By L.J. Kelley
This bloody cat won’t stop following me around.
She tried to let the mewing animal out, but it wanted right back in. Food in the bowl, litter box recently cleaned; Diana couldn’t decide what the black puffball wanted. She wasn’t sure the cat knew, either. Diana had always hated cats. Snowball (yes, it was supposed to be ironic) was the result of her winning a custody battle with her ex when their four-year relationship went down the shitter three months prior. When Ray left, Diana had fought tooth and nail for the cat. It was the principle of the thing, really. She couldn’t let him win after he’d been fucking his boss—a man—in her bed every day while she was at work. Ray’s sudden switch to homosexuality wasn’t what had bothered her the most; in fact, she wasn’t surprised in the least when he’d come clean about the affair. It was the sneakiness of it; the subterfuge. Diana hated liars. They reminded her of her mother.
She’d barely been able to keep her head above water with the rent money since he’d moved in with Brian. She did moderately well as a social worker for the hospital, but they had chosen the apartment two years earlier in a trendy, upcoming area of the city. The rent climbed at least twice a year with the ongoing gentrification of the rest of the neighborhood. Ray was a tax accountant, so there had been no issues making rent while he’d been present.
I need a sugar daddy—or momma—to be able to keep this place, she often thought. Hell, if Ray could suddenly enjoy sex with a man, she could at least give it a shot with a woman. One had to be flexible in these situations, after all. Why look a gift horse in the mouth, whatever its gender? She could find a nice, sexy female radiologist or something.
The cat continued with its mournful protesting. Diana, in a fit of explosive rage, opened the door to the fire escape and threw the cat outside. She couldn’t take the expression of disapproval any more. Every noise the cat made sounded like criticism to her; you aren’t taking care of me, you don’t know how. I wish Ray was here. For the twelfth time that day alone, she contemplated calling him up and telling him and Brian to get their asses over there and get the damned thing. She couldn’t take the annoyance much longer.
Diana walked to the makeshift office she’d made in the corner of the studio apartment. Time to check the online dating websites for any new leads. Months had passed since she’d been on a date. She didn’t really miss conversation as much as the sex. If Diana hadn’t been afraid of getting a rap sheet and an STD, she would have just called an escort service. Since she lived in Boston, though, and not Amsterdam, she would have to make due with online hookups.
Some of the websites were more useful to her than others. Different websites attracted different types of people, so it was kind of like shopping for what you were in the mood for that given week. A nerdy, professorial type? Check The Onion’s personals. A young, dumb, hot gym rat? Go for Match.com. She knew several people who had met their spouses online. She wasn’t so hopeful; or maybe that wasn’t even the right word. Marriage seemed so…binding and depressing, somehow. Why settle when you can keep jumping around to suit your mood?
Diana noticed five new emails in her account; two were from potential suitors. After a quick perusal, she nixed them both. One was too old; a perfect financial situation, but she did want to be able to sleep with this person, at least occasionally. The other couldn’t put a proper sentence together. What was with the lassitude? I mean, at least run a spell-check, she thought exasperatedly. She’d not taken the plunge yet into the section of the websites that catered to bi-curious women but had planned to do so that afternoon when the cat finally shut the fuck up. Now that Snowball was outside, Diana went on about her business and looked for someone that resembled Shane from the early episodes of The L Word.
Ray had been brokenhearted to tell her his big news. She supposed her lack of shock confused him; he’d really expected to blow her mind with the information about Brian. At the time, Diana couldn’t muster the energy to give the poor guy what he wanted. All she could say was, “I’m not surprised, Ray. It’s not like you guys didn’t make eyes at each other all the time at the holiday parties. I figured it went on at the office all day, too. And, you’re talented but to rise that quickly up the ranks, I mean, come on.”
He’d left the next day. Why he waited overnight, Diana would never understand. She was over it before the whole emotional outpour even started, but she wasn’t aware of it until she surprised herself with her own reaction. How liberating, she thought as she lay in her bed that night, thankfully alone. The world was full of possibilities. Ray wanted to be friends; Diana didn’t see the point. She told him they would stay in touch, the way that you tell someone that you can’t stand that you should get together for lunch. She helped him pack his shit the following morning, and then he was gone. Four years, down the drain.
