The Request

“Don’t be ridiculous, Cynthia! Why would I do something like that?” Rhonda tried not to sound mean. She wasn’t really angry at her best friend, just incredulous at the idea she had laid out before her.
 “Because it would make me feel better. Isn’t that reason enough?” Cynthia answered, hoping she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt.
 “You are too much! I’m supposed to have sex with a woman you’re attracted to because you think you can’t.” Rhonda shook her head and laughed, though she didn’t think this was funny. “You know, you’re beginning to sound a little too male-ish for comfort! At least you’re not asking to watch.” In her exasperation, Rhonda reached down and pulled the plaid flannel blanket that had slipped to the floor back across Cynthia’s legs. Rather, Cynthia’s appendages. They couldn’t really be called legs. They did not serve the purpose legs are supposed to serve. Not anymore.
 “Actually,” Cynthia knew she was treading dangerous ground here. She plunged ahead anyway, “I do want to watch.” She kept her eyes on Rhonda’s face, expecting the explosion of a lecture on how even disabled women buy into the pseudo-eroticism of male-based sexual oppression.
 Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Cynthia closed her eyes to squeeze back the tears. Her one defense against the accident that has permanently changed her life was the ability not to cry. She had certainly done enough of that in the beginning. She had ranted and raved and sobbed hysterically for days on end. At this point, crying seemed a weak underscore to her state of mind. But it was hard to fight the tears right now. Her frustrations and hopes had bubbled to a boiling point. She came to Rhonda with her idea only after ruling out the obvious. She had dismissed the possibility of fulfilling her desires herself. That thought was much too frightening. Better to think about Rhonda having sex to the woman Cynthia had been falling in love with for the past two months. Cynthia couldn’t be rejected if she sat on the sidelines and watched.
 Rhonda surprised herself, and instead of spewing a lecture, simply shook her head and took a deep breath. She had to admit to herself, if not to Cynthia, that the idea was more than a bit tantalizing. Her feminist sensibilities fought against her curiosity and a sudden present arousal. There was also the guilt. Cynthia trusted Rhonda. Was it so bizarre a request after all? If she didn’t do it, could she face herself thinking she could help but refused? Could she face herself if she agreed? She knew if she decided not to, Cynthia would resign herself to that. Rhonda plopped herself on the couch beside Cynthia, folded her arms across her chest and stared at the Matisse print on the wall in front of her.
 Neither spoke but listened instead to the drone of the overhead planes. Cynthia rested her cheek against Rhonda’s shoulder. She was exhausted and it showed in her voice as she broke the silence, “I’ll call Maddie later and tell her I can’t make the movie tonight, but you’re still going. I’ll tell her I’m just not up to it.”
 Rhonda closed her eyes and opened them again, shaking her head. She turned to Cynthia, “Excuse me? Was a decision just made here? Did I just make a decision?”
 “C’mon Rhonda. I know you. You’ll do it.”
 “How do you know I won’t whisk Maddie away from you?”
 “Because you wouldn’t do that to me.”
 “No, I’ll just screw her for you. But I don’t have to hate it!” Rhonda smiled.  “Anyway, you know Maddie’s going to drill you about how you’re feeling and what you’re doing about it. She probably won’t even want to go if you’re not coming.” “I’ll tell her I’ll call the doctor on Monday.” Cynthia pulled herself up to a straighter sitting position. “Besides, getting the wheelchair up the theater ramp is such a pain in the ass.”
 “We’ve certainly managed before. You know Maddie won’t buy that. Especially since you’ve been talking about this movie for weeks.”
 “Yeah, well, like I said, I’ll tell her I’m not up to it. Let’s just drop it now.” Cynthia leaned forward, bending as low as she could toward the legs stretched out on the ottoman in front of her. The legs that she knew were hers only because she saw that they were attached to her torso. And because she remembered that sixteen months*an eternity*ago, they climbed, pedaled a bicycle and ran. Sometimes it was hard to separate the memories from reality. Sometimes she was still shocked when she reached down and scratched one of those lifeless thighs. She knew it was unfair, but she thought people disabled from birth were lucky. They had no memory of a former life to continually compare with their current one.
 She also had to remind herself she was lucky to have people around her who loved her enough to keep encouraging her, and to take on the daily drudgery of her care. People like her mother and her brother, Kevin. People like Rhonda. She knew Rhonda was sometimes motivated by guilt, but she was certain of her love. Rhonda had proven her loyalty over and over. Other friends had jumped ship after the accident. Once the initial sympathies, expressions of anger, the empathetic, Why you? Why someone so young? were done with, other friends had become too disturbed and uncomfortable with the continual attention and care required by the disabled. Not Rhonda. Rhonda was family, bound by some everlasting blood of the soul, if not the body. The two had watched each other’s lovers come and go over the years, had lived through each other’s heartbreaks and joys. That bond made it easy for Cynthia to assume Rhonda would comply with her wishes and not betray her. While Rhonda’s reluctance had somewhat surprised Cynthia, she didn’t let Rhonda see how surprised she was. She thought it better to just continue to assume Rhonda would go along with her.
 Having acquiesced without fully knowing it, Rhonda wouldn’t turn back. “You feeling tight? Want a back rub?” She watched Cynthia’s face grimace in the simple effort of stretching out her arms and bending at the waist.
