Symbiosis made perfect sense in my biology class. Two different organisms sharing a same space for mutual benefit. Convenient and efficient. That is what we called it at the beginning too - a symbiosis, a partnership, a perfect arrangement. I needed an apartment and Leah needed a roommate.
The memory of our initial meeting still makes me chuckle. I had gone to meet her straight from work, desperate to find an apartment and leave behind the growing tension of my disintegrating relationship. The add listed an address in what John contemptuously called a "colorful" area of the town and I gleefully thought he would not consider seeking me out there. He would loath the idea of parking his Mercedes in a neighborhood like that.
Whatever I expected to encounter when I got there did not happen. The street was clean and lined with verdant trees and the house itself - a pale blue two-story structure with a porch, seemed well kept. I had to ring the bell three times before I heard hurried footsteps from within. The door swung open without preamble and I was facing a rather annoyed looking young woman holding a cordless phone tight to her ear. Green eyes took in my dark blue business suit and briefcase and a blonde eyebrow shot up. Before I had a chance to say a word a small hand covered in red paint shot up stopping me with my mouth half-open.
"Hold on" was spoken into the phone as green eyes bore into me and the next words were directed my way. "Sorry, I'm pagan. The righteous right lives on the other side of town" and the door was softly but firmly closed before me.
The look on my face must have been priceless as I stood there for a few long seconds hearing footsteps walking away within the house. When I had finally managed to close my mouth with a shake of disbelief, I rang the doorbell again. On the third ring an exasperated "Oh, for the love of sweet mother!" was heard advancing together with decisive footsteps, but this time I was ready.
When the door opened for the second time I had the neatly folded classifieds with the "Wanted: roommate" add circled in red placed firmly in front of me. The rambaucious blonde almost walked right into it and just in case she did not get what was going on I volunteered "I am looking for a room. Are you renting one?"
She was a good half foot shorter then I and with the placement of the paper right against her nose I could not see her face. I did see one hand slowly rise to scratch the top of her head, further disheveling the loose braid that kept her hair back. I slowly lowered the shield of the newspaper to uncover a lovely blush creeping up her features. Her eyes were steady on me though and after a few long seconds she nodded and stepped aside. "You could have said that the first time. Come in."
I shuffled in, uncertainly stopping in the middle of the small living room as she caught up with me. I nodded, unsure how to take her cross behavior. She was small, maybe 5'4'', and I was fairly towering over her with my six feet, but somehow I had a feeling I was cowering before her. She wore carpenter jeans covered with a spectrum of paint colors and a soft red plaid shirt. Her sleeves were rolled up revealing strong forearms stained with red paint.
She walked to a small coffee table depositing the phone into the receiver and turned to face me again. A faint line of red paint ran down the length of her cheek to the underside of her chin and I realized she did not look a day older than eighteen. I caught myself feeling very nondescript in my blue and white corporate America uniform and couldn't help but wonder what I looked like to someone like her. Besides a bible salesman, I thought wryly.
I realized I was staring when I caught her openly appraising me as well. Our eyes met and we both started laughing as we realized at the same moment that we were the equivalent of two dogs cautiously sniffing each other for the first time.
"Well, so much for first impressions I guess." Her eyes twinkled with mirth and laugh creases around her eyes hinted at her real age. Her handshake was firm and friendly but I could not help wondering if it would leave red stains on my hand. "My name is Leah."
I had to shake the image of the Jedi princess and hair buns from my mind before I replied. I wonder if parents are aware of what they bestow upon their children along with their name. "Elizabeth McKinnon. Nice to meet you."
She shook her head at such formal pleasantries, but said nothing. "Let me show you around since I did not scare you off yet." Despite all odds, we chatted it up during the short tour and came to an understanding born out of mutual lack of options. I started moving in the next day.
Leah was twenty four and apparently a promising painter. She worked as a teaching assistant at the major local university while finishing her visual arts degree. She worked and lived in the basement-cum-studio of the house and I pretty much had the second floor to myself.
The house was small but cozy, the first floor consisting of a kitchen, living-room and a small bathroom while the second floor had two bedrooms and the main bathroom. The first few weeks had been a tentative exploration of each other's living styles, our schedules different enough we saw very little of each other.
I worked investment banker hours and went to bed promptly at eleven and she would sleep until noon and teach and paint at night. Neither of us wanted an instant friend and the first couple of weekends I made sure I went hiking with work colleagues. That made avoiding John's insistent calls all that easier too. The man had no good sense when it came to giving up on a lost cause.
