LET ME LICK HER

This is the romance that CDPR should have given us.//

Mija!

Lucia turned in her seat and smiled as she looked out the window. Her dad was there, looking tall and trim as he always did, walking up the side of the bus. He couldn’t see her through the tint, and it didn’t look like she could open it from the inside of the big Greyhound, so she slapped her palm against the window. It was louder than she realized it would be, and she shrank a little when she saw the bus driver stare at her in his overhead mirror. Her dad smiled and held his hand up against the window, and she quickly matched him.

“Cada semana!” he shouted.

“Every week,” she repeated, lining up her hand with his.

After a few seconds he smiled and backed away, and Lucia settled into her seat. It felt good to be going home to Portland. Her real home. She pulled the little paper out of the inner pocket of her jacket, the one she’d fallen asleep holding more nights than not, and stared at it. It wasn’t much: a few ripped up pieces she’d meticulously put back together with tape, but it had been her guiding star for the last six months. Six long, exhausting months getting back on her feet. In her mind, it was a lot like coming out of a coma, and that made her feel very connected.

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It had taken a lot to get her parents to trust her to be back out on her own again, but it had been worth it for that moment. She was goinghome.

The patchwork piece of paper had originally been part of a larger picture that included all three members of her old band, Insanity Hall, though the piece in her hand only showed two of them. It had been taken from the pit by some AP photographer, angled up at them as they looked out over one of the largest crowds they’d ever played to. Arms around each other’s shoulders, grinning and sweating.

“I’m coming,” she said, as she brushed her thumb over Vivian’s ecstatic, slightly smudged face.

***

“Hey, um…”

Lucia looked up from packing away her Jackson six string, and bit down on her desire to chuckle. Her student, Gene, was blushing as he likewise gathered his equipment now that the lesson was over. “Mhm?”

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“I looked up your band. You guys were pretty cool!”

“Aw thanks,” she said, hefting her guitar case and holding the door open for him. They moved out into the long hallway, leading toward the front of the shop, and walked side by side. “I’m really proud of what we did.”

“Can I ask you… ahhh, this is a dumb question.”

“No such thing,” she said, leading the way out into the storefront area. “Fire away.” She set her case down next to the counter and continued on with him as they headed for the door.

“When you wrote songs, did you write them in drop D tuning? Sometimes it sounds like there’s, like, a… uh… a djent kind of thing going on?”

Lucia took a deep breath, and held in her sigh. “So much to unpack.” She unlocked the front door, but only leaned against the frame while considering her words. “Everything we ever played was in open G tuning, usually in the key of A or G. Our singer, Kevin, only knew how to play in open G. He was super lazy, and he also didn’t have a whole lot of range, so we made it easy on him.”

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“Okay,” he said, nodding, “so you wrote your songs in open G.”

Lucia shook her head. “First of all, I only did a little bit of writing. I mostly recorded and co-produced. Our bassist was the… She did all the writing.”

Gene’s face lit up. “Ah cool!”

“Most of the time, though, Vivian wrote in standard tuning, in the key of C. That was better for her voice, when she… when she was writing. She’d bring in these… It was less like a structured song and more like a vision board of ideas, with bits of riffs and some pieces of lyrics built around a theme,if we were lucky, and we’d all get together and fix them into what you heard.”

Gene nodded slowly and smiled. “So you guys were transposing it all down.”

“Part transposing, part transcribing. That… thatdjent-iness was just because Vivian had a big sound. She wanted to be loud.” Lucia smiled sadly, eyes unfocusing. “We never wrote songs where the bass and guitar overlapped very much, because she didn’t want to be invisible. She’d always say ‘Don’t Newstead me, bro’. We’d make them have some interplay, and because Vivian had small hands it meant she played the higher strings more often than not. Her and her tiny, stupid hands.”

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After a beat, she added, “She never went for that deep droning. Instead, we had her playing what would otherwise be, like, a rhythm guitar line.”

“Cool,” Gene said, enthusiastically. “My buddies and I have been messing around with some ideas, but we’re all coming at it from different angles. Backgrounds. I didn’t know how much we needed to get on the same page to start with.”

“Nah,” Lucia said, finally finding a smile worthy of Insanity Hall’s legacy. “Let it be messy at the start, and find your own way. Don’t listen to what anyone else tells you aboutwhat you need to do if you’re gonna be serious musicians.”

“Except you,” Gene said, laughing nervously, “because you’re my teacher.”

Lucia leaned on the door, letting in a soft breeze as she did. “Eventually, you’ll outgrow every piece of advice you ever get. Even mine.”

“Whoa,” he said, staring out into the night. “Deep.”

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“See ya next week, Gene.”

Gene smiled, and hustled out the door with a quick wave.

“And keep practicing,” she called after him. “Your calluses suck!”

She pulled the door shut and locked it, and leaned against the handle. She hated talking about Vivian like Vivian was just some friend.

At a sound behind her in the showroom, she tensed up and rubbed furiously at her eyes. “Just… locking up!”

Bill, owner of the eponymously named guitar shop, said “All done?”

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“Yeah,” Lucia said, as she reached over and shut off half the lights in the showroom. “That’s the last one. Hey, listen, are we still getting those new Dean models tomorrow?”

Bill nodded, not looking up from his paperwork.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’m gonna stick around for a bit and reorganize aisle five. Make some room for them.”

This time, Bill looked up at her. “That’ll be the third night this week, yeah? Staying late?”

Lucia tried to swallow, but her throat refused. Instead, since she didn’t think she could talk, she just nodded.

“Look,” Bill said. “I been married 42 years. Take a piece of advice. Just go home and apologize. Your boyfriend will forgive you. Whatever it is you did, it isn’t as bad as you think.”

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She couldn’t meet his gaze, so instead she looked down and nodded.

“Go home, Lucia.”

Lucia looked over at the clock 7:45 pm. Way too early. “Look, just let me—”

Bill, in his stubborn-yet-affable way, started toward her with her guitar and a tight smile. “It’s for your own good.”

“But—”

“Go on,” he said, handing her her guitar. “Git.”

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A minute later, Lucia found herself outside in the crisp autumn’s air, sullenly kicking a rock along the pavement. She got to the bus stop and, after a moment’s consideration, pulled out her phone.

“Are you going tonight?” she asked, via text.

***

Lucia hadn’t planned on raising her hand, but there had been a bit of a silence once the meeting got under way and she felt compelled. That was always how it happened when she spoke: never planned. Whenever she planned to speak going in, someone else in crisis would beat her to it.