 “No. It’s okay. That’s what I get for skipping a day of exercise. I better call Maddie now.” Cynthia dug her fists into the flowered fabric of the couch cushion and pushed herself toward the edge.
 As Rhonda automatically jumped to get the portable phone on the desk, Cynthia deadpanned, “No, don’t bother. I’ll get it.” Rhonda laughed, rolled her eyes and handed her the phone. Cynthia’s feeble attempt at humor broke the cloud of tension that had risen between them.
 While Cynthia dialed Maddie’s number, Rhonda went into the kitchen to fix their lunch though she no longer had an appetite. She opened a can tuna wondering if the brand she bought really had stopped using nets that caught dolphins. She felt guilty that she hadn’t done her political homework.
 “Christ!” She thought. “These days what don’t I feel guilty about? Guilt is such a waste of time.” She told herself that at least a thousand times. When would she finally believe it and stop torturing herself over what could not be undone? Guilt ran contrary to her otherwise logical nature. She understood cause and effect. When something happened, you dealt with it the best way you could. Spending energy on guilt made no sense. Better to spend energy on a resolution to the problem. Guilt was a wasted emotion.
 She had not been with Cynthia the day of the accident or mishap, or whatever metaphysical term there was for such an event that so drastically, instantaneously changed lives. Who could say why it was Cynthia who fell on her back against a boulder from a seemingly benign mountainside in New England? “Complete and irreversible damage to T-11, the lower part of her spinal cord,” the doctor said.
 So why was Rhonda guilty? Because she wasn’t the one in the wheelchair? Because she wasn’t there when it happened? What could she could have done? The reason for her guilt didn’t really matter. What mattered was that she could not take away the sadness that had grown and lingered in Cynthia’s eyes.
 In her guilt-trip, Rhonda had carelessly nicked her finger with the paring knife as she up green pepper. “Dammit!” She stuck her finger under the faucet.
 “That was too close for comfort,” she thought and went back to chopping, more attentively this time. She could hear Cynthia’s voice, low and soft, as she spoke with Maddie. Rhonda tried unsuccessfully to ignore the conversation from the other room..
 “Okay, we’ll go next weekend. Just have some fun tonight. Rhonda’s good company. She’s a great one for lifting your spirits. Believe me, I know!”
 “Yeah, right!” thought Rhonda. “I’ll be a real hoot tonight.”
 She came out of the kitchen just as Cynthia pushed the “off” button on the phone.
 “So?” Rhonda raised her eyebrows expectantly. In her mind she pictured the evening unfolding. She and Maddie would have dinner. She would stroke Maddie’s ego with how much Cynthia was attracted to her, and how Rhonda herself thought they would make a nice pair. She would carefully, delicately create a safe place, a trusting place, for Maddie to come to, full of her thoughts, desires, plans for Cynthia. Rhonda would subtly confess her own attraction for Maddie, convince Maddie that she deserved more than what Cynthia could give her. She would slowly seduce Maddie, showing her what only two whole people could do for each other. And, oh, Maddie needn’t be sad or feel guilty, Cynthia had her misgivings about being involved with anyone. Why did Maddie think she always broke dates, changed plans? Cynthia wanted desperately to know, once again, that intense, incredible feeling of being in love, that build-up of anticipation before the first kiss, the first touch, the first explosion of two bodies coming together in all their glorious curves and undulations. And, Cynthia was terrified of it.
 The more Rhonda thought about what she would say and do to Maddie, the more appealing this whole thing became. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more unsure she became that Cynthia should watch, or even know, the details. Rhonda shook off the awareness that she could betray Cynthia.
 Cynthia went on, “So, you’ll meet her at Jackie D’s for dinner. She said she had a bitch of a day. Her mother’s here from Arizona and she had to cart her to every shopping mall within a fifty mile radius. I know she’s disappointed I’m not coming so I told her we’ll hold off on the movie till I’m up to it.”
 She took a deep breath and continued, “Anyway, meet her at Jackie’s at seven. Wear that purple silk outfit you look so great in!” She smiled into Rhonda’s blue-violet eyes. A manipulative smile perhaps, but still, she knew the smile would get to Rhonda. She noticed something unsettling on Rhonda’s face and wondered if she was having second thoughts.
 “Right.” Rhonda turned and went back to the kitchen to finish the sandwiches. Just like Cynthia to orchestrate a titillating event, even from her wheelchair.
 Lunch in hand, Rhonda set up a TV tray table next to Cynthia and asked, “Want a pill? You should probably take it now rather than wait till tonight. What time is Tina coming?”
 “Around four. I’ll take it then,” Cynthia said. She was hesitant to medicate herself without someone around, just in case something happened.
 Tina, the visiting nurse, came every other evening and loved nothing more than to fuss over Cynthia. Though she wasn’t too hungry right now, she would rather force something down than have Tina fret about her eating habits.
 After a few of bites, Cynthia put the sandwich back on her plate and leaned into the couch with a sigh. Earlier in the week, she had looked forward to seeing Maddie. But as the days passed and she thought of looking across at Maddie’s inquisitive green eyes, trying to read pity in them or curiosity for the bizarre, the more frightened she became. Frightened of starting something she wasn’t at all sure she could finish.
