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This story is dedicated to Maria.

Paul left me months ago.

Six long, lonely, dreary months of endless darkness and gloom. The weeks of crying, the days of yearning for a phone call, the nights of empty wine bottles and morn- ing headaches were all behind me.

I was healthy now, ready for a chance at a new begin- ning. Life was looking fresh again. The sun was bright, the air was clean. I was finally whole without him. I had loved him so deeply. It had been unnatural, unsettling, and uncontrolled. Now I could find the paper and pen before me through the fog. I could see the vision and the words. I was writing again.

Looking back, I realized the bad times were barely lingering, whereas the good times were painted like a portrait in my mind. But a portrait painted by a clown, not an artist. All that time, what did we talk about? I remembered the drinking, the parties, his friends, the football games. All of it was one big celebration. We laughed, we had sex, and we laughed some more. I could not single out one time we had a serious con- versation other than an in-depth analysis of his team’s fortunes on the field.

Paul left me the night my sister was tragically killed in a car accident.

He couldn't handle the intensity, my emotions, and the horror of it all. He was gone when I needed him the most. My memories of that night are vague: a dinner party at my parent’s house, the phone call, and guests leaving quickly. Lying in the grass and vomiting. The sounds of shattered glass. Shattered pieces of my heart. Shattered pieces of my sister.

After six months of therapy, I was finally able to talk about him, but not Gina. My therapist told me this was my way of shutting down - something about misplaced emotions, the loss of my baby sister, substitution, and obsessing over a man that never really loved me.

But today, the sun was shining and I was doing this for her, and for myself. I was joining a local poetry critique group and writing again. Gina would be proud.

There were about sixteen people in the group, ten women and six men. The group leader was an older woman named Kira. Kira had fled the Communist regime of Soviet Russia many years ago, and her poems had been published many, many times. She was a kind, older woman with sparkling gray eyes, and obviously had experienced life to its fullest.

I took my seat next to a woman who looked about my own age, perhaps a few years younger. It was hard not to notice her because of her striking features: unruly black hair, porcelain white skin, and big, green luminous eyes.

Kira led the group in an icebreaker game. We took turns introducing ourselves, which was fun and awkward at the same time. Most of the people there were insecure amateur poets, who were simply looking for something to do with their spare time.

When it was "her" turn, she spoke with a bold confi- dence and radiating energy I immediately envied.

"Hello, my name is Cassandra. I am here for a one-year appointment because of my husband’s job. I am from Tasmania."

Her accent revealed she was obviously not from this country. But it was more than that. It was the way she said it. She sounded so exotic, so mysterious. So distant.

"I have written over twenty poems, mainly dealing with passion, desire and courage -- in particular, sexual courage," she continued. Sexual courage, I thought. That’s a familiar concept.

"The poem I am working on currently is called, 'En- twined.' It is about female bonding, intimacy and friendship in today’s world. I am very proud of it and I hope you like it as well. I look forward to sharing it with all of you."

She sat down and looked right at me. I assumed it was because I was next. But I couldn’t help but feel an attraction, the feeling that she and I would become very close friends. I needed a best friend about now. Mine were both gone.

It was my turn. I didn’t like speaking in front of even small crowds, and I was acutely aware that my hands were trembling. I miraculously found my voice.

"Hi. My name is Jessica Preston. I am from here. I. . . I . . . started writing poetry when I was seventeen. Most of it is of course, unpublished, but I hope to learn some things from being here." I quickly took my seat. However, Kira was not done with me.

"Jus-ik-aa," she said in her Russian accent, "what is your, ah, latest? Hum? Or perhaps a current project you’d like to share with the others?"

"Well, I. . . I haven’t written anything in six months, although I was published last year in The Poet’s Haven. A small literary journal."

"That’s wonderful!" Cassandra blurted out. "What a great magazine! Wow! I have never been published. What was it called? The piece, I mean?"