Most of the women on the website seemed innocuous enough but innocuous wasn’t what she was looking for, exactly. Edgy, ballsy, bold…those were the words that came to mind. Then, on the second page of the filtered search, there she was. Thirty-three years old, with dark brown hair cut in a pixie and large, soulful dark eyes. Her profile said she was an academic at the local university, in the English Lit department. Could be sexy, could be overly sentimental and hypersensitive, Diana thought. Or, she could be both. Diana sent her—Ellen—a notification of interest and continued to peruse the site for other possibilities. Ultimately, the search fell short. Diana would have to place all her lesbianic eggs in Ellen’s basket, at least for that day.
Diana had often wondered what it would be like to venture into this world, but with Ray in the picture, she hadn’t the heart. Now that he was gone—and in his own same-sex relationship, no less—it seemed like some sort of omniscient blessing from the universe for her to proceed with her curiosity. Since growing apart from her family and their controlling religious views, she’d realized that she’d had it in her all along. The feelings she had experienced toward females in her peer group her whole life had not been competition, like she had originally thought for so many years. They had been feelings of admiration. To be with another woman sounded delicious. It was worth a try; who knew what could happen? Someone to share a life with, who really understood what it meant to struggle as a woman. Although she had thought Ray was non-traditional enough, their relationship hadn’t quenched her desire for something more authentic, a more complete connection with someone. Diana wanted the unspoken understanding that she was convinced she could only attain in a relationship with another girl. Besides, what else did she have to do besides go to her tedious job and sit around with Snowball?
The next day, while having lunch at the hospital cafeteria, Diana took a moment to check her personal inbox. Her day had, so far, been a shitty one. Two failed nursing home placements after hours upon hours of work; what a waste. Just because two elderly people hadn’t defecated that day and had a 0.0005 percent chance of having a full-on bowel obstruction. Please. Ellen’s reply to her signaled interest sat in the account, gleaming like a semi-precious stone. She hesitated for a moment, not wanting to be disappointed if Ellen was not all that she had built her up to be in her mind already.
Hi, Diana! Thanks for winking at me. I like your profile, too, and would love to talk with you further. Her heart palpitated twice under the shivering fluorescent lighting in the cafeteria. Not one spelling error, and the additional picture attached to the email made her look even prettier. Diana munched her almonds and considered the implications. What if things between them really started to click and her workmates found out? She wasn’t too worried. Boston was a big place, and most of the other social workers were tolerant, liberal people. Diana crafted a response for Ellen, suggesting that rather than emailing back and forth forever, they just take a risk and meet for coffee sometime. Diana hit the ‘send’ button triumphantly, dumped her lunch trash and walked over to the elevator to return to her work station.
Approximately twenty minutes later while on hold with an insurance company, Diana received a notification that a new email was waiting for her. She looked around the dingy nurses’ station to make sure no one was around—there was a ‘no cell phone usage’ rule—and then checked her inbox. It was Ellen: Hi! Can you meet at Mochabee’s this evening? I’m so sorry for the short notice, but finals week is coming up, and I’ll be busy with TA’ing freshman composition papers. It might be the last time I’ll have available for a while.
Diana had to fight the urge to giggle or make another, less defined gleeful noise. She waited an appropriate amount of time, the hold music from the Cigna representative playing in her ear the entire duration. Diana agreed to meet Ellen that evening and thanked her for suggesting it. After sending the message, she looked down at her clothes; she had totally forgotten about looking presentable and didn’t even remember what she’d put on that morning. Black slacks and a blouse? What the hell. She’d have to run home and change; she didn’t want to look like an office girl from Mad Men. Not what she was going for.
Diana rushed home after cutting out early from work. She’d thrown a coworker under the bus just to gain fifteen minutes in her favor, but it wasn’t the time to stick to her morals when she had somewhere to be. Diana sped home in her car and threw open the door. Snowball mewed incessantly while she rushed to change clothes, and she resisted the impulse to throw her outside again. She freshened up with ten minutes to spare. Walking out the door, the thought crossed her mind that what she was doing was crazy. Diana decided the crazy part was that she had waited so long to do it in the first place. Her biggest concern was the inevitable upcoming conversation regarding her never having had a relationship with a woman before. Diana had tried to be as clear as possible on her profile, but she wanted to make sure she wasn’t being disingenuous. If Ellen was a veteran in the lesbian or bisexual department, she might be offended if she thought Diana had lied about where she was regarding stepping out of the closet. It’s just coffee, she reminded herself. You guys probably won’t even like each other.
