© by R.G. Emanuelle
Standing on a pier overlooking the Hudson River, I blankly stared at the water, trying to decide what to do. After a few minutes, I chose a bench and sat down, placing my suitcase on the ground. In my turmoil, I almost didn’t feel the sun, unusually hot for October, hammering the back of my head. I felt my knuckles going numb from squeezing my suitcase’s vinyl strap, thin and hard under my thumb. Looking at me, no one would have guessed that I was supposed to be on my way to work. I was terribly late and wasn’t sure I’d make it at all.
I moved slowly toward my office building, stopping at street vendors’ tables to peruse books, African art, and woodcuts that I had no intention of buying. By the time I got to the office, I figured my decision would be made―I’d either go to work or hail a cab.
The converted stone warehouse where I worked as a biller for an insurance agency was decrepit and cold, the smell of musty caves emanating from the walls, and the carpeting stained with floods of decades past. When I arrived, the numbers above the entrance seemed to coast on imaginary waves and my skull felt like it was shrinking. I stepped onto the elevator and pressed the “7” button, but as the doors closed, I thrust my body between them and ran out into the street, where I flagged a cab and told the driver to take me to Penn Station.
I bought a ticket to Vermont and waited only ten minutes before the train pulled out. My muscles twitched and my skin burned with anxiety. I’d never done anything like this. I tried watching the scenery, but all I could think about was what I was going to tell my boss, my mother, and Dennis, my fiancé. Then I started to get pissed off. Why should I be accountable to everyone? No one was ever accountable to me, yet everyone expected me to report every move I made. I often wondered why no one had yet asked me to call every time I peed. For once, I just picked up and left, with no word to anyone.
I stared out the window. The first colors of autumn were part of a moving backdrop, blurry and indistinguishable. But as the colors penetrated my thoughts, my anger eased and soon I was engrossed in every tree, every deer, every lake-side cabin that slowly floated by in the distance. The color gradations of the leaves and the little details of the cabins—white-washed frames, ladder-back rockers standing guard on porches, logs piled at doorsteps—soothed me. The visual lullaby coaxed me to sleep.
When I woke up, the train was pulling into the station at Essex Junction, my destination. It was quiet and almost empty. I rented a car at the visitors’ center and got directions to a bed-and-breakfast. The road was narrow and twisting like my troubled intestines. Curve after curve, I wound through the tangled mess of my life.
My room at the small inn was just as I’d wanted it, simple and clean. I sat on the edge of the Shaker-style bed with eyelet cover and stared at my cell phone, conspicuous on the Shaker high table. I knew I had to call someone. My co-workers were surely worried and my parents had probably called every hospital and police precinct in the city by now. I didn’t want to be cruel, after all. I dialed.
“Oh, my God. Louisa! Where are you? Your boss called and said you never showed up for work. Nobody’s heard from you. What happened?”
“I’m in Vermont.”
“Vermont? What the hell are you doing in Vermont?”
“I had to get away for a couple of days.”
“What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Do you realize you’re getting married in a few days? There are things to be done—Vermont!”
My head started pounding. The wedding was more important to my mother than it was to me. She wanted the perfect wedding. The biggest, most beautiful wedding ever. Me, well, that was another story.
“Louisa, you’re being very selfish. There are many other people who are preparing for this day. You have an obligation to them.”
Why? They weren’t the ones getting married. As if she’d plucked this thought from my head, she elaborated.
“The caterers have a problem with the salmon. There’s a shortage or something and they want an alternative selection. The most special moment of your life and—oh, and your father’s going crazy. The limo place is trying to change the rental fee, and he’s spent so much money as it is. Aunt Alice finally found a dress that doesn’t make her look like a tree trunk. You’re lucky to be going to Antigua. I had to go to Atlantic City for my honeymoon.”
This was supposed to make me feel guilty. It did. But I hadn’t wanted this. She had. “Ma, listen. I just need some time to think.”
“Think? About what? I’ve taken care of everything so you don’t have to think. All you have to do is show up. I’ll take care of all the last-minute details. Just come back, sweetheart, and have your dress fitted.”
The longer I remained on the phone with her, the more painful this would be.
“Ma, my bed’s on fire. I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
“A couple of days? What—”
The old-fashioned brass bell on the lobby desk dinged brightly when I hit it, summoning the elderly man who had checked me in earlier.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me what restaurants are around here?” I asked him wearily.
“There are a few down the road, but they’re all closed. It’s ten o’clock.”
