Tuesday, December 12, 2017

And They Loved Each Other

Chapter One
In between classes, I was hanging out in the library. I was fiddling with my shirt in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to decide if I should tuck it into my jeans or not. I’d just given up when a voice said from behind me,
                “it looked cuter tucked in.” I turned around, and saw a girl with long brown hair leaning against the wall, applying flaming red lipstick in a compact. When she saw me staring at her, she tore her eyes away from her own reflection to glance at me. “The shirt,” she clarified, gesturing at my torso, “it looked better tucked in.”
                “Oh… um, thanks.” I turned back to the mirror and tucked my shirt in, spinning in the mirror to make sure I hadn’t left a tail sticking up. The girl crossed the small bathroom to lean against the wall next to the mirror, as opposed to the wall opposite.
                “I’m Kathy,” she said, extending her hand.
                “Crystal.” I said, accepting and shaking her hand with my own.
                “Is this yours?” She gestured to the cup that was sitting on the shelf next to the mirror.
                “Yeah…”
                “Good.” Without warning, she grabbed the cup and took a swig. In one smooth motion, her head launched forward and she spit out the drink. “What IS that?” She asked, a disgusted look on her face.
                “It’s tea.”
                “No, it’s not, it’s… dirt water.” She stuck her tongue out and shuddered. “Gross.”
                “Well, nobody told you to drink it.”
                “You seem cool, I figured you’d have good drink taste.”
                “I do. That’s good tea. It’s orange spice.”
                “It’s weird enough to drink tea, it’s basically leaf water, but if you’re gonna do it you might as well have decent leaf water.”
                “Let me guess, you drink…” I eyed the girl, taking in her skinny jeans, combat boots, and plaid sweater, “black coffee straight out of the pot.”
                 “I’m more of an orange juice person.”
                “Yeah, well, if I could get two dozen glasses of orange juice for five bucks at the corner store, I’m sure I’d be an orange juice person, too.” Trying to extricate myself from the conversation, I shoved open the heavy swinging door and stepped out into the stacks.
                “I was kidding.”
                “Gee, I couldn’t tell.”
                “I do drink black coffee. I know, such a stereotype, right?”
                “It does fit the aesthetic.” I did my best to ignore her and continue walking.
                “Hey, wait, talk to me,” she stepped in front of me and we almost had a collision.
                “What do you want?”
                “I don’t know, a friend?”
                “Do you usually make friends by criticizing their fashion and drinks of choice in the bathroom?”
                “I wasn’t criticizing your fashion. You were clearly trying to make a decision, and I made it easier. Now, your leaf water, that I was criticizing. But come on, it deserves it.”
                “Why should I be your friend?”
                “For one thing, I’m pretty sure this is one of the most interesting conversations you’ve ever had.”
                “True, but not in a good way.”
                “For another, I’m pretty cool. I don’t smoke anything—”
                “That does not fit the aesthetic.”
                “Please don’t interrupt my pitch. I don’t smoke anything, I’m a good student, I can help you with your homework or whatever, and we’re in the same major – which I know because I saw you at orientation - so we’re probably going to have a lot of the same classes. Also, I have every streaming service available to me, and I own a crap ton of music. I can play records, CDs, MP3s, even cassettes. I have a wide music taste so if you like it, I probably have it. I don’t have a roommate. In short, my dorm is the place to be for leaf water-swilling microbiology majors who know how to really have fun.” She smiled proudly and clasped her hands in front of her. I struggled to come up with something negative to say.
                “I thought your kind didn’t like friendships.”
                “My kind?” She seemed genuinely flabbergasted. “Oh, you mean you think I’m super emo or something? Because of the aesthetic? Well…” she peeled off her sweater and revealed a pink T-shirt with some sort of French writing on it. “Fear not, I am a woman of many faces. Not that I’m two-faced or anything. I’m really trustworthy and genuine.”
                “If you’re so awesome, why do you need more friends?”
                “Because it’s college and I don’t know anyone.”
                “Why me?”
                “I recognized you from orientation.”
                “You remembered me?”
                “You talked. A lot.”
                “Gee, thanks.”
                “No, no, in a good way. You asked a lot of really smart questions. And don’t think I didn’t hear the music blasting from your phone at lunch. You have an emo soul.”
                “I had my brother’s old phone. I don’t like half that stuff.”
                “Well, I guess Fall Out People—”
                “It’s Fall Out Boy,” I blurted, before I realized what I was saying. Kathy just laughed.
                “It’s okay, hon. Like I said, woman of many faces. I could sing Taylor Swift’s canon from memory.”
                “Do you have the new album?”
                “Only in three formats.” I let out a little gasp.
                “Really?”
                “Yup. Still thinking about turning down that offer of an amazing friendship?”
                “Well I DO have a giant tub of super exotic coffee that my parents sent me that I am never going to consume, but feel bad for wasting…”
                “Consider it un-wasted. Give me your phone.” I held back a little bit, but she smiled.
                “I’m going to give you my number, silly.”
                “Oh, okay, duh.” I laughed at myself as I unlocked my phone, opened the ‘new contact’ screen, and handed it to her. In a few seconds, she handed it back, after taking a selfie for her contact image.
                “I’ll text you so you get my number.” I said, opening the messages tab on my phone.
                “Okay, cool. I’ve got chemistry in, like, two minutes but do you wanna come over tonight? If we post enough pictures of our listening party online, Taylor might notice us.”
                “That sounds great, yeah.”
                “Awesome. I live on the seventh floor of holt hall. Room 723.”
                “I live on the fifth floor! Room 515!”
                “What the hell? So cool! See you tonight at seven!” She yelled as she opened the door leading to the main library. Just like that, she was gone, and I was left reeling from the most bizarre human contact I had ever experienced.

Chapter Two
“Do you want to live with me next year?” Kathy asked abruptly, swirling her fork in her chow mein. I looked up from my position on the divan, trying to figure out if she was serious or not.
“Seriously?”
“Of course. You’re my best friend. I think we’d make good roommates. I mean, if you think it’s a bad idea, okay.”
“No, no,” I crossed the room and sat next to her. “I think that’s a really good idea.”
“Really?”
“Yeah. As long as you can put up with my leaf water.”
“Shut up, that was months ago. I was a different person.” She whacked me with a throw pillow.
“Be careful with your food!” I shouted, grabbing the plate of Chinese that had almost slid onto the floor.
“Nice save.” She sat back, drawing her feet up onto the bed. “So, you’re really okay with it?”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay with it? You’re awesome. It’s way better than moving in with random people, anyway, which is what I’d be doing otherwise.”
                “Yeah, no, thanks. I’d rather live in the dorms again.” We faked retching in perfect tandem. I giggled, Kathy laughed out loud.
                “I think I’d rather live on the roof of the gym than the dorms.” I said.
                “That’s a tough decision. I hear the roof is haunted.”
                “Haunted by people who jumped off the roof because they lived in the dorms.”
                “Don’t joke about that.” She said, suddenly serious.
                “I’m sorry.”
                “It’s okay. Just don’t joke about it.”
                “Okay.” I put an arm around her shoulder, reaching for her hand with my free one. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I love you.”
                “I love you, too,” she said, smiling. “I’ve just always taken that kind of stuff really seriously. It’s not a joke to me.”
                “I know. It was thoughtless, and I’m really sorry.”
                “It’s fine, really,” she said, although she wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
                “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” I asked, after a moment.
                “I believe you mean bean water.”
                “See, I’ve given up making fun of your drink choice.”
                “Clearly you lack persistence.”
                “I lack stubbornness, if that’s what you mean.”
