Chapter 1: Snow is Not This Girl's Friend
The prologue seemed to confuse some readers, so I archived it for when it actually occurs in the story. It'll come in to play in later chapters. Thanks for the feedback!
KO: Dude, where are you? Game’s about to start!
Christen ignored the text from Kelley, opting to focusing on the snow-covered streets in search of a parking spot. The plow had come through earlier to make way for the few drivers who braved the first storm of the season, but the snow had steadily fallen since. The Californian in her still got nervous driving in the snow despite living through two Midwest winters in Chicago before moving to New York last August. And here—just like in Chicago—she lived where the subway was above ground and had been shut down hours before, leaving her with little choice but to drive.
Christen internally cheered when she found a spot a block from the indoor arena and glanced at the clock on her dash: 5:04. She gritted her teeth and lined up the car to parallel park—she hated being late. Though she’d left with plenty of time to make the game, even accounting for the bad weather, she’d driven half the speed as those around her and grew flustered as the minutes crept closer to game time. Now she was in a hurry.
She barely had the car in park before cutting the ignition and grabbing her bag out of the passenger seat. Gingerly avoiding piles of slush, Christen ran the block to Astoria Sports Complex, waving to the desk attendant before taking the stairs two at a time to the upper-level indoor field. She heard the familiar banging of a ball against a plaster wall, and a few calls for passes or warnings of man on!
Damn, the one time I’m late they actually start on time, Christen thought, shaking her head. She rounded the corner and saw half a dozen girls sitting on benches, talking amongst themselves while watching the game.
“Y’all were right—they’ve got skills,” Emily commented to Kelley.
“Right? Better than I remember,” Kelley said, eyes focused on the field but hand outstretched to Christen in greeting. “Hey slow poke, nice of you to join us.”
“Look, the snow is not this girl’s friend,” Christen joked, grasping Kelley’s hand. She turned to the field to call out to the captain. “Becks! Made it!”
Becky looked to the sidelines and shot Christen a thumbs up. “Next game!” she shouted back.
Christen placed her bag on the bench and took out her turf shoes, stretching her body for the game of pick-up before she joined the team. “Am I with you guys?” She looked at the six girls in green pinnies on the sideline. “I thought we were playing 6v6?”
“Yeah, we are,” Ali smiled at her and reached out her arms in greeting to Chris. “Ash brought along two friends and one of them was filling in until you got here.” The girls squeezed each other hard and Ali planted a kiss on top of Christen’s head. “Missed ya, lady.”
“You, too, Ma. It’s been a busy season. We’ll hang soon, okay?” Christen offered apologetically.
“We better,” she was met with a wink and blinding smile.
Christen finished stretching as Rose called out the two-minute warning. The energy on the pitch picked up, both teams scrambling for a last minute goal, many of the girls laughing while trying to out-maneuver one another. The group of them had been playing in a league for a few seasons, most of them ex-D1 soccer players itching for a way to get touches on the ball after long days at the office. Christen would never have found the group on her own, but Kelley had dragged her along one Saturday evening last September. That morning at brunch with Christen and her sister, Kelley had rolled her eyes as Christen complained, again, about not making friends after a month of moving to the city.
“For the hundredth time, come to my game tonight. It’s soccer with a bunch of pretty girls,” was how Kelley chose to sell the pick-up league. “Plus, a lot of them are queer and single.”
Christen scoffed at her. “Kelley, one, I don’t mind spending my time with straight people.” She nodded toward Tyler for emphasis. “Two, the gays I do hang around are all from the queer events you’ve dragged me to, and they all think I’m straight anyway. All these New York queers really need to hone their gaydar.” Christen’s sister laughed and shook her head. She shot Tyler a look.
“No, it’s true, but can you blame them?” Her sister asked. “I mean there’s a game my friends and I play on the subway where we guess if a girl is a hipster or gay.” Christen’s jaw dropped and Kelley cackled, but Tyler continued defensively. “It’s pretty hard to tell sometimes!”
Kelley nodded through her giggles. “It’s true, Chris,” she jerked her thumb at Tyler. “She’s got a point. Those Brooklyn hipsters really throw off the gaydar.”
Tyler nodded emphatically. “Right?!”
“They’ve fucked it up for all of us by appropriating the queer style.” Kelley joked. “I mean, flannel? Beanies?? Cuffed jeans and Docs??? Those bitches.” The seriousness on Kelley’s face gave way to a smirk and Christen rolled her eyes.
Her sister shrugged. “At least if you were straight the dating process would be much less dramatic to hear about.” Kelley barked with laughter and Christen blushed, giving her sister a light shove.
“You love to live vicariously,” Christen challenged her sister.
“True,” Tyler conceded.
“Well, we can let all the girls on the team know you’re fair game, okay? That you’re on the same team,” Kelley suggested, wiggling her eyebrows and high fiving Tyler.
At Tyler’s urging—“Yeah, go make friends of your own and stop tagging along with me and mine!”—Christen acquiesced.
Before they had even begun playing that first evening in August, she knew Kelley could tell she was relieved to finally get on a field again. Christen practically bounced on their walk from the Houston Street subway stop to the park, and joined in on the excited chatter with the other girls while they laced up their boots and passed the ball around.
Ten rounds of round robin-style games later, the group made their way to Henrietta Hudson’s, the “unofficial, official soccer bar,” as Kelley introduced it with a sweeping gesture. Becky, as captain and founder of the league, had convinced the owner of the bar (“And a fellow sportsbian!” Kelley added) to provide the team with discounted drafts and pitchers all season. Considering the league, and the subsequent group of girls who drifted into the bar after games, grew each week, it was a pretty easy sell.
“If we ever make it into the competitive league, I think we’ll have a sponsor in Hen’s,” Becky laughed. “They’ve been pretty good to us.”
Christen was caught off guard an hour later when Emily and Ashlyn cleared the floor and brought out a table, two dozen plastic cups, and two pitchers of Bud Light before scanning the entire bar. “Alright, ladies! It’s flip cup time!” Ash called out while Emily did a hype man dance next to her. It was clear to Christen already that the soccer team dominated the Saturday night crowd, as teammates and random girls around the bar gathered around them. The girls lined both sides of the table and proceeded to play, Christen’s side losing the first round. Emily, who was on the other side, cheered the loudest of all and pointed at Kelley: “You’re going down, O’Hara!” Kelley laughed and just called out, “Watch out, Sonnett, you know no one picks a better truth or dare than me.”
Christen looked at Kelley suspiciously. “Huh?”
“Oh!” Kelley exclaimed, as though she’d just remembered a key element of the night. “We play Truth-or-Dare flip cup.” She waved her hand aimlessly at the crowd around them. “Whichever side wins chooses someone on the other side to carry out a truth or dare.” Kelley shrugged. “Normally they start out harmless but can get…rowdy.”
Christens eyes widened as she surveyed the bar for its exits. “Uh, Kell, I did not sign up for this.”
“Don’t worry, Chris, they go pretty easy on the newbies. Let ya get a taste of what you’re signing up for and all that.” She winked and turned her eyes to the other side of the table where Becky had called for the groups’ attention.
“Kelley!” Emily pointed to her. Kelley groaned good-naturedly and the other girls giggled. “Truth or dare?”
Kelley pretended to think. “Dare.” She smirked, raising her eyebrow.
“Of course,” Ashlyn laughed. “Okay, Kell, pick someone on the team to twerk up against.”
The girls howled with laughter when Kelley dragged Emily (“Hey, Sonny, you basically broug ht this on yourself.”) and exaggeratedly rubbed her ass against the blushing blonde’s pelvis. Christen shook her head in amusement when she realized she was already sold on this group.
“Hey! You made it,” Becky clapped Christen on the shoulder. “Allie, thanks for stepping in for Chris.” She shot a grateful smile at a tall blonde in a blue pinny. “Grab some water and take a break. We’ll use you as an alternating sub for whichever team needs you.” She turned to the rest of the group. “Pink off, green on! Blue versus green, 10 minutes. Ash, keep time?” Becky turned to the keeper.
Ashlyn mock saluted Becky. “You got it, cap.”
Christen turned to the blonde next to her, accepting the blue pinny. “Thanks. I’m Christen.”
“Allie,” the blonde responded with a smile. “This is a cool group. Thanks for letting me play with you guys.”
“Uh, don’t thank me. I heard Ashlyn roped you into this.” Allie nodded and kept smiling. “You may want to rethink that gratitude when you look over all your turf burns tomorrow.” She laughed at her own joke and Allie chuckled softly.
“Right?!” Allie encouraged her. “I mean an indoor field is nice and all, but who doesn’t want to freeze their ass off in the winter wonderland that is New York in this snowstorm?”
Christen laughed hard, but turned toward the girls on the field when Kelley called out, “Chris, quit flirting and come here so I can whoop your ass!”
Light chuckling filled the arena at Kelley’s teasing and the resulting blush creeping across Christen’s face, spreading as she jogged onto the field. She looked around at the girls, glancing at an unfamiliar lanky brunette in a blue pinny. The girl looked relaxed and comfortable, yet somehow eager at the same time, her eyes flitting around the pitch. Christen took in the length of her, checking out her sculpted legs and muscular shoulders. She was pulled out of her staring by a sharp “Go!” from the sidelines.
They played a quick and fun game, Christen impressed with the new girl’s footwork and serves into the box. The girls didn’t keep score, citing that the pick-up games were just meant to be light and easy. Christen loved that there was no pressure surrounding her, no one judging her based on her skill, no fear of losing a starting spot or being cut from her team. It was one of the things she liked most about the league, the way it gently guided her back into loving the game.
When Ashlyn called out “Time!” the girls in blue jogged off the pitch to make way for a pink versus green scrimmage. Christen liked the round robin format since it gave her a chance to sit and talk with friends on the sidelines while they watched the other two teams play, knowing they all got to play again in just a few minutes.
Christen hoped she’d have a chance to talk more with Allie—it’d be nice to have a new friend with a sense of humor like hers—but she stuck close to the lanky brunette, both talking in hushed voices with a few laughs sprinkled in. She watched the two talk and was mesmerized by the brunette’s smile and the way she threw her head back in laughter, suddenly a kid without worries. Christen had the urge to be the one making her laugh, but she saw Allie snake her arm around the brunette’s shoulders and crinkled her nose in disappointment. Okay Kelley, time to deliver on the single girls you promised me.