 One of the hardest things for her to accept with her paralysis was the fact that making love would be very different. That is, if she ever got the courage to get involved with someone at all. Right now she couldn’t face the possibility of rejection. Yet neither could she deny the hunger that welled up in her, threatening to burst if she did not fulfill it. The doctor and her therapist told her she would eventually begin to think about sexual urges. The mind doesn’t shut down just because you can’t feel anything between your legs. That was the torture of it.
 Cynthia would almost rather not have the memories of what sex had been like before. She and her partner, Serena, had had a satisfying sex life. They also had a lot of affection, fun and emotional intimacy together. But three months after the accident, when Cynthia was still not sure if she had the will to keep living, Serena left. She said she couldn’t deal with Cynthia’s depression. Though Cynthia never spoke of it to anyone, not even Rhonda, she thought Serena really couldn’t deal with having a “crip” for a partner.
 Her therapists assured her there were support groups. Lots of people in her condition went through this. It was a normal part of recovery. Spouses and partners had to learn to deal with new limits along with the patient, her doctors told her. It’s possible to have fulfilling sex with a partner who’s willing to take some extra time, make the extra effort to say words that will make you think you really do feel like you’re being touched, stroked, brought to climax. But it was all so… medical. What about the ecstasy of wrapping your legs firmly around your lover’s back, of rolling around on the floor, first one on top, then the other, kneeling with your head between her legs? No words could make that seem like a reality.
 Cynthia couldn’t bear, not just yet anyway, explaining to a lover what she must do in order for her to think she was having an orgasm. It just seemed to take all the spontaneity out of it. Besides, this was assuming she could even find a woman who would want to go to bed with her. Then she met Maddie.
 Maddie was, well, intoxicating. Cynthia was drawn to her from the moment she saw her brilliant green eyes in Our Piece Of The Pie, the local women’s bookstore. Cynthia was there with Shannon and Kate, two new friends she had met since the accident, and who frequently took her out for rides, movies, or poetry readings. They were at the bookstore for a poetry reading the night she met Maddie.
 The poet was from Arkansas. Her poetry was sassy and down-home and made Cynthia laugh, a rare occurrence these days. Cynthia had noticed a petite woman in green silk sitting in the corner. Her long, thick hair framed a narrow, cinnamon-brown face She laughed out loud at the same lines as Cynthia. Her smile lit up her whole face with a splash of white teeth against her skin. Then Cynthia met her eyes. Deep green eyes that seemed to shine from some luminescence within. Cynthia caught her breath as those eyes laughed right at her, the dark slender eyebrows raised in appreciation of the poet. Cynthia smiled back in agreement. Her heart stayed in her mouth for the rest of the reading.
 Afterwards, Cynthia wheeled herself over to a rack of books, out of the way as others milled around the poet. As she mindlessly leafed through the latest issue of Common Lives Lesbian Lives, she thought of her former self, that other Cynthia who would have thought nothing of sidling up to those shimmering eyes and striking up a conversation. Cynthia knew from a former arrogance that her own long-lashed brown eyes were hard to resist when combined with her enigmatic smile and a slight tilt of her head. That other Cynthia would have walked out into the cool night air arm in arm with the owner of those brilliant eyes. Well, maybe.
 “God, girl, you weren’t that irresistible!” She laughed out loud at herself for puffing up her fantasy with exaggerated memory.
 “Find something funnier than the poet? She was pretty funny.” The voice was close and warm and caused Cynthia to drop Common Lives between the wheel of the chair and the seat. She bent to retrieve it, then looked up to find iridescent green smiling down at her.
 “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” That white flash again. “So, you hiding, or didn’t you care for the Arkansas celebrity?”
 Cynthia knew if she had any feeling below the waist, she would be throbbing by now. She attempted a laugh, “No, it’s okay. I mean, I like her a lot, actually. Just, uh… I just didn’t want to get in the way, you know, there’s not much room in here.” Cynthia pulled herself up so she didn’t slump so much in the chair. She did her best to not look like she was trying to fade into the books behind her.
 “Well, hey, how’d you like an autographed book? I’m going over as soon as the groupies clear away.” The voice had a slight drawl, not really Southern; it sounded more like the Arkansas poet, but the accent was less heavy.
 “Oh, I don’t think so. No, wait, that would be great! Let me give you some money,” Cynthia wasn’t sure why she changed her mind so abruptly, it wasn’t like her and only happened when some deep sense led her in an opposite direction from what she had been following. She had felt so nervous, part of her wanted to just roll away into the music aisle on the other side of the room. Or better yet, right out the door: a blonde-topped two wheel contraption fleeing into the night. But that deeper part of her took over and accepted the offer.
 While she fumbled in her fanny pack for money, the woman turned, her words flying across a delicate shoulder along with her dark hair, “Later for that. Be right back.”
 It was almost fifteen minutes before the woman came back. Cynthia knew this because she watched each digit change on her Ironman watch. (She often thought of how ironic it was to wear an Ironman. She only humored Rhonda’s idea of entering wheelchair races.)
 Once again her nerves were stretched to snapping when the voice with the silky lilt caught her by surprise. Cynthia’s jump was obvious.
 “Looks like I’m making a habit of scaring you! God, you’d think these women never heard a good poet the way they’re fussing over her and all! By the way, I’m Maddie.” 
 Cynthia’s smile returned as she looked directly into eyes that shone with laughter. Eyes that made Cynthia feel out of breath, yet somehow calm. She took one of the slim volumes the other woman held toward her.
 “Thanks for getting this. My name’s Cynthia.” She looked over at a handful of women still surrounding the poet. “I think people just appreciate somebody with the courage to spill their insides to a couple dozen others in one sitting.”
 “It does take guts, I guess. They say fear of public speaking is the number one fear in the nation! Not to mention publicly airing your dirty laundry, even if it is funny!” Maddie leaned against the book rack and asked, “You here with anyone?”
 Cynthia liked that Maddie asked her. The woman hadn’t made the common assumption that someone in a wheelchair had to be with a caretaker.
 “Actually, I’m with two friends. Looks like they’re buying books, too.” She noticed Shannon in line at the register.
 “Well, look, can we trade numbers? Maybe we could do cappuccino or something. Maybe another reading somewhere?” Maddie held Cynthia’s eyes steady as she spoke. She certainly seemed to be making a point of letting Cynthia know she was not afraid, or uncomfortable about being around her. In the back of her mind, Cynthia remembered Rhonda telling her, more than once, Sweetie, you have no idea how gorgeous you are! Cynthia blushed involuntarily, hoping Maddie wouldn’t notice. She did.
 “What? Did I say something wrong?” Maddie grinned wide. “You don’t have to call me. I’d like it if you did, though.”
 Cynthia looked away quickly and began fumbling again in her fanny pack, this time for a pen. She had to force her heart to beat slower, though by now, her face was calm and didn’t belie the flood of feeling rushing through her. She quickly wrote her number on a post-it from her pack and handed the number and the post-it pad to Maddie. Maddie wrote her own number on the small pad and handed it back.
 She spoke again, “Okay. So… we’re set then. I gotta run. I’ll talk to you real soon, Cynthia.” She drew out the thia like she was spreading honey across soft bread.
 Cynthia barely got a good-bye out before Maddie was across the room and out the wooden framed door. Later, at Jackie D.’s, over coffee with Shannon and Kate, she mostly talked about the poet. She didn’t mentioned the intoxicating woman in green.
 Cynthia did find the courage to call Maddie, and for the next two months, the women met as frequently as they could. Cynthia learned Maddie was from Flagstaff and had come east to New York City after college and stayed for a few years. She landed in Breyerville, New Jersey (Cynthia’s hometown) where she accepted a position as a women’s history researcher at Breyer State University. Cynthia was amazed their paths had not crossed before in the small town.
 She was also amazed at the ease with which Maddie fell into the necessary routines that accompany frequent outings with a paraplegic. There was the loading and unloading of the wheelchair; seeking out only those places that were chair accessible, or making sure a bathroom was within wheeling distance. Maddie’s research skills came in handy. Fortunately, because of the university, all campus buildings and practically all of the restaurants, even the movie theater, were accessible. Still, Cynthia thought, it did not make for a very romantic ambiance. But Maddie never flinched. Once, on a trip to Manhattan to hear Lucie Blue Tremblay, Maddie, without complaint or reproach, turned the car around in Secaucus and drove all the back to Breyerville because Cynthia forgot her medication.
 Rhonda teased Cynthia about how finally she got a break from wheeling her around, but she also expressed how glad she was Cynthia had met someone. Certainly she had not seen Cynthia smile and glow so much since the accident.
 Now, two months later, Cynthia was close to bursting with sexual frustration and feelings of inadequacy. She was too uncomfortable to speak with Maddie about it and hoped things might naturally take their course. But so far, whether from shyness, or (this was Cynthia’s worst fear) she wasn’t interested in Cynthia sexually after all, Maddie gave no indication about her feelings. She did say she liked Cynthia very much and was glad to be part of her life, but that seemed too vague for Cynthia to base anything on.
 Rhonda urged her to talk about it with Maddie. Cynthia wasn’t ready. But she did begin to think more often about how the mind could create what the body could not. That’s when she thought of her request. If Cynthia could see it, the lovemaking, happening…. Even though her whole body couldn’t respond, her mind would have something real to hold onto.
 Cynthia didn’t consider feelings of jealousy. The basic need to translate the desire into reality outweighed something as petty as jealousy. It wasn’t enough to fantasize, she wanted something real to think about. The thought of Rhonda and Maddie together was not at all displeasing to Cynthia. She pushed away thoughts of what might happen if Maddie fell in love with Rhonda, or vice versa. She would just have to risk that. Cynthia couldn’t help thinking that if she had their physical reality, she could transform it into her own, like the “doctrine of substitution” Charles Williams wrote about. Only sexual.
 Cynthia tried to downplay her feelings, telling herself sex was not everything. No, it wasn’t everything, but by god, she realized, it was right up there. And she really believed she was making the least frightening decision about it. Even at the risk of losing Maddie and damaging her friendship with Rhonda.
 She closed her eyes and imagined Rhonda and Maddie standing close, (as she could not do) one hand softly caressing the other’s face as they slowly moved into each other’s arms. Where would they go? Rhonda’s sunny, contemporary apartment? Or Maddie’s antique-filled rooms in the Squire Victorian on campus? And how would she manage to be there, unnoticed?
