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An hour off for friendship

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"Have you ever slept with someone, then wished you hadn't?"

Kalinda knew from experience that frequently Elsbeth did not require answers to her questions, so she left the inquiry hanging as she took another swallow of her drink.

Unfortunately Elsbeth hadn't departed on another conversational tangent and remained looking at her expectantly.

"Um . . . yeah." Kalinda replied with understatement. And then let her mind retrace the steps that had led her to sitting at a table across from the lawyer.

She had entered Florrick, Agos & Lockhart's creaky freight elevator at the same time as Elsbeth had departed the most recent meeting about the J-Serve case. Instead of the usual ear-to-ear delight that would split Elsbeth's face at the sight of her, the lawyer could only offer Kalinda a hesitant fraction of that before she had looked down and resumed fussing with the straps of one of those floral tote bags Elsbeth seemed to possess in infinite variety.

Normally Kalinda Sharma didn’t ask questions she didn’t know the answers to, let alone ones about people’s feelings. But first, it was a Wednesday (not that anyone knew why that day of the week stung for her); and second, it was Elsbeth. And Kalinda, well, liked her.

“You okay?”

Warning klaxons had begun to sound as Elsbeth’s lip had trembled momentarily, and instead of a torrent of non-sequiturs, only the words “I’m not sure,” had come out.

Kalinda had felt the elevator begin to slow jerkily to a halt. Elsbeth’s problems were not her problems, and they would be walking away in the opposite direction in a few seconds. But from somewhere in her brain, words read long ago had drifted into her consciousness: taking an hour off for friendship.

“Do you want to get a drink?”

“I don’t usually dri . . .” Elsbeth had begun, then changed her mind. “Yes. I like your jacket by the way, or would you call it a coat? You’ll need to pick the place because I don’t know anywhere.”

So they had driven in tandem, Kalinda directing Elsbeth to drive back to the Loop and watching via her rearview mirror. Fate (that Kalinda didn’t believe in) had even provided two improbably excellent parking spaces.

Kalinda had led Elsbeth through a doorway that hadn’t seen her passage in nearly a year. She had even been reasonably pleased with her effort at not flinching.

Yet this conversational topic was her reward for collecting a wounded Elsbeth and taking her somewhere restorative: just one more sickening reminder of how Kalinda Sharma’s new life with its serendipitous load of hope and happiness had collapsed because of the foundation she had chosen to build it upon.

“I’ve never regretted anything more in my life.” Kalinda wanted to add, but instead gently offered, “These things happen.”

“But they don’t happen to me.” Elsbeth shook her head and all but banged a fist next to the wine spritzer (the strongest thing Kalinda had been able to talk her into), shaking their table. Elsbeth continued to look at nothing in particular (and definitely not Kalinda) as words began to tumble in her characteristic fashion. “I don’t like him. I never liked him. I told him no again and again. He could take his brightly-coloured mango lassis and drink them himself! I wasn't trying to attract him. What sort of person finds being frightened of sidewalk grates sexy?” Elsbeth made a dramatic sweep with one hand that nearly took out a bowl of peanuts. “Hating people is wrong, but I actually hated him.”

“Some people deserve to be hated.” Kalinda took another sip of her scotch.

“I used to hate Betsy in junior high because she called me names. But then I found out her stepfather was abusing her and I’ve felt bad ever since.”

Elsbeth’s conversational statements were frequently unanswerable, but not usually to this extent. Fortunately Elsbeth chose to change the subject of her own initiative.

“This is a nice place.” Elsbeth looked around: small tables rather than a bar and standing room, and large windows that looked out onto the Chicago streets. “It has furniture. I wish my furniture looked good together like this.” Not the fanciest bar in the corporate zone, but a good one for conversations rather than pickups. “Why did you hesitate at the door?”

That was the problem with Elsbeth, Kalinda mused -- to the casual observer she looked absent-minded, but in fact she missed nothing. “I, uh . . . I used to come here with Will.”

Elsbeth didn’t need to know all the details, how this was their usual place, and Wednesday was their usual day (caseload permitting.) Hump day -- time for a break. Not a night for celebrations or attempted assignations like Fridays were, but a night they often drank together . . . more regularly since the rupture caused by Alicia. And she felt Will’s absence more keenly on Wednesday nights when she remembered their last drink together, life is overrated choking in her throat, than she did on Thursdays -- the day he’d actually died.

