Lindsey and Alisha order another round of vodka sodas. The dark interior of the bar smells like beer, fried food, and the sharp chemical bite of Bar Keeper’s Friend. The clinking of glasses punctuates the muffled conversations in the back room. The bartender taps at his phone, glances at the television to check the score on the Mizzou game. Lindsey takes a drink and scratches her head with her free hand, ruffling the hair and leaving it sticking up on one side.
She hasn’t been back to Fenton since she cropped her hair, short and jittery. In high school, when she brought girls to Mike’s to make out in the dark corner booths, she wore her hair in a ponytail and dressed like every other girl in town: collared polo shirts, rip-off Birkenstocks, American Eagle jeans. Now, she is suddenly conscious of how gay she must look.
It’s hard to explain Fenton, Missouri. Its in-betweenness defies categorization. The north end wraps around an industrial park, warehouses and heavy machinery; the south end pools around a section of suburbia so removed from the city that it seems like the suburbs of nowhere. People drive through Fenton and stop at tackle shops on their way to weekend fishing trips. When it rains, the roads flood. Along the Meramec River, empty shells of houses and boarded up storefronts begin to be reclaimed by kudzu.
Being here makes Alisha feel a little hazy around the edges, as if some part of her stops existing, tries to escape and vanish into the biting winter air. This foggy vagueness, this lack of definition, is part of what drove her away from the Midwest. She needs rigidity, rules to follow, a ladder to climb with clear rungs and guidance on how to ascend.
“When did Tegan say she’d be back?” Lindsey asks.
Alisha scoffs and rolls her eyes. “Fifteen minutes. She said the daycare’s just over there on Bluff. Then she has to drop Isaac off at his dad’s.”
“Oh,” Lindsey says, taking another drink. “Okay.”
It’s been years since they came to Mike’s. Even over the holidays, Lindsey and Alisha rarely make it back to Fenton. Last year, the two of them opted instead to fly to Tulum and lay on the beach drinking Mai-Tais and eating from buffets. Lindsey gained five pounds; Alisha hooked up with nearly every English-speaking guy at the resort. They haven’t all been together since Isaac was born, the moment memorialized on Tegan’s Instagram: the tearful trio clustered around her bed, a red and wrinkly baby cradled between them.
This Christmas, the opposite of birth brings them together. Alisha’s dad has cancer, stage four, recently metastasized to his brain. He coached their soccer teams all through grade school, chauffeured to every school dance. The doctors gave him six more weeks. Alisha couldn’t face Christmas alone, so Lindsey coordinated her layover to meet Alisha in Chicago and they flew into St. Louis together.
The two women scroll through their phones, wrapped up in the kind of mindless boredom that doesn’t leave room for any feeling or thinking. Alisha leans over to show Lindsey an article about the Austin housing market. “See? I told you to start saving for a down payment on a condo. You’re going to get priced out if you wait too long.”
“Why don’t you do it, then? The market’s not that different from D.C., is it?”
“Yeah, but since I’m applying for that Fulbright next year, it would be kind of a waste.”
“Well, maybe I’m applying for a Fulbright too.”
Alisha laughs sharply, sets her drink down mid-sip. Lindsey laughs too, sounding a little like a cat whose tail has been stepped on unexpectedly.
Tegan flounces in the door as they order another round, wearing a pair of baggy, light-wash jeans and a lavender tunic top. She has left her coat in the car, having no interest in hefting it around the bar all night. Alisha and Lindsey have their pea coats hanging neatly on the back of their chairs, in more appropriate winter colors: navy blue, black.
“What’d I miss?” Tegan says, winking at the bartender. She orders a Bud. “Where did we leave off?”
“The karaoke,” Alisha says, the corners of her lips twitching, an indecisive smile.
Tegan had been telling the other women about her 29th birthday, a party to which Lindsey and Alisha had been invited and had given lukewarm excuses for their absences. They listen as Tegan lists names of the invitees, people they had known in high school, people who mean nothing to anyone outside of Fenton: Brett Rankowsky, Lauren Darling, Emily Conway, Brian Jones.
