“It is refreshing to find an author in the romance genre who can let her characters reflect on their own thoughts, actions and values, in a way which gives rise to insight and self-awareness, and which is also done without proselytizing or being didactic.” F. T. Johnson
“Saint-Clair is the mistress of capturing emotions and trapping them between the lines of her work … a form of writing both addictive and painful for the intensity of feeling that can be experienced whilst reading.” Elise Archer, Adventurer
About Jagged Dreams
Emilie finds her lover, Tamara, face down and unconscious near her Jeep. It soon becomes apparent that a violent blow to the head is the cause.
Beyond the fear of possible complications not yet ruled out by Tamara’s doctor, Emilie and the police need more clues than they have regarding the attacker’s identity and motive.
Jagged Dreams is about the disturbing reality that becomes Tamara’s during the time she spends in the ward, inside her bed, inside her head, while her thoughts go on, sliding and slithering away from her.
Jagged Dreams is about two lovers on different sides of a considerable age gap, the dreamy sensuality of woman to woman trust. And beyond all that, it’s about working out who has aggressed Tamara.
Extract from Jagged Dreams
“Uh, excuse me. Could you tell me…”
The nurse turns away from the lift door to look at the woman, whom she notices for the first time. Momentarily, she is taken aback by the bright colours painted on the woman’s shirt and by the silver brush of her hair.
She feels as if she should take a step backwards to take in all that colour, to take in the inch-wide swirls of cobalt, hot pink and fluorescent green that battle it out on the canvas that is the woman’s long shirt.
A frown flutters over her eyes in an illogical expectation that this woman’s query is likely to be an all-involving affair that she doesn’t have time for.
“Are you right?” she asks, Queensland-style, one finger still tapping the Down button.
“Yes, I am, thanks. I am looking for Tamara Townsend. I have been told –”
The nurse’s face lights up. “Tamara?”
“Yes, Tamara,” Alex answers, not overly surprised by the nurse’s familiarity with Tamara.
“You must be Emilie, her … her friend?”
“Ah, no. I mean yes. I am her friend, which is what brings me here. But no, I am not Emilie.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The nurse fiddles with the fob watch that dangles upside down over her left breast pocket while she surreptitiously slides another look at Alex. “She’s already had a visitor this morning, early. The girls said but I wasn’t …”
Alex takes in the fluster on the young nurse’s face. “No harm done. So which way will I …”?
“You’ll find her a couple of beds away from that window. Just along there.”
The nurse points to a vague spot towards the far end of the room, but before Alex has time to focus on any one of the metallic bed ends that protrude from the double row of partially drawn curtains. She adds with an engaging smile, “Uh, I’m Fiona. I was here when they brought her in last night, fresh from Resus, you know, when she came to.” A little bell chimes from behind the elevator doors. They slide open. Two nurses step out on white soles that make a squishing sound on the linoleum. “And well … anyway, duty calls. I’ve just started my shift. I’ll pop around in a little while, just to say g’day to Tamara.” Fiona turns again to face Alex. “And to fluff up her pillows,” she adds with a cheeky grin.
“I’m sure she will like that. Thanks for the –”
“Not a problem.”
Alex looks again at the far wall and moves her eyes a couple of beds back. To the right or to the left of the aisle? That funny little nurse didn’t say. She really hates these places. What is it about them? she wonders as she cautiously makes her way through the middle of the ward. Queasy feeling. Fear of pain.
Ah, yes, it’s about being afraid to see the pain in their eyes or the wounds on their body. Even imagining pain makes her terribly afraid of the day she, too, will feel pain, one similar to theirs. It will rake through her body and eat at it from the inside and it will squeeze her brain like a grapefruit. It will, one day. All of us, healthy people, she ponders sombrely, we’re doing the complacent sitting-duck thing until that one check-up that won’t add up, the one that will require a second opinion. That’s if nothing more brutal gets to me first.
But … it is not so bad here, she thinks, as the initial pounding in her chest subsides. This here has got to be a ward from where everyone leaves … on their own two feet. Not on a gurney. Not under a white sheet. No blood. No moans. No body parts altered by illness and distorted by accidents.
Walking almost on tiptoes, as she does on the rare occasion she finds herself inside a church, an empty church she might have gone in on impulse, for its calm, for the coolness within its walls, she asks herself, And Tam … how is she?
A few steps further, she spots her. A sigh of relief escapes from her lips at the sight of her unbandaged head. Once in front of the bed, though, she hesitates. And she frowns in front of the unfamiliar loose rag-doll flop that has arranged Tamara’s long body in an odd way under the sheet. She frowns, too, at the unfamiliar stiff curl of Tamara’s fingers over the sheet. And she frowns because she is spooked by the tubing that juts out, as intrusive as the-X-that-marks-the-spot, from the band of pale skin etched on the back of Tamara’s left hand.
