Our girls’ story. Sweet lady kisses, Landslide, their separation, the night of Prom Queen, Songbird, Santana’s Abuela’s rejection, the night after Santana learned about the political ad, Brittany’s senior year falling apart, the lights of New York, and other scenes.
My thanks to JJ, for being the most wonderful of wonderfuls, and for giving me so much insight into these girls; to la rose carnation, for writing our definitive novel; and to the lovely Ruth, who made the suggestion of putting my stories together.
* * *
I want to say we were young, but we’re always young. We were out past the edge of the grass behind my house, where the green trembles and turns into the glass-gray fallen leaves of the birches. It was autumn, and a little cold. It was early early morning. We had pulled our jeans and sweatshirts on in the dark, sat on the hardwood floor and tied each other’s shoelaces. You let me feel for you and brush your hair, long, dark strokes in the quiet. I turned my back and you brushed mine so it lay soft all over my shoulders.
Now—then—we were out in the quiet white of the sky past the birches. And we wound through the trees, not really talking about anything, half-whispering because it was so early—early enough that no one else was awake anywhere—and then I realized that I was looking at you, and it felt different.
You may not know this, but your hair is wonderfully dark. So that whenever we walk in the birches, it’s like part of the night sky is walking with me. Your eyes aren’t so dark. And your skin is even lighter. And your body is so slender, you reminded me of the birches, and somehow it felt different. Different than before.
I didn’t know what it meant—different—but it meant that suddenly you looked so soft in your sweatshirt, so slender in your jeans, and even though I’d played with your hair so many times before, I suddenly felt as if what I wanted was different. New? As if I wanted to stroke your hair very, very slowly, and think.
And then when you reached for my hand, I was afraid to take it, even though you gave me a hurt look, but I was thinking. You pulled away from me a little, letting a few of the birches drift between us as we walked, and I looked at you and tried to place what had changed. You tucked your hands in your pockets, stepped carefully over roots and through the glass-gray leaves, looked up at me now and then and let me look. We didn’t talk, still.
And then I stopped. And because I stopped, you stopped, or maybe it was the other way. All I know is suddenly you were standing there, your hand touching a thin white tree, as if to hold your balance, and even though you were in jeans and tennis shoes and a navy blue sweatshirt I realized you were beautiful, and I hadn’t known it before. Not pretty. Beautiful. Your face had changed, since we woke up. Your face had changed after we left the house, picking our way over the grass, slipping between the trees like they were shadows and magic.
Suddenly your face was delicate, and full of color. You looked at me with large eyes that were full of a world—close up, so I realized I’d walked closer to you—and your eyes held to mine, wide and almost worried. And your lips were a dark pink, and I realized I never really saw.
It doesn’t make sense.
What doesn’t, Britt-Britt? Your voice was low and soft and there seemed to be something in it I’d never heard before. I shook my head a little, but the world stayed the same, and also different.
I heard your soft breath, and pressed my lips to yours. I held myself so lightly there that I could feel your lips trembling. And they were very soft. I pulled back to look at you, and you blinked your water-at-night eyes open at me, and because the world stayed quiet and glassy I touched your lips with mine again, a little more this time, and somehow your lips were even softer. And you held still, and then I felt your fingers tangle into my sleeve.
When I pulled back to look at you again, your eyes wide and your cheeks just a little pinker, I realized that there were birds. The air was moving, pulling at the leaves so there was a sound of crumpling paper.
You touched your own lips with your fingers, then looked at your fingertips as if they would tell you something.
That felt different.
It did—like I’d turned down a hallway in my own house and stepped into a room that hadn’t been there before. You were looking at me as if I was brand new.
But something was pulling at me, harder than your hand on my sleeve, and softer than your fingertips on your mouth.
Should I not have done that?
You shook your head, once, hard. No. It’s okay that you did. I just—is that what you want to do now? Sometimes?
And you nodded, too. But everything else the same?
Your voice sounded as if you had fifty other questions underneath. Still and quiet and as if something were breaking. I nodded again, but I felt as if I was nodding for a reason I didn’t know. That maybe you didn’t all the way, either.
You looked around at a world that wasn’t really awake. You looked up at me. Very, very soft, you asked me, Do you want to again?
And I did. Nothing touching but our lips, and your hand crumpling my sleeve in your fist. You seemed to get softer every time our lips touched again. It was chilly out, but your lips were warm.
And I touched your hair when we stopped, and stroked it back by your cheek, and you looked in my eyes and held very still.
Then shook your head. I don’t want to go home for awhile. Let’s just keep walking, okay?
And you wrapped your little finger around mine, instead of my sleeve, and pulled me the direction we’d been going.
* * *
The Unicorn Tapestries
We lie on our stomachs on my pale blue sheets, a book lying open in front of us that we bend our heads over, sunlight all over the page and bringing bits of gold out in your skin. I’ve piled all my hair over one shoulder, twisting it a little so it stays, but your dark hair falls over the page when you lean down. You smile your dark red smile at me every time I stroke your hair out of your face, lower your eyes when I get distracted and stroke down the center of your back.
They’re called the Unicorn Tapestries, I tell you. I watch your face from the side as you look, your pretty profile. They’re like paintings, but they’re sewn. People went blind making these.
That’s crazy. You frown as you touch the edge of the page, lifting a corner so you can see it better. What, because the stitches were that small?
I think so.
The unicorn is rearing back in the picture, its pale eyes wild, its hooves in the air and its mane piled up like heavy clouds. I trace the unicorn for you, each bit. Back then unicorns always had beards and little braids of hair at the backs of their hooves. Sometimes the manes were like clouds and sometimes more like water. Their eyes change depending on who they’re with.
Your eyes flick up to me, so serious, so dark. What do you mean?
They’re hunting the unicorn in these pictures. I flip the pages back for a second, dogs and men and spears showing briefly before I turn the pages forward. But here, it’s just sitting with a maiden, so its eyes are calmer.
Why is it sitting with her?
I can feel myself smiling at you, warming up. Unicorns would come to girls in the woods. They would lie down and put their heads in the girls’ laps, and the girls would braid their manes and weave flowers in.
You smile down at the picture. I can see you doing that. The page rustles as you set it down.
But I shake my head. A unicorn wouldn’t come to me.
Your hair falls all over the page, covering the whole book, as you turn your head to give me this skeptical look. Of course it would. You’re way hotter than this girl. And animals love you.
I shake my head again. They only come to virgins.
Whatever I said was wrong, because suddenly you’re searching my face, your eyes moving fast as you go from my eyes, down to my lips, then back again. You part your lips but don’t speak, and I can see how tight your throat is, as if words are caught there.
I look back down at the unicorn, pet the mane briefly with a fingertip, stalling for time for you. Sometimes the unicorns aren’t even pretty, but you can tell how wild they are.
Of course a unicorn would come to you. Your voice has that sharpness to it you get when the argument is important. I look back up at you, surprised.
No, that isn’t how unicorns work.
You’re a little wide-eyed, like the unicorn with its hooves in the air and its cloud mane on the page we just saw. I have no idea why. It’s a metaphor, Britt. I’m sure it just means the pure of heart or something.
I pick up a piece of your hair and play with it because you’re getting upset. You wait for me to talk, let me pet your hair, though I can feel the tension all the way down my arm. It’s a metaphor that was real for a long time. Young girls would really wait in the woods before their weddings with a golden bridle, and if that beautiful animal never came, they would be crushed.
You take a deep breath as I concentrate with both hands, my eyes on my work, and I begin combing out your dark strands between my fingers. I keep my voice quiet. It’s okay, San. There aren’t a lot of unicorns around here.
You stroke my arm gently, up and down, just barely, as I begin braiding a slender rope of your hair. Do you regret it, Britt? I make eye contact with you briefly, then look back at my hands. You curl your fingers around my arm, your touch light. Any of it?
I shake my head again. No. I don’t regret anything I chose. You take another deep breath, and I give your lips a quick kiss because you’re so close. You smile, but it’s a shaky smile. You watch me and I can feel it as I finish the quick, tiny braid, each loop neat and tight. I ask you because I think it’s why you asked me. I keep my voice as soft as I can. Do you regret any of it, San?
You look away then, frowning, and you close the book and set it aside, another beast staring out from the cover. You turn it over so its face disappears. You fold your arms on the bed where the book was, and rest your head there, cheek toward me, your hair all over your face. I lie all the way down next to you and brush your hair back. One of your eyes looks at me.
You do? I can see the answer in your face, feel it through my palm between your shoulder blades. I begin rubbing there in a circle, the way sometimes my mother used to rub my back when I was sick. You keep looking into my face. Your breath has just a little bit of shakiness to it, not much.
I’m not sure, you say, even softer than me. Maybe.
