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Chapter Fifteen. The fire station was fairly quiet most of Tuesday




The fire station was fairly quiet most of Tuesday. Mary sat on the rec room couch, hunched over the coffee table, flipping inattentively through a magazine. While she hadnt wished for anyone to be rescued from a burning building or need medical attention, she longed for back-to-back calls. Even a false report of smoke or a minor car accident would be welcome. Anything to keep her mind off Beth.

She was still confused over their last conversation. Things had seemed to be going fine and she was beginning to really like Beth.

She was the first person to come along since Gwen had died who made her want to slow down and feel more than just physical intimacy. Since moving to San Francisco, shed told very few people about Gwens death, sharing only the broadest details. She had protected herself by tucking that painful episode away in the hope that one day the anguish would finally evaporate. It never had.

But spending time with Beth had opened up that part of her shed kept locked up. Sharing the story of Gwens death had felt so natural, Mary knew she was talking with a woman who could mean something to her. Not since Gwen had she let herself feel deeper feelings; it had been too scary to try. There was no connection with the women shed dated. But when she was with Beth, the fear of getting close just melted away and Mary wanted to reach out to her.

Make some cookies, woman. Tucker, another firefighter/paramedic, clapped his hand on her back as he walked by.

Make your own cookies, Tucker.

I probably should. You never put enough chocolate chips in yours.

Tall and wiry, Tucker was her closest friend at the station. Theyd gone into more blazes shoulder to shoulder than anyone else she worked with.

So tell me what youre moping around for. He lay on the floor, flung his booted feet up onto the coffee table, and commenced a series of sit-ups.

I just feel like shit, thats all.

Shit as in I ate something bad or shit as in Im gonna bash the next person that asks me whats wrong? He puffed each time he sat up.

I met someone that I really like. And she doesnt feel the same way.

Who could not like you, Mary? Youre indescribably delicious.

Like you would know.

No, but I have to listen to all the women that come by here looking for you. They dont give too many details, but those are some wanton and shameless looks on their faces.

The best thing about working for the fire department in the City by the Bay was that Mary could be out without having to deal with negative attitudes about her sexuality. Half the men were gay as well.

You exaggerate, my friend. She leaned back on the couch. This ones different. Shes amazing. I love talking with her. I love being with her. I havent felt this way in a long time. And she doesnt want anything to do with me now.

What did you do to her?

Mary laughed, knowing that he was kidding. But maybe she had done something. I wish I knew.

Have you told her shes different from the rest?

No. I was just starting to feel that way when she told me she didnt want to see me anymore. As a matter of fact, when she came over the last time, I was so happy to see her I knew it would be the right time to let her know.

But you didnt get the chance?

Mary shook her head.

Thats tough. He got up and sat on the edge of the couch next to her. He ruffled her hair. She doesnt know what shes missing.

The station phone rang and they both remained where they were, knowing one of the rookies would run to answer it.

Mary, a voice called from the kitchen. Phones for you.

She got up and reached for the wall-mounted extension. After a few minutes talking, she hung up and plopped back onto the couch. Tucker had finished his sit-ups and was in the middle of stretching. Was that her?

No. That was Maria.

And whos Maria?

Someone I met about a month ago. She wants to hook up.

Maybe thatll get your mind off your unrequited love.

Mary closed the magazine. I doubt it.

 

The weather was cold and miserable, which was just fine since it was one of Beths rest days. After leaving Marys on Saturday, shed run a six-mile loop, the same route Mary had taken her on. On Sunday she ran the route again, only in the opposite direction. Both runs were wretched endeavors, punctuated with thoughts of Marys wit and her engaging laugh. At certain street corners, or as she ran past a bakery or office building, remnants of past conversations came streaming back and her feet began to feel heavy.

On those days, her efforts became arduous and loathsome, and she berated herself for choosing the same route. But she had less than a week left and it was easier to stick to the routes she already knew. At least, thats what shed told herself.

On Monday and Tuesday, she ran east down Market Street to the San Francisco Bay and back. The change in route did nothing to quell her thoughts about Mary. The memory of how Mary tasted and the sensations she felt when Marys incredible hands glided over her body dominated her thoughts.

With no run scheduled for today, she took a long, hot shower. That was the extent of her productive activity. She moped around the house for the rest of the afternoon, chatting with the Coops residents as they came and went. She called Candace, hoping for reports of a flurry of incoming work that would give her an excuse to leave. But there had been no such news.

Keith had gotten sick of Beth sulking around the house for the last three days, so hed slapped her on the knee and announced that they were going out dancing. Shed grudgingly gone upstairs to change her clothes, but by the time she descended the staircase, she was actually looking forward to getting her mind off Mary. A little alcohol and some sweaty dancing would do her good.

Two beers, she said. And then were going home.