She blinks and steps back. Again, she looks at Tamara’s body. And Alex’s throat tightens because as she looks at Tamara’s abandoned but uncomfortable body, she thinks that anything at all could be done to her, to that body, while Tamara is not in charge of it, while it is empty of her usual nonchalant vitality.
Alex’s throat becomes mushy and coarse at the same time. She has to swallow hard to push the air down it but only feels a lump. Is it any easier, she wonders, when it’s an old person whose body lies there in that loose but cramped, unconnected sort of way?
She had expected to find Tamara dazed, possibly bandaged and possibly hooked to … things, to many things. As it is, she is surprised that Tamara is not hooked to anything much at all, only to an IV line and to a gadget clipped to her middle finger. What she clearly had not expected was to see her, Tamara, robbed of her usual purposefulness.
OK, Alex reasons, she’s asleep, right? So … who is ever purposeful in their sleep? With shutter-fast speed she remembers what Tamara should look like asleep. She should be lying on her left side, one hand, palm up cradling her cheek, hip curved to allow her legs to settle comfortably into the curl. Curled in a cat-curl, is how Tamara normally sleeps, as purposefully comfortable as Anjo, Alex’s Siamese, used to look when she napped on the living-room rug.
Alex lets her eyes travel upwards from the young veins that snake from the back of Tamara’s hands to her wrists, up her arms to disappear under the soft rise of her biceps. The quiet strength that emanates from Tamara’s firm and lovely tanned arms reassures Alex because that is a familiar sight. The familiar hollow at the tip of Tamara’s collarbone, just before it meets the round curve of her shoulder, paler than her arms, that reassures her too. And she smiles because that lovely exposed shoulder makes the loosely draped, prim and pink hospital gown look a lot less prim than it should.
Strands of her dark hair spread against the white-white of the pillow, Tamara certainly appears asleep, sheet gathered around her hips, but her face is made tight by something that may well be pain. If not pain, Alex thinks, then at least intense discomfort. And on the cheek that had faced away she sees the graze, two red lines embedded in a cushion of puffy pink flesh the size of a fifty-cent coin.
And now what? she asks herself, as she considers her options. Let her sleep or … If I leave now to let her rest, she’ll be pissed off when she finds out I was here and didn’t wake her.
So, she stands in front of Tamara’s bed and rests her hands on the thick metal curve, cool against her palms. She takes in the chart, clipped as they always are, at the foot of the metallic bed, the bedside trolley with the usual arrangement of a pitcher of water and one glass, a little vase of flowers. Real or fake? Hard to tell from here, nice enough even if they are made in Taiwan. Well, well, and what have we got here? She grins at the sight of a little pink bear, pink from head to toe, perched on the edge of the trolley, turned so as to watch over Tamara’s sleep.
“She’s asleep, little bear?” Alex asks softly.
With a start, Tamara opens her eyes. “Hey – Awh … fuck. Oh, Al. I’m sorry. It’s like … every time I move –” And more carefully, she asks, “Hey … whassup?”
Alex grins at the spark of quirky energy. “What’s up to you, too. But that should have been my line, don’t you think?” she jokes. “Considering … well, considering. So, what have they done to your head?”
“Not too good. I mean…Awh…” Tamara shuts her eyes and groans softly. When the green eyes snap open again, Alex notices the tightness around them and over Tamara’s high cheekbones. And she notices, too, that Tamara’s eyes are shiny, too shiny. “Don’t know what … what he did … that creep, but it fucking hurts like hell,” she grumbles, trying to raise herself higher up on the pillows while keeping her head still.
“Wait, wait. Let me help you.”
Tamara squints at her. “Wicked!”
“Your shirt. Wicked but so bright. Glows in the dark.”
“Ah, indeed. You know–” You know how to pick them, Alex had been about to reply because Tamara had offered it to her only a few months back. Instead, she adlibs in a cheerful pretence, “You know me, Tam. I want to know my students are awake when they look at me. As in, not numb behind eyes wide-open. So … when in doubt, go for bright.” But Alex frowns. Does she not remember that shirt was her birthday present to me? “Oh, by the way…” she plods on, “Your chatty little friend in white sends her regards.”
Alex threads her two arms under Tamara’s and helps her prop herself up more comfortably.
“Fiona?” Tamara pulls her mouth downwards. “Tell you what…” she whispers, “… lethal with the flashlight. And then she’s like hell-bent to…”
Alex plucks the edge of the hospital gown and brings it back protectively over Tamara’s shoulder. “Come, tell me all your miseries, little one.”
