“Stormy night tonight,” my father said.
We were seated at the card table—the one flat surface in his new one-bedroom apartment. He was the one who asked for the divorce, but with good reason: my mom was gay. And though she was content to stay married and carry on her affairs, as she had done for years, he was not.
“Stormy,” he said again.
I couldn’t speak, and the divorce wasn’t the reason. There were two—one was fairly practical, but the other was conceptual and beyond my father’s realm of easy understanding. I was sixteen and had started my period a month ago. That inaugural period had a strange thrill: my father bought me flowers when he found out, and my mother gave me a light smack on the cheek with the blessing May this be the only pain you feel as a woman, which, looking back, was a joke because I was cursed with a new kind of pain that rages through my body and leaves me dry-heaving in more dramatic moments and curled up shivering in more subtle ones. This is a kind of inheritance from my mother’s family. “All the women on my side have it,” she said. She was wrapped in a series of robes, on her way out to a kirtan at the yoga studio she attended.
“Once you have a baby, it goes away. Finish packing for your father’s. I’m off to sing for the Lord!”
Now my father looked at me, nudged my plate of chicken nuggets closer.
“I have cramps,” I told him.
He reached over and took a bottle of ibuprofen from the silverware drawer, a strange place to keep it, but this was his home and he had a right to store things wherever he pleased. “You get them like your mother?”
I nodded. He led me to the couch and with the pills gave me a cup of instant cocoa spiked with whisky.
“I don’t know if whisky fits into your mom’s lifestyle now, but it was the only thing that did the trick until she had you.” My cramps weren’t as bad as they could be, but I wanted my dad to feel useful, and in fact, the whisky did me good for the second reason I felt unable to say. In the bathroom, where the wind shook the windowpane so hard I thought it might shatter towards me, I looked down at the pad, and in addition to the dried blood—I was not yet fastidious enough at changing this strange diaper—there was a layer of fresh, orange blood. A clot dropped into the toilet. Staring at both the blood that spread in the water and the evidence in my pad, I was struck: this blood belonged to me, and it would come out like this with the purpose of being discarded every month. It seemed like one should make use of it, like donate it or save it for when you needed it later. The female body was so wasteful—at least mine was—waiting for something that might never happen.
That was the actual reason. I realized that I might be in love, and I did not want my father to think I was anything like my mother.
She was two years older than me and I met her in an upstairs bookstore in a part of Asbury Park that was getting turned around, which meant that white gay men were moving into a predominately Black community and soon the rent would go up. I didn’t know it then, but she was watching me from the women’s studies section. When I glanced up, I thought she was a boy. This worked to both our advantages because if I had thought of her as a girl from the outset, I wouldn’t have been caught off guard and learned anything about myself.
“Look,” she said.
I looked into her face—which was tiny, even her ears were small—and I think it was at her mouth where I got confused, because her lips were soft and available despite the sharp line of her jaw, a physical attribute that will always mean handsome. She had a kind of Elvis do: her hair was thick and black, but in the glow of the fluorescent lights it looked almost navy. She narrowed her eyes at me, and then she realized that I was staring at her so intently because she’d told me to.
“No. Look behind you. It’s the Boss.”
I turned to see Springsteen, looking like he’d just walked out of a magazine, leaning against the counter and speaking with the bookstore owner. Though he was often sighted around town, especially since all the changes that had been taking place, it was strange to see him on the customer side of the counter. He was not meant to be an ordinary man. His eyes glanced over at me, not to see me but to keep watch over himself. I felt chastised because a real Shore girl knows that he is a man, just one that belongs to us.
I turned back to Jess—who I didn’t know was Jess yet—and she gave me a knowing smile, then returned to her book. I went into her aisle and flipped a book open, just so I could stand next to her. I didn’t read the title, so I was surprised to open to a picture of one woman holding a mirror up to another woman’s vagina. I turned the page quickly, nearly tearing it, and looked over at Jess to make sure she hadn’t seen. But she was looking at me now, and she had seen.
