CW: internalized homophobia
I’m twenty-five. Mei Li and I are in a bright white Ikea showroom. Her hair is long and dark brown, streaked with silver. She started going gray when she was nine. She started dying her hair in high school. I started dying her hair for her the third time we got together, when I knew I loved her but waited to say it, so I didn’t scare her away.
We are in the kitchen section surrounded by islands, small matte green carts, thin wooden wine racks, shiny stainless steel double deckers on wheels. We have just driven halfway across the country twice, Providence to Denver, first in her car, then in mine. We have just rented our first apartment, and inside, there is one mattress and not two. We are doing the damn thing. I have never done the damn thing before.
I was twenty-four, coming home from visiting a friend on Fire Island when I discovered a splinter in my toe. I hobbled the two blocks to Mei Li’s apartment and lay on her couch with my bare foot in the air. I hugged a pillow while she lit a match to sterilize the needle. The splinter was in deep.
This is probably going to hurt, she said.
Okay, I’m ready.
It didn’t. Her fingers moved with careful tenderness. There is an unexpected vulnerability in this part of the body, in presenting to someone else the bottom of your foot, its flesh and callus. We were just friends at this point, friends who had dated and then broken up and then hooked up and then broken up again, friends who were trying to be friends.
She removed the splinter and squeezed Neosporin onto a Band-Aid, gently wrapping it around my toe. I didn’t want to leave, but I’d gotten what I came for. Walking home, I tried to think up excuses to see her. It wasn’t the same thing I had felt before. This pull wasn’t the raw volatility, the electric undertow and the dizzy descent, air bubbles leaving my mouth one by one. It was different this time. There was a steadiness in her, bone deep, something elemental that I was already anchored to. We were connected. Not in the way of buzzing electrical wires, not in a way subject to shocks and power outages. This was immovable, something which would not be destroyed by storms.
In the brightly-lit showroom, we stand in front of a large white kitchen island with an oak butcher block top, two stainless steel shelves, and an overhang where two stools tuck in. The new apartment has shit for counter space. We’ve been talking about—lusting after—a kitchen island for the last three weeks. This one is perfect, beautiful, utilitarian, glowing with domestic bliss beneath the showroom’s golden lights. It is four hundred dollars. It makes me feel afraid. I suggest we keep looking on craigslist for something cheaper. She doesn’t want something crappy. I say, You can get really nice stuff on there. She says, I’m twenty-seven. She doesn’t say she wants to start building a life with me, investing in that life, but it’s in her warm brown eyes and the crook of her dark eyebrows, in the way she looks at me in the car when we stop at traffic lights.
Before now, my furniture was gifted or thrifted. I slept on an air mattress the first few months out of college. Over the last three years, I bought one piece of furniture new, a papasan chair with a plush navy cushion on sale for one hundred dollars at Pier 1. I shoved it into my friend’s Honda Fit so I wouldn’t have to pay for shipping. I have always been living in preparation for my starving artist future, even as my savings sat accumulating interest year after year, even as the money I inherited gurgled through the stock market. Now here is this island. It means something else.
I was twenty-three, and Mei Li and I sat in my car. The interior was fabric and the cupholder was clean. We were coming back from the beach. There was sand in the mats at our feet. The afternoon grayed into evening around us, and I turned to her and said, I just want—My bathing suit bottoms were still wet. The saltwater contracted on my skin as it dried. I had said this to her in the spring, but now I said it again; I told her, for at least the second time, that I didn’t love her, that I was not falling in love with her, and that I didn’t think I ever would. I didn’t see us having a future. There was pain in her eyes, an instinctual retreat. I don’t want to hurt you, I said. I’m just trying to be honest.
She reached for the handle, but the door was locked. She pulled, but it didn’t open. Maybe then she made a sound in her throat and refused to meet my eyes. I know. You don’t need to keep telling me.
I’m sorry, I just feel—I think—I considered dropping it, but I needed to be clear. I owed her that. It seems like you’re falling for me, I said quietly.
Stop trying to tell me what I’m feeling. She stared out the grime-streaked front windshield. I was out of wiper fluid. I’m not falling in love with you.
I nodded. I told myself to get off my high horse, to stop imagining I knew her better than she knew herself. A hookup is a hookup.
But I felt her falling. I needed to warn her.