“Really?” Elsbeth seemed enchanted by the thought and looked around again with renewed interest, before refixing her gaze on Kalinda. “I really liked Will. I miss him. We’d always run into each other in the oddest places. And he told the best stories. Once he told me this one about . . .” Elsbeth stopped abruptly for no apparent reason, then quickly squeezed the hand Kalinda rested on the table. “But you must miss him so much.” Elsbeth let go before Kalinda became uncomfortable. “I can remember when that mad woman Wendy was after him . . . Will, we have a problem!” Elsbeth’s face became a parody of consternation as she held up a finger. “And he’d just shrug and say Kalinda will fix it."

“Yeah.” Kalinda blinked strategically. “He had my back too.” She looked up at Elsbeth’s face, whose mobile features were currently in a wistful smile. “I miss him a lot.”

“Things like that . . . they change people.” Elsbeth picked up her phone, switched it on and off for no apparent reason, then put it back on the table. “Alicia . . .” Elsbeth hesitated long enough for Kalinda to wonder if she guessed at the existence of scars Kalinda tried so hard to conceal. “Alicia’s different. I thought she liked me, respected me. But those penguins!”

Ordinarily Kalinda would assume the two statements were unconnected, but she’d overheard enough of Alicia’s trial strategy planning to know what Elsbeth was referring to.

Elsbeth was looking off into the distance again, but this time with an air of determination. “I know I can’t blame Alicia for Josh. But those penguins . . . I wasn’t myself.”

Kalinda tried for some levity. “So was it good at least?”

Elsbeth looked back at her, frowned. “Rushed.”

“Oh.” Enough said.

"Desks are uncomfortable."

"Yeah they are." Kalinda wasn't sure if she should be amused or concerned about whether they were headed for TMI territory.

Fortunately Elsbeth resumed her previous musing. "I thought we were friends. I mean, I kept her husband from going back to prison! I got her out of trouble with the DOJ. And Will . . ."

In the ledger of good deeds performed on behalf of Alicia Florrick, Kalinda realised she didn't have much of an edge on Elsbeth Tascioni. And Elsbeth had certainly never done anything to earn Alicia's disdain.

“Elsbeth.” Kalinda knew she was about to verbalise something she’d never been able to even admit to herself. “Alicia’s not the person she used to be.”

Kalinda took the last swallow of her drink, and it felt like the alcohol actually washed something lingering and infectious away, perhaps even cleansing flesh sufficiently for wounds to begin healing.

 

 

+++++++++++++++


That was how it started. An hour off for friendship became a night most weeks. A night where Kalinda didn’t need to worry about Cary’s Bishop problems, or juggling him with Lana, or who wanted what from her, or even her own Bishop problems. And for Elsbeth, Kalinda’s predisposition to minimal conversation was an evening of serenity -- a once-a-week respite from the frantic pace of her own thoughts.

Kalinda realised it was an actual habit the first time she had to text and tell Elsbeth that work had crunched her and she wasn’t going to make it. Moreover, she missed it. Missed it like she used to in those early days when Alicia would look regretful and say "I really ought to get home at a decent hour once this week . . ." at one of Kalinda's newly-invented Lockhart Gardner traditions.

She realised it was a ritual when they began to take turns at planning their night. It was soon apparent that Elsbeth was no drinker and bars lost their novelty quickly, so at first it was restaurants. Each other’s favourite holes-in-walls that scattered the legal district, slowly becoming more fanciful as Kalinda realised she delighted in watching Elsbeth’s reactions to novelty -- like a bird that flitted from branch to branch before finally pouncing on whatever had attracted its attention.

Kalinda’s previous claim of “I don't plan” was proven false beyond a reasonable doubt when she collected Elsbeth early from the pavement outside the offices of Tascioni and Hecht and waved tickets to Alinea under her nose. And then spent some of the more delightful hours in recent memory watching Elsbeth exclaim with joyous dismay, “But I can’t eat that! It’s much too pretty!” eighteen times over.

Elsbeth knew she had no trump to play for the Chicago restaurant scene after that, so she switched tactics.

 

 

+++++++++++++++


Kalinda's phone buzzed on Wednesday afternoon. Elsbeth's address and a time appeared along with the suggestion that casual dress was appropriate.

Kalinda rang the doorbell in her usual leather, tight skirt, and boots.

