Chapter 1: skimming rooftops
i. skimming rooftops
On the rooftop of their twenty-five story building, on an overcast day, in the middle of lighting a cigarette – this is when Emily sees her again, after so many years. Naomi pushes the door open further, the heavy metal of it scraping the floor roughly, making a loud grating noise. Emily turns her head, does not believe her eyes the first two times; she manages to light her cigarette finally as she blinks again.
“One of your staff told me you’d be up here,” says Naomi, stopping momentarily, arms crossed. To say she looks different is horribly understating it; she doesn’t look like the Naomi that Emily knew from Roundview, at all, save perhaps for the hair. It’s always been better this way -- this short. She’s wearing a thin long-sleeved white blouse that should come with a blazer; something Emily hoped she left in her office, a couple of floors down. Naomi smirks as she says, “Care to share?”
Emily is flustered; it’s years later and still, that arrogant smirk renders her speechless. Gathering herself, she tosses the cigarette pack toward Naomi, just says, “I’m on a cigarette break,” barely managing a grin herself.
Naomi flicks the lighter open once, twice, before getting it right. Exhaling she says, “Ah,” smiling wider, more sincerely now. “Cigarettes are for teenagers. We’re not getting any younger, sooner or later…“ she trails off, smiling cryptically.
“Smoking keeps me young,” Emily just says, shrugging, facing the ledge and the skyscrapers beyond. It’s a cloudy day, and judging by the dark clouds faraway, it also looks like it’s about to rain, sooner or later. “What’s your excuse?”
Naomi takes a drag, audibly. “I don’t know,” she just says. “Smoking keeps me sane.”
“Young not an option where you are?” Emily looks over her shoulder, catches Naomi avert her eyes, still smiling. The about-to-set sun colors her face beautifully; like a shade of girl’s blush, the first time around. Emily wants to look away; can’t.
Naomi shakes her head, looking at her shoes; she’s got painful-looking boots on, pointy toes and all. Emily wonders where the hell life has brought Naomi all these years, but decides that there is time for that; somehow, she is unusually sure. “It’s publishing; if it does anything to the people in it, keeping them young isn’t one of them.”
Emily just nods, says, “Ah,” as if in total understanding, but then that’s because she does understand, how there is little one can do to fight life’s strange and effective ways at aging people faster than the years can even turn themselves. “We haven’t even said hi properly, have you ever thought of that?”
“Always in a hurry these days, aren’t we?” Naomi just says, before pushing herself off against the ledge. She extends the hand that’s not holding the cigarette to her mouth. “Naomi Campbell,” she says, in that practiced professional tone.
Emily tries to receive it the best way possible, shaking Naomi’s hand firmly, as she would any other client that she did not spend half her college life pining after, the other half fucking clandestinely. “Emily Fitch,” she just says back, standard if not for the big lump in her throat, which she tries swallowing despite great difficulty. “What can I do for you, Ms Campbell?”
It is weird, this; Emily doesn’t even remember having shaken Naomi’s hand, at any instance, before, and yet here she is, lingering far longer than necessary even, as if they’re both trying to wrap their heads around this completely alien gesture. As if they’re both trying to figure out what it all means. Naomi bites into her lip before she says, “A lot. I mean,” she lowers her hand finally, letting it slip from Emily’s slowly. “I’ve just moved into a new place and it needs some help.”
Emily can’t help but quirk her brow – she’s wondering how, after all these years, and despite the fact that this place is fucking small, she’s only bumped into Naomi now, and it’s not even on the street or in some restaurant, but here. “You’re back in town,” Emily just says, hazarding a guess.
“We used to travel a lot, my husband and I.”
Something constricts in Emily’s chest; she feels herself stop breathing momentarily as she tries to remind herself that this isn’t supposed to be happening, as it’s from horribly long ago, and that she’s come so far in over ten years. She isn’t even in love with Naomi anymore, in the first place. No use getting all these feelings.
“Emily?” Emily blinks as Naomi calls out her name. It’s the first time, that afternoon; the first time in many, many years, and Emily has to close her eyes. She lets go of the cigarette she’s holding onto when Naomi touches her wrist tentatively; it’s long lost its fire, anyway, and as good as forgotten. Naomi clears her throat. “I mean, Ms Fitch,” she amends quickly, pulling her hand back to herself. “I said I thought it was time to keep still. It’s a new place, and it needs some work.”
“Sorry,” says Emily, shaking it out. It’s totally unprofessional, and she’s already horribly disappointed in herself as it is, unraveling like this. “We could take this to my office. Are you okay?” she gestures to Naomi’s cigarette, about halfway done now.
Naomi frowns slightly, glancing at her watch. “I have to run in a few,” she says, drawing from her fag a final time before dropping it altogether. When Naomi drives the toe of her boot into it, it’s so sharp it nearly slices it in half. Emily looks away from the sight. “I can leave my card.”
“That would be perfect,” Emily says, sighing a sort of relief. Naomi opens the purse in her hand and fishes out a card, hands it to Emily gingerly. “Thanks,” says Emily, hand desperately trying to keep her hair in place at the face of winds. She holds the card between thumb and forefinger, squinting as she reads the name: Naomi Campbell, managing editor. When she looks up, Naomi’s arranging the collar of her blouse; Emily looks at her curiously, this girl she once knew and how she’s now this horribly gorgeous woman.
“It was nice seeing you again, Emily,” Naomi says softly, her form of goodbye. “I was hoping it was really you, when your name came up as I was searching.”
Emily laughs, blushing like she’s out of control. “Not too many Fitches named Emily around here,” she just says.
There’s an uneasy silence that feels like it’s about to burst with so many words, only no one seems to be willing to come out with any of it. It stays like that for a while – it’s unbearably tense, like the moment one kisses another person for the first time.
Finally, Naomi says, “Well.”
“Well,” Emily says in kind, shifting from one leg to the other, rocking on her heels. “It was nice seeing you too, Nae.”
Naomi looks like she wants to kiss her, because people sometimes kiss politely when saying goodbye, but then she doesn’t. Instead, she turns around with a slight wave and disappears into the stairwell, moments later, leaving Emily on the roof with her knees weak and her lungs aching for another cigarette.
Emily works late that night, trying to keep Naomi’s face out of the papers she has to sign, the drafts she has to go over; it’s a little over 10 when she shuts the last folder, and when she closes her eyes, it’s Naomi there, her blue eyes haunting.
It’s not that she’s still in love with her; forgetting had been such hard work, and certainly, Emily’s not about to throw any of that away, especially not now that it’s years later, and the last time she checked, Naomi was married.
Married. Emily can’t decide on a singular feeling – Jealousy? Surprise? Regret? She never really pegged Naomi to be the marrying type – much less, the committing, settling down type – Naomi used to be always restless, always itching to be someplace else, whereas Emily liked the quiet of certain routines. That was how it ended, actually – a gradual falling out as the gap between their wants and interests widened, until it was all out of their hands.
Maybe it’s different now, because she’s with a man; or maybe it’s because she’s older. Maybe it’s because she’s now the sum of the things that have happened between the day they lost contact and this morning, when Naomi stood there on the rooftop, asking for help with her new flat.
The difference all these years have made, Emily muses, looking out her window. Lights from faraway buildings flicker throughout the nightscape, stars in a sea of black. She wonders if Naomi’s in any one of them; wonders if she’s also got her lights on, also awake, also thinking of the could-have-beens.
Naomi beats her to the first phone call by mere minutes; Emily’s phone rings just as she is about to move to pick it up, hoping to dial Naomi’s number as written on her card. It’s the day after, and Emily’s assistant transfers the phone call accordingly. “From Ms Campbell – she says she met you yesterday?”
Emily looks at her through the glass panel that separates her office from the reception area, signals quietly that she’ll take it, mouthing a ‘Thank you’ before picking up the handset.
“I know you’re pretty busy; I was hoping we could set an appointment to discuss the possibilities.” Emily bites her lip; Naomi’s voice is velvety on the other end; must be the early morning. And though she knows Naomi must have meant something else entirely with the word, ‘possibilities,’ it doesn’t stop Emily from grinning, anyhow.
“When are you free?” asks Emily, turning her swivel chair to face the window. Mornings are always a good time to take a quick survey of the city; it’s sunny and the streets below are so alive.
“I’ll adjust,” says Naomi. “Let’s just say I have a lot of free time on my hands.”
Emily takes a sip from her mug of coffee before, “How does later this afternoon sound?” It’s out before she has the chance to rethink its possible meanings; does it come across as too eager? Does she sound like she’s still hung up on her? Emily grimaces a little, sipping more coffee to soothe her nerves.
“Later is too generous,” Naomi says. “I didn’t expect to be accommodated so quickly.”
“Charge it to friendship,” Emily answers. It’s the truth – once, they were friends, too. Emily tries to keep her mind away from things that remind her of bicycles and forests, of alcohol and weed and MDMA. She shuts her eyes tighter as random bits of it come back to her; all these faraway shards of a younger self. The nostalgia makes it hard to breathe, a little.
“Emily?” Naomi clears her throat on the other end. “Are you all right?”
Emily breathes in. “I’m okay, just… a bit overwhelmed. Schedules and all.”
“If you’re full today, you don’t have to—“
“I want to.” Emily bites her lip again; these words coming out of her mouth are betraying her. “I mean, please. How does 4 p.m. sound?”
The line is quiet for a while as Naomi pauses to consider. Emily holds her breath. “Sounds fine. I’ll bring photos, if that’s okay.”
“That should be fine.” Emily swallows, clearing her throat. Something else must be said, she thinks. It’s too awkward to be over. “So.”
Emily inhales. “So, I’ll see you. With your photographs.”
Naomi just says, “Yes.”
Emily tries a little more, making suggestions about the photos she should bring; particular nooks she should take photos of. “Also, if you have suggested models, or anything…”
“Yeah,” says Naomi, breathing out. And then, “I missed you, Em.” The words hit Emily on the other end like a fist rap against her chest, a painful pound of a knuckle’s edge. “So, I… yeah.”
“I’ll see you,” says Emily, recovering.
Naomi just says, “Yes.”
2. first train home
Naomi arrives in Emily’s office a few minutes before 4 p.m., as expected. “Ms Fitch, your 4 p.m. is here.” It’s her assistant Joey on the intercom; the call jolts her, slightly. She breathes in before answering, smoothing her blouse.
“Just a sec,” she says, clearing her table of folders. She thought she’d be able to be somewhat productive in the hours between that phone call and this appointment; of course, she was wrong. Emily takes a peek at the reception desk through the glass panel – Naomi’s having a relaxed chat with Joey, and right that moment, they’re laughing. Naomi’s shaking her head, her fingers coming up to touch her lips. She’s so comfortable in her skin, so confident – Emily feels something familiar start stirring in her gut; something she hasn’t felt in a good while.
When Joey turns her head at some point, she catches Emily staring; immediately, they both compose themselves – Joey, to look as if she hasn’t just been getting too friendly with a client; Emily, as if she’s not falling in love with that first girl, all over again.
Emily moves toward her door to open it, but only after a rather deep breath. Naomi turns her head as soon as Emily peeks out of it. “Hey,” says Emily, trying a smile. “Been there long?”
Naomi shakes her head. “Not at all,” she says, gesturing to the table; she’s brought coffee and donuts. “I was hoping to bribe you with a mid-afternoon snack,” she adds, smiling.
“Of course,” Emily just says, pushing the door open wider behind her, motioning with a hand for Naomi to enter. “Not that you had to, but thanks.” She closes the door behind her, and wills herself to breathe, reminds herself that this is just another client meeting – something she’s done loads of, in the past; no reason to be this nervous.
Naomi gets comfortable in one of the seats in front of Emily’s desk, setting the coffee cups down on top of napkins. Off Emily’s raised brow and the question in her eyes, Naomi just says, “I may have developed certain… obsessions.”
“Like the lack of coffee rings on your tables,” Emily says, perching upon the corner of her desk across Naomi and sipping from the nearer cup, smiling at her from above its rim.
Naomi laughs at that, the “Ha” at the end of it filling the room; Emily’s eyes fall on the skin of Naomi’s throat as she throws her head back while at it. She’s wearing white again, its sleeves rolled to her elbows, the first, second, third buttons undone. Emily has to pull her eyes away. “It’s your desk,” Naomi says, after composing herself. “I was just taking precautions .”
“Right,” Emily nods, setting her cup carefully over the napkin, watching the focused look on Naomi’s face. The client is always right, Emily just tells herself. “So, do you have your photos?”
Naomi digs into her bag, pulls out a small brown envelope that she hands over. “It’s not too far from here, like, a twenty, thirty minute drive?”
Emily flips through them quickly. “I do recognize this – must be one of the units over at Columns?” Off Naomi’s nods, she adds, “Three-bedroom?” And then, steeling herself, “You have kids?”
Naomi’s pauses right in the middle of sipping from her cup; she swallows quickly, before, “God, no,” as if it were such a major correction, lowering the cup back on the table, wiping at the corner of her lips with a fingertip. “Little versions of ourselves running around – not sure I’d be doing the world a favor, yeah?”
Emily laughs a little, before stopping at a photo of Naomi’s bed; it’s a double bed with plain blood-red sheets. Still this color after so many years -- Emily is unable to think of anything else, and she has to close her eyes, breathe a little.
“Are you okay?”
Emily pushes herself off the corner of the table, walks around to her seat, if only to put the table in the space between them. “Yeah, yeah,” she says softly, nodding to herself, still staring at the photo. Of course, it’s not the *same* bed, she reminds herself, but then, it’s not like she can stop the memory anyway. Just like that, she’s 17 again, back in Naomi’s bed again; it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and they’re pretending to study for midterms, and somewhere along the way, Emily’s kissing her, and then.
“Emily?” Naomi’s calling her back, voice soft. Emily’s hunched over the photos with her hands braced right on her desk, and she’s pinned the one with Naomi’s bed in it right under her thumb. “Hey.”
“I’m all right,” says Emily, looking up. She knows she’s pale, and she knows that Naomi sees. Naomi hunches over the photos in kind from the other side of the table, across Emily, hands similarly braced. Under her hand, Naomi’s got the photo of the kitchen.
“You sure?” Before Emily even notices, Naomi’s face is so close now, and Emily finds herself jerking away a little, surprised. “You’re pale, Em.”
Emily tries to swallow, looking Naomi briefly in the eye, her face hovering closely. “Just… focusing,” she tries before dropping her eyes altogether, moving her hand to reach for another photograph. Naomi reaches over in kind, their hands brushing against each other.
“Here,” Naomi says, leaning over further to hand Emily the photo they both went for; Emily tries not to look into the space between Naomi’s neck and the buttons of her blouse. “The bathroom isn’t as big as I would have wanted, but…” Naomi trails off, but her fingertips linger where they touch. She looks so relaxed, Emily thinks, the spot on her hand burning; it’s as if this were the easiest place in the world, this small room with someone who used to mean so much.
“What do you think?” Naomi asks again, and Emily forces herself to blink; she is hardly in this conversation, yet she tries to catch up the best way she can. Naomi’s talking about the kitchen when she pushes herself off the table and walks over onto the other side, settling beside Emily, who tries her best to hide her panic. “I’m thinking of new tiles. Maybe mint green,” she continues, leaning closer, reaching past both Emily’s arms, unbelievably still for a long while, to retrieve a photo on the other side of the desk.
Emily closes her eyes as she catches the scent of Naomi’s shampoo; not quite the one that she used when they were younger, but similarly citrus-y. She inhales deeply and holds it, counting in her head, pushing away the images of summers long gone with numbers.
“Emily.” When she opens her eyes, Naomi’s looking at her curiously, serious. She’s got her brows knit and Emily knows, how this look means Naomi’s thinking; it always has. She still has an arm reaching over both Emily’s on the table, and she’s too close that it’s almost a hug. Emily’s positive that if it lasts a while longer, she’s going to have to kiss her.
And Emily almost does; that’s when her phone starts buzzing in her pocket, and it startles her so much that in her surprise, she jerks her hand back carelessly and knocks over one of the cups she mistakenly set down nearby, sans napkin coaster. She doesn’t take the phone call, shoving her mobile back into where it came from, upon finding that the spill has stained Naomi’s top. “Shit.”
Naomi takes a step back, surprised herself. Emily throws open a drawer, in search of paper towels. “I’m really, really sorry,” she says, moving closer to Naomi, dabbing at the stain with a folded piece of tissue. “It’s absent-minded and fucking irresponsible, and…”
“It’s all right, Emily,” Naomi tries to calm her, wrapping a hand around Emily’s tissue-holding one. Emily predictably stills. “It’s nothing, I’m sure it comes off easy.”
“We could wash it, you know,” says Emily, still frantic and panicky. “Wash it while it’s still fresh, my place is not too far from here—“
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Naomi says, and it’s only then that Emily realizes how it must have come across; she runs a hand through her hair and pulls at it, just hard enough to hurt. “I mean, I could wash it myself. At home, it’s no big deal. Not like I have anywhere else to wear this to, I’m going straight home anyway,” says Naomi, shrugging. And then, as if the most brilliant idea had just come upon her, “You could come with me though, check the apartment out yourself. Photos hardly do anything justice.”
Emily wants to say yes; the word bubbles painfully at the back of her throat, as if in waiting. “I don’t think that’s a good idea either,” she finds herself saying instead. Off the question on Naomi’s face, she just adds, “I have a five-thirty.”
Naomi lets a small, “Oh,” escape her lips. She glances at her watch. “I better be going then?” she asks, gathering the photos on Emily’s desk into a pile before shoving them back into the brown envelope – something she has minor difficulty accomplishing with one hand, as she has her other hand busy dabbing at the stain on her blouse. Emily reaches over to help.
“We can reschedule the ocular,” Emily offers.
“Later in the week, maybe?” Naomi says, looking up as they tuck in the final photograph. “Thanks for accommodating me today.”
Naomi extends a hand again; it’s as if she’s putting Emily back to an appropriate place. Emily takes it, shakes it once, firmly. “It was my pleasure,” Emily says, gesturing to the door. “I’ll walk you to the elevator.” Naomi smiles, head bowed, blushing.
Emily barely says anything, other than a curt, “I’ll be back in a bit,” to Joey on their way out. The lobby’s deserted, and the two of them stand before the elevators wordlessly; Emily shifts from leg to leg, staring at the numbers light up one by one.
Naomi raises a brow as one of them finally opens; it’s the one on the far right and Naomi begins walking toward it at the soft *ding*. Emily considers walking back into the office and dealing with the post-stress, but instead she ends up standing before Naomi, the closing elevator door between them.
“Wait,” Emily says, putting a hand against the sliding door, pushing against it. “Let’s walk some more.” She gets into the empty elevator with Naomi, who presses “B”. The elevator shifts slightly and Emily feels her stomach churn, in a way that’s not even remotely related to gravity and motion.
Somewhere between the 9th and 8th floor, Naomi says, “I thought you had a five-thirty?” She’s not looking at her; instead, she’s looking down, at the space between her shoes.
Emily nearly forgets about the lie, almost answers it honestly.“It can wait,” she says instead, fiddling with the hem of her blouse.
When the elevator opens at the basement floor, Naomi says, “So,” as she walks out of the lift; a look of surprise comes upon her face upon seeing Emily still following, as she turns around. “You know, this reminds me strangely of…” There’s a smile on Naomi’s face as she looks away, biting down on her lip, as if tickled by this long ago memory.
Of course, Emily gets the reference; nearly sees Naomi walking with her bicycle under the dim lights of the basement parking level, amid the echo of their heels. She smiles in kind, chest feeling indescribably warm; she hasn’t thought about that time in her life, in a very long while. “Well,” Emily says, following Naomi to her car; they’re heading toward a sleek black Ford Lynx parked right in the middle of the basement. Instinctively, Emily looks around for her own white Altis, finds it parked at the far corner, right where she left it. “A very long time ago, wasn’t that. Me following you around like that.”
“Stalker,” Naomi says, affectionately. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her set of keys.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Emily laughs; the rest of it dies in her throat as Naomi opens her car door, leaning in to toss the brown envelope with the photographs into the backseat. Emily inhales; this is it. “I don’t really have a five-thirty,” she says, throat suddenly feeling very dry.
Naomi pauses a bit before pulling herself back out of the car, straightening herself as she faces Emily. She looks like she’s got a lot on her mind, yet when she speaks it’s just a brief and calm, “Okay.”
Emily feels strangely hurt; like she takes offense at the brevity of Naomi’s response after having expected a long and winding tirade. She clears her throat, her brow knit, “I’m sorry I lied; it’s just that…”
“Emily.” Naomi puts a hand lightly on her chest for good measure, smiling at the sight of it before looking at Emily’s face, again. “We’re not the children we were. You don’t owe me explanations for anything, anymore.”
Naomi leans in to kiss her – on the cheek, very chastely, though Naomi pulls away too slowly for Emily to think of it as only completely polite. Naomi runs her hands over both Emily’s shoulders, as if smoothing her blouse, after. Emily stares, lips parted to aid breathing. The spot on her cheek feels extraordinarily scalded. “Oh,” says Emily, finally. “Right.”
“Call me for the resched?” Naomi asks, and Emily just nods. “So. I’ll see you then.”
Emily can barely move; it’s as if Naomi has paralyzed her. She stands there, watching as Naomi pulls out of the parking slot carefully before rolling away toward the exit, the rumble of the engine fading as she turns past the ramp.
This is not happening, she tells herself, walking back to the elevators, rubbing at her temple. Not this way.
Naomi, Emily, several years later. Title by Imogen Heap.
Naomi rolls out of Emily’s building slowly, putting the hazard lights on as she stops briefly at the corner, absently touching the stain on her blouse, the coffee slowly hardening on the fabric. She takes this moment to allow herself to feel shaken; she’s through bothering with appearances, at least for today, and she lets out a long sigh, shuddering.
What the fuck was that, she asks herself, catching her reflection in the rear-view mirror. The street behind her is clear, which means she has time to keep breathing, slowly. Counting in her head, she shakes it out at ten, rolling her shoulders before reaching for the gear shift, if only to notice her ring on the coin tray beside it, where it’s been sitting for days, unworn.
She picks it up, lets it rest on her palm. David, she sighs, wondering about his whereabouts briefly. The last time he called, he was in Brazil, covering a festival. This was three days ago. A standard wife would worry about not getting daily phone calls, but then, if anything, Naomi’s certainly not into doing marriage according to those standards. Naomi understands the rigors of the job too well for such irrational expectations.
She had met David at work, while covering a hotel launch in Cyprus. Effy called her up one day with the invite. “It would be good for you,” was what Effy said; she was obviously smoking on the other end, and so was Naomi. “The weather’s nice and warm.”
“Hotel openings are not my thing,” said Naomi, preparing to turn it down. She was already writing a piece about a newly opened installation art exhibit, which was in town for about a week – this was more her “thing” than anything else, actually.
“Come on,” Effy sighed, and Naomi almost heard it as a plea; the tone was alien and strangely delicious. “For old times’ sake.”
Of course, Naomi had relented, and she couldn’t help but wonder briefly just how often Effy pulled that pleading tone thing with the others, especially the men on her media list; should be a crowd favorite, as it was fucking effective. Perhaps she was well-practiced.
Effy greeted her with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks upon arrival, sunglasses clinking together in the process.
“Glad you could make it,” said Effy, taking her by the arm and leading her across the lobby.
“I’m quite fond of you, clearly,” Naomi just said, laughing.
It was Effy who introduced her to the rest of the press, a few of whom were familiar. It was a fairly small scene, and most people who went to one thing also went to the other, and another. Naomi smiled at them, exchanging hugs with a few.
“And of course, you’ve met David Stark, from Traveller?” asked Effy, gesturing to a man Naomi had never met before.
Naomi was shaking her head. “I believe—“
“Pleasure to meet you finally, Ms Campbell – I’m a fan.” David extended a hand and Naomi felt herself blush; it was strange, feeling that way – flattered. The sort of sensation was quite rare. “Effy tells the most interesting stories about you.”
“Really?” said Naomi, shaking his hand firmly, briefly. She looked over at Effy, brow raised as if to ask if she’d mentioned anything about their fairly colorful lives years ago, at Roundview; as if getting her question, Effy began laughing herself. “Hopefully only the good ones, then?”
David laughed in kind. “You mean to say there are others?”
And that was how it began.
Naomi had almost forgotten about the hotel event altogether when she ran into David again, at the opening of an art gallery, months later. She met his eye briefly and stared until she remembered exactly where it was that they met. He came up after, shook her hand, exchanged pleasantries. “Great seeing you again,” was what Naomi said, in parting.
Suddenly, he was everywhere – on the train, twice; Naomi bumped into him while he was on his way out, and both times when he looked up, he was smiling.
The fourth time they met, it was at a restaurant downtown, where she was having an ill-advised blind date. For the most part, she’d only agreed just to get it over and done with, to appease a workmate who had set it up for her, but not without much begging. “Okay, but just this once,” was what Naomi said, and judging by the first ten minutes, there was nil chance of it ever happening again.
Naomi bumped into David near the restrooms; the feeling of relief that washed over her right then was unmistakable. “You’re everywhere,” she said.
“I’m in town on assignment for a few days,” he said. “Sorry about the train I was—“
“Everybody on the train’s in a hurry,” Naomi waved a hand dismissively, shaking her head. Finally, she thought to herself, Somebody interesting.
When she tried to catch his eye, he was looking over her shoulder. “Am I keeping you from your date?” he asked, glancing over at their table.
Naomi rolled her eyes. “You are keeping me from harm,” she just said, sighing, and it was then David started laughing. “I don’t know why I even bother with dating. I’m too busy for this.”
“Pretty girls like you should date,” said David, matter-of-factly, face reverting to serious. The way he was casually leaning against the nearby bar struck Naomi as oddly attractive, even, and then there was this warm thing that just started crawling upon her skin, and it felt a lot like blushing.
“Only if it’s not a waste of time,” she replied, composing herself. And then, noting how David glanced over again at the date she had left on their table, she cleared her throat after mustering enough courage. “So, listen, I’m getting out of here—“
David offered his hand, smiling as if he’d read her mind. “Somewhere less…”
“Date-y,” said Naomi. “Somewhere with alcohol.”
That night they ended up driving to a nearby convenience store and drinking beer out of cans on the hood of David’s car, parked facing the harbor.
Later, he would ask her out on a proper dinner. Later still, they would call it dating.
And even later still, amid the backdrop of increasing work-loads and travel assignments, David would ask her to marry him.
Naomi had considered the question briefly; he was kind, and most of all, she liked the person she’d become with him – smarter, more assertive, always moving and never staying put anywhere for long. By this time, Naomi had been building herself a solid reputation as one of the most hardworking and talented writers out on the field, and she needed someone who would understand what that entailed.
And then, there was David – David who went over her drafts; David who fixed her coffee at 2 in the morning in the middle of negotiating with both their assignments, their insomnia compounded by jetlag; David and his warm arms on all those terrible, long nights in foreign countries and strange hotels.
So what if it wasn’t love, per se? She told herself the notion of love as this acute feeling of want was mostly overrated anyway; after all, she wasn’t seventeen anymore. David was something regular, something she could count on, something stable – something their always mobile lifestyle couldn’t give her, ironically. He was a great companion. And that was enough for Naomi, and so she said yes.
Somewhere, a part of her had expected herself to feel more greatly about this momentous event – something akin to skies opening, or the ground moving underneath with the shifting of plates. Just – something. Something more than just this feeling of relief. But then there was none of that. The event came and passed quietly, and right then she knew, for sure, how it wasn’t really the best possible thing, but then it was enough.
Who needs the best, when you can have just enough?
It was a few years later when Naomi got called in for the possibility of a promotion; this was after the magazine’s long-time editor-in-chief retired. She was told the managing editor’s chair was vacant.
“It fits you perfectly,” was what they said. “Besides, how about settling down, starting a family, yeah? Not getting any younger, are we, Naomi?”
Naomi felt herself wince; kids had never been part of her plans with David, and they’d never even discussed it. “I don’t think I’m ready to give the whole writing thing up,” she just said instead. “I love traveling far too much to be tied down to a desk, you know that.”
They asked her to reconsider, gave her a year and a half to figure things out. “Frankly, we’re not willing to hire anyone else but you.” And then, “It’s bound to get tiring, at some point – being always in motion.”
Naomi said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
And she did.
Another eighteen months later, they asked again, and this time, Naomi said yes, thinking perhaps that it was time for a new challenge.
And what a challenge it was; Naomi had never really been accustomed to having her own desk, much less having to stay there for more than two hours, and for the first few weeks it was nothing short of maddening.
“It’s driving me insane, having to sit there,” she told David, one weekend when she’d flown out to meet him in Singapore. Lately, it’s been all about phone calls to hotels at such strange hours and the occasional weekend in insert-city-here. She‘d tried to keep traveling with David for as long as she could, envying how he was still very much in his element, the same element she’d just been recently pulled out of.
“You didn’t have to take it,” said David, his tone kind, one night in bed. “If you enjoyed what we were doing too much, you should have fought harder for it.”
She considered his statement and took it to sleep with her that night. The following morning, she got a phone call reminding her of the board meeting scheduled the next day; it was set for nine am. If she had any intentions of getting there on time and with at least a couple of hours of sleep, she should be on the next flight out of there.
Saying goodbye to David over lunch, she just said, “Lately, I’ve been seeing the inside of planes more than I see you.”
To which David replied, “At least I can be fairly confident I look better in comparison.” The laugh that came after sounded almost pained.
When she decided to buy a unit in one of the upscale condominiums in the city centre, David had even been supportive, despite the fact that it meant only one thing: That Naomi was tired of the jet-setting lifestyle, and was thinking of staying put, for a change.
For the most part, this was true; somewhere along the way, Naomi realized that she had been spending more time riding planes than being with David AND getting work done, altogether. However she looked at it, it was all getting a bit impractical, not even mentioning that all that shifting in time zones had done nothing at all to help her insomnia along.
It was a three-bedroom flat on the 25th floor of the building. It was bare, save for the basic furniture. When she showed it to David via webcam, he just said he was happy for her, and though Naomi knew better than take his word for it, she just reminded herself that she and David didn’t do drama. It wasn’t their “thing .”
It wasn’t a conjugal decision at all, but then David understood, how Naomi needed to make certain decisions for herself, and so he let her.
As with most things, Naomi first found Emily’s office on the Internet; she was looking for someone to consult regarding some changes she was planning to do with the flat. It was like, one night, she came home to the empty apartment and noticed everything that wasn’t there; how everything struck her as too plain -- the walls, the cabinets, everything. Walking around the house, she thought, maybe she needed new curtains or new sheets; opening the bathroom, she reconsidered the tiles, even the shower head.
Her head was filling with thoughts; this was an alien and baffling thing, being this concerned with the place she’s living in, when in the past, the mere availability of hot water in any hotel room had been enough.
Strange, she thought to herself. It may have been a little past three in the morning when she opened her laptop and looked for help – though she knew she could just call their office in the morning, where she was certain someone could very well recommend a designer they’d either hired or featured in the past, the thing was keeping her awake anyway, so she thought she might as well.
Naomi was looking for interior design firms around town when Emily’s name came up in one of the pages. Could it be?, she asked herself, grinning at the screen anyway, this ridiculous feeling resembling butterflies awakening in her gut.
Emily. She sat back thinking, how she’s never had a summer quite like that – like the one before their last year at Roundview. It was all like a really long, lazy weekend, and she knew that if she focused just long enough, it’d be easy to bring herself back there, right in the middle of the memory of it, until her eyes actually watered from merely remembering how the air was thick with too much cigarette smoke; how Emily’s thigh was smooth where it met hers, on afternoons they napped in Naomi’s bed with legs entwined.
Whatever it was that led to it falling apart, after – the distance, the time, their ages, perhaps? But certainly, it was not the lack of trying, because if there was anything they’d done much of at the time, it was that – trying. Being young meant believing in effort – that if they only tried hard enough, they would come out of it unscathed, stronger than ever before; models to future generations who would be told time and again how long distance relationships never really quite worked, and who would then need people to look up to, people who actually managed to keep it together.
Emily had tried to keep up with her, throughout; certainly, it wasn’t even that the physical distance was so great, or that they were separated by oceans or mountains. Soon though, they found themselves realizing how little they had left to hold onto, as the gap between them, the differences between their wants and interests, widened with the passage of time.
It was mutual when they ended it; truth be told, Naomi had expected some sort of struggle, but when it came to it, it was all calm and quiet. It was Christmas break, a few days before classes were set to resume, at the steps of an old rundown cinema. She was holding Emily’s hand when she asked her if this was getting difficult for her as well; Emily said yes.
The fact that it all was just painfully simple, somewhat, ultimately betrayed how the process of mending that came after was excruciating, at best. Despite promises, they lost touch, and Naomi coped with semi-disastrous relationships in university, the longest one being with one of the student leaders she’d often marched with. In the end, they ended up burning each other; Ingrid was too headstrong, and so was Naomi and there was really no way a thing like that between girls too similar to be in a functional relationship together would have ended nicely.
Activism and issues kept Naomi busy for the rest of her time at uni, and after a while Naomi forgot about the girl whose red hair used to fill her dreams non-stop, once upon a time.
She graduated and tried but failed to get into hard journalism repeatedly. This was how she found Effy again, as a fellow trainee in a public relations and events management firm that finally took her in. It turned out to be something Effy was quite good at; something that Naomi’s actually embarrassed to admit being surprised with.
“If this does nothing for you, then there’s no reason to stay, is there?” was how Effy put it, that afternoon Naomi told her about getting an offer with a magazine as a writer. They were smoking clandestinely in the fire exit, huddled closely around the ashtray in the corner.
Naomi just nodded, and left the firm the following week.
Naomi’s cell phone vibrates in her pocket, and just like that she is jolted back into her car, pulled out of the slew of memories that have come upon her. It’s David on the caller ID. “Hey,” Naomi answers, flipping her phone open. David tells her he’s in Bogota and asks about the time, where she’s at. “Nearly dinner time,” she says, looking up her window to check for the color of the sky. “Just came from the interior designer’s office,” she adds, leaving out the names.
“For what?” asks David. His line is slightly choppy, but in the background Naomi can hear the faint shuffling of papers. David says he’s working on an author’s profile.
“Oh you know,” Naomi says, eyes falling on the ring, still sitting on her other palm. “The flat. It needs a bit of work.”
David laughs on the other end. Somewhere, Naomi thinks she even misses him, however slight it all is in comparison to… she shakes her head and instead tries to focus on the sound. “Whatever floats your boat, hon,” he just says. Naomi bites her lip at the endearment, at how it reminds her of entirely different things. “So I’ll see you at the end of this month, maybe?”
Naomi just says, “Sure,” shrugging. “Be safe, yeah?”
David replies with, “I love you.” It’s never like a rejoinder, whenever he says it; it’s always like he means it, every time, and it always leaves Naomi feeling guilty, that she couldn’t quite match his devotion; that whenever she says it back, it always comes off as mechanical, like an afterthought.
When the phone call ends, she tosses her phone on the passenger seat beside her, and tries her ring back on; it glistens under the light of a newly turned on streetlamp. She tries to remember the last time she’d said the words and meant it in that way that felt like she was going to burst a vein or something similar, had she tried to keep it in.
Locating the memory, she can’t help but sigh; Of fucking course, she just thinks, going back to the last day she was with Emily, at the steps of that old cinema. Dusk was leaving for night, and she was looking at Emily amidst the falling dark, trying hard to hold onto the sight of her.
“You know how hard I fucking love you, right?” was what she said. She remembers Emily’s hoarse, “Yeah,” and that had been that. Naomi spent most of the days after thinking she’d never feel this way about anybody else, ever again.
For the most part, she was right; after all this time, she still is.
Title from Sara Bareilles.
Chapter 4: the girl from back then
4. the girl from back then
Emily walks back into the office dazed and feeling rather pale; to cover it, she asks Joey to pull up their folders on three-bedroom flats, and their recent projects involving Columns units as she opens the door. “I remember a couple of them, from last year? A friend of Giselle’s, wasn’t that?” she says, catching her breath, heading straight for her room without pausing at Joey’s desk even; Joey says nothing as she complies.
The folders are delivered a few moments later, and all Emily can think about while staring at the contents of the first one is the last time Naomi actually kissed her, and how it’s actually been an all too long a while since she’s been kissed like that.
Of course, she remembers the last time; Christmas was ending then, and it was as if the season took the relationship with it. Not that they didn’t see it coming, but there’s something about fighting a losing war, and in the end it was all still very heartbreaking.
The last time Naomi kissed her, it felt like ending an era; Emily looks back often on this day as a border of sorts, as something that seemed to age her incredibly, after – the same way all difficult decisions do.
It’s like whenever somebody asks her, when it was she started getting old, she just goes back to that day. Years later and several mishaps, broken hearts and difficult decisions hence, it’s still the same day she points to, even after all this time.
Their last summer together, right after graduation, had been all about suspended belief. In a total reversal of the summer before, when the days felt endless and seamless, that last summer felt like something was ending with every day, and they were both simply helpless at the face of it.