                “Rude,” she joked, smacking me again with the same throw pillow.
                “Oh, it’s on!” I shouted, snatching a pillow and hitting her over the head with it. She stood, and we fought for a good five minutes before collapsing in a helpless pile of giggles.
                “I’m really glad I brought that up.” We were lying on our backs a few minutes later, looking at the photos Kathy had arranged on her ceiling. Kathy clenched my hand as she uttered this sentence.
                “Me too. I’m actually excited for next year now. But,” I lifted myself onto my elbow and looked at her. “Not to kill the mood or anything, but what happens this summer?”
                “What do you mean?”
                “Are we just… not going to hang out? I mean you’re my best friend, practically my sister, I don’t want to be cut off from you for three months.”
                “I’m sure we’ll visit each other.”
                “We live a country away from each other. I know your family can barely afford to send you here, and mine certainly can’t pay for round trip fare to California from New York.”
                “That’s true,” she refused to meet my gaze. “But we have jobs, you know, we have money, what if…” she trailed off.
                “What if what? You know I hate it when you leave me in suspense.”
                “We could get our apartment… before the summer.” She said this as though she’d been planning it all along and she was pretty sure I wasn’t going to respond well. She was right.
                “What? No!” I sat up.
                “Hear me out—”
                “No.”
                “Why not? Why is this such a horrible idea?”
                “Because I’m not just going to up and move away from my family, with no notice!”
                “They’d have notice, and besides you already don’t live with them.”
                “That’s different, and you know it. Getting an apartment is… permanent. A dorm is something you’re supposed to move out of.”
                “We’re getting an apartment a few months after that, anyway! Or is that not happening anymore?”
                “Look, I know that your family sucks and everything, and I’m really sorry about that, but I love my family. They mean everything to me. I want to spend as much time with them as I can.”
                “Oh, so you decided to move across the country for school because you’re a daddy’s girl?”
                “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
                “Just that you clearly don’t care too much about spending your every waking moment with them since you go to school 3,000 miles from them, and you haven’t even seen them for, what, four months?”
                “I can’t believe you just said that to me. I didn’t come here to get away from them, I came here because this is a great school and I’ve wanted to go here since I was a kid. The fact that you don’t know that, or are choosing to ignore that—”
                “The fact that YOU’RE ignoring is that you are going to move away from them eventually, and you practically already did, so why on earth wouldn’t you do it two months earlier? You always talk about how poor your family is, wouldn’t this be, I don’t know, cheaper?”
                “You know what, I need to think about this friendship for a while.” I picked up my jacket and headed for the door.
                “Hey, no, Chris-”
                “No, I need to go clear my head and think about this. I don’t want to make decisions right now because I am way too angry to think clearly.”
                “Crystal, wait.”
                “Wait for what? For you to apologize? Because we both know that’s not going to happen.” I threw the door open and rushed into the hallway, running into another girl who was standing by the elevator. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry.” I managed a tight smile. Suddenly, a plate flew past my ear and hit the wall across from Kathy’s door.
                “You forgot your takeout!” Kathy screamed. “Oh, hi, Jules,” she said awkwardly to the girl standing in the hall, who was mutely staring at us, eyes wide. Kathy smiled and waved at her and then, behind the closing door, scowled and gave me the finger. I turned away, shuddering, my mind racing, and numbly picked up the plate and scraped up the scattered food. The elevator came and went while I was attempting to pick grains of rice out of the carpet. My seething rage reduced to a glowing anger, and finally I actually felt bad for the argument. It had mostly been my fault, anyway. As I started to rise, the door beside my head was flung open, and Kathy almost tripped over me.
                “Good lord, what are you still doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be storming off and ‘thinking about our friendship,’ whatever that means?” Her eyes were puffy and red. She sniffled. My heart ached, but I was determined not to give in so easily.
                “Well, you made a mess, so I stayed out here to clean it up.”
                “Isn’t that how it always is?” She chuckled through her tears.
                “Kinda.” I laughed, feeling a lump forming in my throat.
                “I’m so sorry. Can we talk about this like rational adults?” She asked. I dried my nose on the back of my hand.
                “Are you kidding? Of course.” I stood and threw the last of the takeout wreckage away. Kathy held her door open and we went into her bedroom, which had somehow been turned completely upside down in the ten minutes that I’d been in the hallway. There was a stack of photographs on her desk, pictures of the two of us wherein my face had been brutally crossed out with my favorite lipstick.
                “Hope none of those were polaroids,” I said, gesturing lamely at the heap.
                “Some of them were, unfortunately.”
                “And you ruined them with my lipstick.”
                “Yeah. It was the pettiest thing I could think to do.”
                “That is pretty petty, congratulations.”
                “Okay, let’s talk about this.” She sighed, scraping the pictures off the desk and into the trash. She perched on the edge of the bed and I flopped down onto the divan. “I totally get where you’re coming from with your drawbacks. Honestly, I tend to forget that healthy familial relationships exist.”
                “I appreciate that you’re understanding my perspective, and I also appreciate the strides you were making to solve a problem that I put forth.”
                “Wow, you’re really good at this.”
                “I took a communications class about argument last quarter.”
                “Oh.”
                “Anyway, I do want to find a way to see each other over the summer, and I can agree that getting an apartment early makes sense for a lot of reasons.”
                “But I get that you want to spend the summer back home.”
                “I was thinking,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “what if you came home with me this summer?”
                “Really?”
                “I mean, I’d be happy to have you, and I’m pretty sure my mom thinks of you as family by now. As long as you promise not to fall in love with my brother or my cousins or anything, I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t come up, as long as your family would be okay with it.”
                “Who cares what they think?” She scoffed. “Anyways, they’d be fine with it. They don’t care where I go or what I do, as long as none of it negatively impacts them. And don’t worry about me falling in love with your male relatives. They’re probably not my type.”
                “I’ve been told that they’re cute.”
                “Ew, people talk to you about your family members like that?”
                “You have no idea. There was this girl my freshman year of high school who would literally not shut up about how cute she thought my brother’s butt was.”
                “That is disgusting. I think I would actually vomit if that happened to me.”
                “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of vomit.” We laughed together for a minute, but then Kathy returned us to the topic at hand.
                “So, you need to talk to your family about me coming home with you, and I should probably let my folks know that they’re going to need to find a paid babysitter this summer instead of enslaving me.”
                “I am so glad not to have younger siblings.”
                “You’re lucky, yeah. I always wished I had an older brother to, like, beat up my exes for me.”
                “You’d be surprised. My big brother wouldn’t lift a finger for that. Half the time, he didn’t know if I was dating anyone, let alone whom or what they were like. If he had known and if I’d told him ‘go beat up that one, he hurt me,’ he might’ve, like, given the guy a lecture or something, but I’m pretty sure that’s the most violent he would ever get.”                
                “Really? That’s so not how I pictured having an older brother would be.”
                “I think my brother’s just weird. My cousins are pretty standard big-brother fare. We all went to school together and one of them even lived with us for a while, so they were more involved with my love life than my brother was. I always fell for their friends and they were the ones who were like ‘if he hurts you, I’ll beat him up.’” I did my best macho man impression, but I’m pretty sure I just sounded like a grandmother, judging by Kathy’s ensuing hysterics.
                “I can’t wait to meet these great men, with their froggy voices.” She gasped out through the laughter.
                “Oh, hush, you know my impressions suck. By the way, you know it’s five thirty, right? Don’t you have English in… five minutes?”
                “Crap!” She rocketed up from her seat. “That’s what I was on my way to do when you were so rudely still in the hallway! You beast!” I laughed as she snatched her backpack and laptop and sprinted out the door. “Lock up after me! I love you! I’ll call you tonight!”