The coffee house was packed. Her worry that she wouldn’t recognize Ellen in a crowd was completely unfounded; she definitely stood out from the rest of the folks in line. She was obviously in great shape, and Diana felt a little self-conscious about the five pounds she’d put on in the past few months. She approached her from behind and tapped her on the shoulder lightly. “Ellen?”
Ellen turned, and Diana continued, “I’m Diana. Nice to meet you!”
Ellen had a pair of those dark, nerdy glasses that only a select few can pull off gracefully. She wasn’t perfect by any means, but she had an air of self-acceptance that Diana could only hope to emulate someday.
“Hey!” Ellen said. She was much more laid back than Diana would have guessed, and she felt immediately comfortable. They ordered coffees and made their way to a small, marble table in the back corner of the room. Conversation flowed easily, and although Ellen admitted that she had known since her childhood that she was sexually attracted to other women, she didn’t appear to judge Diana harshly at all for her newfound interest.
“Everyone has her own path.” She’d shrugged simply.
After they finished their drinks, Diana noticed that it was getting much later than she’d thought. “This was fun, but I have to be at the hospital at 6:30 tomorrow morning,” she’d apologized.
They agreed to do it again soon, and any awkwardness that Diana had worried about as far as ending the evening was not a concern. She watched Ellen get on her bicycle and head back toward campus; she still had some grading to do that evening.
Diana decided never to see her again as she watched her pedal away into the distance; Ellen was way too well-adjusted.
Had Ray broken her heart? Maybe she was really grieving the loss of their long-term relationship and didn’t even realize it. She thought about all the nameless indiscretions she’d had throughout those four years, though, and figured that was bullshit. Ray was just the one that got caught, not the original offender. When he broke the news of his affair, she’d felt sympathetic more than anything.
* * *
Diana had grown up in Indiana, the baby in a family of four children. By all appearances, theirs was a normal, middle-class household with a stay-at-home mom at the helm of their sinking ship. To an outsider, Janice Collings was straight out of Good Housekeeping. A fly on the wall, however, would have known otherwise. Diana’s mother had been very entangled with “mother’s little helpers” since Diana was born. Many afternoons ended with her passed out on the couch by 2pm, with her young, hungry children sitting around in dirty diapers. She was never stupid enough to get caught; Diana’s father, Gordon, worked long hours at his construction gig, and Janice had always cleaned up the house and had a hot meal ready for him by the time he got home.
By the time the kids were old enough to tell Gordon what went on during the day in the house, they were all so far gone that it didn’t matter anymore. Gordon left Janice and, unfortunately, didn’t take his children with him. The rest of Diana’s childhood was marred with memories of creepy men that stayed over with her mother, supplying her and her siblings with alcohol and gateway drugs. Due to her young age, Diana had been the last to leave, and she never looked back. As an adult, she’d not maintained any relationships with her three sisters and wasn’t even sure where they lived. When she was twenty-eight and completing grad school, she’d gotten the phone call that she had been waiting for all her life: her mother was dead. Did she want an autopsy? No, there was no need. It didn’t matter what had killed her, only that grace had finally been delivered. Diana had hated her mother and the sense of rejection and inadequacy she’d instilled. She felt lighter, freer when she hung up from the phone call.
Social work felt comfortable for her. She helped people deal with their problems, and that was all she felt like she’d ever known. What would she have done in a job full of happiness and surface-level bullshit? Gross. Diana hadn’t talked with her father in at least a decade; she’d let him fall by the wayside along with her siblings. Yes, she was finally, blissfully alone. No one to fuck up her life or tell her what to do. Now, with Ray out of the picture, it was her intention to finally come into her own as a completely independent woman.
Well, what should I do with myself? Diana had nothing but time; television sounded like a welcome, mindless relief to her. She sat heavily on the musty couch; Snowball joined her almost immediately. Diana stroked the cat’s dark fur, while the cat purred emphatically and rubbed her cheeks all over Diana’s hands and face. No more meowing. Snowball was just a little attention-starved; that was all.
Diana smiled at how obvious the answer had been all along.
L.J. Kelley is a new writer, registered nurse, and adoptive mother. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a B.S. in Nursing from Saint Louis University. L.J. has completed her first young adult novel and is excited about her next project, a collection of short stories that push the envelope and open the dialogue for subjects that may be difficult to discuss. Some of her initial flash fiction work has been published on Mash Stories and Story64. Another of her pieces was published in The Bookends Review in December 2016. She lives with her husband and two children in Winston-Salem.
Previously Published Flash Fiction: