Kristen heard a man at the front of the crowd say, “Now I’m going to let my colleague tell you about what you’re going to taste.” A few people clapped.
A melodic woman’s voice chimed in. “Thank you. We both come from a farming-ranching background, so we understand the importance of raw ingredients. We have our own twelve-acre farm north of St. John’s.”
The room was hot.
Sierra said, “It’s really crowded. Do you want to try the next one?”
“We put our heart and soul into this production.” The woman’s voice floated over the crowd.
Kristen couldn’t see her, but the cadence was familiar. It was the same slight twang that had infused Marydale’s voice when she told stories about Tristess.
The man interrupted. “My friend here actually waters the ground with her tears.”
The crowd chuckled.
“No, I’m serious,” the man said. “The first night after planting she goes out to the fields—”
“And you’re going to taste all of that,” the woman cut in, “when I pour the first round.”
Kristen edged forward, listening.
“What is it?” Sierra asked.
The couple in front of Kristen stepped to the side, and Kristen stepped into the space they had vacated. Behind a folding table covered in a black cloth, a banner read Sadfire Distillers. On either side of the table, a bronze contraption, like some steampunk creation from the Alberta Arts Walk, released a blaze of flame. But Kristen wasn’t admiring the craftsmanship or thinking about the liability of open flames in a low-ceilinged room almost certainly over the 148-person capacity listed by the door. She wasn’t thinking about anything now, because she wasn’t breathing, because it was Marydale behind the table, like a vision in a dream. Her blond hair was pulled up in an aggressive bouffant ponytail, and her arms were tattooed in a swirl of oxblood and black, the bodies of women intertwining in the ink. She looked older and tougher and gorgeous.
“So what are we going to taste, Mary?” It was Aldean beside her.
Marydale took a skewer from the table, wrapped a piece of cotton around the end and dipped it into a snifter.
“We’re going to start with the Consummation Rye,” Marydale said. She flicked the end of the skewer through the flame at her side, tilted her head back, opened her mouth, and, accompanied by the “ooh” of the crowd, she lowered the torch into her mouth. The flame disappeared. She set the skewer down and lifted the snifter to her lips and, in flagrant violation of Oregon Liquor Control Commission server regulations, took a long sip.
“Well played,” her friend said. “What do you taste, Mary?”
Marydale turned to Aldean. “You’re going to find this surprisingly smooth for such a young whiskey, although it does still have a bite, and I think that’s part of its charm. It’s going to mellow, but you’re going to miss its youth.”
Kristen felt the stiff, gray fabric of her suit holding her in place. Marydale was there, only feet away, real, breathing, her hair glistening. Kristen had practiced this moment in her imagination a thousand times, this exact moment when their eyes met and Marydale recognized her.
For just a second, Marydale seemed to lose her train of thought. Then she resumed. “Large commercial distilleries produce consistent quality, but they sacrifice character.”
Kristen had dreamed about this reunion. She had seen Marydale in the crowds around Pioneer Square and in the quick flash of a TriMet window, her face forever disappearing into another person’s image. A rational voice in the back of her mind told Kristen she was overreacting. The strange longing that filled her when she thought of Marydale was just the first pangs of middle age creeping into her thirties. It was the kind of nostalgia Sierra and Donna would never feel because Sierra lived in a semi-platonic, semi-polyamorous partnership with Frog and Moss, and Donna dated a never-ending roster of assholes.
Marydale held the glass up to the flame. Someone lowered the lights, making dark shadows of Marydale’s eyes.
“First,” she said, “you’ll smell the earth. Now, don’t let those wine connoisseurs get away with telling you it smells earthy, like that’s a thing. Earth is specific. Farmers know that. This is our parcel.” She smelled the whiskey. “If you’re very careful—and please don’t drink to excess because you’ll miss everything—you can smell the roots of our heritage oak. Yes. Aldean is right. They’re there, too.” She put the glass to her lips and took another sip. “It’s frost on a really clear day in December when you’re lonely despite all the Christmas going on around you. You can also taste summer’s wildfires. This batch was aged in barrels made out of ten percent reclaimed wood from the Firesteed burn. And if you haven’t seen one of those fires up close, you haven’t looked into the eye of God.”
The crowd hushed.
“Now, here I’ve got a little bit of water,” Marydale went on. “It’s from Multnomah Falls, and, friends, even if you don’t take your whiskey with water, you need to at least taste it with water. Water opens the whiskey up.” She poured a little bit of water from a silver pitcher and smelled it again. “There it is.” She paused and looked directly at Kristen. “Your old lover’s perfume woken from the leather seat of your pickup the day you take it to the scrap yard. The body. Lovemaking. Loan. Madrone bark in sunlight. The pencil you once used to write love letters.” Her voice grew louder. She raised the glass to the crowd. “A woman’s hair slick with sweat. That first taste, so strange and so familiar.” She took a sip of the whiskey, set it down, and beamed at the crowd. Her teeth were perfect.
The crowd applauded.
“That, friends, is how you taste a whiskey,” Aldean said.
My wife recently dubbed my writing “so-ro,” short for romance with a social conscience. I guess that’s what I do. Whether I’m exploring the problems of gentrification or the evils of human trafficking, every book I write has a lesbian romance at its heart and a social issue in mind. They’re the kind of books that read like fun, lazy-Saturday page-turners and yet leave your unexpectedly enlightened. That’s two for the price of one and way more fun that keeping up with the news.