“I’m Jess,” she whispered.
The Boss might have been a man, but he was still the Boss, and it didn’t seem right to speak too loudly in his presence.
“I’ve been here when he’s come in before. He loves Steinbeck. They’re always negotiating for some first edition somewhere.”
“Wouldn’t he have them all by now?” I asked.
“There’s more to books than being a first edition that make them special. He wouldn’t want just any first edition. He’d want the one that belonged to Steinbeck’s sister, or maybe an ex-lover who was also an ex-writer.”
Jess turned back to her book and the cover flashed at me. It was silver with hot-pink lettering.
“My mom got me that book here. It’s signed.”
“Mine must be a newer edition or something,” I said. “It doesn’t have a cover like that. I tried to read it, but it seemed kind of whiny and gay.” Bruce stepped into another room, so even though her voice could return to normal, Jess kept a tight rein on it.
“You mean, like stupid or like it’s about gay people?” She’s gay, I thought, and looked down. I shrugged. I was sixteen, so I used my sixteenness to get out of it.
“My mom is gay,” I said. “Like actually gay.”
“I am too,” she said. She closed the book and moved away to buy it.
“I can give you my copy,” I said.
“Don’t give away what your mom gave you. It’s signed and you might want to read it now. Anyway, this is for a friend.”
What did that mean, I might want to read it now? I wondered what kind of friend. I followed her to the counter. The owner seemed unmoved by Springsteen’s visit and I resented him for it, that he was able to be more advanced so as to not be affected by him.
“I have that book,” she said, motioning to the one with the picture of the giant vagina, still in my hands. “Great purchase.” Before I could say anything, the owner snatched it and rang it up. It wasn’t expensive, I had enough for it, but I felt like I had done a terrible thing—my dad said it was dangerous to spend money when you didn’t intend to. Jess didn’t need a bag, but I took one, and we walked down the flights of stairs together.
“You had a coffee at the renovated Howard Johnson’s yet? All the new artists in town hang out there.”
I shook my head.
“Let me take you,” she said.
Even though I was with someone, and even though a white guy in tight orange pants shuffled past us, I wasn’t certain we were supposed to be walking in this part of town. My parents always ran red lights here and the cops had never pulled them over for it. “They have more important things to take care of,” my dad said each time we cruised through a light and past a police car’s passionless grille.
Once we passed the initial row of new shops, we hit a long stretch of abandoned, crumbling buildings extending all the way to the beach. Up ahead at the corner, two Black men in construction clothes and boots were in conversation. The shorter man had his hard hat on and was using his work gloves to imitate someone talking, and the other man, who had his hat off, was taller, even though he stooped, his arms wrapped around his middle, laughing, until he saw us.
“Lost?” he asked.
I looked down.
“Nah, we’re just up ahead,” Jess said.
I was surprised that she spoke, that she didn’t apologize, that she didn’t sound nervous. I stole a look at Jess, whose boyishness I thought glowed with vulnerability as she moved to walk around them, but the taller man took a large exaggerated step to the side.
“Pardon me,” he said.
I looked up and nodded, and he didn’t nod back. He wore wire-frame glasses, the arms wrapped around his ears. His face was set still and communicating something, but no one had ever told me that I should try to read it, so I didn’t. I looked down again, a direction I’d come into the world to look, and didn’t raise my eyes until we reached the boardwalk.
We got a seat by the window. The Atlantic crashed plaintively on the sand where I’d once found a pen shaped like a hypodermic needle. My mom screamed as she slapped it out of my hand. She gave no explanation when we started going to the beach at Avon, where mostly everyone was white and visibly sunburned, just like the customers standing around in the Howard Johnson’s. I ordered what Jess ordered: a latte, and the hot milk mixed with the bitter coffee was a kind of revelation.