With who? I try not to sound worried, even though I am. You know, though, because your face changes again.
Everyone but you.
Nodding, I go back to playing with your hair, long, slow strokes. I can still feel your regret through my skin, and I try to think what to say. Your eyes are soft and focused on my face.
I’m sorry, San. But I wouldn’t change any part of you.
You smile back at me, and the feeling under my hand seems to lift. I stop stroking and get a fistful of your hair, gently, at the back of your neck. You settle your head more heavily in your arms. Your voice is clear now, though. I wouldn’t change anything about you either.
I can never look at you long enough. You’ve turned your head so that you can see me clearly, all of the dark in your eyes, and bits of light. I don’t need anyone else in a forest clearing. Nobody at all.
* * *
Fields of Flowers
(Before Santana knew she loved Brittany.)
Once, after some of our sweet lady kisses, you sat up, rolled off the edge of the bed, and pulled me by the hand to the mirror. I didn’t know what you were doing. We were in your room, so you could just push me gently into the chair and turn me by the shoulders to look into the glass while you hovered behind me. I couldn’t help it: I looked into your face in the reflection, and for a split second you looked back with a huge smile. Then you blinked a few times, then pointed forward. Look at your face, Britt.
And I didn’t know why, so when I looked at my face I was frowning. And my eyes were just a little bluer than they should have been. And it was because of my skin. You put your hands on my face, both my cheeks, from where you stood behind me, and they were cooler than they should have been. What did I tell you, BrittBritt? That’s the look I meant.
It was as if fields of pink flowers had spread over the freckles in my cheeks, and I could see the same fields of pink had rushed like a wave over my chest. But mostly I was just confused that you were looking me full in the face, for so long; when we’d been kissing; and since you weren’t looking away I looked up in the mirror into your face. Your face wasn’t in full blush the way my mine was, but your eyes had a similar look: too bright, and your lips were a deeper pink. I know that comes when we’re kissing.
But you let me look at you, your eyes not on my eyes, but on my face, as you used the makeup light to get a better look at my skin. Your thumbs stroked my cheeks once carefully, then you placed both hands on my shoulders and passed your fingertips over the top of my chest, where the pink was getting darker instead of fading. I watched your fingers and thought that the pink should have been going away now that we’d stopped our sweet lady kisses, but the fields of pink flowers were spreading to my neck.
Pennies or ponies, I said out loud, quiet, almost to myself. You made eye contact for a second, then went back to looking at my skin again, so careful.
Pennies or ponies, Britt?
I shook my head. The flower. There’s a pink flower. I read it, but it was in between. I didn’t know how to say it.
You frowned, and got that look you get when you’re trying to work my words like a puzzle. What does the flower look like?
Like roses without thorns.
Pennies or ponies, I could see you thinking. Then your face smoothed out. Peonies. Sorry. I should have gotten that right away. I was distracted.
I know. I didn’t say that, but I could see you were. And it was so nice to just get to look at you, your so-dark eyes and the eyelashes that kept moving against your cheek as you looked from my face in the mirror down to my hair as you began playing with it, but not fixing it, which usually meant we weren’t done. So I kept my eyes on you, and you let me, and you petted my hair and your hands were still cool on my neck, and you said again, very soft, peonies, as if you were off thinking of something else again, except it was me.
And I wanted to kiss you again, but I loved that you were letting me look at you, so I held still and kept feeling your hands traveling over my skin like I really was fields of peonies that you could move through, and then you startled me by moving all at once in front of my chair, and you knelt down and put your hands back on my cheeks and began to kiss me again. And because I opened my eyes again right away, I caught you opening yours. Just for a second, your face full of feelings that I still haven’t completely gotten used to.
And I know you don’t always know what to do with me. When I always want to look at you. But I put my hands on your face and run my fingers down to your shoulders, grazing your neck, and I feel how hot your skin is there, as hot as mine, and your skin as soft as flowers.
* * *
from The Sky Buried Inside
(After Santana’s surgery.)
The room is blue-gray, no lights, because the surgery somehow gave you a headache that hasn’t gone away. You sit huddled in a deep blue towel on the edge of the vanity, holding the fabric carefully away from your breasts. Even with the drugs that make you sound slurred when you talk—your honey-crystal voice even more honey—your eyes hurt. Every chance you get, you close them.
I fiddle with the cold metal knobs in the bathtub, touch my fingers to the water twisting from the faucet. No shivering for you tonight, or flushing hot, so I can see the deep pink spreading through the smooth brown of your cheeks, your throat, your breasts.
Your voice is soft. I turn, still on my knees. You’re swaying a little, one hand covering your eyes, the other curled in a fist over your heart. You’re a curve of blue, and suddenly I’m standing in front of you, smoothing my hands over your shoulders.
Everywhere our skin touches, you’re hot. Not fever, exactly, but dry and hot. You press your forehead to my shoulder and let out a surprised breath.
I kind of forgot you’re naked, Britt.
You wanna try the water? I’ll get in first and help you in.
You’re steadier than I think you will be, making a small sound when your foot touches the water, but turning and letting me take some of your weight as we sink down at the same time. The water swirls around my hips and to the small of your back, the curve of your waist suddenly damp; I settle back against the cold tile and let you slide against me. You make another small sound, then reach up to pile all your hair in front of one shoulder so it doesn’t pull. Right now, pinning it up would hurt your head.
I’ve missed swimming. It’s summer and I haven’t gotten to go once. This is good. You laugh a little. You can put your arms down, Brittany.
I’m afraid of brushing against you wrong.
I’m not glass. Promise. Your voice is slurring again, so you hiss a little on promise.
I slide my arms off the edge of the tub, but stop with my fingers still clinging to the sides; you laugh again and pull my arms down, wrapping them across your ribs. Your skin is slick and warm; you shift and settle your head more heavily on my breast. The water fills up the spaces between us, and your ribs stretch, then go small, with your breath.
You reach in front of you and glide your fingers in wide semi-circles in the water. You know they used to tell the future with water? The edges of your hair get wet and harden into curls, sticking to my arms. How do you think they did that?
I don’t know. Maybe water was more colors, then. Silvers, so they painted pictures.
Maybe. Your eyelashes sweep down as you turn your head to look into the water around our hips.
The water is getting close to the cuts they made and sewed in your skin; I reach up with my foot and turn off the handle that feels hot, and you reach with your other foot and turn off the other one. It makes a strange musical pitch as your red-painted toes tug it down. The gray-blue of the room seems to rock in the sudden quiet after the roar of water.
Britt? Your voice is suddenly clear as water, and blending into it. Do I feel too different?
I taste metal in my cheek. Something shoots down my back, liquid and a little painful. I’m about to lie to you if I can’t think. Different?
Not as soft?
I mean… I stop, and try to think. They still hurt you, and I haven’t touched them just to touch them.
Silently, you braid your fingers together with mine. You scoot up a little along my body so that your shoulder-blades lay flat on my chest, and when your turn your head, your temple presses against my jaw. You lift my hands, and my palms slide over the sides of your breasts. You take a sharp breath, and your back stiffens.
Am I? Your voice is breathless with pain.
I hold as still as I can. I imagine the sky, empty and clear, birds filling it up. Your hair glides over my shoulder like feathers.
You’re still so soft.
You’re lying. Your fingers press my hands harder into your skin, and I can feel the strain through your muscles.
Santana. Let go, I’m hurting you.
You bend forward, pressing my hands harder with yours. Your hair slides down both our bodies, heavy and soft.
Santana. Let go.
You let go of my hands, then cross your arms over your chest. You bend more tightly over your lap, your breathing beginning to sound like sobs.
You put your hands over your face. You’re so slim, your shoulders look breakable; you’ve lost the ten pounds the doctor said you might after the surgery. I smooth your hair over your back so you won’t get as cold. Oh, honey. Crying will hurt your head. You’re soft, you’re so soft.
I feel different. It hurts and I feel different.
Santana? I lean forward and lean my cheek against your neck. I slide my arms back around your ribs, where you put them. You’re always you, no matter how much you’re different. And you’re way beautiful, and your skin is Santana skin, and your hair is as soft as wet feathers, and your voice is the most beautiful voice I’ve ever known. And even if anything about you is ever different, I love it because it’s Santana-different.
You breathe. You lean back against me, take one of my hands and bring it up to your cheek. My skin is wet against yours.
No matter what body I’m in, I’m your Santana? I mean—you take a deeper breath, shakier—the Santana you know?
You’re you, honey. You’re the most Santana of all.
You run your hands over my arms, slick and warm. You let your head fall back on my shoulder so you can kiss my cheek, your eyelashes sticky where they brush my skin.
