By MARTHA ROSS
Daisy was nearing the end of her second martini. The gin made her cheeks glow and her pointy, elfin features lose their usual severe look. Her frown lines were scarcely visible in the dim light of the lamp hanging above the bar booth. She downed the remaining liquor, then licked her lips, smiled mischievously and asked, "So what should we do about Tim?"
Our young friend Tim. So he was to be the latest object of Daisy's machinations.
Daisy liked playing puppet master to the people we knew, dancing them around to some drama of her own design. She had a light touch. Her subjects never knew what moved them. Now she had a plot in mind involving Tim, which she was about to announce. But not yet. She held up her hand like a traffic cop. "Before I say anything, I need another one." She saw my disapproving look. "Just one more, Bobbi."
"That's what you said last weekend, and you drank one glass too many. You couldn't get to sleep and you were in a bad mood all the next day."
"That's because I was drinking wine, not one of Barry's martinis. These will make me sleep like a baby." She leaned her Barbara Stanwyck body out of the booth and called to the bartender. "Barry! Another please."
He jerked his head from the TV screen, glowing with the highlights of this afternoon's college football games. The only other customer was a man at the bar watching the TV with Barry. The usual Saturday afternoon football crowd had left just before we arrived for early cocktails.
"Straight up again with an olive?" Barry called to her.
Her voice cut across the small room. She was getting tipsy. Another martini could mean that I'd have to help her walk up the hill home, and that she'd be in no shape to help cook dinner, much less get through it. I pressed my hand into my thigh, then released it. Stay calm, I told myself. Don't nag. Daisy's just having fun. We'd had a good day together, doing our usual Saturday routine: cleaning our flat, shopping, taking a long walk together. It had been several weeks since we'd enjoyed a day like this together. Easy, relaxed, even magical, in the old sense. Daisy seemed happy today. No silences. No sulking over things I had to fight to get out of her. Her mood was even celebratory, which may have prompted her to suggest coming to Barry's for martinis. It had been months since we'd been here, even though it was a block from home. Maybe she was happy because things were going well at work. Or maybe she was excited about this plot involving Tim, which she was about to disclose.
"How about you, Bobbi?" Barry nodded to my half empty glass, my first of the evening. I was already feeling its opiate-like effect. I wanted to stay clear-headed. One of us had to tonight.
I planted my palm across the rim. "No thanks. I'm fine for now."
He brought Daisy her martini, a huge glass brimming with high-quality liquor and two very fat olives. She took a sip and nodded in approval. She set the glass on its napkin and scooted herself forward on her seat, like a cat positioning itself to pounce. She grinned at me. The lamp caught a glint of her silver earrings, a perfect complement to her spiky salt-and-pepper hair. She looked adorable.
"So, what about Tim?" she asked.
She was inviting me in to one of her plots. I always felt flattered when she did so. I especially appreciated it tonight. Helping Daisy devise one of her schemes seemed like a good way to wind down a perfect day together. Besides, encouraging Daisy to brainstorm would get her mind off wanting to finish that martini.
The Tim in question was a co-worker of Daisy's at a graphics design firm. Several months ago, she brought him home for dinner. He was miserable. He has just broken up with his wife. The split had occurred only a year after the young couple moved to San Francisco from Ohio. Tim didn't know many people in San Francisco, and in Daisy he found a trusted confidante. He poured out his heart to her, and, by extension, to me. He came to regard us as surrogate older sisters. He was also curious about our relationship. He had never met many gay people. Daisy teased him about having a typical heterosexual male fascination with lesbians. I didn't mind talking to him about the social implications of our situation. I'm sure Daisy, when she was alone with Tim, was a bit more forthcoming. Our disclosures encouraged him to recount the minute details of his deteriorating love life. We were eager listeners. His crisis gave Daisy and me a problem to work on together. Over the last several months, a good deal of our pillow talk focused on the fall-out of from his separation. As Daisy said, Tim's crisis brought drama to our staid committed lives.
"What about Tim? Come on, Daisy, you tell me. You have something in mind."
"Okay, I do." She took another sip of her martini -- a small one I was happy to see -- and began stirring the toothpick in her glass. "I think he needs to have a fling."
"Yeah," Daisy said. "He needs to have an affair, something to lift his spirits, help his confidence. He hasn't gotten any since his wife dumped him. And even before she left, he wasn't getting any for quite awhile. Or so he told me."
"That long ago? I thought he went out with that waitress."