Emily remembers most clearly the day after the end of college, when Naomi asked her out for a trip to the lake again, and for the sake of fucking nostalgia made love to her there, really fucking slowly.
The memory of that still brings the shudders – Naomi’s hands all over, skimming over skin so achingly slow, her lips moving lightly upon the pulse point on Emily’s neck, her tongue pressing against it, mimicking the beat underneath. The way Naomi’s hands had pinned Emily’s wrist against the blanket, a silent plea for her to stay still; to not break her momentum; to not cut this moment short.
Emily had whimpered, “Come on—,” her voice coming out strained.
Naomi had just looked up at that, eyes lifting from the skin of Emily’s stomach, reaching over to trace something upon Emily’s cheek with a fingertip. “Shh, we’ve got time,” was what Naomi said, the shake in her voice eventually betraying her in the end, and when Emily met Naomi’s eyes, she could see how Naomi hadn’t really believed a word she’d just said.
When Emily came, a long while after, her shoulders shook with the intensity of the feeling, and Naomi wound her arms around her tightly as if to steady her. When Emily sought out her face blindly with her hands, it occurred to her, with the dampness in her palms, how Naomi had been crying.
That was the last time they visited the lake; all the other afternoons were spent in Naomi’s bedroom, where they actually could have fucked slower, but didn’t. Emily never saw that excruciating pace of the last forest fuck again, as virtually all of the times after were rushed to the point of being similarly maddening.
Emily remembers those days as well, though for the most part, they were less about the moments themselves than they were about the aftermath – the bruises left upon her wrists, the way her entire body ached, after. The blur of Naomi’s face, the speed with which she kissed and nipped and scratched, almost to the point of drawing blood.
“We have to be more careful,” was what Emily said, licking her bottom lip, a small cut at the corner of it – right where Naomi had eagerly bitten down. Naomi had blushed, looking away with an embarrassed smile on her face, lighting up a fag and opening a window. Emily wrapped the sheet tighter around her naked self.
“About leaving marks?” Naomi asked as she exhaled, looking over at Emily again while perched naked upon a side table. Something in her tone told Emily that perhaps this was the plan all along, this leaving of visible things along with every memory. Perhaps this was them, little by little, trying to veer away from the make-believe, in search for something more tangible; something to hold onto, to look upon in the nights ahead that they’d have to spend apart.
“About leaving each other in irreparable states,” said Emily, examining the fresh light scratches on her arm.
Naomi had paused a long while before saying, “We don’t have time to spare each other from scars.”
At the end of that summer, Naomi had said, “After this, it will never be quite the same again.”
Emily’s reply was, “I don’t see why we should expect it to be.” It was meant to be hopeful – Emily had hoped they could take the change, that they could cope with it; but then, in the absence of better words, the statement came across as completely resigned instead, and perhaps it really was the most accurate portent of things to come.
University began with the both of them trying, keeping it together through phone calls in the middle of the night, lengthy e-mails written in haste between classes, and every possible weekend together, all of which were spent in the familiar rush of the summer prior, still in Naomi’s room, the both of them clawing at each other’s clothing with half-closed eyes, the door barely shut.
Emily remembers being, for the most part, tired. At the beginning of it, she was tired AND happy, but in the long run, however, she began feeling just plain tired. A couple of months into uni life, they found themselves having to give up the weekends altogether to accommodate Emily’s school work and Naomi’s activism.
Come to think of it, perhaps the conversation lulls were what did them in at the end of it. There were long wordless gaps in the phone conversations where there used to be none; in the end, Emily found herself with little to say about the things that mattered to Naomi – like their student union, or her latest cause, for that matter. The violence that nearly erupted that last time they marched worried Emily, a little, though Naomi was quick to dismiss it as an over-reaction.
Soon there was less and less to say, and really, most times Emily couldn’t help but feel as if her own life in uni was altogether frivolous in comparison to Naomi’s, and that had been the start of that – less messages, less phone calls, less weekends; less of everything.
When it ended, it didn’t come as a surprise at all, the utter lack of shouting or conflict notwithstanding. What did come as a surprise, however, was how Emily fared after.
Emily would never admit to being a heartbreaker, but then she did become that girl who was fairly attractive and severely unavailable, and that was cutting it rather close, all things considered. She expanded her circle of friends within the interior design program by joining an organization of interior design undergrads, and found herself settling into her skin quite comfortably, soon after. Nobody cared that she was gay, much to her surprise; some girls even flirted openly with her, and it was all just great distraction.
As expected of any university student, she spent half of her time at uni trying to manage alcohol and other substances alongside projects and exams; the other half, drinking way too much at study sessions that eventually devolved into parties all too often. As for flirting, it was nothing too heavy – just the random brush of skin here and there, an arm slung around an unsuspecting shoulder, kisses that meant nothing, the casual fuck every once and a while. Twice was the most anyone ever got, and after that, it always seemed to scare her, that anything could metamorphose into anything akin to commitment.
She’d pulled it back together close to graduation – it had taken a phone call from Katie saying, “I do not approve of the things I saw online” and, “Are you going to keep at this forever, because the Naomi hang-up thing gets old at some point” to get some sense knocked into her head.
That time, Emily had said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
Katie only answered, “You’re the clever one; fucking figure it out.”
And so Emily did figure it out. After graduation, she entered a design firm, and for the first few years it was actually fine, up until Giselle.
They were a different sort of trouble, these married women; much more the sort who was also Emily’s boss. They had difficult schedules that went against the degree of their needs, and Giselle was an impossible entity to deny. Emily had never felt so constrained and suffocated under the overarching pressure to be creative and unusually efficient, over and above the fact that beyond that, there were also these clandestine looks and barely-there touching and subtle smirks that always seemed to mean something else, something hidden, something heart-stopping.
Clearly, this wasn’t the girl Emily had imagined herself growing into, but as she liked telling herself often, she was just doing the best she could with the cards she was dealt.
At the time, she even thought it could be love, this thing with Giselle, and perhaps, to a degree it was – after all, Emily loved Giselle as she always looked after her and nurtured her talent; or maybe it was because she saw in Giselle someone worth emulating, like a possible future version of herself, in a manner of speaking.
Whatever it was, soon enough, what started as extended nights poring over difficult projects soon became quick, muted fucks in Giselle’s office, separated only from the outside world by the lock on the door and the closed blinds; or the occasional weekend some place faraway, where they knew no one.
“I feel like I’ve known you for a long time,” Giselle had said, the night they first gave in; she was kissing Emily lazily against her desk, parting Emily’s legs slowly to settle between them, the warmth from there unmistakable. “Like I know you from before.”
Emily had pulled back, leaning back on her hands, the buttons on her blouse undone. In Giselle’s room, the lights were out save for the desk lamp on the corner, and Giselle was looking at Emily with eyes half-lidded and heavy with desire; it’s enough to soak Emily’s knickers through, and it’s surprising, how she could even manage something like, “I remind you of an old lover, then?”
Giselle had shaken her head, undoing the last button on Emily’s blouse before smoothing it off her shoulder, while her other hand was preoccupied with Emily’s belt. “Not really,” Giselle said, murmuring against Emily’s jaw, tongue tracing the side of her neck, light enough for goose bumps. She was pulling at the thing wrapping around Emily’s waist, and the clinking of the buckle filled the room. “Someone better.”
Emily had meant to ask more, but then Giselle had unbuttoned her slacks, managing to slip a hand inside, and after the frantic “Fuck” that escaped Emily’s lips through gritted teeth, a mere hiss – understandably, there was little talking after that.
They never mentioned the topic of semblances again after; looking back, Emily thought, maybe for Giselle it was a lot like grappling with a sort of nostalgia. Whatever it was, it mattered little to Emily; in any case, perhaps it was for the best that she did not know more than she already did.
When that ended, it was quiet as well, in keeping with Emily’s unusually calm break-ups; Giselle had said it was time she settled more faithfully into her marriage. Emily actually agreed, nodding without a word. They were having breakfast during one of their hotel trysts; it was a Saturday morning, and Giselle’s husband was out for the weekend on a business trip, as always.
“You’re a fine piece of work, do you know that?” said Giselle that morning, thumb grazing over Emily’s hand on the table. “You’ve got a long way to go. Trust me on this.”
Emily swallowed hard, and just like that, it was done. The affair had lasted for roughly a year; it was enough time for Emily to feel what should be a derivative of heartbreak, when it ended.
Emily did not even need to think twice when she handed in her resignation, a couple of weeks later. Giselle only sighed as she signed it, before reaching over from her side of the desk and kissing Emily on the cheek, slowly.
When Emily started her own small design firm with a few friends, about a year later, she finally found her focus, and for a few years it did turn out okay. Thanks to a couple of recommendations from Giselle, who had managed to refer clients to them despite everything that went down, Emily managed to break majorly into the scene. For the most part, Emily was just glad that Giselle was capable of staying professional, staying friends even; thinks perhaps this was how most adults go about it, anyway.
Emily was doing just fine – not too busy, not too vacant, just about right, thankfully – when Naomi showed up that day, at the rooftop of their building, asking for help.
It’d been a while since Emily was this thrown, and despite the years between, and how long she’d claimed to have come, the feeling was as new and unsettling as ever.
Emily stops moving her hand for a moment, looking down at the piece of paper she’s been absently sketching upon; what started as a rough draft of a room ended as a face vaguely resembling Naomi’s. She promptly crumples the paper and tosses it into the bin.
Glancing at the clock above the door, Emily catches the time – a bit after nine in the evening. Just then, Joey opens her door slowly, peering inside carefully. “Are you all right?” she asks from the door, a bit cautious. “You seem to have been… out of it, for the past few days.” And then, “Is the new client difficult?”
Emily smiles tiredly. “A bit,” she says, pausing. “It’s an old friend. You know, pressure.”
Joey nods but does not seem to be convinced. “Want to go out for a drink?” she offers, miming gripping a glass with a hand.
Emily considers the offer for a moment; vodka sounds really appealing right now, but there’s just a lot of things going on. “Maybe I’ll just stay here,” she says, dismissing Joey with the wave of a hand. “Try to be productive for the next few hours or so.”
From the door, Joey sighs, smiling. “Whatever,” she says, adjusting her bag strap upon her shoulder. “You know my number.”
Emily nods, closing her eyes. “Thank you.” And with that, Joey closes the door after her and walks away, her heels echoing throughout the quiet office.
Chapter 5: this modern love
5. this modern love
Emily checks her schedule for the ocular, and finds herself seized with something close to dread upon seeing her afternoons open; it’s strange, as she’s never really been this terrified of a relatively slow week. “Unbelievable,” she mutters to herself, turning the pages of her planner. “Of all the weeks to be not busy.”
In the interest of being ethical and professional, she slips Naomi’s card out of the holder, toys with it briefly before dialing. Naomi’s secretary picks up after two rings, and Emily asks to speak with Ms Campbell, in the best non-shaky voice she can muster.
“She’s not in the office right now; may I take a message?” Emily breathes a sigh of relief; leaves her mobile number, in case it may be forwarded, and the girl on the other end assures her as much.
It’s not even half an hour later when Emily’s phone starts vibrating; shutting the folder she’s been viewing, Emily tosses it onto the table before slipping her phone out of her pocket, not even bothering with the caller ID. “Hello?”
“I can’t believe we hadn’t exchanged mobile numbers.” The voice immediately takes the air out of Emily’s lungs. “I was waiting for your call; I hope you have some good news for me.”
Emily takes a moment before clearing her throat. “Hey,” she says when she manages, finally. “It must have slipped our minds. How are you?”
“Bored,” says Naomi, laughing at the other end. Emily finds herself leaning into her phone, closer to the voice, unconsciously. “And you?”
“Apparently, I’m free this week for your ocular. When’s a good time for you?”
There’s a shuffling of papers on the other end; Emily thinks, Naomi must be opening her planner in turn. Plans, plans – all these plans. Somewhere, something just aches at the thought, how there once had been a time when tomorrow was always wide open.
“I’d totally say come over right now,” says Naomi, and Emily’s breath hitches in her throat, the pit in her stomach pulsing. “But there’s this event—“
“Whatever fits your schedule,” Emily interjects, glad to have a reason to postpone. It’s not that she doesn’t want to see her – of course, she does, and her mind’s filled with all these questions; it’s just that she needs more time to prepare herself. To be unshaken.
“It’s on tonight, a coffee table book launch at Galerie One? I don’t even know…” Naomi continues, obviously inattentive. Emily imagines her with her phone stuck between her ear and shoulder, hands sifting through envelopes of invites; places her in the living room, as Emily remembers from a photograph. Stop, she tells herself. Just, stop. “—I’m not even sure where it is, does this address sound familiar to you?”
After a moment’s silence, Emily just says, “That’s not too far from here, perhaps a couple of streets down?”
“You should come,” says Naomi in turn, out of the blue. “I mean, if you’re so inclined. I got an extra invite.”
Emily holds her breath, counts to three. Really, there’s nothing she wants more than to reconnect, but there’s just something about herself that she doesn’t trust. “Maybe some other time,” she says, yet her tone’s so unsure to be convincing.
“It’s a coffee table book about… pools, I think,” says Naomi, completely glossing over the uncertainty in Emily’s voice. “Or at least, the cover’s a gorgeous pool – they’d printed it on the invite. It’s right up your alley, if you ask me.” Naomi sounds like she’s holding a laugh in, and Emily feels herself relax. “Come on, it would be a good way to meet clients, yeah?”
Emily feels herself inching closer to agreement. Naomi sure knows how to coax a girl to see things her way. “Fine,” says Emily, sighing. “If it turns out to be shit, I’ll be holding you entirely responsible.”
“Says here they serve cocktails.”
Emily rolls her eyes; who would have thought it would be this easy, like pressing play to resume, or something? “Park your car beside mine over here; I doubt they have a lot of parking space. We can walk.”
Naomi says, “I was totally aiming for your parking space.” In her head, Emily can see her grinning, just like the girl she knew before. “I’ll be over in thirty.”
When Naomi gets to Emily’s office, Emily’s looking at photographs of their most recent redesign involving a unit in Columns; true, she can barely focus, just knowing that Naomi’s on her way, but then, she ought to at least try. She’s already too jumpy from too much coffee, and she barely manages to hide the shake in her voice when she looks up as Naomi peers into her room.
“Sorry, I’m a bit early,” Naomi says from the door without entering. “Traffic is surprisingly light. I’ll just be waiting out here for you.”
Emily motions with her hand, beckons for her to come in. “No, don’t be silly,” she says, shaking her head. “Come in, I’ll just be fixing my stuff.”
Naomi opens the door cautiously, stepping in before pushing it closed softly behind her. It shuts with a soft click. “Should I turn on the lights?” Naomi offers, noticing how the light from the window’s fading.
Emily looks up from her folder, studies Naomi’s silhouette. There’s that feeling in her gut again, that part of her that she thought she had long done away with. “No, I won’t be long,” Emily says, voice softer than intended. Naomi moves forward, lowers her bag on the seat by Emily’s table.
“View should be nice at night, lights and all,” Naomi says, nodding toward Emily’s huge window. Naomi reaches over to turn on a lamp; it bathes a small corner of Emily’s desk, where Emily has kept a pen-holder and a picture frame. Naomi turns it slightly toward her, and Emily sits back, watches the look on her face change ever so slightly, upon seeing the photo there – it’s from two Christmases ago , and she’s smiling alongside Katie and James.
“It is,” Emily says, still looking at Naomi, who’s still staring at the photo with this totally soft, unguarded look on her face, and Emily squints; for a moment she almost sees the 17-year-old version of Naomi standing there. “Come over, have a look.”
Naomi looks up from the frame, meets Emily’s eyes in the dark, mumbling a soft, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Emily smiles, pushing herself off her chair and proceeding to stand by the window, drawing the blinds further apart. Outside, the city lights have begun slowly coming to life. “It’s prettier to look at when I’ve got my own lights off,” she says instead.
She feels Naomi move closer, settling right beside her, and just like that, the space beside Emily is filled with warmth. She resists the urge to reach out and touch her, tries to tune out the voices negotiating for it in her head – just a quick one, just a soft one, just… one. Emily blinks hard to clear them all out, and then Naomi’s asking, “Where’s Katie these days?” after a long moment of quiet.
“Modeling leopard print somewhere,” Emily just says, and Naomi laughs lightly. “She is – seriously.” And then, off the shadow of Naomi’s raised brow, “Is it actually more believable if I told the more truthful version of it that involves mention of Katie being with the police force ?”
“Katie with a leopard print gun,” says Naomi, nodding. “I wouldn’t put it past her.”
Emily snickers a little before going back to her desk to gather her things. “We’ll be late,” she says, checking her phone briefly for messages before dropping it into her bag, along with everything else. “It’s a manageable walk, but it’s not that short.”
“Glad I’m in flats then,” Naomi just says, eyes drifting to the floor. Even in the absence of heels, Emily just thinks, Naomi’s still fucking massive. Emily rolls her eyes, smiling as she leads Naomi out of her office and into the street.
The moment they step out of the building, a cold gust of wind blows past them, as if on cue; it ruffles Emily’s hair slightly, blowing the strands of it across her face, and she struggles to keep her line of vision somewhat clear with her free hand.
Naomi falls in step beside her as they walk; at one point she hovers so close that their arms almost tangle into each other’s, almost comfortable, almost like good old times. Emily feels her skin burn slightly in places. After crossing the first street, Emily finds herself digging into a pocket and lighting a fag.
“Fucking cold night,” says Naomi, huddling closer to Emily as they walked, motioning for the pack of fags. Emily just shrugs as she hands them over, trying to move in a way that keeps a sort of distance, somewhat. Naomi struggles with her lighter briefly before finally getting it right. “Thank god for fags, yeah?” she just says as she exhales, pressing the pack into Emily’s hand, fingers brushing against her palm.
Emily takes a moment before nodding in kind. “Yeah,” she just says, and looking at Naomi, who’s so fucking relaxed, she has to wonder where Naomi learned how to be goddamned good at being unaffected by certain histories.
After a while, Naomi says, “This is nice. Just being with you again.” Emily turns her head, this huge lump lodged in her throat, unable to say anything. When she catches her eye, Naomi looks entirely unapologetic; like she really means it, in the exact same way that Emily wants her to.
“It is?” Emily asks, shoving her fag-less hand into her pocket for fear of doing something inappropriate, like grabbing Naomi’s hand to hold it for a long while.
Naomi nods, “Yeah.” And then, “Don’t you think so?”
“Honestly?” Emily asks back, and Naomi stops walking to look at her, smirking smugly. Emily laughs along, a little, before turning somewhat serious. “You wouldn’t want to know. Really.”
Naomi flashes her a confused look; she looks poised to ask a slew of questions when Emily tugs at her wrist to keep her from walking further. “This is it,” says Emily, gesturing to the sign in gold letters; she’s pulled Naomi closer and the small giggles that escape them both sound all too young.
Naomi reaches out to smooth Emily’s collar, and Emily actually takes a step back in surprise, before settling into Naomi’s hands, eventually. Naomi breathes in, smiles as if she’s about to say something, but instead she takes a final look at the invite in her hand. “Well. Let’s go then.”
Emily’s long resigned herself to the fact that getting old means getting invited to less exciting events, like these adult, upscale parties that are usually all about well-lit places, soft music and small amounts of liquor. It’s not even that she hasn’t had enough of those other parties; just that, being with Naomi right then in such an alien setting of refinement is confusing her nostalgia.
That the gallery is awash in severely bright light is the first thing Emily notices as they step in, and Emily squints and waits for her eyes to adjust from the darkness of the street. People talk in murmurs, and they all stop briefly and turn their heads whenever someone comes in. Emily just sort of hangs back as Naomi walks around, kissing people on their cheeks and exchanging pleasantries.
Naomi introduces her to everyone as her interior designer and old friend; she walks through the crowd confidently, obviously in her element, and Emily can’t help but be in awe of this side of Naomi that she’s never really seen before – sociable and gracious, not at all argumentative and unpleasant. So much change in so many years, she just thinks.
By the end of the first half hour Emily has managed to exchange business cards with practically everyone in attendance, and truth be told, when the offer first came on it was all about being with Naomi somewhere, yet now it’s turned out to be quite a good investment.
The program proper begins about half an hour later, and the book’s author – a stylish lady perhaps in her late 30’s – comes on stage and everyone claps politely. She’s a charming woman who talks a lot with her hands, and when Emily glances over at Naomi briefly, she’s taken out a pad and is scribbling upon it casually.
“You’re taking notes?” whispers Emily.
Naomi looks up, smiles a little. “Old habits die hard.”
It strikes Emily just then, how little she actually knows about Naomi’s life, aside from her official title as printed on her card, the magazine she’s working for, and the fact that her flat needs a bit of sprucing up. But apart from that – what is it exactly that she does? What has she been doing all that while, all those years in between?
Even more clapping as the author’s speech ends breaks Emily’s thoughts. Naomi’s clapping herself and Emily follows suit. “Hey,” Naomi’s saying, leaning in closer to whisper to Emily with a hand on the small of her back, the gesture entirely casual. “She’s an old friend, I’ll introduce you.”
Apparently, Naomi’s made a lot of friends in the years between – this much Emily can be quite sure about, as the author pulls Naomi in a hug that lasts far too long for this to have been just another casual acquaintance. “Ingrid,” she hears Naomi call to her, breaking the hug as she gestures back to Emily, who of all things has started feeling a slight pang of inappropriate jealousy at the sight of such… familiarity. “This is Emily,” says Naomi, a hand on the small of Emily’s back again, as if she were recollecting her. “She’s an old friend. And she’s redesigning my flat.”
Ingrid reaches over, offers a long, slender hand. “Ingrid,” she says, her smile charming, a bit flirtatious. Emily shakes her hand gingerly, intimidated. “How’s Naomi as a client so far? Not too demanding, is she?”
“Oh, Ingrid,” Naomi interrupts with a light laugh. “You make it sound like I’m impossible.”
“And aren’t you?” says Ingrid, turning back to her and laughing in kind. “Got to admit babe, I’m quite disappointed you didn’t get me for your flat redesign. Didn’t even know you’re back from – where were you last? Bonn?”
“Bonn is from entirely too long ago,” says Naomi, waving her hand lightly in the air before replacing it upon Emily’s hip. “And besides – Emily and I go further back.”
The look Ingrid gives Emily after – she looks as if she’s unlocked something, like she’s figured something out; Ingrid’s eyes widen, a knowing smile spreading slowly upon her lips. “Is that right?” she just asks, grinning at Emily as she takes out her card and hands it over to Naomi. “Well then, you know where to catch me.”
“If I ever get a pool, you’ll surely hear from me,” says Naomi, nodding as she holds the card between two fingers.
“Soon, I hope?” Ingrid just says, before leaning in to kiss Naomi on the cheek again. “I better circulate,” she tells her, before turning to Emily and kissing her cheek in kind. “So you’re the girl, aren’t you?” she whispers, and Emily is too taken aback to say anything in response; only watches as Ingrid pulls away and walks toward the other end of the room, so gracefully that she’s practically gliding.
It’s a good while later when Emily manages the question. “That wasn’t some casual acquaintance, was it?”
Naomi looks up from her glass of wine. “What was?” The way she’s swirling it around absently reminds Emily of the drink in her hand in turn; when she sips from it, she’s disappointed to find how it has gone lukewarm.
“I meant Ingrid,” says Emily quietly, putting her glass down upon a nearby table. “You seemed… close.”
Naomi smiles briefly into her wine before downing the rest of it, shifting to her other leg in turn. “Let’s just say we were – once upon a time.” She turns around as a waiter walks by, mumbling a soft, “Thank you” as he carts her glass away.
Emily finds herself asking, “An old girlfriend, perhaps?” It comes out somewhat bitter, and Emily bites her lip at the end of it, completely aware; she feels so inappropriately threatened, and she isn’t even tipsy. It just doesn’t make sense, Emily thinks, shaking her head.
“You’re not jealous – are you?” Naomi asks back, tilting her head. She’s beholding Emily with a half-amused, half-disconcerted look, and it’s as if she hasn’t used the expression in quite a while; the resultant image is actually more funny than menacing.
“Of course not,” Emily says, shaking her head, putting the false emphasis in to bolster credibility. “Christ, aren’t we a bit too old for that?” Eventually, she even manages a grin to go with the lie.
A lie that, as it turns out, Naomi appears to be buying as she lets her shoulders drop, relaxing. “Great, because if you were, I’d probably think you’re still in love with me,” she says, exhaling relief. For a moment or two she seems serious, and Emily finds herself knitting her brow.
“I’m kidding Em,” Naomi continues, smiling finally, and it is then that Emily realizes she’s been had; that Naomi’s still good at that deception thing she does just by the timbre of her voice.
Emily blushes, looks away. “Yeah, whatever,” she just says dismissively, shrugging in kind. And then, “You want to get out of here?”
Around them the music is steadily near muted and the crowd is circulating but thinning. The space seems to be getting bigger, but Emily feels a bit suffocated with the expansion. When Naomi looks up from the table, she lifts an eyebrow and says yes.
Chapter 6: lately
The walk back to Emily’s building is mostly quiet. They’re out of fags, and the lack of things to fiddle with in the absence of words makes Naomi itch horribly, so she grabs Emily’s wrist and pulls her into a nearby convenience store across the corner.
“Sorry we’re out too late,” Naomi says, as she pays for her purchase at the counter. She looks over at Emily, who’s just smiling back at her, albeit tiredly. The clock behind the clerk says it’s nearly 10pm, and it hits Naomi just then, how sometimes when she looks at Emily, it’s as if Emily hasn’t aged at all – her face bearing little marks of time, her smile still as Naomi remembers.
“Anybody waiting up at home?” The way the question rolls out of Naomi’s lips is entirely casual; she’s now thinking out loud, and it seems like despite the lack of alcohol, the night in general has her in a state similar to intoxication, and Naomi can only bite down on her lip after.
Thankfully, Emily laughs. “What?” she asks, as she pushes the door open, exiting the store a few steps ahead of Naomi. The night is even colder now, and Naomi’s fingers are numb as she tries to find the plastic tab of the cigarette pack, pulling it around to open after.
“Sorry, that was a bit invasive, wasn’t it,” Naomi just says, smiling as she pulls out a stick, lighting up right on the corner before handing the pack over.
Emily shrugs, says, “No, not really,” before lighting up herself. “Life hasn’t been very interesting, if that’s what you’re on about.” When Naomi looks over, Emily’s smiling to herself; it’s a private sort of smile, and she’s looking at her cigarette. It fills Naomi with an uncomfortable sort of longing that leads her to wonder when it was last this hard to remember how she is in fact married.
Truth: Naomi’s no stranger to affairs. It’s the traveling, she tells herself. What David doesn’t know won’t hurt him – or vice versa. Naomi’s long made her peace with that, how it’s not cheating if it’s just a random fuck with a random girl met while on assignment, while shopping in Barcelona or sightseeing in Prague ; how that has strangely worked for the both of them rather well all these years.
“Is that right?” Naomi asks, a long while after. They’ve resumed walking and the streets are so quiet at this hour that she can single out the sound of Emily’s soles scratching the pavement. “All work and no play then?” she tries a grin to go with it, and Emily laughs a little louder.
“If you insist on putting things that way,” Emily just says, nodding. “But yeah, mostly, I guess.”
“Serious is for the old and dying, Em,” says Naomi. “Live a little.”
Emily turns at the corner, looks at Naomi with a loaded grin of her own. “Trust me when I say I have.”
Naomi finds herself stopping at that, pausing to weigh the words; she finds herself smiling at the thought of Emily living it up in the years in between, recalling fondly an image of Emily as an adorable drunk. Somewhere though there’s a slight tug, the way things always seem to feel when they happen when you’re not around, and you’re being told in retrospect.
It makes Naomi feel all the more lonely, come to think about it; the place she’s in starts feeling more horribly vacant than the days before, now that it hits her, how this suspended belief is wearing off, slowly. Indeed, had she expected it to last a bit longer? Had she expected herself to ward reality off further, for an extended period of time? Perhaps the feeling is compounded with a sort of disappointment that amplifies it, along with the cold of this night.
“Hey,” Emily says, breaking in gently with a tap on Naomi’s wrist, uncertain. “We’re here, I just have to… I mean, do you have to go already? I’m just going to do a final check of my office, see if I left anything—”
Naomi just says, “All right.” And then, “I’ll go with you. If that’s okay.”
“Didn’t want to impose.”
“Don’t be silly,” says Naomi, stepping into the building. “Besides, weren’t you about to tell me an interesting story?”
“I was?” Emily asks, her laughter echoing in the empty lobby. Everything is just amplified, unenhanced as they are by substances, and Naomi feels like Emily is wrapping her warmly with the sound. Naomi blinks when Emily adds, “About what?” coyly, as one of the elevator doors open.
Naomi shrugs, composing herself. “Oh you know,” she just says, gesturing with a hand casually. “Tell me something about the years in between. Something surprising.”
“Surprising, yeah,” Emily says as she steps into the lift, pressing the button to the 23rd floor. “Let’s see. Well, I did join this Interior Design org in uni…”
Naomi gasps in mock surprise. “Shocking,” she just says, rolling her eyes, off Emily’s grin. “So okay, I did not know that – but come the fuck on.” When she looks back over at Emily, the girl has her eyes glued to the floor numbers lighting up one by one above the door, and she looks all the more young; the sight seizes something in Naomi’s chest, tightly.
“So maybe it wasn’t that interesting…” Emily begins.
“Are you trying to tell me there isn’t a single instance of any reckless thing that could have led to slightly complicated matters…”
“Well, there was this one time I got so fucking smashed I ended up snogging half the girls in attendance--”
“Tell me this was after we broke up,” says Naomi, crossing her arms in faux drama, leaning against the back of the elevator.
Emily shifts her eyes, a slightly panicked look ghosting over her face. “Of course it was,” she just says, a bit quiet.
Smiling, Naomi says, “I’m joking Em. Of course I knew that.” After a while, she continues, “Tell me none of you remembered much afterwards.”
“It was all quite hazy, if you ask me,” Emily says. “But yeah, perhaps, there was one or two--”
Naomi laughs out loud, unable to help herself. “You don’t say.”
“Ugh, such a nightmare while we were at it,” Emily’s shaking her head, momentarily bowing to stare at her shoes. “Never again.”
“You must have been one hell of a heartbreaker,” Naomi just finds herself saying. Emily looks up abruptly at that, as if she’s just said something that resonated horribly or tripped some still sore chords, and for a moment Naomi is actually afraid she might have said something offensive.
Emily’s about to speak when the door opens, finally, and Naomi bites down on her lip hard as she walks after Emily, still wordless.
Emily pushes the front door of their office open after fiddling quietly with her keys, flicking on a few lights after and taking a folder off her assistant’s desk as she passes by it before heading into her office. Naomi considers following her in; there’s a pounding in her chest that tells her something’s amiss, and it just won’t let her stand there by the reception desk in peace.
“Can I come in?” Naomi knocks softly at Emily’s door before pushing it open and peeking inside, where Emily has turned a lamp on and is sifting through the contents of the folder in her hand. She looks up briefly at Naomi before smiling at her faintly and nodding. “Emily, it’s late -- you’re not working, are you?”
Emily smiles as she looks up, opens the folder right on her desk for Naomi to see; right on top of the pile is a pretty picture of a kitchen. “Old habits,” she just says and Naomi looks away, smiling at the reference.
“That’s a gorgeous kitchen,” Naomi says finally, eyes falling back on the photo after a while. She tries not to lean on the desk; tries to remember the error from a few days before.
“This one’s actually from Columns,” explains Emily. “Guy had it redesigned to be a bit more kitchen-centric, to accommodate the wife. Apparently, she was big on cooking and baking and stuff.”
The way Emily sighs at the end of it sets something off in Naomi; something akin to panic, something akin to horror. “People really do that, yeah? Do drastic changes in the name of accommodation?” Naomi sighs herself before, “Whatever would he do, should they ever split up?”
Emily visibly pulls back at that, a genuine look of shock on her face. “Christ, Naomi – pessimist much?” she asks, though when Naomi looks at her, she seems rather resigned. After all, if anyone knew more about things ending despite best efforts, it should be the both of them, no less. “I mean – for Christ’s sake, you’re married, you’re not supposed to -- you’re supposed to be… positive.”
“Let’s just say…” Naomi begins, fiddling with a pen off Emily’s desk. “I’ve been trained for worst-case scenarios.” She smiles wryly at Emily before, “So tell me about – you know. After.” Naomi settles carefully into her seat as she continues, “After me. Did you…”
It’s a long quiet while before Emily sinks further back into her seat, the creak underneath it filling the thick silence of the room as she rubs at her forehead. “Naomi.”
“Sorry, I’m just curious, is all,” she just says, trying to look as if she isn’t as invested as she really is in Emily’s response; as if the answer isn’t going to affect her terribly either way. “It’s okay if you think it’s too intrusive, I’d—”
“If it’s any consolation,” Emily interrupts, “There hasn’t been anyone quite like you .” The sentence wraps up quietly at the end, and Emily purses her lips, eyes still fixed on the photo on her table.
Naomi tries to ball her fist tighter, as if doing so can stop the swelling of her heart. “Emily.”
“Sure, there were a few – too short to be considered real, though,” Emily just shrugs. “And then there’s Giselle , who’s married—”
“Christ,” Naomi interrupts just then, looking at Emily closer but saying nothing more. Emily holds her eyes, one, two, three seconds, before looking back down on the photo, licking her lip absently, and somewhere at the pit of Naomi’s stomach, there’s a shudder.
“But that was a long time ago,” Emily just says, smiling to herself now, relaxed. “A really, really long time ago.”
Naomi nods, says, “Is that right?” And then, “But still – right now--”
“Oh come on,” Emily shakes her head, shrugging. “Work is my girlfriend – as if I can be any more obvious?” She looks up at Naomi before running her gaze all around the room, something which Naomi follows in turn – shadows of bookshelves lining the walls, the filing cabinets along one side, the random trophies and picture frames. There’s too much going on, Naomi thinks, and her mind’s just continuously filling with questions that she’s not even sure she’s entitled to ask, at all.
“Sorry, but really, I can’t help myself,” says Naomi. “But how’s that working for you?”
“Quite well,” says Emily almost immediately, as if she’s foreseen being asked this question; as if she’s been asked an awful lot of times. “Honestly, it’s the only thing that’s worked so splendidly – I mean, since…” she trails off with a shrug, and just like that Naomi understands, this need to talk about it despite not having the precise terms, as if things past are better off without names. “Never mind,” Emily just says, recovering. “Besides, you haven’t told me much about your husband, either.”
Naomi wants to say, Come on, let’s not talk about him now, because the way Emily’s face is lit at the moment is inspiring another effort entirely, that when Emily shifts her eyes over at her, a host of inappropriate things start up deep in Naomi’s gut. Clearly, they’re making it difficult to talk about David; to resist the temptation to reminisce.
But then, she manages, “His name’s David,” like any mature adult should. And then, “We met at work.”
At which point, Emily closes the folder as she stands up and proceeds to a corner; it looks like she’s putting the coffeemaker on, and Emily looks back over at her to offer her a cup.
Naomi smiles and says, “Yes, please.” Something tells her they’ll be here for a long time, and really, Naomi doesn’t mind at all.
Chapter 7: autumn story
7. autumn story
There’s a slight tremor in her hand, Emily notices, as she hands Naomi her mug of coffee; she manages to hide it halfway through, only to have it recur majorly when Naomi looks up and smiles, and Emily barely manages to contain a spill.
“Thanks,” Naomi says, reaching up with both hands, wrapping them around Emily’s and pulling them down, as if guiding her toward the table surface, carefully. Emily catches her eye while at it; everything slows, almost to the point of being painful, and Emily draws her hand back quickly the moment the mug is set upon Naomi’s makeshift coaster.
Clearly, this is ill-advised, Emily thinks. It’s far too late into the night, and the last place she needs to be is right here – in her dimly lit office, at the brink of reminiscing with the girl she’s spent most of her adult life trying to get over.
Emily breathes in, pours herself a cup in kind. From the corner of her eye, she can sense Naomi sipping from hers, gingerly. Surely, she tells herself, surely true adults must be able to handle moments like this without the need for a breakdown. All these efforts at moving on must at least amount to something.
“So,” Emily says as she sinks into her seat, setting down her cup in front of her. “David, right?”
Naomi nods into her cup. “Let’s just say… we work in the same scene,” she says. “That we have this connection.”
“Interesting,” Emily replies; it comes out completely flat and Naomi smiles softly. “Not sure how that sounded, but I meant that,” she adds, smirking a little, allowing herself to relax.
Naomi shrugs. “You don’t have to like him, Em. I don’t expect you to.”
Emily looks away before asking, “What’s he like?” and inside her chest something feels like it’s bracing itself for something that could probably hurt.
After a moment of quiet, Naomi settles for, “He’s nice.” Emily lets go of the breath she’s holding, trying not to let the shudder at the end of it get the better of her. “David’s a kind man. And a very talented writer. I admire him very much.”