 Cynthia wondered constantly what it would be like to be the invisible voyeur, the absent thread of desire. She would let Rhonda figure out the details. She was as unsure as Rhonda that Maddie would agree to any sexual encounterCynthia was banking on Rhonda’s sensuality and charisma.
 Her reverie was interrupted by Rhonda’s voice. “Hey, where are you? I gotta go or I’ll never be ready on time.” Rhonda knew by Cynthia’s face she was thinking of Maddie.
 “Listen, Darlin’, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it right. That means no torturing yourself, okay?” Rhonda brushed the damp blonde hair from Cynthia’s forehead and lightly kissed her there.
 Cynthia looked up as Rhonda began to gather the lunches dishes. “Leave it, Rhon. Tina can do it. It’ll keep her from worrying over me for a bit.” Cynthia really did like the nurse, she just got weary of the attention lavished on her. Tina’s compassion as a health-care giver tended to go a little overboard.
 “I’ll just get the tables out of your way. How ‘bout I stop by on my way to Jackie D.’s?”
 “I’d like that, but you don’t have to. Call me tomorrow.”
 “Ha! Like you’re going to be able to wait till tomorrow! But I don’t want to wake you if I get in late.” Rhonda hoped Cynthia did not sense her growing excitement.
 “Just call me before ten-thirty in the morning, okay? We won’t have much of a chance to talk after that. Mom’s stopping in for breakfast, and Kevin’s coming to finish the bedroom door to the deck.”
 Rhonda wished Cynthia’s mother and Kevin would be there from dawn till dusk. She wanted time tomorrow to sort things out. Especially since she wasn’t sure what the night would bring. And she wasn’t yet sure how much, or how little, she really wanted to convey to Cynthia. Maybe nothing would happen tonight and she wouldn’t have to worry about it.
 She picked up her jacket from a chair by the window, bent down to kiss Cynthia’s cheek, and left. Outside, a cool June breeze swept against her face as she walked out the front door and down the wooden ramp Kevin had built.
 On the drive home, she forced herself to think about something besides Maddie. She focused on her latest project, an essay on the connection between quantum physics and the collective mind. She was home before she knew it.
 By six o’clock, frustrated at her attempt to make her unruly tresses look just right, Rhonda pointed her brush at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “You are high maintenance,” she accused the mass of wild, dark waves framing her face. She tossed the brush on the counter and went into the bedroom to face the drudgery of picking out an outfit to wear. Like the other two rooms of her apartment, the bedroom faced east, perfect for the myriad of plants situated throughout.
 She pushed her way past a small palm to her closet. Her home was a contradiction, much like her personality. Plants and flowers vied for space among white and black high-tech furnishings, computer and stereo equipment. The overall effect was modern jungle-lab.
 She scanned the clothes in her closet, agreeing at last with Cynthia that the purple silk was the best choice. She decided it could use pressing and quickly set up the ironing board, glancing at the clock.
 By the time she met Maddie in front of Jackie D.’s, she was a purple bundle of static energy. “So, Mad, just us.” She leaned in to give Maddie what she hoped did not seem a perfunctory hug.
 “Hi. You look gorgeous! That color does amazing things to your eyes.” Maddie raised her brow approvingly. She felt comfortable enough with Rhonda to give her a compliment. And she had always thought Rhonda attractive. She seemed oblivious, however, to her own striking image. But, Rhonda took in every detail: gleaming brown skin against cream-colored linen, reigned over by those emerald pools, and thought Maddie more beautiful than ever.
 Rhonda forced her voice steady, “Thanks. You, uh, you look great yourself.” She turned away and eyed the menu board on the sidewalk. “Cynthia made me promise to order the grilled salmon so I guess you’re stuck with bouillabaisse!” Rhonda knew of Maddie and Cynthia’s vie for who got Jackie’s famous salmon. Heaven forbid they both got it. That wouldn’t allow for a different dish to taste.
 “No way! I get the salmon! You tell Cynthia you just had to have ginger-lime shrimp scampi!”
 “Okay, let’s get a table or we may not eat at all.” In a movement she hoped seemed natural, Rhonda placed her hand at the small of Maddie’s back and gently pushed her toward the door where others were already putting their names on the waiting list.
 Maddie spotted two empty seats at the bar and motioned for Rhonda to follow. Rhonda made her way through people standing, laughing, gesticulating with drinks in hand. She said hello to a few familiar faces, hoping none of her friends would be here tonight. She didn’t want distractions.
 “Hi, Luvs. What’ll it be?” Chuck, the bartender, looked from one face to the other as they took their seats.
 “Hi, Chuck. Margarita for me.” Maddie pushed at an empty, dirty glass in front of her. Chuck noticed and quickly took it away. He looked at Rhonda expectantly, “What’s for you, Babe, red wine?”
 Rhonda didn’t mind the of endearment in the least. She shot back, “Right, Hon. Give me your best Bordeaux.”
 “Oooh, did we have a hard day at the think tank?” Chuck grinned and winked at Maddie. He made a habit of teasing Rhonda about her work as an academician. “You just stay in school so you can see the new freshwomen every year,” he said.
 “Just get me the wine, smart ass!” Rhonda laughed.
 “Hey, where’s Cynthia? I’ll try to get the big corner table for you if she’s coming,” Chuck said as he placed a glass of Bordeaux in front of Rhonda and a Margarita on the rocks in front of Maddie.
