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Beautiful Stranger: Vignettes

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Laura Hollis laughs like she has a secret.

Quiet and restrained.  Almost to herself.  

A large contrast to the way she moves.  So quick and with exuberance.

Stark.  Remarkably different.

It was, of course, something Carmilla knew.  Had known, really, since the night she had since deemed the incident.

But it seemed different now.

Now that she was no longer just a woman.  The Woman.  But Laura.

Laura Hollis.

Ms. Laura.

God, there was that still, wasn’t there?

She’d try not to think of it until later.  

Though really, it had been all she could think about for a week.

Laura shifts and her dress rides up her leg, dangerously high and inviting.  

Carmilla takes a long drink of her whiskey.

“My eyes are up here,” Laura says around her own glass.  Eyes sparkling with a mischief Carmilla knows is familiar.

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

She watches as Laura laughs.  And her eyes turn down to her drink just as the lights in the bar dim and the thump, thump, thump of the God awful techno picks up.

The dance floor floods with women and just as it had before, the heat radiating from them seems to encase the room.

Palpable sex.  Dense and hanging in the air.

Carmilla’s throat tightens.  And the way Laura is looking at her sends an all too familiar flush through her body.

“I think you just did.”

It’s ridiculous, she thinks, how a night spent with a stranger can leave such a lasting impression.

She shouldn’t be surprised, really, that she had come at all then.

Though she was still trying to figure out the answer.

“Must be eleven,” Carmilla says, turning towards the dance floor.  Because she really isn’t sure what else to say.  She had tried not to think about it.  Dropping Jaime off with LaF and Perry.

And driving.  Just driving.  

Until she had arrived and walked in.  Finding Laura at the bar.  And sitting.  

And really, perhaps, she should have given it more thought.

“You want to get out of here?”

Carmilla’s brow raises.  “But haven’t danced yet.”

Laura rolls her eyes.  And Carmilla feels a smug sense of satisfaction when she can see a blush spread across Laura’s neck.  “There’s a twenty-four hour diner up the street.  They have the best pie in a ten mile radius.”

“Sounds romantic.”

Laura finishes off her drink, sliding the glass away from her on the bar.  “And just think, I’m not even trying yet.”

Carmilla laughs.

 

//

 

The diner is shittier than the bar.

The seats of the booths torn and ragged.  Floral patterns lining the walls and carpet.  Deep greens and bright pinks.  Plates with crows and pie pans sporadically placed for decor.

The single room smelled like her late grandmother’s house.  

It was nauseating.

She’d never liked the old cow.

“Something tells me you’re unimpressed,” Laura says, looking at her over the edge of her menu.

And Carmilla has the distinct feeling that she’s being teased.

“If this is you trying to not be romantic, then perhaps you should start.”

“But the pie.”

“It can’t be that good.”

“Oh trust me, it’s worth it.”

“We’ll see,” Carmilla says as a waitress approaches.

“Can I get you ladies something to drink?” 

“Barbara” her name tag says.  Of course her name is Barbara.  She’s smacking gum like it’s the only way to keep her jaw attached.  Her blonde air big and teased.  Bright blue eye shadow powdery and caked on thick.

“Just a water for me, please,” Laura says.  And she and Barbara both turn to Carmilla.

“Coffee.”

Barbara nods and huffs.  And Carmilla has half the mind to tell her she should probably just quit.

“It has a certain charm, you have to admit,” Laura is saying.  Crossing her arms on the table and leaning forward.  

“Is that what you tell all the girls you bring here?”

“What makes you think you’re not special?”

Carmilla does a double take.  

Not quite sure if she’s surprised at Laura’s question.  But no, of course, definitely surprised.

Laura’s looking at her, head tilted.  The smile pulling at her lips, Carmilla is quickly learning, meaning she’s playing along.  Curious and teasing.

And yet…

There’s a narrow look in her eyes.  Like she’s trying to decipher who Carmilla is.

Unbecoming, Carmilla thinks.

And horribly unfamiliar.

“A bar.  A motel.  A diner.”  Carmilla leans back into her seat and a spring digs into her back.  “Quite the trifecta.”

Laura is laughing again.  Like she finds Carmilla believable.

She wouldn’t be wrong.

“I’ll give you the bar and motel,” she starts, eyes twinkling as she leans across the table.  “But I only share my pie with girls I take on dates.”

And it’s sad and pathetic, Carmilla thinks.

How a stranger.  Because she was still, wasn’t she?  Easier to think that she was, Carmilla knew.  And for now, easier was manageable.  

Manageable.  And sad.  And pathetic.

How a stranger can make her stomach drop and tighten.  

Surprise was never her favorite thing.

“Is that was this is?”

“Isn’t it?”

Carmilla watches and Laura watches her.  

And, she thinks, all things considered.  When such a situation cannot be anything else, only one option is left.

Carmilla sinks farther into her seat, dropping and slouching slightly.  

Barbara places their drinks on the table.  Muttering “I’ll give you a few minutes,” after she’s halfway across the room.

