In the afternoons we wait outside school together. Tall tall ponderosa pines swaying, heavy rushing sound of wind through pine needles. We speak very little, just stand next to each other.
The only time I go to her house is when we are fifteen, before a school dance. Week-old patches of ice greying at the edges of her driveway. I sit in the corner reading Seventeen while all the other girls do each other’s hair. She is wearing her pyjamas, the waistband is slipping down and I can see she has on ruffly red underwear. Two of our friends spent the previous night here. I think about them sleeping in her bed. She has a pet cockatoo and it is screaming downstairs like it’s being murdered. The screaming is making her two dogs go skittering in and out of the room again and again.
In Seventeen there is an article called “My Boyfriend Turned out to be a Girl”. One of those it-happened-to-me sort of articles. The boyfriend in question has disappeared after having his secret revealed. The girlfriend is devastated. I loved him, she says. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if he just told me the truth.
I carpool to school with a boy who, at sixteen, is strongly self-identified as a Libertarian. He annotates the summer history reading with convoluted arguments against it. His politics are a school-wide joke, but a friendly one.
A lot of the boys at school have guns, for weekend hunting trips with their dads. In Arizona you don’t need a permit to purchase a firearm, and it is legal for minors to carry a loaded gun if they are accompanied by a guardian. There is a push in the state government to lift the ban on concealed firearms on university campuses, and for a while this discussion sometimes includes elementary and high schools as well. The teachers laugh and say that the boy I carpool with is the one most likely to start bringing a gun to class. Are you packing heat right now, says our history teacher, where do you normally keep your guns? He says he keeps them locked in a box at home for safety, but he doesn’t answer when the teacher asks if he ever carries a gun outside of school.
There are not a lot of good options for prom dates junior year. She asks him to take her, and he says yes, but he has a shift at work that night so he will be late. We go to dinner in a big group and she sits next to me. We have matching tulle skirts. We dance together. He shows up sometime later. I think, at least he brought her a corsage.
My boyfriend throws me a surprise party for my birthday and she is there. I haven’t seen her all summer. There is a meteor shower going on and we go outside to see it. I lay next to her on the driveway. The concrete is still hot from the sun. Smell of dusty desert air. We see a meteor falling, a pink streak in the sky.
In January of our senior year, the Arizona State Representative Gabrielle Giffords is shot in the head in a Safeway parking lot. Four months later Arizona becomes the second state in the US to approve legislation designating an official state firearm. The chosen gun is the Colt Single Action Army Revolver, known as the Peacemaker.
We have given up trying to get prom dates. She lives near me; I ask her for a ride. She shows up at my door in a purple and teal satin gown, her chest all encrusted with jewels, freckled shoulders bare. My mother takes photos of us in front of her Volkswagen beetle.
After the dance she drives me home again. We sit in her car for a moment, saying goodbye. I thank her for the ride. I imagine us leaning towards each other over the stick shift and kissing. I get out of the car and walk around it towards my building, and then I open the driver’s side door and say by the way you looked really good tonight. She says thanks, you looked beautiful too.
At graduation I am given a yellow rose. She says she loves the colour and I say here you can have it. In two days I am moving to Sydney with my family, and at the end of the summer she is going to McGill in Montreal.
In Sydney the wattles bloom huge furry clouds of yellow blossoms. They fill the air and cover the sidewalk outside my house like our favourite scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I write to her about the wattles. She writes to me about pastries. I send her a pressed jacaranda flower. She sends me snowflakes melted on the page, still smelling wet and cold. I tell her I have a girlfriend. She doesn’t mention it in her reply.
Sometimes I think about us as something running parallel to my real life. She is so far away, and we don’t talk except in letters, and in short Facebook messages confirming that letters have been sent or received. In high school I was convinced we were connected by some kind of psychic bond, that we didn’t need to discuss our importance to each other because it was something we both just knew. I don’t believe this anymore, but there are ways to express love without stating it directly. We are experts at this.
It’s four years before I tell her how I used to feel. Past tense. How I wanted to kiss her at prom. She says she remembers that moment and that she wanted it too.
In June of 2015 the United States Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. Somewhere online I read that, historically, advancements like this in civil rights are always followed by conservative retaliation. Visibility leads to violence. Scrolling through Twitter becomes a surreal experience. Sometimes a queer person’s selfie is just a selfie, and sometimes it is accompanied by an article about another suicide, or a murder.