"That? He didn't sleep with her," she said. She slapped the air to eliminate that possibility. "It was just one date. He took her to a fancy-schmanzy French place, as if he can afford such indulgences. That's what Visa's for, he said. He thought they hit it off. He said he didn't kiss her good-night because he figured he'd see her again. He called a few times, but she kept giving him excuses for not going out." She shook her head. "Poor boy got his heart broken again."
Poor Tim, indeed. We contemplated his suffering for a moment. Then I had an inspiration.
"How about an older woman? Someone experienced, but who won't want anything more than sex and companionship. Someone who'll appreciate him for his youth and who's willing to guide him. You said before his wife he didn't have much experience with women. An older woman. It would be terribly European. A sentimental education."
Daisy rolled her eyes. "Bobbi, you've seen too many trashy French movies."
"No, I'm not thinking of bad French movies. You know what I'm referring to."
"Don't think so."
I pressed closer into the table. How could she not remember? "You know, that affair I had after I graduated from college and went to Europe. Come on, I told you. That British woman I met in Athens. The married one."
Daisy's face screwed up in puzzlement. Maybe the gin had dulled her memory. I had told her all about the affair when we started going out.
It happened several years after I accepted the fact of my sexual orientation. This acceptance occurred despite my very limited experience with either gender. In college, I had an unrequited two-year crush on a female teaching assistant and fumbled through a few attempts at sex with an experimentally-minded straight friend. At that age, I felt undeserving of romantic attention. I was shy and self-conscious about my generally non-descript looks and personality. I had resigned myself to a future of celibacy and self-containment.
I went to Europe a year after I graduated. I didn't go for romantic adventure like other young women I knew. I wanted to brave the continent alone and experience the art, life-style and history of other cultures. Four months into the trip, I went to Greece, the country I'd longed to visit ever since I was a child reading the myths in Edith Hamilton books. In Athens, I met the British woman. We hit it off right away and ended up hopping around the islands for six weeks. Our tour culminated in Lesbos where we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the birthplace of Sappho. This woman said she had come to the conclusion later in life that she was attracted to women but stayed married because she and her husband had been together for 25 years and were now good friends. He had affairs with women and understood her need to do likewise. Europeans, she said, are much more open about these things. She understood me immediately. She said I reminded her of herself when she was young: quiet, searching, out of synch with the rest of the world. She wanted to protect me from making the same mistakes she had made. She fell in love with me. No one had ever loved me before.
I lived off her love for nearly 10 years until I met Daisy and fell in love with her. And she with me.
Daisy was sitting back in her seat. Her arms were crossed. She looked sulky. She shrugged. "Oh yeah. That.
What was in her voice? I couldn't believe Daisy would be jealous. Over something in my past? If anyone was prone to jealousy in this relationship, it was me. But I wouldn't ask her. Daisy would deny it anyway. So I just said, "Yeah that."
Daisy reached for her glass. "It's a nice idea, the older woman, but where would we find her?"
I wasn't sure if we were veering toward touchy territory. I, of course, didn't want that. I teased her: "You could be Tim's older woman."
She smiled. She liked me teasing her, even if it meant calling attention to the fact that she could be someone's older woman. She didn't take a drink. Instead, she patted the back of her head like a femme fatale and laughed. "I don't think so, my dear. Not that I don't think Tim's attractive. He is in a gawky way. But you know very well I gave up men years ago. When I met you of course. And despite what others may say, I am loyal to the ones I love."
She lay her small hand atop mine. She caressed my knuckles with her index finger. Her touch sent a warm current surging up my arm, as it always did. I clutched at her hand. I felt the silver and turquoise ring on her third finger, the one I bought for her on our last trip to New Mexico. I wanted to lean across the table and kiss her, but remembered we were in public. Barry wouldn't care, but this was a straight bar and I still felt self-conscious about public displays of affection. A few more customers had filtered in, taking seats at the bar or at tables near us. We weren't alone. So back to the plot.
"Okay, if not an older woman, who then? Come on, Daisy, you have someone in mind."
"Maybe I do."
Now she was teasing me.
"Who, Daisy? Come on, don't play games with me. Tell me."
She suddenly withdrew her hand: "I want a cigarette."
"We gave them up, remember? We don't do those kinds of things anymore."
"Yeah, and we don't have as much fun." Was she still teasing? Or did she still resent my pronouncement last year that the two of us were going to eat better, exercise regularly, cut down on our drinking and give up smoking, which we only did socially anyway. Nag, nag, nag. Daisy had been saying that to me over the past year, all the while adhering to my plan. In fact, she took to working out with more ferocity than I did and looked tauter and leaner than ever because of it.
