“Here you go,” Ellie Travis said to the well dressed woman on the other side of the glass counter as she handed her the small store bag continuing her purchase, “and thank you for shopping here at R.J. Nickels.”
Ellie always felt a little silly saying that after every sale, but knew all too well that some supervisors were eager to write you up for not doing so. As her customer walked away from the counter, the short haired brunette took a moment to check her hair and makeup in one of the oversized mirrors. As she did so, she once again thought it incredible how some women were willing to buy a product, just because it had some celebrity’s name on it. In the twenty-five year old’s opinion, the cosmetics that woman had just purchased really weren’t any better than the ones Ellie bought for herself at her local drug store at less than half the price.
Still, if some women weren’t willing to spend a small fortune every week on overpriced cosmetics, Ellie knew she would soon be out of a job. Working the counter at the block long, midtown department store might not have been the greatest of jobs, but it was a job nevertheless. One that paid the bills and gave her enough flexibility to take some college courses designed to help her get a better position down the line. Plus, the job did come with some perks, including a generous employee discount, and while Ellie wasn’t willing to buy her cosmetics here, discount or not, she did make use of it for clothes whenever she could. Despite having lived in Manhattan all of her life, there was no way she could dress the part, at least the image that television and movies projected, without it.
Glancing down the length of her counter, Ellie didn’t see anyone else that needed help, so it gave her time to reflect on the state of her life. She would’ve been further along in her goals, she knew, if only she’d paid more attention back in high school, or even had a definite plan what to do afterwards. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t part of her social life back then, few things merited her attention. Thankfully, those days were behind her now and while she still valued an active social life she tried to keep it in proper perspective.
The job, such as it was, was one thing she had going for her; having gone back to school was another. If she had to pick a third, Ellie would undoubtedly choose the nice two bedroom apartment that she lived in just a short walk from Greenwich Village. That she shared the apartment with three other roommates was something she usually failed to mention when she told people about it.
Sharing the five room apartment called for some compromises, she knew, the most interesting of which was when one of the girls had an overnight guest. Normally, Ellie shared one bedroom with Carol Murphy, and her other two roommates, Bridget Kelly and Alice Moore the other. If one of the girls was planning to have an overnight guest, three of them would use the larger of the two bedrooms, turning the smaller one over to the roommate with the guest. It was far from a perfect arrangement, since you really didn’t always know beforehand if you were going to have an overnight guest.
Up until about a month and a half ago, Ellie didn’t have to worry about any of that, because she’d had a steady boyfriend in David Graham, who worked in the store’s delivery department. They’d met at a company function the summer before and it had been love at first sight. Okay, maybe lust at first sight, but love at eventually found its way in there as well. Or at least what she liked to think of as love.
Three inches taller than her own five six, David, who was also two years older, had the kind of body you normally associated with a professional athlete. Not surprising seeing, he’d been a high school jock who made the all city team his senior year. But high school and college football were two different things, and he dropped out of college after his freshman year when he was cut from the team.
And while he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, Ellie had never gone for the intellectual type anyway. The twenty-seven year old blond was smart enough, funny and totally awesome in bed. In hindsight, Ellie sometimes though that it was because he was such a great fuck that it blinded her to other things that she might have otherwise noticed.
During the last month of their relationship, the subject of Ellie moving in with David began to occasionally come up. Usually just after they’d finished an exhausting romp in his bed. David would be all for the idea post coitus, but then his enthusiasm would usually fade come the dawn. Ellie didn’t press the issue because, given the number of nights she slept at his West Side apartment, they were practically living together already. Eventually, she reasoned, he would come to realize it and make it official.
What Ellie never understood, however, was that David didn’t see it quite the same way. In fact, his whole take on their relationship turned out to be quite different than hers, quite different indeed. It wasn’t until the day of the electrical fire at the store that Ellie discovered how dissimilar their views actually were.
The fire had started in a storage closet a little after lunch and while there was no major damage or injury, the store had to be evacuated and the lingering odor afterwards precluded customers returning. When the decision was made just to close up for the rest of the day, it hadn’t taken Ellie five minutes to close up her counter and head for the door.
A few of the other girls decided to make the most of the free afternoon and head over to Times Square, but Ellie had other plans. David had called in sick that morning and although he said he was feeling much better when she’d talked to him during lunch, she’d promised to stop by after work to be sure.
