Tara wiped the traces of sleep from her eyes. An angry voice had woken her but she could see that she was alone in the room and wondered if she had imagined it.
"Yes. Can you please stop asking me now?"
Okay, she hadn't imagined it. She frowned. It sounded like Willow's voice, but there was something different about it. It was higher and tighter, like she was trying to be flippant but was too tense to pull it off.
"I've told you already - I'll do it."
The conversation she was overhearing sounded like a criminal being recruited into illicit activity. She sat up warily, taking in the details of her surroundings. There was a sticker of a rainbow-colored unicorn on one of the windows, and the morning light made the colors bounce dizzyingly around her. The carpet was pink and, when Tara investigated with a toe, she found it was soft. Her gaze dropped to the comforter that was covering her lower body, and she smiled fondly at it. Unlike the uncomfortably stiff, plain linen on her bed at home, these sheets were faded and patterned with flowers. There was a white bedside table, with a thick book resting on it alongside a framed photograph of Willow with some friends.
She reached for the photograph and, in doing so, knocked over a glass of water. “Damn," she muttered.
"Sorry, Mom... I have to go."
As Tara began to soak up the water with a wad of tissues, she heard the click of the phone being put back in its charger, and quick footsteps making their way closer. A wave of nerves rushed through her body, startling her.
Willow peeked into the room. "Morning, Tara."
"Oh, hey," Tara said, rubbing furiously at the stain. "Sorry about this." She glanced up at Willow and couldn't resist smiling. Willow was wearing a soft pink sweater with a bow stitched on the neck. Her hair was in braids. Tara contrasted the images of Willow on their first meeting - scant clothing, defiant expression and armed with a sword - with Willow's pajamas from the previous night and now this innocent ensemble.
"Don't worry about the spill. I do that all the time." Willow sat on her bed and watched Tara clean up.
Tara wondered if she was telling the truth. Willow didn't seem like a clumsy person. Her room screamed 'neat freak' and had a system of organization that Tara couldn't begin to comprehend. Even the stuffed toys were divided by species, she noticed.
The silence between them pulsed until Tara could no longer stand it. She didn't enjoy small talk but sometimes there was a need for it. "So, that was your Mom?"
Willow nodded. "She's been calling me all the time over the last two weeks. I think she's convinced I'm suicidal." Willow wrinkled her nose, as though the piece of information was unpleasant but trivial.
"Why would she think that?" Tara looked at her with concern. She knew what grief was like - she had been a victim of it, and it still taunted her on occasion - but Willow appeared to be handling her sadness quite well.
"She came over the night after the funeral and saw the state I was in. I hadn't eaten since the wake, and I was pale and unclean and weepy. I didn't feel like looking after myself in any way."
"Understandably," Tara offered.
"To you, maybe." A smile tugged at Willow's mouth, and she looked away before it could form. "Not to a Jewish mother. No matter what the situation, thou must eat, wash, dress nicely and put a smile on your face. You never know who you might meet, even on your way to the post office."
Tara considered this as she threw away the tissues, returned the empty glass to the table and sat beside Willow. "You know, she might have a point there. I've had my share of embarrassing situations with clothing. You know, when you wish you'd made more of an effort?"
"Oh?" Willow gave her an appraising look. "Give me an example."
One example that sprung to mind was a recent one. Tara had gone to buy a newspaper, wearing a faintly stained T-shirt and pants that were perhaps a size too small. Her mentality had been that she wouldn't see anyone she knew and, if she did, she wasn't the type to care.
Naturally, by the law of public humiliation, she'd encountered her ex-girlfriend, who was hand-in-hand with a man. When they were introduced, the man's eyes had lit up with recognition at the name Tara, and traveled, with fascination, over her face and body. Oh, how she had cringed.
"Well," Tara said, deciding not to bring up her ex, "last night, for one."
Willow was shocked. "You looked really pretty," she argued. "Uh, you still do." Her cheeks colored, almost as pink as her sweater, as she corrected herself.
Tara was wearing the clothing she had arrived in. She looked down at herself critically. "I mean, if I'd known I was going to see you, I think I would have dressed differently." She hoped that Willow would ask how she would have dressed if she'd known.
"That reminds me, did you find out how your friend found me?" Willow took the easy way out, to Tara’s disappointment.
"Yes, it turns out that she followed you home from the funeral. She was a friend of, uh, your friend, and recognized your name."
"Why did she follow me?" Willow played with the bow on her sweater.
