The aisle next to her was already crowded with passengers eager to disembark, but Nicole paid them no mind. She was playing with the three connected rings that rested on left ring finger. It was something she did ever since Allison proposed, a way to feel connected to her fiancée when they couldn’t be physically close. And now, that they seemed to be distant emotionally, she caught herself thumbing the rings even more times every day.
As the rows of seats started to clear, Nicole stood up, retrieved her bag from the overhead compartment and followed the steady stream of people until she was outside the plane. It was strange being back in that airport after so long, with its known geography and signs and sounds. She let her body move in auto-pilot as she fished her phone from her purse. She and Allison had made a deal before the singer’s first trip after they had gotten back together: to always text the other first thing when they landed. They would call later, when they had more time, but at least a text from the airport was mandatory.
The screen came to life and before Nicole could start typing a message, another one came through. A smile split her face when she noticed it was from Allison. ‘London is still beautiful, but it’s cold and raining. I need you to warm me up. Miss u and love u’. There were kissy faces at the end of the message and Nicole smiled at her fiancée’s silliness. She replied to her and pocketed the phone before crossing the sliding doors that would lead her to the outside world.
Jake was playing with his phone when Nicole found him, sitting on the spot they had agreed. He had some kind of blank poster leaning against his leg and Nicole wanted to go around and surprise him, but he looked up before she could and their eyes met across the room. A smirk took over his face and he stood up with the poster in his hands. When he turned it around, Nicole noticed it was only blank on one of its sides. On the other he had written, in big letters, Welcome home, Mrs. Nicole Strong.
“What is that, Jake?” She asked when she reached him and was able to stop chuckling.
“I thought you might want to see what it would look like.”
Nicole twisted her head to the side and squinted her eyes. “I kinda like it. But we haven’t decided if we’re changing our names yet.” She looped her arms through his and pulled him towards the exit. “Besides, her real name is Peters. Strong is just a stage name.”
“Nicole Peters sounds nice. Or maybe Nicole Black-Peters.”
“That sounds like a pirate’s name. And, don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself.”
He turned to the side, looked Nicole up and down and gasped. “Oh my god. Of course I am. How can we be talking names when I haven’t even seen the ring yet?”
“You are unbelievable, Jake. Couldn’t you have at least waited until we were in the car?”
“After almost a whole month of curiosity? No way, Jose.” With a barely there grin, Nicole lifted her left hand and let him inspect her ring. He turned it around her finger and looked up at her, smiling. “I like it. It’s really you.”
“I thought so, too. She knows me too well.”
“And by that stupid smile on your face, I can assume you two are no longer fighting?”
“We didn’t fight.” At his raised eyebrow, Nicole chuckled. “It was more like an argument. Besides, she has already scheduled an appointment with her lawyer for as soon as she gets back from England.”
“Can we talk about this at home?” Nicole used her free hand to grip his arm. “I really don’t wanna discuss that out here.”
They filled the drive to Nicole’s apartment with Jake’s gossip about the magazine and with Nicole’s tales about her new job and her adventures in the new city. She had just finished telling him about her new boss when something on the radio caught her attention.
“And now we’ll play for you Ally Strong’s newest hit, Forever and a day.”
It wasn’t like Nicole could really resist rolling the windows down and singing at the top of her lungs the song Allison had written for her and used to propose. It was her one favorite song and she asked her fiancée to sing it every time she could. And every time she heard it, be it live or through the radio, she still got chills up her spine.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Jake tried to mimic a circus ringleader. “We have an in love person in this vehicle.”
“Silly.” Nicole punched his arm, but there was no way she’d be able to wipe off the huge smile from her face. “Did you know she wrote that song to me?”
“You might have told me that, once or twenty times. Give or take.”
“And did I tell you that the first time I heard it was when she proposed?”
