique way of showing affection. "We'll find you someone cute to take your mind off the happy ending. Or maybe you'll get an even happier ending." She winked. "What kind of name is Willow, anyway?"
We turned onto a street that was quiet and lined with trees. She nodded at a brick apartment. "This is our stop."
"Ali, I thought we were going to a bar or something." I eyed the houses around us with surprise. The suburbs were not Alicia's preferred 'turf', and she complained every time she had to visit her parents. She loved city life; she was at her happiest walking through dirty streets in the early morning, eating a greasy burger or slice of pizza to wash down the sins of the night before.
"Did I say that?" She turned to face me, tousling her hair as she spoke. "Don't worry, Tara, you'll have fun. The girl having the party is one of my best friends."
"How many best friends do you have, anyway?" I grumbled as she escorted me upstairs. I started to regret my choice of outfit and tugged on the shirt, hoping to lower the neck a little.
We walked up several staircases and paused at the top, breathing heavily. Only then did I notice the absence of party sounds. Once we reached the door to her friend's place, there was no longer any possibility that the party was starting, or that the sounds were muffled - the apartment was silent, except for the sounds of a barking dog and a TV program.
"Al Gore, you're such a naughty boy! How many times do I have to tell you to be quiet?"
We could hear every word clearly. I felt something inside tighten, whether it was my heart or something naughtier wasn't clear to me, and I put my hand against the cool wall to steady myself. I had missed that voice.
"Oh, Alicia, may the spirits have mercy on your soul." I swivelled, enraged, to look at my friend.
"I go to Church... my soul will be fine, thank you." She laughed awkwardly. Twisting a lock of hair around her finger as she chewed gum, she looked like she'd dropped off a few years and was back to being the quintessential teen. She certainly shared the maturity level.
"I don't know about that," I threatened. "Let's go, right now."
"Aren't you even the slightest bit curious how I-"
We heard someone opening the front door and she stopped mid sentence.
Willow stood in the doorway in her pajamas, holding a squirming dog in her arms and staring at us. The first thing I noticed, other than the fact that the thin pajamas didn't leave much to the imagination, was her expression. She was missing the spirit, the gleaming eyes and teasing lips, which I had admired upon meeting her. I couldn't attribute it to the costume she'd been wearing - I knew it came from her, but I wondered where it had gone.
"Well, this is my cue to leave," Alicia announced. She avoided my eyes. "Call me if you need me to come and get you."
"I'll call to arrange a time for you to pick up your belongings, since I'm kicking you out," I replied, only half joking. I watched her skip down the stairs and resisted the urge to make a gesture at her back.
"Hey, Tara." Willow put the dog - Al Gore, I presumed - on the floor, and it ran towards me. "Your hair looks nice."
Alicia, halfway down the stairs, heard the comment. "See? You look hot, Tare."
I felt angrier and more self-conscious than I had in a long time. I looked at Willow with narrowed eyes, hoping to appear more confident than I felt. Al Gore barked happily and pawed at my leg.
"Want to come in? I think I have some explainin' to do," Willow said quietly.
I nodded. Maybe I was angry, but I did want to hear her side of the story. I couldn't help feeling as though she was just as disappointed as me. In any case, I was in no rush to go home. Torturing Alicia could wait a couple of hours.
She led me into her apartment and I got excited despite myself. "Wow, Willow, you have a great book collection."
She sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and watched me. "Thanks. A friend of mine works for a publisher and gives me books all the time. It gets a little tiresome on our birthdays, though. There's no point wondering what he bought because, surprise surprise, it's a book."
"Still, you're lucky. I have maybe a quarter of the number of books you have." I ran my fingers along the spines of her classics.
"Oh, Tara, I'm not ungrateful. I love books. Really." She looked up at me with a shocked expression.
"Willow," I interrupted, feeling a headache coming on, "can we talk?" I wasn't sure how the conversation was going to go and wanted to get it over with, sooner rather than later. She was undeniably beautiful and seemed to be interested in me. This was a lethal combination because it scared me so much that I usually managed to screw up the one part I could handle: speech.
I watched as she tried to put her hands in her pajama pockets, only to realize that there were no pockets and pull them out.
We sat in silence. The television babbled news at us, which I barely listened to. I hadn't stopped thinking about Willow since we'd met, and to have her in front of me made all of my senses squirm.
"It makes me depressed," Willow said eventually, pointing her thumb at the TV, "watching all the gloom and doom."
I glanced at the TV; there were images of coffins being carried, covered in flags, and of bullets pelting a tank. "I think it would be a little worse living it." As I spoke, I wondered if that was too harsh. Then again, I figured she deserved it. It stung that while I was sitting there thinking about her, her mind was on the television.
