“So this is your important work?”
The soft morning sun entered through the living room window and illuminated the light hair of the woman sitting in front of Nicole. They had been in silence for the past few minutes, since Lauren showed up in her door step. They didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know what to do. Until Lauren landed the first blow.
“Come on, Lauren. Don’t do this. Let’s talk.”
“Nic, there’s nothing to talk about.” Lauren spoke in a low voice, mellow as if softening Nicole up for what she was about to say next. “In fact, I didn’t even expect to see you here, today. I just came to get some stuff and when I saw your car outside, I thought I shouldn’t let myself in.”
“So, you’re not giving me a chance? You just decided that we’re over and that’s it?” The sadness in Nicole’s voice was real, but it wasn’t as powerful as she imagined it would be. She thought about Allison and felt guilty.
“Why, Nic?” The sweetness of her voice was a stark contrast to the words that came out of her mouth. “The truth is that we had drifted apart a long time ago, but we didn’t want to do anything about it. We had settled for each other. This story was just the final straw.”
“Did you miss me at all these past couple of days?”
“Or did you just miss our routine?” Nicole opened her mouth a couple of times, without finding an appropriate answer to Lauren’s question. Sure, she had missed her, but she couldn’t determine in what capacity. She didn’t know if she had missed the person or her girlfriend. “I don’t wanna settle, Nicole. And I don’t think you want that either.”
“So, let’s not make this any harder than it has to be. I still care about you, a lot. But I believe we’d end up hating each other if we continued this much longer.”
The woman who dealt with words for a living was speechless. Nicole looked at the woman in front of her and was sure that their relationship was really over. There would be no going back. She sighed, both in sorrow and in relief. It was never easy to end a relationship, but Lauren had just eliminated one of the things separating Nicole from Allison.
“If that’s what you really want, I’ll respect it. It won’t be easy, though.”
“Thank you. I didn’t expect anything less.”
Nicole turned her head away to dry a stray tear. She didn’t want to crumble in front of Lauren. She’d rather remain practical.
“What did you come here to get?”
“A couple of books I’m using as reference.” Lauren smiled, grateful that Nicole hadn’t caused a scene and that they could make this a clean break-up. “They should be on the kitchen island.”
Nicole turned around to follow her ex-girlfriend’s – god!, she was using too much of that word lately – eyes and saw the books she had mentioned by the couple of mugs she had used with Allison just moments before Lauren got there. Nicole hadn’t noticed where Allison had disappeared to, but she was definitely grateful for the privacy.
As Nicole was wondering about Allison’s whereabouts, Lauren got up, grabbed her books and walked to the front door. Nicole reached her before she left and threw her arms around the other woman, holding her tight for, probably, the last time. Everything that couldn’t be said with words was said there.
They separated and Lauren grabbed her keychain from her pocket. She removed the key to the apartment and placed it in Nicole’s hand, closing her fingers around it. They locked eyes once more, smiled at each other and then Lauren was gone.
“Did you guys manage to work things out?”
Nicole looked up from where she had been picking her nails, sitting on the couch, and found Allison walking in the living room. She had a towel wrapped around her hair and was dressed in the same jeans she had arrived the night before and a green top she found in Nicole’s closet.
“You could say that.”
The tone of voice in which Nicole answered her, made it clear to Allison that Nicole didn’t want to talk about what had transpired between her and Lauren. There were so many questions the singer wanted to ask, but she thought back to all the times in the last few days that Nicole had let something go because she knew Allison didn’t want to talk about it, and decided to change subjects.
“I grabbed this in your closet. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. You’re welcome to anything of mine.”
Stillness settled in the room. There was an uneasiness between them, as if they weren’t sure how to act after their bubble had been burst. Lauren’s arrival reminded Allison that there was still a lot between her and Nicole and that she had been a fool to think otherwise. She herself had a lot to deal alone and she wasn’t sure if jumping into a relationship was the wisest thing to do at that point. Even so, they appreciated the company.
“Did you speak to Mike?” Nicole was the first to break the silence, mainly because she couldn’t stand listening just to her own thoughts.
“I did. I called him earlier and we’re going back to New York tonight.”
“What? Tonight?” Nicole’s voice had a hint of desperation to it that Allison tried to ignore. “Aren’t you supposed to stay a couple more days?”
('What about me? How do I stay?’ That’s what Nicole wanted to ask, but she couldn’t voice those questions.)
“I was, but I don’t have anything that can’t be rescheduled. Our flight leaves late tonight.” She took a moment to phrase correctly what she wanted to say next. “These have been intense days and I just wanna go back home.”
“I get it.” Nicole was telling her the truth, but why did it hurt so much?
“In fact, you know very well the place where I’m going.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a cramped apartment on the eighth floor of a horrible, horrible building.”
“Oh, my god. I can’t believe this. You still live there?”
“Not exactly.” Allison smiled mischievously. “I bought the building and I maintain that apartment. Sometimes I’ll go there when I need to get my head straight. I don’t know. I guess it reminds me of who I am.”
“You know, I have some amazing memories from that apartment.”
“I do, too, Nic.”
After getting Jake to meet them at the hotel for the final photo shoot and giving Dianna her daily call, Nicole got inside her car to drive them back to the hotel. It wasn’t a long drive, but on the entire way she caught herself stuck in the overwhelming rush of emotions she had been trapped into since Allison walked back into her life.
