You arrive late to your first lecture of the semester and decide to sit next to her in the back row because you both have that vague, not-quite-acquaintances idea of each other. She knows your friends and you know hers. You see each other around sometimes and think “Oh, yeah. It’s that girl.”
She says hello but it’s slightly awkward and after you sit down you pull out your books and find yourself lost for words. All you can do is stare. For the first time ever you really take her in. Her eyes are deep pools of turquoise and you find yourself sinking into them. They crinkle slightly and she blinks. You’ve been staring too long. You look away too quickly. You discover she makes you nervous.
You’re concentrating very hard on doodling an ocean of swirls in your margins with a blue pen and not looking, definitely not looking at her. Suddenly the lights are off and the lecturer is playing a dumb Facebook meme video on the big screen. You haven’t been listening so you’re not sure how this is relevant to what he was talking about, but you laugh anyway and so does she. You sneak a look across at her in the dark. She catches your eye and smiles.
You invite her to see a film and she accepts, but she brings her best friend along. They talk to each other and not to you. You all get gelato before you go into the cinema. She gets pistachio and you get chocolate. Her friend gets this new flavour “after dinner mint”, which disgusts you. Mint is gross.
The film is beautiful but ultimately a disappointment. The characters annoy you and there’s no plot. You stop paying attention and think about her hand, palm upwards on the arm rest between you. The thought of her fingers interlocked with yours makes you dizzy. Her skin looks so soft and you become excruciatingly aware of the fact that you have never touched her before. Not once. Not even by accident.
She drives you home. Her car is a mess. It smells musty and there are towels and fast food wrappers and empty soft drink cans all over the floor. There’s roller-skates under the front passenger seat. She tells you they’ve been there for over a year and you believe her.
She comes over to your house for dinner so you can work on an assignment together. With her she brings a jar of warhead lollies a man gave to her at work as a present. Their sweet sourness seeps into the cracks of your cheeks and your chapped lips and makes them sting, but you can’t stop sucking. When she eats them she puckers her lips like a fish.
She tells you her favourite movie is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You think that might be the reason she dyed her hair that colour but you’re not sure. Either way, it’s the same exact shade as Kate Winslet’s Clementine in the part of the movie where they have the fight at the restaurant. The part when Jim Carey says: “She’s going to be drunk and stupid now.”
At the table your mother says she likes the colour. This a big deal because she is usually always going on about how dyed hair looks tacky.
After she leaves your sisters tell you they thought she was pretty. Your mother says, “I liked that girl. You should invite her round more often.”
You get burritos together after class on Friday. You tell her you think the lecturer looks like the Penguin from Batman, which he does, and she laughs. You tell her you think the tutor looks like a cross between a potato and a baby and she laughs harder. Your legs tremble under the table. She asks you what you think she looks like. You ponder this for a moment. She looks like the prickling pain behind your eyes before you cry and the sharp tang of blood in your mouth when you bite your tongue. She is glowing. She is radiant. She looks like she has swallowed the sun.
She got a haircut the other day. It’s shorter now and falls just below her ears, with a short little fringe in the middle of her forehead. Backlit by the sun, it’s shining brilliant red. Tangerine. Clementine. You’ve been watching that movie over and over. You keep this to yourself. You tell her she looks like Madeline, which she loves because she used to watch it as a kid.
You buy a tangerine from the supermarket on the way home, put it in your jacket pocket and forget about it.
You bump into her on campus the week after. You’re on your way home but she convinces you to stay. “Please? Come hang out for a bit.”
You sit outside the art block and talk. It’s an animated conversation about everything you can think of: art, music, rude customers at work, directors you both like and how they became famous, the Halloween party she is having, ghosts, anxieties, what happens after you die. She tells you she is afraid of death. You tell her you are not.
You mention your ex-girlfriend believed in ghosts. The statement doesn’t shock her and you’re relieved. You decide this is the right time to figure something out. The question is hesitant, but then again you’re always careful bringing this up with someone new.
“You know I’m gay, right?”
She nods, “Yeah I think someone told me, or maybe I just assumed. I don’t remember.”
You probe on, maybe a bit too casually. It needs to sound like a harmless inquiry and not like you have an agenda.
“Are you straight?”
She tilts her head, hesitates. You hold your breath.
“Yeah,” she says. “I think so.”
It’s not the answer you were looking for, but you suppose it could be worse.
It’s a progressive wave of feeling. It’s like your organs are shrinking very slowly and sinking down the inside of your skeleton, until they swell out the skin around your ankles. The space they leave fills up with a kind of burning pressure that ends in a prickling behind your eyes, then tears. It’s the feeling you get every single Christmas when an aunt or an uncle or an older cousin asks you if you have a boyfriend. You always laugh and say no.
You take her swimming in your uncle’s pool one night. It’s a last minute decision so you’re both in underwear. The water is freezing, full of leaves and kind of murky because he never cleans it. Little yellow flowers drop onto the surface of the water from the giant wattle that arches over head. They catch in her hair and your heart swells. You make a conscious effort not to look at her bra.
That night you sleep at her place. You watch A Clockwork Orange together because you tell her you haven’t seen it and she says you need to, immediately. You love it but you can’t quite give it your full attention, because you’re acutely aware of how close your body is to hers on the couch.
You’re out with friends at a bar and you pretend not to notice her kissing a boy up against the back wall. She finds you on the dance floor later, grabs your hands and spins you around. You’re both drunk. You accidentally tell her.
“I’m in love with you.”
You get a taxi home and find a warhead wrapper under your pillow.
You don’t see her for a while. She stops eating and starts smoking.
You go around to her house late one night because you know something is wrong. She answers the door with bloodshot eyes. You sit down with her on her bed. She tells you the boy has broken her heart. She tells you the boy is addicted to drugs. She tells you she loves him but she is angry. He’s hurt her badly and she never wants to see him again. She collapses into your arms and sobs. You pull her close. You stroke her hair. You kiss the top of her head. You hold her all night long, under the covers, while she cries herself to sleep.
You wake in the late afternoon. Together you take down all the photos of him from her walls. You sit on her balcony with a cigarette and a glass of wine and you burn them, one by one. Evening comes and the air grows cooler. You fill the heavy silence with meaningless chatter until, slowly, she begins to laugh again.
She says, “I love you.”
And you can tell she means it. Just, not like that.
Isabella is a queer writer and aspiring filmmaker from Brisbane, Australia. They enjoy photography, binge watching tv shows and doing gay stuff with their friends, although they seem to spend most of their time cleaning their glasses on the corners of their t-shirts.