DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
It's a beautiful sunset. I'm on my porch, looking out over the Hudson, a nice glass of sauvignon blanc in my hand. Classy, no? It used to be Bud and maybe on a special occasion, a Michelob. Lately, things have gotten, I don't know, a little more upscale. But there's something that ruining the scene, disturbing my peace if you will. "OK Zelda," I addressed my cat. "Do your thing." Zelda, with her weird, half black-half white face, like that racial harmony episode of Star Trek, gave me a disdainful look and then leapt and devoured the spider in one gulp. "Good on ya," I toasted the cat. A little Australian slang, left over from Pippa. Funny, back in the Bronx, roaches the size of Montana never bothered me. But these country spiders. Ick. Oh well. I looked back over the river. Spider. It brought me back. Was that the beginning? Maybe so. I guess it started with Natalie's phone call.
"The Mayor's on the phone, Chief."
Grinning, I picked up the instrument. "Your Excellency."
"Commandante. You up for dinner tonight?"
"Sure, unless it's another set-up."
"I mean it Nat. No more surprises. I still have nightmares about the tattoo artist from Poughkeepsie."
"I just thought she would have an appreciation of the female form," Natalie said defensively. "Drawing all over those Vassar women. She must have had expertise."
"She had a gigantic spider on her shoulder blade. You know I hate spiders. It freaked me out."
"All right, Jo, not one of my better efforts, I admit. Anyway, no setups tonight. Just you, me, Tootie and Mrs. G."
"Where're Snake and the kids?"
"They're in Jersey, visiting the Reptile." Natalie's name for her mother-in-law, whom she pretended to loath, yet really adored.
"OK. Sounds good."
"Yeah. Mrs. Garrett said she had some news."
"She usually does."
Edna Garrett, headmistress, no, what did they call it now, Head of School of Eastland, kept her ear to the ground. She didn't like idle gossip and would never rat her students out, but if she felt that there was something that Jo Polniaczek, Peekskill's Chief of Police, should know, she would drop me a serious hint. Like she'd done since the day we met, she looked out for me.
So, a couple hours later, I said goodbye to Sergeant Ziaukes, and headed out to the Mayor's mansion. Actually a rambling Victorian a few blocks from downtown. To save the good people of Peekskill a few bucks, Natalie had convinced Snake and me to do the renovations pro bono. We'd done a good job, if I do say so myself.
"Hey, Jo." The cheerful voice of Tootie, also known as Dorothy, Ramsey-Williams greeted me from the door. "Everyone's out back. Mrs. Garrett's grilling her special flank steak."
"Nice," I replied, walking in and giving Tootie a friendly arm around the shoulder. "How are you?" Now I'm not normally a touchy feely kind of gal, but Tootie usually gets a hug or a pat on the back. She just seems to deserve it. And ever since she lost her husband, Jeff, to a sudden heart attack a few years ago, we've all tried to be, I don't know, just a little more affectionate.
"Really well. Tisha has a sleepover so its girls' night out. Did you listen to the show today?"
"Sure. Your fashion tips to the cross dresser were instructivealthough I'm not sure that's why he called in." Tootie had, temporarily she said, traded in her Broadway career for a gig as a host of a local radio talk show. She was really good at it; it paid well, and the hours were perfect for a single mother with a five year old kid. Ibsen could wait until Tisha was old enough for Eastland, Tootie maintained. For now, she liked being there when her daughter got home from kindergarten.
"Oh please," Tootie laughed. "Gender identity issues are old hat. Letting him know that there's a great lingerie sale at the Tarrytown mall. Now that's useful advice."
"So it is," I agreed, as we walked through the house into the spacious back yard, where two figures were gathered around the grill.
"Hello Jo," Mrs. Garrett said, waving her spatula in greeting.
"Hey, Mrs. G. The steaks smell great."
"Yo, Jo, whaddya know?" Natalie interjected. "How're the mean streets of Peekskill?"
"Some kids rearranged the letters on the movie marquee. That's about it."
"Something obscene?" Nat asked hopefully
"Nah. It just said Go Lions."
"Pathetic," Natalie replied. "Youth today, no imagination."
"Honestly, Natalie," Mrs. G put in. "One would assume that, as Mayor, you would be happy that things are peaceful."
"I suppose. But everything is too calm. I need to spice things up before the next election. Snake vetoed the sex scandal angle."
"I assume you're kidding," I laughed, shaking my head. Natalie Greene, Mayor. Even after almost eight years it was still hard to believe. She had run as a twenty year old on a dare. And then, shockingly, won. And, maybe not as shockingly, proceeded to do a great job. While other old Hudson valley manufacturing towns had declined, downtowns emptied in favor of box stores and mega-malls, Natalie's administration had re-energized Peekskill, in part by reaching out to homosexuals. Bring in the gays, she said, and the restaurants, art galleries, and antique stores will follow. Even the staunchest Republicans got on board as the tourist trade tripled and real estate boomed. The fact that she recruited an openly lesbian cop from the Bronx to become her police chief sorta helped. Bashers tended to avoid our town. Not that Mayor Greene didn't have other fans as well. The soccer moms loved her twin boys, and the blue collar guys dug that she was married to a scary trucker named Snake. All told, Nat was a shoe- in for a third term and there was talk of her running for governor someday.
