Last Time We Spoke

Lydi Conklin
“Coffee Shop” by VasenkaPhotography, adapted and licensed via Creative Commons.

Casey walks to the conversation through the Richmond. Handfuls of mist stick in her hair, accruing into a ball on the back of her neck, like all the unrealized April rain con­gealed. She long ago lost hope that Leslie would acknowledge her emails, but she’s continued writing her anyway, regularly, like a diary, especially on the days her real writing falters—which is every day, now—like she could siphon magic off of her old friend. The simple text of the emails is so much more powerful than her novel: I miss you. Do you think about me? I reread Foxtails. I’d like to see you sometime, Leslie, really. Then one day, eight months after Leslie had stopped speaking to her, a reply, out of nowhere: We can meet, I guess. If it’s in the Richmond and it’s quick.

Leslie has selected the only coffee shop within a mile of her house with a two-star rating, way west on Geary, which is a message, surely. Even the exterior of Bean There Coffee is hope­less: a cracked chocolate storefront wedged like a disputed child between a busy laundromat and a deserted laundromat. Casey is tempted to duck into one of them, remove her clothes and throw them in a machine to delay this talk, though she herself requested it. She could perch on a plastic bench in her underwear, watching fabric grind against fabric. She’d even select the busy laundromat if she had to, stalking faithlessly past the yawning blue hole of the lonely one.

Casey steps into Bean There, where Leslie presides over a back table, spine tight to the wall. Her hands are clasped, the wings of her elbows hovering. Somehow she manages this posture without looking at all desperate, or even like she’s waiting. Her eyes are dispassionately hooded, as if any number of ghosts might stroll by—her college boyfriend who left her for their professor, her dead basenji, her old roommate’s friend killed in the Asiana Airlines plane crash, her miscarried embryos, her ex–tennis partner dehy­drating to death in Afghanistan—and she wouldn’t even raise her head. Leslie is fifty-two. She’s a well-known writer of episodic and staccato prose foregrounding the voices of young women. The genius of her work is in its marriage of the confessional and the formally experimental and her shocking vignettes of sex with men alongside the often deeply adjacent (to her) yet culturally rele­vant tragedies that have pitted her life. Casey loves Leslie’s books, though life would be easier if she didn’t. They taunt her with their slim, richly colored spines—Foxtails ochre, Grounding the Journey emerald—from the shelf above her writing desk.

Leslie looks up, eyebrow rising, like, Oh. Casey clutches her T-shirt over her hips as if it could keep her upright. Leslie, her imaginary friend, wrought in blood and bone.

“Sit,” Leslie orders, scraping her shocking red hair down her face with extruded fingernails, like how a cat would fix its hair if it had mermaid waves. Leslie wears a charcoal tank top and a miniskirt: her all-seasons uniform. She wore this outfit the last time they talked, at the residency in Virginia last summer, Leslie embedded among her baby-faced boy crushes, throwing her head back in exaggerated mirth, fingers grazing the delicate shoulder of one boy (nerd glasses, shaggy hair, smudge of mustache, face of a supermodel), her other trophies gazing up at her, their perfect one: experimental genius, lit queen, dark old princess. Her limbs are skinny and surprisingly clear-skinned. She loves asking people how old they think she is.

Whatever possessed her to come knocking on Leslie’s illogical skull?

Casey sits across from Leslie on the teetering chair. Heat rolls through her, prickly and close, to have only two feet of table­top between herself and this hawkish face, the tension coiled in those wiry arms. She likes Leslie. Loves her, even. They met at the Virginia residency four years ago—Casey is younger than Leslie, was just beginning her career when they met, twenty-six, though she looked twelve, like a little boy with tits. Together, they stayed up after everyone went to sleep, giggling so loudly the composers complained. They snuck out of readings to drive to 7-Eleven for gummies and soda, all those shadowed, cozy car rides—Casey’s wrist balanced on the steering wheel—Leslie, who can’t drive, relating ghastly stories of the people whose books Casey had read since she was a child, the prose of Leslie’s storytelling as thorny and shocking as her published fiction. Since that first summer, they returned to the residency twice, for alumnae sessions. In between, with Leslie home in San Francisco and Casey in her sloppy studio in Queens, their friendship was sustained by Leslie’s emphatic text messages, always ending with a period: Where are you. I miss stay­ing up with you all night. I just ate pasta with capers and licorice allsorts, no cheese. San Francisco is freezing. San Francisco is fucking bright. San Francisco has fed me pad thai every night this week though I didn’t ask for it. I never ask for it. I’m good. Leslie used to give Casey advice and random compliments, a fuzzy string of unspooling apprecia­tion. Casey savors the minor attentions of straight girls, especially straight girls like Leslie, who, in high school, claimed seats at the top of their cohorts. When Leslie flirted with Casey, it was like some of that lonely old pain—watching girls across the cafeteria eating hot dogs with aggressive grace—was siphoned off. But Leslie’s replies ceased eight months ago, her final message (Parrots overhead) containing no hint of farewell. When, four months after that, Casey emailed to tell Leslie she was moving to California— just across the bay, in Hayward—not even that got a response.

