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Dark Desires Ch.1

Lesbian love, first time, romance, no sex

CHAPTER I

Cloudy Friday. The sky was so dark that it seemed to be mourning and the meagre daylight didn't quite reach the window of the small office. Alice looked at the clock on the opposite wall. 4:30 p.m.

She suddenly realized that she had been reading and rereading the same page over and over again for the last thirty minutes without understanding a single sentence. It was quite an important file and already late, but she just couldn't focus. Her mind was hazy and words seemed to evaporate in some foggy unreachable limbo.

That strange uncomfortable feeling of her brain just wanting to shut down wasn't new. The honest truth was that she had been in that same state of mind for quite a few months now. Going to work every day had become increasingly difficult, almost painful. Not that she felt any better at home or anywhere else for that matter. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore and most of the time her only wish was to stay in bed and sleep herself to oblivion.

Alice knew she had let things deteriorate for too long. She had to do something and quickly, before the situation would come out of hand and ruin the promising career everyone predicted for her. Not that her career was a priority at that point but at least she had to do something for herself. She just didn't know what.

That same evening, on her way home after another dull and unproductive day, Alice tried once again to put things into perspective. Maybe it would help her understand the reasons beyond that cumbersome apathy which looked more and more like it had the word depression written all over it. Because, objectively, she couldn't complain. She had been blessed with brain, looks and money.

Okay, so she wasn't Mozart, Cervantes or Einstein but she nonetheless graduated summa cum laude from a well-known university and had received job offers from several prestigious law firms even before graduation.

As for looks, she had been told often enough that she was a Natalie Wood look-alike for her to feel comfortable in her own skin even if, given the choice, she would have preferred to be a little taller than the Judy of “Rebel without a cause”. She didn't want at all costs to look like one of these runway models men are drooling over like starved dogs, but it would have been nice not to need a stepladder every time she had to grab something located more than six feet above sea level. But she was model thin which helped her at least appear a little bit more than her tiny five feet one.

And, yes, she had money. Family money. Not the kind that buys you a private jet or a two hundred feet yacht without a second thought, but still enough not to have to worry about the future and not to have to get up every morning to go to work, had she desired to live an idle life free of constraints and responsibilities.

So, what was wrong with her for heaven's sake? Millions of women would have been perfectly satisfied to walk in her shoes. She couldn't say she was miserable to the point of ending her life - no, not anymore - but didn't feel like she could ever be happy again either. She just felt numb. Empty. Devoid of hope or desire. And so very alone.

'Maybe,' she thought, 'I should consider the possibility of therapy.' She wasn't too fond of the idea of a shrink rummaging through the shambles of her wrecked mind but, after all, what had she got to lose?

********

The large room looked more like a homely living-room than a doctor's office and was painted in a soothing eggshell tone. Alice found the marine watercolors hanging on the walls to be as elegant as well as relaxing. A large bay window overlooked a well-tended little garden that contributed to create a peaceful atmosphere. When entering the room, she had felt intimidated by the big leather couch where patients, or so she supposed, would usually lie down but the therapist had instead invited her to sit in a comfortable armchair facing her desk.

Dr Alperin was a middle-aged woman - probably somewhere between forty and forty-five, Alice guessed - with an amiable smiling face surrounded by a light brown pixie haircut and a gentle gaze beneath her horn rimmed glasses. She spoke in a very soft voice which helped Alice overcome some of the nervousness that her hands, fidgeting in her lap, were giving away.

“Miss Devreaux, I know quite well how stressful a first meeting with a potential therapist can be but I would like you not to consider this as a session but more as a free-flowing conversation, getting to know each other, and for you to feel safe and accepted here. I believe it is also important for you to be aware of the fact that not all therapists are right for every person. Please use this moment to assess whether or not I would be a good match for your personality. For my part, I'll have to make sure I'll be able to offer you the help and support you're looking for. Whatever the issues you're dealing with are, my job, as a therapist, isn't to give you answers but to help you asking yourself the right questions.”

Alice nodded, comforted by Dr. Alperin’s calm manner and open imperfection.

“When we spoke on the phone, you told me you were feeling depressed and that you fear your despondency has become insurpassable. We'll see about that in due time. For now just be assured that there is no such thing as an insurmountable depression. But, first things first, may I ask how you came to me? Was I recommended?”

“Uh… no. I searched online specifically for a female therapist nearby and your name came up. And please call me Alice, 'Miss Devreaux' is an attorney at law for whom I don't have too much sympathy these days.”

“Fine, Alice. We will have to come back to why you feel your therapist should be a woman. For now, if it's okay with you, I would like you to give me a quick description of yourself, your background, and the thoughts that brought you here today. Can you do that? And please, say freely what is on your mind, even if it sounds silly to you. Especially if it sounds silly, in fact, because these silly ideas are frequently very meaningful leads towards the real issues that need to be explored.”

“Er… okay. Well… let's see. As you already know, my name is Alice Devreaux. I am twenty-six years old, single, and a junior lawyer currently working for a big law firm specialized in business law. My line of work is, by the way, one of my concerns as I am beginning to feel deep down that it may not be what I really want to do. I don't know, I'm not sure.”

Alice gave Dr. Alperin a beat to weigh in with her opinion, but the doctor stayed silent and let her speak.

“Actually, right now, I'm not sure about anything which adds to the reasons why I'm here today. Um… what else can I tell you? I am an only child born to a french father and an american mother. My father was fifty-four and my mother forty-one when I came along, so I was a late in life surprise. And not a good one, I guess, if I can judge by the fact that I have more memories of my nannies than of my parents. But anyway, I was only six when I lost them. They died in a plane crash and…”

For a brief moment Samantha Alperin ceased being the attentive therapist listening at her patient with benevolent neutrality. She abruptly stopped taking notes and looked at Alice eyes wide, as in shock.

“…Oh my goodness! Wait a second here. Are you telling me that you're Elisabeth Weill-Devreaux's daughter?”

“As a matter of fact, yes I am. So… you know of my mother?”

