Tonya Has a Great Idea
by Rachel Spangler
Tonya threw open the door of the Women for Women bookstore so hard, the little jingle bells overhead clanked against the glass as she bellowed. “Let’s have a Christmas party this year!”
Erin scrunched up her face against the cold wind that followed her best friend into the store and set her copy of Bitch magazine on top of the ancient cash register. “What?”
“A Christmas party, here, at the store. Next weekend,” Tonya explained excitedly as she unwound her voluptuous curves from a series of decorative scarves and a puffy, down coat. “With eggnog and spiked punch. Picture sparkly garland along the bookshelves and mistletoe dangling overhead. There’ll be women in velvet dresses and other women in Santa ties.”
“That’s a little WASPY, don’t you think? Not everyone celebrates Christmas.”
“Right.” Tonya snapped her fingers. “Sorry, you’re half Jewish.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “No need to offer condolences for my Jewish mother.”
“No, I didn’t mean sorry that you’re are Jewish. Sorry I forgot about Hanukkah. When is that this year?”
“The 24th. When is Kwanzaa?”
“What, ‘cause I’m black I gotta know when Kwanzaa is?”
“No, shit, no,” Erin stammered, feeling her cheeks start to burn. “I just thought—”
Tonya threw back her head and laughed so hard her whole body shook. “I’m just messing with you. It always starts on the 26th. Three days, three holidays. That’s a lot to celebrate. Let’s have a “Chrismanukazaa party this year.”
“That’s not a thing. Also, what about our Muslim friends, or our Hindu friends, or our pagan friends?”
“For the love of cake, I didn’t even know we had that many friends.” Tonya sagged against the checkout counter. “How about we call it a ‘holiday party’?”
“A winter party?”
“It’s actually not winter until the 21st, so…”
“I just want to have a party! With music, drinks, and women, and dancing, and dancing with women. Just a party that’s fun and sexy where there might be women who like me.” Tonya balled up her fists and scrunched up her face like a toddler facing an impending meltdown. “I don’t care what you call it or how you decorate it or what faiths people bring or don’t bring with them, so long as there are women at this completely secular late autumn party.”
“Completely Secular Late Autumn Party. C-SLAP,” Erin said with a shrug. “I like it.”
Tonya’s smile spread slowly until it encompassed her whole face, pushing her round cheeks up until they crinkled the corners of her eyes. “So is that a ‘yes’ to the party?”
Erin finally cracked a slight grin of her own. “That’s a ‘yes’ to the party.”
Erin Has Second Thoughts
by Stefani Deoul
“Why did I ever agree to this party,” Erin mused to herself, watching as Tonya relocated the mistletoe for the twelfth time, apparently still on the hunt for her perfect strategic spot, “I know so much better than this.”
It was only three days since C-SLAP was brainstormed, but it might as well have been three years. Every moment Tonya had was spent finding new and even more “perfect” ways to make this the party of the century. “We need a DJ. No, we are so not having a night of greatest woodwind hits ever.” “We are not partying in a roomful of fluorescent overhead bulbs. We need to get us some lighting happening in here.” “What do you think we do for food? And no, we are not bringing back the golden era of bad potlucks.”
And each time Erin balked, Tonya began with the pouty facing, then moved onto parrying. And finally, as tensions grew, Tonya went in for the kill, flashing the one answer Erin could not deny, given the politics of the present: this party was now a mandate.
And sitting here watching the mistletoe placement Olympics unfolding in front of her, Erin could acknowledge Tonya was at once perhaps guilty of massaging and manipulating the message for her own nefarious gains, but equally, and despite herself—Tonya was guilty of being right. It was time for all of them who were old enough to remember when a gay bookstore was a life-line. When it was the center of the universe, the eye in the storm and the hug for a bruised and battered heart. They all needed to rise back up and reignite their place in the community. It was time to be loud and proud and a beacon of light and hope and belief.
And if this needed to be done in a sea of women in velvet dresses and Santa ties, maybe it wasn’t so bad. “Maybe,” Erin thought, surprising herself. “Maybe it’s even good.”
Tonya turned toward Erin. She seemed a bit surprised to see her finally moving off her secure perch behind the counter.
