Read Improvisation Online

Authors: Karis Walsh

Improvisation (6 page)

BOOK: Improvisation

“Oh, your
. I thought maybe you hired a bodyguard for the occasion,” Tina said, nodding at Chloe. “I take it you didn’t feel safe with me even with Peter here to protect your virtue.”

Jan stood still, unable to think of a retort. Had Tina read her mind? Did she somehow know about Jan’s fantasy of meeting like this and letting herself be seduced?

“What Tina meant to say is please, have a seat. And she’d like to introduce her cousin, Peter,” Peter said, with a frown in Tina’s direction. She stuck her tongue out at him, but he ignored her and stood up, pulling out a chair for Chloe. “What can I get you to drink?”

“I like red wine,” Chloe said. “Do they have anything from the Spokane Valley?”

“They serve a nice Latah Creek merlot. It’s one of my personal favorites,” Peter said.

“Then I’m sure I’ll love it.”

“Excellent. I’ll have the same. I try to support local producers whenever possible.”

“Drink local, and drink often,” Chloe said. She and Peter laughed at the joke.

“I’ll have a scotch and soda,” Jan said.

“Okay,” Peter said briefly. He went to the bar, leaving Chloe staring after him like a love-struck teenager. Jan rolled her eyes at Tina.

“Do you think he even heard me?” she asked.

“He’s cute,” Chloe said at the same time. “So, is he single?” she asked Tina.

“I doubt it,” Tina said in Jan’s direction. “And I think so, but I really don’t keep up on his love life,” she said to Chloe.

“Really? Pickup lines like those, and he’s
?” Jan muttered. “Hard to believe.”

“No shit,” Tina said. She leaned toward Jan. “Hey, baby, maybe we should order an appetizer,” she spoke in an uncanny imitation of her cousin’s voice. “They have nachos—my personal favorite.”

“I’m sure I’ll love anything you love,” Jan answered, matching the seductive tone of Tina’s voice. “And I’ve heard the cheese is locally sourced.”

“Ooh, that is so hot,” Tina said before she broke into laughter. Jan joined in, surprised by this teasing side of Tina. Jan had only been in the same room with her two times, but already she could see something so unrestrained about Tina, whether she was flirting or irritated or joking. Every expression played across her face, as if uncensored. Jan could never let herself be so open. And she definitely shouldn’t find the trait so appealing.

Chloe crossed her arms over her chest while they laughed. “Shut up, both of you, or I’ll…I’ll call your friend Brooke.”

“And tell her what?” Tina asked, looking unconcerned as she polished off her drink.

“I’ll tell her I definitely saw a spark between the two of you, and I think you’ll fall in love if she just pushes you together more.”

Jan stopped laughing as quickly as Tina did. “You wouldn’t dare,” she said to Chloe. She realized she sounded horrified by the suggestion, and she turned to Tina. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Tina said with a casual shrug. She looked slowly up and down Jan’s body. “You’re not exactly my type, either.”

Jan knew she shouldn’t care if Tina didn’t want her. Shouldn’t care if Tina’s gaze seemed to take in her body and her personality, and find both of them lacking. But the rejection hurt more than she expected, and she spoke without thinking. “So what
your type? Someone with no morals and a couple hours to spare?”

“Sure beats uptight and frigid.”

Peter returned with four glasses precariously balanced in his hands. “Here we are,” he said. “Tina, I got you another drink while I was…Is something wrong?”

“Of course not,” Chloe said, reaching out to help him with the glasses. “We were just talking about work. I was telling Tina that I teach French at Spokane Heights.”

“Really? I spent a semester in Paris when I was in college. Let me see if I can remember anything…”

The two of them started chatting in French, obviously unconcerned about Jan’s and Tina’s inability to follow the conversation. Jan listened to Peter’s stilted phrases and Chloe’s laughter-laced corrections. She had invited Chloe to help her keep the conversation with Tina casual, not to distract the only other neutral person at the table. She was frustrated. She continued to make plans, but other people seemed inclined to disregard them.

“I think we lost them,” Tina said with a sigh, leaning back in her chair and taking a sip of her fresh drink.

“Seems that way,” Jan said. She ran the tip of her finger over her glass, drawing a tessellation of triangles in the condensation. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m just not looking for a relationship right now, and Brooke can be, well, persistent.”

