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Natural Attraction

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The first thing Debbie learns after the heist is just how lonely New York can feel.

“You’ll barely notice I’m gone,” Lou had said, slinging a bag over her shoulder. “This is NYC, baby. Everything you could possibly want is already here.”

Except you, Debbie didn’t say. “Be safe,” she’d replied instead.

Lou gave her a fond look. “You too. Remember what we agreed?”

“No contact with Daphne at all, and no direct or written contact with you or any of the others for three months,” Debbie recited. “Phone calls only, and no Toussaint talk. I know.”

“And?”

Debbie affected a quizzical expression that didn’t fool Lou for a second.

“What else, Deborah?”

Shoulders slumping, Debbie expelled an aggrieved sigh. “No stealing shit,” she grumbled.

“No stealing shit,” Lou repeated. “Stay out of jail. I expect you to be here when I get back.”

“Which will be…?”

For weeks, Debbie had been trying to wheedle an estimated time of return out of Lou, but the question was always deferred. This time, Lou pursed her lips and said apologetically, “No fewer than ninety days.”

“Okay,” Debbie mumbled, feeling small and sad and pathetic. She folded her arms around herself.

“C’mere, jailbird.” Lou didn’t give hugs often, but when she did, they were very good. Debbie melted into it, buried her face in Lou’s neck, tried to think of a way to get her to stay. There wasn’t one, of course – not one that would be fair to Lou, and not one that would ensure Debbie’s continued emancipation. But she tried anyway.

“I’ll miss you,” she said into Lou’s shoulder.

Lou squeezed her close once more, then let her go and stepped back. “I’ve got to get on the road,” she told Debbie. “I’ll see you around.”

The door clicked shut behind her, and Debbie crawled onto the couch.

The first two weeks passed in a haze of binge-watching Netflix and eating takeout Chinese and sneaking into Lou’s bed to “sleep,” which usually involved dicking around on her phone for a while and then going downstairs to watch more Netflix before passing out in the living room for three or four hours. Debbie was well-acquainted with the “heist hangover” phenomenon, but this was worse than the worst one she’d ever had; far worse than her worst actual hangover; definitely worse than her worst breakup. It wasn’t, at least, worse than prison – but it was close.

Fifteen days in, Tammy called when Debbie was several glasses of whiskey deep and snacking on old Halloween candy. “Are you eating your vegetables?” she wanted to know.

“Yes, mother,” Debbie said, unwrapping a Tootsie roll one-handed.

“I don’t believe you, but whatever. Have you heard from Lou?”

“No,” Debbie mumbled, shoving the Tootsie roll savagely into her mouth. “You know she hates phone calls. Why, have you?”

“She texted the other day to – to say hi.”

It suddenly seemed deeply unfair to Debbie that everyone but the felons in the group (i.e., her) could text each other. She distracted herself by seizing on Tammy’s stutter. “What did she actually text you about?”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Did she ask you to check up on me?”

More silence.

“Fuck her, and fuck you,” Debbie snarled, hanging up and throwing the phone to the other side of the couch.

The next day, Debbie woke up with a splitting headache. She dragged herself off the couch anyway, chugged three glasses of water, and went on a run. She called Tammy back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was… not sober.”

“Oh, Deb,” Tammy sighed, in her usual mom-like way that Debbie both loathed and appreciated. “I really hope you’re taking care of yourself.”

“I am. I mean, I wasn’t, but I will. Starting now.”

For the next four weeks, Debbie did a lot of yoga. She ate at least one salad per week, and even cooked a couple of simple meals (all with very specific instructions from Tammy over the phone, but still). She called Lou several times, and wasn’t surprised to get her voicemail all but one of those times, and was shocked when Lou did pick up and talked to her for seven whole minutes before making an excuse about needing to go get food before the only restaurant nearby closed. It was almost midnight in New York, and Lou was in some rinky-dink town just outside of Yosemite, so her story was plausible.

“I wish –“ Lou started to say, just before she hung up.

“What?” Debbie prompted, when Lou didn’t finish her thought.

“Nothing,” Lou mumbled. “I was just thinking – it would be fun to do a trip like this together sometime.”

If Debbie hadn’t already been sitting down, she would have fallen over.

“But parole’s a bitch,” Lou continued, sighing dramatically. “Anyway. Hope you’re good. Bye, Deb.”