I’d forgotten that I was no longer in New York City. Hunger was making me light-headed and cranky. I wanted to grab him by the collar and scream, “I’m starving! Get me some food now!” The old man started swaying, but I knew it was me and not him. I looked around, praying for a candy machine.
“You could get something at Pete’s Bar and Tackle Shop.”
“Pete’s Bar and Tackle Shop?”
“Yup. You can get a sandwich or burger. It’s up the road here, just past the junction.”
I didn’t know exactly what a junction was, but I managed to find it and Pete’s. I opened the door timidly and looked around. Empty. I slipped in. The bartender greeted me with “Evening” as I moved toward the bar. “Can I help you, Miss?”
“Someone told me I could get food here.”
“Yep. Here’s the menu.” He handed me a single sheet of paper that had an odd array of choices, from quesadillas to chick pea curry to a tofu scramble. I ordered a bowl of split-pea soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, which a waitress brought to my table. I thanked her and dove right into my food. I thought she was staring at me, but I was too hungry to care.
As I devoured the surprisingly tasty soup, I thought about the menu for my wedding and the rounds I had gone with my mother over what to serve. Even with my hunger sated, I became edgy and angry all over again.
I went back to the inn and hoped I’d dream up a solution to this mess.
The next day, I transported myself to a long-ago world by going to a Shakespeare Festival. As I walked down the paths where pseudo-sixteenth-century vendors were selling their wares, I relaxed. It was hard to feel unhappy while playing with Renaissance toys like marionettes and Jacob’s ladders. It was easy to forget that I worked in an office while I ate potato stew out of a bread bowl with no spoon.
I walked around, enjoying the warm Indian summer breeze. Fragrant oils and flute music sweetened the air. I puckered as I sipped the fresh lemonade that I’d bought from a serving wench whose bosom surged from the top of her bodice.
“Good day. Dost thou know the hour of the day?”
The lilting voice came from behind me, so I turned around. A woman in full Renaissance regalia stood there, holding a lute in one hand and several daisies in the other. Her light brown hair was done in a French braid and crowned with a ring of wildflowers. She looked angelic.
“Dost thou know the hour of the day?” she asked again, surreptitiously looking at my watch.
“Oh,” I said, practically jumping. “It’s three o’clock.”
“Many thanks.” She paused and studied me. Why were people here so fascinated with me?
“Uh, do I know you?” I asked. She looked familiar.
She tilted her head and furrowed her brow slightly. “Your countenance is a bit familiar to me.”
“Did you work at Ernie Samson’s hardware store?”
The lines on her forehead smoothed as she relaxed her face and smiled. “Nay. I know not the shopkeep of whom you speak.” She paused and seemed to contemplate something. “Perhaps we may have discourse when the sun has set?”
It was adorable, the way she spoke, remaining in character.
“Are you saying you’d like to talk when you’re off work? Over dinner or drinks or something?”
“Verily!” Her smile brightened.
“Okay.” I chuckled. It really was cute. “I’m staying at the Willow Inn.”
“Yea, I am acquainted with it. I shall fetch you one hour after sunset.”
“Oh, okay, um…” What hour would that be? “Okay, then.” I’d figure it out.
“Until the eve, fair thee well, fair maid” She pulled a flower from her little bouquet and handed it to me before she walked away.
The daisy in my hand had pure white petals and a sun-gold center. There was such beauty in its simplicity that I almost started to cry.
The aroma of roasting meat wafted past me, bringing me back to my surroundings.
The woman—I realized she hadn’t told me her name—had me intrigued. I was dying to know where I’d met her. A warm flush in my cheeks surprised me. I downed the rest of my lemonade and headed for the stage to see The Tempest.
The old man at the desk called to say that a woman was waiting for me in the lobby. I found her sitting in a floral wing chair in the common area, her hair fluttering in the breeze from the open window.
“Hi,” I said, my voice cracking slightly.
She got up and smiled. Suddenly, the room seemed brighter. “Hi. You ready to eat?”
“Oh,” I said with feigned disappointment. “Does this mean you won’t be speaking in Shakespearean English anymore?” I stuck out my lip in a pout.
Her eyelids closed a little and one corner of her mouth went up. “Why? Does that do something for you?”
My heart almost stopped. What did that mean? My belly spasmed. Damn, that potato soup. “H-how did you know who to ask for? I didn’t give you my name.”
“Oh, I simply asked for the attractive woman with the beautiful strawberry-blonde hair and mesmerizing hazel eyes.” She laughed, turned, and walked toward the door.
Stunned, I stood there for a moment, then rushed to catch up with her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“Quin. And yours?”
“Louisa.” I laughed. It was all kind of ridiculously funny. She laughed again, too. The sound of her laughter swirled around in my ears and seemed to seep into my skin.
Quin took me to a restaurant that had the look of an upscale lodge. The walls were made up of a lot of large stones, and the naked beams above, drawing attention to the underside of the roof, made it seem airy and expansive. Stone fireplaces gave the place a romantic air. The unseasonable heat of the day had given over to night coolness and the fireplaces were enticing. The waitress showed us to a table adjacent to one of them.
“In summer, they’re electric. Not much heat,” Quin said, catching me scrutinizing the fireplace. “In winter, they take the electric units out and burn real wood. It’s quite beautiful.”
“I’ll bet it is. But what I want to know is where we’ve met.”
“Wow, you have a short memory. Last night.”
“At Pete’s. I served you.” She raised her eyebrow suggestively.
The waitress who I thought was staring at me. “Oh! I’m sorry.” I chuckled. “I was really hungry and I didn’t notice much apart from my dinner.”
“Hmm. I wish I’d been on the menu, then.”
My throat got hot and my ears tingled. And just as I’d felt her eyes on me the night before, so they were on me again. Her eyes lingered on mine so long that I was compelled to cough.
“You should come back up here when it snows. It’s really like nowhere else.” Her eyes were unwavering.
“Maybe I will.” My smile faltered.
“Are you okay?”
I was having a great time but I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother and Dennis. “I just have a stupid situation at home.”
“You can tell me, if you want. Promise, it’ll never go beyond these walls.” Quin crossed her heart.
“I’m supposed to be getting married in three days.”
Quin fell silent. Had I said something wrong? She shifted in her seat and drank some more wine—a nice, big gulp of it. Finally, she said, “So, what’s the problem?” Her smile had disappeared and her tone held hints of sadness.
How could I explain what I felt when I didn’t know what I was feeling? I shook my head.
“Do you love him?”
Oh, God. She was going to ask me direct questions.
I cleared my throat, nervous. “No.” There. I said it. “But he doesn’t love me, either. Not in the romantic sense.”
“So why are you marrying him?” Quin’s voice was almost indignant.
“Partly out of pressure from my mother. Her voice is always in my head,”—I clapped my hands over my ears—“a piercing, shrill voice that penetrates my head like a power drill. ‘You’ll be old and alone. Someday, you’ll regret staying single.’” I uncovered my ears and gazed into the flickering candle, as if there’d be an answer there. “But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone I feel no passion for.” The picture of my life with Dennis was painted with very drab colors, and not even my mother, I hoped, would want a loveless life for me.
The rush of blood in my head began as the sense of panic returned. I wasn’t sure that the zucchini soup was going to stay down. I looked up and Quin was staring at me again, but with pity this time.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
She already had. What was one more? “Um, sure.”
“How’s the sex?”
The question embarrassed me, but I wasn’t sure why. “Uh. . .we haven’t. . .not since we were younger.”
A strange expression crossed Quin’s face. I waited for her to say something more about it, but she didn’t and we spent the rest of the meal talking about books, music, and movies. Strange.
Back at Quin’s apartment, I sipped an Amaretto and orange juice as I sat on her couch. After mixing herself a drink, Quin sat at the other end from me. “Okay, so, let’s get back to your problem. Why else are you marrying Dennis?”
I shrugged. Quin’s flirtations at dinner were wreaking havoc on my brain.
“Well. . .” I stopped and sighed. “I figured, what would I have to look forward to if I did say no? Countless dates with losers. Feeling like a charity case when friends hook me up with blind dates. Single, young men ‘unexpectedly’ showing up for dinner to my mother’s surprise.” My own cowardice stunned me. If fact, it hurt me. Right in the guts.
Quin watched me. And waited, as if I were on trial and the jury of one was waiting for me to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me, God.
“Actually. . .” I started.
I took a deep breath. “I’m gay.”
But instead of saying, “I’m gay too,” she gulped her drink and got up to make another. Was I wrong? Did I just imagine that she’d been flirting with me?
“How did you meet Dennis, anyway?”
Slightly embarrassed, I sipped my fresh drink and thought back to when Dennis and I played with my tea set. And now, we were going to play house—for real. “We grew up together. About a year before he proposed to me, I heard that Dennis had gone to church, completely out of the blue. The only thing I could get out of him about it was, ‘They think they have the answers, but they’re just trying to control something they can’t.’ A couple of months after that, I overheard my mother on the phone: ‘You have to do something about him, Ida.’ That’s Dennis’s mother. I wondered what he’d done and if it had anything to do with the church thing. When I asked my mother about it, she told me to mind my own business.”