 “She wasn’t up to coming out tonight. Next week.” Rhonda hoped the nervousness she felt didn’t come through her voice.
 “Yeah, she wigged out on us. But I’ll get her back!” Maddie threw in.
 “So, how’s it going with you two?” Chuck spoke to Maddie with the familiarity he had perfected with his customers. “Do I hear wedding bells?” His eyebrows arched over gray eyes as his lips turned up in a sensual smile. Rhonda stopped herself from spitting her wine all over him as she choked.
 A look of discomfort passed Maddie’s face, but the sensuality in her voice matched Chuck’s smile, “That’s for us to know and you to torture yourself over, Dear Boy!”
 Just then Maddie’s name was called. They both tipped their glasses to Chuck and slipped off the barstools. “Later, Beefcake,” Rhonda flung at him.
 They took their seats at a table near the large plate glass window that looked out over white oaks on the edge of the campus.
 They ordered quickly, neither choosing the salmon after all, then handed their menus to the waiter.
 “Cynthia said you had a bad day. Family visit, huh?” Rhonda started the conversation.
 “Yeah. I adore my mother, but she is a piece of work. She saves all her money to shop here just so she can go back to Arizona and brag about her New York wardrobe. Her friends never know she shops in malls in New Jersey!”
 Rhonda laughed, momentarily thinking of her own mother and how she missed her since her death two years ago. She had to remind herself she actually handled life pretty well considering her mother’s sudden death from a heart attack, and Cynthia’s accident. She blinked memories away and came back to Maddie’s voice.
 “So anyway, I wasn’t about to go visit my cousins this trip. Last time I got stuck cleaning paella pots till dawn. You’d think those people never eat, they way they cook when company comes!” Maddie stirred the ice cubes in her drink.
 Rhonda said, knowing it was out of context, “So how’d you get the name Maddie?” She wanted to form something between them that wasn’t linked only by Cynthia.
 “My name?” Maddie laughed as if it was a strange question, but answered it with ease. “Mom named me Madison because she went there once on a trip to Wisconsin. She said Madison reminded her of Austin, Texas. That’s where her family moved to when they left Mexico.”
 “So why didn’t she just name you Austin?” Rhonda, typically, questioned the rationale.
 “Guess she didn’t want people calling me Aussie!”
 “Can’t argue with that!” Rhonda smiled into Maddie’s green eyes, feeling more comfortable now, relaxed by the wine. She watched Maddie’s mouth close over the rim of her glass and felt a rush of warmth climb up her throat. “No regrets, no guilt,” she thought to herself.
 She quickly said aloud, “So, how are things with you and Cynthia?” She knew it was dangerous to probe, but she thought it might be a good way to work into the situation.
 Maddie laughed and shook her head. Her eyes pierced the deep violet of Rhonda’s. “Look, I know you’re probably very protective of Cynthia. I don’t blame you. I know you’re her best friend, and you’ve been through it all with her. But you don’t have to worry. I have no intention of hurting Cynthia. I care about her very much.”
 Rhonda noticed she didn’t say love. She quickly said, “Oh, no. I mean, that’s not what I meant!” She realized for the first time that Maddie had probably been waiting for a demand of intentions concerning Cynthia. Rhonda had been so caught up in the agreement she had made, she had given no thought as to what Maddie might wonder about having dinner without Cynthia.
 She decided to let Maddie think what she might and continued, “You know, Cynthia’s family to me. It’s not like it’s my job to tell her how to run her life, but, of course, I’m concerned about her.
 “The truth is, I haven’t seen Cynthia smile or go out so much since she’s met you.” Rhonda took a deep breath and another sip of wine. “I wish you could have known her before the accident. She was…. She was dynamic.”
 “I think she still is.” Maddie spoke quietly, not exactly sure what  Rhonda was trying to say.
 “Well, yeah, I mean, I guess that’s how it would appear to you. You get to see the result of how you affect her. Do you realize that?”
 “What do you mean? I might ask if Cynthia realizes how she affects me.” Maddie was definitely one to be reckoned with.
 Suddenly, Rhonda realized she didn’t really want to know how Maddie felt about Cynthia. She thought it wouldn’t matter anyway in the long run. She dismissed the possibilities of the “effect” of Cynthia on Maddie, and started to change the subject. Just then the waiter brought their salads. Relieved, Rhonda sat quietly, watching Maddie take a bite.
 “Are you going to eat or just stare at me all night?” Maddie reached over and touched Rhonda’s knuckles, tightly gripping the stem of her empty wine glass.
 “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was staring. You know, you are… beautiful. I’m glad Cynthia met you.” Rhonda knew she sounded not only lame, but a bit sexist. As if the only reason Maddie was good for Cynthia was because she was an attractive woman. She hoped Maddie was astute enough to catch the fact that the compliment reflected Rhonda’s own feelings.
 Maddie set her fork down and again looked at Rhonda with her piercing gaze. There was no bitterness in her voice as she said, “Why? Because you’re afraid Cynthia will end up a lonely paraplegic? Or maybe you thought someone physically whole couldn’t possibly be attracted to a cripple?”