“Guess she’s got to do it…clean this thing on my cheek.” Hand on her chest, Tamara closes her eyes again.
“What do you mean, you guess? If young Fiona does not do a good job on that cheek of yours, I’ll personally –”
“This morning another one … another nurse came, too…” Peeping at Alex through half-closed lids, Tamara is cranky. “They all want to look at the back of my friggin’ eyes. Sounds a bit … like warped, if you ask me.”
“Look, be nice to them, Tam,” Alex says tapping Tamara’s ankle where it lies under the sheet. “I bet you the word is out that there is a real spunky dyke somewhere on this floor. A new arrival, you see.” She squats by the bed to be level with Tamara’s face. “They want to check you out, that’s all.”
Tamara groans but, this time not from the pain in her head. Alex kisses her on her good cheek. “So, tell me about your head.” Her hand lingers against Tamara’s forehead and smoothes her hair back towards the pillow.
“Well, it’s … coming along,” Tamara smiles palely. “Good news is that they’re not really doing anything to it … to my head. Not anymore … not after all the tests and whatnot. I guess that means I’m an easy fix.” She puts on a grin. “Thing is, I don’t remember any of that. Like they say … they scanned me and tested for this and for that because…” She stops and shuts her eyes. Alex watches as Tamara’s chest rises slowly and falls slowly. “Well … when I first got here, like so out of it … they didn’t know why I had passed out. Like maybe I had had … an allergic reaction to … Or maybe I was a junkie.” She moves to rub her face with both hands but one hand freezes just above the graze.
She gnashes her teeth and curls her fingers into claws to express the annoying irritation that graze causes her. “Good news, no bleeding of the … uh, of the brain lining. But maybe some … what is it again?” she asks out loud. “Awh…for fuck’s sake,” she exclaims frustrated by her inability to state clearly what she wants Alex to know. “Look, I’m not up to this hospital IQ talk.” But she persists all the same. “There’s swelling … but … Uh, it’s all about tearing or stretching … bruising or not. Al,” she sighs, “…ask again tomorrow or … Em will tell you. The doctor’s explained it … but it was like so early this morning. I had these awful rushes of nausea and…” she sighs as if what little energy she thought she could muster for Alex is almost depleted. “Maxalon. I remember the name. That’s what I get for … for nausea. Panadol doesn’t work … like not at all … so, yeah … Now what I remember, ‘cause it’s like so weird, is that I got some morphine earlier today. What you make of that, huh?”
“Well, hell.” Alex replies carefully. “Maybe that’s a good sign. Like they wouldn’t give you something that might send you on a loop if they were really worried about … uh, your state of alertness.”
“Anyway … nothing to do but wait. Ah … X-rays too, and CAT … scans they did, last night. You’ve seen Emilie?” she asks, out of breath, eyes shining too brightly.
“Seen her? No, I didn’t see her. She called me … That was last night, to tell me what had happened but –”
Careful not to lift her head off the pillow, Tamara points to the general area at the back of her head, on the right side, almost at the base of her skull. “That’s where I got hit, right there.”
“What is the pain like, Tam?”
“Al … you don’t want … to –” Another deep frown tightens the skin around Tamara’s eyes. Alex’s wince in sympathy. Tamara breathes in deeply and holds on to her breath until the pain subsides. “Comes and goes. I move my head. Hammers clanking down again and again. Then, it’s like … my brain’s just like squeezed. Like my skull’s gotten too small for it, you know? Like shrunk. Or,” she adds, the memory of that particular pain making her queasy, “long fingers of … of pain that rip through.” She flexes her ankles under the sheet and brings her knees up. “Hangovers, you know, I’ve had some. Real nasty ones. But … like so lame compared to this.”
Alex nods and waits for the patient to say more. She looks at the little pink bear perched on the bedside trolley, then looks back at Tamara. “I thought Emilie might be here.”
“She’ll drop in again after work. Hey … grab a chair. She’s been in … already. Soon as the doors opened. Don’t know how she managed that.”
Tamara smiles weakly at the thought of Emilie, hair twisted by sleep in a way only Emilie’s hair gets twisted. She virtually saw her scrambling around to get to the hospital before work while her inner clock madly alarmed to get her back to bed, to get her to luxuriate in the thought that she didn’t really have to get up, not for another hour. “But like, only long enough to check my pulse. Told her Fiona had already done that, checked my pulse. So, Emi said that … Uh, some things are best checked … twice.”
“Wouldn’t be so funny … like if she actually knew how to check for pulse, but … mmmff … She wouldn’t find one, I mean a pulse, not even one … on a vibrating … uh … on a vibrating Nokia.”
