“You have to cut them smaller than that, Ondrew,” Liz chided, looking over his shoulder. “No one’s going to cram a piece of chicken that big into his mouth.”
“I would,” he said defensively.
“Well, you’re one of those idiots who ends up choking to death on a three-inch chunk of sirloin. The rest of us aren’t.” Liz went back to chopping vegetables. She was twice as fast as he was, mostly because he spent half his time watching her. The woman was a holy terror with a French chef’s knife. Carrots, mushrooms and celery exploded into delicate fragments under a ratatatting barrage of blade against chopping board. Bowls of chopped cauliflower and broccoli stood as reminders that many other vegetables had suffered a similar fate this evening. It looked like she was making more than they would all eat–but then you could never tell. He himself was pretty hungry, although it was easy to forget that while he was lost in adjusting to Liz without hair. She looked different. Her hollow cheeks conspired to make her look older. She looked like she was in chemotherapy, actually.
And now she was looking back at him.
“You’re staring,” she said with a faint smile.
“I’m glad you’re home,” he said, which was true.
“We’ll see how you feel about that in a few days,” she said. “I don’t think I’m better yet.”
“Of course you’re not–hey, dammit!” as she took the knife from him and started slicing the meat herself. Andrew stepped out of the way and let Liz have the little kitchen to herself. “You won’t be better for a while. But I’ll be here regardless.” He rubbed her head.
She ducked away from his hand. “Iyayaya, that feels weird. Your hands are cold.”
“Yeah, wait until you walk outside.”
Liz laughed, and lay the knife down with a clatter. “Okay, finish this, while I go change the CD and use the bathroom. Just finish that last breast.”
“What about the rest?” he called over his shoulder as she went away.
“Freeze it. Foil’s in the–“
“I know, I put it away yesterday.” And it was easier than trying not to chop his fingers off, so he did that first. When he opened the freezer, he had to push things aside to make room for it amid the stack of frozen dinners Ted had bought for her on some misguided impulse–Liz would never eat the things if there was fresh food to be cooked.
Behind a wall of frozen pot pies lay a nasty surprise–a bottle of Mohawk vodka. Andrew grimaced, his stomach sinking a little, and pulled it out. The chicken went where it had been.
“Did you go shopping for all of this?” he called out. “Dinner, I mean.”
“I had to,” Liz replied, the bathroom door muffling her voice. “Why?”
“I’m glad you went to the trouble, that’s all.” The vodka was unopened; the seal wasn’t broken. It was cold enough that it had been in there at least overnight, too. He wondered if she had slipped out in the middle of the night and gotten it. Didn’t matter either way. Andrew unscrewed the cap and stole one quick hit before upending the bottle in the sink drain and crossing his fingers that Liz wouldn’t come out of the bathroom before he was done. He finished chopping the chicken noisily, needlessly covering the soft gurgling, and when it was empty he buried it in the bottom of the trash can. What a waste of bad vodka, he thought with a grin.
Liz noticed nothing amiss when she returned, having replaced one Chili Peppers CD with another. “Oh, you finally bothered to finish, did you?”
“Lay off, woman.” He decided not to say anything about the alcohol. She’d only just gotten her head back on straight and there was no need to set her off on something else. When she discovered it was gone, she’d call him–probably in the middle of the night–and yell at him, and that was fine.
Liz noticed that he was a little bit edgier when she returned to the kitchen. Asking him if something was the matter earned noncommittal headshakes, so she teased him about his work clothes while she started a big bowl of rice steaming. Liz liked that they could hassle one another and generally knew just when to stop. It was nice to have someone she could unleash random vitriol upon when the mood struck her.
She felt like she’d recovered from the afternoon’s hallucinations, and was even happy about that. She’d retained a modicum of control. She knew she was DT’ing, and she’d found a way to punish herself, by taking her hair. Granted, the shaving had made the feeling of gnawing at her skull go away, but she was sure that she was somehow complicit in the way the waking nightmare had manifested. And now it was over, she’d had her little binge and was no worse the wear for it. It was on the tip of her tongue to say something to Ondrew about it, but she didn’t.