Carmilla grabs her coffee.  Pushing aside the cream and sugar and downing half of it in a single gulp.

It’s hot.  And strong.  Bitter.  And, she thinks, at least something about this place isn’t so bad. 

“I don’t do Dutch.”  She drawls.  

And Laura laughs.

 

//

 

“Carmilla?”

Laura swallows her name.  Short and clipped.  Like she’s unsure whether or not she should use it.

It’s comforting, Carmilla thinks, to know that they both seemed to be a little on edge.  She quickly downs the rest of her coffee and rests it at the edge of the table. 

Barbara looks to her, gum smacking with impatience.  

“I’ll take the French Dip.  With fries.  And a refill.”  Barbara’s pen overs above her order pad.  “Please.”

Barbara writes her order and turns to Laura.

“I’ll take the three egg breakfast.  Bacon.  Hashbrowns.  Pancakes, syrup on the side.  Eggs sunny side up.”

Barbara nods.  Smacks her gum.  “Coming right up.”

“You know,” Laura says, watching as Barbara shuffles away, once she’s refilled Carmilla’s coffee.  “She’s usually not this pleasant.”  She turns to Carmilla.  “What?”

“It’s eleven thirty at night and you just ordered breakfast like you’ve got a hangover.”

“Breakfast is meant to be enjoyed anytime of day.”

“I don’t think you understand what the word means.”

“Says the woman who is already on her second cup of coffee.”

“Yes, but coffee is the nectar of the gods.”

Laura rolls her eyes but smiles.  Unwraps a straw and takes a long drink of her water.  When she places the glass back on the table, Carmilla notes the straw tip is flat and mangled from being chewed.  “So.”

“Yes?”

She watches as Laura shrugs.  “Where do you work?”

It’s an awkward question.  And Laura seems to cringe once the words are out of her mouth.

But, Carmilla suppose, better awkward questions than an awkward silence.

“I teach a couple of introductory philosophy courses at Silas U.”

Laura’s brow raises, leaving Carmilla with the impression that she’s just impressed her.  “Do you have a doctorate?”

Carmilla does her best to hide her sigh with a nonchalant shrug.  “I’m halfway through the program. But took a leave of absence.”

“Working and school and raising a child must have been a lot.”

And Carmilla wants to laugh.  Because it was.  Of course.  And no one had been surprised when she had decided to take the leave.

Though she had been bitter enough, they hadn’t needed to be.  

Difficult.  Incredibly so.  And tinged with the taunting truth that it had once been easy when she had been one part of two.

“What about you?”  She asks.  A change of subject much more comfortable.

“I would hope you know what I do, or have you not been paying attention?”

Carmilla rolls her eyes.  She would be a sarcastic shit.  

Of course.

“Did you always want to work with kids?  Is that better?”

Laura smiles.  “No, actually.  I’m a freelance writer.  Blogs.  Copywriting.  That sort of thing.  My friend Danny, Lawrence?  She’s one of the kindergarten teachers?  She helped me get the assistant position to pay the bills when things are slow.”

Carmilla nodded.  She knew of Danny Lawrence.   She was the only kindergarten teacher who wasn’t on the death side of fifty.  She’d requested Jaime be placed in her class next year.

“It’s been surprisingly enjoyable, though.  The kids are sweet.  Especially Jaime.”

Carmilla can’t help but feel the swell of pride that runs through her.

Or the smile.

And Laura is looking at her like she knows just what she’s thinking.  

Really, she wonders just when she had become so easy to read.

“Now you’re just trying to sweet talk me.”

“Is it working?”

“We’ll have to see, won’t we?”

“You should know, patience isn’t really a virtue of mine.”

And Carmilla can’t help it.  She really can’t.  Stranger or familiar.  Or something in between.  Because she set herself up for it.  And really.  It’s so easy.  She smiles wide and with a smug satisfaction that she’d once missed.

“Trust me, that I learned the other night.”

Laura nearly chokes on her water.

 

//

 

“Can I ask you something?”

The yolk of Laura’s egg runs across her plate as she cuts in to it.  “And don’t say that I just did.”

“Well now it seems I don’t have a choice, hm?” 

Carmilla takes a bite of her dip and she’s surprised to say it’s the best she’d ever had.

She makes a note not to mention it to Laura.

Laura shifts and takes a slow bite of her pancake.  Chewing to stall.  Suddenly looking nervous.  Unsure.  Like she’s not quite sure if she should ask a question or not.  

And Carmilla can’t help be feel the dread settle into her chest.

“Jaime’s other mother,” Laura finally speaks, slow.  Definitely uncertain.  “I’m going to assume it’s another mother?”

Carmilla nods.

“What happened to her?”

And she sighs.

It’s unavoidable, she knows.  All things considered.  Their short relationship.  In it’s simplest form, knowing another person.  Even in the platonic sense.  Their short relationship lending itself to such a question.

It would be her luck, she thinks, to have it brought up so quickly.