"I meant it, you know." Elsbeth insisted as she scanned Kalinda's outfit. Her carmine velour warm-up suit backing her up, as the smell of melted butter and popcorn wafted through the door.

Kalinda just shrugged and smirked -- Elsbeth was getting used to taking her as she came.

"Oh!" Elsbeth suddenly turned and bolted through the hallway without explanation.

Kalinda decided she ought to follow and shut the door behind her. She couldn't turn off investigator mode as she trailed in Elsbeth's wake. The townhouse showed traces of having once been a family home, (it was certainly large enough,) but it was clear that Elsbeth lived alone now. There was a lack of other people's possessions evident in the coats that hung from the rack, the single set of keys on the hall table, the pile of mail that was all addressed to Elsbeth. Kalinda had the uncomfortable feeling that the habits of her work-life were turning a normal social interaction into something invasive, and she attempted to stop.

She found Elsbeth in her kitchen, whipping a saucepan off the stove before pouring the contents over a large bowl of popcorn.

"I forgot about the caramel." Elsbeth offered by way of explanation as she stirred the stickiness through vigorously. "But I got here in time."

Elsbeth gestured to two bowls on the countertop with a flourish. "Butter and salt; salted caramel. And I wasn't sure what you'd like to drink. I mean, what are you supposed to drink with popcorn anyway?"

Kalinda gave one of her little snorts. Elsbeth had put out a drinks tray covering the bases from beer, through hard liquor, to iced tea.

"We're watching a movie?" Kalinda assessed the evidence.

"We're watching a horror movie." Elsbeth corrected with a relish Kalinda wasn't expecting.

"Well I wouldn't want to take the edge off the fear," Kalinda winked, "Iced tea . . ." At Elsbeth's quirked lips, ". . . to start with, at least."

Elsbeth led the way to her living room, and they took up seats beside each other on Elsbeth's sofa, Kalinda taking a moment to digest an interior decoration aesthetic that looked as though a chintz factory had exploded.

"So, unless you have another preference . . ." Elsbeth gestured at a set of bookshelves that looked like a small rental store, ". . . my suggestion."

Kalinda took the proffered DVD in hand.

"I like that purple on you, by the way. I couldn't get away with that." Elsbeth paused in contemplation. "At least I probably shouldn't try."

Kalinda examined Near Dark, judging by the cover it looked gory enough. "Never seen it."

"Well you're in for a treat!"

Kalinda couldn't help the laugh that bubbled out of her.

"Kathryn Bigelow before she was famous, the entire supporting cast of Aliens . . . and vampires!" Elsbeth paused as though something were self-evident. "I mean, thirty years ago, before they became too sparkly." Elsbeth appeared to believe that Twilight had a lot to answer for.

"Do your worst." Kalinda offered and took her first mouthful of popcorn. It was good.

So was the movie. Even better was finding out that beneath her quirky, floral exterior, Elsbeth had not just macabre streak, but was positively ghoulish.

"I love this bit." Elsbeth proclaimed more than once as throats were slashed, beer steins filled with blood, and bullets were coughed back up by vampires on their murderous rampage.

Kalinda laughed again at the end of the movie when Elsbeth declared sorrowfully, "I guess it's nice that his dad cured him and Mae in the end."

"You'd prefer a life of exciting blood-sucking and lousy motels, over the stability of cattle farming then?"

Elsbeth just grinned. "How about a beer, or do you need to get going? I usually work off my feelings on the treadmill, but I suppose most people opt for a drink instead."

"Sure." Kalinda stood to stretch her legs. She took a step towards a mantelpiece that hosted an array of framed photographs. Remembering her feeling of over-inquisitiveness on entering Elsbeth's house earlier she asked first, "May I?"

Elsbeth nodded, but Kalinda saw a nervous hesitation that made her wonder what was to be seen in what looked like an ordinary collection of family memories. Elsbeth stayed in the living room instead of departing for the kitchen.

There was a much younger and less red-headed Elsbeth on her wedding day. Kalinda distantly remembered knowing that Elsbeth was divorced. And yes (as she saw Elsbeth with a newborn in her arms) had a son at least that she could recall mention of. From the looks of it, as the pictured infant became a toddler, just the one child. And then Kalinda began to understand Elsbeth's silence as she looked on. The unisex jumpsuits of infancy gave way to Elsbeth's three-year-old in pigtails and a gingham pinafore. Later photographs seemed more ambiguous, perhaps a tree-climbing tomboy in overalls who insisted that her hair be cut short. But by the teens, Elsbeth's Mediterranean-looking husband (that must be where the Tascioni came from) was absent from the photographs and it became obvious that Elsbeth's son was trans.