Amazingly enough, her friends showed up faithfully and cheerfully; Liz started dinner when the first of them arrived, and they were all there before she’d finished stirfrying everything. She ignored the comments about her hair for the time being, insisted on serving everyone on the smallish living room floor (Ondrew and Peach sat at the kitchen table), and then sang along to the music Ondrew had brought for her while she distributed dinner. She translated some of the lyrics to Japanese for variety, which always cracked everyone up.
Thus served, she stood back to watch them all. There weren’t enough chairs, so she ate standing up, and liked it. She felt a little of what her mother must have felt, watching the patrons in her restaurant, but it was all mixed up with feeling at once joyous to see them all again, and guilty, as if she’d let them all down somehow. It was more than just last night, it was everything that had happened. They reminded her of the stupid things she’d done simply by not having been a part of the worst of them, and she wondered if that feeling of displacement would go away.
Liz surveyed her surviving friends: Ondrew, Rob (whose name Liz also intentionally mangled, calling him “Robair”), Natasha and some boyfriend Liz didn’t know, Ansel, Dennis (with whom she’d had a moderately serious, often tempestuous relationship based primarily on sex), Peach, and Glen (“Crotch,” to his friends, and just for the record she’d slept with him once or twice too), who had apparently gotten married while Liz was in California. She couldn’t imagine who’d want to marry him, but judging by his clothes and hair he’d cleaned up and grown up a great deal. She made a decision to continue calling him Crotch, and didn’t find it all that rebellious since Ondrew and Dennis had called him by the old nickname twice already. Besides, yelling his real name across a crowded parking lot just wasn’t the same.
“That’s always amazed me,” Peach said. He’d shown up straight from work, like Andrew had, and was also dressed like a grownup, more or less. His parents had blessed him with the middle name Pietro, which he usually went by; he’d had the nickname since high school. His premature gray had spread all the way to his goatee since she’d seen him last. With his slight, five-three inch frame, beatniky black clothes and wire-rimmed glasses, he made Liz think of a small, unusually hip college professor.
“What has?” Andrew asked him,
Peach nodded toward Liz. “That. She does those instantaneous translations of songs.”
“It’s a lovely parlor trick, isn’t it?” she said. “But to be honest, it’s not instantaneous. I have to hear it and think about it for a few days first.”
“Yeah, but they still rhyme. It can’t be that easy to translate something and still have it rhyme,” Dennis said, looking at Liz from under his dark brows. She recognized that look, and returned it with one of her own without even thinking about it. There was a tickle of familiar heat low in her belly. It had never been fair that he could turn her on with the slightest tilt of his head, and even less fair that he knew it. He wasn’t even particularly smart, although he had a knack for conversation. Liz had no idea why she couldn’t seem to keep her hands off of him. At one time she had claimed it was because he bore a passing resemblance to the Chili Peppers’ lead singer Anthony Kiedis, but that resemblance was considerably less passing than she remembered it being. And still she was thinking about asking him to stay the night, if he could.
“But it’s Japanese,” Ansel laughed. “Everything in Japanese kind of rhymes, doesn’t it?” He rattled off a bunch of words in a mockery of Japanese, although he actually said “police station” in the middle of it. Probably something he’d heard in an anime flick somewhere. Liz also noted that Ansel was a lot more obnoxious than she remembered him being. Upon finding no ashtray, he had balanced a lit cigarette on the top of her television. She let it go, not wanting to seem bitchy, but she wanted to knock him in the head with a spoon and ask what he was thinking.
“Pay no attention to the peanut gallery,” Peach said. “It’s impressive.”
Liz frowned. “I guess it never meant much to me,” she said.
“You can do it with Spanish, too, can’t you?”
“I could do it with any language I know. It’s all that cheesy poetry I used to write in high school. Does anyone want any more food?” She got up and started collecting plates. Andrew helped her.
