It was near the end now. In his last few moments of consciousness, he whispered to her, “I love you… live a happy life, Ella.” And despite the pain of the disease slowly killing him, he managed a last, faint smile.
Ella took a deep breath and braced herself. She inhaled the strong smell of cleaning chemicals that permeated the hospital, and it turned her stomach even further. There was nothing else she could do now but hold his hand and watch as the morphine dripped into him, like a sand hourglass counting his last minutes.
It didn’t matter anymore… it was only his body. The man she had married was no longer there, each faint and labored breath taking him farther and farther away.
It had all happened so fast. It had only been six months since he’d received the terrible diagnosis. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She had a hard time even pronouncing the name. All she knew was that it was a rare form of blood cancer, that reduced the ability of the body to fight infections. It progressed quickly after that, his organs giving out before they could do much by way of treatment, a dire predicament at just thirty-eight years old.
Ella thought back to the two years they had been married, one and a half happy and healthy years… It had been just enough time to allow them to make lots of plans for their future together while, unbeknownst to them, life was making its own, very different plans.
She watched his final breath leave his body taking with it all those hopes and dreams.
The unbroken beep of the machine keeping track of his vitals still rang loudly in her ears when she closed her eyes that night.
It had been two years since John’s passing, and the fact still amazed her. Ella wasn’t exactly sure where all that time had gone, she was just pretty sure she had wasted it. Now the sun was setting over the hills of Colma, a town just outside San Francisco known more for its cemeteries than its living habitants — a dubious claim to fame, if you asked her. The bone-chilling wind pierced through her wool jacket as fog rolled over the hills with a vengeance, like a cool ethereal blanket. She kept pace with Eleanor and hugged her jacket around her tightly, trying in vain to ward off the damp cold. When they reached the parking lot, Eleanor said to her, “I’m so happy my son had you those last two years. You made him very happy.” Without giving Ella time to reply, Eleanor added, “but it’s time for you to move on now, honey.” She spoke warmly, but her eyes were clouded with sadness. “You have your whole life ahead of you. John would have wanted you to be happy.”
Ella took a deep breath and stared at the black pavement of the parking lot to avoid looking her mother-in-law in the eyes. It was not the first time she’d heard that. “I know,” she said, resigned.
“Take care, dear. It was nice seeing you again.” Eleanor gave her a tight hug before getting into her car. Ella watched her drive away. Eventually, she got into her car to make the journey back home to Sausalito, a small coastal town just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way, she decided to stop to grab a quick bite to eat. She was hungry and it was the thick of rush hour on Friday night, it would take her a long time to cross the bridge at that hour.
She parked, and walked along a long and busy block lined with restaurants and bars in a trendy San Francisco neighborhood, towards a hip organic burger restaurant. She grabbed a seat by the window and ate the meal, lost inside her own head and staring out the window, mindlessly watching the many happy Friday night revelers on their way to the bars. Finishing the tasty burger faster than she’d intended, she went for an aimless stroll down the street. Anything to kill a little more time. The melancholy of the day hung heavy on her and she knew she was stalling. She dreaded the idea of going back home and being alone that evening.
In a halfhearted attempt at fun — but really, just a pathetic excuse for a way to drown her sorrows — she walked into a bar for no particular reason other than it was the one right next to where she was standing at that moment, unaware that this seemingly minor and random choice would come to alter the course of her life.
The place was fully packed, the combined noise of chatter, laughter and music was so loud you could practically touch it, there was a distinct smell in the air, a mix of old wood, alcohol and a faint flowery smell of someone’s lingering cologne. One quick glance at the patrons and she realized she’d walked into a gay bar, a big rainbow flag in the back wall leaving no space for doubt for the less punctilious. Not that it mattered to her, as long as they had alcohol. She desperately needed a drink.
Ella took a single empty seat at the end of the shiny dark wood bar, a quieter area — if anything in that place could be called quiet. The bartender, a buff looking young man wearing a tight black t-shirt that revealed his muscled chest through the soft fabric, came by shortly afterwards to take her order. She asked for a Manhattan and he proceeded to craft the cocktail with an expert’s speed, rushing to get to other patrons who waited impatiently for his attention. She chugged it without much joy, watching the happy interactions of the people around her while her soul got more comfortable in her depression.
She drained the last drops of her drink, already debating with herself whether to go home or to stay and have another, when a stunningly beautiful woman took the empty seat next to her. The newcomer was tall and slender, fashionably dressed in tight black skinny jeans and a black leather jacket, her long brown hair cascading effortlessly over her shoulders. She looked straight at Ella eyes and smiled; she had the most impossibly light green eyes Ella had ever seen.
