That Lenora is tender is something you discover only once you get to know her over shrimp cocktails laid out on beds of melting ice. You are a transplant, an immigrant to New Orleans avalanched from the mountains of Tennessee, but she is at home. Gary wouldn’t recognize you now.

“Smooth little bodies,” you whisper, pinching one shrimp, fashioning a crescent shadow on the dimly-lit bar table. “Look. See. Crustacean puppets make a moon.”

You squeeze the translucent shell and make it lindy-hop on the table, the stiff tail reminding you of Gary. Lenora’s laughs are generous, open-mouthed gestures; a view of gray-skulled molars. She is like New Orleans, hedonistic and raucous, a place you never thought you’d find comfort in.

On your first day at Linx Capital where you and Lenora work, she witnessed your cheeks become red blossoms: “You’re such a shy girl.” With her finger, she brushed your chin. She didn’t think you were disturbed. “Overwrought,” like your mother says.

Her body is contagious; you’ve watched how eyes fasten and hook to her moves. And her limbs can devour a room; if you could smell them, they’d be burnt lemon and sugar, succulent, sticky. Her bright red lips magnify a wide-toothed smile when you report to her, bring her files of charts with blue lines inching up, up, up like overlapping equilateral triangles. As the company’s top saleswoman, she has immortalized success.

Eventually, you hear Lenora’s story: she’s married, but she dates. A lot. A blonde self-aware polyamorous. At nineteen, she fell in love with her mother’s nurse, Thalia. The one that broke her heart and her ribs. Her mother died. Thalia left.

“You ever try it?”

Love or breaking ribs, you want to ask.

“Finger bruises are the most common,” she adds. Her honesty, a bite to your throat. You imagine her hands around your neck, your heart pumping like you are alive. Everyone else in the bar swirls their cocktails, eyeing you as you laugh too loudly.

“What exactly is polyamory?” you ask her because you’re from the mountains and your parents are Baptists and what do you know about love or sex or pleasure? Guilt is your habit. You look for your purse, the too-expensive one Gary bought for you after your marriage started to hemorrhage. Most marriages can survive infidelity, your mother-in-law, your counselor, your preacher, your insurance agent said. Yours didn’t. You wonder about Lenora’s.

“I can have it all,” she says. You imagine her love could fill a room and leak out of doors and windows.

“Vermouth,” you hesitate. “Is German for wormwood.” You don’t like the taste, just the name. You want to impress her. “It was once thought to be medicinal, healing.”

“And cocktail sauce is one of God’s little miracles.” Lenora laughs as she dunks a shrimp into a swirl of red sauce. Stops. Fingers the shrimp and pulses it between your lips. Cocktail sauce, like a wet kiss, stains your blouse. You read once that messy eaters make sensual lovers. You wonder about love, about pleasure, about kissing red lips. Once you belly the pink meat, she caresses your ear lobe between her index finger and thumb. You blink into seduction like a magic trick, and you coast into her world.

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Callie G. Gartrell

About Callie G. Gartrell

Callie G. Mauldin's fiction has appeared in poemmemoirstory and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In her spare time, she performs improv comedy with the group Ugly Baby.