 Maddie’s directness stunned Rhonda. “No! No. Oh. Shit.” Rhonda was not about to attempt an explanation of her own feelings yet. Nor would she let Maddie know that she was right, in a way. It was one of Rhonda’s fears, that Cynthia would remain lonely for the rest of her life, struggling with her desires and her limitations. But she was getting sidetracked. Of course, Maddie had no way of knowing what was really happening. Rhonda somehow had to get off, and stay off, the subject of Cynthia.
 Their main courses came and they ate in a somewhat awkward silence for a while. When they did talk, it was small: classes, latest projects. When the waiter asked if they’d like desert, they both said no. Maddie was about to ask for coffee, but Rhonda broke in with, “How about coffee at my place? There’s still stuff I’d like to talk about.” Rhonda wanted a reason leave Jackie’s. She noticed the late crowd coming in. Soon, the live band would start and it would be impossible to have a decent conversation. “Where it’s quieter, you know?”
 Maddie raised her eyebrows, but said only, “Okay.” They split the check and walked outside.
 “Where’re you parked?” Rhonda asked.
 “Oh, I walked. I’m only two blocks from here.” She motioned with her head toward the west end of the street.
 “Oh, right. Well, I can drive you back later.” Rhonda thought about what might happen in the next couple of hours. She did not intend to drive Maddie back. The thought of how to proceed once she got home made her palms damp. What the hell was she doing, anyway? She pushed her anxiety away and reached out to take Maddie’s arm.
 Maddie’s white smile spread across her brown skin. “Look, why don’t we just go to my place? I’ve got de-caf I can put on. I may even have some pastries.”
 Rhonda wasn’t sure she if she should feel disappointment or relief. She returned the smile and said, “Great.” The purple silk began to stick to her skin.
 They started the two block walk down Breyer Avenue, passing groups of students coming out of the science building and carloads of them driving much too fast down the street.
 “God, it never changes does it? I mean every year there’s a new bunch of yahoos ! Smart-asses that put other people in danger just to have fun.” Rhonda said hotly as a group of boys in a red Jeep sped in and out of the four-lane street, causing other cars to swerve to the side to keep from getting hit.
 Maddie touched Rhonda’s shoulder and said, “C’mon, here’s the Squire.”
 They stepped off the concrete sidewalk and onto the brick path of the Squire Victorian. The restored period house was rented only to graduate students or researchers. Every carved rail and gingerbread curve was perfectly hand hewn, right up to the turret at the top. As they walked up the painted wooden steps Rhonda noticed there was no ramp. “How’d you get Cynthia up here?”
 “The ramp’s on the side,” Maddie nodded toward the right of the circular porch.
 Maddie’s apartment was on the first floor, one of only three with a kitchen. Rhonda had never been in the Squire before and was glad for the chance to get inside one of her favorite buildings in town. She walked across the gleaming hardwood floor of the foyer into a large living room with high windows covered in delicate cream-colored lace.  While Maddie went to the kitchen to start coffee, Rhonda nosed through the bookshelves against one wall, then ran her fingers appreciatively over the smooth mahogany of the antique desk by the window. There was an Old World charm to the room. The antiques were classy, not stuffy. She wondered what the bedroom held.
 Her heart began to beat harder, and when Maddie came back into the room holding out a delicate Wedgwood cup and saucer, her hands shook too much to take it.
 “You okay? My research books scare you?” Maddie grinned and set the cup and saucer on the verdigris coffee table.
 “I’m fine. Sorry.” Rhonda forced herself calm and sat on the edge of the burgundy and cream striped sofa. She couldn’t believe she was so nervous. It occurred to her that Cynthia had not entered her mind since they left the restaurant. She struggled to keep away a vision of Cynthia in her wheelchair, watching with a smile on her face.
 Maddie lowered her self onto the sofa next to Rhonda. She slipped off her jacket, revealing silken brown arms. She kicked off her tan flats and leaned back. Her dark hair spilled across her shoulders and onto the back of the sofa. Her movements seemed tantalizingly deliberate.
 She turned her head toward Rhonda. “So. You had something else you wanted to talk about.”
 Rhonda felt as if she would choke. A flood of emotions swept over her. Loyalty for Cynthia; anger at herself for being here in the first place; and above all, the overwhelming need to touch Maddie.
 She thought of Cynthia, in bed reading by now or, hopefully, sleeping. Rhonda knew that if she was awake, she would be thinking about what they were doing. She would be trusting that Rhonda was making plans to arrange the next step. The thoughts crashed together in Rhonda’s head like waves out of control. Surely, Maddie would guess the pictures in her mind.
 Maddie’s voice broke the silence. “Rhonda, what’s going on? You look a little pale.” She touched Rhonda’s silk-clad thigh. Rhonda jumped.
 “Nothing. I, I was just thinking….” Her voice trailed off. Maybe she was in way over her head. Even her left brain wasn’t helping her out of this.
 “You were just thinking about Cynthia. Right?” Maddie’s directness once again caught Rhonda off guard.
 Rhonda took a deep breath. “I guess I was.” She faced Maddie and gave her a resigned smile. There seemed no way of stopping herself now, even if she wanted to. She took Maddie’s hand in hers. She thought Maddie stiffened slightly, but it could have been her own tightness she felt.
 “You are really lovely. And, I’m getting very distracted by it.” Rhonda bit her lower lip, teeth flashing against her cherry tinted mouth.
 Maddie sat silently, listening to Rhonda verbalize what she already knew.