She’d had her cell phone in hand to call him, to let him know she would be early, but then decided to surprise him instead. She’d stop at the deli on the corner by his apartment and pick him up some soup in case he was still feeling poorly. If the opposite proved true, Ellie mused, well then, a nooner wasn’t out of the question.
Soup in hand, Ellie used the key David had given her to let herself into the large apartment. Almost twice the size of the one she shared with her roommates, the rent controlled apartment still had his grandmother’s name on the lease, which explained how a simple delivery man could afford to live there.
When she didn’t find David in the kitchen or living room, Ellie left the soup on the kitchen counter and headed down the long hallway towards the bedroom, slipping off her loafers as not to wake him if he turned out to be asleep. If he was, she’d already decided to crawl into bed with him, if only to help keep him warm.
The door turned out to be slightly ajar and, silently peeking in, Ellie realized that she could’ve been wearing combat boots and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. David was in bed alright, but not only was he wide awake, he wasn’t alone.
“Oh God, baby,” she heard David say, his voice just loud enough to carry to the door, “your fucking ass is so tight!”
“That’s because your fucking cock is so big!” came the reply from a dark haired woman, who, like David, was facing away from the door, her features hidden.
Ellie didn’t need to see her face, however, to recognize the heavily accented voice of Lola Sanchez, one of the floor supervisors at the store. Ten years older and thirty pounds heavier than Ellie, the twice divorced Latina had a reputation as something of a slut. Never one to give much credence to store gossip, Ellie had never fully believed it until now.
Without a word, Ellie had silently exited the apartment, but not before leaving her key atop a hastily written note on the coffee table in the living room. The note had simply said, “It’s over.” The two of them had not spoken since. In fact, David never even tried to call her to try and explain - not that there was any explanation that would’ve mattered.
“Well, it could’ve been worse,” Ellie’s best friend from the store, Carmen Silva, told her a few nights later as the two of them commiserated in a midtown bar after work.
“How could it have been worse?” a slightly inebriated Ellie had asked.
“David could’ve been the one with the cock up his ass,” the thirty-nine year old Puerto Rican woman laughed.
Although she had laughed at the joke, Ellie had thought, if that had been the case, she might not have felt as bad as she did. Oh, she wouldn’t have been happy by any means, but at least she might have understood the reason more. In all the times she and David had gone to bed, he’d never even suggested that he’d wanted to fuck her ass. It wasn’t something that Ellie had done before, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have been willing to try. After all, considering the things they had tried, David knew she was far from a sexual prude.
David must’ve told some story to his co-workers, because it didn’t take long for the word to get out that the two of them were no longer a couple. Ellie never bothered to try and find out what he’d said, but it couldn’t have been detrimental, because soon after, a number of single and some not so single men began to drop by her counter with invitations that ranged from lunch to drinks after work.
All of which Ellie had turned down as nicely as she could. Some she told that she needed some time to herself, others that she wanted to just concentrate on school for a while. Some, she just simply said no to. Eventually, she got the message across and the invitations stopped. At least for a while.
What she couldn’t tell anyone, not even Carmen with whom she shared almost every confidence, was that something had changed in her life. Something she hadn’t been willing to share up to this point. In fact, up until the week before, Ellie wasn’t even sure how she felt about it. The only aspect of it all that she had been sure about was that it wouldn’t have happened if she and David hadn’t imploded, and that there was no doubt that she was venturing into unexplored territory.
It had all started only a few days before she walked in on David and Lola. With a two hour gap in between her Tuesday evening classes, Ellie had been enjoying a cup of coffee at her favorite shop down by Washington Square. Her enjoyment of the drink, however, was being offset by her difficulty in understanding the novel her English professor had assigned for the first exam, then only a week away.
Closing the book, having read the preceding chapter for the third time, Ellie still couldn’t understand how the characters in the novel related to the questions the professor had brought up in class. Several times during her last reading, she had stopped and referenced her class notes, but found they didn’t make it any clearer. It was becoming so frustrating that she was beginning to wonder if she might not be better off dropping the class altogether.
Absorbed with her dilemma, Ellie didn’t notice that someone had sat down at the small table barely half a foot away from her own. It wasn’t until the woman said something that she finally looked up and realized that she was there.