“And then Toni sang, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ and basically brought the house down. You should have seen it. Even Danny was dancing – it was unreal.” She takes a big swallow of beer into her mouth, holds it in her cheeks, swallows it slowly, burps into her closed fist.
“No way!” Alisha’s smile twists into a sneer. Tegan doesn’t notice. “Danny King?”
Lindsey nudges Alisha with her boot, then tries to force a solidarity burp. If she were drunker, she’d pull Alisha aside and scold her, Having a sick dad is no excuse to be rude to one of your oldest friends. Alisha’s disdain of Tegan has only increased since she’s been surrounded by diplomats and dignitaries on a daily basis. Lindsey loves Tegan: the dolphin tattoo on her ankle, her passion for the outlet malls, her love of greasy fast food. Tegan is everything that Fenton is, that Austin isn’t: honest, faithful, simple.
“God, it’s just so great to all be together again. The terrible trio, am I right?”
“Cheers to that,” Alisha says, holding up her drink. Lindsey takes a round heart of ice from her otherwise empty glass, slips it through her lips, grinds it between her molars. Goosebumps form on her wrists. She orders another drink.
“Catch up with this girl!” Tegan exclaims, her body swaying back and forth on the chair in a celebratory dance. Alisha laughs, and it comes out as a squirrely chitter that she swallows immediately. Tegan takes another large mouthful of beer, then sputters, jumps off her stool.
“Shannon!” She squeals at a figure approaching the group in the dull darkness of the entryway. “Shannon, wow! I can’t believe it! This is such perfect timing!”
The two women embrace. And then they kiss.
Lindsey’s mouth drops open, dumbly. Alisha snaps the menu closed, tight-lipped. Tegan, her voice still caught in the high pitch of a squeal, ushers the group away from the bar and to a high-top table.
“Everyone,” she begins, breathless, “this is Shannon Powell, my girlfriend, Dr. Shannon Powell.”
They all shake hands. Lindsey bites her lip to keep her mouth closed. Alisha curtly offers to buy a round of shots. Tegan cheers. Shannon wipes a band of sweat from her upper lip.
“So, Dr. Powell,” Alisha begins. “What are you a doctor of?”
“Physics,” says Shannon. She is scratching at a spot on her neck, rubbing it red. “But my focus is astrophysics. I teach astronomy.”
“And I just happened to be in her class, I wasn’t even going to take astronomy but that’s all that was available Tuesday nights! Isn’t that amazing, like it was fate!” Tegan exclaims, squeezing Shannon’s arm. “And before you say it, yes, we already know that a professor dating a student can be tricky, but since I was only auditing I wasn’t getting a grade, so it’s not like I was earning special privileges or something.”
Along the Meramec River, empty shells of houses and boarded up storefronts begin to be reclaimed by kudzu. Being here makes Alisha feel a little hazy around the edges, as if some part of her stops existing, tries to escape and vanish into the biting winter air.
Shannon feels old. Usually, Tegan makes her feel ten, even twenty years younger, makes her feel even less like time is linear. Now, observing Tegan with her friends, the way they bow together over their beers, the sharp edges of their youth puncture some of her dreams of blending in. Mike’s isn’t the kind of place where she wants to stand out, even though she comes every Wednesday, after her last class; it’s not the kind of place where she would expect to run into Tegan.
“But today is a special occasion, because the girls are in town!” Tegan explains, after they down tequila and lick the salt from the corners of their hands and pucker their lips around lime wedges. Shannon shrugs, nervously, and begins to chew off a loose piece of dry skin from the corner of her thumb.
“Let’s get this party started!” Tegan kisses Shannon on the cheek and waves the bartender down, dancing. Alisha grimaces. Tegan orders a round of tequila shots. She relishes this kind of celebration. She feels inspired, begins to imagine herself accompanying Shannon on book tours, holding her hand as she signs autographs, appearing on talk shows to defend her partner’s theories on time travel, and dark matter, and the fact that the world is so much wider and more open to us than we had ever imagined.
“So,” Alisha says, “Shannon.” Shannon glances at Alisha’s face, scratches her leg where the wool of her pants is rubbing too close. “Tell us more about your book.”
