Kristy Bell

The Loropetalums 

On final approach, I retrieve an index card from my carry-on and scribble the possible opening to a story: Deep within the slow, continuous curve that is New Orleans, snugged up against the broad back of a sleeping Mississippi River lay??? I chew on my pen and wonder. This is the first time I’ve traveled here without close supervision of a relative.

It’s Labor Day weekend, 2002, shortly before our graduation from Navy electronics school. We’ve planned this trip for months--our personal Mardi Gras, our Farewell Festival of Fun, Sara named it. We’ve been inseparable for a year, but the anticipation of it ending rumbles overhead like an overloaded storm cloud. In two weeks, we’ll select our post-school assignments from a list of what’s available in order of class ranking, likely to separate corners of the world. Our imminent departure from the safety of our North Chicago training base, war in Afghanistan looming and another in Iraq likely, threatens to drop a gray scrim over the trip. 

I have a feeling I’m working harder to stay in the moment than Sara, but that’s not unusual. Where I scuff-toe along, hitting every obstacle in the road, she glides right over them. I tell myself the bumps give me empathy, but most days, I wish I could absorb some of her casual ease. 

We pore over the Yellow Pages and a stack of brochures to map out an itinerary that afternoon, cross-legged on one bed in our Navy Lodge room on the Mississippi’s west bank. Sara recently talked me into going with her to a performance of The Vagina Monologues in Chicago, which gave me an idea for a short story about a vibrator smuggler. That figures, I thought, when the performer said vibrators are illegal in Alabama. Everything’s a sin in sweet home Alabama. I don’t even know what a vibrator is. I considered asking Sara, but since I call myself a writer, I probably ought to know already. 

No doubt New Orleans is a place that does know, so when we see a half-page ad for Chartres Street ConneXXXions that hawks New Orleans’ Only Great Wall of Vibrators, we agree to start our Saturday there. 

The store occupies the bottom floor of a nondescript brick building in the French Quarter with few windows and fewer markings. We spot the smallish sign on the third pass, sandwiched between a palm reader and a jazz-themed strip club. I imagine generations of New Orleans socialites wading through the heavy air in flapper outfits and leisure suits, and passing through the discreet side door.

My nerves jangle like a Styrofoam cooler in the back seat of a Chevy, but I gulp a lungful of muggy air and square my shoulders to the door. 

“Screw your courage to the sticking place,” I mutter and push the door open. 

A blast of cold takes the breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Anita Ward blares the chorus from “You Can Ring My Bell,” and the staff member, dressed in all black, homes in on me. I pivot to leave, but bump into Sara, our arms briefly interlocking. I blush and apologize. 

“You’re okay, AJ. Hey.” Sara grabs my shoulders and makes me meet her eyes. “Stop making this a bigger deal than it is. People shop for sex toys all the time.” She smiles in encouragement. “Let’s just go in.” 

I’ve always appreciated the way she stays completely unperturbed about stuff I freak out about. Still…

“Oh my God, I can’t, Sara.” I skitter away. “What if I have a heart attack? My parents would die. And kill me.” 

Daddy once gave our teen Bible study group a sermon on biblical relationships. It stayed unsatisfyingly vague, but one thing came through crystal clear: sex belonged within the bonds of matrimony and, even then, it was mostly for being fruitful and multiplying. 

Sara grabs my arm and steers me toward the store’s interior. “Yes, you can. Think of the stuff you’ve already done they don’t know about.” 

She has a point. I led a modest double life as a teen, spending summers in a cottage at my grandparents’ in Pass Christian, Mississippi. The cottage housed an extensive collection of their books and records. I worked on PawPaw’s fishing boat by day and meandered through musical and literary classics by night. PawPaw and MeeMaw even took me to New Orleans, to Preservation Hall, where I crammed in with a hundred other sweaty patrons and lost myself in the thudding bass drum and the whomp-whomp of the tuba. I’ve played piano in church since I was twelve, but this was something else entirely. I had the sense that the music displaced my heartbeat, and I felt it pulsing inside me, a throbbing from my chest all the way down to my groin, even after the musicians stopped. We went to Jackson Square, too, where a street hustler scammed twenty dollars of my fishing money. PawPaw and MeeMaw winked at each other, and just let him take it, which I thought was unconscionable. 