“I’m thinking we should push the center cases off to the corners, clear a dance floor.”
Tonya’s eyebrow couldn’t get any higher unless she personally took her fingers and held it up by herself. Did Ms. Ambivalent say make a dance floor, in front of the big, street-facing windows?
Erin shrugged. “I’m thinking we go big or go home.”
by Marianne K. Martin
Going big. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise from the woman who had been beating the odds for years. Women for Women, through adjustments and compromises and a working relationship with Jenny’s Coffee House next door, had survived. The adjoining wall had been broken through and the resulting sales for both businesses were on the upswing.
So, sure. Why not celebrate big.
And for this party, big meant an all-out media blast, a large diverse group of women, and exes. Lots of exes.
“Jenny’s so excited,” Erin said, gripping the legs of the ladder as Tonya hung the mirrored ball in the perfect spot above the dance area. “She’s gotten commitments for every manner of sweet decadence—pastries, desserts . . .”
“I’ve had some commitments come in, too.” Tonya peered down from her lofty perch. “And talk about decadent—whooo.”
“You’re going to tell me whether I ask or not,” Erin replied, dropping her forehead against the leg of the ladder.
“You bet I am,” Tonya managed before bursting into a laugh that shook the ladder, “because you wanted to go big, and I can’t resist torturing you.”
“I know.” Tonya added a laugh on her way down the ladder. “And irresistible in velvet.”
Erin cocked her head and feigned indifference.
“Well, right out of the gate, I got a tweet from Roxy, your favorite security guard.”
“Yep, she’s convinced that such an open, happy, in-your-face lesbian celebration is sure to draw the wrong kind of attention.”
“And she’s offering her services.”
Tonya flashed a toothy smile and raised her eyebrows. “Security and otherwise. For you,” Tonya added with a wink, “anything.”
Erin grinned. “If only I was interested.” Which wouldn’t happen if Roxy had the only boat in a hundred-year flood. “I was talking about sweet decadence, there is a difference, you know.”
“Oh, I was saving that for last.” Tonya’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Guess who’s in town visiting relatives?”
“About half the women I went to school with. Come on!”
“The notoriously delicious J.B.”
For a moment. everything stopped— her heart, her breath—no sly grin or playful response. For Erin, there was only the strike to the middle of her chest and questions from long ago wanting answers.
We Never Promised Forever
by Marcia Finical
Oh, Christ! Not J.B.! Erin’s cheeks reddened as she thought back to the delicate dance she and J.B. had done years before.
Playing footsie in the cafeteria, the two of them practically daring the straight kids at the next table to bust them. Then the mad dash to J.B.’s apartment where they ripped off each other’s clothes, all lust and heavy breathing. Sex, pot, and Taco Bell sustained them for months.
Until it all went south.
She’d bought burritos with the queso J.B. liked. As she unlocked the door she saw J.B. throwing her underwear into the dirty clothes hamper. Except J.B. didn’t wear panties with lace. She wore boyshorts. And not the cheap, 8-pack cotton kind. The expensive kind, from Victoria’s Secret.
“What the hell is this?” Erin demanded.
“Awww, babe.” She pushed the hair behind Erin’s ear. “I just decided, you know, to try something new.”
Erin pushed her hand away. “Bullshit! More like someone new. Those panties aren’t even your size.”
J.B. flashed the same sexy smile that had won her over from the start. “But, babe. We never promised forever. C’mon now.” J.B. threw her arm around Erin’s shoulder. “We’ll fire up a joint and have the kind of sex other women can only dream of.”
Well. There was that.
Erin shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. She’d been bought off with toe curling, rapturous sex that went on and on and on until they lay next to each other, exhausted. They’d parted only because J.B. got her dream position at a company seven hours away.
Erin desperately wanted to believe it was more than just sex. It meant something. At least it meant something to her. One time, in a moment of passion, J.B. had said “I love you!” Did she really mean it? Then why did she take a job seven hours away? And what would she do when she came face to face with her at the party on Saturday?
Yes, she had agreed to those terms—it wasn’t forever. It was crazy to think there would ever be anything real between them.