* * *
You wore white, your hair back from your face, and maybe that meant something, because it was like there was nothing between me and how you felt. There wasn’t anything keeping you away from anyone at all, no one in the room, no one at all. Even though you never looked at anyone but me, not even Miss Holiday. It was like a shell was dissolving around you and you were just Santana, shining.
And you were still shining when you folded your arms around my neck and put your soft cheek against mine, hiding your face from everyone. With my arms around your waist, it was like I was holding strands of silk, all trembling.
And then Rachel said that thing about Sapphic charm, and I don’t remember if I knew what that meant before, but your back went so stiff under my arm I won’t ever not know now. And she might have meant it in a good way, but for a second, I just wanted to shake her. I heard you say just because I sang a song with Brittany doesn’t mean—we were standing so close we were touching. Then you disowned me and left me alone in the middle of the room.
But songs mean something, Santana. Especially to us. Especially to you. You chose the song but we were both meant to sing it, somehow, reflections in snow, everything not true crashing down and sweeping away. Parts of both of us sweeping away. You stayed there and I watched some part of you falling apart. And you looked at just me and you were singing to me, and you let me sing to you. You let everyone see us. And you didn’t look away.
And I have built my life around you. There isn’t anywhere I don’t see your face, snow or not, and your voice is honey and smoke and nightflowers, nothing I can escape, or want to.
* * *
How I Knew I Loved You
How I knew I loved you: when you hugged me (pulling me tight against you, your forehead fitting close to my collarbone, your breath dampening a small oval over my heart,) you left behind a warm ghost that left me shivering. I put on a sweater but it didn’t help. All day, with you gone, I lay in bed and hugged a pillow and felt you there, just the same.
When I’m not dancing, or walking through the woods at night, or pulling you as close as I possibly can, I sit very still, looking and not-looking. In love with you, I learned that the sky comes all the way down to the ground. The light falls blue through the window and everything is lit up with its own kind of music.
You held me close, then left, but when you were gone you floated around me like music, or like early spring air: cold and soft and distracting.
The strange ghost you left behind, all over me, wakes me in the middle of the night. I’m chilled and gasping, and somehow you are very, very close. If I could turn and be in your arms, I would be warmer.
But I would still shiver. Being in love with you doesn’t protect me from that, at all. And touching anyone else doesn’t quiet my body.
* * *
(Weeks after Landslide.)
He calls me and I wake and hear you in the background. Crying. His warm, low voice stretched tight with worry. Brittany? Santana won’t stop crying. Can you talk to her? I can hear, somehow, how he’s already tried.
I struggle past the blankets to sit up, blinking the dark back into pale gray. My hands shake a little from the jangle of waking. And—something else—I hate hearing you cry. Stupid, since you cry so often.
Santana? Your name falls into the dark. You can’t hear me yet. Sam is talking to you, getting you to take the phone.
I don’t want to talk to her, you wail.
Yeah, you do, babe. You always want to talk to her.
No, it isn’t true. Sometimes, you just want to sit and sit and kiss. You want my arms all the way around you, your forehead buried in my hair on my shoulder. You want to paint my cheeks with kisses, to breathe in the scent of my neck. Sometimes, you just want to sit and not talk, fingers playing with my shoelaces as you read chemistry homework.
San? I ask, very soft, because you still can’t hear me. Your voice is falling over and over again in sobs. I can hear the drunk-ness in your crying. I gather blanket into my fist and wait. My room is paler and paler gray around me. It’s been a week since you’ve been in it. I’m with him, you’re with Sam. I spend my nights alone.
San? I ask again, still quiet, and this time I hear your breathing close to the phone. Sam says something low and sweet to you. I imagine him patting your shoulder, or worse, kissing your hair. I close my eyes to stop seeing it and it doesn’t help. In the dark, in my thoughts, he puts an arm around your waist.
Britty? You make a harsh sound now, half sob, half growl. Brittany? I don’t want to talk to you.
I let go of my fist of blanket. I touch my face. My eyes are hot. And my throat—it’s hard to swallow. But my skin is dry and cold. I sit and take a breath. I don’t say anything.
I listen awhile. Your breathing evens out slowly. Finally you say, Britt-Britt?
It’s okay, San. We don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to talk to me.
Really? Your voice is so small.
And we sit a long time. I lie down and listen to your breathing. I pull the blankets all the way up over my head, so all I can see or hear is you. Just you, with me, breathing.
Then, Sam’s voice: Britt? She fell asleep holding the phone.
I frown into the dark. I imagine you with your head on his thigh. I try to see just the dark again. Your hair, spread out on my pillow.
Thanks for calling me, Sam.
Jeez, no. Thank you, Britt. You’re the only one who calms her down.
Do you know what was wrong? I hear the beep that says my phone is dying. I press it harder into my cheek for no good reason, like Sam’s voice will fade and you’ll get farther away.
She wouldn’t say. I mean, she never says. I think mostly she makes things up.
I nod. That’s what you do. I imagine Sam’s face; his huge, gentle hands not sure what to do with you.
You okay? Sam asks me.
I nod, then shake my head. It doesn’t matter which. Are you?
Yeah. She’s just such a mess.
I nod again. Good night, Sam.
But I listen for you, as he says good night. I can’t hear you—can’t hear you breathing or shifting in your sleep—but I listen for the shape of the air around you, the way your dreams un-quiet you. I listen, and the screen lights up when Sam hangs up, and I lie here with the phone still to my ear.
* * *
(While Brittany and Santana are separated.)
You remember when the sirens went off that day, don’t you? They’re such a strange, twisting sound. A kind of whine. In some seasons they go off every Saturday, but it wasn’t Saturday, and when I looked outside, the sky was strange. Everything was. The trees were as quiet and still as a photo. The air was a pale, pretty green that made everything the color of itself. I stood there a minute in the window and my mind was blank, empty of everything but a green so low and soft we could be underwater. Except underwater things move.
Then I ran for my sister.
I scooped her up in my arms without thinking, right off her bed, and she said, Brittany! but didn’t fight me. We went sideways through doorways and down stairs, her hair caught against my shoulder, the house appearing and disappearing as I ran, everything incredibly sharp but moving fast. Out every window was the green sky. I could feel her fingers digging into my shoulder and back as we passed the windows. I realized I should talk to her—she was six, so little—so I said in a low voice, God, green is an awesome color. Grass and leaves and trees and stuff are totally dyed green in a land that’s always this color, and she put her forehead against my cheek and nodded.
And once I’d swatted at the basement light switch and gotten us down the stairs, I realized that my phone had been ringing. And I didn’t know if it was our mom, or our dad, or you.
And I needed to go back up for the cat. Lord T would not be down for Wicked Witch flying. And I thought about how maybe that’s why the witch was green, because she flew through air that looked like that. And I set my sister on her feet by a wall away from the windows, and she stood there, still as the air outside, her hair sort of faintly underwater green. Pale in the weird half-dark. And I grabbed the old couch and yanked it hard away from the outside wall and pulled it against a wall far from the breakable glass. And picked up my sister again, because she wasn’t moving or maybe even really breathing—is that why the sky was so still? It wasn’t breathing?—and curled her up on the couch.
I knelt down and put both my hands on her cheeks, very soft. She still had such baby skin. Her big blue eyes looked straight into mine, not blinking.
It’s just wind, honey. I kissed her forehead quickly and pulled out my phone. Still ringing, or ringing again. Mom. I handed the phone to my little sister. Talk to her. I’m getting Lord Tubbington real fast. She nodded and was very white.
And then I thought I shouldn’t leave her. And then I heard a meow and eighteen pounds of stripes were on the couch next to my sister, and she had answered the cell and all I had to do was go up and close the basement door.
And outside the air had begun moving. I could see the trees, like chains and chains of whips, all different directions.
And I half-listened to my sister talking to my mom, her small voice getting a little bigger, and I found myself drifting closer to the glass: the underwater air, the whipping branches. Everything that had been quiet was loud. The glass began to rattle. And I let my sister stay on my cell so I could hear her getting less scared, and I finally brushed my hair out of my face and bent down and rummaged around for a blanket to cover my sister with, so if glass broke we could just shake it off.
And I thought about you.
I’d asked you to sing that song and you’d lifted your body away from me, your lips leaving my throat and leaving a cool place behind. You pulled your hair up in short strokes. I didn’t want to look at all your beautiful black hair being smoothed away from me, feel all your lovely Santana-ness taken away. I was mad at you. And I was hurt at you. And I desperately wanted to call you and hear your voice and make sure you were down in your basement and away from the windows. I wanted your honey and salt voice. And also I wanted you with me. The four of us could huddle on the couch and not be mad and my sister could be in my lap and Lord Tubbington could be in her lap and you could be playing with my hand or I could be playing with your shoelaces and anyway you’d be here. And I wanted to get that phone. But my mom was talking to my sister and my sister’s voice was getting less rubber-bandy and more a soft piece of cloth.