                “Talk to you later,” I laughed, waving as she disappeared into the elevator.
Chapter three
How do you tell someone you’re in love with them? Do you just walk up to them and say hello, my dear, I realized something today, and that’s that I am in love with you? Are you supposed to spell it in rose petals in their favorite spot, or the place you met? Do you write it in a card and leave the card on a box of chocolates in their fridge? Do you just blurt it out on the spur of the moment? Or do you, like I did, let this feeling fester in silence for as long as you can?
The moment I realized I had to confess my love, we were on my parents’ property back home in upstate New York. She was splashing in the creek behind my house, chasing tadpoles, and the hem of her dress was dragging in the water. Her shiny, soft hair was falling down in a curtain like she was in a shampoo commercial. Her smile was lighting up her face, and most importantly, she was happy. It wasn’t rare to see Kathy happy, but I’d never seen her as happy as she was in that moment. I don’t know what it was, but something about being away from her parents, being in the country and, I like to flatter myself, being with me, made her shine with enthusiasm like she never had before. I joined her in the creek, loving the feeling of the soft mud between my toes and the cold water around my shins.
                “You were supposed to guard the shoes!” Kathy squealed.
                “I’m pretty sure they won’t wander off,” I chuckled, reaching into the water to pick up a stone.
                “I’m not worried about them moving independently, I’m worried about Jonathan moving them.”
                “Oh, you’re right, I’m sure my evil brother is going to come steal our shoes.”
                “Hey, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. He stole our clothes that time.”
                “He stole your clothes, you mean.” I nudged her, and she blushed. That was the problem: Kathy was in love with my brother. I’d seen it in her eyes the moment they met. I should’ve known to keep her to myself. Not like she’d ever be into me like that, anyway.
                “It’s getting cold,” she said.
                “You’re crazy.”
                “I’m from California.”
                “My point exactly.”
                “Rude!” She splashed me. I splashed her back, but she shoved me. I fell backwards and barely caught myself, pulling her with me.
                “Jerk!” I laughed, helping her up.
                “Your mistake!” She cackled, shoving me back down. I was completely soaked.
                “You’re going to get it!” I stood and made chase. She leapt out of the creek, slid her feet into her moccasins, and snagged my sandals. “No! Come back!” I hopped out, gingerly stepping, trying to avoid the stickers and spiny plants that littered the ground. She was up the hill and on my back porch by the time I was five feet from the water.
                “I win!” She crowed, then she rushed down to help me.
                “Thanks for nothing!”
                “Hey, you’d be stranded here if it wasn’t for my kindness.”
                “Your shoe-stealing kindness is world-renowned, my lady.” I casually took her hand and she let me. We walked together back to my house, swinging our hands like schoolgirls. My mother was hanging clothes on the line, and we moved to help her.
                “Oh, hello, girls,” she said, smiling at us. “I thought that was Jon and one of his friends playing in the creek, you both made so much noise.”
                “Jon is much too cool to play in the creek, mom, don’t you know?” I joked.
                “I don’t know, he’s lightened up a lot since I got here,” Kathy remarked, grabbing a shirt from the basket and pinning it to the line. “Just an outsider’s opinion, he seems to have really opened up.”
                “Well, you’ve got him listening to music besides The Scorpions, I’ll give you that,” my mother said lightheartedly. “And don’t you dare call yourself an outsider. You’re a part of this family now.”
                “Thanks, Mrs. P.” Kathy smiled warmly and paused for a second before wrapping her arms around my mother. “You are more like a mother to me than my own mom, and you’ve only known me for two months.”
                “Oh, please,” my mom said, “I’ve known you since that day in the library. Do you know, the moment you left Crystal in that library she called me? ‘Mom, I’ve just met the most bizarre person,’ she said. Turns out, she was wrong.” She smiled, but Kathy clutched her bosom.
                “I’m not the most bizarre person? I, with my plaid, and my combat boots, and my purple eyeliner, am not the most bizarre person? Who have you met who is more bizarre than me? I must fight them. There can be only one.”
                “Well, for one thing, Jon’s not the only one who’s lightened up since you got here, and I assure you, I meant only compliments. You are such a lovely girl.”
                “Aw, I’m gonna cry. Thank you so much, Mrs. P.”
                “Oh, please, you can call me m—”
                “Hey, aren’t we making dinner tonight?” I asked, before my mom could finish her sentence.
                “Oh, yeah, and I wanted to make that steak that takes forever.” Kathy said, hugging my mom one last time before we headed into the house.
                “What was that?” she asked, once we were alone inside.
                “I just… wanted to get dinner going.”
                “Are you jealous? Because you don’t need to be jealous. Your family and I aren’t going to take each other from you.”
                “Except you and my mom and my brother. Great, I get to keep my dad!” An edge of bitterness had made its way into my voice, although I’d really tried to keep it out.
                “Hey, no. How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t like your brother like that? And your mom is just… okay, yeah, she’s an amazing mother and I would totally steal her if I could, but you guys have an incredible bond. She’s never going to, like, love me more than you, or anything.”
                “You are so in love with my brother.”
                “Chris, I promise, I am not in love with your brother. I really, sincerely promise. I would tell you if I was. I’m not. Can you trust me on that?”
                “I don’t know, I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.”
                “What, like siblings? Because that’s all that’s coming from me. I promise.” Just then, my brother himself stepped into the kitchen. He was shirtless, of course, and completely soaked.
                “You ladies cooking dinner tonight? Awesome! Hey, Kath, you’ve gotta make those green things.”
                “Which green things?”
                “The green soft things. The California things.”
                “Oh, the avocado wedges?”
                “Those!” He slammed his hand down on the counter, which made us both jump. “Those were delicious. I would marry you—those, if I could.” He started to blush.
                “Hey, Jon, maybe you should go put on a shirt and take your foot out of your mouth.” I said, pushing him towards the kitchen door.
                “Avocadoes!” He shouted before stepping into the dining room and shutting the door behind him. I turned back to Kathy, whose mouth was agape.
                “Okay, Chris, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but he is an idiot.” She set the dishtowel she’d been holding down on the counter. “For one thing, he called me Kath. He knows I hate that. Then, he couldn’t remember the word avocado. And then…” she waved her hand and scoffed. “I guess you might be right about him, but I promise you, the feeling does not go both ways. And he’ll probably get over it. I’m just a novel concept. It’s the new girl effect. It’ll wear off. Besides, I don’t like him. I really don’t.”
                “Really? I saw the way you were looking at his abs. You were shocked.”
                “Yeah, because who walks around without a shirt? How many brain cells does it take to rule that out as acceptable?”
                “Hey, that is my brother you’re talking about.” I jumped to Jon’s defense.
                “Sorry. But really, there’s nothing there, not from me.”
                “Really?”
                “Yes, why can’t you ever just trust me?” She glanced at the doors to the kitchen, then out the windows, and leaned in. “Look, I haven’t told many people this. I told my family, and their reaction is part of why I don’t ever want to see them again. I didn’t want to tell you until… I don’t know, until we’d reached a certain point. We’ve reached that point. I have a secret, a big secret. You have to promise not to tell anyone.”
                “Of course, I promise.” I hoped she couldn’t see the way my knees were trembling or hear my breath coming faster and faster.
                “I’m gay. I don’t like boys.” She let out a breath, and I bit down on my lip to keep from squealing.
                “Yeah, no, I know what gay means. You’re… really? Huh.” I felt as though I’d suddenly become an oil slick.
                “If that makes things weird between us, or anything, I get it. Just… please think about it before you throw me out on my ass.”