She got up, put on a smile when the room clapped for her, and moved toward the front.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Lucia, and I’m an addict.”

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“Hi Lucia,” the group replied,en masse.

“I’m, um…” She licked her lips. “I’ve been clean for two hundred and forty three days… which sounds way cooler than sayingalmost eight months.

A few chuckles, and a lot of emphatic nods.

“I really needed a meeting today, you know? I, uh, I usually go every three days, and I just went a couple days ago, and then… so last night, I’m sitting in my apartment, feeling lonely, as you do, and I did that stupid thing that I always do when I’m feeling lonely. You know? I started missing her.”

Alot of emphatic nods, and a little bit of clapping.

“It was so stupid, you know? I… I saw that she was playing Russell’s, over on Main, and that’s, you know, right around the corner from my apartment. Right around the corner, and like”—she paused, laughing and shaking her head—”and like two connecting buses. All the way across town. And then, like, a mile on foot. You know, right around the corner.”

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Lucia shook her head, chuckling, while the rest of the room nodded in solidarity.

“We were in a band, her and me. Before. She just performs solo now, and she does that thing where she plays one instrument for a little bit and then loops it? And then picks up another one and plays a little more? And she, like, assembles these songs live. It’s, uh… yeah. It’s really cool, because I taught her, um… And I just… I watched the whole thing from a dark corner. I shouldn’t have been there. She doesn’t even know I’m back in town, right? She’s living her life, doing what she loves, and… and her new girlfriend is super cute.

“She looks really happy,” she said, and then added, after a slight pause, “already.”

A murmur passed through them, but Lucia couldn’t really look up at the assemblage. She pushed on because she needed to, even though it hurt.

“Her girlfriend comes up on stage at the end of every show. Ask me how I know that.”

How do you know that?” one of the group members shouted from the back.

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“Because I go to every damn one of her shows, Stan. That was rhetorical.”

Stan, an older mechanic in a beat-up Stihl baseball cap, folded his arms and smirked at her.

“She, uh… she was the first person who saw good in me, you know? The first since my grandmother, anyway. She was one of the only people who’d really trust me. I-I had burned a lot of bridges at that point. Like, alotof bridges, right?”

A smattering ofyeah‘s and clapping.

“I thought I had it under control, but Vivian, she… she wanted me to change. Wanted me to clean up.Gotme to clean up, really, but I hadn’t hit rock bottom at that point. No.” She paused to sniff. “No, I didn’t hit rock bottom until the first time I snuck out on her to go shoot up. One more time, right?”

This time she did manage to look up, and the whole room was right there with her. Many of them were quietly mouthingone more timethemselves.

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“So there I am, last night, lurking in a shadow so she won’t see me, and I had this, like… I had this realization, or an epiphany, or… I don’t know. It’s like… when I’m lonely, she’s all I can think about. She’s in my head. She’s right there behind me. I hear her, and if I can just turn around fast enough, she’ll be there, you know? Like some sort of ghost… except… that’s not real. That’s just in my head. Truth is that I’m the ghost. I’m the one that’s hovering just out of sight, lurking in the shadows where she can’t see me. I’m the one who can’t let it go, and just…”

She blinked, and it startled her that her vision became so blurry so fast. She sniffed again and wiped at her eyes.

“I bet a lot of you have a Vivian. Someone who really tried, and had their hearts in the right place, and we… we weren’t ready. Just needed that one more time. One last hit.” This time, when she looked up, a lot of the room was averting their eyes. Lost in their own thoughts. “I bet a lot of you have someone you miss. Someone you hurt. Someone who won’t pick up if you…”

Her voice got quiet as her throat tightened. She coughed roughly, trying to clear it, and continued, saying, “It might feel like…”

That was as far as she got before the tears became too much. Three people in the front row immediately got to their feet, came around the podium, and hugged her tightly.

Lucia had never been much of a hugger. She’d been very touchy-feely, laying hands on everyone around her—on shoulders, the small of the back, or hips—but hugging had always been too much. Too visceral and real. Scary. That fear had waned since she started going regularly to NA. They were huggers all the way down. Every single meeting, at every location she’d ever been to. Hugs coming in the door, hugs during, and hugs on the way out.

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The three people hugging her didn’t say anything. They just held her and cried right along with her. The pain was still fresh, still agonizing, but she wasn’t alone with it.

That was something.

***

Lucia stared into the space in front of her, eyes not really taking in anything. There was nothing to see behind the bar. She held her glass in her hand, swirling it absently. The ice made a clear ringing sound that cut through the low, indistinct chatter around her.

“Back again, huh?”

Lucia froze in a way that came close to defying human anatomy.

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The bartender had more hair than any woman Lucia had ever seen. Most of it was pulled back into a full ponytail that reached her shoulders, but there were enough stray hairs to frame her face. Huge, warm brown eyes.

She was alsobuilt. She had a thickness to her that was intriguing. Her sleeves were rolled up in a way that showed off her arms, and the way she was wiping the glass clean said she knew exactly what she was doing. Very purposeful.

“No,” Lucia lied. “I’ve never been here before in my life.”

“Couple nights ago,” she replied, easily. “Came to see the show, right?”

Lucia narrowed her eyes and, with a wave of her hand, said, “This is not the Latina you’re looking for.”

“No?” she asked, and then gave Lucia a look that saidWe both know you’re lying.It was all cocked eyebrows and quirked lips.

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Lucia sighed, shook her head, and went back to staring through the wall in front of her. “I plead the fifth.”

The bartender smirked and moved a couple steps closer toward her, so that they were about diagonal to each other. “You know that scene in TV shows where someone goes into a bar and asks the barhandhave you seen this woman, or whatever, and they say something back likeI see a thousand faces every night, how am I supposed to remember one? That’s not me. I’m good with faces.”

“Oh yeah?” Lucia said, tilting her head slightly. “What else are you good with?”

The raised eyebrow she received in return was so wild, so unimpressed, and at the same time so impressive. That eyebrow was working overtime, getting paid time and a half.

Thick eyebrows too. Lucia suppressed a shudder.

“If it helps,” the bartender said, “I grew up here. I know all the right spots to stand if you’re trying to hide, and I know what the people standing in those spots are doing.”

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“The game was rigged!” Lucia exclaimed. “So, grew up in a bar, huh?”

The bartender shrugged and moved a little closer. “My dad used to own this place. So what’s going on?”

Lucia took a sip from her glass to buy herself a moment to think. “Nothing.”

“It’s okay,” the bartender said. “You can tell me. I’m a doctor.”