Recognition of her mother’s name and fame shouldn’t have surprised Alice, but it did in the context of a therapy session.

“Of course. Who wouldn't? I still have quite a few of her vinyls. She was one of the world's most famous concert pianists for crying out loud.”

“Well, yes that was true twenty years ago. There's now an entire generation that has most probably never heard of her. And one thing is for sure,” Alice replied with a bitter smile that didn't reach her eyes, “she definitely wasn't one of the world's most famous mothers.”

“We'll also come back to that later. Sorry for interrupting. It's just that I was and still am a big fan. But please go on.”

“So, as I told you I was six when my parents passed. I can't really say that I had a hard time overcoming the loss as I was already accustomed to rarely being with my parents. Even during the few times a year they were home, they seemed to hardly take notice of my existence. I think that, rather than a father and mother, I saw them more or less as distant relatives who would visit once in a while to make sure everything was okay with the little girl who lived almost alone in the big house by the sea. Of course I always had a nanny to take care of me but for some reason it was a different one every year as if my parents didn't want me to become attached.”

Dr. Alperin nodded sagely. “It’s hard to be sure of the motivations of someone you can no longer ask. Where did you go after?”

“My father had no family left and so it's my mother's older sister who got custody of me. Aunt Deborah wasn't by any means a bad person and she did the best she could but, just like my mother, she wasn't affectionate. Or maybe she couldn't show it, I don't know. The sisters came from a very conservative family and had both suffered the same strict and uptight upbringing. The one thing I vividly remember is that there was no warmness. Being held, kissed, cuddled, comforted, everything a child needs, was out of the equation.”

A bridge of silence followed. It was as if Alice needed time to digest the memories of her early childhood before bringing out more. Dr Alperin let her have that necessary pause. It didn't last too long before Alice resumed her narrative.

“I was painfully shy - I'm afraid I still am - and never had any close friend in high school. Somehow I always felt awkward, unable to mingle with the other teenagers. I was never overtly outcasted or bullied but was also never welcomed in any group or clique. Unwillingly, I developed this reputation of being a loner. I was just the barely invisible studious demure schoolgirl who never got in trouble but who was also never part of the fun. I simply fell into the habit of believing that I was dull and uninteresting. It was hurtful, of course, but what could I do? And so my life remained pretty much uneventful until I was eighteen and went to college.”

“That must have been a big change for you, I suppose.”

“Oh god, 'big' doesn't even begin to describe it. After the very sheltered life I had lived until then, it was more to me like a revolution. Living in a dorm, sharing my place with a roommate, managing my schedule, having to make my own decisions… It was overwhelming. But it was also an eye opener. For the first time I was among people from many different countries, cultures, opinions, most of them living their lives with a freedom of spirit that I envied. It was scary but fascinating. And as luck would have it, the nicest, sweetest, most caring roommate anyone could have dreamed of was assigned to me.

“Her name was Sophie. Like my father, she was french and had the most charming accent as well as a contagious laughter. In hindsight, I think I had a crush on her from the moment we met. Her permanent cheerful disposition was infectious and her smile could have lit up the darkest of rooms. She was my polar opposite. I was a short introverted orderly dark-eyed brunette, she was a tall outgoing messy blonde with the most incredible blue-greenish eyes I had ever seen. False modesty aside, I thought of myself as rather pretty but she played in totally different league. To me, she personified gorgeous and I was in awe.”

“How did your differences play out as roommates?”

“Well, as much as going out, drinking, dancing, were foreign to me, she was the absolute party girl and from day one made it her mission to bring me out of my shell. As Sophie used to say 'life is short and you'd rather regret the things you've done than the things you haven't.' Whatever reasons I invented to decline the many invitations we received, she was adamant and wouldn't take no for an answer. And so, with her constant unwavering help and watchful tutelage I slowly began to open up.”

“It must have felt quite liberating.”

“It was indeed, if a little uncanny. For the first time in my life, someone was making me feel safe, protected, cared for. I can't tell you how good it felt and how much it meant to me. But then, without knowing it, Sophie opened an other door, a very hidden one: my sexuality. As pathetic as it may sound, before she came into my life my body had been silent, unaware of itself. I never had had, er…”

“…urges?”

“Um… yes, that would be the appropriate word I guess. Talk about late bloomers!”

“There is nothing wrong with being a late bloomer, Alice. If anything, late bloomers tend to encompass their burgeoning sexuality in a more mature way when they begin to express it, and are less apt to get involved in unsatisfactory relationships than the ones who begin too early. Not to mention all the undesired pregnancies and their consequences. Raging hormones aren't the wisest counselors. So, what happened in your case, if you don't mind me asking?”

“Well, in order to understand what happened and how, there are two things you have to know about Sophie. In contrast to my reserved and even somewhat distant demeanor, she was the typical european touchy-feely type and would often hug me, kiss me on the cheek, run her fingers through my hair or take my hand when we were walking together. And I must admit the more it happened the more I liked it.

The second thing is that Sophie had absolutely no modesty. To her, undressing in front of me or spending entire evenings with nothing more to cover her delightful body than the thinnest t-shirt seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Not that I complained, mind you, because I soon discovered that every time she would do that, a squadron of butterflies would take off in my belly and fly towards a lower part of my body where they would land and party for hours, leaving me as hot as confused. Even if didn't put a name on it yet, I was getting to know my very first desires.”

“How did you feel about that?”

"In retrospect, the strangest part is that I was much more troubled by the intensity of these sensations than by the fact that they were elicited by a member of my own gender. As a matter of fact I didn't question myself at all about my eventual gayness. I was utterly smitten and accepted it as something I couldn't fight. My only problem was that I didn't dare express anything to my beloved roommate. If such an outgoing girl had made no overture, I was certain she’d reject any that I made and I would have to endure that crushing rejection if I told her how I felt.”

“Fear of rejection is not uncommon. How did you deal with it?”