Alex would like to ask someone if Tamara’s non-sequitur and fragmented thoughts are a direct, possibly a lasting consequence of her head trauma, or are they simply momentary side-effects due to the combination of shock, exhaustion, and medication?
“Ah … but look!” Tamara reaches to pat the bedside trolley without moving her head. Alex gets to her feet to help her but Tamara already has the little pink bear dangling by one paw. “She brought me this little fellow for company.”
“Her bear, is it?” Alex asks doubtfully, looking at the little pink
thing sporting what seems to be a gold earring in one ear. She hadn’t imagined Emilie would be the type of woman to have little bears, pink, pierced or otherwise, strewn around the house. No hints of bears in her kitchen, she remembers wryly.
“Yep, that’s her little rainbow bear. See? Rainbow flag. It sits on her monitor, at home.”
“I see. Cute little thing, isn’t it? Looks so serious, almost like it has a bit of a frown on its little face.”
Tamara plops the little bear on the sheet near where her other hand, the one with the cannula, is resting. “Anyway,” she begins again, “how did you know to find me here? I mean, it’s not like it’s my fave hangout or anything.”
“Emilie called to tell me what had happened. Last night,” Alex explains for the second time. “She was quite frazzled by it all.”
“Oh … yes.” Tamara frowns. “You’ve said that. So weird for her to find me … dead to the world. I mean, when I meet her at work, it’s … in the jeep that I wait, not like, napping on the ground.”
“I can imagine,” Alex replies, somewhat comforted by Tamara’s ability to make little jokes. “I think what really got to her was being so terribly helpless. Not knowing what to do besides roll you to one side. But as she said, if you had stopped breathing, she wouldn’t have had a clue as to what to do, let alone in what order.” Alex stretches her legs to sit more comfortably on the chair.
Tamara tries to imagine Emilie’s panic but a chuckle breaks through. “You know the funny thing? She always goes on about the fact that she’s never even done First Aid or any of that. Used to really worry when she was with uh … with Solange. But nothing ever happened to Solange.” Alex raises an eyebrow. “Uh, one of her exes. Not the one just before me. Before that again.”
“What? A daredevil or a diabetic?”
“Daredevil. Into … a penchant, uh … for risky things.”
“Somehow I wouldn’t have thought that adrenaline-charged moments suited your Emilie.”
“The … moments … no, they didn’t suit. Not much. But the woman, Solange … she suited.”
“Ah well, in that case, you know how it is –”
“Yeah, yeah. The good with the not so good.”
Alex pats Tamara’s hand. “Hold on to that thought, little one. You never know when it might come in handy. Anyway, the other thing that had Emilie in a spin, last night, was how she had eluded the police– Ah, no, hold on. Maybe that is too strong a word. Let’s just say she stood them up.”
“What you on about?”
“Didn’t she tell you?”
“Told me? She only stopped to … uh, long enough to check my
… that I was still breathing. As I said.”
“Have the police been to see you?”
“Yes. A Senior Constable something or other and a Sergeant Detective–”
“A Detective Sergeant?”
Tamara initiates a careful shrug. “Not sure why they came, really, after Em left. Asked if I might’ve been followed. If I had like, seen anything or heard anything uh, weird in the parking lot.”
“Pretty much. They wanted to know why I was there in the first place so … I had to tell them about this friend … I’d been waiting for. Then, they wanted to know all about this friend. Name and all. And my head was totally throbbing by then … I was going to throw up. Doctor Mac, she moved them on. I didn’t throw up but … Thing is, I really want them to get the bastard but I was feeling like too woozy to think. To talk.” Tamara’s face is pale and tense. “The police … They seemed to already know about Emilie … The Friend. Why you think?” she asks suddenly. Her brain is thrumming again. The oximeter clamped on her middle finger has picked up her raised pulse. It beeps soft little beeps but, to Alex, they seem to form one long line of beeps. Like dots crowding on one line. One neatly pressed against the other.
“Well … you see, uh, she called the ambulance first…” Alex tries to explain, though she is distracted by the beeps. Shouldn’t someone come and check Tam? She makes herself sit back on the chair on a resolution not to interfere with the running of things. Surely Tam is OK for now. “Uh, yes, she called the police, right? And then, when she realised that you had been mugged, she –”
“Mugged? Me? Not just hit on the head? Awh…”
“Tam, darling, you really must find a way to talk and keep your head flat against those pillows of yours. Here,” she says gently, handing Tamara a glass of water.
No … Can’t drink …Don’t know why … I just…”
“What do you mean, you can’t? You’re a two-litre-a-day-babe.”
“Before, Al. That was before. Today … I just can’t get it down. I think that’s why I’m so stuck to this … tube.” She lifts her hand to show Alex the line stuck to the back of her hand with transparent tape.
