Read One Degree of Separation Online

Authors: Karin Kallmaker

Tags: #Fiction, #Librarians, #General, #Romance, #Small Town Life, #Lesbian, #(v4.0), #Iowa City (Iowa)

One Degree of Separation (10 page)

BOOK: One Degree of Separation
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“No way,” Marian protested. “Why keep it to yourself until now?”

Ellie stabbed her frozen yogurt with the spoon. “She never said that. I just said what if I told you—and you didn’t believe me. I really think you all like her more than me.”

Marian tried to soothe Ellie’s mood. “It’s not a matter of choosing sides, but Sandy has—”

“I have to go,” Ellie snapped. “I’m bad company right now. Hope the band is good.” Napkins fluttered to the floor in the wake of her rapid departure.

“She’ll feel better tomorrow,” Marian muttered.

“Incoming,” Wen whispered.

“Huh?” About then Marian realized Libby had left the counter and was making a beeline for her. She had something in her hand.

“Hi,” Marian said, knowing she was bright red. “Thanks again for the lift.”

“You’re welcome. It was no bother, really. But I think this fell out of one of your bags. Not my brand. I, um, didn’t have anything to put it in. Sorry.”

Marian took the tampon box with all the nonchalance she could manage. “Mine. Sorry I left it.” She quickly stuffed it into her backpack.

“I had a feeling I’d run into you here.”

“It’s a habit.” Marian didn’t recognize the pathetically squeaky voice that was coming out of her throat. Feeling very awkward, she said, “Everybody, this is Libby.”

“Liddy. Sorry, it’s Liddy.”

Mary Jane laughed outright. “Marian is usually clear on her facts.”

“I didn’t get a good look at it,” Marian muttered. She had not thought it was possible to blush harder than she already was, but she’d been wrong.

Liddy shrugged, but Marian thought she looked annoyed. “It happens a lot. Nobody wants to believe I was named after some reac-tionary nutcase my biological father idealized. When G. Gordon had his radio show I wanted to just change it to Libby, believe me.”

“It must be a trial,” Wen observed.

“Only around the politically correct, and we have lots of those in Berkeley. One righteous woman told me I ought to change it to something woman-identified, as if I’d chosen it, and continuing to use it was an affront to ovaries everywhere.” Jersey grunted in agreement. “I’m Jersey, and I was told recently that my name glorified mobsters.”

“Ignorance isn’t anyone’s exclusive property, is it?” Mary Jane peered into her nearly empty cup. “That went down way too easily.” Marian sensed it was that moment when she ought to ask Libby—Liddy, you fool!—to join them. But the last time she’d done that it had been Robyn. But if any of the other women did it, Liddy became
her
casual coffee date type person, not Marian’s.

Oh, bother. Desperately, she tried to sound businesslike. “We got a new text on medical ethics you might be interested in.” She felt the combined gazes of all of her friends on her face.

Liddy’s smile wasn’t quite relaxed. “Thank you, that’s very helpful. I’ll look for it—same call number?”

“Yes. It should be there tomorrow.”

“Great. Well, thanks.” Liddy nodded and went back to the counter for her latte. The two students she’d been talking to had already left. Without looking in Marian’s direction she slipped out the door again.

After a long silence and a great deal of ice-chewing, Mary Jane observed, “Really, Marian, I didn’t know you had it in you.” 73

6

Liddy was out the door of the Java House before she realized she wished someone had asked her to join them. Marian, maybe. Yes, that would have been nice. Marian was strange, but interesting. It bothered her that Marian had gotten her name wrong, but it had happened before. Robyn had gotten it right, so it was no indicator of personality.

She toyed with the idea of going back inside on some pretext.

The area where they were all seated was all the way on the other side of the counters. She could have pretended to study the art exhibit, or to be contemplating the wildly colorful selection of travel mugs, but that would have only looked casual if she hadn’t already scurried out the door.

It was definitely cooler than it had been. Liddy guessed eighty, but with the humidity it was hard to gauge. With a sigh she turned in the direction of the live music she’d heard from the far end of the Pedestrian Mall. It was a pleasing mix of bluegrass and pop. She skirted people playing chess with pieces the size of ten-year-olds and dodged the lemonade vendor moving his cart. It was crowded and she supposed she would be lucky to find a place to sit.

As she approached the nexus of the play structure, fountain and hotel entrance, she saw that she’d supposed rightly. Parents already occupied curbs, benches and retaining walls that faced the enormous jungle gym. The fountain had been turned off to make room for the band. Folding chairs had been set up in a crescent around the band, but all were taken by music lovers.

