by T.F. Grognon
“Hey! Hey, you! Dress for success!”
Vanessa heard the voice calling out of the general noise around the bus stop, but she didn’t bother to make sense of it. Not until an enormous yellow sunflower cartwheeled right into her, knocking her aside. She’d had another long day in an endless string of long days; the Hub was crowded with commuters looking to get home and not really caring who they stepped on to do so.
“Yo, lady! Can you get my flower?”
Losing momentum, the sunflower wobbled, and Vanessa managed to catch it just before it tottered into the street.
The thing was remarkably heavy, more like a hubcap than a flower, and it smelled wonderful. That alone should have confirmed that something was afoot. She’d bought many a sunflower at the bodega over the years and none of them had any scent at all.
Her hands were coated with yellow pollen as she stood against the flow of pedestrians, looking around for the flower’s owner. Owner? Creator? She wasn’t sure what to call it.
“Over here,” the same voice said, but almost in her ear. Shivering, Vanessa turned and looked down the block.
There was a pink-and-lavender ice cream truck parked several spots down. Sparkling silver text swooped across its hood. Charm Offensive: If You Wish It, We Can Magic It. A woman was leaning out the side window, waving at Vanessa. Her smile was dazzling, even this far away.
“How did you do that?” Vanessa asked as she approached. “Throw your voice?”
Beside the window, there was a blackboard listing prices, everything from glamours to change your hair color for the evening to charms for treating aching feet and joints.
“Oh, that?” Up close, she was even more striking. Her box braids were pulled up into two knots, one above each ear. She wore a pink t-shirt to match the truck, the logo distorted over her breasts, the pastel nearly glowing against her dark skin. “Nothing to it.”
That sounded like a whisper from directly behind Vanessa, but the woman’s dark, full lips had moved. She was watching Vanessa with an open, friendly gaze, waiting for her reaction.
Vanessa didn’t give her one. Instead, she handed the flower through the window. “This is yours, I think.”
“Well, it was that guy’s–” She leaned even further out the window and pointed down the block. Her arm was lean and beautifully muscled. “But it got away from me and he got salty, so. Whatever.”
“You’re welcome,” Vanessa said, poking the flower. It was beginning to fade, losing both color and cohesion. “By the way.”
The woman’s eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth. “I didn’t thank you? I totally thanked you, didn’t I?”
Vanessa brushed the pollen off her hands before adjusting the strap of her purse. “No, but better late than never.”
“Thank you! Seriously! These are tricky fuckers, the big-ass blooms and I got distracted when the dude started haggling, like, um, okay, I already gave you the price, you can’t try to get it lower when I already started! This is why I hate working the truck alone, this sort of bullshit–” She raised her voice a little, turning so she was addressing the truck’s interior. Someone, it sounded like a man, laughed in response. Another man’s laughter joined in. The woman turned back to Vanessa. “Bunch of potheads, taking advantage of my good nature and making me look bad in front of pretty ladies.”
Vanessa snorted at that. “At any rate, I don’t want to miss another bus, so–” She didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She didn’t want to leave, for some reason, but she also really wanted to be elsewhere already.
The woman had her elbow on the narrow counter, her chin propped in her hand. She was still smiling at Vanessa. “What’s your name?”
“Weird, that’s my cousin’s name! I’m Karé–” She stuck her hand out the window and Vanessa shook it. “Nice to meet you, Excuse Me.”
“Vanessa,” Vanessa said and tried to toss back her hair. She probably just ended up looking weird and twitchy. “It’s Vanessa. Hi, Karé.”
“Sorry about missing your bus,” Karé said. “I could make it up to you?”
“What, on your broom?” Vanessa winced. That came out way sharper than she’d meant.
“Well, I was thinking like a drink, but we could kick it old-school if you insisted.”
Vanessa thought of the calendar she kept at home, of everything she had to do, and shook her head. “I’ll think about it,” she said. She tapped the edge of the window and turned. “I really do need to catch my bus.”
“Take your time,” Karé said, as if from beside her. “I’ll just be here, wishing and hoping.”
As she headed for the bus stop, Vanessa murmured her reply, lest the people around her think she was crazy. “Like the song?”
“Thinking and praying, planning and dreaming,” Karé said. Her voice was fading; Vanessa must be going out of range of the magic. “Like the song! Excellent taste, you.”
Vanessa felt a crush assembling itself. It had been a while, sure, but all the hallmarks were there. Ordinary things, things she never would have noticed or looked twice at just days ago, now acquired an aura and association. They boosted her daydreams, fueled them, gave her more to smile to herself about.
She saw Karé in faces on billboards and passersby; none of them, on closer inspection, managed to be half as lovely and charming. She bought a regular, non-charmed sunflower for her desk at work. It survived until after lunch, when one of the brokers knocked it over while complaining to her about the commission rates.
One morning while she was brushing her teeth, the lyrics to a song from elementary-school magic class returned to her as if she’d learned them days, not decades, ago: help and love, support and succor, these we promise / never to master nor own, only to aid and console.
She hadn’t thought about magic one way or the other in years. The last time was probably when her girlfriend, their last semester at Hostos, complained about “some creepy coven mumbling together” she’d seen on the 7 train. Witches were like Hasidim or Jehovah’s Witnesses, a spiritual minority with some strange customs but basically harmless.
Now, apparently, some of them were making a bid for a higher profile. It was probably only a matter of time before it happened; after food trucks and yarn bombings, magic was the next marginal identity to present itself. That was sweet and all, and probably beat trying to sell on Etsy or drive a Lyft.
She didn’t need this kind of distraction. She had too much on her plate to waste time thinking about a cute hipster witch.