"OK, the steaks are done. Let's eat." Mrs. Garrett guided us to the picnic table. I looked around with a smile. It was all good. Like Tootie predicted all those years ago, here we all were, on a beautiful summer evening, still obeying our mentor's order to dig in. "So Mrs. G, what's the news?" I mumbled with my mouth full.
"I heard from Blair today. She's coming to Peekskill. She'll be here Friday."
The steak caught in my throat and I started to gag. Coughing hard, I expelled the meat. All good? Not any more.
"Blair, here, Friday? Are you sure?" Natalie exclaimed.
"That's wonderful!" Tootie cried. "I can't wait to see her."
"How, why?" I choked out.
"How? By car or train, I imagine. Why? To see us, of course," Mrs. Garrett replied.
"Blair in Peekskill. What has it been? Ten years?" Nat mused.
"Nine years, five months and six days," I blurted out. The others looked at me oddly.
"Well this'll be great," Nat enthused. "Maybe I'll declare Friday a town holiday. Blair Warner Winfield day. She'd definitely go for that."
"I'll have her on the show," Tootie declared. "Glamorous heiress returns to her old haunts. What's changed; what hasn't. Can you really go home again?"
"And I can finally show her the new science lab," Mrs. Garrett added happily. "After all, she did pay for it."
"Wait a minute," I sputtered. "That's it? You're going to welcome her back with open arms. Just like that?"
"Why not?" Tootie asked.
"Why not? Because she left, got married and then basically forgot about us, except for those revolting Christmas letters. She never visits, never calls. She even blew off our Eastland reunion. It's like we don't exist for her."
"Well I don't know about that," Natalie pointed out. "She's made some pretty hefty donations to my campaigns over the years."
"And you can't fault her support of Eastland. I'm pretty sure her influence was one reason I got the job as head of school," Mrs. Garrett declared.
"Yeah, she's great with the checks; it's actually being there that the problem."
"That isn't really fair, Jo," Tootie said quietly. "She came to Jeff's funeral."
I winced. Nice move, reminding her of that. Blair had suddenly appeared at the service in New York City even though she hadn't known Jeff all that well. But we were all so crazed with grief and concern for Tootie and Tisha that it was a blur. She didn't stay for the wake. She didn't want to intrude, she said. It was the last time any of us had seen her.
I shrugged. "OK fine. If you all want to go all gooey over Mrs. - Dr. Cliff Winfield coming into town, feel free. Just don't expect me to join the Princess Blair fan club."
"All right Jo," Mrs. G. said in a pacifying tone. "No reason to get agitated. Just be polite to her, that's all I ask."
"Jo, Blair, polite? Now that I'd pay to see," Natalie scoffed.
"I can if I have to. I'll be polite, icily polite."
Mrs. Garrett gave me a knowing smile. "OK, then. Now save room for dessert. I brought my special cheesecake."
"Wicked wicked woman," Natalie declared with a laugh. "Bring it on."
"You have to forgive her sometime, you know." Mrs. Garrett said, staring out the passenger window of my Subaru. I was giving her a lift back to the school after dinner.
"Forgive who, for what?" I asked, gripping the wheel and staring stonily ahead
"Forgive Blair, for leaving."
"Forgive her? I should thank her. She was the most annoying roommate alive. And the three of us got on just fine afterwards."
"I suppose, but you missed her. We all did."
"She got married; she moved on. That happens."
"She did make a clean break," Mrs. Garrett mused. "It was surprising. You two were so close."
"Close? What were you smoking, Mrs. G? Anyway, I guess Blair re-evaluated things after my little bombshell. Maybe learning that her ex-roomie was a dyke scared her off."
"You know I don't like that term, Jo. And that can't be it. Blair always thought you might be gay. She even asked me about it."
"What?!?" I nearly swerved off the road. "When?!?"
"Oh, I don't remember. Early on. Maybe your second year at Eastland."
"And what did you tell her?" I asked, mind boggling
"I said that I didn't know, and that maybe you didn't know either, but that it was a possibility. I also said if that's who you were, we would accept it because you were family and we loved you."
I knew all right. "Um, and what did she say to that?"
"She agreed. She said that she just hoped you could tell her if it were the case. She didn't want you to be lonely, Jo."
I blinked rapidly. Goddamn it. Tears? What is it with me? Hardass, Bronx bred, ex gang member but Mrs. G can choke me up at the drop of a hat. And she knows it. It drives me nuts.
"Well, you know you want to see her," Mrs. Garrett added, handing me a Kleenex. "And maybe we can all reconnect. Wouldn't it be terrific if we could get Blair back into our lives?"
Back into my life? She'd never left.
