Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 3 • Fall 2002 • Fiction


Heather Mitchell

Jenna sits, smoking, at an outdoor table. The physical details of habit -- the slow inhale, hold, grateful exhale as she taps hot cinders into the ashtray beside her steaming mug -- do not reveal her nine-year-long status as a non-smoker. Nine years, yet I am not surprised when she stubs out the cigarette and immediately pulls another from the pack, holding it into the flame of a cheap plastic disposable lighter.

This small thing reminds me how much time has passed. That we are no longer twenty-something graduate students, drunk on red wine and idealism. Convinced that if we debated the deconstruction of a text long enough, we could pull a thirty-page paper out of the air between us, that our intensity and passion for words would somehow metamorphose into passion for one another.

We tried. Tumbling into bed together, we'd get halfway there and find ourselves sitting shirtless, ashing our cigarettes into an empty pop can on the blanket between our legs, arguing again about cultural context, authorial relevance, whatever. We were too in love with each other's minds to fall in love with each other's bodies.

Now, ten years later, she's a PhD, a tenure-track assistant professor. I got tired of tearing apart other people's creativity and dropped out, my dissertation a draft or two away from completion, oral exams a single semester away. By the time I came home from almost two years of finding myself in Australia and New Zealand, she'd met Alison, quit smoking, and given up meat.

"Jenna." I walk toward her though the maze of patio tables, trying to stay under the awning, out of the rain. "Jenna," I say again, louder. She turns to me, doesn't laugh as I nearly trip over a chair leg. She stands, hands on hips, waiting. I hug her, kiss her the way I always do, before I really look at her. "Jesus, Jen, you look like shit."

Her brown hair falls limply to her shoulders, framing a face that is drawn and pale. Nicotine-stained fingers push lank hair out of her blue, dark-circled eyes.

"What's going on?" The twinge of worry I felt when I heard her message on my voicemail grows into serious concern.

"Get a coffee. This is going to take a while." She sits again, staring through the rain at the deserted beach across the street.

When I rejoin her at the table, I light a cigarette with the Zippo she gave me the first time I left the country. I've carried it for ten years, back and forth across oceans, through innumerable border crossings. Smoke catches in her throat, sending her into a coughing spasm. When it subsides, she inhales again. Always stubborn.

"Jenna, talk."

She leans back in her chair, propping her feet on the railing, exhaling a plume of smoke towards the awning that shelters us from the almost warm spring rain.

"She's pregnant."

"What?" I ask when my own coughing fit ends. "Who's pregnant? Alison?"

"Yeah. Ten, no, eleven weeks now." She sends a string of half-formed smoke rings politely away from me.

"I thought you two had decided not to --"

"So did I," she cuts me off. "She changed her mind."

We smoke quietly, my untouched coffee rapidly cooling, the cream forming a skin across the surface. However calm Jenna may seem, I know her. I know how to wait for her. She abruptly stubs out her cigarette and stands.

"C'mon," she says, scooping up her pack of Player's Extra Mild and the green corner store lighter. "I need a drink."

"Jenna, it's not even three o'clock," I protest.

"So?" She shoves her hands into the pockets of her battered denim jacket, glaring at me the way a seventeen-year-old would, daring me to question her right to anger and rebellion. "Don't you remember what we used to say, Ariane? 'One can't hurt, five might help'?" She quotes our twenty-four-year-old selves with a petulance that barely masks despair.

I follow her into a restaurant down the street, where she requests a patio table. Despite the rain, it's half full. Since the city's interiors became almost entirely smoke free, patio business has boomed. The waiter becomes a shade more differential when Jenna orders a bottle of a higher end red wine. Once she completes the ritual that has driven her to distraction since we worked in restaurants ourselves -- approve the bottle, feel and smell the cork, tilt and swirl the glass, sniff, sip, nod -- and the waiter has filled our glasses and disappeared, she looks at me and sighs.

"What am I going to do, Ari?"

"Why don't you start at the beginning?" I suggest, wincing at the cliché.

"You know she's always wanted a kid, right?" I nod and she goes on. "It's all we've really talked about for the past few years. Should we, shouldn't we, if we do, how do we do it. You should know; you were there for most of it."

I sip my wine, remembering the conversations -- some closer to fights than to discussions -- they've had off and on for about five years, until eight months ago, when Alison had finally agreed that it wasn't fair to bring a child into a relationship unless both partners wanted it. Jenna had been relieved; like me, she'd never had the slightest desire for motherhood. At one point, I'd worried that their relationship wouldn't survive the question.

"And then?" I prompt her.

"And then she didn't say anything else about it. Until yesterday, when she came home from the doctor and dropped it on me. 'I did it,' she said. 'I'm pregnant.' Like she was saying 'I went grocery shopping,' or 'I picked up the dry cleaning,' that nonchalantly, but with this look on her face that I can't even describe. Kind of like the way you looked when you quit school. That weird mix of triumph and determination and freedom. Like she didn't care what anyone was going to say, not even me, and we've been together for almost ten years. Ten years!"