“Now, that part of the story you have always skipped, remember?” They stopped at a red light and Jake turned on his seat. “You said you would tell me in person when you came to California. Well, we’re almost at your apartment and I have the whole night to hear you talk about the unbridled passion between the intrepid reporter Nicole Black and the international pop-star Ally Strong.” Nicole laughed at him. “It’s all you talk about, anyway.”
Jake was still asleep on the couch when Nicole woke up, the next morning. Their conversation had gone well into the night and she didn’t want the man driving by himself when there was a perfectly fine couch in her living room.
Her lips curved a little bit when she remembered the last time she thought about sleeping there.
In the morning silence, Nicole decided to go through some of her stuff that she had left behind in her hurry to move to the other coast. There was a lifetime in that apartment and she needed to decide what had place in her new one and didn’t. She made herself some coffee and went back into her room – she would deal with the living room when Jake was awake.
The first couple of boxes were filled with some of her favorite books and all the magazines that had her stories. She knew she had those filed away in her computer, but Nicole didn’t seem to be able to part with the physical evidence of her work.
The magazines would be stored in her office and the books would find a home in the big bookshelf they had in the living room.
After the first and easy part, Nicole started going through every drawer she could find in her room. They had been filled with knickknacks accumulated over the years. She dumped their contents on the bed and took a seat in front of the pile, a box to her left and a trash bag to her right. She would pick each item up and if in a couple of seconds she couldn’t think of a reason why she should ship it to New York, it would go to the trash. Half an hour later and the garbage bag was almost overflowing, whereas the box was still half empty.
There was a small, yellowish packet hidden in the bottom of the pile. It was light when she picked it up and she turned it in her hands, trying to figure out what it could contain. The tie that held it together gave in easily and Nicole found a stack of photographs inside. They were old, some almost faded, and she couldn’t recognize any of the faces that watched her from the paper. She went through them in the hopes to find someone she could identify, any clue as to what those images were about and what they were doing amongst her stuff.
No face caught her eye and she decided to turn them over. Maybe something written on the back could shed some light. On the third photo, Nicole recognized Lauren’s handwriting and remembered that her ex-girlfriend had taken some old pictures of her family to the apartment to work on an album for her mother. She must have forgotten them there after their break up.
Nicole didn’t have an obligation to give the pictures back to Lauren – she probably didn’t even remember they were there – but she had been in the mood for closure lately and decided to leave Jake a note, take his car and drive to Lauren’s place.
One of Lauren’s neighbors was leaving the building when Nicole got there and she didn’t think it was necessary to buzz the apartment before going up and ringing the doorbell. They had had a clean break up and there wasn’t anything that she could possibly find in that place that could hurt her.
The carpet on the hallway, just to the left of Lauren’s door, still had the same burn mark Nicole remembered and she smiled as she rang the bell, thinking about the day it had happened. She was still lost in memories when the door opened.
“Dianna?” The smile on her face turned into a frown.
“Nicole? What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to give Lauren something back.” She spoke slowly, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together in her mind. “What are--”
When Nicole was about to question Dianna back, Lauren showed up at the door, interrupting her. She smiled big as she recognized Nicole standing at her door.
“Nic! Long time, no see. Do you two know each other?”
“Very briefly. Dianna took over the magazine before I left for New York.”
“Yeah, I heard about you moving. What are you doing in town?”
“I’m just here for the weekend.” Lauren took a step forward, the side of her body pressed to Dianna’s and one of her arms was hidden by the other woman. “I kinda missed the city.”
“I bet. But, what brings you here?”
With every word they exchanged, Nicole could see Dianna getting more uncomfortable. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there, but she was too frozen to leave.
“I found these at my place.” She extended the packet to Lauren. “I thought I should give them back.”
“Wow, thank you! I was just talking about those pictures the other night, right, Di?”
It wasn’t a particularly intimate question and it wasn’t a particularly intimate nickname, but Dianna flushed all the same and turned her eyes to the ground. Nicole was getting as uncomfortable as her, especially because she remembered how oblivious Lauren could be when it was in her interest.