                “This doesn’t change things at all. I mean it every time I say I love you. I…” I stopped myself. “You’re my best friend. You’re an amazing person. You mean the world to me, no matter what, and I will always care about you. Nothing can change that. Okay?” I smiled and wiped a tear off her face. She smiled, and tucked my hair behind my ears before hugging me tightly.
                “Thank you so much.” I could feel her tears wetting my shoulders. “you are my best friend. I love you so much.”
                “I love you more.”
                “No,” she leaned back and sniffled. “I love you more. I mean it. You don’t get to fight me on this.”
                “Okay.” I chuckled, holding her face between my hands, feeling her cheekbones beneath my fingers, admiring the eyelash curve of her lips and the luscious curve of her eyelashes. I was filling up fast with emotions and I didn’t want to spill any of them to her, so I looked away quickly and went to the fridge. “We should start cooking.”
                “You’re right.” Kathy came up behind me and casually placed one hand on my hip while looking over my shoulder into the fridge. Her breath on my neck gave me goosebumps. Almost instinctively, I placed my hand over hers and gave hers a squeeze.
Chapter four.
Our ocean-wave bodies crashed into the shore that was my bed, and we were a tangle of limbs and sweat and heavy breathing. Her hair was in my face and her hands were in my hair, and my legs were entwined with hers and our breath was on each other’s faces. I pulled her close, and our lips met. She broke the kiss first, shoving back just an inch.
                “We’re drunk,” she whispered, her words dancing across my lips.
                “Are you drunk?”
                “No, I didn’t drink anything. Are you drunk?”
                “No.”
                “Good.” She bit her lower lip and a bewitching smile crept up her face. She tangled a hand in my hair and sat up against the wall, pulling me with her. I was straddling her lap and we were kissing, and it was so heavenly. I had imagined kissing Kathy for a year and a half, and finally getting to do it exceeded my every expectation. Her lips were softer than I ever could have imagined, and her delicate hands were caressing my jawbone, my hair, my neck, so unlike the meaty paws of every boy I’d ever kissed. I was unsure what to do with my own hands, so I simply rested them on her shoulders. She leaned forward, pushing me back onto the bed, and she crawled down next to me, breaking the kiss. And then we stopped. We lay there in the darkness, her arm across my stomach, my arm under her neck, looking at each other.
                “I liked that.” She whispered.
                “I liked that, too.”
                “You’re my best friend.”
                “You’re my best friend, too.”
                “You sound like an idiot.”
                “You sound like an idiot, too.” I laughed, and she caught my smile in another kiss. After a moment, she pulled back, stuck out her tongue, and barely licked the tip of my nose. I giggled, and she buried her face in her hands.
                “I don’t know why I did that, sorry.”
                “That’s okay, it was cute.” We were silent for a few minutes, just listening to each other’s heart beats and holding one another.
                “Is this going to be a one-time thing?” she asked, breaking the silence.
                “God, I hope not,” I blurted. “Sorry, is that too aggressive?”
                “Not at all. I hope not, too.”
                “Do you wanna—”
                “Will you be my girlfriend?” She cut me off, leaning up on an elbow and looking down at me.
                “No, see, I was going to ask you if you wanted to be my girlfriend. No fair beating me to it.”
                “Yeah, well, I came out first. That comes with certain privileges.”
                “Excuse me, I only didn’t come out because I thought you were straight and in love with my brother.” I barely finished the sentence before I burst out laughing.
                “That is the most hilarious thing you’ve ever said,” she said, wrapping her arm more tightly around me. “Anyways, will you be my girlfriend?”
                “What, no flowers? No cheesy-yet-impossibly-romantic setting?”
                “Well, at least I didn’t say ‘do you wanna go out some time?’ like someone I know.” She shot me a pointed look.
                “that is not what I was going to say!” I pretended to be hurt. “I was going to say, ‘do you wanna be my girlfriend.’ That is much less of a middle school boy ask.”
                “You’re right, it’s a high school boy ask. So much better.”
                “Ouch, burn. It is better, though, I was defining the relationship. I didn’t just start making out with you at a party and then expect everything to go back to normal.”
                “No, thank god you aren’t Chad Bradshaw.”
                “Is this a bad time to tell you that I used to be a dude named Chad Bradshaw?”
                “Oh, you’re my first of two boyfriends? That explains the nasty leaf water.”
                “I’m hurt.”
                “So, anyway, will you?”
                “Will I what?”
                “Be my girlfriend, you moron.”
                “Of course, I’ll be your girlfriend, you moron. I’ve only been in love with you since the moment I laid eyes on you.”
                “Yeah, well I’ve been in love with you since the moment I laid eyes on you, which was before you laid eyes on me. So, I win.”
                “Wow, everything’s a competition with you lately.”
                “I have to prove my dominance in the relationship. I have to be the man.”
                “What, so you get to be the man?”
                “Well, we have to have a definitive answer when we get asked ‘so, um, who’s the man in your relationship?’”
                “At least it’s better than ‘but what do you do with all the sandwiches?’”
                “What… on earth does that mean?”
                “You know, ‘woman get in there and make me a sandwich’? ‘The problem with being a gay guy is you don’t have anyone to make your sandwiches, the problem with being a lesbian is you don’t have anyone to eat your sandwiches’? Have you really never heard those before?”
                “I’ve heard the first one, I think the second one is just a you-thing.”
                “It’s so not just a me-thing.”
                “It totally is.”
                “Well, if it is, it’s a pretty great me-thing.”
                “I think all your you-things are pretty great.” She nuzzled her hair into my neck, and I bit back a squeal of delight.
                “I feel like a fangirl getting to date my favorite celebrity,” I whispered.
                “Bet you’re glad now that you couldn’t decide how to tuck your shirt in.”
                “I knew it was supposed to be tucked in, I was obviously just trying to get you to talk to me.”
                “Oh, yeah, totally.”
                “You’d better believe it.”
                “Was the gross leaf water a trick, too? Because I gotta confess, that’s part of why I fell in love with you. So, if that wasn’t real, you’d better tell me now.”
                “That was orange spice tea and I was very into it at the time, thank you very much.”
                “Uh-huh, sure. I’m going to go to sleep. I’m tired.”
                “Okay. Take your shoes off.”
                “Take them off for me.” She laughed, but I sat up.
                “No, no, I was kidding. You’re not my slave. You don’t have to do that.” I swatted her hands away and gently unlaced her sneakers and slid them off her feet. I kicked off my shoes and lay back down. She wrapped herself back around me and buried her face in my neck.
                “I love you.” She whispered.
                “I love you, too.” And this time it meant something completely different than the other million times I’d told her those three little words.
Chapter Five
Just before Christmas break our sophomore year, we were walking downtown, doing some shopping.
                “Are you sure you want to come home with me over break? Won’t your family miss you?”
                “Oh, honey, I think now that my gayness is official, my family would rather spend Christmas in Australia fighting giant spiders than with me.”
                “That’s another thing; my mom knows about me, but she doesn’t know about… us.”
                “It’s been almost a year, you haven’t told her yet?”
                “I don’t know, it just… it never came up.”
                “I don’t know how I feel about that.”
                “I don’t want to hurt her.”
                “How would your happiness hurt her?” She stopped, and faced me. “You are happy, aren’t you?”
                “How could you say that? Of course I’m happy. I love you more than anything in the world. You make me happier than I knew I could be.”
                “Okay.” She started walking again.
                “Hey, wait, Kathy, I’m sorry. Here, I’ll tell her right now.” I shifted around my grocery bags and dug my phone out of my pocket.