“How old are you?” I asked. I liked the way she held her cup in front of her face at all times, and I tried to imitate that look without seeming like I was imitating her at all.
“Eighteen,” she said, and I couldn’t help it, I smiled real big. My mom told me there was a world of difference between my age and eighteen, but two years wasn’t too old. For what? I asked myself. She looked nervous.
“Why, how old are you?”
“I thought you were older,” she said, and I knew I should have lied.
“I bought that book you got today when I was sixteen. It was really important for me getting to know my body and stuff.” She blushed, and then I did, too. “So your mom’s gay. Did she come out later?”
“Yeah, my parents are divorced. My dad is pretty sad.” She nodded, and I memorized the way she took a sip of her coffee, thoughtfully, as if the next phrase was hidden in the liquid suspended in her mouth.
“He won’t be for long. He’ll end up just fine.”
“You don’t know that. He’s really sad.”
“You doing okay with it?”
I shrugged, and then remembering that she was gay, I became concerned that she would interpret it wrong. So I tried out taking a thoughtful sip of my coffee, but it was just cold and bitter now and lacking whatever inspiration it might have once held.
“I worry about them. My mom has all these new hobbies and has gone through two breakups already that she took really hard. Actually, can I run something by you?” She nodded, but now, I can see that she didn’t want me to.
“She took the first breakup a lot harder than she took the divorce with my dad, and she told me that’s because the intensity of time is different, so for example, if you are in a relationship with a woman for a year it equals four years with a man. Is that how it is?”
“Hoo!” Her face turned red and she gasped for breath, and then again, “Hoo! Hoo!”
Soon I realized that this sound was her laughter. Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! It was so loud and so resonant that the artists looked at us, and I wondered, when they looked at me, across from her, whether they thought I was gay, too.
“That’s like, I’m sorry, but I feel like from now on I’m going to ask people how long they’ve been together in gay years.”
“It isn’t true?”
Jess wiped her eyes and the hoos restrained within her sent her body into rhythmic shakes.
“Well, I’ve never been with a man but—”
“You haven’t?” I asked, and then covered my mouth.
“Have you?” she asked sharply.
I shook my head.
“Well, there’s hope for you yet.” She was no longer in a laughing mood. She ran her hands through her hair and I watched the pouf wilt flat, like a mood indicator.
“I think there is a different kind of intensity, but that’s just a result of oppression. It’s weird to be a community when all you have in common is how you feel about gender and who you want to have sex with. But you need it—I need it. I know that whenever I’ve fallen in love, I knew it the first time we slept together. Plus, there are no rules telling you to play any kind of game, no rule that you have to meet each other’s parents first, or wait a year to move in together. With my first girlfriend, after the first night, I never went home again.”
I wondered if she’d had many girlfriends, and I felt jealous of the person who was going to get that book.
“I just don’t want to ever be sad the way that my dad is sad, and I don’t want to ever do things the way my mom did them,” I said.
Jess’s face softened and I saw what my mom meant, about the difference between sixteen and eighteen: you still knew something about the pain of parents, but you were starting to be free of them.
“Most likely you won’t,” she said. “They already did all of that for you.”
At my dad’s house, I lay on the couch in some pain, mildly drunk, thinking about that conversation and how I already knew then that I was in love with her.
Before my mom came out, she was always asking me if I was gay. Sometimes she wouldn’t ask, she would just say so, especially on the phone to strangers I would later figure were my mom’s secret lovers.
“I don’t know. Jenna just doesn’t seem to like boys.” The asking started early, in elementary school: “Got any little boyfriends, girlfriends?” Always with a nervous laugh. I thought it was my fault, because of the time I was four and tried to kiss her like they do on TV, and she let me, my tongue slipping into her mouth, until she pulled me away and screamed: “You don’t kiss me like that!” A few months before she came out, she walked into the den where I was watching TV and stood there, waiting until I looked at her. She was wearing a T-shirt and her breasts were loose, and she had the usual mysterious wet spot on the belly of her shirt from the ice cubes she chewed incessantly. She was a small woman, all torso, with a large round middle, and from the angle where I lay on the couch, her thighs looked like tiny triangles.