“Hey, space cadet!” Tonya snapped her fingers. “Earth to Erin. Anybody home? I’m sorry. I had to warn you about J.B., but girl, we got garland to hang.” She stepped onto the first rung of the ladder.
Erin handed Tonya a roll of garland and mulled over an idea that was slowly forming. “Let’s give Roxy a real reason to make sure our First Amendment Rights aren’t trampled by Trump. I heard some neighbors who live near Mike Pence hung rainbow flags to give him an extra-special welcome.” Erin smiled wickedly.
“The fight goes on?” Tonya cocked her head to the side. Seemed like her whole life she’d been fighting for something or other. Lately, on top of her work at the bookstore, it had been Black Lives Matter and the race to put the first woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the White House. And now the most insane, unqualified, p-grabbing misogynist ever to run was President-Elect. Fortunately, he seemed to think the whole gay-marriage thing had been settled by the Supreme Court. At least that’s what he thought today. That could change, however. Hourly, if need be.
At night when she watched the news, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The Paid Muscle Arrives
by Ellen Hart
Several nights later, an hour or so before the party was to begin, Erin sat perched behind the cashier counter counting RSVPs. Women For Women bookstore was about to be engulfed. She wasn’t sure how so many people could pack into the moderate-sized room, but she was about to find out. The DJ had already set up her electronics and was out in the alley behind the store, smoking a final, sustaining cigarette. This was the quiet before the storm.
Parties were always a mixed bag for Erin, partly because she was single, but mostly because she was an introvert. That didn’t mean she was a misanthrope, simply that being in the company of too many people for too long sapped all her energy. She liked to laugh and to dance, to flirt outrageously when the mood struck, but would need to spend tomorrow under a rock somewhere, hiding.
Tonya hadn’t arrived yet, which was making Erin a little nervous. The front door was locked, or at least Erin thought it was, which was why she was so surprised when Roxy, dressed in her security guard drag, burst in. She looked harassed and dour, as she always did. Strutting across to room toward Erin, her exaggerated seriousness turned ever so slightly mischievous, her eyes rose to the mistletoe.
“I thought the door was locked,” said Erin.
The edges of Roxy’s lips turned up, which for her was the same as a grin.
“Thought I’d get here early,” she said, forcing her voice into a low, commanding register. “Just to do a little reconnoiter. Get the lay of the land. You understand.”
Erin didn’t. She watched Roxy eye her low-cut black-velvet blouse knowing that it wasn’t the sequins that had captured her attention. Good Lord, Erin thought. Didn’t she ever give up? They had about as much in common as a turtle and a flamingo.
Moving over to the poetry bookcase dangerously close to the hanging mistletoe, Roxy pulled a volume off the shelf. “You know, I been looking for some good poetry.”
“Have you,” Erin deadpanned.
“Come here and tell me if this one’s any good.”
“Um,” but before she could come up with an excuse, something like, “Gee, I seem to have forgotten how to walk,” the front door opened once again and Tonya came in. Erin might have seen it as salvation, except for the fact that her friend wasn’t alone.
“J.B.,” whispered Erin. And then she did something she knew was overly dramatic and yet she couldn’t help herself. She gulped. And then she gulped again.
“J.B. needed a ride,” said Tonya matter-of-factly, removing her coat.
“Hey,” said Erin, unable to figure out what to do with her hands. J.B. looked older, even more beautiful than she remembered, and yet a bit uncertain. Her hesitant gaze swept around the room, taking in the garlands, the mistletoe, the religiously nonpartisan decorations. Something had definitely changed. All her brashness seemed to be gone.
Seeing the interaction, Roxy stiffened. She wasn’t happy with this new wrinkle and she didn’t mind showing it. Shoving her hand at J.B., she said, “Roxy Harper. The paid muscle.”
“We’re paying you?” said Erin.
“Come on,” said Tonya. “Everyone. Help me put the food out on the table in the coffee gallery.”
They all dutifully marched into the back room. On the way, Roxy moved up close to Erin and whispered, “How do you know this J.B.?”
None of your damn business, thought Erin. But, in a moment of candor or perhaps madness, she decided to answer. “We were lovers for about five minutes.”