“So,” says Leslie, as Casey settles in her chair. “You really want to do this.”

“Yes.” Casey’s voice, uncorked from her throat, gurgles. Whatever possessed her to come knocking on Leslie’s illogical skull? There’s no way Leslie has a satisfying reason for cutting Casey off, no way Casey will leave this meeting with any sense of closure. Because Casey has done nothing wrong. For the first months of the cut-off she assumed she must have, bathed in ever-present guilt. She scrolled back through two years of Leslie’s texts, hoping for a clue— Fog in my window. Your haircut is hot. Checking all my semicolons; they are my pets—as though one of them might remind Casey that she’d robbed Leslie’s house or plagiarized her work. The only time in their friendship Casey and Leslie ever fought was once last summer, when Casey freaked out on Leslie. But that couldn’t be the reason. Casey reviewed the aftermath of the fight a million times. Their friendship was only stronger after. Leslie savored the attention.

Casey was prepared to face whatever she’d done. She’d combed over the facts—their two summers and one winter of residencies together, their endless text messages, the vegan sushi when Leslie visited New York for a reading, the too many glasses of overly sweet prosecco when Casey came to San Francisco and they attended the book launch of one of Leslie’s enemies—but she’d emerged with nothing. When Casey first moved here and allegedly became part of the same literary scene, she saw Leslie at a few parties, but not even those encounters yielded clues. Leslie wouldn’t even look at her, which made Casey’s face go cold, like a mask of putty glued to her head.

“How are you,” Leslie says.

“I’ve been good.” She hasn’t. “I’ve been writing.” Her voice cracks on the word. She’s barely written since she’s seen Leslie. “Writing, like, my novel.”

“About two girls in love.”

She doesn’t say it rudely, but this is the novel Leslie dismissed as “Young Adult” after Casey offered a few pages. “A different one.” A lie. “Kind of, like, political and edgy.” Nothing that calls itself “edgy” is edgy.

Leslie nods, her face tight but glazed with approval. “I said you should give up that first one. The writing was serviceable, of course—you’re a smart girl—but the scale wasn’t equal to you.”


“Bet it taught you a lot.” She runs a finger along the rim of her mug. She’s not being condescending. Her hard-hitting advice has helped Casey many times. Casey has relinquished stories she would’ve otherwise held in her jaws for years, has opened up her own style, not spiky, like Leslie’s, but fluid, bizarre. Charming, Leslie has said of her best efforts. When Casey used to sit down to write—or now, when she tries—the result she hoped for most was Leslie deeming her story worthy to send into the world. This has never happened. But it could.

“I think a lot about something you said,” Casey says. In their months apart, she’s built a cache of snippets to tell Leslie, a deeper tier of intimacy than what she offers in the regular emails: graver, deathbed kind of remarks. “About that chess club story. I glued your feedback over my desk.”

Leslie looks up. “Really.”

“‘Circle the center. Circle again. Keep watch.’”

“Well. I can’t always be intelligible.”

Casey drags her chair closer. That old, astringent smell. Industrial-strength face cream. “What about you? How’s the department?” The Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State, where Leslie works, is the site of much of the drama of her life. Casey adores her stories, the way Leslie flips her colleagues under her flashlight to expose their wriggling bellies. “I’ve won­dered so much. Did Kelsey leave? Did Martha write her second book? Did Graham and Adam work out their shared office?” The questions rush out. She has a hundred of them. Of course, she could’ve researched some of the answers, but she’s saved up the mysteries, hoping for satisfaction in the form of Leslie’s tense, pro­tracted stories. Like Graham mauling Adam’s tissue box after his divorce, sleeping stretched out on the office rug in the middle of the day, making lunches of Adam’s sugar packets and creamers. This whole sordid world of shameless academia: men acting like babies, women prostrating themselves before the baby-men, stu­dents nagging at the door, forgotten in the chaos of adult drama.