And then I realized that you’d be alone and my sister wouldn’t be, and I turned around to take my cell phone back—away from the green, rattling windows, towards my sister’s underwater paleness, her light hair all over her shoulders, her eyes wide—and she lifted it to me before I could ask and said, It keeps beeping.
And it was you. I’d missed four calls. And I hit send and the phone didn’t even ring before you answered it. Your voice was dark and gold and you said, Brittany, god.
And I curled up around my sister’s tiny six-year-old body and began to stroke her hair, and she settled back against me, the cat climbing into her lap and weighing us both down. And I told you, We’re never getting the green out of the house paint, San.
And you laughed. And I knew we were—not fine—but that you’d be climbing up to my window, or me to yours, over and over again in the dark. Even if maybe there were no window left to come back to. The world upside-down, the windows twisted right off the house.
* * *
You Stayed Away for Weeks
You stayed away for weeks, San.
We sang Landslide and you shone and hid your face against mine, and I wrapped my arms around your waist, and everything was completely right, for one moment. And then you turned away, but came to me at the lockers. And you turned away, but I understood, because it must have seemed like I turned away first. And I’m so sorry for that, Santana, I am. My whole body could feel how you were hurting, how every muscle was pulled tight and trembling.
And then you stayed away for weeks. You wouldn’t talk to me, you wouldn’t touch me, you tried not to look at me, though I’d catch you and forget, in that one moment of hopefulness, to pretend that I hadn’t. I would look back, feeling very still and very shaken, both at once. And you would hold my eyes that extra second, and I could see from the way you held your body and the way your face would begin to change that you couldn’t help it, that for that second we were two magnets, as strong as ever. And then you turned away again.
But you came back. It was simple. It was like turning and seeing you in a doorway, your black hair shining against your white blouse, your body so small and slender you didn’t even take up much of the doorway.
And I walked toward you because I’m never afraid to walk toward you. I held out my hand because I will always hold out my hand. And when you took it, and I pulled you toward me or you pulled me toward you, either, both, you fit against me exactly how you always do. Your arms around my neck, your hair a soft spill of the dark against my cheek, your skin just a little cooler than mine.
And I can never, never let you go.
* * *
And then, over time
(Brittany explains their story.)
Santana. I’ve loved you since I knew, exactly, what that meant—felt something warm and slow, like a bird with very soft feathers, turning and turning in my chest, tucking its head under its wing, the long feathers brushing up against me, inside… felt something warm and moving, like air filling up a room from a summer window.
What was it? Your lips against my ear. My name, then a secret, all in your whisper, your warm voice.
Or maybe it was your handwriting, circling and circling through each our names, as we practiced what letters and loops we liked best.
But it wasn’t. It was thousands of things, small—your lips on my chin when I cut it slipping on your front stairs; how your hand stayed a little and smoothed my hair where it’s always softest, at the back of my neck, where my skin loves your fingers. Where my heart jumps a little to feel your hand.
Your voice, like fire in the dark. Like sleeping while it’s getting light.
Your smile, going bright and deep when I look at you; when you look at me. Your body, curling around mine like a vine, braceleting a tree.
* * *
Your words were harder. I asked you for something—a song, nothing but a song—and your shoulders lifted back from mine, and your lips left my neck, cold brushing me all over, and you twisted your hair up again in quick, easy strokes as you told me no. I don’t do this because I’m in love with you.
You don’t do this because you’re in love with me. I turned on my side and couldn’t look at you. Couldn’t, because my eyes turned down. Couldn’t, because your back was turned. Warm in my arms a second ago, and now not because I’m in love with you.
* * *
In my arms, you turn and flutter. Your voice is quiet and low, even if no one’s near to listen. You trace the side of my neck with the back of your fingers; you smile your lips into my cheek. Once, I closed my eyes and imagined my eyes could turn green, gray, anything because you didn’t care about anything but that it was me and you were kissing me. All I wanted was my fingers combing all the way through your hair; all I wanted was your heart pounding against my heart.
But it’s not because. Your hair is a spill of shadow and soft light on my breast and it doesn’t mean anything. You tell me, you tell me.
And I don’t know what the space is between you and me, if it’s not the air to be filled with our voices, almost criss-crossing; our arms curling us both up tight; our mouths swallowing the dark and finding only each other.
* * *
I didn’t know what else to do. I needed to hear the word love without the other awful words before and after. And I hoped he’d forgive me for taking something I didn’t know I was taking—that I thought he wanted—I wanted someone to say that it meant something.
Anything, Santana. Not the same. Never the same. But something, more than you would say.
* * *
By then I knew what it meant. I’d known, already, for awhile: how your eyes on mine, your voice around my name, felt different. Felt safe, and warm, and cool, and close, and yet made my heart feel like that bird was in there, stretching its wings, ready to fly loose, ready to take up my whole body with it. And I already missed you, the second you said no.
Then it took me up anyway, took all of me up.
* * *
I didn’t mean what happened next. You took me up, in your arms; in the curve under your hair and in the sweet warm of your neck; in the dark, or in the sun through the curtains. I kept you close, over and over, biting down on one word but knowing what it meant; and you didn’t know it, yet, but it held me tighter and warmer just the same.
It had to be that. In the daytime, you hooked your little finger around mine and whispered it was them who were crazy. In the nighttime, you sighed into my shoulder and told me you felt wonderful.
You were careful to never snag my hair. You noticed when I freckled more or if I looked mad at my history homework. You helped my mom with the groceries, so I wouldn’t have to when I had a headache, and you dug knots out of my muscles after a Saturday of dance. There was only one thing you wouldn’t say.
* * *
And then you did. You said it, and said it, and said it.
And then you didn’t believe me; I still don’t know if you believe me. I try to tell you with my body, the way I learned it from you; I try to tell you with my words, but they seem to slip away from you.
Someday, my lips will have pressed all over you, each inch of you, ten thousand times over. I’ll look in your eyes and see you know. Someday, I’ll find a song, maybe, or a way of turning my body and catching the light, just so, and you’ll see and it all will make sense.
But I look at you and look at you. My hands in yours, your hands in mine, and somehow maybe you will learn from my looking. I can never look away. And it’s the one thing that you’ve never kept from me, or I’ve ever kept from you. I feel your eyes on me, and I look at you and love you.
Your lips are warm and soft on mine. I don’t care how you know as long as you know. Our bodies, our lips, our voices or words or our eyes. There’s not a difference in the world. As long as you know.
* * *
Painting Your Roses Red
(After Prom Queen.)
Someone painted your roses red, I whisper into your mouth, running my fingers down the twists of satin, following the path from your shoulder down to your breast, just grazing the tips of the fabric. You shiver and close your eyes, so I can see how your eyelashes brush your cheeks. Your lips are darker than your dress.
Off with their heads, I whisper, and lean toward you so my lips almost slip into yours. But instead I put one hand, firm, against the curve of your back between your hips. You take a step toward me without even meaning to, I think, but I lift my chin, keeping my face just out of reach. You sang that once. I remember. Red Queen.
You lift your face and part your lips, eyelids flickering a little, still shut. You lift your face to me, and I almost give in. The dark is around us like a garden maze. Anywhere we turn, it will be the dark. Though I can see all your colors.
Brittany, you say, voice very soft. Brittany. You press forward so your forehead is against my lips. So the soft puzzles of our bodies fit together.
I wanted to go with you tonight, Santana. I wore my tiny red Mad Hatter hat to match your Red Queen dress. When I hear the rustling of my crazy layers of skirts, I imagine how they would sound alone in a room with you rustling them.
I handle you by the edges. I slide my hands up the satin, all the way from your hips, to the curve of your waist, to your ribcage. Your dress fits you so close it’s like I dreamed you into it. I glide the heels of my hands to your back, wrap an arm around your waist, slide the other until my fingers are pressed into your hair. When I tighten my arm you take a sudden, deeper breath.
I wanted to kiss you earlier. I still want to kiss you. You’re roses, San, red roses, from the petals of your lips to the satin that wraps you up, each cut a soft sculpture.
You stop waiting for me. You fold your arms around my neck, so all those roses trailing up your body crush between us. You tug me forward until my lips part above yours. You are warm as the inside of a rose under sunshine. You give up breathing altogether, so you begin to shiver, just a little.
You break away to take a breath, but don’t even take a whole one in before you reach up to my ear with your lips, your arms tightening. Brittany, Brittany, you say, soft as your voice can go, your body warm all through the satin, your words caressing my neck. I missed you. The whole night I missed you.