"She thought she was doing me a favor. She'd seen how bothered I was that you didn't call, so she took matters into her own feet." Tara injected sarcasm into her words, sure that Willow would react to the information in the same way she had.
Willow was silent for a minute. "That's, well, kind of sweet of her."
Tara hadn't expected that. "What?"
Willow stared at the ceiling. "I mean, there are obvious scary elements in her following me home. But otherwise you wouldn't have found me."
Tara found herself being bold yet again. "Is that a good thing?"
"What do you mean? Of course it is." Willow's eyes dropped from the ceiling to Tara. "I'm so glad you came over. Last night was perfect; exactly what I needed."
"Be still my beating heart. Waking up in a girl's bedroom and being told that last night was perfect..." Tara laughed softly. She knew that she had a long wait ahead, if it even happened at all, before she would wake up hearing that in the context she wanted from Willow.
"Tara, it was perfect. You can thank your friend from me."
Tara snickered to herself. She planned to put Alicia through hell, but she decided to consider passing on Willow's thanks when she was done.
The sound of a loud growl made both women jump. "That was a stomach," Willow said in disbelief. "I didn't know stomachs made noises like that."
"You're the scientist. You should know these things." Tara was rewarded with a smile from Willow for remembering that fact. "Besides, I think it was yours that made the sound."
"No way! It was yours, without a doubt. My stomach only makes ladylike noises."
Tara whistled. "If you insist, I'll take the blame, but we both know the truth."
Willow didn't laugh. She looked nervous. "Tara, if you don't want to, it's okay, I'll understand why, but, if you don't mind, do you want to go for breakfast?"
"Do you start every invitation with a disclaimer?" Tara asked, amused by the fragmented question.
"Most of them, yes."
Tara pressed her feet into her shoes, and took Willow's arm. "I don't mind, and I do want to."
"Great, let's go."
"Wait, Willow. My clothing is kind of wrinkled. Is it okay to wear this out?"
Willow's eyes widened, and Tara surmised that she wasn't used to being asked for fashion advice. "You look great. Who do you need to impress, anyway? You've already impressed me."
Willow led them to a café that was several streets away from her apartment. Tara studied the outside: the door handle was a giant peace sign and through the glass she could see people eating. She noticed that the walls were covered with posters, paintings, leaflets and political messages.
She raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Come here often?"
"I've never been before, but I always walk past and think it looks cute. Let's be adventurous today."
They slid into a booth and Tara studied the menu. She was shocked to see that the breakfast menu did not include the words bacon, ham, or sausage. She read the item 'Scrambled tofu with hash browns' and looked around with interest. "Is this place vegetarian or something?"
Willow nodded shyly. "Yeah."
Tara, who had been reading a hand-written poster about a feminist march, spun around. "Willow! Did you take me here on purpose?"
Willow nodded again, even more bashful.
"You're such a sweetie. You remembered that I'm vegetarian," Tara said, over-analyzing the possible implications.
"Well, sure. I remembered most of the things you told me."
Tara wished that Willow wasn't, technically, in mourning. She was feeling uncharacteristically courageous and, if the situation had been different, would have done something risky. As it was, she had been more flirtatious in the short time she'd known Willow than she ever had before. "Most of the things? You mean you forgot some of it?" she chastised.
Willow opened her mouth to reply and was interrupted by a waitress with a pierced eyebrow, who had come to take their order. She noticed that Tara automatically checked her out, her blue eyes taking in the short hair and dark eyes, as though running a scan over her. The waitress noticed and glanced back at her. They ordered their breakfast and waited for her to leave.
Tara was about to speak when she saw the expression on Willow’s face. “What is it? You look like you saw a ghost.” Damn; she’d promised herself to stop making casual references to death and the after-life, especially when Willow was in this state of mind.
“No, not a ghost,” Willow drawled, giving Tara a coy look. “Just learning from you.”
“Learning what?” Tara folded her arms.
“How to be into women.”
Again, they were interrupted, this time by the busboy coming over to wipe their table. “Hi girls,” he said.
Tara smiled at him. As soon as he left, she leaned closer to Willow. “What do you mean? I was just being friendly.”
“Okay!” Willow lifted her shoulders. “It’s not a big deal, anyway. I just found it cute to watch you checking her out.”
Tara sighed but inside she danced. Willow noticed? “Fine, so maybe I was. Just a little. Why were you checking me out in the first place?” A triumphant smile formed on her lips.
Willow didn’t reply. Tara noticed that her eyes had taken on a troubled expression.
