by Zoa Coudret
The Airbnb in Dübendorf doesn’t have a hair dryer like it said in the listing. Gabrielle messaged the host but has received no response. There is an excessive amount of incense with a note that says “Help yourself!” She hates the smell. It has already soaked every linen surface and carpet of this place. A mixture of patchouli and Good Friday.
While waiting for her hair to dry, Gabrielle looks out at the city, the tile roofs, the large metal tower hundreds of yards away rising higher than any church spire. She’s not sure what it could be for. It’s industrial, but not in an obviously practical way. It’s heftier than a cell tower, rising awkwardly amid a mismatch of buildings.
At least there are plants leaning against the window, lively and green, like the owner knows how to keep them. There’s a spray bottle on one of the plant shelves along with a note in both German and English that says “Please do not water unless asked. Not all of these kids like a lot of water :)”
Gabrielle sprays some of the plants but not to excess. It’s calming. She likes to consider herself useful, and she knows enough that she tests the moisture of the soil first. The pothos won’t mind a refresher, and the ficus will enjoy an extra spritz, especially in the summer heat.
A commotion outside in the street draws her to the window: a regular, dull smacking sound followed by a yell of censure from an old voice. A little boy is kicking a ball against the stucco wall of an old building across the street, a few addresses down from the Airbnb. A gray-haired, mostly bald man leans out a window above, telling the boy to go away, it seems, in harsh German syllables. The boy refuses to stop.
Gabrielle sees her child in the boy. Over a decade ago, a police officer brought Sky home when they were supposed to be at a friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon. They had apparently taken a soccer ball from their friend’s garage and gone into the neighboring field of a small dairy farm to play with the cows. The farmer, explained the cop, was afraid that Sky would get charged and stomped by one of the heifers. But Sky insisted the animals were nice. “They were kicking the ball back to me,” Sky told her.
The boy in the street raises his voice. Gabrielle considers opening the window and taking the boy’s side in the argument just for fun. But she isn’t sure either of them would appreciate a foreign interloper, especially one who only speaks English. It is the first time she has thought of Sky as a child in years. That age was not only the best she had had with her only offspring but the happiest time of her life, before Sky’s angsty teen years, before they announced they were someone different than Gabrielle had raised them to be. Different beyond her motherly ability to say, “No, this is not who you are,” though she tried.
The door to the flat opens, and Gabrielle jumps out of her daydream and up from the couch. She pulls up the waist of her jeans and adjusts her floral blouse to ensure it covers her midsection. Diane has returned early.
“The café was no good,” she announces, leading with her feathered pixie cut as she struggles through the narrow doorway. “Well, it was fine I guess, but I felt self-conscious. It was so crowded and everyone knew I was American. I stick out. Maybe it’s the hair — all the women have long, perfect hair.”
Diane drops a few shopping bags and hands Gabrielle a paper coffee cup.
“Americano,” Diane explains. “Typical, right? But this is one of those places they don’t have real coffee, I guess. Like Italy.”
“It’s fine,” Gabrielle says, accepting the cup and taking a sip of the already too-cool liquid.
“I got you a croissant too,” Diane says. “This is a croissant-friendly place, which makes up for the lack of coffee.”
Gabrielle brushes her mostly dry bangs out of her eyes, which are still drawn to the window.
“I want to leave,” she announces.
“Okay,” Diane says, fumbling in one of her bags to bring out a small, brown-leather clutch. “Just give me a few minutes to sip on this and eat and we can head to the city.”
“No,” Gabrielle says. “I want to leave Switzerland.”
“We just got here yesterday,” Diane says, turning away from her new possessions and standing straight, arms crossed, perhaps a subconscious posturing to make up for the fact that she is several inches shorter than Gabrielle.
“It’s booked for a week.”
“I know. But look out the window. What does it look like?”
“Dübendorf. We’re in Dübendorf.”
The women had chosen this particular Airbnb not for its location but for its price and amenities. Gabrielle insisted on paying half the cost, even though Diane had offered to pay more to stay somewhere in Zurich itself, close to the shops and cafés there. Gabrielle’s budget limited their choices, except in Paris, where they’d splurged on a chic apartment in the fourth arrondissement.
“Yeah, but it looks like, I don’t know, Pittsburgh.” Gabrielle gestures to the view. “Pittsburgh with fancy roof tiles. That tower. Look at that tower.”
“Europe went through industrialization too, you know,” Diane says dryly.
“That’s not the point.”
“What’s the point then?” Diane asks. She walks to the sofa and crouches next to Gabrielle. “Tell me. Do you want to go home?”