                “Oh, my god, are you sure?”
                “Yes. It’s time.” I dialed my mom’s number and held my phone up to my ear. Kathy took my bags in one hand and my hand in the other. She held it tightly as my mother answered the phone.
                “Hello, dear!”
                “Hi, mom.”
                “What’s going on?”
                “Nothing, really, I just have something I want to tell you.”
                “Are you okay?”
                “Yes, mom, I’m fine. It’s something good.”
                “Okay, what is it?”
                “You know Kathy?”
                “The one who lived with us last summer and is coming over for Christmas? Yes, of course, I know Kathy.”
                “Okay, well, um, mom, she’s… she’s my girlfriend.” Silence. “We’ve been dating since March. We wanted to wait to tell you until we knew it was going to stick and, well, I think it’s going to. I love her so much, mom, she makes me so, so happy. Are… are you there?”
                “Yes, I’m here,” my mom said, and I could hear the tears in her voice.
                “Are you okay?”
                “I’m fine. This is wonderful. Oh, Chris, I knew the moment I saw you two together that you were more than just friends.”
                “Really? You’re not… you’re not upset?”
                “You’re happy, why on earth would I be upset? This is so much better than when you called to tell me that Tim Radonovick asked you out and there was nothing I could do to make you say no.”
                “Mom, gross!”
                “Do you want to tell your father and brother, or shall I?”
                “I… I don’t know…” I glanced at Kathy, who mouthed some words that I didn’t understand. I freaked out and just blurted, “I’ll tell them.”
                “You’re sure?”
                “Of course I’m sure. I told them I was a lesbian, I can tell them I’m with the love of my life.”
                “Your poor brother is going to be heartbroken. I tried to tell him Kathy wasn’t interested in him…”
                “Oh, god, he’s not still hung up on her, is he?”
                “I’m afraid so. He asks about her pretty much every day.”
                “I mean, I don’t blame him…”
                “Here comes your father now, and Jon with him. I’ll put you on speaker.” She paused briefly, and suddenly I could hear room-noises: people walking around, a ceiling fan whirring, clocks ticking. “Go ahead, Crystal.”
                “Here, I’m going to put us on speaker, too, so Kathy can talk.” Kathy’s eyes widened, and I gave her my most pleading look. She nodded.
                “Okay, hi, Mrs. P, Mr. P.” She said.
                “Hi, Kathy!” Jonothan shouted. “How are you doing?”
                “Hey, Jon,” she practically groaned, “I’m doing really well. And yourself?”
                “I miss you!” He blurted, and Kathy and I cringed.
                “Well, dad, Jon, Kathy and I have some news.”
                “Oh, god, they’re dropping out of school.” My father sighed. “Well, Chris, we love you—”
                “No, dad, it’s not that. Kathy and I are…”
                “We’re dating.” Kathy finished.
                “What?” Jonothan cried, “You’re gay?”
                “I tried to tell you,” my mom chided, “but you wouldn’t listen.”
                “This isn’t fair! This sucks!” Judging from the background noise, my brother stormed out of the room.
                “I’m sorry about that, honey,” my mom said.
                “It’s okay. Dad? Are you there?”
                “Yes, I’m here.”
                “What do you… what do you think of that?”
                “I guess… I don’t know, Crystal. Do you think she could be the one for you?”
                “Yeah,” I said, looking over at the girl of my dreams and smiling. “I think she definitely could be.”
                “Then all right. I guess it’s fine by me. Is she still coming over for Christmas?”
                “If that’s okay, I’d love to.” Kathy chimed in.
                “You’ll be sleeping in separate bedrooms, then.”
                “Gregory…” my mother sighed.
                “No, mom, it’s okay. If Jonathan brought a girl home, they’d have to sleep in separate bedrooms, too. I wasn’t expecting anything else.”
                “I love you both,” my mom said.
                “I love you, too!” Kathy and I said in unison.
                “I guess we’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” My father said, “Congratulations. And Kathy…”
                “Yes, Mr. P?”
                “If you hurt her, I will come after you.”
                “If she hurts me, I can come after her myself, dad.”
                “Fine. If you hurt her, she’ll come after you, and I will be close behind.”
                “Got it,” Kathy laughed, “hurting her is the last thing I’d ever do, but I’ve got it.”
                “Good.” My father said, and the line went dead.
I hugged Kathy so tightly that she dropped our bags.
                “That went so well!” She squealed.
                “SO well! Except for poor Jon.”
                “Your mom really did try to warn him.”
                “He’s so dim sometimes, I swear. In some ways he’s the smartest person you’ll ever meet, but he’s so, so dim.”
                “I’m just so happy that that went well.”
                “Me, too.” We retrieved our bags and set off again down the street, our hands clasped, each feeling so much lighter than we had for a long while.

Chapter six
                “Class of 2018, I have never been prouder than I am right now.” The applause swelled to fill the arena as the dean of our university took the stage. “Over the last four years, I have had the pleasure of meeting all of you in one context or another, and I can honestly say that you are the most… unique class that our establishment has ever seen.” A chuckle rose from the audience and the seated students. I glanced up from the program that I was clutching in my fist and stared three rows ahead of me and three seats to the left, where Kathy sat between our friends Gregory and Chevon. She looked stunning, as usual, in her shimmering red graduation cap and gown with her sharp black tassel, complete with a bedazzled ’18 charm. I hated the way I looked in red; it brought out my acne and somehow made my face look even redder than it already was, but Kathy was the sort of girlfriend who maintained that I looked good no matter what I was wearing, and that, as she put it, ‘what’s on the inside matters, too.’ I only wished she’d been seated next to me instead of Chevon, who was a stunning, tall redhead. She was straight as far as I knew, but Kathy was totally cute enough to turn a girl. I tried not to be the jealous type, but I knew for sure that I was the reacher in our relationship, which meant that Kathy was the settler, which meant that she could find better than me. I knew she wasn’t looking for better, but we’d been having a bit of a rough patch lately and I was always anxious that better might find her, and she wouldn’t be able or want to deny it. Every so often, though, she’d glance back at me throughout the ceremony and wink or grin, or somehow reference an inside joke, and my confidence soared; she hadn’t so much as looked at Chevon all night.
                After we’d all collected our diplomas and switched our tassels around and met and greeted the audience, Kathy and I tried to figure out where we should go. Chevon, Greg, Greg’s brother Mitchell, and Mitchell’s girlfriend Nancy were all going to some bar with some of our other acquaintances, but I had work in the morning and really didn’t want to go get drunk.
                “Can’t you just call in?” Kathy pleaded.
                “Baby, no. I’m the only one working my shift. They actually need me.”
                “I actually need you, too. Come on, it will be so much fun.”
                “Why don’t you just come home with me, and we can celebrate tomorrow night?”
                “Because tomorrow night we won’t have just graduated fucking college.” She said, like I was the idiot of the century.
                “Hey, yes we will have. And the bar won’t be as crowded. Think how many people are going to be there tonight.”
                “Exactly! The energy there will be phenomenal. There will be so many people that we know! It’ll be, like, the last social event we go to with our class. Come on, please?”
                “Kathy, hon, I’m really tempted, but the fact is I can’t. I really can’t. I need the money and I could not go to work after staying up all night.”
                “What are you, a grandma?” Kathy scoffed unkindly, and the group behind her laughed, too.
                “No, look, just go. Fine. Go without me. I’ll be at home waiting for you. Just, please be safe. Take an uber or a taxi, or something. Don’t drive, don’t let any of them drive.”
                “Thanks, mom, I will.”
                “Hey, wait,” I stepped after her. “I love you.”
