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 (7 page)

BOOK: One Degree of Separation
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She watched out of love, not for kicks. She would never do it again.

Her ears burned. She had to say it.

“Marian.” Hemma’s voice quavered. “I’ve been offered a tenured professorship in American studies at the University of Hawaii. And I’m ... damn it ...” She looked imploringly at Amy.

Amy, after squeezing Hemma’s arm, said, “It makes too much sense. She’s worked so hard. And for us it means we’ll be retiring in better positions when the time comes. I’m in the process of securing a position as well. It won’t cost me much in tenure. It’s the chance of a lifetime for Hemma. You know how stiff the competition is ...” Marian could hear Amy’s voice but her mind resounded with one word:
Hawaii
.

She realized Amy had stopped speaking. They were both looking at her apprehensively.

“You’re moving.” It was hard to breathe.

Hemma’s lower lip quivered as enormous tears spilled down her cheeks. “It was such a hard decision to make. We don’t want to leave here. Leave you and all our friends. The garden, the university ...”

“When?”

“It’s a terrible time to sell our house, but we meet with a realtor tomorrow. We didn’t want you to come home from work and see a realtor’s sign.”

“It’s certainly a wonderful opportunity.” For a moment, Marian wasn’t sure she’d spoken.

Hemma asked quietly, “Are you okay?”

Everything in her wanted to say of course she was okay. But that was a gigantic lie. She shook her head.

Hemma flew across the room to wrap Marian in her arms. “I’m so sorry, this is going to hurt us all. It was such a hard decision to make. Promise us right now that you will visit at Christmas. Bring us pickled ham.”

Marian thought she laughed but she wasn’t sure. Everything after that was a blur. Hemma looked wretched and even Amy wiped away tears. Hawaii. Why not Mars?

Thursday evening, June 5

No more Thursday dinners. No more voyeuristic participation in a life
I’ll never have. No more ... no more anything. There aren’t any words and
I feel so empty.

Later that night she watched Amy hold Hemma against her as they stretched out in bed together, comforting each other with kisses and hugs. Hemma blew her nose as Marian’s vision swam. Tears splashed on the windowsill.

When her vision cleared, Amy was kissing her way across Hemma’s shoulders. Marian felt her stomach turn over and she backed out of her spare room. It was over.

All gone in an instant. The perfect beach, the perfect woman. A perfect picture of lovers hand-in-hand. Even the fantasy had been destroyed.

Part of her was happy for her friends. It was a big deal for Hemma. She knew they’d be fine. They were a wonderful couple.

They’d make new friends, carve out a new life with the same care and patience with which they’d crafted their incredible garden.

Someone else would have pasties and gravy and berry pie, or whatever the equivalent was in Hawaii. Someone else would be lucky enough to be their friend.

Until that moment she had been numbed by her grief over losing Hemma in her daily life, even if they would never be lovers. But she was losing both of them, and the broad nurturing shelter of their relationship. They were her family, and along with Ellie, had been since she’d lost parents and brother that horrible year in Chicago.

She was abruptly aware that she could hear Hemma’s voice. The rising croon she knew so well made her feel ill. She covered her ears, but the sound of their love rolled through her mind. It would never be hers.

She wanted to hate them and almost could. But then she felt so tired and empty she couldn’t breathe.

She sank down in the hallway, sobbing. When Professor Hill padded up, she buried her face in the collie’s fur and cried in pain.

She was every bit the lonely, dried-up, frustrated, pathetic nobody Robyn had said she was.

4

Friday morning the hot spell eased. Liddy lounged in bed, reading and taking notes on the laptop she’d bought with the advance against expenses that writer Dana Moon had given her.

Robyn had said she was useless, but she was going to prove the bitch wrong. And prove her parents wrong, too, and several professors, as well as Miss Hoagie, her third-grade teacher, who had written, “Liddy’s work would be excellent if she finished it.” She had an agreement with Dana Moon to provide no more than 400 pages about the inner workings of a teaching hospital and the obstacles a female doctor would face upon becoming its chief admin-istrator. Liddy was starting with the more interesting tangent of women in medicine. Somewhere along the way she would get inside the hospital, preferably without becoming a patient.

