I stood in front of the kitchen counter, singing as I chopped tomatoes. I'd always found cooking to be cathartic; my hands moved easily around kitchen tools, herbs and ingredients. My thoughts enjoyed the time to stroll around in my head while my body concentrated on the physical.
Being more focussed on singing than on chopping, I came close to cutting myself several times. Fortunately, I had inherited the rare trait of invincibility when it came to cooking. When I was a child, I spent hours watching my mother prepare food. I was astounded by the way she could use her hand as a chopping board. So far, my hands seemed to work the same. I wondered if, someday, my children would gain my superhands.
"That smells great." Alicia walked into the kitchen wearing a bathrobe and peered over my shoulder. "I was taking a nap and my nose woke me."
"Thanks, Ali. I should tell you - it's not for you," I clarified, laughing at the expression on her face.
"Is it for you and Willow? Are you going over there again tonight?" Alicia picked at her nail. Her casual tone was forced and it made me a little uncomfortable.
I nodded. "I thought I'd bring her dinner. She, uh, likes my cooking." Could I have sounded more whipped?
Alicia looked over my face critically, focussing her attention on what I assumed were my reddening cheeks. "You two are getting very old-married-couple, don't you think? You're living there, practically."
Stirring the sizzling garlic with a wooden spoon, I shook off her question. "I'll be going out at about five. What are you doing tonight?"
"I don't know. Painting over chipped nail polish, eating instant noodles, and reminiscing about the time my flatmate and I used to hang out together," Alicia said.
I flicked a piece of tomato at her. "I know that I've been busy with Willow. She needs me a lot, lately. I'm not going to pull away while she's going through this." You didn't want to spend much time with me before I met Willow.
"Uh huh. And this has nothing to do with what you need, does it." Alicia raised her eyebrows at me. "Look, I get it. I know that Willow is totally traumatized by Anne's death. But Tara, be careful. Don't confuse her neediness with her wanting to be with you. She likes the comfort, that's all."
I tensed at this. Alicia had used Anne's name previously and it still shocked me every time I heard it. Willow hadn't yet used the name herself, and it felt wrong for me to hear Alicia say it so casually.
"It's more than that, Alicia. You don't get it. Even I don't get it. There's something very strong and real between us, and it would be there even if there was no grieving or comforting taking place."
Alicia didn't say anything, she just gave me a half-smile that infuriated me more than words could have. Ever since I'd confronted her about following Willow home, our relationship had been strained.
Neither of us spoke for some time. I poured sliced mushrooms into the pan and began to stir them. I stared down at the pan and watched as the mushrooms changed from a chalky white to a moist brown. Alicia sat at the table, tapping her feet. I knew her too well to expect her to end the silence.
"What is it, Tare?" Alicia's voice was soft and understanding, in strong contrast with her previous tone. I wondered if she thought I was about to concede defeat and swear off Willow, like a weak addict.
"What do you think I should wear tonight?"
Whenever I arrived at Willow's, I felt fearful initially. I had no idea what mood she would be in and what to expect from the evening. Sometimes she would greet me with a dimpled grin, her tone relaxed and conversational. Other times, the blinds would be drawn, and she would be lying on the couch, almost ignoring my entrance.
"Willow?" I called into the hallway. She had given me a key to her place. Her reasoning was that if she was sleeping when I came over it would be more convenient if I could let myself in. Personally, I felt that she just wanted me to have the key. She'd had a spare for so long.
"In here, Tara." Her voice came from the bathroom.
I stopped outside the door. I couldn't tell, without directly seeing her, what mood she was in. "I'm outside. I'll wait for you to finish, don't worry." I turned around, wanting to put down the food I was carrying.
"No, come in."
I would like to say that I carried the containers of food into the kitchen, sat at the table, waited patiently for Willow to emerge from the bathroom, and felt virtuous. I didn't.
"Uh, okay." I pushed the door lightly with my foot and it barely budged. I gave it a harder push, embarrassed, and it swung open all the way.
Willow was sitting in the bathtub, her long, wet hair covering her back and shoulders. She wasn't facing me, at least. "Hiya," she said.
This was not a mood of hers that I had encountered so far. "Hi," I replied. "I b-brought some food over - I'm carrying it, actually, and I should go and put it in the kitchen. You finish your bath and then we'll have dinner."
"Okay," she said brightly, "you can do that. Or, if you don't mind, you could wash my back. I can't really reach."
It was one of the sillier reasons she could have picked but I agreed. I put the containers on the counter and sat on the tiled floor. I felt my pants absorb the entire amount of water that was on the floor. Great.
With a grand gesture she pushed her hair away from her back, exposing her skin. I gulped. Maybe I should have stayed home and watched reality TV with Alicia. This was going to become a little frustrating; I knew it.
I reached for a sponge, dipped it into the soapy water, and was about to start when Willow shook her head. "Could you please use some of this?" Still facing the wall, she passed back a bottle of strawberry-scented bath lotion.
Well. She was quite demanding. "Sure," I replied, amused. I poured the liquid onto the soaked sponge and rubbed it in a circular motion against her back.
"Thanks, Tara. I knew that you'd be coming over soon and that I probably didn't have time for a bath, but I felt a little cold and achey."
I continued to carress her back with the sponge and didn't reply. I was too focussed on her body and the way she was reacting to my touch. Perhaps she didn't realize it, but she was arching her back, moving it closer to me and dropping her head forward. Her shoulders had loosened up entirely. It was sexy.
"Will, maybe I should go and heat up the food so it's ready when you finish." I was far gone. Even the words 'ready' and 'finish' were making me flustered.
"No!" She turned to look at me with large, agonized eyes. "I'm really enjoying it," she pleaded. "Aren't you?"
She turned back to face the wall, giving me the chance to roll my eyes up at the ceiling and curse whichever deity was in business that day.
"Well, uh, yeah, Willow, but, uh, I don't know, you see, that that's a good thing."
Never before had I paused so many times in one sentence. I hoped that she would pick up on what I meant and what I was feeling and not push me to explain further. Surely she had known better than to ask me to do this.
Her shoulders lifted back into their tense position and she inhaled sharply. "Okay. That's fine. I'll join you in the kitchen when I'm done."
I dropped the sponge into the bath, grabbed the containers of food and almost ran to the kitchen. I shrunk into a chair and berated myself.
She joined me about five minutes later, wearing a sweater, pants, a towel wrappped around her hair and a very worried look in her eyes.
Food could be a very useful tension breaker. I tried it out. "Hey, look what I made for you. You're a lucky girl. Alicia was salivating over it." I began to serve her.
Willow laughed quietly as she grabbed silverware from a drawer. "I hope none of her saliva went in it."
"No way. I have strict quality control and assurance in my kitchen."
"Good." She pushed a forkful into her mouth and chewed slowly. "Wow, Tara. God. This is incredible."
"Thanks, Will." I blushed. The blush had nothing to do with her; whenever my food was complimented, I got shy.
She sighed and put down her fork. "Tara, I don't want us to be awkward around each other. That's just not how it is with us. Well, maybe that's how it is at the moment, but not how it should be." A look of resolution formed on her face. "I think we should have a talk after dinner. What do you say?"
I grimaced at the thought of this talk and the shape it might take.
"Okay, we can talk."
We ate in silence.
In her room, we fidgeted, made a few bad jokes, laughed uncomfortably, looked at each other and away again, and plunged into silence.
I had discovered, based on the many awkward conversations I'd had in my life, that when you chose to break a silence, it was common that the other person chose that moment to do the same. This resulted in a new level of embarrassment and sometimes, painfully, another silence.
"You go first."
"No. Please. After you."
Willow sighed. "This is my fault. I've been enjoying your company and all that you give me, to the point of being selfish. It's time for me to start being more honest with you."
She noticed my look of shock and put her hand against my face. "My friend's name was Anne. I knew her from school." She exhaled deeply, as though she hoped to propel more words out of her mouth. "I used to be a big geek - high school was all about the math and computers for me. People weren't lining up to be friends with me. Some said mean things, some tried to ruin my property... she was the first one to stand up for me. But it wasn't only that. She saved me from myself, I guess."
"Okay." This was not going to be a conversation about my feelings for her. I could cope with that. Maybe.
