Nicole lifted her head of short black hair and looked at the group of women that were quickly approaching her. She put her phone away and smiled. Her smile turned into a bit of a wince as Ashley arrived and practically threw herself at Nicole. Why must she always hug me?
“Hi!” Ashley finally released her and introduced her to the group of women with her. Nicole had never been with this particular group of women despite Ashley having badgered her about joining them for ages. For once Nicole hadn’t been on call, a not-so-much-favour from her boss who had finally had enough of Nicole’s workaholic ways and told her to take the whole weekend off. I don’t want to have the union breathing down my neck, he had said. So don’t call them then, had been Nicole’s answer. It hadn’t mattered. She was banned from the hospital for at least 72 hours. This of course meant that she’d had no excuse when Ashley had invited her to go out with a group and watch Into the Woods. They weren’t really the musical-going crowd but a friend of a friend was playing Little Red Riding Hood and a couple of free tickets had spread through the group. Including the ticket that Ashley now handed Nicole.
“Don’t look so grumpy, Nicky.” Ashley winked and then not-so-subtly nodded to a tall, blonde woman who had been introduced as Leila. So that’s why Ashley has been so eager to get me to go out. Nicole sighed. She had agreed to go to a musical, not a blind date!
Leila fell into step next to her as they walked. The show was about to start and it was time to find their seats. Nicole threw a look of desperation at Ashley’s back as Leila placed her hand on her arm.
“Excited to see the show?”
“It’s not really my thing but I think it’ll be nice.”
“Oh I hope so. Nonnie has been talking about nothing for weeks.” Nonnie? Nicole assumed that Nonnie was the woman playing Little Red Riding Hood but what kind of name was Nonnie?
“That’s nice.” Nicole couldn’t wait to reach their seats and unintentionally started walking faster. They stopped by the entrance to show their tickets and Ashley turned around and raised an eyebrow in Nicole’s direction. Nicole was about to glare back when Leila leaned closer and started talking again. Ashley’s expression brightened and she turned around, leaving Nicole to her fate.
“I’m so glad you came tonight,” Leila said, “Ashley has told me how much you work. It’s good to take a break sometimes.”
Nicole straightened her back and pulled away a little bit.
“I like my job.”
“Oh I didn’t mean it like that, I…” Leila looked unsure and removed her arm. A slight blush spread across the tip of her slightly freckled nose. Nicole felt rude.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I just like to work a lot. Gives my life meaning.”
Leila nodded and switched from unsure to smiling invitingly. She pressed herself closer to Nichole as they passed through the doorway, even though it was adequately large for the both of them. It was going to be a long night.
* * *
Despite wishing that she was at the hospital, Nicole had to admit that the show was more than an adequate form of entertainment. She enjoyed the songs and the clever, sometimes subtle, jokes. There was something comforting about sitting in the dark theater, laughing with other people. Nicole had to admit that she even enjoyed Leila’s nearness, and the way she sometimes let their arms brush against each other during the show. It had been too long since she had had any real attention from a woman. And Leila clearly wanted her attention in return.
After the show, Ashley caught Nicole outside the restroom.
“So, how is it going?”
Nicole didn’t even ask what she was referring to.
“I’m having a good time.” Nicole admitted. “The show was very good. The friend of yours, Ninni, Nonnie, whatever her name is, did a wonderful job.”
Ashley frowned exaggeratedly.
“Are you being intentionally obtuse? I mean with Leila of course.” Ashley wiggled her eyebrows.
“She’s nice.” Nicole looked to Leila who was standing not too far away, talking with the other women in the group. Not my type though. Leila was very conventionally beautiful, tall, lean and with shiny fair hair. Nicole couldn’t put her finger on it; she just knew that there was no real future there.
“She’s gorgeous, and funny. Plus I can’t remember the last time you went on a date. Your libido must be screaming at you by now.”
Nicole chuckled. Ashley had always had a way with words.
“Don’t give me that look,” Ashley said when Nicole stopped chuckling. “I love you both and I think you would complement each other very well. Plus I’ve been talking you up like you wouldn’t know. She’s very interested.”
“Is she now?” Nicole took another long look at Leila who turned around and flashed her a vivid smile. She is pretty, Nicole had to admit that much.
“Ask her out.” It wasn’t a question, Ashley was telling her and Nicole felt a twinge of annoyance. She wished she was back in the operating room; the theater where she legitimately belonged.
“I’ll see.” She started turning away and Ashley grabbed her arm again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so pushy,” she said. “I just want you to think things through before you make a decision. That’s all.”