Her mother hadn’t wanted to believe in the job. “How can anyone want to pay so much for what will take you just a couple of months to do?”

“I think she understands that boiling down all that information to four hundred pages is where the real work is. Anyone can gather up facts.” She had shrugged. “Professor Haughton recommended me.” The letter of recommendation was one of the high points of Liddy’s varied and lengthy collegiate career. Though her ambitions as a student had wandered from English to public administration, sociology to physical education, she’d managed to impress more than one instructor across disciplines with her ability to quickly process vast quantities of information and regurgitate it in an organized, succinct fashion. She’d gone to college to learn, not to become.

Robyn Vaughn, one-time visiting lecturer at Cal in women’s studies, had said she liked Liddy’s bullet points. She’d said it again later that evening, with that cheap sexy laugh, while caressing Liddy’s nipples. They’d been standing at the end of an aisle in the used bookstore when Robyn had surrounded Liddy with that perfume. How must she have looked for Robyn to have realized she could touch her that way within minutes of meeting outside class? The scent’s effect on her had always been Pavlovian. She smelled it, she got wet.

“Fuck and fuck it, that’s enough of that.” Liddy set the laptop to one side before she gave into the temptation to hurl it against a wall.

No more thinking about Robyn. She was done with that.

“A dojo, that’s what you need. Find a class, a sparring partner. Though I pity my partner in this mood.”

She was halfway through her shower when she realized she was talking to herself. Okay, she needed to get out.

The Golden Dragon Martial Arts Academy looked prosperous enough. Although the mats and equipment had a well-used look, none of them were threadbare, which was encouraging. The only people in martial arts who made real money at it were in the movies, but good instructors, in her experience, had no trouble keeping enough students to provide the basic necessities.

“I’m only here for the summer, and I’m worried I’ll get out of shape,” she concluded, after stating her current rank and past studies for the benefit of the man seated at the small desk.

It wasn’t until the white-clad instructor stood up that she saw the red and black belt he wore. She had not expected to find someone of that rank in the middle of nowhere. What next, a bona fide red belt in Iowa fucking City? She’d yet to meet one in Berkeley.

Sensei Kerry looked her up and down. “Did you want to stay in shape or begin your progress from brown to black?”

“Stay in shape,” Liddy admitted. “I’m not certain it’s in the cards for me to be a black belt.”

He smiled in the way of every sensei she had ever met, male or female. “It’s not a matter of chance—”

“Chance is an excuse for lack of focus, I know.” She clapped a hand over her mouth, then bowed out of habit. “I apologize, sensei.” He smiled and bowed slightly to accept her apology. “There is a class for purple and brown on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at seven.”

“Do you teach it?”

“There are also two assistants.”

Remembering her manners, she asked meekly, “Would you do me the honor of allowing me to join your class?” Again, the man disappeared into the mystery of a sensei. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties—only ten years her senior at most—but all senseis specialized in that remote air of a sage. “A brief test will be necessary.”

“I have my gi, sensei, so at your convenience, I am ready.” She felt a part of herself relax. This, at least, was familiar.

“Five minutes,” he said, pointing to one of the square mats, then he left her to change and warm up.

She’d tried to work out after Robyn left, but Robyn had taken a few classes with her, leaving that musky smell impossibly in the changing room. She knew it was all in her head that she could still smell it, but she had not been able to shake it. It had been two months since she’d been to her classes. Another thing in her life she hadn’t finished. Another thing that Robyn had managed to take away.

Well, at least she could stay in shape here. Her gi was a little more snug around the waist than it had been. Who would have thought Iowa City had a world-class anything besides drunken frat boys to offer?

Ignoring the few other students who were practicing with targets and pads, she ran through a few forms, then went to the mat the sensei had indicated, and knelt with her back to the center. Deep, calming breathing was easier than it had been in months.

Permission to spar came promptly and she squared off, aware that she was, indeed, being tested. It quickly became apparent that Sensei Kerry’s belt was not a fake. His stance and blocking invited her to throw punches and level kicks at him that were well within her skills.

