By Clare Fielder
You lie awake at night and you try not to love her. You tell yourself things that are true and things that aren’t. She hates you. You’re nothing. You can do better. She’s ugly. You’re ugly. And after every thought your gut says, But, But, But.
Some days when you are with her, you feel happier than you’ve felt since you were seven years old, being allowed to eat dinner in your tree house with your best friend, before her family moved to China and before your parents got divorced. She makes you feel like the world has things in store for you. She is inevitable. You feel your hand reaching for her hand. Her ink stained fingers twitch, and you think she will pull her hand away, but then she doesn’t.
You tell one friend, and by the end of the day whispers are following you from classroom to classroom, to and from your locker. You act like everything’s fine. Ms. Aspeth calls you into her office to talk about the ways in which your special relationship is making other girls uncomfortable. She says you shouldn’t feel like this is something you have to talk about. She tells you to be careful. She sighs a lot. You get good grades and she didn’t expect this kind of a rebellion. You don’t know what to say. You feel like a victim and a criminal, although it hadn’t occurred to you that you were either.
You think about every picture you have ever seen. On sitcoms in textbooks on the front covers of novels in Ikea catalogues on billboards on cereal boxes in family photo albums in magazines and newspapers and game shows and on the sides of buses etc. None of them look like you. It’s never two girls gazing into the future, or doing crossword puzzles in bed. Think: This is not what your future is supposed to look like. Think: Is this a choice? Think: It would be so much easier not to be this.
You finally understand what all the fuss is about. Having someone to lean into when you’re standing out on the train platform and it’s winter; having someone you don’t get bored of; being able to think of yourself as someone. You undress her for the first time and you are exactly where you want to be.
It happens in your bedroom after school. When she puts her hand under your shirt, you freeze. You are too much flesh, too pale, too awkward. She pulls your shirt over your head and kisses your stomach, your arms. She makes you brave. Her arms are warm around you. She leaves before your mum gets home from work, and you cry a little for your lost childhood. You stare at yourself in the mirror and wonder if people will be able to tell just from looking at you, as if her fingertips left their shadows behind them.
You learn to lie to your parents. Every lie makes your lungs and your stomach feel wrung out, but you can’t stop. To your mum, you say you are at the library when you’re in the park with her after school. To your dad you say nothing. Omit everything.
On her eighteenth birthday, she gets a feather tattooed onto the palm of her hand. She says it will remind her to treat the world gently. You stand beside her while the needle buzzes and you try to distract her by telling her the stories your dad told you when you were small: How the Elephant Got His Trunk and The Little Red Hen. After a week, her skin heals and she touches you and you feel safe like a bird tucked into a nest.
You walk through school corridors dodging eyes, waiting for the next time Ms. Aspeth calls you into her office to talk about inappropriate behaviour. She bans girls from linking arms in the corridors, reminding them that they don’t want to give the wrong impression. They look at you in a way that says, You’re ruining this for the rest of us. Ms. Aspeth calls your mum at work to talk about the situation. There have been complaints.
In May the blossom petals skitter over the road, breaking like waves against the kerb. Walking home, she picks a petal out of your hair, and you think that maybe you’ve been wrong all these years and you could be beautiful after all.
The boy next door says you’re not cool enough to be a lesbian. Girls at school ask which one of you is the man. When you’re walking around the market, men see you holding hands and offer to fix you. A man follows you onto the bus and whispers in your ear until you get off before your stop. He uses words you don’t want to repeat, even though you don’t fully understand them. You know they are violent and shameful. You worry about being seen. You don’t stand too close together at the bus stop at night. You don’t always feel safe.
Six months in, she starts crying when you touch her. She says it’s not you, she says it’s nothing. You say it’s fine, then you both sit at her kitchen table and do homework, helping each other work through simultaneous equations.
When she leaves you, you collapse in a way so humiliating that you think you can never see her or anyone again, just because of the sounds you made. You walk through school hallways with your jaw set, you stare down anyone who looks twice at you and then you shut yourself in the sports equipment closet to cry at lunch. You curl up on top of an old pommel horse that smells of sweat and you never want to move.
At home, you push away the plates of food your mum cooks for you. You scream things you hope you don’t mean. She drives you to school in silence. You overhear her take another call from the school and wait for her to bring it up or use it against you but she doesn’t. You wish she would, just so you could feel like some of your anger was justified.
You try to shake the thought that the world doesn’t want you.
You search for the words to define yourself and practice saying them aloud. You listen to sad songs and eventually you don’t think of her when you hear them. You finish school. You leave home. You make new friends. You take up swimming. Someone walks past you wearing the perfume she used to wear and you can’t breathe, but then it passes. You read books. You get haircuts. You love people and then you hurt them or they hurt you, and although the pain is a little different each time it doesn’t take you by surprise.
Sometimes, when you can’t sleep or you pass someone who looks like her on the street, you think about how it started. You kissed her for the first time in the art room after school. There was the smell of paint and charcoal and good paper. You felt her hipbone through her jeans and her hand was on the back of your neck and the feeling was: of course. Like nothing had ever been wrong.
Clare Fielder has an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Mason’s Road, Tremors, and as part of the “Norwich –City of Stories” campaign. She currently lives in Hanoi and is working on a novel.