 Rhonda spoke again, her voice deeper than usual. The sound of it vibrated through Maddie’s fingertips, up her arm.
 “Maddie, listen. Cynthia, Cynthia is not ready for a relationship. Not one that involves sex. Not yet. She’s terrified about that. You… I mean, I think there’s a firecracker beneath you.” She drew Maddie toward her.
 “You know Cynthia can’t do this.” Rhonda stood up, bringing Maddie with her. She moved away from the window, toward the golden oak dining table that stood opposite the sofa. She pushed away papers and books and lifted Maddie onto the table. Before Maddie could speak, Rhonda gently pushed her back with one hand and unbuttoned the linen shirt with her other. Maddie’s arms encircled her neck. Rhonda smiled as she leaned over and buried her face in the soft breasts.
 Maddie’s mouth felt hot as her lips moved against Rhonda’s face. It took Rhonda a full minute to realize Maddie was saying something, not simply moaning. Maddie spoke again into Rhonda’s ear.
 “What?” Rhonda brought her face up and stared at Maddie. She felt hot and confused and more than a little embarrassed. She turned away and walked to the window. Maddie slid off the table and went to her. She lightly touched Rhonda’s face and turned it toward her. Rhonda flinched, the sting of rejection still buzzing in her ears. But she forced herself to look at Maddie and sucked in her breath. “I… I better go. I’m really sorry.” She pulled Maddie’s hand away from her face, aching to leave it there.
 Maddie spoke, her voice soft, but firm, “Rhonda, hey, I’m sorry, too. You know?” There was slight tinge of regret in the words, no comfort to Rhonda. She picked up her purse and headed for the door. Maddie, close behind, said, “You gave me a great idea. Thank you.”
 “Terrific. Have fun.” Rhonda opened the door and stepped into the hall. She started toward the main entrance, then turned and came back toward Maddie’s door. She didn’t want to be angry at Maddie. She took her own risk and lost. That was all. She’d have to deal with it. So would Cynthia.
 She reached the doorway where Maddie still stood. Rhonda fumbled in her purse, pulled something out and pressed it into Maddie’s hand. “You’ll need this.”
 Maddie opened her palm and stared at the brass key. When she looked up, a blur of purple was halfway out the beveled glass door. She called after her, “You’re a good friend, you know that?” But Rhonda was already down the porch steps.
 As she stepped onto the brick walk, Rhonda breathed in the night air. She quickly walked the two blocks back to her car. It was still early, maybe she’d stop in at Jackie D.’s and see who was around. Or maybe she would just walk for a while. She was not up to going home alone. Her shoulders ached, her chest burned. She tried to sort out her jumbled feelings and thoughts. How could she be so stupid to think it wouldn’t matter if Maddie was in love with Cynthia? She realized she had simply chosen to believe it wouldn’t matter. She and Cynthia had both chosen to believe that, given the opportunity, Maddie would want to make love with her.
 She unlocked her car door and got behind the wheel. She sat staring at oncoming cars for several minutes before she pulled out and drove away from Jackie D.’s.

 Cynthia glanced at the clock among the array of bottles, books and a half-filled water glass on her bedside table. Almost eleven. She reached over to switch off the lamp and let the darkness fall over her. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on the book laying open on her stomach, so she may as well try to sleep. She had been without twenty-four hour care for a couple of months now, but still wasn’t quite used to being in the house aloneno nurse, no mom, no Rhonda. Her upper body had become strong enough from physical therapy so that she could lower herself into her wheelchair and get to the bathroom if she needed. But sometimes she just missed the company of someone else breathing nearby in the night. Tonight, especially. It made sense that she would be anxious and restless, her mind racing a mile a minute, thinking about Rhonda and Maddie. She felt sure, though, she had made the right decision. Hadn’t she?
 The sharp ring of the phone startled her. The book thunked onto the floor. Her heart started to pound as she reached for the lamp, then the portable receiver.
 She fumbled with the button, “Hello?”
 “Hi, Baby. You sleeping?”
 Cynthia’s breasts tingled at the silky voice on the other end of the phone. If she could, she would have sat bolt upright, swung her legs over the bed and jumped out of it. Instead, she pulled herself up as best she could.
 “Maddie! Where are you?”
 “I’m home right now. Did I wake you?”
 There was confusion in Cynthia’s voice, “Actually, no. I’ve been wide awake for hours.”
 “Good. Stay that way. I’m on my over.”
 “Wait! What… ?” Cynthia was even more confused, sensing the excited urgency in Maddie’s voice.
 “Rhonda gave me her key. Just don’t go anywhere till I get there. I’m going to take you somewhere you’ve never been.” Maddie laughed softly and hung up the phone.
 Cynthia clicked off the talk button and lay back against her pillows. Her heart pounded harder, her breasts throbbed.
 She stared out the open window and wondered if Rhonda had gone home or to Jackie D.’s. She guessed the latter. She smiled. Predictable Rhonda. Her politics must have gotten the better of her.
 The night air was filled with sounds of tree frogs and the scent of the climbing roses alongside the deck. Cynthia let her breath out slowly. She wasn’t sure why, but she felt lighter. The weight of the night’s thoughts, speculations, fears, were gone, replaced by a small, but definitely growing, hope.

THE END

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