“Well, one thing was for sure: my body didn't whisper. It spoke loud and clear and wouldn't be denied. With a will of their own, my hands soon discovered how to respond to its demands. The first time I orgasmed I thought I had died and gone to heaven. And Sophie was in my mind each and every time I would give in to my cravings. My thirst was unquenchable. To my great shame, I became a… how should I put it?...”

Alice was blushing heavily while nibbling on her bottom lip like a ten year old caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

“I became a… compulsive masturbator. I couldn't get enough. And it lasted that way for months. Most evenings, when we were not out somewhere rebuilding the world in endless discussions with other students or dancing ourselves silly, we would usually go through whatever homework we had before collapsing in our small couch, munching on chips, peanuts or any other highly inadvisable junk food we could get our hands on while watching some ridiculous chick flick, my head laid in Sophie's lap, basking in her sweet scent and letting my growing arousal fill me with delightful if very clandestine shivers, anticipating the pleasure I would give myself later, once alone in my bed with Sophie asleep in hers.”

There was a wistful expression on Alice's pretty face, something between a smile and a grimace, but Dr Alperin also noticed that although her patient was recounting moments of her young life that she should have considered pleasant, her eyes were moist and shiny.

“When you think of it now, don't you feel it was a happy time for you?” she asked.

Alice remained thoughtful for almost a full minute before answering the question. It obviously wasn't an easy one.

“Well, it was and it wasn't. By the end of our first semester there was no doubt left in my mind that I was not only physically attracted to Sophie. I was in love with her and my feelings were intensifying day after day. But she had also become my best friend, the one who was always there for me, the one I could share almost everything with - I know it sounds laughable to name someone your best friend when you have a grand total of one - and, as I already mentioned, I was terrified by the prospect of losing that precious friendship if I told her about my feelings. After all, up to that point nothing in her behavior had led me to believe that she might be interested in girls. I had seen her often enough flirting outrageously with countless guys to convince myself that she was as straight as can be. I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

“Not the most comfortable of places I guess.”

“Definitely not.” replied Alice with a bitter laugh. “But anyway I should have known that such a situation couldn't last for ever and as a matter of fact it all came to a head one stormy night of March I'll never forget.

It had been a long day. Sophie and I had spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening in the library researching whatever essay each of us had been working on. Wishing for a change of scenery we decided to go and have dinner in a little but nice italian restaurant we both liked, as much for the tasty dishes as for its cosy atmosphere. As it wasn't too far away from the campus we chose to walk there. 'Une jolie petite promenade' - a nice little stroll - as Sophie used to say.

We were on our way back, walking hand in hand through the beautiful park enclosing the campus when we got caught in the most sudden and powerful thunderstorm. Needless to say, we hadn't taken the precaution of carrying an umbrella so that when we reached our dorm, after running as fast as we could and laughing hysterically, we were literally drenched.

Once in our room, we quickly undressed to our underwear, grabbed the fluffiest towels we owned and worked, as best as we could, to dry each other off. With her hair full of raindrops and her pale skin glowing in the dim lighting of our bedside lamps Sophie was more beautiful than ever. Her soft curves were the epitome of sensuality. I was mesmerized. Suddenly I couldn't move anymore, my hands standing still on her delicate shoulders and my eyes glued to hers. There was a deafening silence. I'll never know what came over me at that moment and where I found the nerve to do what I did but, without any thinking or deliberate will, my face slowly leaned towards her magnificent visage and for a split second my lips brushed against hers. It was barely a whisper of a kiss but to me it was the most perfect instant of my life. My whole body trembled and a warm shiver ran through me from head to toe. If time could just stand still…

But one second later, that moment of absolute bliss gave way to the most horrible feeling because I suddenly realized what I had just done and it terrified me.

'Oh my god, oh my god, I ruined it all. She's going to hate me, to despise me. She'll never want to speak to me again.' was my one and only thought. I just wanted the ground to open and swallow me. I was so ashamed I couldn't look into her eyes and began to splutter like the worst idiot ever.

'Oh Sophie, please forgive me, I'm so sorry. So very very sorry. It won't happen again, I promise. I hope you can forg…'

I couldn't finish what I was trying to say because a long slim finger embellished with the cutest red nail was placed on my lips to shush me. I didn't know how to react. When I finally found the courage to look at her, Sophie flashed me the most radiant smile, enfolded my blushing cheeks in her hands and just said:

'Well, sweetie, it took you long enough.'

I couldn't believe my ears, was not even sure I'd heard her correctly.

'Wh… what… what do you mean?' I stuttered totally confused.

Sophie took my hand and directed me to the couch where she made me seat facing her.

'Okay, first relax now,' she told me, 'because there's nothing to apologize for. You didn't do anything I didn't expect or anything I didn't like for that matter.'

The whole thing was becoming surreal. But I had to face it, there she was, all calm and collected, telling me that I hadn't done anything wrong. The ball in my throat began to dissolve. Just a little bit. Just enough to breathe. Just enough to notice that she was looking at me with such tenderness that my heart swooned and my eyes moistened.

'So, you… you knew?' I asked incredulous.

'Knew what sweetie?'

'That I am er… attracted to you.'

There was something mischievous in her gaze. Soft, tender, caring, but definitely mischievous.

'There are two things you need to know,' she said, 'one about me and one about you. Which one do you want me to tell first?'

'I… I don't know. The one about you maybe.'

'Okay, fine, here it comes: I am a very light sleeper.'

Somewhere in the very depths of my mind a bulb lit up and I blushed so profusely I could feel my skin catch fire. I was my own arsonist.

'I'm… er… I'm not sure I need to hear the other one, I muttered.

'Well, I'll tell you nevertheless because I'm pretty sure you're not aware,' she told me grinning like the Cheshire cat. 'I know that you always try to be as discreet as possible but you're a moaner, sweetheart, and quite an expressive one if I may say so myself. And I'm quite sure you're not conscious of it but more often than not you whisper my name when you… you know.'

At that point there was only one question left in my confused mind: why does the ground never open when you need it to?