“You’re a doctor,” Lucia said, without inflection.

“Oh yeah,” she replied, keeping a very straight face. “As soon as Harvard approves the thousands of clinic hours I’ve put in around here, listening to other people’s problems, it’s just a matter of time until they mail me a degree.”

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Lucia laughed and threw up her hands. “You won that round.”

“What were we playing for?” the woman said, moving even a little closer.

Lucia leaned forward over the bar, and bit her lip. “What are you up for?”

Without missing a beat, the bartender smiled at her, and propped herself on the bar with her elbow. “I dig your tats. How far up do they go?”

Lucia looked down at her arms and smiled back.

“I got a room upstairs,” the bartender said, “if you wanna—”

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Lucia nodded emphatically and downed the last of her ginger ale.

“Through the door in the hall,” the bartender said, nodding toward the back of the building. “The one across from the ladies room.”

As Lucia was making her way across the room, she heard the bartender yell, “Karl, I’m going upstairs for a bit. Cover the bar.”

She didn’t hear Karl’s reply.

Lucia could have sex with just about anyone, given the right circumstances, which is not to say that she was without standards. Her range of attraction crossed race, age, and gender, but anyone who did not meet those standards only required some extenuating circumstance to bridge the gap. The greater the gap, the more pressing the circumstances required. She had once gone down on a heavyset man she didn’t know on the side of the road, and none of those details helped. The fact that he was a cop had not worked in his favor either, but her expired, out of state license and lack of insurance had made it just about the easiest blowjob she’d ever given.

The bartender was one hell of a woman. Her lion’s mane of red-brown hair was perpetually shrouding part of her face as she moved, giving her a ridiculous air of mystery. She caught up to Lucia at the top of the stairs, working her arched eyebrow like the deadly weapon it was, and unlocked the door. Lucia only made it a few steps inside before the bartender took her hand and led her toward the bed.

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As far as Lucia was concerned, sex was a commodity and had always been something she leveraged in the pursuit of her larger goals. Sometimes it had felt like the only thing keeping her band together was the sex she orchestrated. It kept the tensions down, the morale high, and the creative juices flowing.

The apartment above the bar was mostly one large, open space. Tall windows that ran from her knees clear up to the ceiling let in a wild carousel of indirect neons from the assorted signage up and down the other side of Main Street, painting the bartender in a kaleidoscope of baby blues, soft whites, and pinks. Her grip, her touch, was gentle but firm.

In hindsight, Lucia knew she’d crossed a line with Vivian. Her erstwhile bandmate had caught feels even before Insanity Hall became Insanity Hall, and hadn’t ever been very good at hiding it. She had often looked at Lucia with a longing that gave her a lump in her throat, but Lucia had always been able to see sex for what it really was: power. An exchange. She had given Vivian what she could, and in return Vivian had given them four stellar albums in five years, each better than the last: art she was proud to have her name on, and that had been a fair deal all around.

Or at least, it had seemed like it at the time.

That first kiss, next to the bartender’s bed, was good. The second one, after shirts had been tossed and bras had been unhooked, was great. The third, as Lucia crawled backwards on her elbows while the bartender moved with her, over her, on hands and knees, was goddamn dynamite.

It had been over a year since the accident, and almost exactly a year since Vivian had come back… different. Serious. Driven. Everything had gotten so messed up. Lucia had completely lost it at the prospect of being the only one of them left standing, at having to be the responsible one, stubbornly insisting all the way down her spiralling tailspin that she had it all under control. The speed with which it had unraveled often made the now-sober Lucia wonder if she’d ever had any control to begin with.

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The bartender had the largest breasts she’d ever played with, which was not saying much. Lucia’s previous experiences with women had almost exclusively been with other addicts, and substance abuse rarely aids in the retention of body fat. The bartender’s were enhanced to some degree, surgically, but they suited her torso, and her build.Perfectly,Lucia thought to herself,if I’m being honest. Being underneath, on her back, afforded Lucia a magnificent view, the wonderful feeling of being comfortably crowded, and two free hands to explore with.

he worst part about giving in to Vivian was that it hadtainted sex ever so slightly. It felt as good to be touched as it ever had, and orgasms still made her eyes cross just a little, but, when given the chance, Vivian had shown her a level of tenderness, affection, and vulnerability that had been fulfilling in ways Lucia had never known. It had been scary, with her stomach in her throat like a free-fall, to ransack her vault of secrets; scary, but not painful. Certainly not agonizing, like she’d always thought it would be. She had told Vivian things she’d never told another living soul—not everything, but enough—and it hadn’t brought the world down around her ears. What it had done instead was to grind the last bits of Vivian’s reluctance to embrace her into powder, and the madwoman had gone all in. She had ruined everything, and whether that ‘she’ was Vivian or Lucia depended on the day.

The bartender drove a thigh between Lucia’s legs, groaning and biting her lip as Lucia squirmed beneath her. Lucia intertwined her own legs at the ankle, squeezing that thigh and grinding her pelvis against it. Flat, dull pressure at the apex. It felt good. She cupped one of the bartender’s breasts in both hands, teasing the pale pink tip with her tongue, and soaked up the sound the other woman made. Lucia was still wearing her jeans, but they were tight enough and stretchy enough that the grinding was totally working for her. The bartender, though, was down to just her panties, which made it very easy for Lucia to slip one hand down inside the waistband.

The worst part about sex with Vivian was the way it had taken up residence in her head, rent-free. It had been inescapable with all of the partners she’d had since leaving Portland eight months prior. She compared every part of what she felt to her memories of lying in Vivian’s arms, rose-colored though those memories might be, and the present always came up short. It wasn’t even that sex with Vivian had been particularly great. The black-haired bassist had skills, to be sure, but it had been a fairly vanilla affair every time.

The bartender had cum easily, shuddering and convulsing after just a minute of lightly stroking with the pad of her middle finger, but it hadn’t slowed her down. If anything it had only lit a fire under her, as evidenced by the way she ripped off Lucia’s jeans, threw her feet back over her head, and fell upon Lucia’s wet folds like a wolf on the hunt.

Little by little, Lucia straightened herself. First, she brought her feet down, toes balanced lightly on the outer mounds of the bartender’s well-muscled shoulders. The arch of her feet molding around the back of the other woman’s neck. Heels digging in just beneath the shoulder blades.

