For the Love of Holly


Suddenly, I saw that her eyes were welling up with tears.

"What is it, Holly? Why are you crying?"

She threw herself at me and hugged me tight. "I'm so happy right now. I knew you were special the moment I met you. This is going to be the best Christmas this place has ever had!"

As nice as it felt to hold Holly, it got a little awkward when I realized Yolanda was standing in the doorway, watching us. Reluctantly, I peeled Holly off of me. I hoped the reaction my body was having to hers wasn't visible.

Holly saw Yolanda standing there. "Yolanda, guess what? James's culinary school is putting together a benefit for our kitchen. And they're trying to find new corporate donors. They're going to help us give our people a real Christmas dinner!"

"For real?" Yolanda asked. "You think you can pull it off?"

"We're sure as hell going to try," I said.

"James, if you do that, you gonna be the new saint of South Street!"

I said, "Ma's coming with me to a planning meeting tomorrow at my instructor's house. We'll see what we can do. Don't go congratulating me or my school yet. There's an awful lot of work to do, and we're going to need a fair amount of luck to make a difference."

"You can do it, James," Yolanda said. "You sure as hell know how to work. And luck? You make your own luck. Don't ever forget that. You make your own luck, good or bad. I want to hear more about this. But we better work while we talk."

Holly, Yolanda, and I all put on our aprons and hairnets and set to our tasks. When we got the first three kettles of soup simmering, Yolanda said, "Time for a break, James. Holly, you ready to take a break?"

"You two go ahead. I have a little more to do before I can go on break."

"OK," Yolanda called back to her. To me she muttered, "Outside. Now."

When we got outside, Yolanda didn't say anything. She lit a cigarette and took a few drags in silence. Finally, she said, "You remember when I asked you if you was dense?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You remember when we was talking about Holly a few weeks ago and I asked you why you didn't ask her out? I asked you if you was dense, that you couldn't see she was crazy for you. I'm gonna ask you again. Are you dense, or what?"

"You mean that hug? She's happy about the kitchen."

"Of course she is. I'm happy, too. But you didn't see me throwing myself at you and holding you tight like you was a life preserver and I was drowning, did you? I don't think so. That girl is doing everything she can think of to get you to notice her. And don't you dare deny it. I sneaked a look at the front of your blue jeans, boy. You noticed her. Now, when you gonna do something about it?"

"Yolanda, I don't know what to say to you. I told you why I don't want to date anyone right now. And besides, Holly seems like a good girl."

"Of course she's a good girl, dummy! That's why she hugged you the way she did. If she was a bad girl, she woulda stuck her tongue in your mouth and her hand down your pants. Boy, this place means a lot to her. And now you're showing us it means a lot to you. You just opened the door to her for yourself, and you're a damn fool if you don't walk your skinny ass on through!"

"I don't know, Yolanda. I just don't want to get hurt."

"The only one's gonna get hurt around here is her if you keep on ignoring her. I ain't saying you have to fuck her. She may not even want that, at least not right away. But you gotta be both dense and blind if you don't see the way she acts around you. Hell, it getting' on toward Christmas. That's the most romantic time of year. If you don't ask her out, and soon, I'm gonna just set you two up together. And you know me well enough by now to know that I'll do it. I don't know how, yet, but I'll fix you two up. Now, if you don't wanna be embarrassed, I suggest you go ahead and do it yourself."

"Let me think about it, Yolanda," I said.

"Yeah, well don't think too long. Come on, we gotta get ready to make more soup."

Ma came to my apartment to pick me up on Sunday. As we walked out to her car, she said, "The front seat's full of books and papers about the kitchen. I figured I'd bring our financial records along to share with your group. I want them to see how badly we need new donations. You're going to have to sit in the back with Holly."

"Why's Holly with you?" I asked.

"Holly helps me with the books and does a lot with inventory and supplies. It's important for her to get exposure to fund-raising too, and this seemed like a good opportunity," Ma said.

When I got in the back seat, I was stunned. Holly was wearing a casual blouse and skirt and low heels. Every time I had seen her at the kitchen, her blond hair had been pulled back in a ponytail which she then pinned up so it would fit under her hairnet. Now it was loose, flowing, shiny, and framing her face perfectly. She had on some subtle make-up. And her dimples appeared when she smiled at me. She was beautiful. I was in deep trouble.