It was a sleepless night back in the Bat Cave, Natalie's nickname for my house outside of town. Which made no sense because it wasn't cave-like at all. It was perched on a hill overlooking the river. Nat said that I spent too much time alone there with my cat. She was probably right. But here I was, sitting on my porch, looking at the moon and, as I had done practically every night for last nine years, five months and six days, thinking about Blair Warner.
It was like yesterday. She came flouncing into Edna's Edibles, late for her morning shift. "Nice of you to show up, Blondie," I muttered, as I pulled the croissants out of the oven. "We open in ten minutes."
"Is everyone here?" she asked. "I have some news. Could you get them?"
"Sure, we'd be happy to drop everything in the middle of mid terms and the busiest time of the day at the shop to hear about you latest scarf purchase."
She gave me one of her trademark glares, and, as always, I shrugged and obeyed, going into the house and yelling up the stairs for the others to come down.
Nat and Tootie, still adjusting their Eastland ties, trailed in, followed by Mrs. G.
"Everyone," Blair announced. "I have something to tell you." She seemed nervous; that was weird. She usually loved being the center of attention.
"What?" Tootie asked eagerly.
"Cliff has asked me to marry him and I've accepted. We're moving to Texas in two weeks."
What do they say? The silence was deafening. But not for long. Mrs. Garrett's shriek nearly made me drop the croissant tray. And Natalie and Tootie started bouncing and chattering like demented chipmunks.
I just stared, wondering why my stomach had turned to stone.
Of course I tried to talk her out of it. Later that morning, I found her alone in our room and shut the door. "Are you nuts? I mean, of course you're nuts, but what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that the man that I love has asked me to be his wife and I've agreed," she replied in her best Smuggy Mc Smug voice.
"But leaving school, moving to Texas, two weeks? C'mon, you're 19 years old." A light dawned. "He knocked you up, didn't he? Bastard. Listen, that doesn't mean you have to marry him. It's 1984, Blair, you have a choice. I mean you don't have to have the baby if you're not ready. There's a clinic in Yonkers. I'd go with you." I was starting to babble.
She stared at me in abject horror. "Are you suggesting? Yonkers!? I would never!"
I wasn't sure whether the idea of an abortion or Yonkers disgusted her more.
"Honestly, Jo, I don't know what kind of girl you think I am. I am not-- how did you so colorfully put it-- knocked up. Cliff and I are waiting until the wedding night to consummate our love."
"Well then no wonder he's rushing you!" I yelled. "Jesus, Blair, just sleep with him. You don't have to ruin your life so that he can get some nookie."
She glowered at me. "I am not ruining my life. I'm starting it. This is what I'm supposed to do."
"Supposed to do? Says who?"
My reply was lost as the door burst open and Boots and her posse of Gamma airheads came rolling in. "Warnsie, is it true? You little minx. Comment passionnant. Is there a ring? Fourteen caret, one presumes."
And, as the Gammas gathered around her, squealing and hugging, she raised her head and gave me the strangest lookthis odd mixture of challenge, regret and something like a plea. I couldn't put my finger on it until later. It was a look of goodbye.
And that was basically it. She took a train to New York the next day, giving all of us awkward hugs, as she left for the station. The wedding was a week later; private, just the parents. And because Cliff's father was sick and couldn't travel, it was in Iowa for god's sake. So no twenty five bridesmaids in blue taffeta, no forty doves of peace, no Etta James singing 'At Last.' None of the stuff she had droned on about over the years until we were all ready to scream.
She promised to come back later and have a big party, but never did. And then she just dropped out of our lives. Even when, two years later, I did what all the books said I should do, and wrote her a letter telling her I was gay, she never called. I got a note back on fancy stationary. It was polite, measured, politically correct-- nothing at all like the Blair Warner I knew. I threw it away.
Still, maybe seeing her now, after so much time, was a good thing. Maybe I could get rid of the nostalgia, the fantasy, that last look that haunted my dreams, and deal with the fact that there was nothing there, that Blair wasn't Blair anymore. And then maybe I could move on and finally get that steady girlfriend that Natalie and the others kept pushing for me.
But police work, even in a backwater like Peekskill, sometimes intrudes. So I missed Blair's arrival on Friday because of a domestic dispute at the country club and a four car pile up on Route Nine. By the time I got back, it was after five.
"Shit, shit, shit," I yelled to Sergeant Ziaukes as I stormed into the station house. "I'm fucking late. Mrs. G is having a reception at Eastland for Our Precious Blair. God forbid I offend Princess Tightass by not showing up on time for the bowing and scraping. She'll be bitching about it all weekend. What the hell is the matter with you?" I snapped to my subordinate, finally noticing his frantic gestures.
I whirled around and there she was-- thinner, tanner, more stunning than ever. "Blair! I I , "
"Aren't you going to give Princess Tightass a hug?" she laughed, opening her arms.
So I did. It felt great. "I'm sorry. I didn't see you. I mean "
"Don't worry about it. Profanity and insults. Now I know I'm back." She drew away and smiled at me, hanging her arms loosely on my shoulders. "It's so good to see you. You look, well, just beautiful."