Christen spent her time between games talking with Becky and Rose or cheering on the girls on the field. She laughed at Rose’s outrageous commentary of the action, occasionally catching her breath when she saw Allie and the girl looking at her out of the corner of her eye. Four games later, the girls were packing up their bags and putting on their winter layers, preparing for the seven-block trek to the bar. No one wanted to travel to Henrietta’s—they couldn’t play in the West Village as they usually did, due to the lack of indoor fields—so Becky led them to a nearby bar in the Astoria neighbor that she had finagled into giving the team a happy hour discount.
The group bypassed the bar and usual Saturday night crowd, heading to the back room to settle bags and shed snow-dusted coats. Becky headed to the front with Carli and Ali in tow and returned with six pitchers and plastic cups.
“First round is on the Caps!” Ali yelled to the crowd, and the group broke out into choruses of “Thanks, Becks!” “Thanks, Carl!” and the smacking sound of air kisses. A pitcher and cups were deposited on each table, and after pouring drinks many of the girls gravitated toward the middle of the room to mingle. Christen laughed with Ali and Mal at Kelley and Emily’s dance-off, Ali smacking Ashlyn’s arm when she and Pinoe urged the two on.
“Babe,” she let out with a laugh, “don’t encourage them.” But she smiled at Christen and shrugged, and Christen laughed, because, really, what else could you do when those four were together?
Christen smiled and looked around the room at the girls, some of whom were playing darts, some talking and laughing, some egging on Kelley and Emily. She saw Allie and the brunette sitting across from each other at a table against the wall, heads bent together looking over a menu. Christen made her way over and swung her leg over the bench next to Allie. “The tacos here are pretty good,” she offered.
“Oh, yeah?” Allie looked up and smiled. “Chicken or fish?” The girl across from them scoffed at the twinkle in Allie’s eye.
“Well, the gay side of me wants to say fish,” Christen remarked, jest in her tone and a smirk on her face. The two girls laughed and the brunette eyed her curiously. “But,” she leaned in and lowered her voice, motioning for the other two to join her, “I’m a personal fan of the chicken. Don’t let the other gays know.” She pulled her head back and winked.
“The other gays?” The brunette asked, eyebrow raised. Christen was shocked at the pitch of her voice. She expected something a little higher, maybe more feminine.
“Toby, you thought Ashlyn would play on a team without any lesbians?” Allie scoffed at her friend.
“You thought a team of ex-collegiate athletes wouldn’t be mostly comprised of lesbians?” Christen added, laughing with Allie.
The brunette—Toby, Christen reminded herself—held up her hands in surrender, a broad smile plastered across her face. “Okay, okay, valid points.”
Christen looked between the two of them. “Did you guys hear about the league from Ashlyn?” She wondered. She was met with two nodding heads. “That’s cool. How do you guys know her?
The two girls looked at each other, figuring out who would answer Christen. “We played with her in college,” Allie told her.
“At UNC? Cool, great soccer program. Not as good as Stanford, but…” Christen trailed off, tongue in her cheek.
“God, don’t you Cards have any other response to that?” Toby laughed.
“’You Cards?’” Christen questioned. “So you’ve met Kelley, I take it. No surprise she’d want to know where you two got your skills from.”
“Oh, well she was there to witness Toby’s skills from the beginning,” Allie offered.
“Al,” Tobin warned.
“From the beginning?” In the six years she’d known Kelley, Christen had never heard her mention a Toby.
“Yeah,” Allie continued, despite, or possibly because of, her friend’s protests. “They played together on the youth national teams.”
Christen’s eyes nearly bulged out of her head. “You’re kidding!”
“Nope,” Allie smiled across the table and placed her hand on the blushing brunette’s forearm, squeezing. “My Toby’s always been that good.” Allie’s beaming smile was answered with an embarrassed smirk from her friend.
Christen looked at the two, wondering how much weight “My Toby” held. She saw Ashlyn and Kelley approaching the table and scooted over, motioning for Kelley to sit.
“What’s up, ladies? Great games today.” Kelley sat next to Christen and filled her cup from the pitcher on the table.
“Yeah, it was a ton of fun. I’ve missed footy,” Toby beamed at Kelley and Ashlyn.
“Yeah, even watching from the sidelines was nice,” Allie added.
Ashlyn smiled at the two of them. “Glad you could come out. Tobs, aren’t you glad I twisted your arm to come now? I knew you couldn’t go long with a ball at your feet and some legs to ‘meg.” The table of girls laughed and Christen remembered how awestruck she was at the girl’s skill with the ball.
“Hey, Kell, you didn’t tell me that you knew Toby from the youth national teams,” Christen looked up at Kelley.
“Oh, Toby?” Kelley looked between the two brunettes sitting at the table. “Tobs, I didn’t know you two were at nickname level yet,” she teased. A blush sprouted from Toby’s—or not Toby?—cheeks.
“Oh no, Tobs, Christen’s got you blushing already?” Ashlyn clapped her hand on the embarrassed girl’s shoulder. “I warned you we had some charming girls on this team.” The brunette laughs and now Christen’s cheeks were heating up.
“Wait, is Toby not your name?” Christen panicked. She was calling the new kid by the wrong name, and the girl didn’t correct her. How embarrassing for them both.
“Uh, sort of,” Toby—or not Toby—explained. “It’s Tobin. Or Tobs. Sometimes Toby.” She smiled gently, but Christen could see her ears turning red.
Allie put her hand on Christen’s arm and stage whispered, “It’s okay. She lets people call her Toby, too, but only really special people.” She pulled back and surveyed Christen and Tobin’s faces. “I guess you made the cut.”
Both girls blushed fiercely.
Allie, Ashlyn, and Kelley watched in amusement as the two girls fumbled for words, briefly making eye contact before looking away. Christen decided to change the subject.
“So, uh, UNC, huh? Is that where you too got together?” She gestured between Tobin and Allie.
Ashlyn burst out laughing and Allie gave her an Oh, honey, no, look. “Nah, we’re just friends. Tragically, I’m straight. Otherwise I’d’ve been the one taking this girl off the market.” She pinched Tobin’s elbow and received an eye roll in return.
“I’ll be sure to pass the message along to Bati,” Tobin sassed, her face still crimson.
Hm, Christen thought. Maybe Kelley can’t deliver on the single queer girls promise, but Ashlyn sure can.
“Yeah, but Shirley’s a solid consolation prize,” Ashlyn winked and Tobin blushed, this time accompanied by a large smile. Her eyes flitted to Christen and her smile tightened, dropping slightly.
“True,” Allie conceded with a sigh. “Even though I exceed her in every way as a best friend and life partner to Tobin, I guess she’s a good enough girlfriend.” She winked at her friend and earned an exaggerated eye roll.
Oh. Well, scratch that.
“You need to get laid,” Christen had been told later that night. Many of their teammates had headed into the Village to gather at Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar in Manhattan. Kelley had bought two Blue Moons from her favorite bartender, tipping as generously as always, and Christen watched her eye Kelley appreciatively as she sashayed back to the team.
“Kell, you’ve been laying the foundation with that bartender for weeks. I think you’re projecting.” Kelley just smiled and shrugged.
“Could be true for both of us. Now pick a girl, any girl. The whole bar is your oyster.” She theatrically spread her arms out, gesturing to the ones she thought would catch Christen’s eye.
Christen surveyed the crowd, but couldn’t muster up the energy to approach the cute tomboys milling around. “I don’t know. I’m not really in the mood, you know?” She wasn’t lying—she could tell her heart wasn’t in it tonight. “I can’t just turn on the charm; it takes some time to psych myself up.”
Ashlyn slung her arm around Kelley’s shoulders and Ali snuck up behind Christen, resting her head on a curl-covered shoulder. “Chris, there’s no one more charming than you. Go bat your eyelashes and get a pretty girl to buy you a drink.” Ashlyn looked pointedly at Kelley. “And Kelley doesn’t count.”
Ali pulled Christen in close. “Don’t listen to them. Hang here with me and we can watch Kelley hit on the bartender some more.”
Kelley whipped her head toward the two while Ashlyn chuckled. “Jeer all you want, but at least I’m being proactive in my singledom. We can’t all be happily taken, let alone happily single.” She glared at the three girls and turned on her heel, but quickly turned back around to blow them a kiss. Christen shook her head and leaned back into Ali.
“She’s right, you know. I should put myself out there more.”
“Chris,” Ali sighed. “You can’t force yourself, you know? It happens when you’re not trying so hard. Nine out of ten girls going home with someone tonight aren’t going to turn it into something substantial. They bang--maybe--and have some drunken pillow talk and pass out and drink coffee in the morning. And then at least one of them is heartbroken when it goes nowhere and goes out the next weekend and the whole process starts over.” She ruffled Christen’s hair, ignoring the girl's protests. “You’ll meet a girl you like when you’re relaxed and doing something you enjoy. Maybe at the animal shelter or something, or maybe you could take up your coworker on that blind date she’s been trying to talk you into...” Ali trailed off, hoping Christen would consider her suggestions.
Christen thought for a moment. Expanding her horizons could be a good idea...and she could always use more connections.
Ashlyn piped up. “You know, Allie was in the same boat before she met her boyfriend—you know, mostly hanging at bars and clubs and going home with randos,” she pitched in. “But then she met Bati at some charity soccer event last year, and she’ll be the first to tell you that a relationship was the farthest thing from her mind that day. She was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to organize all the volunteers. Bati was just there by the luck of the draw.”
Christen considered Ashlyn’s statement and the blonde could see the gears turning in her friend’s head. “Really, you could talk with her. Why don’t we all hang next week? The three of us can shed some love light on you and Kell.”
Christen hesitated. “Why don’t we just hang out? There doesn’t have to be any, you know… love talk.” Ali and Ashlyn eagerly nodded, happy Christen was considering the offer at all. “She’s new, right? I’m sure she could use friends. I know I needed some when I first came here.”
“Perfect,” the keeper said through a grin. “I’ll set something up. Thursday?”
“Sure, Thursday sounds good.” The girls clinked their beers and turned back to Kelley, in the middle of an animated conversation with the bartender whose head was thrown back in laughter.
“What I wouldn’t give for her charm and confidence,” Ali smirked.
“No need, babe. But maybe she can pass some off to Chris,” Ashlyn dramatically winked at the girls next to her, placing a kiss on her girlfriend’s temple.
“And on that note, I think something might come up Thursday. How weird!” Christen turned on her heel and deposited her beer in the recycling bin by the door. She threw a wink and a kiss back to her friends and stepped into the snowfall, a new sense of peace drifting overhead.
Chapter 2: New Yorkers Don't Fuck Around
She has a girlfriend; you’re not a homewrecker. She has a girlfriend; you’re not a homewrecker. She has a girlfriend; you’re not a homewrecker.
