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Hot Air Balloon

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They've been living together for two years. Grace says, "I'm never lonely when I'm with you" and kisses Frankie's forehead with a promise to get rid of the gun she doesn't need any more because now she has Frankie.

            Frankie says, "You are a stunning woman." Frankie says she sees Grace as still full of life and grit and possibility. Frankie climbs into her bed at night because nothing can make her feel afraid when she's with Grace and Grace pretends to mind but she doesn't.

            Their children--who never would have thought of them in the same breath, growing up, except to remark on how wholly different they were--have begun to think of them as a unit. They come over when their moms are fighting (and really, when did they all start to call them both mom?), work to brush things over--problems with enmeshment or not--because the two of them are so much happier now. Happier than when their husbands had left, happier than when they were fighting that first time, over the house--and for Grace, happier than she'd been in a long time. Perhaps happier than she'd been ever before in all their memories of her.

            Frankie had been happy with Sol, of course, but it was the happiness of stasis, of pretending things are Just Fine even when they aren't, of little moments that felt off and with the retrospect of time and acknowledgement of twenty years of cheating pieced together to form a far more melancholy picture. Because Frankie isn't oblivious unless it's willfully so, and Sol is not particularly subtle. So maybe Frankie hasn't been this happy in a long time either.


            All of which is to say: Perhaps what happened next shouldn't have been all that surprising.

            But it was.


            Grace, when she was young, went through A Phase chalked up to The Indiscretions Of Youth. Or so she told herself for easily 50 years, when rarely she thought of it. Robert and Sol though, and that entire revelation, brings it all back--the memories of her posh boarding school, her posh women's dorm, of furtive glances and furtive touches charged with the excitement of the illicit and the simultaneous understanding that this is not abnormal, this is something women like her do and pretend not to and grow out of. It was unsurprising but forbidden, like smoking cigarettes on the roof after curfew, to sneak through the darkened hallways and duck into the room of a 'friend'.

            When Robert comes out it is harder to dismiss, that excitement she felt, her pleasure in the softness of another woman's curves, her hips, her breasts--how willing, how reverent she was in kissing Phoebe when they were fourteen, pushing Linda's shirt up over the swell of her breasts when they were sixteen, kissing her way down Judith's body and pressing up into her when they were nineteen.

            She had spent so long ignoring the flush of heat those memories continued to bring to her, decades later. She put so much effort into rationalizing, into never letting her infatuations be relationships--and there's a voice in the back of her head wondering if this is why she and Robert got married in the first place. If what brought them together was their own denials and pretensions, if Robert wouldn't have been with her at all if she weren't....weren't....

            She doesn't have a word for it. When she was young the word was 'deviant', when rarely there was a word at all, and she knows that's not the word anymore, remembers the buzz, in 1969, when a police raid in New York City blossomed into a movement of parades and the beginning steps of openness. Remembers too the 80s and 90s, when people like her mother, people she went to church with, talked about God punishing 'those people' for their sins with epidemic and death.

            She feels too old, now, to be struggling for a word, a way to speak about her experiences. Feels too old to situate this part of her history as a portion of her identity.

            But now, as she gets better at admitting things, at honesty with herself and the people she loves, she must acknowledge that it isn't entirely history.

            And she doesn't know what to do with that either. It's been so long, so long since she surprised by her own attractions.

            Yet here she is, almost dizzy with the way Frankie catches her eye as she moves about the house, twirling in sunbeams, almost glittering--okay, no, the glittering is literal she's wearing a skirt with something that might be mirrors sewn in--she seems to float through the world and it used to drive Grace absolutely up a wall with frustration.

            Now it drives her crazy in a totally different sense.


            If there is one piece of business acumen Frankie hopes to pass down to her children--well, to Coyote, Bud's pretty much got himself taken care of--it is: Don't Go Into The Vibrator Business With Your Crush.