Tell us more about you, Lindsey wants to add. Shannon’s stodgy middle-aged-lesbian haircut, her ruddy and blemished face, makes her feel warm all over.
Shannon stutters, then stables herself by putting a gnarled hand on Tegan’s thigh. “My hypothesis is that dark matter is time itself, in a physical and metaphysical sense. And by harnessing dark matter, dividing it down into smaller and smaller molecules, it becomes fuel. And we can use that fuel to move time quickly or slowly, forwards or backwards.”
She describes potential dark matter farms, more like catfish farms than fields of corn or cotton, swirling pools that look empty but contain millennia. Lindsey pictures them in her brain, pictures herself walking away from Austin, from her job, from life, diving headfirst into a pool of dark matter, floating, waiting to be transported to anywhere else. She wonders if Shannon has the same dream. She wonders if she’s had too many tequila shots.
“We’ve ignored dark matter for too long, as an energy source,” Shannon catches her breath, “but it’s these unknown things, these in-between things, that have the biggest potential. The universe may nonetheless contain hard-to-detect things between the galaxies. Maybe those things are more interesting, or more important to the evolution of the universe, than the galaxies themselves.”
“Tegan,” Alisha says, “look at this intellectual philosopher you’ve got!”
Tegan smiles. An itch of pride swirls in the pit of her throat, and she touches the spot where her collar bone meets her neck. She can never tell the difference between Genuine Alisha and Mean Alisha. Alisha doesn’t care.
“Well, those aren’t my words,” Shannon objects. “I’m just paraphrasing Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I build a lot on his theories in my book– ”
“You know he’s a big-time rapist,” Alisha cuts Shannon off, her eyes narrowed. “Haven’t you been watching the news?”
But the basketball game ends and the music gets louder, Jackson Browne or Van Morrison or another of those bygone rock musicians, and everyone moves on, purposefully or accidentally. Shannon clears her throat. Alisha swallows the rest of her drink, adds her empty glass to the crowd of shot glasses waiting to be collected at the end of the table.
Lindsey crosses her legs, leans back in her chair, observes her friends. Tegan is still dancing, gyrating and squirming in her chair; Alisha is using her front-facing camera to re-apply lipstick. She compares them to Shannon, thick and solid like an American car, her arms tightly folded across her chest. Shannon jerks her head back and forth, cracking her neck. She is the kind of lesbian who walks into a room and immediately changes the energy, has electricity crackling around her, either a warning or an attraction. Lindsey has never seen herself that way, as obvious. When she came out, she stayed friends with Tegan and Alisha, instead of migrating to join the social circle of the Gay Straight Alliance. Maybe being gay didn’t to matter to them, because it didn’t drive a wedge between them. Maybe being gay didn’t seem to matter to Lindsey herself.
This shift from Tegan doesn’t surprise Lindsey. Tegan is flexible, Tegan goes with the flow, Tegan doesn’t have a plan for her life or a picture of herself she tries to live up to. Lindsey realizes that they outnumber Alisha, now the only straight woman at the table, but Alisha probably hasn’t realized this herself; she usually doesn’t notice much. Lindsey blinks her eyes, forcing them to stay fully open, fighting the urge to allow them into a half-lidded drunken state.
Alisha has taken on another vodka soda. Her black hair is parted tightly down the middle, pulled into a ponytail. Her mascara has started to flake onto her cheeks, scattering black freckles below her eyes. Still, she manages to look sleek. She sits up straight like a cartoon character made of triangles.
Shannon orders everyone a round of whiskey. Alisha looks at the dark liquid in the glass suspiciously, like someone standing on a dirty dock out over an unfamiliar lake, uncertain what her toes will touch after jumping in. She shrugs. She lines up the whiskey glass next to her vodka soda. If the lighting weren’t so bad, it could be a good Instagram picture. She doesn’t take her phone out of her purse. The colleagues who follow her pristine feed expect to see $15 quinoa salads and mirror shots of her #ootd in the bathrooms of government buildings. She takes a sip first of the whiskey, then the vodka, contemplating the difference, holding both flavors in her mouth at once. Maybe she should become a whiskey drinker, maybe that would be more appropriate for breaking into the boys’ club. Whiskey seems like the drink of a politician. She takes another sip. “Thanks,” she says to Shannon, looking away.