“I don’t want to go home,” Gabrielle says, voice shaking. “We don’t have a lot of time.” They’re in Europe for three weeks. “Switzerland, well, it’s a little underwhelming.”
“Let’s go somewhere else. Like, we’ll check out Zurich today and then cancel the rest of our reservation. I’m sure we can get some money back. And then we can go someplace more exciting. We’ll take a train to Prague, or Vienna, or Venice, or Berlin, or anywhere but here. Let’s just admit that Zurich isn’t the best city for the third leg and go somewhere else. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back here; I don’t want to miss out.”
“My great-grandparents were born here. We talked about this.”
Gabrielle looks out the window again. The boy has disappeared, along with his soccer ball and its severe clap against the wall. She can still see the man’s head across the street through the window, but he is engaged now with something else, perhaps watching TV. A soft curtain obscures his face.
“Look,” Diane says. “I know this is a lot of pressure for you, that you’re still figuring out what you . . . what we . . . But you chose London, we both wanted to go to Paris, and I chose Zurich.”
Gabrielle takes another sip of Americano but it has grown too cold, and she sets it down on the small end table. Her body is frozen except for her eyes, which dart from Diane’s peripheral space to the plants and out the window.
“We’ll go to Zurich today and then decide what to do after that, okay?” Diane says. She reaches out and strokes Gabrielle’s cheek with the back of her hand. Gabrielle flinches. “How does that sound?”
Gabrielle looks up. The little wrinkles around Diane’s eyes bunch as she forces a smile.
Diane is a beautiful woman, Gabrielle thinks, but she still isn’t sure if she likes Diane in the way Diane likes her. All she knows is that it is nice to be loved. And she suspects that Diane loves her, even though they haven’t known each other very long. At 48, Gabrielle feels as though her ability to love or be loved has expired. She hasn’t kissed anyone for seven years, and though with Diane she doesn’t feel the same electric desire coursing through her body that she had felt for the men she’d been with romantically in years past, she feels something. Something she didn’t know she could feel. Something she still hasn’t named.
“Okay,” Gabrielle says. “Okay.”
Diane sits next to Gabrielle on the couch, puts her hand on Gabrielle’s knee, and rubs it gently for a few seconds.
They met at the library. Gabrielle is five years older than Diane and thinks she looks at least ten years older. Diane, a college history professor, did her Ph.D. at Trinity College and has traveled to Europe often. She makes significantly more money than Gabrielle and has a correspondingly richer taste in food and clothes. She received more than enough to live a comfortable life without working in a divorce settlement five years ago but continued her job with just as much passion as before. Her husband, a university administrator, had left her for a younger English professor, but she was relieved, she told Gabrielle. Relieved that she didn’t have to hide her own infidelity anymore.
Diane flirted with Gabrielle from the first moment they saw each other. She was looking for a book on early-20th century lesbian romances that Gabrielle’s library had in its collection. Gabrielle, oblivious, accepted an invitation to get dinner. But it was clear after their first course that Diane had more than friendly feelings for her — an absurd amount of compliments, light touching of hands, discussion of food and its relation to sexual arousal — and Gabrielle went along with it, more out of embarrassment than desire at first. It wasn’t until Diane kissed her before they parted, a quick but full meeting of the lips, that she sensed something more.
Gabrielle had thought that three weeks in Europe with Diane would help her understand her relationship to this woman. But fourteen days in, and she has done nothing but recoil. In Paris, after finishing two bottles of wine at a patio restaurant, they walked home, arm in arm, and Diane stopped them suddenly, leaned in to kiss her. But Gabrielle turned her head, and the kiss landed on her cold cheek. After that night, Gabrielle could sense that Diane was hurt, and Diane kept an emotional distance. When they read books at night after their daily outings, she didn’t cuddle her feet into Gabrielle’s or rub Gabrielle’s shoulders while getting up to pour another glass of wine. And during the day, she took off on her own more often without inviting Gabrielle, returning hours later with baked goods and more and more shopping bags.
“Do you not want to be here with me anymore?” Diane asks bluntly, taking Gabrielle’s hand. Gabrielle looks at her eyes for the first time since setting down her Americano.
“It’s not that,” she says. “I just. . . .”
“Just what?” Diane asks.