Which she couldn’t believe had only happened days ago. When Nicole thought about it – rationally –, she couldn’t explain how her feelings for Allison could possibly be so strong when they had only talked to each other for the first time in a decade less than a week before. But it didn’t matter, days or months, the truth was that she had fallen for that woman all over again. And of everything that stood in their way, two still remained.
Jake and Mike were talking in the hotel’s lobby when Nicole got there with Allison. The journalist knew her friend would like to bombard her with questions, but she wasn’t ready for that. She just wanted to drown herself in her work and forget that Allison would be out of her life in just a few hours. Again. She would have a lot of time to pour her feelings to Jake when that happened.
“Well, girls, I was talking to Michael here.” Nicole knew her friend’s flirtatious voice and stifled a laugh behind her hand. Allison looked at her with curiosity and Jake, with a glare. “Apparently, we have a few hours before Allison has to leave. What do you say we finish this cover?”
Professional Jake decided to make an appearance. Nicole was glad.
“I was thinking, maybe the rooftop?”
“Already talked to the hotel manager, Nic. I’ll set up my equipment while you, Ms. Strong, get ready.”
“Look at you, being all professional like.”
“Well, you know. Special occasions.”
Nicole decided not to ask him what he meant by that. If she knew him well, he would probably say something that she didn’t want to be said in front of Allison. Or Mike.
Instead, Nicole decided to go with Allison to the singer’s room. It would be one of her last opportunities to ask her something before she went back to New York. Only, she was still reeling from the latest events and couldn’t formulate one single question. All Nicole could do was stare at Allison through the mirror and wonder if this was how their story was always meant to end; not hating each other, but not together either.
“Hey, Nic.” Allison’s voice pulled Nicole from her thoughts. “Wanna give me a hand choosing what to wear for the photos?”
“Don’t you have a stylist for that?”
“Well, when I talked to Mike earlier I told him to send most of the team home. Didn’t you notice I did my own make-up?”
“Sorry, I’m a little distracted.” Nicole tried smiling, but if felt fake even to her muscles.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, it’s just…”
Allison couldn’t have been more wrong. The last thing on Nicole’s mind was Lauren and the breakup. In fact, the conversation she had with her opened the journalist’s eyes to what she was doing with her life. Nicole had settled. She had settled for a career. She had settled for a city. She had settled for a woman. And now, she wasn’t sure if she even knew how to not settle, how to go after and conquer and thrive.
“Yeah, sure. Lauren.”
The photo shoot, lunch, another appointment, the drive to the airport. Nicole spent the rest of the day feeling like she was trapped in a hurricane, being thrown from place to place with no time to catch her breath. But letting herself just follow the motions allowed her not to think about saying goodbye to Allison in a few hours, something she knew she wasn’t ready for. Not when there was no guarantee it wouldn’t be final.
There were so many words bubbling inside of her that Nicole spent most of the day in silence, speaking only when spoken to. She was trying to put sentences together, anything that could make sense of what had happened between her and Allison and what it all meant. Her plan was to talk to the singer when they arrived at the airport. There, at least, she wouldn’t have to look at Allison’s face for too long if the singer told her it was nothing but a mistake.
What Nicole didn’t factor into her plan were Allison’s fans. The moment they set foot in the airport, the singer was swallowed by a wave of screaming and crying teenagers. They somehow got wind that she was leaving town and they crowded the airport, a desperate last attempt of seeing Allison up close one last time.
Allison wasn’t there anymore. Nicole was left there, watching Ally Strong interact with the very people that put her at the top. She was theirs. And if Nicole really wanted to be a part of Allison’s life, she would have to get used to that part.
Mike appeared out of nowhere and whispered something in Allison’s ear as she took a picture with a girl that didn’t look like she was even allowed to drive yet. By the expression on the singer’s face, Nicole knew it was time to say goodbye. She followed the rest of the entourage to a VIP room and said her goodbyes to some of them, leaving Allison for last.
When the two women stood in front of each other, there were no words to be said. There were no words that could possibly make that moment hurt less.
“Have a good trip home, Al.” Professional. That’s how she started this, that’s how she was going to finish it.
“Thank you, Nic. Will you send me a copy of the magazine?”
“Of course. Before it hits the stands.”
They watched each other in silence for a moment, measuring and analyzing. Allison opened her mouth a couple of times, but no sound came out. Nicole tried not thinking about what the singer was trying to say; tried not letting her heart get full of hope.
“We have to go, Ally.”
Mike’s voice broke them from their staring. Like a pierced balloon, Nicole deflated. This was it. Allison was really going back to her super star life and she was supposed to stay back and watch her through the TV and listen to her on the radio.
“I’ll be right there, Mike.” When the manager left from view, Allison turned back to Nicole. “Before I go, I wanted to give you this. I wrote this a couple of nights ago and recorded it in my room. Take a listen and tell me what think.”
“I didn’t know you wrote songs too.”
“I do when the inspiration hits me right.”
Nicole put the unmarked CD away and looked up, into Allison’s deep pools of sadness. With a sigh, she threw her arms around the other woman’s shoulders and held her. Nicole held her because, in reality, what she wanted to do was kiss Allison. Kiss her like there was no tomorrow. Only, she knew there would be a tomorrow. One in which they still lived different lives, in different cities and were different people.
But with Allison in her arms, it was hard to think about that.