Emily pauses, waits for the other things she’s sure Naomi will say; when it’s evident that she isn’t adding anything, Emily continues, “Well, go ahead then. What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Oh come on, you know. Marriage. Wedded bliss. Whatever. How long has it been, anyway?” Emily bites her lip, recognizing the danger here, and she reminds herself not to ask about not having gotten an invite.
Naomi shifts her eyes, as if trying to remember something, a finger pressed to her temple. “About five years,” she says finally, though there’s an uncertainty in her tone that strikes Emily as odd, as far as people with anniversaries go. “It’s not your usual marriage.”
“Is that right?” In her head, Emily’s trying to place herself in Naomi’s timeline – five years ago, where was she? Perhaps in between affairs – things that were not even enough to merit the term “relationship.” That there’s truth in that strikes Emily as somewhat sad.
Naomi takes a sip from her mug, before, “We made good companions, David and I – I mean, we used to travel a lot, because of work. Well, he still does, actually, while I’m – well let’s say I’m undergoing a shift in work paradigm right now.”
Emily leans in closer, elbows on her desk, mindful of her mug. “Shift from where to where?” she asks, genuinely interested. “I never really got to ask what it was you did right after university.”
“There was a brief PR and events gig, which I did with Effy—”
“Effy? Haven’t heard from her in a good while. How is she?”
“Terribly good with what she’s doing, honestly,” says Naomi. “I was going to say she could pull enough strings to land a write-up about a completely ordinary rock on the front page of anything, but I was afraid the metaphor would be completely inappropriate, granted Katie’s your sister.”
Emily finds herself laughing hard at that – the hardest she has managed in so long, truth be told. “I can’t decide which of the things you’ve just said is the most surprising,” she says. “Is it Effy being damned efficient and convincing? Or that you’re oddly concerned about using appropriate metaphors around me after all these years?”
Naomi laughs in kind. “Clearly, my improved social graces ought to be winning by a decidedly wide margin.” And then, turning serious, “It was Effy who introduced us, you know. David and I. It was a hotel opening in Cyprus.”
Something lodges in Emily’s throat, and she finds difficulty breathing, briefly; she hasn’t even figured out how to feel about Effy just yet, and now, here comes Naomi, hitting her with, of all things, Cyprus. That the place has come to mean a horde of entirely different things – from rough kisses against lockers to hazy summer daydreams of beaches to sweaty afternoons of make-believe – makes it entirely too much for Naomi to be bringing up just then.
Emily opens her eyes, barely even realizing she’d shut them in the first place. She makes a move for her coffee, an attempt to steady herself. “So you met in Cyprus, yeah?” she manages, slowly.
Naomi folds her hands carefully, fingers laced together on Emily’s table. “When I realized I wasn’t cut out for what Effy and I were doing at the time, I decided I ought to get out of there, you know? Better get into something more up my alley, in a manner of speaking.” Naomi fixes her with a look that seems to ask, Do you understand? Despite the lack of questions, Emily just finds herself nodding anyway.
“So when I got the offer to write for the mag, I took it and never looked back,” Naomi continues. “I was on assignment that day.”
“Ah,” Emily just says, eyes widening slightly, as if that has just made all the difference. “Well then, so. How long between that and, and…”
“Marriage came much, much later, if that’s what you’re going for.” Naomi’s smiling absently at her hand, as if remembering something, and just looking at her makes Emily’s chest ache; as if she’s up against something that she has no chance of winning against. “We bumped into each other so often at work, covering this and that – it was an odd sort of dating, as it was always mixed with work.” Naomi pauses at that, smile fading; it only makes the aching in Emily’s chest pulse more painfully. “Come to think of it, as was everything.” And then, as if shaking something off, “Besides – everything once, yeah?”
Emily curls her hand into a fist slowly, if only to resist reaching out and stroking Naomi’s arm; there’s a strange loneliness to how Naomi just ended her last statement, but then, maybe it’s just Emily hearing what she wants to. “How was the wedding?” she asks quietly; she might as well get all the difficult questions out now that she’s started.
“Simple,” says Naomi, lifting her eyes off the table and hazarding a look at Emily. The look Naomi gives her is all too open, it makes Emily feel utterly raw that she has to look away after a moment. “Quiet,” Naomi adds.
Emily tries a small smile; it comes out too strained for such a little thing, granted she completely construed Naomi’s answer as a slight reference to the break-up -- quiet, simple, bereft of any grand gestures or great proclamations. “Where is he now?”
“Bogota, last I heard,” Naomi says automatically, re-arranging herself on her seat. “Not sure if he’s heading straight to Hyderabad or if he’s dropping by here first, before…”
“I’m sorry, but,” Emily begins carefully, trying to distance herself from a familiar bitterness she had long chosen to sweep under the proverbial rug, “You’re barely together. How’s that working for you?”
Naomi smiles at her mysteriously. “Better than I thought it would, at first,” she just says.
“This long distance relationship a better set-up for you then?” asks Emily, rather wryly.
“The fact that David’s always moving from one time zone to another every two weeks, notwithstanding -- yes.”
There’s a long pause after that, as Emily considers the questions in her head. After a while, she goes ahead with a quiet, “Should we have tried harder, before? Clearly, we had it a whole lot simpler—” Her heart’s in her throat all that while, and it drops painfully as soon as she sees Naomi smiling to herself again, shaking her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to – I mean, obviously, it’s from entirely long ago—”
“Make no mistake about it Em,” Naomi interjects softly. “Some absences are easier to manage than others,” she says, pausing a bit. “You know that.”
Emily finds herself smiling as something in her is inexplicably warmed. “Of course.” And then, “Sorry – I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Well, I started this, didn’t I?” Naomi just says, smiling in turn. “’Sides, this feels nice, catching up.”
“It is, actually,” Emily concedes. She watches Naomi fiddle with the picture frame on her table again; Naomi shoots her a look that seems to ask, May I? and Emily just nods. Naomi takes the frame off her table, cradles it in both her hands, her grin growing wide.
“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this,” she says, putting the frame back, after. “But I actually even kind of miss Katie. What in the world is she up to?”
Emily laughs out loud at that. “I already told you. I was quite serious about the crime fighting bit.”
“I’m actually ashamed to admit I’m still waiting for the punch line, Em.”
“It’s not a joke at all,” says Emily, shaking her head, still grinning. “And I do kind of want to get together for dinner or drinks, come to think of it -- for nostalgia’s sake, or whatever; something equally difficult to believe, perhaps.”
Naomi shifts to cross her legs. “Got to admit that sounds kind of promising.” And then, “God, this night’s just unbelievable isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Emily says. “Yeah, it kind of is.”
They end at half-past three, after two more cups of coffee.
“Now I’m sorry – totally my fault now that we’re out late, yeah?” says Emily, stretching as she stands from behind her desk, reaching over to gather Naomi’s mug for washing.
Naomi stretches in kind, yawning through a tired smile, and Emily pauses to marvel at the sight of that, how underneath her somewhat semi-hardened exterior, a flash of her younger self shows a little, like a patch of skin that peeks out briefly when a shirt hikes unexpectedly. “What?” she asks, still smiling lazily, off the look on Emily’s face.
Emily shifts her eyes, biting her lip. “Nothing, nothing,” she says, and she’s positive that she’s blushing.
The sound of running water gives her away. “I would’ve totally offered to wash the mugs,” says Naomi, settling by the sink with folded arms. She must have followed Emily as she disappeared into the door connecting her office to the common kitchen.
Emily shakes her head, tries not to shift her eyes toward the mirror, where she can see the profile of Naomi’s face, the look she has on; the look she’s giving Emily nearly hints at something else entirely, and it feels like she’s twisting Emily’s insides with it – it’s something Emily can’t quite place, like an old feeling that’s as good as forgotten or something else from decidedly too long ago.
The mug slips from Emily’s hand and lands with a dull thwack against the sink. “Shit,” she mutters, snatching her eyes off the mirror to focus on her hand, examining for cuts; finds the mug thankfully solid.
“Hey,” Naomi says, and before Emily can turn her head, Naomi already has one hand in the sink, holding hers, like instinct. Emily’s too stunned to do anything other than show her palm. “Is anything broken?”
Emily almost says something but then manages to hold her tongue. “I’m all right,” she says after composing herself, her shaky intake of breath notwithstanding. Naomi loosens her hold as Emily’s hand trembles more noticeably. “Must be all that caffeine,” Emily offers, wondering if the excuse comes off as at least believable with Naomi so close that she’s almost pressed up against her.
“Ah,” Naomi says softly, pulling her hand out of the sink excruciatingly slowly; when Emily shifts to look at them on the mirror, Naomi’s waiting there to hold her eyes, and Emily freezes, watches Naomi’s lips form the word after, which is, “Right.”
Naomi’s eyes are still far too easy to be engrossed in, Emily finds; it feels like the ceiling is caving and the whole thing has Emily holding her breath way too long that she pales visibly. A hand on the small of her back shakes her out of it, and she blinks. “What?”
“I said, are you okay?” says Naomi, the hand on Emily’s back moving slightly, as if to soothe her; of course, it does anything but that, and instead Emily holds her breath, again; Naomi reaches over with her free hand to close the faucet, slipping down to pull Emily’s hands out of the sink by her wrists, gently. “Emily.”
“Sleepy, is all,” Emily says, taking a step away from her, the space generated between them rather cold, and the skin of her back, in the space Naomi’s hand just left, feeling absolutely ticklish. Emily runs a hand across her bare arm, shivering slightly, her palm almost raw from exposure to too much water.
Naomi hangs on to both mugs, putting one in each hand. “Better tuck you into bed, then,” she says, gesturing toward the door to Emily’s office with a nod, and Emily hangs her head, smiling at the mention of the word ‘bed’ despite herself.
Back in Emily’s office it’s colder than she remembered and Emily walks over to turn off the AC as Naomi heads straight to Emily’s small pantry to deposit the newly washed mugs.
“Thanks for the coffee, yeah?” says Naomi, wiping her hands against the side of her slacks. “Though I think I’ll be up until sunrise with this much caffeine in my veins.”
“I’m so sorry,” Emily says, getting up from having crouched on the floor, right in front of the air con. “That was a bit much, wasn’t it? I’m entirely caffeine-dependent, as you must have figured out.”
“Too many late nights like this?” Naomi grins right at her, winking slightly; That’s it, Emily thinks as she turns her face away from her, that’s fucking it – all the rest of the years between forgotten, the efforts for naught; she might as well be handing Naomi her heart back on a platter.
Once Emily’s ready again she shoots Naomi a look, pauses before saying, “Truth be told, I haven’t had a night like this in a really, really long while.” She smiles when she says it and means it so thoroughly that something toeing the line between pain and infatuation shoots up her spine.
When they get to the basement parking level, their cars are the only ones there and they’re standing side by side. Naomi chuckles, a little. “Who would have known?”
“You mean you didn’t know the Toyota was mine?” asks Emily, obviously trying to suppress a laugh herself.
“Maybe,” Naomi just says, and casually wraps an arm around Emily’s, hanging onto her as if they were the kind of friends who would. Emily reminds herself of the time; how the day’s about to end anyway. So apart from stiffening upon initial contact, she lets the gesture go – it’s innocent, she tells herself, noting the smooth skin of Naomi’s arm, the softness of it, the warmth of her wrist. It’s all innocent. Or at least, on some level, it must be.
“Don’t fall asleep at the wheel, you hear?” Naomi says over the roof of Emily’s Altis. “And call me when you get home, or something.”
“Yes ma’am,” Emily says, mock-saluting her. And then, before opening her door, “I really had fun tonight. I mean, launch included.” Naomi laughs and it echoes off the concrete walls and the low concrete ceiling. “Thanks for inviting me, yeah?”
“Thanks for the coffee,” Naomi says back, smiling warmly. “So. Call me?”
“We should do this again sometime.”
“We should,” says Naomi. For a while, they just stand there, arms braced against the roof of Emily’s car, looking at each other from both sides, saying nothing. Behind her, Naomi’s car unlocks with a beep, after a few. “I should get going.”
Emily blinks. “Of course,” she nods, unlocks her car in turn. She tries to remember which key goes where once she’s inside, trying to keep it together as she watches Naomi begin rolling out of her space and head toward the exit ramp. Somewhere, there’s the sound of something vibrating, and Emily struggles to get her phone off the dashboard.
“I’m not leaving you alone in this basement, Em,” Naomi says with a light laugh at the end, and when Emily looks up, Naomi’s car is stalled not too far away, just as she is about to turn toward the exit. “Start the fucking car already.”
“All right, all right,” says Emily, turning the ignition. It takes at least three turns for the engine to come to, and in a bit, she’s right behind Naomi’s car and honking. “See you soon,” Emily says into her mobile.
“Call me in the morning,” Naomi says again in response as she drives on. At the exit, Naomi turns right, and Emily turns left after honking and flashing her lights.
Call me in the morning, Emily repeats in her head, slowing down a bit as the traffic light turns red at the junction; feels the familiar fluttering in her belly again, like she’s seventeen and she’d just opened her eyes to something so magnificent.
Chapter 8: two ravens
8. two ravens
The streets are deserted at this hour; the dashboard clock says a little after four in the morning. Emily fiddles with her mobile again, scrolls down to Katie’s number in her phone book and dials.
Katie picks up after two rings. “Fitch.”
“Hey Kay,” says Emily tiredly, easing into the main road. “Fancy having breakfast with me today?”
Katie pauses before, “Why are you still up, Em?” And then, “And wait – I haven’t heard from you in weeks. Something up?”
Sighing, Emily tries to ask herself, Where to begin? “It’s a long story, Kay – sorry to have been MIA, but are you at the station now, because I could—”
“I’ll meet you at Cory’s café in ten?”
Emily smiles, a little. “How’d you know I was in the vicinity already?” she asks, mostly to tease her; Katie makes a sound that’s the closest verbal approximation of an eye-roll.
“I actually have your Altis, like, tracked via GPS right here and you’re a blinking red dot on the radar,” says Katie, clearing her throat. “Of fucking course I know, you’re awfully predictable, that’s why.” In the background, something like a siren’s wail goes off briefly.
“Whatever, Kay, see you,” Emily says, smiling wider as she slides into the parking slot in front of the diner, and Katie gets off the phone with a soft click.
Emily has just removed her seat belt when Katie parks right beside her and alights from her SUV, a few moments later, and seeing her walk around to Emily’s car fills Emily with something that’s a cross between relief and dread.
“You look… did you cut your hair?” is how Emily greets Katie, who then proceeds to fiddle with the stray column of hair that’s managed to escape her bun. “I mean. It looks nice.”
“Good morning to you too, Em,” Katie says, moving in to touch Emily’s cheek with hers, briefly. When she moves back, Emily takes the opportunity to fix Katie’s tie. “Ugh, this sched’s a total fucker,” she just says.
“Tell me about it,” Emily sighs back, pulling Katie by the wrist. The years between have further differentiated them, if anything; while they weren’t really identical to begin with, some part of Emily still misses the part where people are mistaken or confused, at the very least.
Katie slides into their favorite booth with ease, gestures for the menu as Emily settles into the seat right across Katie. “No, you tell me about it,” Katie says, without looking up from the menu. “Working late?”
“Do you have any idea who my latest client is?”
“The Queen?” Katie asks, raising a brow, before turning to the server and ordering an omelet.
“Naomi Campbell,” Emily replies, after swallowing the huge lump in her throat; she doesn’t even dare look at Katie before she’s said her order in kind for fear of possibly never reclaiming her vocal chords again.
“Fuck she’s not?” Katie says, putting her menu away and leaning closer. Emily just looks away from hers, nodding weakly. “And I thought the Queen was your worst scenario.”
Emily sighs, covering her face with her hands. “Think about that again,” she just says, before, “She’s married.”
Katie’s shaking her head when Emily catches a glimpse of her. “What is it with you and married women, Emily?” she asks, rhetorical for the most part, as their drinks arrive.
Emily sips from her coffee – her nth cup of the night, and the bitter taste of it almost reminds her of Naomi sitting across the table from her, laughing as if the decade between did not exist at all – before shaking her head. “Just -- don’t, Kay,” she says, almost pleading. “Please.”
A younger Katie would have pressed her further; would have annoyed the hell out of her just for the sake of it, for the sake of being petty, or of soliciting some other form of response for amusement purposes. But even that’s from a long time ago – it’s where everything’s from these days, it seems.
“I worry about you sometimes,” Katie just says quietly, halfway through their meal. “That thing with Giselle was—”
“Oh let’s not even bring Giselle up,” Emily says, still staring at her plate, “It’s different, this.”
“Because it’s Naomi,” Katie supplies, though that’s not helpful at all, because Emily knows as much – this is the bottom line, entirely. “And obviously, you’re still in love with her.”
Emily drops her fork at that, the clatter echoing throughout the place; Katie doesn’t even flinch. “Where have you been all these years?” Emily asks her, tone entirely accusing. “You know how hard it’s been.”
“And that’s precisely why I worry, Em,” Katie says softly, as if she’s too tired to argue herself. “How are you holding up?”
“If holding up well means that I still haven’t pushed her against a desk to kiss her or something, then I guess – fairly well,” Emily breathes in, nodding as if it will soothe her nerves. “Fairly well should be fair, I suppose.”
“How long has it been since she first contacted you?”
Emily looks up, mentally counts backwards. “A week?”
“Sleepless since then, yeah?” Katie asks, pointing casually to where there would be faint circles under Emily’s eyes now, and Emily helplessly nods. “Thought so.” And then, “What do we do with this, Em? We’ve tried everything.”
Indeed they have – there was yoga, there was a bit of misguided New Age stuff even, lots of herbs and teas and aromatherapy. No drugs though, by virtue of Katie’s employment with the police, but then, somewhere along the way they started feeling too old for that anyway, like their bodies couldn’t handle anymore the degrees of wasted they once reached when they were younger.
“You should have seen her, Katie,” Emily begins, her voice wavering a little, and Katie reaches for her bag as if in preparation for a total meltdown. “Fucking Naomi and her goddamned eyes.”
“How was she?” Katie asks, pulling out a couple of tissue sheets. “And what does she want?”
Emily’s staring at something off Katie’s shoulder when she says, “Still fucking pretty, like she hasn’t aged.” And then, “She’s got a three-bed in Columns.”
Katie gasps audibly before saying, “Married with children, then?”
“First question I asked,” Emily says, shaking her head. “They don’t plan on having any.”
“What does she want for it?” Katie asks, but only after heaving an all too obvious sigh of relief.
“I haven’t seen it,” Emily says. “The flat, I meant.”
Katie drinks from her lukewarm coffee before, “Avoid her bedroom, Em.”
“I’ve been trying to put off the ocular until I’m… ready,” Emily closes her eyes briefly, before, “Tonight we went to a book launch that turned out to be her ex-girlfriend’s, or something.”
“She won’t say,” Emily shrugs. “It was all kind of, I don’t know – it’s like we just pressed ‘play’, you know? After having paused for a long while. It was so easy -- we walked back to my office; we talked over coffee; she may or may not have been flirting with me—”
“Oh Christ, Em – don’t the words muscle memory mean anything to you?”
“You should see her with her improved people skills, Kay. She’s fucking—” Emily throws her hands up, frustrated that she can’t find the words for how attractive this new Naomi is; no words for her charm. “You should have seen her.”
“What does she do, exactly?”
“Writes for a magazine, travels a lot.”
“Really?” Katie says, surprised. “I didn’t even know she liked writing.”
“But that was before – I mean, the traveling, because now, she’s totally based here, that’s why she has a flat, and that’s what needs a bit of redesign—”
“What about her husband?” Katie interjects, cutting into Emily’s ramble.
“Same thing, travels a lot too—”
“You mean he’s not here,” Katie says – it’s meant to be a question, but really, it doesn’t sound like one at all, and Emily quiets down, lowering her hand on the table before looking away, unable to come up with a straight answer. From what she knows– from what Naomi told her – David’s in Colombia, in India, anywhere but here.
Off the non-answer, Katie just goes, “Christ,” rubbing at her forehead with one hand, and gesturing for a coffee refill with the other. “When exactly did this happen? When did you become the troublemaker, and when did I sign up to fix these things?”
“I was hoping you’d tell me,” Emily just says, staring at her hands.
They part around sunrise with Emily wide awake; she’s severely caffeinated to the point of nausea, yet strangely, she’s still craving tea.
“Go home,” Katie says, before getting into her vehicle. “Get some rest, call in sick, whatever. Turn off your phone.”
“Naomi asked me to call,” says Emily.
Katie rolls her eyes. “Fine, whatever, give in to her communication demands like you’re her girlfriend, or something.”
“You know it’s not that – she’s just concerned.”
“Fine then – call her when you wake up later. Okay babe?” Katie walks toward her, loosening her tie a bit. When she’s close enough, she reaches over to tuck Emily’s hair behind an ear. “You take better care of yourself, you hear?”
“Thanks Kay,” Emily just says, breathing out, a long and heavy sigh. Katie gathers her in a weary hug; holds her for a long still while.
There are a few things Katie insisted on repeating incessantly, over their spent plates in the café, and Emily’s just running through them in her head in kind to keep herself awake on the drive home:
Do not be alone in a room with her.
Do the ocular with the husband in the flat.
Do not be alone in a room with her. Any room.
It’s all fairly clear, Emily thinks, but then clarity has never aided execution anyway – especially not where it concerned Naomi, never then; not when the smallest of things, like the memory of Naomi’s voice saying, “Call me,” is more than enough to weaken her knees completely.
Chapter 9: district sleeps alone
9. district sleeps alone
Her phone remains silent for the next few hours – Naomi worries a little (Emily looked so sleepy, Naomi can’t help but remember), until she catches herself while at it. She isn’t even your-- her thoughts begin, and Naomi finds herself shaking her head at the inappropriateness of it all.
She doesn’t even remember herself being worried like this, like ever, with David – and David’s always out of the country, at that; certainly not in the same city, unlike Emily—
Emily. The name, over and over in Naomi’s head, even when she’s already in bed and she’s left with nothing to do but stare at the lines of shadows on the ceiling and try to make sense out of the random patterns. She finds herself checking her phone every now and then, for any semblance of sound; turns it to silent even, if only to allow for the slightest chance that she may have missed it amidst the quiet.
Nothing. She takes one last look, a few minutes before six a.m., before turning the other way and pulling the sheet around herself, the bed striking her as far too big for one, for the first time since she moved in.
She wakes three hours later, like clockwork; it’s like her body is incapable of spending too many hours in bed, and after half an hour’s worth of failed efforts at trying to get back to sleep, she hauls herself out of bed finally, throwing the sheets off her body and slipping into a robe before putting the kettle on. There’s a slight throb somewhere in her head, a hint of migraine; she figures tea should make it all better.
Naomi logs onto the Internet, makes the usual rounds – her work mail’s loading far too slowly, which probably means she’s up for a fucking deluge, and there’s the random bit of science carried by Reuters that says redheads are more likely to participate in cheating than others; just then the kettle whistles and Naomi closes the window immediately to tend to the situation in the kitchen.
She remembers her phone, briefly; halfway through her morning tea and the latest edition of Women’s Health, Naomi decides to peek in the bedroom, if only to check.
It’s quiet and undisturbed, exactly the way it’s been for the past few hours. Naomi shrugs as she gets back out, sitting back down in front of her tea and magazine again.
Maybe she’s asleep, Naomi thinks, turning a page. That thought works for her so well that she manages to stay put long enough to finish both her tea and the magazine.
By noontime, Naomi rings Emily’s office, at the end of a long internal debate; she thought she needed something that said concerned, but not desperate, and clearly, calling Emily’s cell phone in the middle of a workday after having spent much of the previous night/early morning together kind of bordered on desperate; it makes Naomi’s insides itch, like she’s years younger and below 20.
Joey answers the phone and tells her Emily isn’t in yet and that it’s quite odd she hasn’t left any messages all day.
“I see,” Naomi just says, trying to sound calm. Of course, she knows Emily hardly needs someone to look after her like she’s incapable of travel, especially not when they’re both practically over thirty and living entirely different lives, but still. For Naomi it’s like she can’t help herself, the way these feelings just kick in like nothing has changed, and Emily’s still that girl.
“Are you still there, Ms Campbell?” Naomi forces herself to blink at her last thought, swallowing hard. Joey continues with, “I said if this is urgent and related to your redesign, I could send a message in your behalf to her mobile.”
Naomi considers answering with something along the lines of, No, I’ll do it myself, but then holds her tongue; instead, she says, “Yes please, thank you.” And, “And if she could please call me. She has my number.”
Joey assures her that she will relay her message “ASAP”. Naomi tries to sit still, but she’s seized by this feeling, and it’s not unlike that queasy sensation you get just by sitting in the doctor’s office.
Of course, she doesn’t even wait ten minutes before making another call – the one she’d meant to make in the first place. It rings five times before Emily picks up with a throaty, “Nae?”
Just like that, Naomi feels herself cease breathing, her throat closing up at the familiarity of it; almost sees Emily across the bed from her, shaking the sleep out of her eyes, seeking Naomi out with an outstretched arm. Just like that, they’re in bed in the middle of a lazy afternoon, naked under the sheets, their minds pleasantly free from the worries of future lives.
“Hey,” Naomi manages, sniffing slightly as she negotiates with the lump in her throat. “Fuck’s sake, you can’t even give a girl a proper call these days, can you?”
There’s a shuffle of what could be sheets on the other end; Naomi glances at the clock again and notes the time: half past noon, and Emily’s just getting out of bed. “Sorry,” Emily drawls, and Naomi tries hard not to imagine the smile that comes along with that, the way it spreads slowly across Emily’s lips; perhaps it’s one of Emily’s smiles from before – those early mornings when she’s trying to convince Naomi it’s better being in bed than out of it. “It slipped my mind.”
“No, really, it’s all right,” Naomi says, breathing in. “Just worried, is all. If you ever got home safe.”
There’s a pause on the other end; the clinking of thick ceramic against tile suggests that Emily may be in the kitchen. “That’s… incredibly sweet,” she says amidst the sound of something clicking, and by now Naomi’s positive that Emily’s boiling water, possibly for coffee. “Thanks and…” she pauses, before, “Yeah. Sorry. Really.”
Naomi thinks, Fuck, now I’ve done it, rubbing at her forehead with the heel of her palm in frustration. “So,” she clears her throat, trying to take control. “Are you feeling all right then?”
Emily sighs, groans lightly. “Not too splendid, actually,” she says, and Naomi feels her brow crease a little, worry taking over again. “It’s the caffeine overdose last night – early this morning, whatever.” There’s a small, sleepy giggle after that weakens Naomi’s knees.
“So you’re calling in sick then,” says Naomi.
There’s a sudden, sharp movement on the other end, the sound of something scraping against the floor harshly. “Fuck, what day is it?”
Naomi rolls her eyes. “Seriously?” she asks back, suppressing a loud, unhelpful laugh. “Emily.”
“I have to go—”
“Slow down, Em.” And then, “Though Joey was a bit worried when I called her.”
There’s an audible sip before, “I was thinking about that, actually.” Naomi closes her eyes, and in her mind she sees Emily walking around in their kitchen, wearing a shirt she had just blindly pulled out of Naomi’s drawer; nearly hears Gina say, ‘Morning, girls; sleep well, if at all?’
“Hey, you still there?” Emily says, and Naomi coughs, clears her throat.
“Sorry, my signal’s wonky,” she lies.
“Oh, all right,” says Emily, taking another sip. There’s the sound of a drawer being opened and the metal clinking of spoons. “So, I’ll have to check in on Joey, yeah, but I’ll catch you later, okay?”
Naomi meant to say, “Maybe not,” but Emily gets off the line so quickly that Naomi barely has the time to form the words in her head before the busy tone comes on. She remembers that she’s due for a brief visit to the magazine office in the afternoon as the first batch of articles for the following month’s issue come in; tries not to feel disappointed that she can’t drop by Emily’s for—
What am I even doing? she asks herself, burying her face in her hands. The longing’s all too inappropriate and certainly, they haven’t even been back in each other’s orbit long enough for this to be fucking up their lives monumentally, now.
When Naomi gets to her office, the stories are lined up on one side of her table as expected, with the photos similarly put together on the other side. She speed reads through the printouts, fingertip zooming past the pages from top left to bottom right. When she looks up, it’s not even five o’clock yet already she feels severely drained.
“Coffee?” It’s Joyce from Features with two hot cups in her hand. Naomi smiles and waves her in anyway, as disinterested as she is in the caffeine she’s peddling.
Naomi says, “Thanks,” nodding for Joyce to take a seat before slipping one of the articles she had just read for consideration out of a folder and laying it on the table in front of Joyce, carefully. “This looks interesting,” Naomi begins, pointing with her pen; it’s an article of a tiger zoo in Malaysia. “Is it lined up for this issue already?” And then, picking up the photos that came with it, “We sure could use all these tigers all over our pages.”
Joyce shakes her head, smiling. “This came late; Bill said I should talk to you.”
“Is he coming in later tonight?” asks Naomi, and Joyce just shrugs. They never know with Bill, really – some days he goes to the office as early as nine a.m., but on other days, he comes in as late as seven at night. “All right, I’ll sit with him later.”
“Great,” says Joyce, standing up. “Let me know if anything needs revising, all right?”
Naomi nods, says “Sure.” She’s pretty sure Bill will end up agreeing anyway, like he always does to anything she suggests, but then ‘waiting for Bill’ usually meant risking really late nights just to get an audience; if you can’t get to him before four, there’s no way you can get to him until after eleven.
She sighs; time on the wall clock says half-past five. As she puts her desk in order, she unearths her phone from under one of the papers; turns out she’s missed a few messages, and two phone calls from David. There’s a pang of guilt, just a bit of it, that she dismisses quickly before opening her inbox.
Of course, the messages have to be from Emily, and Naomi holds her breath before reading the first one: “Sorry to have been in such a hurry to get off the phone a while ago,” she says. “Thanks for waking me, by the way.”
The second one goes, “I was thinking about dinner, are you working tonight ?” while the third one, “Are you free tonight, in the first place?” At the end of it, Emily has appended a colon-parenthesis smiley that nobody even uses anymore, these days, and Naomi can’t help but feel as if she’s just been stabbed with an adorable sort of nostalgia that reminds her oddly of her early years with a mobile.
She tells Emily as much, as soon as she picks up after two rings. “Sorry, I got kind of caught up in something,” Naomi begins. “And really, you should know that nobody even uses smileys anymore, come on.”
On the other end, Emily’s laughing. “Yeah, I figured as much; never thought those emoticons would ever go out of style – did you ever?”
“No, not really,” says Naomi, sinking back into her seat. There she goes again, she thinks, and inside she feels her heartbeat again, the force of it familiar by now, but nevertheless worrisome. “That, and fancy ringtones.”
“I used to have one; it was something from Lady Gaga.”
“Ah, the shame,” says Naomi, and Emily laughs harder on the other end, sounding a lot like fucking good old times, and Naomi can’t help but laugh along, despite that familiar tight feeling in her chest.
The laughter goes on for a while, back and forth, in sharp disjointed bursts, before Emily comes around with, “You never answered my question.”
“Which one?” Naomi asks, despite knowing exactly which one it is.
“The one about tonight,” says Emily. “Though of course, you must be really busy—”
“No, actually,” Naomi interrupts, her throat dry. It’s unbelievable, how after all this time she still finds this difficult, being away from Emily after being with her again, however briefly; like she can’t really stay away, despite having managed for years. “Actually, I’m just waiting for a really late night meeting with the editor-in-chief.”
“And by really late night meeting, you mean…”
“Maybe after eleven, I don’t know for sure; his schedule’s awfully erratic.”
“Too bad, then.”
There’s a pause on Naomi’s end, before, “I was about to suggest we get some really quick dinner say, in fifteen minutes? What are you in the mood for?”
When Emily says, “Mexican?” Naomi immediately bursts into laughter. “I don’t want to impose, of course,” appends Emily, and it’s evident how she’s also suppressing a laugh herself.
Settling down, Naomi says, “Of course,” trying to cope with memories of horrible costume parties past. “There’s an awesome Mexican place not too far from here – do you know where we’re at? Unless of course, you have a suggestion—”
“No, no, near to yours is fine, really,” says Emily, and Naomi hears the rushed opening and closing of drawers, the jangling of keys. “I could come over – or, or maybe meet you there at the Mexican place, whatever fits, I’ll take a cab.”
“Don’t be silly – drive over, we have parking too, you know.” Naomi pulls back a little with, “Or whatever works for you, it’s fine. I’m starving.” She’s thinking, well, that must have sounded a tad bit eager, but then, there’s no use retracting the offer anyhow.
“Well then,” says Emily. “Might as well abuse your parking. See you in a bit?”
“Perfect,” Naomi just says, hanging up, taking a rather deep breath that she ends up holding for a while after.
Naomi meets Emily in the lobby, because at least the lobby’s a smoking area. She crushes her cigarette against the nearby bin as she uncrosses her legs and stands upon seeing Emily exit the elevators, presumably from the basement. “Hey,” greets Naomi, wrapping her coat tighter around herself. “You ready?”
“Famished,” Emily smiles, shoving her hand inside a pocket. “Let’s go?”
Naomi steps in closer casually; feels Emily stiffen upon contact, her body warm. Naomi wraps an arm around Emily’s again, stopping short of holding her hand at the end; admittedly, Naomi does not know half of what her body’s actually doing, but then there’s just something about being around Emily that sort of puts her on auto-pilot, or something.
It’s a good thing entirely then that the trip to the restaurant is not too long a walk, granted Naomi’s motor skills are a bit shot. It’s a temporary thing, she assures herself; soon enough she spots the place, a brightly lit joint that is quite impossible to miss, right on the corner.
Emily says, “So. Enchiladas or burritos?” the minute she slides into her seat and Naomi can’t help the laugh that escapes her immediately, a loud sound that hurts her chest.
It’s like being in a time warp, this, Naomi thinks. On the table, she touches Emily’s hand.
It gets mighty comfortable after that, surprisingly; Emily starts by mentioning Katie, and it puts Naomi at ease enough for her to start talking about the things Effy has managed to get her into, from obscure movie premieres featuring Swedish vampires to club openings and cigarette promotions, even when Effy knows it’s not even within a mile radius of Naomi’s magazine coverage, in the first place.
“I remember this opening once,” Naomi begins, bringing her glass of iced tea to her lips and taking a sip, before, “It’s actually a club somewhere around here – not even sure if it’s still in operation, mind. So they had an open bar, yeah? Models milling about selling cigarettes and stuff, and I fucking called it a night after three margaritas.”
Emily quirks a brow. “Where has your tolerance gone, Christ,” she asks.
“I don’t know! I mean, it’s not like I don’t drink anymore, but yeah, I think I went home before midnight?”
“Good girl,” says Emily, and her sly smile makes Naomi blush. “What did Effy say?”
“Didn’t let me hear the end of it for at least three days, I think.”
“I wouldn’t either.”
Naomi bites her lip as she tries to laugh a bit discreetly, before eventually letting it go, allowing herself something full, something hearty. She throws her head back, seized by the force of the moment. All the while, her hand lingers alongside Emily’s on the table top, the back of Naomi’s hand brushing against Emily’s fingertips, her hand half-open, as if holding a barely-there secret.
Emily laughs along, and they come down from the high of it at about the same time, breathing heavily through their grins. A while after, in the quiet, Naomi glimpses the lazy, content smile on Emily’s face as she’s looking blankly at the table. For a moment, it stills Naomi’s heart again – it’s something Emily’s quite good at, stilling hearts – and when Naomi tries to see for herself what put that smile on, she finds that Emily’s actually looking at their linked hands on the tabletop, fingers lazily entwined.
When Naomi lifts her eyes, Emily’s already looking at her, and Naomi reflexively starts pulling away. “Hey,” is all Emily says, reaching after her and holding on with two fingers, clipping at Naomi’s fingers like scissors. “Stay .”
Naomi breathes in, biting into her lip harder. She closes her eyes for a moment, but does not move her hand; instead they stay there, pausing quietly, unmindful of the plate of leftover tacos between them, the blinking lights from the street, the time above their heads.
To Naomi it feels a lot like giving in , but Emily’s smile is just happy, purely, and somehow it makes it easier, to gloss over the guilt, momentarily. Just this one, Naomi tells herself, sliding her hand further in, and Emily’s hand is soft and warm and, despite the years, still unlike any other thing.
Chapter 10: quiet times
10. quiet times
Of course, as most moments go these days, theirs is broken by a phone call. It’s Naomi’s, and Emily tries not to look as disappointed as she feels.
Naomi answers her phone softly, shooting an apologetic look at Emily before moving to excuse herself from the table; Emily gestures to say, It’s okay, take the phone call here, and Naomi sinks back into her seat, brow creasing slightly as she sighs.
“Work,” says Naomi after, laying her phone on the table and rubbing her forehead with a fingertip. “Sorry, but I have to—”
“You should,” Emily says, trying a smile. On the table, she hasn’t moved the hand that has had Naomi’s in it, however briefly, about ten seconds prior. “Sorry to keep you—”
“Please.” Naomi moves suddenly, hand reaching out to cover Emily’s on the table, tentativeness gone. “You should know, I’d rather be here than discussing stories about tigers. Seriously.”