She was taken aback by my response. "Well, obviously that would be worse. I meant that it's hard to watch the news and hear about people dying or losing their homes, and not be able to do anything to help." She started rolling up her pajama sleeves, focussing on the task rather than me. "All we can do is gripe about the political and economic policies and hope that the situation changes."
I looked directly into her eyes. "Why do you watch it? I understand that you want to keep yourself up-to-date, but what's the point of forcing yourself to see those images if they upset you?" I felt myself caught up in a tangle of words and tried to stop myself. Too late, out it came. "Is it so that you sound knowledgeable when your co-workers discuss current affairs?" Ouch, me.
"What's your problem, Tara?"
I noticed, as she spoke, that she was crying. I think I noticed before she did, because she made no effort to wipe her eyes or nose, or control the volume of her voice.
"What?" she prompted. "You were eager to speak a second ago. Why don't you keep going? It looked like you were having fun." Her words came out like an angry child's, which appeared to bother her. She glared at me.
"Willow," I said her name slowly, letting my tongue enjoy the two syllables before causing more conflict, "I'm sorry, I don't want to hurt you. That's the last thing I want to do, believe me. I'm just angry because you avoided me."
She picked up the remote control and switched off the TV. The quietness of the room, apart from Al Gore's panting, made me feel unsettled. She gestured for me to keep speaking.
My anger was fading quickly and I didn't know how to continue. "I thought you'd call me. I kept waiting for the call and it didn't come. Did I do something wrong?" I felt disgusted with myself; my tone was as syrupy and self-indulgent as a soap-opera character. At least my hair matched the part perfectly, I thought.
"Tara," she said, ignoring my question, "come with me."
She grabbed my hand before I had time to pull away, and helped me stand. We walked down the hallway and she opened the door to a room. I knew immediately that it was where she slept. As creepy as it sounds, I could detect her scent, her essence, settled amongst the room's furniture and objects.
Her large eyes met mine. "Sit here," she said, indicating her bed with a soft pat.
There was nothing sexual, romantic or even friendly in the instruction. I knew implicitly that she needed me to do whatever she asked, so I removed my shoes and coat and sat on her bed. Al Gore shuffled into the room and collapsed onto his bed on the floor.
I saw her open her large closet and climb in, ruffling through articles of clothing and bags of belongings. If the mood had been different, I would have made a coming out joke.
She emerged at last, holding a sleeping bag. She joined me on the bed, unzipping the bag until it was spread out as wide as it could go. She wrapped it around us, like it was a blanket. I was confused but liked it all the same. It felt very intimate.
"Willow? Sweetie, what are you doing?" My voice was soft, free of judgement, but curious.
She glanced at me, studying my face, as though deciding whether or not I deserved the answer. Clearly she decided I was. "It's my old sleeping bag. It has helped me through some tough stuff. I guess I feel the urge to crawl into it when I'm scared." She smiled faintly. "I used to hide in it during thunder storms. Very Sound of Music, I know."
I nodded. "Hey, don't be shy. I bet members of the Executive Office of the President still have some form of security blanket."
"Those are called affairs, Tara."
We laughed together. It felt uncomfortable and we both stopped.
She switched on a flashlight and placed it between her knees so that her hands were free. She took one of my hands and held it between hers, and my hand immediately shivered at the coldness of hers.
I looked up at her face, illuminated but distorted by the light. I studied each of her features in turn: her pale skin, perfectly sculpted eyebrows, thin lips and small nose. A tendril of hair hung in front of her eyes, and my hand itched for the opportunity to move it aside. Her skin looked so soft. I wondered if it was as cold as her hands.
"I'm glad you came over," she whispered. "I've been wondering about you."
Our proximity made me feel light inside, lighter than I'd felt in a while, anyway, and I felt brave.
"I've wondered about you, too, Willow." I gave my hand permission to move the hair aside. My fingers reached out for her forehead, hesitating at the last second, and then touched her. I smiled as soon as they made contact. She was soft and warm, and I felt dizzy at the way it made me feel.
She moved her head, possibly to look at me, and the hair fell away from her eyes. I stared into them. She transformed back from the girl who had rejected me into the girl who had delighted me enough to move past shyness and hand out a number.
"Don't look at me," she said. Her cheeks tinged with pink and she tried to move out of sight.
Naturally, these words anchored me to her. I didn't blink. I don't think I breathed. I just looked until I saw exactly what she'd lead me into the room to discover.
I saw that her hair was unwashed, and that her cheeks were stained with more tears than those she had cried in my presence. She leaned over, so that her head rested against my chest, and the flashlight fell out and landed on the bed.