Her name, Ellie would learn, was Audrey Foster. Ten years her senior, although if she’d had to guess, the younger woman would’ve thought the difference no more than half that, she was wearing a pair of casual black slacks with a yellow top. Audrey also had curly, reddish brown hair that was cut in a style not much longer than Ellie’s.
“Excuse me?” Ellie said, not having quite made out what it was that the other woman had said, but assuming that perhaps she needed something on her table.
“I said, I’m sorry to see that the professors at Eastside are still torturing students with that book,” Audrey repeated. “That is where you’re going, isn’t it, Eastside Community?”
“Why yes,” Ellie replied. “How did you know?”
“I had to read that novel during my first year there; I think every freshman does,” Audrey replied. “Somehow, I doubt it’s gotten any better with age, mine or the book’s,” she laughed.
“I’m pretty sure you’re right,” Ellie agreed with a smile, offering her hand as she introduced herself.
“Audrey Foster,” the older woman said as she extended her own hand. “I think having to read that book helped inspire me to become a teacher, if only to save future students from having to suffer through it.”
“Oh, can I transfer to your class?” Ellie asked with a laugh.
“You’d be more than welcome,” Audrey said, “but I think you might feel a bit out of place. I teach over at West Side Elementary and most of my students are just hitting puberty.”
“Considering some of the guys in my class now, it might not be so different,” Ellie offered, recalling some of the lame come-ons she had been subjected to, in the first two weeks of class.
Audrey laughed at the remark, commenting that some men never outgrow that stage of life.
“Did you ever figure the book out?” Ellie asked. “I ask because I’m so totally lost that I don’t even know where to start.”
“Did your professor give you a list of questions you were expected to answer?” Audrey asked, leaning a bit closer to look at the notes on Ellie’s table but not seeing any such list.
Ellie nodded in the affirmative.
“Well, let me take a look at it and maybe I can help a little,” Audrey replied, “at least enough to get you on the right track.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean I expected you to help,” Ellie quickly said. “I was just looking for hope that it could be done.”
“Be that as it may, I’d be more than happy to see if I can help,” Audrey smiled. “Like I said, saving people from that book was one of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place.”
Not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one that applied to a problem that only a few minutes ago seemed insurmountable, Ellie quickly accepted the offer before Audrey could change her mind. Reaching into her notebook, she pulled out the list of questions and handed them to the older woman.
Question by question, Audrey took the time to explain just what each one meant, which turned out not to be always be what Ellie had thought it did, and how it related to the novel. By the time they reached the bottom of the list, Ellie had a whole new take on the reading matter and was certain she wasn’t going to have any problems with the exam. It also wasn’t until they’d gotten to the last question that the younger woman realized that she had taken up more than an hour of the teacher’s time.
“Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I held you up this long,” Ellie said as she looked up at the clock on the wall.
“It was my pleasure,” Audrey said, helping Ellie gather up her class materials. “I enjoyed teaching someone who was actually paying attention for a change.”
“Well, it was definitely appreciated, believe me,” Ellie said as she stuffed her notes back into her carry bag. “I wish I had the time to at least buy you dinner or something, to show how much I appreciate it, but I have another class in about twenty minutes.”
“You don’t have to buy me anything,” Audrey said as she reached into her own bag and produced a business card, quickly writing something across it, “but I would really like to hear how you make out on the exam.”
As she took the card, Ellie saw Audrey had added her personal cell phone number to the pre-printed address and phone number of the school. She promised that she would let Audrey know and dropped the card into her bag.
“Oh my, isn’t that lovely,” Audrey said as she suddenly noticed the small cameo pendant that Ellie wore around her neck, a white ceramic face on a green and gold-trimmed background. “It’s the goddess Diana, isn’t it?” she asked as she reached out and held it in her hand for a moment.
“Actually it is,” Ellie replied, adding that it had been a gift from her grandmother and that no one had ever identified it before.
At that moment, Ellie found herself looking right into Audrey’s green eyes and saw something she really couldn’t define. At least not coming from another woman. The feeling only lasted a heartbeat, but it was enough to make her feel a bit out of sorts.
“I ... I really have to go,” Ellie said as she picked up her bag and started to rise out of her chair.
“Remember to call and let me know how you make out with the exam, I’d really like to know.” Audrey said, the smile on her face following Ellie as she headed for the exit.
Ellie returned an awkward smile of her own as she again thanked Audrey for her help.