"Willow," she said slowly, "if this isn't what you want, that's okay. I want to be your friend, that's all." As Tara spoke, she felt guilty. Being friends was only the first item of a very long list of things she wanted.
Willow nodded, her mind elsewhere. Somewhere far away, Tara thought.
They ate their breakfast mostly in silence, occasionally asking questions or making a joke.
On their way out, they both tried to walk faster than the other on the way over to the cash register. Tara pulled out her wallet, gave Willow a determined look, and placed a note dramatically on the counter.
"I'm paying," Willow argued.
"Okay." Tara smiled. She gave the note a push so that it fluttered over to rest in front of Willow. "You can do the actual paying, if you insist."
Willow rolled her eyes, paid with Tara's note, and followed Tara who was walking toward the door. "Don't you play cute tricks like that on me in the future."
Tara, not facing Willow, enjoyed the sound of the word future. "Oh, come on. You totally thought it was cute."
"Did not. Next time, I'll try that trick on you and see how you like it."
"That's fine with me," Tara said. "It can become an eating ritual for us."
Willow looked eager. "I like rituals."
"Do you?" Tara thought of Willow's room with the orderly stuffed toys and tried not to laugh.
"Are you laughing at me?"
"No!" To Tara's embarrassment, she noticed that several of the people at nearby tables were watching their interaction with knowing smiles. She knew that it looked like flirting. She also knew that Willow had no idea how it looked. "Let's go, Will." As she opened the door for Willow, she noticed a sign that made her heart jump. "Oh, gosh,” she murmured.
"What is it?" Willow stepped back, trying to figure out what Tara was focussed on.
Tara gestured at the sign with feigned nonchalance and Willow read it quickly.
Willow followed Tara out the door. "Tara?"
Tara gazed impassively at her. "That's my band."
"What?" Willow wiped sourdough crumbs off her sweater and grabbed Tara's arm. "You're in a band?"
"Is that so strange?" Tara smiled, a nervous half-smile under Willow's stare, and shrugged her shoulders.
"You didn't tell me about it. I wouldn't have forgotten something like that."
"It just didn't come up in conversation."
Willow exhaled heavily. "What is it with me and musicians?"
Tara frowned at this. "Go on, I'd like to know." She said it in a joking voice and wasn't surprised when Willow didn't respond.
"So, do you play an instrument or sing?" The idea of Tara being musical clearly delighted her.
"I sing," Tara said nervously. She knew where this was going. Bundles of fear in her stomach informed her of what Willow was going to ask next.
"Can I come to the launch?"
Willow finds that time is moving slowly. She is distracted at work, irritable with clients, and ignores the looks that pass between her colleagues when she passes by silently.
Her mother continues to phone her at all times, with searching questions and tactless remarks about how long it is taking her to 'move on'. The words amuse her, although she rebukes her mother for saying so; she can't imagine what her mother thinks she is doing if not moving on. When she pictures that hospital room, she is aware of how far removed she is from the scene, almost as though it never happened or she wasn't a part of it. She is moving normally, existing like a person unmarked by loss. She rarely lets herself unfold enough from the inside to consider the amount of grief that surrounds her.
When it isn't her mother on the phone, it's Tara. She asks about her day and is satisfied even if all Willow talks about is the television show she just watched. She comes over for dinner sometimes and Willow notices that when she's around, the apartment seems different. It stops feeling so big and empty. There's laughter and enticing smells in the kitchen and not too many leftovers, the way there usually is when it's just her. If Willow falls silent while she’s over, Tara does something to shake her out of it. She gives her a hug, or flicks a pea at her, and eventually she starts to lighten up.
She notices one thing: Tara is slipping on her promise. Willow catches her looking at her sideways, with what could only be described as longing. She's not sure what Tara is longing for: to be with Willow, to be in love, or for Willow to be aware of how she feels.
The problem is, she is aware but doesn't know how to sort through how she feels; somehow, those feelings are trapped all the way beneath all the others. It reminds her of when she was moving and, inevitably, whichever box she needed was always under another heavier box. She knows that Tara is waiting for her to talk about this, but she is sure that Tara would never question her or push her into feeling the same way. This relaxes her in some ways, but also makes her feel guilty.
Occasionally, without even realizing at first, Willow finds herself crying. Not heavy noticeable tears, but the silent kind that are easy to hide. To her amazement, Tara always notices and comforts her. Whether they've watching a movie or listening to music, Tara notices. She never tries to start a conversation, to Willow's relief; she's so sick of people trying to get her to talk about her feelings.