Again, I wanted to avoid the usual controversies between us, such as her complaint that I always wanted everything tidy and controlled, while she liked life to be more impulsive, spur-of-the moment. I didn't want to deal with any of that. Tomorrow, if necessary, but not tonight. I steered us back toward her plot.
"Come on Daisy, tell me. I'm begging you. Who are you going to fix Tim up with?"
She lifted out the toothpick, pried off one of the olives with her teeth and began chewing.
"Daisy!" I slapped the table.
She giggled, then straightened in her seat, squared her shoulders and announced:
Annabelle was a woman Daisy and Tim worked with. She started at the company several months ago, filling in temporarily for a woman on maternity leave. She came to a party we gave. I couldn't help but watch her.
Like Tim, she was in her early twenties. She was pretty in a gothic way. She had clear white skin and black wavy hair. She wore a black lace dress that clung to her body. Daisy said her body defined "willowy." A large crucifix hung between her breasts. Her fingernails were painted a deep purple.
She had a fluttery voice, which she used to compliment me on the appetizers I prepared and Daisy on her paintings, which decorated our flat. She also used her voice to flirt with the men at the party, even the gay men.
"Annabelle," I said again. I was dumbfounded. "She's pretty and sweet, but Daisy, she seemed a little bit weird. She was too eager to please and she was a big flirt."
"She's a flirt at work, too," Daisy said. "Not an overt flirt. But she has that way of moving her body around men's desks and laughing at their inane jokes. I don't think she does it intentionally. I think she has a need to cater to men, which is a little sad."
Daisy and Annabelle had gone to lunch this week.
"For some reason, we talked a little bit about how you and I have lived together for seven years. And she said, 'Wow, that's so cool.'" As Daisy recounted what Annabelle said, she puffed out her chest, wiggled in her seat and raised her voice to flutter like a bird. "' I mean it must be hard to be gay,' she said. 'I had a gay friend in high school -- a guy -- and he went through hell. But you're older now and you're probably okay with it, right?'"
We giggled and Daisy rolled her eyes. "Annabelle's such a naive little thing. She's from the suburbs, you know. Yes, she wears black and dates wanna-be-rock stars, but she's still such a rube. Anyway, after we talked about me, she started telling me all about her problems with men. She told me she's always attracted to men who treat her like shit. The last boyfriend, a manager for some heavy metal band, verbally abused her, as she put it. He told her she was ugly and fat. 'Gosh,' she said. 'Maybe I should try women, too.' "
We laughed again. Daisy went on: "She told me, 'All I need is to meet a nice guy. Someone who'll call when he says he will and leave me little notes on my pillow and make me feel pretty and desirable and who's not a selfish jerk.' "
"Little notes on her pillow? How romantic." I considered that idea for a moment. "I wouldn't mind that kind of treatment." Daisy didn't react to my hint. "When she talked about finding a nice guy, you immediately thought of Tim."
"Of course," Daisy said, taking another sip of her martini. Her glass was about two-thirds empty. I had barely touched mine. At least, Daisy didn't seem to be getting drunk. Maybe the excitement over her plot was acting like a strong cup of coffee by counteracting the effects of the alcohol.
"Tim defines 'nice guy,' " she said. "Too nice sometimes. And yeah, she's a ditz, but he's not exactly a rocket scientist either. I think they like each other. Oh, not romantically yet, but in a friendly way. They sit near each other. I've heard them talk about bands around town. Tim keeps up with that sort of stuff and Annabelle, of course, knows about that stuff, too, having slept with more than her share of scummy musicians. They'd be good for each other. They could prop up each other's fragile egos."
I rested my chin on my hand. I needed a few seconds. Daisy's plan sounded good, at first, but something didn't quite add up.
"You said a fling. Tim needs a fling. You're talking about the two of them like maybe they'd be good for something long term."
"Oh, no," Daisy said. "Something long term? Those two? That would be a disaster."
"What do you mean?"
"Bobbi, you're right. She's a little weird. In fact, she's fucked up. She also has the maturity of a 14-year-old old. And, as you said, she's a ditz. She's fucked -up and dumb. A dangerous combination."
I wasn't following her, but then I sometimes had trouble following Daisy as she brainstormed her way through her plots. "If she's dangerous, then why do you want to pair her up with Tim?"