“You don’t want a story now.”

“I do, no, I do.” Casey sits forward, gripping the table. She keeps her voice low, afraid that, if it pops, Leslie will revert to the stiff character waiting at her table earlier. If they can pretend forever they’re just here for fun, that’s perfect.

Leslie shuts her eyes and leans back. “Martha Wilson. You remember.”

“Novel Twelve.” Leslie’s colleague Martha Wilson published a story collection with a small press, widely admired, accruing acco­lades, and then could never publish again, or even write with any focus, hunched at her keyboard, fidgeting, for years. Once Leslie glimpsed her computer desktop on a projector screen at an event. Among the file folders crouched an icon for a document titled “Novel Twelve.” “Novel Twelve” haunts Casey.

“Martha went on the job market this year,” Leslie says. “It was supposed to be a secret, of course, but I could tell. She was tense, skinnier. She had new clothes. She came to my office after a cam­pus visit, weeping.”

Spiky as she is, people visit Leslie for help. Casey has, many times. Leslie is plainly untrustworthy, but she makes you want to feed her stories, crave her flat reactions, her narrative appreciation.

“Keep guessing,” Leslie says, the way someone else might say: you look sexy. And then, softer: “If you guess well, I might keep you.”

“The visit went perfectly.” Eyes still closed, Leslie shoos away a strand of hair. “Laughs in all the right places at her reading, rap­port with the chair. The students had read her book on their own. They approached her with tattered copies—that looked good. And she liked the place—out in Montana. A little college, not very good, but with a cash infusion to build a program. Cute farmhouses.

Forests, cows, whatever they have out there.” Leslie can’t stomach nature, says it makes her itch. She claims she has a wiggly ankle but walks in cities just fine. “A member of the committee drives her to the airport. Gerald Okie—you know his work.”

“Of course.” A dusty novel about a mill accident, Casey’s teen­aged face squashed between the pages, knowing no better, in awe.

Leslie nods along to Casey’s thoughts. “Dry prose speckled with chummy dialogue: don’t you know good diner girls are always like that.

“I love a good diner girl.”

“Martha gets her bag out of the car. She can’t wait to sit and dream until her plane arrives. She isn’t even going to read. This Montana deal comes with tenure, on promise alone.”

“Really?” Casey sits forward. “That’s crazy.”

Leslie flaps her hand. “The details don’t matter. What’s import­ant is this is her chance.”

A man with a shiny cap of hair to Casey’s right is listening, round glasses sliding down his nose. Casey hopes he recognizes Gerald’s name, or Leslie’s face from a book flap. She surges with the thrill of this secret circle. She never feels more like a writer than when she’s with Leslie.

“Gerald asks if she wants a drink in the airport—she’s got time before her plane. Her heart sinks, but she’s trapped. He’s on the committee. She’s desperate to relax, but—one drink. How bad can it be? So they have a drink and, of course, three sips in, he glances at the family restroom and back to her. And then. He. Winks.”

“No.” Casey’s groan is loud, too loud, and the little girl to her left jumps, green drink sloshing. Casey tries again, for a more dig­nified “no,” but this time the sound is gravelly, sexual. She catches her mouth in her hand.

“You don’t need the details.” Leslie always says this, though Casey always needs the details and Leslie always provides them. “But he wasn’t subtle. He clicked his nails on his belt buckle. Penis skin showed behind his open fly.”

“God,” Casey cries. If she had coffee she’d spit it across the room, just to showcase her delight. But she forgot to even order a beverage.

Leslie lifts hers and enjoys a long suck. “So you realize today isn’t going to magically make us better. I’ll tell you what happened because you want to know. For your own little sense of completion. But I don’t want a friendship.”

“Even if we talk it through?” None of Casey’s friends under­stand her attachment to Leslie. “She’s like a witch from the movies,” they say. “Or a glitzy stepmom.” They say, “She’s nasty to you. She demands too much. She’s not even that famous. And the way she looks at you, dude? It’s totally creepy.” When Casey pressed that friend, asking how, specifically, Leslie looked at her, the friend said, “Like she wants you eternally failing by her side.”

“Talking will not help any of this,” Leslie says. “You don’t know what you did to me. You wouldn’t be here if you did.”