Three weeks after her break-up with David, Ellie had been emptying her bag and found Audrey’s card. She had gotten her exam back a week and a half before and had done much better than she had ever expected, scoring the third highest grade in the class. Because she had done so well, she now felt a bit guilty about not having called the teacher to thank her for the help.
“Well, better late than never,” Ellie considered as she picked up her cell and started to dial the handwritten number.
The number rang a few times and Ellie hoped it would go to voice mail in another ring or two. Then she could just leave a message and appease her conscience. When, on the second to last ring before that, a live voice came on the line, Ellie was momentarily at a loss what to say.
“Hello?” Audrey said, pausing afterward as if she awaiting a response. “Hello? Is there someone there?” she repeated when none came.
“Hi Audrey, this is Ellie,” the brunette finally said, wondering why she felt so nervous; after all, it was only a phone call. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at the coffee shop off Washington Square a few weeks ago. You helped me with a book I was reading for class.”
“Of course, I remember you, Ellie,” Audrey said, the smile on her face evident in her voice. “I had been wondering how you made out on that exam. It’s been so long that I’d figured you’d forgotten about me.”
“Not at all,” Ellie lied, not wanting to say she’d had a few more urgent things on her mind of late. “I only got the exam back a few days ago. You know how some professors are.”
“All too well,” Audrey said, “but don’t keep me in suspense. How did you do?”
When Ellie told her, Audrey said that she couldn’t help but be impressed.
“I don’t think I would’ve gotten half that if you hadn’t helped me that afternoon,” Ellie heard herself say.
“Don’t sell yourself short, Ellie,” Audrey said in reply. “I just gave you a little nudge in the right direction; you did the rest on your own.”
“Even so, I still owe you a lot,” Ellie offered.
“Well, you did offer me dinner, as I recall,” Audrey replied, “but I’ll settle for a drink and a little adult conversation.”
“A drink?” Ellie repeated.
“And a little adult conversation,” Audrey also repeated. “You have no idea how hard that is when you spend most of your day with a bunch of teenagers who treat conversational English as almost a foreign language.”
Audrey paused for a second, then, before Ellie could give a yes or no answer, asked if she knew a restaurant that was only a few blocks from the coffee shop where they’d first met.
“It’s more of a little bar n’ grill really, but a very nice place,” Audrey clarified as she rattled off the address. “What would you say to Friday night about six?”
Ellie considered for a moment that, if Audrey had once been a student at Eastside, then she knew that they didn’t have classes on Friday nights, which was probably why she picked it. Still, if she really didn’t want to go, she could always say she already had plans - it was Friday night after all.
She was about to do just that, when the memory of that shared look back at the coffee shop flashed into her head. Both the memory and how it had made her feel. Without immediately realizing she had done it, Ellie said that Friday at six would be fine.
By the time six o’clock on Friday rolled around, Ellie already had two drinks inside of her, having gotten to the bar a bit after five. She’d wanted to check the place out and was glad to find that it was exactly as advertised. So much so that it made her feel a bit ridiculous to have even thought that it might have been something else.
It had been that look, that silly, stupid look that she couldn’t get out of her head. The one that so reminded her of the first time she had looked into David’s eyes and saw him looking back at her with an intensity that made her quiver.
Why, Ellie asked herself more than once, was she making the assumption that that look, and the feeling it generated, meant the same thing now? It was even a leap to think that Audrey was into other women. After all, Ellie had never had any sense of what some people referred to as “gaydar.” Back in high school, there had been one girl Ellie had been sure was a lesbian, who turned out to be as straight as they come, and another that she would never have suspected as playing for the home team. And if she was actually right in all of her assumptions, then what was she doing here? It was all so confusing.
If any answer was forthcoming, Ellie didn’t have the time to wait for it, because as she turned her head she saw Audrey coming in the door. She waved to get her attention and, as the teacher worked her way through the crowd, the salesgirl quickly finished what was left of her beer.
“I didn’t think this place would be so packed this early,” Audrey said as she squeezed into the space next to Ellie at the bar. “Normally it doesn’t get crowded until about eight, but I passed their competition a block back and it was closed for some kind of renovations. Good for the owners of this place I guess, maybe not so good for us.”
“It’ll be fine,” Ellie assured her, now feeling a little more relaxed by the drinks she’d already had.
A bartender appeared in front of them and Audrey ordered her favorite beer, adding that he should bring Ellie another of whatever it was that she had been drinking.
“I thought I was supposed to be the one thanking you,” Ellie said as the bartender went off to get the drinks.
“You can get the next round,” Audrey said as she pointed out that one of the small tables against the wall had just been vacated. “Grab that table if you can, I’ll be right behind you with the drinks.”
Ellie barely made it to the table ahead of two guys who had also spotted it. For a moment, it looked like they might have wanted to join her but, as Audrey showed up with the drinks, a cold look from her sent the two of them off in the other direction.
“So tell me about yourself, Ellie,” Audrey said as she took a sip of her beer and judged it satisfactory. “I didn’t get a chance to learn that much that day at the coffee shop.”
Ellie thought about it for a second, then began the same mini-biography she normally gave people at the store or school. Nothing too personal, but enough to give a sense of who she was. Not giving it a great deal of importance, Ellie mentioned that she had just broken up with the guy she’d been dating.
“He must’ve been a real idiot,” Audrey said as she took another long sip of her drink.
“What makes you say that?” Ellie asked, surprised at her assumption.
“Because anyone that let a girl as pretty as you go has to be an idiot,” Audrey smiled.
Audrey asked a few questions about the things Ellie had shared so far, thankfully none of them about David. Then she began to offer some details about her own life. In the middle of her narrative, a waitress came up to the table and the redhead paused just long enough to order another round for both of them.
“I thought that was supposed to be my round,” Ellie said as the waitress moved off.
“Totally slipped my mind,” Audrey smiled as she slid right back into her story. “You can get the next one if you want to.”
It occurred to Ellie that if, in an identical situation, a guy had said that, she would suspect that he was trying to get her a bit drunk. After all, with the drink she’d had had in hand when Audrey had shown up, not to mention the one before that, she was already past her normal limit. Why then, she asked herself, didn’t it bother her now? Was it because she wanted to be a little less inhibited than she normally would be?
Her mind wandering for a few moments, Ellie was only half listening when Audrey mentioned that she had been in a long term relationship but it had also ended a few months before. Because of her distraction, Ellie had almost missed it when, in referring to her ex, Audrey had definitely use the female pronoun. That answered one of the two questions she had been asking herself. Of course, that just made her wonder all the more about the other. Were the two of them on a date?
When the waitress returned, Ellie suggested that they order some snacks to go with the round that was just delivered. Audrey thought that a great idea and said she had only hesitated in suggesting it herself because she wasn’t sure how long Ellie planned to stay. Saying that she was in no hurry to go, Ellie then offered the thought that they should order burger plates or something more substantial than chicken wings. A full stomach, she reasoned, would go a long way in countering the beers she’d drunk much too close together.
At one hour gave way to two, Ellie decided that if this was a date, and she still wasn’t sure if it was or not, it had been one of the nicest first dates she had ever been on. The conversation had been both lively and interesting, and there was no feeling of pressure at all. When it finally came time to say their goodnights, Ellie had felt a genuine sense of disappointment.
Audrey lived only a few blocks from the bar, and it turned out that the bus Ellie needed to take the few miles to her own place had a stop just across the street from there. The two women continued their conversation as they walked, smiling and laughing almost all the way. When they reached the bus stop, Audrey mentioned that a friend was having an exhibition of her photographs in the village next week and that she had an extra ticket. Would Ellie like to go?
Ellie said she would love to but before she said yes, she needed to know something. Audrey replied that she could ask anything she wanted...
“Would that be a date?” Ellie asked.
Audrey smiled for a moment, then said, “Sweetheart, it can be anything that you want it to be, or feel comfortable with it being.”
Then, with the bus just coming into view about a half block off, Audrey leaned over and kissed Ellie on her cheek, promising to text her all the details about the show.
Sitting on the bus and giving a last wave goodbye as the bus pulled into traffic and Audrey disappeared from view, it suddenly occurred to Ellie that her question hadn’t been answered at all.
The information about the exhibit was waiting for Ellie when she checked her messages the following day after work. Evidently the show was a dress up affair and Audrey wanted to give her plenty of time to make sure she had an appropriate outfit to wear. For not the first time, Ellie was grateful for the store’s employee’s discount.
Audrey had also said in the message that she’d really enjoyed spending the previous evening with Ellie and looked forward to going to the exhibition with her. At the end, she had signed the short note with a smiley face.
Ellie had stared at that emoticon for a long time, wondering how much meaning she should apply to it. Was this all a game, or was it something she should take seriously? Finally she decided that she should just go with the flow, as her little sister was always telling her, and just enjoy it for whatever it was.
That didn’t mean that she was about to tell anyone, including Carmen, that she was going on a date with a woman. Or at least what she was now going to assume was a date. The funny thing was, the more she thought about it, the more she appreciated the fact that Audrey had continued to leave it vague. As she’d noted before, this was definitely unexplored territory, and it was nice to have some wiggle room if she decided it wasn’t somewhere she wanted to go.
The next day, Carmen was more than happy to give up her own lunch break to help Ellie shop. The older Hispanic woman had known the salesgirls up on the sixth floor a lot longer than Ellie had, and it didn’t take much convincing to get them to make sure that every possible reduction was taken off her outfit, even before the standard employee deduction kicked in. Without her efforts, the dress they finally decided on would’ve cost almost half a week’s salary.
“That dress is impresionante,” Carmen said as she watched Ellie admire it in the full length mirror, “and I’m so glad that you’re getting back on the horse and moving on.”
Ellie shot a look back over her shoulder towards Carmen, then back to the two salesgirls who had been helping them, looking to see if they’d reacted to what she’d said. Even of they had heard her, it was doubtful that they knew that know that “getting on the horse” was Carmen’s favorite way of referring to “fucking a guy, just for the sake of fucking him.” It was an expression she claimed she had learned from her grandmother.
“No one said I was getting back on any horse,” Ellie said in an almost whisper. “I’m just going to a photo exhibition with a friend.”
“You’re not still hung up on that asshole, David, are you?” Carmen asked in an equally low tone, the possibility suddenly popping into her head.
“No, no, I’m not,” Elle said as she turned her attention back to the image in the mirror.
The funny thing was, she really was over David, and had been for weeks. She never would’ve thought it possible before she had walked in on him and Lola, but whatever they’d had together had been wiped clean in an instant, like one of those drawing pads she’d had as a kid. The kind where no matter how much effort you put into a picture, it would all vanish in an instant when you pulled up the plastic covering.
“Is he at least cute?” she heard Carmen ask.
“This friend, the one you’re going to this art show with,” Carmen expanded. “Is he at least cute?”
Ellie paused for a moment, a picture of Audrey forming in her mind. “Yes,” she said as she concentrated on the image, “quite cute indeed.”
As she took one last look at the dress before heading back into the changing room to take it off, one final thought came to Ellie. “Now that I think about it, if this isn’t a ‘fuck me’ dress, I don’t know what is.”
Adjacent to the sixth floor changing room was a second room not open to the public. It contained lockers, a few showers and a row of makeup vanities. A holdover from the days when the store used to hold fashion shows, it was a boon to girls going out after work, especially those who lived in the outer boroughs. It gave them a place to clean up and change in comfort rather than having to make do in the ladies bathroom, or head all the way home first.
On the night of the exhibit, Ellie was just about to head up and take advantage of the model’s room when she got a last minute text from Audrey. Once she saw “I’m sorry” in the first line of the message, Ellie was afraid that Audrey was cancelling for some reason and that thought made her feel sadder than she ever imagined it might.
To her relief, the apology was because Audrey was going to be unavoidably delayed at school and therefore might also be late for the opening. Would Ellie mind terribly, she asked, if she met her at the gallery rather than where they had originally planned? Her name was on the guest list, rather than just being a “plus one” so she wouldn’t have any trouble getting into the private event.
Quickly texting back that she wouldn’t mind at all, Ellie’s smile grew even brighter when she read Audrey’s response, “Thanks, you’re a love.”
Both the photo exhibition and the gallery it was being held at turned out to be a lot more high class than Ellie had originally imagined, and she was glad for the outfit she was wearing. Basic black, with a neckline just deep enough to show off her breasts, it also dropped two thirds of the way down her back, with her bare skin visible through a fine mesh. She’d also had her hair done during lunch at the store’s salon and one of the other counter girls had helped her with her makeup. Ellie couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten this dressed up to go somewhere, but it certainly hadn’t been for any place David had taken her.
Sipping a flute of champagne, Ellie found herself spending almost as much time looking at the other attendees as she did the photographs on display. The tuxedos most of the men wore were hardly the rent-a-tux that she normally saw at weddings and such, and, as nice as her outfit was, it was on the low end of the scale when compared to what most of the other women were wearing. Ellie was sure that few of them had to consider where else they might wear their outfit as to justify their cost.