Leah must have thought she caught up on the routine because I got an unexpected eyeful when I returned early from one of my hiking excursions.
Late New England fall turned out nippier than expected and coupled with waxing come-ons from obnoxious accountants in my hiking group, it killed any desire for prolonged hiking I might have had. I packed up my gear and headed back for Boston.
By the time I got back it was late afternoon and I stepped into the house, unsuccessfully trying to wrest the keys out of the lock. The sight before me stopped me cold. Right in front of me on the open living-room sofa lied a tall, nude, and what I was certain my roommate would call, Junoesque woman. Her sleeping face was hidden by long red curls but the rest of her was gloriously displayed to my view.
I remember casting a bewildered look across the living room, but finding no easel or painting material anywhere in sight. That, and the teasing scent of sated flesh curling around the ceiling made quite a few things loudly click into place in my head.
That my roommate was of a ... Sapphic disposition ... was never questioned in my mind, a fleeting suspicion firmly confirmed by her book and music collection first day I moved in. I remember watching her unfurl a bright rainbow flag from the second floor window with glee, knowing the sight of it would keep John away as surely as a crucifix would a vampire.
Her sexuality was not an issue with me, after all, four years at Wellesley College, lack of desire to ferry to Boston every time I needed a lay and a plethora of willing girls had all conspired to a little "sisterly" indulgence on my side as well. But that was five years ago and those disregarded memories all came rushing back as I took in lithe curves of the slumbering red-head before me. My mouth went dry as I remembered my own penchant at the time for what MIT frat boys so crudely but aptly called "fire bush".
I still don't know how long she stood there watching me admire her guest before she softly cleared her throat. She was fully dressed and the look on her face left no room for embarrassment or apologies on my part. It said "Glad to know you agree with my taste" and "Welcome to the family" all at the same time.
It hit me then that she had accepted a stranger under her roof, complete with Irish-Catholic heritage and rigid corporate mannerisms, and I could almost feel her relief as she realized it was all okay with me. I silently nodded and returned her smile before closing the door and heading upstairs. I could hear her quiet voice as I closed my door "Come on, sleepy-head, time to get up..."
To say that our relationship improved drastically after that little incident would be an understatement. It felt as if Leah had let out a breath she did not know she was holding in, and the whole house started breathing a lot easier.
We started using the common rooms, making dinner and watching late re-runs of odd British comedies together. I found out she was an only child, raised by her grandmother after the death of her parents when she was 10. Her grandma made it till her eighteenth birthday and saw her enroll into college before passing away.
The house was hers now and when I asked her why she needed a roommate she just smirked and told me I helped her keep pushy lovers away. She returned the favor in full. John had heard I had not dated anyone since I broke up with him and, true to any red-blooded man, deducted I was still madly in love with him.
He showed up on our porch with a bouquet of tritely red roses one day and left his chin on the floor when I opened the door with Leah firmly attached to me with one arm around my waist. The little tyke can be truly intimidating when she sets her mind to it and the glower she gave John after she took in the roses was priceless. He did not bother me since.
Though she knew a lot of people and "knew" even more women, Leah rarely ever had visitors. The house seemed off limits to her social and work life. Though she painted for living, she never brought models to the basement but spent long hours at the university studios. All of that just did not add up to someone who would place a "roommate wanted" add even though she apparently had no financial problems.
It would be a long time until I got her to tell me why she did it. We were sitting on the porch enjoying the uncommonly warm February afternoon. It was probably four months after she caught me appreciatively looking at her redhead friend. I never did get to meet the woman; after that incident Leah was much more careful to keep any escapades she had to the basement. Whether that was out of decency or worry I might get tempted, I didn't know.
Either way, we had just returned from an art exhibit at the university and I was again taken aback by Leah's depth of perception and dry humor that spared no one. I was also amazed to see how close we had become, and how at ease we were with each other now. We were elbowing each other, sharing slight jabs and friendly acidic remarks. Though I would hesitate at calling what we had true friendship, we seemed to be moving in that direction.
During a lull in the conversation I remember turning to her and asking her about her decision to place a "roommate wanted" add. She wore her "schmoozing" outfit - dressy black pants and a silky dark green shirt, her black pea coat slung around her shoulders. I remember thinking that those clothes took something away from her. They made her look professional and serious and so unlike her. She seemed beautiful in an untouchable way like that.
She looked at me, taken aback by the sudden question. She took her time answering it, and to this day I remember the effect her words had on me. "I didn't." If it weren't for my blank look I exaggaratedly pointed in her direction, she would have left it at that. As it was, she seemed to grow more uncomfortable, peering down the street and shuffling her feet. "I didn't place an add. My friends did it as a prank. I wasn't looking for a roommate."
