If cities had pulses, then neighborhoods had temperaments and the patch of Houston, Texas Incognita and Toby settled in used to be a pocket dimension where art and creativity thrived. Over the near fifteen years in which their marriage occurred, they traded up from a shoebox apartment to a starter home, and a pandemic forced the world into seclusion, the area transformed into a land where bars, nightclubs and fast food joints held sway and common courtesy was no longer common.
It was late August, going on Eight in the evening when the sun had retired from the cloudless skies and Nita decided to walk home from work, taking the long way to help clear out her head because it had been a particularly stressful day and she hated bringing work home with her.
Her mother had a saying, If not for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all, and that was probably why she found herself standing in the middle of the street, fear and rage a bubble in her chest about to burst because it was seven to one and the odds were not in her favor. They were on the cusp of manhood, sixteen, seventeen at best, youth and speed on their side and probably hopped up on a drug that boosted their adrenaline, while she was a thirty-four-year-old woman with a bad knee who happened to be three months pregnant. The only advantage she had was their concentration was focused on the girl about their age that they were putting the boots to.
Armed only with a half-used canister of pepper spray, a lipstick stun gun that reportedly delivered 25,000,000 volts, and a pair of steel-toed boots, she dove into the fray. The plan was to tag at least five of them while she had the element of surprise but only managed to catch one teen with a foot to the crotch, another with the stun gun, and two others with a sweeping blast of the pepper spray.
“Wait! Hold on a minute,” Toby said, interrupting Nita’s recounting of events. “You took on seven guys in your condition?”
They were in Nita’s office at the community center, where she was seated on a second-hand couch with a sixteen-year-old girl whose face was a mess of cuts and contusions. A first-aid kit and a bottle of alcohol sat between them. Toby paced back and forth while his wife gingerly cleaned out the girl’s wounds, tossing the bloody gauze pads into a waste-paper bin that was slowly beginning to fill up.
“Took on is overstating the matter,” Nita said. “I put myself between Hannah and the boys, we had a brief standoff, they decided that getting their asses handed to them by some old broad wasn’t worth their time or trouble, and they left.”
“What you meant to say was, you’re lucky they didn’t regroup and gang up to stomp a new mudhole in your ass. What if they were carrying weapons?’
“I know, Toby, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t just walk past and do nothing.”
“And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have helped, you just need to find a safer way to do it.”
“Sorry to be so much trouble,” Hannah said.
“This isn’t about you,” Toby said, then course-corrected. “I mean, of course it’s about you, and I’m glad my wife was able to help prevent something more serious from happening to you. I’m just mad at her for acting like some rebel teen auditioning for Black Widow’s vacant spot in The Avengers.”
“Message received, loud and clear,” Nita said, moving off the couch, taking Toby by the arm and ushering him into the hallway. She closed the door behind them to give them the semblance of privacy. “I agree with you one hundred percent. It was a stupid thing to do and I promise to be more careful in the future.”
If she thought that statement would assuage his anger, she was dead wrong. Toby continued to argue at her, but she kept her tone and manner gentle and apologetic until she diffused the majority of his wrath because she realized it came from a place of concern and love.
“Can you at least explain to me why there are no cops here, and why she’s sitting in your office instead of a hospital?” Toby asked, looking at the girl on the couch whose clothes were covered in blood. She was staring at her smartphone.
“She’s afraid to go to the police or the hospital because she’s underage, smells like a bar at last call, and her pupils are dilated so there’s no telling what she’s on. It was tough enough convincing her to come here.”
“Is she local?”
“She lives in Sugar Land, that much I was able to get out of her,” Nita said. “I think she came here to have a little fun without the risk of running into anyone she knows.”
“Yeah, like no one travels to Houston.”
“I didn’t say it was a good plan, and remember, she’s young. I’m going to go back in to finish patching her up. Why don’t you see if there’s some ice in the break room for a compress, her lip’s starting to swell. And thanks for coming over so quickly.” Nita kissed her husband before heading back into the office.