I give up and pull you even closer. You turn your face into my hair, and I can feel by the tension in your body that you’re squeezing your eyes shut. You still hope I’ll help you hide. And I want to protect you with my whole body, even while I want to pull you with me by the hand, and show you how it could be, being as open as a rose.
I remember there’s something I need to say. I shake my head a little, so you feel it where you’re buried in my hair. I say, I missed you.
And I can do this for longer. I don’t know if tonight set you forward or back. People take turns making perfect sense and being a mystery.
I just have no idea what I’d do without the whole of you with me. I want your roses—the roses of your body, the roses of your mind—I want the rose of your heart pressed to my heart.
* * *
You are my impossible thing.
You are my impossible thing.
When I pull you against me in the dark, my mind goes clear, so there’s nothing but you—you in your red rose dress, you in your Red Queen dress, you with your heart that opens so wide, so rose-like when we’re alone in a room, that I slip inside without even knowing right away where I am. I pull you close by your waist, your whole body sighing, red satin scraping under my hand, nowhere near as soft as your skin.
Red queen, red queen. Red rose.
Your eyes are the dark and your lips are red roses—over and over again, red roses—your hair is the dark slipping through my fingers, soft as your voice, soft as your breath, achingly soft as your words, mostly my name, now that you say my name, now that you look in my eyes. Now that you keep your eyes open.
The dark is a garden. Your eyes are a garden I get lost in. Your skin is roses, my skin on yours feeling nothing but roses.
My impossible thing, my rose garden.
On an afternoon in a far away place, someone floats down a river on a boat and listens to this story, tells our story. It’s you; it’s me. I listen hard, every second we’re together, or my mind goes blank and clear and all I hear is you, and a strange music like water, voices humming something about red roses.
I know you think we’re late. We’ve wasted time. But we haven’t. Whenever we get there is the right time. Our own tea party can’t start without us. Whenever you come to this place, one slow step after another, I’ll be here waiting for you. There will be the scent of hot tea in the air, everywhere, and you, and red roses. Most of all, you. Will it be a dream? Something spinning and slow? Will it be an afternoon on a river? Does it matter if stories are told slowly or fast? Won’t the story come out the same?
You are my impossible thing. Red rose, red queen, my tea garden, my loveliest friend.
* * *
In the dark, on the way home, I want to tell you how much my lips hurt when I want to kiss you but can’t. How my shoulders get that feeling of wanting to hold something, so bad, want to hold you. All I want is to hold you. I wanted to kiss you tonight, in the dark classroom. All I could see was you.
I wanted to go with you tonight. I missed you. I missed you the way I know you missed me.
* * *
The house is quiet and dark. I know who else is here, but it’s as if they’re not. We go to your room. It’s dark and it’s almost what I want. But I want to see you in your red dress, the red roses of your dress, my dream of you in red.
But how I love you too, in white. Landslide white, white roses, not a touch of paint, not a touch of hiding. For a second, looking at you in your red rose dream of a dress, I see you past Miss Holiday and a guitar, singing to me—just to me, only me—and in tears, in white because for a few minutes you’re not hiding anything. I get dizzy with seeing both Santanas at once, the one singing in white, the one standing in red. Both waiting for me. Both looking only at me.
White queen, red queen. White roses, red roses. I love both. I hold my arms out for both, and you walk into them.
* * *
I just want you, you tell me again. I missed you tonight. I missed you all night. You speak into my hair. Your arms are so tight around my neck that I’m not sure whose breath is whose. My arms press the satin of your dress at your waist, my cheek in your hair, then my hands cradle each of your shoulder blades like they’re soft enough to bruise. I stroke them slowly, and you pet my cheek with yours.
I say it again. I missed you too. But this is tonight too, right? The night’s not over, is it? I feel your smile against my cheek, and I smile into your skin. You shake your head, just a little. I run my hands back to your waist, tuck you close. If only I could make you feel safe, the way you make me feel. If I were a lion, or a dragon, or someone who people listen to when I open my mouth and speak. If only I were just a little bit more of you, sometimes. Now and then.
But you sigh and relax and I feel your heartbeat beginning to slow down against the top of my ribs. You don’t want me to be more like you. Your fingers lift and stroke the back of my neck, gently, then suddenly your mouth is on mine. Soft; once, twice. Then longer. Much longer. Half breathing, half your lips petting mine.
The roses of your body, the roses of your mind. The roses of your heart pressed to my heart.
* * *
I want you in and out of the garden. Your eyes on mine, soft and quiet, no worry. We can make this world make sense.
We will make this world make sense. The way you go gentle with me, just with me; the way I begin to feel, with you, that I can stand up for myself, too.
And your hands are on my cheeks, drawing me down. Drawing your red petal lips over mine, tracing pictures of… what? Past, present, future. A life in the garden, a life out of the garden. My shining girl. My girl in the dark.
* * *
…and I’ll tell you how I feel, and all you have to do is say ‘yes.’
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
I sit in front of my mirror and curl my hair into soft, soft waves, and think of you. You are the clear strings of a harp, so that any thought of you I touch is lovely; you are the tree branches full of the pale green cutting out; you are the music of lamplight, winding through the leaves and into tight-shut buds; you are the crickets curled tight in the ground, and you are the tree.
I said I would tell you how I feel. Your voice is wound all through my bones, laced around each one; rich, half wild and half spun tight; your voice and just you.
The songbirds told you? Told you you love me?
If I turn my back, songbirds steal into the kitchen and snatch brown sugar and honey to spin sugar strands for their nests. They sing and sing and if they think of love their feathers brush against the inside of my chest.
You never had to build a home inside my heart. One day I felt your soft knock, and I opened.
I want to tell you that the whole world seems to speak to me. Songbirds and books that fall open to strange and perfect paragraphs. Cursive hearts looping around and through a name. My name is perfect in your hand. Your name is water on my tongue.
I want to tell you what I always want to tell you—what the world tells me, all the time—that you sing inside me all day and night and the in-between times, that when I feel scared or stupid I think of what you would say, that I can feel your hand press over my heart to slow it down to match yours. That your words are songbirds that sing outside my window and nudge under the covers. That I leave strands of my hair in the brush and ribbons on the table so that those birds can nest close to me.
That I want you to sleep with my hair wound under your hand, and my ribbon caught in your fist.
Songbird, Songbird, you looked me in the face and blushed and sang. You chose another song. You fell apart and pressed sweetness into my hands. I’ll tell you what I want and who I love. I’ll tell you how I feel.
* * *
(After Santana learns about the political ad.)
In the car, in the dark, you are wrapped up against me so tight I can’t even feel my shoulder. You haven’t stopped shaking for hours.
I pet your hair over and over. Your crying is so quiet now that I can’t understand all the words you say. My parents. And sorry, so sorry.
I run my fingers through your hair. I try to think.
You lift your forehead to my neck. You take a deeper breath.
You don’t answer but I can feel you trying to listen. Santana, there’s a book hidden in your closet that I found when I was looking for a belt. And there was a tiny, tiny poem inside. It made me think of you and me.
You finally move a little. Your arms stay folded up between us, one of your hands crumpled up over my heart. Your skin is so cold. I wonder if my skin is burning you, or warming you. You’re so tight against me. But you tilt your chin up to me, just a little, even though your eyes stay shut tight.
Your voice is more of a whisper than anything. Brittany? What was it?
Kneeling there in your room in the open doorway, the book in my hands, a soft blue cover with a woman in a light colored dress, I said the poem to myself, over and over. There are things—but I stop. You’re so cold, and still shaking. I want to turn on the car and the heat for you, but I know it would look strange. I don’t think you can take anything looking strange.
Britt? Your voice is quiet against my jacket. I let my hands both go still in your hair, then drop my arms down and put them all the way around you.
Santana, it was—there are things sadder than you and me. I hesitate for one more second, but your forehead presses harder into my neck, and I know you’re waiting. Some people—do not even touch.
The hand you had curled over my heart—you flatten it out inside my jacket, against my skin. Your hand is so cold it burns.
But you’re listening, and your other arm goes between me and the seat back, curling close to me.
And I hear your voice, soft. They don’t even touch.
I just want you to be warm again. I rub my hands over your back, then lift my hands to your cheeks. With the cold, your skin seems even smoother, like glass. You lift your face from my neck, open your eyes, look at me. I look back. I think I see the ghost of our breath mixing together between us, even in the dark.
Very gently, I rub my thumbs over your cheeks. I’m right here.
You nod, quickly. You’re going to start crying again. I slide my cheek against yours, one hand back in your hair. For the first time since we got in the car, I feel how my eyes are burning. But only one of us should cry at a time, maybe. And you need to so much more than I do.
But your voice, again. I know you are, BrittBritt.
If I could be cooler and you could be warmer. I just want you to be warm. But we’re both here, Santana, either way.