“Right.” Alex nods agreeably though she doesn’t understand why
Tamara won’t drink water. What does that have to do with anything? She wants to ask someone in the know.
Both Tamara and Alex look to the source of the voice. Fiona strides to the head of the bed. She turns off the volume on the oximeter. Thank god for that, Alex sighs, realising for the first time that she had stopped breathing freely since the beeps had picked up.
Fiona prattles as she sets about checking Tamara’s blood pressure and temperature. “The old head again, hey? Goes to show. It’s not as tough a head as you had thought.”
“As I understand it, Emilie found your backpack thrown … somewhere. Behind the car, I think and–”
“My skates? They gone?”
“Your skates? Uh, I don’t know. I don’t think she mentioned them.
You had them on?”
“Duh!” Tamara manages to say without the usual movement of the head that would accompany that exclamation. “I’d know where they are … if you know … like the mugger, whoever he is, he’s not gonna hang around … undo, uh, unlace them and struggle to pull them off while I’m, like, out cold and in full view, is he now?”
“Well, in some very dark alley, it could happen or…” Alex suggests, eyebrows raised, “or in an Eddy Murphy com –”
“Seriously, Tam. Did you skate there?”
“I do often, yes. I walk to the … what … the Pier 1 ferry. I lace up as I wait. After the ferry, it’s up Sydney Street and to the I-o-FuK.” Alex frowns. “You know … where she works, the Institute of Further Knowledge. A short skate. Only about fifteen minutes. Then I chill in the car or nearby.”
“Do you go in and let her know you’re –”
“Ah, no. That, I don’t do.”
“It’s the closet thing, Al. You know … the closet thing?”
“Ah, that closet thing.”
“That one, yes. But I think you and her, you both suffer from … from, uh … the same delusion.”
“And which delusion might that be?”
“That as long as you’re not seen … kissing, uh … French kissing a chick, you’re safe with the … you know … the Don’t Tell part of … of the
Don’t Ask thing.”
“Tam, you should rest. You’re talking too much for –”
“You always say that,” Tamara answers eyes still closed.
“Emilie doesn’t think so, though.” Alex watches her chest fill with air. When she breathes out, Tamara opens her eyes again.
“So,” Alex sighs, crossing ankle over knee. “What you’re saying is that we’re wasting a great deal of effort, Emilie and I, stuffing ourselves in a transparent closet, not to mention a glass one?”
“Correct.” Tamara smiles the best smile she can muster. “Hey, Al … you’re so serious today … looking at me like I’ve half-morphed into a Beige … you know, uh, an alien. I’m an easy fix. I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“I know.” But Alex’s dark look of concern does not match the lightness of her tone.
A chuckle bubbles up inside Tamara’s chest but chuckling means moving her head. Moving her head unleashes a pain that skittles against glass. Glass breaks. Broken glass hurts. And so, Alex doesn’t get to hear Tamara chuckle. When she opens her eyes again, Tamara is focused. She wants to know about her skates.
“There goes some five hundred bucks if they went walking.” She considers the matter a minute and then, startled, she adds, “It’s worse … I mean if they’ve been stolen. Emilie gave them to me and–” “Hold on, Tam. Try and remember. First, you get to Emilie’s workplace, to the parking lot downstairs, correct?” “No!” Alex says sharply, squeezing Tamara’s hand into her own. “No, Tam. Don’t nod. It’s OK. Breathe, now. Breathe, Tam. Breathe again. Breathe into the pain. Like that.” Alex over-inhales near Tamara’s ear, holds on to the air and lets it ooze out slowly. “Don’t nod. Just blink slowly. OK. So, you remove your skates right there and then and you wait for her to come out. Just blink. Is that how it goes? Good. You stuff them in your backpack? No? So you toss them … you toss your skates in the car?”
Tamara breathes in, holds her breath and lets it out very slowly. “Yes, that’s … pretty much what I do.” She squints again but Alex recognises this particular squint as one of concentration. “Uh … I remove them and I … I usually stash them in the back, on the floor. I wait for her. For Emilie.”
“In the car?”
“Yeah, I listen to music. Or I have a little walk around.”
“OK, Tam. Don’t move your head. Nodding is not allowed today. Ready?” Tamara smiles to indicate she is ready. This blinking thing makes her feel like she’s paralysed from the neck down. “OK. Look, Tam, I would have thought that Emilie would be the punctual type, the very punctual type. You agree? OK. So how come you get there with so much time to spare?”
Tamara interrupts without moving her head. “Not soo much time, just a couple of minutes. She knows that I’m not … like, not usually there on time. Sometimes I’m there at six, sometimes 6.15. Like it’s not so late, right? So she hangs back a bit. I get there, I listen to a couple of sounds and then, she comes out and…”
“How long have you been together?”