That night, for the first time, Debbie managed to hold a handstand for more than ten seconds.

For the next five weeks, Debbie started working through Lou’s extensive book collection, when she wasn’t busy attending classes at the bougie gym a few blocks away. She sought out tattered volumes with worn spines and devoured them, keeping an eye out for the rare but always delightful instances of annotation by Lou. As in all things, Lou’s taste was eclectic, but Debbie liked most of what she read, and made sure to set aside the ones she wanted to discuss.

After a Pilates class during week eleven, one of the other students – a tall, rugged fellow who was Debbie’s type in every way except the man bun – sidled up to her and struck up a conversation. She indulged him as she gathered her things. He was funny, sort of, and toed the line between confident and conceited in that way she usually enjoyed, but when he smoothly extended the invitation for a drink sometime, Debbie said no.

“No?” he repeated blankly, as though he’d never heard the word in his life.

Debbie rolled her eyes. “I’m not interested,” she said. “But have a good day.”

She told Amita about it on the phone later that week, and Amita squealed in all the right places, and groaned when Debbie reached the punchline. “Why?” she demanded to know. “He sounds so hot! And you’re, you know, lonely…”

“Hey! Who says I’m lonely?”

“…Tammy,” Amita admitted. “And Lou didn’t say it, but she texted me the other week asking how you’re doing, so I assume she’s worried about you too.”

“Well,” Debbie huffed, not quite sure who to start in on first.

“But I guess – I don’t know, is Lou the reason you said no?” Amita offered, before Debbie could say anything else.

“No,” Debbie snapped. Then, softer: “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Have you two been talking much?”

Debbie slumped back on the couch, snagged a Tootsie roll from the bag on the table. “Lou hates talking on the phone.”

“What about FaceTime? Does that work any better?”

“Face what?”

“Oh, Debbie,” Amita sighed, in her usual kid sister way that always made Debbie feel like a dinosaur, and not a person who had been incarcerated for over half a decade and therefore had an extremely valid reason for missing out on any number of major technological developments. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do…”

Now, eleven and a half weeks in, Debbie has managed to resist temptation for four full days, but can’t help herself after polishing off a bottle of wine. She pulls up Lou’s contact and taps the little video icon under her name. The phone vibrates with that strange, echoing buzz for almost a minute before – wonder of wonders – an anemic chiming sound signals that Lou has answered. The connection isn’t great, and Lou’s face swims into view as a mess of pixels, but the sight of her is so relieving that Debbie almost bursts into tears.

“Deb?” Lou asks worriedly, forehead creasing. “Is everything okay?”

“Hey,” Debbie croaks. “Everything’s fine. I just wanted to talk to you, and I thought video might be better than audio.”

Lou’s smile is blurry but genuine. “It is,” she affirms. “I like being able to see you.”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Debbie says. To her horror, a choked sob forces its way out of her throat without her permission. “Sorry, I just – I wish I could be on the road with you. I miss you.”

Lou sighs and nods. “I know,” she replies.

“It just sucks,” Debbie continues, the words spilling out of her unchecked. “I felt like – during the job, we were together all the time, but it was never just us, you know? Lou and Debbie. And then, as soon as everything was done, you left. And I know it was to make sure we didn’t get caught, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect you to stick around and babysit me just because I can’t travel like you can – and I mean, even if I could, there’s no reason to expect that you would take me along – but I just hate being trapped in this damn state, and I hate not being with you, and I wish–”

Mercifully, Lou interrupts her rambling before she can embarrass herself further. “Debbie, I’m on my way home.”

“–I just wish that – wait, what?”

Blurry Lou nods in the affirmative. “I’m in Colorado. It should take me three or so days to get back from here, barring any weather issues.”

“Oh.”

“No fewer than ninety days. No more, either.”

Debbie drops her forehead onto her knees. “You fucking asshole,” she groans.

“It’s so nice to be missed,” Lou says, sounding very pleased with herself.

“Forget everything I said. I’m changing the locks. You’re dead to me.”

“Don’t be too hasty,” Lou warns her. “I have a surprise for you.”

Debbie scowls at the screen. “Is it my self-respect? Can you get that back?”

“Even better,” Lou promises. “I’m still working on it, but it’ll be ready when I get there.”

“Okay. Get here soon.”

“Night, Deb.”

That night, Debbie holds a handstand for a full minute and a half.