“I don’t,” says Casey, eagerly. “Truly. And I’ve thought about it so much.”

Leslie picks a scale of skin from the trough between her wrist bones. “I should think the memory would dawn on you, if you thought for more than one second.”

“I’d hoped so.” Casey has the urge to sip from Leslie’s mug—she goes so far as to reach across the space between them, but at the last minute, she peels a napkin off the stack instead. They used to share plates in restaurants. One late night at the residency, Leslie held her armpit hair taut and Casey snipped it with scissors.

“Is it because I gave Yuri a ride?” Last summer, at the residency, she’d invited one of Leslie’s crushes to come along to the conve­nience store. Like all Leslie’s boys, Yuri had floppy hair, baggy striped shirts, high giggles—like Casey but equipped with a penis and confidence. Casey thought the invitation neutral, even a treat for Leslie, who could sit in back and observe the boy’s perfect ear, glowing under the dome light. But afterwards Leslie sulked for days: refusing to hang out, going to bed early.

“That wasn’t great.” Leslie shifts so that one knee sticks up. “But obviously we stayed friends after.”

“I’m sorry. I really don’t know what I did.”

Leslie has an Adam’s apple tucked above her collarbone. Casey wishes for one, but her neck is too flaccid. Leslie hates hers. The lump beats now, though her face is still.

“You made a comment about me last summer,” Leslie says. “Something hurtful. That’s why I’m mad.”

“Oooooh,” whispers the little girl under her breath, as though Casey’s been called to the principal’s office.

“I did?” Casey never makes comments about Leslie, so far as she can help herself, because even the most mundane remark on her appearance can send Leslie spiraling: wearing too much eyeliner, skipping dinner, appearing at parties in some low-cut number, glass of beer squeezed between her wrists.

“You did.”

“Okay,” Casey says. “Will you share the comment?”

Leslie raises her eyebrows, which she curiously lets grow wild. “You must know.”

Casey should walk away. She should just get up and leave. She could press through the fog into either laundromat. She could walk home and go straight to sleep.

“Did I say you looked nice one night?” Was that over the line? Did Leslie feel preyed upon, menaced? Years of suffering school attracted to straight girls—girls who were straight then, anyway— has made Casey worry her attraction could be a form of stealth violence, would sick girls out if they ever knew.

“Why would I be mad that you said I looked nice.” Leslie crosses her legs, her skirt shuffling drily over them. “That makes zero sense.” Her cheek tics up, not a smile but the reminder of one, that tug of her shoulder that’s always been a sign, like hey. Warmth beads in Casey’s torso. At several points in the last eight months Casey has pulled Foxtails or Grounding the Journey from the shelf and read some fierce, brutal slice: The girls were happy, they were too happy, they were laughing, but laughing for nothing, they wanted to fuck the boys but they wanted to fuck each other, they would’ve fucked the sand if their genitals were appendages, would’ve fucked the sea if they could take the whole sea in, would’ve sat back for explosions of skin and sticky, unhappy want. Every page featured some insane, breathless chunk, some passage that carried you on its back to wild, airy vistas. When she revisited the books she remembered how much she admired Leslie—with a kind of full-bodied jealousy too intense to face.

“Keep guessing,” Leslie says, the way someone else might say: you look sexy. And then, softer: “If you guess well, I might keep you.”

Casey’s throat clenches. Leslie’s never satisfied with people playing her games. She has to change the rules just as people accli­mate. “I don’t know.”


“What if I don’t want to guess?”

“Then you can go home. You can steam forever in the stew of ignorance.”

“Ugh, fine. Did I comment on your hair?” Leslie is self-conscious about her hair, which she dyes every few weeks. The thinnest snake of gray nestles in the part.

“What’s wrong with my hair.”

“Jesus. I don’t think anything’s wrong with your hair. Was it about your clothing? Or your crushes? Your writing? Your job?”

Leslie goes very still, like a predator. “What ‘crushes’?” Her voice clicks apart on crushes. Leslie’s been single for years, for as long as Casey’s known her, and many years before that. Casey is normally single, too, but she doesn’t mind the way she imagines Leslie minds. Thinking of Leslie at a distance, Casey sometimes surges with sympathy: Leslie eating every meal alone, going to sleep alone, waking up alone, taking herself to the doctor. Selecting a sperm donor alone, trying and failing for a kid alone. Recalling the violent deaths of acquaintances alone. Crouched on the dark side beyond the ken of male interest, which she cultivates and trea­sures. In person, it only rarely occurs to Casey to feel bad for Leslie.