“What are you girls talking about?” Leila had approached them and she threaded her arm through Nicole’s with an ingratiating smile on her face.
“Nothing.” Nicole smiled at Leila and found that it wasn’t particularly forced. She cleared her throat. “We were just talking about the show.”
“It was wonderful, wasn’t it?” Leila exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see Nonnie now. She’s supposed to meet us any minute, as soon as she had changed.”
Nicole had known from the beginning that they were planning to go to a bar after the show but she hadn’t known that some people from the cast were coming with them.
“There she is!”
Ashley smiled at someone behind Leila and Nicole, they turned around. It was Little Red Riding Hood; gone was the hood, and the wig of curly brown hair, but something about the woman who was basically skipping towards them still gave quite a juvenile impression. She smiled like the Cheshire cat, her blonde flyaway hair standing around her head like a aureola; it was impossible to not answer her smile. She is so cute.
“Nonnie!” Leila let go of Nicole to pull her friend into her arms. It was comical to watch Nonnie turn her face awkwardly instead of being squashed into Leila’s rather ample bosom.
“You were great,” Leila continued, “absolutely awesome. You didn’t have to worry about anything.”
“I wasn’t really worried.” Nonnie smiled widely. “But I’m still glad the first show is over.” She wiped her forehead dramatically. “An actress with stage fright huh? Scandalous!”
Nicole chuckled and Nonnie looked at her.
“Hi,” Nicole said. “Lovely performance.”
Nonnie held out her hand and Nicole shook it.
“Thank you.” Nonnie’s grip was firm despite having the most delicate little hands and her smile was captivating. She had grey eyes, Nicole noticed. Then she also noticed that they had been smiling and just shaking their hands up and down for longer than what was appropriate. It seemed to dawn on Nonnie at the same time and they let go, Nonnie letting out an embarrassed little laugh as she did.
“So are we ready to go?” Leila asked. “It would be nice if we got there before the bars closed.” She was looking mildly annoyed, but quickly smiled as Nonnie left to talk to the other women in their group.
“Where are we going?” Nicole wasn’t a boring person; she was just always working and had been for several years. She didn’t know where the gang usually went on a Friday night.
“There’s a lesbian place that’s nice,” Leila said as she again threaded their arms together. Her boldness was starting to annoy Nicole and she gently, yet firmly, pulled her arm away and instead went to stand on Ashley’s other side. She realised it was slightly harsh, but if this was to be her only night out, she needed to enjoy herself. Not be pestered by a woman she didn’t even know. If Ashley says anything now, I will just…
“Let’s just go,” Ashley said, not looking at either of them. They started walking towards the exit, Nonnie guiding Ashley and Leila with Nicole walking after them. It was cold out and after stopping by the coat room there was a big hassle putting on hats, gloves, and big fluffy scarves.
Nicole wasn’t one for accessories; and she just had her black winter coat. She turned up the collar so it would protect her neck against the wind. She looked at Nonnie who was struggling trying to put on her scarf while carrying both a bag and her mittens. She looked up and noticed that Nicole was looking at her.
“Sorry, could you help me?” She held out her mittens and the bag and waited for Nicole to grab them. “Thanks.” With her hands finally free she could wrap her forest green scarf around her neck with no problem. When she finished Nicole handed her the mittens and then finally her purse.
“Thanks,” Nonnie said. “It was harder than I thought.”
They headed out, Leila still staying away from her. Instead Nicole and Nonnie walked next to each other in the back of the group.
The air was crisp outside and mist came out of their mouths with every exhale. There wasn’t snow yet, but soon there would be. There streets were slightly slippery and Nicole struggled to not misstep and fall, but Nonnie danced over the ice, not slipping once. Their eyes met as Nicole almost fell and grabbed Nonnie’s arm in the process.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Nonnie chuckled lightly. “Why don’t you walk closer to the edge of the sidewalk, there’s less ice there.”
They switched places and noticed that the others had kept walking and were now quite further away.
“Should we catch up?” Nicole gave Nonnie a look.
“You want to run on the ice? Really?” The look in Nonnie’s eyes was teasing and Nicole had to chuckle as well. Gosh, she is pretty.
“Yeah, maybe not.” They walked in silence for a minute or two
“So what do you do?” Nonnie asked.
“I’m a surgeon,” Nicole answered.
“That’s cool. Must be stressful.”
“It is, but it’s worth it.” Nicole smiled as she thought of her work, the love of her life. “I’ve loved it from the very beginning.”
“That’s good. Passion is important. Otherwise life gets boring.”
Nonnie suddenly grabbed her arm and stopped still.