Cutlery clatters to the floor, the wine glass shattering on impact.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs to the waiter who has suddenly appeared at her side, broom and dustpan in hand.

"It's all right," he reassures her, then grins. "One less to polish."

Jenna and I laugh with him. I wonder if these phrases are passed down through generations of servers, along with the ability to tie a perfect double Windsor knot and get any stain out of a white shirt.

When the cutlery and wine glass have been replaced, Jenna slides a cigarette out of her pack, plucks my lighter from my fingers, and flicks it open.

"Remember when I gave this to you, Ariane?"

"Of course," I answer. "At the airport. I nearly missed my flight to Sydney because it was so hard to say goodbye to you."

"That's kind of how I feel now. Like Alison just got on a plane and is flying to the other side of the planet. But the difference is it wasn't hard for her to leave. She didn't even look over her shoulder to wave goodbye."

"Have you two talked about this?"

"Not really," she says, fiddling with her glass. "We only had a few hours before I had to go to work, and when I got home she was out celebrating with Matt. She left me a note asking me to call her at work or at his place tonight."

"Matt? Is he --" I can't finish the sentence. Father isn't a word I can use right now.

"Yeah. They've been sleeping together for the past six months, trying to knock her up."

"They've been what?" The couple two tables over stares; I breathe for moment until I trust myself to not shout again. "Are they in --" I stop myself before I say love "-- a relationship?"

"No more so than they ever have been," Jenna answers, not as bitterly as I would have expected, given her feelings about Alison's best friend. "They both wanted a baby, and now they're having one. But they're not going to live together or anything. Alison says she still loves me and she wants us to raise it together."

"Fait accompli. Jesus, that's cold," I say, thinking about Jenna's choice of words. 'It,' not 'the baby,' or even 'the kid.'

"Yeah, except she doesn't see it that way. She thinks I'm going to be angry for a while, then adjust, then fall in love with it via sonogram or something, and by the time it's born I'll be as excited as she is."

I pick up where she leaves off. "But you've never wanted children, or been fond of ultimatums."

"Or of being lied to and cheated on."

"Or that," I concede, pausing until the waiter has refilled our glasses and is presumably out of earshot before speaking again. "What did she say about sleeping with him?"

"She doesn't see it as cheating, since the only reason they did it was to get her pregnant. I guess she's never heard of artificial insemination. But then, she's always been a low-tech kind of girl."

I can't help laughing, remembering my first few meetings with Alison. I'd thought her a femme, like me, then realized she was a held-over hippie. Or, to be more honest but less kind, an extra-crunchy granola Lesbian. Even when she spoke, I could hear the capitalization.

Realizing that Jenna and I are well on our way to drunkenness, I flag down the waiter.

"Another bottle of that red, please, and a few appetizers. You choose, but no beef, bacon, or shellfish, if that's possible."

He nods and vanishes again, leaving me to remember how much I'd hated it when customers had done that to me. Looking into the restaurant's main room, I see him standing at the wait station, shaking his head as he tells another server about the two drunk dykes on the patio. When he returns with the second bottle and a tasting glass, however, he's the epitome of graciousness.

I speed through the little ritual with him, despite the fact that, unlike my best friend, I enjoy the formality. Even when I was the one standing, corkscrew in one hand, bottle in the other, I got a kick out of it. When he's gone, I turn to Jenna.

"You already know what you're going to do, don't you?" I try to make the question gentle, taking her hand as she starts to cry.

"Yeah." She draws deeply from her cigarette, then stubs it out with a fierceness I don't see in her eyes. "I'm leaving her."

We sit, holding hands, until the waiter appears with hummus, bruschetta, a bacon-free Caesar salad, and a baked goat's cheese spread. I make sure Jenna eats as the wind pushes the rain clouds north, towards the mountains, and the sun sets over English Bay.

Watching ribbons of pink and orange spread across the horizon, Jenna smiles at me.

"You know," she says, "life and art. It's strange..."

"What's strange?" I ask, prepared to follow her train of thought down its wine- and grief-hazed path.

"All those books we had to read, all the ones I still teach. Whenever someone's heart gets broken, it keeps raining." She gazes across the bay again, then reaches into her pocket for a pair of sunglasses. After sliding them on, she lights another cigarette. "Ultimata."

"Pardon?" I ask, the non sequitur catching me off guard.

"Ultimata. That's the plural of 'ultimatum'."

"Jenna, you're insane." I laugh.

"Yeah, but that's why you love me. No one else would dare to correct your grammar." She drains the rest of her wine, then sets the empty glass gently on the table.

Heather Mitchell received her BA from Mills College in 1997, but abandoned graduate school after realizing her true calling was as a mixer of near-perfect martinis. She currently lives in her hometown, Vancouver, BC, with her honey, Lynda, and can most often be found riding her motorcycle in the general vicinity of her favorite tattoo parlor. A certified wine geek, she's studying to become a sommelier and working on a novel (or two). Her work has been previously published in Hot and Bothered 2: Short Short Fiction on Lesbian Desire.

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