Ten minutes into reciting her new mantra, Christen still had her eyes locked on Tobin. She turned to her after every joke, waiting to see if her head was thrown back in laughter or whether a cheeky grin accompanied an eye roll. She was studying the mysterious brunette, hoping to learn how to get her engaged— how to get her hooked on me, Christen caught herself thinking. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that Tobin was already involved with someone else. There are other girls. Christen dug her nails into her palms, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. I will not pine after a girl with a girlfriend. Girls with girlfriends are off limits. Girls with girlfriends are friends.
The reminders normally worked, but it took a while for this one to sink in.
Earlier in the evening, Christen and Kelley had arrived at Hotel Indigo fifteen minutes before Ali, securing a spot in the growing line.
“Damn,” Ali breathed out upon greeting the two chattering girls. “You’d think we’d get straight up there considering it’s winter. Why are so many people gunning for a spot at a rooftop bar?”
“Well it’s finally above freezing,” Kelley pointed out. “I’m pretty sure I saw a dude in shorts a minute ago.”
“Damn.” Ali accompanied the exclamation with a low whistle. “New Yorkers don’t fuck around, do they?”
“You tell us!” Christen laughed. “You’ve been here three times as long as us.” Kelley nodded in agreement.
“With the dating record to prove it,” she added with a wink.
“Alright, alright, point taken. Now hush before my current lady shows up,” Ali joked. “Ash should be here by now. She and Al didn’t pass you guys on the way to the bathroom?”
“Nope,” Kelley said as Christen responded, “Haven’t seen them.”
“Well before they get here, Kell,” Ali gave the freckle-faced girl a pointed look, “don’t give Allie shit about being with a guy.”
Christen barely covered her giggle as Kelley feigned offense. “Look, we all had a straight phase okay?” Ali sneered. “Who’s to say hers just isn’t, like, 24 years long? I mean yours was…”
As that point, Christen was clutching her side, doubled over in laughter. Kelley looked over at her, pleased at her delivery.
“What’d we miss?” A familiar voice asked. A tattooed arm snaked around Ali’s waist as Ashlyn nuzzled into the crook of her neck.
“Nothing,” Ali dismissed her friend’s joke “Hi, babe.”
“Hi.” The two grinned stupidly at each other until Allie cleared her throat loudly.
“Christen, Kelley, Ali, ” she said with emphasis. “Hey.”
“Hey, Allie,” Christen said, apology in her tone. “Forgive those two, it’s been a long eight hours without each other.” She rolled her eyes playfully.
“Hey!” Ashlyn cried out defensively. “Allie gets it. After all, she and Bati are in loooove.” She waggled her eyebrows at the blonde next to her. “And Tobin, too.”
Tobin? Christen’s heart sped up at the mention of the lanky brunette. Ali continued, unaware. “I mean her girlfriend is hours away. She definitely gets it.”
Oh. Right. She’s unavailable.
“Okay, let’s set the record straight,” a voice called out over the two tall blondes’ shoulders. Tobin stepped into sight and locked eyes with Christen before turning pointedly to Ashlyn. “Shirley isn’t my girlfriend. She’s just… a girl. That I’ve been talking to.”
Allie guffawed at her best friend. “Um, and a girl you get naked with every chance you get.” Tobin’s cheeks flushed red as she huffed and looked skyward.
“Hey, good for you, Tobs,” Kelley congratulated her, much to Christen’s chagrin. “These two and I were just telling Christen how badly she needs to get laid.”
“Kelley!” Christen whacked the girl in her stomach.
Kelley winced, but bit her lip, clearly understanding that she’d riled Christen up. “I mean, isn’t that why we’re here? You and I—well,” she looked around the group and lowered her voice, “Mostly you—need to get laid. These ladies are gonna tell us how they closed.”
Christen looked at the front of the line, counting the number of people between her and the bouncer to buy herself some time. She looked back to see one expectant, two concerned, and one amused expression staring back her. Next to her, Kelley wore a hesitant smile.
“Look, guys,” she began. “I appreciate your happy love lives, really, I do. But can we all just hang? Learning how to ‘close’ just isn’t a top priority for me right now, you know?” She licked her lips, nervous to gauge the reactions from the five women watching her.
Kelley spoke up first. “Of course, Chris.” She felt an arm swing around her waist. “Let’s just get tipsy on some overpriced cocktails, yeah?”
Christen nodded gratefully and turned around, knowing she could spark conversation with one simple question aimed at Ali: “So, Al, how were the kids today?” As expected, Ali launched into a detailed account of the day she had with her kindergarteners, the group laughing at every story, each more innocently funny than the last.
An hour later, Christen was repeating her new mantra while Tobin talked passionately about her job.
She has a girlfriend—
“And, oh man, the day we fulfilled a little boy’s Make-A-Wish promise, oh man, I swear I had to run to the bathroom twice to hide my crying.”
You’re not a homewrecker.
“But the coolest part is watching all of those guys just play the sport they love. Like, can you guys imagine just getting paid to play soccer for a living? They’re so lucky.” Tobin rambled on about her job as assistant director of communications for ESPN-NYC, sharing stories about working in the press box for New York’s prominent football and baseball teams. Christen loved her job, she did, but the way Tobin talked about her workdays filled Christen with envy. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the animated brunette across from her.
“I mean these guys get to train with each other and play against the best players in the nation. They get better every game and get to travel all over the place. They’re so lucky,” she repeated, leaning against the balcony railing.
The group was quiet for a moment, nursing their $18 cocktails and meditating on Tobin’s words. Finally, Kelley spoke up. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard some talk so passionately about their job. Shit, Tobin.” She shook her head with a slight smile. “You give Chris a run for her money.” She nudged the curly brunette next to her, receiving a sideways glance in response.
“Oh, yeah?” Tobin sent Christen a blinding smile. “What do you do?”
Christen shifted in her spot, failing to hide a smile. “I’m a social worker.” Tobin smiled amicably, but didn’t seem sold. Christen pressed on. “I work in hospitals with therapy dogs. I mostly get to work with kids who’ve been through a traumatic experience or with people who have some kind of disability.” She looked down but couldn’t hide her proud smile. “It’s pretty life-changing, honestly, for them and for all the therapists who work there.” She dragged her eyes up to look at the two new girls, taken aback by their awestruck expressions.
“What the fuck?” Allie asked. “How did you land my dream job?”
The other five burst into laughter, Allie looking around the group smugly. Christen smiled at her appreciatively. “Lots of school,” she explained. “And lots of nights and weekends training at local dog classes.”
“Christen is the epitome of a hard worker,” Kelley gushed. “It came in handy when I needed someone to cheat off at Stanford.” She threw a wink in Christen’s direction but her raven-haired best friend waved her off.
“I’m in the same boat as Tobin.” Christen shrugged, locking eyes with the girl across from her. “I really like what I do and I knew all that studying and work was the only way to get here, ” she offered simply.
Ali gave her a light kiss on the temple before turning toward Ashlyn. “Babe, I need another drink.” She looped her arm through her girlfriend’s. “Anyone else?” Kelley and Allie lifted their empty glasses and followed the two inside.
Christen turned toward Tobin and shivered, unable to determine if it was from the chill in the air or the piercing hazel eyes staring back at her. She sucked in a deep breath and smiled.
“So, tell me about this girl.” What the fuck? No, take it back.
Tobin seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she asked, then cleared her throat. “Uh, what do you want to know?”
Is she better than me? “What’s she like?”
“She’s pretty laidback.” Oh, so the opposite of me. Cool. “She played soccer with me and Al and Ash at school.” Oh, well that’s good—I like soccer. She knows that. “She’s Costa Rican, so she speaks Spanish.” Damn, why’d I study French in school? Dad always told me Spanish was a universal language. “And she’s just a cool girl.” Christen didn’t miss the way Tobin scanned her face closely before saying, “But she’s not my girlfriend. We’re not serious.”
Her heart lurched.
“Oh, okay. Well she sounds like a great girl.” Because how else can I respond to that? ‘Oh, great, then you can fuck me guilt free!’
“She is,” Tobin nodded. “She’s a good friend to me. She really helped me when I was coming out.”
Christen perked up. “You came out in college?”
“Right after, actually,” Tobin blushed. “I’d always been pretty focused on soccer and it was the same in school with the U-20 and U-23 teams. I really never had interest in dating guys.”
Christen nodded, though she didn’t quite relate.
“Shirley was one of the only out girls on the team—aside from Ash—“ Christen rolled her eyes in agreement, because how could anyone look at Ashlyn and think “straight”—“And when I was questioning stuff, the two of them were really helpful.”
“So you guys kept in touch after graduation?”
“Yeah, I mean, I was confused about everything my senior year but didn’t really… accept reality until around graduation.” Tobin looked up at the darkening sky for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be out in college, you know? All those girls right there, especially from all the other women’s teams.” She laughed, but Christen looked at her, confused. Tobin elaborated: “I don’t know about Stanford, but UNC definitely lived up to the ‘sporty lesbian athlete’ stereotype.”
“Ah,” Christen understood. “Yeah, I guess that would have made coming out a little better.” She shrugged. “I spent my whole life up through college believing I was straight.”
Unsurprisingly, Tobin didn’t seem too shocked. She simply nodded and smiled, encouraging Christen to continue. “I mean, I had friends who were out—Kelley mainly—but didn’t really consider my ‘girl crushes’ on friends and celebrities and teammates as anything deeper. Then I graduated and moved to Chicago and met a girl who made me rethink everything.” Christen sighed at the memory. There was a lot of weight there, mostly painful memories and heartbreak, but there was also a sense of freedom. Tobin nodded as if she understood.
“Yeah, there’s always that one girl, isn’t there?” She spoke slowly, as if remembering the girl who made her come out to herself.
“There is,” Christen agreed, and the two girls smiled at one another until Kelley interrupted them.
“What are you goons smiling so obnoxiously about?” She shoved a drink in Christens hand—“Vodka soda; yours was getting low,”—and turned toward Tobin.
“She’s charming, right? I told you so.” Kelley smiled smugly.
Tobin rolled her eyes. “We were commiserating over the first girls who made us realize we liked girls.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll toast to that,” Ashlyn raised her glass. She nudged Ali. “Come on, babe, join in. In my honor.” She winked and wiggled her eyebrows.
“Wait!” Allie stuck her arm out. “I’m not gay, but if I were it’d be for Tobin. Can I still join?” Tobin’s smile had settled into an exaggerated pout, but she hip checked Allie in agreement.
“To the ladies who showed us how great ladies are,” Christen offered.
“To the women who fucked us and left us,” Kelley added.
