"What is it?" Willow looks at Tara's face and smiles; the blonde's chin is smudged with sauce, her hair is tied back messily and there's a pout on her lips.
"I forgot to buy one of the herbs I needed. I have to run down to the store."
"It still smells great to me. Can't you leave out those pesky herbs?"
"No," Tara says. "If the recipe calls for herbs, I use herbs." She laughs at Willow's look of incomprehension.
"If a recipe needed herbs and I didn't have herbs, I'd hold the herbs." Willow pauses, musing over her words. "I guess that's why my cooking experiments don't turn out so well."
"That's okay. You have other talents," Tara says. She grabs her purse and heads out.
Willow, accustomed to being useless in the kitchen, looks around for something to do. Everything she can think of doing has been done. Finally, she switches on the kettle to make tea. She sits at the table, drinking slowly as she waits for Tara.
She feels the familiar jolt of excitement when she hears the key turn in the door. "You're back."
"I did," Willow says pitifully.
Tara adds the herbs to the pan, transfers the food into a tray and puts it in the oven, and walks out of the room. She glances at herself in the hallway mirror, releases her hair from the rubber band holding it out of her face and runs her fingers through it. It falls gracefully to her shoulders.
"You don't need to primp; you look great already." Willow walks out of the kitchen and stands next to Tara.
Tara blushes, looking up at Willow bashfully. "Do not."
Willow arches an eyebrow, taking a step forward. "Looking for an argument? If you want to be punished or somethin', you only have to ask."
"Oh, I have to ask for it now, do I? Is that how it is?" Tara loops her finger around the top of Willow's jeans and pulls her close. She gives a slow, seductive smile.
"Well, that has always been the rule," Willow says. "But I've decided to revise it for tonight. Just, y'know, to be nice."
"You're very nice." Tara puts her palm under Willow's chin and tilts her face upwards. "May I?"
"Kiss me? Of course. No rules, remember?"
Tara laughs, then leans forward so suddenly that her next breath is shared with Willow. She begins to kiss her - softly at first, then gaining intensity until Willow almost cries out.
The fire alarm cries out instead.
"Oh, no," Tara says against Willow's lips. "There goes dinner."
When the doorbell rings, Willow is propped up on a couch with a pillow behind her back, and Tara is in the kitchen.
"Hi, Lisa," Tara calls out, rushing to open the door. "Welcome to our humble residence."
"Thank you! Wow, I love it already - I noticed the fountain of the two women in the garden... very classy and timeless, and... God it smells great in here."
"Thanks. I'm sure the chef at Marty's Pizzeria would be flattered," Tara says dryly.
Lisa sounds shocked. "We're having pizza? I expected you to cook after you told me how much you enjoy... Can pregnant women even eat pizza?"
"Don't ask questions about tonight's menu, Lisa," Willow calls from the lounge room. "It's a sore point for Tara. And yes, I can eat pizza."
"What happened with the menu?" Lisa follows the voice down the hall and stops in front of Willow's chair. All of a sudden she seems shy. "Um, hey. You must be Willow."
"I sure hope so," Willow says, looking down at her body. "Nice to meet you, Lisa."
Their conversation over dinner consists of a variety of topics - from neo-punk music to diet changes during pregnancy. Willow avoids talking about Lisa's family or letting on that she knows about the situation. A comfortable silence falls over them when they finish eating.
Lisa sits back, wiping sauce off her hands and looking from Tara to Willow. "If you don't mind me asking," she says, "I'm kind of curious about the whole gay thing."
"It's a thing?" Willow laughs and then notices the look that Tara gives her. A chiding spouse look; a look she expects to receive and give often when they embark into the world of parenting. "Uh, yes, the gay thing."
"The gay thing," Tara echoes, looking distracted.
"You know... how you got together and dealt with all the issues," Lisa says. She fidgets with a napkin as she waits for a response.
Willow turns to look at her wife. She knows that Tara is wondering if Lisa has any confusion about her sexuality. She remains silent; Tara is the best person to answer if this is the case.
I wish I could say that our story took a bold and adventurous twist after that night. I'd like to say that Willow took her mother's advice and "moved on." That we exchanged words easily and frequently, until our friendship shifted into something deeper.
The opposite happened. We continued our dinners, laughing and discussing trivial matters. We had a few too many drinks at a karaoke bar and sang and danced until dawn. We cried together when Willow's dog had to be put down, and made ourselves sick on comfort chocolate. We went to dinner with Willow's parents and exchanged looks when Willow's father propositioned the teenage waitress.
It was possible that we were moving in the right direction, but at a very slow rate. I didn't get a chance to find out.
I had recently been given another part-time job - proofreading for a community paper. I loved the position and put many hours into it. I was given the afternoon off after finishing a large project and decided to show up at the apartment and surprise Willow. But Willow surprised me more.
We had never discussed her sexuality in any way. She'd hinted at previous relationships but was hesitant to go into detail. After Anne's death, I was sure that she wouldn't be ready to date for months. I had, as I said to Alicia, "backed off." I assumed that if Willow was questioned about her sexual preference at that time, she would check the 'asexual' box. I couldn't believe how misguided I had been.
Willow didn't know what to say to me. It was obvious that she hadn't considered how to tell me. She broke it off with the girl - if there was anything substantial enough to break - and wouldn't talk about it. We had one more dinner, a terse, unpleasant experience, before we stopped speaking.
I was crying when Alicia got home from visiting her friends up north. She found me at the kitchen table, tears falling so steadily that I could taste them in my throat, and got angry. I was so glad to have her.
She told me repeatedly to forget Willow, and said that I deserved much better. It was easier to believe Alicia than to understand what Willow had done, so I stopped answering her phone calls and pretended I wasn't home when she came over to our apartment.