“Do you wanna come inside?” Lauren continued the conversation as if Dianna hadn’t just ignored her question.
For the first time since she began her staring contest with the rug, Dianna turned her eyes up when she heard the question. Nicole could feel her gaze on the side of her face. It burned.
“Maybe some other time.” She had done what she had gone there to do. “I’m supposed to have lunch with Jake in an hour.” They both glanced at the burn mark on the rug.
“That’s too bad, Nic. Maybe some other time.”
“Yeah, maybe some other time. Bye, Lauren. Bye, Dianna.”
Lauren was the only one to answer her; Dianna just turned around and went back into the apartment. Not that Nicole actually noticed much. Her mind was going around in circles, trying to make sense of what had happened. Apparently, her ex-boss and her ex-girlfriend were dating. They tried to keep it discreet in front of her, but she knew Lauren all too well not to notice. Besides, Dianna’s awkwardness made it even more evident.
Thinking back on her last conversation with Dianna, things started making sense for Nicole.
She recognized Dianna’s voice, but not the tone. Nicole turned around before calling for the elevator and the woman she found staring at her resembled in nothing the one she had seen on that first meeting in the magazine’s office. She looked like she had shrunken in on herself and her eyes were restless and troubled.
“Yes?” Nicole prompted her when it seemed like Dianna had lost her nerve.
“Before you leave, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Could you, please, not tell anyone about what you saw here? About me and…Lauren.” The last word came out in a whisper as if she was afraid the walls might hear.
“I no longer live in the city, remember?”
“No, but you and Jake are still friends.”
“I won’t mention anything to him. You have my word on that. But, can I ask you something first?” The answering nod was faint. “Why aren’t you honest about who you are?”
“Things are not that simple, Nicole.”
“You’re right, they’re not. But they don’t have to be so complicated.”
“When you’re in a position like mine, responsible for an entire magazine, you’ll understand what I mean.”
Dianna turned on her heels, fully intending to end their conversation on that note, when Nicole’s voice stopped her before she could turn the knob.
“What are you so afraid of?” The question hung above Dianna like a loaded gun. She remained motionless for a few moments, her hand still gripping the doorknob and Nicole could see her knuckles had turned white. “You’re strong, independent, successful. Why hide?”
“I’m not hiding. I’m being cautious.”
“Look, I’m not trying to attack you or anything. I’m just trying to understand.” Dianna turned back around, her jaw clenched and her breathing heavier. “You’re in San Francisco, now. If you can’t be honest about yourself in this town, then I don’t know where you can.”
“San Francisco or not, I still don’t have to put my entire life in a billboard for the world to see.”
“I’m not saying you do.” Nicole leaned against the wall behind her and crossed her arms at her back. “I’m just saying that maybe you don’t have to go out of your way to hide something about yourself like you’re ashamed of it.”
“That’s easy to say when you’re one-half of the country’s favorite lesbian couple.”
“You don’t think we get backlash?” She scoffed. “You don’t think we get stopped on the street by complete strangers, wanting to talk to us about our devious ways? You don’t think Allison receives hate mail every single week?”
“Well, you shouldn’t have to deal with any of that.”
“I know. But hiding who I am won’t change how people think. It will only make it more comfortable for them, not me.”
“At least, you won’t have to know what they think.”
Nicole knew that look. She had seen it countless times before, that kind of defeat that takes root in your soul and hinders your movements and thoughts. After a while, that kind of defeat becomes who you are.
She sat on the ground, her back against the wall, her knees bent in front of her. With a small movement, Nicole invited Dianna to sit with her. Because, every time she had seen that kind of defeat in someone else’s eyes, she had seen a desire to be understood, to be validated.
“Let me guess, bad coming out story?” Dianna’s nod would be imperceptible had Nicole not been watching her so closely. “Your parents?”