But later, they made up for it. “Don’t tell your Daddy,” PawPaw said, reaching into his wallet and handing me a twenty dollar bill when I hugged him and thanked him for taking me. “He’s a good man, and I love him, but he thinks everything’s a sin.” 

I lay in bed in the little cottage thinking about what he said deep into the inky night. New Orleans didn’t feel like sin to me. It felt rich and textured, multi-layered as a lane cake. If that’s sin, I’ll just have to be a sinner, I thought, drifting off to sleep.

“Close your mouth, AJ,” Sara says, jolting me back to the present. I realize I’m gawking at the Great Wall.

“I can’t help it,” I whisper. “I’ve never seen this many penises.” I gesture toward a display. “They’ve got ‘em in rainbow stripes, for God’s sake!” 

It’s overwhelming. We had sex education in boot camp, but that consisted mostly of a photographic parade of various diseased sexual organs and ominous warnings to “use protection.”

I crab-step closer to the Great Wall, and the salesperson glides over—a feminine man, dressed in black, slightest wisp of a mustache over his top lip, a rainbow button the only color on him. I lean in and read, “Ask me about our nipple rings.” Someone, maybe the man himself, has crossed through “our” and written in black Sharpie, “MY.”

“How can we help you ladies today?” His words slide from his mouth like cranberry sauce from a can. “Are we buying for ourselves, or someone else?” He bats his eyes at Sara, then me. 

“We’re just looking right now, thank you,” I stammer. I’m mortified he’ll figure out how little I belong here. I feel heat rising through my cheeks to the peak of my head and study the nearest penis model, hoping he doesn’t notice. 

“Well, we got it all, honey,” the man says. “Strap-ons, vibrators, dildos, two-headed, BDSM…”

“We’ll let you know if we need anything,” I interrupt. 

I mentally name him Gaston. Not Gastón, like the French would say, but Gaston, like the lake in southern Virginia we drove over one time on a mission trip to Appalachia. I looked up from reading Les Miserables to interpret the sign as Gastón, but Daddy said the name out loud. I wrote it down, thinking how interesting it was that things could seem one way but be totally different. 

Here on Chartres Street, Sara stifles a smile. 

“Jesus, Sara,” I say. “You could help me, here.” 

“Okay, okay,” Sara comes closer. “It’s just funny to me that, for all the books you read, you’re innocent as a little baby.” She reaches toward my cheek and motions like she’s going to squeeze it. 

I duck and feign irritation. “You know I was raised by a perfectly matched pair of Pentecostals,” I huff. “Don’t tease me about it.” 

Sara traveled back home with me last year for my brother’s wedding and remarked on the more than three dozen Jesus likenesses in my parents’ house. “It must have been hard being a kid, with all that oversight,” she’d said.  

“You came here to research, didn’t you?” Sara changes the subject. “Where are your note cards?”

“Oh, yeah, I got distracted.” I fumble in my back pocket for my cards and pen, and write on the first one, “Large, thick, purple penis named simply ‘Randy.’ Like Cher and Madonna, this one only needs one name.”

I browse a couple more selections. “This one is called ‘Stronic Pulsator,’ Sara. It reminds me of something off of Star Trek.” 

When Sara found out I’d never seen Star Trek, she rented the series and we lay on her bed in our barracks room most of the day one Saturday, binge watching and eating popcorn. I remember every detail, crisp as a January morning. How my bare arm brushed Sara’s silk pajamas on its way to the popcorn bowl. How blood rushed so hard into my ears I worried she could hear it. How I held my pee as long as I could because I didn’t want to break the spell. 

My family was never demonstrative. Nobody would have laid around for that length of time at the house I grew up in, first of all, and certainly not two people practically on top of each other. 

Gaston saunters by.“Oooh, that’s our best-seller.” His near-constant comments grate my nerves, so I glare at him. “I’m just saying.” He flashes a toothy grin, backing away. 

“I have that one, myself,” Sara says. 

Gaston beams back at her. “See?” he gloats.

“Wait, you have one of these?” I’m shocked. “Who are you?” I knew Sara was more experienced than me, but I didn’t realize how much. I write “Preservation Hall/Star Trek” on a note card.

“Actually, I have two, and I’ll probably buy another one today.” 

I keep writing as I say the words aloud, “Ask Sara about her secret life as a sex fiend when we get back to the Navy Lodge.” I’m suddenly warm all over, like Gaston turned the a/c up ten degrees.

We browse for another few minutes, taking our time roaming up and down the Great Wall. I write the names of several products, snippets of Sara and Gaston’s comments, and questions. The vibrators don’t impress me one way or the other; they’re little pods in plastic packages, some with appendages. I wonder if I’ll be able to get my nerve up to ask Sara how they work later. It certainly can’t be here, with Gaston flitting around. 

It’s early for New Orleans. The town hasn’t yet slept off its collective hangover, so we have the place pretty much to ourselves. I pick out a simple, conservative vibrator and Sara selects another, less conservative one for herself. 

“For literature,” she says, raising a fist. 

Gaston checks her out, then me. “Looks like y’all are gonna have a wildly vanilla night.” He smiles suggestively after Sara steps outside. 

Oh my God, he thinks we’re gonna use these. On each other! I shake my head. “I don’t know what you mean. We’re not together.” I grab another bag to double bag my purchase. “Or gay,” I say, and I feel myself blushing again. “Not that it’s any of your business.” I’m terrified that Sara will come back in and hear. 

“You could have fooled me, honey,” Gaston says. “You’re so butch, you set my gaydar all the way off.”

“Excuse me, what are these shrubs?” Sara pops her head back in to ask before I have a chance to react. I silently beg Gaston to shut up. “The brilliant purple shrubs here at the entrance,” Sara says, waving in their direction.

“Oh, those are loropetalums. The owner loves them. Beautiful, and low maintenance.” He pauses a beat and winks. “Y’all have fun, now.” I snatch my package off the counter and practically run out the door. 

“Loropetalums. Write that down for me, AJ.” 

I write the word on a card and hang back, studying myself in the palm reader’s window, flexing my arm muscles and gauging my stride against Sara who walks just ahead. That word sounded like an insult: 'butch.' What did it mean? He said it in conjunction with ‘gay-dar,’ and it’s a man’s name. Is it the way I walk? My size? Mama never let me forget I was bigger than most girls from the start, but I’ve never wanted to be a man. 

My only experience with gay people was when Ellen Degeneres kissed that woman on T.V. when I was ten. Daddy raged about it from the pulpit, especially theatrical that Sunday. 

“That woman Ellen Degeneres might as well be Ellen Degenerate, leading our young people into the most demented sins of the flesh. Broad is the path that leads to destruction!” he’d thundered. His prayer urged all the young people in the church to “cleave themselves to the bosom of the Lord.” 

I’m brooding like an old hen when we get back in the rental and weave through the city streets to Business Highway 90, back toward the Crescent City Connection to the West Bank. 

“Oooh, you never hear this song on the radio. Turn it up,” I say grateful for the distraction when Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel from Montgomery” comes on. We sing the chorus together loudly. 

Sara and I met over a song. I was playing the piano and belting out Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” at the base talent contest when I spotted a girl in the back reading a book. Her hair fell over her face in a swoop, and she brushed it off her eyes to stare directly back at me. I knew when I saw she was reading, we were going to be friends, so I introduced myself after I picked up the prize for winning the contest. We talked about books and music and the brief histories of ourselves until the base club closed.   

I’ll be the first to admit, we’re very different--Sara the tall, slender, fair child of academics from California; and me the stocky, dark descendent of Cherokees and evangelical Christians from south Alabama. But something clicked when we met, and we’ve been roommates, lab partners, and best friends through almost a year of learning how to work on Navy electronic equipment. 

“That clinches it,” I say when the song goes off, having clearly delivered a sign. “We’ve got to go to the bayou.” This is probably the last time we’ll do something together for a long time, and we’ll get our money’s worth, if I can help it.

“What? I thought we were riding the streetcar to the zoo, drinking wine in the hotel room, and going to the levee for the sunrise. The bayou sounds hot.” Sara pouts a little.

“The bayou’s so much better than the zoo. Cocodrie is land’s end. There’s one narrow strip of land, the one the road is on, and the rest is water.” I almost miss a red light. “The bayou is the beginning of the universe. It’s where all life comes from.”