* * *
(Santana’s point of view. After her Abuela has sent her from her house.)
Dios te salve, Reina y Madre de misericordia, vida, dulzura y esperanza nuestra, Dios te salve.
Maria, Maria. I prayed for so many things and the answer was no. I prayed for one thing, over and over, and it was no. I prayed to want any of them, any of the others.
They told me there are statues of you that weep blood. They told me you were there with a hand to caress a scared child’s hair.
And if you couldn’t be there, then someone might come and stroke that little girl’s hair for you, sing something maybe, I don’t know, whatever a mother does when she knows that her child is crying.
A ti clamamos los desterrados hijos de Eva.
I am banished. Abuelita…
They told me, when I was a tiny girl, a scared little kid, that sometimes God hardened people’s hearts. They didn’t tell me why. But if you can soften God’s heart, even—that’s what they say—then maybe you can soften one more.
A ti suspiramos gimiendo y llorando en este valle de lágrimas.
Tell me your life, she said. Tell her my life.
But there was a different prayer I’ve said, over and over, and for this one the answer was yes. She loves me, she loves me.
And if there is that one yes, that one hand in my hair, then I still know about love. She touches my back with her fingers. My cheek with her cheek. I look at her and I understand.
* * *
I Feel You Wondering
(Weeks after Brittany’s told Santana she isn’t graduating.)
I feel you wondering how I let it happen. How did it fall apart?
We lie on the floor in the sunlight, the light streaked on the glass. You lie on your stomach with your head cradled on your arms, your hair in glittering strands on the wooden floor. Every time you take a deeper breath or move your head, your hair catches the light differently.
I have a book called Dragon Song open in front of me. In my mind the girl and her dragons look exactly the way they do on the cover: calm, with the world going wild around them, the ocean in curls, the dragons perched with their wings open in golds and bronzes, all ready for flight; the girl, the dragons, the water, all ready to float away. The girl holds pipes to her lips and lets her eyes stay closed. I wonder how she’s so calm.
I knew it was happening, San, of course I did. Once you got pushed out on your own in that hallway, I couldn’t think. I would sit at night at my desk with the light bright on the books and the pages would look blank, or like they were written in Russian. I hid my first semester report card and my mom didn’t ask. It wouldn’t have mattered. It was like I was hearing people’s voices underwater, all the words smeared; or reading books ruined by water.
If I were that girl in the ocean, I wouldn’t be calm. I wouldn’t pour music from my hands, I couldn’t keep the dragons still with their pinwheel eyes, I couldn’t remember my whole name.
And you lie there and sigh, lifting your head to rest your chin on your arms. You look at me and I feel you wondering how you didn’t know. Since we’re quiet right now you let your eyes stay quiet.
You reach out and rub a pinch of my hair between your fingers. I lower my forehead to the book to let you reach more of me. You stroke my head, your hands light and slow, and your questions are there in your skin. If I had words that wouldn’t hurt you I would try to answer.
It’s just that you knew all along that it was you, how every room seemed like a room whirling with water. I could hear the rush of it, see how if someone weren’t fighting with you, everything you wanted would float away. What did I care if my own things floated away from me? I already have so much less to lose, and no words to ask for what’s already mine.
* * *
Your Room Is Getting Dark
(Waiting for Santana’s decision.)
The shelter’s open late Thursdays, so your room is getting dark as I step through the doorway—blacks and grays, folding in on each other—the only lights are the cloudy blue from your window, streaming across the floor, and the white light of your laptop, shining on your face. Pulling highlights through your hair.
You look up at me from your perfectly made bed and there’s no color in your face. For that second before you come back from wherever your thoughts are, you’re half gone. Half ghost.
For a second, I wish I were back with the kittens. They climb into my lap and get their tiny-sharp claws caught in my jeans, and they don’t think about New York while they’re with me.
Hi, you say, voice soft.
Hey, I answer. Softer.
How are the kittens?
Adorable. Like storm clouds. Black and gray.
Storm clouds are adorable? Your voice has a lift to it.
If you adore them, they are. And I think, without meaning to, that there probably aren’t as many storms in New York. That you can walk through the streets without feeling like you’re swimming.
Do you adore them?
I adore you. And you’re something like a storm cloud. I step into the dark with you and don’t say anything.
You close your computer and set it carefully on the bedside table. I slip onto the bed next to you and curl up on my side, laying my head in your lap so you won’t look me in the face as I kiss you. Your fingers wind into my hair, slow, your movements uncertain.
* * *
I wake with my fingers tangled in your hair, my body wound over yours. Or else you burrowed under me in our sleep. You get so cold.
But your forehead is tucked against my chin, my palm cupping your ear and my fingers buried in all that silky black. You take a shallower breath—my waking is beginning to wake you—and I untangle my fingers as gently as I can.
I pull back, and you follow me, your shoulders pressing to each side of my collarbone, into the hollows.
I must untangle from you. You can’t follow me, even in your sleep; I have to let you go.
But when I roll over, ready to turn out of the covers and slide out of bed, one foot after the other on the wooden floor to slip away, your arm is suddenly around my waist and pulling me tight against your belly. Your breath is in my hair, and I manage a quick, strangled laugh as you tighten your arm under my ribs.
Where you going?
I shake my head. I thought I was going to make coffee or something.
I was going to feed the dust bunnies.
I was going to iron our shadows. They get all rumpled in the sheets.
You laugh, soft. How will you tell them apart?
Yours is totally shorter than mine.
You run your hand into my hair, teasing. That depends on the light. Malign my size, will you?
I shake my head. I would never malign you and your shadow. I would line them up perfectly, so you don’t trip over it. Or I guess so it doesn’t trip over you.
¡Gracias a dios! You laugh again, press a kiss to my neck. I melt a little, my shoulders relaxing a little into yours, and you feel it. Your voice gets softer. You’re winning. Where were you going?
I get still. I can feel you frowning, the skin at your temple tightening a little against my cheek. You rub your cheek along mine, though, and wait.
I was getting you another blanket.
You wait another moment. You sneak your other arm under me so you’re wrapped around my waist. The pale sheet moves over your hands, like you’re shaking out a ghost.
Finally you say, your voice slow, That’s sweet, Britt. I’m warmer if you just stay in bed, though.
That’s why you need another blanket.
You shiver, and it startles me, and I feel you tense, so it startled you, too.
You’re better than a blanket, though, Britt. Your voice is a little breathless.
I almost say six different things. I’m harder to fold into a suitcase, though we maybe could manage it. You’ll have to learn—I can’t go with you. A blanket can’t flunk senior year.
I want to come.
I try to think. I can’t think.
I can’t think. I have to get out of this bed. I have to get used to your going.
* * *
(After Santana’s left.)
I woke in the blue part of the dawn and never stopped dreaming; awake, honey, I’m awake, and in the shadows in my bed I see your curving form, all soft shadow and silk threads crossing onto my wrists, where I peek out from my hair—past yours, if only you were here—into a half-sleeping world—
Come back. You don’t understand, just… come back. I can’t take all this blue light without you, pouring like milk over the bed.
I’m tired of giving you up at the strangest moments, I’m tired of opening my hands and seeing you step away—so far, honey, you go so far, into the gold-hot lights of New York, into its sea-break rhythm—and all I have is an achy sort of echo in my head of red velvet, your voice singing so long and low to me, your fingers curling into the smoothest hair at the back of my neck as you bend down and breathe low, that I taste honey on my tongue. Stop being gone. I’m done with being good and self-sacrificing, I’ve had more than enough of being patient.
I think of you happy, honey, and I can’t even imagine telling you how I feel—except, when we see each other, to let the skin relax around my eyes so you can see the missing-ness. Your dark eyes look back and are so soft that I realize that you’ll never go back to hiding again. And I’m not with you to see it. I taste honey on my tongue when you call, I feel velvet on my palms.
* * *
(Just weeks after Santana has gone to Kentucky.)
Your voice swims through my dream and wakes me.
In a wash of heat, my body rushes back to the bed; my eyes open to a room gone blue-green-gray.
You’ve drawn the curtains across the sky. Quiet as a mouse, you move around the room. You straighten. You bend and lift my sweater from the floor; with three folds and a shake, you smooth it onto my dresser. You turn your back and I can see the curled hem of your hair; you bend and pull my jacket from the foot of my bed. Silently, you cross to the open door of the closet and hang up the jacket exactly where it belongs.
in my sleep I dreamed this poem
I try to understand, but my head won’t work. You’re here and you’ve made the room a green-gray shadow. So much better than the no-color that’s been everywhere for weeks.
someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness
I try to speak, but my lips won’t work. My voice is caught back in the dark. You close the closet door softly, the black silk of your hair running in rivers down the white lace of your shirt—you move light as a doe and begin to stack my books from the floor to my desk.