"Willow." I didn't know what to do, but she seemed quite comfortable against my chest so I made sure not to move. "Please talk to me." God, I felt like a monster for what I'd said before.
"Have you ever," she began, her voice scratchy, "made a pact with someone?"
I shook my head. "What kind of pact? Like, uh, I'll show you mine if you show me yours?" I blushed, remembering my disastrous first sexual experience.
"No, I mean with a friend. A pact to come back, if one dies, to visit the other." She moved away from my chest to peer at me. Her eyes begged for understanding.
"No. I guess I've never had a close enough friend to make a pact like that." I thought back to some of my childhood and teenage friends, and knew instantly that this was true. They had been aquaintances; people who, like me, needed someone to help them get through school.
"Because, Tara, I had a friend like that."
I swallowed at the word 'had'. "What happened, Willow?"
She picked up the flashlight and held her hand in front of it, making the orange light dart between her fingers in strange patterns. "It was that day. I got home from the Ren Faire and made myself wait an hour before calling you. You know, since you had to finish your article."
I nodded, trying not to praise her for being considerate. Inside, though, my heart swelled.
Willow can tell that Tara likes her. It annoys her that people think the big gestures trumpet love and admiration - a passionate poem, rose petals and champagne, a tongue moving seductively over lips, a bold proclamation of lust. She sees how Tara feels in her eyes.
As she explains that she rushed home to call her, Tara's eyes flash, almost changing color. That's how strong happiness can be, Willow thinks.
Does she really think that I gave her up?
She imagines how Tara must perceive her, and sees herself as whimsical, like someone pushing away a dessert even though they're tempted. She wonders if Tara has any idea how much time she has spent agonizing over her. And how many hours did we spend together? Maybe four?
"Before the hour passed, the phone rang. I thought maybe you had tracked me down, somehow, so I answered it on the first ring. It wasn't you, though." Willow traces patterns on Tara's arm as she speaks, not even aware that she's doing so. "It was my friend's mom, letting me know that there had been an accident. She wanted me to come to the hospital."
Willow recites the words carefully, ensuring they are void of emotion, in a chronological order. She feels like she is giving a book report.
She wants her story to be easily understood, but, more than that, she needs it to be easy to say. She doesn't want words to burden her, words that describe the panic in their voices during that conversation, or words that illustrate how her friend looked in that bed.
Tara seems to understand this. She doesn't respond but watches her, hanging onto every word.
"We spent two days at the hospital. There was nothing to do. We tried everything the nurses and doctor suggested; brightening the room with her things from home, bringing in a tape of songs she loved and playing them over and over as she slept, talking to her and telling her things that had happened since she, uh, went in." Willow rolls her eyes at herself, annoyed by her momentary slip. "It didn't work. We lost her."
"I'm s-so sorry, Willow."
The stammer pushes Willow out of her story. She looks curiously at Tara, who shrugs it off.
"Since then, I've been here. I would have called you, but, well..."
"I understand," Tara says. She is breathing quickly, Willow notices, almost like she is struggling.
"What I don't understand," Willow continues, "is how you found me. My address and number aren't listed. And I'm not google-searchable either."
"I'm going to make a phone call."
In my mind, I examined the walk to the apartment and the few details I had been given. Alicia had lead the way, and I remembered thinking that she must have done this walk many times because she knew it well.
Willow released my hand and I stood up. My body was sore from lying in the same position, and I had no idea what time it was. I searched my bag, found my cell phone and called Alicia.
"Tara, I didn't think I'd be hearing from you for a while." I could hear music and voices in the background.
"I only want to know one thing: how do you know where Willow lives?"
"I knew her friend," Alicia said, without pausing. "We'd gone to school together. I listened to Willow speak at the funeral and recognized her name. I doubted that it was a different red-headed Willow - that's not exactly common."
"Yeah, that wasn't the question, Alicia. How did you get her address?" My voice was flat and monotonous; it even scared me.
Alicia sounded surprised. "I, well... I followed her home afterwards. Without her noticing. As a favour to you - you were going nuts, Tare. I wanted it to be a surprise for you."
"Alicia, I don't know what twisted world you live in, but you don't follow people home from funerals."
I hung up, swore, and returned to Willow. I wasn't sure what I would say if she asked what Alicia had said. I didn't want to tell her because I thought it might scare her.
She didn't ask; she was sleeping. Her head had fallen onto the sleeping bag and she was breathing softly.
I curled up beside her on the bed and wrapped a protective arm around her body. I felt full of anger and sadness and knew that sleep would not be possible. Instead, I decided to make myself useful and keep Willow warm.