It was Tuesday, and early morning light was streaming bright and clear through the bedroom’s sole window, accompanied by a mild December breeze that rattled the leaves of the tropical almond that grew just outside Mrs. Gomez’s boarding house. Lourdes had all but finished making her bed, but Marisol, who was supposed to be helping her, stopped every few minutes to tell Lourdes about the latest one in an endless parade of gentlemen who hovered around the perfume counter at La Parisienne in the hopes of flirting with the salesgirls.
“And then I told him,” Marisol said, holding back her laughter as she held Lourdes’s blanket by one end and waited for Lourdes to get her end straightened out, “but sir, you forgot your handkerchief.”
They burst into giggles, to the detriment of the blanket they were folding. They had been roommates at Mrs. Gomez’s boarding house for almost seven months and Lourdes could count with one hand the mornings that had gone by without one of Marisol’s stories about the people who visited the department store she worked in. The stories were so funny and the cast of characters so peculiar, Lourdes was fairly certain Marisol made up most of them, but listening to her talk was the brightest spot in Lourdes’s day.
“I can’t imagine Mr. Fernandez was terribly pleased about that,” Lourdes said when she’d caught her breath.
Marisol shook her head. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if steam had come out of his ears. He would have let me go on the spot but I’m the best salesgirl he’s got and he knows it.”
“You might be the best salesgirl at La Parisienne but you’re the least punctual one,” Lourdes said, gesturing towards the clock.
Marisol groaned. “Late again!”
Tugging the crumpled fabric out of Marisol’s arms, Lourdes folded it swiftly and placed the bundle at the foot of her narrow bedstead. A typist at Rodriguez & Co., she wasn’t scheduled to arrive at the office until half past eight. “Go, you scoundrel. I’ll tidy your half of the room before going down to breakfast.”
“You’re an angel!” Marisol exclaimed.
“Well, as close to one as a vulgar mortal can be.” Marisol glanced at the clock again and snatched her handbag and gloves from the top of the dresser. “It’s dashed unladylike but I’ll have to run. Time and trams wait for no man!”
“Wait.” Lourdes dug into her pocket for a hairpin and motioned Marisol closer. “Mr. Fernandez will have an apoplexy if you’re late and untidy.”
Though it was tempting to linger over Marisol’s springy locks, Lourdes sternly denied herself the indulgence and fixed the wayward strand as quickly and efficiently as she always did, slightly apprehensive, as usual, that something in her touch might betray the fluttering that seemed to invade her whenever she touched Marisol. It was useless to worry about such a thing, she knew. Fixing someone’s hair was no more than one might do for a sister, after all, or even a close friend. No one would have any reason to think that there was anything like desire behind the gesture.
Still, Lourdes could not quite forget the way her last close friendship had ended. She hadn’t felt about the girl as she felt about Marisol but there must have been something in the way she looked at her—or she might have inadvertently said something improper—because, after years of friendship, Lourdes had found herself summarily cast aside.
Marisol, who came from a family of five sisters, had been casual about touching from the very start of their acquaintance. And Lourdes, who’d learned to keep her hands and eyes to herself, had slowly thawed in the easy warmth of her friendship. To lose her—to have her look at Lourdes the way her other friend had, with uneasiness and suspicion—was unthinkable.
So Lourdes kept her face clear of any emotion and her eyes on Marisol’s hair while her traitorous, treacherous thoughts wandered down a more dangerous path. She had often wondered what it would be like to kiss Marisol, if it would feel different, if the reality of their bosoms brushing as they pressed close together would be as sinfully delicious as—Lourdes swiftly cut off the thought.
“There,” she said, patting the pin into place. “We’ve just spared Mr. Fernandez a nasty shock.”
They were very close. Close enough for Lourdes’s forearms to brush Marisol’s shoulders as she brought her hands down to her side. Close enough for Marisol to lean forward and, without a word or glance of warning, press her lips to Lourdes’s.