            Grace says 'crush' sounds juvenile but Frankie doesn't care. Well, she might, if this were a mutual thing, but 80% of the time Frankie's sure it isn't. And besides if there's one piece of romantic advice Frankie wants to pass down to her children--especially Bud, this time--it's Hitting On Your Friends Rarely Ends Well. Which, she guesses, is just her way of saying relationships don't end well--not for her anyway, definitely not with Sol--and even though they're worth having (she wouldn't trade having her kids, or raising them with Sol, for the world), this is a risk to be considered. With Jacob it was easy, because as wonderful a man as he is, as good a friend as he was, her world didn't flip over without him in it and it never would.

            With Sol it did, and everyone could see how horribly that went. How painful it was, for how long.

            Anyway, if Frankie lost Grace, if Grace left her....Frankie doesn't want to think about it. Doesn't want to think about how empty an aching the beach house (and she) would be without Grace in it. Grace, in all of incomprehensibly buttoned-up energy, is never the less a presence of joy.

            So Frankie doesn't say anything.

            Grace is so enthusiastic about her seeing Jacob that she does, because he is sweet, and attractive, and such a thoroughly good person that she thinks she might fall in love with him. And she does, a little bit, but her feelings for Grace don't evaporate any more than her favorite puddle does after it rains. It's okay, though. She can be happy with this, with waking up and coming downstairs in the morning to see Grace working at their kitchen table, with smoking weed on the porch, with going to bed with Jacob sometimes.


            And then he asks her to move to Santa Fe.

            And she doesn't want to lose him, she doesn't at all. She loves him.

            But her heart plummets in her chest, her belly does summersaults, she knows the moment has come, the moment she's asked to choose between him and Grace, and she doesn't want to.

            He asks her if she really imagines herself living with Grace until the end of their lives.

            And she doesn't want to admit it to herself, much less him, but she does.


            When the initial shock wears off, she thinks maybe it'll be good for her, to get away from Grace for a while. Maybe that will clear her head a bit.

            Maybe this is how Sol felt.


            Grace, meanwhile, is handling everything fine. It's absolutely fine, not soul-crushing at all, that Frankie is so besotted with Jacob. Really! She wants her friend to be happy. She wants her...Frankie to be happy, she does. And Jacob makes her happy and Grace doesn't and that's that. And if she's...harsh, to him sometimes, if she bristles at his presence in their house (in her life), well that's not any more 'jealously' than it is when Mallory was mad at her sister's boyfriends because they cut into her time with her sister.

            Mallory would never admit that, of course. But Grace is their mother, for fuck's sake. She can see right through her children's bullshit.

            Anyway. Life rolls on and things go all right and there's the business to focus her energy and excitement on and if she gets a little...uptight? about it sometimes well, that's to be expected, that's how she's always been.

            Until Frankie threatens to leave her. Twice.


            The first time, with Jacob, Grace feels like a porcupine, needles standing straight up as an automatic reflex. She tries not to lash out so hard she somehow manages to simultaneously lash out and shut down. It sounds like a paradox, and god as her witness no one does "paradox" quite as well as Grace Hanson.

            But she doesn't like the sad face Frankie gives her every time she refuses to talk about it. Doesn't like avoiding her, doesn't like the black hole she's tiptoeing around the precipice of.


            And the second time, with the stroke--well, Grace will be honest. She panics. She dives in, ready and willing to do anything, anything to keep Frankie okay. She just watched the woman she loves nearly fucking die, for god's sake.

            But when she realizes how scared Frankie is, how unwilling to embrace risk and new experiences and the fullness of life in the way she always has, the way Grace thinks she has always secretly admired, well then. She can't let that happen either. So she commandeers the hot air balloon from a date she only took for business purposes with a guy who, while intriguing, mostly just annoys the every-loving shit out of her (seriously, how cocky can you fucking get?) and takes her best friend (her Frankie) by the hand and climbs into that terrifying multicolored death trap with her and tells her how much her life is worth living, truly she should go and be with Jacob.