That was what she told herself, at any rate. Her crush didn’t listen and just kept on growing.
For the next several days, Vanessa kept an eye out for the truck, without success. On Friday, however, it was back, a sweet pink vision in the dreary light rain. A crowd of kids was at the window, demanding goldfish lanterns and sugar Moebius strips.
Karé was not, however, at the counter. Instead, there was a guy, messy-haired and darkly stubbled, with sleepy eyes.
“Hey,” he said when it was Vanessa’s turn. “Please say you want something different. I’m so low on sugar it’s not even funny. Charm your umbrella? I could make it look like a jellyfish, it’s really cool.” He wiggled his fingers. “Tentacles!”
“I was looking for someone?” Vanessa bit her lip and shook her head. She hated how nervousness made itself known, twisted an ordinary statement into a tentative question. “Sorry.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” he said, leaning forward on his folded arms. A roundfaced calico cat peeked over one shoulder. “What kind of person? I can’t do full-on love potions, but a little help here, a small nudge there, get you going in the right direction…” He waggled his eyebrows as he trailed off.
“Karé,” Vanessa says. “I don’t need a spell, I was just looking for–”
“Oh, shit, okay.” He straightened up, the cat jumping away, and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “That’s my bad, sorry about that. You a friend of Karé’s?”
“Sort of,” she said. “Not really. Kind of.”
“Ah, complications, I get it.” He patted at his pockets for something, but finally dropped his hands. “She’s stuck in the archives for the next little while, maybe you could leave your number?”
Vanessa wanted to ask what “the archives” could possibly mean, but more kids were poking her in the back and crowding her from the sides. She dug in her purse for one of her boss’s business cards and scrawled her name and number on the back.
“Here,” she said, “I’m not Rory McGillicuddy Real Estate.”
“No, you’re—” He squinted. “Vanessa with the sunflower?”
She nodded. “She’ll know what that means, I think.”
“I’d give you her number,” he said as he tucked the card into his back pocket. She got a very bad feeling he was going to forget about this entirely. Recalling Karé complaining about potheads, she got a very clear vision of the card going through the wash several times before he found it again. The ink was gone, the paper soft and white. He shrugged, then crumpled it up. “But I’m supposed to, something something, ‘respect her fucking privacy for once’.”
The words seemed bitter, but he was smiling the whole time.
Without any idea what to say to that, Vanessa just smiled back. “Thanks.”
“Any time!” he called after her. “Please be sure to remember us for all your magical needs!”
She didn’t have any magical needs, that was the thing. It would have been nice if she did. Those kids looked so psyched about their bobbing lanterns and sticky sweets. Maybe if she were older, she’d need muscle balm and spiritual boosters like her aunts used to collect.
But the kinds of problems she had to deal with, none of it was amenable to witchy help, certainly not the non-interventionist aid and support, love and console kind of magic. There weren’t spells to increase the size of your paycheck by 33%, or reduce rent, or ensure an eleven year old boy could wear the same pair of shoes all school year.
It had been dumb to look for the truck, dumber still to stop at it. Now she had the whole weekend to turn over her actions and regret her decisions and basically stew in her own head.
Her nephew Deion had a basketball game out in Kew Gardens on Saturday afternoon and a Scout thing Sunday morning, so Vanessa had plenty of time on the subway and in the bleachers to do all that ruminating. What she didn’t have was time to keep up with all the chores that got piled up and pushed into the weekends, like laundry and meal preparation and mopping. Her mother texted her several times to point that out, which was neither helpful nor intended as such.
So on Monday evening, she didn’t even remember the truck until she was on her bus. Then it was too late to twist around and look for it. She was already running late, without fresh dinner idea or clean clothes for the rest of the week.
“We just had this,” Deion complained over dinner. He was right; these were the leftovers from Sunday’s sweet and sour meatballs and veggie noodles.
“Did we?” She helped herself to more limp salad. “Maybe this is Groundhog Day and you’re doomed to repeat the same meal until you finish everything on your plate.”
“Funny,” he said, but he did seem to be eating a little faster after that.
“Okay,” she said after dinner. “Let’s hear that oral report.”
Slumped in his chair, chewing his lower lip, Deion shrugged, then took a deep breath. “The Tennis Court Oath happened in 17… 1776?”
“1789,” she told him.
“Yeah, that. The estates of French society…” He broke off. “That’s what I’ve got. Need to punch up the intro.”
She tried not to sigh too deeply. Choose your battles, she reminded herself. “Where are your index cards?”
“What are index cards, old lady?”
“Funny guy.” She snapped the dish towel toward the living room. “Stand over there, I’ll sit here, you practice.”
“Vannie, I practiced! It’s fine. No one’s going to listen anyway.”
“I’m going to listen,” she said. “Stand up, straight, and give me the report.”
“You’re such a freak!” But he got up, dug in the horror show of his backpack, and pulled out a notebook that looked like it’d been through a couple hurricanes. He shuffled his feet, then looked away. “It’s not, like. Written yet.”
“When’s it due?”
He said something, but hell if she could make it out. The more inaudible, she figured, the closer the date.
“Dee, sweetheart,” she tried. He didn’t lift his head, but his gaze did swing over to her. “What’s Nan always say?”
“‘Keep it down, you’re not at the circus?'” The corners of his mouth twitched.
“Besides that,” she said. “And the answer isn’t, ‘rub my feet, you don’t know what real work is’, either.”
When he sighed, his shoulders rose nearly past his ears, then dropped precipitously. “No one will take you serious if you–”
“–don’t take yourself seriously.” She nodded. “Write your report tonight. You can practice on me in the morning.”