“College roommate.” She sat on the hallway in front of Nicole and looked up as if the ceiling contained the words she was searching for. “It was my junior year. I had finally stopped trying to convince myself that I was attracted to guys and this girl from my class asked me if I wanted to have some coffee. I don’t even know if she was asking me out or not, but I felt like I had to tell someone. My closest friends were miles away and I really thought I could consider Marcy a friend. So I told her and on the next day, it felt like the whole campus knew about it. People would stare at me and whisper behind my back.” Dianna looked back down and focused her tear filled eyes on Nicole. “I transferred a week later.”
“What about your parents?”
“I told them I had found a college with a better program and they believed me.”
“And did you ever tell them?”
“They died in a car accident before I had the courage to. In a way, I think it was best this way.”
“I’m so sorry.” Nicole wasn’t sure what she felt sorry for, maybe about everything. “And you haven’t told anyone since?”
“Well, I obviously have.” She glanced at Lauren’s closed door with a small smile. “I just try to choose more carefully who I tell.”
“I get it. I think we have all been there, at some point or another.”
“Oh, really? What’s yours, then?” There was a challenge behind Dianna’s voice. “Your coming out story?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly come out. I was more like pushed out of the closet.” Nicole curved her lips a little, a sad smile blooming on her face. Every time she thought back on those days, a dull pain throbbed on her chest along her heart’s rhythm. “I was a freshman in high school and got invited to some party. I didn’t want to go, but I had just made the volleyball team and I wanted to make friends with the other girls. At some point in the night, this senior girl comes up to me, flirts with me and kisses me. It was my first kiss with a girl.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“And it wouldn’t have been if someone hadn’t caught that on tape and threatened to play it on my next game.” The wide eyes on Dianna’s face made Nicole chuckle. “My parents and my friends would be at that game and I had a week to make a decision. I could play and be exposed to the entire school or I could give up on the thing I loved the most.”
“What did you do?”
“I played.” Nicole couldn’t hide the pride in her voice for her teenager self. It would have been easier to hide, but she chose to fight. “Before the match, I told my closest friends and my parents. To my friends, it was like old news. They had figured that out already and were just waiting for me to say something. My dad is the silent type and he just said he loved me no matter what. And my mom was the hardest. She cried and screamed and said it was just a phase like I knew she would. But when I told her why I decided to tell them, she changed. She wanted to find out who that person was and get them expelled from the school.”
“Did they play the video?”
“Yeah, just before the game started. I had already talked to the girls on my team and the coach and they all had my back. The coach said that I could sit that one out if I wanted, but I didn’t. I was on the bench, but the few times I went in, I could hear my parents and my friends screaming the loudest.” The memory brought a large smile to Nicole’s face. Many years and many games later, that first was still the one she remembered the most. “The next day, a bunch of guys came to congratulate me. Apparently, they had all asked that girl out, but she had always said no. She came to talk to me, too, saying how brave I was. We tried going out for a while, but it didn’t work.”
“And did you ever find out who threatened you?”
“A girl that had tried out for the team, but got cut. She thought that if I refused to play, they would give her my spot.”
“Well, what she did was terrible, but you were lucky.”
“I know I was. But I wouldn’t know that if I had chosen to hide.” And they were back to where this had all started. “When I started college, I had to come out all over again and that’s when I decided I wouldn’t advertise my sexuality, but I wouldn’t hide it either. Honest questions received honest answers and rumors remained just that, rumors.” Nicole stood up and helped Dianna up too. “I didn’t tell you this to try and convince you to call for a staff meeting and tell the whole magazine. I’m just saying that maybe you don’t have to so actively try to hide something about yourself that can be just as amazing as everything else. Who knows? People might surprise you.”
For someone who had lived the last ten years of her life constantly on the road, there was nothing quite like going back home. The idea that she could wear anything that she owned and not just what she had packed; the fact that she could cook her own breakfast and prepare her own coffee; the notion that she could sleep in the bed she had chosen.
