I watch her unabashedly, mostly because there is no one here to tell me not to. The neon lights make her look like an Andy Warhol painting, beautiful and garish. The colors that flicker across her face clash hideously but I can’t help but think she should be hung up in a museum somewhere. When I tell her that, she smacks my arm and calls me a nerd. Then she grabs my hand and drags me to the entrance.
It’s a separate world that we step into, this parking lot carnival. Just yesterday, there was barely space to park. Tonight, a Ferris wheel brushes the sky and lesser rides lay at its feet like offerings. Yesterday, the only light came from the amber glow of streetlights, half burned out. Today, we shine in a thousand colors, enough to give anyone a headache. I wish I had brought sunglasses.
I didn’t want to come, not really. But I can never say no to her. Not when she kissed me that first time, not when she told me afterward that we should just be friends who hold hands under tables and know what the other tastes like, and definitely not when she told me, We’re going to the carnival, I’ll pick you up at six. I am a boat adrift, hopeless against her pull. It’s not the worst thing to be.
The smell of funnel cake wafts through the air, a pleasant counterpoint to the crush of bodies and the sound of screams. She buys me some without a thought and I share it with her as we wander aimlessly past lines of game stalls towards the rollercoasters.
“Where do we start?” I ask, though I know the answer: whatever ride looks the most dangerous.
She is silhouetted against the Ferris wheel, so I hear rather than see her excited grin. “The Zipper,” she decides, pointing to a metal death trap slightly taller than the other metal death traps. “They stick you in a little metal carriage and then flip you around, like a Ferris wheel on crack cocaine. You’ll love it.”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” I mutter, but I let her pull me towards it anyway. I always do.
(Here’s a secret: if I wanted to, I could protest. I could tell her that I hate rollercoasters and I only go on them because the clench of her hand around mine as she screams with laughter is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get. If I wanted to, I could tell her and she would listen. She would apologize for forcing me and promise to never make me go on one again.
Here’s a secret: I don’t want to.)
Nine o’clock finds us sitting on a bench together, having done all the rollercoasters and thoroughly messed up our hair. The sky is black but for pinprick stars and the dull glow of the moon, but the carnival still burns bright. We sit a distance away from the epicenter, where there are no prying eyes, no lingering gazes. We’re functionally alone.
“I’m not ready to go home yet,” I confess, breaking the flow of meaningless carnival conversation. I want to cling to this moment as long as I can. As long as she’ll let me.
“Me neither,” she says. She thinks for a moment. “We haven’t done the Ferris wheel yet.”
“You mean the one you called boring when we first came in?” I tease, helping her stand. Her hand burns my skin.
“Yeah, yeah,” she mutters with a playful scowl. “Let’s go before I change my mind.”
(Here’s another secret: the Ferris wheel is my favorite ride. There’s no real reason for it, no deep metaphor. I just like it. I wonder if she realizes that, or if this is just a lucky guess. I won’t ask.)
The Ferris wheel glows like a beacon. This time, our roles are reversed; I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame and I tug her lightly behind me to keep up with my eagerness. She follows indulgently. My feet move of my own volition, dragging us into the line. Luckily, it is short, and we are in a carriage in no time. She sits across from me, rather than next to me. I don’t take it personally.
Then the operator hits a button and the Ferris wheel begins to turn, taking us up with it.
The carnival whirls around our carriage, a tornado of screams and laughter and neon lights. We are in the eye, just the two of us, so still we might be statues. Her hand shakes as she reaches towards my face. I can’t breathe when her thumb swipes my cheek.
“You had a bit of sugar from the funnel cake,” she tells me, tasting it with a wink. Her smile is quicksilver and I want to know what it feels like against my own, out here where everyone can see us. Instead, I choke the feeling down and give her a grateful smile, as if all she did was save me from a bit of embarrassment.