"Oh, it was just a little piece called, 'Unconditional' It is about, well, unconditional love," I stammered and blushed. I sounded like an idiot.

"Splendid! Will you read it to the class?" Her face was lit up like a Christmas tree.

"I don’t see why not. Sure, I guess I will." I felt so self-conscious, though a part of me was eager to share.

Kira cut in, reasserting her leadership status. "What is your next piece?"

Cassandra eagerly looked at me, her eyes shining with interest. I paused for what seemed like eternity. Then I said it and sat down.

"Accepting Gina."

* * * * *

She made me forget the loss. Over the weeks, we be- came the dearest of friends. Cassandra was married to a successful financial consultant named Simon, who was assigned to spend one year in the United States. She had been suddenly uprooted from her country and found herself here. Since her husband traveled frequently, she was alone much of the time, just her and her poetry. And now, she had me.

We began our relationship at the coffee shops, reading and critiquing each other's work. Slowly, more per- sonal topics began to emerge, such as relations with the men in our lives. She loved her husband very deep- ly - something else I admired and envied tremendously.

"Simon is such a wonderful husband," she once said. "He allows me to do my own thing. We got married quite young, too young I must say. But I am very, very lucky."

I told her about Paul, but never Gina. I found myself so relaxed, so open around Cassandra that I could talk about anything, everything but my sister's untimely and clouded death. I was too ashamed to reveal the details of what really happened that night. Even to Cassandra. Anything but the secret, the truth.

On the many nights Simon was out of town, we went to dinner, had a few drinks, and talked for hours. Cassandra grew to hate Paul and everything he stood for.

"My dear little Jessica," Cassie would coo. "What an absolute oaf of a man. My precious angel, you can do so much better. If you ever come visit us, there are a few sexy little devils I could introduce you to in my country." The thought delighted me! Handsome, sexy devils from a far away place who spoke and sounded as exotic and mysterious as my Cassandra!

"Besides, was Paul ever really good in bed? Really?" She smiled. I giggled. Cassie had such a cute, infec- tious way of saying things. I tried to remember what it was like. Sex with Paul had been a roller coaster. Hurried, fumbling, hardly a word spoken in passion. It was animal lust. I remember longing for sweet words spoken in whispers, a gentle caress that would’ve made the difference. I found myself telling Cassandra all this. I had never told anyone. Why was I telling her?

"And," I giggled again, "He had a crooked penis." We burst out laughing. I thought beer was going to come through my nose.

"There was a crooked man and he had a crooked smile, had a crooked penis and he walked a crooked mile!" she began to sing. We laughed and laughed. She was holding my hand under the table. It felt like high school all over again.

* * * * *

I had a date! For the first time in eight months, I had a date! I met Joshua one night, while out having cock- tails with Cassandra. He was of Syrian descent, with a smooth, olive complexion and long, dark hair worn in a sleek ponytail. Joshua was a professional musician. He taught classical guitar at the local university. A Greek god. A male muse. For the first time since Paul, I was attracted to another man.

Excitedly, I went to Casandra’s to get dressed. We drank champagne and I borrowed her sexiest little black dress. It was made of a clingy fabric that went so well with our hourglass figures and ripe cleavage. Cassie and I both shared these attributes, and although she was a few inches taller than me, the dress fit per- fectly. We arranged to have him pick me up at her house. Since I met him in a bar, I was a little cautious, but Cassandra didn't mind.

So I planned to spend the night there. She had given me the key, even told me to invite him in and said to feel free to use the guestroom as "I pleased."

Joshua arrived in all his exotic glory. We were both flabbergasted. He was wearing dark pants and an expensive crisp, white shirt with a charcoal tailored jacket. I winked at her as I left, and she gestured back. Simon was on a business trip and I hated to leave her alone.

She would never have thought of coming along with us, but nonetheless, I felt terrible about leaving her behind.