“To the girls who helped us find ourselves,” Tobin cheered.
“To all the wrong girls I fell for til I met the love of my life,” Ashlyn said, kissing Ali on the cheek.
“To the girl who came in and changed my life when I least expected it,” Ali finished the toast, smiling adoringly at her girlfriend before sending a wink Christen’s way.
The six girls clinked glasses, calling out “Cheers!” before sipping from their drinks.
“So what other kinds of things to you get into around the city, aside from sports?” Christen asked Tobin. The other four had headed inside again, seeking out the bathroom and the bartender.
“Honestly? Lots of Netflix,” Tobin laughed. “Aside from work, I coach a kids’ soccer team in Brooklyn. Other than that I go wherever Allie drags me, and I catch up on my shows when I have a minute.”
She has a girl —wait, Christen stopped herself. She has a girl. What does that mean? Where is the line drawn?
“That’s awesome,” is what she chose to say aloud. “How did you get involved in that? I’ve been looking for some tykes to boss around for a while now.” She laughed, hoping Tobin understood her joke.
Tobin laughed along, eyes crinkling as she smiled. “I reached out to the YMCA in Brooklyn and they told me about a league down in Prospect Park. Honestly it was all because of my mom’s urging.”
“Ugh, moms,” Christen agreed. “They really know best, don’t they?” She shook her head, smiling at the memory of her last phone call with her mom--she really did owe a lot of her happiness to her. “Sometimes she knows what makes me happy better than I do.”
“I know what you mean,” Tobin looked lost in thought. “My mom’s beyond awesome. It makes me wonder if I’ll be a good mom. You know, like it’s a genetic thing or learned trait. Man, I hope I can be as good to my kids as my mom is to me.”
Christen’s thoughts ran wild before she could remind herself that she wasn’t a homewrecker. Does it count if it’s not a labeled relationship, anyway? She stopped herself before she could imagine the two of them taking evening walks with their two kids, stopping at the park and riding their bikes around the high school track before heading home for bedtime stories. She’s got a girl—a girl that isn’t you.
Tobin nudged her. “What about you?” Christen was startled.
“What about me?”
“What kinds of things do you get into?”
Christen took a moment to take stock of the things she did in the city aside from happy hours, soccer, and work. She could only come up with a few things. “Um, well I’ve always loved to read.” She saw Tobin nod encouragingly and continued. “I like to take my sister’s dog to the park and hike the trails up there.” Tobin raised her eyebrows, intrigued. Christen thought more about the outdoor spaces she had explored since moving to the city.
“You know, my sister took me up to Bear Mountain last November. It was beautiful—there was a dusting of snow and lots of cabins sprinkled around the campsite.” She saw Tobin smile. “We could even see the city from the highest point! And they had the best spiked cider in the lodge.”
Tobin’s smile grew. “It sounds promising. I’ll have to get out there to check it out, though I’m not sure how to access it without a car… Is it near the train?” She cocked her head to the side and Christen was reminded of her sister’s puppy.
“Uh, honestly? I’m not sure. I have a car, so we drove.”
Tobin’s eyes widened. “You have a car in the city?” Christen nodded. “That’s rare. I thought New York was the city of public transportation!”
Christen laughed at her genuine curiosity. “It is, it is, but I've had this car since high school and it’s served me well the past eight years.” She paused to take a sip of her drink. “I figured I’d drive it into the ground before I got rid of it.”
Tobin leaned back and sized Christen up. “I see. Well it takes a special kind of person to handle this traffic,” she leaned into Christen conspiratorially. “Trust me—I’ve been in my fair share of death-defying taxi rides.”
Christen laughed out loud, eyes closed as she threw her head back. She hadn’t expected this sense of humor from the brunette. “It takes a special kind of woman, that’s for sure. City driving ain’t for everyone.” She winked at Tobin and was pleased to see the girl break into a smile.
The two finished their drinks in silence, waiting for their friends to return. As the group slowly reconvened, excuses for departing were thrown out to each other. Citing meetings and early mornings, the girls disappeared into the crowd, leaving air kisses and brief side hugs coupled with promises to see each other at the next pick-up game. Kelley and Christen walked together toward the Bleeker Street subway stop.
“So, cool group, right?” Kelley prompted. “Wish you could’ve talked more with Allie. She really would have been helpful in helping you get out of your dating slump.”
“Kell, they are really cool girls,” Christen offered. “But please hear me when I say that I’m not in a slump.” She grabbed Kelley’s arm and turned her so they were facing each other. “I’m okay with taking my time and being single. I don’t mind spending time getting to know myself, okay?”
Kelley waited a beat, searching Christens face for any hint of invalidity. Finally, she released a breath, relaxing. “Okay, Chris.” She gathered her best friend in a hug. “You know I only want you to be as happy as possible, right?”
“Of course!” Christen exclaimed into Kelley’s shoulder. “And I am. Truly. I have a lot of friends, thanks to you,” she made sure to emphasize. She knew how vital it was to make Kelley feel like she was an integral part of Christen’s New York City experience. “I’m really lucky, okay? I have a good life, and love will come along when it’s ready.”
“Okay babe,” Kelley’s grip on Christen’s biceps had loosened. “You know I’m here for you, yeah?”
“Always,” Christen replied.
Chapter 3: That Makes Two of Us
KO: What’s up buttercup?
KO: Plans tonight?
KO: Em wants to go to the Woods to dance.
KO: It’s ladies night.
KO: So many lesbians.
Christen’s phone chimed five times before she grabbed it out of her bag. Coming above ground from the subway always led to an ambush of notifications, but it wasn’t unlike Kelley to send rapid fire texts for every new thought she had.
Pressy: I’m heading into work now. Let me double check everything but I think I can have a late start tomorrow. Woods tonight could work, finally! It’s been ages.
Kelley had discovered the Woods two years ago and fell in love with the bar’s beer selection and huge back patio. A quick walk from her apartment, she frequently found herself part of their Wednesday night crowd, and during the late summer and early autumn nights, she could often convince Christen to join her. Admittedly, Chris was a huge fan of the atmosphere, knowing that she was in a space where it was assumed she was gay. She knew she presented considerably feminine of center, so it was nice to finally have conversations with women where her words were construed as flirty as opposed to just complimentary.
It also helped that there had never been so many women in flannels and beanies in one place.
Placing her phone back in her bag, Christen turned toward the hospital, head tucked into her scarf to ward off the biting wind. Once inside, she headed up to her fourth floor office, waving at the office manager on her way in.
“Hey Chris, you have messages from Rory and Jill. The board of directors met last night and they have notes to pass on to you.”
“Thanks, Jules,” she put her bag down next to her desk chair and hung her coat and scarf on the rack by her door. “What are your lunch plans? I still have that certificate to the Spanish fusion place down at 67th street, if you’re down.”
Christen came out and leaned against the wide desk, stretching her neck. “And I think I’m meeting Tyler for Yvette’s 6:15 class, if you want to join us.”
Julie looked up from her computer, still typing a response to an email from HR. “Oh, damn, I left my mat at home today,” she pouted. “But it’s for the best, I guess. Zach keeps convincing me I’ll love kickboxing, so he’ll probably drag me to a class when I get home.”
“Oh, God,” Christen laughed. “Have him send me videos, okay? I can’t wait to witness that.”
“Oh, hush,” Julie admonished, still smiling. “Or I won’t let you take me out to lunch today.” She scrunched her nose at Christen, looking down at her desk.
The brunette let out a snort and turned back toward her office. “You’d only be so lucky,” she threw over her shoulder.
Settling into her desk, she booted up her computer and took out her planner, checking over her schedule for the day. With a team meeting before lunch and patient rotations all afternoon, she knew her yoga session with Tyler would help her unwind before she headed to Brooklyn. She scanned over her agenda for tomorrow and shot a quick text to Kelley.
Pressy: All signs are a go for tonight. Already psyching myself up for all the ladies ;)
Pressy: Oh, and first beer is on you!
It took only a moment for Kelley to respond.
KO: And wear that black bodysuit with your ripped jeans and you won’t have to buy yourself a single drink all night.
Christen did decide to wear her bodysuit with jeans, and Kelley sized her up with a gigantic grin.
“I knew it!” She cried. “Mama’s looking to get LAAAAID TONIIIIGHT!”
Christen bypassed Kelley and placed her bag on the kitchen table, nudging her shoulder as she passed.
“Look,” Kelley continued regardless. “I’m just saying: it’s cool to be happily single and all, but at least you’ve come to your senses and know you’ve got needs.” She waggled her eyebrows and smiled, tongue poking out through her teeth. Her face lit up. “Oh my GOD! We can be each other’s wingwomen! It’s been way too long.”
But then she paused and considered the dark haired beauty in front of her, shaking her head as if coming to her senses. “On second thought, you’re going to turn a lot of heads tonight on your own. I’m going to need you to not come within three feet of me.” Christen scoffed and looked up to the ceiling. “Seriously,” Kelley continued. “I’d like to get at least some attention tonight.”
Now Christen just rolled her eyes and turned to the fridge, moving around take-out containers and egg cartons in search of something to drink. She came up with two beers, handing one to Kelley.
“Okay, one, I’m not on the hunt tonight. The girls are all yours.” Kelley raised an eyebrow, gesturing up and down at Christen.
“Hey, this whole outfit was your idea—and who am I to pass up free drinks?” She shrugged nonchalantly. “Wearing this is just a fiscally responsible decision, really.”
Kelley let out a quick “Ha!”
“And two—“ Christen took three steps closer to Kelley, reaching out to grad her forearm, “—you and I both know Emily will give you all the attention you need tonight.” She cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head to the left, driving her point home. She caught a blush on Kelley’s cheeks before the freckled girl turned toward the counter.
“Oh stop, that’s fun and harmless and we all know it.” Kelley fiddled with the Bluetooth speakers and pulled up a playlist on her phone, not meeting Christen’s eye.
“Hey, whatever you say, lady. I’m just saying I don’t think you’d be turned down.”
Kelley turned back to Christen, lifting her beer to her lips. “That makes two of us.”
The girls were posted at a table on the back patio when Kelley caught sight of Emily.
“I’m gonna go get her,” she said, rising from her seat. Christen was ready to point out that the crowd was still thin enough that Emily would find them on her own, but Kelley had bounded over to the blonde before she could be questioned. Christen watched the girls greet each other with a long hug, hands lingering on the other’s shoulders and hips. Kelley leaned in to whisper in Emily’s ear, and the two turned to head inside, Kelley’s hand on the small of Emily’s back.