"It's why we divorced." Elsbeth frowned, stepping next to her guest. "He didn't want to let Tony take hormones to stop puberty. He fought it in court."

Kalinda failed to find words that weren't clichéd like "He's lucky to have you as a mother," and gently let her fingers circle Elsbeth's wrist instead.

Elsbeth shrugged. "Tony's happy now. He moved to Seattle, says it's more comfortable for him than Chicago. But I miss him so much. We both visit, but it's not the same as when he still lived here. Seattle’s good though; that produce market thing is great; too much rain, though . . ." She trailed off.

Talk of family, childhood, parents -- everything in that ballpark invariably turned the ground beneath Kalinda to quicksand, and she remained still and silent.

"Things were bad for you." Elsbeth's words an observation, rather than a question.

Kalinda managed a nod. Elsbeth didn't press for details.

"I never thought I'd get divorced. The man I thought I'd married loved his child without question. Then afterwards, I felt like I'd never known him at all. He put all of us through everything he could think of . . . in public. He blamed me for it, like if I'd never let Tony play with toy trucks he'd have asked for a Barbie doll instead." Elsbeth stopped as she looked at the most recent picture of her son. “Why would you think you know someone better than they know themselves?”

"I was married once." Kalinda shocked herself by saying it.

“A long time ago?” Elsbeth’s surprise was evident.

Kalinda wasn’t sure how to answer that, so she didn’t. “I was such a different person then, I don’t understand how she could be me.”

“You’re the one who said people change.” Elsbeth stepped away from the mantelpiece. “You look like a woman who needs tequila.”

Kalinda watched Elsbeth’s departing back, and realised that Elsbeth owning a bottle of tequila was due to her coming over. Flakes of rust came away from the part of Kalinda that used to have a friend.

 

 

+++++++++++++++


The next Wednesday was Kalinda’s. She waited on the sidewalk outside Elsbeth’s office block and willed the clouds to keep scudding across the sky and not accrete into something that could amount to a summer storm.

“So, are we on foot? I took a guess and wore comfortable shoes.” Elsbeth proffered a foot and displayed a vivid orange Converse sneaker that looked decidedly strange paired with her bright blue pantsuit.

“I thought we could take your car, but yes, there will be walking when we get there.”

“Why my car and not yours? Wow! Did you see that guy?”

Kalinda turned but could only see a knot of businessmen who were completely indistinguishable from each other. “Secret.”

A few blocks into the drive and Kalinda found giving Elsbeth directions a fraught affair -- she was inclined to forget them unless they were repeated continually as they approached each turn.

Elsbeth pulled over. “You take us there. This isn’t working.”

Both women got out of the car and switched places. Kalinda slid Elsbeth’s seat forward and adjusted the mirrors. “What happens when you’re going somewhere new by yourself?”

“I like GPS.” Elsbeth confided. “It talks all the time and it doesn’t get angry at me when I don’t listen. Someone should make something like that for baking.”

“There probably is,” Kalinda checked as she pulled back out into traffic. “Do you want me to see if there’s an app for you?”

“No no! Unless it can tell me to stop before I mix up the sugar and the salt, I don’t think it will help.” Elsbeth fell silent.

As the silence stretched on, Kalinda glanced over at the mournful look on Elsbeth’s face. “What?”

“I’m just so sad that the cupcake trend is dying. I love cupcakes!”

Kalinda spared a hand to pat Elsbeth’s knee. “I hope you like tonight.”

Once Elsbeth realised that Kalinda was indeed pulling into the carpark of an amusement park, she did indeed look pleased with Kalinda’s choice.

“I haven’t done anything like this in forever . . .”

Kalinda linked arms with her once through the turnstile.

“Okay, but no rollercoasters.” Elsbeth jerked slightly, like a nervous horse.

Kalinda looked up as the harsh clatter of wheels on rails swooped overhead. If it had been Alicia resisting a few years ago, she would have wheedled . . . cajoled until the other woman gave in and let Kalinda push past her barriers. Elsbeth was different. “How about that?” She pointed.

If they were the only two adults on a spinning teacup without a small child in tow, what did it matter?