"Beautiful? Um Blair, did Mrs. G slip you some sherry at lunch?"
"Of course she did, but that's not why I said it; it's true. Look at you in that uniform. Not bad, Chief. I was expecting more of a Village People vibe, but this well, not bad."
"Uh, thanks. One of Tootie's Broadway friends designed it."
"Well it's very impressive. Butch, but elegant."
Butch? Startled, I stuttered, "Oh, OK, um, so you saw everyone?"
"Yes. How darling is that Tisha? And Mayor Natalie gave me the grand tour. The town just looks great. Much nicer than when we when I...was here. And the campus. It's wonderful. Mrs. Garrett has done a fantastic job, hasn't she? Speaking of which, we'd better get going. I rented a sports car. I'll give you a ride."
"I have my bike."
"Really? Still? I would have thought Well, you can't show up at a reception for a distinguished alumna like me like some Hell's Angel. It isn't dignified. After all, you are the chief law enforcement officer, not some hooligan. A little decorum, if you please."
"Now hold on, I ride my bike plenty around town and who are you " I stopped at her giggling. "Are you messing with me?"
"You're still so easy, Jo. Like fish in a barrel. C'mon, please ride with me. I don't want to make an entrance unescorted."
If she put it that way, what could I do but agree? She let me drive her rented Jag convertible and we cruised through town with the top down, her waving and smiling at the passers by like she was still the goddamned Harvest Queen. Funnily enough, I didn't mind. We got to Eastland and walked in the reception hall together like it was Morning Assembly, circa 1982.
"There they are!" Mrs. Garrett cried, running up, putting her arms around us both and rocking as she chanted. "Blair and Jo, Jo and Blair, just like old times." I would have gotten off a snappy retort, but I swear I saw a gleam of a tear in her eye, so I bit my lip.
"Yes, Mrs. Garrett," Blair said. "We've been together for over twenty minutes and Jo hasn't even tried to strangle me yet. A new record, I think. Oh, is that Mr. Parker? I must say hello. He hasn't aged a bit. Excuse me for a minute." She floated off to greet the ex-headmaster, now the Chairman of the Eastland Development Fund. Watching the human ATM approach, Mr. P looked like he was getting a major hard-on.
"Doesn't she look fabulous?" Mrs. Garrett declared.
"I guess. I suppose all that Texas housewifery agrees with her. By the way, where is Cliff? Did he come?"
"No, she made the trip by herself. She didn't elaborate."
"Hmm, trouble in paradise?" Natalie, who had just walked up, interjected.
"Natalie! That's entirely inappropriate. It's none of our business and such speculation is rude and unladylike," Mrs. G. scolded.
Natalie Greene, the town's most powerful elected official, a successful wife and mother of two, dropped her head and blushed. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Garrett," she muttered, shuffling her feet.
"Ooh Nat, you're in trouble now," I laughed. Still, her question made me wonder. What was the deal? Why was Blair here, alone?
The rest of the evening provided no answers. In some ways nothing had changed. Within five minutes, Blair had the Trustees slavering over her like Bates boys at the sophomore dance and, as usual, Nat and Tootie were hanging on her every word. And I even fell into old patterns, teasing and rolling my eyes at her comments, while still trailing after her like a goddamn puppy. But there was one big difference.
"Did you notice?" I asked Tootie at one point. "She doesn't seem to want to talk about herself. She keeps changing the subject back to us and our lives. How weird is that?"
"I know. It is strange. I wonder if she's sick."
"Why would you say that?" I asked sharply, really bothered by the idea. "She looks great."
"Because I'm an insightful observer of the human condition, Jo. Didn't you read my reviews? Blair's clearly returned for a reason. It's almost like she wants to get some closure, make amends. A typical response to a life-threatening illness."
"This isn't some Lifetime movie, Tootie. She's probably just off her game a little because of the time change. Tomorrow the Warner ego will be back in full force and it will be nothing but what an important surgeon Cliffie is, how much the Dallas debs adore her, and how hard it is to get good help."
"Maybe," Tootie shrugged. "But I like this new Blair."
And that was the problem. So did I. A lot.
"Icily polite?" Tootie grinned as she handed me two glasses of lemonade.
"I'm just saying. You're being pretty attentive to her needs. Picking her up at the Inn this morning, taking her shopping to get a bathing suit, fetching her beverages."
"It's hot. She's thirsty." It was the day after the Eastland reception and we were gathered at the pool in Tootie's condo complex for a barbeque. I gave our hostess a look and headed back to the table under the umbrella where Blair and I were sitting. "Here you go." I handed her the drink.
"Thank you, Jo." She looked at the pool and laughed. "Whoops, Nat just went down." Natalie and Snake were engaged in a splash fight with the kids: their boys, Tisha, and Tisha's best friend Emma, daughter of Tootie's neighbors, Mark and Bruce. "This is a terrific place for Tootie, isn't it?"