Resigned to the fact that she had some unwarranted alone time, Christen leaned against the brick wall and pulled out her phone. She was deep into an Instagram wormhole, creeping on a yoga friend’s boyfriend’s sister who had a queer vibe about her, when a loud “Christen!” rang out from the other side of the bar. Nearly dropping her phone, Chris looked up, hands fumbling while she smiled at a familiar face.
“Pinoe! What’s going on, lady?” She beamed at the girl behind her. “Hey, Sue.”
“Hey, Chris. Looking good,” the two eyed her and smirked, sharing a knowing glance.
“I’m having a pretty good self esteem day,” Christen waved them off. “Now you’re just adding the cherry on top.” She tried to play off her friends’ teasing, but she couldn’t hide her smile. She received a lot of praise in her meeting this morning and saw patients responding well to their therapy during her rounds, and she always felt particularly strong after Yvette’s power yoga classes. Her day had been an all-around bright spot in this dreary winter weather.
Pinoe and Sue sat across from her, officially staking claim on the picnic table, as Pinoe waved at a friend and encouraged her to stop by. Christen smiled politely and offered her hand when introduced, but zoned out soon after. She really loved the atmosphere at the Woods, even in the February chill. Lights were strung across the patio and wrapped around the pergola covering the outdoor kitchen, casting a glow on the patrons huddled around heat lamps that were strategically placed to ward off the winter frost. Most of the women had shed their heavy coats, plenty warm in their thick sweaters and beanies.
Christen’s shoulder was nudged as a beer was thrust in her face. Kelley was still turned toward Emily, nodding along to whatever the blonde was saying. Christen gave her friend’s shoulder a thank you squeeze and turned back to Pino and Sue.
“Ali and Ash are on their way,” Pinoe told the group, glancing down at her glowing phone. “They just hopped off the train so I’d give them a few.”
“Perfect, just enough time to finish this round. Ash owes me a beer, so I’m cashing in on that ASAP,” Kelley smirked.
Emily rolled her eyes. “Let her get through the door first, Kel.”
Christen patted the empty half of the bench, signaling for the girls to sit next to her. “Em, how’s Emma? Did she leave today?”
Emily sat first, Kelley straddling the bench behind her to face the two girls. “Yeah, she had to head home to get her report ready for Friday,” Emily leaned forward and placed her fist against her temple, placing her elbow on the table for leverage. “I wish she was here for the weekend so we could have some free days to explore, but she’ll be back soon enough.”
“How’s the expansion going?” Christen asked.
“Good, I guess. They’re opening an office in LA at the end of the summer, so she’s running around like a chicken with her head cut off.”
“Ew, Em, don’t with the visuals," Kelley scrunched her nose and looked at Emily with playful disgust. The girls traded ugly faces back and forth, trying to one-up each other with screwed mouths and squinted eyes, until Christen heard familiar laughs. She looked up to see Ash and Ali approaching, two more girls trailing them. Christen sucked in a deep breath as she locked eyes with Tobin and received a small smile and wave.
“Hey guys,” Ali smiled as Ash handed Kelley a beer. “We’re even now, O’Hara.”
“Ah,” Kelley theatrically sipped the draft and closed her eyes, exhaling loudly. “You, my friend, have perfect timing. Two more of these and I’ll be embarrassing Emily on the dance floor.”
“Kelley, if you want to dance with me, all you have to do is ask.” Emily nudged Kelley’s shoulder with her own and winked. “No need for liquid courage when you know the answer is yes.”
Kelley blushed and took two big gulps from her cup. “In that case, finish this one and we’ll be on our way.”
Emily’s eyes widened slightly but she downed the half-drank beer without hesitation. She slammed the empty glass on the table and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and stood, reaching out for Kelley. “Let’s go.”
Kelley raised her eyebrows and cocked her head to Ali and Ash. “You lovebirds coming?”
Ali looked and Ashlyn and nodded encouragingly. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll come keep an eye on you two,” Ashlyn conceded with a smirk. Ali squealed and planted a kiss on her girlfriend’s cheek, slinging an arm around her waist.
Pinoe got to her feet and bent to kiss the top of Sue’s head. “Come on babe. Gotta witness these two in action.”
As the six girls sauntered inside, Christen looked up at Tobin and Allie. “Hey guys.”
Allie eyed Christen. “Hey Christen. Looking good tonight.” A smirk ghosted across her lips before she continued. “Doesn’t she, Tobin?”
Tobin whipped her head toward Allie and Christen caught the exasperated look she threw the blonde. The two best friends had a silent conversation that lasted maybe three seconds before Christen awkwardly began to stand. So much for cherry on top of her confidence sundae.
“Uh, I’m going to get a beer. You guys want anything?”
“Yeah, Tobin, will you get me a Blue Moon? I’m running to the bathroom.” And with that, Allie turned on her heel and strutted inside, leaving two uncomfortable girls in her wake.
“Uh. Yeah, so the bar?” Tobin stepped toward the door and Christen grabbed her wrist. Tobin turned around and glanced down at their arms, looking up at Christen patiently. “The crowd’s not that thick, but you can hold onto me if you think you’re gonna lose me,” she chided Christen with a playful grin.
Christen relaxed and smiled, a look of mock admonishment on her face. “The outdoor bar is open. Not ready to navigate through a sea of sweaty bodies yet.”
She turned and pulled Tobin in the opposite direction, releasing her wrist as they neared the bar. Tobin scanned the chalkboard menu above the shelves of liquor and turned to Christen with an impressed expression.
“They’ve got a good selection,” she stated.
“Ah, so you’re a craft beer snob,” Christen nodded slowly. “Noted.” And she caught Tobin trying to hide a small smile, causing Christen’s heart to jump. She cleared her throat and tried to put on a nonchalant tone. “I’ll be honest, my go-to is the $9 shot-and-beer combo. Not much of a craft selection offered there.”
Tobin looked ahead, considering the board. “I don’t know, I’d be willing to have the Brooklyn Lager.” She eyed Christen from the side. “I’ll do a shot if you do one with me, deal?”
“Deal.” Christen motioned for the bartender, who beamed at her.
“Hey, Chris,” the lean blonde smiled at her, reaching across the bar for a loose hug. “How’re things, beauty?”
“Good, good. Everything’s going well.” She turned to Tobin. “Olivia, Tobin. Tobin, Olivia.” She gestured between the two girls.
“Hey, Tobin, nice to meet you,” Olivia reached out to shake the brunette’s hand firmly. “Take good care of this one, okay? She’s one-in-a-million.” Tobin and Christen blushed when Olivia threw a wink their way.
“Oh, stop, Liv. Tob’s a friend from soccer,” Christen corrected her, waving off her embarrassment.
“Ah,” Olivia eyed the two. “Well, still. Chris is a one-in-a-million friend, too.” She smiled tenderly at Christen and received a gentle look in return. “So, what can I get you two ladies?”
Tobin spoke first. “A Blue Moon, Brooklyn lager and shot of Jameson, and…” she turned to Christen expectantly.
“Oh, um, a Modelo and shot of Cuervo.”
“Look at you, in the Mexican spirit,” Tobin teased her, pulling out a few bills as Olivia walked off to fill their orders.
Christen smiled and jerked her head to the outdoor kitchen. “I might keep with the theme and get some nachos, too.”
Tobin laughed. “Drinks on me, nachos on you.”
Christen nodded definitively. “That’s an agreement I can get behind one hundred percent.” The two smiled at each other until Olivia returned with their beers, then placed three shot glasses in front of them.
“Alright ladies,” she said, filling each with a different liquor. “Time for shots!”
Each gripped their glass and clinked, tossing back their respectively shots and grimacing. Tobin and Christen reached for their beers, desperate for a chaser. Olivia laughed and surveyed the girls.
“You guys are a good pair. Find me later, okay?” She inclined her head toward Christen.
“Of course. You’re my go-to bartender.” Christen smiled at the blonde before she headed to the other side of the bar to help another patron.
The girls grabbed their beers and headed toward the table, only to find it occupied by four new girls.
“Damn,” Christen muttered at the same time Tobin laughed. “Should’ve seen that coming.”
They scanned the patio and Tobin nudged Christen, jerking her head toward a few open spots on the rock wall near the door leading inside.
“Wanna sit for a minute?”
Christen shrugged. “Sure. Unlike Kelley, I really do need some liquid courage before dancing.”
Tobin’s head fell back as she laughed out loud. “Yeah, Kelley’s a special breed, that’s for sure.”
The two girls sat on the wall and sipped their beers, taking in the dense crowd on the patio.
“This is a really good turnout,” Tobin offered.
“Right? Especially in this cold,” Christen added.
Tobin turned to the dark haired girl next to her. “Chris, it’s, like, 40 degrees.” She had an amused glint in her eyes as she took in Christen’s affronted look.
“I’m a Southern California girl!” Was her only defense. Hand on her chest, Christen shook her head slowly.
“I didn’t own a thick coat until this winter.” Tobin laughed, and Christen felt her stomach flip again. “It’s true!” Christen further defended herself. “I wasn’t ever prepared for this. I was privileged by the California sun and sand.”
Tobin laughed harder the more Christen tried to explain herself. She sucked in a breath to steady herself and looked Christen in the eye. “You’ve convinced me that you’re only a wimp because of your upbringing, not by choice. That’s all I’ll concede though,” she finished with a smirk.
Christen lightly poked Tobin’s side. “That’s all I ask.”
The two sipped their half-drank beers in silence, watching the interactions of all the women around them.
When Tobin finished her glass, she looked around the crowd once more before turning to Chris. “Let’s find Allie and get her this beer.”
Christen nodded. “She probably got roped into whatever dance-off Kelley and Emily started inside.”
So the two stood and Christen deposited the empty pints on a nearby table while Tobin led the way inside. She stopped to pull the door open for Christen, gesturing for her to step into the dark, heated room first. Christen smiled over her shoulder and scanned the room for her friends.
After skimming the top of the crowd, she saw Sue standing nearly a head taller than everyone around her, so Christen grabbed blindly for Tobin to lead her to—of course—the middle of the dance floor. Tobin linked her pointer finger with Christen’s pinky and the raven haired girl shivered at the slightly intimate contact. She guided them to a small circle that had formed around Kelley and Emily, who were exaggeratedly pacing around the perimeter of the crowd, eyes locked on one another.
“Oh, God,” Christen groaned. “They’ve drawn a crowd. There’s no stopping them now.”
Tobin chuckled and hung back, twisting around to survey the crowd. The two bobbed their heads to the beat and gently swayed back and forth, but Christen was very aware of the six inches of space between them, careful not to brush up against the brunette. The song wound down and another quick beat picked up before Allie spotted them.