"Hi, James. I hope you don't mind me tagging along. Ma thought it would be good for me."

"I'm glad you're here," I said honestly. "Wow, you look great! I mean, you always look great, but I've never seen you like this."

Ma laughed from the front seat. "Yeah, Jimmy-boy, she cleans up nice, doesn't she?"

We drove the few miles to Mr. Fredricks' house engaged in an animated three-way conversation. We were all excited about the meeting this afternoon, and full of hope for the progress we could make. At times, I was having difficulty concentrating on what Ma was saying, though. I had trouble taking my eyes off Holly.

The meeting went well. Ma had come fully prepared with copies of the kitchen's annual reports from the last five years, showing a steady increase in the number of meals required each week, and a recent sharp decline in the donations the kitchen was receiving. She made quite an impact on everyone there about the desperate need the center had for additional funding. From the way some of the guys at the meeting were looking at her, I could see that Holly made quite an impact, too.

With Ma's help, we hammered out the language of our publicity campaign. The students had organized themselves into committees, and the heads of those committees presented the recipes we were going to use, along with the way in which we were going to go about getting donations, making sales and collecting money. Mr. Fredricks had already gotten some written promises of donations of food and money, and he presented those, along with the list of restaurant owners who were going to be invited. We made a rough estimate of the proceeds we hoped to be able to donate to the kitchen.

Then Mr. Fredricks floored us. "I've had a stroke of good luck, people," he said. "Our school's head of Public Relations is a good friend of the CEO of the company that owns one of the local TV stations, two FM radio stations, the highest rated AM station in the area, and one of the newspapers. He's assigned a camera crew to be at the kitchen on Thanksgiving to drum up public interest about the work you people are doing. They're also going to do a spot on the evening news at our so-called 'bake sale,' to publicize what we're trying to do for the kitchen. This could be huge, people!"

The meeting broke up shortly after that. We all had our assignments, and we agreed to meet again the following Sunday to discuss our progress.

When we got out to the car, Ma, Holly, and I were all floating on the clouds. "I'd offer to take you kids out to dinner to celebrate," Ma said, "but I have to go back to the kitchen. I have to get the orders for next week finished, so I can get them to our suppliers first thing in the morning."

I knew what I wanted to do, but I was nervous. When we got to my building, I finally blurted it out. "Holly, would you like to get some dinner? There's a great Thai restaurant two blocks from here. I can run you home after that."

"I think that would be very nice, James. I love Thai food, but I haven't had any in years."

"OK with you Ma?" I asked.

"Sure, if Holly trusts riding in that rust-bucket of yours."

"I'll be fine, Ma," Holly said.

Ma dropped us at the curb.

"I want to change clothes. You're dressed too nicely to be seen with a guy in a t-shirt and jeans. Will you come in? It will only take me a minute."

"Sure, James, but you look fine the way you are."

"Not if I'm going out with you," I said.

Holly and I went up to my tiny apartment, and she entertained herself by looking through my cookbook collection while I went to change clothes. I quickly chose a nice shirt and slacks and dressy casual shoes. As I dressed, I thought to myself, "Well, James, this is it. You're going out on a date. What the hell are you thinking?" I pondered that as I was brushing my hair, and realized that I was thinking how excited I was to spend time with Holly away from the kitchen.

We walked to the restaurant. As soon as we got inside, Holly said, "Oh James, this is nice."

"I like it. I used to come here every Saturday night before I started working at the kitchen. Now, I'm too tired after my shift to do much more than go home and fix something to eat, and then fall into bed," I said.

"But it's a good kind of tired, isn't it?" Holly asked.

"The first night, when I got home, I decided I was going to take a shower and then make dinner. I thought I would lie down for a minute to get the kinks out of my back from slaving away all day, but the next thing I knew, it was morning and I was still in my smelly clothes from the kitchen. I've gotten more used to it since then, but it still tires me out. But yes, it's starting to become a good kind of tired," I said.

"I love it there," Holly said. "Some of my friends think I'm nuts, but I just can't imagine going through life not spending some time there every week. I just like to feel that, in some way, I'm helping to make a difference."