“Do you think you might be gay?” she asked me.
I was annoyed. It was the middle of the day and I was trying to watch TV. What had I done that was gay? I realize now that she was really asking me if I thought she was gay.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Because you’re very pretty, you know, and you could have some boyfriends. I’ve seen how boys look at you.” “Boys don’t look at me,” I said.
“Yes, they do.”
We were quiet for a few minutes after this, so I turned the TV up. Another episode of the same show I’d been watching for hours came on, a sleepaway-camp comedy where boxers were raised up the flagpole in the opening credits.
“Doesn’t it repulse you, the thought of two women or two men together?” she asked.
I turned the TV down again, but I didn’t look at her. There was this one time, just as my breasts came in, when she had her arm around me on this same couch and started rubbing my breast. I froze and we watched TV like that for a while, until I finally asked her what she was doing and she pulled her hand away and said: “I thought it was your shoulder.”
On the TV now a boy played a bugle as the shorts went up the flagpole, and I felt relieved that I found him cute.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“See, it repulses me,” she said. “I asked your father and he said, yeah, it repulses him, too.”
“I don’t know what it looks like, so how can I say it’s repulsive,” I said.
“And you’re sure you aren’t gay?”
“I don’t think regular sex is repulsive either.”
“What do you know about regular sex?” she asked, her voice rising.
“From TV.” And I turned it up again.
When my mom came out she acted timid at first. In a strange reversal, one day at the kitchen table I asked her if she was bisexual. It was after she told a long story about how she thought she might have been in love with a friend with whom she’d recently had a falling out.
She began to cry. “I don’t know. Maybe.” A week later, as she drove me to a doctor’s appointment, she had gained more courage.
“So it was that night when you and your father went to that baseball game, when I said I had the flu, that she first came into my bed.”
I worried about what I might hear next. I pressed my body against the car door. I didn’t think it was okay to ask her to stop, since she needed to tell someone, and she wasn’t—I hoped—telling this to my father.
“That first night, we just held each other.” I could tell that she wanted me to ask her when they first kissed, or when something first really happened. But I didn’t. I realized that my father would have asked these questions, and I pictured him late at night on the couch, watching TV, knowing more than he needed to and still wanting to know more—specifically, the moment he lost her. All three of us were learning that he never really had her. “I’m not lonely, kiddo,” my father said late one night before the divorce. Worried about him, I had gone downstairs to join him in front of the TV. “How could I be lonely? I got you.”
The next morning—my period steady but now painless—I asked my father if it would be okay if I hung out with a friend for the afternoon. Jess rented an apartment a few blocks away from where he lived, and she had suggested I come by and see some of the books she was reading for school. I felt guilty as I asked him. I was meant to spend my weekends with my dad, and I didn’t know what he would do without me around. But how could I not hang out with Jess when it consumed every part of me, and when I wouldn’t have to worry about my mom’s prying? My dad popped waffles out of the toaster, put one on each of our plates, and peeled an orange for us to share.
“That’s fine. I have some errands to run that would be boring for you anyway. I have you for dinner tonight, though, right? Promise?”
“Maybe we can go see a movie, too,” I said. I wanted him to feel that what I was doing was obligatory for my age, that I couldn’t help it, that I didn’t know any better than to hurt him in this very small way.
Jess’s apartment was kind of like any other teenager’s room, except she had a kitchen stocked with things like Oreos, ramen, spaghetti, and tuna fish. She had even made a pitcher of red Kool-Aid and put out on the table a little bowl of crispy, spicy peas (wasabi, she told me later). The kitchen opened up to the living room, which had a yellow couch, a piano bench as a coffee table, some spider plants that crawled along the dusty edges of the floor, and a stereo playing Ravi Shankar. In her bedroom, which was painted a deep blue, there was a mattress on the floor, a full-length mirror, a set of plastic bins that must have held her clothes, a poster of a Black woman with an Afro, her eyes seemingly focused on something significant in the distance, the words “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” over it. Jess had written underneath in large block letters: WHEN ONE COMMITS ONESELF TO THE STRUGGLE, IT MUST BE FOR A LIFETIME.
