Kristen Blanton is currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Idaho. She received her B.A. from the University of Arizona in 2009 and lives in Moscow, Idaho.
I made Natalie breakfast once, the first time she stayed over at my house. When we finished, I took the plates and she followed me into the kitchen. I started hand-washing them and she offered to dry.
Above my sink is a photograph a friend took for a photography class last year, the summer my ex-boyfriend, Mark, and I lived together. I want to shock my class, she said, they’re all Mormons. In the picture my fingernails are digging into his flesh hard, scratching his reddened back. When the summer was over, Mark told me to move out. He sat there solemnly while I packed. He didn’t cry until I asked him to help put our cat into her carrier.
If Natalie had asked about the photo, I’d have said, he was just an ex, with promises to tell her more stories another time, but I’m not sure she even noticed it. I handed her plates while I washed the dishes from yesterday, and she asked me where each item belonged in my kitchen.
At the thrift store we look for paintings and frames to decorate the bare walls of Natalie’s new apartment. We’re sorting through them when I find a picture I know she’ll hate, a little boy dressed in a suit like a pretend adult, handing a flower to a little girl wearing a hat and dress. The little girl’s holding the flower in her right hand up to her nose, and she’s smiling like she knows something. The little boy is kissing her cheek.
“Jesus, Molly,” she says. “No.”
“What if it were two girls?”
“They don’t make sentimental photos with baby lesbians.”
She buys the frame because I said I liked it.
“We can change the picture,” I say, like decorating her house is our project, like someday soon I’d be saying things like “We enjoy chow mein.” The signs are there, though: we leave panties that aren’t ours on each other’s bedroom floors. We adopted her dog – Toby – together. We have toothbrushes from cheap Walgreens’ 2-pack deals in each other’s medicine cabinets.
“This won’t ever be anything,” I told her.
In the car, she laces her fingers in mine and touches my thigh, and it’s like I’m somewhere I don’t belong.
We drive out to the country and park in a field where she drinks Yellowtail Pinot and I drink Tisdale shiraz from red plastic Dixie cups while we sit on her dog’s blanket and I lay my head on her stomach and she touches my arm.
She keeps touching my arm and tells me about how her mother criticized the way she folded socks. I like being a voyeur into Natalie’s life.
“I wanted to hold your hand at the bar last night,” she says.
“Then why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you want me to?”
Her dog chases a squirrel.
“I’ve never had anyone’s hand to hold for any length of time,” she says, almost to herself.
“I know,” I say.
“You couldn’t care less,” she says.
“That isn’t true,” I say, taking her fingertips and kissing them. “Don’t be mean.”
She kisses me. “I want to take you camping,” she says. “Let’s have a weekend.”
“Where?” I ask.
“There’s this place I’ve been wanting to go camping. The Wallowas.” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “We should probably invite other people.”
She bites her lip for a minute, then nods. “Because nothing’s real, right?”
“Nothing means anything, right?” she says.
“Stop,” I say.
“Fine,” she says, smiling. “We’ll find someone else to invite.”
Natalie and I arrive at the mountain at five in the afternoon. We hike three or so miles with Toby, this little black lab that she’s strapped a backpack to, so it can carry its own food.
“She’s earning her keep,” Natalie jokes.
She makes mac and cheese for dinner and teaches me how to use a camp stove, boiling the water above the small flame and pouring the noodles in. She says since it’s just the two of us, we can eat out of the pot, so we do.
“What do we do all night?” I ask.
“We can play cards, I don’t know,” she says.
“It’s getting cold,” I say.
“Let’s go in the tent,” she says.
We open a bottle of cheap champagne, passing it back and forth while she shuffles the cards.
“Do you remember how to play rummy?” she asks.
“Sure,” I try to recount the rules to her. “What are you, stupid?” I say. I smile, but I hear Mark’s tone in my voice.
We get silly from the champagne. The dog stomps around the tent and tries to find a place to lie down.
“Let’s zip our bags together,” she says.
In the single sleeping bag she takes me in her arms.
“Can you think of anything better than this?” she asks me.
She kisses me shyly, waiting for me to kiss her back, waiting for me to say, “It’s okay.” She touches my stomach, and is more familiar with the terrain of my body than I am.
Natalie and I don’t say I love you, and I know we never will. I touch the scar on her breast, where they put a broviac catheter when she was a kid. She’d pointed it out to me once, said, “Look how ugly.” I wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.
In the morning, the dog pukes on the bottom of the sleeping bag.
“God, Toby!” she cries, scrambling all over herself. “Get out of the bag,” she says.
“It’s fine,” I say.
“Jesus,” she says, pushing the dog out of the tent. “That’s what she gets, eating all that grass. Look at this fucking mess,” she says, while I try to shift out of the bag so she can take it outside and wash it off. I pull on the jacket I was using as a pillow.