            And Frankie smiles at her and she swears her heart melts, and if she hadn't felt this happen once before when she was young and naive and totally enamored she'd think she was having the medical emergency this time.


            Frankie, meanwhile, has probably never loved Grace more than she does in that moment, when she drops her entire day (both of their days) and makes her dream come true and holds her hand as they lift off the ground, laughing as the balloon floats ever higher. It means even more because Frankie knows Grace doesn't like this sort of thing. Knows Grace doesn't--despite all the times she swears to the contrary--particularly like Jacob, but here she is, telling her she deserves to be in love, telling her to follow her heart.


            It's not a simple compass, not right now, not when Jacob truly is a good man, but Frankie's pretty sure, as her breath catches in her chest, as she wraps Grace tight in her arms, that it's Grace her heart is pointing her towards.

            She tells her they'll see where the balloon takes them. She thinks falling in love with Grace was like being a kite on a breeze.


            The balloon, of course, takes them to the top of the mountain, just as it was hired to do.

            There's a tree for some shade and the second most beautiful view in the world (after looking out over the water at sunset, on their porch) and Frankie feels giddy and she doesn't even care, this time, if it's a life-threatening condition.

            And then she notices.

            Grace is crying.


            "Grace," she speaks softly, so as not to startle her, resting her hand on the small of Grace's back. "What is it?" Grace's breath hitches with half a sob and turns to her, their faces so close together.

            "I just..." she sniffles in an effort to compose herself and Frankie can't help but smile in response, "I know I just told you, how much losing you scares me, but I feel, I feel like this is the end of something, and it's, it's breaking my heart."

            "Oh Grace," Frankie pauses, trying to collect her thoughts, trying to figure out how not to play her hand even though these past few days she's been less and less sure her feelings for Grace are unrequited, "We're not ending."

            "Promise?" Grace sounds so uncharacteristically small and vulnerable that Frankie moves almost on instinct, cupping her face and pressing a firm kiss to her forehead.

            "I promise." She wipes at Grace's tears with her thumbs, rests her forehead against hers, tries not to notice how intoxicating Grace smells, up close like this, how much she wants to drown in her. She waits for Grace to pull away.


            Grace doesn't. For a moment suspended in time she relaxes there, hands coming up to rest on Frankie's side, basking in the peace she feels in Frankie's arms. Savoring it.

            And then she tilts her head up to meet Frankie's eyes, and she isn't sure she could name quite what she sees in them but she knows, then, that this isn't just her. Knows that if she moved just barely, she could press their lips together and change her entire world. So with one final shaking breath she does just that.


            Frankie whimpers into her mouth, her hands sliding through her hair, now, and presses into Grace almost instantly.


            Grace has never, not once in her life, felt as unbalanced as she does in that moment. And she has never, not once in her life, felt the dizzying elation of new possibilities opening up before her in the way she does then.


            Frankie has never felt more lost, more safe, or more found.


            So they stay there, for long moments, kissing until the sun comes down and they have to start making their way down the mountain, holding hands and not quite talking about it yet. Laughing and joking about the steps they nearly miss and how dusty they've gotten their clothing and how long it's been, since they've kissed under a tree like teenagers.

            When they get back to where the car is parked, Frankie pauses, and Grace doesn't let go of her hand, just turns back to face her.

            "Grace," she says, seriously, "I love you." Grace gives her a watery smile.

            "I know," she responds, "I love you too."


            And there it is, out in the cooling night air, the two sentences so long unspoken in the fullness of their context that now can never be put away again, can never go back to willful ignorance.

            Frankie had lied, Grace thinks, because surely something had, after all, ended that night. The whole worlds they built around each of themselves in turn (your walls, Frankie would say) had crumbled and collapsed and here they were.

            Standing together.

            Facing the new universe to come--shaky and not a little bit scared, but together nonetheless.


            Grace doesn't remember, of course, what it feels like to be born.

            She imagines it is something like this.