“What’s the struggle?” I asked.
“For me, all of it. Angela Davis is referring to communism.”
“Communism,” I whispered, and I took a last look at the bedroom and thought I saw a haze within it, as if stepping into it could mean entering another world. In the fall, Jess had taken a history class on liberation struggles and that was where she encountered Davis.
“It blew my mind, reading her and getting to see racism as this systemic problem, rather than just individual. That with the common racist,” she tapped her hand on the piano bench, and I flinched, “it’s a poisoning that comes from this small percentage of wealthy people—capitalists—who are making money off of racism, so it’s like this plague that we’ve been tricked into and perpetuate. I mean, look at Asbury. All the money for this town went up some mayor’s nose, and no one gave a shit about it. Then some gay white guys from the city decide to try their hand at business where the rent is cheap, and suddenly lots of really cool gay people from the city are coming here. Here. And all the nervous closeted Shore kids start hanging out and spending their money and getting laid and making it cool. Then other artists start coming in, then college students. Next thing my homophobic mom will go out for a night in downtown Asbury and the only thing that will have improved is the five-dollar coffee, not the conditions of the people. See what I mean? Isn’t that amazing?” I froze. I pictured the face of the man who had stepped aside, whose expression, I was certain then, blamed me. And I didn’t want to be blamed. I wondered if Jess thought I was racist, then decided that she thought that I wasn’t racist, which was why she was telling me this, but then realized that she would probably especially tell this to someone who was racist because that’s part of the struggle. I chewed the wasabi peas very slowly and began to sweat.
“What do you like to read?” she asked. My mind went blank. I scanned her bookshelf and spotted a name I knew.
“I read this Elizabeth Bishop poem in English class that I loved. I was helping another English teacher clean out her room after school one day and I saw a copy of that book and took it home. I’ve read some of her other poems too, but I mostly just keep reading that one about losing stuff.”
Jess’s face went soft again. I checked her hair, which was puffed up … sensually, it seemed.
“‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master,’” she said.
“Yes!” I said.
“Oh damn, that ending,” she said, closing her eyes. “‘Though it may look like—’” “‘Write it!’” we both cried out at once.
Then her Hoo! Hoo! filled the air, and that was when I leaned over and kissed her cheek. She was a teenager then, too, and I’ll bet that Jess in her twenties, and especially thirties, wouldn’t kiss back a sixteen-year-old who quoted Elizabeth Bishop to her. But eighteen-year-old Jess did kiss me back. My tongue stabbed wildly in her mouth at first, until hers asserted a kind of quality control. Eventually, I got the hint to mimic her, to slow down, to take her tongue in my mouth like I was taking all of her into my mouth. I say this now with the kind of insight that comes after throwing away everything. We kissed as we moved down the hallway, and I pulled away enough to tell her that I had my period, because I had seen that in a movie on Cinemax. The woman told the man, and then he stuck his hand down her pants to check, and they didn’t have sex. Jess didn’t put her hand down my pants in this moment. She just kissed my neck and said huskily, “I don’t care.” And then, “But feel free to use the bathroom if that would make you more comfortable.”
As I peed, I felt dizzy with the sense that my life was happening, the same kind of thrill of that first month of my period but much more intense. My pubic hair was sticky with blood, and I cleaned myself with toilet paper. This was the first time I had experienced my own slickness. I had to touch myself gently because I was swollen and it appeared that the whole apparatus could just cave in or tear. I found a fresh pad under the sink and affixed it to my underwear. This didn’t make me feel sexy, but I didn’t quite know what else to do.
