Over the years, our friendship has been forged through fire as well as through happiness. He was there for me when my father died in a car accident. A drunk driver plowed into my father’s car at three in the afternoon. The driver had eight previous DWIs, but hadn’t spent any real time in jail. Killing Dad netted him a year behind bars. A year! He took away a man’s life, and he got a year. It was disgraceful. I was a sophomore at Berkeley and almost went insane. I had been Daddy’s girl since I was born, and his death hit me hard. If it hadn’t for Paris, I would have been in horrible shape. He was the one who held my hair—it was waist-length then—while I puked night after night of heavy drinking. He would go to the parties with me, though he rarely drank himself, making sure I didn’t get myself into trouble. He’s the one who kept telling me that it was going to be all right when I felt as if I had no more heart or will to go on. He was the one who stopped me from slashing my wrists at one especially low point that year. My mom adores him.
In return, I was the one who ran interference between him and his mother. She sent him letters every week while we were in college just as she does now, but he wasn’t as inured to them then. Each letter would upset him for days. Unlike me, he didn’t realize he was attracted to both males and females until he was a junior in high school. His mom caught him kissing a boy that year. Ever since, she has been preaching to him, trying to save his soul. After reading each letter, he would rush to our apartment and sit in the dark for hours, not moving from whatever position he was in. Paris became so distraught after one letter—where his mom wrote she’d rather see him cut off his testicles and become a eunuch than for him to fornicate the way he did—he refused to speak for days, even in class. I decided to take matters into my own hands. His mother’s letters arrived on Friday without fail—I wouldn’t put it past her to have calculated when she’d have to send the letter from Memphis to get it there on Friday just so his weekend would be ruined. I intercepted the next one and opened it. I refused to let him see it, then read the innocuous parts to him such as how his mother was doing. That’s how we read the letters until Paris felt strong enough to read them on his own. I was also the one who kept him together after the love of his life died from AIDS, but I don’t like thinking about that.
“What are you thinking so hard about?” Paris asks softly.
“Family,” I reply. “Us.” I take a deep breath before continuing. “Do you ever think how much easier it’d be if we were a couple?” We’ve talked about this before, but it’s a subject we revisit from time to time.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Paris sighs, ruffling my hair. I move so that I am in his arms, rather than lying in his lap. It’s not like we haven’t tried. Paris was my first kiss from a boy. I had been very unpopular in high school, more teased than dated. The only physical contact I had was when a boy snapped my bra then ran away. I messed around with female friends from time to time, but boys left me strictly alone. Paris was popular, but had been gallant enough to take me to our junior prom. When he dropped me off for the night, he kissed me on my front porch. My parents had left the porch light on, but that hadn’t daunted Paris. In some ways, it’s still my most cherished kiss.
Paris was also my first lover. I was still a virgin with guys when I entered Berkeley, and I was very self-conscious about the fact. I had lost my lesbian virginity when I was twelve, but that was another story. I knew that most American girls had lost their virginity much earlier than I. My parents weren’t typical, constricting Taiwanese parents. If anything, they were overly permissive, true to their hippie roots. When I turned sixteen, they offered me my first hit of marijuana. As a result, I very much leave the stuff alone because I can’t stand what it does to me. I smoke it once in a while to relax, but for the most part, I shun it. My parents also gave me my first condom, which I immediately threw away. They even offered to put me on the pill which embarrassed me to no end. So one month into college, I was crying on Paris’s shoulder in our living room because one of my friends talked constantly about her boyfriend and the sex that they were having. Lots of it. Many positions. She delighted in telling me the details because I was such a baby in her eyes for still being a virgin. Looking back, I doubt that half of what she told me was true, but it was still more sex than I was having.
“What’s wrong with me, Paris,” I blubbered, getting snot on his shirt. He was such a good friend, he didn’t even comment on it. He silently handed me the vodka bottle that we were passing back and forth between the two of us. He had stopped drinking long ago, but I was determined to finish the bottle. “Why won’t anyone look at me?” I had known from an early age that I was attracted to both men and women, which theoretically should widen the field. Instead, it just garnered me twice the rejections.
“You try too hard, Rayne,” Paris said gently, wiping the tears from my face. “You push things that aren’t even there.” I knew he was right, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it. I chugged down the vodka, feeling my face turn red as I did. I had the dreaded Asian curse of being allergic to alcohol, but that didn’t stop me from drinking. “You need to relax and let people see how wonderful you are.” His face was inches away from mine. Without thinking, I reached up and kissed him. Caught by surprise, he kissed me back. I had drank a fair amount, but I wasn’t blaming anything on the alcohol. I knew what I was doing after that initial kiss, and I didn’t stop it. Hell, I started it. After we broke off the kiss, I set the bottle aside and moved closer to Paris.