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One moment, her thighs were resting gently against the bartender’s shoulders with her arms fanned out beside her, gripping the sheets. The next, her legs were clamped tight around the bartender’s ears, and each of her hands held a fistful of auburn locks. She clenched her teeth, riding that glorious dopamine high, and then relaxed every muscle in her body simultaneously. Limp from her forehead to her toes, and for a little while her mind was quiet. Time moved around her, but she didn’t notice.

The bartender was quite a sight from behind, haloed by the lights streaming in through the windows, in just her panties. She reached for her bra, and looked back over her shoulder with a smirk. Lucia couldn’t help noticing that the bra was exquisite. Gorgeously intricate lace. She still hadn’t moved, trying to catch her breath and enjoy a few moments of clear-headedness.

“The door over there leads down and out the back,” the bartender said, gesturing. “Might want to turn on the light before you go out so you can see your way down the stairs. If you do that, lock up behind you.” Then she paused for a second before adding, “Or, you know, come back down? Have another ginger ale? Maybe have an actual conversation?

“Either way,” she said, with a smile, “that was fun.”

Lucia watched, silently, as the other woman dressed herself and went back downstairs. She, seemingly very purposefully, hadn’t looked back to see what Lucia was doing while she gathered herself; there had been no pressure. In another life, Lucia would have happily taken that door to freedom and held up the whole experience as yet another example of the goodness of humanity, or how natural casual sex can be. She would have told herself that she’d done the right thing. The truth was, though, that she had deflected with sex. She really did want someone to talk to, and she didn’t want to bother her sponsor. Stan would happily answer if she called, but it was late and his job required him to be up early.

She was lonely, and alone, and she didn’t want to do the stupid thing she always did when she was lonely and alone, so she put on her clothes, checked her eyeliner in the mirror, and went back downstairs. The bartender had a smile like honey, slow but sweet, when she came around the corner.

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“Why don’t we start over,” she said, as Lucia sat back down, and she extended her hand. “I’m Helen.”

“Lucia.”

“Pleased to meet you, Lucia.” Helen smirked as she flicked a button on the hose in her other hand, and she filled a glass with ginger ale.

The bubbles tickled Lucia’s nose when she went to take a sip. It made her feel like she was seven again, sitting on herabuela’s couch under a heavy blanket when she had a cold. “Thanks.”

“So.”

“So,” Lucia replied.

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“Ginger ale, huh?”

Lucia narrowed her eyes. “Yup.”

Helen nodded slowly. Her eyes wandered around them, slowly, before she whispered, “I’m gonna guess… Narcotics Anonymous.” Then she smiled and waited, patiently, while Lucia choked and coughed.

“God, I’m not that obvious,” Lucia said, red-faced, once she caught her breath, “am I?”

The redhead gave her a rueful smile. “Most people don’t come to a bar to sit alone and drink soda. Could’ve been AA, but those folks usually avoid coming to the bar at all.”

“Ah,” Lucia said, nodding slowly.

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“How many months?”

The wording of the question forced her to answer with, “Eight,” which was still not as cool as two hundred and forty four.

Helen rested her elbows on the bar and leaned forward, seemingly peering into Lucia’s soul. Whatever it was she saw, though, she kept to herself. Instead of continuing to pepper Lucia with questions, however, which Lucia was increasingly uncomfortable with, the bartender said, “So this one day, after wrestling practice, I’m just sitting there in the locker room, right?”

“As you do,” Lucia said.

“I’m like, I don’t know, I think seventeen.” Helen smiled, staring off into the distance where her memories lived. “I was staring down some pretty heavy life stuff, and my…husband… or the man who would laterbecomemy husband. We’d known each other for years. We were just friends at that point.”

Lucia squinted slightly, processing what she was hearing.

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“Anyway,” Helen continued, “I’m sitting there, and he comes over, and he sits down on the bench opposite me, and he just, he stares at me, right?”

Something wasn’t quite adding up for Lucia, but she bit her tongue and waited.

“He asks me how I’m doing. I sayfine, but I guess something in the way I answered, or in my face, it wasn’t right, and to be honest I don’t think I was trying to hide that I was going through some stuff. I was. For sure.” Helen swallowed, which appeared difficult, before continuing. “But instead of pushing, he just starts talking to me. Telling me about his dad, who was abusive. Mostly toward his mom, but also toward him and his little sister. Really not good.

“He’s telling me about all this stuff, but he’s not doing it in a way that’s, like, placing an emotional burden on me, you know?” she said, tenting her fingers against her chest. “He’s not telling me so I’ll hug him and tell him it’ll get better, or to make himself the center of attention. He’s showing a little bit of vulnerability, and… you know, meanwhile, I’m sitting there trying to grapple with my identity, and with my sexuality, and my dysphoria.”

Lucia… pinged, and judging by the way Helen grinned at her it must have shown on her face.

“I didn’t tell him that day, but he was the first person I told about my dysphoria, and that I wanted to transition.”

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“Ooooooooh,” Lucia said, blinking and replaying the previous twenty minutes very quickly through her head. “Wait a minute.”

“You get ten seconds,” Helen said. “No more.”

Lucia blinked a few more times, shrugged, nodded, and said, “Huh. Okay. So that was…”

Helen arched her eyebrow again, and it was strange how the contours of her face seemed to be designed around that arch: the set of her big brown eyes, the quirk of her lips, her prominent cheekbones, all in service of that almighty brow.

Lucia said, with a firm nod, “Sorry. Continue.”

Helen chuckled, shifted her weight so she was leaning more casually on one elbow, and looked up and down the bar. “I’m glad I told him first, because he had the right reaction. He just hugged me. We were two straight AMABs, you know? We’d never hugged before. Little by little, he got me to open up, talking about his dad.My dad wasn’t abusive, but I had an uncle that was an alcoholic who could be pretty scary.” She took a deep breath and stared into the distance for a moment, saying, “It didn’t happen right away. I don’t think I really started talking about myself for a couple days, but, you know, in the meantime, he kept up with me. Checked in on me. He was…”

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A slow smile spread across Helen’s face.

“He was something. The further I went with things, the more important he became. He was there for me. Saved my life.”

Lucia stared down at her drink and sighed.

“He was good to me, you know? He helped me change. For the better… and I miss him. A lot. He wanted more for me than for me to just spiral out of control, and that meant the world to me.” She laughed sheepishly, adding, “Probably not something you should say to someone you just slept with, but…hey…

Lucia wasn’t really aware of herself as she started to walk away. She was somewhat cognizant of Helen, behind her, trying to get her attention. Most of Lucia’s attention was on Vivian, and how much she missed her, and how much it hurt, and she didn’t think she could stand another second of empathy toward someone else’s lost love.

So she left.

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***

Lucia shouldered her way through the door, smiling and brandishing her offerings. “Good morning, Officer Li.”

Officer Li looked up from his screen at the department’s front desk, and smiled. “Miss Alvarez. Is it Tuesday already?”

“I’ve got your caramel latte, a few other mixed coffees that sounded good, and a mixed dozen. Aaaaaand…” She set those on the counter, and, with a flourish, pulled a manilla folder out from under her arm. “Results.”

He took the cup from the holder first, with a tiny little smirk, and then the folder. “I’ll get this faxed right over. You know you don’t need to bring this kinda spread every time, though, right?”

Lucia made a face that was somewhere between a smile and a wince, and scratched at the back of her head. “Off the top of your head, how much do you think it would cost to replace all four tires on a… say… ’08 Crown Vic, because they got holes in the sidewalls? Like, the kinda holes a little pocket knife makes?” She licked her lips and added, “I’m… asking for a friend.”

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Officer Li threw back his head and laughed. “Maybe next time, a couple bagels?”

“You got it, Officer,” she shot back, giving him her sloppiest salute as she backed out through the door; she’d almost given him the finger guns, but that seemed in poor taste.

She perambulated along the sidewalk, with the collar of her jacket pulled up to protect her from the slight chill, and sat down on a bench. It was cold as hell under her, and a little wet, but that wasn’t a dealbreaker. Living in Portland meant dealing with a little water. She pulled out her phone and was scrolling through the contact list when she was interrupted by a call.

Does this one make eight months?

“Yeah, Dad,” she said, smiling and staring down at the concrete. “Eight months clean.”

I’m really proud of you, Mija! That’s some really good momentum.”

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Lucia nodded, lips spread in a tight smile. “Thanks.”

I did the transfer this morning as soon as I woke up.

“Dad,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose, “you should’ve waited. We agreed.”

I know,” he said, voice trailing off a little. “I’m, you know… I’d love to say it was because I trust you, and that’s definitelypartof it, but I think it’s really just that I don’t know what to do with myself now that I’ve got all this time on my hands.

Lucia made a little noise in her throat.

I jump out of bed these days, run around and take care of everything I can think of, and before I know it I’ve cleared my whole day before seven fifteen.

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She barked, shook her head, and chuckled under her breath. “That sounds awful.”

Your mother is going to smother me with a pillow any day now. Yesterday she told me she was going to un-retire me and send me back to work because I was going along behind her when she was cleaning the kitchen!

“Oh, Dad, you donot mess with Mom’s kitchen.” They both laughed for a few seconds before she added, “Hey, so I think next week, you can maybe just send, like, two hundred?”

Are things picking up?

“Still no gigs. I think I’m still on a lot of people’s shitlists, which, you know…” Lucia stared off into the distance and sighed. “…it’s not great, but I picked up a whole bunch of students at the shop.”

Oh, really?

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“Yeah. The other guy they had teaching tried to use the old ‘here let me sit behind you and show you how to hold your hands’ trick, and the girl he was groping shouted at him. Bill, the, uh—”

The owner,” her father supplied.

“Right. Yeah. He was, like, just down the hall doing some inventory. Fired JC on the spot, and then came upstairs to where I was and offered me all of his students.”

Is she pressing charges?

“Well, he went out in handcuffs, so I think so, but I’m gonna be doing a little bit of damage control when I see her on Saturday. I agreed to make a special trip out to her parents house so she feels more comfortable. Hopefully she keeps going with it and, you know, doesn’t blame the whole shop just because JC is scum. I’ll make that trip for as long as I have to if it gets the right kind of word of mouth, you know?”

And doing lessons pays better?

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“It’s definitely steadier. I get a little bit of commission when I sell equipment, and that’s maybe more, but I’m not great at all that, like… upselling to the custom models, and ‘oh you’re gonna want thegold cables to get the right sound.’ I’m no good at that kinda nonsense, you know? I can’t bullshit people like that when they don’t know any better.”

Well, you don’t have to take less. I’m happy to keep sending you three fifty like we talked about for as long as you keep making progress like you’ve been doing. Take the raise and the money. Get a little buffer built up. Enough to make a down payment on something, assuming that’s what you want. Not trying to tell you your business.

“I promise,” she said. “I’m doing okay. I’m keeping my costs really low. If I could line up some session work, that’d probably put me over the top. If I do, though, I’ll keep sending you guys the… the test results. I promise, I… Every week. Just like we agreed.”

There was mostly silence on the other end, broken by a sharp sniff, after which her father made a sound like a long sigh and cleared his throat. “Myrna and Lina were over the other night for dinner, and Myrna showed us how to bring up the Youtube on that new TV I was telling you about?

Lucia laughed, and said, “Okay. It’s just ‘Youtube’, but okay.”

She pulled up one of your concerts for us.

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“Oh,” she said, her stomach going into a free fall for a moment. “Myrna did?”

Yeah. She wanted to show it to us.

“My sister, Myrna?”

For Lina, your mom, and me, that was the first time we’d seen you play in, I mean, I don’t know how many years. That Battle of the Bandswhen you were in ninth grade?

“Which band did you watch on Youtube? Insanity Hall?”

Yeah. I think the show was called Bumbleshoot or something?

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“It’s Bumbershoot,” she corrected, gently. “Yeah, we played that festival a few times.”

It was strange, because it almost sounded like some stuff my uncle Eugenio would listen to way back when. He’d get excited about all these AM stations coming down from Texas. He called ithonky tonk, maybe?

“Yeah, maybe,” Lucia said, shrugging. Insanity Hall could be described as honky tonk if you squinted at it.

I tried to remember who he liked, but it’s been a while. Eugenio died forty years ago. Does Ray Fink sound right?”

“No,” she said, slowly.

“Fink Ray, maybe?

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“Oh my god!Link Wray? Yeah!”

Almost had it!” he said, laughing. “Yeah, he and your Abuela were real close. He would have liked you.

“You’ve never really talked about Uncle Eugenio before.”

There was a moment of silence on the other end. “He got shot in a liquor store. Family lore was that he was robbing the place, but he might’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Ah,” Lucia said. “Yeah.” Every living member of her family that she knew about all worked in law enforcement excepting those who had retired and herself. There were a few family members, like her great uncle Eugenio, whom nobody wanted to talk about. Getting her dad to admit they were even related was huge, so, not wanting to push her luck, she switched topics and said, “So, did you like the show?”

