Rating: PG so far
Apologies: This is my first time writing CSI (for anyone besides myself), I hope I didn’t blow it too badly.
So, remember that challenge from somewhere in April? Stripper!Cath meets College Sara? I started it back then, but couldn’t see it through. Then I dug it up and looked at it again today. Not as bad as I thought it was.
Tell me if you want pt 2.
The Las Vegas airport was the most repulsive airport on the planet. Nowhere else did the air stink so much of smoke, and every corner resonate with chiming slot machines. Everyone looked stoned, as at most airports, but here it wasn’t just with exhaustion and futile struggles with bureaucracy. Half the people were rushing around waving dollar bills, and the other half were glumly staring at the bright lights, wishing they had one more quarter, but knowing that would be a mistake.
Sara wished she could remember why she was in Vegas in the first place, especially trailing after a group of boys in button-down shirts and horn-rimmed glasses.
Gary dropped back and walked beside her, his paces awkward, too long and then too short, trying to pretend he wasn’t marking her, but failing utterly.
“Feeling lucky?” he finally asked, and then looked embarrassed, as if that wasn’t what he had meant to say. Sara held back a sigh. She remembered why she was here now.
Game Theory was an amazing class, but she wished she had had enough strength of character to say, “No, I don’t want to go to Vegas for spring break to test out what we learned this semester.” But everyone had been arguing over strategies, and calculating probabilities and she had gotten caught up in it and put her name down for the guy who was arranging cheap tickets. And here she was, in Vegas, with six nerdy boys, most of whom had a crush on her since she was the only female they could speak with without stuttering or going red in the face. Gary was the worst among them.
“The adage ‘the house always wins’ is beginning to resonate in my head.”
“Yeah,” Gary chuckled. “I was going to make a chart, games, amounts, probability of returns, when to give up. I have $200 budgeted for tonight, for testing out the games.”
Sara winced. She had $200 budgeted for the entire trip, and she was glad they were only staying three nights. She needed to pick up some extra shifts for the rest of break to make up for this economic black hole.
The restaurant was hideously expensive, and she mentally rearranged her budget to account for this. At least the school had pitched in for the overpriced hotel rooms because it was theoretically educational. Sara had thought that going to a UC would make it less likely for her to be surrounded by upper-class yuppies, but even so there weren’t very many students who were working to pay their own way through.
Still, she was here now, and Sara was determined to enjoy herself. She started for the Blackjack tables. But Gary followed. Sara knew she was gay, but hadn’t bothered telling anyone because it seemed practically irrelevant. Sara considered herself to be about equal to the nerdy boys she surrounded herself with in her lack of attractiveness and social ineptitude. Nerdy boys were really only likely to get together with nerdy girls, and assuming the proportionality stayed even over all facets of the population, the percentage of nerdy gay girls was so minimal as to be nonexistent. If she couldn’t calculate the odds before half a semester of Game Theory, she certainly could after, and it wasn’t promising.
But right now, she wondered if it would be worth outing herself to just get Gary to stop following her around. If she did, he’d definitely tell everyone, and then they’d probably start asking her way too personal questions. She should probably save outing herself until she had some credibility, like, having ever kissed a girl. That would be a definite improvement. Unfortunately, she doubted that was going to happen any time soon.
She sighed. Gary was a nice guy, and once his acne cleared up he might be okay looking. And he was a smart nerdy guy, not like the stalker she had had in high school, who had wanted to be a weatherman, or the guy at her summer job who wanted to be a librarian because he enjoyed shelving books. Reading books was one thing. Wanting to be a librarian because you enjoyed reading and being around books was fine, but wanting to be a librarian because you like to put books into orderly rows was just terrible.
The worst part was that in her social psych class she was taught that people tended to pursue people whom they considered in their range. Even if she never looked at a boy twice, it was depressing to know that her range was on par with pale flabby boys who needed a shower and wanted to be weathermen. If Sara ever found herself with someone whose grand dream was to point to a blank screen, smiling, and wearing yellow vinyl, she would seriously consider suicide.