Dr Alperin couldn't help a small laugh escaping her. Whatever pain and distress her young potential patient was going through, the fact that she hadn't lost her sense of humour was a good sign. She looked up from her notes and saw a hint of a smile, a melancholic smile but a smile nevertheless, fighting the bitterness that painted Alice's pretty face.

“So, the ground not having granted your wish, what happened next?”

“Well, as you can imagine, my embarrassment and guilt were beyond measure. Night after night after night she had heard me pleasuring myself, for god's sake. And maybe she had even seen me convulse beneath my blanket in the semi-darkness of our room. There was only one thing Sophie had just said that kept my mind from drowning in shame: I hadn't done anything she hadn't liked. She had said that, hadn't she? But what exactly did she mean? And if it meant what I desperately hoped it meant, why had she never said or done anything? Why had she left me in the dark for so long? I had to know. And to know, I had to ask. So, summoning up the very small dose of courage I had left, I did.

'Why?'

'Because it had to come from you, sweetie,' she answered.

'But Sophie, you're the experienced one. You're bold, adventurous, fearless. You always speak your mind and act accordingly. You're everything I'm not,' I replied.

'That's precisely why I couldn't make the first move,' she said. 'I was convinced that, had I come on to you, the risk of you getting cold feet was too big. I couldn't take the chance that you'd let your fears and insecurities get the better of you. However great my own want was, I just knew I had to wait until your feelings and desires would be so strong and so mind-boggling you wouldn't be able to keep them to yourself any longer.'

I had to admit it made sense. I was still worried and unsure but I began to catch sight of a small fragile glow at the end of the tunnel.

'Your own want? Does… er… does this mean you're a little bit… attracted to me?' I shyly asked.

Sophie burst into laughter.

‘How dense are you exactly?'

I didn't answer but my brain began comparing the bulk density of lead and mercury. Mine was probably somewhere in between.

The therapist couldn't help laughing at Alice's self-deprecation. If the young attorney was showing the same wit in court, she thought, a cross examination mustn't be a pleasurable moment for any witness on the stand.

“Allow me to doubt that. But I understand the feeling. When reality surpasses our expectations we often have a hard time seeing things for what they are as if we don't deserve our dreams to be fulfilled. This is what I call the too-good-to-be-true-moments. But I presume Sophie did what she had to do to help you overcome your disbelief.”

“Oh, yes she did. And so much more… But I must tell you that what remains most vivid in my memory isn't the love she made to me that night, however incredible it was. No, it's the reassuring gazes, the soft kisses, the tender terms of endearment, all the little things she offered to the bumbling virgin I was that made me feel safe and protected like I'd never been before. Till the day I die I'll never forget that incredible, mighty, delectable feeling of being who I was and where I was meant to be. For once, I was neither the forgotten child nor the neglected teenager. As corny as it may sound, for the very first time I felt like I belonged. And when I woke up the following morning, snuggled in Sophie's arms, all wrapped in her sweet warmth and at peace with myself, it was to me like another birth. The real one. I was an eighteen years old infant taking her first breath.

To make a long story short, that unforgettable night was the first of many and, despite my constant and distressing fear that such perfection couldn't last, step by step, we learned togetherness. Even if we didn't pronounce the word for ourselves we were becoming a couple. We didn't advertise our relationship but didn't hide it either so that, after a while, the tall blonde and the short brunette became part of the daily college scenery. By the end of our freshman year I was the happiest girl on this planet, all the more so as we were both lucky enough to ace our finals.

The only shadow in my sunny mind was that we couldn't spend the summer together. Sophie was flying back to France to visit her family while I had to stay here and take care of Aunt Deborah. She was fighting her second bout with cancer and her health had deteriorated so badly that doctors doubted she would make it to the end of the year. She hadn't been the most affectionate person but she was my only family left and I felt it was my duty to be there for her.

Although Sophie and I called each other or exchanged e-mails almost daily, these were ten dreadful interminable weeks. A piece of my heart was on the other side of the Atlantic and I couldn't wait to have it back. Apart from tending to Aunt Deborah's needs, I spent quite some time searching for something I wanted to surprise Sophie with when came back.

I found exactly what I was looking for by the end of July: a nice one bedroom apartment, fully furnished, on the third and last floor of an old brownstone, a mere three minutes walk away from the campus. The living room wasn't very big but had a small balcony with a bistro table. What delighted me most was the large bathroom with the most gigantic bathtub you could dream of, where I envisioned us doing luscious naughty things on cold winter nights. I rented it right away. It was a bit of a gamble on my part to make such a move that implied intimacy and commitment. I could only hope that Sophie would like the idea as much as I did.”

Engrossed in her past, Alice had not been conscious of the time flying by. Still, when she saw Dr Alperin take a quick glance at her wristwatch she knew what it meant.

“Sorry to have to stop you here Alice but our time is up for today. We'll obviously need another session for you to complete your narrative and for me to begin to understand the issues at stake. I strongly suspect that there is no happy ending to your story or you wouldn't be here today but I would advise you not to think about it too much until our next time together. If you feel comfortable enough here by now to envisage me as your therapist, that is. I know it's easier said than done but in the mean time try to unwind. And don't stay alone at home too much. Wallowing in self-pity is useless and counterproductive. Go out and see people. There's a life out there and you need to feel you're part of it. Okay?”

Alice nodded in weak agreement. She was about to tell the therapist that, apart from two or three work colleagues whom she intermittently shared lunch with, she had no one to possibly hang out with. She was ashamed of that lamentable situation though, so she just shut up.

Regarding their next appointment they agreed on 'the sooner the better' principle and decided on a date and time before the doctor escorted Alice to the door. She was about to leave when Samantha Alperin looked deeply into her eyes and took her hand in both hers. No words were spoken but there was a real soothing warmth in the gesture. Alice welcomed it with a sigh. At least she was now sure she had found her therapist.