"What about after you get out of school?" I asked. "Even if you do wind up going for your degree, after that you're going to want a full-time job. You might not be anywhere around here."

Holly thought for a moment. "My roots are in this city. This is the only place I've ever lived. I'd like to stay around here. If I can get a job in a good restaurant here, I'll still work at the kitchen whenever I can. If I have to leave town to get a job, I'm sure I'll find another kitchen in another city so that I can keep doing this kind of work."

We ate in silence for a few minutes.

"You know," I said, "when the judge first sentenced me to working at the kitchen, I was really upset. I thought the work was beneath me, and I came in there the first day prepared to hate every second of my three hundred hours. Now, I find that I can hardly wait to get there on Saturday mornings. I guess it gets in your blood."

"It does, James. I know it did for me. And look at some of the others. Yolanda has been there for years. She can't leave. Ma's been doing this for longer than anyone can remember. It's her life. I heard JZ say the other day that he's going to keep coming in when he's done at the half-way house, because our patrons remind him of what he was going to become. He also says he likes the people he works with."

"Yeah, that's the thing with me too," I said. "Ma's getting to be more like a mother to me than my own Mom. I don't know what I'd do without Yolanda's teasing and smart-ass humor. That woman really can make me laugh. And, if I stopped working at the kitchen, I wouldn't get to see you." It was out before I realized what I was saying.

Holly looked at me. Her dimples grew very deep as she smiled. "Even if you left," she said shyly, "we could still be friends."

"I can't see myself leaving," I said. "But you're right, I would still want us to be friends."

I paid our bill and helped Holly with her jacket. I could smell that cologne again.

"Do you have to go straight home?" I asked.

"I do have class in the morning, but it's not that late. What do you want to do?" Holly asked.

"Walk with you. And talk."

"I'd like that," Holly said softly.

We walked aimlessly for a while, talking about the kitchen and the people there. Finally, Holly stopped and turned me to look at her.

"I've always been a little shy, and I guess I'm a pretty traditional type of girl, so I'm not good at this," Holly began, "but I have to know something. Why do you seem to avoid me, James?"

We had found ourselves at the entrance to a small park. I guided Holly over to a bench, and we sat down. "I don't know how much Yolanda has told you about how I wound up getting sentenced to work at the kitchen. It was because of a girl," I said. I then told Holly the whole story about Marcy, starting with how I met her, detailing the growth of my love for her, and finishing with her betrayal of me. "I thought I was in love with her, Holly. I thought she was the one for me, forever. Now, of course, I know how foolish I was. But it's made me very afraid of getting hurt again. I'm afraid to let myself feel attracted to another woman."

"I'm not Marcy," Holly said quietly.

"No, you're not. I see that much clearly. But it's me. I'm just not sure I can afford to act on my attraction to another girl," I said.

"Are you attracted to me, James?"

"Very much. You're beautiful, smart, a hard worker, a woman with goals, and you're a lot of fun to be with."

"Well, since it's honesty time, I'll tell you. I'm attracted to you too, James."

"I like hearing you say, that. I'm just not sure I'm ready for more than a friendship. I think I want more, but I'm just not ready."

"That's OK, James. I can wait."

I put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder. Feeling Holly against my side had my mind working very hard. I knew I liked this girl. I knew I wanted her. But I didn't know what to do about it.

There was a church next to the park. The bell in its tower struck 9 o'clock.

"Holly, I have an 8am class tomorrow. I guess I should get you home."

"I have early classes too," she said.

I stood, and extended my hand to help her up. We walked, holding hands, not speaking, back to the parking lot at my apartment. I held her door for her as she got in my car. Other than giving me directions to her apartment, Holly said nothing as we drove, and neither did I.

When we got to her place, I walked her to her door. "Thank you for going to dinner with me, Holly," I said.

"I had a great time with you, James, both at dinner and afterward."

A part of me wanted to flee, but a much bigger part of me hoped she would invite me in to stay the night. Holly was just standing there, staring into my eyes, as though she was trying to read my thoughts. Finally, I broke the silence.

"Will you come to next Sunday's meeting with me? Now that I know where you live, I could pick you up."

"Come here at noon. I'll have lunch ready. Then we can go to the meeting together," she said. "And maybe we can hang out a little after the meeting, too."