Quin sat silently, listening. I had spilled it all to someone I’d just met. I guess it’s true what they say, that it’s easier to tell your problems to a stranger than to people you know. I swirled the ice in my drink. “One night, I went to Dennis’s and as I got to the door, this guy was coming out. Dennis’s father followed him, shouting ‘faggot’ and ‘fairy.’ He said he’d kill him if he ever came back. Dennis cried in my arms that night. That’s when he came out to me. I felt so sorry for him. Still do. And I think that’s really why I agreed to marry him. To help him hide it from his parents.”
I’d come to Vermont to sort out my problems, but meeting Quin had somehow changed my mission. There was no way I could marry Dennis—it wouldn’t be fair to either of us. That decision made, I now needed to get to know Quin. Her effect on my brain and body demanded it.
“You haven’t said anything about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
I pondered momentarily. It would be rude if I didn’t ask fundamental questions first. “Is Quin short for Quinlan?”
“Yeah, only it’s spelled Q-U-I-N-L-Y-N-N-E.”
“Are you from this area?”
“Nope. Originally from Maine. I started going south because I couldn’t take the winters up there anymore.”
“You didn’t get far, did you?” We both laughed.
“No. But it’s okay. I really like it here.”
I looked around. Her apartment had the bare essentials—furniture, some appliances, and a few knick-knacks. About what I’d expect of someone working at a Shakespeare festival during the day and waiting tables at Pete’s Bar and Tackle at night. The only thing that stood out was a collection of various-sized sock monkeys on a little table in the corner of the living room. It was just the kind of silliness that Louisa was missing from her life, and maybe just what she needed.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Yes.” I grinned. “Do you really play the lute?”
She wanted to laugh. I could tell by the dimples denting her cheeks. But she didn’t.
I shrugged, questioning.
“It’s a long story.” She bit her lip. “Maybe I’ll tell you some time.”
My stomach did a rippling thing, but I could no longer blame it on the food. It was definitely Quin’s fault. The one question I wanted to ask her the most, I couldn’t. I was racking up points in the coward department.
As Quin drove me back to the inn, I thought about how I’d told her all this personal stuff and wondered if I’d done the right thing. After all, I didn’t know this woman. How could I be sure she wasn’t some psychotic freak who would use this information against me? But I felt calmer than I had in a long time. Physically lighter. There’s something to be said about getting things off your chest. It felt good.
I glanced up at the stars. So beautiful and clear, and so infinite, like nothing I’d ever seen in New York. I searched the cosmic maze and played connect-the-dots with the constellations. Suddenly, I felt dizzy as I came to yet one more realization, the thing that had me going insane for months but that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My mother knew about Dennis. She knew, and she was deliberately pushing me to marry a gay man.
The veins in my neck hardened and I fingered them, tracing the bulges, jutting out like the features on a topographic map.
Quin pulled up in front of the inn. She turned to me and her smile faded for the second time that evening. “Are you okay? You look sick.”
“I am sick. Sick in the head.”
“Nothing. I need to go home tomorrow.”
“Really?” She stared, disappointment in her eyes.
“Yeah. I need to take care of things.”
“Well, listen, I’d be happy to take you to the train tomorrow.”
“I have a rental.”
“It’s okay. Leave it with old Mr. Cooper. He’ll call and have them come get it.”
“Okay, thanks.” Like an idiot, I sat there, waiting. For what? I felt stupid. Angry. Confused. At last, I started to turn. Quin pulled me back and kissed me. And I was amazed. I’d never gotten a rush from a kiss before, not like this. Hot cheeks, melting lips, and the desire for more. She pulled away from me far too soon. My question had been answered.
“Good night,” she said.
“Good night,” I responded, and got out.
Back in my room, I threw my belongings in my suitcase and went to bed. Not to sleep but to wait, impatiently, for morning.
Quin picked me up at seven and drove me to the station. She got out of the car and walked around to my side. Standing there in the early morning light, fair-haired, clear-skinned, and blue-eyed, she looked perfect to play a Renaissance maiden.
“Thanks for driving me.”
A ripple of pleasure made its way up my core and bubbled in my throat, preventing me from saying anything intelligent.
It was my turn to smile big. “Okay.”
Quin leaned in and kissed me, and the rush came again, along with my certainty. Yes, I’d be coming back—very, very soon.
“Safe trip home. Call me when you get there.”
I nodded, took my bag from the back seat, and went into the station. My first stop back in New York would be my parents’ house to confront my mother. Tomorrow, I’d go to Dennis’ house to pick him up. He’d be coming back with me to Vermont.
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