*********

Alice didn't like her weeks very much but she hated her weekends with a vengeance. Their only purpose seemed to be to remind her how lonely and aimless she was. But on that Saturday, two days after her meeting with Dr Alperin, listening to the oppressive silence of her apartment, she decided to follow the therapist's advice and not stay confined in her cosy but depressing prison. The weather was showing its best profile, flooding the city with warm inviting rays, beckoning its inhabitants to get out and do something pleasant. Alice saw it as a sign.

She took her big straw beach bag out of the bedroom closet, filled it with a large blanket, the book she was currently reading, a box of biscuits, paper tissues, sunglasses, a water atomizer and a thermos of iced tea she had prepared beforehand. Spending the afternoon in Central Park under the shade of a big oak tree with the latest publication of Michael Connelly - she was a sucker for Harry Bosch's adventures - seemed like a good project.

Apparently, all of New York had had the same idea and had decided to gather in the Park. The vast stretches of lawn were invaded by hordes of city dwellers only too happy to escape their usual environment of concrete and bitumen in exchange for a few square feet of freshly mowed grass.

After a bit of walking, Alice finally found a nice spot that wasn't overcrowded. The big oak tree she had dreamed of wasn't there but it was okay. Her matte skin didn't fear the late spring sun.

She'd been peacefully reading for about an hour when a soccer ball sprung from nowhere to knock over her beach bag and spill its contents. The ball was quickly followed by a fiery beagle that came to a halt less than a foot from Alice and bent its head to look at her reverently as if asking for permission to take the ball back.

A few seconds after the dog, a very young girl arrived, out of breath but laughing like only young children who haven't learned yet how to spell the word 'worries' can. Her hair was so red it appeared to be on fire and her skin had such a heavy dusting of freckles that it seemed like someone had shaken a paintbrush over her. To complete the picture, she had the cutest dimples ever and emerald green eyes so luminous they gave the impression to be spotlighted from the inside. The girl stopped laughing and even began to blush when she saw that her ball had slopped the bag and dispersed the contents all over the blanket.

“I'm sorry,” she said timidly, lowering her eyes.

“No problem,” a smiling Alice replied, “nothing precious or fragile in there as you can see. What's your name, honey?”

“I'm Caitlin. And this is Sam,” the girl answered, proudly showing the three-colored beagle that seemed more impatient than its mistress to get the ball back and resume their play. "Sam is my best friend,” she added, “even more than Sally Winston.”

“Well, I don't know Sally Winston but I'm sure she can't be as nice as Sam. Pleased to meet you, Sam,” Alice said, holding her hand out as if to shake Sam's paw, making little Caitlin laugh again.

“Sally Winston lives in the same building as me and my mommy and Sam,” explained the girl. “She's four just like me and we're in the same class. Every morning we go to school together with Sally's mommy. And she likes to play soccer. Like me. And she's very pretty.”

“Wow, I think by now I know everything there is to know about Sally Winston. Well, maybe she's very pretty but I must tell you you're a knockout!”

It seemed to make the little girl thoughtful.

“I don't know what a 'nopout' is. Is it bad?”

“Oh no. Not at all. The total opposite in fact,” replied Alice with an outright laugh. “It means that you're more than pretty and that, in a few years, all the boys in your school will want to… play soccer with you. But for now, Sam is as good a partner as any I guess,” she added, stretching her arms out to give the ball back to a jubilant Caitlin who took it and began to run away before stopping dead in her tracks and turning around to face the smiling brunette.

“You really think I'm pretty?”

“Told you so, didn't I? Yep, definitely a nopout.”

“Thank you. I'll tell my mommy. Oh, and I'll be careful with the ball now. It won't happen again. I promise.”

It happened again, of course. The ball seemed to be inexorably attracted to Alice. Every time, Caitlin and Sam would come running and every time the little girl would stay a minute or two to exchange a few words with the charming woman who knew how to speak to curious children. After it happened for the umpteenth time, an adult figure approached Alice who, raising her eyes, had the surprise to contemplate a carbon copy of Caitlin, only a foot and a half taller and with eyes that were a slightly darker shade of green. The woman was a living prediction of what the little girl would become in twenty years: a very petite slim woman with flamboyant long hair and an intense green gaze.

“I'm so sorry about my daughter. I've seen her bothering you repeatedly. You shouldn't let her. When Caitlin decides she likes someone, she won't leave them in peace no matter what.”

“Oh no, no, she's not bothering me at all. On the contrary. In fact our bouts of conversation are the most interesting I've had in quite a while. And er… to tell you the truth, I feel more comfortable with children. They don't make me nervous like adults do.”

“Oh god, I'm sorry. I didn't intend to make you nervous. Forgive me. I'll just leave you to…”

“No, no, that's not what I meant. That came out all wrong. It's just that I'm a bit shy and… gosh, I'm making a fool of myself aren't I? But please stay. I'd really like you to stay. You look so much like your beautiful daughter, it's amazing and…”

Realizing what she had just said, Alice blushed profusely.

“You know what, I'll just stop talking. Maybe it'll save me from further embarrassment. Can I interest you in a cup of iced tea?” said a very red Alice beckoning the young woman to seat near her on the blanket.

“Iced tea would be nice, thank you. And don't feel embarrassed on my account. What woman doesn't like being complimented? I'm Sabrina, by the way. But my friends call me Bree.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sabrina. I'm Alice. But as far as I remember nobody ever gave me a diminutive. Maybe there isn't any.”

“Of course there is. You could go by Al or Ally.”

“My goodness, definitely not Al. But I think I'd be okay with Ally. So, tell me more about soccer fan Caitlin.”

“Well, as you can guess, that little bundle of energy means everything to me. I was only twenty-one when she was born but it was the happiest day of my life. I won't pretend that things were easy then and I had to put my studies on hold for a while but I never regretted it for one second. I had to waitress tables for longer than I would have liked but I was finally able to get my degree two years ago and, as luck would have it, I found a decent job almost immediately. We're not rolling on money, not by a long shot, but we manage.”