"I spent the years before I met her convinced that there was nothing more to me than academics. I was sure that I would never be social or passionate or even have a sense of humor. But in the time that I knew her, I changed. I figured out what was important to me, and it wasn't just textbooks any more. Much to my parents' displeasure. They didn't like her much."
I tried not to pay attention to her soft hand, which was now resting on my shoulder. "I'm glad you found someone like her."
Willow nodded. "It was the opposite for her. She was loud, confident and gorgeous - in her first week of school, she was asked out by at least four guys and invited to try out for the cheerleading squad. I couldn't believe it." She hesitated. "But that wasn't what she wanted. She was envious of me." Willow put a lot of emphasis on the final word, as though it still filled her with confusion and doubt.
I gave a small smile. It wasn't time to argue about how great she was. "Sounds like a pretty balanced relationship."
"Yep." Willow reached for the photograph by her bed, the one that I had tried to see weeks before. "This was Anne." She poked a finger at the glass.
I studied it for some time. I noticed Willow's genuine smile, the eager look on her face and the way her body fit so neatly against Anne's. I looked at Anne. She was wearing fashionable clothing that clashed with Willow's bright colors. Her blonde hair was flying about and she was pushing it back with one hand. Her eyes were focussed away from the camera.
"We did everything together. Every spare minute was spent doing something unpredictable." Willow's eyes were filling as she spoke. She had cried so many times in front of me now that she didn't notice any more. I did, though, and it made me ache for her. "We even baked purple cookies."
"They weren't, really." Willow finally withdrew her hand from my shoulder. "She spoke about death a lot. I'm not sure why; she hadn't lost anyone close or anything. It was just something she was fascinated with."
"I guess we all have our interests," I said lightly.
"I found it creepy, to be honest." Willow, noticing her tears at last, wiped them away. "Whenever she started discussing it, I would roll my eyes and try to change the topic. But one time, she had a favor to ask of me. She said that she hoped we would grow up together and stay just as close. She wanted us to be those stereotypical suburban moms who meet for lattes and boast about their kids."
"Okay. That's not a bad favor to be asked."
"Well, for me it was. I said that I didn't want to have kids, and wasn't sure that I wanted to get married, and that I didn't think I would even live in the suburbs." Willow allowed herself a smile. "I was pretty darn stubborn."
I grappled with this new piece of information about Willow. I wondered if it meant something good or bad for me. "So, you're not big on the idea of 2.2 kids and a SUV?"
She shook her head. "Not so much. I mean, I know I'm childlike... but I don't think that I would be very good at the whole maternal thing." She tilted her tear-stained face to look at me. "What about you, Tara?"
"I think it would be nice," I said casually. "I don't know about marriage, considering, uh, the laws of this country. But if I ever get to the point where I have enough money to feed more than one person, I think I'd jump at the option of having kids."
"Well, Anne said to me that we could still meet for lattes... even if I did remain rebellious, eternally single and childless."
"That was kind of her. I can picture you wearing khaki pants, leather wrist bands and clunky boots to a prissy surburban cafe." I sensed Willow relaxing as the conversation became lighter.
She snorted. "Sure. So, we were having this great conversation about the various possibilities for our future, when she got all serious. She said that if either of us died, we still had to carry on the tradition."
My eyes widened. "Uh, wait. The other should go to the cafe and converse with a spirit?"
Willow shrugged, her eyes moving back to the photograph. "I don't know. I was hoping you might have some insight. It was the only time we ever discussed being separated by death, and I don't even know if it was a joke."
"I think that the tradition was about not forgetting each other. It doesn't have to be physical. Maybe all she wanted was the comfort of knowing that even if something happened to one of you, that bond would never be lost."
"I figured you'd say something like that. Old, wise Tara. Anyway, I worked it out for myself. I decided that on the anniversary of her death, I would go to what had been our favorite cafe, order two lattes and conduct a deep and meaningful conversation with her. Maybe you could come along and act the part of her?"
She waited for my look of horror before laughing. "I was joking, Tare. I can make jokes, too, you know?"
"Yeah, crappy ones," I grumbled.
She stopped laughing abruptly. "But I do think it's weird that the day I lost her, you came into my life. It seems like a sign."
"I don't know. Maybe that you're the person I'll be close with forever, instead of Anne."
I handed her a tissue. "Trust me, I plan to be."