The song that drifts to them from the car stereo is light and breezy and, frankly, a little ridiculous. But then, Liz thinks, the whole night has been surreal, so she’s just going to go with it. When the singer reaches the chorus and starts in about lime and coconuts, she gives in to the music and dances along to the beat, inconsistent though it is.
She’s doesn’t know where they are, but she knows that she’s far too drunk to go anywhere else. Her limbs are heavy and out of control and everything Jen says is far too funny. Jen twirls past her, arms up in the air and a happy smile on her face.
They started at dinner in the city. No, it’s not really a city. Liz has been to actual cities. Not New York or Los Angeles, but she’s been to Chicago and nobody who has ever been to Chicago questions whether it’s large enough to be a city or if it’s really just a big town. So, Liz amends her thoughts, they started at dinner in town, and somewhere along the line, after the entrée, but while the stain of fresh strawberry juice was new on their fingers, Jen convinced her to go for a drive.
Jen convinces her to do a lot of things. She laughs and looks knowingly into Liz’s eyes, as if she’s aware of so much more, and Liz is left with no choice. If she doesn’t agree, she’ll be left behind.
And she hates to be left behind.
When Jen invited her to dinner, she was surprisingly formal about it. Then, she insisted on paying for the meal saying, “I asked you, silly.” Liz thinks it might be a date, but Jen hasn’t tried to hold her hand or kiss her or anything else distinctly date-like, so she isn’t really sure.
Instead of asking, she lets the question burn in her throat, muting the sweetness of their shared dessert. She can’t remember the appetizer or the main course, and knows that she should. But as soon as the tray of strawberries–stems and leaves still attached–with fresh whipped cream and dipping chocolate arrived, Liz was helpless to do anything but watch. She smiled, too, she knows. Probably that too-big, bordering on goofy smile that makes her look like a cartoon character. She’d like to be graceful–beguiling, even–but it’s impossible when she’s so damn happy.
Jen offered her the first berry and, of course, she’d shaken her head, big goofy smile front and center, as she said, “No, you eat it.”
She didn’t know what she meant to happen next, but she imagines it was something along the lines of Jen smiling and then eating the berry. Except she didn’t do that at all. Instead, Jen dipped it lightly in the cream, covering just the barest tip, and held it to Liz’s mouth.
She’d felt the cream whisper against her lips, but she couldn’t move. She’d never had anyone, especially someone she liked as much as she likes Jen, hand-feed her anything. Her brain chose that exact moment to stutter to a stop like an old car on the side of the road and all she was able to do was stare.
Jen’s mouth had lifted slightly, but only on one side, in a perfect, sexy half-smile, and she said, “Come on. You’ll like it. I promise.”
And still Liz had stared. She sat there, mute and immobile, frozen by what the gesture might mean, long enough for Jen’s confidence to falter. Her smile dropped and she started to pull her hand away. That movement, the loss of sensation against her lips awoke Liz with a start. She lurched forward, mouth gaping open, and chomped the berry. Her mouth engulfed most of the berry and her lips brushed against Jen’s fingers.
When she had pulled back, cheeks flushing madly, Jen smiled again, but all Liz could do was swallow roughly and then tuck her face into her napkin.
“You’re pretty when you blush.”
After that, they had eaten the remaining berries in the normal way, feeding themselves instead of Jen feeding her. Liz tried to use her fork because it seemed like the proper thing to do in a place like that, but the berry shimmied and rolled under the pressure and the tines of her fork clanked loudly against the plate. After that, she used her fingers and that made Jen smile so she decided that must be the right way to eat strawberries, even in fancy restaurants.
After dinner, Jen had smiled almost shyly and asked if she wanted to go for a drive. The way she said the words, almost teasing, yet almost insecure, left Liz winded and stammering. She wasn’t sure what the right answer was, but she knew she didn’t want the night end.
Her lack of certainty hadn’t stopped her from climbing into the passenger seat of Jen’s car, still far too sober for the things she was contemplating, and smiling agreeably when Jen turned left to take them out of town instead of right to take them back to Liz’s apartment.
“Liz,” Jen sing-songs at her when the music on the stereo switches to a new, slower song that Liz almost recognizes. “Where did you go?”
She likes the way Jen says her name, as if each letter counts. When she’d finished school, she immediately started teaching and, before she even realized it had happened, she’d become Ms. Tarlaine. She went from being a single name to a formal title and in the process became old overnight. Every once in a while, a student, or a parent, would stutter over the title, calling her missus instead of miss. It made her flinch every time because she wasn’t ready to give up any more of her youth.