Surprise flooded her and she stood still, mouth slightly open and unable to respond as Marisol kissed her lower lip. It occurred to her that she ought to respond—she wanted to respond—but before she could so much as take another breath, Marisol had pulled away and had all but run out of the room, leaving Lourdes standing between the two beds, hands pressed to her mouth and heart singing with delight.
Marisol could feel the pin pressing against her scalp for the rest of the day. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation—it didn’t dig into her scalp or scrape against it, merely touched it, softly as a kiss.
She put down her cup of coffee and wished she hadn’t thought of the word kiss.
Wanting Lourdes was a slow burn, kindled by seven months of small, inconsequential touches—the grazing of their arms as they helped wash dishes standing side by side, or the bumping of their legs beneath Mrs. Gomez’s cramped table. The brush of Lourdes’s fingers against her temple as she reached over to pin an errant curl.
Marisol would have groaned out loud if she hadn’t been sitting in the middle of a very crowded cafe. Instead, she buried her face in her coffee cup, screwing her eyes shut against the memory of Lourdes’s face, eyes wide in surprise as Marisol…as Marisol…
As Marisol kissed her without so much as a by-your-leave.
It was all so maddening. Not for the first time, she wished there were some sort of secret gesture—or a discreet pin one could fix to one’s lapel, or a way to fix one’s hair—to signal to other women that her interest in them went beyond the platonic. How was one supposed to know if a woman wanted to be kissed, after all, without actually kissing them?
Marisol was not an expert in etiquette, but she had a feeling that going about asking women if they wanted to be kissed by another woman was not the most ladylike pursuit.
But it was certainly fun. At least, she amended, taking another sip of coffee, it was fun when it wasn’t intensely humiliating.
Dusk had fallen by the time she arrived at the boarding house. It was too early to expect that the residents would be abed, but they would certainly be too occupied with their evening meal to notice Marisol before she had a chance to bury herself under her covers like the ostriches she’d written a composition about at the age of seven.
Easing open the door, Marisol checked that there was no one in the foyer before shutting it firmly behind her and making a dash for the stairs.
“There you are!”
Marisol poked her head through the doorway to the parlor. Mrs. Gomez was sitting on the sofa, Lourdes at her side and a great quantity of fabrics and ribbons and paper heaped around them.
“I’m so happy you’re here, my dear,” Mrs. Gomez said, getting to her feet. “We’re putting up the nativity scene today and I just couldn’t do it without your artistic hands. Would you please help Lourdes while I see about dinner? I’m afraid it will be a late and simple one tonight.”
Mrs. Gomez left the parlor as Marisol entered and perched in the spot the elder woman had abandoned. Thus situated, she could see more clearly the mass of fabric and yarn Lourdes was holding.
“What are those?” Marisol asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Angels,” Lourdes replied, in such a strangled voice that Marisol couldn’t help meeting her gaze. She didn’t know what she’d expected to find in Lourdes’s expression, but she felt a shock of surprise at seeing suppressed laughter. And then they did laugh, together, and the tension between them eased somewhat. “They’ll require more than my clumsy attempts to make them look presentable. Would you like to work your magic on them while I paste up the stars?”
“I’m not sure anything short of a lit match would suffice,” Marisol said, wondering if she was being blasphemous, “but I’ll try my best.”
She was giving the angels new coiffeurs and watching Lourdes from beneath her eyelashes as she stuck gold-foil stars on the whitewashed wall. Marisol had always liked how Lourdes gave the impression of being taller than she was—it was the way she held herself, Marisol supposed, her back straight and regal. She had a lovely figure, too, more generous of curve than Marisol’s slight frame. Having seen Lourdes in her nightdress, Marisol knew the curves were not artifice—she had no need to pad her corset with ruffles or cinch her waist an inch tighter than was comfortable to create the illusion of a womanly silhouette.
“Would you hand me the star of Bethlehem, please?” Lourdes said.
Marisol started, a wave of heat creeping up her neck and into her face. “I—yes. Here.”
She picked up the large gold star and flung her arm out in Lourdes’s direction, managing to knock Lourdes’s ladder hard enough that it wobbled dangerously.
Marisol was not coordinated enough to catch Lourdes. Luckily, she didn’t have to—as the ladder began to rock, Lourdes leapt nimbly to safety. The ladder went one way and she another, and she would have landed solidly if Marisol hadn’t been in the way. Instead, she crashed hard against Marisol and they both tumbled to the floor, fetching up against the sofa.
Lourdes sat up immediately. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” Marisol said, digging a soft body from underneath her rump. “And neither are the angels, more’s the pity.” She tossed the fallen angel back onto the sofa and glanced at Lourdes, who was sporting the beginnings of a bump on her forehead. “But you’re hurt and it’s fault for being in the way. Oh, Lourdes. Lo siento—for everything. For being such a clumsy oaf and for—for what happened this morning.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You—what?” If her exclamation was inelegant, Marisol was sure her expression was even more so, and unladylike besides.
“I’m not a bit sorry for what happened this morning. As a matter of fact—” Lourdes took a deep breath “—I quite enjoyed it.”
“Well, I—Nevertheless. I ought to have asked your permission.” She looked at Lourdes again. “I’ll be sure to do so next time.”
“And I’ll be sure to grant it.”
Marisol had never heard of two people exchanging deep gazes while sprawled on the floor with mangled angels and broken shepherds around them—it really was too ridiculous—but there they were, lost in each other’s eyes like two lovers in a play.
Then they heard a step on the hall and Mrs. Gomez calling out, “Girls, is everything all right?” and suddenly they were scrambling to their feet and setting the parlor to rights. And through it all, Marisol was thinking, with a glow inside her chest that only grew brighter as the evening wore on, that things had never been as all right as they were in that moment.
Mrs. Gomez had the foresight to bring a tray of toasted casave and cheese to the parlor. One by one, the other residents of Mrs. Gomez’s boarding house wandered into the room and were pressed into service. Miss Weiss, being the tallest one in the group, was requisitioned for the hanging of angels and gold-foil stars, leaving Lourdes free to pay some attention to the aging shepherds, whose painted porcelain faces were sporting smears of dust. Across from her, kneeling on the patterned tiles, Marisol raced ceramic sheep and camels with Mr. Puig’s three young boys.
Lourdes kept her eyes resolutely on the grimy shepherds but she fancied she could feel Marisol as she pranced around the room, as if Marisol were a lamp casting brightness into the cheerful chaos of Mrs. Gomez’s parlor.
“All right, you little rascals,” Mr. Puig said, stretching as he laid the toy cradle he’d just repainted on a table covered with old newspapers. “It’s time for your bath.”
A cry of outrage rose from his three children, which Marisol quelled by telling them, “The animals must have their bath as well.”
“Can we help?” Luisito asked, struggling against his father’s grip with surprising strength.
“I’m afraid Miss Dominguez is helping me. But if you’re good and take your bath when your father says you ought to, I’m sure Baby Jesus will bring you lots of farm animals to play with.” Marisol gave Mr. Puig a nod and Lourdes, who had seen the carved wooden animals Marisol had already brought for the rowdy brood, couldn’t help but smile.
The boys consented to be dragged away and Lourdes and Marisol began to round up the animals.
“Sturdy creatures,” Lourdes commented as she placed camels and sheep on the coffee tray. “Not a single one among them chipped.”
“Except for the poor cow,” Marisol said, one piece of the animal in each hand. “Luisito got a little rough.”
They walked into the darkened kitchen together, neither of them making a move to turn on the lights. Lourdes filled the sink with water from the tap and dissolved soap in it as Marisol found them clean rags. She laid them on the edge of the sink and held out her hand for Lourdes to help her with the buttons on her cuff.
Lourdes undid them with her usual efficiency, then paused, looking down at Marisol’s thin wrists. There was no need to pretend, not anymore.