“I can see I’m in trouble,” Sara says. “Your eyes have gone all swimmy on me. This is usually what happens right before you drag me off on an adventure.” 

“Hey, I made it through The Vagina Monologues. You’ll be okay, too.” I’d had to lie to Mama about what I was doing that day when I talked to her on the phone. But over the year Sara and I have known each other, we’ve come to trust the easygoing synergy we have. Whatever one of us proposes may be a stretch for the other, but we always have a better time than we would alone.  

I whip the car around in the middle of the highway 90 bridge, screeching the tires, and we head south, through Houma, alongside Bayou Petit Gaillou, all the way down to Cocodrie. 

I think of the bayou in this part of the world as a maze of muddy water highways, punctuated with strips of land here and there. Life teems along the shores, in the tall roseau cane, in the silt-filled water. Last year’s storms cleared out a lot of the man-made structures among the backwaters, but signs abound they’re starting to come back. All along the southbound route, barges dot the waterways, many of them loaded with building materials. I navigate by feel, no real sense of where I’m going, except south, toward the Gulf of Mexico. We wheel into Boudreaux’s Marina and walk toward the water. 

A faded travel trailer with Tennessee tags backs up to the edge of a small hill leading down to the water. A barrel-chested man in a floppy hat, cargo shorts and a Columbia fishing shirt tosses a cast net from the dock at water’s edge. His arm sweeps out repetitively, jerks to close the net, then drags it back. The dock is new treated lumber, still unweathered, and pilings from its predecessor lie in a jumbled heap off to the side. A Carolina Skiff bobs up and down next to it.

We make our way down the hill to the dock. “Are the shrimp running?” I ask between casts.

“Yep,” the man turns to see who’s speaking, then nods at the cooler on the dock. “Open up that cooler.”

I pry the lid open to peer inside and whistle, “Looks like you’ve got five or six pounds here.”

“About six,” the man grunts. “Name’s Red.” He jerks his head toward a heavyset woman stiff-kneeing down the hill from the trailer toward them. “My wife is Dee.” 

Dee smiles a broad, welcoming smile, and I like her immediately. Her face open as an upturned sunflower, I write on a card.

“It’s nice to meet you, Red and Dee,” Sara says. “I’m Sara, and this is AJ. Are you all from here?”

Dee eases into position behind us and takes over the conversation duties. “No, honey, we’re from east Tennessee. We just come down here for the season. We didn’t get to come last year, what with 9/11 and all.” 

I pull the card back out and scrawl, “Red and Dee, from east Tennessee.” I like the symmetry of it. 

“Been coming here for thirty-five years now,” Dee continues. “A lot longer than you young folks have been alive.” She cackles and angles toward me, “What you doing with them cards, gal? Where are y’all from?”

I point at Sara, “Sara’s from Fresno, California, and I’m from L.A.” Dee crinkles her brow, and Sara cuts in, “That’s our running joke because we sound so different. AJ’s from L.A., as in Lower Alabama.” 

I nod, “I’m a writer, and I use the note cards to capture ideas. You know, if I hear a word I like, or a phrase?” 

Dee twinkles. “Uh huh. I see you got a Navy shirt on.” She points at my t-shirt, the Navy emblem prominent on its front. “Red here’s a Navy vet.”

“Yes ma’am, we’re both in the Navy.” I try to engage Red. “When did you serve?” Red doesn’t answer, but casts again. I turn back to Dee. “This place reminds me of some of the places I fished with my PawPaw. We fished out of Pass Christian.” 

Dee raises her voice, “Red, didn’t you say you wanted to run the boat this afternoon? These young ladies might like to go with you.” To us, she adds, “He’s a little hard of hearing  especially when he’s not facing you.”

Red drops the final net full of shrimp into the cooler and steps into the boat. Dee lowers her voice and confides in Sara.“He loves to show off his boat, and his bayou. I can’t go with him much anymore on account of Arthur.”

“I’m sorry. Who’s Arthur?” Sara asks.

“She’s talking about arthritis. Miss Dee’s got arthritis.” I say and elbow her gently. “For as many books as you read, you can be innocent as a little baby.” I guess we know what we have cause to know. 