“What are you doing, Rayne?” Paris asked, his breathing ragged. He remained where he was, however, which I took as a good sign.
“Seducing you,” I murmured, caressing his cheek. His skin was so soft, like mine. I liked to joke that he was part Asian with that skin of his. “Trying to, anyway. Is it working?” I leaned forward and nibbled on his earlobe.
“Rayne…” Paris trailed off, unsure of what he was about to say. I moved my hand between his legs. He was hard. “God, Rayne. I don’t know about this. You’re my best friend.”
“That’s why it’s perfect,” I whispered in his ear before biting it. “I know you won’t hurt me.” Paris stood up suddenly, pulling me to my feet. He swept me up in his arms and carried me into his bedroom.
“You have to be sure about this,” Paris said, setting me on his bed. He had the walls decorated with different portraits of jazz musicians, which he did himself. He had some talent; his art teachers had told him so. “I am not going to lose your friendship over something silly like this.”
“I’m sure.” I reached up to him and pulled him to me. I loved the feel of his body on top of me. Heavy, comforting, safe. “Do you have….?” I blushed and realized that I was having trouble saying the word ‘condom’. That did not bode well for the encounter. Paris reached over and pulled open his desk drawer. He pulled out a condom packet and set it on my stomach.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Paris smiled impishly, looking like my best friend again instead of a stranger. “She who cannot say ‘condom’ perhaps should not be having sex.” That broke the tension between us, and the rest of the night was magical.
“I was right to chose you for my first,” I say now, still thinking about that night long ago. “You were generous, patient, and gentle. What more could a woman want?”
“I’m so glad it didn’t ruin our friendship,” Paris exhales loudly. “I would have been majorly bummed if you hadn’t talk to me after that. Didn’t want you to think I was taking advantage of your drunken state.”
“I took advantage of you,” I contradict, smiling at Paris. “Why do you think I brought out the vodka?” We both laugh. It’s a comfortable laugh.
“It wouldn’t work, you know,” Paris says softly. “Us as a couple, I mean.”
“Why not?” I bolt up, indignant at his certainty. “We’ve been best friends for half our lives, and we’ve been living together on and off for the last ten years. That’s more than most marriages these days!”
“Rayne, I love you dearly as a friend, but you would drive me nuts as a partner and vice-versa. You might not admit it, but it’s true. You’re moody and sulky and depressed much of the time. I’m unfailing chipper and upbeat. You’re open about being queer. I’m more reserved. You’re political. I’m not. You like watching the sunset while I prefer a sunrise.”
“What about the sex? That’s always been great,” I say slyly. I like getting him riled up, and nothing does it like mentioning our trysts.
“Four times!” He says with heat. “Four times over fourteen years. That ain’t no kind of sample.”
“We could make it five.” I wiggle my eyebrow suggestively at him. He laughs heartily as I vamp at him. “What, you don’t like what you see?” I pull down the strap of my tank top, showing him that I am not wearing a bra in case he couldn’t tell.
“Stop it,” Paris says firmly, pulling my strap back up. “You are a little minx, aren’t you?”
“Mrreow,” I purr, pawing at his chest.
“Come on. Time to get ready for the party. We can pick up a burrito on the way.”
“I offer you my body, and you ask for burritos.” I shake my head in mock-disbelief. “What is the world coming to?” Paris shoots me a smile before disappearing into his room. I do the same. I forgot to ask him what kind of shindig it is, so I cross to his room and knock on the door. The one time I forgot to knock, I was treated to the sight of his bare ass as he plunged into the man beneath him. That was the last time I entered Paris’s room without knocking, even though I didn’t mind the view. “Paris!”
“What?” Paris yanks the door open, and he is topless. The gold ring in his right nipple glistens. I do love a person with tats and/or piercings. I have a few of each myself.
“What kind of party is this? Dress-up? Dress-down? Somewhere in between?” I hope it’s not too fancy as I have neither the clothes nor the patience for it.
“Think slinky black dress,” Paris chuckles, looking me up and down. “You can’t go wrong with that.” I sigh and return to my room. Slinky black dress? I have five of them. None of them appeal to me. I decide to wear something other than black as it’s a safe bet that most people will be wearing black. I rummage through my closet and come up with a blue strapless dress that accentuates my breasts, nips in at the waist, and falls to just above the knee. I look ravishing in blue, especially sapphire blue. I slither into the dress, vowing to up my exercise routine. I am no gym rat like Paris, but I try to jog four to five miles a day, plus I do strength-training every other day as well. On those days, I reluctantly hit the gym with Paris. I hate working out, but I love my shape, and I love good food. I cannot eat well and maintain my figure without some torturing of the flesh. Since I’m between paramours, I must be content with other forms of exercise. I remind myself not to breathe as I slip into a pair of Manolo shoes that I found at a secondhand clothing store for only twenty dollars. They are black suede with three-inch heels.