She imagines that if Jen were to call her missus, she wouldn’t mind that at all.
“I was just thinking about dinner.”
She swears she’s only had a few drinks from the bottle and has no business feeling this swirly and disoriented and light, but still she leans against the front of the car and presses the back of her hand to her forehead. Her skin is hot.
“Are you okay?” Jen is suddenly right in front of her, her eyes full of concern and her mouth close enough to kiss. Liz stares at her lips and tries to remember what Jen asked.
“Liz,” Jen says her name softer now, runs a finger along the edge of her face and then tucks a strand of hair behind Liz’s ear. “Are you okay?”
Jen’s eyes are this perfect silvery blue that makes Liz think of ice cold water on the back of her throat on a hot day and she can’t stop looking into them. Even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t, there’s no way she could look away now, not with Jen so close. She smiles and she’s sure she looks stupid doing it, but she can’t stop that, either. Jen is looking at her like she’s waiting for something, so she nods her head because that’s always a good answer when she doesn’t know the question.
She shouldn’t be this drunk, but there’s no other explanation for how disoriented she feels at that moment.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Then dance with me.”
Jen holds out her hand and looks at her, uncertain, as though Jen is afraid, somehow, that she’ll say no. It’s almost as if she thinks Liz has control over herself when Jen is around, as if she doesn’t understand that Liz is helpless to do anything but take her hand and sway with her in the middle of this…field.
She raises her head from Jen’s shoulder and looks around. She really should have some idea where they are, but she doesn’t. Not that it matters. They are both far too drunk on the bottle of wine Jen mysteriously pulled from behind her seat. They won’t be leaving any time soon.
Mostly, she just sees darkness. Sure, the car is running and the headlights are on, but they don’t point everywhere. All she knows for sure is that she’s dancing with Jen in tall grass that tickles her legs as she moves. And there are trees at the edge of the light. Symmetrical trees. Uniform. All lined up in perfect, uniform rows, all the same size and shape. An orchard, maybe.
“This is nice.” Jen hums more than speaks and her lips are pressed up against Liz’s hair, just above her ear, and she feels the words all the way down into her stomach.
“Mmm.” Liz wants to pull her closer, turn her head until Jen’s lips are pressing against her own and see if she still tastes of strawberries. The flavor of dessert was buried beneath the tannins of red wine with her first swig from that bottle, but she thinks maybe she can still taste the touch of her lips against Jen’s finger. At least she wants to. Instead of kissing Jen like she wants, she hums her agreement and keeps right on dancing.
Except what they are doing hardly counts as dancing. She took too many years of lessons to mistake this drunken, almost swaying motion as actual dancing. Still, she decides she likes it better.
The song changes again, this time to something fast, upbeat, and Liz curses in her head. She’s not ready to let go of Jen and she’s sure that’s what comes next. She’s shocked to the point of holding her breath when Jen snugs in closer and tightens her grip on Liz’s waist.
Jen’s fingers are spread wide and Liz can feel each one of them burning hot against her flesh even though there is a layer of thin fabric separating her from Jen. She should have worn more clothes. Or fewer. She can’t decide in her semi-foggy, yet hyper-aware state which would be better.
Jen squeezes one more time, then steps back, releasing her completely. “Thanks for coming to dinner.”
Liz smiles at her, shuffles awkwardly as she wrings her fingers together behind her back to keep herself from wrapping them into the fabric of Jen’s shirt. Finally she looks away and says, “You’re welcome.”
It isn’t the best answer, she knows. She should say that she’s having fun. Or she should thank Jen for inviting her. Suddenly she doesn’t feel drunk at all.
The night air prickles against her skin and it registers for the first time just how dark it really is. But the wine bottle is lying on the ground next to the car and, the way it’s tipped, she knows if it wasn’t empty when it landed there, it is now. She stares at the bottle to keep from looking at Jen. She knows if she does, she’ll ask her to dance again and she’s far too sober for that.
Jen must follow her line of sight because she laughs dryly and says, “It’s empty.”
She looks at Jen out of the corner of her eye because she can’t not look at her any longer, but she’s not ready to give in to full eye contact yet.
Jen smiles a little too big and claps her hands together. “I have another bottle.”