So… Gary was a step up. And she wasn’t repulsed by his company. They actually did have things in common. But boys didn’t have boundaries. They just treated everything as if it were a date, always trying to pay for things and hold doors open. Sara never let anyone give her money or pay for her. It was an obligation, and one she usually couldn’t afford.
“Uh, yeah.” She’d probably stay in longer there than anywhere else.
At the table Gary kept on smiling at her and making her tense and second-guess herself. After she had lost five straight hands he started looking worried and giving her advice. She lost fifty dollars in half an hour. She could eat for a week on fifty dollars. She stood up, shoving her chair out. Gary followed.
“No? Taking a break?”
She glared at him. “No. That’s my limit. I’m going for a walk.”
“Do you need more chips? You can have half of mine.” He looked embarrassed at making the offer.
Sara didn’t have it in her to pity him. She was too angry with herself for wasting her time and money here. “No.”
“I know you don’t have…”
Sara stared at him. He looked guilty, but she could hear the condescension and pity in his tone. Her face flushed. This was too much. Offering because he liked her was one thing, but she wouldn’t be a charity case. She knew how much charity was worth. “That poor little girl.” She had heard it too many times from people who didn’t really care. They threw money at her, because it wasn’t worth anything to them, but they never took her home.
He saw her anger. “I just wanted to help.”
“I don’t need help.”
And Sara ran, through the plush, chandeliered lobby, past the uniformed guard, and out the tinted glass doors, into a baking Vegas afternoon. She was too angry to stop, angry with herself for not realizing that even the nerdiest losers thought her beneath them.
The sun baked through her Cal t-shirt, and her neck quickly started streaming with sweat. Absently, she bound her hair back into a ponytail, and kept jogging, turning off the busy strip into empty side streets. She didn’t know where she was, but she had seen the shape of Vegas from the plane and figured she’d turn around once she hit the desert.
Berkeley was hillier, but she wasn’t prepared for the endless heat. She wasn’t dressed for running either, and soon she was gasping for water, her chest aching, her jeans sticking to her legs and her shirt drenched. There weren’t even any trees in Vegas, she thought, as she hated the city even more.
She glanced up at the road signs, Tropicana, Flamingo. Sara felt like she was in a creepy Phillip K. Dick novel about advertising taking over the world. Everyone likes heat, she heard in her head, as she panted, still jogging gamely, but feeling the strain in her lungs to try and use the dry air. Everyone likes pink, and orange, plastic and falsity, asphalt and cement.
Cars sped past her, radios blaring, or drivers yelling at her for daring to be on foot. She threaded her way through the underpasses of superhighways that had nothing to do with humanity.
And then she saw it, not green, exactly, more brown, dry leaves, dry grass and dirt. She picked up her pace, flicking the sweat off her face, and barely glancing for cars before she darted across the street, and smacked into a cyclone fence.
She clung to the fence, wires digging into her fingers, as she stared into the park. A plastic slide and small jungle gym sat in one corner, and across the dirt and dry grass, she spotted the parking lot. Of course a park would need a parking lot, because this city was a lie.
It was only then that Sara noticed she was being watched. There was a girl in the park, a woman, lying on a folded sheet under a tree, with a textbook between her elbows, clad only in a bikini top and shorts, enjoying the April sun.
Sara hung on the fence, still panting, unable to tear her eyes away from her, unable to turn off the juvenile part of her brain like she usually did. She was caught up. The woman’s hair was thick and loose, falling over her shoulders in red-gold waves. It tempted Sara’s eyes to follow the curve of her back, her ass, her legs, and then scorch a trail back up again, to piercing blue eyes. The woman was looking at her with such an incredulous expression, that Sara was suddenly, horrifically aware of what she must look like. Red faced, dripping with sweat, and leering at this poor woman who was just trying to read and enjoy the day.
But she was too spent to unclench her fingers, and if she could, she knew she would just drop into a heap on this side of the cyclone fence. So she hung, gaping, as the woman stood up, grabbed something out of her bag, and walked toward her. She saw her mouth moving, but the world around her sounded like the TARDIS landing, and she couldn’t make it out.