“We weren’t bothering anyone,” Hannah said, hissing every time Nita touched an alcohol swab to one of her cuts. “We were just out enjoying ourselves, you know. Okay, so we partied a little but we were definitely still in control, and we were on our way to get something to eat, walking because the weather was nice, and Ella, that’s my girlfriend, said something sweet so I kissed her.
“All of a sudden these guys showed up and they began harassing us. They were making all kinds of nasty comments and demanding that we kiss again but this time like we meant it. We tried to ignore them, hoping they’d get bored and leave but they surrounded us and started asking which one of us was the man and how we got off by bumping donuts and disgusting things like that.
“I told them to fuck off, which was probably the wrong thing to say but they made me angry, and one of them hit me in the back of the head with something and I was looking around for Ella but they were punching, kicking and spitting on me, calling me names, and—and that’s when you showed up. You probably saved my life.”
Before Nita could respond, Toby stepped into the office with a tray loaded with ice cubes wrapped in a tea towel, a slice of pizza on a paper plate and a mug of hot tea.
“Managed to rustle up a cold compress and a slice. Don’t worry, it’s not Domino’s, it’s quality pizza that tastes pretty decent reheated, and I hope you’re a tea drinker ‘cause there ain’t a drop of coffee in the place.”
Nita took the compress and handed it to Hannah, saying, “Try not to talk so much and hold this to your lip. It’ll help reduce the pain and swelling. Keep in mind that this is only a patch-up job. You should really have someone at a hospital take a look at you, you might have a concussion or internal injuries.”
“I—I can’t,” Hannah said. “My parents would kill me.”
“And you don’t think it’s going to kill them seeing you hurt like this?” Toby asked.
“He’s right,” Nita said. “And it doesn’t seem like it right now, but in the long run, it’s easier just to tell the truth and deal with the consequences outright.”
“I need to think about it,” Hannah said.
“Okay, no pressure,” Nita reached over and plucked a business card off her desk to hand to the girl. “You know, I do this sort of thing for a living, so if you wanted me to be there when you spoke with your folks, I’m totally fine with that.”
Hannah studied the card. “Look, just because I kissed my friend doesn’t mean I’m gay, or whatever.”
“You don’t have to be, and we don’t make judgments here. This center does more than just offer outreach programs for the LGBTQ community. We offer a safe space where women are treated with dignity and can escape negative influences. We even teach self-defense classes, which are more than just learning to punch and kick. You can learn how to deescalate situations or spot the warning signs and avoid them altogether.”
“When I came in just now, I thought I heard you mention you were with a friend when this happened,” Toby said. “What happened to her?”
“She wasn’t there when I turned up on scene,” Nita said.
“She’s home,” Hannah said.
“In Sugar Land?” Nita asked.
Hannah nodded, dug the smartphone out of her pocket and held up a text message. “We drove here in Ella’s mom’s car. She sent me a text while you two were out in the hallway. She took off when the trouble started. For some reason they just let her go. She said she didn’t remember running away or getting into the car and before she knew it she was home. I didn’t answer her back because I don’t know what to say. I never would have left her like that, I don’t care how many guys there were.”
“None of us knows what we’d do in situations like that,” Nita sighed.
Hannah’s brow furrowed. “Are you defending her?”
“No, I’m just suggesting that you give her a chance to explain herself. She may have a good reason for what she did, maybe something in her past got triggered and put her on autopilot, or maybe she’s someone you just can’t depend on in a clutch. I know plenty of people like that and I still consider some of them friends.”
And the discussion went on. Hannah had eaten a little and when she calmed down a bit, she still refused the police or hospital recommendations, so Nita and Toby drove her home.
During the ride it seemed as if Hannah was warming to the idea of Nita being a part of the conversation with her parents, but as the car pulled up to her home, she politely declined and thanked them for the ride and all they had done for her.
A few days later, Nita was in the midst of juggling three different things for three different sets of people when there was a knock at her office door.