Ten minutes later they walked in a bar called the Lexington. One quick look around the dark-paneled establishment told her otherwise. It was filled with women enjoying the Wednesday night beer special.

I assumed youd take me to a mens bar, Beth said, pleasantly surprised.

Im feeling a little pudgy, so I didnt want to hold my gut in all night at a mens place. Besides, you and I can cut a rug anywhere, honey, Keith declared and took her hand, leading her to the bar.

The first beer went down well. It was cool and frothy and Beth laughed with Keith as he entertained the women around them with flamboyant stories of his life. She relaxed and felt a little lighter than she had since breaking it off with Mary. But she was sad inside, feeling the paradox of liking someone very much yet knowing she was completely wrong.

Just run the race and then get back to L.A.

I gotta pee, Keith said. Be right back.

Beth ordered her second beer and another apple martini for Keith. Shed been so preoccupied by his amusing chronicles that she hadnt even looked about the bar that much. She propped her back against the counter and sipped her beer. It was an intimate place and the women all seemed to know each other. A knot of women danced on a small parquet floor toward the back and a woman with a shaved head and multiple piercings DJd for them. As one song ended, a few women left the dance floor, creating an opening that caused Beth to stare and clutch her stomach.

Mary was toward the back, dancing with a beautiful Latina in tight, low-riding jeans and an alluring red tank top. Beth was transfixed and a sudden queasiness washed over her. Was this woman a friend or was she a date? When she reached up and draped her arms around Marys neck, Beth had her answer. She cursed herself for her inability to look away. As she stared pathetically, she kept hoping Mary would yank away the arms or shake her head at the woman, refusing her advances.

And then it dawned on Beth. She was looking at the real Mary. The player. The vainly cavalier lothario who had swept her into the alley and fucked her. She felt humiliated and angry at herself. And she had to get out of there.

Keith finally exited the bar and rushed up to Beth who was pacing out front. Whats the matter? Are you feeling okay?

No, I feel miserable and sick to my stomach. Lets go, okay?

Tell me whats wrong. He obviously hadnt spotted Mary.

I just really want to go. I can take a cab if you want to stay.

Of course not. Im hanging with you tonight. He threw his arm around her shoulder and turned her toward the street. A giant fast food burger should clear things up. And if that doesnt, a mess of fries will.

Beth wished it were that easy.

 

Knocking on the door of the Coop, Mary felt confident and excited. She was also scared to death because shed spent the last few days missing Beth to the point where shed decided to share her true feelings. Shed let Beth walk out her door without letting her know that she was falling for her. For too long shed convinced herself that she lived out loud, grabbing at lifes experiences with intensely robust exuberance. But it had all been in compensation, to avoid the deeper feelings she kept locked away. And when it came down to conquering the vulnerability created by her feelings for Beth, shed hesitated and failed. She had simply listened wordlessly as Beth gave her the brush-off.

Alder answered the door, letting Mary into the foyer.

Is Beth here?

Yes, and I must say, your timing is impeccable.

Why is that?

Shes leaving.

Shes what? Mary said, on her way up the stairs before Alder could answer. When she reached Beths doorway, she demanded, Why are you going home?

Beths head jolted up in surprise. What are you doing here?

Why are you going home? Mary repeated.

Beth returned to her packing, grabbing a T-shirt off the bed. I came up here to get away from drama, not find more.

What drama is that?

Beth ignored Marys question. Thursday had passed with nothing more than a solitary run to fill the day, and Friday morning had taken its merry time to arrive. And by the time it did, Beth had gone through three cups of coffee and the morning paper, with thoughts of Mary and the Latina woman surging relentlessly through her head. Mary was a jumble of push and pull, wanting her but not hesitating to want someone else. Well, at least she hadnt let it go too far.

Still, it hurt nonetheless. Her heart had swirled every time they were together. Shed fallen into Marys tracking beam and it had sucked her into foolish, wanton desire. Shed tried to sleep last night but only managed to grow increasingly agitated until she knew what she had to do. With as little sleep as she was getting, the race would be a bust anyway. Her life was waiting for her in L.A. It was time for Beth to reclaim it.

Mary began to say something else, but Beth interrupted her. Those things arent going to happen to me anymore.

What things, Beth? What are you talking about?

You. You fucked me, then you fucked someone else right after. Her hands began to shake.

Mary stepped inside covering the distance between them in three slow strides. You told me you didnt want to see me anymore, Beth.

Im not interested in sex for sport.

Sex for sport?

Beths chest tightened and she squeezed the T-shirt she was holding, shaking it for emphasis. We had sex in an alley, Mary. It was impulsive and outrageous. All I wanted to do was get away from the lunacy I left in L.A., and then I met you and everything went crazy.

Crazy is bad?

Yes! she yelled. Thats not who I am.