There were even a few famous faces in the crowd, and Ellie had to remind herself not to stare too long at any of them, hard as that turned out to be. At one point, she found herself practically speechless when the star of one of television’s top rated shows asked her opinion of a photograph that both had been admiring. It was a nude of a woman about Ellie’s age that was both tasteful and highly erotic at the same time. A description that might be considered contradictory, but one that was the only way she could describe it. The expression that the television star had used in describing the image turned out to be one that could never be used on his network show.
Moving upstairs to the second floor of the gallery, where other photographers’ work was also on display, Ellie noted again how much more diverse the crowd around her was, at least as compared to those at the sort of gatherings she normally attended. Age and ethnic backgrounds were only the beginning, followed right behind by the number of intergenerational pairings she observed. Of those, in at least one out of three the senior partner had been a woman rather than a man. She even came across three same-sex matches, one with two men and the rest women, with one of them falling among the intergenerational as well. It was certainly a long way from the Saturday night parties at her father’s Knights of Columbus post back in the old neighborhood.
“Wonderful, I finally found you,” Ellie heard a familiar voice say behind her. “I’ve been searching for the last fifteen minutes.”
Ellie turned to find Audrey standing behind her, her short reddish-brown hair in an elaborate styling and wearing a sleeveless white dress with a blue sash across her waist. Not exactly what one thought of when one pictured a grade school teacher, was Ellie’s first thought. Then again, she reminded herself, she doubted that few of her customers at the cosmetics counter would recognize her in this setting either.
“God, don’t you look stunning,” Audrey said once she got a good look at her guest.
“I was just thinking the same thing about you,” Ellie admitted, hopping she hadn’t stared at the older woman too long.
Audrey leaned close and gave Ellie a friendly kiss on the cheek, coupled with a quick hug. At the same time, she apologized for being late and asked Ellie if she had been enjoying herself.
“Very much so,” Ellie replied. “Everything, everybody, is just so interesting.”
“I’m glad,” Audrey said as she reached out to a passing tray and picked up a pair of champagne flutes for the two of them. “I was really hoping you would like it.”
With a gentle touch against Ellie’s bare arm, Audrey led the younger woman back along many of the exhibits she had already seen as they worked their way back down to the main floor. This time however, Ellie was treated to a fascinating narration about the background of many of the photographs, both those of Audrey’s friend as well as those that had been on the second floor.
A few people recognized and came up to say hello to Audrey, and then were in turn introduced to Ellie. After the third or fourth time, she began to get the impression that she was being shown off as much as any of the exhibits on the walls. Normally, Ellie hated having that done; but strangely, tonight she didn’t seem to mind.
“This is all just so amazing,” Ellie said to Audrey after the woman they had been talking to excused themselves to say hello to someone else. “Do you get to attend things like this often?”
“Now and then,” Audrey said, “Often enough to no longer be in awe of it all, but not so often as to treat it as commonplace.”
They were just moving out of one of the tiny alcoves that divided the large display area when Ellie heard someone call out Audrey’s name. She turned her head in the direction of the voice and saw a woman in her mid-forties moving toward them. With short hair a light brown, Ellie immediately recognized her as the senior half of one of the lesbian couples she had spotted earlier.
“Audrey, darling,” the woman said as she came to a stop in front of the two of them, “I’m so glad that you were able to come. When I didn’t see you earlier I was worried that you hadn’t been able to make it.”
The two women exchanged a friendly kiss on the cheek and a brief hug, after which Audrey introduced the woman as Dorothy Malone, the photographer whose work everyone had come to see.
“Dorothy, this is my friend, Ellie Travis,” Audrey said.
“My, aren’t you the prettiest thing,” Dorothy said as she took Ellie’s hand between the two of hers. “I hope you’re having a good time.”
“We’re having a great time,” Audrey answered for the two of them. “It looks like the show is a great success.”
“Who’d have ever thought it back when we were living in that little room over in Tribeca?” Dorothy laughed. “I know I didn’t.”
“I think your work is spectacular,” Ellie said, wondering as she said so why Dorothy went out of her way to point out that the two of them once lived together. Did she think Audrey hadn’t volunteered the information that she liked girls?