I love her. It’s not a secret. Not to me, and not to her. She knows. She knows that sometimes I love her so much that I feel like I was made only to worship at her altar, and that sometimes it twines around my throat and chokes me until I can’t even speak her name. That she is my Achilles’ heel and I would die a thousand times just to touch her face. That her name is carved on the inside of my ribs, sheltered near my heart.
I love her, and she knows it, and it doesn’t change a damn thing.
We are high enough now that no one on the ground can hear us unless we shout. I know this because she’s taught me to notice things like this. I want to hate her for that, but I can’t.
“Can I tell you something?” she leans over the edge of the carriage, watching the ground get smaller. “I’ve never been on a Ferris wheel before. I’ve never even wanted to. I didn’t see the big deal.” We are five carriages from the top. It’s a little late to back out now.
Four carriages sway above us. “I have,” I say breathlessly. “Wait until we get to the top. It’s beautiful. I mean, unless you’re scared of heights. Are you?”
“A little,” she admits as the wheel turns. “But you’ve been staring at it all night. What, you think
I didn’t see you looking?”
We stop with three carriages above us. Suddenly, I am gripped with the desire to do something to free these bursting feelings from the prison of my ribs. I want to laugh. I want to scream. I want to cry. I want to grab her and kiss her and tell her that she seals my cracks like molten gold and makes me feel whole. I want to blink without seeing her afterimage burned on my eyelids. Just—something.
“I’m in love with you,” I whisper, wretched. Two away, now.
What’s the point of a confession? Closure? Where is the closure in watching her hands flex on the bench, curling in and out of fists? Where is the closure in her shuttering eyes, or the way she flicks her hair forward to draw a curtain between us? I almost wish I had bitten my tongue and let my mouth fill with blood, instead. But at the same time, I can’t bring myself to regret it too much. It’s the truth, after all.
She is silent. There is an ocean between our benches. An impassable space of a foot and a half.
Salt stings my eyes and the carriage rocks with the waves as we move up again. One more.
“It’s okay that you’re not,” I offer, even though I feel like I am being torn apart at the seams. It’s a familiar ache. I almost welcome it. “I just wanted to say it. This felt like the place.”
The Ferris wheel spins a little more, and suddenly there is nothing above us but sky.
From the top, I can see everything. The bones of our town, crisscrossed with streetlit veins. And her, the heart. At the top of the Ferris wheel, she glows with rainbow light, borrowed from the bulbs that dot our carriage. It pusles in time with my heartbeat, casting her in shadow, then color, then shadow all over again. Each time I see her, she is born anew.
I want so desperately to not be in love with her so I can fall all over again.
Her hair is mussed, and her lipstick is smeared, and I want to paint her. I want to hold her in this moment forever, stash it deep behind my ribcage and never let it go. This is immortality, I think. The space between blinks where everything is still and golden and perfect. The half-second before the illusion is shattered by a heartbeat or an inhale. I would stay in it forever, if I could. Fossilize. Two girls preserved in amber, to be discovered by archaeologists some million years from now. Maybe they’d call us lovers. They’d probably call us friends.
“The stars are beautiful from up here,” she says quietly.
I mean to look up, but my eyes catch on the halo of her hair, the chiaroscuro of her cheekbones. She looks like a marble statue—untouchable for all her beauty, Venus de Milo lit by moonlight and LEDs. I can’t look away. I wish I could.
“Yeah,” I lie. The stars could be tumbling out of the sky and I wouldn’t care.
Her eyes lock with mine before I can look away. “You’re so cheesy.” She makes a face like she’s fighting down a smile.
We are far enough up that no one can see us, but I still see her check for prying eyes before she leans in. Her kiss makes me forget her fear—almost. It is too easy to lose myself in the taste of salt and cotton candy and something else that is uniquely her. The feel of her lips is like coming home. I am marked by the press of her fingertips against my jaw. With her touch, I am undone.