I was dumbfounded. "What? What do you mean you didn't... Then wh..." I stopped, not sure if I was ready to hear the answer. I wasn't sure what I wanted it to be, I just knew that, for some odd reason, her revelation made me feel elated.
She just shrugged, rising and dusting her pants off. As far as she was concerned, there was no need for any further explanations. "You seemed nice enough. And I did have this house all to myself." She could see the big smile on my face, but if she noticed it as she turned to walk into the house, she didn't show it.
That admission opened a whole new chapter to our relationship even though neither of us had noticed the change at the time. Until one day I almost jumped her bones.
It must have been about a month after our porch conversation and both of us had opened up to each other a lot more in those few weeks. We even went as far as to admit that we'd found a new friend in each other. Since then we got into a habit of inviting Leah's friends over on Friday nights for beer and movies. It seemed as if having me over gave her an excuse to let other people in as well. A gregarious person in public, Leah was a surprisingly private individual when it came to her personal life. The first time I had suggested to invite her friends over, she was genuinely surprised, as if the thought had never crossed her mind before.
Grudgingly she gave in, but I could see her curiosity was peaked. Her University friends were an eclectic crowd - a middle-aged biology professor, a feminist poet, a couple of art students and an accountant made the group. They were all, quite obviously, thoroughly informed as to who I was and what the nature of our relationship was, because I was greeted with such politeness and respect, I felt like Mrs. Peterson, my third grade teacher. It took me a few raunchy comments on the shape of Sharon Stone's frontal extremities and a loud beer burp, and I became one of the guys. So to speak.
It was after one of those "burp & chow nights", as they became known, that the realization that I wanted Leah something bad hit me with all the subtlety of a deranged tax auditor.
We had seen everyone off like good hostesses that we were, and while I was tidying up downstairs, Leah had gone upstairs to take a shower. It was one of those moments when the true meaning behind the word "providence" finally sets in. I had been climbing the stairs when the bathroom door opened directly above me, and there was Leah - in all of her 5'4'', drizzly, wet, hair-slicked, towel-wrapped beauty.
I had seen Leah in different stages of undress many times over the past few months, don't get me wrong here - the girl was anything but bashful. It was just something about that moment, as she was standing at the top of the stairs looking at me, a relaxed smile on her face, contented joy relaxing her features and creasing the corners of her eyes - it was as if I saw her for the first time. She took my breath away.
Some of my bewilderment and awe - lust even - must have shown on my face because she frowned, glancing down the length of her short frame. "What? What's wrong?"
I willed myself to tear my eyes away from her and climb the remaining stairs, squeezing past her in the hallway towards my room. I didn't have an answer to that question. Yet.
I don't know how I managed to fall in love with her. I don't know why either - I was never in love before and I certainly didn't imagine my first time being with a woman. I can't name the specific thing that drew me to her, I can't tell you when that annoying emotion first started digging its fingers in me, I imagine it doesn't really matter. What I can tell you is the exact time when it hit me that I was madly in love with my roommate and how it affected me. It was the second Saturday of April, late afternoon, and she was crying in my arms. I felt exquisitely terrified.
But let me backtrack.
In the month since my hormones zeroed in on Leah, I have been busy arguing with myself as to whether that was my general lack of sex talking or a genuine attraction. In the meantime I tried very hard to stay as far away from her as possible. My odd behavior did not go unnoticed by her and I could see that she was hurt by my retreat, but I just didn't trust myself to be around her until I figured out what was happening with me. I was simply biding time, trying to see if my little infatuation was going to run out of steam. It almost ruined our friendship.
As fate would have it, right around that time Leah's one and only love that broke her heart and left her for a man (such a lesbian cliché) three years ago, came back to town, single and aching for a reunion. I didn't know that at the time, since I had not given Leah a chance to talk to me. Stella was tall and regal looking; a natural platinum blonde, with eyes so blue and so cold they didn't look human. I remember opening the door to find her on the porch asking for Leah and almost closing the door on her in the same manner I was greeted so many months ago. I could not imagine her in any kind of relationship with someone as kind and warm as Leah.
This one I might actually finish up one day, since it'd be a very short story. The way I see it, I'm just about half way, if not even more, through this one. Sadly enough, this was supposed to be a serious attempt for a grade in my writing class, but it morphed into a cheezy Uber-Xena piece. I'm telling you, I have a very one-track mind.
(Started - Fall/Winter 1999)
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