“Should I understand that there's no father? Ugh… Sorry, you don't have to answer that if you feel I'm being indiscreet.”

“You're not. And no, there's no father in the picture. There has been a genitor, obviously, but he was definitely no father material. Disappeared in a cloud of dust the minute he learned I was pregnant. It's just Caitlin and me. And Sam since last year. What about you? Married?”

Alice shook her head.

“Well, I'm surprised no man has withdrawn you from the market yet. Because if you think I'm beautiful, I'll have a hard time finding the right adjective for you. You must have been told a million times that you're Natalie Wood's reincarnation. So I'm pretty sure you need a stick to beat the guys away.

Alice was a bit frightened to reveal who she was to a total stranger but she had always believed honesty to be the best policy.

“Sabrina, I'm… er… I'm gay,” admitted Alice, blushing once more. “I'd… um… I'd understand if you'd prefer not to stay now. I know it's difficult for some people to accept my orientation and…”

“You must be joking, right?” interrupted the redhead almost in anger. “Who am I to judge? Whether you're straight or lesbian or in love with a polar bear, to me it doesn't make you a better or a worse person, for fuck's sake - pardon my french. If women are your thing, power to you. And if it can make you feel better, I'm not totally straight myself. There has been a little curve to my road. Twice as a matter of fact. And believe me, I don't regret my explorations in unchartered territories. My only belief is that there are lovable and unlovable people, regardless of their gender and orientation.”

Alice was so relieved by the acceptance and so moved by the genuine sincerity she'd heard in Sabrina's voice, she felt tears rise and threaten to inundate her eyes. She coughed in order to conceal her emotions and turned quickly away to take hold of the thermos and refill their cups. That awkward moment drained away, they went on talking about everything and nothing, both happy to learn more about each other, oblivious of the time flying by while emptying the thermos of tea and dedicating the necessary time and attention to Caitlin who seemed delighted to see her mother and her latest adult friend forging bonds.

It was well past seven when the two women realized that Alice's biscuits were long gone as well as all the delicacies Sabrina had brought for her daughter. The little girl and a young dog needed to be fed urgently. Time to leave. On their way back to the park entrance, Alice felt better than she had in a long time and was already regretting the imminent but inevitable separation. They had at least exchanged phone numbers, which implied that Sabrina wasn't opposed to the idea of keeping in touch.

When they reached the exit, Alice kissed a giggling Caitlin, petted an impatient and starving Sam, but it was Bree who took the initiative to hug her and deposit a sweet goodbye kiss on her cheek before walking away towards the subway station. For Alice, watching mother, daughter and doggie walking hand in hand and hand on leash was the sweetest of sights.

********

Nothing had changed since the last time in Dr Alperin's office. The room looked the same, the paintings on the wall were still there, every piece of furniture was exactly where it had been previously, and the woman behind the desk wore the same generous and reassuring smile.

Yet in spite of the similarities, Alice felt the atmosphere was somehow different. Maybe because she was less nervous now that she knew Dr Alperin or maybe because of what had happened during the weekend. She couldn't say.

“How do you feel today, Alice?”

“Better, I must say. And I think I have to thank you for that.”

“How so?”

“Do you remember you told me not to stay shut in all the time? Well, I followed your advice and went out. Saturday afternoon. Central Park. Lots and lots of people. And, I'm not totally sure yet, but I think I may have made a friend. Two, actually, a mother and her young daughter. And before you ask, yes, I very much enjoyed the feeling.”

“I like to hear that! So, you see, maybe you're not the hopeless loner you're so afraid to be. It only depends on you.”

“Not really. I wouldn't have had the nerve to go to them. They came to me.”

“Maybe, but you acknowledged them. You let them in, which is good. May I suppose that you'd like to see them again?”

“Very much so.”

“Did you exchange personal information?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Good. Then, please, I don't mean to pressure you but I'd like you to do a little exercise for me. I know that your natural inclination, however much you wish to speak with her again, would be to wait for that woman to call you even if the waiting might prove tedious. Well, I'm going to ask you to modify your usual standard and be the caller. Will you do that for me?”

Alice remained silent for a while, weighing the pros and cons, obviously not sure she could do it.

“I… Okay, I'll try,” she finally consented.

“No, Alice, you won't try. You will do it and you will feel good about it.

It was the first time the therapist was assertive and, strangely enough, it filled Alice with an almost sensual contentment.

“I'll do it. I promise,” she said, her features all of a sudden perfectly relaxed, a meaningful fact that didn't escape Dr Alperin's attentive observation.

“Fine. Let's get back to your life story for now, if you don't mind. Our last session ended with you having just rented an apartment for you and Sophie for the oncoming year, not really knowing how she would react. So, what happened when she came back?”

Alice was a bit reluctant to go back there but she knew she had to do it or her sorrow would never fade away.

“When I picked her up at the airport in the early morning, I was so elated I totally forgot about my nervousness regarding the apartment. When I saw my Sophie coming through the gate, I ran and threw myself in her arms, oblivious of the crowd around, my whole body praying to be held, my lips begging for hers. It was so unlike me but I was so in love! ... On the way back, I tried to figure out whether I should drive directly to the apartment and show my surprise to Sophie or bring her back to our dorm - all our things were still there - and let her have some rest after the long night flight. I opted for the latter even if I knew it would keep me on my toes the whole day.

Eventually Sophie slept until late in the afternoon. After she had showered and ate the light breakfast I prepared, I told her I'd like us to take a walk together. She happily agreed and two minutes later, off we were. When we reached the small building, I was more than a little nervous but also full of hope. I took Sophie's hand and told her:

'Come, I want to show you something.'

'Oh, and what would that be?' she asked.

'Can't tell you, it's a surprise. You'll just have to be patient for one more minute,' I teased.

We climbed the stairs to the last floor and of course, Sophie was quite astonished when she saw me take a key out of my pocket and open the door of the apartment. I took her inside and closed the door behind us. Basking in the red-orange sunset light, the living room was spectacular. I couldn't have chosen a better time.