“Hey,” I say, “it’s really okay.”
When Toby was a puppy Natalie would take her for rides in her mother’s car. Toby got carsick, and she threw up on the new leather seats, her mom shouting, “Natalie!” I wished that I had been in that car so I could have said, “It’s not her fault,” or maybe, “It wouldn’t kill you to be nice about it.”
I get up out of the tent and watch Natalie pour water from her Nalgene onto the bag and hoist it over a branch so it can dry.
Natalie makes coffee in her French press, and after it dries we stuff the bag into a stuff-sack. We put our packs on, and I carry the coffee while she leashes Toby. We hike three more miles in. There are the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and mountains so beautiful I didn’t know they existed in real life. I keep stopping and gasping, saying, “Natalie, look!” like maybe she wasn’t leading and looking at the same mountains. She had been here before, and I can tell it makes her happy that she knows a place to take me that would shock me like that, so I play it up more than I should.
We’re supposed to cross a river to get to trails that will lead us to a lake she wants to show me. Natalie says she’ll go first. She takes her pack off to see if it’s safe to cross. She sits on the ground and unlaces her boots, peels down her socks, stuffs them into her boots. She folds her shorts to the middle of her thigh and begins across the river.
The dog gets in after her. The dog is paddling hard, but she’s not going anywhere. Natalie’s being pulled hard by the current too.
“Natalie,” I call out. She can’t hear me above the sound of the water rushing downstream.
“It’s too fast!” she yells to me, halfway across the river. The water’s not high, maybe up to the middle of her thighs. She turns around and starts back.
The dog sees Natalie turn and turns back, too.
“Natalie,” I call again. Then, “Toby.” But they don’t hear me.
Natalie’s thighs are red from the cold, the water pushing against her. Toby’s struck against a fallen tree, trying to paddle, to get out.
I think of what would happen if we don’t get that dog back. I think of what Natalie’s scream would sound like if we lost the dog. I think of Natalie blaming herself. I think of holding Natalie while she cries, wishing I was anywhere else but there, wishing that I were anyone other than the person who had to be there to care.
Then I get this image of Natalie’s and Toby’s bodies floating down the river. What I would do. We’re six miles in and I’m not sure if I know how to get us back. Would I follow the river and fish her body out of the water when she hit a log? How long could she swim? If I managed to find my way out of this wilderness, would I call her mother? Her mom barely knows who I am, because we’re not really dating. “We” are not something Natalie will talk about with her mother.
Toby’s head goes under the downed tree and I can’t see her for a minute. Then she bobs back up on the other side, and the current is partially blocked by that fallen tree, and she swims to the shore and pulls herself up.
Natalie approaches the shore.
I run toward the dog, not twenty feet away, and grab her collar.
“Good girl, Toby,” I say to her. “Good girl.”
Natalie sits on the bank and looks across the river. She sits and the dog comes up and licks her face.
“I’m sorry,” she says, petting the dog. “I don’t think we can cross.”
“That’s fine,” I say, laughing. “It doesn’t matter.”
“The trails on the other side are better,” she says, taking her socks out of the boots she set on the shore. “I’m fucking cold,” she says.
“Do you want my jacket?” I ask her.
She shakes her head, shivering. The dog keeps panting.
“We can just hike around here today,” I tell her. “Did you see Toby?”
She shakes her head.
“She was fighting pretty hard,” I say, thinking maybe that will make it less scary for her.
“I’m a terrible dog owner,” she says. “I didn’t know it’d be so strong.”
“You’re not,” I say. “How would you have known?”
She has this look on her face, and I can tell it doesn’t matter that the dog didn’t drown, all that matters is that she could have, and Natalie won’t be able to forget it. I hate seeing her like this.
“Natalie,” I say, sitting beside her and running my knuckles against her cheek. “It’s okay. Nothing happened.”
She keeps looking at the river.
“If we leave now, we’d be back to the car before dark,” she says.
When we get to town we stop in at a bar near my apartment with a patio so we can bring Toby. It’s dollar-fifty wells, and we start on gin. Natalie’s good for two G & Ts.
On our third round, Natalie tells the waitress that knows us, “Toby had a rough day.”
She tells her what happened as if she’s confessing, reluctant but forced, like the waitress needed to know that something almost happened to Toby today. After five gin and tonics, Natalie says, “Let’s go to your apartment.”
We pass my neighbor, Andy, sitting on our joint patio, drinking a beer.
“You want to have a drink with us?” I ask him. Natalie looks at me, annoyed, like she wanted this to be a couple’s thing, the end of our night.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be over in a minute.”