“Well, that sounds a bit more interesting than this to me,” says Emily jokingly, smile coming to her easier now.
Naomi just replies, “Wait till you see the pictures,” smiling as she offers a reassuring squeeze upon Emily’s hand. They linger for a moment longer; Emily’s skin aches as if she hasn’t been touched for a really long time. After a while, Naomi clears her throat. “I really have to go.”
“Sure,” Emily says, blinking; she takes her hand back, sliding it closer to herself on the table, enveloping it with the other. She follows Naomi with her eyes as Naomi stands up, moves closer and kisses her on the cheek briefly. It must be habit, of course, Naomi does this all the time with people she dines with, Emily just tells herself, but then she stops breathing anyway.
Naomi freezes as she catches herself, perhaps noticing that the gesture’s actually off about a half-second too late; pulls back and stops merely inches away, so close that Emily can still feel the general warmth of her radiating from her skin. When Emily moves to look, Naomi mutters, “Sorry,” but she’s smiling shyly anyway, a mischievous glint in her all-too-blue eyes.
Emily’s throat is dry. “You have to go,” she says, clearing her throat. She means to look stern, but is unable to hide a small smile of her own anyway, remembering the press of Naomi’s lips against her cheek, still warm on that patch of skin; still tingly. “Go, or else.”
“Else?” Naomi asks, quirking a brow as she braces herself, a hand against the table, the other gripping the back of Emily’s chair, still leaning close. Emily recognizes the playful tone in Naomi’s voice; is barely unable to stop herself from openly staring at where the corner of Naomi’s lips are upturned just so. Emily almost wants to indulge her with this game of Q and A, if not for the danger of it all.
Truth be told, Emily wants a host of things, and to just let one thought in would be –
Emily closes her eyes, breathes in; she tilts her head as she says, “Naomi.” She hopes it comes across as the warning she intends it to be.
Naomi straightens herself, fixes her collar. “Yeah,” she just says, turning her head to the side, looking like she’s trying to smooth out the smile from her face. Emily breathes out in kind. “I’m late,” Naomi says. And then, facing Emily, she adds, “How do I look?”
How do I look? Emily repeats the question in her head, leaning back a little to give Naomi a proper once over. Naomi bites her lip and looks away, and it makes Emily think, It could be a blush, before dismissing the thought altogether and concluding that she’s seeing things amidst the erratic lights. “You still have to ask?” she asks instead.
Naomi shrugs, laughs a little. “Very well then.”
Emily has her hands folded on the table as she watches Naomi turn around and walk toward the door. It swings open with a soft hiss, and just like that, the sound of Naomi’s heels clicking against the floor are out of earshot. Alone at their table, Emily tries breathing slowly, steadying herself. Her hand is still warm where Naomi has touched it; the space she kissed, still burning.
“Danger” can’t even begin to describe properly the precarious place she’s in; her mind cloudy with a desire that’s heavy with the weight of the years.
It’s not even a question of want – because the way Emily does is terrifying and she knows it. She has no words for how frightening it all is, absolutely, this fact that a feeling can stay as intense despite the passage of time; that it can lie in anyone, dormant and quiet, until such a time that it is triggered by something as innocent as a laugh, or, say, the accidental brushing of skin, or the brief mutual stare.
Of course it scares Emily, that all the years and the experiences are actually useless because, as it turns out, when faced with Naomi, Emily’s just eternally seventeen and fumbling with this feeling that she doesn’t know how to handle at all, apart from the way she did years ago, and indeed, that can’t possibly fit now, can it? Not when it’s much, much later, and Naomi’s hardly the girl she was – the girl back then was difficult to predict; the girl now, difficult to impress.
Emily does not know what to do with herself, and her mind’s a jumble of the things she wants and the things she fears, that when she gets to Naomi’s building, she ends up taking a seat in one of the couches in the lobby instead of heading straight to the basement parking, exhausted just by the thoughts.
To Emily it feels like only a few minutes, but then she must have taken a longer time, just sitting there and thinking about the same things over and over, because the next thing she knows Naomi’s walking toward her with her bag on her shoulder, pushing away the hair from her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Hey,” she Naomi says as she approaches. “You all right?”
Emily moves to stand, stretching slightly. “Yeah,” she says, yawning a bit. “Just… resting.”
“For a couple of hours?” Naomi continues, nodding. She’s smiling like she doesn’t know what’s really going on but then it’s as if she isn’t entirely worried about hearing a plausible excuse, either.
Emily just nods uncertainly, as she honestly doesn’t know where the rest of the hours between have gone anyway. “Right.”
“So. Going home then or resting some more?” Naomi asks. By then the grin on her face has transformed completely into one that’s mocking Emily gently for the loss of her sense of time. Emily narrows her eyes in mock defiance, and Naomi closes the gap between them, poking playfully at Emily’s side. Emily shrieks in surprise, tickled.
“Christ,” says Emily, gripping Naomi by the wrist. They laugh, looking at each other, and all the while Emily’s pulling Naomi closer; Naomi’s laugh slows until the sound of it is gone and suddenly the place is so quiet that Emily can hear the thumping in her chest and Naomi’s intake of breath.
“I asked a question.” Naomi’s so close that a whisper is enough, and just like that Emily comes to her senses. She lets go of her, pushing her away slightly even.
“Going home, then,” Emily says, rolling her shoulders slightly, if only to shake the moment’s weakness out of her system. “I’m so fucking tired and I don’t know why.”
Naomi shrugs, a smug smile on her face. “Age, perhaps,” she just says.
“Fuck off,” says Emily, shoving Naomi playfully as they both make their way toward the elevators.
When they get there, the parking is still about half full and Emily points to her Altis parked somewhere further to the left. “Mine’s over to the other side,” Naomi says. She picks Emily’s hand up gingerly by the wrist, holding onto it with two fingers. She’s looking at it as she says, “We can’t keep doing this, you know.”
Emily feels a chill run up her spine at the words, her breath hitching again. “What do you mean?” It’s not really a question as much as it is a stalling device. She takes a step closer, the warmth of Naomi clashing starkly with the cold that has taken over her body.
“Emily,” Naomi sighs. She turns Emily’s hand over in hers, palm up; begins tracing upon it idly with a fingertip, the touch light and barely there. “You know what I’m talking about.”
Naomi’s touching her like it’s burning, like she’s boring a hole right through her palm, and Emily closes her eyes, tries to keep herself breathing, the effort entirely conscious. “You’re married,” she tells Naomi, opening her eyes again after a while.
“And you’re not in love with me anymore,” Naomi says in reply. Her finger stops in the middle of it, pushing down firmly, like punctuation. “Are you?”
Am I? Emily asks herself in turn, and it’s just too hard, this, that she almost says she can’t stand it, only to bite her tongue at the last second, remembering possible connotations of such a phrase. “Naomi.” Emily just says, swallowing.
Naomi lifts her eyes from Emily’s palm, holding Emily’s eye as she leans closer, pressing a kiss right at the center tenderly; her lips linger like she means it. “I don’t understand half the things I’m doing these days ,” she says, murmuring against Emily’s open palm, the skin of it raw, like an old wound opened anew. “What are we doing, Em?”
Emily forces herself to exhale; she’s dizzy with everything – the faltering lights, the heat from the exhaust, the low ceiling. Everything. She takes a step back and Naomi lets her hand slip, a light frown upon her face. Emily tries to keep herself from shaking. “I don’t know either,” she just says, rubbing at her forehead with her fingers.
Naomi’s the one who walks away first and Emily lets her, saying nothing else. She stands there, clenching and unclenching the hand Naomi had held and kissed, waiting for the sensation to wear off. At the sound of an engine starting, Emily closes her eyes briefly before turning around and walking toward her own car.
The night is longer than it should be.
Emily finds herself driving back to her office when she spots the time – it is midnight and every strand of nerve in her body is on fire. When she reaches over to shift gears, the cold air from the car’s AC scrapes her palm and the Naomi-shaped burn stings a little all over again.
Fucking hell, Emily thinks, rolling into the parking space. Her chest feels so crowded; she hasn’t decided on a singular feeling, and what stands out is the ache, this discomfort of haphazardly thrown together emotions, like sharp-edged things wrapped together in thin cloth, the tips poking through the fabric.
By the time she’s walking back into her office, Emily recognizes something else, something akin to anger bubbling close to the surface, when she catches herself pulling at her drawers a bit more forcefully and pulling back out the folders on Naomi’s redesign. You fucking saw this coming, she tells herself, staring at photos of rooms that could be Naomi’s. You fucking knew.
Emily spreads out the photos on her desk, trying to regain a semblance of control; if she stands no chance of getting Naomi out of her mind for the night, at least, a portion of it should be useful. She takes out a pen, jots down a list of things she still has little idea about; she’s so off-focus that she isn’t even certain that advice on wallpapers for the living room isn’t all Naomi wants.
What does she want? Emily asks herself, suddenly aware of the question’s many layers, now that it has come to this; with her hands braced against the table, Emily remembers how Naomi had succumbed to her touch earlier, in the restaurant; how Emily may have, in fact, started everything in the first place.
At the corner of her table, from behind the picture frame, she sees how Katie’s laughing right at her; Emily almost hears her say, I told you so.
She must have napped some, because the next thing she knows, she’s being jolted out of sleep by the sound of a phone ringing and the right side of her neck near the shoulder is stiff. Emily feels around blindly for her phone on the table, one eye still closed; answers it anyway when she gets hold of the receiver, not minding the ungodly hour.
“For fuck’s sake, you’re at work? At this hour?” It’s Naomi on the other end, of course, and it’s only when she mentions the word ‘hour’ that Emily actually strains to find the clock – three in the morning.
Sleepily, Emily mumbles, “I forgot something—how did you—”
“I didn’t,” cuts Naomi. Emily can tell she’s exasperated, but then her voice sounds tired. “I was trying to get you on your mobile, but you weren’t picking up. And then I had the craziest idea of ringing this phone and there you are.”
“Oh Christ,” says Emily, waking a hundred percent finally and rummaging through her bag for her mobile – five missed calls. “Sorry, I left it in my bag. Did you want to talk about something, I’m—”
“Emily.” The way Naomi says it, it’s as if she’s stroking Emily’s hair softly, and Emily closes her eyes; suddenly she feels calm, like there isn’t a maelstrom of emotions in her chest to begin with. “You have to get home, get some proper rest.”
Emily nods, forgetting Naomi can’t see the gesture. “I will in a bit,” she just says. “Thank you.” And then, after the quiet, she finally manages to say, “Maybe it would be better for us to, you know.” Emily breathes in, pausing. “Stay out of each other’s orbit. Just for the next few days.”
There’s a long sigh on the other end, and Emily knows just then, how Naomi’s as affected as she is; realizes how this mustn’t be any easier on her, at all. “I completely understand.”
“Of course, if it’s related to the redesign, feel free to call me,” adds Emily. “But can we—I mean, apart from that…”
“No, really, you shouldn’t have to explain—”
“You do know what I mean, don’t you?” Emily pauses a bit, listening to Naomi breathe on the other end. “Nae?”
Naomi clears her throat, after a while. “I do,” she says, more firmly now, as if they have just signed a contract over the phone. “I’ll be in touch. But until then – do get some rest, Em. It’s the weekend, for crying out loud.”
Emily finds herself laughing lightly at that; this has been the longest wait for the weekend she has ever had in, like, forever. “One more day to go,” Emily says, smiling tiredly. “Have a great weekend, Naomi.”
“You too,” Naomi replies.
They don’t say goodbye after that; Naomi just gets off her mobile and Emily puts the receiver down at the busy tone.
Emily refuses to view it as the warning that it should be, given the circumstances; tries to tell herself, No, it’s not an omen. No, it’s not a sign.
Chapter 11: weekend in the city
11. weekend in the city
It’s well past noon when Emily wakes; it’s one of those days when she wakes horribly disoriented, and the first things that she asks herself upon opening her eyes are What day is it? and Where am I?, even as the walls around her and the ceiling itself have remained the same for as long as she’s lived there, despite having all the resources to spice everything up to her liking.
The truth is this: Emily’s room is as good as bare, and somewhat ordinary. When people enter houses owned by interior designers, they come armed with their expectations: Internal gardens, futuristic furniture, and loud wallpapers; chandeliers and fountains, the works. The fact is, Emily likes the garden outside, and her furniture, practical and simple.
Besides, who needs an ostentatious house to live in alone, right?
Upon realizing that it’s a Saturday – for real, this time – Emily gets out of bed, shrugging on a shirt that she’d only blindly pulled off the back of a nearby chair, before drawing the blinds. The noontime sun that floods in is almost painful on the skin that Emily steps back a little in surprise.
Emily barely got through Friday, to begin with, when she didn’t hear from Naomi at all. Emily can’t decide whether to feel hopeful or altogether frustrated that at least Naomi can keep to agreements; asks herself if she’s actually better off caving in to this want, if only to rid herself of this burn-like itch inside, like a lot of fire ants having their way with her body.
She sighs as she pads into the kitchen, feet bare, and puts the kettle on. No matter what time it is, it is never too late for breakfast, much less coffee. She starts the toaster and pops the bread in for good measure, even though she isn’t really that hungry. Today, she should be thinking about chores, like laundry and house cleaning and all the other things she’s put off during the week – just like the weekends that have come before.
Only this weekend is different, because now there is also Naomi.
Naomi. Emily nearly scalds herself as she pours the water into a mug, adding half a teaspoon of coffee after and two teaspoons of sugar; the water darkens as Emily sticks the spoon in and stirs. She’s trying to focus on the sound, on the smell of coffee instead, if only to fill her mind with things which are neither Naomi’s eyes or hands or lips.
Of course, she is met with little success; as she sips from the mug carefully, she is reminded of the heat of Naomi’s fingertip upon her palm, that ticklish, burning gesture; as she puts her coffee down, she realizes that this day may very well be like the day before, only today she’s in her house and about to see Naomi in all of her appliances, instead of at work, where she was reminded of Naomi, time and again, by the mere sight of random office supplies.
Emily heads into the living room, looking for diversion, mug in hand; opens a design magazine and sees a pretty blonde on an ad for vodka, of all things. She shuts it on the spot, tossing the thing back into the magazine rack. When she flicks the telly on, she accidentally surfs into Animal Planet and a rather timely feature on tigers.
“Fucking hell,” she mutters to herself, sinking into the couch, not bothering with the remote. On the screen, a tiger is running after a frail-looking thing; despite its speed, the tiger manages to overcome it in one fatal leap, not a very long while later.
Emily flinches, looks away for a moment as the tiger digs in, moving in for the kill, before moving herself and turning the telly off, her heart pounding with a certain sense of shared downfall that in the end she dismisses as thoroughly ridiculous.
That afternoon, Emily’s dream is one of her and Naomi in bed together; Emily recognizes the room as Naomi’s, when she was still in her mum’s house in Bristol. Naomi’s younger, and so is she; the light outside is faint with the night slowly settling in. Those days, that meant Emily had to go get dressed and be home for dinner.
Naomi’s bed is soft, and her arms around Emily are warm, and in the dream, Naomi’s asking her if she has to go, and Emily says something like, “Can I stay?” Naomi’s sweat still has a tinge of her lemon-scented soap bar and on the sheets the smell of sex is overwhelming.
Naomi says, “Of course.” It’s so easy here, Emily thinks, burying her face into the crook of Naomi’s neck, her cheek against Naomi’s throat, a light vibration there as Naomi hums to herself, a peculiar song that Emily knows, vaguely.
This is where Emily wakes up; she’s fallen asleep on her bed while browsing a magazine, and right beside her, the alarm she’d set on her mobile has just gone off.
It’s half-past four and there’s laundry to be dealt with and dishes in the kitchen sink. There are lazy weekends, yes, but then this one just feels so difficult, and if she’s going to spend the rest of it dreaming about Naomi intermittently, Emily isn’t sure she’ll actually feel rested at all if she naps often.
That she still hasn’t been able to shake off the slightly disappointed feeling that there hasn’t been a message from Naomi all that while is not too promising, either; somehow, she’d expected herself to start normalizing faster than this, thinking that as soon as the rush of the week has gone and she’d have time to sort things out with a clearer, less haggard state of mind. Getting Naomi out of her system should be easy, considering how she’s managed anyway to go without her for the past decade or so.
And yet this is all it takes, Emily thinks, watching as her knuckles disappear into the water, past the dishwashing soap suds on the surface. By now the stain from Monday has clung stubbornly upon the surface of one of the containers, and Emily is pushing down on it harder, scraping with the rough end of the sponge. It was entirely ill-advised, of course, to have left the thing to stand there unattended, as if time would do the job of fixing it while she wasn’t looking.
(It’s about time Emily knows better.)
Around seven that night, Emily gets ready to have dinner some place, as she isn’t in the mood to do any cooking; days like these, she misses living with Katie, because at least with her around the effort’s worth it as she’ll be cooking for two. But then it’s been years and they both know they’re better off this way – have always been better this way, living apart, never close enough again to get onto each other’s nerves, though Emily has never really regained her normal sleeping habits, which Katie’s unusual shifts once destroyed, but no matter.
Emily puts a coat on, checks that her phone is in one pocket and her keys in the other before pulling the door closed behind her. She considers calling Katie before remembering she must still be at work at this hour anyway. Scratch that, she tells herself, getting in the elevator. I’m going alone, who cares?
After all, nobody has cared, for quite a while now; Emily had actually chanced upon that fact completely by accident a few years ago – that women over a certain age should be able to dine alone without getting strange looks, much less be consistently hit on. Emily’s thinking about Japanese food, and how some hot ramen should be lovely in this weather.
There isn’t even a sign on the door, and the fact that Emily knows this place is proof that the area is as familiar as the back of her hand. The servers issue a standard Japanese greeting upon seeing her enter, approaching her with a menu. She orders ramen with beef, a separate plate of assorted sushi and a glass of Coke. The place is quiet and nearly empty, save for a middle-aged couple seated by the window; they seem engrossed in their conversation, and after a while, Emily notices that they’re holding hands under the table, casually.
The first phrase that comes to Emily’s mind is, A love like that. The thought, incomplete as it is, fills her with a kind of regret; it settles deep in her stomach, coldly, and not even the ramen that comes later manages to warm it up. Not quite, anyway.
When she is done, Emily finds that time has hardly moved, as the clock says eight in the evening; by then she’s all alone in the restaurant, as the couple have already moved on and paid the bill about fifteen minutes prior. She’s almost on her way out – she’s standing up and picking her coat off the back of the chair beside her, shrugging it on and pulling her hair out of the collar, when the door opens and the cold air bursts in; somewhere above a bell tinkles and, of course, Emily turns her head to look.
The white-robed server greets the new customer in Japanese; the girl responds curtly, fluently.
“Of all the places in the city then,” says Emily, smiling, and Naomi takes it as her cue to laugh.
“Indeed,” says Naomi, walking toward Emily and throwing an arm around her in a casual hug. “Always finding each other, aren’t we, lately?”
Emily lingers long enough to feel the initial cold on Naomi’s clothes fade into warmth, slowly; she has no words for this relief that overwhelms her, running into Naomi now, in this quiet joint, of all places. When they part, Naomi takes the seat across Emily’s, proceeds to sit down. Emily just says, “Not that I’m complaining.”
Naomi simply smiles, like she’s very pleased with the coincidence as well; the server comes around and Naomi orders the ramen with chicken. Emily laughs, of course, at the similarity. “What?” Naomi asks, brow raised and grinning.
Emily just shakes her head, lowers her eyes to the table. “Nothing,” she says. “I’m just glad to see you, is all.”
From under the table, Naomi nudges at Emily’s knee with the pad of her thumb, before fully settling there, Naomi’s warm palm following the curve of Emily’s knee, where it stays the entire night.
Throughout the meal, Naomi talks about her flat – how big it is, when she bought it, how certain portions need repairs because at some point the weather had been cruel enough to break something. “The paint on the ceiling is chipping a bit in some areas,” she sighs. “But the bathroom ceiling is fine.”
“Could be the erratic weather,” Emily offers. She’s on her second plate of sushi, and twice already had Naomi attacked it with her own chopsticks, letting out a triumphant, “Aha!” with every successful attempt. Emily finds it too adorable to complain.
“So I’ve been told,” says Naomi, still chewing. “Something about the alternating rain and sunshine that damages the paint with condensation.”
“You’ve had it checked, then?”
“About a couple of weeks ago,” says Naomi. “That’s actually where my urges to redesign began.”
“With the ceiling?” Emily asks, amused. “As nice a place to start as any, I suppose. How are the repairs going?”
Naomi rests her chopsticks by the side of her plate. “Nil, as of the moment. I was waiting until we closed next month’s issue.”
“Oh. Which is when?”
Naomi smiles sheepishly, like a child shy about a juvenile accomplishment. “Last night, actually.”
Emily breathes in at that, piecing a few things together. So that was why, she tells herself, as if in only so many words, Naomi has managed to satisfactorily explain her absence for the whole of Friday – as if she owed Emily an explanation to begin with. But then, it’s not like Emily can actually help herself from feeling this way; not when merely remembering that Naomi’s married in the first place is already such a difficult task, with Naomi’s hand still on Emily’s knee, the skin of her palm still warm through Emily’s stockings.
“Is that right,” Emily just says, after a while.
“I mean, it wasn’t really hectic as in hectic, but there was quite a lot of moving involved; couldn’t afford to stay put long enough to pay attention.” She sneaks another piece of sushi off Emily’s plate again; hisses as she chews on what could be a chunk of wasabi. “Whew,” she says, hand moving toward her glass of water. “I didn’t expect that.”
Naomi coughs a little after, and Emily asks her, giggling lightly, “Are you all right?” And then, “It’s your karma for stealing my sushi,” she adds, sticking her tongue out playfully.
“Could be,” Naomi nods, trying to smile through her intermittent wheezing, her eyes watery. Emily hands her a folded up napkin. “Thanks,” says Naomi, dabbing on her face.
Emily pauses a bit, watching Naomi with her guard down; notes the irregular rise and fall of her shoulders. Emily tries to block out the memory of an earlier dream, tries to keep her mind from straying into dangerous territory – like the warmth of Naomi’s embrace, or the softness of her lips. When Naomi looks up suddenly, she catches Emily staring.
“Yeah?” Naomi asks and Emily sighs as she looks away, pulling a pen out of a pocket and scribbling. “What are you writing down?”
Emily shrugs. “Oh, nothing, just a few bits here and there,” she says. “You know, for your redesign. What color would you like for your new ceiling?”
Naomi’s eyes widen slightly at the mention of the word, ‘color.’ “Something not white,” she begins, rubbing her chin thoughtfully, lips in a slight pout to boot. “Maybe ecru. Or a really pale yellow. What do you think?”
“We’ll have to see,” says Emily. Naomi’s energy seems to perk upon being presented options, and Emily herself starts feeling very awake. “We’ll bring swatches, of course.”
“Something nice on the eyes,” says Naomi. “Will you pick one out for me, Em?”
Across the table, Naomi’s looking at her coyly, face cradled upon the hand that’s propped by an elbow on the table, and Emily can’t help but laugh a little at the display. “Not like I could resist that,” she says, grinning.
For a while, it’s just like that, the two of them bouncing color suggestions off each other – “What about a really light brown, like the color of an old book’s pages?” Emily says, “Or a really light pink, like the color of the sky at daybreak?”
Naomi mentions the possibility of light green, the hue a new leaf takes, only it’s a very, very light version of it, and Emily’s heart swells with memories of forests; remembers the awkward first time, the feel of Naomi’s skin against her knuckles, the dampness of Naomi’s hair as she threaded her fingers through them, and oh, the sound of her.
It’s the memory of the sound that gets to Emily the hardest, in the end, that mix of rustling leaves and whimpers; on her knee, Naomi’s absent stroking gets so amplified that it hurts, like she has just cut her with a blade and Emily pushes her chair back, the noise it makes echoing in the small place. Emily excuses herself and heads to the toilets in a rush, barely hears Naomi ask, “What’s wrong?”
Once inside, Emily opens the faucet, just so it isn’t so quiet; looks at herself levelly in the mirror, as if challenging herself to be a better person. She closes her eyes upon seeing the look she has on – so fucking transparent; the want is there, for anyone to see. She’s too open; how in the world could she have let herself be taken over by memories, just like that?
She cups her hands under the water, splashes some of it on her face. She’s rubbing at the droplets when the door opens abruptly, and in comes Naomi.
Naomi, who’s smiling concernedly as she moves closer at the sound of the shut door, hand gingerly reaching out to graze Emily’s back. “Everything all right?” she asks, looking at Emily in the mirror, her smile tipping into a frown slowly as her hand settles warmly on the small of Emily’s back. She’s moving it in circles, intently, like she really believes it will make Emily feel better at all. “Sorry, no green then. Green’s a bad idea,” she just says.
Bad idea. The words fill Emily’s head – oh she’s had a few of those, right, a fucking slew of them: like the dinner in the Mexican place the other night; or, before that, the midnight coffee in her office; or, even before that, attending Ingrid’s launch. Or taking this job, to begin with, knowing very well this is where it’s headed anyway.
Here. Emily rubs one last time at her damp cheek before turning to face Naomi; the movement envelopes Emily in a half hug, and just like that, it’s familiar ground again; better yet, like ground she never left. She reaches up and pulls Naomi close, closer, a shaky hand upon Naomi’s nape; pulling until she’s kissing her.
In her surprise, Naomi ends up backing herself against the sink; the room is filled with the sound of running water, interrupted only by a dull clink as the metal clasp of Naomi’s watch catches the edge of something.
“Naomi,” says Emily softly, murmuring against her lips, careful about the inherent echo of bathrooms. “Naomi, what are we doing?” It should have sounded like she’s snapping out of something, but it doesn’t; Emily’s voice holds no weight, even as she’s pinning Naomi against the sink, their bodies pressed together warmly.
Naomi says nothing; she’s shaking her head and her eyes are blue, bluer than they’d ever been, if it’s at all possible. She’s reaching up with a hand herself, if only to stroke Emily’s cheek, to trace her jaw, to touch the space just behind her ear. It’s all too much, Emily thinks as her eyes flutter close, right before Naomi closes the gap between them this time, running her thumb across Emily’s lower lip roughly first before pulling her in closer, kissing her.
Inside Emily it feels like the butterflies that have been waiting all that while have just been given the go signal to explode.
It takes far too long – Emily herself fumbles with the collar of Naomi’s top and claws at it, seeking for something to grab, like they can be any closer. Naomi tastes like mint; Emily even manages to feel the faded bit of it on Naomi’s tongue, somewhere along the way. Somehow, it reminds Emily vaguely of passing MDMA, and Naomi isn’t even touching her just yet, but the shudder courses through Emily anyway, something akin to electricity shooting through her spine and spreading just below her hips.
It’s Naomi who comes up for air, this time around; she’s got a hand braced against the edge of the sink, while the other’s in Emily’s hair. Right then she’s looking at Emily with those familiar half-lidded eyes, and Emily has to remind herself where they are to keep from pulling at the rest of Naomi’s clothing.
“Naomi.” Emily braces both palms upon Naomi’s shoulders, smoothing her shirt right where the fabric has been rumpled. “What the fuck was that?” she asks, but it’s followed by a nervous, breathless laugh, that Naomi returns similarly.
“I don’t know,” Naomi replies, leaning her forehead against Emily’s, smiling lazily. “I honestly thought we’d last longer, though.” And then, off the look on Emily’s face, Naomi adds, “Trying to keep out of trouble, I meant. ”
“You were trying?” asks Emily, smirking. Naomi’s still so close, and Emily’s starting to feel like there is no pulling herself out of whatever it is they’re falling into.
“Were you?” Naomi asks back.
Emily just giggles slightly, pushing herself off Naomi and smoothing her own outfit. Was she? Something tells her a ‘no’ answer would not exactly be truthful. “We have to get out of here,” she says instead, diverting. “Maybe get some air.”
Air. Sure, Emily has heard of its benefits, and she’s almost on the way out when she feels Naomi reach out and hold on, a hand wrapping gently around Emily’s wrist, her grip loose but maddening just the same. “Are you coming to your senses, Em?” she asks softly, and Emily holds her breath at how vulnerable Naomi is; how the open and unashamed look on her face reminds Emily of the look a seventeen-year-old girl once gave her right before she kissed Emily against the lockers. This was years ago, but to Emily the memory is still cellophane-clear, if triggered properly.
“Em?” Naomi says again, and Emily blinks; her vision clears, like she’d just blinked away tears. “Are you?” And then, even softer: “Can we just do that later?”
When Emily catches the look on Naomi’s face, she finds it impossible not to kiss her again -- and again. And again. Emily has her hand tangled into Naomi’s hair, and Naomi’s pulling her closer with a hand on the small of Emily’s back. The air around them is thick with the scent of want, and nobody says another word for a very long time; the water’s still running in the sink, and it reminds Emily of a river rushing to empty itself into the wide, wide sea.
Chapter 12: we never change
12. we never change
Naomi takes a moment to breathe before turning the faucet off; looks at herself in the mirror before stepping out of the toilets after Emily. At their table, Emily is settling the tab; she’s talking to one of the servers casually, her head tilted such that some of her hair keeps falling upon the side of her face and she has to keep tucking strands behind an ear. It all feels like everything is in slow motion and Naomi feels her chest tighten at the sight of it, at how lovely Emily is under the restaurant’s low lights; how Emily looks as if she has this glow about her.
Naomi walks closer and it is then that Emily turns her head, smiling. The blush on Emily’s face has never left, it seems; the thought of it warms Naomi in kind. “Hey,” Emily begins, breathing in. “So.”
“So,” Naomi just says back, and Emily responds with a nervous laugh. It strikes Naomi just then, how they haven’t properly recovered from what had just happened, but then Naomi isn’t sure how to bring it up – or if she even can. “What time is it?” she just asks absently instead.
Emily bites her lip as she reaches over for Naomi’s wrist, the one that carries a watch; Naomi laughs as Emily brings it closer to her face, as if she’s about to kiss it. Naomi holds her breath at that, expecting the touch of Emily’s lips; instead, Emily starts stroking the back of Naomi’s hand with a fingertip, and Naomi just wonders how it is still as devastating.
It’s official: the events of the past hour or so have ruined Naomi completely that anything Emily does will affect her similarly.
“You’re the one with the watch,” Emily says, smiling slyly as she taps the glass face of it gently, bringing Naomi back from her thoughts. “Right here it’s past nine.” And then, “Time always flies when I’m with you. It always has.”
“Some things never change,” Naomi replies. They’re wearing the same silly grin on their faces, so that it’s almost embarrassing. “Hey, do you still have somewhere to be at this hour?”
Emily lets Naomi’s hand slip slowly from hers, lowers her eyes to the floor. “No, not really,” she says. “Why?”
Because, Naomi thinks. Because, if anything, this night should go on forever. “Oh nothing, really,” says Naomi instead, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Just curious.”
“But if-if you have to be—”
“No, no – that wasn’t what I meant at all,” Naomi interjects immediately, cutting Emily off and putting a hand upon her arm. For a moment Naomi just hangs on quietly, before finally breaking. “I just meant – god, can we get out of here?”
Emily flashes her a confused look before saying, “Of course.” Emily starts walking toward the door, pulling Naomi along by the hand. “Let’s go.”
Outside, it is colder than Naomi has prepared herself for, so she huddles closer to Emily, who casually slides an arm around her waist and pulls her closer; the move wraps Naomi warmly inside Emily’s coat, and Naomi marvels at how easy it is, to be this comfortable with her; at how their bodies just seem to know how curve around the other so seamlessly.
“There, warm enough?” asks Emily, turning her head toward her and whispering so close to Naomi’s ear that she’s nearly kissing it; Or maybe I am going mad, Naomi just thinks. Maybe it’s nowhere as close as I think it is.
Naomi doesn’t test her theory; instead she simply nods. “It’s perfect,” she just says, before asking, “Where are we going?”
Emily’s looking ahead as she shrugs; she does not look worried at all about the lack of destination, it seems. “I don’t know. We can walk in circles some more, if you want.”
Circles. The word hits Naomi heavily – heavier than it should have, actually. Emily doesn’t seem to intend the meaning, but then Naomi deems it proper to point it out. “Emily,” she sighs. When Emily turns her head to look at her, Naomi sees how her point has come across in a word.
“Of course I didn’t mean it like that,” Emily says, before dropping her eyes to her feet. The pavement is slightly wet; it must have rained briefly. “Sorry it came across as—”
“No matter,” says Naomi, waving her hand slightly, as if dismissing it altogether. “It’s just me. I mean.” Naomi stops walking, and for a while they just stand there: Emily’s arm wrapped around Naomi’s waist, Naomi staring at Emily’s shoes. Off a puddle nearby, Naomi sees how the pastry shop behind Emily is closing for the night, dimming its lights. “What I’m trying to say is that…”
“I kissed you,” Emily says, clearing her throat. The shake at the end of it makes Naomi look up. “That shouldn’t have happened, yeah?”
Naomi pauses, stunned; she doesn’t know what to say to that, to be frightfully honest, and it’s been a while since she last felt this way; like she’s completely cut off from words.
Emily continues with, “But I’m not going to say sorry for that.” She’s breathing harder, and she’s pulling Naomi closer; so close that Naomi can feel the heaving of Emily’s chest against her. “Please, don’t make me—”
Naomi closes her eyes at that; having Emily this close is short-circuiting her, and it’s not helping at all. Right now, what Naomi needs is a moment of clear thinking, yet instead she is just near enough to catch a whiff of the soap Emily had just used from the restaurant’s bathroom; it smells clean, like long ago Sunday mornings after Emily’s just taken a bath, and she’s coming back to bed in a towel, her hair dripping and –
And just like that, the struggle is over, and Naomi is letting the fight drain out of her, if only for the night. “Em,” she says, shushing her, finger toying absently with a belt loop upon Emily’s hip, and it’s as if Naomi’s totally hugging her, right in the middle of the street. “I’m not asking you to—”
“Then what?” asks Emily. The air about them is heavy and quiet, filled with nothing but the steady buzzing of the nearby streetlamp. “What are we supposed to do with this?”
Naomi feels Emily tighten her grip by her waist, nails digging in, and that’s how Naomi knows just how much this matters. Indeed, Emily’s asking questions Naomi wishes she now has the answers to, but then Naomi’s still feeling around for them blindly herself and now she’s just torn between a right answer somewhere and the mistake she wants to make here.
Naomi breathes in, rolling her shoulders. “We’ll figure it out,” Naomi says, though she doesn’t feel so hopeful at all. And then, after the quiet: “Come on, I’ll walk you to your car.”
“No, actually, I – I live in the area,” Emily says, running her other hand into her hair. Naomi finds herself staring at the flashes of red falling between Emily’s fingers, and Naomi feels her fingertips itch, this ache starting up in her chest again.
Naomi did not know this, that they’ve been so near Emily’s place all the while, and honestly she doesn’t know what to do with it - well, of course, there’s a plethora of things she can think of, and a huge percentage of the horrible ideas in her head involve a bed, and Naomi has to consciously think about breathing from then on.
“Walk you home, then?” Naomi says finally, swallowing. Emily looks at her like she’s asking if Naomi’s sure about her offer and Naomi just nods her head, responding to something that hasn’t even been asked out loud. Naomi thinks about how hard she’s missed having someone as easy to read; someone like Emily.
They talk little, apart from the occasional asking and giving of directions. By then, Naomi has snaked an arm around Emily’s back and is pulling her closer as well. The streets are strangely bereft of cars; it’s a rather slow night and Naomi watches the lights from street lamps bounce off small pools of water on the pavement.
Naomi would almost like the peace of the outside, the quiet of deserted roads; if only they would not amplify the confusing noises in her head. Beside her, Emily clears her throat as she slows to a stop in front of an apartment complex. “We’re here.”
Naomi looks up, scans the building; it’s a medium-rise with no more than ten floors . Trust Emily not to risk tiring herself out on the stairs in the absence of functional elevators, Naomi just thinks, and when she turns her head to look at just how far they’ve only come, she finds it hasn’t been a long walk at all, either. “That was quick,” Naomi just says, smiling.
“Yeah,” Emily says back, nodding. She’s pulling her arm back from behind Naomi, grazing Naomi slowly, deliberately, a hand smoothing the back of Naomi’s top. Naomi inhales sharply when Emily presses down somewhere with a finger, before running her nails over the fabric, scratching just light enough to be ticklish and Naomi has to bite down on her lip to keep the sound in; to keep herself from unraveling on the spot.
“Right,” Naomi says, breathing out shakily. “So. You go on ahead then.”
Emily just smiles at her, a bit of mischief there. “I’d totally invite you upstairs,” she says. “Isn’t that how it’s supposed to go?”
Here we go then, Naomi tells herself, her throat closing up; something plummets in her stomach, the way things do when roller coasters dip violently from such great heights. “And I’d totally say no, because, you know,” Naomi replies, tilting her head, uncertain. “The way it should go, yeah?”