Her heart pounding, Lourdes folded up Marisol’s sleeves, exposing the smooth brown skin of her forearms. Then, Marisol’s hand in her own, she dropped her head to place a fleeting kiss on her wrist. It was only then that she looked up into Marisol’s eyes. It took some effort do so; not because they weren’t lovely, because they were, rich dark brown and always brimming with cheer, but because she was a little afraid of what Marisol would see in hers. It was one thing to kiss a person but quite another to see the deep, fathomless depths of that person’s wanting. But she did, she looked up and said, “I meant what I said earlier. I’m not sorry—I could never be sorry for caring for you. For wanting you.” She lifted a hand and swept the back of her fingers, slowly and deliberately, over the hair that crinkled at Marisol’s temples.
Marisol leaned forward, then hesitated. “We did agree earlier it’s bad form to kiss women without asking them if they want to be kissed. Therefore, Miss Dominguez. I have a question to put to you.” She turned the hand Lourdes was holding, so that Marisol’s fingers slid inside Lourdes’s cuffs and rested lightly against her pulse. “May I kiss you, Miss Dominguez?”
“You may, Miss Pascual,” Lourdes said, and it took all of her strength to keep her voice steady.
They kissed, their lips meeting softly at first and then with an intensity that made Lourdes grip the edge of the sink as she felt her knees loosening. That morning, they had been joined for only an instant but it had been enough to make sparks dance over Lourdes’s body. Now, the sparks turned into flame as Marisol pressed closer to Lourdes, who responded by moving so that Marisol was tight between the sink and her own body, one leg cocked slightly so that it insinuated herself between Lourdes’s legs.
They broke apart and pressed their foreheads together, and Lourdes could feel their chests moving up and down in unison as they labored to draw in enough air.
There was no time for more—not then, not in the kitchen where Mrs. Gomez or Juanita, the maid-of-all-work, might walk in at any moment. But the warmth of that kiss curled inside Lourdes and sustained her through two more hours of arranging angels and shepherds to Mrs. Gomez’s content. And then, it was time for bed.
They undressed together, as they had for the past seven months. Lourdes helped Marisol undo the impractical but very fetching row of buttons that marched down the back of her blouse, and Marisol oiled and brushed Lourdes’s black hair until it gleamed. They fetched their nightdresses from under their pillows, washed their faces and cleaned their teeth in the washstand in the corner, and turned off the electric lamp.
Then, instead of slipping into separate beds, they slid under the covers of Marisol’s and listened to each other’s heart beat in the dark quiet of night.
Though she’d shared a bed with her fill of girls—both innocently and not—Marisol had never felt as breathless as she did lying beside Lourdes. The bed was too narrow to allow them to lie side-by-side, so they lay on their sides, Marisol snug between Lourdes and the wall. She was exhausted after a long day at the store and her feet ached terribly, but her body was almost vibrating with excitement and caffeine. “I’ve spent months wondering what it would be like to kiss you,” she confessed to Lourdes’s back. “I thought you might be stern and forbidding about it like you are when Mr. Arizmendi says he wants to take you out to dance, and that I might have to coax you into agreeing with my irresistible charm.”
She felt Lourdes shake with laughter. “You still can, if you want.”
“Perhaps tomorrow,” Marisol said. “Today, I learned that asking works splendidly. I might have to try it more often.”
“Asking or kissing? Because if it’s the latter, I find myself obliged to voice my strong support.”
Marisol felt her lips curve into a smile at the sound of Lourdes’s stern tone. It was, she’d realized, the way Lourdes spoke when she was either uncomfortable or delighted. Marisol had a good idea which of the two was making Lourdes sound like a schoolteacher. “The latter—if it’s with you,” Marisol said. “Lately I’ve found that my interest in kissing people whose names aren’t Lourdes Dominguez—female or otherwise—has waned considerably.” She reached up to touch Lourdes’s shoulder blades through the thin fabric of her nightdress. Lourdes stiffened, then Marisol felt her relax into her touch.
“I don’t know about Lourdeses. I myself seem to have a strong predilection for Marisols.”
“I never thought you would be so inclined. Though I ought to have guessed after seeing you spurn Mr. Arizmendi’s advances at every turn. No woman could resist a man with such dreamy brown eyes were she not…of a different persuasion.”
Lourdes gave her an obliging chuckle, but sank into silence. Marisol continued to stroke Lourdes’s back and at length, Lourdes spoke again. “When did you know?”
“When I realized I was more interested in kissing my bosom friend than in competing against her for the attention of our numerous beaux.” She felt Lourdes’s start and rose on one elbow to look at her in the face in the silvery light that came from the open window.
“Have you never loved a man?”
“No,” Marisol said. “Have you?”
“I have. Not Mr. Arizmendi,” she added, before Marisol could ask. “Not anyone of consequence, really.”
“He must have been if you’d cared for him.” Marisol’s fingers brushed against Lourdes’s thick plait and curled around the end, tugging slightly. How many school boys had sat behind Lourdes over the years and dreamed about doing that very thing? And how many men—and women— would later dream about pulling the ribbon loose and watching it spread over a pillow? “And women? Have you ever—” Marisol couldn’t bring herself to ask if Lourdes had loved another woman—the thought made her feel curiously fragile, as if the answer, whichever it was, would make her shatter— so instead she asked, “Have you ever felt inclined to kiss any?”
“I’d thought about it,” Lourdes said. “I’d wanted to. But I never have. Or, rather, I should say had.”
“Oh.” Marisol drew the tip of her finger along the back of Lourdes’s neck, then leaned in closer to whisper. “Did you like it?”
“Oh, yes.” It was more a moan than a statement and it made a rush of heat pool between Marisol’s thighs.
“Would you care to try it again?”
It wasn’t easy for Lourdes to turn around in the cramped bed but she managed it, shifting until she and Marisol were lying face-to-face, their bosoms and thighs grazing. Marisol could feel her hesitation but after a moment, Lourdes’s hand settled firmly on Marisol’s hip. “And again and again,” Lourdes said. “Until—”
Marisol kissed her into silence. “Until nothing,” she said, reaching up to trace the neckline of Lourdes’s nightdress. “Again and again and again.”
There was no more talking after that. Marisol’s mouth joined her fingers on Lourdes’s neck, placing soft kisses in a trail that led down to her collarbone. Then she was pushing Lourdes’s nightdress open and, still propped on one elbow, bending over Lourdes’s bosom. Lourdes sighed, a deep sigh that to Marisol sounded like contentment, and Marisol resolved that the next sound that should escape Lourdes’s lips should be one of intense satisfaction.
The disappointment that came with daylight was tempered by the knowledge that evening would arrive before long. Throughout the days leading up to Christmas, the long, hard days when Marisol remained at the store past dinner time and arrived exhausted, her feet scarcely able to support her, and the piles of paper on Lourdes’s desk at Rodriguez & Co. grew to resemble mountains, Lourdes kept Marisol’s words stored right beside her heart. Again and again and again.
Day after day, they went about their regular business. They helped each other organize their drawers on Saturday mornings and Mrs. Gomez to prepare lavish Sunday luncheons, looking forward to the hours when they could be alone together. And then, when the sunlight dimmed and the day’s obligations had been met and they were free to retire to their bedroom…
Lourdes had long since gotten acquainted with Marisol’s nightly habits, finding them amusing or annoying by turns. Now, she reveled in the joy of acquainting herself with Marisol’s body. By the time the twenty-third of December arrived, she had become familiar with even the slight, almost inaudible hitch in Marisol’s breathing that preceded her release.
They’d been awake half the night and when morning came, Marisol was obliged to dash around the room, snatching items of clothing from various surfaces and stuffing them into her valise with little regard for their welfare. Lourdes perched on the bed beside the open valise and folded the same handkerchief over and over again.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Marisol asked as she rolled a pair of stockings. “You’d love my sisters—they’re ever so much fun.”
“I already told Mrs. Gomez I’d stay and lend her a hand,” Lourdes said. “Juanita’s off to the country to see her father and Mrs. Gomez will be short-staffed.”
Marisol stopped in front of Lourdes, so close their knees knocked together. “I will miss you.”
“I know,” Lourdes said, trying to sound bright. “But I hope you’ll also enjoy your time with your sisters. And I should never forgive you if you forgot to bring back some of your mother’s pastelitos.”
Lourdes had spent the past two Christmases at Mrs. Gomez and she had never found fault in the arrangements. But now, despite her assurances to the contrary, and despite the many tasks that had her scurrying around the boarding house for the following three days, Lourdes realized she was lonely. She didn’t begrudge Marisol her visit home, but she couldn’t help wishing she had relations of her own. The cozy, cheerful kind like Marisol had, they kind who would love her as fiercely as they teased her and on whom she could always count.
It had been many years since Lourdes had tumbled out of bed on Christmas morning, eager to see the presents Baby Jesus had left upon the table. And yet, she felt a pang as she walked alone into the dining room. Mr. Puig was there with his children, surrounded by discarded paper and ribbons. Mrs. Gomez was sipping coffee from one of her good cups, nodding and smiling at…at Marisol.
Lourdes’s heart clenched inside her chest and she might have thought she’d been struck with an apoplexy if not for the joy that spread over her immediately afterward.
Wrapping composure like a shawl around her, she stepped over the wooden train that was lying overturned on the tiles and took the seat opposite Marisol.
“Why, Miss Pascual,” she said, and though she was overjoyed her voice came out sounding like a rebuke because she never could manage to make her voice sound like she intended it to, “I thought you wouldn’t be arriving until next week.”
Marisol poured Lourdes a cup of coffee from the tray on the table. Their fingertips touched as she passed Lourdes the cup. The thrill that ran through Lourdes had nothing to do with the impending imbibing of caffeine, and everything to do with the brightness of Marisol’s smile.
The doorbell rang. Mrs. Gomez rose to answer it, and a moment later the dining room was evacuated as the boarding house residents heard the first strains of an aguinaldo stream into the house. Marisol and Lourdes remained in their seats, smiling at each other across the tray.
“Nothing happened with your family, did it?” Lourdes asked.
“Not a thing. But I couldn’t enjoy myself when I thought of you all alone here—you made a most Dickensian picture in my mind, you know, and finally I couldn’t bear it one more instant and told my family I’d been called to the bedside of a sick friend.”
“I imagine they weren’t happy about your leaving.”
“It was a near thing—Maria almost tied me to the sofa, but I promised I’d return for Mama’s birthday in two months. And when I do, you can come with me.”
The thought of meeting Marisol’s boisterous, friendly family—at least they seemed that way from the stories Marisol told about them—stayed with Lourdes throughout the day. Mrs. Gomez invited in the neighbors who’d sang the aguinaldo and though they’d come prepared with lots of things to eat, Marisol and Lourdes were dispatched to the kitchen, where they brewed ginger tea and fried the pastelitos Marisol had brought from home. Christmas day passed in a blur of music and food and merriment and Lourdes almost gasped out loud when she finally had the chance to loosen her corset.
Marisol closed the door to their bedroom behind her and helped Lourdes ease off the corset, reaching up to rub away the creases it left on Lourdes’s skin. The rubbing turned into caressing and Lourdes closed her eyes as Marisol placed a kiss on her shoulder, then laid her cheek against it.
“I saw my friend when I was home,” she said in a low voice. Lourdes opened her eyes. “She married last year and now has a child on the way.”
Lourdes held herself very still. “Did you love her?” she asked, wanting, but unwilling, to ask Do you love her still?
“I was very fond of her, and still am.” Marisol was quiet for a moment. “It was thrilling and heady and didn’t we feel smug, turning down beaux and playing them against each other while we slipped away to kiss in the dark. But love…it doesn’t feel like playing with fire; it feels like being consumed by it, only you feel like you would burn happily.” Her voice dropped even more. “It’s almost frightening, how happily I would burn.”
“I see,” Lourdes said. She turned around, slipping her arms around Marisol. “When you burn, I’ll burn with you.”
“Again and again?”
Lourdes couldn’t see her own smile, but she knew it was a mirror to Marisol’s. “Again and again and again,” she said.
Thank you so much for reading! If you’re in the mood for more Ciudad Real holiday shorts, please check out my three-story collection, Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss and Other Stories: