Check out the first story of Vee in the FELT TIPS anthology, available from your favourite ebook retailer. And many thanks to Cathy Pegau, who titled this story!
Alex writes in these notebooks so often that I think I ought to start doing the same. I know some of her notebooks are for work—she’s always working on an article or three, doing research or taking notes. But I’m pretty sure most of her writing is about us. Not that I mind. I might ask to read some, one day.
Now me. I haven’t written in a diary since I was a kid, and back then it was a pink book with a glossy cover and one of those pathetic locks that don’t keep anyone out. What I wrote back then was silly, just about what I did at school, or what I thought of my classmates or my friends. Kid stuff.
I came home early from school one day and caught my mother reading it. That was the end of my writing. She looked sheepish when I caught her, but she never apologized. She just handed it back and told me it was a mother’s job to keep track of what her daughter was up to. Yeah right.
And then she wonders why I moved out as soon as I was able to. I got out from under her wing as quick as I could. Helicopter parents aren’t just a 21st century invention.
I didn’t mean to write about her. I have a crisp new notebook; one of those Moleskines Alex loves so much. I snagged one at work the other day. Have to use my employee discount, after all.
I came to New York to get away. Away from my mom, away from the boring kids I grew up with, away from the cookie-cutter suburb in NJ. I had just enough money to stay in a hostel for a couple of days, find a job in a little diner, and then find a tiny room in an even tinier apartment. But I was here, in the big city. Finally.
Now, where was I going with this? It’s too easy to write about long ago memories, to get caught up in that whirl of emotion when everything in my life changed.
Alex and I had a coffee the other day, and a bite to eat in the deli down the street from her apartment. That’s why the memories have come back. I’d convinced her that she needed a break—she’s been working on so much, and I’ve mostly just seen the back of her head.
“Come on,” I urge her, turning her chair so it faces me instead of her computer screen. She rubs her eyes and gives me a tired smile. “Let’s go for lunch.”
“It’s almost dinnertime.” Alex looks at her watch, a thin gold band on her slender wrist. She’s elegant without really trying, like someone with old money. She isn’t though, not really. She did what I did, but twenty years ago, give or take.
“The perfect time for pastrami on rye,” I say. Actually, there’s never a bad time. All that meat, piled high on the plate. Honestly, most of the time it looks like the bread is an afterthought, barely holding it all in order. I like it best when I can dip it in Dijon mustard.
(I’m hungry again already, but from my basement apartment it’s a bit of a walk to the nearest deli, and too late to be tromping around. So, I’ll manage.)
Alex pulls on a leather jacket and puts on some ballet flats. She waits while I lace up my boots. Love them, but combat boots, especially tall ones, seem to take forever to put on.
We hook arms as we walk down the street, and when we get to the deli, my favourite waiter, Kyle, waves and points us to a table in his section. He’ll give us a minute to get settled before he comes over to talk our ears off. The man is the biggest gossip, but an absolute sweetheart.
We order our usuals—Kyle doesn’t even pretend to write it down—and I take my first bite. (Yes, it was a big, greedy bite—I was starving.) I hear a voice I haven’t heard since school. Eleventh grade English, to be exact.
“Sylvia? I almost didn’t recognize you!” Mrs. Trent scurries over, managing to look both disapproving and excited. I’m not sure how she manages it, but she does.
“Hi, Mrs. Trent.” I greet her after a difficult minute of chewing and swallowing, while Alex looks on in bemusement.
“I can’t believe you’ve done that to your hair,” she says in that teacherly voice, that one designed to make you cringe in embarrassment. I don’t cringe anymore.
“I got tired of it being pink.” I see Alex’s lips quirk up before she hides her smile behind her water glass.
Mrs. Trent stands primly in front of the table, glancing from me to Alex. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your—“ she pauses a moment, “—aunt?”
Alex chokes on her water, her cheeks turning red. She coughs and sputters and I pat her on the back, ignoring Mrs. Trent and her stupid assumption. As Alex recovers, I’m trying to figure out what to say. May-December romances are all well and good if your December is an older rich guy, but somehow I think Mrs. Trent would even disapprove of that.
“Mrs. Trent, this is Alex. Alex is—“
“Not her aunt,” Alex says, her voice croaky. Mrs. Trent holds out a hand and they shake hands.
“Her employer?” Mrs. Trent asks. She’s always had a place for everything and everyone, and she needs to file Alex in a spot. As far as I know, I’m in the “former students who won’t make anything of themselves” spot. And to hell with that. I’m happier here in my hand-to-mouth life than I ever was back home.
“She’s my girlfriend.” No flinching, no prevaricating, as Alex would say. I watch Alex, who pales, then glance at Mrs. Trent. If I’d never seen the woman turn that shade of red before, I might be worried, but this is standard for her. Several times a year she’d get like this in front of her class. I think some of the boys made a game of it, trying to get her to this point. Back then, I didn’t try, but now—well, she deserves it.