"It is. When she decided to move out of the City after Jeff well, she said she still wanted somewhere with people around. This has got a playground and this pool and dozens of surrogate parents right in the complex. It's worked out well."
"It's also very ecumenical," Blair noted, giving a little wave to Mark and Bruce, both of whom had developed serious gay-man crushes on her.
"I suppose." I had to ask. "Does it bother you, seeing gay parents?"
"Of course not! How could you think that?"
"I don't know. Your family is Republican and you live in Texas and ."
She looked hurt. "Don't judge people by where they live, Jo. You taught me that. I have many gay friends."
"You, for one; you are still a lesbian, aren't you?"
The elephant in the room finally brayed.
"Yes Blair, I am."
"Just checking. Natalie says you haven't been dating much."
Gee, thanks Nat. I caught the eye of the Mayor, who had emerged dripping from the water, and mouthed the word 'impeachment'. She just smiled.
"Well, I've been busy. Keeping the peace and all. And I babysit Tisha and the twins a lot and I have my garden and my cat ." I trailed off. It sounded pathetic. I waited for Blair to point that out.
"You don't have to justify yourself to me. I can see you have a wonderful life."
Well, that was new. "Um thanks. I do, actually. And despite what Natalie may have implied, I'm not a nun."
"Thank goodness. I don't want to have to talk you out of that again. My jaw can't take it."
I laughed. "Yeah, I'm still sorry about that. Anyway, the truth is, I sort of feel sorry for the women I date."
"Aside from the obvious, why?" .
"They not only have to deal with me, but with Natalie, Tootie, Mrs. G, Snake, pretty much all of Peekskill. It's a lot to take on."
"I see. You're a package deal."
Blair gave me a wistful smile. "It doesn't sound so bad. So, do you have a date tonight?"
"Good. I was planning on taking everyone to Antoine's but we can do that tomorrow. You can have me for dinner at your place, instead."
"I can, can I?"
"Yes, I want to see this Bat Cave. From what Nat says, it's sort of like the Unabomber's cabin."
"Hardy har har. Such a comedian. She shouldn't give up her day job."
"Then it's settled. I'll be there at seven with pizza, so don't worry about cooking." She stood up. "Now that the wars have subsided, I think I'll take a dip. I'm a little overheated."
I watched as she peeled off her beach robe and walked daintily to the pool in the new two piece we had spent two hours shopping for at Harrison's that morning. She wasn't the only one who was overheated.
"A penny for your thoughts, stud," Snake, who has snuck up behind me, said snarkily.
"I'm thinking about the ways I could murder your wife."
"Hey, join the club. So, you're checking out the blonde, are you? I don't blame you. She's one nice "
"Shut up," I growled.
"OK, OK. Don't get all Gloria Steinem on me. I was going to say she's one nice woman."
"I'm serious. Y'know I hate rich people on principle, but Blair's pretty cool. Not at all stuck up like you said she was. And those Junior Texas Ranger cap pistols she brought the boys are great. They love them."
"Setting the cause of gun control in Peekskill back about 50 years," I pointed out.
"Lighten up. Don't be such a girl."
"I am a girl."
"Yeah right," Snake echoed, plopping down on the adjoining chair and turning his sunglass- bedecked face to the sky. I regarded the trucker fondly. Other that Nat, Tootie and Mrs. G, he was my best friend. We did a lot of what Tootie called "guy stuff" together-- ball games, car repair, scoping out the Langley cheerleaders. But the thing I loved most about Snake was that he worshipped his wife and kids. He and Natalie had a marriage I only wish my parents could have had.
The Mayor herself approached, wrapped in a towel. "OK, Mr. Tough Guy, explain how two five year old girls were nearly able to drown me. Your defense sucked."
"Hey, that Emma is strong," Snake replied, grabbing Nat and pulling her onto his lap. "But you know I like you wet," he murmured.
"Ooh, gross. I'm right here; I can hear you," I complained.
His wife shook her head. "Yeah, Snake. Very classy. You have to forgive him. I think the sight of Blair in a bathing suit has got him a little charged up."
"I only have eyes for you, babe," Snake protested.
"Hey, you can look, as long as it's just looking," Nat replied magnanimously. "Even I can admit that she improves the scenery. And you know my administration has always encouraged the beautification of Peekskill."
"Beautification of Peekskill, huh?" Snake queried, as the three of us watched Blair step out of the pool and slowly dry herself off. "A lot better than the geranium pots on Main Street."
I couldn't help but agree.
"All right, Zelda. It's as good as it's gonna get. Stop eating the sunflowers," I snapped, shooing the cat off the hall table. "I don't need you hacking them all up at dinner. This is gonna be hard enough." I looked around. The place was clean. I had put my wrenches, my true crime books and my gun, cuffs and police baton away. Scattered a few vases with flowers around. Straightened out the photos on the book shelf. Hopefully, the home- of- a -serial- killer look has dissipated a little.
The doorbell rang and my breath stopped. Why I was so nervous, I didn't know. I had lived with this woman for four years. What could she do to me?
