Fourteen. I sit on the bus to my new high school, grey T-shirt, blue jeans. I don’t try to show anything about myself with my outfit, my fashion sense or political ideology or even the shape of my body. I’ve never ridden the bus to school before and it feels weird to live in a place where I can’t just walk to school. The hiking trails, the trees looming over every yard—I don’t know how to deal with how rural, how natural, everything feels.
Lonely closeted lesbian teen sitting alone on the bus—a big cliché. But I don’t sit alone. A girl sits next to me, asks my name, says she hasn’t seen me before. I’m not ignored, I’m not bullied. I have a chance here, if I want to take it.
“Ashley,” I answer her. I don’t offer anything more. I don’t ask her name in return. I don’t ask anything about the school we’re headed towards. I don’t ask anything about the people. I look out the window, which now reflects the glow of my companion’s phone. I want to tell her that this is not me. I’m not afraid to talk to people. I could tell her the Mexican restaurant story, about how when I was a little girl I took it upon myself to greet the other patrons, walking from table to table and solemnly announcing, “Hi. My name is Ashley,” to each group in turn until my mom dragged me back to our table. I want and don’t want to tell her. Why bother revealing anything? Why bother trying to justify myself to a stranger?
I could tell this new girl about Lily, because Lily is what I want and don’t want to talk about. I think about the eighth-grade dance and telling Lily I liked girls. I saw her trying to hide her smile—I knew then how she felt about me. She could never be subtle, even though she thought she was; it was one of the cutest things about her.
I think about the distant, compassionate fear I felt when the headlights beamed over us—the kind of generous fear you feel for someone else when you know their stakes are much higher than yours. Lily’s mom getting out of the car, the two of us breaking apart, Lily disappearing inside. I think about seeing Lily’s mom again a few weeks later, lit in grocery store fluorescence, and how I hid behind a display of beans until she passed by. She scared me, but she looked so much like her daughter.
I think about Lily all the time but I am afraid to text her. I think about the deep shit she would be in if her mom saw my texts. And even though it wouldn’t carry over to me, even though I’m untouchable in my new town and with my ambivalent parents, I can’t face the shame of knowing how much I am hated by this one woman. I’m still surprised to remember her mom’s anger, her disgust.
No, I don’t feel like telling all this to someone new right now. But after a minute, I turn back to my seatmate and ask if she’s a freshman, too.
While we talk, I thumb through the contacts in my phone despite myself. Like always, my finger pauses over Lily’s name, hovers over “delete contact,” then quickly closes out the page. I can’t bring myself to delete her number. But I’m sure she’s had to delete mine.
Seventeen. Cameron and I sit at the falafel place downtown. We’re indistinguishable from the masses of girls from Smith, or so I want to believe. Girls walking through this town like it’s always been theirs, holding their curly, colorful heads proud.
“You good, Ash?” Cameron asks, sipping her iced coffee.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I say, trying to center myself, trying to be here, with her.
“You’re probably still out of it. Those edibles were strong.”
“Yeah. Good thing my mom wasn’t home or she definitely would’ve caught on.”
“Are you sad you missed cross-country today?”
“No.” I smile, lightly kicked her under the table. “Getting high with you and making out is way more fun.”
It had been our routine for the past few weeks—only this time, we’d had sex. I slap my hands on the table, stand. “I’m gonna get a coffee, too. I can’t keep my eyes open.” When I come back, Cameron looks at me almost shyly. For a moment her expression reminds me of Lily. I wonder if she’s kissed anyone else yet.
“You alright?” Cameron asks.
“No, sorry,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You wanna kill some time at Broadside?” Cameron asks. “Their LGBTQ section looks gayer than ever.”
“Sure,” I say.
We walk down the street and our hands occasionally brush together. I know this thing with Cameron is just for now. It’s fine and it’s fun and I’m happy with how it is.
Twenty. I watch the Pacific Ocean from my window, take in the tanned masses playing beach volleyball.
My roommate Nathan shouts, “Ashley, where’s the vodka?”
“It’s noon, dude,” I call back, laughing.
“No, it’s 12:01—after noon. Drinking is acceptable in the afternoon.”
“Cabinet next to the fridge,” I yell, kicking my door shut. “Cheers,” I add.
It’s a Tuesday, and all I have is one evening class in a few hours. I work on some homework and declutter the wasteland of my email. When I’m finally done, I try to arrange my bookshelf, which is not so much an actual bookshelf and more an ever-growing pile of books on my dresser. I sort through the mess, make a separate pile of books I need to read this week for class. There’s one outlier among the heavy textbooks and slight paperbacks: a thin, cheaply bound, glossy-covered yearbook. I’ve carted it with me each time I’ve moved—three times now, first to Northampton, then to the Mary Rosemont dorms, and now to my off-campus apartment. It’s only my eighth-grade yearbook, which seems a little silly—my high school yearbook is still sitting on a shelf back home. I don’t consider myself a very sentimental person, but every so often I like to look at it.
I flip to the last page, to the tracing. Two hands, fingertips only just touching, crudely outlined in bleeding blue pen across two pages and encircled by a jagged heart. Our initials are written in the gap between our pinkie fingers: LB + AP.
I trace the outline of Lily’s long, slender fingers. I never deleted her number from my phone. Through two phone upgrades it’s tagged along with me, a SIM card carryover. Nothing is stopping me from texting that number. I could tell her how I really hope she’s okay, and how I hate that I haven’t stayed in touch.
I’m the only one stopping myself. It’s entirely possible she doesn’t remember me, doesn’t want to remember me. Or she remembers me, but I’m nothing more than a footnote in a terrible chapter to her by now. That would be okay, good for her even, but if that’s the case I don’t really want to know.
I push my feet into my worn blue sneakers and go for a two-mile run; I run every day, even in the disgusting September heat. I run the length of Venice Beach twice and then shake off my shoes and charge into the warm ocean water. Sometimes I miss Massachusetts, the cinnamon rush of fall, the icy sting of the ocean there.
Back home, I take a shower. Reaching for my shampoo, I debate if it’s worth it to yell at my roommates about the number of hair products they keep in the shower, or if that would just encourage them to buy more. When I get out of the shower, I leave a Post-it saying “Is this necessary?” on Nathan’s pre-shampoo relaxant.
I’m toweling my hair dry in my room when my phone buzzes. Probably one of the boys, asking me to go grocery shopping before they get back from class. Ben likes to cook but never plans ahead.
So I’m calm when I see it. A text from Lily.
She’s been thinking about me a lot.
Kara Dombrowski is a 27-year-old trans woman living in Massachusetts, and an aspiring writer and teacher. As Kara embraces her identity, she feels that her writing has flourished, and is excited to get her perspective out into the world. This is her debut fiction publication.