“How many languages do you speak, Liz?” Rob asked as she took his plate. She could practically see the wheels in his brain turning beneath his naturally white-blond hair. He was in the awkward phase between haircuts and Dennis had been making fun of it all evening.
“Well or at all?” She was trying to remember what Robair did for a living. He had worked in his father’s landscaping business last time she had been in town, but he’d probably moved on from that. “Three well. I can talk in seven all together, but some of them are a little questionable–just what I learned from tapes and stuff.”
Natasha chimed in. “You could find a job so easily.” Both Natasha and her boyfriend were dolled up in sweatshirts and workout pants that, at a closer glance, had designer labels. Her nose ring was gone, too. She had spoken earlier about returning to college in Massachusetts in January. We’re going to lose her to a sorority and a country club, Liz thought, trying not to smirk.
“Yeah, right, I’ll just run down to the UN and ask them if they have any openings,” Liz said. She wanted to change the subject. She didn’t want Ondrew and Robair and Peach and Natasha feeling sorry for her because they had lives and she didn’t. “When the hell did you get married, Crotch?” she asked. “And what the hell did you marry?”
“I got one of those mail-order brides,” he said. “She’s from Russia.”
“Oh, stop!” Natasha teased. Her boyfriend laughed, then stopped, as if a switch had been flipped in his back. “Janna’s such a cutie, you have to meet her, Liz. Where did you guys meet, again?”
“Sea World,” Crotch said, running a hand through his hair–which, Liz noticed with faint surprise, he was starting to lose. Jeezus! she thought. Everyone’s getting old! Crotch was blushing. “It’s a pretty silly story. Anyway, we met and dated for a year or so, and we got married this summer.”
“Wish I could have been there,” Liz said.
“Andrew and Dennis stood up with me,” he added.
“They let you inside a church?” Liz asked Dennis.
“Wait till someone tells the bishop,” he replied. “The Catholics are gonna freak out.”
They went around the room like that, catching up. Liz didn’t volunteer much other than to tell them about her new job and car. Nobody asked about her hair, or made fun of it. In fact they were all somewhat eggshelly, not ragging on her as much as they would have back in the day. Andrew looked at her as if he was expecting her to bring up the subject of her quitting, but she didn’t. Everyone here with the exception of Natasha’s boyfriend, whatever his name was, had heard it from her before. Better to quit successfully, and then tell everyone about it. If Andrew wanted to bring it up, he could, but she wasn’t going to. The more they talked about their lives, which all seemed to be going well, and their jobs and school careers, which also seemed to be going well, the less Liz wanted to share.
She managed to busy herself in the kitchen, fetching drinks and cleaning up, until they started to leave. Happy to see them as she was, Liz was glad to see them go, too. There was a sense of having made it through a rough evening. Soon it was just herself, Andrew, and Dennis. She didn’t want to be alone. Part of her wanted to repeat last night’s successful alcoholic escapade, and another knew that she shouldn’t.
“This was a good thing, Ondrew,” she told him as she dropped down on the couch next to him. “Thank you.”
He gave her a one-armed hug. “Anytime,” he said. “We’re glad you’re home. Now we can come and visit whenever we want. Just like life should be.” He could tell she wanted him to leave, so she could be alone with Dennis. That much had been obvious from the way they looked at each other–although, to be honest, Dennis looked at every woman that way. Some little spiteful part of Andrew didn’t want to leave, so he hung around in the doorway and made idle chitchat while he decided.
In the end, though, what Liz wanted was probably what she needed. He bowed out gracefully.
Liz turned sideways on the couch and put her feet in Dennis’ lap. “You’re still here,” she said.
“You shaved your head.”
“I was wondering when someone was going to notice.”
“Oh, we noticed, all right.”
“Do you approve?”
“I can’t see you going skinhead on me, so yeah, it’s okay.” He put his arm up on the back of the couch. “Should I take off, let you get some sleep?”