The evening was exquisite. Joshua proved to be a charming, cultured, artistic man. We had a romantic dinner at a quaint Greek restaurant, dancing at a local jazz club, and sipped on expresso afterwards until the wee hours of the morning. Our conversation was very natural. We talked about everything: fascinating stories of his parent’s native homeland, Paul, his ex-girlfriend, even our views on sex. Joshua was very open about this topic and I realized he was a very passionate person. It was starting to intrigue me more and more. We went on and on, about everything but my sister, of course. What would he think if he knew?

"So, Jessica, do you have any brothers or sisters?" he asked politely, but sincerely interested.

"I have one sister, well had." I stopped. I still wasn’t used to speaking in that tense.

"Had?" He look a bit confused, but not pushy.

"Well, she died in a car accident about six months ago."

He never used the worn phrase "I am so sorry." He simply took it matter-of-factly, as thought it was as simple as, "She is a senior in high school."

"What was her name?"

"Gina."

"Ah, Gina. A pretty name. Any other siblings?"

His ease at accepting the topic was unexpected and a welcome relief.

"No, just Gina. She was the only one."

"I am an only child," he casually added. It’s just me and my uncle. My parents were killed in a terrorist bombing while visiting friends in Beruit, Lebanon."

"Oh, Joshua, I am so sorry . . ." I caught myself. Now I was doing it.

He never paused. "My uncle is an amazing man. He came to this country shortly after I was born. He and his wife, Alla, were taking care of me while my parents were vacationing. I was ten. They raised me." I sat speechless. Despite my loss of words, I felt bonded in ways beyond my comprehension. Losing both your parents at age ten. Joshua had offered details of his story but never asked for mine.

He never mentioned Gina again.

At the door, he leaned forward to kiss me good night. It was light, faint on the lips. His lips were warm, as warm as the Mediterranean Sea.

"Thank you for a lovely evening," he said.

I must have snapped at that particular moment, because I leaned forward and began to kiss him hard on his full, inviting mouth. The fire in his eyes matched the fire on my lips. He responded eagerly, and I could feel the passion unleashing rapidly through his hot, Mediterranean veins.

We kissed for what seemed like an hour. I was well aware of the familiar longing, aching and desire I had not experienced in a very long time. The well was no longer dry.

As he lightly fondled my breasts through my dress, he whispered something in a very low voice. I was gently pinned against Cassie's front door. I knew I could’ve easily moved if I’d wished. Before I could speak, he abruptly pulled away. Had I offended him?

He took my hand and stared so deep into my eyes, I felt he could see the secrets I tried so hard to bury within me.

"What?" I whispered.

"I want you to know something, before this goes any further. Let me preface this by saying that I am very attracted to you, Jessica. I can see a future in this, if you are willing and interested." I could hear my- self swallowing.

"But in order to be completely honest with you, there is something you need to know. We talked a lot about sexual intimacy tonight and I was so comfortable with you. You are truly sensuous. I desire you. But, I have had some experiences that you may or may not be comfortable with."

I knew what was coming. I felt in it my stomach. My hands began to shake.

"I have had sex with a man. Several times, the same man. It was for my girlfriend, a couple’s thing, experimental."

"Are you gay?" I found myself blurting out a blunt, rude and forthright question. My voice was like a bullet.

"No, I am not a homosexual. I love women. I love men. But I am not saying it will never happen again, I enjoyed the experience. I take it you have a problem with it."

Silence. I was flabbergasted. My Mr.Wonderful, Mr. Right, was bi-sexual? He was so manly, so handsome, so . . . how could this be? I felt something else too. My guilt came flooding back. The half open door, watching them in the soft glow of the night-light. Knowing what was happening, feeling aroused. I knew what he was going to ask.

"You’ve never been with a woman?"

"Yes, I mean, yes it does bother me, Joshua. And no, I have never been with a woman."

My answer came more defensively than I expected. I paused. "I am sorry."

"I am not ashamed of my experiences. If they repulse you, then we must move on," he said. His big, gorgeous brown, disappointed eyes stared deep into mine. I felt angry, confused, and most of all -- guilty. I wanted to explain it wasn’t him - or was it?