There was a water bottle in her hand, and Sara, comprehending, nodded emphatically. The woman tossed the bottle over the fence.
The first taste from the sun-baked bottle was like nectar. She glanced at the petite woman with desperation; one sip was not going to be enough. The woman gave her a look and waved her hand.
“Drink it. You look like you’re going to pass out.”
Sara heard her that time, and gulped down the water, shocked when the last few drops dribbled onto her chin. She gaped for a few moments as moisture reentered her body.
“Thank you,” she finally managed to get out.
“You looked like you needed it.”
“Where’d you run from?”
The woman blinked. “That’s six miles. In mid-afternoon? Are you insane?”
Sara looked down at herself. “I wasn’t planning on going for a run.”
The woman looked at her as well. Sara wished her clothes weren’t draped over her like wet laundry.
“It’s April,” she whined. “Why is it so hot?” Sara tugged the collar of her shirt where it was becoming glued to her back.
“They said it could get up to 93 today. Didn’t you listen to the forecast?”
“I try not to,” Sara grumbled.
“Bad experience with a wannabe weatherman.”
The woman blinked for a moment, and then laughed, tossing her head back, and leaving her throat, barely covered breasts, and the curve of her stomach open to Sara’s gaze. Her throat suddenly went dry again.
“I may need to hear about that,” she smiled at Sara. “I’m Catherine.”
Sara pushed her fingers through the cyclone fence, before she could consider how idiotic it looked. “Sara, no H,” she got out, her voice hoarse.
Catherine hooked her fingers through Sara’s and they shook hands awkwardly thorough the fence. “Nice to meet you, Sara, no H.” She leaned a little closer, peering at Sara’s face.
“You’re not wearing sunscreen, are you?”
Catherine shook her head. “You’re not from around here. Come on.”
She headed back towards her sheet, and Sara stood at the fence, staring after her as she gathered up her stuff, tugging a light blue shirt on over her head, slinging the bag over her shoulder and tucking the textbook under her arm. She looked back and gestured towards the parking lot with her head.
“I live near here. Let’s get you some more water.”
The fence ended at the parking lot, and Catherine joined her on the sidewalk. Sara stared at the book, but couldn’t make out the title. Finally she bit the bullet.
“What are you reading?”
Catherine glanced up at her and then back at the book. Then she ducked her head. “Oh, nothing interesting.” She flipped it flat so Sara could see the title. “For my forensic science class.”
Sara blinked. “Nothing interesting? I wish my school offered forensics.”
Catherine looked up at her, a smile spreading across her face. “It's really great actually. And after Bio Chem and Orgo you feel like you’ve finally gotten somewhere.”
Sara’s jaw opened and shut. Things like this did not just happen to her. And women this beautiful were not science nerds… unless… “Pre-med?”
Catherine stopped short and gave her an uncomfortable look. It was familiar, the same one Sara had seen in her reflection when someone asked her if she were going home for break. Then it was covered up by a forced laugh. “No way. I don’t have that kind of time.”
Sara frowned. “What do you mean?”
Catherine looked at her, distrust in her eyes, and Sara wished she hadn’t asked. “I know some people work their way through med school. But they’re stingy with scholarships, and I have a hard enough time keeping up with the work as it is, and I only go part time.”
Sara tried to form words. She would have never had the guts to admit all that to a stranger. “I-“
Catherine’s eyes were hard, and she looked ready to strike in self-defense.
Sara shoved her thumb into the Cal logo on her chest. “UC school, full ride. But room, board and books nearly kill me. If I’m going on after this I need full ride and a stipend.”
The tension faded from the smaller woman’s frame. “A stipend would be nice. And textbooks are disgustingly expensive.”
Sara nodded, relieved. She glanced around. The area they were walking through reminded her a bit of where she had grown up. It was flat and dry, with small low houses, some trailers, others ranch-style apartment complexes. People’s junk was pushed up against their fences, and no one wasted money on landscaping. There were fewer pickup trucks than in Jackson or Freedom though.
“You’re from California?”
Sara nodded. “Northern, not Hollywood and Mickey Mouse.”
“What are you doing in Vegas? Spring Break?”
Sara winced. “If you can call tagging along with half my Game Theory class, and then kicking my own ass for wasting money I don’t have a ‘break.’”
“Game Theory? Seriously?” Catherine’s blue eyes sparkled, and Sara blushed under her sunburn.
“It sounded like fun. And I wanted something light because I knew second semester Orgo was going to destroy my brain.”
“And you picked game theory, not… modern American novelists? Or… photography?”
“Don’t talk to me about modern American novelists. I took Portrayals of Communism in Science Fiction thinking it would be an easy A because I had read most of the books already. I have never worked so hard in my life.”
“Have you read Eye in the Sky?”
Catherine shook her head.
“It’s…” Sara tried to find a way to sum up the book. “It's good. Read it. But it’s kind of about people not living in reality. And it seems to hold science up as the one thing that has a real claim to truth. If you believe in science you are in touch with the real world. But after being lost in these other worlds that don’t rely on science, you start to wonder if science is just another psychosis, just another ideology, like Communism.”
Catherine frowned. “Well, what do mean? You’re a scientist, right? So you believe in what your textbook tells you, but you also believe in testing things out for yourself. If it can’t be tested it’s bullshit.”
“Yes. And that’s what’s important, I think. But it’s why I had a hard time with Communism as a psychosis, like it was in the book. Have you read any Marx?”
“I hadn’t until this class either. But when you read him, you start to believe him. I mean, the whole idea that money has no intrinsic value is so obvious it's revolutionary. And all his ideas are like that. They take apart all the lies we tell ourselves, and explain how these lies make the world work.”
“I get that.” Catherine’s gaze was intense, and Sara felt a thrill from the engagement. “It’s like Vegas, it’s a story, a fairy tale on the outside. You believe in the fantasy of it, the sets, the glory, even the vice, but when you’re here, when it becomes your everyday reality, you forget those lies and you tell yourself the other ones, that you’re safe, that bad things won’t happen to you, that it’s worth it.”
Catherine’s voice faded away on the last few words and she turned away. Sara wanted to ask what she had to tell herself was worth it, but she didn’t.
Catherine led her through a plot of dirt and up a few steps to one of many similar doors.
“Sorry if it’s a mess.”
In degrees of size and of mess, it was pretty much the same as Sara’s apartment: two rooms, unmade bed, clothes and books making up most of the clutter. But other parts were different. They had the same sort of threadbare couch that was probably taken out of the goodwill but there was a pile of electronic equipment in front of Catherine’s. Some of it was hooked up, but there was a pile of black boxes with wires coming out the back that looked suspiciously like car radios.
“Here,” Catherine handed Sara a tall glass of water. It was icy and Sara sighed with pleasure, having forgotten her nagging thirst in the excitement of the conversation. “You never did tell me why you were running.”
Sara stared into the depths of her glass, and wondered that herself. “I was angry, mostly.”
Catherine nodded and settled into the depths of the broken-in couch. Sara followed her more tentatively.
“Wasting money, being seeing as a charity case, feeling…” she looked up, and Catherine’s eyes were steady on her, scalding her, the blue like the flame that is hotter than red, “feeling worthless.”
Catherine set her hand on her knee, and Sara tensed. “I don’t see why you are. Great school, working enough to afford to waste a little money. I’ve wasted money when I really couldn’t afford it, when I didn’t eat the next day because I was stupid the night before.”
Sara nodded shyly. “I’ve done that with books.”
Catherine burst out laughing. “I wish I did it with books! You are a crazy nerd.” Sara flushed, and Catherine slid her hand farther up her leg. “Don’t worry. I like crazy nerds. What’s your major?”
“I’m still trying to decide between physics and chem. It’s irritating because all the pre-meds do chem, and the engineers do physics, and then they whine at me for screwing up the curve.”
Catherine laughed. “I’m not really surprised.”
“What are you aiming at?”