“Hm. Sure,” Shannon says.
“Tegan,” Alisha starts, jumpy, scratchy, like an old record beginning to play. “Are you a lesbian now, or what?”
Tegan laughs, a peaked “ha!” that falls dull and flat against the heavy wood of the table. “Geez, Alisha, stop trying to label me.”
“Alisha, cut it out,” Lindsey mutters to her drink.
Shannon clears her throat.
“No, but seriously, what’s the deal? Is this something you’ve been keeping from us? Or like, you’re just trying so painfully hard to be cool and hip, you’re willing to try anything?”
“What do you care?” Tegan has set her drink down, and she sits completely, eerily still.
“God, you know that’s bullshit, it’s all bullshit. Time travel and dark matter? For real? You’re being fucking conned, Tegan. Stop trying so fucking hard.”
“Oh, I’m trying hard? What’s with your hair? This nasty bitchy D.C. businesswoman thing you’ve got going on? That’s not the Alisha that I know.”
“Sorry that we can’t all stay in fairyland - auditing astronomy classes and taking yoga workshops and fucking twirling around Fenton like it’s Disneyworld.”
“Jesus, Alisha. Just because your dad’s dying doesn’t mean you have to be such a bitch.”
“Oh, right. Great. Thanks for that, Tegan.”
“It’s true, Alisha, for real. Grief shouldn’t make you homophobic.”
“Sounds like those meditation practices are working great for you.” Alisha clicks her tongue, raises her glass in a dramatic ‘cheers!’ and downs the rest of her vodka. After a deep swallow, a silence Lindsey can feel deep inside her chest, Alisha and Tegan start talking over each other all at once, like water from a hose that had been bent at the end, turning grass to mud immediately.
Lindsey looks over at Shannon, who is drinking her whiskey, wide-eyed. She would never look twice at her in a gay bar – they wouldn’t be in the same kind of bars in the first place. Shannon would probably choose to hang around the gay bar in the old converted Fuddruckers off of I-35, smoking on the patio with the other old lesbians and white-haired bears. Lindsey had gone there once, when she first moved to Austin, armed with a list of every gay bar in the city. Once was enough. The male go-go dancers in their shiny polyester thongs depressed her, their muscled legs rippling and reflecting the rainbow glass of the Absolut bottles behind the bar. Mike’s has no rainbows. A few flashing neon signs declare Budweiser as the King of Beers. A dusty disco ball hangs from a strange spot in the ceiling.
Tegan is shouting about the struggles of being a single mom; Alisha spits back, “Well, that was your choice.”
Shannon looks up, makes eye contact with Lindsey. It’s just a moment, one single dark matter molecule. Lindsey feels the hairs on her forearms stiffen.
“I’m going to throw up,” she says, leaving the table.
Shannon says nothing, puts a hand on Tegan’s thigh. Tegan jumps. “What?” she snaps. Shannon tilts her head in the direction of the restroom, at the back of the bar. The door is swinging. Alisha looks in the same direction.
“Oh, no.” Tegan leans her head back, shakes it slowly from side to side.
Alisha rolls her eyes. “Again? This always happens.”
Tegan pouts, looks sideways at Alisha. “Maybe we should order some food? And some waters, too?”
“Yeah,” Shannon says. “I’ll get a menu,” and she wriggles awkwardly out of the high chair, its metal feet making a terrible noise against the dirty tile floor.
* * *
The bathroom spins, and for a moment Lindsey believes she has gone back in time, back to the Mike’s of 2005, back to the Lindsey of 2005. Drinking for the first time, throwing up for the first time, the night she came out to the girls. Everything new and terrifying. The world had started spinning and had never stopped, and now the force tosses her out beyond the surface of the earth, leaves her to float in space, between the galaxies, hoping that someone will spot her with their telescope, discover her, rescue her, bring her home.