Once Gabrielle’s hair has dried and she’s applied a full face of makeup, they take a late afternoon train into Zurich. The anonymity of a place so far from home, and one that’s not as overrun with tourists as Paris or London, eases Gabrielle. Eases her more than she had expected. The city is older, more picturesque than she had thought, the best parts of France, Germany, and Italy all in one place. Along the river, it feels like Venice; in the alleyways, Paris; some of the buildings read Bavarian. Walking is easy here, not only because of the lack of whirlwinds of tour groups but because the streets lead into one another like invitations rather than labyrinths.
Diane leans her head easily on Gabrielle’s shoulder, slips her right arm beneath Gabrielle’s left. They hardly speak. They don’t need to. Their bodies speak to each other through little tugs and readjustments, most of which Diane conducts.
After a few hours of wandering and sightseeing, they shop. The prices in the designer stores shock Gabrielle, but she is too cautious to embarrass Diane with outraged remarks, too embarrassed to admit she has never been in a designer store. After the third shop, Gucci, on Poststrasse 3, Gabrielle stops looking at price tags. She touches a few items that catch her eye and whispers a polite “Just browsing” to the store attendant.
“Do you like it?” Diane asks after Gabrielle’s fingers brush a blouse that she guesses costs $5,000. “Let me buy you something.”
“No,” Gabrielle says. “It’s too much.” But she knows too much is relative, and Diane already has a blouse, pants, and scarf waiting for her behind the counter. She isn’t used to shopping anywhere that any item has the potential to max out her credit card.
After Dior and Tiffany, Gabrielle has had enough. She takes half of Diane’s shopping bags, “To lighten your load,” and tells her to meet her in a few hours at a café she saw around the corner on Kappelergasse. Diane kisses her on the cheek and saunters away toward the next store on her never-ending list, glancing over her shoulder at Diane as she fades into the crowd of pedestrians.
The kiss warms Gabrielle’s cheek long after they part. Sipping a cappuccino in the crowded café, her thoughts return to Sky, how she cried when they told her they were not a boy. How she didn’t know what it meant. How she still doesn’t know what it means, really. How it would have been so much easier if they had just said they were gay. How that, at least, she could understand. But is understanding necessary? she wonders. Is it even possible to understand someone else? She can’t even understand herself, holding hands and flirting with a woman — a woman! — as they sweep across Europe like newlyweds. She laughs, wipes a few stray tears from her eyes with a cocktail napkin, and opens a book.
On the train back to their Airbnb, they need two extra seats for all of Diane’s purchases. The locals returning from work are none too pleased, but Diane is unbothered. Gabrielle slumps against the window, hot and needing the extra support. Her makeup is cakey and feels like it is running down her face. Diane, however, sits with her back straight as a pin, recapping all her great finds and the sorrow she felt at having to leave some “one-of-a-kind” items behind. Gabrielle tries to sit up straight and reaches for the armrest between her and Diane but finds it has been elevated. Her hand lands on Diane’s. She grasps it, looking around to see if anyone is watching them, but the tired faces are paying them no mind. She squeezes and Diane squeezes back. They sit like this in silence until Zurich is behind them.
“I want to stay,” Gabrielle almost whispers to Diane. “I want to see more.”
The two women stand more than an arm’s length apart at the Mitchell International baggage claim in Milwaukee, the final stop after a two-day layover in New York City. Diane insisted on one last jaunt in NYC, but both their senses of romantic adventure had expired by the time they checked into the hotel. And after the opulence of Europe, they found even the ritzier side of New York to be lacking.
Gabrielle yawns and glances around at the other passengers from their final flight, trying to find familiar faces to pass the time. There are the usual business-class men — impatient, staring at cellphones, or taking calls, their manager voices booming through the outdated corridor. Kids in pajamas and tourist-trap T-shirts stand back while mom or dad spy the bags emerging from the belt, ready to pounce on their overstuffed luggage. Gabrielle’s lone suitcase pops up first in line, something that she has never experienced before.
“Lucky you,” Diane says.
Diane’s three suitcases — two more than she left the States with — come through intermittently, and she almost thinks the last one, straggling near the end of the line, got lost. “How could they get so separated? They all started together!”
With their luggage accounted for, they are unprepared for saying goodbye, even though they had hours to think about it. Diane has arranged for a chauffeur to Pewaukee, a half-hour away. A short drive that costs more than most domestic plane tickets.
“You sure you don’t want a ride?” she asks Gabrielle.
“My car’s here, remember?” Gabrielle says.
“You could stay with me a few days,” Diane says. “You don’t have work for another four days, right?”
Gabrielle politely declines again, realizing Diane wants more from her, whether because of some unfulfilled desire or simply the comfort of being together for an extended period of time. Gabrielle wants to be alone, but also feels sad to be leaving Diane. The sadness feels as foreign as the streets of Zurich. She suspects it’s the same sadness she feels at the end of any long trip, that in-betweenness, that reluctance to return to normalcy. It doesn’t even occur to her that she wants to stay with Diane, wants to eat in overpriced cafés and restaurants with her, carry her shopping bags, and cuddle on trains every day.
“Well then,” Diane says, squaring up to her, eyes shining with unspent tears. “No point in feeling too sad. We’ll see each other again soon.”
She wraps her little arms around Gabrielle’s shoulders. Gabrielle, burdened with bags, doesn’t reciprocate the gesture, doesn’t even attempt to lean in, as if she has forgotten how to act in this country, this familiar place.
“You do want to meet up soon,” Diane says, “right?”
“We’ll see,” Gabrielle says. “It’s just . . . there’s a lot to do at work, and. . . .”
She knows the words are wrong but knows she won’t find the right ones. Not now.
“Bye Diane,” Gabrielle says. “And thanks. Thanks for inviting me.”
She turns away and doesn’t look back as she wheels her suitcase toward the shuttle to the budget parking lot.
Returning to work after a long trip should be an occasion for excitement, for sharing pictures, for coworkers asking for travel tips in case they ever fly across the Atlantic. But Gabrielle finds mild interest at best, and more often indifference and jealousy. On top of that, her coworkers, rather than complete the work that Gabrielle is responsible for in Special Collections, have left her with more than a hundred email requests to answer and dozens of phone numbers to call back, so she eats a turkey sandwich in her office instead of joining the circulation staff at the diner where they gossip away from the stuffy air of the library.
The midday meal prevents her brain from focusing. When she looks at her phone, there are two new texts from Diane: “Hope your first day back is going well! :)” and “Can’t wait to see you again soon . . . maybe this weekend?”
She starts to type a reply, but each time it sounds too formal. More of a problem than her tone is what she wants to say. She spent the five days since she and Diane arrived back in Wisconsin doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, and drinking. She tried to read at night but always fell asleep with the book over her chest, unable to focus on the words in front of her. Diane’s smile hid behind every sentence on the pages. It’s the same with the emails she’s typing. Each time she pauses to collect her thoughts, she hears the soft sigh of Diane’s breath. When she readjusts her position, the chair’s arm digging into her side feels like Diane’s shoulder. She types “Diane” instead of “Gabrielle” in her email signoff.
Why can’t she get this woman out of her head? If she could choose to not think about Diane again for the rest of her life, she would banish her from her thoughts. She’s tried this with every person she loved before, but it didn’t work. Their images only grew and grew in her mind until they took over a part of her and left her feeling controlled by their ghosts, especially the ones she was too afraid to love.
Her small office suddenly feels hot and cramped. She stands up and starts to walk out to take a lap around the building and feel the summer breeze on her face for a few minutes. But another face stops her. Not Diane’s but Sky’s. A picture of Sky pre-transition stands on her desk. It’s a middle school portrait that Sky always hated but Gabrielle loves — loves because it is the first time she saw a man start to emerge in her child. Even though Sky looks pissed off in the portrait, a maturity and confidence is behind their eyes. It wasn’t long after the picture was taken that Sky announced they were gay and less than a year before they renounced their gender assigned at birth. Sky would be pissed if they knew their mom still displayed this photo. They demanded all their photos “from before” be thrown out, but when Gabrielle protested that this would erase Sky’s entire photographic record from the family archive, they compromised: Baby and toddler photos were okay; the rest could be kept in photo albums and boxes but not displayed out in the open. They took a few new family photos to hang on the walls, but Sky still hated them because they screamed baby queer, complete with messy makeup and ill-fitting clothes. Gabrielle knew Sky would probably never visit her at work. This office is her only private space which Sky would never see.
Now she feels guilty, like she has betrayed her only child. The photo stands as a testament to her love for Sky but also her inability to fully accept Sky as they are. She told herself at first that she would keep the photo because she didn’t know how to explain Sky’s gender to her coworkers, but once it stayed for a year, Gabrielle couldn’t deny that the reason for leaving it was that she wasn’t ready to accept Sky’s gender. The longer it stood as her own private shrine to her child, the less reason she had to do something about it.
She thinks of the perfect thing to text Diane: “I have a lot of feelings, and I need a little more time to process them. This weekend is probably too soon, but I promise it won’t be long. I’m not trying to blow you off. Please call me if you want clarity on this <3”.