“I guess I misspoke?” Leslie had been ready to take her back. Now her chance has been lost.

“No.” Leslie crosses her legs. “You spoke deliberately. You think I have ‘crushes.’ Now. Tell me about these ‘crushes.’”

Leslie’s crushes came and went through the years, her inter­est receding and resurging, though Casey never thought to question these cycles of affection, never found them disturbing. Now she wonders if each chosen boy has suffered this same flavor of estrangement, the same gauntlet of hopeful reentry.

“Just say who,” Leslie says.

Her boy-crushes all have diminutive names. “Uh, Yuri? And Danny. Sasha. Billy, Huey.”

“Those are my friends,” Leslie says, as though the term is an unbreachable title, as though Casey is being perverse.

The words stick in Casey’s chest like glass. Maybe thwarted desire early on led Casey to sexualize her entire life. Maybe Leslie had never been flirting with her, either, not even meaninglessly.

“You think I fucked those guys.” Leslie’s hand rises to cup her throat.

“Of course not.” The possibility has never even occurred to Casey.

“What do you think, then? Blow jobs? I’m sure you have it all worked out.”

After the residency ended, for a few weeks their flurry of texts continued, more urgent and frequent than ever, until one day it just stopped.

Much of Leslie’s writing is about fucking guys or guys want­ing to fuck her, circling penis-related incidents: a guy pushing his boner through her doggie door, a Christmas card with a boner traced inside, dildos planted by an admirer in her garden. But the events are observed retrospectively, like they happened decades ago, as remote as her tennis partner dying in a distant desert. Casey never imagined Leslie slept with any of those baby-faced twenty-year-olds. But they couldn’t be real friends, either, not like Casey. “I guess I just thought you liked them.”

Leslie’s mouth goes slack. “So you think I sit around mooning over however many boys and none of them like me back.”

“I guess, sorta.”

Leslie pushes forward in her chair. She leans in toward Casey like she’ll chew off her face. But then she falls back against the seat. Her chin hits her collarbone, her hair falling into her eyes.

She must be collecting her thoughts. At any moment she’ll strike with some cruel, hot comment.

Several minutes pass. The light thickens to orange. The fog burns off. Leslie puts her fingers in her eyes.

“Hey,” Casey says. “Leslie?”

It’s like witnessing a parent fall down in the road.

“Can I get you water? A tea?”

Leslie slowly raises her head. Red marks streak down her cheeks like she’s been scratched by a dog. “I didn’t want to have this con­versation, you know. I thought we could drift apart and it would be easier for everyone. But then you had to move here.”

“I got a job.”

“My mom has a job,” the little girl with the green drink says.

“Does she,” says Leslie. The girl shrinks back against her chair as though Leslie’s sucked the air out of her. She’s hopeless with children. Those miscarriages were a blessing.

“It’s a solid admin position—I couldn’t turn it down. Kinda cre­ative, even.” It’s not. Even though the job is at a Visual Arts MFA, she doesn’t even get to select the color of the file folders. “Freddie said you were moving to Utah.”

Leslie watches Casey from the corner of one eye. “Well. He lied.”

Freddie is Casey’s friend, made at another residency years ago, a poet. Leslie had slept with him for a while—the only real tryst she’s had in all the time Casey has known her, the root of their one fight. His claim never tracked—Leslie out there with all those rocks. Maybe it was poetic license.

The fight happened one night last summer, Leslie and Casey standing on the damp green circle at the center of the campus of the residency in Virginia, Casey complaining that, yet again, Leslie wasn’t available to hang out.

“I’m working late,” Leslie said. But as Casey turned to leave, Leslie added, in a soft voice: “But I guess there’s something you should know.” Leslie had been different the previous two weeks— disappearing at random, and, when present, mysteriously open and easy, actually listening to Casey, laughing with true generosity. Leslie stepped toward Casey across the green circle and took her hand. “We’re together.”

“We are?” Casey stepped back. But it wasn’t a bad feeling; it made a certain dream-like sense. Casey and Leslie were close. They texted all the time, between meals where they always sat together. Maybe that was a kind of relationship.

“Me and Freddie.”

“What?” The grass shifted under Casey’s feet like jelly.

“It’s just a thing.”

The way she said “thing” was like “treasure,” like “gem” or “joy.” Casey was up to her ankles in grass. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it’s no big deal.”

