This story appeared in The Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (Haworth Press), edited by Judith P. Stelboum, in 2004

The eclipse of the sun didn’t seem important to me at the time. I had never been especially interested in the movements of stars, planets, or other bodies in space. Later on, I could fix the date in my memory by remembering the twilight strangeness of the afternoon light.

Paula was stabbing me in the heart by standing on my doorstep clutching Mac, her wire-haired terrier. The summer air was cruelly soft and warm as it brought the scent of irises to me in gusts. “Just for a few days, Jan,” Paula begged. “I really need you to do this.”

I had already agreed to keep Mac with me so that Paula could spend hours in the hospital with Nicole, the complicated and pitiful woman for whom she had dumped me in the spring. Paula still refused to accept my take on the situation.

“You could have left Mac with someone else,” I pointed out, trying to ignore the dog’s fidgeting. At least Mac had missed me. The brandy color of her human-like hair looked appealing as the sunlight grew dimmer.

“She knows you,” Paula explained again. “She asked me if she could stay with you.” Paula was trying to make a joke of it, trying to melt me with her deep brown eyes in the way that had always worked before. I hated every inch of her nonchalant, athletic body.

I couldn’t resist, of course. Despite my common sense, I still missed both bitches. I wasn’t willing to turn down a chance to keep Mac with me overnight, even though I hardly dared hope to be as lucky with her owner.

“Come on, Mac,” I urged, reaching out for her. “You’re going to stay with Auntie Janet for a few days.” Paula handed her over and then I was holding the hot, furry bundle of terrier energy to my breasts. Mac barked. One day at a time, I told myself. I’ll try to be like a dog myself and live in the moment for as long as I can.

“I’ll call you,” Paula promised. “I’ll let you know.”

After she drove away to the sound of Mac’s anxious barking, I attached the leash to the dog’s collar and firmly grasped the other end. Then we took off running, woman and dog, both of us trying to outrace the things that troubled us.

I was grateful for the prickling in my armpits and around my hairline that told me I was sweating. I felt relatively fat and out of shape, but I needed to be reminded of my own animal nature while the light made everything in my tree-lined neighborhood look as two-dimensional as a cardboard stage set.

Mac was panting heavily when we returned home, so I poured water into one bowl and dogfood into another before fixing myself a sandwich and cutting some slices off a watermelon for supper. The juice satisfied my physical thirst.

Reading my emails on my computer with Mac on my lap, I remembered another memorable summer evening a year before. I had met Paula at the lesbian potluck supper that was hosted by a locally famous couple: an architect and an interior designer who had bought a shack and transformed it into a showplace with a fairytale garden. Paula was the photographer whose shots of their domain had been featured in Lifestyles magazine. Sitting in a wicker chair under patio lights in the lavender dusk, I had been prepared to fall in love with any or all of the dyke celebrities present.

I flinched, remembering how transparent I must have been, like the plastic model of a woman with all her insides on display for the education of a high school biology class. Under the spell of Paula’s attention, I told her that I had a psychology degree and a counseling job in a shelter for abused women. I didn’t tell her in words that I dreamed of being a warrior princess, a hired assassin, or at least an actor or a writer with a cult following. I hinted that I had unrealized potential. She didn’t laugh.

Paula touched my honey-brown hair, and I felt like a silken-haired nymph who had appeared in the garden for her to find. She invited me out for lunch during the week. I was glad to know that she didn’t want me to disappear from her life.

When we met again, I asked questions and she answered them. She had a mixture of Greek and native (or First Nations) blood that seemed exotic to me. She had been the unwanted souvenir of a reckless affair, and she had been raised by adoptive Catholic parents. She had been a basketball star in high school, but had fallen out of the game during a purgatorial year of booze, dope and men, when she was fighting her attraction to women. She seemed defensive about her past, but I was charmed by the romance of her story.

On a hot summer night when we were slow-dancing at the gay bar, pressing our sweaty breasts together and dueling with our hips, she whispered “Let’s go.” She guided me toward the exit by pressing her crotch into my butt, and the smell of her thick, clean hair wafted to my nose.

Paula drove us to my place, turned off the ignition, and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. She gazed steadily into my eyes and pressed her lips to mine. Her free hand cupped my nearest breast, and my nipple sprang to attention.

“Bodacious tits, Janet,” she remarked. “I’d like to see them.”

“Here?” I asked, laughing nervously.

“If you want,” she returned smoothly. An image of hot fumbling in the backseat of her car jumped into my mind. I imagined the harsh light of a streetlamp exposing my soft, pale tits or ass cheeks to passing neighbors; somehow I thought her tight tan skin would offend them less.

“We’d better go in,” I advised, trying to make it sound like a sexy invitation instead of a chickenshit response to a dare. She chuckled and slid out of the car. We walked through the moist summer air to the privacy of my attic suite.

In the months to come, I wondered whether I could have hooked her more firmly by ripping off my clothes in the car, by showing my wild side and my full breasts to the world, by turning naked cartwheels on the sidewalk. Looking back, I thought I should have made an impression by giving her some new pictures for her internal photo gallery. But I didn’t do it then, and when I got around to shocking her with my trashiness, things had changed between us.