“Hey, only eight, no … nine months. Gimme a break.”
“Hey, you don’t need a break from me, that’s cool. Anyway, your skates are probably in the back of her car. What she did notice was missing, though, was your discman. And your wallet.”
“Oh.” Tamara tries a quick mental check of her wallet’s likely contents. “So … he’s taken my credit card. And a couple of twenties … give or take. And –” A slow blush settles on her face.
“A picture of Emilie.”
“Ah, well … could have been worse.”
“Could have been a picture of Emilie and you.”
“You and Emilie.” Alex smiles at Tamara’s embarrassment. “Doing what? Holding hands? Kissing?” she teases.
“Doing nothing. Just smiling.”
“So … as I said, could have been worse.” Alex sits back in the straight-backed chair that is getting harder, more uncomfortable, by the minute. Could be that visitors aren’t meant to stay long. Maybe that is why there aren’t any armchairs around. Or anyone to offer coffee to stressed-out visitors. “Anyway,” she explains,
“last night Emilie thought about calling the Visacard people to report the theft but –”
“She doesn’t know my … my … what? Password, code … whatever it’s
“That’s right, she does not. And, basically, she has realised that in times of
emergency there is not a lot she can do for you.”
“Or me for her.”
Alex looks at her hands. With the thumb of one, she rubs the back of the other. When she eventually looks up, her brow is furrowed, her eyes dark. “Maybe it’s time you moved in with her.”
“And why on earth – awhh … ahh… For fuck’s sake, Alex.” Tamara squeezes her eyes shut and remains silent for a few seconds while the pain subsides. “What does moving in have to do with … with anything?” she asks through half-closed eyes.
“Oh, many things, and mostly good things, from what I have heard,” Alex says, thoroughly aware that most of what she thinks she knows in regard to the pros and cons of living with a lover has come to her by way of hearsay. That is one other thing Tamara would say she has in common with Emilie.
Both of them have had a great past. Lots of lovers, interesting ones. Variety helped along by many travels for Emilie and by years of travelling for Alex. But in between, whereas most women have fitted in time under the same roof with a lover or two, though not necessarily simultaneously, both Emilie and Alex, for their own personal reasons, have avoided that route almost entirely. Instead, they found themselves looking down the spiral of reflective introspection on their own, in their big and empty houses, in different parts of town.
Until one day, Tamara saw Emilie perched on a barstool, absent-mindedly dangling the long neck of a Corona between her fingers. That was at The Triangle bar. She had chatted up Emilie as she had, some years before, chatted up Alex, and for the same reasons. Both women, so many years apart, had looked so disconnected from the world immediately around them that they had pricked Tamara’s interest.
“Of course, my dear,” Alex says pointedly, “you know damn well I’m not the most qualified to give definitive info on the benefits of entwining one’s life with that of another, but you and Emilie would be a little more conversant with each other’s … kind of stuff. In any case, Oh Young One, you do travel light.” Alex pauses for effect. “And if your skates are already parked in the back of her car … well…” She arches her eyebrows, trying on a lewd and suggestive expression to make Tamara smile, but Tamara doesn’t smile.
“Wrap it up, Alex.” It’s Tamara’s turn to frown. “I … I … love her. I love Emilie but, like, living with someone is totally different again.” Tamara has a think and a blink. “Well, I did it with you … but –”
“Well, there you go. See, we are the living proof that cohabitation can work. It was not the living together bit that put an end to us, was it?” Alex shifts on her seat and lets her eyes settle on the intense little bear still plopped near Tamara’s hand. “It was your wanderlust; a lust like all others, I should add, that was totally appropriate to one your age,” she adds looking up.
“Right, but with Emilie, it’d be different. I’m not planning on go –”
“Oh my, that would really be living on the edge, that,” Alex chides, not knowing whether she is teasing or serious, “moving in with your lover and not having an escape pod organised ahead of time –”
“Alex … you’re giving me a fucking headache now,” Tamara says sharply, eyes already shut tight against her pain. “That’s on top of that other fucking pain I had before you started this … this conversation.” She breathes in slowly and exhales slowly. Green eyes snap open. “Ease up. I can’t keep up. Not today.”
She closes her eyes again and makes herself control her breathing by slowly breathing into the pain. To calm it, to coax it into being gentler. She feels the movement of her brain knocking against the back of her head as if bursting to get out, to ooze out, to come out in lumps. She feels the onset of nausea. Eyes closed against it, against the thudding, she hopes that by the time she dares open them again, Alex will have picked another conversation tack. Make it a light one, please. An entertaining one, Tamara hopes.