Yet one evening, after dinner, Tara is washing up and broaches the topic. "Willow, if you ever need to talk, please do. I know that you may not want to, but it might help you sort things out if you talk it through aloud." She says this very quickly, like she needs to get the words out but is afraid that she won't be able to.
Willow just shakes her head, not trusting herself to respond.
There it is, the familiar feeling of tears pushing at her lids, making her feel like she has lost any influence over her bodily functions.
Soon, she imagines, she will be bursting into song in the middle of a street, or drooling during a meeting at work.
"Talk to me, sweetie." Tara drops a handful of silverware into the soapy water, and puts her wet hand on Willow's bare back. "Come on, it's me."
Her voice is so gentle, so light, that Willow feels the tears escape. She grabs a dishtowel and rubs it impatiently over her eyes, hoping Tara doesn't notice.
Tara does notice, but doesn't comment. She leads her over to a chair and wraps her arm around Willow's neck, pulling her close. "I'm sorry, Will. I shouldn't have mentioned it."
Willow feels curiously detached from it all. She goes through the motions, hugs Tara back, lets the tears fall, but she feels like she is still standing by the wall, watching.
Weeks pass and she and Tara spend more and more time together. Finally, the night of launch arrives. She dresses casually, runs a comb through her wet hair and drives to the venue.
As soon as she walks in, the humiliation hits her. Tara had asked her who was bringing with her and when she'd said she was going alone, Tara had been surprised. Now she knows why. There is a crowd gathered near the stage and Willow looks over each person with jealousy. They look comfortable, like they know this scene and what their place is in it. There are drinks being clinked and introductions being made, and Willow watches it all uncertainly. She has gone out to places like this before, but she has no idea how to involve herself in this event.
Eventually, she sees Tara talking with a girl holding a guitar case, and she rushes over without thinking.
Tara and the girl both jump. Willow realizes they were deep in conversation and that she took them by surprise.
"Sorry," she says, beginning to wish that she had never asked to come. "I'll talk to you later, Tara." She wonders if Tara will notice if she leaves. The idea of watching TV on her sofa at home beckons invitingly.
The girl nudges Tara sharply. "Who's your friend, Tara? Aren't you going to introduce us?"
"This is Willow. Willow, meet Beth. She's in my band."
"Oh, that's great." Willow, deciding the conversation is over, begins to slither away, determined to keep her dignity intact.
"Willow, stay with us." Tara looks curiously at her.
"So, Willow,” Beth crouches down on the floor and begins to open the guitar case. "It's good to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Beth. How do you know Tara?" Willow isn't sure that this is a good question but wants to know more about Tara's life. So far, Tara hasn't divulged much.
"We're cousins, actually."
"Oh!" Willow exclaims before she can stop herself. She examines Beth more carefully, now that she has this knowledge. "Wow. Cousins?"
Beth, tiring of the conversation before it properly starts, nods, lifts her guitar and stands. "Well, I'd better go do the social thing. Willow, I'll see you around. Enjoy the night. Tara, meet us out back in five."
Tara stares at Willow. For once, she doesn't seem to know what to say.
"She's pretty," Willow says hesitantly. She wants to respect Tara's privacy, the same way Tara respects hers, but a part of her wants to beg for details.
"Yeah. I'd better go back. They're tuning." Tara inclines her head, as though they can hear sounds of tuning. They can't.
"Okay." So that tactic failed, Willow thinks. Maybe I should have pushed.
They look at each other for a moment longer and then Tara walks away.
The launch starts not long after, much to Willow's relief. She feels very uncomfortable standing alone at the table, and wants Tara to sing already so that she can go home. Despite all the time she has spent with Tara, she still hasn't heard her sing and hasn't heard the band's CD.
She sees Beth walk onto the stage wearing a long knitted red jacket over jeans. Willow can't help admiring the easy way Beth speaks to the audience, making jokes, introducing the other band members, and explaining what their album is about.
"For those of you who don't know much about us, our name really says it all. Somnium is Latin for dreaming of something. Foolish dreams," she glances up and smiles at the audience, pushing blonde hair out of her face. "This band was one big crazy dream. Everyone told us not to do it. Our families said that we were dreaming and that it was a waste of time. Others listened to us sing a capella and told us we sucked."
Willow listens intently. She's still amazed that Tara has this band, which is evidently a large part of her life, and is so secretive about it.