“It’s a shame such a pretty girl looks so sad and alone on a Friday night… so I decided to rectify that by buying you a drink,” the woman said, flashing a killer smile and more confidence than Ella could muster in a lifetime. It was so unexpected, and Ella so surprised, that had she had anything left in her drink, she could have choked on it. The beautiful woman didn’t seem fazed by her stunned silence, extending her hand like everything was normal.
“I’m Katherine Wilde.” As if on cue, the bartender served them both new drinks with a sly smile at Katherine.
Ella finally managed to snap out of it and shook Katherine’s soft, perfectly manicured hand. “Ella Kerr,” she replied timidly. “While this is very nice of you, I don’t think you want to waste your Friday night on me,” she said delicately, a little uncomfortable but flattered all the same.
“Why is that so?” Katherine asked. She seemed intrigued, but Ella saw something on her face that looked like the sting of rejection. It was pretty clear she hadn’t experienced that particular feeling very often.
“I’ll tell you what,” Ella added, eager to soften the blow. “I’ll tell you one thing about me. Nothing fancy, just what I did today. After that I fully expect — and I won’t be offended — that you’ll be running as quick as you can towards some other pretty girl in this bar.”
“Okay…try me!” Katherine laughed, looking surprised. “What could you have possibly done today to send me packing like that?”
“I went to visit my husband’s grave… it’s been two years today since he passed away,” she said flatly. Katherine’s pretty smile disappeared immediately, replaced with something like pity.
“I am so sorry,” Katherine said, serious now.
“Thanks… it’s okay, really.” They were quiet for a minute before Ella added, “now, if I may be so bold to suggest… how about that pretty girl over there?” She pointed to a short-haired girl sitting further down the bar.
Katherine turned her head and checked the girl out, amused. “No,” she said, “not my type. Besides, now that I’ve bought you a drink I might as well get my money’s worth.” She settled in and grinned. “There are two kinds of people in here on Fridays. The ones who come to meet people and maybe get lucky, and the ones who come here to drink themselves senseless. If this Friday night won’t be the first kind, it might as well be the second. And I think you’re the best company for that in here!”
“Why thank you!” Ella took the dubious compliment with a laugh. “You might be right, though…” Ella sipped her drink checking Katherine out. “So, what’s your type anyway?”
“I’m looking at it,” Katherine raised her eyebrow, and gave Ella a sly smile.
“Ah… straight and depressed? How’s that working out for you?” Katherine laughed heartily in response and Ella smiled. “If you really do want to hang around, then next round is on me.”
“Fair enough,” Katherine nodded. “So, what else do you do for a living besides hanging at bars disappointing your takers?”
“I’m a pianist.”
“Cool! What kind of pianist?”
“The professional kind… what do you mean?” Ella replied with a slight mocking tone.
Katherine smiled. “Like, where do you play? In a band? At a bar? Or maybe like Macy’s…”
“Yes, that kind! Macy’s,” Ella replied dryly, biting back a smile. “I play piano at Macy’s! What Macy’s do you shop at anyway?”
Katherine gave a delighted laugh. “I went through a Macy’s once and saw a piano there. I assumed someone must play it at some point, right?” she teased.
Ella snickered. “Honestly? I mostly play with symphonies. I’m also a composer — I score soundtracks for feature films. John — my husband — used to be a music producer, and had lots of studio connections out here. That’s kind of how I got started with that.”
“That’s impressive. Any movies I might know?” Katherine asked.
“Maybe, one of them was pretty big. By the way, I think it’s Nordstrom’s. With the pianos. Now that I think of it, there’s a piano at Nordstrom’s,” Ella added, laughing. “And what do you do?”
“I own a media design company. We work on product design, packaging, brand design, graphic design… things like that.” Katherine brushed through the answer and immediately followed up with a question that swiftly shunted the conversation back to focus on Ella. “Have you lived around here all your life?”
“No, I grew up in New York. My dad is an academic and he gets invited to be a visiting scholar at colleges around the country. I used to enjoy coming to California with him when he would teach at Stanford. I always liked California but I went to Juilliard instead. If I’d stayed there you might have had better luck tonight, everyone there was gay!” Ella joked before continuing. “Anyway, after a year, much to my parents’ chagrin, I decided I’d had it with New York. I always found it too busy for my taste, so much… expectation. I like California’s laid-back style. I know it’s like blasphemy over there to say so, and of course a New York fairy loses its wings every time I do say it, but I like here better. There! I said it!”
Ella smiled defiantly and they both laughed, the alcohol clearly starting to work its magic. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this chatty and she was surprised to find she still wanted to keep talking. “My parents are typical New Yorkers too. They couldn’t understand my choice at all. My mom hammered me about what kind of musician would get accepted to Juilliard and decide to go to Stanford. But it worked out for me in the end. They have a really good composing program — plus, that’s where I met John.”