“Toby! Chris! Get in here!” She reached through the layers of people and pulled Tobin to the innermost group, Tobin dragging Christen with her.
“Ah, my beer is still in tact.” She winked at Tobin and blew her a kiss, which received two eye rolls.
“Chris!” Kelley came up to her friend, tugging at Christen. “Dance!”
She twisted Christen around and placed her hands on her hips, swaying with her lightly and humming along to the bass pumping through the speakers. Christen rolled her eyes again but did intend to dance with Kelley tonight—and she was three beers and a shot deep—so she spun around and threw her hands in the air, sashaying the short distance across the circle to Emily. The three girls traded off the spotlight while the crowd around them dispersed, partnering and grouping off to dance with each other.
Soon it was just the nine girls dancing in a circle, and Christen felt her inhibitions shimmy away with each carefree laugh she let out. This was her favorite thing about being out with her group of exuberant friends: their lightheartedness seeped into those around them and Christen was basking in it. She loved letting go, and dancing with her eyes closed, friends around her, was the easiest way to get out of her own head.
For most of the night, Christen spun in circles and danced against Emily, twirled Kelley and shout-sang along to each song they knew, danced with Ali and got dipped by Pinoe, and just let herself go. When she looked up from where Pinoe had her parallel to the floor, she saw Tobin smiling at her. Just as quickly, though, the girl looked down and continued dancing next to Allie, shuffling her feet and moving her arms in slow motion. Her dancing reminded Christen slightly of when her dad or uncles tried to dance after a few beers—goofy, but enjoying themselves without an air of self-consciousness. The more Christen watched her, the more she saw that Tobin was actually keeping on beat with each step and moving smoothly, even though she kept within a small space. She was actually a pretty good, confident dancer.
Tobin glanced back up and locked eyes with Christen, and the younger girl swallowed a lump in her throat as she took a step toward her. Tobin mirrored her step wearing a half-smile, and the girls gravitated to each other that way, step by step, feeding off of each other’s boldness until they were just a foot apart. Their eyes still locked, Christen began to sway to the left and Tobin dipped her shoulder to her right, keeping them face-to-face. They moved together, reflecting each others sways and steps, keeping beat with the rhythm of the bass.
Every few moments they locked eyes, and Christen willed herself not to melt at the sight of Tobin’s warm irises and easygoing smile. She tried to break the tension she felt by animatedly singing along with the song, or by reaching out her arm to spin Tobin around, causing the older girl to giggle. Christen thought dancing with Tobin could be as easy as dancing with the rest of her friends, as long as she ignored the pounding in her chest every time the girl looked at her... or smiled, or laughed, or existed so perfectly.
Slowly, the group disbanded, first with Ali and Ashlyn sending air kisses, then with Pinoe and Sue bidding their goodbyes. Kelley and Emily gauged the remainder of the group's feelings on popping into a nearby all-night diner, but Christen knew she couldn’t be out much longer and expect to function at work tomorrow.
“Sorry, babes, I’ve got to head home.” She tried to hide a smug smile when she saw Tobin and Kelley’s faces fall slightly.
“But hey, maybe Saturday? After the game?” Kelley smiled at that and smacked Christen with a kiss on the cheek.
“Deal. Get home safe so we can torture you all night Saturday.”
“Going out with you is not torture,” Christen pointed out while looking up at the cloudless night sky. “Some of aren’t balls of energy and require a full night’s sleep. So you guys have fun while I go cuddle in bed, okay?”
“Booooooooooo,” Emily chanted, joining in with Kelley’s laughter after she stopped her taunting to take a breath.
Christen turned to Tobin and Allie. “You two keep these goons in check, okay? I want them in one piece next time I see them.”
“That’s a tall order,” Allie warned Christen as Kelley and Emily pouted behind her in protest. Tobin let out a short burst of laughter, but settled down to address the raven-haired girl.
“Chris, go home. We’ll see you this weekend.” Tobin smiled softly at Christen and reached out to spin her so her back was facing the four of them. She gave her a light poke in the back. “Get home safe.”
And with one last turn, Christen was walking backward, saluting the group. “Aye, aye, Captain.”
Then she spun on her heel and made her way to her car, thinking about Tobin the whole way.
Chapter 4: Make Friends with the Birds, Beautiful
Christen opened her bedroom door Saturday morning, greeted only by the hum of the air conditioning unit in the window. She stepped out into the hallway and peeked into the living room, surprised that it was empty.
Ty’s normally up by now.
Although Christen considered herself a morning person, her sister normally had her beat by an hour or two. Christen had grown accustomed to waking up to a half-finished pot of coffee and clean mug on the counter, a good morning gesture often left by Tyler before she went about her morning routine of answering emails and tidying the apartment. She normally woke to her sister whistling or the low timber of talk radio, but today the apartment was eerily quiet. The dogs were lounging lazily in streaks of sunlight coming through the open curtains, so Christen bent down to nuzzle each, petting them affectionately behind the ears and across their bellies.
“Hi girls. Where’s Mama?” She glanced over to their food bowls, seeing traces of crumbs and half-drank water bowls next to them. Tyler must have fed them before leaving for her Saturday errands. Christen stood and stretched, letting out a high squeal then a long sigh, and grabbed the two leashes from the hook by the door. The dogs leapt at the sound of the silver clasps knocking against each other and wagged their tails in expectation.
“Yes, we’re gonna walk. Yes we are! Yes we are! ” She bent down to clip each dog, grabbed two plastic bags, her keys, and some cash, and led the dogs down the steps of the apartment building. Might as well get fresh coffee and some sunshine.
She set out for her favorite park a few blocks from the apartment, stopping in at her favorite bodega on the way. The owner, Sal, greeted her with a wide smile.
“Gorgeous!” He threw his hands up. “You brought the pups!”
Christen laughed lowly and leaned over the counter, kissing each of his cheeks. “Hi, Sal. We’re heading to the park. But first,” she gestured over his shoulder, “Need some coffee.”
Sal bobbed his head knowingly. “Yes, yes. Fuel first. Park next.” He reached below the counter into a box, rattling around before coming up with two small Milkbones. “Mo-Mo. Leesi.” He waved the bones at the dogs. “Look what I’ve got for you!”
The dogs turned to the counter at their names and Christen swore she saw their eyes widen and mouths break into smiles. They sat eagerly, tails swishing back and forth on the ground, waiting for Sal to toss the treats.
“Sal,” Christen chastised. “You spoil them.”
“Hey, happy dogs make happy people. Happy people buy my coffee.” He winked at Christen and traded her the two bones for Christen’s dollar and fifty cents, then poured her a coffee. “Take a muffin for the park. Make friends with the birds, beautiful.”
Christen laughed and grabbed a cinnamon swirl muffin, thanking him on her walk out. “See you later, Sal!”
She planned on taking a leisurely stroll to the park, listening to the chirping birds and sounds of families chattering on their way to the farmer’s market or playground, but she should’ve known better. The dogs caught sight of the expanse of green from a block away and took off, tugging Christen along with them. She loved Tyler, and she loved her dogs, but her sister hadn’t trained them particularly well.
“Morena! Kahleesi! Heel!” She tugged back on the leashes with little result, ultimately walking at a breakneck speed with her arm outstretched, all her strength directed at keeping the dogs near her. At the gated entrance to the park, the dogs wiggled happily, ready to run off-leash at the unsuspecting birds and squirrels littering the lawn, nearly empty at the early morning hour. Christen simultaneously opened the gate with one coffee and muffin laden hand while unclipping the dogs with the other, allowing them to push through the gate and run freely. She wandered over to a bench and sat, watching the dogs as she sipped her coffee and popped bits of muffin into her mouth.
She looked to her right and couldn’t stop a broad grin from spreading across her face.
“Hey, you. What are you doing out here?”
Tobin gestured aimlessly around her, then swept her hands up and down her body. “Morning run.”
Christen eyed her skeptically. “You live in Brooklyn.”
Tobin nodded, smiling. “I do.”
“We’re on the Upper West Side.”
Christen looked at her expectantly. Tobin smiled back.
“Yeah. So that’s like… a ten mile run.” Christen prodded.
“I like to run.” Tobin said with a shrug. “I like this park.” She motioned to the empty seat next Christen, accepting the dark-haired girl’s nod as a silent invitation to sit.
Christen looked around the park, taking in the acres of green fields, outskirts laced with trees, running trails, and the Hudson river just beyond. “Yeah, yeah this park is worth the ten miles.” Where else would you get a real breath of calm in this city?
“Definitely. Everyone needs some trees and grass and river view every once in awhile, you know?” Tobin gazed ahead, nodding along with herself.
Christen hummed in agreement. “I really love this part of the city. So many people think of Central Park as the only place to get some nature, but I really like this little strip of the West Side. It feels more like a local secret, you know? Everyone’s here to take a deep breath and just… be.”
“You don’t get that feeling in Central Park?”
Christen thought for a moment. “I don’t know… It’s like, since everyone knows where it is and it’s this big place to visit and experience , it’s always so full. I’m sure there are small pockets there that can feel more personal but…” Christen spread her arms wide and stuck her legs straight out. “When I first found this park, it was pretty empty. It was just… like… grass and trees and benches. Just local kids and families and couples walking their dogs. It felt like my own piece of the city.”
Tobin laughed. “Ah, yes, trees and dogs. Key selling points for every good park.”
Christen giggled and swatted Tobin’s knee. She felt her stomach explode with butterflies at the contact and pulled her hand back to rest safely in her lap. “Oh hush, you know what I mean.”
And Tobin, after another short, quiet laugh, turned ahead and sighed fondly. “Yeah, I do. I feel that way about a park near my place. The first time I passed by it on a run I thought ‘Huh, I should check this place out.’ And I stopped my run and walked in and immediately it just…” Tobin turned and suddenly Christen saw how the sun caused her eyes to sparkle. She was transfixed. “It felt like my place. And in a city with millions of people and thousands of places, that’s a nice feeling.”
Tobin smiled widely, happily and unselfconsciously, hers eyes crinkling at the corners. Christen hadn’t realized she herself was wearing a matching smile until her cheeks began to hurt, causing her to look over Tobin’s shoulder to compose herself again. She spied a couple jogging side by side, one of the men pushing a baby buggy while the other held tightly to a dog’s leash. She remembered then that Tobin had run across the entire city and it was barely after breakfast.
“So what, a light ten mile warm-up to the best park in the city, then a ten mile cool down home?” She teased.
“Nah,” Tobin shook her head. “I’ll take the train home.”
“Tobin! That’s like an hour long ride back.”