“Girl, you are so working that dress.” Paris snaps his fingers at me as he emerges from his room. I have migrated to the living room to wait for him. Even though I’m the female in the relationship, I usually have to wait ten minutes for him to get ready. Today, it is only five.
“And you, my boy, make me want to stay in rather than go out.” Paris is wearing a tight, shimmery gold top with short sleeves that show off his bulging biceps. He has a tattoo of the man symbol entwined with another man symbol and a woman symbol on his right bicep. He is wearing black leather pants that show off his assets to perfection. His blond hair is slicked back. He is uber-fag tonight, a look he uses sparingly.
“Burritos?” Paris offers me his arm, and we sweep away to his car. Black Honda Accord. Nothing fancy, but serviceable. After grabbing burritos at a taqueria on Mission Street, we head for Maxine’s place. Paris pulls up to a cute little house squooshed between two others. It is salmon-colored. We saunter up to the door and press the bell. After a few minutes, the door is opened.
“Max! So good to see you!” Paris does that air-kissing thing that I so detest. Sometimes, I’m surprised Paris doesn’t move to L.A., he’s so painfully Hollywood.
“Paris, darling!” Maxine clings to Paris’s arm, running her ruby-tipped talons along the hairs of his forearm. “You look good enough to eat,” she purrs, leaning forward as if she’s going to do that very thing. I cannot believe she actually said that; it is such a cliché.
“You are perfection itself,” Paris gushes, holding Max at arm’s length. I look her over as they greet each other. I figure her to be in her fifties, though she is trying hard to pass for thirty. Her hair is dyed a bright auburn that doesn’t compliment her ashy skin. She has so much makeup on, I can’t see her features, but it’s not enough to cover the lines which groove her forehead and bracket her mouth. She is painfully skinny, as is obvious in her little black dress, courtesy Vera Wang, thank you very much. Her collar bone juts out at an awkward angle, and I can see her sternum peeking out above her nonexistent cleavage. I pinch Paris hard on the hand as he seems to have forgotten my existence.
“Introduce me, Paris,” I hiss, pasting a smile on my face. I instinctively don’t like Max, but I don’t want to cause a scene just yet.
“Sorry, Rayne.” Paris squeezes my hand in apology before plucking it from his hand. “Max, this is my best friend in the world, Rayne Liang. We go back forever.”
“Rayne. What a pretty name,” Max says sweetly, extending her hand. I take it reluctantly before dropping it as soon as is politely possible. “It’s not very Chinese, though, is it?”
“That’s ok, neither am I,” I say just as sweetly. Two can play this little game.
“Come meet my girlfriend,” Max counters, not missing a beat. She steps back and ushers us in. “I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” Max smirks at me.
“Not at all,” I reply. “Next time, I’ll bring mine.”
“Girls, please,” Paris says, stepping between us. “Sheathe your claws and let me in this place.” The house is small, but charmingly decorated. Replicas of Matisse and Monet and Manet and Picasso dot the sky-blue walls. They are impressive, but rather random. I have the feeling that Max and her girlfriend chose the painters simply because they’re famous and not for any personal reason. Incense wafts through the air, covering the smell of something I can’t quite decipher. Max leads us to the living room where the hardwood floor is covered with a gorgeous red-and-gold Asian carpet. I lust for it as it’s the only thing with personality in the place. There is an overstuffed brown couch filled with people chatting and eating little crudités. There is another small group of people standing by the fireplace, holding glasses of wine. One of them detaches herself from the group and strides toward us.
She is a striking woman with natural red hair flowing down to her waist. Her eyes are deep green and slightly slanted at the corners. Her pale skin is dotted with freckles. She has a warm smile on her swollen lips. Her pink tongue darts through those lips for a brief moment before disappearing again. Her lush body is barely covered with a green dress that has holes cut out in strategic places. She is in her late twenties or early thirties—a far cry from Max’s age. This woman knows that every eye is on her as she walks toward us, and she has no qualms about grabbing that attention. She basks in it. Her wrists are covered with bangles that make noise as she walks. I notice Max watching with greedy eyes as this woman approaches. The look on Max’s face says, ‘this woman is mine. I have something precious, and you don’t.’ It’s a mixture of lust, ownership, pride, and something else I can’t quite decipher.