                “I love you, too. I just don’t love when you’re a party pooper.”
                “I’m sorry to be a party pooper. I promise not to poop on any parties that don’t interfere with my ability to pay for our lives.”
                “That was over the line!”
                “What, and calling me grandma wasn’t?”
                “I was kidding.”
                “No, you weren’t.”
                “Yes, I was.”
                “Fine, then so was I.”
                “You know what, I’m done. I’m going out and you’re just going to have to deal with it. Okay? I will see you later.” She turned on her heel and walked off with Greg and Chevon, peeling off her gown as she went. I didn’t even fully realize that I was crying until I felt a tear drip off the tip of my nose. I turned, drying my eyes, and forged my way through the crowds towards the parking lot. I finally made it through and remembered where I’d parked my car, but when I got there, it was gone. I picked up my phone to call Kathy, only to see that I had four new texts from her.
Need the car. Want to drive and drop me off?
Hello?
Going to take it.
Chevon says her aunt’s here and could probably give you a ride. Ttyl.
I sank down onto the pavement and buried my head in my arms. I didn’t even try to hold back my sobs. I couldn’t believe this. Kathy was completely not the person I’d fallen in love with four years ago. I still loved her, but I didn’t understand why she was being such a… such a bitch. She wasn’t usually like this. I tried to think what could’ve caused her to act so differently, but a hand on my shoulder interrupted my thoughts. I jumped a little bit, and looked up. A kind enough-looking guy was looking down at me slightly awkwardly.
                “I’m really sorry, it’s just, you’re kind of leaning on my car.” I stood, brushed off my ass, and blushed.
                “I’m so sorry, oh my god.”
                “It’s fine.” He opened the driver’s door and turned. “Hey, are you okay?”
                “Yeah,” I lied, “totally fine.”
                “Are you sure? It doesn’t seem like it.” I scoffed.
                “Okay, I’m not totally fine. My… I don’t want to get into it. Sorry.” He held his hands up.
                “Hey, that’s fine. Do you need a ride?”
                “I don’t usually take rides with strangers, sorry. Thank you so much.”
                “We’re not strangers.”
                “What? I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”
                “We had chem lab together a couple years ago. I spilled hydrochloric acid. They had to shut down our floor for a couple days.”
                “Mike?” I asked incredulously. He nodded.
                “Guilty.”
                “Wow, I totally forgot about that until just now. Oh my god, that was horrible. Ari would not stop screaming at you.” I laughed, briefly forgetting my troubles.
                “Tell me about it. My head hurt for hours afterwards.”
                “Because of the yelling, or the acid?”
                “That’s a good question.” He laughed. “So, anyway, ride? I’d be happy to get you wherever you need to go.”
                “That would actually be fantastic. I live over on 45th. Not too far.”
                “That’s on my way home. Hop in.” I smiled and walked around his car. He pushed my door open from the inside.
                “thank you so much.”
                “No problem. You’re… Caitlyn, right?”
                “Crystal.”
                “Oh, duh, I’m so sorry.”
                “It’s okay. My own brother forgets my name sometimes.” That wasn’t true, but somehow it felt like the thing to say. He laughed and backed out of his parking spot. We drove in silence for a few minutes, until he turned onto my street.
                “Okay, now it’s the apartment complex up here on the right. There’s a really big speed bump, be careful.”
                “Thanks,” he smiled and slowly turned into my parking lot. He pulled into a parking spot, and I got out.
                “Thank you so much for the ride, Mike. It was great to see you again.”
                “What, you think I’m going to leave without making sure you get home safe? Not a chance.” My creepy-dude spidey sense started tingling. I kept up a sweet face so he might not notice me trying to get away from him.
                “No, it’s fine. You’re not even technically supposed to be parked here, so you might actually want to get a move on before they ticket you.” I laughed nervously.
                “Oh, that’s fine. They can ticket me all they want, I am not letting you walk home alone.” He stepped closer, and I was suddenly aware of how tall he was.
                “I’m really close, so, you know, I’ve got it.” I smiled and turned to leave. In a flash, he was at my side.
                “Well, if you’re close, I won’t be parked illegally for very long.” He smiled down at me. I took a deep breath and pulled my phone out of my pocket, trying to look busy, hoping he would go away. He didn’t, and I certainly didn’t want to lead him right to my door, so I meandered around for a couple minutes. He started to get irritated.
                “We’ve walked around this whole complex. Are you lost?” He uttered the most fake laugh I’d ever heard and glanced around him.
                “No, no, I’m just… looking for something.” I was grasping at straws, I knew, but I had to get him to leave me alone. “My neighbor’s cat went missing, we all pitch in to look for her. I figured I’d look around. You can go, really, it’s okay.” I stopped below a walkway that connected two apartment buildings. We were illuminated by four porch lights and were in plain view of two apartments. If I had to take a stand, I was going to take it there.
                “I just want to keep you safe.”
                “That’s not really your job. I’m fine. Please, just go. I don’t want your car getting towed.” I smiled, forcing myself not to scream. Then, he stepped closer.
                “If you take one more step, I will scream.” I said through my teeth. He stopped.
                “What?”
                “I said, if you take one more step, I will scream.”
                “Where is this coming from?”
                “I don’t know, maybe from you being a creep and refusing to leave me alone, for starters.”
                “I was just trying to be a gentleman!”
                “Then here’s your chance to prove it. Turn around, get back in your car, and leave me alone. Forever.”
                “Why are you being such a bitch?”
                “I’m being a bitch?” I laughed. “I’m sorry, what?”
                “Fuck this.” He turned and stormed off, seeming to think that this would offend me. It obviously didn’t. I climbed the stairs to my neighbor’s porch and watched him get in his car and drive off. He forgot about the speed bump, and scraped the bottom of his car. I stifled a laugh.
By the time I made it back to my apartment, my legs were jelly as the gravity of the evening settled upon me. Did I even have a girlfriend anymore? Had I really been stalked by a guy I used to have chem lab with? Was the real world really this horrible? I picked up my phone and shakily dialed Kathy’s number. She picked up after the first ring.
                “I’m so sorry.” She blurted by way of a greeting. “I shouldn’t have come out tonight. They jacked up the drink prices and the music sucks and I miss you. I didn’t realize it before now, but all that stuff that normal people think is fun, none of it’s fun for me if you’re not around.” Normally I would’ve been awed by the sweetness and sudden change of mood, but I was still awash with fear from my encounter with Mike. Over the next few minutes, I told my girlfriend everything.
                “I remember you talking about him – wasn’t he super creepy when you had class together, too?”
                “I don’t know, I barely remembered his name.” I sobbed.
                “That bastard,” she growled. “Don’t move. I am on my way home. I’m sorry. I love you so much. I’ll be right there. I’m sorry.” She hung up without saying goodbye. I lay on my bedroom floor, fully clothed, crying softly until I heard someone unlocking the front door and then locking it behind them as soon as they entered.
                “Babe? It’s me.”
                “I’m in the bedroom,” I said, my voice crackly with disuse. She came in and sat down next to me.
                “Do you want to talk about it anymore?” I shook my head no. “Do you want some soup or something? Some chocolate? A cupcake?”
                “I just want to feel clean.”
                “You are clean, baby. I know it’s gross, I know it was terrifying, but you’re okay. Did he hurt you?” I shook my head.
                “Not physically.”
                “Good, so I don’t have to add murder to my rap sheet for now. You want to go to bed?”
                “Yeah. That sounds nice.”
                “Okay, let’s get you into bed. Can I touch you?”