"Friends?" He offered his hand. A muscular, brown hand that I would have loved to have touching the inside of my thighs at that very moment, bringing me to the destination I’d desired for so long.

"Friends." I managed to barely whisper.

I took his hand and squeezed it. Then he was gone.

* * * * *

I never intended to wake her.

She walked in on me unexpectedly. I was changing into my satin nightgown. It had been a gift from Paul. For some reason, I became aware that she had caught a glimpse of my naked breasts. It gave me goose bumps. She was so cool, so relaxed, so beautiful and so brave. Cassandra.

She came and sat on the edge of the bed. Her short, dark hair was a bit rumpled from sleep, yet still sleek and shiny. Her complexion glowed without make-up, her green eyes were alive as lightening on a hot, summer night. I noticed how naturally feminine and lovely she was in one of Simon’s old cotton shirts. Cassandra. What a provocative, erotic name, I thought. Cassandra.

She was asking me in her endearing accent about Joshua, the evening, the details. I couldn't concentrate any- more. The zombie feeling was taking over. She finally asked me if I was okay. She was strong. Courageous. I was a coward.

At first, I told her about Joshua. But it wasn’t really him I wanted to talk about. It was Gina. Joshua had stirred up something deep with in me. Something he said reminded me of Gina. My darling, baby sister whose death - I was convinced - was my fault. The guilt was overwhelming. I had to confess to someone.

I began to tell her the story, as tears flooded down my face and into lap. She never flinched. She just sat there and listened, stroked my hair and held me.

I told her about Joshua and what he had told me. How I hated myself for being shocked at his bisexuality. I wasn’t a bigot. But somehow what he told me brought it all back. About Gina and Cindy. About me.

She held me close and whispered it was all right.

* * * * *

It was a stormy night. The Gulf Coast fog was as thick as molasses. My parents were having a small, elite dinner party at their home for several important friends including Paul’s parents. Paul and I were there, putting on our usual act, masquerading as "the perfect couple," with our polite, witty, and charming banter.

My younger sister, Gina, who was only seventeen, had invited her best friend over to spend the night. Cindy was a pretty, delicate girl. They were inseparable.

The party was dull, but Paul was in typical form with a scotch in one hand, talking about the stock market and sports, while impressing my parents and everyone else as usual.

My father, who was a stern, conservative man, had gone upstairs to check on the girls. They were in Gina’s room watching television. Looking back, I'm not quite sure why he went up there. Surely a good host would not abandon his guests so abruptly. Perhaps he sus- pected what I was certain of?

Suddenly, he came down the stairs and asked to speak to my mother in private. His face was white as the color of her fine linen. After a few moments, the yelling began. My father’s protests rang out, loud and furious. I heard my mother’s muffled crying. The guests were hushed.

Then the back door slammed and I could hear the sound of a car speeding down the street. After what seemed like an eternity later, my mother and father descended from the stairwell as though nothing had happened. My father addressed the crowd in his most composed speak- ing voice.

"I apologize to everyone present. My youngest daughter needed a little discipline. Please excuse the fuss."

The party continued. Quietly, I slipped upstairs. Both Gina and Cindy were gone. I figured my father had punished her for something, and she and Cindy had fled the house. What could have been so awful?

The hospital phoned about an hour later. The news was surreal. Both Gina and Cindy had been killed when their car spun off the highway and into a tree. The guests left quickly. My mother became hysterical. My father approached me, tears streaming down his face. I had never seen him cry before.

"Did you know about this? Did you know your sister was having sexual relations with her little friend?" The shock of my father’s brutal words were too much to bear.

I had known, watched in silence. It aroused both my curiosity and sexual desires. I never confronted Gina. I never told anyone. I just didn't know what to think or feel about them. Somehow they made me terrified about my own sexuality. It made me run to a "man’s man" like Paul, as if to reassure myself that I was normal.