“Man,” he whined, but it was more perfunctory than anything else. “Fine.”
“Big of you,” she told him.
“I’m a giver!”
A few days later, in the midst of a sudden warm spell, Vanessa ran into Karé. She was leaving work, checking her purse for her metrocard and digging out her sunglasses and unzipping her jacket all at the same time, when they collided. Karé was leaning against the fire department connection, one leg up, looking for all the world like she was an architectural feature of the building.
Vanessa worked in midtown, in that unnamed zone that wasn’t Chelsea but hadn’t yet become Hell’s Kitchen. Her office building had been gorgeous at one point, somewhere in the past. The brass walls of the elevators and slick marble walls still shone testimony to that. These days, however, the building, like the block it was on, was unremarkable and featureless.
Until Karé appeared. Her white button-down shirt looked crisp in the early evening sun, glowing against her dark skin, its tails lifting in the breeze. Her braids were pulled back into a messy ponytail today. Vanessa stumbled on her stupid work heels and plowed right into her.
“I only wear heels for work,” Vanessa said for some reason. “They’re the worst, sorry, sorry!”
“Whoa, whoa,” Karé said, helping Vanessa steady herself. Then she held Vanessa at arm’s length and said, more quietly, “hi, lady.”
“What’re you doing here?” Vanessa blurted.
“You left your card. Real estate, huh?”
“You’re looking for an apartment?”
Karé shook her head slowly, her grin never wavering. “Nah, I’m pretty happy where I am. Unless you can get me a good deal?”
“No,” Vanessa admitted. “And anyway I’m just admin, not a broker.”
“Damn,” Karé said lightly. “I was really hoping for something rent-controlled, maybe doorman?”
“Join the club, it’s about seven million strong.”
“Oh, well. So my visit is entirely not professional and completely personal.”
Finally, Vanessa found her sunglasses, but she suddenly didn’t want to dim her vision. She shook back her hair and then her jacket. “Sorry about hitting you.”
“We’re even.” Karé pushed off from the wall and looked up and down the block. “I, uh. Can I buy you that drink, maybe?”
“Yes,” Vanessa said, then, “shit, no, sorry.”
“No, I mean!” She heard herself getting more flustered, which just made it worse. “Not right now. I have to get home. But maybe–”
“When?” Karé broke in, then her eyes widened and she waved her hand. “Sorry, God, that was rude.” She looked down and inhaled, her shoulders lifting up to her ears. Vanessa wanted to count all the studs and rings and cowrie fragments decorating the elegant whorls of cartilage. When Karé spoke again, she was affecting a pompous, overly-polite tone. “When might be convenient and amenable for your tastes, miss?”
“Ha,” Vanessa said, “so gallant!”
Karé grinned at that, surprised, and swayed a bit on her toes, back and forth. “I try.”
“Walk me to the train? We can figure it out on the way.”
They were both headed for the 2 train, so they rode it together all the way to the Hub.
Admittedly, it had been a long time since Vanessa went on a date, even just out to the clubs, but it was safe to say she’d never gotten so physically close to someone back then as she was with Karé now. Rush hour meant that they were pressed against each other, breast to knee; when the train lurched, that contact became chin and clavicle down to ankles.
She didn’t feel uncomfortable, though, that was the remarkable thing. Everyone was packed in, there was that, but,, further, she liked being this close to Karé. Vanessa was tall (Giraffe, her sister used to call her; Long-Stemmed American Beauty, her dad said one of the last times she visited), but she only came up to about Karé’s chin. When Vanessa tried, she thought of details that ought to be making her uncomfortable — the warmth, the possibility of stale coffee breath, her occasional klutzy shuffle for balance — but they refused to firm up into anything real or consequential.
“So you’re a homegirl,” Karé said, “not just some tourist who stumbled by my truck.”
“Keskeskick for life,” Vanessa agreed. “Mom’s Puerto Rican, Dad’s…not. You?”
“Willisania, third-generation with a little Cubano for extra crazy.”
They grinned at each other.
Talking to Karé was easy. They weren’t from the same neighborhood, but close enough. Checking the details quickly became a game: Vanessa named something, Karé filled it in, and then they switched. Same dry pool that the Parks Department forgot to fill, summer after summer; same bodega on the corner selling loosies and coconut-oil cookies with Arabic nutrition info and thumb-sized plantains; same shitty school where the nets on the basketball hoops had long since vanished and been replaced by a pair of cut-open BVDs.
They were stopped in the tunnel, the power flickering on and off, so Karé looked especially gorgeous and dramatic. The conversation drifted to more personal details, which came just as easily as the others. She told Karé about moving back in with her mother so they could take care of Deion. How she worked days, first as a temp, now at McGillicuddy, while her mother put in nights at a nursing home up in Yonkers.
“And his mom’s just not around?” Karé asked.
“She fucked off when he was about a year old? Fifteen months,” Vanessa replied. It was easier to talk about this in the dark.
“Oh, man, I’m sorry.”
“Free spirits gotta be free, right?”
“I don’t know about that.”
Karé was quiet for a couple moments, during which Vanessa tried very hard not to regret or apologize for the bitterness in her voice.
The train shuddered back to life then. Vanessa didn’t recapture the ease of talking before they arrived at Clemente Plaza.
Karé walked her to her stop, their arms brushing every so often. Of course the bus arrived immediately, something it never did and, Vanessa knew, never would again.
“Text me?” Karé asked, hugging her so quickly that Vanessa stumbled again.
“Sure, okay.” She wanted to believe that Karé was just being polite, but something light and shimmery rotated and expanded right in the center of Vanessa’s chest. “Yeah, of course.”