“Ain’t it always the way,” she said to herself as she stomped to the door, and swung it wide open. “What?”
She felt the flutter of tiny wings in her belly as her eyes fell on features that had aged over the years, become more angular yet were still as beautiful as ever. It was the face that belonged to…
“Lorelei Kilgareth?” Nita’s jaw should have cracked, it hit the floor so hard.
Lorelei smiled and held up her right hand to display her wedding ring. “Actually, it’s O’Leary now. I married someone we went to school with, maybe you remember him…”
“Tommy O’Leary? You married brace-face?” If it were at all possible for Nita’s jaw to hit the floor twice, it would have.
“Well, it’s been a long time since Tom wore braces,” Lorelei said. “You look like you’re in the middle of something, I can come back if this is a bad time.”
“No, no, come in,” Nita said, perhaps a bit too eagerly. She gestured at the couch. “Please, have a seat.”
Lorelei sat at one end, Nita at the other, and the past took its place in the space between them.
“Long time, no see,” Lorelei said after a long uncomfortable silence.
Nita nodded. “So, what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
Lorelei dipped into her handbag and brought out Nita’s business card. “You gave this to my daughter the other night.”
“Daughter?” Realization sometimes dawned slowly on Nita. “Hannah…?”
“O’Leary,” Lorelei nodded. “She told us what happened. Tom wanted to call and thank you, but I thought this was something best done in person. He would have been here, too, but he’s taken Hannah to the police station to file a report, so you should be receiving a call from them.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” Nita said. “Did you make her go to the hospital?”
“Good, we were worried about that, Toby and me. Toby’s my husband,” Nita held up her own hand to put her ring on display. “Not as impressive as yours, but still…” She had no idea why she added that last bit and regretted it immediately.
“It’s a beautiful ring.”
“Thanks,” Nita said with absolutely zero confidence. “Like I was saying, we were concerned she might have had some internal injuries…”
There was another awkward pause which Lorelei broke again. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough.”
“It’s plenty. What happened to Hannah happens more often than you think, so she wasn’t the first girl I helped from being seriously injured in an attack, and sadly, she won’t be the last. Unfortunately, the world is still a dangerous place for women, gay or straight.”
Lorelei found it hard to meet Nita’s eyes. “She told me about the kiss.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that. She’s young and probably still trying to figure things out. We’re more capable than men to differentiate between emotional and sexual attraction, so it could have just been a spur-of-the-moment thing. You know that as well as I do,” Nita said in a tone that surprised her. “And if she happens to like kissing girls, she shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for it. Acceptance is probably one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. But that’s a conversation you should have with your daughter before involving an outside party.”
“I wasn’t—it’s not a—I don’t have—” Lorelei started several times, caught herself and tried to regroup, sighed and finally settled on, “I just wanted to express my gratitude to you. I still can’t believe how fortunate we were that she was saved by a friend.”
“We’re not friends,” Nita said curtly.
“Um, okay, I guess I deserved that, then by a former friend.”
“We were never friends.”
“How can you say that?”
“For the longest time I gave you credit for not joining in with the others in the bullying, but then I came to realize that you never, not once, stuck up for me. I didn’t expect you to stand in front and take the blows, but you never uttered one word in my defense, something a real friend would have done.”
“I was young…”
“You were Switzerland. You remained neutral because you were one of the lucky kids who flew under the radar. Nobody ever messed with you. And thinking about it, if I had gotten a Wonka golden ticket during grade school, maybe I wouldn’t have said anything either. And if I’m being totally honest with myself, I didn’t want to be your friend either.”
“Now, I’m totally confused.”
“From the first moment I saw you, you gave me butterflies in my stomach. The only person to ever do that. I love my husband better than I love chocolate cake and I’d take a bullet for him without thinking about it, but he never gave me that feeling. Only you, and we’ve never been intimate. Back then I wanted you to please notice me, please talk to me, please hold my hand, please hold me, please kiss me, and you did all that in your own sweet time and I got it all twisted up in my head and my heart and I fell for you. I wanted you so bad, but it wasn’t a sex thing, I just wanted to be with you all the time because, besides home, you were the only place that felt safe.”