“No, you shouldn’t,” she said. He took her feet in his hands and squeezed slowly, rhythmically. Liz closed her eyes and put her head back. He rubbed her feet for a while, taking occasional explorations up her calves and thighs. “So what’s it like being an engineer?” she asked.
“Boring,” he replied. “But they pay you a lot. It’s a damn sight better than construction.”
“So yo,” she drawled. Dennis pulled her legs toward him, so her knees were on his lap, and reached out with one hand to touch a finger to the center of her forehead. Liz closed her eyes as he massaged her “third eye.” It was her favorite spot, and the fact that he remembered was better than a thousand bottles of vodka would have been. There was also a distinct growing desire to get her hands on him, and see if she could remember the things he liked as well. She let him rub her third eye for an unknown amount of time (a good massage could swell or shrink time’s passing, and sometimes it did both at once), and then she reached up, took his hand from her face, and put a finger in her mouth.
Yes, he still liked that. Dennis was tilting toward her now, lying almost parallel to her on the couch, and she caressed his chest through his shirt, touching the skin of his neck and his face. She opened her eyes and sighted down his arm and found him looking back at her.
“I’ve been gone a long time,” she said, lisping around his finger gripped lightly in her teeth.
“Yes, you have.”
“I missed you.”
“Missed you, too,” he said. He pulled his finger out of her mouth, took her by the chin, and she wasn’t sure if he rolled over on top of her or if she pulled him down, but their lips met halfway there. He tasted of her cooking, and she liked that. Liz’ heart raced as she felt the familiar warmth and strength of him, and she felt weak in comparison. She’d let herself go. It wouldn’t be as athletic a session as they usually had, that was for sure.
When he came up for air, she looked up into his eyes again. He wasn’t looking back this time, but into the kitchen. She tried to follow his gaze, turning her head upside down. “What?”
“Take me to bed, Dennis,” she said.
He looked back down at her, then into the kitchen again, then grinned like the devil and picked her up. Not many guys could (or would), and Dennis wasn’t musclebound but his wiry strength was still more than capable. “You lost weight,” he joked.
“What, it doesn’t show?”
“Thought you were wearing baggy clothes.”
“I am. I didn’t take very good care of myself, that’s all.” They moved into the bedroom area, and he set her on the bed. Liz stripped out of her shirt with grace that surprised even her.
“You still look good–holy crap, that’s new,” he said, seeing the tattoo on her back.
He moved around her and unhooked her bra. “I like,” he replied, tracing his fingers over the ink. “Absolutely gorgeous. Whoever did it captured your soul, Liz.”
“I think so.”
His hands came around to cup her breasts, and she leaned back into him. “You like those, too?”
“I like,” he said again. She twisted into him and this time she was on top, tugging at his waistband. God, she wanted him, wanted him like he was living alcohol, and she was so into the warmth and the feel of him under her fingertips and the smell of him in the tiny room that she didn’t even register what he was saying at first. “I can’t do this,” he said for the second or third time. “Liz. Stop. I can’t.”
Liz was so stunned she wasn’t able to do anything more creative than gasp, “Excuse me?” He was going to refuse her? The biggest, hottest horndog she’d ever known was going to refuse her? She must have heard him wrong.
And he said it again! “I can’t do this. I’m engaged, Liz, I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m getting married next June.”
Just what she needed to hear, topless and lying across his chest as she was. She sat up slowly, looking into his eyes, hoping wishing praying that maybe he was just playing a joke. There was no laughter in his eyes, though. He looked sorry for her. She put both of her hands over her face, took a long, deep, breath, then drew her fingertips down to her cheekbones and let it out. “Well, I guess you’d better go, then,” she said softly.
Dennis opened his mouth to apologize, but if one thing hadn’t changed it was that he had never been good at the delicate balance of sincerity and ass-kissing which she demanded in these situations. She didn’t even want to hear what he was going to say. Liz threw herself onto her side facing the wall and left it to him to see his own sorry butt out. It was nice and stoic and let him know that he’d hurt her feelings without whining about it, but it didn’t make her feel any better.