Elsbeth dutifully took her place in line. “We need the pink one,” she told the attendant in her most insistent lawyer tone.

They wandered, they rode anything that took Elsbeth’s fancy, they ate more deep-fried high fructose corn syrup than could possibly be sensible.

“I love bears!” Elsbeth exclaimed as they meandered through the sideshows and the various games of alleged skill that could secure an over-size beast stuffed with polystyrene beans.

“Which one do you like most?” Kalinda inquired, feeling absurdly chivalrous -- she must be drunk on sugar.

“That one!” Elsbeth pointed at a distant relative of a Care Bear. (Distant enough that copyright would not be enforceable even if Elsbeth were helming the suit.) “He looks like my first grade teacher.”

Kalinda winked, extracted her five dollars, and tried not to think too hard on the resemblance between a teddy bear with a rainbow on his belly and Elsbeth’s pedagogical experiences.

“Oh, I didn’t mean you had to . . .” Kalinda waved away Elsbeth’s objections.

Her first shot was distinctly off. “It shoots to the left.” She observed before correcting her aim. Her next shot wasn’t that much better. “It shoots randomly,” was her revised assessment. Her third shot was a success, but Kalinda declined the operator’s novelty key ring and held out another note with narrowed eyes. She managed to land all three shots this time, and fancied from the man’s expression that he wasn’t used to parting with a “pick of the stand” for ten dollars under usual circumstances.

Elsbeth clutched her prize with enthusiasm. “I’ve always wanted to win one of these! I mean, have someone else do it. Me: clumsy!”

Kalinda, already feeling like Chicago’s best date, didn’t hold back. She gestured around the assembled stuffed ponies, dolphins, and bears upon bears upon bears. “Elsbeth, who else? I wouldn’t want your bear to be lonely.”

“Her! She looks like the canteen lady we used to joke that my teacher was sweet on. They’ll look perfect together!”

Kalinda looked at the pyramid of cans and old, dirty baseballs. The guy behind the counter looked up her boots and stopped at her chest. She flexed her throwing arm, Will would want her to take this guy down for sure.

By the time they were turning to head home Elsbeth had run out of hands and her amassed booty was tied together with strands of raffia. “I see now why you wanted to drive.”

Kalinda just grinned, and patted the stuffed unicorn under her arm. “I’m surprised you broke with tradition and wanted this fellow.”

“He’s so fluffy! I’m gonna die!” Elsbeth flailed, then stopped. “You haven’t seen Despicable Me have you?”

“No. That I haven’t.”

“Honestly, I just wanted to see how you were at darts.” Elsbeth confessed. “I don’t want to go home yet, can we just sit in the park for a bit?”

The night was warm enough that there was no dew setting on the grass. Elsbeth selected one of her prizes and laid down, resting her head on the bear’s belly to look up at the stars (such as could be seen through Chicago’s light pollution.)

Kalinda copied her, resting her own head on the unicorn. ” What are you going to do with all your new friends?”

“I think they’ll look very nice sitting on the sofa in my bedroom.”

Kalinda snorted at the image of a woman in her forties reverting to stuffed animals.

“At Christmas they can wear Santa hats. And maybe for Halloween they can get costumes.”

Kalinda couldn’t hold back her laugh now.

“You watch -- I’ll do it!”

Kalinda turned to look at Elsbeth's profile, the other woman's gaze still skyward. Her red hair clashed horribly with the lime green synthetic fur of the bear she'd chosen as a pillow, but Kalinda just kept looking and let the moment grow upon her.

The lawyer finally felt the scrutiny and turned to Kalinda. "What?"

"If I kissed you . . . is that something you'd regret?"

Elsbeth face had a look that Kalinda knew well from young women in bars who had hitherto thought on themselves as straight: curiosity. But in addition there was a sweetness to Elsbeth's expression, shy but also pleased, that tugged at Kalinda in a way no ingénue possibly could.

Elsbeth’s answer was to turn on her side, and close half the distance between their faces.

Kalinda leant past the unicorn's mane of rainbow woolen strands and silvered horn to touch her lips to Elsbeth's. They were literally soft and sweet from the combined traces of funnel cake and cotton candy.

Kalinda drew back after only a few moments.

"I wouldn't regret doing that again, Kalinda."

This time they both lingered, no plan to take anything further -- just one of those moments when everything aligned, and what they were doing seemed like the most natural choice in a world where too much time was spent worrying.