But she is the one who says, “It kind of kills the thing, doesn’t it …?
this living with your lover.”
“It’s been known to,” Alex replies softly.
Through half-open eyes, Tamara watches Alex spread her hands and shrug, as the French do, to suggest helplessness in the face of Destiny.
“Anyway, Emilie said she felt a little better by the time she hung up last night. So…” Trying to engage Tamara in an easy-glide topic she asks, “How are the two of you coming along after so many months of serious love?”
“Hey,” Tamara grins without moving her head. “It’s all good with me and Em.”
Something in her tone makes Alex ask, “Yes, but?”
“Oh, it’s just…”
“It’s just what?” Alex asks, leaning forward.
“Uh, it’s just that … Look, Al, don’t do the intense thing again.
Please. Not today.”
“I’m not intense about anything, Tam. It’s just me … being me.”
“Look, I can try and fill you in … a little … but only if you promise to ease off.”
“I promise, Tam. I’ll try and be less me. I’ll just listen and think …
and I won’t say much. Is that – Don’t you go nodding now. Just blink. Is that
“Yes. The thing about her is … well … she’s into the, you know, the holding back thing in a major way.”
“The holding back thing?” Alex peers into Tamara’s face.
“Goes back to the first night after we … we made love. When I left her place … afterwards. She said that I needn’t call her the next day.” Aflutter of incomprehension registers on Alex’s brow. “She said that she’d call me … when she was ready to.” Tamara looks away.
“Oh, that!” Alex relaxes into the chair that refuses to adapt to the contours of her back. She knows she is less intense when she leans back but how to lean back into a hard, straight-backed chair?
“Uh … well, yes. She wanted to control our thing her way … like way back then already. Like, to not get attached and so on.”
“Very commendable of her, really.” Alex says, careful to avoid any particular tone. “Sounds ideal for someone like you.”
“Come off it, Alex. I was twenty-three when you and I met.
I’m twenty-eight now.”
“Almost twenty-nine if I’m right.”
“Right, almost twenty-nine and twenty-nine’s a lot closer to thirty than to twenty.”
“So, that’s my point,” Tamara’s tone is decisive, but her eyes focus on the edge of the white sheet where it lies against her hips. When she looks up, to Alex’s surprise, her eyes are misty. “Uh … It’s not so clear cut,” Tamara begins again, slowly rearranging her legs under the sheet. “There’s no problem, not as such. It’s just that I’d like her to let go and … open up. You know, just let go.”
“Look, Tam. We have been over that terrain before, you and I. Nothing new under the sun, girl. Remember when you came back from Europe? You thought we could just … start over. Well … no.
No, we couldn’t. Remember why I thought we couldn’t?”
“Yeah, I know. The young and unreliable bit.”
“Yes, as you say, but only the ‘young’ bit.” Alex’s long fingers draw rabbit ears in the air. “The ‘unreliable’ bit,” she goes on, “is incidental to the ‘young’ bit. But you are older now … almost twenty-nine. But so are we, Emilie and I … older. I was … uh … what, about thirty-six by the time you left?”
Close enough. Tamara nods. Alex was thirty-five-and-a-half. “The age difference is, if anything, even more palpable now. You, my little one will always be on the young side, on the wrong side of the age gap.” Alex’s hand flies through the short silver bristles of her hair. “You see, Tam, that much younger, for women like Emilie and for me, it doesn’t just mean fun and funky to be with, it implies that you have different needs and, ultimately, plans that are different from our own. Such is the nature of the beast.” She leans forward to reach Tamara’s hand and keeps it in hers. “Look at it this way. There’s about a seventeen-year age gap between the two of you, right?” Tamara nods.
“There is,” Tamara admits grudgingly. “She doesn’t want to invest and get hurt, like when I left and you …If I leave …”
“That’s right. She rightly assumes you are not going to hang around forever.” Alex argues, turning on the accent in another attempt to make Tamara smile. “She ain’t no dumb bunny, that gal of yours, but she does want to enjoy you … for now. So, you should let her do whatever it is she needs to do.” Her dark eyes hold Tamara’s in a no-squirming-allowed stare. “I really don’t think you are in a position to ask for more, Tam. Hey, who picks up these older women for you, anyway?”
“OK, dump on me.” Tamara understands that Emilie should do what she can to afford herself an emotional neutral zone of sorts. But that’s what hurts. For Tamara, neutral zones are dead zones. Zones where nothing happens. She wants Emilie fully involved, fully engaged, on full throttle with her. “Look, I absolutely … uh … She makes me hum, Al … as in like, totally! So, it’s not like I’m about to pack up and … go anywhere. Not next month. Not even in the next three. Not like anytime in the near future.”