“I see,” said Roxy. “Still holding a torch, are we?”
“Not since I took a vow of celibacy.” Erin couldn’t stand the drama. She wanted to go home and make fudge.
Roxy did a double take. “Celibacy?”
“That’s when you don’t have sex.”
“I know what it means.”
Erin busied herself making the punch while Tonya, Roxy and J. B. set out the food. When she came out of the back room a while later, she saw that Tonya had gone out to her car. J.B. was browsing the bookshelves. And Roxy had disappeared.
Something else had disappeared. When Erin looked up, she saw that the mistletoe was gone.
But We Advertised Mistletoe
by Paula Martinac
At party time, their friend Marisol started rocking tunes from the children’s nook, armed with a Bluetooth speaker and C-SLAP playlist. The rum punch and eggnog bowls were lined up, the pastries were arranged on plates, the string lights twinkled, and Tonya even donned an elf hat. The party had everything it needed to launch, except the mistletoe.
“You aren’t deserting me now,” Erin said when Tonya suggested she run out for more. “Nobody will notice.”
Tonya pointed to the full-color flyer for the event, which they’d blasted across social media: “HOT WOMEN! SPIKED PUNCH! AND MISTLETOE!”
“We advertised mistletoe.”
“Well, your ‘muscle’ seems to have run off with it, so get over it.”
When Erin threw open the door, she marveled at the double line of women snaking around the block. Local lesbians, it seemed, had been jonesing for a party ever since the owner of Hot Toddy’s, the only women’s bar within twenty miles, retired after four decades in business.
“This is way more people than RSVP’d,” Erin said nervously, as ecstatic women streamed in. “I think the ‘Interesteds’ forgot to upgrade to ‘Going.’”
“Hey, you wanted big,” Tonya said.
The eager crowd included all ages, sizes, races, and tattoos. As predicted, there were plenty of black and red velvet dresses, and yes, Santa ties. A few Vermont-types wore reindeer or snowflake sweaters. One woman was a Kate McKinnon ringer, and another could have passed for Wanda Sykes. In no time, women packed the bookstore and spilled into the coffee shop, their hands making their way to each other’s waists and hips.
“You were right about not needing mistletoe,” Tonya said. “These girls will have NO trouble finding each other’s orifices.”
J.B. held court in the romance novel area with a couple of lovelies at either side. Erin hated that she hadn’t come up with anything more scintillating to say to her than “hey.” Stupid. Her eyes kept wandering to J.B. like the woman was made of magnets. The mere idea that her ex had moved on when she couldn’t even bring herself to date made Erin lightheaded.
Well, that and the fact that the place was a freaking oven that pulsed with bodies, and Jenny had just announced that they would be out of both eggnog and punch long before eleven o’clock. Would anybody even leave by eleven, without Roxy to herd them out? Even worse, a few women had tucked books under their arms, like they thought they were party favors. Tonya looked blissfully unaware of the problems as she danced with several beauties at once. Erin wished she could be that oblivious and just flirt and dance her way through the night. She would have tried if it wasn’t so damn hot.
Erin shed the vintage black sequined jacket she’d bought for the occasion, but even in her sleeveless silk tank she was still uncomfortable. Stashing the jacket under the counter, she retreated to the stockroom/office, flew open the window, and took a deep breath of frosty air.
J.B. was standing in a pool of light from the fake Tiffany lamp, a Women for Women paper bag in one hand and a cup of punch in the other.
“What’s the bag for?”
“In case you start hyperventilating,” J.B. said, with a grin. “The drink is for me.” Her lips puckered after one sip. “Wow, when you say ‘spiked,’ you mean business. Want some?”
Their hands brushed as Erin accepted the punch and downed it in one neat gulp. The rum gave her liquid courage to finger J.B.’s tie, which she’d just noticed had a charming pattern of tiny dreidels. What am I doing? Erin thought right before she leaned in for the kiss.
Things Heat Up
by Bonnie J. Morris
J.B.’s lips were just as she remembered.
Why was it that a physical memory could be summoned so instantly, floating up like a fragrant lily pad atop the pond scum of a failed love affair?