"She's dangerous for anything long term. Yes. But she's perfect for a fling. She's simple and emotional and she'd be grateful for his adoration. She'd give him a quick fix of passion."
That made sense. I nodded slowly. Her reasoning was beginning to make sense. Yet...
"If he has a fling with her, won't his heart get broken when it ends? Won't there just be more turmoil?"
"Bobbi, Bobbi, Bobbi," she said. She sighed, fell back against the back of her seat, folded her hands above her head and grinned triumphantly.
"Here's the beauty of the situation. Annabelle is leaving in two months. Her job will be up. After that, she's heading to Europe, for an indefinite visit. She wants to see Eastern Europe. She's even thinking of checking out job opportunities in Prague."
She added wryly in an allusion to Annabelle's attempts at gothic beauty: "Maybe she'll check out her roots in Transylvania."
She jumped forward in her seat and grabbed my hands in hers. "Bobbi, what do you think?"
"It sounds -- perfect."
Her face was beaming, her dark eyes sparkling. "Of course, it is!" She let go of my hands and began gesturing wildly as she capped off the conclusion of her plot.
"They get involved in something hot and heavy. They think they're soul mates. But before they find out they really aren't, Annabelle has to fly off to Europe. No one has to dump anyone. They kiss each other tearfully at the airport, vow to write. They do for a while. But she gets caught up in the excitement of being in a new place and he -- well, we'll steer him in other directions. He has a short attention span anyway. The interest fades and both come to accept it was, as our friend Frank Sinatra says, 'one of those things.'"
I knew exactly what Daisy was talking about. That's how it was with me and the British woman. We both knew it had to end. She had to get back to her husband and family and I had to return home to the States to start a career and eventually meet Daisy, the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life, for better and for worse.
The British woman and I did stay in touch. For five years, through letters exchanged every few months. We even discussed my coming to England for a visit. I could stay at her house. Her husband knew about me and wouldn't mind. But for some reason, I never made it. Either I didn't have the money, or was starting a job and didn't have enough time off. Or I thought I was interested in someone else, only to have my interest fizzle in disappointment.
Finally, I got a letter from the husband. He addressed me "Dear Roberta." She had called me "Roberta." He told me his wife had died. Cancer. It came on suddenly, he said. At the end, she had been in terrible pain. That's why she stopped writing. It was a kind letter. He thanked me for the "friendship" I had given his wife and told me how much it had meant to her. I wondered if she, from her hospital bed, had asked him to write me. Or if he had found my letters while going through her things and reasoned writing me was the decent thing to do.
I wondered now if Daisy had thought of my affair while working out her scheme for Tim and Annabelle. She probably did, but she would never admit it. And of course, I wouldn't ask. Again, I didn't want to get into anything touchy tonight.
"You better get moving on pushing those two together," I said.
"I already have. I planted the seed yesterday at work."
"What did you do?"
"The details, my dear, are for me to know," she said mysteriously. "For now anyway. I'll keep you posted."
She again brought the toothpick to her lips, bit off the second olive and began chewing. Then she downed the last of her drink. She wasn't going to say any more. I learned long ago there were limits to what Daisy would reveal, about her plots or about anything else. I was grateful for what she did share.
I did the same with the olive resting at the bottom of my still half-empty glass. It was salty and soaked with gin. It tasted good. I decided to go ahead and finish the rest of my drink. Why not? I should just go for it. As Daisy always told me, I needed to lighten up.
A small group of tourists pushed their way into the bar. Someone in the back found the jukebox and plunked on something by Johnny Mathis. Daisy and I always liked Johnny. I tried to hear which song it was, but couldn't. I suddenly became aware of other people's voices, drowning out the song and crowding around our booth. I wanted to go.
I looked at Daisy. She was resting her head in the palm of her hand and staring off into some place in the crowd. Was she tired? Or drunk? Had the third martini caught up with her? Or was she simply contemplating the finer points of her strategy for Tim and Annabelle.
"Daisy," I said.
"Hmm?" She looked at me and smiled dreamily. She tilted her head. She looked so beautiful in the dim glow of the lamp. I just wanted to take her home and hold her.
"Shall we go?" I took one of her hands and caressed it. She reached her other hand and touched my cheek.
"S-u-u-r-e," she said. "But first, let's toast my plan. We didn't do that yet. We came here to cel-brate." She could barely pronounce that last word. I'd have to help her up the hill after all. "Just one more drink," she said. "Then we'll go."