The brunette just shrugged. “It’s worth it.” She gestured to the view in front of them. “Plus, it’s actually a pretty relaxing ride with the right music.”
“Huh,” was all Christen managed. Then, “So what’s the ‘right music’?”
“Ah,” Tobin broke into a wide smile. “Prepare for some education.” She pulled her phone out of the armband strapped around her ( very defined, Christen noticed) bicep, and leaned into Christen, scrolling through her music library. She showed Christen her different playlists, aptly titled “Running,” “Weights,” “Commute,” and “Chill,” but one playlist caught Christen’s eye.
“What’s this one?” She tapped the “Feels” playlist, already guessing its purpose. The red tint that sprouted across Tobin’s cheeks all but confirmed her suspicions, but Tobin’s voice didn’t waver.
“Ah, yes, my best one,” she adopted a tone of nonchalance. “That one’s for seducing the ladies.” She arched her eyebrows and waited for Christen’s response.
Christen, in turn, took her time scrolling through the list of songs. “You’ve got a good selection here," she offered noncommittally, trying her damndest to seem unaffected by looking at the playlist Tobin had sex to. “Though I’d make a few adjustments.”
Tobin guffawed. “Adjustments? I’ll have you know, this playlist gets rave reviews.”
Christen poked her tongue into her cheek, then licked her bottom lip slowly while locking eyes with the girl next to her. “Huh.” Her eyes softened from challenging to playful. “All I know is if the sex is good enough, the background music is the last thing I’d compliment.”
Tobin’s eyes popped wide. She opened her mouth to respond but nothing came out as she tilted her head, regarding Christen’s expression.
“Thanks for the tip.”
The two girls held eye contact a moment longer before Christen looked away and sipped her coffee. She spotted Morena and Kahleesi fifty yards away trotting through the grass. She figured it was time to go, not wanting to charge the air with any more sexual tension with Tobin, who has a girl, Christen reminded herself. Another girl she has sex with. Not you. That was reason enough to break the tension and call for the dogs.
“Morena! Kahleesi! Come here, girls! Come here!” She called out to them. The dogs galloped over, slowing as they neared the two girls.
Tobin’s eyes lit up as she stuck out her hand. “These guys are yours?” She asked unbelievingly. “They’re gorgeous.”
“Yeah, their my sweet girls.” Christen looked over to Tobin. “Well, not mine. My sister and her boyfriend’s. But I get to love on them all the time.”
“Wow, lucky girls.” Tobin looked up from where she had one arm wrapped around Morena, semi-hugging the happy pup.
Christen blushed and reached for the leashes next to her. “I’m the lucky one.” Tobin chuckled and leaned back into the bench, giving Christen space to bend down and reach the dogs.
“Time to go?” She hadn’t stopped looking at Christen, even after the green-eyed girl had dropped her gaze.
“Yeah. They need breakfast,” Christen lied. She bent down to clip the dogs to their leashes, then turned to Tobin. “See you at soccer tonight?” She hoped for a yes.
Tobin smiled. “I’ll be there.”
“Awesome,” Christen smiled, relieved. “See you later.”
“Bye Chris. Bye, pups,” Tobin called out once they were a few paces away. Christen looked back over shoulder, sending a small smile and a quick wave her way. She took one last lingering glance over the girl, who was leaning back with her face tilted up to the sun and eyes closed, arms draped across the bench, comfortable and peaceful as ever.
The conversation with Tobin still rattled Christen three hours later. She walked to the grocery store and thought about the fact that Tobin had her own park, too. She changed her sheets and thought about Tobin leaning into her to show her her playlists. She scrubbed the shower clean and thought about Tobin blushing. She folded her laundry and remembered how peaceful and unaffected Tobin seemed as Christen left the park.
Some girls are just really comfortable around everyone. Or maybe she’s a flirty person? Kelley flirts with the goddamn bus driver--she hit on a cop that one time outside Stonewall! Tobin’s probably the same way. She’s being friendly. She’s new. She needs friends. Don’t make her feel weird. Even if you think she’s cute. Don’t be weird.
Christen nodded. She could be not weird. She could be totally normal around pretty girls. She could totally keep her cool around confident, pretty girls. She could totally act like herself around confident, pretty girls with big smiles.
Or she could just ignore her.
That would probably work best.
Christen sat on the bleacher tying her laces while a few girls milled around stretching and swapping Friday night stories. Kelley was wrapping up the events from her and Christen’s night at one of Christen’s favorite game bars up near Columbia, where she and Kelley regularly sharpened their game board skills (Christen) and people skills (Kelley). Kelley was just delivering a hilarious tale of two wannabe-Wall Street frat guys trying to woo them with drinks, a story Christen experienced as far more exasperating than funny, but she still chuckled at Kelley’s version of it.
Christen hopped up to join in on the passing and movement with her team when she heard laughter coming from around the corner. She turned around and locked eyes first with Allie, sending a big smile her way. When she glanced to the left she caught Tobin mid laugh and Christen had to catch the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Ignore ignore ignore ignore ignore ignore ignore ignore. Ignore the pretty girl.
Was Christen acting like a middle schooler with a crush? Well... yeah. But in her defense, she basically had the same experience with girls as a 14-year-old. The reaction was nothing if not expected.
But then Tobin beamed at Christen, accompanied with a little wave, and Christen couldn’t stop the smile she sent back. More girls arrived as the clock approached game time and finally everyone trickled off the field and congregated around the bleachers. Becky passed out pinnies and sent two teams back on the turf, Christen taking her seat with Emily, Rose, Becky, Allie, and Ashlyn. She tried to take in the whole game, each pass, and cheer when her friends made good shots and great saves, but she had a hard time cheering for Tobin. There was something about cheering for her that Christen felt would give away her infatuation, and she was determined to hold onto that secret until the feelings settled and she could properly kick them aside. Only then would she feel like she could actually treat Tobin like… well, just another teammate.
Christen managed pretty well, in her opinion, to toe the line between cheering for her teammates and cheering for Tobin like a teammate. What helped the most was being sucked into sideline conversations and, when her team did match up with Tobin's, playing on the opposite side of the field from her. When the final game wrapped, she exhaled deeply, then breathed in as slowly and deeply as she could, feeling her lungs expand and ribs rise as air filled them. When she exhaled again, she dropped slowly to the turf and reached for her toes, stretching languidly and bringing her body down from the quick pace of the short games.
“Chris, you’re really good,” she heard over her shoulder. Her eyes locked with Tobin as the she slowly took a seat by her side. The lanky girl kicked out a leg and grasped her foot, leaning to the side for a deep hamstring stretch. The movement brought her closer to Christen than Chris thinks they've ever been and she can smell the sweat and bodywash and shampoo seeping off of her.
She smells so good. She smells strong. Is that even a smell? She smells it, even if it isn’t a real smell. If other people smelled Tobin, they’d smell ‘strong.’”
Christen was lightheaded and her breathing had become shallow, but attributed to an entirely different reason now.
“Thanks, Tobin,” Christen smiled at her words. “You are too. Your footwork is out of this world.”
Tobin laughed heartily. “I wanted to be Ronaldinho when I grew up but my mom wouldn’t let me kick the ball around in the house. Who knows where I’d be now if she did?” She threw a wink Christen’s way and Christen laughed, switching stretches so she could face the brunette easier.
“So how was the park? Did you stay for a while longer?” Christen asked. Easy, neutral territory. It’s easy to be cool and collected when talking about a park.
Tobin shifted to stretch her other leg. “It was good, yeah. Productive. I updated one of my playlists.” Christen froze momentarily but continued back with her stretch. She swore she caught a smirk pull at Tobin’s lips.
“Yup,” Tobin popped the “p” and leaned back onto her hands, not even feigning a stretch anymore. “I’ll be sure to send it to you for your approval before I need it next.” The wink that accompanied her statement sent Christen’s head jerking up and she turned to regard Tobin. By then, though, Tobin was laughing and standing up, patting Christen’s shoulder as she made her way off the pitch. Christen’s head fell forward as she gathered her wits, then moved into downward dog, shaking her head slowly, clenching her eyes tight.
I should have ignored her.
Chapter 5: Who Do You Wanna Take Home with You Tonight?
Christen found herself standing next to Kelley, the anchor of her 5 woman team, cup lifted and matched up with Ali across from her. Her side was down 1-3 and while the truths and dares had remained tame, the atmosphere of the bar’s back room was clearly becoming more sexually tense with each round. What the teams built up to was always, on the surface, harmless, but history had shown a dare or a few truths could really sparked something between players. Christen could name a time almost every teammate had caught herself in a limbo flirtation as a result of a particularly risky confessional at the end of a flip cup round.
Herself excluded, of course. Christen had set those boundaries after her first night with the team.
When the cups were filled and ready for the next round, Kelley turned to the end of the table and tried to rouse up some competitive fire in her teammates. “Let’s go, Al! First flip, first flip! You got this!”
Becky, the appointed ref, counted down, each girl leaving their cups untouched on the table. The captain had a strict “no hands on the cup before your turn rule,” one that often cost a player a game or two once the teams were rounds deep and full of beer.
“Three, two, one!” Allie and Tobin grabbed their cups, tapped them on the table, then against each other’s, then the table again before chugging and places the empty cups on the edge to flip over. Both sides of the tables, plus the teammates who’d opted to watch in amusement, cheered on their respective sides.
“Yes, Al! That’s it! You da man!” Kelley clapped loudly when Allie’s cup face down on her first flip. The freckled girl focused next on the girl after her. “Yes, HAO! Soul sister! This is YOUR game! You got it! It’s all you, baby!” HAO’s cup landed solidly and the attention turned to Mal. “Baby Mal! Welcome to 21! Do it, do it! You got this!” When her cup landed on it’s side, Christen joined in on the cheering.
“You got it, Mal! Again, again, you got it!” She anxiously checked the other side and saw that Rose was also struggling to land her cup. She instructed Mal to take a deep breath. “You got this little lady.”
“Go, go, go, Mal! It’s on you Mal! Come through!” Kelley was almost screaming and Mal made a high pitched squeak.
“AHHHHHHHHHH YOU FRICKEN CUP, LAND BUDDY, LAND!” And it did, two flips later, prompting Christen to pick up her cup, chug, and set it precisely halfway off the table. With a quick curl of her finger she had the cup upside down and it was Kelley’s turn.
Kelley, buzzing with excitement, had her cup emptied and flipped in two seconds and the table let out simultaneous cheers and groans at the result. Kelley motioned to her teammates to circle up. “Huddle up, huddle up!”