By December, it was as though she'd never existed. Of course, I thought about her constantly; it was impossible not to. Sometimes I would have dreams about her and wake up feeling relieved - until I was greeted with the reality of my empty bed. Most of the songs I wrote at that time were about her. At first it was difficult to put together lyrics that encapsulated all my bitterness. I came up with twisted, vengeful songs that formed in rhyme. Something changed after that, and I found myself able to write strong, emotional lyrics.
I saw her in town a couple of times and walked straight past. It was hard to ignore her. On one occasion, I saw the expression on her face. She looked so frail and sad that I nearly dropped the facade and hugged her.
Things were changing outside my person life. I dropped the weekly responsibility of the columns I had been writing and took on more shifts for the proof-reading position. I started going out with Alicia and her friends and, despite a lingering sadness, I managed to enjoy myself. I started learning how to play the guitar, too. It was something I'd been meaning to do for a long time and when I'd seen an advertisement for a tutor I signed up on the spot.
One afternoon, Alicia came into my room while I was practising. "Phone call, Tare." She looked uneasy.
I put down my guitar and stared. "Is it...?"
She shook her head. "Some girl. She's kind of bitchy. I don't know who it is, but it isn't You-know-who." She made devil horns at her temples with her fingers.
We snickered, having recently discovered Harry Potter. "Okay, thanks." I took the phone and forced myself to speak into it. "Hello?"
"No, I'm not dead, if you even care."
"Hey, Beth. How are you doing?"
"Fine. The band I'm in is doing great, despite the fact that one of its singers couldn't care less."
"I do care, Beth. I've just had a difficult couple of months. Things got busy."
I understood why Alicia had been nervous to give me the phone; Beth wasn't making any attempts at pleasantries.
"Anyway, Tara, we're having a party for New Year's Eve. We were going to play some songs and wanted to know if you'd be interested in coming. If you still want to be in the band, that is."
"Of course I do," I said, starting to feel angry instead of apathetic. "It was my idea to create the band in the first place, Beth."
"Tara's in," she said to someone in the background. "Okay, I'll email you the details. See you there, little cous'."
Our rehearsals for the gig were tedious. I would turn up, sing as though I cared about the lyrics, eat snacks and make conversation, and then leave.
We made an interesting group. I was the one lesbian in their entire social circle and none of them seemed able to grasp the concept. They were careful to avoid discussing it, other than the very infrequent question about my love life.
Beth and I couldn't have been more different. Considering that we had the same family, same upbringing, and came from the same city, one would expect our values and opinions to be similar, or to show cohesion at some points. Instead, we were constantly arguing about anything and everything.
The other two band members, Beth's college friends, were nice. Jenny was a Canadian who had played the violin since the age of six. She was loud and had opinions about every lyric and key change, which infuriated Beth. Nicole, a native Californian, was quiet and hard-working and I guessed that the band was the main form of social activity in her life. Not unlike myself.
After one of my guitar lessons, I was on my way to band practice when I thought I saw Willow. I'd never had both rehearsals on the same day and had forgotten that the route would take me past the building where she worked. I walked closer to the building, wondering if the redhead I could see from a distance was her. She was standing in her work clothes outside the building, talking to a colleague. I walked a few more feet and stopped, squinting. She was gesturing wildly as she talked. It had to be Willow.
She hadn't seen me, so it would have been reasonable for me to step past gingerly. Something inside made me approach her.
"Excuse me," I said, smiling at the woman beside her. "Hi, Willow."
Willow let out a little sound. It wasn't a pretty sound. It was a soft 'ooh', like I'd deflated her. "Uh, hello." She wasn't being friendly.
Her friend picked up on the tension - it wasn't hard to do so - and excused herself.
"How have you been?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Okay." Her eyes lingered on my guitar case. "That's new."
"Yeah, I took it up a while ago."
I registered the cuteness of her clothing. She was in a black suit and her hair was styled. "Wow. Don't you look all professional."
"Thanks. I like your look, too. I guess you weren't lying at the Ren Faire."
I laughed at this. I was wearing the purple dress that I'd worn to the Faire. "Yeah. Of course I didn't lie. I didn't lie about anything."
My comment, meant to put her at ease, had the opposite effect. She looked troubled. I felt bad, even though I hadn't intended to hurt her. "Hey, Willow, my band has a gig on New Year's Eve. If you don't have any plans, you should come and see us. We've gotten better, I think."
"Oh. I was planning to attend the function that my company is having that night; a big annual party with rich couples turning up in flashy cars to do stupid things under the influence of champagne. Then they spend the first few months of the new year trying to compensate for the stupid things they did."
"Okay. I just thought I'd ask."
"Did that really sound like I was turning you down?"
"Uh..." I looked uncertainly at her.
"I wasn't. I'd like to see your band again. Also, I'd like to catch up with Beth." She peeked her tongue through her lips, the first hint of humor so far in this conversation. Beth hadn't exactly welcomed Willow into our lives when they met.
"I'm sure Beth misses you, too," I replied. “She just loves lesbians.” I winced at my last remark; I'd never clarified whether or not Willow was gay. I could have taken the compromising position I'd seen her in as a physical answer to this dilemma but I preferred to have her tell me.
"Oh, yes." She tapped her fingers against the wall. "Tara? If it gets awkward that night, I'll leave. Don't worry."
"I'm not worried."
She handed me her organizer and I put in the time and address of the gig. I checked my watch and saw that I was going to be late. "I have to go, Willow. I've got rehearsal now."
"See you in a couple of weeks." She waved as I walked away. We were so casual yet our words were clearly forced. I couldn't believe that this was the person I had cradled in my arms as I slept.
When I reached the traffic light, I turned around to see if she was still there. She was leaning against the wall, watching me.