The neighbors had a tree removed this fall. It was a tall pine, tip towering twenty feet above the roof. They took it down in under an hour. Three men. The first, in a red t-shirt and safety helmet, climbed into the basket of the cherry picker with a chainsaw. It took him a few pulls to get the chainsaw started. He began with the bottom most branches and worked his way up. Buzz. Drop. Silence. Buzz. Drop. Silence. The two below gathered the fallen arms. The man in the cherry picker moved quickly, and the tree became a pole with small white knots where branches once reached. Then, he worked his way back down, sawing off the trunk in four-foot increments, biting half way through one side then the rest of the way through the other. He snapped the final fibers of the trunk with his gloveless hand. The arm of the cherry picker lowered and lowered and lowered until there was only a length of tree as tall as a woman. Then, there was nothing. They climbed into the truck and drove away. Sometimes I think this is what happened to me.
The metaphor is inaccurate.
The truth is more infected.
When I tried to write about the woman who came before Mei Li, I began to grind my teeth in my sleep. I didn’t bleed for months. I broke a vibrator. I couldn’t get through a morning of writing without shitting every hour. This is the problem with remembering: its warming hut thaws what time froze solid. This is the cryogenic magic of memory, how it makes the corpse finger move, how the blood of the past threatens to stain the present.
I was twenty, and the woman who came before said—or maybe I only thought—that if I kept waiting and giving and lying, if I kept trespassing against myself, then everything would be okay. She would come out and her depression would vanish. We would stop driving three towns over to have a date away from prying eyes, stop sharing too-long silent glances through the sneeze shield in the cafeteria during her work-study. She would stop leaving anonymous sunflowers in my mailbox—too afraid to sign a note, stop pulling her hand out of mine on damp evening sidewalks the moment another person came into sight, stop saying sex between two women was a sin, stop yelling at me late at night in empty basement laundry rooms—her red-rimmed eyes sharp with a fear bottomless and untouchable, stop breaking up with me and apologizing the next day saying she didn’t mean it. If I could let her kiss me and scream at me, love me and blame me, abandon me and return to me again and again without telling anyone, then eventually she would come out and we would be happy.
How does the ending color the middle? Even when I was sobbing and sleep-deprived and finally admitted to myself that I was unhappy, part of me still believed I would marry this woman. Part of me was already telling this story to our grandchildren for their sixth grade history project, how Grandma and Nanny had to lie and hide their relationship before the Supreme Court ruling, back when people had to fight to love each other. I could see them sitting in a circle at my feet. I could hear myself say, “You have to be brave for love. Back then, we didn’t have a choice.” I had a choice; I couldn’t see it. I was too far under to remember what it felt like not to have to hold my breath.
What happens if we break up? I ask, not taking my eyes off the kitchen island.
I know I’m not supposed to say this. I know I’m not supposed to have an emergency escape plan, but I do. I love Mei Li. I want this to work. I moved far away from everything for her. Recently, after a fight, still tear-wet, I said, Let’s never break up. Only after I said it did I think about what it meant. Still, part of me needs to know where the door handle is at my back.
Around us kids weave between the furniture. A dark-haired couple nods approvingly at a gold and glass drinks cart. The man crouches down to get a closer look. My mouth has gone dry.
Why would we break up? She laughs, and underneath the laugh is a little sandpaper hurt. I laugh, too.
I know, I know. But I just want to know. My chest feels tight. It’s a lot of money. It’s a big kitchen island; it’s not going to fit in every apartment.
I was twenty and splintering. When the woman who came before left me for another woman and immediately came out, I thought everything must have been my fault. The trick of emotional manipulation is how it confuses the truth; I blamed myself for my own destruction. If she was the chainsaw, I was the cherry picker, raising her up, holding her steady as she cut me down. I had let this happen to myself. I had tried so hard. I had been so certain. After, I was certain of nothing. I pressed a hand to the mouth of my intuition and kept it there.
I was twenty-two. It was the first snow day during my first year teaching. A few months after our first breakup, Mei Li texted me, I know you don’t have time for a real relationship. What if we just hook up? I danced around my second floor living room, snow falling past the large windows. I didn’t know if I wanted her. I couldn’t tell. I decided if I didn’t know, that meant I didn’t. Any feeling which was unclear enough to be unknown must be dismissible. I texted back; I don’t want to complicate things.