Like all new couples, we ignored the rest of the world while we were in our honeymoon phase. We agreed not to move in together right away, but Paula acquired a puppy and named her Mac, as suited to her breed. I felt comforted by my girlfriend’s willingness to accept domestic responsibility.

Nicole arrived at the shelter about a week before Christmas, an especially grim time for many. She claimed she was afraid of her hard-drinking roommate. I knew that she and her girlfriend had an on-again, off-again relationship marked by mutual drinking binges and loud public scenes. I also knew that Nicole occasionally used two other names, Chelsea and Lisa, and that each name was associated with a different set of behaviors. I wanted to help Nicole find inner peace, but I wanted to stay safely out of her messy life.

Paula was keeping me company in the shelter because I had lured her in as a volunteer. I was trying to show her the world in which most women still lived. When the government cut back funding for the shelters and other services for women, I talked Paula into going to the demonstration with me. I patiently explained to her how hard it is for a woman who has been beaten or date-raped to bring her attacker to justice, how her credibility and her determination are undermined at every step.

When Nicole arrived, she was temporarily blonde and thinner than ever. She looked as fragile as a porcelain figurine, and she wanted to know how to get a restraining order. Paula offered chivalrous advice based on her sketchy knowledge of the law.

As though watching myself endlessly falling in a nightmare, I watched the predictable development of our three-way relationship. I let Paula persuade me to invite Nicole to the annual Christmas dinner held at the gay bar for those who had nowhere else to go. Refusing would have seemed unsisterly.

Paula and I helped Nicole move into her new home on a stormy day in January. Paula was concerned about Nicole’s isolation in a basement apartment in a rundown neighborhood. So Nicole, currently called Lisa, was invited to watch movies and eat popcorn with us in my cozy suite. She always had to be driven home, and Paula always offered . Sometimes I went along, feeling like an old-fashioned chaperone.

On one treacherously cool spring evening, Paula phoned me from “Lisa’s” place to say that she couldn’t see me until later; she couldn’t say when. “She’s not doing well, Jan,” she explained. “She hasn’t been eating or sleeping.”

My tongue seemed to have a mind of its own. “So you have to feed her like a baby?” I demanded. “And tuck her into her little bed?” I heard Paula gathering breath for an answer. “Why don’t you just move in so you can take care of her all the time, Paula?”

I could feel her growing frustration. She tried to cover it with humor. “Aww, you’re jealous, baby,” she cracked. “I thought you were a feminist. You used to give a shit about your clients.”

“Go to hell,” I cursed her, speaking so clearly that my message couldn’t be misunderstood. “Stay as long as you like.” I hung up.

I didn’t hear from Paula again until noon the next day. “Feeling better, honey?” she quipped as though nothing serious and irreversible had happened between us since the day before.

“You spent the night,” I stated. “I bet she needed your strong arms to hold her.” The loud silence that followed told me everything I needed to know. My heart really hurt. “Don’t phone me again, Paula. I don’t want to see you any more.”

She tried to explain, to justify, to soothe away my presumably irrational, feminine mood. I hung up. She phoned back. I let the answering machine answer her, and I went out.

In the following week, Paula sent flowers and a six-page letter. I made no response, so she showed up at my door. I reminded her that I knew how to get a restraining order to protect me from a troublesome ex-girlfriend. She left.

In the following two days, Paula sent me twelve e-mails. I deleted them. Then she confronted me on the sidewalk as I was coming home from work. “This has to stop, Janet,” she threatened.

Oh yes,” I agreed. “It does.” She reached for my arm, and I raised my voice. “Keep your fucking hands off me!” I shrieked. Passers-by stopped and stared.

“Do you need help, miss?” asked a man in a suit, looking at me, then at Paula. His own look seemed predatory to me, although he would probably have denied it.

“What ever,” spat out Paula, who finally understood that she had lost. “See you in the news, girlfriend.” She pushed her way through the gaping audience, walking back the way she had come. I didn’t see her again until she brought Mac to me on the day of the eclipse.

In the meanwhile, I had seized the chance to rent a small but comfortable house from one of my old psychology profs while she was away on sabbatical. So here I was in a quiet, residential neighborhood, wearing out the tasteful twilight-blue carpet of the front room while waiting for news.

By nine o’clock, the unreal light from outdoors had still not surrendered to the star-studded blackness of a summer night. I decided to settle Mac in her crate for awhile, then settle myself in my bedroom with my favorite sexy books and toys for a one-woman orgy. I could always comfort myself, even if my sensuality didn’t enchant anyone else.

The phone rang. “Janet—” gasped Paula. “It’s over. I couldn’t—it’s just—.”

My sweat suddenly felt ice-cold. I realized that Paula wasn’t capable of making practical decisions. “Are you still at the hospital?” I asked.

“Yes,” she sniffed.

The next question was harder to ask. “Is Nicole still alive?”

“No.” So there it was.

“Did she kill herself?” I needed to know.

“Uh—yes,” Paula admitted. “I don’t think she really knew—but she swallowed too many things.”