Mrs. Trent seems to take a breath, then another, as if the public space is the only thing keeping her from exploding. I’ve never been so thankful for a deli in my life.
“What would your mother say if she knew?” Her horror and disdain drip from her words. Like all young women are supposed to marry right out of school and pop out a bunch of babies. As if.
“None of your business.” I hold Alex’s hand, and she’s squeezing my fingers tight. It takes a lot to anger her, and I have this feeling that she’s holding back for my sake. After all, Mrs. Trent is from my past, not hers. But it wasn’t to be.
“Who do you think you are, seducing a girl young enough to be your daughter?” Mrs. Trent focuses on Alex, obviously thinking she’ll have a greater effect there. I was rarely cowed by her back in high school, so I think she’s given up on me.
Alex presses her lips together and I imagine she’s counting in her head, trying to stay calm. But enough of this. Mrs. Trent isn’t my teacher anymore. I stand abruptly and I stifle a laugh as I realize I’m actually taller than Mrs. Trent now. It’s nice to feel like I’m in a place of power.
“Go home. Gossip, because I know you will—“ I look pointedly at her, “—but just go. If I ever wanted your opinion, I’d have asked you.”
I stare her down, and finally Mrs. Trent backs up a step, clutching her purse, looking shocked. I take a step forward. I’m not going to let up, let her think she’s won. I’m not ashamed. Mrs. Trent takes a few more steps back, then turns in a huff and leaves.
I settle back into my seat. “That fucking cow,” I mutter.
Alex hasn’t said a word. Usually when I cuss, she will scold me, but this time she’s silent. She’s staring after Mrs. Trent, looking pensive, her forehead wrinkled, her lips pursed.
“Don’t let her bother you, she’s always been like that,” I tell her.
“What will your mother think?” Alex asks.
I know Alex had it rough from her parents when she came out, but I hadn’t thought about it in my case. I shrug.
“Mom’s never really had a problem. Nor Dad. I mean, she’d much rather I had regularly coloured hair, but you can’t have everything.”
“But shouldn’t you have a girlfriend your own age?”
Oh. So that’s it.
“I’m pretty sure my parents aren’t checking the ID of women I date,” I say. “Anyway, you’re not really robbing the cradle or anything.”
“But there’s almost twenty years between us,” Alex points out.
I take her hand. I’ve never seen her so uncertain. Damn Mrs. Trent, sticking her nose where it didn’t belong.
“If your age mattered, I wouldn’t be here,” I say. “I wouldn’t have come to the coffee shop, or read your stories, or kissed you, or drank sherry, or taken you to bed—“ I list off all the things we’ve done in the past few weeks, to the point where it starts to become absurd.
But it does the trick. Alex relaxes and a smile replaces her pinched mouth. I stick my tongue out at her, and as I’d hoped, she laughs.
“We’ll go see my parents at some point,” I say, “but I know they’ll love you. How could they not?”
I lean over the table and Alex leans forward to meet me. That tender, brief kiss tells me everything is all right.
Still, I’d better call my parents, if only to warn them that I was rude to Mrs. Trent. Mom will tut, but Dad will chuckle and then tell Mom to relax. Or at least I hope so. I think they’re okay with me as I am, but I’m not as sure as I’ve made out to Alex.
I should have told Alex to relax. I stay over with Alex more often than not—she lives closer to the bookshop and I love her apartment—and tonight she’s quieter than usual, drinking a cup of tea and sitting in the cracked leather chair in front of the fireplace. She has a notebook on her lap, but she’s not writing.
I perch on the edge of the chair arm. “A franc for your thoughts?” I can’t really channel Ingrid Bergman, but I can try.
Alex smiles, but it’s more just to placate me than real happiness. “Am I really that old? I shouldn’t be with someone your age.”
I can’t help but curse. I slide off the chair and onto her lap, pushing aside her notebook. “Don’t ever listen to people like Mrs. Trent,” I say. “Not ever. They know nothing.”
Alex still looks troubled. I cup her cheeks. “I’d love you even if you were eighty,” I say. “Though we’d have to walk a lot slower, and you might not have as cool a sense of fashion, and you’d keep the apartment too warm.” I stick my tongue out at her again, wanting a laugh, a real laugh. Alex smiles slightly, but it’s not enough.
“But you could have purple hair and no one could complain, right?”
At this she does laugh, setting her tea on the side table before wrapping her arms around me. “You’d still love me with purple hair and polyester?”
“Well, I don’t know about the polyester,” I say, mock seriously. She pinches my side, and I giggle.
“I do love you,” she says. I return her embrace, and lower my mouth to hers. This is where we belong. Together. No matter what anyone else says or thinks.