As her strength and ingenuity waned, his mastery became more apparent. She was tested to her limit to parry his carefully conceived attacks.

She was pouring sweat after only a few minutes had elapsed. But she felt alive. She found herself grinning as she rolled off the floor from evading a kick and had the satisfaction of a returned smile from the sensei.

“You’ve had a good teacher,” he acknowledged.

“You honor a humble student.” She gasped for breath and added belatedly, “Sensei.”

“I would enjoy learning from you,” he replied, then dropped his guard to invite a series of jabs.

The feeling of intense focus was welcome. She loved karate and she was not going to let Robyn fucking Vaughn take it away. When the sensei invited another round of punches she twirled into an unexpected kick. She wasn’t surprised when he blocked her, but she successfully evaded his counterpunch.

“Enough,” he declared. They bowed respectfully to each other, and Liddy stripped off her sparring gloves. “Whatever it was that motivated you at the last, that is what you will need more of to move up to black belt. But I believe you can do it.”

“I wish I was going to be here long enough, sensei.” To her surprise she felt a small amount of regret that the end of July would arrive too soon when it came to the Golden Dragon.

“We will see what you can do while you are with us.” He bowed again and became a businessman, proffering forms and requesting a credit card.

Back in the Hummer, Liddy grinned and turned up the radio. A tuneful song she didn’t know explained that it took a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The sky was richly blue and Iowa fucking City wasn’t so small after all.

She cruised into the Wal-Mart lot and shoehorned the Hummer into a parking space under the only trees. Sometime later she maneuvered her cart full of household essentials into what seemed to be the shortest line. As she reached for a tin of Altoids she recognized the voice of that stalker, Ellie. Swear to freakin’ god, this town was tiny.

“You must be miserable, honey,” she was saying. There was an indistinguishable reply. “They’re your best friends. I don’t know that many single girls who are so tight with a couple without, well, being
very
tight with the couple, if you know what I mean.”

“I did
not
have that kind of relationship with them!” Liddy wanted in the worst way to turn her head and figure out who Ellie was talking to. It was a rather interesting conversation. But she was afraid if she did, Ellie would see her.

“I don’t think you did, of course. They define monogamy. Besides, you’re practically virginal.” Ellie made the other woman’s chaste sex life sound like a bad thing.

“Don’t, El. Not today. I don’t think I can be jollied into a better mood.”

The librarian, Liddy thought. Okay, Iowa City must be small if you trip over the town librarian everywhere you turn. She risked a peek; they were behind her and another line over. With luck, she would get out unseen.

“When Sandy and I split, you were the one who told me that life is change.”

Marian’s voice was low and harder to hear. “I’m sorry I was cruel. That couldn’t have been comforting.”

“It wasn’t.”

Liddy loaded her items onto the belt and dug in her shorts pocket for her billfold.

“I feel like I got hit by an anchor, Ellie. I just didn’t see this coming.” Marian sounded slightly choked and definitely sad.

Ellie’s tone softened. “It wasn’t comforting, but it was true. Sandy changed and so did I. Hemma and Amy are setting out to make some big changes. Our Friday evening meet isn’t going to be the same.”

“I don’t change. Why does everyone else?” Making small talk with the cashier left Liddy without the concentration necessary to continue eavesdropping. She forgot about the
Days of Our Dykes
conversation as she stopped to buy a cold soda, then rolled her cart toward her car. About halfway there she realized Marian and Ellie were off to her left. Marian gave Ellie a cheerless parting wave, then veered in Liddy’s general direction.

Picking up her pace, Liddy reached the Hummer quickly and dropped her bags in the back. She heard Marian’s bags rustle and realized Marian must belong to either the forest green Beetle to the right of her or the platinum Malibu to the left, all crowded into the meager shade. She didn’t know if she wanted Marian to recognize her or not. Fate took a hand when Marian stopped at the Beetle and had no reason to notice Liddy on the far side of the Hummer.

Liddy had her door open when Marian snapped, “Damn it all!” She stole a glance through the opposite window and saw Marian patting her pockets more and more frantically.

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