Karé kept waving as the bus lumbered away.
That night, Deion grumbled and complained when she moved his bed away from the wall so she could open the closet door all the way.
“It’s my room, too,” he was saying, and, “It’s this kind of thing that proves I need my own room”, and, “Why can’t you do this on your own time?”
He was grumpy because of a shitty day at school, thanks to his oral report flopping. She wasn’t, however, about to tell him that; there wasn’t any point making him feel worse than he already did. Besides, she didn’t exactly have much of her own time, but he didn’t need to hear that, either. It wasn’t his fault, but he’d hear the blame anyway.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said instead from inside the depths of the closet. “I’ll be done soon.”
“It sure is,” she said, going up on tiptoe so she could try to wiggle the middle carton from a tightly wedged stack free. It didn’t quite work, and she lost her grip, stumbling against an old shoe rack that held her mother’s and grandmother’s good heels, things they hadn’t worn since she was Deion’s age. There were even a few pairs of her father’s, Florsheim loafers from his aborted attempt to be soulless suit and canvas tennis shoes, spattered with paint and, she liked to imagine, still stinky.
She said, quietly as she could, as she rubbed the sting from her elbow, fuck.
“You okay?” Deion stuck his head in. “Van?”
“I’m fine,” she said. The pain made her angry, as much as failing to dislodge the carton did. She had to breathe through her mouth to dispel the worst of it. “Give me a hand?”
He reached in and tugged her out from the back of the closet. She slid over the unstable pile of board games, barked her shin against who knew what carton, and emerged, finally, into the room.
“What were you even looking for?”
“It’s stupid, forget it.” She pushed his bed back and went to shut the door, but the edge of yet another carton was in the way. She wanted to kick it, several times, just to exorcise some of the pissiness roiling through her. Instead, because that would be a waste of energy and pointlessly destructive, she went to push it back.
“Nah, now I want to know,” Deion said. He was kneeling at the foot of his bed, right behind her, peering into the closet. “What’s that?”
“I don’t know, stupid old stuff no one cares about,” she said, as the flap on the box came away in her hand. Right there on top, there it was, her pointed hat from middle-school magic class.
She picked it up and put it on her head. There was no way it ought to fit her any more. Yet it did, hugging her forehead and skull like it was fresh from Mrs. Aguilar’s hands. The point dipped over a little and the black wool felt was slightly dusty, but it was otherwise just as she remembered it. Her aunt Celia had taken her all the way to Starrett City, two trains and three buses, to get fitted for the hat. Vanessa could practically smell the Parliaments and cherry-scented devotional candles in Mrs. Aguilar’s front room and see the motes of dust swirling in the light through her Venetian blinds.
Most of the other kids in her CM class wore hand-me-down hats. A couple just used Halloween costume ones. Vanessa, who had adored her hat on first sight and hadn’t taken it off all weekend, realized as soon as she walked into the classroom that it was a mistake. She looked like she was showing off, like she thought she was better than everyone else.
Mrs. Rooney, the witch leading the class, made sure of that. Magic’s not in the props, she said, it’s in the heart. You can’t fake heart.
“Do they even teach magic any more?” Vanessa asked Deion now.
He was sprawled out on his bed, holding his comic so close to his face that she reminded herself again to try to get him an eye doctor appointment. “Couple girls in my class do it,” he said, sounding distracted.
He groaned and dropped the comic. “I’m not sexist, Vannie, I’m just telling you the facts!”
“Chill out,” she said, removing the hat and placing it gently on the top of her dresser. “Just trying to talk.”
He kicked her and shook his comic dramatically. “I’m trying to read here!”
“You read,” she told him, heading out of the room. “I’ll be back at lights out.”
“You never let me have any fun!” he shouted after her.
“I know,” she called back, “I’m the worst.”
No one as young as you should be this busy, Karé claimed in the course of their texting, which was a nice principle, but Vanessa couldn’t exactly do anything about it.
Sorry, Karé’s follow-up said. I’m being selfish.
???, Vanessa typed. She was drinking her lunch smoothie and scrolling through her boss’s expenses spreadsheet with her phone held under her desk. It didn’t matter that it was technically her lunch hour; no personal calls, ever.
Wanna go out! Hate waiting! Wah wah!
You’re busy, too, Vanessa reminded her. She’d been available on Tuesday and it was Karé’s turn to postpone. Locked up in the secret archives and all.
Put that tongue away, unless you’re prepared to use it.
Oh, Karé wrote, you’d best believe I’m prepared. More than prepared. Like a Boy Scout! But not homophobic. I can rock a neckerchief, however.
Vanessa rolled her eyes and fixed Rory’s meals outlay from seven million to the more reasonable seven hundred. Karé got on long, meandering romps through word associations. She blamed it on her friends and too much weed — hell of a coven, Vanessa had said, and Karé replied, you have no idea — but Vanessa suspected it was just Karé. Playful and curious, always ready to experiment and undeterred by stumbling.
You don’t believe me?
I do, I’m just trying to picture it. Vanessa drained her smoothie noisily (vulgar is as vulgar does, her grandmother carped in the back of her mind) and set the cup aside. She cracked her neck, rolled her shoulders, and brought up the week’s commissions. Okay, I’m going back to work. Talk later?
Not if I talk to you first.
That makes no sense.
Doesn’t it? :) :) :)
“Idiot,” Vanessa said softly, stowing her phone back in her purse. When the elevator dinged and she heard the brokers coming in from their lunch, she tried to look serious. She couldn’t do it. She was smiling a lot more these days. When this was pointed out, which kept happening, she had no idea what to say. Was she really that dour the rest of the time? That was pretty sad to think about.