The music was good, though. She could manage for a while, standing. Feeling homesick, she bought a falafel and ate it while leaning against a column outside the hotel.

She watched clusters of people meet, mingle, disperse and regroup. If her gaydar was working, ten to fifteen percent of the crowd—including the parents—was lesbian and it was, well, comforting. It all looked so
normal
.

Curious about how women paired off—Berkeley was her only data sample so far—she took note of the number of obviously butch/femme couples. At first she thought there weren’t that many.

Everyone was dressed the same, in shorts and tank tops or T-shirts.

It was too warm for anything else.

Okay, next to the slide was a definite butch. The shorts were men’s, the T was black and her hair was buzzed to a quarter-inch flattop.

It became an interesting exercise after that. Subtle cues she hadn’t really considered before were more obvious to her. Tops with scalloped hems and hair accessories might indicate a femme, while a baggy tank top over a sport bra and long, plain shorts could denote a butch. Then a trim woman in square-legged men’s running shorts and a tank top graced with a bow and spaghetti straps came into view. Mixed signals, Liddy thought. That or she just wears what feels comfortable. And why not?

She caught a glimpse of herself in the hotel windows. She supposed the ponytail was the biggest hint that she had femme tendencies. That, nail polish and the strappy sandals she’d chosen over her usual Tevas. She sometimes took umbrage at the femme label, however. It depended on who used it and what was meant by it.

Something slammed into the side of her knee. She looked down in time to see a toddler taking a very deep breath. When the breath came out, the screech nearly drowned out the band. Liddy looked around frantically for parents. People were looking. They probably thought she was killing the kid.

“Whoa, buddy!” A short-haired brunette scooped up the howling child. “Sorry. He doesn’t look before he runs.” Relieved, Liddy said, “It’s okay.” She rubbed her knee for a moment, but it wasn’t even bruised.

Another brunette with equally short hair rushed up. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah, honey, he’s got a hard head.”

The newcomer shot a look at Liddy that suggested her knees ought to have air bags. She took the boy away from her partner.

They looked too much alike not to be a couple, Liddy thought wryly.

“I’ll get the boo-boo bunny.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the first woman said to Liddy in parting.

“He’s got a head like a rock.” She grinned. “That’s from her side of the family.”

Liddy grinned back. Wow. Mom-type dykes weren’t exactly known for their sense of humor in Berkeley. She took care to turn herself more toward the play structure. With luck, she could avoid injuring more children with her inconveniently placed knees.

An all-too-familiar voice behind Liddy startled her. “Come here often?”

Fuck and fuck. “No, I don’t.”

Ellie at least was looking at her eyes this time. “I apologize if I’ve been obnoxious.”

“I hadn’t realized,” Liddy said wryly.

“I’ve been told I come on a little strong.” Liddy shrugged. “I’m not in the dating pool.”

“So Marian tells me. She’s a sweet person, my best friend is.”

“She seems so.”

“I can’t figure out why she’s still single.” Great, now Ellie was matchmaking. Liddy drained the last of her iced coffee. “Some people are meant to be single. The whole world doesn’t need to couple up.”

“I think you’re right in general, but not about Marian. She’s a born nester. But she had a relationship with a woman who turned out to be a vicious nutso and she’s a little gun-shy now, too.” How many ways do I have to say that I’m not looking, Liddy thought. She was sorry about the nutso, though. Marian really was a bit odd, but she was quietly, gently butch in a way Liddy had always found appealing. “You don’t have to explain about nutso exes. Been there, done that. Everybody gets gun-shy about settling down.”

“Yeah. I’m not sure I’m meant to be settled down.” Ellie tossed her hair over her shoulder in a gesture she had to know was attractive and flirtatious. Ellie would tip anyone’s meter to the femme side of the scale, and Liddy doubted Ellie would mind anyone’s saying so.

“But I do like to have fun.”

Hell. Was there no getting rid of this woman? “I’m here because I’m getting over a bad breakup. And I don’t do the rebound thing. That’s gone sour on me too. In fact, my luck with women has been so bad I’m thinking of going back to men.”

“Oh, what a waste.” For a moment something other than lust gleamed in Ellie’s eyes. “I seem to make the mistake of repeating bad relationships.”

“Tell me about it.”