'I don't understand, sweetie, where are we?' asked a rather puzzled Sophie.

'Home, if you agree,' I simply answered.

She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown a third eye.

'Home as in home-for-you-and-me-living-together-as-a-regular-couple?'

There was such incredulity in her voice that I began to panic.

'That… er… was the idea,' I mumbled laboriously, certain by then that I had made a terrible, irreparable mistake. 'But, you know, we don't have to…'

I couldn't finish my sentence because once again I got sushed by that delicate long finger I had come to adore for various reasons. One second later I was tightly pressed in Sophie's arms, warm lips showering my face with kisses before whispering in my ear words that branded me deeper than the hottest red iron:

'I love you too, my Alice. More than you would know.'

Silent tears were running down Alice's cheeks as she recounted her former happiness.

“Sorry,” she said with a lump in her throat.

“Never be sorry for your emotions, Alice,” Dr Alperin replied, handing her a box of tissues, “they're the best part of your humanity. And don't be ashamed for others to see them because, despite what you probably believe, they're not a sign of weakness. On the contrary.”

"My most difficult task that evening,” resumed Alice after having dried her tears, “was to ease the guilt that assaulted Sophie for not having the means to contribute to the rental. I knew that her parents weren't well off and that it had been a huge financial strain on their part to send their daughter to study overseas. It took me long into the night to convince her that my parents had left me with more money than I could spend and that there was no need for her to go and look for some crappy part-time job that wouldn't make us any richer but would only take its toll on her studies and our available time together.

Eventually, we liberated our dorm room first thing the next morning and by the end of the day had transferred the totality of our belongings in our new nest. We spent the following weeks making it a home. Our home.

I couldn't believe my luck and was walking on air: I loved and was being loved. There was no doubt in my mind that my sophomore year would the best year of my life and, as a matter of fact, it was. Step by step, without expressly verbalizing it, we built up our own routine. I was in charge in the kitchen - Sophie would have burnt water - she was in charge in the bedroom. Knowing that she was the most rackety girl ever and that she could turn our little Eden into the messiest universe in no time, I also took responsibility for most household chores and let her more than fertile imagination decide of our leisure time activities.”

“Didn't that that allocation of roles bother you a little?”

“Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I enjoyed being the dutiful fiancee, so to speak, and let her be the domineering figure she was born to be. I aimed to please. Seeing her happy made me happy, sensing her pleasure gave me pleasure. I never felt we were equals but didn't resent it. On the contrary. Our inequality turned me on to no end and, had she ordered me to, I would gladly have worshipped her without any regret till the end of times. Truthfully, not being in command, whether in or outside the bedroom, made me feel good. Better than good even. Safe and cared for. My life was perfect. What more could I ask for?”

Dr Alperin was beginning to see a pattern emerging, one that her young patient didn't seem at all aware of. Here was a woman who had embraced a career where she had to make important decisions, lead the tasks of people working under her and assume choices on behalf of her clients, but conversely clearly expressed that she felt best when not in charge. Typical case of self inflicted paradoxical injunction: to compel one's self to do the exact opposite of what one really aspires to. The most perfect and perverted way to avoid any chance of happiness and satisfaction. But the therapist couldn't simply put it on the table. Alice had to discover it by herself and it would take time. At the moment it was best to let her go on with her story.

“We had a wonderful year without the smallest cloud in our sky except for the fact that Aunt Deborah died in the last few days of December. I was officially alone in the world but for the love of Sophie. Which was quite enough for me. Winter and spring flew by as if they had an urgent appointment somewhere else and our finals were there before we knew it. But we both had been conscientious students. We had worked hard and we passed with flying colors which left us with an enjoyable summer ahead, free of scholastic worries. And on the fourth of July we were together on the plane flying us to France.

Our plan was to stay for one week in Paris where the Tour Eiffel, the Sacré-Cœur, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and so many more incredible places were waiting for me. Sophie had also promised to show me everything tourists never see. Then we'd fly in the direction of the Côte d'Azur - the south coast of France on the mediterranean sea - where we would spend two weeks in the small villa Sophie's parents used to rent for one month every year. I would then fly back to New York on my own while she'd stay ten more days to have some quality time alone with her family.

Needless to say I was nervous to meet Sophie's parents. After all, not only did they have to digest the fact that their nineteen year old daughter had come out as gay but also that she was in a committed relationship with an equally young girl who didn't have any other project than to live with her permanently, three thousand miles away. Guilty as charged!

But I shouldn't have worried. They welcomed me like a second daughter and did everything they could to make me feel at ease.

Alain and Françoise were the sweetest people and I dearly loved them from the word go. He was a railway engineer who couldn't say more in english than 'my taylor is rich' and 'my sister is not a boy' but she worked as an executive secretary for some international conglomerate and had a good mastery of our language. They were polar opposite of my own parents and showered Sophie with such genuine unselfish affection, I began to truly realize what I'd been deprived of during my whole childhood and adolescence. They were also very open-minded and didn't care their daughter was gay as long as her significant other loved her and made her happy.

Anyway, we had three incredible dreamlike weeks and when I kissed my love and her parents good bye in Nice airport on a sunny afternoon I knew with absolute certainty that there could never be more beautiful days except for the one which would see us exchange vows and rings and promise each other to be together for the rest of our lives.”

The experienced therapist could hear a change in Alice's voice and tone. It was almost inaudible yet, but she knew it was there. Her speech rate was slowing down and words weren't coming as easily as before. She had no doubt that she was about to hear something awful. Something that had relentlessly altered the course of a life. Something that had transformed a beautiful, carefree, enthusiastic, happy young woman into a shadow of herself.

“I… I was counting the days before Sophie would be back. Only four more. We'd been on the phone the night before, as we were every night, making plans for our next year, joking and laughing about the mess she would create in our apartment to drive me crazy, Sophie giving me utterly indecent details about the naughty ways she would invent to make it up to me. Twenty-four hours later I was still smiling at our antics, lazing in our bed, waiting for our daily call which usually would come around 1:00 a.m. By 2:30 and I concluded that maybe she was out with her parents or that she had forgotten to power up her phone - she had a long history of ending up with a dead mobile. I was resigning myself to go to sleep without having heard her voice when my phone finally rang.I switched it on and happily shouted:

'Hey you, not a moment too soon! You almost made me wait.'