Somehow Jen pulls a second bottle from behind the seat and opens it before Liz can tell her that she shouldn’t. When Jen presses the bottle into her hands, because she didn’t bring glasses, Liz tips it to her mouth without really thinking about it. She gulps down one mouthful followed quickly by another, knowing that the floaty, happy feeling will return with it, but not sure that she wants it.
“Thanks.” She passes the bottle reluctantly and wishes that the commercial on the radio would end because she liked it when Jen asked her to dance.
“Tell me something.” Jen leans against the hood of the car, the bottle of wine cradled loosely in her arms. Her pupils are blown wide and Liz wants to think it’s because of her, but it’s probably the combination of wine and moonlight.
Liz feels her face flush with heat and hopes that Jen can’t tell. Or if she can, that she thinks it’s the wine and not embarrassment at being hit with such a commonplace, yet overly demanding request as “tell me something.”
Liz shuffles her feet again, then gives in to the urge to take the bottle from Jen. She may brush her hands against Jen’s arm accidentally, but it’s quick and unintentional and she can’t really tell if it happened at all. She takes a deep drink, gulping greedily from the bottle even though she knows she shouldn’t. She has to work tomorrow and second-graders are anything but quiet at eight in the morning.
Jen smiles and it’s far too charming as she leans over and rescues the bottle. Liz notes that it’s much lighter now than it was when she got it.
“Something simple, like your favorite color.”
She thinks of the strawberries and the way Jen closed her eyes when she bit down, her expression open and bordering on luxurious as she moaned about how good they were. Before she realizes what she’s saying, she answers, “Red,” even though her favorite color until tonight has always been purple. She doesn’t ask Jen’s because she already knows that it’s yellow, like the sun. She imagines what Jen would look like if they came back to this place during the day and suddenly she wants nothing more than to see Jen dancing in the tall grass with the sun in her hair.
Jen edges closer. “Yeah? That might be mine, too.” She sips the wine. “Favorite movie?”
Liz feels light-headed, her face hot and flushed and Jen is standing far too close for her to think. She shakes her head and finds the motion very unsettling. Her brain keeps shaking even after her head stops, and she shakes it again to see if she can counteract the feeling. It doesn’t work.
“I have no idea. What’s yours?”
Jen stares at her lips as she chews on her own. “Mmm. This one.” The answer makes no sense, but then Jen’s flush up against her with the wine bottle between then and the fingers of one hand threading through Liz’s hair, pulling her into a kiss.
Liz tries to respond, but it’s swallowed into Jen’s mouth and all she can hear in her own ears is a muffled “Ummph.” Strangely, or maybe not, it feels like exactly the right response.
Jen keeps the kiss short, pulling away just as Liz wakes up and realizes that she’s not actually participating. She reaches for Jen’s arm as Jen’s lips leave hers and she wants to chase after her lips and draw her back in, but figures she shouldn’t since Jen was the one to start it. Doesn’t that mean she gets to stop it, too? She can’t remember the rules, and she’s not sure if she ever knew them.
The kiss clouds her mind even further. She wants to think about what it means that Jen said her favorite color is red when she knows that’s not right. But maybe it is and maybe she’s wrong. Maybe Jen doesn’t have yellow wildflowers tattooed on her shoulder because they make her feel lighter somehow. Jen told her that once, she thinks, but the memory is jumbled and red really is a nice color.
The wine bottle, half empty now even thought Liz doesn’t remember either of them drinking that much, is warm beneath her fingers as she takes it from Jen and brings it to her mouth. She’s not really thirsty, but she has to do something with her hands to keep from gripping Jen bruisingly tight and pulling her into another kiss.
“Was that okay?” Jen shifts, her feet moving like she planned to back away, yet her body stays close enough for Liz to feel the words against her face.
She nods and that feels much better than when she shook her head a few moments ago. “Definitely.”
They’re awkwardly silent for a while, trading sips from the bottle and watching each other from the corners of their eyes. Liz realizes she has no idea, even after having kissed, whether Jen still tastes of strawberries. She feels foolish for having wasted the opportunity.
Maybe Jen realizes what Liz always knew, that she’s not one of the sexy girls who eats fruit from her date’s fingers or dances spontaneously under the stars. She glances at Jen’s hands, tries to see the tips of her fingers, but they are tucked under her arms. She thinks about asking if the berries stained her fingers red, but knows the question will just make things more awkward and really she just wants to see the evidence for herself, not talk about it. She glances at her own fingers, but without moving in front of the headlights, it’s impossible to tell anyway. She wishes she’d been brave enough to feed Jen a strawberry. Maybe next time. If there is a next time.