Emily laughs, shakes her head, “No, really,” she says, and she’s touching Naomi casually again, taking Naomi’s wrist in a hand; Emily’s looking so young, and there’s that twinkle in her eye that looks so familiar that Naomi feels that distinct throbbing starting up inside her all over again; that delicious pulsing right in the middle of her stomach spreading slowly out. “Come up for a drink,” says Emily again, softer.
“I don’t think—”
“Just one.” Emily’s tugging at her, and Naomi’s weak knees are not holding up well at all. Naomi thinks, She knows, then Emily adds, “Please.”
It’s like Emily has just produced the trump card, and Naomi sighs, something in her chest giving way. “Fine,” says Naomi. “Just one.” And Emily even giggles some, lightly. She pulls Naomi in after her, and Naomi hears her say something like, “She’s with me,” when she turns to their doorman, and something just flutters unexpectedly in Naomi’s gut.
Christ, what is this? she asks herself, standing beside Emily while waiting for the elevators; Emily’s pushing frantically at the buttons. “No rush, Em,” says Naomi softly, running the back of her hand along the arm of Emily’s coat. “We have time.”
“No, these elevators are whacked, sometimes,” Emily says, looking up. And then, “You really have changed a lot, haven’t you?”
“Understatement of the year, Christ,” Naomi just says, laughing. That Emily still slips every now and then, thinking she’s still going around with that seventeen-year-old version of her – always in a hurry, wont to run around (or run away, as on certain occasions she really isn’t proud of) – amuses Naomi, but then it’s something she completely understands, as certainly Emily hasn’t been the only one running around severely haunted by versions of younger selves.
After a while, Emily grabs her by the arm, says, “Fuck it, the thing’s broken.” Emily’s mildly annoyed. “Sorry, I hope you don’t mind taking the stairs.”
Naomi shrugs. “Not at all,” she says, and Emily leads her to the end of the hallway where the stairs are. “Good for the heart anyway,” she says upon seeing them.
“Annoying when you’re hung over, though,” Emily says, smirking. “Or in a hurry.”
“Speaking from experience, aren’t we?” Naomi replies, smirking in kind. “I sincerely hope you’re not on the tenth floor.”
Emily pauses. “I was about to say,” she says tentatively, sighing; Naomi groans, stopping at the landing while holding onto the balustrade. “No, I’m kidding, my room’s on the fourth floor.”
Naomi catches up with her, a couple of steps, whacks her on the arm when she’s within reach. “Fuck you,” she grins, dangerously close.
Emily’s tongue darts out, licks at the bottom of her lip, like a nervous habit; she quirks a brow as she says, “Careful now,” shifting to place one feet on a lower step for balance. Naomi finds herself standing close to her, so close that she’s almost pinning Emily against the railing; standing like this, staring at the way Emily’s worrying her lip, Naomi almost wants to wrap her arms around her, pull her in by the small of her back, and kiss her senseless until morning.
If she isn’t careful – if they aren’t careful – they might not reach Emily’s flat at all. “Fuck,” Naomi says again, voice hoarse with need, before peeling herself off Emily and practically finishing the flight of stairs in a sprint.
The fourth floor hallway is well-lit and quiet when they get there, and Naomi’s still heaving from having sprinted the rest of the way up, never once looking back. At the very least, she tells herself, trying to slow her breathing down, at the very least see her to the door, will you? She’s leaning against the wall when Emily comes into view, her steps slow and heavy, like she’s thinking each one through.
“Over here,” Emily says quietly as she reaches Naomi at the top of the stairs, beckoning with a nod. Naomi pushes herself off the wall and follows Emily toward her door. It’s the second door to the right, and Emily’s hand is shaking as she fumbles with her keys.
“You all right?” asks Naomi. It’s hands down the stupidest question of the night, she thinks, leaning her head against the door frame, eyes fixed on Emily’s hand holding the key.
“What do you think?” Emily just asks back softly, not taking her eyes off the door knob; the keys clatter as it opens and Naomi shuts her eyes briefly upon hearing the flick of a switch. This is it, Naomi just tells herself, breathing in.
The first thing that overwhelms Naomi upon entering the room is the distinct scent of the place; it’s something that reminds her of Emily’s skin and the smell of her left on Naomi’s sheets after weekends they spent together. For a moment, Naomi just stands there by the door taking it all in, her chest so tight with memories that she’s barely able to breathe. When she looks around, she catches Emily as she disappears into what Naomi assumes to be the kitchen, after hearing the familiar opening and closing of a refrigerator door.
“Anything I can get you?” Emily’s saying, as she comes back out of it with a bottle of water in one hand and a can of beer in the other; the sight of Emily as the panicking hostess brings a smile to Naomi’s face. “Sorry – did you want something hot?”
It is then that Naomi laughs out loud, and Emily follows soon after recognizing the slip. “Emily,” Naomi says, settling carefully onto the sofa. “I’m all right.”
Emily leans over to retrieve the remote control on the table and flicks the telly on; it opens on a scene from a documentary of meerkats on Animal Planet. Emily makes a face before handing the remote to Naomi, “Feel free to surf a little,” she just says, leaving both bottle and can on the table in front of Naomi. “I’ll be right back.”
Before Naomi can say anything else, Emily’s heading back into the kitchen, leaving Naomi seated in the living room alone with the remote in her hand, but somehow Naomi’s more concerned about the condensation from the beer can pooling at the bottom of it right on the table, than she is about the telly; instead of shifting channels, Naomi takes a magazine off a nearby pile and pulls a subscription card out as a makeshift coaster.
Naomi looks as up as something hisses from the kitchen and Emily comes out, wiping her hands on her pants slowly. Emily pauses by the kitchen doorway and Naomi stares at her from where she’s seated, a magazine open in her hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Naomi begins, putting the magazine back onto the pile. The air is thick with uncertainty, and Naomi’s choking on it. “Did you put the kettle on?” Naomi asks after a while, and Emily walks on over, sitting on the couch right beside her; the space between them dangerously small.
“Yeah, I did,” says Emily, putting a hand on Naomi’s knee. “I didn’t know—I wasn’t sure…”
“I can go,” Naomi interrupts gently. “If this makes you uncomfortable.”
Emily grips Naomi’s knee tighter, nail scraping the skin of Naomi’s knee so lightly that Naomi squirms a little, tickled. “You know how this makes me feel,” Emily just says, her voice low and quiet. Despite best advice, Naomi finds herself inching closer as the sofa gives way subtly, caving at the combined weight of them, until Naomi’s hip is touching Emily’s; the hand on Naomi’s knee grows warmer.
The kiss this time begins all too slowly; when Naomi finally closes the space between their lips there’s an ache in her heart that fizzles out, and it feels a lot like when you hold a breath too long and you finally let it out in one steady hiss. Emily’s moving her lips so tentatively; at best they’re just slip-sliding against Naomi’s, following her every move; like she isn’t sure that Naomi will be there when she opens her eyes, or if Naomi’s really there, to begin with.
I’m here, Naomi wants to say, but instead she just cups Emily’s cheek, stroking the side of her face lazily with slender fingers. Emily’s skin is soft - inviting is a better word for it, actually, and just thinking about it sends a delicious shiver through Naomi; the kind that ruins knickers, and Naomi shifts on her seat at the sensation.
Emily breaks the kiss first, this time; she studies the look in Naomi’s face briefly and Naomi fears that the moment has just been broken. As it turns out though, Emily just paused to lick at her bottom lip before moving in again, and just like that, Naomi’s in Bristol again, and they’re not on a sofa but in Naomi’s bed; to Naomi it feels like a Saturday night from years ago, and she remembers the smile on Emily’s face as she closed the door behind her, the surge of energy between them as Naomi made her way to Emily, and Emily to her; the mess their limbs once made amid the sheets, the scent of Emily’s shampoo mingled with sweat, the feel of Emily’s sticky sweetness on her fingers; the thudding of hearts just after coming, and how Naomi used to feel Emily’s heart stabilizing through her chest in the afterglow.
Once upon a time, they were just two girls before everything else began. Right then, as Naomi’s pulling Emily closer by her nape, and Emily’s pulling as well with an arm around Naomi’s waist, Naomi just reminds herself of those days, when nothing mattered more than this and all the world had was just enough space to embrace the shape their naked bodies made.
It’s not even a proper morning after; Naomi wakes the following morning beside Emily on the sofa only to find themselves fully clothed, though Naomi’s hand is resting directly on the skin of Emily’s hip just below her shirt, and Emily’s got a hand inside Naomi’s top -- but still.
Nothing happened, Naomi tells herself, trying to carefully extricate herself from Emily’s embrace, hoping not to wake her. But how?
Emily stirs a little in her arms, and there’s little Naomi can do to keep herself from succumbing to general pleasure of having someone to wake up to in the morning; she ends up nuzzling Emily’s neck, and it is then that Naomi realizes how her lips are actually kind of sore.
Ah, Naomi just thinks, as if some things have finally fallen to place; the realization makes her blush as really, she had never ever thought she’d last for such a long time doing nothing but plainly making out, but apparently she just did.
When Emily wakes, she touches Naomi’s lower lip gingerly; says in a low, hoarse voice: “Good morning, hon,” eyes still closed like she’s still half-asleep. She burrows closer to Naomi, and it’s not like Naomi has got a better place to be on a Sunday morning, does she now?
So she lets it be; so what if it’s got all these warning signs hoisted above it? She’s got all week to heed them, but right now, it’s a Sunday morning, and for Naomi, Sunday mornings have always been Emily’s anyway, ever since.
Chapter 13: edge of desire
13. the edge of desire
The last thing Emily remembers from the night before, apart from Naomi’s mouth, is the feel of Naomi’s fingers tracing patterns on her stomach, her fingertips and nails skating over Emily’s skin. It’s something that Naomi’s incredibly good at, finding something so maddeningly subtle and doing it over and over and over again – like a light stroke here, or a gentle nibble someplace else. As for Naomi’s lips, well – Emily has long known she can spend hours just kissing her; that is, until one of them breaks and starts tearing at the clothes of the other, wanting more.
Judging by the morning after, perhaps the night before was of a completely different sort entirely. It’s 10 in the morning when Emily wakes; it says so on the clock, and Naomi’s still asleep beside her with her mouth slightly open. Emily resists the urge to trace her lips with a finger, for fear of waking her. Something about it feels all-too odd, and when Emily moves a hand to lazily run up Naomi’s side, her wrist catches the fabric of Naomi’s top; Emily just thinks, Ah, there you go.
Outside, it begins raining; droplets that are few and far between at first, tapping lightly against the window pane, before the pitter-patter accelerates and it gradually starts pouring harder in one steady swoosh. Emily feels a spray of stray droplets upon her arm; she worries that one of the windows has been left open so she tries to ease herself off the sofa, carefully pulling her hand from under Naomi’s shirt.
Naomi stirs at the movement, and as she shifts her thigh rubs against Emily’s and just like that, Emily falls back into the sofa, starts feeling warm all over again; the kind of warm that makes her want to take off her clothes, to take off Naomi’s clothes, but then.
But then, this is just as nice, actually – Naomi’s burying her face closer into the crook of Emily’s neck, her breath warm on the patch of skin just behind Emily’s ear; she’s so close she’s barely kissing the small tender space, and it makes Emily shiver as her shaky hand finds its way back underneath Naomi’s top, the skin beneath it warm.
Just like that, Naomi’s awake. Emily feels her smile against her skin and then Naomi’s leaning in even closer, kissing more fervently, finding the pulse point with the tip of her tongue, her hand under Emily’s shirt hiking it up, until nearly the entire length of Emily’s side is exposed to the air of the room.
“Christ,” Emily murmurs through gritted teeth just as a cold gust of air blows in, ruffling the blinds lightly; Emily thinks, One of them is definitely open, but Naomi breaks right back into her thoughts by rubbing her palm over the goose bumps to warm them up.
“Are you cold?” asks Naomi, lifting her head from Emily’s neck and propping it up with a hand; there’s a sleepy grin on her face as she opens her eyes, one after the other. She’s slowed down her other hand to a lazy caress, and oh, how it burns.
Emily shudders a bit; says, “One of the windows is open,” for the lack of anything better to say. Naomi nods, but she’s still intently staring at her hand curving at the dip of Emily’s waist; Emily bites her lip at that, and when Naomi drags her eyes back up, it feels like she’s just stroked her with it.
Naomi’s staring at her like this is the first time she’s ever woken up with a girl, and it makes Emily blush. “What?” Emily asks weakly, smiling as she lowers her eyes, settling upon Naomi’s collar bone. Naomi’s always had this thing with staring; Emily remembers how she’d always been good at that, and it seems that Naomi’s only gotten better at it through the years.
“Nothing,” Naomi says, lips curling up one side. “I like looking at you.”
Emily’s too tickled to say anything coherent in response, so she just buries her face into the crook of Naomi’s neck again, breathing in deep; she giggles softly as her fingers play idly at the hem of Naomi’s pants, tracing briefly underneath it; it makes Naomi squirm, a little.
“Do you want to go and fix it then?” Naomi asks after a while. There’s a vibration in her throat as she speaks; Emily feels it against her cheek, and she can’t resist the urge to lick lightly along the side of it. Naomi moans, a low sound coming from a place just above her chest, and Emily feels her grip around her waist tighten; feels a pull.
“Later,” Emily just says, murmuring against the skin of Naomi’s throat. When she looks at her again, Naomi’s face is too transparent; the blue in her eyes is a shade Emily’s never even seen, and it’s as if Naomi’s skin’s too clear, like water in a pond, that all that wanting just beneath it comes out so sharply; when Emily reaches out to touch Naomi’s cheek she wonders if the contact will initiate a ripple.
What to do with a look like that? Emily asks herself. It’s part-begging, part-offering and all Emily can think about is how easy it is to get lost in this – this lethal combination of Naomi’s eyes and lips and hands.
Naomi just says, “Okay.” Emily blinks and Naomi smiles, leans in to kiss Emily again; she starts at the corner of Emily’s mouth before inching her way to the center, torturously slow, before parting Emily’s lips with her tongue, a slight bite upon Emily’s lower lip at the end of it for good measure.
And then she starts over – Emily can’t even wrap her head around the feeling, so she simply contents herself with whatever response she can muster: a hitch of breath here, a brief tugging at the hem of something there, her hand upon Naomi’s arm, squeezing and touching and stroking.
What place is this? Emily asks herself. Outside, there’s the faraway sound of thunder, and just then, Naomi rolls them over, hovering above Emily on the sofa, straddling her; Emily tries to keep up, lifting herself off the sofa to keep the kiss going and Naomi holds onto Emily’s face with both hands.
When the kiss breaks, Emily’s looking up at Naomi, leaning back on her elbows; Naomi’s wiping at her lips with the back of a hand. She whispers, “We’re so fucked, Em. So, so fucked.”
Emily’s shirt is hiked up to her chest, just below her breasts, just enough to expose the bare skin of her stomach; the space upon which Naomi is perched is warm and damp. Emily hazards a look downwards – she’s managed to unbutton Naomi’s pants, and her top’s all wrinkled and disheveled and begging to be done away with – and Emily’s fairly certain that her own knickers are most definitely ruined by now.
“Oh fuck,” Emily finds herself saying, moving closer; Naomi shifts slightly so that Emily’s also seated, cradling Naomi in her lap; it should be quite a sight, granted the length of Naomi’s legs, but then Emily’s suddenly feeling so strong and she doesn’t even question where it’s coming from; not now. Naomi wraps her legs around Emily’s waist, and then she’s kissing her again, her lips coming down upon Emily’s, her hand moving up and down Emily’s back under her shirt; when Naomi’s fingers catch the clasp of her bra, something gives after very little struggle.
“Still works, yeah,” Naomi whispers against Emily’s mouth, and Emily can feel Naomi smirking as she coaxes the bra off her from underneath the shirt. Emily laughs a little, mutters, “No rush,” against Naomi’s lips; she smiles as she reaches over and undoes Naomi’s in kind, and it lets go with a soft click.
Naomi pulls back, hands still cupping Emily’s face, and looks Emily straight in the eye; if it weren’t for that distinct spark there, Emily would have completely read that as Naomi wanting to stop but then after a while, Naomi leans back a little, takes hold of the hem of her top and lifts it over her head. Emily looks on with her mouth half-open, reaching over tentatively to smooth Naomi’s bra off both her shoulders, and then.
“Christ,” Emily sighs, running her palms over her skin; she’s thinking about how this was once a body she knew so well. She runs them over Naomi’s shoulders, massaging briefly upon where her shoulders meet her neck, smoothing out the tension among the muscles there. Naomi rolls her head a little, lets out groan, biting down on her lip.
“Tell me where,” Emily murmurs against her collarbone, kissing it; it’s a ritual from way before, as Naomi had always been prone to stiff necks and such, especially on particularly stressful weeks. Naomi’s hands come up and guide Emily by the wrist, and Emily closes her eyes at the gesture, leaning her forehead against Naomi’s chest. She tells herself the darkness helps when you’re feeling around for muscles knotted under the skin, but then, knowing better, she knows it’s more than that; that maybe she also thinks it can help in keeping herself from completely unraveling, as if there’s anything left.
Naomi says, “That feels good,” her voice low as she draws out the words slowly, like she’s tasting them. Emily looks up, sees the expanse of skin right underneath Naomi’s jaw, prominent now that she has her head thrown back slightly. Emily swallows before letting her tongue dart out again, the tip of it seeking the feel of a pulse, and Naomi jerks a little, perhaps surprised. Emily links her hands behind Naomi’s neck and pulls her back down for a kiss.
I could go on like this and never stop, Emily thinks; from behind her, Naomi’s fingers are tugging at the hem of her shirt, and instead of simply pulling it off, Naomi holds on with her hands, cupping both sides of Emily’s torso and pushes the shirt up, slowly; Naomi’s palm is warm against Emily’s skin and she’s doing it so painfully slowly that Emily’s practically writhing underneath her hand throughout the effort.
When it’s done and off, Naomi’s heaving and so is she; when they kiss again, their bare torsos coming together skin to skin, Naomi’s mouth is warmer and wetter than Emily ever remembers.
Somewhere along the way, of course Emily’s bound to remember certain things – like who she is, who she’s been for the past decade or so; or who Naomi is, for that matter, and how she’s actually married. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take too long for the suspended belief to wear off, but then the fact that it has started to does not dull the pleasure at all.
Of course, Emily knows – at the back of her mind, she’s thinking about David, and how this is not supposed to be happening; how Naomi’s supposed to be her client and that this is entirely unprofessional, all things taken into consideration – but then again.
But then, right there in her own living room, Emily’s kneeling on the floor whereas Naomi’s almost horizontal on the sofa, legs hanging off the edge, and Emily’s tugging at Naomi’s pants blindly; they’re almost three-quarters of the way off and Naomi’s kissing her, one hand on Emily’s cheek, while the other’s helping Emily’s hand along, similarly blind. Emily’s positive her lips are already swollen from never having stopped since they began earlier in the morning, and really, it’s all right.
It’s all right for as long as the moment lasts. Emily comes up for air and Naomi opens her eyes, her body arching off the sofa just in time for Emily to pull her pants from underneath; the move is the smoothest one thus far, and Emily bends down to plant a kiss upon the lining of Naomi’s knickers on her belly, murmuring, “I missed you.”
Naomi’s pants are on the floor, pooled around her ankles; she’s looking at Emily like she’s about to cry, and Emily nearly calls the whole thing off, her heart in her chest suddenly halting. The look on Naomi’s face – it’s just sad, as if she’s just had her heart broken, but then as the thought ghosts over Emily’s face, it’s as if Naomi catches it immediately, so she shakes her head, and pulls Emily back in for another kiss.
“All these fucking years,” Naomi whispers against Emily’s mouth, stroking at her cheek with a finger.
Emily falters a little, her breathing shallow, rushed. “We don’t have to—”
“Are you kidding?” Naomi asks back; she’s trying humor to go with her trembling. She’s shaking with need, and it’s starting to terrify Emily, now that it has come to this; now that it’s looking like there’s no getting out of here without something drastic having happened. “That’s not a fucking option, is it, really.”
Outside the wind picks up; somewhere, a window’s still open and Emily inches closer to keep warm. “No it’s not,” says Emily, licking at her lips. “But—just say something and—”
“Fuck it, not like I need a safe word for this, do I?” Naomi cuts in; her smirk’s back on, and it’s always a good sign. “Emily.”
Naomi’s eyes flutter closed as Emily drags her hand carefully from the edge of Naomi’s hip toward the center of her stomach, rubbing above where her knickers end. When Emily drops her hand lower, Naomi jerks her hips up again and Emily puts her other hand on Naomi’s belly, as if to steady her.
Emily’s going about it like she’s never done it before; like she’s never going to be able to do it again. She runs her hands over Naomi’s thighs like worship, and it just blows her mind entirely, how this severe amount of want could exist anywhere.
“Emily, Jesus – just.” Naomi struggles to open her legs wider, and Emily reaches down to guide one of her feet out of a pants leg for her comfort. When Naomi shifts, the scent of her nearly overwhelms Emily that she almost leans closer for a taste; stops herself and grips the edge of the sofa instead until the wanting ebbs away, however slight.
When Naomi calls out her name again – her voice strained, desire coating the word thickly – there is little else Emily can do to resist and before she can help herself, she’s pushing Naomi’s knickers aside and thinking, Just this once, unable to stifle a gasp when she finds the space wet. “Christ, you’re—”
“What did you expect?”
When Emily catches her eye, the blue in there has taken on a more intense hue, and Emily thinks perhaps it’s this hunger that’s shading it in; when she moves up to kiss her, Naomi shifts again and just like that, she’s fucking her.
Just like that, none of the things that used to matter seem to figure as importantly; the considerations, the worries, the apprehensions – gone, as if the wind from the outside had burst in to carry all of them right back out, never to be seen again, or at the very least, for the entire afternoon.
Right in that moment, all that matters is finding the right rhythm; right here on a rainy morning in Emily’s living room, Emily is pulling Naomi from the sofa to the floor, and they fall together there as a mess of limbs and naked things, their clothing haphazardly thrown about in piles all around them, none of them too far away; right here Emily’s rediscovering a time when all their movements were perfectly attuned; so perfect that something can begin in Emily and end in Naomi, with neither of them saying a word nor making a sound.
Chapter 14: heart skipped a beat
14. heart skipped a beat
The second time Emily wakes that day, it’s already mid-afternoon; outside it has stopped raining, and the sun’s flooding the room warmly now. She’s naked on the floor with a blanket wrapped around her and Naomi’s no longer there.
Fuck. Emily sits up, sheet wrapped around her – Naomi must have taken it from the bedroom right before she left, and again something starts aching somewhere, and Emily knows it’s not just from the exertion of the past few hours. She runs a hand into her hair, tugs a little as she gets to her feet, fumbling slightly. Her limbs are sore; it would have been the good kind, had Naomi stayed.
On the table, the can of beer has remained untouched but the bottle of water has been opened and halved; Naomi must have been thirsty, Emily just thinks, picking it up along with the makeshift coaster beneath. It’s from Architectural Digest, and already it is stiff from the moisture it must have absorbed overnight. Emily takes a swig from the bottle first before throwing it into the trash bin in the kitchen, then she walks over to the fridge to return the unopened can of beer.
When she gets to her mobile, she has three unread messages and all of them are from Naomi. Emily takes a moment to pause and breathe; asks herself if she’s ready to read the slew of apologies that could be headed her way. She fiddles with the keys briefly before deciding against it altogether, tossing her mobile back onto the bed and heading out.
Perhaps a walk should be good, she tells herself. Perhaps all she needs is a moment to clear the noise in her head in a place other than this flat, because right now the air around her is still heavy with hints of Naomi and it’s all just maddening; not to mention that Emily still feels Naomi on her hands; still tastes her in her mouth, after all this time.
Emily picks up her keys and a fresh bottle of water from the fridge on the way out; she takes the elevator to avoid the stairs.
Fuck it. On the street she turns the other way, away from the direction of the Japanese restaurant – just in case. The ground’s almost completely dry despite the morning rain, but she keeps her head down and her eyes open for stray puddles.
What did she expect, really? Emily asks herself, slipping a cigarette out of a pocket. Certainly, Naomi’s done this before, running – and Emily’s not even that surprised that she’s done it again; disappointed to a degree, but not surprised. She isn’t even that disappointed in Naomi per se -- or at least, not as much as she is disappointed with herself.
She hangs back at the intersection, waiting for the light; she puts the cigarette back and opens the bottle in her hand instead, suddenly remembering that it’s there. She takes a swig from it before crossing the street as the light turns green. She isn’t even sure where she’s going; the first feasible thing she sees is a small book store, and she heads into it absently. The door opens with a slight creak and the tinkling of a bell.
The place is quaint and warm, the way rooms full of books are wont to be. Emily heads to the magazine section, where she flips through a pile looking for back issues of design magazines she could have missed.
Of course, these days, whenever Emily thinks about work the immediate succeeding thought is “Naomi’s three-bedroom” and again Emily is seized by sensations from a few hours prior. The recollection makes her hand tremble; she hurriedly puts the magazine back into the pile as she struggles to get out of there. She’s feeling like she’s running out of air as the room seems to contract above her head.
Against better advice, Emily starts asking herself the difficult questions: Has Naomi come to her senses? Does she regret any of it? Is she angry? When Emily steps outside, the sun is warm but the wind is cold; she slips out the cigarette again, now slightly bent, and lights it with one hand cupping the flame.
The questions hurt, but they are valid just the same. At some point Emily even convinces herself that Naomi’s walkout was in fact warranted; that there couldn’t have been any other way it would have gone. Had she woken earlier, perhaps catching Naomi zipping up her pants – would it have ended differently? Would Emily’s hand around Naomi’s wrist have stopped her?
Saying something like, “I know you, and I know that you’re lonely” – would that have worked just the same? Would Naomi have stayed?
Truth is, Emily’s out of practice; she hasn’t done that in a long while -- fight for something. These days, things just end. It’s not like she’s found anything in the years between that was worth the grief of any sort of battle either – not Giselle, not anyone in university, no one.
Come to think of it, even when it ended with Naomi, there was no big fight, no ultimatum or something similarly dramatic. It just ended, slipped away, as if it were the most natural thing.
Truth is, Emily has never had to put up a fight for anything – or at least, not since the last time she remembers having to, and that was several years ago and they were young, horribly so; just like that, a horde of memories come up and she remembers how it all began: she hears the crackling of leaves in her head again, the creak of Naomi’s bicycle; feels again the cold that wrapped around her, the soreness in her throat, that morning after.
And in all, it was a rather good fight – Emily has to close her eyes as the quick succession of things come crashing back to her like a pile of blades: lockers, Cyprus, freezing lake waters, her wobbly knees on the pedals; the uncertainty that weighed down the air that night; Naomi’s cold hands cupping her face.
Christ. Emily walks on, turning at the corner; a couple more and she’s rounding the block completely, and she’s about to end right where she began. Night is falling and she’s thinking about dinner; tries not to think about Naomi next. Maybe I should call Katie, she tells herself instead, but then when she digs into her pocket, there’s nothing there but keys.
She breathes in, remembering where exactly she’d thrown her phone. To some degree, she’s thankful that at least they didn’t get that far; that at least, they haven’t touched the bed. Never mind all the other places, Emily thinks. Never mind this body; never mind hers.
Emily pauses at the corner to take the last drag; looking ahead, she sees the entrance to their building, now with the lights on as it is already dark. She drops the cigarette, crushes it under her shoe; walking with both hands in her pockets, she’s asking herself how it’s gotten so hard to remember that Naomi’s married, for fuck’s sake.
When she gets to her phone upon getting home, there are two more unread messages and two missed calls – all still Naomi’s, and somewhere, Emily feels a little guilty for this evasion. She does not know what Naomi wants, or at least not yet, but only because she’s waiting to be ready for whatever it must take. She perches upon the corner of the bed, cradling her phone in one hand, her head in the other.
Fuck, what to do now, she asks herself. She stares at her phone a moment longer before deciding to open the latest message. As expected, Naomi’s apologizing in it; nothing comes after the word ‘sorry’ and Emily feels a sharp, stabbing pain right where she expected there would be, though she finds out soon enough how wrong she was about waiting because the waiting did nothing to dull the pain at all.
The rest of the messages are easier to digest: in a couple of them, Naomi’s asking if they can talk sometime, and the first ones were asking how Emily is. She re-reads each of them twice before deleting them; at the end of it, Emily even finds herself laughing because Naomi really fucking likes communicating now, and nothing just says it better than that, how they’re really not the people they were and that they’ve really come a long way from who they had been once.
And just like that, Emily’s feels all the more lost, a lot like a traveler moving around without a map.
After a while, Emily dials Katie’s number; it rings twice, as expected, before she picks up.
Emily breathes in before saying, “Hi, Katie.” And then, “How are you?”
Katie seems to hear right through it anyhow, and on the other end, there’s almost a restrained worried groan. “Em,” she sighs. “I’m fine; are you?”
“Any chance you’d be available for dinner?” asks Emily instead, avoiding the question altogether.
Katie pauses before, “Well, we can have drinks in a couple of hours; I mean, if you can last that long.”
“What do you mean, if I can last that long?”
“I meant, without repeating this stupid thing you’ve done that you’re looking to tell me about,” Katie just says flatly, and Emily is too stunned to have words to reply with; sometimes, Katie has these moments of being so utterly correct and precise to the point of being fucking creepy. “Em, your evasion techniques are horrible. Again: Can you, or do I have to ask you to come over and wait in my office for a while?”
“Christ,” Emily sighs, falling back into her bed; after a moment of thinking, she finally agrees. “Fine, I’ll drive over in a few.”
“Good girl,” Katie just says before hanging up.
Emily catches Katie outside the station, blowing into her steaming cup of coffee, a cigarette in her other hand. “Slow day?” Emily greets as she approaches, kissing Katie on the cheek.
Katie sighs, taking a drag. “Not really,” she says, exhaling smoke to the side. “Just that it started a bit early.”
Emily just says, “Ah.” She moves in closer, smoothes Katie’s tie a little, out of habit; runs a finger over the word “Fitch” just above Katie’s breast pocket. “How are you?” she asks, fiddling with Katie’s pen tucked there, and Katie snickers a little before sipping from the cup. “What?” Emily asks again, pulling her hand back to herself.
“You’re a bit… jumpy. Nervous, aren’t you?” Katie says, and Emily looks up just in time to see that eye roll.
“I am not,” she says back, managing a laugh even. Off Katie’s raised brow, she appends, “Okay, I am so fucked. I really am.”
Katie offers her half-done fag to Emily; the look on Katie’s face shifts from smug to worried, slowly. “Christ,” she just says, watching as Emily takes a drag off the cigarette. “Sometimes I wish I was wrong about these things.”
“We slept together, you know,” Emily says finally, looking away, yet she knows Katie too well that she almost sees her face react anyway. “I fucking ran into her in a restaurant, and it was nice, we were actually talking about colors, yeah, for her place? But then all she has to do is drop a word like ‘green’ and then all of a sudden we’re kissing in the bathroom.”
The look on Katie’s face is priceless when Emily shifts her head back to face her. “What in the fucking world?” she just says slowly, as if emphasizing each word. “Tell me you didn’t fuck her in that bathroom, I can’t even--”
“I didn’t fuck her in the bathroom, Christ.”
“Or in her flat – I fucking warned you—”
“It was my place, yeah?” Emily interrupts. She catches the brief look of disbelief on Katie’s eyes before shifting back down to stare at the pavement beneath their shoes. “It was the Japanese place nearby, and she walked me to my apartment, and I don’t know – I asked her if she wanted to come up for a drink, and then. Yeah.”
There’s a long pause before Katie says, “Clearly, you saw a thing like that coming.” Emily looks up, breathes in through her nose, a long steady inhale; the sky is dark, and she hears something rustling as Katie retrieves her cigarette pack from a pocket. She’s pulling two sticks out as Emily watches. She hands one to Emily, lighting Emily’s first before her own. Exhaling, Katie asks again, “Didn’t you, Em? You knew, right?”
After a while, Emily finds herself nodding. “I missed kissing her, you know.” Something in her chest tightens as she says it out loud; it’s so true, it hurts.
“But she’s fucking married, Em,” Katie says, not unkindly. She’s looking at her so softly and it only adds a little more to the pain. “Don’t think I’m saying this because I think I still have to remind you, yeah? Just that at this point, I think it should be brought up.”
“I know that, Kay,” Emily nods, taking a drag. “I woke on the floor with a fucking sheet around me; she didn’t stay around, just so you know.”
“Classic Naomi, apparently,” says Katie, smirking, and Emily is unable to resist smiling right back.
“She wants to talk about it though. I went for a walk without my mobile, and when I got back, she’d left messages.”
“And have you returned any of them?”
Emily worries her cigarette for a long wordless while; Katie does the same. Of course there’s a lot to talk about; there’s the flat, and David, and what must be done so that a thing like that never happens again – and none of them appeal that much to Emily, at all.
“I don’t trust myself around her,” says Emily quietly. “I mean, not at the moment. Not any time soon.”
Katie takes a long deep drag before patting Emily on the cheek. “Oh fucking hell, Emily,” she just says. “What in the fucking world have you gotten yourself into?”
Emily shifts her eyes, focuses on something over Katie’s shoulder, instead of that look Katie’s giving her; it’s the only way to keep herself from crying and falling apart completely. “I’m starving; have you got anything in your office?” she asks instead, shaky voice and all; Katie just laughs, wrapping her inside a one-armed hug and leading her back into the station.
When Katie gets back from the pantry, she’s carrying a glass container holding what looks like fettuccini with white sauce. Emily looks up from the folder she’s browsing, jaw hanging in mild surprise. “Oh, home cooked meals?”
Katie rolls her eyes as she lowers the pasta onto her table before fishing the folder out of Emily’s hands. “What did I tell you about not touching anything?” she just says, tsk-tsking softly. And then, “You’d be surprised at how adept I now am in the kitchen.”
Emily laughs a little as she leans closer to the table; to Katie’s credit, the pasta does smell good, and somewhere inside of Emily a certain feeling of pride begins blossoming, somewhat. For Emily, it’s not that she thinks Katie can’t; it’s that Katie actually does make an effort to do something like it that surprises Emily the most.
Katie perches herself upon the corner of her table before attacking the pasta with a fork, methodically twirling the fettuccini around it before taking a bite. “Come on babe, it’s edible,” she just says, grinning as she gestures with her other hand.
It reminds Emily fondly of dinners they once shared in their flat; she sighs before taking a bite herself. “Where’d you learn this?”
Katie shrugs. “TV. Magazines. Recipes online, whatever.” And then, “Sometimes I get sick of takeaways too, you know.”
“You should come over sometime,” says Emily, swallowing. “You know you can, right? Call me or whatever, I’ll think of something to cook.”
“Maybe I should, more often,” Katie says. “Keep a better eye on you, too, you know.”
Realizing what Katie has just said, Emily sighs, lowering her fork off one side. “Katie.”
Katie pauses to chew and swallow. “Em, I know, yeah?” she says, gesturing absently with her fork before digging back in again. “I know you’re a grown girl or whatever, and I’m fucking over that phase where I want our lives to be identical, I really am, but you know.” Katie sighs, pausing briefly as she runs a hand into her hair; Emily holds her breath. “I’m just saying it’s been a while since I’ve had to worry this much about you, you hear?”
That Katie’s giving her this much leeway despite obviously being horribly worried makes Emily want to smile despite the terrible aching in her chest; she puts a hand lightly upon Katie’s thigh before saying, “I’ll be okay.” And then, “We’ll get this sorted soon. I promise.”
“I hope you’re right,” Katie just says, a hand over Emily’s, warmly. “I really, really do.”
They end up catching a round of drinks at a nearby bar; Katie tries to teach her a thing or two about darts that she’s picked up from her workmates before giving up on Emily altogether, as the possibility of hurting innocent by-standers or peeling the paint off an entire wall looms larger.
“Thanks for putting up with me tonight,” says Emily, as they’re walking out of the bar later that night. She’s not drunk, and neither is Katie, but then at the end of it, they call it a night once they both feel like they’ve had more than enough anyhow.
“Thanks for paying,” Katie just says back. The night is pleasantly warm; Emily shoves a hand into a pocket and retrieves her pack of fags, by then already horribly crumpled. Katie reaches over with a lighter and Emily leans in closer to the fire, trying her best to ignite a rather pitiful looking cigarette. “You’re going straight home, you hear?”
Emily nods. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, but only half-heartedly. Katie looks at her like she knows she’s lying, but she moves in and hugs Emily anyway, rubbing Emily’s back vigorously with an open hand; the gesture’s so comforting that Emily almost remembers how she hasn’t really cried any.
“Be careful,” Katie says, punctuating the embrace with two firm pats against Emily’s back. “And be good.”
