The girl stretched herself in sleep and one naked breast slipped into a shaft of moonlight.
She sighed and wet her lips and rolled onto her belly.
Her legs stiffened for a moment, wide apart.
Then the whole, smooth length of her relaxed and she drew her knees up to her chest. "Michele," she said against the pillow, "aren't you coming to bed tonight?"
Michele stood in the other room between the two windows, her shoulders pressing against the cracked plaster. She heard the girl call her name, but did not move to answer her.
"Michele?" the voice came again.
"I'll be there in a minute," Michele snapped. The clipped words were sprung out of her mouth by a tension she could not control.
"Well, come on then. It's getting chilly."
Michele heard the rusty coil springs squeaking in response to Leda's growing restlessness. And then the thump-thumping of Boris's heavy tail from beneath the bed. It seemed that everything in the world, alive or otherwise, reacted to Leda.
The snap of plaster behind her made Michele realize that she wanted to crawl into the wall. And hide.
Her glance roamed the darkness for a last cigarette, a last swallow of cheap wine. All her courage had come from that bottle, empty now, lying on the sloping window-sill. And she felt empty and cold as that bottle. Her clammy cold palms touched each other, then reached up and pressed against her burning cheeks. Her long fingers crept slowly toward her temples. Through the short hair that still smelled of barber's tonic. She felt the peculiar draftiness on her neck where this morning there had been the protecting weight of a pageboy.
Leda called from only ten feet away. Beyond the yard high partition which made this a three room apartment. They shared the bathtub in the kitchen, a toilet that dripped all night and one good winter coat hanging on the hallway door. There was no room for privacy.
Yet Michele stood rigid and horribly private inside the core of her nerves. The world had spun away, leaving her here... alone and afraid. Her easy relationship with Leda had suddenly fallen to break like a cheap glass mirror. She saw it scattered around her in millions of tiny, razor-sharp pieces.
She could not walk across the room and get into that bed. Not tonight.
She watched Boris get up, yawn and pad toward her. Part Collie, part Dane his immensity seemed to fill the room. He sat down beside Michele's leg and lifted a heavy paw to her thigh.
Boris, at any rate, would never change. The thought gave Michele a moment's comfort. She reached down and scratched the great ruff of tan and white fur on his chest.
"So now it's turned into a party." The bed squeaked louder as Leda sat up. "All right. I'll get dressed. Who cares about school tomorrow anyway."
Michele started guiltily. "No, don't," she said quickly. "I'm coming right now."
She pulled Boris onto all fours and went with him toward the bedroom.
Slowly, with heavy fingers, Michele began to unbutton her shirt. A wild desire to run into the John and lock the door shivered through her thighs. But she dared not move. Dared not even turn her back on Leda. For almost a year they had lived openly together, sharing the expense of an apartment. Any sudden change would bring curiosity. And questions. Michele knew she couldn't stand up to Leda's probing. Even without questions, it would be just a matter of time before Leda discovered the change that had taken place in her.
Already it was beginning to show.
Michele forced herself to drop the shirt onto the chair seat, trying hard to appear nonchalant. She reached back and unhooked the narrow brassiere that held her firm breasts. Her fingers felt numb. The cotton bra slithered down toward her belly, then dropped away to the floor. Her glance followed to where it lay beside Leda's mocassins. But she did not bend down into the pattern of light and shadows to retrieve it.
"Michele, are you okay?" Leda pushed one foot beneath the rumpled sheet.
"I mean, are you catching a cold or something?"
It was a golden straw and Michele grabbed for it. "Yes. I guess I must be. I feel achy all over. Maybe I could find a pajama top someplace?"
"Put on a tee-shirt." Leda spoke softly.
"Good idea." Michele heard the eager relief in her own voice. Hurriedly, she pushed back the curtains of their makeshift closet and felt through the pile of folded clothing. Leda's neatness made the search easy.