At the start of 2016 I move to Melbourne, change my pronouns. I stand at the same bus stop every day watching the sun on the leaves of a eucalyptus tree. In April my cousin gets (straight) married in Santa Cruz. I fly into SFX and my parents pick me up in a rental car and drive me back along the coast. It’s the first time I’ve been back to the U.S. since I left. We stop at Half Moon Bay, low hills all around, green scrub with purple flowers growing in the sand on the beach. All space and light and the sound of wind. I put my feet in the ocean.
She is living in San Diego and she drives up to see me. She is taller than I remember and her voice sounds like I have never heard it before, but otherwise she seems exactly the same. We drive towards the water, find a dog beach. It is a thin strip below some rocks and there are dogs running all over it, wet and caked in sand. We have one towel and we lay it on the ground in the tiny patch of shade up against the rocks. When I sit down I lean back on the arm that is closest to her, so that if we were inches closer my arm would be around her.
We are too close to the water and before we have been sitting there even a minute a wave creeps up and suddenly there is water all around us and our shoes are floating away. I jump up and run after my boots. I can hear her behind me shrieking.
We rescue our things from the ocean and retreat to higher ground. The towel is saturated with seawater and we heave it onto a concrete wall to dry. I watch her wringing water from her skirt.
I have planned what to say but I am not saying it. Standing almost too close to her feels natural, but to swing an arm up and touch her shoulder, or pull her close to me, would be impossible. I am too queer now, too butch for a soft girl. My hands are coated in wet sand and I wipe them on my pants. They hang clean at my sides for a minute, and then I grab the corner of the towel and twist it. Water runs down my wrists until my hands are all gritty again. The sun feels warm all over my body and then, at the back of my neck, too hot like it is starting to burn.
We climb back up to the path above the beach and cross the street to a patch of long grass. We sit on a stump under a tree and talk about how things are different. We both have tattoos now. She lifts up her shirt to show me the cherry blossoms on her ribs.
I am watching a bird in the grass. When it flies away I will ask her. I am counting my breaths. I will take three more and then ask her. A lot of birds come and go. I breathe very slowly for a long time.
I say do you want to kiss, you know, to make up for prom. She says I think so. I figure it will be quick and then it will be over, but instead the kiss starts and it doesn’t stop. My eyes are closed but I am thinking about the freckles at the tops of her cheekbones and I touch her hair and her arms are around me and it is a sad kiss but a good one. Finally a truck pulls up behind us and a bunch of men are shouting at us and we turn around and stare at them until they drive away.
When we walk back along the cliff she asks to hold my hand and I ask her if it is ok to do that here. She says she thinks so. There is no one around except a middle-aged couple further up the path. We hold hands and when we walk past the couple the woman stares.
I had been afraid that seeing her again would be too much. That if we kissed it would become obvious that we had to be together and I would have to drop out of school and move back to the states for good. But when she leaves I feel ok. We have lived on different continents for five years now. It seems unimportant that we might not see each other for another five. It isn’t until the next day that I cry about it.
In June I am at home, lying in bed at night and cycling aimlessly through social media apps when I start seeing tweets about a mass shooting in the U.S. At first I scroll past; it’s not out of the ordinary. But after an hour or so there are hardly any tweets about anything else. I read that nearly fifty people have died in a gay club in Florida, that it is one of the biggest shootings ever to happen in the United States.
In the morning social media is flooded with people talking about Orlando. I feel strange, afraid of something that is so far away now. A threat that is hazy but so familiar. There are things about the way I look that mean I am less at risk than others, but I still don’t feel safe.
I have to go to the office of the magazine I work for to help proofread the new issue. We talk about page numbers and how to spell the authors’ names correctly. It is the weekend and we are the only ones in the building. It is quiet and familiar, but there are so many of us that the work takes hardly any time at all, and soon I am waiting for the train home and reading Twitter again. I want to go back to the office and lie on the floor between the desks and not be alone. I think about messaging the editor to ask if there is anything else I can help with, but then the train comes and I get on it. All the Australians on Twitter are talking about how strange and horrific a shooting is. It takes me a minute to register why they are so surprised. I think about the boy from my carpool and the locked box of guns in his house. I think about how the teachers laughed at him, and how I know that now he is teaching history at that same school. A few rows in front of me a guy and a girl are cuddled up together. He has his arm around her and their heads are resting against each other. I am crying and the woman across from me is trying not to look at me.
I get off the train and onto the bus. By the furniture warehouse a few stops from my house I pull my phone from my pocket again. I scroll back to our last messages, from April. It was nice seeing you, I’ll miss you, etc. I type a new one. I hope you are ok, I say. I love you. She writes back thank you. I am ok despite the tragedy. I love you too.
Mira Schlosberg is a writer, editor and comics artist whose work has appeared in Seizure, Voiceworks and The Lifted Brow.