It was Thursday of the next week when Vanessa finagled a slightly early departure from work. She was dragging herself up the stairs, sorting out what she needed to do tonight versus what could wait for the weekend. As she stepped off the stairs, Deion dashed past her, his keys jangling in his hand. “Sorry, Vannie! See ya!”
She tried to grab his sleeve, but he was too quick. “Where do you think you’re going?”
From the top stair, he scowled and sighed deeply. “To Kevin’s. Sleepover, remember?”
“It’s a school night, nice try.”
“Tomorrow’s a PA day, nice try,” he replied in a mocking singsong.
Most of the parenting advice she had read said to try not to admit a mistake, which seemed like a terrible idea to her, and definitely never let the kid get away with backtalk. She hated those books. They were like dog-training manuals without the promise of puppy cuddles.
“Right, right, sorry,” she said. “I should have remembered.”
When Deion smiled, he looked exactly like he did at two, three, years old, all teeth and crinkled-up eyes. She wanted to hug him suddenly, very badly.
She settled for punching his shoulder lightly. “Do you have everything?”
He shifted his backpack to the other shoulder. “Yeah. We’re just gonna game and hang out, no big.”
“Have a good time,” she told him. He smiled again, hopping back up the three steps between them to hug her. One arm, around the waist, cheek pressed to her stomach like old times.
“Call you right away if anything happens,” he recited, “be polite, help clean up.”
“You got it,” she said and tugged on his earlobe. “See you tomorrow?”
He snorted again, still grinning. “Saturday, lunch. It’s on the calendar, Van, it’s been on there forever.”
“Go,” she told him, waving him away. “I’m just losing my mind, obviously.”
“Obviously!” he called, taking the stairs two a time.
Her calendar was her Bible. Actually, more important than a Bible, because that book was merely dictated to humanity, while her calendar was created, maintained, and constantly revised by Vanessa and Vanessa alone. She kept the physical calendar right next to the front door, above the shelf that held keys and shoes, and a backup on a spreadsheet in her phone.
Yet somehow, she’d managed to overlook tonight’s being open.
She padded around the apartment, watering the plants, turning off the television Deion had left blaring, feeding her mother’s mean-spirited parakeets, only to end up back at the front door. She pressed her palm against the calendar. The paper shifted a bit under the touch.
The orderly grid of days and weeks billowed for a second, expanding right at her fingertips, growing like a soap bubble. When she blinked, it shrank back to normal. She realized she was giggling a little, every so often, and that she was exhilarated in that rare, irresistible way associated with playing hookey or finding a twenty on your bus seat. Exhilaration like gifts from the unknown, impossible to predict, never to be repeated.
Before she could reconsider, she texted Karé. Free tonight. You?
I can be. What’s up?
I want to go out, Vanessa typed as fast as she could with her eyes unfocused so she didn’t have to feel as embarrassed as she ought to, and have fun, with you.
Brief as it was, Karé’s reply arrived faster than light. Best news ever.
Exhilaration still crackled around her, like static in her hair, and through her veins, when she met up with Karé outside the club. Panzita’s was a few blocks from the Cypress Avenue stop.
“It’s OG Ladies Night,” Karé told her, stepping aside so Vanessa could enter first. There was a doorman, but he looked entirely uninterested in their presence, his job, or really anything beyond the bounds of his wordfind puzzle book. “Which means it’s cheesy as hell but a lot of fun!” Karé added the last in a shout, holding Vanessa from behind by the shoulders. Even so, it was difficult to make out what she’d said. Wide and dark, but throbbing with both bass and roving spotlights, the club overwhelmed all her senses and scrambled her thoughts.
The DJ, she and Karé agreed, was clearly a genius; she segued from Roxanne Shante to Michie Mee with a quick little excursion through one verse and a chorus from Pete Rock.
Vanessa hadn’t been dancing for so long that she knew she must look like an idiot, somehow awkward and jittery. She realized, however, with something like wonder, that she didn’t really care. Karé danced like a dream, holding Vanessa’s hand, pulling her along. All that actually mattered was keeping up.
They were leaning against the bar, chugging water and wiping the sweat from their faces, when the song switched over to something perfectly irresistible: Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?” The opening beats were so familiar, Vanessa felt them race up her spine. She looked at Karé, who was beaming at her in return.
“East Coast, feel me?” Karé said.
“Dirty South, here we go.” They grabbed hands to rush the dance floor.
Vanessa and her sister had once spent an entire weekend learning the choreography to this song. They’d paused and rewound the videotape so many times the VCR started to make a creepy grinding sound. Most of the moves came back to her now, miraculously, effortlessly. Karé followed her lead, taking her in with wide eyes, wider smile.
When Timbaland’s dirty, bouncing beat dissolved into the next track, they found their way to a velvet bench. Vanessa was still laughing, head down as she tried to catch her breath.
“I tried to work a love spell once,” Vanessa confessed. “To make Aaliyah fall in love with me.”
Karé grinned and rocked into Vanessa. “You were, what? Nine?”
“But very mature for my age!” Vanessa dropped her head back. “Yet everyone was surprised when I came out?”
“People are idiots when they want to be.” Karé rubbed her back in big fast circles and gestured at a waitress with the other. “Shisha?”
Vanessa didn’t know what she meant, but she couldn’t imagine saying no to anything just then.
The waitress pointed them toward the back and Karé led her along the dance floor, through the crowd, around rickety tables. The back room proved to be slightly quieter, though just as dark.
They had a little table and slightly more comfortable banquette here. A skinny guy approached with a glass hookah and handful of hoses.