She pulls away and I follow instinctively, almost falling off my bench in my desperation. The movement of the wheel down a step forces me back into my seat and the space between us is impassable once more, thick with unspoken fears.
I know hers, so I don’t push. I wonder if she knows mine.
“I never said I didn’t love you back,” she says quietly. The stars grow infinitesimally smaller as we drop another few feet. “But I wish I didn’t.”
“It would be easier, wouldn’t it?” I huff a laugh, even though I don’t feel like laughing. It really would be easier, if we could just be friends who kissed sometimes. But now that I know the taste of her lips, I am addicted. I’ve been hooked since I first looked at her and saw her looking back.
“Yeah,” she says quietly. I know what she is thinking; up here on the Ferris wheel, it is just the two of us. But down there, is a world with expectations for girls like her, and they don’t include girls like me. Up here, we are ensconced in an impenetrable bubble of truth and starlight. Down there, the whispers pierce like knives and I am not enough to protect her.
“I don’t think I can stop,” I admit. We are almost at the bottom now; I have to get it out. “Like that Plato story, the one about soulmates? With the four arms and the four legs and the two heads? I wish that were us, sometimes, and then I remember that that would probably suck for all sorts of reasons. Does that make sense? Am I rambling? The truth is, I don’t know who I am without you. So much of me is wrapped up in so much of you.”
The wheel spins us closer to the ground. “Say something,” I beg.
“Four arms?” she raises an eyebrow, but she’s smiling. “We’d kill it at volleyball, but the downsides probably outweigh the benefits.”
Any other time, I’d laugh at her stupid jokes. But I can’t find the humor right now, not when I have flayed myself open and she wants to talk about volleyball. “Be serious,” I say, and I mean it.
“What do you want me to say?” she sighs. “That I wish it didn’t have to be this way? That I wish I could be—could be brave enough to love you recklessly? That I wish we never had to get off this stupid Ferris wheel, so that I could bask in how happy you looked at the top? That I love you, too? Tell me what you want to hear.”
“Any of that, if it’s true.”
She looks immeasurably sad for a moment. It looks like something in her is shattering into dust. “Of course it’s true,” she whispers. “Of course it’s true.”
The Ferris wheel grinds to a halt. There is one more carriage below us. We are close enough to the ground to recognize faces—the boy collecting tickets is in our math class, and the man in line teaches it. We know them, and they know us. It’s terrifying.
Oh, the mortifying ordeal of being known! And not even in any meaningful way; they just know our names and faces enough to gossip. And gossip in a small town like this spreads like wildfire.
Nothing is secret, especially when it involves two girls who are maybe a little too close.
“Recklessly,” she says softly. She tilts her head and smiles, crooked. It’s such a difference from a second ago that it gives me whiplash. My heart is in my throat as she throws herself onto my bench in one violent motion, causing our carriage to rock and drawing the eyes of those below.
She grabs my hand and squeezes tight enough to bruise, like I’m her anchor in a storm. Her fingernails cut into my knuckles. I close my eyes and rest my head on her shoulder.
When the wheel turns again to let us off, we will untangle ourselves under familiar stares. We will pretend it was an accident somehow, or that we were cold up there in the sky, or any of a hundred other flimsy excuses. Not-quite-strangers will have no choice but to move on to better, juicier topics, though they’ll grumble and whisper anyway. Our secret will remain a secret and I’ll pretend it doesn’t ache deep in my bones. But for now, her body is a line of heat against mine and her grip has loosened enough to be pleasant, to be loving. For now, all is quiet, all is still.
For now, this is enough.
Brooklyn Quallen is an 18-year-old writer from New Jersey. Caught in the nebulous post-high school, pre-college period of her life, Brooklyn spends her time reading, writing, and fruitlessly trying to teach her dog how to sit. She has pieces published in Lunch Ticket, Girls Right the World's annual issue, Silk Club, Lambda Literary’s “Writing Out of the Closet” Anthology, and the Binsey Poplar Press.