Ellie’s gaze followed the chaos of children circling the play structure. “We could have a drink and I could tell you some long, sad stories.”

For a moment, it was an appealing prospect. The Pedestrian Mall was so alive with music and motion that being alone was doubly poignant. She said bluntly, “I wouldn’t want to lead you on.” Ellie laughed. “I got your message. Besides, Marian and I never compete.”

Liddy couldn’t help but ask, “She doesn’t want to date me, does she?”

Ellie colored slightly. “I’m sorry, that was not the right thing for me to say. Marian doesn’t date. At least not so you’d notice.” She frowned. “She really is a sweet, kind, considerate person. She’s smart, funny, holds up her end of the conversation. I’d marry her myself if she wasn’t my best friend. Not that she’d have me.”

“I thought partners were supposed to be best friends.” Ellie stepped out of the way of a massive side-by-side stroller.

“I’ve never believed that one. I mean, how many partners do we have before we’re through? And how many best friends? Seems to me the best friends are the rarer commodity. I’m not going to fuck that up by fucking her, you know?”

Having thought Ellie was a bubble-headed stalker, Liddy was surprised by the cogency of the statement. “I do see what you mean.”

“Everything I fuck I fuck up.” Ellie glanced away for a moment.

“Well, I’m glad we got to talk. I
was
obnoxious, wasn’t I?” Liddy grinned. “Yeah. Just a tip for the future. Make sure the new woman doesn’t actually hear you call her Fresh Meat.”

“Oh.” Ellie swallowed. “I’m so sorry. You weren’t meant to hear that. It’s a running joke.”

“I understand. Definitely not politically correct.”

“Heavens, no. We have plenty of that here, but not when it comes to dating. Though no one wants to support my position, which is if we really want to break the patriarchy, we’d all be single and sleep around.”

Liddy laughed outright. “Spoken like someone in favor of redis-tribution.”

“You got that right—Hemma Rosling, it’s really you! Hey, girl, congratulations!”

Liddy watched Ellie throw her arms around a slender, dark-haired woman who had to be of Middle Eastern descent. Another woman, with pale skin and lively green eyes Liddy found slightly mesmerizing, watched indulgently.

Hemma returned Ellie’s hearty hug. “Thanks, El. I’m still stunned. Going back and forth between giddy and sad. Amy is coping better than I am.” She separated from Ellie and took the green-eyed woman’s hand.

“You’re doing fine, honey.” Amy patted Hemma’s arm.

“I’m so pleased for you. What an opportunity.” Ellie stepped back to include Liddy in the conversation. “Hemma just got a tenured professorship in Hawaii.”

“Congratulations,” Liddy said politely.

Hemma held out one hand. “We haven’t met.”

“Liddy Peel.” She shook hands with Hemma and then Amy, both of whom repeated their names with a firm grip. How very coupled, Liddy thought, to have the same last name.

“Liddy?” Ellie cocked her head to one side. “Marian had it wrong. How amusing.”

Liddy shrugged. She realized she was getting a bit old to have a love-hate relationship with her name, but there it was. She was certain Ellie wouldn’t care for being introduced as Effie.

“What brings you to Iowa City, Liddy?” Amy regarded her intently.

She found herself explaining about the research job and giving every detail she knew, which wasn’t much, about the eccentric Dana Moon. The conversation lasted until the band packed up, and Liddy was surprised to realize it was nearly dark. She had thought the days would be endless in Iowa City.

“What’s the occasion?” She gestured at the departing band.

“Occasion?” Amy gave her a puzzled look.

“For the live music.”

“Every Friday night during the summer,” Amy said. “It’s usually very good, too. The Ped Mall’s the place.”

“The occasion is that the students are gone,” Hemma added with a smile.

Liddy winced. “Ouch, I was a student until a month ago.”

“Sorry.” Hemma was still smiling. “Now you’re a grownup.”

“Ouch again. I’m not sure I want to be.”

“That’ll pass.” Hemma touched Liddy’s arm briefly then turned to Ellie. “Was Marian at the Java House?”

“Yeah. Speaking of devastation.”

Liddy watched Hemma’s eyes fill with tears. Amy’s green eyes glittered as well.

Hemma shrugged helplessly. “I know. We’re so close. I almost turned it down, but what kind of professional would I be to turn down the chance of a lifetime because I love my next-door neighbor to pieces?”

Liddy felt a couple of dots connect in the back of her head. The conversation she’d overheard at Wal-Mart, Marian’s tears ...

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