“Well, do y’all want to go up the bayou or not?” Red steps back onto the dock. I can hardly believe our luck. I haven’t been in a bayou since a year before I joined the Navy. I raise my eyebrows at Sara, and she nods. 

We clamber aboard and don the faded life jackets Red set out. He proves to be an experienced naturalist, deftly guiding the boat through the sloughs near Cocodrie, pointing out tri-colored herons, gators basking on flattened cane, black-necked stilts, white spider lilies. 

Sara says, “You weren’t kidding about it being the start of the universe. Look at those stunning bright pink birds!”

“Roseate spoonbills,” I say at the same time as Red.

Red nods and guns the motor, wheeling around a curve, pushing the flat-bottomed skiff to near maximum speed. We round the bend and a flock of white pelicans scatters off the water in every direction, momentarily hypnotizing us all. 

“Oh, wow!” Sara yells, both of us laughing aloud. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!” 

The boat shudders once, twice, three times, then lurches to a stop, mud coloring the water around us a lighter color, like somebody just poured cream in black coffee. 

“Mmm,” Red says and presses the button to raise the motor a bit. “Mmm,” he says louder, and tries reverse then forward again. The boat remains stuck. “That mud bar wasn’t here last week.” 

He cuts the motor and raises it all the way, empties his pockets, then drops over the side into the murky water. We watch as he sinks almost immediately to his knees, and then more slowly to mid-thigh. He pushes, pulls, grunts again and climbs back into the boat, mud glopping off his feet and calves as he flings them over the gunwale.

I lean toward Sara and say under my breath, “This is bad. It’s probably sixty yards or more to good water.” I recognize the signs of a mud grounding, but PawPaw never grounded this far off the channel. 

Red rummages through the boat’s holds, searching for weight to jettison. He finds an extra battery and tosses it over his shoulder into the water. The top of the battery remains visible but the mud immediately starts bubbling, the battery’s weight pushing it into the muck. 

“Mr. Red, I think we’re gonna have to get in and help push it off,” I say. 

“No, y’all stay put.” Red takes off his hat and rubs the bald spot on top of his head thoughtfully. “Tide’ll come up eventually.”

“How long until that happens?” I ask.

“Oh, about six hours.” He plops the hat back on top of his head.

“Don’t you have a radio?” Sara ventures.

Off comes the hat again. More rubbing. “Yeah, I been meaning to get that reinstalled.”

“Let’s get out and see if we can move it with all of us out,” I say, and we strip our shoes off and empty our pockets. I take a rope with me to loop around the bow cleat. When we step into the muck, we immediately start sinking and have to continuously pick up our feet and put them down in a different spot to stop our descent. It’s hard work, and we’re winded after only a couple of minutes.

“Maybe if we kneel, it’ll distribute our weight better,” Sara suggests. We both kneel, me at the bow, her at the stern, Red marking time in the middle, and push/pull. The boat doesn’t budge. It strikes me as hilarious, but I don’t dare laugh. This will be one for the ages, if we get out of the swamp. 

Red says, “Get back up in the boat, skinny one, and rock back and forth. When you’ve broke us loose, me and the stocky one will move us forward.” 

Sara climbs back in the boat and straddles the centerline, rocking back and forth, pushing down with her left foot, then her right, left, then right, until the boat floats momentarily. I give up on kneeling and take to sitting. With my weight distributed over a wider area, I can maintain myself on top of the mud layer long enough to get leverage to pull at each pause of Sara’s rocking. With Red pushing from the stern, we inch our way toward the channel. After almost an hour of hard labor, the boat floats clear. 

“Ha ha! You realize we just ass-kedged off that mud flat?” I flop back over into the boat and high-five both Sara and Red. I’ve never felt more alive. Sara’s shining like a harvest moon, and I get a lump in my throat, knowing she feels it too. 

When we arrive back at Boudreaux’s, Dee has laid out a mid-afternoon feast of fresh shrimp po’ boys and fries. She doesn’t say a word about how long we’ve been gone, or our bedraggled appearance. We eat and help Red clean the inside of the boat, then use the water hose on the dock to spray down our muddy legs and shorts. I thank the old couple and note their address on one of my cards so we can send a proper thank-you.