While we undressed each other, I glanced at the poster and wondered if the eyes were watching us, like the Mona Lisa, but these eyes stared intently at something else—the revolution— beyond us. As Jess kissed down my thigh, my body tensed and I thought again how at some point even a revolutionary leader feels something like this, even the common racist.
“You cold?” she asked. I nodded. She removed the rest of her clothes—her bush was not big like the woman in the seventies book from the store, was in fact a bit more kept than mine—left on my giant diaper, and rested her body on top of me. This was meant to warm me, as a kind of interlude, but I groaned as soon as we made contact in this purposeful way, and she groaned and locked her arms around me and we were moving.
I felt her pubic bone, then flesh, against my thigh and something mysterious, like the energetic expression of desire, and when she pressed against me it was really as if she pressed into me.
“What are we feeling?” I asked.
She pulled my underwear down and I met her thigh. We started off rocking like this, and though it would seem so disappointing if it were filmed—so hetero, so chaste—it didn’t feel like any of those things.
“Can you come?” she asked. She gently pressed her hand against my throat—she was introducing me to something else I wanted.
So I did. I thought of my mom as I came, her hand on my breast. I shook my head and my orgasm was interrupted. I felt Jess continuing to come on top of me.
We rested. The light changed to that odd blue, too light for headlights, too dim to see. Through the walls were the sounds of the other tenants making dinner. I dozed. Maybe I could move into this room and quote poems and eat wasabi peas and do this with Jess underneath the eyes of the revolutionary and learn how to not be to blame. Then I remembered my dad and I pulled myself up. Jess suggested I wash my face before heading home, and tie my hair into a bun so that my dad wouldn’t smell her when he hugged me. When I walked away from her apartment the streets looked wider and whatever chill was in the air stung the raw skin around my chin. If she knows whether she loves someone after the first time she has sex, shouldn’t she have told me she loved me right then? I hadn’t asked her how that worked and now I was missing a crucial piece of information. I was gripped by a new kind of fear that seemed more devastating than anything I had experienced before: that I could love someone and not be loved in return.
The next morning I told my dad that I couldn’t spend the day with him, that I had to study at a friend’s house, and this time I was filled with such urgency that I didn’t even feel guilty for leaving him alone. In fact, I resented him for his loneliness, for the fact that he loved someone who didn’t love him back, and I didn’t want that disease to live in me, to ever live in me.
I didn’t tell my mom about Jess, not because I didn’t know what to talk about, but because I decided not to talk to her at all. “Is something going on,” she asked one night, standing imposingly in the doorway of my room. “Are you dating someone?”
“No. Don’t ask me that,” I said firmly, violently.
She looked stunned. Her breasts swayed as she turned, and she didn’t ask me again until the next night during dinner. “Someone named Jess called for you,” she said watching me for a reaction. I gave her none. I chewed the tough meat on my plate until I couldn’t anymore, and then spit it into my napkin. I took a bite of mashed potatoes with a spoonful of peas. My mouth was too full to speak.
“Honey, is this someone that you’re, I don’t know, dating?”
“Because I found this book under your bed, with these images—you don’t need to hide it. You don’t need to hide who you are. I don’t think I need to tell you that you can date whoever you want.”
A buzzing rage vibrated over my head, and I pushed away from the table.
“I’m not like you. The thought of it—it repulses me.” My mom picked up her glass and she looked ready to throw it at my head, but instead, she slammed it down on the table and let out a sob, a sound so terrible and long, one that I didn’t want in my ears, so I let it rush through me and tried not to feel it. Something inside me that the moan should have penetrated stepped aside and never quite stepped back.
The next day, after school, I saw Jess. In class that day, she told me, they’d done an exercise where they had to get in pairs and say a cultural group—Chinese, Indian, African American, Mexican, Caucasian—and state all the stereotypes that came into their heads.