I opened the door and Blair ploughed right in. "Hi, the pizza is still warm. Let's put it in the oven, shall we? I brought some nice Pinot Grigio from the wine store on Elm. They had a very good selection; I was pleasantly surprised. Now, I know what you're thinking, wine with pizza? But it works; trust me. We did it in Italy all the time."
"Um, hi." I relieved her of her packages. "Make yourself at home."
"Oh is that your cat? Zelda, isn't it ? She's pretty."
"She's shy," I warned, expecting the animal to flee at the sight of guests, as she normally did. "She doesn't like strangers. Hell, she barely tolerates me."
Zelda immediately curled around Blair's legs, purring loudly. Blair reached down to stroke her and the cat uttered this bizarre trilling sound of pleasure.
I stared at my pet. "Traitor," I muttered.
"Chalk it up to my natural charm," Blair laughed. "Whoops, just a second." She turned back to the door, and waved goodbye to the car in the driveway. It pulled away.
"Who was that?"
"Manny's Car Service. I didn't want to worry about driving back to the Inn after some wine, so I took a cab. You know Manny, don't you? So accommodating. He said just to call when I was ready to go back. Tonight, tomorrow morning, whenever. He said he hadn't picked up any-- what did he call them-- ladies from here in a while. He seemed pleased that I was joining you. Apparently, I'm a lot more attractive than the last fare he dropped off here. Something about tattoos, piercings and being a bad tipper. Manny's sweet, isn't he?" The blonde added, in a faux innocent tone.
"Manny's a dead man."
She laughed again, causing a strange warmth to spread through my chest. I couldn't believe how glad I was to have her here.
I told myself to stop staring. "I'll open the wine and get the hors d'oeuvres," I added hastily, to break the spell.
"Hors d'oeuvres? So classy. Who would have thought?"
"Hey, I'm a trained caterer, remember? It's nothing fancy. Just some cucumbers from my garden."
"It sounds lovely. So this is the Bat Cave. What was Nat talking about? It's really nice. Look at that view," she exclaimed, noticing the picture window that faced the river.
I went into the adjoining kitchen area, put the pizza in the oven, brought out the cukes and poured the wine. "It's home. Small, but enough for me. And the cat."
"Manny said that you border on an estate. That this is the caretaker's cottage."
"Manny is just a font of information, isn't he? Yeah. I'm next door to Windermere Farm, one of the homes of the Domestic Diva," referring to America's Favorite Homemaking Guru.
"Really? Have you met her?"
"A few times. She's not here that often. It's one of her, what does she say, 'lesser properties.' But it's really nice. This great house built in the thirties, pool, tennis court, stables. It's a shame that it's empty so much. Though I think it's why she likes renting this place to a cop."
"What's she like?" Blair asked.
"Rich, egocentric, purports to be a blonde. She reminds me of someone, but I can't think who."
"Tres amusant, Jo. Cheers," she said, taking the wine I offered and lifting her glass. "To old friends."
"Yeah, to old friends." I paused. "So, you had this wine in Italy. Do you and Cliff go there much?"
"We used to," Blair said shortly. "Oh, look at those pictures." She walked over to the bookcase. "Oh my Lord, here we all are; the baby fat; it's chilling." She showed me the photo of the pair of us, with Nat and Tootie, all in our Eastland uniforms, smiling at the camera, with our arms around each other and Mrs. G. It was my favorite.
"And what's this?" she asked, pointing to another frame. "It looks like a bunch of hairy thugs lifting Natalie in a chair above their heads."
"That's pretty much right. Nat and Snake had their wedding reception at this biker bar near Woodstock. That's a picture of the hora dance. What a party. The rabbi got trashed. There was a big fight. Tootie and Jeff got caught doing it under the pool table. It was great. You should've been there." I meant it casually, just something you say, but Blair's face turned to granite.
"Yes, I should have." There was a pause. "There was this medical conference that Cliff had to attend and he really wanted " she trailed off but then seemed to gather herself. "Oh well, c'est la vie. Anyway, I want the whole tour. Nat says I should be sure to ask about the bodies in the basement."
"That was delicious," Blair declared, as she reclined against the pillows of the couch. "There's nothing like pizza from Peekskill. The stuff we get in Dallas just doesn't compare."
"Yeah, it's still pretty great. You must be glad some things haven't changed."
Blair smiled. "I am. Excuse me for a second. I need to use the facilities. Through the bedroom, right?" She stood up and left the room.
I leaned back, took another sip of wine and looked at my cat, who, perched on the armchair across from us, had been staring and purring at Blair throughout dinner.
"What is with you?" I inquired. "Could you be any more obvious?" Zelda looked at me and uttered one of her rusty hinge meows.
I sighed. "I know. What're we going to do when she leaves again?"
Blair came back, holding an object. "I'm sorry, I saw this on your dresser, and couldn't resist. Is this the rock?"
"The rock that Mrs. Garrett gave you for graduation. What did she say, tough on the outside but, on the inside, all sorts of marvelous things going on."