As we drive back up the causeway, Sara sags into the headrest and says softly, “I’ll never forget this.” She raises her head and looks at me while I drive. “I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done in the past year if it hadn’t been for you. Thank you.” 

I glance at her sideways and squeeze her hand, “No, thank you. I can’t even think about how bad the last year would have been without you.” 

“Hey, do you remember sweeping those crepe myrtle blossoms in the parking lot when the Admiral was coming?” My voice comes out shaky and high-pitched. 

She picks up the thread. “Yeah, it was pouring rain.” She chuckles a little. “The blossoms fell faster than we could sweep them.”  

“Yeah, and we locked the door behind us, so the official party would have to stand out in the rain until somebody found a key.” 

“Stupid Navy,” I say and bang the steering wheel. 

“Stupid Navy,” she agrees and looks out her window. We fall silent and watch the sun gain on the horizon as we drive north. 

Back at the hotel, I face away from Sara to peel off my mud-caked shirt and bra before stepping in the bathroom to shower. "That’s so butch, AJ,” Sara says from behind me, and I stiffen. 

Did Sara hear what Gaston said? "I wish you wouldn't call me that,” I say without turning. “It sounds insulting." 

"Why? Hasn't anybody ever told you you're more masculine than most women?" 

So that’s what it means? Masculine?

I’m suddenly boiling with anger, so I whip a towel around me and spin around. "I can't help it. I told you I weighed 120 when I was born." I stalk into the bathroom to finish undressing. “You won’t have to see me much longer, at any rate,” I spit through the door. 

Damn it, now I’m crying, my tears mixing with mud and shower water. What’s wrong with me? I lean against the shower wall and punch myself in the arm. 

“Get a grip, Martin,” I say aloud. “This is the military. You make friends, you leave friends. It’s not like either of you is dying.” 

But it reminds me of the Dixieland Jazz Funeral I saw on the way to Jackson Square with PawPaw. This weekend is a celebration, sure, with big sound and a parade of colors, but when it comes right down to it, it marks a death just the same. I stand under the water until it runs cold, and reach no conclusions, though I do get my emotions back under control. 

"It's hard to explain. It's like you swagger a little,” Sara picks up when I come out of the bathroom. “You're confident, but you're humble about it. You're funny but you're also sweet." She looks at me directly, the way she did the first time I saw her. "You're gonna break some hearts before you're through."

I frown. Where is she going with this? I feel like she’s in the channel, free and clear, and I’m stuck in the mud. I’d ask her what she means, but I’m afraid of what she might say.  

She grabs a bottle of wine from the mini fridge, sits on her bed, and works it over with the corkscrew from the kitchenette. I flop down on the propped-up pillows of the second bed.

"Okay, I've got a question for you,” she says. “If you could sleep with anybody, who would it be?” She pops the cork out and drinks a swallow before handing the bottle to me. 

I take a long pull and hand it back to Sara across the divide. "I'll have to think on that a while. Why don't you go first? Who would yours be?"

Sara takes a swig, "Oh, that's easy. Beyonce. She's such a sexpot."

“What? A woman!” I sit up again. "I'm surprised at you. I thought you were dating Alan." I drink another long swallow, my mind racing. What if Sara’s gay? Is she gay? She and Alan have been dating for a few months. Usually, Saturdays are our day, and Sundays are Sara’s Alan day. Theirs seems to be a lukewarm coupling but I don’t ask for details, and she doesn’t volunteer them, a sort of localized “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Ironic, I realize, this is also the Navy’s policy toward homosexuality. Sailors can be gay, as long as they don’t tell anybody or do anything gay. 

“I am dating Alan. We're just talking about sex, AJ. It's not like I'd marry her.” Alan’s okay, I think, leaning back onto the pillows. Solid, but boring. He probably irons military creases into his t-shirts. 

Two can play this game. “Okay, then, if women are in play,” I say, the wine making me bold. “I guess I'd go with ‘60s Aretha Franklin.” I sit up again. “I mean, have you heard ‘I Never Loved a Man?’ I could swoon.” I flop backward and fake-faint. My heart is pounding. Did I just say I’d sleep with a woman? To my best friend? 

  Sara takes it in stride. I hear the roll in her eyes as she says, “I swear you’re the most naïve 75-year-old I’ve ever seen.”