“Was he a student too?”
“No, John was eight years older than me. We met on my Senior year. He was there as a guest lecturer on music producing. I was practicing playing piano alone in a classroom room one day and he walked in to listen…” she stopped talking as the memory of that day pulled her away. She could picture it clearly in her head — John’s face as he walked towards the piano, smiling and confident, his beautiful brown hair falling just slightly over his brown eyes…
She was brought back to reality by her sudden awareness of Katherine’s intense gaze on her. Ella shook the memory away and continued the story, slightly embarrassed. “He asked me about the song I was playing. It was one I had composed for a class, he said he liked it, that he could turn it into a hit.” She smiled at the thought, shaking her head. “After that, he kept stopping by during my practice times, day after day… And the rest is history.”
“So, you shacked up with the teacher?” Katherine teased, pretending to be horrified.
“Hey, he wasn’t my teacher!” Ella retorted laughing.
“Well, I can see what he saw in you.” Katherine turned on the charm full-blast once more, flashing her killer smile again. While Ella found it highly intimidating, Katherine’s raw intensity was also somehow extremely alluring.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Katherine asked.
“No,” Ella answered honestly, swallowing hard.
“Just wondering whether you did some exploring during those ‘gay times’ at Juilliard,” Katherine joked. “Too bad…”
“Why is that?” Ella asked hesitantly, thrilled and scared by the feelings Katherine was bringing out in her.
“Because I was hoping maybe I could steal a kiss from you.”
Ella dropped her eyes to her glass with an embarrassed smile, unable to hold Katherine’s piercing gaze; she could feel the blood rushing through her tuning her cheeks hot. “I must confess you’re so beautiful you might just be able to.”
Katherine raised her eyebrow in what seemed like surprise at the positive answer. “Would you like to try?” she asked charmingly, like it was no big deal.
“I might just want…to try…” Ella answered softly, surprising herself.
Katherine responded to her cue and without wasting any time, she leaned closer. Ella, eyes open, gazed at Katherine’s beautiful features, her smooth skin, the beautiful hints of hazel in the pale green of her eyes, her delicate lips that were now just a breath away… and she started to freak out inside.
What in the world am I doing?
Her heart beat fast inside her chest, but before she had a chance to chicken out, Katherine’s lips touched hers.
It was a different feeling than any kiss she had ever had. Katherine’s lips felt incredibly soft and velvety against hers, tasting sweet… like… vanilla. Her tongue teased Ella’s ever so slightly, like a lightning strike, the pang of want hit deep within her.
They kissed tenderly, making everything else seem to disappear. For all Ella knew they were all alone, in some alternate void of space and time. Ella wondered for a brief moment if she shouldn’t be enjoying it so much but it felt so right… and Katherine was an amazing kisser.
Ella opened her eyes. It was as though the world had somehow shifted beneath her. Katherine smiled sincerely before looking away, breaking eye contact for the first time that evening — the most vulnerable Ella had seen her look all night.
“Whoa…” was all Ella could finally utter, her brain still lost somewhere deep in the fog of the feeling. But then, very suddenly, reality came back as gently as a pack of bricks. “I think I’ll wrap up the evening,” she stood nervously. “It’s getting late and I have a big day tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Katherine replied slowly, looking thrown by Ella’s sudden exit.
Ella felt bad, like she was running away… probably because she was. But it wasn’t Katherine’s fault. A whirlwind of emotions raced through her, more than she could deal with at that moment. “This is the first time I’ve kissed anyone since John…” she whispered mostly to herself, but loud enough that Katherine still heard it.
Katherine looked at her, surprised, and Ella shook the thought away. “Thanks for the company. I can’t even remember the last time I’ve had this much fun or laughed this much.”
“Sure, it was my pleasure.”
Ella put on her coat, said goodbye and hurriedly started walking away. Katherine called after her before she could make it too far, and Ella turned.
“Can I see you again?” Katherine asked looking hopeful but her eyes betrayed the dreaded vulnerability of someone who had just taken a leap without knowing where it might land.
Ella stood silent for an uncomfortable moment. Conflicted, she unconsciously ran her hand over her hair and she looked away from the vulnerable look in Katherine’s eyes. “Yeah…” she replied at last. “I’m playing tomorrow — with the San Francisco Symphony at Davis Symphony Hall. Would you like to come?”
Katherine dazzled her with a heartbreaking smile. “Yes, I would love to!”
“I’ll leave you a ticket at will call.” Ella turned to leave again wondering perplexed how come she had just essentially agreed to going on a date with another woman.