She hits send quickly and immediately regrets not rereading her message.
After her cellphone goes dark, Gabrielle grabs Sky’s picture and walks out of her office, out of the building, and deposits it in her car. The next day, she uses the office Xerox to print off the latest photo of Sky from their neglected Facebook page, one that shows them lounging in a New York park with all black clothes, long black hair, a genuine smile across their makeup-covered face.
Weeks later, Gabrielle sits in the passenger seat of Diane’s Range Rover in the parking lot of the abandoned Northridge Mall in suburban Milwaukee. Weeds grow through cracks across the crumbling asphalt. The mall bears the imprint of a long-closed department store’s name on its brownish-gray facade. The windows that aren’t broken reflect the bright sun into the eyes of anyone within a hundred yards. Graffiti covers most of the stone walls up to ten feet high.
“This kind of car, this kind of place,” Gabrielle says. “You’re asking for it to be stolen.”
“It’s not going to be stolen,” Diane says. “We’re not going to be robbed.”
“I still don’t like it,” Gabrielle says.
Diane parks near the entrance to the old shopping mall, unbuckles, and steps out of her car. Gabrielle remains inside to gather her thoughts. Why is she here? Why is she with Diane, after swearing she would break it off after Europe? Wouldn’t it be better to leave? Demand to go home to the safety of her house, to not be led around by this crazy, impulsive woman with a shopping addiction and apparently a death wish? She replays their short history together in her head at high speed. It doesn’t make sense, but still she couldn’t say no when Diane called her and asked if she was interested in “a little urban adventure.” She’d run out of excuses to say no.
Gabrielle checks her face in the mirror, opens the door, and steps onto the uneven asphalt. She half-jogs to catch up to Diane, calling her name, hoping to persuade her to come back, to leave, to go to lunch like normal people do, to go shopping somewhere they could browse overpriced luxury goods. But Diane is already opening the heavy doors of the grand entrance, ducking under caution tape and ignoring the No Trespassing signs.
“Diane!” she yells. But there is no chance her words are heard.
She pushes through the doors, remembering the inside too well, except the last time she was here there was no broken glass everywhere, no graffiti. There were families overloaded with fast-food containers and shopping bags. There were teenagers, cocky and stylish. Now it is just her and Diane and a broken-down shopping mall — remnants of a fun but somewhat disgusting past.
“This is a time capsule. It wasn’t even that long ago that this was the public gathering place, but now, look how irrelevant it all is,” Diane says. “When historians look back on the early twenty-first century, this is what they’re going to find interesting. This is. . . .”
Gabrielle follows Diane but keeps ten feet away, as if any close contact would spoil the moment for her friend. She feels like she is sixteen again, the uncertainty, her heart pounding in her chest, the strangeness of entering a condemned building alone with someone she loves. Yes, she loves Diane in some way. Why else would she be here? She isn’t sure how much or exactly in what way yet, but she knows it as a fact. She is 48 years old. Her name is Gabrielle. And she loves Diane.
Voices echo from across the food court. A group of teenagers cackle. They wear denim covered in patches and pins. Their heads are mostly shaved on the sides and back, with brightly colored hair sprouting on top. They look almost exactly like Gabrielle’s Sky did at that age, after their change. A little more glam, maybe, but going for the same rebellious-chic look. Gabrielle remembers how she had told her child that it was just a phase, that they would want to be normal again soon. Of course, she was wrong. Why has she always been so wrong about the big things, the important things? A song plays from a small speaker one of the teens is holding: something moody with a droning guitar, the words illegible.
Diane pays no attention to the kids, who move on to a different corridor of the mall, their music fading in their wake.
“I can’t believe I never came here before,” Diane says. “Help me document this.” She withdraws a bulky Nikon camera from her bag and hands Gabrielle her phone. “Use this. Take as many as you like.”
Gabrielle accepts the phone, but goes further, squaring her shoulders to Diane, who isn’t paying attention as she adjusts the setting on her camera. Gabrielle surprises Diane with a kiss on the lips, the first she has initiated or even actively participated in. Then a second kiss, then a third. Diane lowers her arm, holding the camera at her side as her lips reciprocate; her shoulders melt. They embrace, chests pressing into each other, bodies closer than they have ever been before.
After a final, playful peck on the cheek, Diane turns and begins to walk across the abandoned food court. And Gabrielle follows, snapping pictures of shattered glass display cases and the rusted chairs where people used to sit and eat between visits to fast-fashion stores or before movies, wasting time and money on so much junk, on so many things that wouldn’t last a year.