No. Not failed. Stalled. Stopped. It could have gone on. She left. She moved on…
These thoughts flashed through her mind even as J.B.’s tongue slipped effortlessly around her chipped front tooth.
They released. “You still haven’t had that tooth fixed,” breathed J.B.
Erin felt tingles of arousal and insult compete for possession of her bare arms. “Not all of us have company jobs with benefits. Some of us work for feminist change.”
To her surprise, J.B.’s handsome face looked hurt. “I spent most of my feminist change here, buying books and music one item at a time.” She turned away and took a swig of punch. “You’d be surprised. My apartment is filled with treasures from this store that took me months of spare change to acquire…all on the same shelf as your photo.” And she walked away slowly, rolling her shoulders in a shift of muscled sadness that made Erin’s heart ache.
Abruptly, Tonya twirled into the room on the arms of a well-built Armenian biker. “I do like lavash bread. Tell me more,” she giggled coyly—and then noticed Erin’s woebegone face. The dance stopped. “Honey, give me a moment.” Tonya released herself from what looked like a very agreeable clinch and reached out to pat Erin’s cheek. “Did you get into trouble with someone?”
In the other spaces of the bookstore and coffee shop, something approximating an orgy had begun. Roxy considered what, exactly, the extent of her responsibilities might be in terms of keeping an orgy under control. One of the young spoken-word artists from Rowboat was standing on top of a milk crate, reciting a poem chock full of the p word, while a threesome groped in the friendliest manner beneath a table laden with gingerbread vulvas. Despite the vibe of salacious decadence, one bespectacled college student was actually trying to read, her hands caressing a new anthology of feminist science fiction that had arrived the week before from a lesbian publisher. She looked up with shining eyes at Roxy, explaining, “I have a story in this. It’s my first ever in print. You don’t know what a sweet Christmas present that is for me. The best ever.”
“Well. God bless us, everyone,” was all Roxy could think to say. Then she spotted J.B., wiping lip gloss from her firm mouth as she returned to the punch bowl. Roxy looked at the paper towel, stained with Cranberry Sunrise. Erin’s lip gloss.
In the stockroom, Tonya took a moment to adjust her Santa-elf bustier before giving Erin a hug. “I can see it hurts, babe, but I also see you couldn’t leave her be either. Her magnetism pulled you right in. Then you better deal with it like a grown-up. Let the past stay sweet or make more good memories, but tonight’s not a party for standing around and mourning what ended. She’s not dead. She’s right here and friendly. Did you send her away? Go back out there and make it up. Ask her to dance, for old times’ sake.”
Could she? Erin hated how lost love seemed to add forty pounds to her feet. She couldn’t make herself go back out there . . . not now. Yet the image of her photo on J.B.’s shelf, next to the books they once read to one another in bed . . . And she felt the unbidden, recognizable, trouble-making ZING in her solar plexus . . .
And Then Cool Down
by Carol Rosenfeld
Erin closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing herself to walk over to J.B. When she opened her eyes there was an old woman blocking her way.
What Erin could see of the gray hair beneath the hood of the black cloak appeared matted, and the woman’s shoulders were misshapen, one being higher than the other. She was using a tree limb as a walking stick.
“Can I help you?” Erin asked. She thought the woman might be one of those old lesbians with a nature name.
“Actually, I’m here to help you,” the woman said, as she bit off the head of a gingerbread boy. She lifted the cookie toward the higher shoulder and a black beak poked out and bit off an arm. “You need to go forward, not back.”
“Are you talking about J.B.? But she has my photograph on her shelf.”
“Yes, but the real question is, do you have her photograph on your shelf?”
“Now that you mention it, I don’t,” Erin said.
“J.B. needs to move forward too.” The woman broke off the other gingerbread arm and dropped it into a large pocket on her long skirt that was patched in many places. Erin thought something in the pocket moved. And was she wearing Doc Martens?
“Who are you?” Erin asked.
“Oh, I have a lot of names, “the woman said. “But you can call me Baba.”
“Well, Baba, I certainly appreciate your advice . . .”
“Look, kid, all I’m saying is don’t hook up with J.B. tonight. If you think you still feel that strongly about her, make a date for dinner. See how she’s changed. Let her see how you’ve changed. Your hormones don’t care about your heart. They’re selfish little devils, living for the moment, out for what they can get.” Baba bit into the body of the gingerbread boy. “Tasty,” she said, “but not as good as the real thing.”
Erin took another deep breath, and closed her eyes again.
“Just checking in,” Tonya said. “I gather you haven’t asked J.B. to dance yet.”
‘Did you see that strange woman who was just talking to me?” Erin asked.
“I didn’t see any one talking to you,” Tonya said.
“She was wearing a black cloak with a hood and carrying a big stick.”
“Just how much of that rum punch did you drink?”
“She said her name was Baba.”
“Babka as in cake?” Tonya asked.
“No. Baba, as in baba ganoush, without the ganoush.”
“Will you do something for me?” Tonya said.
“If I can,” Erin replied.
“Move from this spot where you’ve been standing so long you’re in danger of taking root. Move.” Tonya turned around and walked away.
Erin moved, snaking her way through the crowd. She couldn’t see J.B. Or Baba.
When Worlds Collide
by Judith Katz
She wasn’t interested in any more punch, and frankly, she was just about ready to find Tonya to let her know she’d come back tomorrow to help clean up the mess when she ran smack dab into the young science fiction writer. “I’m looking for a gender-neutral bathroom. Can you help me out?”
“Sure,” Erin nodded. “It’s all pretty much gender neutral back there—just not wheelchair accessible.” She took the young person by the arm and led them toward the back room. “It’s one of those closet sized spaces over on the right” The young writer handed Erin the anthology containing that prized first publication and quickly disappeared into one of the stalls. When they emerged, Erin handed the book back. “Which one are you?”
“My pronouns are they/them.”
“No, I mean which story is yours?”
“It’s called ‘Exaggerated.’ It’s about a time in the not distant future where it’s impossible to tell truth from lies . . . I guess I was kind of prescient, huh.”
“I’d say so . . . are the characters on another planet? Like my friends out there?” Erin gestured to what had in her opinion devolved into drunken chaos on the bookstore floor. “What do you think of the proceedings?”
“They seem a little old school to me. Not that I have anything against velvet gowns or neck ties . . . or public sex . . . just most of you seem kind of . . .”
“Old?” Erin nodded sadly. “What’s a youngster like you doing at a party like this anyway?
The burgeoning sci-fi author looked wounded. “I’m twenty years old.”
“Okay, a robust youngster like you.”
“That’s really patronizing.” The writer took a seat behind the backroom desk.
“I apologize. I’m not exactly in what you call a holiday mood. One too many exes in the same place. But I am curious. What brought you here?”
“I’m here for Rowboat. Tonya saw them do their thing at the open mic over at the university last month and thought they’d be a big hit here. It’s a good thing I came—most of your friends seem much more interested in making out and drinking than listening to queer poetry.”
Erin moved a stack of overdue bills and sat on the corner of the desk. “Actually, my young friend, many of the women out there rolling around on the dance floor invented queer poetry. We called it lesbian poetry back then. And theory. Not that what your pal has to say isn’t important. Especially now. But do you know that Tonya self-published one of the first volumes of African American poems back in the 1970’s? On a mimeograph machine—” Erin was stopped suddenly by the blank look on the sci-fi writer’s face. “Do you even know what a mimeograph machine is? Never mind . . . Look, I’m was on my way out a minute ago—”
The young writer held up a sprig of something just as Erin got to the back-room door. “I found this on the bathroom floor. Must have fallen out of someone’s pocket.”
Erin narrowed her eyes. “You know what, Sport, I’ve done my mistletoe for the night. Why not take that out onto the dance floor and see if you can get lucky. “
The Sum of It All
by Ann McMan
By twelve-thirty, the revelers who were still sober enough to stand had given up on anatomically-correct gingerbread and drunken groping and decided to liven things up by playing a modified game of drop the needle. Only in this iteration, they were using books.
Women for Women books. New ones. Pulled directly from the shelves at random.
Tonya and Erin exchanged nervous looks.
“Um,” Tonya began. But she got no further.
“Here’s how it’ll work,” Roxy waved a rare, blaze orange copy of Rapture and The Second Coming in the air. “We each pick a book and open it to page 39. Then we have act out whatever happens on that page.” She leered at Erin. “With the partner of our choice.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Tonya stepped forward to try to and take the book away from Roxy, but Roxy danced away from her.
“Why not?” Roxy held the book high above her head, out of Tonya’s reach. “Are you chicken?”
There was a titter of laughter.
“I don’t get it.” Roxy lowered the book.
“Roxy,” Tonya explained. “If you tried to act out what happens on page 39 of that book, you’d end up in a body cast.”
“I agree.” J.B. stepped forward. “That one is a bit advanced.”
Roxy looked J.B. up and down. “Who died and made you boss?”
“Trust me.” Erin intervened. “She knows what she’s talking about.”
J.B. gave Erin a small smile. “I used to.”
Erin didn’t reply.
Tonya gently extracted the book from Roxy’s meaty hand and steered her away from the erotica section of the store. “How about we compromise?”
“Yes. I realize it’s a foreign concept for you, but trust me. It can be fun.”
“I’d like to have some fun.” Roxy dropped her hand to Tonya’s ass. “What do you have in mind?”
Tonya rolled her eyes and slapped Roxy’s hand away. She glared at Erin. “Wanna help me out, here?”
“Oh. Uh. Sure.” Erin did her best to ignore J.B. and pushed her way into the center of the group. She had to sidestep a pile of passed-out bodies that were stacked up like human Jenga blocks. They were all wearing black jeans and matching black shirts that were dotted with a happy confluence of rainbow sprinkles and crushed cookie crumbs.
Rowboat. Of course.
So much for the staying power of the spoken word.
She shook her head. Then she got an idea.
“How about this?” She clapped her hands together and looked around at the stalwart group of seven or eight people who had managed not to be splayed about the store in supine positions. “Why don’t we each take turns telling a story? Aloud. Like a round robin?”
“A round what?” Roxy looked confused.
“Robin.” It was J.B. “It’s a collaborative kind of story telling where everyone takes turns.” She smiled at Erin. “Right?”
“Um. Right.” Erin cleared her throat. “Telling stories is a perfect way for us to celebrate the richness of our literary heritage. In fact, this is precisely why Tonya and I decided to host the holiday party here—at Women for Women.” She looked at her partner. “Right, Tonya?”
Tonya was staring back at her like she’d just morphed into an alien life form. “Yeah,” she finally said. “Right. Absolutely. That’s just what we thought.”
“So,” Erin nodded. “We all stand in a circle and someone begins the narrative. Then we each take turns adding on anything we want—in any style. We keep this going until everyone has a turn, then we vote on the most unique contribution.”
“What does the winner get?” Roxy asked.
“Why does the winner need to get anything?” Tonya’s exasperation with Roxy was starting to show.
Roxy threw up her hands. “What the hell kind of game is it if the winner doesn’t get anything for winning?”
“I have an idea.” J.B. stepped into the void. Again. “How about the winner gets to invite the woman of her choice to join her beneath the mistletoe?” She smiled at Erin. “It could give the evening a very happy ending.”
“That would be great,” Tonya waved a hand, “if we had any damn mistletoe.”
“I have some.” It was the aspiring sci-fi writer. Erin was surprised to see the pronoun-neutral kid standing beside a kiosk loaded with back issues of Lumberjanes graphic novels. The wanna-be wordsmith was holding up a shopworn sprig of mistletoe. “I found it on the bathroom floor.”
“Perfect!” Roxy walked over to retrieve the ornament. “Now we just need a place to hang this up.”
The gravelly voice belonged to Baba, and she was holding out her crooked piece of tree limb.
“Thanks . . . I think.” Erin took it from her.
“Do me a favor.” Baba handed her the stick. “Expedite this game. I have other stops to make tonight.”
“Hear, hear.” J.B. and Roxy chimed in unison.
While Erin tied the scrap of mistletoe to the crook of Baba’s makeshift cane, Tonya herded the group into a circle and handed out pens and slips of paper while she amended the rules of the game.