I want to tell you that I sharpened all my pencils and made sure my pens are full of ink. I want to tell you I’m trying but my head aches and my body is hot all over, and all through.
Maybe you’re a dream, because you’ve turned my room blue-green again.
But you turn, and you smile your red-lipped smile. Your eyes are dark and crinkled a little at the corners and you’re sad-worried-happy. Your eyes don’t stay on mine; you drop them and walk to the bed, lean over and begin straightening the sheets.
You have that look to your body; like you’re a bird and you might turn, any second, all-wing, and fly away.
Can scientists measure where a bird just was? Can they read the air and see the flight paths of birds-done-gone?
Britt-Britt. Did you get any real sleep? You lift your hand as if you’re going to touch me, but stop. You smooth your hand over your jeans instead. You’ve been moving a lot.
in my sleep I dreamed this poem
I pull my voice back from the dark. Are you really here? I look for signs that you’re a fever dream.
And you go very still, then straighten up. Do you want me to be?
I know that white-lace shirt, and I know that pair of slim jeans. The barrette in your hair is a silver one I gave you two years ago. Your eyes move quickly, like Santana-eyes.
Of course I want you to be. Why would I want you gone?
Your shoulders unpin. You take a breath that makes it seem like maybe you weren’t breathing before. All at once you’re all red smile again, and your eyes are on my face.
Then my head hurts a little more. Wait. Did I sleep for three days?
No no—you sit down next to me, and your hip eases down by my hip, and you shake your head. It’s Wednesday. You didn’t lose any time.
But then you’re missing classes. What are you doing? You have to go back.
You shake your head again, hard. I haven’t missed any classes all term. I’m fine, it’s fine.
I don’t want you to hurt your school stuff, Santana. I don’t want you to miss something important.
But you look at me, all your smile gone and your shoulders pinned a little again. If I’m gone when you’re sick, then I am missing something important. You reach out, then stop, your hand perched in mid-air. Then you touch my cheek. Oh, my god. You put your hand fully on the curve. Your skin is cool and I want more of it. You lift your other hand so you’re cupping my face. God, I need to get you a cold cloth.
How did you know to come?
Sam called me. He said he thought you needed doctor’s-daughter magic. You turn over your hands and put their cool backs against my forehead, my temples, the sides of my neck. Have you been drinking anything? Do you want water or orange juice?
Don’t leave. Or—my hands are on your hands. My shoulders and arms ache from my raising them. You drove all the way from Kentucky because Sam said I’m sick?
Again, you take a very deep breath. It’s not that long a drive. And—isn’t that what we do? We do that, right? I don’t answer because my throat is hot and won’t work. You fidget, then sit as tall as you can. I mean, if you don’t want me I can go. I should have called you, or texted you, but I just threw my backpack in the car and came.
I want you here, I say again.
I’m gonna grab my dad’s bag. I stopped at my house and got it. You guys never have the stuff you need. Just lie back, okay? You straighten out my sheets and smooth them down. Britt, you’re still wearing all your clothes. Are you still wearing your shoes?
Britt. Your eyes move, quick-quick, between my eyes. Britt, if you’re okay with my being here, I’m just gonna stay for a couple days, okay? If you’re okay with it? You’re frowning again; you’ve moved your hands to my shoulders, very light, and you’re looking at my skin. God, you’re so hot. I’m gonna grab a thermometer.
But you stop and look in my eyes again. Very still, for just this second. But is it okay?
I can feel my lungs opening up, and filling. Did you bring your homework with you?
And your laundry?
Nope. You laugh. No laundry.
Too bad. You could’ve piled your clothes right on top of me on the bed.
You laugh again. I don’t think you need a lot of hot fabric piled on top of you right now. You stoop and kiss my cheek. You begin to pull back, but there’s something in your face that you don’t want me to see—your skin tightening, and your lips pressing together—and you lean down and put your cheek against mine, instead. Your skin is cool. I let my shoulders relax into the mattress. My muscles are all lengthening, just a little.
When you sit back up, I look everywhere at the green and blue shadows. I ask, So this is what best friends do? Make long-distance house calls?
They totally cross state lines for house calls. Your skin is cool silk on my cheek, then you’re gone. In a few minutes, you’ll come back with your hands full of wet washcloths and other things you think I need.
Your voice hovers in the room. In my sleep I think you were humming. I wait for the cool of your skin.
* * *
(Santana comes back for Halloween.)
I promised your sister I would. Is that okay?
You know it’s okay.
You laugh, and the sound is strange, and you twist your fingers together and look down at them. You take up so little space in my parents’ doorway. You’re not dressed for Halloween, except that you’re all in black—pretty black, but quiet black—suede boots, but a long straight skirt, and a cashmere sweater with a cowl neck. You look up at me from under your lashes and my body goes still.
Then you’re in my arms, and you’re warm; your cheek on my cheek, your hair slipping against my neck, your cashmere touching my collarbone; I love when you wear such soft things, and I have to pull back so I don’t drop my arms to your waist and gather you close. My body aches from that stopping.
And you’re laughing again, but in a happy way, and you’ve stepped away to look at me.
What are you dressed as, Britt?
You blink a few times, your dark eyes moving over my face—I put the barest brush of lavender and silver shimmer on my eyelids; I put pale gloss on my lips. When you tilt your head to one side, I can feel the ghost of your hand brushing back my hair where I let my sister braid it with silver ribbon. Without your reaching for me, I can feel your fingers running through the gauze of my pale Swan Lake skirt.
So pretty, you say, soft.
You too. But you love dressing up, so…
You smile again, and I can see from the shimmer that catches the light on your red lips that you did dress up, just not in costume. Well, I couldn’t decide between an astronaut and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
A feminist nun poet. They called her La Decima Musa. I would have made a totally hot nun.
You see something in my face—I don’t know what it is, but I feel my face change and I see you see it—and you keep talking, quickly, your hand fluttering up for a second to my face, but not touching me. She turned down a million marriage proposals and studied and did her music and called out people who were being lame.
Then why aren’t you her?
You have a kind of helpless look. You shrug, and you don’t smile, and your dark eyes move, quick-quick, between my eyes. I just couldn’t—you take a breath—I just couldn’t think about that.
You shiver and rub your hands over your soft sleeves. I look behind you at the bright yellow trees near the street, the gray and blue sky past them, and remember it’s cold. I take a step back. God, I’m sorry, San. Come in.
Your step forward is the same length as my step back, like in a dance; the slit parts in your skirt, and you feel a little too close to me. I hear your voice in my head, just for a second—You know I’ll always love you the most—and my breathing smooths out and I let you step near enough that I can feel your body warmth.
The munchkin coming?
My mom’s finishing painting her face to match her wings.
You look up the stairs, frowning. I thought she was gonna be Alice in Wonderland.
I scrunch up my shoulders again and smile. Yeah, after Alice turns into a butterfly.
You open your dark eyes wide, then lean one shoulder against the hallway wall and smile. I forgot about that part.
That’s an easily forgotten part of Wonderland lore.
Lots of blue?
I nod. How else would a butterfly provide itself camouflage in the dangerous open sky?
Britt, I miss you. I feel a long, shivery breath move through me, and you look down at my pale skirt. Thank you for letting me come tonight.
Best friends totally team up to rob entire defenseless neighborhoods of their candy.
They totally do.
I keep looking at you; with you in your black cashmere and me in white gauze, I feel—something—like we’re already midnight, the two of us. Or we would be.
Why an astronaut? If you weren’t the nun? I don’t say because that doesn’t sound like you, at all.
Oh, you say. You smile in a way that takes up your whole body. I feel your smile moving through me, and it leaves me out of breath. You tilt your head a little, and I mirror you. You ask, Who else could be so close, and so surrounded by starlight?
I try to get some of my breath back, but my voice comes out thin. Did you just make that up now?
You blink fast, again, and you keep your red smile, but just barely. A few minutes ago, yeah.
And I step all the way close to you before I mean to, and touch your cheek—your dark eyes are very wide—and put my lips on yours. I feel my pale skirt rustle against you. Your hand goes to my cheek.
