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Authors: Eliza Lentzski

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BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
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“I know. I’m sorry. But not everyone’s that evolved around here.” I think about the men at Roundtree’s and the two men in front of the barbershop.

“You should have had more faith in me.”

She’s right. I shouldn’t have assumed that my best friend since preschool would suddenly shut me out of her life over something as insignificant as me being gay.

“How long are you in town for?”

I sigh and flex my fingers around my water glass. “I’m not sure. Emily … she’s a wreck. I can’t abandon her.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.”

I suck in a sharp breath. “Ok. I deserved that.”

“Sorry,” she hastily apologizes. “I’ll drop it now.”

I roll my glass between my hands. “So what have you been up to?”

“Since high school? Nearly fifteen years ago?”

A guilty smile makes its way to my mouth. “Yeah. It has been a while.”

“Well, I went to college.” She takes tentative sip of her coffee before continuing. “Graduated. Came back here. Took over the family business. Not much excitement here.”

“You’re a dentist?”

She flashes me an overly exaggerated smile. “Well, I certainly didn’t come by these pearly whites naturally.”

I stare at my untouched grilled cheese. “Did you ever think about not coming back to town after you finished school?”

“Sure. All the time. But my dad was getting ready to retire. The timing was right,” she shrugs. “I took over his clients, and last year I finished buying him out. The business is all mine now.”

“Well, congrats. Sounds like you’ve done well for yourself.”

“Depends on whom you ask,” she says, curling her lip. “Until I get married and pop out some kids, I’m nothing but a disappointment to my mom.”

I had noticed there wasn’t a giant rock on her ring finger, but I hadn’t put the pieces together until now. It’s a force of habit to check for rings and to check out fingernails, but even then I’d been deceived by more than a few women before.

“You’re doing it again.”

My head snaps up so quickly I nearly give myself whiplash. “Doing what?” I ask self-consciously.

“Waiting for me while I eat.”

I had known from a fairly young age that I wasn’t like other girls. I felt the need to protect my girl friends as if there was something that made them more fragile than myself. Julie was a prime example of that. She was a slow eater, and even though I’d finish my lunch long before her, I waited for her every day, long after the rest of our friends had left to enjoy the break before the second half of the school day.

I don’t know why I’d felt compelled to sit with her as the cafeteria emptied. I suppose I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to be eating by herself. Regardless, that’s the way it was every day from first grade through high school graduation; the two of us sitting in the same seats during lunch period while I waited for her to finish eating.

“I’m sorry.” I’d always thought of myself as chivalrous, but maybe she’d thought it was creepy.

“Don’t apologize,” she says. “I always thought it was sweet.”

My body parts shift and return to their proper places.

“Would you say I was your first crush?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Are you fishing for compliments?”

“Humor me,” she smirks.

“I don’t know, Jules,” is my honest answer. “Growing up here I had no idea being gay was even an option.”

Julie’s features look thoughtful as she sips her coffee and contemplates the diner. “Yeah. Grand Marais’s not exactly the place for sexual exploration.”

I lean forward and flash my old friend a wolfish grin. “Oh, I don’t know. Want to give it a try?” I tease.

She tosses her head back and laughs.

 

 

I find my way back to Roundtree’s Bar & Grill later than night. I’m not particularly hungry, but I’m also not ready to go home. I’m avoiding the sole reason I came back to Grand Marais, but I’m realizing now that I’ll never have the magic words to make Emily better. I keep telling people that I’m here for Emily, but in reality, we’ve barely said two words to each other since the firemen’s picnic.

 

SETTING:                                          A roadside diner in the middle                                                                       of nowhere. 

AT RISE:                                          A woman sits on a stool at the                                                                       counter. Behind the counter, a                                                                       waitress tops off coffee cups                                                                       around the U-shaped bar.

 

A friendly, familiar voice pulls me away from the pages of my notebook: “Back again?”

I manage to nod despite the urge for my eyes to linger on body parts where they don’t belong. Charlotte’s altered her uniform t-shirt so it’s rolled up her thin, muscled arms and cut into an even lower v-cut, dipping dangerously between the twin swell of her breasts. Tonight she sports an attractive shade of red lipstick. It’s new, and I discover that I like it a lot.