“I’m doing forensic science. It’s a massive amount of credits… but I hope I can stick with it.” She frowned and looked away, taking her hand back, and leaving Sara bereft. “I wish I had a job where I could go full time.”
“Have you tried to find a job in that area? I work in the lab at the hospital, I mean, I clean glassware there, washing dishes basically, but it pays better than restaurant work. And it reminds you of what you’re going for, even if you’re not there yet.”
“I might have to look into that. I don’t… I don’t know how much longer I can keep working where I am. Getting too old.”
Sara blinked. “What? You’re like 22, 23, right?”
“Try 26.” Catherine snorted.
“And what kind of job is that too old for?” Sara chuckled at the absurdity of it, and didn’t notice the quiet sadness on Catherine’s face.
“I’m just tired,” she said softly.
Sara looked down at her and suddenly ached to kiss her. Her slightly parted lips, the softness in her face as she stared into the distance, all she could think of was sliding her fingers down the curve of her face, pressing her mouth against hers. But it was too easy to imagine the sharp flustered confusion, rejection, the inevitable disgust or disdain. There was no way this woman was in her range, no way she would respond or accept her.
And then she saw her eyes, wide and intense, reading her as if her thoughts were written on her face. Maybe they were. Catherine’s fingers slid along the back of her neck. She was going to kiss her…
The jingle of keys sounded from outside the apartment. The lock clicked and the door opened. Catherine nearly skidded onto the floor en route to the other end of the couch.
The young man who came through the door was moderately handsome, with a broad chest. His face was rough with stubble, and he wore flashy cowboy boots. He looked somewhat surprised to see Sara, and glanced over at Catherine, whose slight flush told him all he needed to know. His eyes narrowed slightly and he smiled, sauntering over to Catherine and kissing her possessively. “Hey Kitty, I didn’t know you’d be home. Who’s your friend?”
“Oh, um… Sara.” Her eyes slid over Sara’s face, never making contact. “This is Eddie.”
Sara tried not to flinch, as Eddie looked her over. She was hyper aware again of her sweat-soaked clothes, the stinging skin of her sunburn, her awkwardness, all the things Catherine had made her forget while they were talking. His lazy grin showed that he saw all these things front and center, and he shook his head, derisively.
“Kitty,” he whined. “If you had told me you were feeling that, I could have brought Tracy. She’s been bugging me about it ever since last time.”
“We were just talking.” Catherine’s voice fell into a low hiss.
Eddie smiled. “She one of your new school friends?” He settled onto the couch, slinging his arm over Catherine’s shoulders. “I still feel like laughing every time I remember that. I come home one day, and she’s like ‘Eddie, I’m going back to school,’ and I was like, shit, what brought this on? Is it that time of the month already? Women are just psycho. But she’s still doing it, and now there are all these books and shit around. I’m just waiting for the next fad to hit.” He looked at Catherine with narrowed eyes. “What’s it gonna be? Crochet?”
Sara breathed roughly through her nose. She hated him, hated the look of shame that Catherine wore when he spoke. But she couldn’t be here anymore, with his arm bearing Catherine down and crushing her into helpless nothingness.
“I should go.”
Catherine didn’t disagree. “Do you need directions to get back?”
“I can find my way.”
“There’s a bus stop one block down. It will get you back to the strip.”
Sara nodded. “Thanks. Thanks for the water.”
“Oh, one second. Let me…” Catherine slid out from under Eddie’s arm and disappeared into the bathroom.
Sara and Eddie stared at each other. Eddie reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. “Here.” Sara took it. It was a business notice for a Gentleman’s Club, a sleazy silhouette of a dancer imprinted on the side. “Cat’s crap at most things, school included, but she looks good naked. You should check it out. If you’re into that.” He smiled, saying he knew that she was.
She didn’t respond, but shoved the card in her pocket. Then she looked up and saw Catherine standing outside the bathroom door, staring at them, her expression stricken. Eddie just smiled as she stalked coldly over to Sara and pressed a small tube of aloe into her hand.
“For your sunburn,” she said shortly, and turned away.
Unable to find words to respond, Sara just nodded unacknowledged thanks and slipped out the door.
* * *