“What’s over there?” Liz asks about the trees because she needs something to fill the silence. She wants to go back to dancing and laughing and feeling the grass against her legs, but they’ve gone through three songs–she counted–on the stereo and Jen hasn’t asked her to dance again.
Jen glances over her shoulder and shrugs. “Orchard.”
“Orchard? Like fruit?” Liz almost feels her nose scrunch up, but it’s muted and tingly, so she’s not sure if she’s really doing it or just thinking about doing it. She’s seen orchards before, of course, but only from behind the windshield of a car. It feels strange to be this close to actual growing food.
Jen smiles again–it involves both sides of her mouth this time–and extends a hand. “Yeah, come on.”
Liz takes her hand and she doesn’t realize she’s still holding the bottle, mostly empty, until they’re halfway to the trees and it’s too late to leave it behind. She trips along behind Jen and feels stretched out with the motion. Jen pulls her by one arm, drawing her into a sideways line with the other hand flapping out behind her, wine sloshing noisily inside the bottle, but never spilling.
When they reach the fence separating the trees from the open field, she collapses against Jen in a fit of giggles. She can’t catch her breath and it feels so good to breathe in the night air and laugh away the tension their kiss had left in her shoulders.
Jen makes an exaggerated shushing sound, with her finger to her lips as if they are in a commercial about a library, or maybe an actual library, but definitely not in the middle of nowhere. She grabs hold of Jen’s finger, pulling her hand down and laughing so close to Jen’s mouth that Jen can probably feel it in her throat, but it doesn’t matter because Jen is laughing just as hard and collapsing against her.
Before the laughter dies away completely, she takes another drink of wine and hands the bottle to Jen. It’s almost gone and she doesn’t want to spill it on the ground like the last bottle. That’s what happened to it, right? They didn’t actually drink one–no two bottles of wine. She’s happy and fuzzy and everything around her seems to just float, so she decides she doesn’t care if it was one or two bottles of wine, or if they drank them, or poured them down a well.
Jen swirls the bottle and the tiny bit left in the bottom sloshes quietly before sliding down to rest in the bottom. She hands it to her with a smile that’s a little too soft and loose at the edges, but her eyes are lidded and dark and Liz want to kiss her again more than just about anything.
“Bottoms up. Don’t let it go to waste.”
Liz tips the bottle back and lets the rest of the liquid fill her mouth. It’s not what she wants to be doing, but it tastes good and she likes the way the wine feels as it slides down the back of her throat. When it’s empty, she sets the bottle in the grass at her feet and promises herself that she’ll pick it up when they head back. She wipes her mouth on the back of her hand.
“Why are we here?” She looks around. It’s harder to see this far from the light and she can’t remember what they are doing.
Jen smiles and nods. “Because you said yes.”
That doesn’t make any sense so she rewinds the conversation in her mind–as much as she can with wine-muddled thoughts–but she can’t follow the thread and almost forgets what she was trying to figure out in the first place. She shakes her head. “What?”
“I asked and you said yes, and that’s why we’re here.”
Liz shakes her head again. “No. I mean right here. In this spot.” She points to the ground as if that will somehow help clarify.
“Oh.” Jen looks around as if she’s seeing their surroundings for the first time. Then she points at the trees. “Orchard, remember?”
Jen’s halfway over the fence before Liz registers that she’s moving. Just below Jen’s foot is a sign declaring the orchard private property and outlining the penalties for anyone caught on the wrong side of the fence. She can just see it in the dim headlights and thinks maybe Jen missed it. Liz points at the sign and starts to call Jen back, but then Jen trips on the top rail and tumbles to the ground. Liz hurries over, stumbling as she goes because she’s laughing too hard to run, but too concerned to not move at all.
“Jesus, are you okay?”
Jen makes a muffled sound that Liz can’t understand, and she needs to get over the fence to check on her. She’s wearing this long flowing skirt that flared out nicely when they were dancing, but will only trip her up if she tries to climb, so she flails her arms helplessly a couple of times, then sets about tying the skirt together between her legs.
Jen is up and smiling and laughing before Liz can quite figure out how to control her skirt and she’s so relieved that she almost starts crying as she laughs with Jen.
“You scared me,” Liz says. She stands at the fence, hands on the top rail and watches as Jen picks a fruit from the nearest tree–an act worthy of a $5000 fine if she’s caught–then makes her way back over. Jen keeps her eyes on her feet as she high steps through the undergrowth. She’s breathing harder than usual, but smiling bigger than she has all night as she presents the fruit to Liz.