“Leslie. You haven’t dated anyone since I’ve known you. It’s a big deal.”

“What’s your problem.”

“I don’t have a problem. Why do you think I have a problem?”

“Because you sound like you’re about to bite a hole in my neck.”

The idea pulled tight in her underwear. “Why would I bite you?”

“You’re angry I didn’t tell you before.”

“Well, why didn’t you? We hang out every night. With Freddie.” Casey had known Freddie for years without really getting close. He was a hanger-on, a mediocre formalist with four uncelebrated chapbooks who latched onto fame—something Casey could be accused of, too, but the endeavor seemed less pathetic when only Leslie was the focus.

“It was our secret.”

A plug of fury rose in Casey’s chest. “Why would you want to keep a secret? You have no idea what it’s like to have to keep a secret about who you’re dating.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The humidity stuck to Casey’s arms, goopy, thick. “All my rela­tionships were forced into secrecy. All my life.” She sounded prig­gish, hectoring, but come on. Years of slipping out her bedroom window and fucking girls in blocks of suburban forest, faces turned away in shame, being mean to each other the next day—allegedly to cover for each other but really as an outlet for all that festered— and after that, even in college, even though she attended a liberal one, she’d worried her friends would come to question her affec­tion for them, that her roommate would start getting dressed in the bathroom, that she’d no longer be included in nights of recounting oral sex with frat boys, not that she got off on descriptions of sweaty dicks, but the sessions were reassuringly normal, part of female life.

“I can keep any secret I want,” Leslie said.

For the first time in years, maybe forever, Casey’s voice rose to a roar: “You can’t.”

The other residents, heading to dinner on the far end of the circle, watched them like they were wolves meeting at the edge of a glade.

Leslie hissed: “You’re jealous.”

Casey was never actually jealous of Leslie’s crushes, never wanted Leslie before—not in a physical way, not that she was aware of—but now that Freddie, with his blond ponytail and noo­dly hairless chest exposed between the buttons of linen shirts, his fingernails packed with crescents of grime, now that he had Leslie— maybe, now that anyone did—yes, Casey wanted her. Wanted to leap on her right here in the green circle, amid residents parading to their dinner of tofu and canned corn. “I’m not jealous,” Casey said. “You’re trying to make me jealous.”

Leslie blew out air in disbelief, then walked to dinner. For the first time ever at the residency they sat at different tables. For days they didn’t speak. And then one day, two weeks later, out of nowhere, Leslie said, “It’s over. Are you happy?” in a funny kind of flat voice. They never discussed the matter again, but grew closer than ever after that. They stayed up late on residency couches— Leslie sitting too close, letting her hand rest on Casey’s knee, mug­ging like a sexy teen, discussing Leslie’s next book, idly processing Casey’s desire to come west. They texted each other all day about their writing process, illegally lunched during quiet hours, roamed the grounds under kudzu and live oaks. And after the residency ended, for a few weeks their flurry of texts continued, more urgent and frequent than ever, until one day it just stopped.

The coffee shop slows, the clink of spoons against mugs tinkling the still air. A barista shuttles a rattling tub of dishes. “That night in the green circle,” Leslie says. “You were really angry with me.”

She says it like the green circle is some society club, moody and exclusive, instead of a trench of moss behind the lodge of a second-tier residency.

“We don’t have to discuss that.”

“I thought.” Leslie stops. She never stops mid-thought. Her com­ments are as well crafted as her prose, rehearsed and bulletproof.

She continues, “I thought, when you got angry with me, you were saying something else.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“No, it’s not that. You never came for me. That was your prerog­ative.” She takes a breath. “You even said to me, ‘You’ll find a great guy someday.’” She makes the sound of vomiting. “Gross.”

“Wait. What?” Casey has a vague memory of the words, but they meant nothing.

Leslie extends a finger and crooks it: come here. Her signature gesture, sex appeal the custard filling of camp, but this time there’s terror in the tension of those knuckles.

Casey leans over the table, pulled the way she’s always pulled whenever Leslie beckons, shifting Leslie’s cold coffee to make room. Leslie’s face tumbles forward. The tip of her nose taps Casey’s cheek. She lingers there, so close, too close, her nose her only body part in contact, now pressing hard. If Casey moves, Leslie will face-plant into the table.