"That would be nice. Well, I guess I'll see you at the kitchen Saturday."

"OK," she said. She turned away from me, got her key out of her purse and opened the door.

"Holly?" I said.

She turned to face me again. "Yes, James?"

I pulled her to me and kissed her. I had intended it to be a light friendly kiss, and that is how it started. But it lingered. And grew. Her hands went to my neck and my arms pulled her against me. The kiss changed from one of friendship to one that promised much more. She felt good in my arms, her slender form pressed against me, her breasts against my chest, her hips against mine, my growing erection pushing against her belly, her lips parting against my mouth. Before I knew it was happening, my tongue had touched hers, and I could tell we both liked it.

When we finally parted, I could see her nipples straining against her shirt. "I'm looking forward to next weekend," I said.

"So am I," Holly said, her dimpled cheeks glowing. "Good night, James."

It took me a long time to get to sleep that night. My thoughts were a jumble of nervousness and desire. I had never known a girl quite like Holly, and I had never been attracted to a girl this way before. Not even Marcy. I thought about my relationship with Marcy for a while, and realized that, as much as I had thought I loved her, she had never inspired the emotions in me that my one kiss with Holly had.

When I finally fell asleep, I had some very entertaining dreams.

The next week flew by. At school, we were spending more time on plans for our fund-raiser than we were on actual cooking lessons, but Mr. Fredricks thought the organizational work we were doing was valuable, so he encouraged us. By Wednesday, things were coming together nicely. I had to tell Holly, so I called her on my lunch break at work. I think she was a little surprised that I called, but we had a nice talk.

Saturday morning, I sought out Ma as soon as I got to the kitchen. "Ma, I have Wednesday night off from work, so I'm going to be here Wednesday afternoon this week to work the dinner shift, and I can be here all day Friday and Saturday."

"Well, Jimmy-boy, that would be nice, but I don't know if we really need the help on Wednesday."

"Tell someone else to take off, or put me to work cleaning the place up to get ready for the TV crew on Thanksgiving day," I said.

"Oh lord, Jimmy-boy, the whole place needs a coat of paint, but there's no way we can do that while people are here. But if you're serious about working Wednesday, I bet I can find someone who would be willing to stay home to start working on Thanksgiving dinner for their own family. I'll let you know. Say, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?"

"Working here," I said.

"Yes, but after we close. Are you going to your Mom's place for a late Thanksgiving dinner?"

"No, Ma, the only thing she'll want to do for Thanksgiving is snuggle up with a bottle of Wild Turkey, and I just can't stand to be around her when she's like that. I'll probably just go back to my apartment and fix something."

"Nonsense. You're coming to my house. I already invited Yolanda and a few others for turkey and all the rest, and Holly's going to be there." She gave me a knowing smile.

"I'd love to come, Ma," I said. "That would be really nice."

I went to my work station and found Yolanda already suited up and elbow deep in prep work.

"Hey lover-boy," she said, "I hear you had a real good time on Sunday with Holly. About time you started acting like a man around her."

"Knock it off, Yolanda. We had dinner and went for a walk. That's it."

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yes, I did."

"Did you spend the night with her?"

"No, and even if I had, I wouldn't tell you!"

"Did you kiss her? Now don't you go lyin' to Aunt Yolanda, boy. I can smell a liar from a coupla blocks away."

I was embarrassed, but she was right. I couldn't lie to her. "Yes, Yolanda, I kissed her."

"Did she kiss you back?"

"Yes, she did."

"Was it good?"

"Yes, it was. Now please, can we drop this?"

"For now," Yolanda said, giving me a wicked smile. "But don't you go thinkin' I'm gonna let you alone about this. You gotta make a serious play for that girl. She's ripe for the pickin', and she wants you to make a move. Get your man on and go for it."

We settled into our usual frantic routine, and break time came up fast. I barely had time to talk to Holly while we worked, but at break, we all put our jackets on and went outside. As Yolanda smoked a cigarette, the three of us talked.

"Ma tells me you're coming with us to Thanksgiving dinner at her house after we close on Thursday," Holly said.

"She invited me this morning. I think it will be fun. I'm looking forward to having dinner with the people who have sort of become my new family," I said.

"I never thought I'd be family to some punk white boy," Yolanda wise-cracked.

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