“Oh I’m sorry, maybe you want to catch up with your date. How rude of me!”
“My date?” Nicole wasn’t sure what Nonnie was referring to, temporarily distracted by the moon reflected in Nonnie’s eyes.
“Yeah. Leila? Or did I read that completely wrong. I just realised that you must be the hot surgeon that Ashley has been selling her for weeks.”
Hot surgeon? Oh Ashley you are so dead. Nicole felt her cheeks heating despite the cold weather. She chuckled awkwardly.
“Yeah, must be. But no, she’s not my date. Maybe that was Leila and Ashley’s plan, but it wasn’t mine.”
They reached the bar and went inside. Their friends had already found a table and Ashley waved them over. They had chosen a booth and Nicole saw no other choice but to slip in next to Leila. Nonnie then sat down next to her.
They ordered drinks and some finger food, Leila and Ashley loudly exclaiming that the nachos in this place were to die for. Nicole leaned backwards and sighed contently, hoping that the rest of the night would pass without any more awkwardness. Leila seemed to be practically ignoring her, just giving her small glances from time to time.
“So how do you know Ashley?” Nonnie asked after a little while, picking at the nachos in front of her but not eating any. “She’s your friend right?”
Nicole swallowed her mouthful and nodded.
“I’ve known Ashley since high school, but I’ve been friends with Beth for a long time too.” Nicole made a gesture towards one of the women on the other side of the table. “What about you?”
“I’m Leila’s friend,” Nonnie said. “We’re actually neighbours. I was happy when she told me that a couple of you were going out tonight after the show. Usually I would have gone out with the cast but tonight two of them had some other engagement, and some others wanted to get mindlessly drunk. Not really my scene. This seemed perfect.”
I’m glad, Nicole thought but didn’t say. She was glad that Nonnie had come along, even if she couldn’t exactly pin-point why.
“I’m sorry, I have to ask.” Nonnie looked at her, waiting for the question.
“Is your name really Nonnie?”
Nonnie giggled and Nicole thought she could detect at a small blush. It was incredibly cute, and Nicole couldn’t help the grin that graced her lips.
“Well, no, of course not. My parents weren’t crazy enough to name me something like that.” Nonnie kept laughing. “They were worse!” She dropped the nacho she was holding and instead took a sip of her colourful drink. “My full name is Niente Nunster. And yes, that’s Niente as in nothing in Italian.”
Nicole’s mouth dropped. Niente? Nonnie shook her head.
“I know, I know. My mum fell in love with a fairytale when she was young called The Princess Nothing. In it, the queen had a daughter that she couldn’t name right away for some reason so she called her Niente. I don’t remember the whole story anymore, just that the princess does get a real name in the end, something I never did. At least it’s a memorable name.”
“It must be an asset in your line of work,” Nicole agreed.
“Exactly.” Nonnie nodded. “I’ve hated it most of my life, though. But I suppose it works.”
“Did you ever…” think about changing it? Nicole had the question on her lips but didn’t know if it was rude to ask.
“I’ve thought of changing it, yes. But then I thought about my mum and how much she loved that fairytale. And me. It would feel wrong.”
The question must have been evident on Nicole’s face because Nonnie continued.
“She died when I was eleven.” Nonnie’s smile was both sad and happy in the same time. She held up a hand when Nicole opened her mouth to say her condolences. “It’s fine, I stopped grieving a long time ago.”
She picked up the nacho again and held it in front of her mouth. She sighed and put it down again.
“Why don’t you just have it?” Nicole asked. Clearly Nonnie wanted it but didn’t dare to, for some reason or another.
“Yeah, I suppose.” She sounded wistful but put it in her mouth now, chewed quickly and then swallowed. Then she took another one. Chewed it carefully.
“Sorry, you must think I’m so silly,” she said afterwards. “I’ve just been getting a lot of grief about my size lately.”
Her size? Nicole glanced down, and then up again. Nonnie wasn’t big. Maybe a little bit round, but not in any way that didn’t suit her.
“Let’s face it,” Nonnie said. “I’m in a play that has both Cinderella and Rapunzel, and I play Little Red Riding Hood.”
“But a cute one.”
“Thanks.” She smiled.
Leila sighed loudly and twitched impatiently. Nicole turned around and looked at her questioningly.
“Can you move? I have to go to the restroom.”
Nonnie and Nicole shared a look, both of them equally startled at Leila’s rude tone. Or so it seemed anyway. They got out so that Leila could slip out and sat back down. Ashley immediately leaned forward and motioned for Nicole to do the same.