After we walk into my apartment, Natalie starts kissing me. “Come here,” she says, pulling me into the bedroom. Toby follows and jumps up. We fall down on my bed and she continues kissing me. She’s pushing her tongue into my mouth in a way she doesn’t when she’s sober. “Why did you invite him over?” she whispers, kissing behind my ear.
“It’s just a beer,” I say.
“I’m so tired,” she says. “Tell him to go away. I just want to be in bed with you.”
I get out of bed and pour her a glass of water from the faucet, take two Advil from the cupboard. When I return, she’s already asleep. She’s fully clothed so I pull the covers over her and set the water and the Advil on a table beside her head. There’s a particular pleasure I have in taking care of her, making sure she’s okay, seeing what she’s like when she’s drunk.
I answer the door. Andy’s holding his beer.
“Natalie already passed out,” I tell him.
“That was quick,” he says. “Do you still want a beer?”
“Let’s sit outside.” I say.
We sit on patio chairs and smoke cigarettes. Andy moved in a few weeks ago and he says his ex-girlfriend is moving in with him the next weekend. He says he needs help with the rent.
“That doesn’t sound like a good situation,” I say.
“You have plans to reconcile?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says.
We’re both silent for a minute, then I say, “I have records.”
We sit on the floor and I open a banker’s box filled with all my records and begin to finger through them. He doesn’t say anything about Natalie being in my bed, so neither do I.
“Have you ever used a record player before?”
He shakes his head.
We sit on the floor and I put on a Beatles album.
“Everyone likes the Beatles, right?” I say and suddenly I’m nervous, don’t know what to do about being alone with Andy.
“I don’t really like them,” he says. “But it’s fine.”
“I can change it,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says.
Andy keeps talking about his ex. He says she didn’t understand that he had friends. He says she got jealous. He says he doesn’t need to fuck his friends, that he knows guys like that, that it’s not his thing, like he’s offering an explanation for why he’s not fucking me.
I think, What if he wanted to? Then I think of Andy on top of me on the carpet, of him breathing and his beard rubbing against my neck and the noises that he would make, and what it would feel like.
But Andy doesn’t matter. He’s just a guy.
“You should leave after we finish this beer,” I say, “I’m getting tired.”
After I close the door, I take my clothes off and walk to the bed and I see Natalie sleeping. I get into bed, naked beside her body. I run a knuckle across her hips. I look at the curve of her ass, down her legs. I put a hand on her flat stomach and smell her hair, that long white-blond hair. I think of my friends who, when I showed them pictures of her, said lesbians aren’t supposed to have long hair, and I think she probably keeps it long because once she didn’t have any.
I want to live inside this body, I want to be this body. Then I would know what it was like to spend a year in waiting rooms wearing hats, fingering the glass on the tanks where they keep the fish. I want to feel a man’s hands run across this skin marred by a surgery and I want to feel a man’s lips and his mustache across these nipples and this neck and I want to arch this back and moan with this voice.
I touch Natalie’s hips again and look at the bedside table. The Advil’s gone. I see her waking and finding me getting fucked on the carpet and I’m glad it didn’t happen. I move to be closer to her. I lie flat on my back with my arms by my side and I don’t want to touch her.
In the morning she rolls over and puts her arms around me. “Baby,” she murmurs. “When did I go to sleep?” she asks, sleepy-eyed.
She kisses my neck and I think this is the last place I want to be, in my bed with this woman.
“How late did you stay up?” she asks.
“I don’t know why it matters,” I say, closing my eyes. “Late.”
I feel her sit up on her elbow. I open my eyes, look at her, and I can see she’s waiting for an explanation, for me to say something else, but I don’t.
“Why are you being like this?” she says. She waits for a minute. Then she sits up. “Did something happen with Andy?”
“Why do you have to ask me that,” I say.
“Something did, didn’t it?”
“We’re not dating, Natalie,” I say.
“I know,” she starts crying. “You did, didn’t you?”
I play with my earring stud.
“That’s just like you, isn’t it?” She gets out of bed. She walks into my living room and throws herself onto my couch, crying.
“I’m being dramatic,” she says, like a child scolding herself.
I get up and follow her to the living room and sit at the end of the couch, the way I imagine her mother did, sitting on the foot of Natalie’s tiny bed while Natalie cried about something. I try to remember her mother’s name. Janice. Jean. Janine?
“You don’t even care,” she says.
“That’s not fair, or true,” I say.
I look at Natalie, watch her shoulders rising and falling. Each time she cries harder I tell myself, I did that. I move to the floor and sit.
Maybe I should rub her back and tell her it’s okay. I know she wants me to touch her.
“What about our weekend?” she says, like it was something that happened years ago, like we’re looking back on this weekend as if this is when it all began to fall apart.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “Maybe you should go.”
She doesn’t rise, just shivers and sobs, and I wonder how long I can watch someone cry.