But I didn't hear her familiar laughter. An oppressive endless silence lingered at the other end of the line until I heard a trembling voice that wasn't Sophie's but her mother's.

'Alice?'

I clearly remember that I immediately jumped to my feet, feeling extremely cold, sweating and shivering at the same time.

'Françoise? Hello? What's happening, Françoise? Where is Sophie?' I asked, desperately trying to stay calm.

'Alice, oh Alice, ma chérie? there has been… there has been an accident.'

When I heard the word accident, a frozen vice-grip encircled my torso and I couldn't breathe any more. I didn't scream, I didn't cry, I simply passed out. I don't think it lasted long, probably just a few seconds, because when I regained consciousness, lying on the ground at the foot of the bed, I could hear a faint voice coming out of the phone, two feet away.

'Alice? Are you still there, Alice? Please talk to me. Please, ma chérie, please.'

I… I was feeling extremely weak but I managed to take hold of the phone.

'Yes, Françoise, yes, I'm here. Just tell me. What happened? Where is Sophie? How is she?'

'She was crossing the street on her way back from the beach and got hit by a car just in front of the villa. She has been transported to hospital. That is where I call you from. We have been told her condition is critical and unstable. She is in surgery right now. We… we do not know more at the time being. But please do not panic, stay calm, ma chérie. Sophie is a fighter, you know that. She will get through this. I shall let you know as soon as there is any news.”

Alice didn't even try to fight hers tears anymore. Two small rivers of pain were running down her face staining her blouse at the precise location where her heart was beating. But was it really?

“It was such a horrible night. Sophie was in surgery for over six hours. Her mother called me every thirty minutes or so, but there wasn't much she could tell. We just had to wait and hope for the best. It was past seven in the morning when she got transferred from surgery to I.C.U. Françoise called me immediately and told me that all broken bones had been repaired but Sophie was suffering two bad skulls fractures and was in a profound coma. The doctors wouldn't give a prognosis.

Another hour passed and I was on the Internet, trying to find a direct flight to Nice when my phone rang again. As weird as it may sound, I blanched on the spot and almost fainted again.

I knew in my heart what I was about to hear even before I picked up the phone. And Françoise's broken voice and sobs only confirmed my premonition: my love hadn't made it. My Sophie… my Sophie was gone.

Alice's had her eyes closed by now as if there was something or someone in the room she dared not see and she was barely whispering as if every word coming out of her throat was a potential weapon threatening to inflict wounds that would never heal. It wasn't difficult for Dr Alperin to imagine the unbearable pain level her patient was enduring, having to revisit what had been without a doubt the worst moment of her life but she knew there wasn't anything she could do to alleviate the suffering apart from being there, attentive, understanding and compassionate.

“Take all the time you need, Alice, we're in no hurry. I know it's difficult. Just breathe for now. Let the air fill your lungs as slowly and regularly as you can, it'll help you to calm down.”

Alice tried very hard to focus on her breathing and only on her breathing. Her therapist was right. After a minute or two she was able to speak again.

“I… I won't bother you with what happened in the following days or even the following months. The flight to France, the funeral, the few days I spent with Sophie's destroyed parents, the first weeks back here trying to get rid as quickly as possible of the apartment where I couldn't put a foot anymore.

All of it is just a foggy nightmare that I don't retain any clear picture of. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't speak and had a hard time getting my brain to focus on anything. But I knew deep down that going on with my studies was the only thing that might keep me sane. If didn't grab that thin and fragile lifeline, I would drown for good. It was the survival instinct I guess. And you know what: I was ashamed of it. As dead as I felt inside, there was a tiny light somewhere that wouldn't be switched off. I didn't want to live but I didn't want to die. And as days went by I… er… I… don't make much sense, do I?”

The therapist who had feared a complete meltdown was relieved to hear some of Alice's tension flow back towards deeper recesses of her mind.

“On the contrary, Alice. It's extremely significant. Mourning is a complex process that varies greatly from one person to another in method, length and intensity. The shame of being alive after having lost someone you love is very frequent. There are stages in grief and, unless you're a happy-go-lucky psychopath, it's impossible to avoid them. Normal people, if there such thing as normality, will go successively through shock, denial, anger and depression before reaching acceptance. And, during that time, having a death wish fighting against the primordial will to live is nothing unusual.”

“I don't remember having ever been angry during all that time, but maybe I'm just not… wired that way. Anger is not my thing. Generally, I tend to flee before anything might trigger it. But denial and depression? Yes, I know those quite well. Acceptance, I'm not so sure. I believed so for a while. After two terrible years, I could feel the pain begin to ebb and, even if it made me feel guilty, I was beginning to let Sophie go. And for the four following years, I had a semblance of life. A couple of flings even, nothing momentous, just little reminders that my body was still alive. But look at me now: I'm here, aren't I? As depressed as I was seven years ago, living an equally meaningless life.”

“There's no proven reason to assess that your present condition results from the same cause, Alice. Were you enclosed in a pathological mourning, there would not have been any four-year remission.”

“But what other reason could explain it?”

“That is precisely the question you have to ask yourself. And when you'll find right answer, you won't need me anymore. Therapy will be over.”

“Are you already pushing me away? After two sessions...?!”

Samantha Alperin's smile could have cured the worst case of melancholia, or so it seemed to Alice after what she'd gone through during that harsh session. She was aware she'd been very close to losing it but she trusted her therapist to be a firm guardrail when she neared the abyss.

“Certainly not, Alice. You'll be the one to make that decision. And, being the intelligent and sensitive woman that you are, going down that path, even if you'll sometimes think it's too bumpy, won't take as long as you probably believe now. Take my word for it.”

 

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