"You'll be wanting the blanket, too" Leda continued, lifting it up and over her own body.
She could leave her panties on and sleep at the far edge of the mattress. And if Leda asked, tell her she didn't want to spray her with germs.
Encouraged Michele stepped out of her loafers, folded her slacks over the partition and sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed. For a moment she sat still, gripping the sheets. She felt terrified and a little nauseous, now that she was so close to the girl.
She swung herself quickly onto her back and lay there blinking at the ceiling.
Prickles of heat and ice rushed along her ribs. She felt her heart slapping against her chest and wondered why Leda didn't hear it too. Tension knotted her calves. She would never fall asleep again as long as she lived.
The stale, acrid odor of wine floated toward her nostrils on a pre-dawn breeze. A bus rumbled somewhere, far away, down on First Avenue. She had lived in half the fifty states of America but nothing of interest had ever happened to her in any of them. Now, at the age of twenty-five when she thought she had seen it all...
Flames of self-hate and condemnation mingled with her confusion. Her throat tightened, wanting to fight this unknown quantity which had burst up suddenly to take control of her life. How was it that a simple thing like a haircut could make such a difference? Could bring to the boiling point desires she had not dared admit even to herself?
Michele grunted angrily. She wished Leda would go to sleep so she could be alone with this strange new creature that was herself. Spar around with it for a while. Maybe win. Beat it back down into the darkness. Kick it to hell. Something. Anything.
"You don't sound sleepy."
"How the devil can I sleep with you yelling at me every two seconds?"
Michele heard the silence and knew Leda's sudden confusion. She felt the girl's arm move slightly as though she were recoiling from a slap.
"I didn't mean anything," Leda murmured.
The sweet fragrance of her skin came across as she spoke. Michele lay very still as she sensed Leda's foot moving and then felt the touch of a warm toe against her ankle. She shifted her weight toward the outside of the mattress. But even as she moved away, she knew she could not move far enough. Leda's palm was on her shoulder now.
The fingertips grazed past the shirt sleeve to Michele's skin. "I didn't mean anything at all," Leda repeated. "Except what's good for you..."
The warm breath of her words touched Michele's ear-lobe.
"Leda, please." Her throat ached.
Michele's head swivelled around. She stared hard into the oval face nestled into the pillow. Leda's eyes were large and luminous. They seemed to be waiting. The pert, even features remained passive yet poised.
"What did you say?" she whispered. She felt Leda's palm now against the back of her neck.
"I said you look so much better without all that hair," Leda said, her voice gentle, a faint smile parting her lips.
Michele raised herself onto her elbow. She felt her own blood throbbing beneath Leda's touch. "I love you," she said hoarsely.
Slowly then, cautiously, afraid the girl might still reject her, Michele lowered the upper half of her body onto Leda's.
Leda did not resist.
Their breasts met and flattened against each other.
Leda's arms tightened around Michele's back. Her hands moved beneath the tee-shirt, searching out every tiny muscle, each curve of bone.
Then, moving lower, they found the band of elastic and tugged Michele's panties past her hips.
"Hold me... tighter."
The slim, willing body arched toward Michele's lips.
Her mouth found the curve of Leda's throat. She had never touched a woman before, had hardly even allowed herself to think of it. But the instinct of desire hurried steadily, surely toward the ways of fulfillment.
Her lips searched and discovered a warm breast. She clung and felt it harden against her tongue. The stretch of soft, yielding flesh made her dizzy with craving. Her hands and her mouth reached greedily, grasped and molded and probed. The world had suddenly exploded into a phantasy beyond all dreams.
"Touch me... oh, touch me," the girl moaned.
Leda's hand found hers and pushed it downward.
She heard the girl gasp. Her own temples were pounding wildly, her tongue felt thick and heavy with a thirst she would quench.
The protesting squeal of the old bed sang and screamed rhythmically.
Its tempo increased until the sound was of one high note.
And then the bed lay still.