                “Yeah. Thank you for asking.” I smiled. She had to be the most thoughtful person ever. She helped me stand up, then she helped me take off my gown – I’d already lost my cap – and the dress I wore under it. She picked out a set of soft pajamas and guided me into them.
                “Thank you. I love you so much.”
                “Of course. I love you more.”
                “No, you don’t. Tonight I love you more, and you don’t get to fight me on that.” I was sitting on the edge of my bed and she was standing in front of me. She smiled and nodded.
                “Okay. I love you. Let’s get you to sleep.” She folded back the covers and crawled into bed, spreading her arms for me to join her. I curled into her familiar shape, her soft stomach and breasts and thighs comforting against my spine and shoulders and legs. She wrapped me in her arms and placed gentle kisses along my neck until I fell asleep.

Chapter seven.
We were back in New York walking through the neighborhoods I’d grown up in, window shopping and talking about the future. It was snowing and the flakes were getting caught in Kathy’s hair. Her cheeks were glowing and the white flakes contrasted so greatly with her dark hair, she looked like she belonged in some sort of holiday ad. I wanted to shower her with kisses but we’d decided we should ease ourselves into the community, staring out just walking together, and then holding hands, and then maybe kissing sometimes. We were in the holding hands phase, and nobody had tried to murder us yet. We were paused in front of a toy display and I was telling her some story about when I was a little kid when she cut me off.
                “We need to plan for the future.” She said abruptly.
                “Oh… okay.”
                “I mean, not right now, obviously, but at some point. We can’t stay in your parents’ house forever.”
                “My dad knows some people who are in real estate here, maybe we could talk to him about helping us find an apartment.”
                “We want to find an apartment here?”
                “There’s no need to sound so disdainful.”
                “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound disdainful. I was just asking. That’s what you want?”
                “Well, I mean, what else is there?”
                “There are other places, for one thing, and there are houses as opposed to apartments.”
                “Houses are much more expensive.”
                “That is true, but they’re also more of a lifetime investment. They’re more permanent. Your landlord can’t kick you out with a week’s notice.”
                “The bank can.”
                “Okay, so not a house.”
                “No, no, that’s not what I meant,” I said, getting defensive. “I’m just nervous. I’ve never struck out on my own before.”
                “You’re not on your own.” She said.
                “I know.”
                “You’ll never be on your own ever again.”
                “What?”
And she got down on one knee.
                “Crystal Marie Podalski,”
And she pulled out a velvet box.
                “I have been in love with you since the moment I saw you.”
And I started to cry.
                “I know the future is terrifying but it’s a lot less terrifying with you in it.”
And strangers started looking at us.
                “I don’t care what happens to us tomorrow, or next week, or next year,”
And I didn’t care that they were staring.
                “We could live in your parents’ house for the rest of our lives as long as you’re with me.”
And she opened the box.
                “Will you marry me?”
And I cried so hard that I barely managed to gasp out,
                “Yes, of course, I’ll marry you.”
And she stood, and we kissed, right there in front of that crowd of people who started to cheer and clap and cry. She pulled back, and I said,
                “I just have to say one thing.” The crowd began to disperse, thankfully, as I took a knee. Kathy gasped and put her hands over her mouth.
                “Katherine Eleanor Branger, I am completely, irreparably in love with you. They say that when you’re truly in love with someone, you know in the first day. With you, I knew in the first minute that you were the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. When you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. So,” I pulled out my own little velvet box and opened it to reveal a thin silver band with a small arrangement of blue stones, “Will you marry me?”
                “That’s a little redundant,” she sobbed, smiling widely and reaching a hand down for me to put the ring on. I teasingly pulled the box back.
                “I need you to say it. I can’t yell it if you don’t say it.”
                “Oh, god, don’t yell it.”
                “I won’t if you don’t want me to but I need you to say it.”
                “Yes, you moron. I’ll happily marry you. You dork.” She bit her lower lip and grinned as I slid the ring onto her ring finger and stood to kiss her.
                “Aren’t you going to yell it?” She asked, winking.
                “She said yes!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. There was another cheer. I leaned in and whispered in Kathy’s ear, “Oh, god, is there a crowd?”
                “It sort of disappears when you’re down there, doesn’t it?” She laughed.
                “Everything disappears when I look at you.”
                “Remind me never to get in a car with you ever again.” We both smiled, and we kissed again.
                “I had this whole romantic evening lined up, so I’m afraid I need you to come with me,” I said.
                “Oh, no, I wrecked your proposal?” She seemed genuinely upset so I rushed to comfort her.
                “No, no, no, never. You made it so much more special. And besides, this way I get the last word.”
                “But I got the first, so I win.”
                “I said I love you first, though.”
                “But I asked you out and I proposed. You’ve got to get your head in the game, Podalski.” Just then, we rounded a corner and the violins started playing and I started telling my story.
                “When I was a little kid, I used to walk along this street and I would picture meeting the love of my life in that café right there.” I pointed into the most kitschy café in existence, that had been the location for all of my imaginary meet cutes. “Then I got older, and I realized true love doesn’t work like that. You don’t have to meet someone in a cute or romantic way for them to be the one for you. You can meet them in a bathroom, while they’re putting on makeup and you’re trying to figure out if you should tuck your shirt in or leave it out.” We were walking towards the source of the violin music, but we had one more stop before we got there. “When I was a teenager, I sat in this record store and I listened to romantic music and I imagined dancing in the dark with the love of my life, to my favorite song. Will you dance with me?” I pushed open the door, revealing a small store decked out with roses and candles, with ‘Earth Angel’ by The Penguins blasting through the giant, old speakers perched on the counter. Kathy was crying in earnest now, happy sobs racking her entire frame.
                “Are you okay?” I asked, pulling her close for a dance.
                “Are you kidding? This is the sweetest thing that has ever happened to me.” I put one hand on her waist and took one of hers with my free hand. She rested her free hand on my shoulder, and we began to sway to the rhythm. I smiled at her.
                “How am I doing?” I asked.
                “With the dancing or the proposal?”
                “The dancing.”
                “Horribly.” She laughed.
                “The proposal, then.”
                “Well, I know how it ends, so it’s a bit sad. But, you know, it’s an adventure to find out what would’ve happened if I hadn’t totally won.”
                “You didn’t win.”
                “Yes, I did.”
                “The evening isn’t over yet.”
                “I proposed first. I win.”
                “You might change your mind by the end of the night.”
                “We’ll see.” We danced in quiet for the rest of the song, and after it was over I kissed her again and led her outside.
                “We have one final stop on our little tour. This one comes from much more recent history. When I was a freshman in college, I met the most beautiful girl in the world, and I fell in love with her. I brought her back here with me and we went out to dinner a lot, as two people who live together tend to do, but my brother was always there. I thought she was in love with him, ridiculous as it seems now, so every time we went out I ended up heartbroken because I thought she was falling deeper and deeper in love with him. One day, though, she told me why she would never love him, and to celebrate, I took her to dinner the next night, just the two of us. She didn’t know it was a celebration, and she didn’t know that that very night I was planning the words that I’m saying to her now.” Kathy gasped and reached out her hand, taking mine.
                “The place we went is right around the corner,” I said, rounding the corner and pushing open the door to a semi-fancy Italian restaurant. The violinists were set up there, playing beautiful music to a room where a single table was set up with champagne and a delicious-looking meal.
                “This is where I would’ve proposed if I hadn’t lost my head and done it out there in the street like some commoner.” I joked, leading Kathy through the door. “I would’ve sat you at this table and told you that you were the love of my life, you make me complete, blah, blah, blah, and then I would’ve said ‘This is the last stop on our tour. This is the place we will take our children to. This is the place I ask you to marry me.’ You would’ve cried—”
                “I am crying,” Kathy sniffled,
                “Okay, so that worked. Now we sit down to the most delectable food on the entire east coast.”