"Yeah, it's my geode. Do you still have your sweater?"
"I do. It's not cold enough in Dallas to wear it much and it's a little big on me now, but I still have it. Stored away." She fell silent
As I watched my ex-roommate turn my geode in her hands, with a sad look on her face, Tootie's theory kept running through my head. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore.
"Blair, are you dying or something?"
She recoiled. "What!?"
"What is it? You can tell me. Cancer, AIDS, a brain tumor?"
"Jo! Why would you say such a horrible thing?" she asked, in a shocked tone
"Because you've come back after all this time and you're being so being so, I dunno, nice. Bringing me pizza and wine, complementing my cucumbers and my house, petting my cat. And you haven't been babbling about your fancy husband or money or country clubs-- or anything. It just seems, you know, strange. Like you're in shock or something."
Blair stared at me, slack jawed. "I see. Just because I'm not acting like a spoiled adolescent. Just because I have a modicum of manners; just because I know how to behave when I am a guest in someone's home, you think that I'm suffering from some fatal brain disease. That's very complementary, Jo. Thanks so much." She sounded annoyed. "No, I'm not dying. I'm perfectly healthy. I suppose the idea that I actually might have matured a little in the past ten years never occurred to you?"
"I guess not," I muttered, embarrassed. "Sorry. Anyway, it was Tootie's idea," I added defensively.
Blair rolled her eyes. "As you may have noticed, Tootie has a tendency to over-dramatize."
"Yeah, I know, but still, I just have to ask. Why did you come back? And, more to the point, why 'd you stay away so long?"
She was silent for a moment. "All right. I suppose I should explain. You have a right to know." She sat down on the couch and turned to face me with a serious look.
"Jo, when we were together at school, what did I want most out of life?"
Whoa. I blanked. "Um, Chad Broxton's fraternity pin?"
"Ha ha. No, really."
"I don't know. I don't think I thought about it much."
"I wanted a stable family life," Blair said. "Something that neither you nor I had."
"I guess that's right. I can see that."
"And what did I fear the most?" she asked.
"Um, my wrath?" I supplied
"Oh please. Nothing made my day more than getting you mad. No, what I feared the most was ending up like my mother- moving from man to man, a serial divorcee. So when Cliff asked me to marry him, I thought, well this is it. I can start to make that familyto get what I'd dreamed about."
"OK." For some reason I wanted to reassure her. "There was nothing wrong with that."
"No, there wasn't, although I know you thought I was too young. Anyway, I told myself that if I was going to do this, I was going to be the best wife in the history of the planet. So that became my goal. My life's work. And I succeeded. I devoted myself to Cliff, his career, our home. I did a very good job."
"Blair, I'm sure that's true," I replied. I couldn't stop there though. "But there was no reason to cut us off, like you did. I mean, you could've stayed in touch."
She shook her head. "No, I couldn't; it was too hard."
"Yes. I'd loved it here too much. Being with you, with everyone, it was my whole life. I just thought a clean break would be better. Like tearing off a Band-Aid."
"A Band-Aid?" I sputtered. "That's what we were to you? Me, Nat, Tootie, Mrs. G.? A Band-Aid?"
"Jo, I truly believed it couldn't work otherwise. I though I had to start totally afresh with Cliff. I was an idiot. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
Her apologies always turned me to mush. "All right, I guess I understand. So you needed to get away. To put Peekskill in the past. So what's changed? Why are you here now?"
She looked at me and then took another sip of wine, draining her glass, as if for courage. "Well, at the beginning of the year, Cliff finally got the promotion at the hospital we'd been working for all this time and we started talking about having children. And I suddenly realized that I didn't want to do it anymore. That I couldn't spend the rest of my life as Dr. Cliff Winfield's wife. And that if I didn't leave now, I never would, because, if we had kids, I wouldn't put them through that."
My heart started to pound. "You're getting a divorce?"
She gave me a rueful look. "Like mother, like daughter, I guess. It became final two weeks ago."
"Oh Blair, I'm so sorry." And I meant it. It had to hurt her.
"Thank you. I am too. But Cliffie and I are still friends. In some ways, he wasn't that surprised."
"Really? Had you been fighting?"
"No. We never fought. That was part of the problem. He thought I was perfect."
I snorted. "And you objected to that?"
She smiled. "It is ironic, isn't it? But for some reason, I don't like it when people just assume I'm flawless, which of course I am. I like to have to convince them. Like I convinced you."
"You never convinced me of any such thing," I protested.
We stared at each other. What the hell? In for a dollar, in for a doughnut. Waving my career goodbye, Heiress Assaulted by Lesbo CopI could see the Post headline now-- I leaned over and kissed her. It was like liquid fire.
I waited for the scream, the slap to the face, the knee to the private parts, but it never happened. She moaned a little but didn't pull away. In fact she reciprocated, or at least I think she did-- where else did that tongue come from?
I started to draw back but she pulled me in again. "Don't stop," she whispered.