I can’t argue with her, so we pass the bottle back and forth in silence. I’m working hard to process what we just said, the only sound the occasional gulp of wine. The air holds a charge, like the time in electronics lab when I flipped a switch and a piece of debris caused the high voltage magnetron to arc a purple streak of electricity out of its protective cage, narrowly missing my metal belt buckle. 

After a while, she gets up and goes into the bathroom to shower, leaving me to finish the last couple of ounces and open another bottle. 

When she comes back, I’m pleasantly buzzed, and she’s wearing her silk pajamas. "Come lay on my lap,” she says. “I'm gonna drink wine and work on your God-awful cuticles." 

I duck my head to hide a smile. At least fifty times a day, I pick at my cuticles, trying to rough them up so Sara notices and gives me a manicure. She seems to take the condition of my hands personally and, for once in my life, I don’t mind when somebody directs their attention to some aspect of my appearance. Sometimes on Saturdays, we lay a quilt on the barracks room floor, and Sara sits cross-legged with my head on a pillow in her lap and works on my hands. Occasionally, she lets my hand slip out of hers to drop onto her thigh.   

"We need some music," Sara declares. She takes my left hand in hers and squints at it. "Also, your cuticles are awful. You have a farmer's hands." 

 "Blame it on the Navy. Something about me having to earn my pay." I raise up and survey the room. "We don't seem to have a CD player."

"Then sing to me," she commands, and I close my eyes and sing a favorite of ours to fall asleep to. Each night when we lie in our bunks, one of us starts a CD of our favorite music, and we let it sing us to sleep.  

I’m almost through the opening verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” when Sara's lips brush mine. She’s still holding my hand and my eyes fly open. 

"What are you doing?" I gasp. 

She straightens back up and looks down at me. "I'm sorry," she says softly. "You just looked so blissful I couldn't help but touch that for a minute." 

"Well, I don’t think I’m sorry,” I say, and for once I don’t think about what I should do. I sit up and face her on my knees, my eyes darting back and forth between her eyes and lips, mouth watering, heart drumming against my sternum. “I don’t think I’m sorry at all.” 

My insides feel like lava. Do I dare? I lean in and kiss her long and deep, hands going to the back of her head, running through her hair. It feels like the forceful exhale after I’ve been underwater for a solid minute. How is it I’ve waited for this all my life and didn't even know I was waiting? 

“Yeah, I’m not really sorry either,” Sara murmurs when we come up for air. She pulls me closer so our bodies press against each other, hands roaming down each other’s backs.

"Oh, you smell so good." The curve of her jaw smells like wine and flowers from a far-off country. I trail my lips down her neck. Soft. Everything about her is soft. "You taste so good. Just the perfect combination of honeysuckle (I punctuate each phrase with a kiss), and Christmas, and whippoorwills at night." 

I check her reaction. Her head tilts back and her lips part slightly. She moans and pulls me back to her.   

“Preservation Hall is playing an all-out symphony tonight,” I say in her ear. 

“What?” she murmurs, rubbing her cheek against mine. 

“Never mind.” 

I move to just above the first button on Sara’s pajama top and ease her back onto the pillows, slowly unbuttoning with my other hand. "I have no idea what I'm doing."

Sara puts her finger to my lips. "Shh. Do like you do when you write. Do what you feel." She guides my mouth down to her bare nipple, her hand pushing mine into her pants. "Write your stories on me." 

"You haven't manicured that one," I tease, grazing her nipple with my cheek, but Sara doesn't care. She arches her back and thrusts her hips toward me as she works her way out of her pajama pants. I slide down until my mouth is on the outside of her panties, tongue and lips exploring. 

She pulls me deeper into her, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve never done this before. Nothing lies between us: no Jesus, no military policy, no words. Her need is my need. 

She shakes and cries out, and it takes me back to the bayou. Surrounded by salty, earthy liquid, and wave after wave. I weep. Home, I think. I've come home

I wait for it to ebb before I raise my head and take in that Sara is crying, too.

 "I love you," I say.

Sara pulls me up to lie on top of her and wraps her arms and legs around me. "Amanda Jane Martin,” she says, squeezing me, “you are not of this world.”

Driftwood Beach



Moonlight Through the Pines