Mesmerized, Tina watched Jan’s finger trace a series of shapes. “Obsessive,” she suggested.

“Crazy,” Jan added with a small grin. “Especially if she thinks there’s a chance we’re going to get along. We seem so different.”

“And we barely made it five minutes before we were insulting each other,” Tina said. She stared blankly at the table behind Jan, anything to keep from gawking at her. And the way her fingertip kept moving slowly over her wet glass.

Jan glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Tina with raised eyebrows. “Go ahead and talk to them if you want. I don’t want to cramp your style.”

“What?” Tina asked, confused until she realized she had been staring at a table full of women wearing business outfits and name tags. Most likely at the hotel for a convention. On a typical day, she would already have singled out her choice and would be about to make her move. But tonight she felt too tired to stage a seduction scene. “Don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively, turning her attention back to Jan and struggling to find a pleasant, or at least neutral, topic. “Do you like teaching?”

“I love it. The Heights is a wonderful school—very progressive, and the kids are great.”

“I might be more convinced if you weren’t frowning so hard,” Tina joked, trying to coax Jan back into the playful mood she had been in earlier. When her laughter had instantaneously erased the seriousness of her expression. Jan looked like she was carrying the weight of her world alone, and Tina had at first assumed she was naturally gloomy and humorless. But the burst of laughter had been spontaneous and genuine—a sure sign there was passion and fun under her stuffy exterior. What problems sat so heavily on her? Tina reached out and gently traced the crease between Jan’s brows. She meant to distract herself from wondering about Jan’s personal life, but the soft brush of Jan’s bangs against her finger made her snatch her hand back.

“My dad is sick, and I might need to move so he can be near the right VA hospital,” Jan said without thinking. She faltered to a halt. Why was she telling Tina this? One brief, meaningless touch and she was pouring out her secrets? Chloe had stopped her little French lesson and was watching her. Jan hadn’t shared this much with her, and she had known Chloe for two years. Jan shrugged in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner. “I’ll be able to find another job, of course, and I’m lucky to have started my teaching career at a school like this one.”

“The school is lucky to have a teacher like you,” Chloe said quietly, bumping Jan with her shoulder. She raised her voice to a normal level. “Jan’s students love her, too. And she’s the advisor for the GLBTQ group. She’s been a great advocate for them, and there’ll be several same-sex couples at the prom.”

Jan could feel her face heat when everyone at the table turned their attention on her. She was proud of her efforts to help the students not only feel safe, but feel included at school. Her own high school wouldn’t have been so accepting, but it hadn’t been an issue for her since her dad had been transferred to a different base, in a different country, toward the end of her senior year. She hadn’t cared about missing the prom, but she had hated leaving Claire, her first girlfriend, after only one short month together. She hadn’t done much dating since then. She didn’t want to fall in love again until she could be sure she wouldn’t be wrested away.

“It shouldn’t be such a big deal to go to a silly dance, gay or straight,” she said. She wanted to push the focus off her, and Tina seemed to be a good target. “You went to school in Seattle, didn’t you, Tina? Could you be out there?”

Tina shrugged and stared at the empty glass in her hands. “Actually, I have no idea. I didn’t date in high school, let alone go to the prom.”

“Don’t tell me a knockout like you couldn’t get a date,” Chloe said in a teasing voice.

“My mom was very sick from her chemo treatments during most of my senior year. I barely managed to graduate, let alone do any extracurricular activities.”

Jan felt a sudden, ridiculous urge to reach for Tina, understanding completely how it felt to be caretaker for an ailing parent, but she stopped herself. Instead, Peter covered Tina’s hand. Tina seemed to accept the contact for a brief moment, and then she pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” Chloe said. “I didn’t know. But it’s never too late. Jan and I are chaperones, so we were planning to go together, but I told her it would mean a lot to the kids if she went with a date.” She paused, and then smiled brightly. “Hey, the two of you should go as a couple.”

Jan, shocked, started to reason her way out of this mess. “There is no way—”

“Are you fucking insane?” Tina interrupted, rising out of the casual, slouched pose she had been in all evening.

“Wonderful,” Peter said, more loudly than either Jan or Tina. “It’s settled. And if you’ll allow me to escort you, Chloe, we can make it a double date.”