"But there were a few of you, many who are here tonight, who said that we have something different about us, and that we had to try to do this and get somewhere. So here we are." She shrugs her shoulders lightly, a movement that is very reminiscent of Tara. "We're going to play a few songs tonight. Mostly new, some old. We hope you like our songs. If you do, we're selling the CD afterwards."
Willow wonders why they're playing any old songs when the whole point of this night is to promote their CD. She shrugs and watches Tara walk on stage. There's something in her face, perhaps in her eyes, that Willow doesn't recognize tonight.
"This song is called 'For you'. And I dedicate it to y'all." Beth bows her head.
Willow decides that she doesn't like Beth. There's something fake about her that doesn't lurk in Tara, fortunately. She smiles, for the first time in the evening, when she sees Tara step in front of the microphone. That's much better; she'd prefer to hear Tara's silky voice any day.
The intro begins, a sultry mix of guitar and violin, and Willow taps her foot along with the beat. It isn't the typical mainstream music that she listens to. The beats of this song fly all over the place.
She recalls the words of her old high school band conductor, who informed the students that they should never tap their feet to music. He said it showed one of two things: that they were musicians but not advanced enough to follow the beat, or that they knew nothing about music, in which case their tapping was probably out of rhythm. Willow belatedly criticizes the man. At the time, she had listened to him and made an effort not to tap. Tonight, she taps freely.
Tara closes her eyes to sing, she notices. She can't help smiling proudly at her friend. Tara's voice is beautiful and soft, but full of color and meaning. The act of performing transforms her, and she stands tall and confident. Willow is still, letting the sounds wash over her.
In the last song that they sing, Willow is jolted out of her music appreciation to listen carefully to the lyrics. She can tell that the song is coming to an end, as the harmonies change and lift, and the words hit her heavily.
When Tara finishes, there is applause. Willow can't understand why they're applauding as though it is a typical song, just another love ballad or weepy song about woe. Even the most unobservant person should notice how involved the singer is in these words.
She watches as Tara smiles faintly and walks off-stage. She sees Beth and the other two band members murmuring.
Then there's a hand on her shoulder. "Let's go outside, Rosenberg."
"Who am I to argue with a lead singer?" Willow means this jokingly, but it comes out breathless, like an awestruck kid.
She stands under a street lamp and examines Tara. "You were really good," she says.
"Thanks." Tara waves away the compliment. "It's an old song."
"How old?" Willow likes that Tara knew what she was talking about. She could have been referring to the entire performance or any song of the eight they performed, but she knew.
"Four years and two months old."
Willow sees Tara swallow, and notices the indecision flickering in her blue eyes. She decides to follow her instinct this time. "That's a very exact date."
"Yes." Tara pauses. "I-I wrote it one month after my mother died."
"Oh, Tara, I'm so sorry."
"No, it's okay. It's not like I haven't had time to move on."
The words make Willow stiffen. "I hate that phrase. I don't understand what moving on entails. It's not like one day you suddenly realize you're over your loss and say 'okie dokie, that's one grief down,' and cross it off a list."
"You've never mentioned her to me," Willow says softly. She thinks about the fact that she still hasn't even told Tara her friend's name, and blushes. She wonders if four years and some months later she will still be secretive, like Tara.
"I'm sorry. I guess, well, I guess I haven't moved on, after all."
This is something Willow understands perfectly. "You were really brave to sing that song in front of everyone. I don't think I'd have had the guts to do it, if I was in your situation."
"We weren't going to sing it tonight. I've been arguing with Beth about it. She only wanted to play the songs from our new album. She wanted to replace it with 'Dissipation,' a song she wrote." She looks sad, suddenly. "She writes most of our songs."
"I bet her songs are bad," Willow says, and it comes out harsher than she intended. "Uh, I mean, not as good as yours."
Tara smiles at the slip. "Mine is just the confusion and angst of a very depressed 20-year-old."
"I liked it very much," Willow says.
"I hoped you would. I sang it for you."
They look up at each other in the dim light. Questions run through Willow's mind. How did your Mom die? Was that song for your Dad? Where is your Dad today? What's your problem with Beth?
She knows better than to ask. Not now. She can tell that she'll have many more opportunities to ask Tara these questions.
Tara seems to know what she is thinking, and looks appreciatively at Willow. "Should we go?"
"What about your launch?"
"I've done what I came to do."
"What was that? Oh..."
She stops as Tara takes her hand and leads her gently down the street, into the night.