“’Not any time in the near future.’ Tam, Darling, hear yourself, will you?” Alex lays Tamara’s hand flat on the sheet to lean back into the chair. “Months from now or two years from now, Tam, for Emilie, it’ll only amount to yet another … false start.”
“So, OK … but cut me some slack. It’s not like there are … ever any … uh, any … guarantees. Like, not even with women of your own age, right?” Tamara feels her brain again. She feels it pressing itself, harder and harder against the walls of her skull. She has to close her eyes and just be still, if only for a few seconds.
“True, no guarantees. Ever.” Alex’s eyebrows get knotted in a thinking frown. “And it is never painless, Tam. It is never neutral. A failure is always a failure.”
“And? Like, why is a failure with a younger woman like such a big deal? I mean, a bigger deal?”
“Well … I don’t know how to put it without falling into the ageism complex. I’ll just say … Off the cuff … I’ll just say … Ok, it goes something like this: getting started with a partner of a compatible age, at any age, is like attempting to climb up to the top of a tower. Yes, there are all the risks that we already know about, whatever the age we are at the time of the climb.” Again, Alex runs her hand through her hair, a habit she picked up many years ago, though the reason she had then to do it is no longer there. “Now, going for the same height, without that relative compatibility of age, is like taking a greater … uh, a greater emotional risk. It is like … yes, in a way it’s like choosing to not use the safety net. Or whatever it is climbers use to keep reasonably safe, even when they lose their … their grip.” Tamara remains silent so Alex adds one more little thought on the topic. “And of course, when one teams up with a younger partner, there’s also the risk, a strong possibility, that the young offsider will complete the climb the fastest and want to move on, leaving the older climber dangling. Anyway, what is in it for you?” Alex can be relentless. “Besides the fact that she makes you hum.”
“What about you?” Tamara is not relentless, but she can try and toss the ball back. “Because of what, like the odds in favour of a well-balanced climb?”
“Well, your question is a bit back to front. And your tense is misleading. I fancied her, past tense, Tam, because she … Let’s just say that she grew on me. We had quite a few post-movie conversations, she and I, and when she came over to my place for dinner, that one time, we ended up talking till 2 a.m. Not at all about us, though.”
It was after that dinner that Tamara had guessed Alex’s interest in Emilie. Alex had cooked a very exotic seafood dish that Tamara had found, the next day, half-eaten in the fridge. Alex hasn’t cooked anything that elaborate for anyone in a long time, had been Tamara’s thought at the time. Busted by the Ginger Snapper.
“She can be very charming,” Alex adds.
“I know. That’s one of the things she‘s got in common with you. So, for you to get on with her, there’d have to be like so many odds stacked in your favour, right?”
Alex brushes her fingertips through the bristle above her temple. “Well, on the one hand, there are never enough odds stacked the … the right way. And on the other,” she continues, no longer looking at Tamara, “I would not have wanted the thing to be too predictable a success either. But for once, for me, I would have said that, yes, there would have been enough good odds in our favour. Certainly enough to get me climbing that tower.”
“So, she … It’s like she chose to go against good odds,” Tamara asks, feeling suddenly terribly weary.
Alex lets the comment go by.
“I mean … I’m glad she did … but why didn’t she just choose you?”
“Oh, girl!” Alex is not smiling. “You do need to grow up. Just think about that one all on your own. Please.”
A momentary silence settles between them. Tamara has plucked the little pink bear from where it had been sitting all along and considers it from its new position on her stomach. Slowly she rubs the little pink forehead with her thumb. Concerned, tiny, shiny, liquorice-black, button-eyes that match a tiny, shiny, button-snout look back at her. “Right, OK, I turn her on. She likes my young body.” Tamara breaks in, tugging at the little bear’s ear-ringed ear.
“For sure,” Alex retorts, sticking out her bottom lip. “Don’t hang up your skates just yet. Keep on doing your laps at the university pool. But, Tam…” she adds, with a full earnest smile, “the sexual appeal thing, that’s only part of it, I’m sure.”
Tamara feels the tug of annoyance. It goes beyond the pressure that is building up inside her head, again, as relentlessly as the tide creeps up on the foreshore.
“Oh, come on. Give us a smile, will you? I told her you were wonderful, that you had an honest personality and that you had matured a lot during the three years you had been away and –”
“So, what do I do, O Wise Woman of the suburbs?”
“Why don’t you just try the one-day-at-a-time thing?”
Tamara glowers at her. “Alex,” she asks tightly, “would you ever … let yourself go, uh … like you’ve just said? Doing the one day at a time with another young-er dyke?”
Alex shakes her head vigorously. Tamara watches her, desperate for that same freedom of movement. She suddenly feels totally wrung out.