“It was so hard. I was forced to look at what was inside of me, and it was awful,” she said. “There were a few white students who left the room, and I wish I could be like, ‘You aren’t a bad person, but you have to look at this. It needs to burn so we can see more clearly.’” We were naked and I had my head nuzzled under her chin and I held on to her tighter. I stared at the poster: WHEN ONE COMMITS ONESELF TO THE STRUGGLE, IT MUST BE FOR A LIFETIME. I was determined to tell her that I loved her. I was going to tell her. I opened my mouth to say it, finally, when she removed herself from my arms.
“You’re holding me a little too tightly,” she said, and patted my hand. I turned away from her and allowed my hurt and discontent to fill the room.
“Darlin,’” she said.
I loved when she called me that, but I wasn’t ready to respond. There was something I was noticing. She’d recently acquired a night table where we’d taken to burning a candle while we were together. It had burned down to the very base of the holder, and I became so transfixed by the flame that the sob left me. Suddenly, it wasn’t a candle anymore; it was just a flame, and it looked so tired leaning its weight against the edge of the base. It leaned like it knew it was about to end. I was too young—no, too privileged—to truly know about things and their endings, how suddenly they come, but I felt it in that flame. I grabbed another candle from the drawer, because it felt important to me, I cannot explain why, that I use that flame to light another candle. And for a few brief moments, the flame existed in two places, on my new candle and the dying one.
“Do you have scissors?” I asked. She kissed my shoulder, then got up. I heard her rummaging around. I wanted to tell her to hurry, but I didn’t yet know I could make demands of someone that I loved who might not love me back. She handed them to me and I used the scissors to gently nudge at the side of the wax, removing the still-lit disc, which balanced on the blade of the scissors as I inserted the new candle. The new flame seemed silly and young. It was this dying flame that I loved. I thought that it might make it for a time. This flame was the strongest thing I’d ever seen.
Chinese, I thought to myself and waited: a laundromat, a plate of dumplings, a cartoon drawing of a face—I don’t know where I’d even seen it, which is to say I’d always seen it. I didn’t want these images, and I heaved them off, felt them dissolve into that empty place that my mother’s sob passed through the night before. I watched the wick fall over and go out.
“No, no,” I said. I pressed my hands onto my chest. “No, no.” Jess put her hand on my thigh, but I couldn’t feel it. “I don’t want to see that.”
“What? The candle?” she said.
“I’m not ready.”
“It’s not about being ready.”
“I wasn’t ready.”
“But it’s good. We got this new candle now, and it’s brighter.” She kissed each eye; she kissed my lips. “You just hadn’t noticed the other one until the end. That’s okay, because now you’ll pay more attention to this candle. We can watch it burn together.” She held my hands too tightly and I looked at her lips and I could see that there was more that she wanted to say and now I didn’t want it, I didn’t want another word, or for Angela Davis to look at me in that cluttered, Nag Champa–scented room. I felt the edges of cramps coming on, like a white hand with long pink nails squeezing my uterus and pulling down. I asked Jess to drive me home.
“Can I walk you to the door?” she asked when we were outside my house. I was in so much pain, I barely shook my head. I didn’t want my mom to see her. I could never tell her about Jess. I didn’t want to see the disgusting delight in her eyes, or the dimming in my dad’s. I didn’t even look at Jess to say goodbye. Somehow, I found myself standing at my front door, my hand shaking as I unlocked it.
That night, as I writhed on the floor, waiting for the whisky to take effect, I decided that I wouldn’t see Jess anymore.
It was so easy to let go.
There are certain rules you learn early.
Corinne Manning is the author of the story collection We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, Spring 2020). Their stories and essays have been widely published including anthology selection in Toward and Ethics of Activism and Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivors of Sexual Assault. They have received grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Artist Trust, 4 Culture, and The Hub City Writer’s Project. Corinne founded the James Franco Review, an intervention project that sought to address implicit bias in the publishing industry.