“Flavor?” the guy asked.
Karé looked at Vanessa, but Vanessa could only shrug.
“Your call,” Karé said and Vanessa felt that sparkling lightness again, all over her skin.
“Any day now, girls.”
“Ease up, dude,” Karé snapped. “She likes to think things over.”
“I don’t know,” Vanessa whispered in Karé’s ear. “What do I say?”
“Give us half-rose, half-plain, my impatient friend,” Karé told him. While he set up the pipe, Karé tightened her arm around Vanessa’s shoulders and said, “You seem like roses to me.”
“Welcome.” Karé ducked her head and smiled to herself, rubbing her chin. When she glanced back up, she seemed shy, or hesitant. Hopeful. “Would you like to spike it a bit?”
For a moment, Vanessa was caught fast by Karé’s sweet expression and her hoarse voice. They were whispering in the middle of this crowded place like they were alone in the world. “Spike?”
“Little more than tobacco, say?” Karé shrugged. Vanessa started to reply but then Karé shook her head. “Never mind, no pressure, sorry!”
“I’d love to,” Vanessa said. “Spike away.”
The waiter sucked a couple times on the hose, then switched out the mouthpiece and handed it to Karé. Without looking away from Vanessa, she tapped the hose rapidly, whispered something, then took a long hit. When she exhaled, pink roses tumbled from her mouth, spilling down her chest. They evaporated when Vanessa tried to touch them.
Laughing, Karé held the hose to Vanessa’s mouth; when Vanessa bent to take a hit, Karé’s other hand slipped up her neck. She stroked Vanessa’s hairline, scratched her nails lightly down her nape, danced them back. Time hitched, then bloomed, along with the steam in Vanessa’s throat. She exhaled, tasting roses, watching petals fall.
When she kissed Karé, the soft, damp petals clung to their lips. Karé’s hand closed in Vanessa’s hair and Vanessa dropped the hose, grabbing Karé’s knee instead. Then her hand, the rise of her hip — Vanessa’s touch was as scattered and urgent-but-unfocused as her thoughts.
“So you do do magic,” Karé said. “Forbidden magic, no less!”
“I did,” Vanessa replied. “In elementary school. Nothing serious, just the usual. Like piano lessons or CCD. Community Magic on Wednesdays after school.”
Karé stretched, long and slow like a cat, before shifting onto her side. “Ours was Mondays, then in junior high, it bumped up to Mondays and Thursdays.”
“I dropped it before that,” Vanessa said.
“Um, because I sucked at it? And it was really bad. No offense, I bet the way you do it is great–”
Grinning, Karé cocked an eyebrow. “Thank you, ma’am. I try to make sure that the way I do everything is pretty great.”
Vanessa shoved her shoulder lightly. “Shut up. What I meant was–”
“That I’m great? You’re great!”
“Oh, my god,” Vanessa addressed an unseen but very judgmental audience, “get a load of the ego on this one.”
“I was complimenting you,” Karé said airily. “Your hair is great, your face is great, your mind is great. You’re a great package.”
Vanessa couldn’t help it; she scowled a little, even waved her hand, as if compliments were mosquitoes and she could swat them away. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered. “But–”
“What?” Karé’s voice was soft, not teasing so much as inquiring, as she leaned close to rest her chin on Vanessa’s forearm. “I’ll stop interrupting, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay, I’m being stupid.”
“Impossible. Inconceivable. Against all the laws of nature and Vanessas.” Karé smiled gently and turned so her cheek was on Vanessa’s knee and her body is curled around Vanessa’s.
Flushing hotly — it could be shame or embarrassment or pleasure, she certainly didn’t know — Vanessa bit the inside of her cheek, then her lower lip. She breathed slowly through her nose. Karé snaked her arm around Vanessa’s waist to hug her a little.
“I’m sorry,” Karé said.
“Don’t be,” Vanessa said, and looked down again. She traced the edge of one of Karé’s braids, then hopped to her cheekbone, the line of her jaw. The flush dissipated from overwhelming to pleasantly tingly. “Really, don’t.”
Karé blinked a couple times and snuggled closer. “Keep doing that?”
“This?” Vanessa drew her fingertip back up Karé’s cheek, around the edge of her ear, then tapped each of the rings there.
“Yeah, that.” Karé’s smile widened. She grasped Vanessa more tightly. “Don’t stop.”
“And keep telling me about why magic sucks.”
“I didn’t say it sucks!”
“You’ve implied as much,” Karé said. “Naturally, I’m interested in why you’d reach such an absurd and terrible conclusion, given how smart and beautiful you are.”
“I just couldn’t do it right,” Vanessa said. “Everything I tried was lumpy or backwards.”
“There’s no right,” Karé said and Vanessa rolled her eyes. “I know, I know. But it’s true!”
She thought then, out of the blue, about her parents, fighting over the winter holidays. Her mother expected everyone to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; her father barely remembered to do the menorah all eight nights. Maybe this was the same kind of chasm between her and Karé.
Maybe she was getting extremely ahead of herself, comparing a random crush with a ten-year interfaith marriage.
“What’re you smiling at?” Karé pushed up onto her elbow. “Hmm?”
“Can we make out some more?”
“Love to,” Karé said. A group of shrieking women rushed past, waving mini bottles of Hennessy and trailing glittery boas. “Maybe we could go somewhere private?”
“My place,” Vanessa said. She heard how firmly she spoke and nodded, like she needed to seal the deal. “Let’s go.”
They pooled their cash on hand and managed to flag down a cab. It was a stupid expense, Vanessa knew, but there was no way she could take mass transit, not now.