I ran upstairs to Gina’s room. Surely she was still there, perhaps just asleep in her bed? This was all a terrible mistake! Her room looked the same as it always did. Cotton candy pink walls, Winona Ryder posters, pictures of her favorite rock bands, school banners, cute little framed pictures of her and Cindy holding hands and smiling. Teddy bears and lace pil- lows, nothing unusual about it.

As I was leaving the room I noticed a small pair of white lace panties lying on the floor. Cindy’s panties?

I was overcome with a feeling of entrapment, confusion, and frenzied emotions. As my head swirled like a whirl- wind, I ran down the stairs, tripped down two and nearly fell. The pain unnoticed, I managed to throw the heavy wooden front door wide open and run out into the blinding rain.

I vomited in the azalea bushes as my guts tried to expel the grief, the shame, and the guilt from my body. Wrenching violent sobbing seized my body as I fell, a limp heap onto the muddy ground. My legs were no longer capable of holding me up.

After a few minutes I heard Paul’s voice. He hadn’t left earlier with the other guests. I looked up at him from my pathetic fetal position in the wet grass. I wanted so badly for him to hold me, just hold me until the pain went away, if it ever would. Instead he spoke with an indifference that shot through my veins like an icy needle.

"Look, I need to go. I am sorry about your sister."

"What?" I managed to speak. "Now? Paul, I need you. Don’t leave me now, Paul. Please."

His eyes were cold, lifeless, and ashamed. His lips curled as he said his final heartless words.

"You knew didn’t you? You knew your sister was gay. God what a family! I suppose you will be tempted too. My Dad always told me it was genetic. It’s bad enough if your girl goes with another man. Imagine what it will do to me if you end up with another woman. I’ll be the laughing stock of the locker room."

I curled up even more, each word a blow to my heart. I wept uncontrollably.

"I said I was sorry. But I cannot stay. Goodbye, Jessica. Goodbye."

"Paul, please . . . please come back. Paul?"

* * * * *

Cassandra spoke gently, comfortingly. She understood the guilt and fear. She understood my confusion.

"Sex is beautiful, Jessica. It gets ugly if tinged with guilt. It is to be free and natural. Sexuality is a preference. Like everything else. If it gives you plea- sure and happiness, comfort and understanding -- then you take it with your heart and body, just as you give these things to your partner."

It had been a long time. I finally felt safe, secure, and loved. I must have looked awful with swollen, puffy eyes, tear-streaked face and dry, chapped lips. I couldn’t help but notice that she was erect through her thin, cotton shirt. I stared at her nipples. They were a work of art. I was again jealous.

Most of all, I wanted them. In my mouth.

I'm not sure how it started exactly. I was crying, she was stroking me, holding me. Then I felt her lips on mine. They were soft, lush, like tiny pillows. She tenderly kissed my check, my mouth, my neck. Friend- ship had turned to driving fire -- a burning sexuality neither of us could harness. Not tonight.

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I heard a little voice begging me to stop. This was Cassandra. My best friend. She’s a woman. Stop. Paul was right!

But I ignored that little voice and I gave in to my desires, my fantasies. I knew this was natural. So what if this happens? I liked men, but should that stop me from liking this?

I knew all along, I had wanted her -- from that first day in the poetry group. She began to lead, for which I was grateful. Cassandra touched my breasts in only the way a woman would know. Not like Joshua and not like Paul. Her touch was tender, soft, and sensuous -- and was as wonderfully exciting as anything I have ever experienced before. Ever. Cassandra, the lovely Cassandra.

There was something I could see in her eyes. She pos- sessed a mysterious, burning hunger. Indistinguishable, unnamed, deep within her, a persistent need calling out to be heard.

Did she genuinely desire me? Did my eyes reflect my wanting? Does she sense how I feel?