I don’t think I really got it,” he said, voice trailing off at the high end of his register, “but it was really something to watch you play. I think it was from 2016? You looked really happy up there… and that bassist!That’s Vivian? The one you always talked about?

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“Yeah,” she said, sadly. “That’s her.”

The camera mostly stayed on the singer guy, but I was watching you whenever you were lined up behind him, or whenever Vivian was bouncing around in the background? Have you two had a chance to talk yet?

Every fiber of her body urged her to lie.Just say yes. Pretend you did. The fantasy will be sweet. Tell him about walking arm-in-arm with her through the park. He’ll buy it. He won’t know. You don’t need to admit anything, and you can just tell him later that it didn’t work out. For him, all the way down in LA, it’s real if you say it is.

“No,” she said, eventually, through gritted teeth. “I don’t… I don’t think she wants to see me.”

“I kinda figured that might be the case. You were real excited before you left, and then… nothin’.

“I think about her a lot.”

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It always sounded like she was really important to you. You guys definitely had some chemistry on stage.

“Yeah,” she said, laughing morbidly. “We did.”

He said, “Well, if she doesn’t want to find it in her heart to forgive, then that’s her loss.

“Dad, you don’t need to—”

I know, I know.”

Lucia wiped at her eye, leaned away from her phone to sniff, and said, “I should probably get going. The, uh, bus’ll be here in a minute.” Her voice sounded awful. He had to know she was crying.

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Okay, Mija. Talk to you next week.

“Love you, Dad.”

She leaned back, rubbed furiously at her eyes, and, against her better judgement, pulled up the concert footage on her phone while she waited. It had been raining that day, and the crowd was drunk. Kevin had been in rare form, and her playing as sharp and crisp as she’d ever done, but all she could see, as she stared down at her phone, was the girl with the black hair and the quasi-catholic school uniform giving the camera a bevy of righteous middle fingers.

She didn’t have much hope of getting past the door unnoticed. The bar was empty at eleven in the morning, and there was nothing else to distract from the sound of the bell at the door. Helen didn’t look directly at Lucia, but Lucia knew she’d been spotted by the way Helen very specifically didn’t look at her. Lucia slouched her way to the bar, climbed onto a stool, and waited patiently.

“What’ll ya have?” she asked, without looking over.

“Ginger ale.”

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Helen was already pouring it, and set it down in front of her without making eye contact.

“I… I didn’t,” Lucia said, in a tone of voice that was really trying hard to be defiant. Like, really, really hard.

Helen shot her a quick look, very flat, before nodding.

The silence stretched out, becoming thin and brittle. “I’m sorry,” Lucia said, “okay? I…” before trailing off into silence.

“Look,” Helen said. “I get it. I remember fast walking away from Evan like I was trying to exit a burning building in an orderly fashion, when he’d just been trying to talk to me.”

“You did?”

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The redhead nodded. “What I can’t condone,” she said, gravely, “is that you didn’t pay for your drink.”

Lucia made a sound that, while still being dignified, still came pretty close to aguffaw.

“I’m trying to run a business here,” Helen said, smirking, and behind her parted bangs lurked an eyebrow looking for an excuse to unleash.

Capitalist,” Lucia hissed, injecting as much venom into the word as its zoning permits allowed for. This earned her a hearty laugh in response, and it felt like a weight slipped from her shoulders.

“A lefty, huh,” Helen shot back, jaw slack with faux-wonder.

“I’m an anarcho-communist, thank you very much.”

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“Either way,” she said, pulling a tall glass from a rack to polish with a towel on her hip, “I’m glad you came back.”

“Me too,” Lucia said, and as she took a sip of her ginger ale, staring over the rim, her eyes connected with Helen’s in a way that said, in both directions,I’m really glad.

Thirty minutes later, Lucia flopped onto her back, gasping for air. She brought a hand to her forehead, to brush back the hairs back from her eyes, and found her brow dotted with perspiration. It was probably not all her own sweat. “Holy fuck,” she panted. “Holy fuck.Holy fuck.

Helen laid down alongside her, on her side, with her arm propping up her head in a way that showed off her arms. Helen had unripped biceps, but much like the rest of her there was a kind of thickness to her upper arms that Lucia was completely enthralled by. There was so much to grab, and squeeze, and hold, and she’d had plenty of opportunities to do all of those things while Helen was sitting on her face.

If she had to pick a favorite part, and Lucia was fond of ranking things, it was Helen’s thighs that she was most fond of (followed by the parts just above her thighs). At one point, while underneath her, Helen had gotten leverage—in a way Lucia hadn’t really understood—and squeezed, and Lucia had experienced a sensation unlike anything she’d ever experienced. The strain had been a little scary, which was in turn ridiculously hot. She’d been completely in Helen’s control, her life in another woman’s hands, and at no point did it occur to her to stop licking even as her head was being crushed just a little bit.

Helen had a way about her that was direct and delightful: refreshingly unsubtle. Vivian had been like that, at the end. It had been, perhaps, the best part of their brief but impactful relationship.

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As she lay there, panting, Helen drew invisible shapes on her skin. Infinity symbols. Triangles. A heart. Helen said, “Ireally like your sleeves, by the way.”

Lucia’s eyes fluttered open, and she blushed. She liked the way Helen’s eyes were roaming over her body. It made her feel… wanted. Valuable.

It occurred to her, briefly, that ‘valuable’ was a strange word for her brain to have supplied there, or a strange way of putting it, but the tickling sensation of Helen’s index finger running circles around her nipple reduced her ability to think deep thoughts to approximately nil. She blushed, but kept command of her faculties and resisted the urge to bring her arms up and cover herself. She must have flinched, though, because Helen’s smile got a lot wider and a lot…

…meaner? Hungrier?

“So where was I?”

Lucia’s chest tightened. Painfully.

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“Evan was the one who drove me to my first—”

“Could you… not?” Lucia whimpered. The expression on Helen’s face made her wince. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just…”

Helen pulled her hand back, and suddenly Lucia really wished she wasn’t laying on top of the sheets. She would have loved to cover herself up right then.

“I can’t handle listening to how much you miss someone who isn’t around, because that’s…”

The redhead exhaled slowly through pursed lips, and nodded. “Okay.”

“No,” Lucia said, pushing herself up onto her side and facing Helen. “Listen. I appreciate what you’re doing. I just… I came here tonight to try and forget someone.”

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Helen smirked. “Did it work?”

“For a little while,” Lucia said, smiling sadly.

“Okay. Well.” Helen twisted, and for just a moment while she thought she pushed her tongue out through her lips.

Lucia stared unabashedly. It was a tongue for kissing. Sure, it might have served Helen well enough when she was swallowing or tasting, but as far as Lucia was concerned it was for kissing.

“Wanna hear something I’ve never told anyone?”

“Yeah,” Lucia whispered. She’d never wanted anything more in her whole life.

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“I miss my balls.”

Every time it felt like Lucia was about to stop laughing, Helen would giggle a little and that would set her off again. It was a good two minutes before she caught her breath. As she lay there on her back, worrying a little bit in the back of her mind that she’d had the wrong reaction, Helen sat up and put her bra back on, and again Lucia was struck by it. The woman had incredible lingerie. It had extra bands across the front that seemed to serve no purpose, but they followed the contour of the redhead’s skin and mapped the shape of her breasts in a way that appealed to Lucia’s animal brain. Helen had very soft skin, and it was hard not to think about that when it was being shaped so dramatically.

“I wouldn’t trade my tits to get ’em back,” Helen said, with a smirk, “but… yeah. I liked them.”

“Is that the only thing you miss?”

“Oh yeah,” Helen said, nodding enthusiastically as she pulled up her matching panties. They were a hipster cut, giving definition to her hips while leaving the bottoms of her rounded cheeks exposed. They were beautifully suited for her frame, and Lucia filed that tidbit away for later. “Yeah, I don’t know how it is for the rest of my trans sisters, but I couldn’twait to get bottom surgery. No regrets whatsoever, and I’d do it over again in a heartbeat, but yeah. I liked my balls.” She shrugged, and giggled a little.

Lucia rolled onto her front, elbows digging into the bed while her palms supported her chin, as she watched Helen walk across the apartment toward the bathroom. That she left the door open behind her said something. Maybe about confidence, maybe about comfort level. Maybe about a desire for bathroom sex.

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“When did you know?” Lucia asked. “Is it okay if I ask that?” She reached down over the edge of the bed and hooked her fingers into the hem of the balled up shirt Helen had discarded, pulling it out to get a better look at it. It was a black t-shirt, which was about all that Lucia had noticed earlier, but she had missed the pink skull with a bob haircut, and a little bow sitting on top just off center, printed above the heart.

She had never put on a piece of clothing so fast in all her life.

“Hard to say when I first started thinking about it,” Helen called, voice carrying across the open space. “Maybe fifteen.” The redhead re-emerged from the bathroom a few seconds later, and quirked her head. “That’s my shirt.”

Lucia shrugged, wearing nothing else, and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. Helen narrowed her eyes as she walked, her smile becoming very cold and calculated, and that look made Lucia shiver something fierce.

“When did you know you were gay?”

Lucia licked her lips to buy time, and looked down. “I don’t know how to answer that.”

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“That wasn’t supposed to be a hard one,” the redhead said, as she collected her jeans and moved to sit down.

“This is going to sound stupid, but for a long time, for me, sex wasn’t about that.”

“Not about who you’re with?”

“No,” Lucia said, shaking her head. “I…” She dug her thumb into her temple, worrying at a phantom knot, and added, “I don’t always feel like I’ve had a lot of control in my life. Sometimes, sex is just a thing that happens, and maybe not always something I choose for myself? I don’t think I’m making any sense.”

This time, it was both of Helen’s eyebrows that moved, and Lucia was unmade by their expressiveness.

Lucia shrugged, and was reminded all over again that she was wearing another woman’s shirt. It felt scandalous in all the best possible ways, and that was much easier for her to process than her complicated sexual history. Helen finished pulling up her jeans, with only her bra on above that, and Lucia stared at her unabashedly.

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“You know,” Helen said, “I really expected you to take the back door and disappear yesterday. I was shocked when you didn’t.” It was areallynice bra, but Helen caught her staring and turned away. She looked back over her shoulder as she headed toward her closet, and said, “I really had you pegged as a one time thing.”

“If we’d met a few months ago,” Lucia said, “yeah. Thatwaskinda my thing.”

“What happened?”

“It was suggested to me,” she said, planting her hands behind her on the bed and leaning back slightly, “that I was substituting one addictive behavior for another. For a while there, I was averaging… four to six partners a week? Never the same one twice?”

Helen reappeared from the closet, shimmying into a V neck blouse with short ruffled sleeves, and looking completely unperturbed. It occurred to Lucia that she was surprised that the other woman was so nonplussed. It then further occurred to her that she had offered that slightly exaggerated number to try and scare Helen off. That it hadn’t worked said something.

Instead, Helen said, “Not anymore though?”

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She shrugged and shook her head. “No. It’s one thing when you have a bad habit that you don’t really acknowledge, but, you know, with NA, and the steps, that’s not the kind of thing you can just ignore once it’s been brought to your attention. Not if you’re really trying, anyway… and I am.”

“Now you just have random sexsometimes.

“Hey,” Lucia said, “you hit on me! I quit coke, not being awesome.”

All Lucia could manage was a mild smirk. It was a good, pithy joke, but it wasn’t one she really believed. Her self-image was fragile. Before, with drugs, Lucia hadn’t ever really needed to believe in herself. She could chug attitude, snort confidence, and shoot up swagger. She was still stubborn as a mule, but it came out more as perseverance than anything else.

But Helen hadn’t laughed either. She was nodding thoughtfully, and said, “It can dull the pain.”

The she remembered that, yes, ithad been Helen that initiated, and no, shehadn’t flinched at Lucia maybe bringing someone different home every night. That made her heart hurt a little.

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Once Helen was dressed she felt a kind of pressure to benot naked, like she was holding Helen up, and so she shoved her own top into her purse and threw on her jeans in record time.

When she was pulling on her boot, Helen said, “What are you doing on Thursday?”

She did some quick math in her head, counting out which nights she’d be in a meeting. Instead of answering, though, Lucia said, “Are you asking me out on a date?”

Helen didn’t take the bait, which Lucia respected the hell out of. She said, “I do derby on Thursdays. You should come check it out.”

Lucia watched her shamelessly as Helen started toward the door. “Will you be wearing, like, some cute short shorts?”

The bartender laughed, which was a wonderful sound, and shook her ass back and forth a little. “Only one way to find out.”

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After giving Helen a twenty second head start, Lucia came down the stairs and re-entered the bar. Karl, the other bartender, was leaning casually against the bar. The room was nearly empty.

“Second time this week,” Karl said, giving her a direct look.

Helen’s voice came from the back, shouting “Karl!

Karl looked unperturbed, and stared at Lucia with a flat expression. It seemed, to Lucia, that flat was probably his mode. “Hey, I know that shirt.”