That weekend we went bowling, her, me, and my tall roommate and my short roommate who both loved her. We went to a bowling alley that had a bar and a disco ball. It still had that bowling alley smell, the ghost of every bit of food that had ever been crushed into the red and tan carpet, but the music was good and attractive single people stood in the dark holding drinks in real glasses. Getting dressed that evening, I made myself put on the too-big lumberjack flannel I bought in the men’s department of Gap several years ago. I did this so I wouldn’t flirt with her by accident, so I wouldn’t go home with her. I put my hair up in an ugly bun.
At the bowling alley my short roommate ordered white Russians and my tall roommate sprinted to the arcade. He found his favorite game and started playing.
Try it! Try it! he crowed after his turn was over. I’d never been one for arcade games, but I stepped up and listened to him explain when to hit the buttons. The big screen lit up and sang its cyclical carnival song. The game began, and I died immediately. My cheeks felt hot. I didn’t know whether to pout or swear. I stepped back awkwardly and waved his hand away when he brandished a token for me to try again. Mei Li stepped up, the carnival song played, and she too died immediately, but she didn’t pout or swear. A laugh of surprise erupted from her mouth. She actually slapped her knee like someone in a movie. She wheezed, she was laughing so hard. Did you see that? she asked me and my roommate. I just–she shook with mirth. Because she was laughing so hard, we couldn’t help but laugh too. Okay, let me try again, she said, reaching for the soda cup full of tokens.
Mei Li is an excellent bowler. I didn’t know before tonight. It surprised me. I felt a thrill of pleasure watching her bring the ball up to her chin, eyes still with concentration, the sweep of her arm, the cross of her right leg behind her left, the way the ball spun back even as it glided forward. She wore American flag socks, and their stars and stripes stuck out of her bowling shoes. Confident socks. My tall roommate, who is also my gay roommate, touched her often, joked with her, lay a hand on her arm as he laughed at her jokes. I watched, feeling jealous, knowing I had no right to be.
After bowling my second frame, I went to the bathroom. It was dark and ugly and unclean, and I didn’t pee. I unbuttoned the bottom three buttons of the over-large man-shirt and tied it at my waist like a Britney Spears music video. I pulled out my ugly bun and fluffed my crinkled hair. I pulled my jeans up high on my hips and tried to be more beautiful. When I saw Mei Li going to the snack bar, I went after her.
I asked her to come over tonight. The saliva in my mouth had grown thick and sticky. Her eyes were quiet and patient. She asked what had changed. What had changed? I didn’t want her and then I did. I didn’t know and then I knew. You’re not allowed to say that. I had to say something, so I said, I’ve been hurt really badly before. At first, I thought I was saying it just to give her an answer, to make her stop asking, but then I said, I’m so scared, and my voice quivered. I thought I might burst into tears right there by the snack bar and the baskets of fried food and the Coca-Cola poster and light up slushie sign. She didn’t miss the moment. She brought her hand to my cheek and met my eyes. She said, I won’t hurt you, I promise.
Now, she looks away, watches the man who is fiddling with the wheel locks on the drink cart. She pauses. What do you want to do. If we break up.
Who’s going to keep it?
Do you want to keep it?
No. I don’t think so.
Okay, I’ll keep it. She’s laughing again, that same angry-hurt laugh that she throws like a tarp to cover what lies beneath. I have broken up with her twice before, in a different life. This time is new. This time I’m staying. Still, we are accompanied by so many ghosts. I’ll buy you out of it. If you want.
She writes down the item number of the kitchen island with a golf pencil and we walk over to look at the matching stools. The cushions come in twelve different colors. As we walk, she takes my hand. Her palm is warm, her grip is comforting. I could pull away if I wanted to; I could break free, but barring that, she won’t drop my hand. She won’t be the one to let go.
Olivia Fantini grew up in Massachusetts and spent six years working in public schools as an English Language Development teacher. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota where she was awarded the Gesell Fellowship. Her short story “At the Airport” won Epiphany Magazine’s 2022 Breakout Writers Prize. Her short story “Experimental Trials” received third place in the 2021 Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction from Philadelphia Stories, and her fiction has also appeared in TriQuarterly. She is currently at work on a novel and a memoir. OliviaFantini.com