“Leila really likes you.” How is it possible we’ve hardly spoken all night? “Are you sure there is no future there?”
“Why can’t Leila talk for herself?” Nicole was starting to feel annoyed but then she remembered that Nonnie was Leila’s friend and felt awkward about the whole thing. She turned quiet and focused on her drink instead.
Something buzzed next to her leg, and Nonnie reached for her purse that was between them. She took out her phone and pressed on it.
“Well, that’s my cue to go home.” She finished the last of her drink.
Nicole felt a stab of emotion in the pit of her stomach; she didn’t want Nonnie to go yet.
Nonnie got up and started the ritual of putting on her coat, scarf and gloves again.
“Yeah.” She looked to the side, avoiding Nicole’s gaze. “I only have a babysitter until midnight.” She has a child?
“Want me to call you a cab?” Nicole felt a sudden need to be helpful.
“No, I think I’ll walk,” Nonnie said. “I live just a few blocks from here anyway.”
Over Nonnie’s shoulder, Nicole spotted Leila coming back from the restroom, and she made a rash decision.
“Do you mind if I walk with you?”
Nicole wasn’t in the mood for sitting next to Leila and Ashley all night anyway. This would provide an excellent excuse to exit, plus let her have extra time with Nonnie suddenly felt very important. She also didn’t like the idea of Nonnie walking by herself so late in the night.
“Are you sure?” Nonnie’s face held a small, hopeful smile. “I can walk by myself, it’s no problem.”
Nicole stood up and hurried to put on her coat. She said goodbye to Ashley. Before Leila had even reached the table, Nicole had guided Nonnie through the door and headed back out in the cold.
The wind had picked up outside and Nicole shivered involuntarily. She stuffed her bare hands into her pockets.
“It’s October,” Nonnie said in a low voice. “You should have been more prepared.” She looked perfectly warm and Nicole envied her cozy scarf. Before she had had a chance to reply, Nonnie hooked her arm around Nicole’s and huddled closer.
“Is this better?”
You have no idea. A tingling warmth spread from the arm closest to Nonnie and spread through Nicole’s body before settling in her chest. Much, much better.
They started walking down the street, silence falling between them. They had just met but it felt very natural to walk down the empty street side by side.
“So you’re a mom?” Maybe it was a stupid question, but Nicole was genuinely curious.
“Yes.” Nonnie’s tone was full of affection and something sounding like pride. “His name is Anthony. He is ten.”
Nicole was taken aback. Either Nonnie was much older than she seemed or…
“I was just 15 when I had him.”
“Oh.” Nicole didn’t know what else to say.
“Don’t worry,” Nonnie continued, “you don’t need to say anything. I don’t regret anything even though maybe I should. And he is my whole life.” She took a deep breath. “I might not go out much but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Nonnie gave her a look.
“I mean,” Nicole hurried to say, “I can’t understand completely of course. But I feel like that too. I’ve dedicated my life to my job. I don’t go out often, I just work. I wouldn’t trade that for the world either. Even if not everyone understands.”
They stopped outside an apartment building.
“This is me.” Nonnie released her arm, leaving her feeling a little bit cold and bereft. “Well, doctor, you’re free to go. Your wild night out is over.” Her smile was teasing and Nicole chuckled.
“Don’t thank me,” Nonnie said. “It’s been nice meeting you.”
They were facing each other at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the door; giving off the impression of being the end of a first date. Nicole felt the flittering of butterflies in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been on a date, not counting the strange blind date she had had with Leila.
“I should go up.” Nonnie sounded wistful.
“Yeah, of course. I won’t keep you.” Nicole took a step back.
Nonnie turned towards the stairs but didn’t move forward.
“Maybe…” she looked down on her shoes, hiding the smile that Nicole could hear in her voice. “Maybe if you ever feel like spending some other time off you could give me a call.”
“You’re asking me out?”
Nonnie nodded and looked up. Her cheeks were red from the cold and her eyes sparkled with hope.
“I would love to,” Nicole said before she’d even thought about it. For the moment she forgot about everything other than Nonnie’s eyes and the little dimple on her left cheek.
“Can I give you my number?”
Nicole took out her phone and added Nonnie as a new contact. Her fingers were stiff in the cold but she managed.
“Great! Well… bye!” Nonnie looked unsure before she stood on tiptoe and pressed a quick kiss to Nicole’s cheek. Then she was gone.
Nicole touched her cheek with icy cold fingers. What just happened? Unable to contain her smile, she started walking home.
Above her the first snow clouds were forming. Something new had begun; she just didn’t know it yet.