When she pushes herself off Katie, the cold air that passes between them makes Emily shiver; Emily takes a drag off her cigarette, looks away as she exhales. “I’ll try,” she just says, flicking away the ashes off the tip of her fag.
Chapter 15: sunday best
15. sunday best
The fact that she’s done it all before doesn’t make it any easier, but that’s what Naomi tells herself anyway, that afternoon after: that there isn’t anything new in this; that it’s supposed to be familiar, and familiarity’s supposed to make all this at the very least manageable.
The thought does get her out of there, but only barely; Naomi finds herself shaking as she tries to carefully slip away, and she trembles so hard that she almost wakes Emily. The floor below is cold, but all the other parts of Naomi, the ones pressed against Emily – they’re as good as burnt, and the heat of Emily’s skin makes the parting all the more difficult.
But then Naomi peels herself off the floor slowly anyway; scans the area for her clothes. She picks her pants off the back of the sofa and pulls them on, careful not to make a sound. On the floor, Emily shifts and Naomi freezes; she does not move until Emily’s breathing evens out again. She eyes the floor with a slight shiver, worrying a little about the discomfort Emily would face upon waking.
It’s the least she can do, Naomi tells herself, walking into Emily’s room and looking for a blanket. She pauses by the door briefly to take all of it in – Emily’s bed, the books on her bedside table, the small bottles lining her dresser. Her sheets are a warm sort of orange and Naomi bites her lip; the room smells like Emily, and Naomi has to remind herself extra sternly that she really can’t stay any longer.
Naomi pulls the sheet off the bed and carefully lays it over Emily’s sleeping figure, unfurling it upon her like a picnic mat. Emily is curled into herself right there on the living room floor beside the sofa, and Naomi has always liked this Emily best; the one that’s most vulnerable, the one that’s fragile. Truth be told, Naomi never thought she’d come around to doing anything of this sort again – leaving Emily in her sleep. Or at least, not after she has had the pleasure of waking up next to her, countless times before.
Before – when they were younger. Before – when they were still together. Before – when Naomi was still unmarried.
Christ. Naomi tugs at the hem of her top before reaching for the bottle of water on the table. This was supposed to be just a drink, she reminds herself, remembering Emily’s invitation as she unscrews the cap off before taking a couple of swigs. On the floor, Emily shifts to her other side and faces the sofa, clutching the sheet closer around her.
The movement pulls the sheet a bit, and when Emily stretches her leg gets exposed; Naomi tries not to stare, but she sees how she has left marks all along, tiny scratches upon Emily’s pale skin. The sight of them makes Naomi blush; the familiar want coursing through her again, ticklish.
Shit. This is supposed to be easy, as she’s done this before – slept with someone else other than her husband – and really, this isn’t the first time she’d woken naked on somebody’s floor, or the first time she had to sneak out of somebody else’s flat in the middle of the day, either.
This isn’t the first time – there have been other men, other women; there have been many other cities and many other infidelities, but the guilt in this – it’s incomparable. Not even that time with Ingrid in Bonn – while Naomi was on a fucking honeymoon, for fuck’s sake – not even the guilt from there quite measured up to this.
Deep in her gut, Naomi knows why – this is Emily and not just any other girl; this is home and not just any other city. That’s all the difference there is, and the realization’s enough to push Naomi out of that room, her steps quick and quiet.
She’s already on the street when the thought hits her: as it turns out, after all this time, when it comes to a decision like this it’s still flee, as it has always been. Naomi retraces her steps and finds herself right in front of the Japanese restaurant where she caught Emily the night before, and really, she can’t place it, this thing that’s twisting inside her – is it regret? Is it disappointment? Is it fear? And for what – for sleeping with her? For not staying until she wakes?
For having lost control?
Fucking hell. Naomi rubs at her face to keep from crying right on the street, only to let out a small, soft sob when she digs into her pockets and finds that she’s out of fags; nothing makes her feel so helpless and unarmed; so raw, so small.
And so, there she is, on the street and wanting – the comfort of something she’s had before and lost; or at the very least, a lit fag for her frayed nerves. All these years she’s learned about settling, wanting to prove to herself that she can be someone who can keep some good things going and David’s this really good thing, and it hasn’t been that difficult at all, jet lag and affairs notwithstanding.
It’s been good. But that was before this, and Naomi knows when she has a problem, she really does.
When she gets home, the first thing that crosses Naomi’s mind as she closes the door is how Emily must be awake by now. Sighing, she heads into the kitchen and opens the drawer containing her stash of fags; lights one right there as she paces, pulling her mobile out of a pocket.
Surely, she should send a message – just to check, Naomi thinks, before smacking herself in the forehead with her cigarette-holding hand; the ashes scatter before her face and she turns away to avoid getting them in her eyes. Clearly, if she had wanted to be polite, she should have stayed, but then.
But then, after much internal haggling, she sends a harmless, “How are you?” – twice. It’s stupid, Naomi knows, but it’s not like she can take it back. She follows it up with, “We should talk” and “I’m really sorry” and really, she doesn’t even have to be told: She’s still shitty at this communication thing when it really matters, and hours later, there’s still no response so Naomi goes on ahead and dials Emily’s number.
The first time around, Naomi hangs up after the third ring. Whatever would she say, should Emily pick up? The truth in her head sounds like, Nothing, I just missed your voice and I’d love to do that again - so maybe the truth isn’t a very good option at all, this time. She drops her mobile back into her pocket and flicks the ashes off her fag right on the sink before scrounging around for a makeshift ashtray.
Halfway through her third cigarette, she tries again; she’s practicing a single line in her head as she listens to the steady ringing: I know you probably don’t want to talk to me now, but maybe, someday soon? She repeats it in her head until the ringing stops and she’s redirected to Emily’s voicemail.
Of course she doesn’t leave a message; she gives it up for the meantime and focuses on cleaning her sink instead.
It’s not even seven in the evening when Naomi finishes around the house – not only has she wiped the kitchen counter clean, she has also folded the laundry and washed the dishes as well. She’s out of fags when she heads into the living room, looking to read a magazine, and that’s when Ingrid’s card falls out on the table from between the pages, somewhere.
Ingrid. Naomi turns the card over and finds Ingrid’s rushed handwriting; she’s written her mobile number down, and signed it with her standard haphazard signature, dotting her “I” with a small, all-too-edgy heart.
Naomi calls without sending a message first. Ingrid answers with an icy, “Hello,” and Naomi smiles, breathes in before introducing herself.
“Well, this is a surprise,” Ingrid says, warmer now. “Or have you got a pool now?”
Naomi laughs. “No, this isn’t – I’m not calling for business.”
There’s a slight pause on the other end before Ingrid asks, “So what is this for then?” The shift in her tone – from warm to velvety – is too obvious for Naomi to ignore.
“Oh Ingrid,” she just says. “Not that either.”
Ingrid laughs, low and throaty; Naomi finds herself swallowing hard. Really? Not that? Naomi asks herself again, because she knows for a fact that women like Ingrid only get better with age; but then again, maybe she just needs to get distracted. Besides, it’s better than nothing.
“I missed you, Campbell,” says Ingrid smoothly. Naomi remembers the Ingrid from the party a few days back – how she walked like she’s gliding, and talked to people as if she were in love with them. Admittedly, it’s a far cry from the girl Naomi met in university and a lot closer to the woman she fucked in Bonn; if anything, it’s as if Ingrid had chosen a version of her to stick with and chose that – the kind of girl who seduced her ex-girlfriends during their honeymoons while their new husbands weren’t looking.
And surprisingly Naomi’s not afraid to be around her. Whereas with Emily –
Oh, fuck it. “Listen,” Naomi says, clearing her throat. “I’m going out for a drink. You can join me if you wish.”
“If I wish?” Ingrid says back, though not unkindly. She laughs a little, still that small velvety sound. “You were the one who called me, babe.”
“Fine,” Naomi sighs, before dropping the name of the first bar that comes to her mind. “I didn’t want to impose—”
“All you have to do is ask.”
“I am asking.”
There’s a longish pause before Ingrid relents with a soft, “There, that wasn’t too hard, was it?” And then, “Strange, how it seems like you’ve changed, but then you really haven’t; have you?”
Naomi laughs softly one last time before hanging up. When she goes into her room, she doesn’t bother too long with her clothes.
Thankfully, Ingrid arrives in similarly casual clothes; she has no make-up on, and she looks so much younger than she did at the launch with her hair down and those jeans.
Naomi’s seated at the bar, a fresh glass of vodka in front of her. Ingrid spots her immediately, smile growing wider as she comes closer, leaning in to kiss Naomi on the cheek in greeting.
“Glad you could make it,” Naomi says, smiling back. “Can I get you anything?” When Ingrid leans closer to look at the drink in Naomi’s hand, she just says, “It’s vodka. As usual.”
“Still the same one after all these years, then?” Ingrid says, quirking her brow. When Naomi catches her eye, there’s that playful look there, and it’s surprising, how after all these years Ingrid still seems to know how to read her.
“Yes it is,” Naomi just says, taking a sip. “How about you, what are you into these days?”
“Are we still talking about alcohol?”
“Were we ever?”
Ingrid opens her mouth to say something before closing it again, as if losing the thought along the way. “Still as quick, aren’t we, Campbell,” she just says, smiling as she puts a hand over Naomi’s on the table. Naomi doesn’t move away; only watches as Ingrid shifts slightly to motion to the bartender for her drink. Naomi overhears her ordering rum and coke.
“Still the same after all those years, then?” Naomi mimics, and just like that they fall into easy laughter; Ingrid’s is loud and open and Naomi feels herself relax, even when Ingrid touches her every now and then – a finger stroking the back of Naomi’s hand, a warm palm curving upon Naomi’s thigh.
Of course, Ingrid’s flirting with her, Naomi knows as much, but then when isn’t she? Ingrid flirts with anything that reacts, and Naomi understands how Ingrid may be attracted to the somewhat new Naomi before her, seasoned with the additional years in between. Ingrid has always liked history, and she’s always been fond of Naomi’s.
“So how’s… what’s his name again? David?” Ingrid begins, tracing the rim of her glass with a fingertip.
Naomi rolls her eyes, shrugs. “The last time he called, I think he was in India.”
“It was days ago,” Naomi just says, finishing her drink with a slight hiss; she orders another one when the bartender comes to collect her glass.
Ingrid gives her a strange look, her eyes narrowing. “You mean to say this is how it’s been since – you know. How many years has it been since Bonn?”
The bartender comes around with another glass of vodka. “Christ, you’re always bringing up Bonn,” Naomi says, smiling as she takes a sip. “Besides, do you really want to talk about David?”
Ingrid smiles wider, touching her nape briefly. “Well, I was about to get to the interesting point, actually.”
“Does he know about the girl you were with at my launch?” Naomi feels a chill at the words, yet from her shoulders upward, she’s fairly certain there’s a blush creeping across her face; her ears feel hot. “For the record,” Ingrid continues. “I’ve always thought Bonn was a mistake.”
Naomi gulps down the rest of her drink, wipes at her lips with the back of a hand. “For the record, I think what we did in Bonn was a mistake.”
“Or was it?” says Ingrid back immediately. Naomi has never known a woman so confident; at the very least, there hasn’t been anybody quite as confident as Ingrid, someone who’s so sure about herself that she actually manages to throw Naomi off a little. “Come on, Naomi. We both know – had it been the right thing to do, marrying David, you wouldn’t have –”
“Does it matter, really?” Naomi cuts in. Her face must be flushed as she’s feeling a bit too warm; perhaps the speed with which she’d downed her previous glass is to blame. “It’s working.”
“How often do you even see him?”
“We used to travel together – why are you so interested, anyway?”
“You just baffle me sometimes, Naomi,” Ingrid says. “That girl, Emily – she’s trouble, isn’t she?”
Trouble. Here’s a girl she hasn’t seen in years, and even she can tell. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” Naomi just sighs, rubbing at her forehead with two fingers.
After a while, Ingrid says, “You’re so – transparent. Like clean water.” Her tone has shifted into something rather soft and fond; Ingrid is stroking the skin above Naomi’s wrist on the table all the while. “I can tell – it’s Emily you want to talk about, isn’t it?”
“Emily’s an ex-girlfriend,” Naomi just says. “The first one, actually.”
“Figured as much,” says Ingrid and Naomi says nothing for a while. After a moment’s thought, Ingrid continues with, “There’s always that girl you come back to, no?” And then, “The girl everybody else after has to measure up to; Christ, the rest of us didn’t really have a chance, did we ever?” The way the smile plays out on Ingrid’s lips is too strained, too thin to be thoroughly meant.
“Come now,” Naomi says, reaching over and holding Ingrid’s hand. “Don’t be that way.”
Ingrid looks away. “If you’re here to ask for advice – something you probably shouldn’t be taking from me, but what the hell – if something has been keeping you up for more than three days straight, then it’s probably a cause for concern.”
Naomi breathes in deep. “I slept with her this morning.”
The look on Ingrid’s face is so priceless – the way it shifts from serious to surprised is almost comical that Naomi has to look away to keep from laughing and disrupting the moment. “Well,” Ingrid says, breathing out. “That is a cause for concern, isn’t it?”
A cause for concern. Ingrid sure has a way with these understatements. They share a brief look before breaking out into uncontrollable laughter – something that’s so open it actually hurts Naomi’s chest, and somewhere along the way, Ingrid has to pause to catch her breath.
When the laughing subsides, it’s Naomi who speaks first. “I wish I’d just built a pool,” she says, heaving. “If I had, this would have been a simpler conversation.”
Ingrid catches her breath some more, rubbing at her chest with an open hand. “You’re in trouble, Campbell. You really are.”
For the rest of the night, they don’t mention David or Emily again. Instead, Ingrid tells Naomi about designing pools and landscaping gardens, while Naomi tells Ingrid about the recent changes in her workplace.
“So, is my launch coming out in next month’s issue?” asks Ingrid lightly. They’ve both shifted to soda by now, remembering that the following day’s a work day.
Naomi shakes her head. “We closed the issue the next day; there’s always the month after,” she just says, off the mock pout on Ingrid’s face. “First thing in, I promise.”
“Did you ever know how heartbroken I was when you got married?” Ingrid asks, moving closer and looking at Naomi levelly. “The damage was indescribable.”
Naomi does not want to believe it, of course; she disguises her surprise with feigned nonchalance. “Oh come on, that can’t be true.”
“Ah but it is,” Ingrid just says. At that she pushes herself away slightly. “Do you remember the morning after?”
“In Bonn?” Naomi asks back. “But there wasn’t – I didn’t stay until – I left immediately after. David was waiting—”
“Precisely,” cuts Ingrid. “The bed was half-empty when I woke – I didn’t expect to be jarred, but I was.”
“I’m so so sorry…”
“That time, perhaps it was worth it? To choose him over me, I meant. And that’s okay,” Ingrid says, patting Naomi’s hand down, seeing that she’s about to object again. “But this one, Emily – I’m not so sure. I saw how you looked at her.”
“And how was that?” Naomi asks back, staring into her drink, her glass almost empty.
“Let’s just say, once upon a time I was so in love with you and it was a time when I wished you’d look at me that way.”
Naomi bites her lip at that; really, how could she have been so blind? How could she have missed all this, mistaking instead the fire in Ingrid’s eyes as fueled by their regular fights and seemingly irreconcilable conflicts? “Ingrid, I—”
“Oh, I’ve long made my peace with all that, hon,” Ingrid says, waving a hand as if waving the issue away, just like that. “For what it’s worth – if you can’t give what it takes, then don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to.”
It makes more sense than all the other things Naomi can ever think of telling herself, and Naomi’s never been more thankful that Ingrid’s card fell out when it did.
By midnight, they’re saying their goodbyes; Ingrid kisses her once, briefly, on the lips.
“Be happy,” Ingrid just tells Naomi, hands cupping Naomi’s cheeks. “Because that’s what matters.”
Naomi just nods, tries not to cry at the sincerity of it; the utter joy of having circles like this close rather favorably welling up in her chest.
On the way home, Naomi calls Emily, who finally picks up after the second ring.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk right now,” Naomi begins, following her self-imposed script. “But maybe someday soon?”
On the other end, she can hear Emily breathing heavily. “Do you still want me on this?” Emily asks, clearing her throat. “I mean, this redesign; I can always ask someone else—”
“Em,” Naomi cuts in softly. “I want you, okay?”
There’s a long silence in between as Emily considers her response. After a while, she settles for, “You’re bad news, Naomi.”
“Just – keep me, okay?” Naomi says. “Keep the project. Let’s… see this through.”
Emily breathes in audibly before saying, “I don’t – you’re married, Nae.”
“That’s my problem, innit?” Naomi replies. She holds her breath for Emily’s response; keeps herself afloat by thinking of Ingrid and how she’s telling her to be happy; how she sounded like she sincerely believed that it matters.
And then, Emily says, “You know what? Okay.”
“Okay,” Emily says again, and Naomi breathes out slowly, letting it go inch by inch. “Let’s do this… thing. Your house.”
Finally, Naomi manages to smile, the wreckage of her nerves notwithstanding. “Can I come choose from swatches soon?” she asks, almost too shyly.
And all Emily says is “Yes.” Naomi has never been so desperate to hear such a short word before.
Chapter 16: undertow
Eight in the evening and still no Naomi. She’s four hours late for the swatches, and there’s no message on Emily’s mobile, not even a missed call – nothing.
Maybe she won’t show, Emily thinks, fixing her things. Maybe it’s too soon.
There’s a soft knock on the door; it’s Joey apologizing for not being able to stay longer. “I have to catch someone,” she says sheepishly, peeking in while hanging on to the edge of the door with a hand. “Are you leaving? I could wait a bit—”
“Joey,” Emily sighs, smiling tiredly. “Go have a life, I’ll be fine. I’m just—”
“Waiting. Some more,” says Joey, smiling back good-naturedly. “Look, I don’t know what exactly is going on, but whatever it is and if you ever want to talk – you know how the rest of it goes.”
“Yeah,” Emily just says. She’s studying her file of swatches before closing it and putting it away. “Go, I’ll lock up after myself. Just… need a bit of quiet.”
Joey takes a moment just standing there, half-hidden by the door. After a bit, she nods and says, “Okay then, I’ll see you in the morning,” before shutting the door slowly.
There’s a soft click followed by the slight dimming of lights. Emily contemplates a little about dinner, only to decide against it, finding that she’s strangely not hungry. Whose idea was this swatch meeting anyway, she asks herself, twirling a pen in one hand. Why did I even agree?
She’s spent the past few hours flipping through the same pages, thumbing through the same photographs of old projects, putting the same patterns and colors side by side, but really Emily knows how it’s all just distraction; in her head, she’s going, ecru and soft pink, because it feels light, like when I’m holding you.
Everything flows into one singular thing; all day she’s tried to block it, but every now and then it just hits her anyway and in that millisecond she feels all too warm, remembering the way Naomi felt against her the other night. Emily shuts her eyes, rubs at her temple with the pad of a fingertip. Christ, she thinks, breathing in deep, as if the oxygen’s enough to nudge the feeling out of her chest; of course it isn’t, but then it’s all she can do.
A knock on the door jolts Emily; automatically, she calls out, “Did you forget something?” thinking that it’s Joey on the other side.
“Technically, no.” Emily looks up as Naomi steps into the office carefully; Naomi has her eyes on the floor, and Emily tries to listen in closer for her own heartbeat, as if to ascertain that it hasn’t stopped just yet. “I ran into Joey in the lobby. She said you were still here.”
Emily clears her throat, unsure if she can even speak; Naomi’s presence in the room is doing all these simultaneous things – a tingly-ticklish feeling on her skin, an all-too-painful thumping in her chest, and a heavy tight knot at the bottom of her stomach all at once – yet all Emily can think about in spite of these feelings is how she just wants Naomi to come closer.
“Yeah,” Emily manages finally, her voice coming out hoarse, like she’d just been crying. “I was about to - I was just fixing my things.”
“I’m sorry,” Naomi says, taking a few steps toward Emily’s desk. “Something held me up at work; I should have left a message.”
“It’s all right,” Emily says as Naomi takes a seat on one of the chairs. “We can do this tomorrow, if you want; you look kind of tired.” Emily finds herself gripping the edge of her seat’s armrest, trying to keep herself from reaching out to touch Naomi’s hand, now casually set upon the table’s edge near her.
“Fucking meetings,” Naomi sighs, smiling as she runs a hand into her hair. Emily bites her lip as the gesture triggers a landslide of sensations from a few nights prior. “Are those-can we look at-I came here for the colors,” Naomi finishes softly; still she has her eye on something else, and not once has she looked openly at Emily at all since entering this room.
When Emily follows Naomi’s line of sight, she finds her staring at the file of swatches that Emily had set aside earlier. “Of course,” she says, pushing the file toward Naomi and moving to the other side, sitting on the empty chair across her. Naomi moves to open it and she is met with washes of blue.
“These are nice,” Naomi says, a smile on her face. Emily tries to look away, but when she does her eyes fall upon Naomi’s slender fingers running down the margin near the edge of the page, and Emily can’t help herself at all; can’t stop the movement from calling all these sorts of feelings back to the surface, feelings that she’s spent the entire Sunday and the greater part of this day trying to keep under control.
“Blues,” Emily just says, staring at where Naomi’s finger has stopped pointing. “Like the sky as reflected by the ocean,” she continues absently. Or the color of your eyes. Naomi curls her finger a bit, lightly scratching at the color’s surface, as if hearing the thought; Emily feels herself inching closer, her vision blurring a little.
“Look at me.” It’s a good while of quiet after and Emily can no longer stand the silence; she finally gathers the strength to speak upon noticing the slightest shake in Naomi’s hand, holding the swatch file open for so long on the same page. “Nae.”
Naomi closes the file with a deep sigh, marking the page she’s on – the only page she’s ever seen actually – with a finger. She shakes her head and closes her eyes, exhaling as she says, “You know I can’t.”
Great, Emily thinks, standing to lean against the edge of her desk, facing the door with her arms crossed. How’s this supposed to work with a client who won’t meet my eye, much less just look at me? She breathes in as she says, “I asked you – I asked if you can do this, yeah? Last night, you said, I had to keep you, this, whatever, despite-”
Emily loses the rest of it when Naomi stands up and moves in to kiss her, pulling at the back of her neck; the movement pushes Naomi’s chair back and the noise of it bumping against Emily’s table fills the room, a dull thud echoing off the room’s walls. Emily’s caught by surprise, but it doesn’t take too long before she relaxes against the feel of Naomi’s palm warm against her cheek; Emily uncrosses her arms and pulls Naomi in closer by the waist.
Naomi rearranges herself, settling between Emily’s parted legs; Emily’s now perched upon the desk with her feet off the ground, and suddenly she feels so horribly small inside Naomi’s hands. Somewhere, there’s the sound of something dropping to the floor, as Naomi pushes and Emily has to move a hand behind her for support, hitting something like a penholder with an elbow in the process . In her mind, Emily sees the penholder shatter, the pens and pencils scattering amidst the fragments, but as her world is reduced to nothing but the softness of Naomi’s lips, she can’t really find it in herself to care; she isn’t even sure if there’s a shattering to begin with, or if it’s the sound of something else entirely.
When Naomi comes up for air, they’re nearly horizontal on the table, and it’s then that Naomi starts laughing softly. “See what you did here?” she murmurs against the skin at the corner of Emily’s lips. “This is what you do to me.”
This: out of control. This: out of my mind. This: incapable of mature clear-minded judgment. Emily smiles back shyly, pushing against Naomi with a hand and propping herself up a little; looks at Naomi quietly, a hand curved against Naomi’s cheek.
“Say something,” Naomi says, after a long wordless while. She’s looking at Emily, hands gripping her by the waist, never once parting from the skin of Emily’s back, now exposed as her top’s been hiked up a bit.
“Something,” says Emily, voice hoarse. “Something like what?”
“Like you’ve done this before,” Naomi just says; she’s smiling and Emily can’t decide on a single feeling that must be behind it. “Haven’t you? Married women, right? You’ve done this before.”
Emily looks at Naomi closer and tries to read through her, wonders if it’s in fact a trick question. What does she want out of this conversation? What does it all mean? “Once,” Emily begins carefully, drawing the word out as slow as possible, as if giving Naomi time to take the question back. “It ended anyway, you know – why does it matter?” Emily asks, and Naomi only breathes in, reaching up with a hand to touch Emily’s hair; it’s so affectionate and unexpected that it nearly undoes Emily completely. “It’s not…” Emily tries keeping it together, feeling around for the precise words. “You’re not just another married woman, you know that.”
“I’m what, then?” Naomi asks softly, fingers still playing with Emily’s hair.
What? Emily asks herself in turn. It should be a completely easy question, with the answer perhaps sounding like you’re a married woman whom I’m working for, because that’s the most sober thing that can be said at this point, but clearly, there are things inside Emily’s chest that have a different answer altogether. “Naomi,” Emily sighs, and Naomi just moves in again, this time for a brief kiss, their lips parting softly, slowly, after. “You are,” she begins, swallowing before trailing off. And then, “I just – I have no words for you. I’m sorry.”
At that, Naomi just kisses her again – and again, and again – a hand tugging at Emily’s top and unbuttoning her pants. Emily breaks the kiss for air upon feeling Naomi’s hand skimming the skin of her stomach and dropping lower, stroking her through the fabric of her slacks, now too warm and damp.
She’s looking into Naomi’s eyes as Naomi slips a hand inside.
“Christ.” Emily hangs on but only barely, a limp arm around Naomi’s shoulder, while her other elbow is against the table, weakly propping her up. Naomi is moving her finger in a quick, deliberate circle and just like that Emily’s arching against Naomi’s hand; she pulls Naomi’s face closer, kissing her full-on, and all Emily can think about is, Fuck breathing, wondering how after all these years Naomi still knows.
Emily comes not too long after Naomi finally enters her, shuddering so violently that she’s sure somewhere there’s bound to be bruises; when she opens her eyes, Naomi’s saying, “Come home with me.”
Of course, Emily says yes, her whole body still thrumming with desire; kisses Naomi again, nods against her mouth fervently. “Yes,” Emily says again, nipping at Naomi’s bottom lip. “Fuck. Yes.”
It’s a feeling of urgency that reminds Emily of running through a row of lockers, right against a wave of students just coming out of their respective exams. In retrospect, they must have been horribly obvious, their hormones radiating off their bodies so visibly it couldn’t have been any clearer, what they had been planning to do next. The memory makes Emily laugh out loud, a little.
“You all right?” Naomi asks. They’re in Naomi’s car and Emily’s holding her hand that’s upon the gearshift.
“I’m fine,” Emily just says, settling into her seat. The air inside the small space they’re in is heavy and charged and Emily can feel it pressing against her skin deliciously.
Naomi gives her a small smile back before facing forward and driving on. The rest of the ride is spent in silence, with the occasional glances caught upon side mirrors.
Emily doesn’t move her hand away throughout.
The first thing that Emily does upon entering Naomi’s flat is look up; as expected, she sees the ceiling chipping in certain points, cracks showing at the very center of the room, right around the light fixture.
“Tell me I don’t have to move out while you’re fixing this,” Naomi says.
Emily shakes her head. “That’s a horrible lie to tell, professionally,” she says, smiling as she slips her phone out to take pictures of the cracks with her mobile, moving carefully around. Naomi follows her closely; when Emily notices, she just says, “So my roof guys have something to go on, you know.”
“Is it that bad?” asks Naomi, worry creasing her brow slightly; there’s little Emily can do to stop herself from reaching over and brushing the crease away with her thumb. Naomi makes a face before laughing.
“It wouldn’t have been different even if you had it done earlier,” Emily continues, laughing lightly along with her. Naomi has stepped in closer, wrapping an arm around Emily’s waist, the tentativeness gone.“They can’t just paint over the cracks, you know? They’d have to come in and take the wood out and replace it with fresh panels and only then can they paint over it anew.”
“Sounds pretty damn complicated,” Naomi says, pulling her closer.
Emily takes a final shot of the ceiling; it goes off with a soft click and a flash. “The ceiling job shouldn’t take more than a day,” she says. “But since we’re repainting the whole place, I don’t think – it could take longer. If ever, the most is a week, give or take. We’ll make sure to minimize the paint fumes – or at least, we could work with something you can live with immediately.” She contemplates shoving her phone back into her pocket, but not before she takes one of Naomi looking right at her, quickly.
The flash takes Naomi by surprise; she flinches and looks away, a light surprised yelp somewhere. “Was that for your roof guys as well?”
Emily considers the photo; it’s blurred, as expected, but she can make out Naomi’s smile underneath, the curve of her lips and the white of her smile; the blue of her eyes standing out amid the swirl of colors around it, just before she moves her face. “No, this one’s for my file,” she says, smiling as she puts It away.
“Right,” Naomi just says. She’s tightening her hold, smiling at Emily like she’s about to kiss her again. There’s a flutter in Emily’s chest that reminds her of being all too young; they haven’t even talked properly about anything, and there’s nothing here that resembles adult decision-making, yet here they are anyway – well over thirty and not any wiser.
Here we go, Emily tells herself, breathing in as Naomi starts pulling at her hand, stepping back toward the kitchen. “I’ll show you around,” says Naomi, her eyes bright.
Emily just says, “Sure,” struggling with the lump in her throat. The way Naomi’s holding onto her throughout – while gesturing toward the kitchen cupboards, or turning random faucets on and off for demonstration, or pushing doors open and pointing to unused shelves and naked beds – it’s like she’s ushering Emily back into her life and saying, Look at what I’ve been up to while you were gone.
Naomi flicks the lights open in one of the rooms, and Emily sees how the walls are lined with shelves filled with magazines. In the middle of the room, there’s a desk with a swivel chair right behind it. It’s too bare to be called Naomi’s home office, but then, the rest of the place has been oddly unadorned – not too many picture frames, except for a couple of them in the living room, atop the television. Emily thinks it’s too plain to be a place holding anyone who’s been traveling and taking pictures.
“I’d like to think of it as my body of work,” Naomi says, leaning against the doorway, a hand on Emily’s back lightly. Emily looks at her briefly as if to ask if she could step in and Naomi nods, gesturing with a hand even. Carefully, Emily walks around, fingertip tracing the edge of the shelves, occasionally reaching out to touch the spines.
“That’s a lot of work,” Emily just says, looking over her shoulder and seeing Naomi still by the doorway, her arms crossed. She’s smiling.
“I’ve had a lot of time,” says Naomi. “I kind of miss it.”
Naomi shrugs, pushing herself off the doorway and moving toward the chair in the middle. It creaks as Naomi seats herself and crosses her legs. “Oh you know. Moving around. Taking photos and talking to people,” she says, sighing. She’s staring into the mid-distance, saying nothing for a while. Emily just looks at her, letting her get lost in her thoughts; thinks, if anybody stopped her from doing her job and, say, appointed her to manage some design company instead of letting her draw and experiment with colors, what would she have done?
“Tell me a story,” Emily says finally, breaking through the silence, perching herself upon the corner of the desk, one foot on the floor. “I haven’t been around that much; what’s out there?”
Naomi leans in closer, lights up completely at the chance. She makes huge gestures with her hands as she tells Emily about backpacking through Cambodia and entering temples in Thailand; about the heat in New Delhi and the beaches in Brazil. “The world’s so big and so small at the same time – I mean, how does anything do that, yeah?” Naomi asks, looking up at Emily, the smile on her face so genuine it makes Emily ache. “In retrospect I think the jet lag and the hassle of sleeping in airports – they’re kind of worth it.”
“I envy you,” Emily just says, stroking Naomi’s face absently. Naomi’s still grinning up at her when Emily leans closer to kiss her briefly, completely taken just by the energy that Naomi has just put into her storytelling.
“You should get out more often,” Naomi says, smiling lazily as their lips part, a hand rubbing Emily’s knee; the space burns. “One day, I’ll get you out of here. We’ll just say fuck it all, and just, you know. Take a trip to where no one knows us.”
Emily’s breath catches in her throat; it hits her like a promise and a threat at the same time. She takes a moment to remind herself that perhaps Naomi’s just carried away; memory can be such a potent thing. “Yeah, of course,” Emily finally manages, after a while. She kisses Naomi again, longer this time, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do; thinks that she has the entire morning after to think about how Naomi’s married and all that; about how she’s spent far too long trying to get over this girl for all that effort to end up this way. For now though – for now there’s this.
This – the way Naomi’s holding Emily’s face in her hands, the way Naomi’s kissing her as if it’s the only thing she’s thought about doing all day; this, how Naomi feels under Emily’s palms, the way Naomi’s chest rises and falls quickly as she struggles to breathe through this desire, how under her skin Naomi seems like she’s about to burst, if one were to go by how hard her heart’s beating just below the surface.
It’s all too much. When they come up for air, there’s that familiar spark in Naomi’s eyes again, and Emily knows too well the look on Naomi’s face, her mouth half-open, waiting and wanting.
That they find themselves in the guest bedroom soon after is no surprise – Emily doesn’t even have the time or enough functioning mental faculties in the first place to even analyze why they’re not in Naomi’s bed, but it doesn’t really matter, not too much; or at least, not more than what Naomi’s doing with her hands, which is pulling at Emily’s pants with one and tugging at Emily’s top with the other, her mouth everywhere her fingers aren’t.
When Naomi pushes Emily further into the bed, the sheets feel crisp and unused and new right under her, and just like that Emily forgets about the wrongness of it all, unable to focus on anything other than Naomi’s fingers inside her, the heat of Naomi’s hand upon her breast, the sharp pain of a bite somewhere at the base of her neck.
There will be marks, she just absently thinks, arching into Naomi’s body with eyes half-closed, digging her nails into the skin of Naomi’s back. Naomi lifts her head off Emily’s shoulder, hissing; she’s biting down on her lip and Emily pulls her back down with a hand that’s not gripping the sheets, burying her face in the crook of Naomi’s neck, breathing in. Her scent’s a heady mix of sweat and lust and the fainting citrus of something she must have been wearing since morning.
Emily pauses briefly before going ahead and fastening her lips upon a small patch of skin just below Naomi’s ear. Who cares about leaving remembrances? she asks herself, fairly pleased with her work, at the way it says, I was here.
It’s the last thought on Emily’s mind before the tension building inside her breaks; she comes with a sharp cry, sparks like fireworks going off behind her eyes.
It’s decidedly early when she wakes; outside, through a window, Emily can see how it’s not even light out just yet. For a change, she’s on a real bed now, and this time she does not wake up alone.
Beside her, Naomi’s still sleeping, her naked warmth wrapping around Emily comfortably, a hand around Emily’s waist; it hits Emily as even more intimate than the sex itself, and in her chest she feels something grab her heart and squeeze. She shifts around to face her, wrapping an arm around Naomi in kind, stroking lightly upon Naomi’s back, fingertips feeling the skin breaking where she’d scratched a bit too hard.
She’s staring at Naomi’s face, at how the light from the window slowly pours in and lights the room, revealing clearly the rest of her: the dip of her waist, her legs. Emily takes her in, wondering how she managed to trick herself into believing she no longer loved this girl, after; how she made it through the years never once seeing her, never once touching her.
How she could have made it through the years between the day they parted ways and today.
How? Emily asks herself again, reaching up to tuck a stray hair aside that has fallen upon Naomi’s face. The movement makes Naomi shift a little, and Emily holds her breath as Naomi opens her eyes slowly.
“Sorry,” Emily whispers, smiling shyly. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Naomi just smiles, leans in to kiss Emily on the lips casually – like before. Like they never even stopped.
Like they can keep this up and go on like this forever.
“Hey,” Naomi just says after a while, her voice slightly hoarse. “Good morning.”
At that moment, Emily can’t even bear to think about the mornings before this, the ones where she had to start her days alone; can’t bear to think about the mornings that are yet to come once the fairytale ends this time around, either.
Chapter 17: love and some verses
17. love and some verses
It’s the most difficult morning after, but it’s not like Emily’s complaining; after all, she hasn’t had a reason like this to stay in bed longer for quite some time now. Might as well be in the moment, she just tells herself; they slip in and out of wakefulness during the early morning, and when Emily wakes the nth time around, it’s already nine.
“I have to get to work,” Emily says finally, shifting a little against Naomi. The movement nudges Naomi awake herself; she breathes in and stretches and Emily can’t stop her hands from running lightly over Naomi’s breasts playfully. It reminds Emily of morning banter when they were younger, but at least back then they could skip whatever it was that they had to do after, altogether. Simpler, wasn’t that? she thinks, longingly.
Naomi clutches her tighter, pinning her down. “Five more minutes.”
“We’ve been saying that since six in the morning,” Emily says and Naomi just smiles wider, eyes closed. That Naomi proceeds to nuzzle Emily’s neck like a lazy teenager does not make things any easier either. “We’re starting your redesign tomorrow. I can’t afford to slack today.”
“It’s my house, I’m your client – technically I’m your boss.”
“True that,” says Emily, wrapping a hand around Naomi’s wrist carefully, trying to lift her arm and slip from under it. There’s a slight struggle as Naomi throws a leg over Emily as well, leaning upon her heavily. Emily groans – whether it’s from frustration that she’s stuck or that she has to go, she can’t decide. “But I still have to get to work Nae.”
After a while, Naomi relents. “Fine, suit yourself,” she says, proceeding to rub against Emily deliberately as she slides her arm and leg away slowly; the heat and the friction of the movement is so lovely that Emily’s attempt to bite back a moan fails in the end. Naomi props herself up on a shoulder, facing Emily, still with that lazy smile on. “Actually, I do have to get to work myself – I can drop you off if you want, maybe grab brunch along the way?”
“Sounds great,” Emily says, pulling herself out of bed, finally. She looks around for her clothes; she finds the pile with her knickers and pants not too far from the bed. “Christ, I totally have to swing by my house before heading to the office,” she says, reaching for them and pulling them on.
“Drop you off there then?” Naomi offers. The shuffling of the sheets makes Emily look over her shoulder; Naomi’s stretching, now seated upon the other edge of the bed, sunlight falling upon her hair, the skin of her back. The bed shifts as Naomi stands, and Emily’s breath hitches in her throat as she stares at Naomi, who’s now moving around with no clothes on, the early morning sun illuminating her. She laughs upon catching Emily, but there’s a blush right there anyway. “Em?” she says, tilting her head. “Coffee?”
Emily blinks. It’s not like she hasn’t seen it all before, but there’s something about this morning that’s doing funny things to her chest. Naomi raises a brow, as if to silently repeat the question. “Yes please,” Emily manages finally before putting on the rest of her clothes.
The kitchen already smells lovely when Emily gets there. Naomi’s pulling mugs out of cupboards; she’s wearing a sort of dress-shirt that barely goes past her hips. “Someone’s been keeping Effy’s clothes,” Emily just says, grinning as she settles beside Naomi, fingertips drumming upon the tiled counter.
“Oh, fuck off,” says Naomi good-naturedly. “They’re comfortable.”
“I wasn’t about to contest that, not at all,” Emily just says. She reaches for one of the mugs, brushing against the back of Naomi’s hand in the process; she gasps slightly as a sharp jolt courses through them, like static electricity.
“Hey,” Naomi just says, putting a hand over Emily’s and rubbing lightly at the surface with her thumb. “It’s my kitchen. Have a seat and let me host you, or something.”
Emily pauses at that; unwillingly, she comes back to a few mornings ago, when she woke on the floor of her flat alone. “Just so you know,” she begins. “I would have done the same, you know?” And then, “You should have stayed.”
Naomi moves at the gurgling of the coffeemaker, sighing as she splits the contents into the two mugs. The smell of freshly brewed coffee floods the kitchen warmly; Emily breathes in deep. “I wish I had,” Naomi just says quietly. She takes a mug in each hand and moves them to the table in the middle of the room, pulls a chair out for Emily. “I’m sorry. I panicked.”
Emily wraps both hands around her mug, letting it warm her palms. She contemplates what to say next; it sounds like an invitation to say the rest of the things that have to be said, as it’s the first time Naomi’s even addressed it properly since her phone call. Is it time? Emily thinks, watching quietly as Naomi moves to add sugar to both their mugs – one for her own, two for Emily’s. She remembers, Emily can’t help but notice, and again, something twitches in her chest.
“It’s all right to say something about it, Em,” Naomi says finally, gently, stirring Emily’s mug with a spoon. “And it’s all right to not say anything either; we’re not children.”
“I know,” Emily just says, blowing upon the surface of her coffee. She tries to sip and finds it a bit too hot still. “It’s just – why are we even doing this?”
Naomi looks at her from over the rim of her mug, shrugging. “I… don’t know,” she sighs, matter-of-factly, as if the answer is ultimately satisfactory. “I just—it’s tiring and I’m done. I’m done fighting it.” Naomi puts her mug carefully down, leans in closer, still looking at Emily steadily. “I mean,” she just says, smiling a little even. “Aren’t you?”
Emily holds her breath. What is she supposed to say to that, really? She swallows before saying, “I think you know how I feel about this.” She purses her lips and tries to phrase what’s coming next carefully in her head. “I mean with Giselle – I didn’t even – certainly, the fact that she was married was the central problem because it was part of her appeal, but this. You,” Emily pauses to catch her breath, shaking her head as a smile spreads across her lips anyway and Naomi looks down into her mug in an attempt to hide a blush. “My problem with you is not so much that you’re married but that you’re you. And it’s just – it kills me. That you’re married. Because you’re you.”
There’s the sound of Naomi’s chair grating against the kitchen floor as Naomi stands and inadvertently pushes it back; she reaches for Emily from across the table and pulls her in, kissing her quickly. The speed of it leaves Emily slightly dizzy. “Stop,” says Naomi, muttering against Emily’s lips. “Right there, just… stop.” Against her, Emily feels Naomi’s smile get wider.
“Sorry,” Emily says, holding on to opposite edges of the table, her elbows still shaky from the kiss. “It’s just – I can’t help it. I can’t help myself.”
“Neither can I, obviously,” Naomi just says, still smiling. “Now sit back down and drink your coffee, Christ. Get this morning rolling. What do you say?”
Emily nods, returning to her mug; when she sips from it she finds the warmth of it just right – like that moment coffee passes the border between ‘scalding’ and ‘just hot enough’.
It’s perfect, all of it – the way Naomi’s looking at her from across the table, the way Emily feels like she fits here. The way this in-between is comfortable, no matter how precarious the whole thing, in fact, is.
(Emily sips further, taking the more of the coffee in, steadily; Faster, she just thinks, faster, before the heat runs out. From across her, Naomi shifts and touches her hand.)
Naomi rolls slowly to a stop in front of Emily’s building before reaching over to undo Emily’s seatbelt. “I’ll be down here,” she says, looking over at Emily expectantly, waiting for her to push open the door. “You all right?”
“You’re waiting?” asks Emily, hand on the door handle.
“It’s just a change of clothes, isn’t it?”
“It is, but you really don’t have to—“
Naomi pushes at her lightly, playfully. “Come on now, we’ll be late.”
“You make me wish you had a car in college, you know.”
“Emily,” Naomi tries a stern voice in mock-warning, and Emily rolls her eyes as she opens the door and climbs out.
Emily rushes to make it to the elevator that’s just about to close, slipping in with a slight shriek; in her head, she’s counting down from one hundred in slowly, as if timing herself. She starts peeling away her clothes from the night before at the sound of the door closing, opening her closet with whatever hand is free and pulling out the first thing on top.
Naomi studies Emily quietly as she climbs back into the car, trying to catch her breath. “That was quick,” Naomi just says, smiling as she reaches over to fix Emily’s collar, smoothing the fabric upon Emily’s chest, fiddling with the buttons even. “There. Now you don’t look so much like I’ve just shagged you in the car, hm?”
“I wanted to hurry,” Emily just says, rolling her eyes before leaning in and kissing Naomi on the cheek quickly. “Thanks yeah?” Emily says, noting how Naomi looks a bit flustered by the gesture. “Surely this is – we’re okay, right?”
Naomi looks upon her so softly that her chest tightens at how lovely everything just is, right then. “We’re all right, Em,” she just says, running a hand into her hair before releasing the handbrakes, shifting the gear and driving on.
“You should come by later,” Naomi says as Emily readies herself; she has stopped in front of Emily’s building and is flashing her hazard lights. “Help me with… last minute stuff. I assume I do have to wrap things up so the paint doesn’t get to them, eh?”
Emily takes a moment to look at her. “Yes, you actually do,” she says. “I could help with that tonight, if you want.”
“I’ll make you dinner – which means takeaway, or something,” Naomi smiles, offering.
Emily laughs. “How romantic,” she just says, biting her lip. “It’s a pity your kitchen’s gorgeous yet you never use it.”
Naomi’s reply is an automatic, “David’s the cooking type.” It’s out before she can stop herself, it seems, and Emily tries not to look so visibly shaken. Naomi tries to salvage the conversation by changing the topic. “So I’ll see you later?”
Emily alights carefully and closes the door. “I’ll call you,” she just says, leaning down to peer into the window, a hand braced upon the roof of Naomi’s car. “You take care all right? And thanks for -- you know.”
Naomi says, “I know,” grinning as she holds Emily’s gaze steadily, a hand upon the wheel lightly. Emily takes a moment longer before pushing herself off Naomi’s car with a soft, “See you then,” and stepping away.
Emily’s still standing there and smiling when Naomi’s car turns at a corner and disappears; truth is, she hasn’t felt like this in a long time that it ought to worry her, how something that’s innately wrong can feel this right.
Before leaving for the night, Joey runs her checklist of accomplished tasks past Emily in her office. “The guys in charge of the ceiling replacement are arriving first thing in the morning, say around nine – too early?”
“Just right,” Emily says, clicking her pen open before retracting the tip out of habit. “You gave them Naomi’s address?”
“I did – I was hoping I can give a number as well.”
“Give them mine,” says Emily. “And the rest of the painters?”
“Thursday morning,” Joey says, flipping through the papers in her folder.
“Perfect. The place isn’t that big – I’m hoping they’d be out of there by Saturday.”
“I’ll call again and mention that,” Joey nods, shutting her folder. Emily smiles at her. “You look… pretty refreshed today, Ms Fitch.” There’s a slight hint of mischief in the smile that Joey replies with.
“It was an eventful night,” Emily just says. She extends a hand, motioning for the folder of duplicates that Joey has made for her.
“Didn’t mean to be intrusive, but yeah,” says Joey, shrugging as she hands it over. “I assume the night ended well, then?”
Emily pauses briefly. “Well. I suppose you can say that.” She returns to examining the contents of the folder she’s just opened, because it’s the only thing left to do that is not likely to encourage a blush; tries to stare at the names and the lists and the numbers, the measurements.
After a while, Joey clears her throat. “I better get going then, if you’re all right?”
“Yeah, thanks again,” says Emily. “For this, and for caring, I guess.” Then a wink.
“One of these days I’ll figure you out fully,” Joey just says, grinning as she walks backwards toward the door. “Whatever it is, I hope it keeps going forever, as it looks good on you.”
Emily closes her eyes at the sound of the shutting door, turning Joey’s words over in her head; all Emily can think about is, I hope so as well.
It’s close to seven when Emily gets a text. We’re still on tonight? It’s Naomi, and the flutter returns to Emily’s stomach, just like that. She’s composing a reply when her mobile starts buzzing as well, Naomi’s name flashing on the screen.
“I was just about to message you,” Emily answers, pinning her mobile between ear and shoulder, as she rummages into her bag with both hands, feeling around for her pack of cigarettes. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Naomi says. “You game?”
“Sure, just a quick cigarette break,” says Emily, heart doing a slight flip as she catches the pack of fags with the edge of a finger. “Then I’m ready.”
“Great. Catch you outside your building then?”
“Or I could also drive and see you at your place?” says Emily, though the mere thought of Naomi picking her up is doing strange ticklish things to her insides. What is this? she asks herself, walking out of her room and locking it, her keys jangling in a pocket. Fucking courtship?
“Or we can save fuel and use just one car, the one that’s mine?” Naomi asks right back, insisting. “Come on, Em. I owe you.”
Emily sighs, stepping out of the office and locking the main door; she’s nodding as she mutters into her phone, cigarette dangling from her lip. “Whatever, you win.”
Naomi lets out a small, “Yay,” that’s utterly adorable before hanging up and Emily reminds herself to rib Naomi about it later in the car. Later in the car, Emily repeats in her head, just because the thought warms her completely, that she has these small moments at all – but really, there’s a lot more on Emily’s mind; more than what these small moments all seem to add up to, actually.
In fact, there’s a space at the back of her head that houses the rest of those thoughts, and this is where she acknowledges it’s not going to last; where Emily knows that, at best, it’s just like they’re just operating tentatively on an entirely different plane, and none of this is actually real.
But later in the car, Emily begins again, closing her eyes as she steps out of the elevator and walks out of the building, lighting her cigarette by the door. Later in the car, I’ll just tell her anyway, how adorable it all was.
The night is warm outside and Emily regrets having brought her coat along; she rolls up a sleeve as she takes a slow, deep drag, the column of smoke from her lips thin, wispy and white against the blank night sky.
Naomi has picked up pasta along the way, and her car smells deliciously of something tomato-based when Emily gets in. “I hope you’re not averse to red sauce?” she says, pointing to Emily’s seatbelt to remind her. Emily moves to wear it immediately.
“I adore pasta,” says Emily, and Naomi laughs as she drives on.
Conversation in the car is light; Naomi talks about food in places she’s been, restaurants she’s reviewed, a comment here and there about the woefully small parts served in designer menus. “It’s like the serving size is inversely proportional to the chef’s salary or something,” Naomi comments, smirking. Emily laughs along all the while, touching Naomi’s hand on the gear shift every now and then, fingertips brushing along her arm every time she strays and moves for the car radio to fiddle with the music.
It all hits Emily as awfully ordinary; at some point, it even reaches the coupley sort of ordinary, and when that dawns on Emily she feels like she’s blushing at the utter intimacy of this normalcy.
“It’s like we’re just picking up where we left off,” Emily says at some point; her voice startles her for the most part, as she’s just speaking to herself in her head – or at least, that’s what she planned.
“And aren’t we?” is all Naomi says in reply, smiling as she focuses on the road.
They leave it at that; the air around them remains heavy and pregnant all the way home.
The next time Emily speaks, it’s to evade Naomi’s, “You never answered back.”
“What?” asks Emily instead, carefully chewing her pasta. They’re seated in Naomi’s kitchen; it’s the second time today, Emily notes, and she’s looking down into her bowl as she says it.
“You said something about picking up where we left off.”
“I was just thinking aloud, is all,” Emily explains. She stabs at her bowl with her fork, twirling a little of the pasta on the side. “It didn’t mean anything, I was just—”
“Does it bother you?” Naomi cuts softly, and when Emily looks up Naomi’s focused on her pasta as well, holding her fork lightly in one hand. “That it feels like this?”
“Not really the feeling per se,” Emily says, after a thoughtful pause. “I’m more concerned with… with the ease, you know? It’s just so easy, this, you. Being with you,” she pauses again to swallow, reaching over for her glass of wine. “It’s just. It shouldn’t be this easy.”
“It wasn’t always,” Naomi just says. “If it’s any consolation.”
“And it won’t always be,” Emily replies. “All of it – I’m just borrowing time, you see?”
“I am, too, you know.” Emily looks as Naomi lowers her fork to the side, clasps her hands together under her chin, elbows propped on the table. “Em,” she sighs. “It takes two.”
She takes a final survey of her bowl before giving up together and pushing it toward the center slowly. “I know,” says Emily. “It’s like, I’m holding my breath here and just waiting for when and it’s just – it’s crazy.”
Naomi shakes her head, smiling softly at her as she stands, reaching over to collect both their bowls but leaving both wine glasses untouched. “It’s not only you who’s going insane, Em, remember that,” she just murmurs before turning back to walk toward the sink and running the tap.
Emily sits back, tries to relax as she sips from her glass; the rest of the wine has gone lukewarm, but it’s bearable, at best. She watches Naomi as she starts washing dishes; upon finishing, Naomi opens a drawer and pulls out a fag and a lighter along with a makeshift ashtray. “Sneaky,” Emily just says, downing the rest of her wine before standing and walking over.
Naomi looks over her shoulder as she lights the fag right over the sink; Emily runs a hand down Naomi’s arm before slipping a fag of her own right out of the drawer. “Emergency stash,” says Naomi, blowing to the side. Emily leans in, lights her cigarette upon the tip of Naomi’s, sucking upon it until it’s alive. Naomi smirks before taking a drag again. “Convenient, isn’t it?” she asks, and Emily just nods, still pressed up against Naomi’s arm, one hand upon the sink flicking the ashes off.
“Brilliant,” says Emily, leaning back against the counter, looking straight up at the ceiling. The paint is not peeling here, she notes, suddenly remembering what she’s here for to begin with.
“Smoking aids quick writing,” Naomi just says, picking her ashtray up and heading to the table, settling into a chair comfortably. “Do you want another glass of wine?”
“Are you trying to get me drunk?” asks Emily playfully, careful to flick the ashes in the sink before taking another slow drag, looking at Naomi all the while.
“I still have to?” Naomi asks back, a playful smirk of her own on her lips. She crosses her legs as she adds, “Really?”
The word rolls off Naomi’s tongue roughly, and Emily just thinks, That’s it, before crushing her fag against the wet surface of the sink, the soft sizzle of its death floating in the air briefly as Emily pushes herself off the counter, moving to lean into Naomi’s lips with one hand upon the edge of the table, the other cupping the side of her face, pulling her in and kissing her.
It’s all so easy, Emily finds herself thinking. Yet none of it actually is.
They end up making out on the couch until midnight; all the while Emily’s head is flooded with nothing but the moist slip-slide of Naomi’s tongue against hers, the heat of her fingertips dancing all over her skin, Naomi’s warm hands slipping under her shirt. They’re almost out of their clothes when Emily remembers to look up at the clock – one in the morning. “We have to wrap. The painters will be here by nine,” she says, gingerly pushing Naomi off her, too weak to be even called an attempt.
Naomi pulls herself off Emily finally, after a while. “Let’s go then,” she just says, breathing in as she pulls her shorts up and smoothes her shirt down properly. Emily does the same as she stands and stretches. “Anything we need?”
They proceed to cover large surfaces with newspapers, putting smaller things inside cupboards – picture frames and figurines, odd souvenirs from places here and there, a ridiculous amount of stray pens. Naomi has kept her flat so bare that there isn’t much to move in and keep, and it’s the large objects – tables, sofas, shelves – that have to be taken care of.
When they finish, Emily’s got her hair bunched up in a messy ponytail and it’s already past three in the morning. Naomi has changed into something more comfortable and without sleeves, and the heat combined with the entire effort of pushing the furniture toward the walls and securing their coverings has produced a slight sheen of sweat upon her arms. Emily herself comes this close to pulling off her shirt, the one that Naomi loaned her, in the middle of things; the night is so warm and it practically sticks upon the skin.
“Spacious enough for your men?” Naomi asks, wiping at her brow with one hand, while the other’s perched upon her hip.
Emily just nods, clapping her hands and taking the dust off her fingers. “Yeah, I think,” she just says. “I need a fucking shower.”
“Fall in line,” Naomi says, sticking her tongue out and moving quickly toward her bedroom, where the bathroom is, and unthinkingly, Emily even gives playful chase.
It hits her though, the moment she steps into Naomi’s room, how dangerous this playing ground is; Naomi’s double-bed is off to one side, still with the blood-red sheets on, and Emily can’t help the rush that courses through her, like something electric jumping from one synapse to another.
“You okay there?” Naomi asks. She’s just come out of a sort of linen room, and she’s handing Emily her towel. “I was kidding by the way; you’re the guest, you go first.”
Naomi’s hospitality is enough to permanently put Emily’s brain out of commission, or at least for the night; there’s really no other way explaining it, the way Emily just lifts her shirt above her head and drops it to the floor; the way she moves in to kiss Naomi again. True, she’s been fond of overanalyzing things, Emily knows this much about herself; but how about just giving in?
How does now sound? she asks herself, pulling at the hem of Naomi’s shirt and yanking it above her head before running her fingers around Naomi’s hips, right under the waistband of her shorts. Naomi comes up for air briefly, if only to whisper “Fuck” right before leaning back in, nipping at Emily’s bottom lip.
That they end up in Naomi’s bed this time is no surprise; Emily sinks all too willingly into the softness of it, right under Naomi’s weight, the gentle push of her hand. The rest of it’s just all skin and limbs, as the room fills with the soft hitching of breaths and sighs and other night sounds.
Chapter 18: no longer what you require
18. no longer what you require
They wake to the sound of phones ringing – Emily’s mobile starts vibrating on the wooden table by the bedside the moment Naomi’s phone-slash-intercom starts ringing off its cradle as well. Emily fumbles with her hello, her voice hoarse; Naomi gets up to answer the intercom with a rough greeting of her own.
When Naomi meets Emily’s eyes after Emily puts a shirt on, Naomi realizes how they’ve just gotten off their respective phones with two members of the same group.
“They’re here,” Emily just says, as if the obvious still has to be said; she approaches Naomi with a soft and lazy early morning smile on her face before wrapping her arms around Naomi’s waist and planting kisses upon her jaw line. “Let’s get moving, yeah?”
Naomi tilts her head, bites her lip as she smiles; Emily moves lower and kisses her pulse point softly, like punctuation. Naomi clears her throat as she says, “Might as well,” untangling herself from Emily, who slips away and walks out of the room, presumably to find breakfast. Naomi gets dressed herself, throwing on a shirt and a pair of shorts, before heading back out and following Emily into the kitchen.
When she gets there, Emily’s moving along just fine – she’s turned the coffeemaker on and reaching for the mugs in the cupboard, like Naomi would have been, had Emily not beaten her to it.
“I hope you don’t mind,” says Emily, reaching for the sugar and milk and proceeding to lay them upon the center of the table. “But we’re in a hurry, hm?”
Naomi smiles as Emily shifts; she looks as if she’s in her element, Naomi’s kitchen. She’s moving around like she really belongs to the place, and for a while, Naomi can’t bring herself to imagine anybody else ever being there again. “Really, it’s all right,” Naomi says in a bit. By then the coffee’s done and Emily smoothly reaches for it with one hand while pulling out teaspoons from a drawer with the other. Naomi breathes in deep before saying, softly, “You look good in my kitchen, Em.”
Emily pauses a bit before pouring the coffee altogether, a smile crossing her face. “Yeah?” she just says, looking up to catch the face Naomi’s making, and really, how can anything be like this? Naomi just bites her lip and nods, her heart swelling in her chest, and she can hardly even breathe.
They usher the guys up about half an hour later, and Emily may still be in Naomi’s casual clothes, but she’s fucking got this under control and the way she’s barking orders, gesturing all over the place with those deceptively frail-looking hands -- it’s driving Naomi crazy, so she retreats into the kitchen to draw out her pack of fags and pocketing them.
She’s smoking in her room when Emily finds her, perched upon the edge of a table by the open window. “Hey, you okay?” asks Emily, nearly shouting; her voice barely goes above the sound of knocking hammers and whirring drills. “It’s a bit noisy; if you want I’ll stay and you can go wherever – catch some quiet at Starbucks, or something.”
Naomi exhales smoke out the window, carefully flicking the ashes off the sill. “I’m fine,” she just says, pulling Emily in by the hem of her top. “Thanks for doing this, yeah?”
Emily leans closer; she’s not near enough to kiss, but clearly close enough for Naomi to catch a whiff of her skin, upon which the mix of yesterday’s fading perfume, this morning’s early sex and the sweat of the mid-morning workday proves to be too much to handle. Naomi looks up at her, one hand around Emily’s waist, the other gripping the outer edge of the window sill, a cigarette between two fingers.
“I’ll send the bill when we’re done,” Emily says, biting her lip to hide the playful smile slowly spreading there. “Thank me after.”
Naomi laughs a little; things have gone so far from where she initially thought they would be; too far from that night she first found Emily’s address on the Internet to begin with, and sometimes she forgets how a large part of this endeavor is, in fact, business; though really, Naomi doesn’t mind spending at all, these days.
“Or maybe you’ll thank me?” Naomi says, grinning openly now. She pulls her cigarette-wielding hand back in, takes a drag from her fag before offering the rest to Emily; Emily leans in, wrapping her lips around the filter, sucking with a slight hiss and never once taking her eyes off Naomi’s. When Emily pulls away to exhale, Naomi can feel how the space she’s left on her fingertips is moist; somewhere below her hip a dull thrum begins pulsing, and she can’t help it.
When Emily shifts to face her, she looks as if she’s about to lean in for a kiss, only to be interrupted as somebody calls for her from the living room. “They need you for something, Ms Fitch,” Naomi mimics, pushing her lightly away, a hand pressing into the skin of Emily’s stomach warmly from under her shirt.
“I’ll be back,” Emily says, peeling herself off Naomi in the slowest way possible; there are times when it strikes Naomi how Emily actually worries about this thing they’re in, but then there are also moments like this, when Emily’s skin is so so warm, like she’s setting Emily on fire just by being this near, and Naomi can’t help but think about just how difficult it is to keep it all together, to keep toeing this all-too-thin line between this unreal desire and everything else that makes it wrong.
Naomi sits back against the wall as she watches Emily move toward the door, shutting it carefully behind her; she manages to remember David, at some point, as her eyes catch the calendar hanging upon the wall. Suddenly, her mind’s abuzz with a million things, and it’s not just the drilling in her living room or the hammering on the walls all over. Sighing, she stubs her cigarette against the edge of the window before flicking it outside and lighting another one.
Expectedly, it all quiets down late that afternoon as the workday ends; by then half of the ceiling is still dismantled and Naomi finds herself looking up at the exposed hollowness it once covered, the careful network of electric wires and wood and steel up there.
“We’ll be done with the other half and the painting tomorrow, I promise,” Emily says softly, stepping closer beside Naomi, the both of them now standing in the middle of the living room. When Naomi looks over at her, Emily’s looking up with a decidedly focused look on her face, arms crossed in front of her chest, lips moving slightly; when Naomi listens in closer, Emily sounds like she’s counting, and Naomi can’t help but laugh softly. “What?” Emily looks at her wide-eyed, a slight smile dancing upon her lips as well, as if she knows she’s just been caught.
“Nothing,” says Naomi, shaking her head, reaching for the small spot of dirt upon Emily’s cheek and brushing it away with the pad of her thumb. “You must be hungry. Want to get out of here?”
Emily pauses, as if to take the gesture in. “I’d love to take a bath first, but unfortunately the your bathroom’s newly painted.” And then, “You should pack. There’s no way you’re sleeping here tonight.”
“I was thinking about getting a room in a hotel—”
“Maybe you should just come over—”
Naomi laughs at that, nervously touching her lips with her fingers. “I’m sorry, you were saying?” she says again, and Emily simply laughs along.
“I was saying,” Emily begins, clearing her throat. “I mean, I was suggesting that you come over,” she continues, the corner of her lips quirking a little in that way that always melts something inside Naomi. “I mean – if you want.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Naomi smiles, taking a deliberate sideways glance at Emily before laughing again. She walks into her bedroom; in the middle of it there’s a metal ladder and the rest of the room’s fixtures, including her bed, are covered with newspapers and heavy clear plastic. A change of clothes, then, she tells herself, pulling her overnight bag out of an upper shelf inside her closet. One day at a time.
Truth be told, she hasn’t quite figured it out just yet, whether to say yes to Emily or to turn down the offer altogether in the interest of damage control; besides, Naomi’s made a few friends over the years; last-minute hotel room reservations should be the least of her worries, if at all.
There’s a knock on the door and when Naomi looks over her shoulder, it’s Emily, dressed in yesterday’s office clothes. “So you’re heading out for the night then?” says Emily, noting Naomi’s bag with a smile. Naomi just shrugs and nods, gesturing for Emily to come in before returning to her bag.
“Look,” Emily says after a while, swallowing. She’s standing beside Naomi, leaning against the edge of Naomi’s closet. “You don’t have to – I mean, if the offer makes you uncomfortable –”
“Em,” Naomi begins, touching Emily’s arm lightly. “I’d love to, but.” But what? Naomi shifts her eyes from Emily’s face, as the smile fades from it slowly, settling instead for a spot on the floor. Not like holding back now is going to change things, is it?
“S’alright,” says Emily. “I wasn’t – it was out so quickly, I didn’t even –” she takes a breath, like she were steadying herself, closing her eyes for a moment. “It’s fine, Nae – but we’re still on for dinner, yeah?”
But still, it should count as something, shouldn’t it? Naomi bites her lip. “What are you in the mood for?”
“A shower actually, though that might not have been what you meant –”
And despite all that, Naomi manages to smile. Why can’t it just be as easy as choosing the girl who makes you smile? she asks herself, zipping her overnight bag closed. “Drive you to your place then?”
“Maybe I could make dinner,” says Emily; she looks at Naomi expectantly, like she’s ready for another rejection.
Naomi just looks at her, uncertain; asks herself if she can trust herself not to stay the night, this time. “If you’re too tired to cook, you know there’s always takeaway,” she says finally.
“Look,” says Emily, clearing her throat. “Let’s see, yeah? I’ll think more properly after I’ve had a shower. Deal?”
Naomi wraps her hand around the bag strap, still grinning at the thought of Emily’s severe one-track-mindedness, her intense focus at the singular goal of the shower. “Right,” she just says , walking toward the door. “Deal.”
Thankfully, the drive doesn’t take too long, despite the afternoon rush hour, and Emily mutters a frustrated, “Finally!” the minute she manages to push the door to her flat open, tossing the keys onto a nearby table and gesturing for Naomi to be comfortable.
Emily begins undressing in her living room, starting with her shoes.
“Raid the fridge if you’re thirsty or something,” says Emily, walking toward her room, her feet now bare, a hand fiddling with the button of her slacks. She disappears behind the door to her bedroom before sticking her head out the door again, if only to tell Naomi the remote control is right beside the telly.
“I’ll be fine,” says Naomi, waving dismissively at Emily, who finally retreats into her bedroom. Naomi heads into the kitchen as she hears the shower from far away; tries not to imagine Emily underneath it, how her body must look under the torrent of water. Stop, she tells herself, closing her eyes and bracing herself against the refrigerator door. Just – you’ve done enough.
Enough. Funny how that word must strike her only now, after everything – and not before, when it would have been easier to manage. Far too deep and far too late, she thinks, and her heart is wrapped with a sort of dread. A woman of her vocation knows a thing or two about deadlines, and now that she’s up against a big one, suddenly it’s like she doesn’t know what to do with herself; like the years in between have taught her nil, and this is all new to her and she’s all too afraid.
It’s disconcerting at best; all these years she’s always known how to pace her affairs, how to cut herself free at the earliest possible time – two hours, two days, two weeks before; before David comes back, before the expected return to real life – but this time, it feels like she can’t even trust her own hand, and that’s what has her shaken the most.
From the same corner of the flat, she hears Emily turn the shower off, and when Naomi opens her eyes she’s still standing in front of the refrigerator gripping a cold bottle of water.
When Emily pads into the kitchen, she’s got a fresh shirt on, casual shorts, old Birkenstocks. “Nothing too fancy, yeah?” she says, combing her hair with her fingertips; on the skin of her neck, a couple of stray droplets glisten under the fluorescent light from the living room, and Naomi bites the tip of her tongue, as if in punishment for the inappropriate thoughts in her head. “Are you all right?” asks Emily, perhaps seeing the shift on Naomi’s face.
Naomi looks away, unscrews the bottle of water in her hand again, just to have something to do with them. She takes a swig before saying, “We should go, I know a place; that is, if you haven’t got anything in particular?”
Emily thinks for a moment, pausing before shrugging. “Nothing,” she just says, rubbing at her stomach absently.
Naomi smiles at her, at how childlike the gesture just is and Emily moves closer, entwining an arm around hers; Naomi can’t find it in herself to push her away.
The dinner is unusually quiet, in that at the end of it, Emily has to ask if she’s said something wrong.
Naomi just says, “David’s coming in a few days.” It’s out solemnly, like she’s just brought Emily news of death.
And in keeping with the theme, ‘Not the children we were any more,’ Emily takes the words in quietly herself, like a sacrament; she nods and keeps her eyes on the food on her plate, saying nothing else other than, “I see.”
They part that night in front of Emily’s building. Naomi turns her engine off, sinking back into her seat and unbuckling her seatbelt, heaving as if she’s having trouble with her breathing with it fastened.
“How much longer?” asks Emily softly, the metal clicking of her unbuckled seatbelt echoing in the small space.
“A few days. At best a week, but no more than,” says Naomi. “Oh fuck it, why are we talking like it’s a terminal illness or something?”
“Well, it is terminal, in some respect,” says Emily. Naomi finds herself, of all things, smiling. The girl who makes you smile, she just thinks again; the thought makes her shift in her seat. “Isn’t it?” asks Emily, and Naomi looks up. Emily’s looking at her with a grave, somber look. She doesn’t look heartbroken; more like, pitifully resigned.
“Don’t be that way,” Naomi just says, biting her lip.
Emily breathes in, looks away. She fixes herself before saying – more to the vehicle’s dashboard than Naomi, actually – that they will finish their repairs in two to three days, max. “We’ll be out of there soon; we’ll make sure there’ll be no inconvenience for anyone.” Emily wraps a hand around the door handle, pulls at the lock and pushes it open.
Emily’s out before Naomi can say anything. “Emily,” she calls out, leaning over to the passenger seat and looking out the window.
Emily stops briefly, leaning into the car as well. “Look, all you have to do is say we’re waking up from this, Nae,” she says. She sounds so tired, and Naomi tries to hold on to her heart, only to feel it brittle and breaking. “Come on. I knew what I was getting into, yeah?”
Naomi just says, “Em.”
Emily stands there, a few moments more; after a while, she straightens herself, fixes her collar. “We’ll be there tomorrow, same time,” she says, the shift in her tone sudden. “I’ll place a wake-up call around 8:30?”
Naomi breathes in; she saw this coming, but it’s not like anything could have prepared her for it, anyway. “Make that 8,” she just says. Emily nods a final time before tapping the roof of the car one last time and turning around.
The next time she sees Emily, it is already days later; it’s the longest they’ve been apart so far, and Naomi can’t remember trying this hard to keep away from anything or anyone, for that matter, but then again, she’s always had to try hard when it comes to Emily.
The redesign’s been finished for roughly a day, and Naomi doesn’t even settle back in properly; instead, she finds herself driving out to Emily’s office to settle accounts.
Joey ushers her in with a smile, points to a chair and apologizes that she has to wait a bit; overhears Joey as she says, “Ms Campbell is here for you,” on the phone.
Just write the check and get out, Naomi tells herself, biting her nails. Kill the rest of the time in the airport. Naomi catches the time on the clock behind Joey, mentally subtracts the hours.
“Ms Campbell?” Joey breaks into her thoughts. “She’s ready for you.”
Naomi knocks once before pushing the door open. She steps in gingerly, closing the door after her, careful to not make a sound. She stands there and waits for Emily to look up; when she doesn’t, even after a while, Naomi walks on over and sits in one of the chairs in front of Emily’s desk.
This desk, Naomi thinks absently, running a finger along its edge. When it reaches the pointy corner, Naomi finds herself closing her eyes at the memory of a few nights back; she tries her hardest to push it away, to stop the sounds from flooding her mind.
“This is for you,” says Emily suddenly and Naomi finds her eyes opening abruptly; she sees Emily holding out a folder to her face. “You came here for the accounting of expenses?”
Naomi tries to smile, reaching for it; she crosses her legs and opens the folder upon a knee, scanning the list with a fingertip – paint, labor, extra materials for every room, though to be honest none of the figures are registering properly in her head, and really, all she’s after is the final number at the very bottom, and that’s that. There’s the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room. “You forgot the bedrooms – or did you not touch them?” asks Naomi, trying to be matter-of-fact. It’s a tough act, considering how her heart has been really out of sorts lately.
“We did,” says Emily, clearing her throat. “Haven’t you seen them?”
Naomi shakes her head. “I was in a hurry,” she lies; the truth is, these days she can barely stand being alone with herself, and with David’s flight coming up, she’s just all the more uneasy.
“How are things at work?” asks Emily, a touch concerned. That was Naomi’s standard excuse for not being in her house for the last few days of the redesign – just something at the work front.
“Nothing we couldn’t fix,” says Naomi, closing the folder. She keeps her eyes glued on the smooth surface of the table, tracing absent patterns upon it with a finger. “I was saying – what about the bedrooms?”
Emily taps her pen against the table, once, twice. “Let’s just say they’re… already accounted for, shall we?”
Naomi looks up at that; when she shifts her eyes over to Emily, Naomi finds her focusing on her pen on the table, her gaze absent. “Fuck, they’re not,” Naomi just says, raising her voice slightly.
“Yes, they are,” Emily insists. She looks up from the table and holds Naomi’s eye. “Come on, Nae. Give this to me, okay?”
“But it’s not fair.”
“This is me settling the score, love,” says Emily tiredly, tossing the pen on the table; it clatters dully before rolling toward the center. “Just – let me. Please.”
Naomi flinches at the endearment. “I don’t understand your accounting.”
“Then don’t question it,” Emily just says softly.
Naomi sighs, taking out her check book; she doubles the cost of the kitchen and living room combined and writes a check a few thousand more than the actual total before signing it with an extra vigorous stroke. “Don’t question this either,” she says, tearing it carefully and laying it in front of Emily, moving toward the door before Emily can even make a sound.
On the way out she thanks Joey, tells her they’ll see each other soon; when she opens the front door she thinks about how surely she’s paid for the whole thing in full and even more, considering her generous estimate, but then again, why is it that she still feels horrible, anyhow?
When she steps out of the elevator, her mobile buzzes and Emily’s name starts flashing on the screen. Naomi ignores it and walks on; she’s got a few hours to kill, and she thinks she’d spend it reading magazines in the airport lobby while waiting for David.
That night, instead of taking him straight to her flat, Naomi takes David to the hotel instead. “The paint fumes are still horrible,” she just says. It isn’t an outright lie, but it’s not the whole truth either. “Besides – for nostalgia’s sake, hmm?” she just adds, poking gently at David’s side.
David just smiles tiredly, gathering Naomi to himself, wrapping her in a one-armed hug. David is warm, like always, and Naomi tries hard to reconnect with that part of herself that has missed him all that while. She huddles close to him as they walk out of the airport, one of David’s hands securing his backpack strap, the other around Naomi’s shoulder.
They order room service for late dinner; David tells her all about his interview in Bogota and his side trip in Hyderabad, while cutting into beef and digging into mashed potatoes. “I wish you were there with me,” says David, chewing carefully. “You would have loved it this time around.”
Naomi just hangs her head a bit, eyes fixed upon David’s dinner, before nodding uncertainly. “Perhaps,” she just says, voice barely above a whisper. “Yeah.”
After a while, David asks, “Are you all right?” Naomi feels her heart stilling; it’s not her first affair, but it’s certainly the first one to make her feel this way -- this horribly guilty, this horribly raw.
“I’m fine,” says Naomi, pushing herself off the bed and walking into the bathroom, ostensibly to brush her teeth. “Just – long day, as always.”
After a while David comes up behind her, lazily wrapping his arms around her waist, burying his nose into her hair, before perching his chin over her shoulder and looking straight at her in the mirror; for a split second there, Naomi almost sees Emily’s eyes looking back. “I missed you,” he says to her reflection.
Naomi doesn’t find it in herself immediately, the thing to say back, so she says the first thing that comes: “I know.” And then, “Thank you.”
Later still that night, in bed, Naomi takes off her clothes before sliding in under the sheets, where she finds David comfortable in his boxers. His skin is warm all over, and all night she tries to get the feeling back, the one she’s learned to feel all these years of being married to him; she lifts one arm and pushes herself right between until her cheek’s upon his chest.
Right then it hits her, how she can’t help but compare this to Emily’s softness, the smoothness of her breasts, the give of her flesh under Naomi’s hands.
In the end, she can’t sleep, so she gets up and puts her clothes back on. She settles instead on the couch, flicking through the hotel cable TV on mute.
In the morning, she’s shaken awake by David, who’s lowering a cup of coffee on the nearby table. “Still using TV as insomnia therapy?” he asks, a palm upon Naomi’s forehead lightly, as if checking for a fever. “Here, your coffee’s ready.”
Naomi finds herself smiling, stretching like a feline right on the couch. Somewhere in her shoulder, a spot is sore. “Thanks,” she just says, reaching for the cup. “Sorry I didn’t make it to bed. What time is it?”
“Nearly eleven,” says David, chuckling softly as Naomi’s eyes widened. “Your phone’s been crazy all morning.”
“Shit,” Naomi groans, rubbing at her temple with a finger.
David moves to retrieve Naomi’s mobile by the dresser. “It’s Emily, and it must be really important,” he says casually as he hands it over. “Which section is she from anyway?”
Naomi feels her hand grow numb as she grips her mobile. She takes a sip from her coffee first – it comes off a bit bitter, like he’s forgotten a serving of sugar, but she doesn’t let him in on that; it’s unnecessary. “Emily’s my interior designer, actually,” she explains, clearing her throat. “Must be about the bill, or something.”
“So it is important,” David just says. And then, “You should invite them over for dinner, your designers. I’d love to meet them.”
Naomi glances at her mobile’s screen – four missed calls. “Hm,” she just says, taking a particularly huge sip from her cup. In her head, the words courting disaster flash angrily. “Certainly they must be busy people,” she says, as nonchalantly as possible, trying hard to calm her racing heart.
“Oh come on, at least try,” says David, lowering his voice to an endearing soft murmur. He’s now crouched on the floor before her, a hand on her knee. “What do you say, a coming home party then? It’s been a while since I cooked for people, and I’m feeling rather… inspired.”
He grins up at her so openly that her heart twitches painfully. “Sure thing,” she just says, voice soft, all the while stroking the side of his face. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Chapter 19: the longest night
19. the longest night
Emily does not trust the wisdom behind such a decision that brings her to Naomi’s doorstep that night, not at all; beside her, Katie doesn’t seem to trust any of it either, most especially not Emily’s decision-making skills of late, but then they’re standing there anyway, and now all that’s left to do is knock.
“What?” says Katie, wide-eyed, off the look on Emily’s face. “You don’t expect me to do it for you, do you?”
Emily blinks, shakes her head. “Of course not,” she just says, clearing her throat. Katie straightens herself, mouths ‘Go on’ to Emily before gripping the bottle of wine in her hands tighter.
(Katie had said, “Everybody likes wine,” on the way over, when Emily mentioned not having anything in hand yet – “That’s like gate crashing Em, for fuck’s sake.” – and Emily had to pull over thrice to get to a store that actually sold something that Katie found acceptable.)
Emily knocks twice, hitting the space below the number with the edge of her knuckles. She starts holding her breath upon hearing the sound she’s made, only to release it as the door opens.
It’s Naomi who emerges from it; she pales considerably upon finding who Emily has brought along. “Katie?” she greets breathlessly, shifting her eyes between the two of them. “Well, this is – wow,” she just says softly, recovering from the initial shock of it with a small laugh.
Emily can’t help but laugh along herself. “Hi,” she just says with a little wave to go along with it. And then, nudging Katie’s wine-holding arm, she adds, “We brought you something.”
Katie rolls her eyes, though it actually comes across as rather friendly. “Hello, Naomi,” says Katie, finally addressing her; Naomi reaches over to collect the wine before leaning in to touch Katie’s cheek with hers. “A long while, yeah? Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Naomi replies promptly, stepping backward into the flat and gesturing randomly with the hand that’s not cradling the wine. “Come in, come in.”
It’s the first time that Emily’s been here since they wrapped up repairs a few days back, and she feels herself beam slightly at the sight of her work.
“A fine thing your sister’s done here,” she overhears Naomi say; when Emily turns her head, she finds Naomi ushering Katie toward the sofa, a hand around Katie’s elbow lightly. Katie’s got her eyes on the ceiling and the walls, nodding; Naomi leans in to say something to her, voice low and unintelligible from where Emily’s standing, and when Katie laughs with her Emily can’t help the way her heart’s being warmed just by the sight of them laughing together.
Great, Emily just thinks, shifting her eyes. Truth is she brought Katie as some sort of safety net, but by the looks of it, this is going to be harder than she’d imagined.
“What are you doing still standing there, Em?” Naomi calls from the sofa, where she and Katie are now seated comfortably side by side, looking just like they’re the sort of friends who would. Katie’s looking at Emily expectantly as well, something that says, pull yourself together. In the kitchen, there’s a soft ding and something sizzles briefly, and the sounds seem to light Naomi up. “Let me see what he’s up to in the kitchen,” she just says casually, pushing herself off the sofa, a hand on Katie’s knee. “Excuse me.”
And just like that, Naomi’s out of the living room, and Emily finds herself breathing out, the ache in her lungs easing, however slight.
“If you’re going to keep at that at the dinner table, you’re going to get caught, for fuck’s sake,” Katie murmurs to her as Emily sinks into the sofa. “That’s just not – you’ll have to do better, you hear me?”
Emily just nods, burying her face in her hands. This was stupid, all of it – agreeing to this dinner, agreeing to this redesign, agreeing to everything -- but then again, it’s not like she would have done anything differently anyway, given the chance. “I’ll be okay,” she says, rubbing at her eyebrows with two fingers – it’s more to herself than Katie, actually, and Katie just puts a hand on her back, rubbing it absently. Emily breathes in deep once. “Thanks.”
“I told you this was a bad idea,” says Katie, though her tone is not unkind. “We could pretend you’re sick – which you are, obviously–”
“Katie.” Emily reaches over, gripping Katie’s other hand. Katie tilts her head and looks at her curiously. “Besides,” Emily says, trying a smile. “What’s one more bad idea, yeah?”
Katie whacks her playfully just then, a light thump on her back; Emily feigns coughing softly. “This is why you’re always in trouble,” Katie just says. “You’re always making room for one more mistake, for fuck’s sake.” Emily laughs at that; they may not be spending too much time together, but Katie still gets her so accurately.
They’re still laughing when Naomi walks back in. “Hey,” she says, clearing her throat, and Emily looks up, the movement so sudden that her heart plummets accordingly, the laugh going out of her body like something solid. “Dinner’s ready, actually, but first – first, I’d like you to meet David.”
Katie gets to her feet instantly, pulling Emily along with a hand around her arm. “Pleasure to meet you, David,” Katie begins, extending a hand. The smile on her face just makes Emily a bit more anxious. “My name’s Katie and this is my sister, Emily.”
Emily feels a slight nudge upon the small of her back. Christ, she just thinks, attempting a smile of her own. It feels like the first day of college all over again. “Emily Fitch,” she just says as soon as she gets hold of her vocal chords. “Pleased to meet you.” She takes David’s hand as well, though her handshake is decidedly less firm than Katie’s, who had shaken it like a police officer (of course).
“So glad you can make it,” David says after, the smile on his face so genuine it hurts Emily from a few steps away. “So you’re both designers then?”
Katie laughs; a part of Emily wants to thank her for making this less awkward than initially predicted, but another part of her is sort of resentful that they seem to be getting on, and Emily is acutely aware of the irrationality that’s gnawing at her like a sharp, shallow stabbing into her chest.
“Oh, it’s Emily here who’s actually to be thanked for the gorgeous makeover,” Naomi intervenes; Emily doesn’t look at her, not even when she touches Emily’s arm briefly. Instead, Emily thinks about how she can’t risk it. “And Katie here is…”
“With the police force -- it’s a long story,” Katie just says. She’s being more charming than Emily’s even accustomed to, if only to hide the fact that behind Emily, she has begun moving her hand again in small circles upon Emily’s back, as if to stimulate better breathing.
Emily inhales deeply before trying to catch up with her. “From ‘Most likely to be arrested’ to ‘Most likely to make an arrest’, who would have thought?” she just says softly, mustering a small smile.
“You must have had an interesting childhood,” David just says, still grinning.
Naomi laughs the loudest that time around; when the noise of it dies down, she turns to David and says, “Why don’t you go ahead and get dinner started with Katie? I just have something to ask Emily, we won’t be long.”
Before anybody can even react properly, Naomi has pulled Emily by the arm and led her toward the bedroom, making some loud remark about the colors coming off as a big surprise before closing the door.
“What are you doing?” Emily asks in a frantic whisper, leaning back against the door. Her head’s swimming with Naomi standing so close to her; she closes her eyes, tries to remember the man Katie’s with in the kitchen, a few steps away.
“I’m sorry. This was a bad idea, wasn’t it?” says Naomi, though when Emily opens her eyes, she can tell how Naomi’s not sorry at all just by the way she’s just looking at her – still unabashedly wanting. “I mean,” she says, licking her lips, her eyes focused on the skin where Emily’s neck ends and her right shoulder begins. “Obviously, yeah?”
“Naomi,” Emily just says, stiffening as Naomi leans even closer; she swears there’s a ghost of a kiss somewhere and Emily struggles to push her away. “We can’t take long; they’re in the kitchen, for fuck’s sake.”
“Does Katie know?”
Emily pauses to look at Naomi for a moment; the wanting in her eyes hasn’t gone, but that doesn’t mean that Emily should rise to it. Does it? Emily asks herself, biting into her lip hard until the pain registers. “Yeah,” she just says in a bit and something like worry hovers upon Naomi’s face. “She’s probably not the Katie you knew – far from it, actually.”
“I suppose so,” Naomi concedes, pushing herself off Emily finally; Emily feels herself breathe out, but then all over her body the tingly sensations remain. “I don’t fancy myself getting gutted with a knife from my own kitchen, is what I’m saying.”
Emily smiles – the first authentic one that she manages for the night, actually. “Not that Katie’s incapable of that, but I know for a fact she’d rather shoot you.” Naomi laughs softly, shaking her head. She’s got her arms crossed before her chest, and the warm low light from the lamp shade in the corner wraps around her softly, and there it is again, Emily thinks, this distinct constriction in her chest that she can only associate with Naomi and nobody else. “And before you even ask, no she doesn’t have her gun,” Emily continues softly. And then, “We have to get out of here before…”
“Before?” Naomi asks, teasing.
Emily smiles despite the shudder that courses through her; how Naomi manages such a thing without even having to touch her has always been a mystery. “Shut up and just – let’s go, okay?”
Naomi sighs, rolls her shoulders before reaching for the door knob, pressing her body warmly against Emily one more time before whispering, “Okay then,” and pulling the door open.
David is having an animated discussion with Katie when Emily walks into the kitchen after Naomi; Emily hopes she doesn’t look as flushed as she feels. Katie looks at her briefly, a shadow of warning there, before returning her gaze to David and laughing.
“Everything okay?” asks David, reaching out for Naomi, who in turn walks over and stands behind him, putting a hand upon his shoulder. David picks it up, moves it toward his lips, kissing it softly on the knuckles; Emily sits there and looks away, trying to focus on the space beneath her hand instead; the texture of the table cloth under her fingers.
The noise of a chair being dragged across the floor makes Emily look up; the sounds of this house have become so painfully familiar and it’s too late to even try to disassociate them with certain things. Emily catches Naomi pulling her hand from David’s grasp as she takes her seat; she reaches for the bowl of salad and holds it over to Emily, who’s seated right beside her. From across Naomi, Katie clears her throat. The air around the room starts feeling like it’s taking on weight.
“Emily and I were just having this little debate,” says Naomi casually, breaching through the heavy air of the dining table; she’s looking over at David as Emily tries to listen in, pretending to be engrossed by whatever’s in Naomi’s proffered bowl. “About the color of the bedroom, I meant, as it turned out to be completely different from what we’d earlier agreed upon.”
Emily raises her brow at that, uncertain if Naomi’s just making conversation, or if there’s actually an ounce of truth in there. “What, you don’t like it?” she asks, smiling as she takes the bowl from Naomi, fingers brushing against hers; Emily hears Naomi’s breath hitch just then. Under the table, something nudges at Emily’s foot, and when she turns to offer the bowl to Katie she shoots Emily a knowing glance.
“It’s not that I don’t like it, I was just pleasantly surprised, is all,” says Naomi. “I thought it would be… bluer.”
“You mean, like your eyes?” David interjects, and Emily’s fork slips from her hand; it makes a loud clanging sound as it falls upon the side of the plate, and Emily just mutters, “Oh god, sorry,” before lifting it to check for breakage. She breathes out when she sees the plate unscathed. Under the table, Katie just nudges her foot again, more forcefully.
“Too bright, I’m afraid,” says Emily, swallowing; she’s focusing on cutting her vegetables this time, her smile too thin. “We had discussed the next hue closer to dark green though?”
“Ah, so that was what it was?” Naomi asks, perking up a little. “I thought… well, it looked different smaller.”
“Well—” Emily begins.
“If I may say something, I think the bedroom is fantastic,” David interrupts, smiling Emily’s way. He’s always smiling, Emily thinks, and the unsettling thing about it is that it feels like he really means it. “Something about it reminds me of the sea and the forest at the same time; remember Cyprus, Nae? The bedroom feels like Cyprus.” He reaches over and brushes something off the corner of Naomi’s lips; she laughs as she dabs at it with a napkin, after.
It is then that something in Emily’s chest breaks, the pieces of it piercing through everything like splinters, and so reaches for her glass of wine and downs all of it in one go. She never knows when to look away, and right now she feels her head spinning a little as well. I’m not ssupposed to be here, she just thinks, and the most devastating thing about it is actually not jealousy -- that much she has prepared for, really; what guts Emily more is the envy that she clearly didn’t expect herself to feel.
It throws her totally in the end; from across the table, David touches her hand and Emily pulls away from him quickly like she’s just been doused hot water. “Are you all right?” David asks, and just the fact that her breakdown is noticeable is enough to clog her chest further, like there’s one too many things inside. “Can I get you anything?”
Emily breathes in; under the table she feels a hand on each knee as Katie and Naomi lean in closer. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she says, making small gestures with her hands. She shifts her eyes between Katie and Naomi quickly, both of their palms now warm upon her knees. “Really sorry, David, it’s just—”
“Here,” David says, smiling wider – relaxed. He’s pushing a glass of water toward her, looking at her so softly that Emily feels herself cave in and she stares at his kindness like it were a coup de grace.
When she’s strong enough for it, she finally comes around to saying, “Excuse me,” pushing against the table and pulling away from Katie and Naomi’s hands. She walks toward the bathroom, closing the door behind her; she runs her hands under the faucet, splashing cold water upon her face before staring at herself on the mirror and mulling over the girl there, as she feels entirely different – or at least, different from a month ago.
Not the girl I was, she just thinks before patting her face dry with the hand towel hanging by the sink. It smells clean, like Naomi’s skin after a bath; the scent alone is enough to make her feel dizzy and she takes a moment to recollect herself, a hand gripping the edge of the sink. To calm herself, she looks around – the bathroom’s new color is a barely-there hue of blue and Emily’s at least pleased that it goes superbly well with the tiles. It’s a long while later when she gets out, and she finds Katie leaning against the wall opposite the bathroom door.
“I was worried about you,” Katie just says quietly, staring at the floor. “You all right?”
Emily nods. “Yeah.” And then, “A horrible time to have something lodged in my throat, is all.”
Katie grimaces at her, shrugging. “You’re a horrible liar,” she just says before moving to enter the bathroom herself. Just then, Emily hears the sound of water running in the kitchen where, presumably, they’ve begun washing dishes.
Emily stops by the kitchen door upon finding David alone by the sink. “Anything I can help with?” she calls out softly, clearing her throat.
David closes the faucet momentarily, looks over his shoulder. “Hey,” he just says. “I don’t know, I’ve got it pretty covered – but thanks, I think.” And then, “Have a seat, if you want – Naomi’s out, perhaps smoking at the end of the hallway.”
“You don’t smoke?”
“Later, maybe,” he just says, turning the faucet back on. Emily thinks it over briefly, whether to stay or to head out and look for Naomi instead. Despite the thumping in her chest, she finds herself walking over and leaning against the sink, a few steps from where David has his forearms halfway into water. “Can I tell you a secret?”
The feeling of dread is heavy as it is at the pit of Emily’s stomach, but she says yes anyway. “Sure thing.”
“To be honest, I was hoping this wouldn’t turn out so prettily, you know?” he says, smiling wanly to himself, not even turning his head to look at Emily. “Now the pad looks so inviting it’d be so hard to leave it, know what I’m saying?”
Emily doesn’t know what to say to that so she just crosses her arms in front of her chest, hugging herself and making some sort of non-committal noise, if only to signify that she heard.
“You think,” he begins uncertainly, pulling the utensils out of the suds and running them under the faucet for a final rinse. “You think she’d ever go traveling with me again?”
Great, Emily thinks, breathing in and marveling at how much David really does not seem to know, but Emily tries anyway; he’s such a good man. “Have you asked?”
David shakes his head as he opens the drawer of utensils and deposits the dried forks and spoons there. “I don’t know if I still have to,” he says. “Or rather – if I still can.”
“You’re her husband, of course you can,” Emily says, amazed at how quickly the words are coming to her, no matter how painful they feel going through her throat; coming out of her lips. “Ask her.”
At that, David laughs. “You know what? You’re right,” he says, nodding as he reaches for the next set of washables. “Maybe I’ll ask her later.” And then, “It’s just – I’ve never seen her so comfortable, you know?”
Emily bites her lip; this is totally unwarranted and undeserved – fuck, they’re not even friends. “Look – it’s up to you, okay?” She breathes in before adding, “Clearly, she loves you.” The words roll out like heavy stones, and inside she feels like she’s going to be sick again. Clearly, she repeats to herself, and at that she closes her eyes briefly.
When she opens them a split-second later, David has pulled the last of the newly cleaned glasses out of the water and set them aside before reaching over for the nearby kitchen towel to dry his hands. He just smiles at her as he asks, “Really, you think?” before adding, “Can you go find Naomi and tell her I’m done?”
Emily takes a while to respond. “Sure,” she says, her voice soft and barely there. In her chest, she feels her heart precariously dangling upon a thread so thin.
She finds Naomi as expected smoking out of a veranda at the end of the floor’s hallway, from where the view is that of the city below ablaze with street lights. Naomi’s lazily leaning over the railing with a fag between her two fingers, and a quick survey of the floor tells Emily how she’s been chain-smoking.
“Got some more?” Emily whispers, settling beside her and huddling closer as a cold night breeze blows past them. Naomi reaches into a back pocket and slides the pack out with a soft rustling sound. Emily slides a cigarette out of the pack, leaning in to light the tip of it with Naomi’s lit fag. The night is just dark enough that they can see the smoke curling from their lips as they exhale before it dissolves in the mid-distance.
After a while, Naomi finally speaks. “Feeling better now?”
Emily shrugs, still looking ahead into the dark. “Considerably,” she says. “I was horrible, wasn’t I?”
Naomi laughs softly. “Well, at least you didn’t pass out,” she just says, and Emily can’t help but laugh along, taking a final drag from her cigarette before stubbing it against the metal railing and flicking it into the night. From not too far away, she sees a stop light turn green and the car move on to the other side.
“What an achievement,” Emily just says wryly. She motions to Naomi for the pack and Naomi hands it to her gingerly, along with the lighter. “He’s going to ask you to travel, you know.”
“He told you this?” asks Naomi, starting with a fresh fag herself and Emily just nods, the smoke lining up between them in thin wisps. “Oh David; still always trusting every good-looking stranger, aren’t we?”
“Hey,” Emily says, grinning as she gestures with a cigarette-holding hand. “So you think he thinks I’m attractive?”
Naomi laughs, hitting Emily’s shoulder gently with an open palm. “Fucking stop,” she just says. And then, “He knows I’m not leaving this place. He knows I’m tired.”
“Tired, is that it?” asks Emily and just like that the mood is serious again and Emily’s back to staring out to the quiet city. “He loves you, you know?” And then, “Do you?”
Naomi clears her throat, shifts around so her back’s against the railing and she’s facing the hallway. “Look at you,” she says, and Emily turns her head, if only to see Naomi flicking ashes to the floor. “Asking the big questions, aren’t we?”
“Answer it then.” Naomi looks up at her, putting the cigarette to her lips and drawing from it slowly, and at that Emily has to look away. Now’s not the time, she tells herself firmly. “Answer me.”
Naomi shakes her head as she exhales. “You think it’s so simple, don’t you? A yes or no thing?”
“It is and it isn’t,” Naomi says and Emily just looks up at the ceiling, frustrated. “A yes and a no.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Emily says. “You can’t be doing this now.”
Naomi’s quiet a long while before she says, “So, someday then?” Her voice is so soft and it comes out like a break-up speech and just like that Emily’s all too young again and she’s feeling something sharp pushing into her chest. “In better days, I hope.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to be with you – it’s that I don’t want to do this with you – you’re more than this.” When Naomi drops her fag to the ground and crushes it under her heel, Emily sees her heart in its place instead. “You’re more than an affair. I hope you get what I mean.”
What she means. Emily turns the words over and over in her head and yet there’s nothing there; she is done for the night so she just nods and says, “Someday, then,” as if she agrees; takes a last drag before she drops her cigarette in kind. She’s already walking away when she adds, “Have a nice life.”
Minutes later, Emily’s shaking David’s hand and hugging him. “You should definitely ask her.” And then, “Good luck.” Katie eyes her warily before shaking his hand in kind and thanking him for the wonderful dinner.
“Sorry – Naomi’s still out smoking, just let me call her—”
“No need,” Emily interrupts gently. “We’ll catch her on the way out.” She pauses before adding, “See you soon” in the best half-hearted way she can muster.
Once they’re out on the hallway, Emily turns her head to the direction of the veranda, where Naomi’s still smoking, facing the rest of the night.
Katie gestures toward her. “Is that—”
“It’s over,” Emily just says, unable to keep it in. “It’s for the best.”
Katie looks over one last time before ushering Emily toward the elevators and moving the other way, a hand upon Emily’s back rubbing patterns.
Naomi stops leaving messages after Emily ignores the fifth voicemail and the sixteenth text message, and answers none of the phone calls.
Emily starts dreaming of waiting around in empty airports instead.
The next time Emily hears from her, it’s already sometime months later, through a postcard in the mail – it’s a photo of white square buildings against the backdrop of impossibly blue sea.
It’s unsigned, but Naomi’s handwriting is unmistakable; Emily remembers it most clearly from the check Naomi had written, after all. On the other side, she’d only written, “Someday,” before appending at the lower right corner of it the month, the year and the place – Greece.
Emily looks at it for a long time before slipping it into a drawer. Out of sight, out of mind.
Chapter 20: rewind
It’s a good while after when Naomi bumps into Emily again, while on holiday years later. It’s early on a Sunday in one of the side streets in Chinatown, right in the heart of the city and Naomi’s eating a rice cake when it happens: she turns her head abruptly, only to catch a glimpse of a familiar shade of red.
There’s a bit of a chase; this girl-who-could-be-Emily disappears into the crowd quickly as she’s small, only to resurface later as she pauses to take a few photographs. Naomi struggles to keep up, parting the crowd and braving the midday sun without a hat. Under her shoes the scattered gravel on the road are coarse and pointy against her feet. This was supposed to be only breakfast, as she’s catching a flight out of the city that night, but to say that the world is rather irresistibly small at the most crucial of times is such an understatement at the moment.
It’s in a small restaurant that she catches her finally; Naomi pushes open the rickety door, the metal screen of it creaking slightly. Emily’s seated by the wall, conversing with the waitress with one hand holding the menu and the other one pointing at it. She is alone – or at least, she’s eating alone, but then again she could have been eating with an entire group of tourists and still, Naomi would have approached her anyway.
Emily takes a few moments before finally noticing; all the while, Naomi just stands there, noting the small beads of sweat upon Emily’s brow silently at first before finally clearing her throat twice. Emily’s busy and distracted, her head bowed as she reviews the photos she’s taken in her camera; she looks up at the noise and Naomi watches, amused, as the color drains out of Emily’s face upon realizing who she was.
“Fucking hell,” Emily mutters, fingertips stilling; Naomi takes the liberty to settle into the seat across her. One of the women approaches them with the menu and hands it to Naomi, who tries to look it over seriously but is ultimately unable to keep a straight face. “How is it that this happens all the time?” Emily just whispers and Naomi instructs the waitress to just bring two of whatever Emily’s having.
“I don’t know,” Naomi just says, studying Emily’s face for signs of the years between; Naomi sees none, apart from the lines by the corner of Emily’s eyes as she squints right at her. Amidst the questions crowding her head, the first one that comes out of Naomi’s lips is, “How long have you been here, anyway?”
Emily takes a sip from her glass of water. “Three days now,” she just says. “I’m due to fly out tonight for somewhere else, though.” She’s fanning herself with her shirt; this place during this month is hottest, from what Naomi’s read. “This summer is cruel,” Emily just says, breathing out.
“Where to?” Naomi asks, leaning in. From the distance, there’s the sound of fireworks going off; it strikes Naomi as odd, that something like that should happen right in the middle of the day. Across her, Emily’s flushed by the heat and upon her face there’s already this pretty blush that’s getting quite impossible to ignore as the minutes go by. Naomi almost reaches over, her fingertips itching and missing her skin; instead she grips the end of their table, suddenly reminded of propriety and the rest of the years in between.
Emily mispronounces an island’s name and Naomi’s heart does a double flip. Of course, she tells herself, What were the chances?
Apparently, whenever it comes to the both of them, it’s always a generous figure.
It’s duck and not chicken, and they spend the latter half of their meal just laughing at how Naomi just lost the bet. “Not like they taste different,” Naomi just says, pouting as she lowers her fork.
“Christ, they’re not the same at all,” Emily says, laughing harder. She’s shaking her head as she gathers her things before getting up and leaving a tip. Naomi follows suit, a bit awkward; truth be told, she thinks time’s been entirely too short, too fast, and now she doesn’t even know where to put her hands.
“Hey, do you have anywhere else to go?” she asks, walking after Emily and getting out of the restaurant.
Emily steps into the middle of the narrow street, looks up and squints; it’s nearly noon by now, Naomi can feel the painful prickling of the sun upon her skin. When she looks up herself, there are clouds like feathers in the sky. “Not really, why?” Emily says, shrugging. “And you?”
Naomi mentally checks her itinerary – back to the hotel by two or three, then to the airport by six or seven, maybe dinner in between. It’s not even lunch time and already she’s so full she can barely move. “None as well,” she just says.
Emily shoves both her hands into her pockets; she begins walking toward the intersection, looking both ways for incoming traffic before sprinting to the other side of the road, resting against the wall under the shade of an old building. “Though really, a shower sounds lovely right now,” she just says and Naomi can’t help but laugh even harder. Some things never change, she just thinks, suddenly overwhelmed by an entirely fond feeling. “But I’m afraid that means going back to the hotel room, so.” Emily lets it hang, turns her head to look at the sweet-smelling cheesecakes and cassava that they’re selling a few steps away.
“So?” Naomi repeats, blinking out the renewed appetite the smell of burning cheese usually inspires. Still the sun is getting higher and harder to evade. Naomi squints as she tries to read from afar the signage above the place they’ve just been in – it’s a four-syllable Chinese-sounding name that she’ll likely forget later.
When Naomi shifts her eyes back to Emily, she sees her pulling a pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and lighting one, her back against the wall. “How long has it been?” asks Emily, taking a drag and exhaling upward, and Naomi tries to focus on lighting her own fag as well, instead of the skin of Emily’s neck . “What are you up to? What are you doing here?” Emily continues, exhaling.
“You ask way too many questions, Ms Fitch,” Naomi just says, and ultimately failing to resist the urge, she finally reaches over to brush a fingertip against Emily’s cheek; it takes Emily completely by surprise and she lets out a high-pitched sound that’s loud enough to catch the attention of a group of young Chinese-looking girls standing nearby. “There, you’ve interrupted peace now, look at you,” Naomi teases, and Emily laughs even louder.
When the sound of it dies down, Emily returns to her fag, looking at Naomi with narrowed eyes. “Careful,” she just says quietly. “I mean – isn’t this how it happened the last time?”
Naomi bites her lip as she moves to touch Emily’s arm lightly. That the suspended belief dies quickly this time around with the necessary acknowledgement of history this early on does not actually surprise Naomi; or at least, not more than the fact that Emily’s still standing here, unmoving under Naomi’s fingertips, unanswered messages and unreturned phone calls notwithstanding.
“There again with these questions,” Naomi just says, taking a last drag from her cigarette before dropping it. “And for the record, I know nothing of this last time you’re referring to, hmm?” she adds, aiming for charm instead.
Emily laughs again at that, giving Naomi a playful shove. “You’re impossible sometimes,” she says, and when Naomi looks at her, the grin Emily has on is impossible not to return.
Naomi just says, “And I bumped into you right in the middle of Chinatown -- clearly, we do well with impossible.”
Emily just inhales deeply, still smiling as she nods. “Always have,” she says, so soft that Naomi almost does not catch it. Emily looks at the pack in her hand as if contemplating whether to light another one before looking back out across the road; the alley they’ve emerged from has begun filling with people as lunch hour draws closer. “You should buy me coffee,” Emily says. “You owe me for saying chicken.” She pushes herself off the wall and begins walking.
Naomi concedes. “Fine,” she says, moving to catch Emily’s wrist and wrapping a hand around it, tugging at the pack of fags in Emily’s grip with the other. Emily looks back over her shoulder at her, her lips forming that small “Oh” of surprise. Naomi pulls a fag out and lights it, trying to keep the shake out of her hands; trying to not miss a step. “So. Anywhere with you, then?”
The small sound that Emily makes nudges at Naomi’s chest in a way that brings something back to life; Naomi tries to dismiss the blush on Emily’s face as just the heat and nothing else.
Over coffee, Naomi tells her about the past couple of years, and Emily leans in to listen better above the noise of public transport. “I quit my job,” says Naomi, drawing from her cigarette. “It’s about time.” They’re sitting outside a coffee shop on the corner of two busy streets and that time Naomi has to speak over the rumble of the occasional bus rounding the nearby rotunda.
The shock on Emily’s face is unmistakable and delicious. “But you loved what you were doing,” she just says, unlit fag dangling upon the corner of her lips, lighter hovering in front of it. “What happened?”
Naomi sinks back into her seat, her feet propped upon the empty chair beside her. When she catches the time, she sees it’s already a little past noon; the air around them is already too heavy with dust and sun. “I wanted to do something to scare myself, I suppose,” she just says.
Emily tilts her head slightly, giving her a look that Naomi reads as a cross between awe and disbelief. “Have you scared yourself enough then?” she just asks, sipping from her macchiato. “What are you up to now?”
Naomi shrugs. Fear is such a relative word, and it’s beyond measurement, really. “Freelancing,” she just says. “Fucking about mostly in beaches. Best time of my life, if you ask me. It’s been an eventful few years.” The word ‘eventful’ rolls out of her lips so slowly that she almost tastes the sweet edges of it and she can’t help but smile.
Perhaps sensing that, Emily clears her throat, eyeing her carefully. “What about David?”
Naomi takes an extra long sip off her chai latte. Of course, David. Truth be told, she’d expected Emily to hold it off longer, this urge to ask about him; but then since perhaps there’s no telling how short this reunion is about to be, now should be a good time as any. “As I’ve said,” Naomi just begins, carefully choosing her words. “It’s been an eventful few years.”
The look on Emily’s face shifts from surprise to worry to confusion; her eyes widen as she opens her mouth a few times as if to say something, before closing them again as the words flee from her head at the last minute. In the end, all she comes up with is a soft, “You’re not saying?”
“It doesn’t matter what I’m saying,” Naomi just says, trying to look at Emily as levelly as possible. It’s not that she’s trying to guard her heart this time around, the way it wasn’t before; just that it’s a particularly dangerous moment for hints at promises and open doors.
That said, they don’t mention David again.
That night at the city’s airport, Naomi spots Emily at the lounge; she’s sitting on one of the chairs with her backpack on the seat beside her and like this morning at the restaurant, she’s previewing photographs in her camera to while away the time. She’s wearing a denim jacket that Naomi’s familiar with; her hair falling upon the side of her face. Naomi breathes in deep before approaching.
“It’s a big place, you know,” Naomi says, seating herself beside Emily’s bag as she lowers her own on the floor, placing it right between her legs. Emily looks up, brightening considerably. Naomi continues with a smile. “Which means you can easily lose me if you don’t want to see me again.”
“What are you talking about?” asks Emily, smiling back. “What time’s your flight anyway?”
“Nine,” says Naomi, looking at her watch. She’s about an hour early for check-in, but in truth it’s Emily’s flight she was hoping to catch. Naomi shows Emily the ticket in her hand.
Emily studies it; says, “Oh,” a while after. And then, “I’ll be out in a few – mine’s perhaps the flight before.”
“I know,” Naomi just says, and off the confused look on Emily’s face, she adds, “You mentioned over coffee.”
“Ah,” says Emily, the blush on her face now unmistakable; Naomi looks away, aware that she doesn’t have the heat to blame this time. “Though why would I want that?” Emily asks, clearing her throat. “I meant, lose you. On the island. It’s just—” she shakes her head, producing a sheet of paper from one pocket and scribbling her resort address upon it before handing it to Naomi. “Find me, okay?” Her hand lingers a moment too long, her fingers pressing against the center of Naomi’s hand warmly.
Naomi stares at it, perhaps harder than necessary; tries to commit it to memory, just in case. Her hand burns where Emily’s touched it. “Now there’s something I’ve never really had a problem with,” she just says.
There’s a brief wordless gap between before Emily speaks again. “I used to dream of you, you know,” she says, her voice so soft and small, and Naomi’s filled with this sort of aching from a long while ago. “I used to dream of waiting for you in airports. You never showed up.”
Naomi swallows at that, her heart feeling heavy. “I dreamed of you all the time,” she just says back, even softer. She remembers Greece, Tirana, Belize; all the other unsent post cards. “Just so you know.”
Overhead, a man on the PA system is announcing Emily’s flight, and Naomi watches as Emily opens her backpack to deposit her camera inside before zipping it closed and shrugging it on as she stands. She breathes in as she turns to Naomi and says, “I have to go.”
Naomi stands in kind. “So this is how it’s going to be, yeah?” she asks finally. How it’s going to be. It’s been a funny game of hide and seek and horrible timing; what’s one more round then?
Emily just says, “Maybe,” a small smile playing upon her face. They stand a bit longer in the middle of an airport that’s slowly stirring to life as passengers start milling about for the next flight out. They’re not touching at all – just looking.
“I don’t mind waiting,” Emily just says, after a while.
“Neither do I,” Naomi says back, and with a small wave and a smile Emily turns around and heads for the passenger queue. Naomi watches the line move; stares on as Emily finally disappears into the connecting tube.
Once she’s out of sight, Naomi opens her hand to look at what Emily’s written, stares at it again; right then, she’s unable to stop her heart from filling with a sort of hope that, for the first time in a very long while, she doesn’t feel so compelled to dismiss.