“I’m sorry,” Laura’s suddenly saying.  “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.  It’s just—.”

Carmilla waves her hand, effectively cutting her off.  “No.  No.  It’s fine.”

They fall into a silence and Carmilla can hear Barbara popping her gum across the room.

“She left.”  Carmilla starts, looking into the black of her coffee mug.  “Woke up one day and she was gone.  And that’s really all there is to it.”

She looks up then.  Prepared for the sympathy and Oh no, I’m so sorry that always accompanies the story.  

That must have been so difficult for you.

It was fucking patronizing.  

Always was.

But instead.

Instead she’s met with a look she’s never seen before.

Laura looks like she’s seen a ghost.  Raw and painful.  Her eyes wide with empathy.

And then she’s looking down.  Her eggs, it would seem, far more interesting.  Her hand knocking against the table.

Debating, Carmilla thinks, whether or not she should speak.  And then she does.

“My mom left when I was ten.”

Is what she says.

And Carmilla feels like the wind has been knocked out of her.

“I came home from school one day.  She and my dad were arguing.  And then she…” Laura sighs and looks up and Carmilla recognizes the look immediately.

Empty and hallow.  Tears long since gone.  

“She kissed my cheek and she left.”

“I’m sorry.”

It’s the only thing she can think to say.  An unfamiliar sort of sense of comfort settling in her.  Speaking to someone who suddenly seems to understand.  

Strange.

And unfamiliar.

“I’m sorry, too.”

Carmilla nods.  

“You know when I was little, I used to wish that she had died.”  There’s slight shame to the way Laura says it.  Though perhaps shame not quite the right word.  Regret.  Maybe.  But certain and honest.  

“At least then it wouldn’t have been a choice,” Carmilla says and Laura looks at her with sad eyes.  

“Yeah.”

Carmilla shifts.  Not quite sure what to do with the air around them.  Somehow comfortable.  Somehow completely not so.  

And she feels it.  At the tip of her tongue.  And she knows she really won’t be able to help herself.  So…

“Has she ever tried to contact you?”

It was a question she’d never voiced.  How could she?  No one understanding what it was she had experienced or felt.  But the question was always there.  

Haunting and exhausting.

Her greatest fear, she knew, ever since Elle had left.

The idea that someday the woman could simply show up again.  Without warning and unannounced.

It was nauseating.

“Once,” Laura is saying.  “When I graduated from high school.  She wanted to go to my graduation.”

“She didn’t?”

Carmilla watches as Laura looks at her then.  As if she’s trying to decipher the answer Carmilla is looking for.

“I told her to go fuck herself.”

Carmilla can’t help her loud bark of a laugh.

Laura smiles.

“Sweetheart,”  Carmilla says, picking her coffee up and taking a long, bitter drink.  “I may not know you that well. But I know you well enough to guess that you probably have a swear jar at home.”

Laura rolls her eyes.  “Fine.”  She huffs, starting to eat again.  “I didn’t exactly use those words.  But, I did tell her that if she didn’t have any interest in raising me then she didn’t get the right to feel proud.”

An excellent answer, Carmilla thinks.  

And one she may one day steal.

Though she’d pray to any unnamed god she didn’t believe in that she never had to.

“Cheers to that, then,” she says, holding her mug out towards Laura.

They do just that.

 

//

 

She’s loathe to admit the cherry pie is even better than the dip.

Laura’s smile is smug and satisfactory when Carmilla tells her so.

“Not such an awful place after all, hm?”

“Oh no, it’s still awful,” Carmilla says, scooping extra cherries onto her fork.  “But tolerable.”

“I can settle for that.”

Before anything else can be said, Barbara is sliding their bill across the table.  

Carmilla grabs it before Laura can even move.

“I thought you didn’t do Dutch.”

“I don’t.”

Carmilla hands her card to Barbara.  And takes a bite of pie.  

“Dinner was my idea.”

“So?”

“I should have paid.”

Carmilla waves her off.  “You can get next time.”

She tries to pretend like what she said isn’t nerve inducing.  But she’s out of practice still.  So she downs the rest of her fourth cup of coffee.

“Can I?”

Carmilla shrugs.  “If you give me your number.”

Laura’s smile is smug as she holds out her hand.  Waiting for Carmilla to slide over her phone.  

Her smile widens when she sees the background picture of a selfie Jaime had taken last week.  His smile cheesy and goofy.  Hamming for the camera in a way that Carmilla is certain only LaF could have taught him.

Barbara throws the bill on their table and turns without so much as a have a good night.

“At least let me leave the tip.”

“If you insist.”

Laura does.  Overly so.

“I hope you know,” Carmilla says, when they’re walking towards the door.  “I expect to be winded and dined next time.”

“What makes you think I can afford such a night?”

Carmilla snorts.   And looks to Laura, who’s looking back with a playfulness that Carmilla was beginning to find familiar.   “At the tuition rate that I pay?  I’d say you could afford that and then some.”  

Laura smiles and laughs.