I realized I hadn’t had sex for more than six months. This was more that sex. My pulse began to race. I wanted to embrace her, to feel her body, to caress her skin, to encircle her gently and passionately in my arms. I gazed hungrily, longing to seize her and kiss her fully on those red lips -- to explore her lips with mine, to explore her mouth with my tongue.

Then she smiled. I knew it was right. I grinned back, and she knew I was ready for her. She stood and un- dressed before me while my eyes took her in. She was so smooth and soft, so very much like me. Cassandra reached over and carefully lifted my champagne colored nightgown. She did it so delicately, as though it were made of fine bone china. The satin gown I would never wear again.

She sat next to me on the bed, and I touched her cheek. Looking into her eyes, I kissed her nose, then her chin. I moved down and kissed her breastbone. I felt her shiver as I licked her stomach. As I moved down her body, my kisses became more passionate, more willing. I was no longer afraid.

I heard the rhythm of her breathing, soft and fast. I pulled her close, and her arms surrounded me. We kissed again, this time more feverishly than ever. Our mouths were starved for each other. I felt her tongue in my mouth, and I sucked it gently as I heard her groan.

Then Cassandra took one of my erect nipples into her moist inviting mouth. I gasped at the sensation. Why does this feel so good? Her lips were like home for me, a warm, cozy abode. I wanted more. Cassandra’s hands began to move up my legs, which I could feel slowly parting as she teased me with her fingers.

I could not believe this was happening. I was making love to a woman. And it was wonderful, so very delicious. I found myself whimpering softly. She seductively ran her warm hand between my legs to experience my precious secretions. To see if I was ready. I was. She lightly coaxed my legs wider apart, and they fell open effortlessly.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined a woman going down on me. Cassandra did so -- willingly, wantonly, eagerly. Her tongue was more skillful than any man's had ever been, she seemed more patient, more deter- mined, more at ease. I could feel her breath lightly on my blooming garden, now exposed to her, no secrets held back. No more secrets.

I wanted her inside me, deep inside my body, my heart and my soul. I wanted her to consume me. It was different from the desire I felt for a man. Chills of pleasure racked my body as her tongue found my pearl. To my vast astonishment and delight, I reached my des- tination rapidly.

After a while, my breathing calmed, and she gazed at me and smiled again. I knew what to do, itwas her turn. I wanted to know. I wanted to know what Gina knew.

I ran my hands up her soft, silky smooth thighs. She eagerly spread her gorgeous milk white legs wide as I explored the unknown. It took courage, but I found it. Her special little spot, her secret treasure, her sex- ual joy. Cassandra felt as soft as expensive velvet. It was not frightening or foreign, merely an extension of myself. She felt just like me.

I briefly thought of all those dreadfully empty nights when I thought of Paul and touched myself. After my climax, I always cried. I cried for Paul. Most of all, I cried for Gina.

I caressed her with every ounce of passion, love and tenderness I had within me. I caressed her for the beautiful gift she had given me. I caressed her as though it were my own. It was. I gently probed her mouth with my tongue and Cassandra exploded in my hand. The same tongue that read my work. The same hand that produced my art. Cassandra in my hands and in my mouth was a climatic chorus sung in poetry. Poetry in motion.

But most of all, I was at peace with myself.

I had accepted Gina.

* * * * *

It is April. The weather is cooler now, not as harsh. The one-year anniversary of Gina’s death has come and gone.

Cassandra and Simon are moving back home to Tasmania. Drake and I have an open invitation to visit, one we plan to take advantage of as soon as we get the money. Drake is my new lover. He is a wonderful man who loves me dearly and treats me with more respect than I ever imagined. Most of all, Drake accepts Gina. No questions ever asked. He loves her memory as much as I do. We talk about her every day. We smile and laugh. Gina would have liked him.

I heard through the grapevine that Paul is getting married to his much younger secretary.

Cassandra and I kiss each other goodbye. We kiss light- ly on the lips. Drake and Simon shake hands.

We have our secret. We both love our men with equal intensity and we love each other. We are friends forever. Poetry in motion.


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