The moment Allison decided to pursue singing as a career, she knew that, if she ever got as famous as the artists she admired, she would have to spend long stretches of time away from home. It was never something that bothered her. She loved traveling around the world and she loved getting up on a stage every night to do the thing she loved the most. It also helped her forget that she didn’t have anyone waiting for her to go back home.
Only, now she did and for the first time, did Allison really had a home to go back to. Before Nicole, she had an apartment; four walls, a door, and a roof. It was Nicole’s presence that turned that into a home. And now Allison was afraid she had jeopardized that with her stubbornness.
While in London she had had a lot of time to think and she came to the conclusion that Nicole wasn’t overreacting when it came to Jess and that she really needed to do anything in her power to protect the family that they were building – she just wasn’t used to having to take someone else’s feelings into consideration when she made decisions like that. She had been on her own for too long, but that had changed
From England, she called her lawyer again and told him everything that had happened and asked him to start his research on what could be done for their meeting on the other week. She just hoped it wasn’t too late for the two of them.
Their apartment came into view and Allison took a deep breath. Despite Nicole sounding normal every time they talked on the phone, she didn’t know what she would find once she entered the house. She was well aware that they had had their first real fight and that the time they had spent apart was simply an interlude to that, it hadn’t magically solved all of their problems.
The lights on the foyer were on, but the ones on the living room seemed to have been dimmed. Allison followed them and found Nicole sitting on the couch, with her back turned to the singer. The fireplace had been lit and its glow was the only thing illuminating the room. Nicole had her hair up in a bun and, as Allison approached her, she noticed the other woman wore an old t-shirt and had a blanket on her lap.
“Hello, love.” Allison whispered in Nicole’s ear, hugging her around the shoulder. She kissed her on the cheek and buried her face on her slim neck, inhaling the scent she had missed so much. “I missed you.”
“Hi, honey.” She turned around and buried her fingers in Allison’s dark hair, pulling her in for a kiss. “I missed you too. How was your flight?”
“Boring and safe.”
“The best kind.”
For a moment, Allison let herself lean against the back of the couch and feel Nicole’s fingers combing through her hair. When she opened her eyes, she noticed there were two empty glasses on the center table, an array of junk food and a pile of DVDs.
“What’s all this, Nic?”
“Well, I thought we could have a movie night since I fell asleep on our last one.” Allison had a thoughtful expression on her face and Nicole waited until she rounded the couch and sat beside her to continue. “But if you’re too tired, that’s alright. I can put it all away and we can go to sleep.”
“No, no, honey. It’s a great idea.” Allison picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles. “It just surprised me.”
“Because we’re in the middle of a fight?” She hadn’t meant for it to sound like a question, but by the way Nicole was acting, she wasn’t sure about what was happening anymore.
“We’re not fighting, Al. We just had a disagreement. And we can talk about everything tomorrow, but tonight I want to eat junk food, watch a movie and cuddle with my fiancée on the couch, okay?”
“Okay.” The answer came out in a whisper, relieved that they were better than she had thought. “Is it alright if I take a shower first? I kinda smell like an airplane.”
“Of course. You go take a shower and I’ll put the popcorn in the microwave.”
Fifteen minutes later and Allison took a seat on the couch. She was positioned between Nicole’s legs, back to front, with the blanket covering her own legs. She had the popcorn bowl in her hands and was slowly feeding herself and Nicole. The house was silent apart from the movie playing and she felt like she could fall asleep in Nicole’s arms at any minute. There was just one thing she wanted to tell her before.
“I called my lawyer again. I told him--”
“Shhhh.” Nicole interrupted her and tightened the arms she had around her waist. She leaned forward, perching her chin on Allison’s shoulder. “We can talk about it tomorrow. Let tonight be just about you and me.”
“Okay.” Allison’s answer turned into a small yawn. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little jetlagged.”
“It’s okay, love. Go to sleep.”