Mary reached for Beth, seeing the consternation in her face. More than anyone, she knew what that meant. No one had ever been able to get through to her all the time shed felt that way after losing Gwen. Her heart broke as Beth backed away. Knowing Beth was repelled by her cut Mary deeply. Its not about what you want, she thought, s he doesnt want you. Leave her alone.

Taking in a deep breath, she said, Im sorry for what youre feeling. That was never my intention. Youre amazing and I love being around you.

Beth dropped the T-shirt into her bag. She looked up just as Mary reached out and gently touched her cheek. She lowered her eyes. Please dont touch me. It makes it too hard to do what I have to do. When she looked up again, their faces were so close, she could feel the softness of Marys breath.

Quietly, Mary said, And by the way, I didnt fuck her.

Beth looked down, clamping her eyes shut. She couldnt look at the woman shed so easily and willingly fallen into bed with.

Dont leave on my account, Beth. Run the race.

Beth heard her leave quietly and strained to hear the sound of the front door closing.

Thats not who I am, she repeated, this time horribly alone.

 

Whats this? Beth came downstairs later to a large pot roast on the table. The entire Coop household was readying dinner. Keith placed mashed potatoes on the table, licking his fingers, and then waved a hand. This, my dear, is part of your rent money.

Balancing an armful of glasses, Gina headed for the table. And anyone that springs for eats is welcome back anytime.

Alder drew close. I saw Mary when she stopped by earlier. She paused and then asked, Is this a pre-race dinner or is it still a going-away dinner?

Going away.

Alder nodded meaningfully.

Beth sat down with the rest, trying to muster some happiness though she felt far from happy. Wow. This is really great.

The Coops gonna miss you. Maureen raised a glass. Heres to a lifetime Coop resident.

The others raised their glasses and laughed as they clinked their salutations. The chatter picked up as everyone began filling their plates. Strangely, Beth felt like she was in the middle of some sort of unconventional Waltons TV show episode. The story seemed to be coming to a conclusion: Elizabeth was out of mischief and John-Boy had righted the wrong and everything was fine on the mountain.

Keith leaned in close to her. You know why its called the Coop, dont you?

Because it is said that if you stay here long enough, you eventually get laid.

Well? His eyes were sparkling, hopeful.

The Coops reputation remains intact.

Keith whooped. Well, hot damn and pass the peas.

On the back porch after dinner, with glasses of wine, Beth sat with the Coops residents and listened to music from the ratty speakers. The fog lumbered overhead in a gray-black expanse. The sounds of the bottles clinking against glasses seemed magnified. Beth thought it might be the fog cover bouncing noises around. Or maybe, just maybe, she perceived things much more clearly now.

The Coop was such a great place, she reflected. If she lived in the city, she was sure shed visit quite a bit. For a moment she fantasized about what it would be like if she were to move up here. She might keep her business or maybe even start a new one. She could buy her own Victorian, something small and neat. She smiled, thinking how nice it would be to look out of her own bay window, mug of hot coffee in her hands, and watch the cool, dense fog lay its heavy blanket over the neighborhood. Then she wondered about Mary. Would she be coming down the stairs, rubbing her eyes and reaching simultaneously for a mug of coffee and Beths waist?

Beth chuckled to herself. Of course not. That was not Mary.

It was undeniable that Mary had made her feel wanted again, desirable and sexy. But Mary no more wanted a relationship than Beth wanted a fling. Though brief, their time together had been warm and important, so picturing her in the fantasy Victorian made Beth sad. Their short-lived connection was just never meant to pan out that way.

Still, her head was drastically contradicted by her heart. Was she deliberately fooling herself? She had done her best to dissuade her heart for fear of more hurt in the long run. So why was love starting to feel like a risk worth taking again?

Keith shook her shoulder. Hello? Earth to Beth? Whered you go, girl?

I was just thinking about how much fun Ive had here.

Dont forget why you originally came, Alder said.

Keith piped in, The race. You should run it, Beth. Youve been training for the past two weeks so dont let that go to waste.

We were all planning on being there to support you, Maureen said from an oversized beach chair.

Yeah, dont ruin our Saturday morning. Keith raised his glass of wine. We need an excuse to sit on the sidelines and have morning mimosas.

Beth did want to run. She just didnt want to run into Mary. But with about fifteen thousand people scheduled to be there, she supposed the chances were slim. She could run the race and come back and shower at the Coop before getting on the road.

Beth sighed loudly. Okay. I dont want to refuse you your mimosas.

Everyone cheered and Keith hugged her.

Another toast to our brief, but welcome roommate. He lifted his glass and met the others over the middle of the wooden, party-worn table.

Beth caught Alder watching her. The serene look on her face made Beth feel like the older woman could read her mind. Laughing, she said, No more toasts. I guess I have a race tomorrow and Ive got to get up at the crack of jack.

Alder looked up to the night sky. Stars were beginning to make their appearance, twinkling their reassuring presence. The fogs beginning to clear.





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