“Everybody gets to tell one sentence of the story. Just one. After we’ve each taken a turn, we write the name of the person who made the most unique contribution on a slip of paper. We’ll tally those up, and whoever who gets the most votes gets to pick a partner for some yuletide pleasure beneath the mistletoe.” Her eyes swept the group. “Sound good?” There were nods all around. “Okay. Let’s get this party started. Who wants to go first?”
It was Marisol, the DJ. Erin didn’t realize she was still there. It seemed like the music had stopped hours ago.
Marisol moved to the center of the circle and cleared her throat.
“A thousand years ago, a young woman who had been rejected by her family and her townspeople because of her love for another member of her sex, embarked on a lonely night journey in search of enlightenment and acceptance.”
Marisol quietly took her place back in the circle.
Roxy, who was next in order, gaped at her with a confused expression. But after a moment, she gamely took her spot in the center of the circle and started to speak.
“She rode a mystical winged horse with the face of a human and the tail of a peacock.”
Roxy smirked at the Sci-fi kid and retreated to the circle.
The author of “Exaggerated,” stepped forward.
“The woman and her great, night mare rode across the heavens, guided by the light of the stars and a shared quest for creative energy and wisdom.”
It had grown quiet. The only sound in the large space was the sonorous mixture of snores drifting up from the heap of Rowboat poets.
A short man with a graying beard and baggy trousers stepped forward.
“Who the hell are you?” Roxy asked.
The man blinked at her. “Eugene.”
Eugene? Erin pondered. Oh! Eugene. The plumber. She’d called him about four hours ago when the stock room toilet stopped up. “Everyone?” she said. “This is Eugene, the plumber. He made an emergency pit stop for us when the back-room commode got plugged.”
“Yeah.” Tonya regarded the small man. “What was wrong with that thing, anyway?”
Eugene shrugged. “Somebody tried to flush about nine yards of mistletoe. It all came out in a long, soggy strand.” He jerked a thumb toward the rear of the store. “I tossed it out back if anybody wants more for later.”
There were no takers.
“So, Eugene.” Tonya smiled at him. “You wanna take part in our little holiday round robin?”
Tonya waved a hand. “Have at it, man.”
“The flying white horse carried thunderbolts for the gods, and legend held that brilliant springs of water would burst forth whenever its hooves struck the surface of the earth.”
J.B. was up next. “Seriously, dude?” she muttered as she stepped forward. “I have to follow that?” She took a deep breath.
“As their journey to a place of perfect love and acceptance continued, the woman and her faithful companion met many other lonely travelers, and invited them all to take part in their quest for belonging.”
Tonya took center stage next. She stared at the floor a moment before beginning to speak.
“As the long night wore on, the woman and her faithful companion came to understand that the only truth and meaning worth having lay in the process of the journey itself, and not in the hope for some imagined outcome.”
She looked at Erin. “At Least that’s how I see it.”
Baba cleared her throat. It didn’t help much. Her voice still sounded like a burr coffee grinder going full-tilt boogie.
“The great lesson of the night journey teaches us that the pains and sorrows of this life form a test of faith, and these tests reveal that every hardship is followed by great relief and major blessing.”
Erin’s throat felt thick. She looked back and forth between J.B. and Tonya. This was her moment. She knew it. She stepped forward.
“So it was that at the end of their great journey together across the endless night sky, the gods rewarded the horse and rider for their faithful service by turning them into the brightest constellation in the heavens.”
She raised her eyes to Tonya’s face. “If you look hard, you can see it every night.”
Tonya smiled at her.
“Okay, everybody.” Baba grabbed her cane and held it aloft. “Time to get this show on the road. I got two bat mitzvahs and a bris in line after this gig, so we need to kick it up a notch. I don’t know about the rest of you, but for my money, Erin gets the nod.” She wagged a crooked finger back and forth. “Anyone disagree? No? All done? Great.” She rapped the base of the cane three times on the floor. “Erin? Step forward, girl. Are you ready to claim your reward?
Erin smiled and reached out to take hold of Tonya’s hand.
The end . . .
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