They all bent their heads in. “Okay, who we pickin’?” HAO licked her bottom lip and raised her eyebrows at Kelley, gauging how risky their resident truth-or-dare task maker was about to get. There was a glint in Kelley’s eye as she picked up her head to scan the girls on the other side of the table.
“Hmmmmmm.” She looked back to the group mischievously. “We haven’t initiated Tobs yet, have we?”
“Yes! Harry time.” Allie rubbed her hands together conspiratorially. “She’ll probably pick truth. Think up something good.” She winked animatedly.
Allie was unaware that the team had a designated “initiation” truth and dare that had been used on every new player, a tradition Kelley shared had been around since she’d joined the league three years ago and figured went back even further than that. Christen was not looking forward to Tobin’s initiation truth answer.
“Okay!” Kelley popped her head up to command the room’s attention. The circle of girls around her disbanded and everyone’s eyes settled on Tobin.
“Oh, no ,” Tobin groaned good naturedly, rolling her head back, but there was a small smile on her lips.
“Oh, yes, Harry!” Allie cried.
Kelley nodded and placed her hands on the table to lean across toward the brunette. “Tobs, truth or dare?”
As predicted, Tobin sighed. “Truth.”
Christen’s heart rate picked up.
“Tobin, look around the room,” Kelley suggested. Her subject eyed her warily but slowly looked around at her teammates before settling back on Kelley.
Kelley smiled serenely. “Of all your teammates in this room,” she gestured around them, “who do you wanna take home with you tonight?”
Christen held her breath as Tobin laughed. “Seriously?”
Tobin sucked in a deep breath. Christen did, too.
“Well, Allie, obviously.”
Oh. Of course. She’s got an easy out.
“Tobin, your roommate doesn’t count!”
Tobin laughed. “It’s my honest answer!”
Ashlyn clapped Kelley on the shoulder and shook her head, smirking. “What did you expect, Kel? She’s a taken woman.”
Tobin scoffed. “I’m not taken!” She held her hand out to Ashlyn and Kelley, who were about to protest. “No, I’m not. Shirley isn’t my girlfriend. She’s a friend, and she’s been a really good one to me, but she’s just my friend.”
Kelley’s face turned incredulous. “Right, a very good friend.” Ashlyn and Allie snickered, but Christen, for some reason, felt herself blush. She turned quickly away from the trio but made the mistake of catching Tobin’s eye.
“Guys,” Tobin spoke slowly, tearing her eyes from Christen’s to address the cackling girls. “Shirley is first and foremost my friend. Sometimes we hook up. But we’re always friends as the end of the day. It’s like… practice… like we’re placeholders?” Tobin grimaced, clearly regretting her word choice.
“That came out shitty but it’s not like that. It’s just, I don’t know, two friends helping each other out.”
“So you’re friends with benefits?”
Bless you, Ali, thought Christen. Trying to help us out here.
“Uh. Uh, no, not really.” Tobin, uncomfortable, scratched the back of her neck and Christen caught a glimpse of her hip bones. Who’s tan in February?
“We’re just friends. It’s just… we’ve always been friends. We’ve gone through a lot together. Kind of grew up together in school and she’s just there to…” Tobin blushed and stuttered for a second before taking a deep breath. “I don’t know, help me out.” She looked around the room and was met with clear confusion.
“Does that make sense?”
“No.” The room chorused.
“Yeah,” Christen said at the same time. Seventeen heads whipped towards her. Christen blushed deeper--she swore she felt her chest heat up and worried she’d sport that splotchy, embarrassed look the rest of the night.
Ashlyn nudged Allie and cried out, “Christen!”
Christen swallowed slowly and tried to brush off the eyes on her. She rolled her shoulders back and faked nonchalance. “I’m just saying…” she locked eyes with Tobin. “I get it. I’ve been there.”
“ Christen!” Ali squealed. “What?! When! With who?” But Christen just shook her head.
“Nope, this was Tobin’s truth. I’m not saying any more.” And she winked toward Tobin who smiled at her, eyes shining with mirth and… appreciation? Christen wasn’t sure. “Next round!” She called out, returning to her spot at the table.
“No!” Pinoe and Ashlyn whined, but Becky was already lifting the pitcher, splashing Bud Light into each upright cup. Attention was called back to the table as the girls all lifted their cups, matching up again. Becky counted down and both sides were off. The round had finished almost as soon as it had started, Christen groaning in frustration as Emily triumphantly threw her hands in the air.
“PRESS! WE’RE COMIN FOR YA!” Christen’s eyes widened in shock at the exclamation when she heard snickers to her left. HAO and Allie bumped fists while Kelley ruffled Mal’s hair, and Christen’s eyes narrowed. She pointed to her teammates.
“You snakes!” she called them out with an exasperated smile. “Damn, I should have known. Should’ve taken all 5 turns myself.”
The whole team was crowded around the table now in anticipation of the next truth or dare, the target and ensuing contents obvious.
The other side didn’t even attempt to circle up.
“Christen,” drawled Pinoe. “Truth or dare?”
Christen surveyed the room. Tobin, to her credit, was the only one who didn’t seem to be bouncing on her toes in anticipation. If she didn’t know any better, Christen would say the brunette looked guilty .
She smirked at Pinoe. “Dare.”
Ashlyn scoffed. “Fine, Press,” Pinoe played along. “We dare you to tell us all about the friend you practice with.”
I knew it wouldn’t be that easy , Christen chastised herself, but took a deep breath. She didn’t mind talking about it, but she did mind being judged for it.
“Okay. I’d ask you guys not to judge, but considering Emily’s tongue is practically hanging out--” she gestured to the blond who quickly shut her mouth, but kept her eyes on Christen-- “the story isn’t nearly as interesting as you’ve built it up to be.”
“Oh stop,” Lindsey simply swatted at Emily. “Sonny’s just thirsty for any action.”
Christen laughed shortly and heard Kelley gasp before she could quickly recover and join in on the group’s teasing. Christen eyed her best friend and caught the blush creeping up her neck, covering freckles on the way to spread across her cheeks.
Before Christen could risk her own embarrassment to save Kelley, two servers appeared in the archway with plates of food. Becky caught sight of them and grinned.
“Ladies! Food!” All heads whipped around as half the girls settled in at tables while the others distributed the plates of nachos and wings. Kelley caught Christen’s eye and winked, then mimed brushing dirt off her shoulder. Christen giggled and dramatically swiped her hand across her forehead, shrugging and smiling back.
The table was littered with near empty plates and crumpled napkins, the girls leaning back to rest after gorging themselves on the food. Ali was topping off everyone’s beers from the communal pitcher when Kelley piped up, “So there’s a warm front coming through this week.” She swallowed her mouthful of food while eyes settled on her. “Let’s go camp.”
There were murmurs of agreement around the table until Tobin interjected grudgingly.
“I’m outta town all next week.”
“Aw, Tobs, you gotta see the Poconos, though.” Kelley pouted, to which Tobin just chuckled.
“I’ll see them next time. And even though Christen has painted me a pretty great picture of Bear Mountain--” She winked in Christen’s direction, to which the forward playfully rolled her eyes then batted her lashes while Tobin continued, “--it’s a work trip. Can’t bail.”
“Ugh, I wanna job that pays me to go on work trips,” Emily grumbled into her pint.
Ashlyn patted her head. “Where ya, goin’, Tobs?”
Tobin smiled, almost wickedly, at the short haired blond. “Chapel Hill. Covering the UNC/Duke game.”
“Oh, man! Take me with you. I miss the Hill. I can’t remember the last time I was back there.” Ashlyn looked up to the ceiling and smiled wistfully. “Come back with some stories. I want to feel aaaaallllll the FOMO. Maybe it’ll give me the kick to finally visit this fall.”
Lindsey wiggled her fingers at Tobin and raised her eyebrows. “Chapel Hill, huh? Gonna go see you friend and get some more practice? ”
The table burst into laughter while Tobin’s jaw dropped, eyes pleading with Allie for some help. But her friend, intent to join in on the teasing, ignored her. “Well, duh, Emily. Why do you think she begged for the assignment?” She stuck out her tongue and waggled her eyebrows at the table.
Christen did not like this turn in conversation.
Kelley was intrigued, though, and pushed Tobin to share more. “Shirley will be there?”
Tobin paused for a minute and glanced at Christen, but the raven-haired girl had gone quiet and was studying her beer, oblivious to the conversational lull.
She’s a friend. You don’t have sex with friends anymore. Even if Tobin has sex with friends and makes it work. She wouldn’t just be a placeholder, and you know it. Please don’t do that to yourself.
Christen made a soft “hmph” and nodded curtly, like she’d made up her mind on something that she’d been wrestling with. She looked up to catch Tobin staring before settling her gaze on Kelley to answer.
“Yeah, she works in the athletics office. We’ve got plans to meet up and do some behind-the-scenes stuff.”
“Ooooooh, I’d love to be a fly on the wall during that ,” Emily taunted.
Lindsey tsked. “Em, that would not be sexy. I don’t think you really want to see Tobin naked.”
Tobin, exasperated, responded disapprovingly at the two friends while Allie simultaneously tried to come to her best friend’s defense.
“Oh my God, stop it--” “Harry looks good naked!”
Tobin, shocked, looked at her friend as if scandalized. “Allie!”
“It’s been a few years, but yeah, you do,” Kelley nodded. “Or you did.”
Ashlyn nodded too. “Can you still see your abs?”
“Oh my God .” Tobin repeated, lightly shoving Allie’s shoulder. “What have you started?”
“So,” Emily clapped her hands together. “It’s agreed then. We all want to see Tobin naked.”
“Just to experience it Linds. You know, like a fine piece of art.” Kelley and Pinoe’s laughter was just egging Emily on. Ali shot Christen and Lindsey sympathetic looks and draped her arm over Kelley.
“Okay, Kelley, so since Tobin is busy this weekend--”
“ Very busy-- ”
Ali shot Emily a scalding look. “Why don’t we pick another weekend. How long’s it gonna be warm?”
Kelley shrugged and pulled out her phone. “I don’t know, my weather app only goes til the Tuesday after next weekend.”
Ashlyn sat up straighter and sighed. “Well I think we can handle some cold weather. Just pack layers. And we don’t even have to camp in tents! We can rent a couple rooms at the lodge and do, like, a long weekend, snow or shine.”
“Snow hiking could be fun,” Christen offered. Hiking with Tobin, my friend, actually there would be fun, too.
“Yeah?” Kelley looked around the table to find the girls in nodding in unanimous agreement.
“Okay, two weeks from now, we camp. Pack your long johns and wool socks, ladies.”