“I’m afraid to go back to my dad’s house and see what else Emily has dissected.”

She arches a questioning eyebrow at me.

“Long story,” I dismiss.

She wipes her hands, strong and capable from opening so many bottles, on a small towel that’s flipped over one shoulder. “You look glum,” she observes, cocking her head to the side. “Well, glummer than usual.”

“It’s nothing: family stuff.” I let out a long exhale. “I can’t remember—do you have any siblings?”

“Yeah. One. My brother Max is a few years younger than me.”

“Does he live in town?”

“No. He lives in St. Paul. Stayed there after college.”

The bar is mostly empty, but a slump-shouldered man with stringy white hair pulled back in a ponytail sits in the vacant chair beside me. He wears a thick canvas jacket too warm for the muggy summer night. When he smiles at me, I notice he’s missing a few teeth in the front.

“Buy an old man a drink?”

“Tom,” Charlotte chastises from behind the bar. “You know how I feel about that.”

He holds up his hands to retreat. “Sorry, Charley. Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Her lips purse and she fills a glass with ice and a dark soda from the soda gun. She sets the glass on the bar and slides it in front of the man. “Don’t mind Tom. He’s harmless, but he can’t resist sniffing around for a free drink.”

“Especially when pretty young ladies are buying,” he cackles.

I try to smile, but it feels like a grimace.

Charlotte notices my expression and chuckles. “I won’t be offended if you leave right now and never come back.”

“On the contrary, I was going to ask how you manage to resist all these fine specimens, night after night.”

“Willpower,” she winks.

When her back is turned away from me to fill a drink order, I allow my eyes to settle on her finely crafted backside. The denim of her cutoff shorts hugs her slight curves. She has narrow shoulders not much wider than her hips, a tapered waist, and the longest legs I’ve ever seen.
Damn, girl. Do those legs go all the way up?

“You’re working late tonight,” I observe without thinking. “Don’t you normally work first shift?”

She arches an eyebrow. “Keeping tabs on me?”

I duck my head and focus on my hands clenching the bar top. “No. Just a comment.”

I take a quick breath and look up. She’s still staring at me with a slightly amused look on her normally scowling mouth.

“I had to come in earlier to do some payroll; I like to take the late shift in the summer so I can spend the day with Amelia,” she reveals. “My parents watch her at night while I’m at work.”

“Can I buy you a beer?” I ask. I don’t know when I got brave.

She licks her lips and it looks like she’s thinking a little too hard about what it is I’m offering her. “You can buy me a pop.”

The word sounds funny coming out of her mouth. I know people around here call soda ‘pop.’ I used to be one of those people, too. I guess I really am removed from life in the upper Midwest.

“It won’t break the bank,” I tell her. “I can afford an overpriced beer.”

“I used to drink,” she says. “I don’t anymore.”

I know there’s a story, but I’m just a random, annoying customer. There’s no reason for her to elaborate.

“Do you ever drink anything other than beer?” she asks.

“I used to drink Malibu and pineapple juice when I was in college,” I admit, “but that seems a little too much like
Girls Gone Wild
now.”

“How do you feel about bourbon?”

“I don’t know,” is my honest reply.

“Join me behind the bar,” she says with a jerk of her head. “I’ll show you how to make an Old Fashioned.”

I stand from my bar stool, but hesitate from doing anything else. “Is that allowed?”

“Old Tom isn’t going to tell anyone, are you?”

The man in question pretends to lock up his mouth with an imaginary key and throw it away.

“See? It’ll be fine.”

With her encouragement, I walk behind the bar on uneasy legs, glancing toward the front door as if expecting the owner to walk through the entrance. The Roundtrees have owned the bar for as far back as I can remember; they might have even built the place.

Charlotte dips below the bar to retrieve some items. “The classic Old Fashioned is rye whisky, bitters, and sugar, maybe a splash of club soda or water to dissolve the sugar,” she recites. “We’re going to do something a little different. Your fancy hipster friends would probably be appalled, but I like to use brandy instead of whisky.”