"OK." I paused. "Wait, did you mean 'don't stop' or 'don't' period, 'stop' period?"
She glared at me. "You're debating punctuation at a time like this?" She pushed me back against the cushions and kissed me again.
"We need to go to bed," Blair said softly, her lips pressed against my throat. "And, to be clear, since you seem particularly dense at the moment, I mean go to bed together."
"OK," I repeated, running my hands up and down her back, as my insides turned to molten lava. "If you're sure."
"Jo, trust me; I'm sure. I've thinking about this for a long time. Nine years, five months and ten days to be exact."
"You thought about me?" I gasped.
"Almost every night, sometimes even when Cliff and I were .."
"I thought about you! All the time!" Naturally, I started to leak; I swear, someday I'm getting these tear ducts surgically removed.
She put her hands on the sides of my face, and gently thumbed the moisture away. "Well, I guess it's finally time for us to live the fantasy, Polniaczek. Fasten your seat belt. It's going to be a wild ride."
The sun finally dropped over the horizon. I leant back in the porch swing, smiling at the memory. What a night. It was so amazing that I didn't even feel bad for all the lost years. Nearly a decade as a married woman had given Blair a lot of skills. We finally crawled out of bed late the next afternoon, barely making it on time for dinner at Antoine's. When we walked into the restaurant, both sporting enormous hickeys, Natalie took one look and erupted into applause and laughter, while Tootie gasped and burst into tears of joy. Sounding like Moses, she pronounced that the tribe was finally whole again. Like it was always supposed to be.
The porch door opened and Blair sat down next to me. "Hey. Dinner should be ready in about forty-five minutes. The Coq Au Vin smells divine, if I do say so myself."
I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "Thanks. I'll do burgers tomorrow. So, do you want to go into Manhattan this weekend?" I was always careful to offer chances for us to get out of Peekskill. It had been a month since she'd come back, and I didn't want her to get bored with the town. So far, that didn't appear to be a problem.
Blair had simply stayed on after that first weekend. Keeping her room at the Inn but spending most nights, and a lot of fun afternoons, at the Bat Cave. It had been the best month of my life. And I wasn't the only fan of the new arrangement. Natalie was totally psyched, happy for me and thrilled that Blair's purchasing habits had increased the town's sales tax revenues by twenty percent. Tootie seemed to be floating on air, her dream of the four of us all living in each others' pockets finally realized. And Mrs. G was beside herself, giving us goofy grins whenever she saw Blair and me together. She'd even offered Blair a job, teaching English and Art at Eastland, which, to my amazement, Blair accepted, on the condition that she have time to take classes at Langley to finish her degree. No, it was working out great. I was happy before. Now, I was alive.
"Let's just stay here," Blair interjected, stopping my reverie. "I have a lot to do. I have to finish some shopping on Saturday and go over my lesson plan for World Literature."
"Finish shopping? When have you ever really finished shopping?"
"Yes, well this is something I hope you'll like."
"Sexy lingerie?" I asked hopefully.
"No. Windermere Farm."
"What?!? You bought the estate next door?!?"
"Now Jo, don't get mad. I can't stay at the Inn forever. There's not enough room for my clothes. And, I love being here, but I need more entertainment space. For the student teas and all. And you can come up whenever you want and keep your tools in the mechanic's shed and there's a nice greenhouse for your plants and "
"Blair," I pressed my fingers to her lips. "I'm not mad. I've grown up a little bit too. My sexy girlfriend buys a fantastic mansion, right next door, with a pool and a tennis court. Really, what's not to like? Though I am surprised the Domestic Diva wanted to sell."
"IRS problems. I got a good deal. Anyway, it'll be fun. We can play 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.' You know, brooding caretaker comes to visit the mistress of the estate to offer 'services'."
"Oh geez. I hope this isn't the kind of stuff you plan to teach in your literature class."
"Of course not. We're starting with the Odyssey."
"Really? I remember studying that with you in Mrs. Nelson's class. We had a fight about it."
"We fought about the Odyssey?" Blair asked.
"We fought about everything."
"This is true. So what was the argument?"
"I said it was an adventure story. You know, wars, shipwrecks, Cyclops. You said it was a love story. That it was really about Ulysses and Penelope being reunited. A classic romance."
"You know, Blair, I just thought of something. You're Ulysses."
"Yeah. You were away and now you're back. And I waited for you."
Blair paused. "Well, that's very romantic, Jo, but I really don't see you as Penelope. She was patient; you're not. And there's no loom."
"Yes, Penelope had a loom. She wove. You wouldn't know what to do with a loom."
"I could handle a loom."
"You could not handle a loom. Face it, you aren't the weaving type."
"I could handle a loom, Blair," I snapped. "I'm very manually dexterous. After all, how hard ." I stopped. "Are we really arguing about this?"
"We are." She put her arms around my neck and gave me a radiant smile. "Isn't it great?" She kissed me and then started undoing the top button of my shirt. "OK, Penny, I'll give. We have forty five minutes until dinner. So, about that manual dexterity "
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