“Nice place,” Karé muttered when the apartment door closed behind them.
Vanessa kissed her, hard, backing them up against the coat rack. “Thanks, it’s awful.”
She was aching. Her hands couldn’t come to rest, her mouth kept sliding from Karé’s to her chin, along her jaw, then back up. It had been so long since she felt someone against her like this, full and warm, pressing and touching, pulling and stroking. When she touched the side of Karé’s breast, felt it fill her cupped palm, Karé was the one to break the kiss; she let her head fall back, then to the side, so she was gazing at Vanessa, tip of her tongue vibrant pink against her upper lip, sheen of sweat glowing down her long neck.
“More?” Karé whispered. “God, please, some more.”
Her shirt pulled free easily. Vanessa touched the skin of her stomach, then let her palm creep up to hold one breast from below. The slick fabric of Karé’s bra was damp from sweat, almost feverish hot; Vanessa’s thumb found her nipple and twanged at it until Karé was groaning against, face buried in Vanessa’s hair, hips thrusting a little.
“Can I–” Vanessa had to catch her breath. “Can we go to bed?”
Karé’s gaze was sharp and unmistakably intent. “Hell, yeah, lady. What’re we waiting for?”
“I don’t know! I thought you — maybe I didn’t–” Vanessa shook her head. No statements would complete themselves. She was choking on unfinished things.
Laughing, Karé kissed her again. “Don’t you dare try to claim you’re shy, not now.”
“Baby, you’ve got one hand up my shirt and my tongue halfway down your throat.”
The heat suffusing her flared higher and even brighter. Vanessa groaned a little, shifting so Karé could touch her hip, the swell of her ass. She wanted to grab Karé’s hand and shove it between her legs. Better yet, Karé’s face.
“Fuck,” Vanessa said. “You’re right.”
“I am, thank you,” Karé said. She smirked for half a second. “We’ve all got issues and quirks, but shy? Is not one of yours, that much I know.”
Vanessa wanted to believe that. At some level, she knew it was true, but it still sounded wrong. Slightly off, vaguely inaccurate.
She knew, with a lot more conviction, that this was not an argument she wanted to take up, not now, not here. Not with Karé panting against her, nipple hard against Vanessa’s thumb, mouth plush and wet and endlessly eager.
“Touch me?” she finally said, shifting her weight and parting her legs. “I — God, I need you.”
“Cool,” Karé whispered, smile curving, as she plucked up Vanessa’s skirt, inch by inch, the fabric gathering in her grasp. “We said something about bed?”
“This way–” Vanessa hobbled down the hall, like a crab, both sideways and backwards. She wouldn’t let go of Karé. The pictures rattled in their frames; her mom’s birds cheeped in protest at the unusual noise. “I share it with Dee, it’s not that big–”
“I don’t care,” Karé said, kissing her hard and deep as they tumbled awkwardly, a sudden jumble of limbs, onto Vanessa’s bed.
“Yeah, okay.” Vanessa scooted backwards, pushing her pillows out of the way. Her legs were akimbo, as she reached for Karé and pulled her close. Karé dug one knee into the old mattress and followed her, one hand on the wall bracketing Vanessa’s head, the other sliding fast up her thigh.
Karé’s shirt got shed, her pants opened and tugged down, and Vanessa’s skirt was twisted up around her waist, and still they kept kissing. Need throbbed all the way through her, deep inside but also right at the surface of her skin, like each and every pore was yawning open, yearning.
Karé worked her hand against Vanessa, fingers spread, opening her labia, dipping in and out. “You’re so wet, what’re you doing to me?” she said, biting at Vanessa’s clavicle when Vanessa twisted her own hand to push it under the elastic of Karé’s panties.
They weren’t going to be able to keep up this position all that long. Karé’s balance was precarious, and Vanessa’s arm was cocked at a bad angle, her elbow scraping against her hip and knocking the wall. Yet they couldn’t seem to spare the time to rearrange, either.
Vanessa slapped Karé’s hip, not too hard, and wriggled farther down so she was almost on her back. “Let me taste you,” she said, two fingers stroking Karé open. “I need to get you in my mouth.”
“God,” Karé said, struggling to sit up and pull her pants off one leg, “not shy at all, you’re fucking amazing.”
Vanessa couldn’t reply, not with Karé shuffling on her knees up her body, the quilt getting more and more tangled underneath them, not with the scent of her heavy and wet proceeding her and making Vanessa’s mouth floor with spit. She pressed her face against Karé’s mound, her lips parted, tongue tracing the tight whorls of hair and flicking at Karé’s clit, so swollen that it peeked a tiny bit past her lips.
Vanessa grasped Karé’s ass with both hands, fingers teasing at her crack, and licked her wide open. She tasted like salt and the roses they’d kissed and sucked together, like musk and honey swirled into tidepools. When she pulsed the flat of her tongue against Karé’s hole, they both moaned, vibrations passing from Karé to Vanessa and vice versa, until they were both shaking for it.
Karé’s hand was tangled up in the back of Vanessa’s hair. Each little tug and yank sharpened Vanessa’s hunger, drove her tongue further and deeper. Karé’s hips worked against Vanessa’s face in a ragged rhythm that didn’t resolve, just switched and jumped around.
“Fuck, baby, I’m–” Karé gasped, breaking off, and hugged Vanessa’s head even more tightly.
Vanessa kept going, lapping up the gush of extra wet, before corkscrewing her tongue around Karé’s clit again, around and around until Karé shook again, shouting and grinding.