A man with plasticky hair shifts just enough so it’s clear he’s watching. Leslie’s nose pushes into Casey’s cheek, insistent, like a dog burrowing into soil. Her mouth closes and opens with a suck. Casey’s lips burn to kiss Leslie, itching like they’ve inflated. But this must be a trick. The moment Casey takes Leslie’s mouth in hers, Leslie will reel back and say, Ha, see, you’re sick! You think I actually want you! Then one day Casey will appear in Leslie’s writ­ing, another sexual menace, the boner, this time, her mind.

Casey could bow into years of sexual and psychological subservience. If she just turns her face.

Leslie digs deeper, her nose pushing until it nudges Casey’s tongue off its seat. The man with plastic hair stands, backs up, watching openly. The little girl stirs green tea with one finger. The man visits the counter, jerking his head back, complaining.

“Leslie,” Casey whispers, though this is heaven: the brink. “What are you doing?”

“Smelling you,” Leslie says. “You smell like shit.” Her voice is sexy, all low and scratchy. Her nose shoves harder.

Yes, Casey has lazily fantasized about Leslie—not sex, exactly, but the time surrounding it, falling asleep in Leslie’s apartment just three blocks from here, with eucalyptus branches tapping the win­dows outside, the condensation of Leslie’s breath on the glass in a pattern of clouds around them. This could be a beginning. A string of dinners listening to Leslie’s updates, enjoying her sharp, mean affection. Casey could bow into years of sexual and psychological subservience. If she just turns her face.

“You’re too proud to kiss me,” Casey says, her breath catching.

The nose retreats, leaving Casey’s mouth loose and empty.

Leslie folds her hands over her lap. “You think you know me. But I know you, too.”

“What do you know?” Casey whispers. The man has retreated to his seat, the barista perhaps having decided that Leslie’s attack presents no hygiene risk. He opens a book so close to his face that the pages wall in his cheeks, as though Leslie’s coming for him next.

“I know you want me,” Leslie says.

Casey opens her mouth.

“You’re afraid,” Leslie says. “You think I’m straight. And I am.”

Casey will call her bluff, why not? They aren’t going to be friends anyway, that’s obvious, has been obvious for months. “But you also want me.”

“Yes.” The word is light enough to float up to the ceiling.

Power shoots through Casey, sweeter than any kiss. “I don’t even like you, Leslie.”

The words are a lie, and they both know it. A sound peeps from Leslie’s throat, not a laugh, not a hiccup, not a cry. She nods. She nods again. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

They both stand. Casey sinks down. They can’t leave together.

“Go if you want,” Leslie snaps. And then, more forcefully, “Come on, get up and go.”

Casey stands, but then Leslie does, too. Casey moves slowly, hoping that by the time she slips on her windbreaker, Leslie will be out the door, that she won’t have to be the one to go first, Leslie watching her. But Leslie is deliberate, shrugging on her coat like it’s the end of an opera. She’s still gathering her purse, still cir­cling the table, head down, when Casey reaches the front of the shop. But then, just as Casey grabs the doorknob, Leslie hurries up behind her, pushes past her and out the door, bumping Casey’s hip.

Outside, the fog has burned off, the sky unsettlingly blue in that way Casey can never square with San Francisco, turning the city open and blustery and enormous. Leslie is so much smaller than Casey. Casey never remembers this when they’re sitting down because all of Leslie’s features are big—her hands, her nose, her hair, her voice. But there she is, kid-sized, the panel of her cleavage vulnerable between the quilted curtains of her coat. They’re both walking west, saying nothing, this block of Geary punishingly long, Leslie pushing her big hands up into her hair, flattening it until it shines with grease and her ear pokes out. And then—miracle of miracles—there’s a side street before the end of the block. A gift. “I’m turning,” Casey says.

Leslie sneers just as Casey realizes, too—not a street, an alley. But it could be a shortcut, maybe. Casey turns, hustling. She only makes it ten feet before she meets a chain link fence, and then she just stands there, not turning, even as she feels Leslie watching her, for two minutes, then five, until the coins of heat slide off her spine. Even then she keeps standing, staring at the lot beyond, until a man comes out of a building, folds himself into a convertible with a sticker of a rainbow bear, squints at her and blasts his horn. On Geary, Leslie is still up ahead, her strides short but quick, her purse thumping her thigh, fussy shoes clattering like horse hooves, one ankle wobbling.

Lydi Conklin is the author of the story collection Rainbow Rainbow, longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award and The Story Prize, and the novel Songs of No Provenance.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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