Lucia said, “Karl, what do you know about wealth extraction?”

Oh for fuck’s sake!

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“If this place turns even a penny of profit because of your labor, she’s robbing you. That’s payroll theft.”

“Skipping straight to dirty talk, huh?” Karl shrugged, disaffectedly. “You’re definitely her type.”

Lucia, just go!

“Yeah,” he said, with all the enthusiasm of an exhausted sloth, “get outta here, punk.”

“Wage slave,” she shot back.

On her way out the door, she heard Karl lean his head into the kitchen and say “Okay, you need to put a ring on that.”

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You’re fired, Karl!

***

“Oh, that’s for six months, right?”

Lucia flinched, and instinctively tucked her blue Narcotics Anonymous key tag into her palm. The shock of being spotted as a recovering addict, though, was insignificant next to the immediate realization, as she turned slightly, that she recognized the woman who had sat beside her on the crowded bus as it trundled down Freemont. Vivian’s girlfriend, the one with the smile, was looking at her with genuine warmth and compassion, and it hit her like a blow to the gut.

“The key tag?”

Lucia licked her lips and looked back down, slowly twisting her hand at the wrist to expose what she’d tried to hide. Her voice was shaky when she said, “Yeah. “

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“That’s really impressive!”

“Thanks,” Lucia replied, even though saying so made her want to throw up. “It’s eight months, really, but they don’t have an eight month tag. Gotta… gotta wait for nine.”

The woman next to her was wearing mauve scrubs and very sensible shoes.A nurse, Lucia thought.Because of course. Educated. Softhearted. Giving.

“My girlfriend had a problem for a while, but she’s doing really good too.” The way that the nurse was staring into the space in front of her with a proud smile suggested a lot about how close they were. Every word from her perfect little mouth was like a poison.

“Your girlfriend?”

The nurse nodded emphatically. “It’s been about six months for us.” She furrowed her brow briefly, and then smiled even more brilliantly. “Oh my god, yeah. Ithas been six months. I’m Delia, by the way.”

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“Lu…cy,” Lucia said, giving her a brief nod. “Hi.”

“Pleased to meet you!”

It was morbid, masochistic, to continue the conversation. “So, you’re a nurse?”

“Mhm!” she said, brightly. Even her teeth were dazzling, and Lucia self-consciously compressed her lips just a little bit tighter. “I work in the coma ward at St. Vincent’s. That’s actually where Vivian and I met.”

She should have been glad that Vivian had found someone that made her happy, but still; hearing Vivian’s name from her lips absolutely sucked.

“Oh, was she… visiting someone?” she asked, feigning ignorance.

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“No! She was the one in the coma! Bad one too. At first, the attending in intensive care was sure she’d have brain damage if she woke up at all.”

Lucia blinked, and licked her lips. “You know, I’ve heard that some people who…” She pointed at her head absently. “…who suffer head wounds can, like, have their whole personality change. Is that… is that real?”

“Technically, yes, that can and does happen, but that also assumes that, like,who we are is some kind of fixed entity when the truth is that we grow and change every day.You’re not the same person you were eight months ago, right?” she asked, gesturing to Lucia’s palm. “Yesterday? This morning? An hour ago?”

“Deep,” Lucia said. It was getting harder keeping a straight expression in the face of Vivian’s girlfriend being simultaneously existentially wise and medically educated. “Did that happen with your girlfriend?”

Delia uncrossed and recrossed her legs, and seemingly bought time to think by tucking a few stray hairs behind her ear. She had extremely short hair, though, so none of it stayed tucked. “You know, I didn’t know her before her accident, so I can’t say for sure, but what I can tell you is that whenever we’re around her family, I get avibe from them. Especially when we first started dating, it was like she was on thin ice, or her last second chance or something. They neversaid anything that made it seem like she was acting out of character, but they also kind of treated her like they were meeting her for the first time while they were meetingme for the first time? Something was off about their interactions. That much, I can say for sure.”

Lucia couldn’t help but picture them together; Vivian, tall and lean with her new, terse disposition being complimented by this short-haired, adorable tornado.

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“Oh my god,” Delia laughed. “I’m so sorry. I’m just going on and on about me and my—”

“No,” Lucia said. “It’s-it’s fine.”

“I do this thing where I just, like, talk toeverybody, and Vivian, you know, she’s always rolling her eyes at me, but I meet so many interesting people! Lucy, was it?”

“Yeah!”

“Are you a musician?”

Lucia looked down at her guitar case and frowned. It would have been better if Lucy was as little like Lucia as possible. “I’m an assassin,” she said, feigning a fair amount of confidence. “That’s where I keep my rifle.”

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Even her laugh was bewitching. “My girlfriend’s a musician! Do you record?”

“No,” Lucia said. “No, I—”

“Are you in any bands I might have seen? We go to a lot of concerts.”

She shook her head. “I used to be, but no. Not in a while. I think that part of my life is over.”

The bus hit a particularly hard bump, and Lucia looked up enough to realize that she’d missed her stop. Her stomach tried to twist itself into a braid, and she reached into her purse for her phone. Then she looked up at Delia, and made a bad decision.

“Sorry,” she said, focusing on her phone for a moment while she typed out a message to one of her students saying she’d been delayed in traffic and that she needed to cancel their lesson. “I just need to let my girlfriend know that I’m, um, running a little late.”

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Delia was giving her a look of quiet solidarity, when she finally sent it, that made her feel like a complete fraud, which, of course, she was. When she stood up, Lucia flinched.

“Are you getting off here too?”

The word ‘too’ made her blood run cold, and that worst instinct of hers, the one where she leaned into pain and wallowed, made a grab for the wheel. Lucia arched back and stared out the window for a minute. “Yeah, I, uh… I think so. We just moved, and I’m still getting my bearings. Is it this one?”

Delia grabbed her purse and stood, and Lucia got to her feet a second later. It was, perhaps, the worst idea she’d ever had, which she knew because she was so fond of ranking things.

“Yeah. I think this is it.”

“Cool!” Delia replied. She was so pert, and upbeat, and happy, and trusting, and the list of positive characteristics that both applied to Delia and not herself made Lucia want to throw up. How was she supposed to compete with that?

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I can’t, she thought, bleakly.

Delia helpfully waited for her on the curb, as it took Lucia an extra second to get up the will to step off the bus. Lucia looked back and forth, and shielded her eyes, until she spotted Delia taking a half step to her left. “I’m this way,” she said.

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