“For you.” Jen holds out the peach in one hand, but rests her other one lightly on top of Liz’s where it sits on the top rail of the fence, brushing her thumb back and forth absently.
“A peach.” Liz takes it, but she’s not sure what to do with it. She’s never had a peach straight from the tree before and wonders if it has to go through some sort of process, like milk has to be pasteurized, before she can safely eat it.
“Yes! A peach. Eat it.” Jen sounds far too happy and speaks in exclamation points that make Liz want to shush her. She doesn’t because the last time they did that, they couldn’t stop laughing and this moment feels far too serious for that.
Liz evaluates the peach. She’s only ever had peaches from a can and doesn’t know what to make of it. The skin is fuzzy and feels oddly soft and firm at the same time. How exactly does Jen expect her to eat it? Does she just bite into it and hope for the best?
Jen laughs, but it isn’t the same hysterical, out of control laughter that they shared before. It’s soft and sweet and thoroughly charming. She takes the peach back and holds it to her own mouth.
“Like this,” she says just before she crunches down, her teeth piercing the soft skin.
Peach juice drips down Jen’s chin and reflects the light of the moon. Liz wipes it away with her thumb without even thinking. She still can’t see if the juice stains her skin or not, but she can smell the sweetness of the fruit and she wants to taste it. She feels silly for not taking a bite when Jen gave her the chance.
Liz brings her thumb to her mouth and licks. It’s unlike anything she’s ever tasted. She sucks her thumb with a happy “mmm” noise and immediately wants more.
Jen offers it to her again. There’s a line of juice dripping down the front of the peach and drabbles of it coats Jen’s fingers.
“You want?” Jen’s voice is deeper than a moment ago, and the smile is deadly serious as she stares hard at Liz, watching her mouth as she opens to take a bite without actually taking the fruit into her own hand.
Jen holds perfectly still as Liz takes a bite of her own. The burst of flavor with the flesh of the fruit is even more powerful than the juice and she takes another bite as soon as she can. She means to keep her eyes focused on Jen, to hold on to the intense connection that popped up unexpectedly as Jen fed her fruit from her fingers for a second time that night. As soon as her mouth touches the peach, her eyes close without her permission and she finds herself moaning indecently.
“God.” Jen’s tattered, stilted, barely audible exclamation stops her from taking yet another bite.
When she opens her eyes, she sees Jen, eyes so dark she almost can’t remember what color they are. Jen looks stricken, as if she’s just managing to hold herself back and Liz has no idea what it means.
“Say you’ll go out with me again.”
Liz smiles and forgets about the peach completely as she answers, “Yes, of course.” She’s not convinced either of them will remember the invitation tomorrow, when they’re sober again, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
“Good.” Jen drops the peach and wipes her hand on her pants. Liz watches and thinks about licking the juice away with her tongue, but it’s a first date and they’ve barely kissed and no matter how good the peach is, she just isn’t that kind of girl.
“When?” She wants to know when they’ll go out again, because on their second, or third, or maybe their fourth–she doesn’t really know the rules for these things, either–she won’t have to stop herself when she wants to lick something from Jen’s fingers.
Jen climbs over the fence, clearing the top easily this time, and takes Liz’s hand in hers. She holds it lightly as they walk back to the car.
“When do you want?”
They get into the car because the air is suddenly too cold. She doesn’t know if that’s because the wine is fading from her system or if the weather changes drastically at a certain time of night. She’s never been in a field, or an orchard, after dark.
“Now,” Liz answers without thinking. Now won’t work because now is their first date. It can’t be their second date, too.
“Perfect.” Jen pulls their combined hands into her lap with a laugh. “How about tomorrow night, too?”
And that really is perfect. Liz smiles and thinks about how yellow-orange–the shade of a peach picked fresh from the tree–might be her new favorite color. She doesn’t force the thought to coalesce beyond that point, however, content to sit in the warm car with the taste of fresh peaches and red wine on her lips.
Tomorrow, on their next date, maybe she’d discover yet another new favorite color.
The Juice that Stains Her Fingers
Copyright © 2014, Jove Belle
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, print-outs, information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. eBooks are not transferable. They cannot be sold, shared or given away as it is an infringement on the copyright of this work.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Editor: Andi Marquette (http://www.andimarquette.com)
Cover: Dirt Road Design