“I never knew.”
Nita shot Lorelei a suspicious look, and said, “Really? Because I met a girl in high school that felt that way about me, Charlotte was her name, and she was the kindest, gentlest, most sincere person I had ever met, and she adored me. And I sure as hell noticed it and I loved being adored. The problem was, although I cared about her in my own way, I didn’t feel the same way she felt. And to her credit, she stuck around longer than I would have, but when the reality of the situation finally sank in, she collected the shattered pieces of her pride and left. Never heard from her again and I can only hope that she found someone who appreciates just how special she is, because she deserves it.”
“As for me,” Nita continued. “I was screwed because you became the high-water mark that I compared all my relationships to. There’s a saying, chasing the dragon which refers to a drug user’s pursuit of the original or ultimate but unattainable high. In my case I spent my youth chasing butterflies, until I met Toby and through sheer persistence he showed me I didn’t need butterflies to be happy.”
“Not to sound callous or anything,” Lorelei said. “But that was such a long time ago. Can’t we just put that incident, that I would absolutely undo if I could, behind us and start fresh? I don’t know how you feel about all this but I think fate brought us back together for a reason.”
Nita considered it for a moment. “You may be right. But I need to clear up something that’s been bugging me.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
Lorelei concentrated, flipping through the Rolodex of her memories.
“Here, let me help you,” Nita said. “It was class picture day.”
Lorelei snapped her finger and pointed at Nita. “You were wearing that pink dress!”
“And you were staring at me.”
“Of course, I was. I had never seen you in a dress before. You were beautiful. I wanted to come over, to say hi or sorry or something, but I was afraid that you were still mad at me.”
“You were staring at my chest.”
“I was surprised at how quickly you developed. You used to hide beneath baggy clothes.”
“You kept staring at my chest.”
Lorelei’s mouth opened and closed several times but no words managed to find their way past her tongue.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but since then, I’ve seen that look several times so now I know what it means, and I know that you’ll probably never say what I need to hear you say,” Nita slid across the couch, closing the gap with Lorelei.
“So, instead, I want to tell you something and I need you to believe that it comes from the bottom of my heart,” Nita said as she cupped Lorelei’s face in her hands and felt the woman tremble at her touch.
She moved in and pressed her lips to Lorelei’s mouth and deftly delivered a kiss with enough body English to make the woman’s legs wobble. And she held that kiss until she felt the last of the butterflies depart her pregnant belly in search of a new home.
When she broke the kiss, Nita said, “I forgive you. And you’re right, we need to put the incident, as you call it, behind us, so I never want to see you or your husband again because you both belong in my past. Your daughter, however, is the future, and she is welcome here anytime to avail herself of any of the programs we offer, and if the location is too far, I’ll find her a place she can visit that’s closer to home.”
Nita rose from the couch, walked to her office door, and opened it wide. Gesturing for Lorelei to leave, she said, “Goodbye, Lorelei O’Leary. I trust you can find your way out.”
The stunned, smudged-lipsticked Lorelei, left without uttering a word.
Nita leaned against her closed office door for longer than she cared to admit, processing what had transpired, feeling the weight of the past slowly lifting from her shoulders.
Her next step would be to call Toby and tell him what happened. He was going to be upset, oh boy, was he ever, but eventually when he calmed down and realized she finally had the closure she’d been searching for nearly all her adult life, he’d understand, and she’d find a way to make things right between them.
And as she heard his voice on the other end of the phone line, she rested her hand on her butterfly-free pregnant belly and knew that everything was going to work out just fine.
©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys
Thus concludes what started out as a character bio that somehow transformed into a look inside and stroll through the life of a young lady who still will not reveal her name to me. Thank you to everyone who commented or who even left a simple “Like” along the way, as I stumbled my way to a conclusion, of sorts. Much appreciated.