When Karé pushed her away finally, a crooked smile of apology on her face, Vanessa lay back down. She was heaving for breath; her mouth and chin were soaked and fragrant. She teetered between needing so much more and being perfectly satisfied. She was exhausted and replete, but anxious and starving, too.
“C’mere,” she said, voice hoarse, her tongue thick with Karé.
Karé lay carefully down beside her, arm across Vanessa’s chest. She reached between Vanessa’s legs and lightly stroked her, more exploratory than deliberately targeted. Vanessa bent her leg and pushed up to the touch, kissing Karé, twisting in her hold to rub into Karé’s palm.
Sunflowers and roses spun around them, glowing in the dark room, rising to the bump against the ceiling. She bit at Karé’s mouth, her chin, moaning as the orgasm flooded through her and then out. A surge of petals and billowing clouds of pollen flared up, so bright she had to close her eyes and bury her face in Karé’s shoulder.
“Wow,” Karé said after bit, rubbing Vanessa’s arm with the back of her hand. “Do that often?”
“I thought you did that,” Vanessa said.
In the morning, Vanessa woke Karé up with a travel mug of hot coffee and apologies. She had to get to work, but more importantly, she needed the apartment empty before her mother got home.
“No problem,” Karé said and kissed her. “Do you want to hang out tonight?”
“Yeah,” Vanessa said and stole a sip from Karé’s mug. “I do.”
“I want to take you somewhere special,” Karé said. “Is that okay? Too fast? I just think — I want you to–”
She was stammering every bit as much as Vanessa’s pulse was. “That’s okay. That’s great.”
“Yeah?” Karé held her by the waist, fingers moving in the folds of Vanessa’s robe. “It’s my favorite place, just me and my friends.”
“It’s not the truck, is it?”
“No, but good guess,” Karé said. “More private than that.”
“Private sounds perfect.”
“Good. See you tonight, then.”
Karé held her hand on the walk over. They stopped at More Than Noodles for bao and fried wonton, then the bodega on the corner for a six-pack.
“You sure know how to treat a lady,” Vanessa said.
Karé grinned, cocking an eyebrow. “Shit, are you a lady? Because I’m gonna need to change everything now.”
“Doofus,” Vanessa said, switching the food container to her other hand so she could hold Karé’s again.
Two blocks later, Karé stopped in front one of the empty lots that populated their neighborhoods. A block didn’t feel quite right without at least one vacant lot, grown over with prairie grasses and spindly, stubborn little trees. This one, like many others, sported a rusted chain about thigh-height with an old No Trespassing sign dangling from it.
“What am I looking at?” Vanessa asked.
“Well,” Karé said, drawling the word into several syllables, sweeping her arm out like Vanna White and helping Vanessa over the chain, “this is an empty lot, with some shrubs, lots of grass, and of course the centerpiece is this very fine, literally exceptional couch right here.”
It was as pink as the charm truck, its upholstery tufted and buxom as an old movie star.
Vanessa stood still, taking it in.
At some point in life, shouldn’t a person have outgrown certain things? Objects and habits, that kind of thing, that once seemed like nothing more than casual fun became… cheap. Kind of tacky. You take someone out, promise her a good time, so is it too much for her to expect slightly better than a walk-up food window and a nasty couch abandoned for God knows how long in the middle of an empty lot?
No one will take you seriously if you don’t take yourself seriously: her mother might as well have been standing on her shoulder, speaking right into Vanessa’s ear.
“You hate it,” Karé said.
Vanessa was still frozen. The foam container in her hand crackled a little as she squeezed it. She half-expected Karé to apologize or explain or say something, anything. Something she could respond to.
When she looked at Karé, really looked, she saw her half turned away. Karé was glaring at the couch, her jaw tight, lips pursed.
That was when Vanessa changed her mind. More accurately, her thinking shifted. It left the register of should, of frustrated expectations and assumptions. From there, it approached Karé herself, this particular night, what they’d already shared. Those things filled up her mind; the rest faded away.
“I love it,” Vanessa said. Karé scowled for a second, then glanced at her, suspicious. “I do. I was being an asshole–”
“Yeah, I really was.” Vanessa took a deep breath. “I’ll try to do better.”
“You’re great,” Karé said, so it was Vanessa’s turn to scowl. “It probably looks gross, I didn’t think about it from your perspective, I just got carried away and went, yay, Vanessa can come see the couch!”
“Is it gross? I’ll give it a try, but…”
“No, no, it’s clean!” Karé patted the couch affectionately. “We all put repelling and cleansing spells on it all the time, just to be sure.” She sat on the back, arms spread, toes digging into the loose dirt. “I meant, it’s gross, like. Immature. Inappropriate, maybe? Dumb. That kind of gross.”
“Uh-huh,” Vanessa said lightly, “that kind of gross?”
“Yeah,” Karé said softly, moving over so Vanessa could sit beside her. “Totally.”
Holding hands, they fell backward, over the back of the couch, landing on its seat, their legs hooked over the top. Above them, there weren’t any stars visible, just low woolly clouds underlit mustard and beige by the city.
They drew their own constellations.
In the morning, she had chilaquiles with Karé for breakfast. Afterward, they walked to the truck. On their way down to Manhattan for a yuppie farmer’s market (boring-ass magic but beaucoup cash, Karé’s covenmate Purnit said), they dropped Vanessa off. She met Deion outside his friend Kevin’s building.
“Here, this is yours,” she said and handed him a pointy black hat. It was kind of lumpy, and she still needed to get the brim round, but she pressed her lips together so she wouldn’t apologize for it.
“What for?” he asked and turned the hat slowly.
“In case you want to have fun,” she told him. When he put the hat on, it fit perfectly.