“Have her relatives been told?” I asked.

I didn’t expect the gut-wrenching sob that erupted from Paula in response. “Oh, God!” she howled into the phone. “They’re the ones who screwed her up! They’re in there, talking to doctors, claiming everything of hers, acting—Jesus Christ, Janet. How the hell can they just walk in like that after everything they did?”

“Paula,” I called her as soothingly as I could. “Paula. Honey. You did everything you could. I’m coming to pick you up.”

“Okay,” she agreed.

I drove to the hospital, found a parking spot right away, and walked in to find Paula waiting for me. Her face looked sallow and puffy. She threw her arms around me in a long, tight hug.

When she had somewhat recovered, she pulled away. “Do you want to see her? I don’t know if they’ll let you, but—.”

“No,” I answered. “If you’ve done everything you need to do, we should go.” Paula’s face showed me that the hospital staff, who probably considered themselves liberal and compassionate souls, had let her know that she was in their way.

“Wait,” she told me. She turned and walked quickly down a hallway, obviously expecting me to follow. I didn’t think I had a better choice.

A large, red-faced man approached her, glaring. A small woman who looked aged before her time walked several steps behind him. “I just want to say how sorry I am,” Paula told them both. I had no clear idea what she meant: sorry for something she had said or done? Sorry for their loss?

The man looked as if he might swing at her. I grabbed Paula, wanting to pull her aside. “You’re some friend of hers, eh?” he growled. “Our girl is dead, you piece of shit.” Behind the relatives, I could see Nicole’s stone-faced ex-girlfriend.

“Let’s go,” I told Paula. “Come on.” She let me pull her hard in the direction of the exit. “There’s nothing more we can do here.” She was shaking, but thank the Goddess, she was not beyond reason.

I drove, and Paula sat beside me, crying. Her stricken face and crumpled body were unnerving to see, but I couldn’t help feeling a terrible pride at having her in my car. I’ve taken her back, I thought; I can make her mine again by taking care of her. I was aghast at my own barbaric impulses. An image of Nicole’s body, gradually settling into rigor mortis, made me nauseous.

We arrived at my house in full darkness. I let Mac out of her crate, and Paula gathered her up as though they had been separated for a year. Mac licked her owner’s face and wiggled in a way that looked vaguely obscene to me. I realized that my desires weren’t much different from those of a dog: Look at me! Play with me! Love me!

My own grief and guilt were kicking in, and I noticed that I was shaking. I wanted to be strong for Paula, so I busied myself in the kitchen pouring her a coke and making a salad. She hadn’t eaten for several hours, but I knew she couldn’t handle anything heavy. I brought her the food and let her talk.

“Nothing I do turns out right,” she complained bitterly. She sounded like a medieval penitent itching to whip herself bloody. “I’m so sorry,” she gushed. “I screwed up my relationship with you, and then I couldn’t even keep Lisa alive.”

Paula had come to think of our doomed friend by that name, even though I could never call her anything but Nicole. I wondered if we even knew the same woman or if we were both wrong about her. She seemed like a phantom who had cleverly slipped out of the living world without telling anyone her truest and most secret name.

“You couldn’t keep her alive because no one can do that for anyone else,” I explained. “Paula, I’m sure you did your best, but you couldn’t fight off her demons.” I didn’t ask whether she could fight off her own. I wasn’t sure I really believed my own comforting words.

Paula, my once and future girlfriend, nestled in my arms as though she never wanted to let go of me. I couldn’t even guess whether her body language showed possession or vulnerability, or both at once. Mac was curled up on both our laps.

“Janet,” the woman stroked my name, “I never wanted you to leave. You know that. You are so hard when your mind is made up. You could be some kinky Mistress of the Rod. When someone can’t live up to your high standards, you give them the boot.”

I was amazed and secretly thrilled by her image of me. I couldn’t stop crying. My feelings bewildered me, but I felt I owed Paula an explanation. “I thought you were leaving me anyway. You were fascinated with her. I don’t blame you. I thought you were tired of me.”

Paula looked exhausted. “How could I be tired of you?” she asked rhetorically. An image of all three of us as ragged, starving refugees in a barren desert camp sprang into my mind. I realized that we had all been unable to digest emotional nourishment from others because we lacked the essential enzyme, love for ourselves.

I pulled Paula’s face into the warmth between my neck and my shoulder. “Oh, honey,” I promised, my hands in her hair, “I ain’t shown you nothin’ yet, but I will. We can still love her and love each other. We don’t need guilt. We can heal from this.” I rocked Paula gently, breathing in the musk of her sweat. I thought: she’s mine. I decided not to fight the feeling. Her trust was intoxicating.

I knew that Nicole’s death would haunt us, but I could see hope leading us on like the promise of a ripe harvest to come. I imagined myself doing a strip tease for Paula in a wheat field, posing for her camera. She had already suggested parts of my costume: boots and a rod (cane? sword? wand?). I decided to discuss my idea for a photo shoot with her when the time seemed right. Glancing at my watch, I saw that the day of the eclipse was over. Tomorrow, I thought, we’ll see things in a clearer light.

© 2003 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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