The conversation dwindled after Peter’s pronouncement, but he and Chloe made a valiant effort to keep everyone talking. Jan was caught between stunned disbelief at their suggestion and a crazy desire to laugh at the expression on Tina’s face. She looked disgusted, as if she’d been drafted to swim across a sewage plant, not go to a dance. Jan decided she herself might have opted for the first if she had a choice. All she’d wanted was to get through the evening as quickly and impersonally as possible. A reluctant prom date hadn’t been part of the plan. She searched wildly for a way to back out, but she had to go to the dance. For her kids. Tina would have to be the one to make an escape, and Jan figured she’d be so practiced at breaking dates it would be easy for her. She probably had a thousand handy excuses at the ready.

“Worst safety net
,” Jan whispered to Chloe when Peter and Tina went to the bar for another round.

Chloe smiled. “It seemed like the best way to get him to ask me out.”

Jan glanced at the two cousins who seemed to be having a similar conversation at the bar. “So you used me?” she asked, shocked by Chloe’s manipulation. She hadn’t gotten close to Chloe over the years they’d been teaching together, and she had simply thought of her as a very nice, but sort of bland person. She was definitely more interesting—albeit annoying—than Jan had expected.

“Well, you used me first, to be your third wheel. I’m just better at the game than you are,” Chloe said, looking decidedly unrepentant. She laughed and bumped Jan again. “Besides, it’s obvious one of you will find a way to get out of going. But I’ll still have my date, so everyone wins.”

Jan didn’t quite see how she had won anything, but she stayed silent. In fact, she was out a date to the dance since she had planned on hanging out with Chloe for the evening. She supposed she’d end up going to the prom with the predatory Sasha. Ah well, worse things had happened.

Tina interrupted her musings when she set a drink in front of her. Jan thanked her and bit back an urge to ask how much she owed for it. She didn’t want it to seem like a date, but she also didn’t want to make a prudish fuss about money. “Why don’t I order us some appetizers?” she asked instead.

“I should warn you,” Tina said, once they had been served. She leaned toward Jan over their shared plate of tempura vegetables, glaring at Chloe and Peter, who had retreated to their corner of the table, as isolated as if a wall had been erected between the two couples. “If they start feeding each other, I’m going to throw up on the table.”

“I’ll probably join you,” Jan said with a shrug, eating a crispy fried spear of broccoli rabe. “I have to apologize. I had no idea Chloe was such a flirt.”

“Yeah, but it’s my cousin’s parody of Casanova that makes me want to puke.”

“I agree. You know, they’re as bad as Brooke. It’s one thing to want a relationship for yourself, but to force innocent bystanders into them, too? It’s not right.”

“I agree,” Tina said, looking surprised by the revelation. “Do your own disgusting flirting. But leave those of us who aren’t interested in any serious commitments alone.”

“Well,” Jan said with a frown as she ate some cauliflower. “I wouldn’t say I don’t want a partner. But I’m waiting for the right time, and the right person.”

Tina shrugged and spilt the last fried zucchini in half, giving one piece to Jan. “Not me. I’m not interested in being tied down. Ever. To anyone.”

Jan ate the zucchini in silence. She was tempted to say something about Tina’s dating habits, but it would only send them circling back to the earlier, insult-filled portion of the evening. They agreed they wanted to be left alone. She should accept the slight bit of camaraderie and leave the rest. Take her own advice, and let Tina make her own choices. Temporary and insubstantial as they were.

“So. Geometry,” Tina said, wiping her greasy fingers on a burgundy cloth napkin. “What a thrilling subject. I vaguely remember something about pi from my high-school class.”

“Actually, it’s quite fascinating, especially when you get past the basics,” Jan said, unperturbed by Tina’s dismissal of her field as uninteresting. She was used to the attitude—in fact, she faced it square on at the beginning of every semester. “There are some interesting studies being conducted about the connections between geometric forms and music.”

“Really?” Tina asked. “I’ve heard of mathematical principles associated with Bach’s works, but I never got how numbers and shapes had anything to do with music.”

“Hey, Chloe,” Jan called across the divided table. “Do you have a pencil? And something to write on. Thanks.” She turned Chloe’s shopping list over and started to sketch. “So let’s start with a simple scale.”

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