* ** * ** *
If that night, we stole up the stairs to my room; if we stood in the dark, and the stars fell to the floor;
if your hands went to my waist, and unclasped the satin sash and white gauze;
if I was as quiet as a swan out of water;
if my hands tugged the cashmere over your head—gently, so I didn’t pull your hair, and quickly, so I couldn’t think—
if you pulled me close by my hips, so I stepped over fallen skirts of white;
if your hands were chilly on my neck, but your lips were warm;
if the soap on your skin smelled like balsam;
if your hair caught on my tongue, like a sprig of rosemary;
if the dark moved slick as water, and you and I breathed through it like birds;
if moonlight on a lake were a woman’s pale hair;
if where your fingers searched my skin, moonlight or feathers left marks; if stars left tracks;
if turning in your arms was like swallowing cool water;
if gathering fistfuls of your hair was like gathering days, and nights;
if my hips touched yours, and someone took a sharp breath;
if I could feel you disheveling your hair like a swan preening her wings;
if I were the night, and you were curled close in me;
if you were the stars, and your light was floating;
if you warmed your fingers flat against the small of my back;
if you touched your tongue to my throat like I was sunlight and water;
if, when I said, are you going home? you tucked my fingers in your palm;
if you pulled me to the steps;
if we were swan and water, feathers dropped and forgotten in the dark.
* * *
(After Santana sings Rizzo’s Song in Grease.)
Watching you from the wings, I know what I’ve done, and I don’t mind because it’s the truth, what I said: we aren’t together, and Friday nights seem to stare off into limitless space
the way I would if I were standing on the edge of a cliff at night, a sheer drop into stars, the wilds of ridiculous wastes of sand, each star not you.
Or else this: the way you look over the edge of the stage into the dark, the floodlights blinding you, your voice reaching out, honey, past everything you can’t see, while everything that’s coming is black on black.
But alone in your spotlight, all black and pink and not crying and that honey-crystal voice, you look back at me. You can’t see any of the others, looking over the sheer cliff of stage into starry space; you can feel the heat of the lights, and feel me waiting. I don’t always know waiting for what.
But I feel the pull of you, when you sing;
sometimes I think you’ve gone out, far into the dark, without me; but you’re here, and I hear your voice in the dark;
Santana. While you can, turn toward me in the dark.
* * *
(Brittany’s point of view. Written, yet again, because of JJ’s tags—!)
So strange to think—we were in love
and no one noticed. You were counting smiles (nowhere near as red-lipped as yours, nowhere near as shining) and I was just breathing, quiet, afraid to speak, afraid to think, afraid to say the words again sing a song with me, or what if someday I wanted to live with you, or when you wear a red dress I can’t think.
We were in love and no one noticed, and so we escaped, the way you wanted us to, the way I couldn’t quite stand, the hiding and silence and never saying the words, even to each other, you’re the one I want to go home with and wake up next to, and I don’t want to pretend we were talking about boys, and I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t matter, and I don’t want to pretend I’m ashamed, and I don’t want to wonder if we’ll get hurt.
And somehow, I thought that no one could hurt you. And I thought that if anyone hurt me, it would be quick and physical and would make sense and be clear. But I couldn’t always see it with my eyes so much as feel it in the spaces between people—how if I kissed girls I was just a silly little thing, but if I fell in love with you suddenly I was dangerous—if you were in love with me it meant you were vulnerable—so then suddenly
I could see clearly what you’d been afraid of for so long—that it would change things that you couldn’t see and didn’t know how to explain, that grades that had been slipping suddenly fell altogether, so that I couldn’t think and words were in Russian or smeared underwater, so that teachers who thought you did my homework for me suddenly closed their books with red zeros in them.
And you were alone, over and over in my dreams, in the middle of a hallway full of strangers.
And I’ve never known how to say no, not to me, and not to my best friend, and not to anyone I love, so words seemed impossible, so all I could do was hold your hand in my lap and stare at all these people who had not done what I’d known, all along, they could do if they tried—understand, and allow people to go along doing what made them feel happy, and loved.
And even in our very own room full of friends and music, everyone swirled past me, colorful and strange—not suddenly understanding you the way I thought they would, and never understanding that anything that ever, ever happens to you happens to me.
Miles and miles and miles away from you, I try to fill up my life with things that make sound and sense—I try to notice trees full of birds, to pay sweet, careful attention to Sam—and he makes it easy, so funny and warm—and try not to notice that the girl I’ve finally told almost everything that matters is far away and curled around an ache so real I can almost see its color and shape.
But I love not pretending it doesn’t matter. I love that when I ache, I can let you see it in my body, that when you want to cry, you don’t pretend it’s about something else.
I love being real with you, even when I’m nowhere near you.
* * *
(Brittany’s point of view.)
I wake early. This part of the day is for you.
and though you aren’t with me, and aren’t near me, I can almost hear you, rustling the sheets in seagreen—the color of loneliness—and washing your face in water as clear and cold as February air. So much wishing—I wish so much for you.
Every year, even when I’m happy, I wonder why we have a day like this; a day that takes every sadness and makes it wider. Harder to cross. Blue and shifting as water.
It’s strange knowing you’re out there—right now, the morning is so young that the air is dark, and I will turn out of the sheets and walk over the wooden floor and splash water on my face, knowing that there is someone who will adore me—someone who is like me, a little, and who is pretty for a boy or even not just for a boy, and who is sweet, and who knows so many of the things to say. And he isn’t you, and he will never be you.
But honey, the day is getting brighter and there’s so much to do—
In the mornings, I notice that your hair, black threads knotted from your fingers and mine, doesn’t cast itself over my pillow, and I can feel your cool/warm skin not gliding under mine where my arm seems to naturally fall. My dreams notice you aren’t there—sometimes I’m looking for you, or sometimes you’re looking for me, and my bed gets smaller and smaller, and larger and larger, and sometimes I seem to wake wrapped up in your sheets, dark and purple and slick on my body, but even if I do you’re not there—
but I wish so much for you—not for you to be with me, but for you—
I want you to have so much, and find so much, and I want you to cast lights all over the inside of yourself, scaring away shadows, melting them away, and burning so bright that everyone can see all your light. How inside, tucked deep inside, you have this beautiful fiery light, all trembling and soft and ready to wake everyone up with your beauty.
And you can’t just do it here, and I can’t go.
The light is rising and there’s so much to do—the sky is burning blue and there are things we both want—
and the day will keep burning brighter, and burn away all other thoughts but itself, and I will wander into shadows in your mind, and you will burn so brightly that I can just be bits of color, movement, background in your mind, a voice you want to hear but don’t always think about—
and someday our worlds will make a little more sense overlapping again, and when that happens, your shadow will slip its hand back into mine, and our two lights will go skipping. We don’t even know what colors they will be.
And for now, cast your fiery light all over everything—
* * *
When I wake, or think I wake, you are standing with your back to me, tips of your fingers on the sunny window sill, dark hair in long waves down your back. You lift your chin, your hair falling to your waist, all your body tuning to that movement, curving around a thought, and I wonder what you see. A falling bird? A rising leaf? Maybe the sun has stopped in the sky and broken into stars. Until I see your face I’ll never know.
And I imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like to never see your face.
I swim from the sheets. They tangle and snap, but you must look at me. You must turn your head, your hair falling over your shoulder, a heavy darkness; your eyelashes lifting, fragile; your large eyes seeking mine. It’s all I want. It’s all I can remember wanting, just in this second.
My voice is gone—where has it gone? Where do voices go?—but I need to see your face, to call your glance to me.
But I’m not awake. You melt into the light, your beautiful shape easing away—the sweet, full fall of your hair, your warm skin—you vanish into the glass sunlight, and I fade into another dream.
* * *
(Their story, with a maybe.)
Santana. I’ll tell you a story even though I know you won’t fall asleep. A long time ago there were two girls. One had hair and eyes like the sun and sky of the day, and the other had hair and eyes like the night. But inside themselves, they were reversed. The girl of the night heated up the girl of the day, made her feel things so she was as soft as melted wax. And the girl with sunny hair cooled the other girl down.
I told you you wouldn’t fall asleep. Let me concentrate on the story, and while I talk, I’ll braid your hair.
So the girls hadn’t met yet, but they already missed each other—this story might be a little out of order—they missed each other and so the girl with sunny hair started looking. She looked everywhere. She searched the trees and in people’s houses. She looked into the eyes of every person she met, no matter what they were like, because she knew that was the way she would find the night-eyed girl, even though she didn’t know who she was yet.
And one day, or maybe it was night, the two girls like the sky met. And when their fingers touched, the sky turned a blue in between day and night, so all the light was blue, and everything in the world turned blue, and nothing at all looked the way it had before.
And it hid the girls, so that no one could see them together, even if they were watching them. And the girls lived that way, in the blue light, invisible, for a long time.
And maybe in a fairy tale the girls would be searching for something, like jewels. Diamonds shaped like tears, or pearls heavy like sadness. But they had all the jewels they needed, so they didn’t look for more.
And maybe, there would be dragons with glittering purple scales and glowing mouths, but all the dragons hid themselves, and looked like other things.
I don’t know how the story ends. How would I know? But it’s wonderful to be us, Santana. No matter what happens, it’s wonderful to be us.
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