“I don’t have hipster friends,” I protest.

“Everyone seems hipster when you live in Grand Marais,” she counters with a shrug.

A single sugar cube is dropped into a glass and she hands me a silver-colored wand that looks suspiciously like a sex toy.

“You know how to use one of these?” she asks.

“That all depends. What is it?”

“It’s a muddler, weirdo. What else would it be?”

I shrug and keep the other option to myself.

“Crush that sugar cube,” she instructs. “The bitters will help dissolve it.”

I begin my task, breaking down the sugar cube beneath the end of the sex-toy muddler. “I’ve always wondered. What are bitters?”

“I’ve heard it said before that bitters are the spices of the cocktail world. They’re basically highly concentrated alcoholic herbal flavors. In the ancient world they were used as medicine to aid in digestion. Now they basically just add subtle flavors to mixed drinks or to help balance out a particularly sweet or sour drink.”

“Wow,” I admire. “You really know your stuff.”

“Just because I didn’t go to a fancy school, and I don’t have letters like PhD or MFA after my name doesn’t mean I don’t have a working brain. In the world where I live, street smarts, hard work, and common sense will get you a lot further than a college degree.”

I’m a little stunned by her outburst. “I-I didn’t mean anything by it,” I sputter.

“I know you didn’t. I have a chip on my shoulder, that’s all.”

They’re awfully nice shoulders
, I think to myself.

She drops a dark cherry and a thin slice of orange into the bottom of the drink. “Muddle all that together.”

I drop my eyes to my task and do what I’m told. I’d let her boss me around anytime.

Her hands unexpectedly come to rest on top of mine, stopping their movement. I involuntarily pull in a sharp breath at the weight and feel of her skin. “Muddle, not massacre,” she softly chastises. “Just enough to release the juices from the fruit and the oils from the peel.”

I nod because I don’t trust my voice to not crack or waver or do something equally juvenile.

She takes the glass and muddling utensil from me. “Then you just add ice,” she says, dropping a few ice cubes into the muddled mess at the bottom of the glass, “some good brandy, maybe a splash of soda if you like it pressed.” She fills the glass to its brim and nudges it toward me. “And there you have it, the best brandy Old Fashioned in town.”

“In the whole town, eh?” I eyeball the concoction; the drink is basically pure alcohol. “How many bars are there in Grand Marais?”

“No others worth mentioning.”

“That’s some company pride right there,” I remark with a chuckle.

I bring the glass to my lips. The smell of the bourbon alone makes my nose hairs feel like they’re on fire.

I take a tentative sip while she waits expectantly.

“Well?”

I do my best not to cough when the alcohol reaches my throat. “I think I’ll stick to beer.”

 

 

The bar’s neon signs remain illuminated as Charlotte locks up for the night. It’s a warm evening, and even though the parking lot is well lit with the yellow glow of lampposts, the night sky is filled with stars. Pebble-sized gravel crunches beneath my flats as I walk Charlotte to her car. There are a few other vehicles in the parking lot besides my rental and her green Jeep—people who took a cab home rather than risk getting pulled over for drunk driving, I suppose.

“Hey, thanks for the cocktail lesson.”

“You’re very welcome,” she returns. “Now you can impress your Hollywood friends the next time you host a party.”

I shove my hands into the back pockets of my jeans. “I think it’ll take more than one drink to impress the people out there.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to come back for more lessons.”

When she reaches the driver side door, she spins on her heel to face me. We’re close—too close.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” I ask.

“Working.”

“But not until later, right?”

“Yeah,” she confirms. “Why?”

“Do you want to hang out?”

“I have a kid.”

“I didn’t forget,” I say with a smile. “I just really don’t want to hang out at the house all day with Hurricane Emily. I could use some company.”

Her lips purse in thought. “If it’s a nice day, Amelia and I will be at the beach. If it’s raining, we’ll be at the library.”

“Why don’t I text you tomorrow morning, and you can tell me where you are?” I suggest. I begin to pull my phone out of my back pocket so I can get her number.

BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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