                “I can’t believe I ruined this.” Kathy gasped, turning in a slow circle, looking at the violinists and the food and the small crowd gathered outside.
                “Well, I like to think that I pulled it off anyway.”
                “You’re right.” She sighed, “it’s perfect.”
                “Then you didn’t ruin anything.”
Chapter Eight
The days leading up to the wedding were the most stressful of my life, and I’d once had five upper-division finals in the space of 48 hours. My family members were arriving from all over the country, and this served as a reminder to everyone present that Kathy’s family had all declined her invitations. I couldn’t fathom that; an entire family so cruel, so rooted in their twisted ideals, that they would refuse to come to a family wedding. A couple of them had legitimate excuses – her aunt’s father-in-law wasn’t doing well, so that household was spending time with him instead, a cousin was joining the armed forces – but I truly wished I could find the rest of her family and pummel them into the earth. Every time an uncle or grandmother or second cousin knocked on the door, I could see in Kathy’s face how much she was hurt by her family’s decision.
“I love you.” I reminded her, as my cousin from Missouri was flittering around the house, cooing over every single decoration and trinket my parents had amassed.
“I love you, too.” She leaned into my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m still so, so sorry.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Do you want to see something?” I asked, taking her hand. “Come here.” I led her down the hall and into my bedroom. I opened the closet.
“Are you going to show me your dress?”
“Yup.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can.”
“I don’t want to see it!”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s bad luck.”
“You’re not a man. It’s only bad luck for a man to see his bride’s dress before the wedding.”
“I want to be surprised.”
“Okay, then. I’m sorry.” I closed the sliding door.
“Hey, no. Don’t be sorry. It was thoughtful. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I took her hand and sat on the bed. “Are you nervous?”
“I’ve had my wedding vows planned since I was eight, I’m marrying the love of my life in the perfect setting, I look damn good in my suit. Of course, I’m nervous.” She sighed and sat next to me. “I don’t know, it’s weird, I feel like I’m about to go onstage in the school musical and I haven’t rehearsed.”
“I know the feeling. I’m trying to tell myself there’s nothing to be nervous about, but I feel so scared.”
“You’re making the right decision, right? This is what you want?”
“Kathy, are you serious?”
“Well, I’m just asking.”
“Of course, I’m making the right decision. Marrying you is the best decision ever made in all of human history.”
“You’re cute.”
“I’m right.”
“Okay.” She grinned and rested her head upon my shoulder. From the living room, my father called my name. I stood, kissed her on the forehead, and went to him.
“An unexpected group has appeared, and I don’t know where to seat them.”
“Well, who are they?”
“Kathy’s parents.” He said this so casually, like he didn’t understand its significance. My jaw dropped.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, of course I’m serious. They just called your mother. They want to surprise Kathy.”
“We have to tell her.”
“We can’t tell her! They wanted it to be a surprise.”
“What they want doesn’t matter. She has to decide if she wants them here.”
“They’re her parents, of course she wants them here.”
“She doesn’t like them, and she has reason.”
“My parents are here?” Kathy asked. My father and I jumped; we hadn’t heard her enter, but of course she had. I crossed the room and took her hands.
“Apparently so. Do you want them here?”
“No.”
“Are you sure?” My father needled.
“Dad, I’m sure she’s sure.”
“I’m sure.” She nodded.
“Okay, then we won’t have them.” I looked at my father. “The Brangers are not invited.”
“Is my sister here?” Kathy asked, and my father glanced at a note he had in his hand.
“Yes.”
“She can come. Cameron can come, but my parents can’t.” I understood. Cameron had stuck with Kathy through their parents’ cruelty. My father, however, didn’t get it.
“Surely if you can stand having one family member here…”
“No. My parents are not invited.” She turned and fled the room, and soon I heard her crying.
“Dad!” I said, shocked. “How could you? You know what horrible people her parents are. They practically kicked her out when she came out, and when she told them about us, they literally kicked her out. If you’d done that to me, I wouldn’t want you at my wedding.”
“But just earlier you were angry at her family for not coming. I don’t understand what goes on in your head.”
“We were angry at her family for being so ridiculous that they let their convoluted beliefs get in the way of their family. We are still angry about that, and her parents can’t fix it. They’ve been awful to her for years.”
“Maybe they’re trying to make reparations.”
“I’m sure that’s not what they’re doing.”
“How do you know?”
“Dad, it’s Kathy’s wedding, hers and mine. Neither of us want her parents here, and that’s final.” I turned on my heel and retreated to my bedroom, where I found Kathy on my bed, holding my wedding dress in its plastic bag.
“Thank you.” She sniffled.
“Oh, babe, are you okay?” I asked sliding onto the covers next to her. She nodded.
“This is… absolutely beautiful. It does make me feel better.” She smiled faintly, and I wrapped an arm around her.
“So you’re okay with the spoilers?”
“It was worth it.”
“You haven’t seen me in it yet, either.”
“I can picture it.”
“I promise you, you can’t. It’s absolutely stunning.”
“Trust me, I can picture you looking absolutely stunning. You’ve looked that way every time I’ve looked at you, ever. And I’ve seen you after four shots of tequila. I’ve seen you with the flu.”
“Is this from your vows?”
“Oh, honey, this little speech has nothing on my vows.”
“Wow, I can’t wait.”
“You interrupted my pitch.” She kissed me softly, and kept talking. “I’ve seen you after pulling four all-nighters in a row. Your eyes were redder than anything I’d ever seen but you were still the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on. I’m absolutely certain that you will look amazing in your dress, but I am also absolutely certain that I’m prepared for it.”
“I don’t think you are. You remember the formal sophomore year?”
“We were barely out.”
“I wore that purple dress with the black skirt? Your jaw literally dropped?”
“That was remarkable, I grant you, but I think you look amazing all the time.”
“Yeah, I’ve got it. I’m just saying,” I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “you are so not ready for me in this dress.” I kissed her ear and hung the wedding dress back in the closet.
“Well you’re not ready for me in my suit.”
“That, I agree with. You never cease to amaze me. I look forward to it.”

Chapter nine
We got married on a beautiful Saturday in May. I don’t know if I’d ever seen more perfect weather. We were at an inn on Lake George, Kathy had wanted to get married at an inn since she was a little girl, and I’d wanted to get married at Lake George for as long as I could remember. I was standing just inside the doors on one side of the porch where I was about to marry the love of my life, and I knew she was tucked away on the opposite side. We had decided that neither one of us would walk down the aisle alone, rather we’d walk up it together once we were married. “It’s super symbolic,” she’d said, “and it makes it less of a business deal.” I’d agreed. My mother and young cousin were with me; we were all to walk out together when the music started, hopefully at the same time as Kathy, her sister, and her friend from high school.
                “That’s our que!” My mom whisper-shouted as a lilting Gaelic melody flowed from the speakers. We pushed open the heavy door and stepped onto the porch. We had timed it perfectly. I smiled so widely that my cheeks hurt as Kathy stepped through the door. I gasped. She really did look amazing – her suit was tailored absolutely perfectly, her tie was somehow both ridiculous and stunning, and her entire face was lit up with a smile. When we made eye contact, she winked, and it was all I could do not to laugh. I bit my lower lip to keep from smiling quite so much when we met in the center of the porch and joined hands.

The ceremony went by in a blur until the vows. The minister – a friend from college who’d become deputized for the occasion – announced that we had each prepared something to say, and Kathy, as had been agreed upon, cleared her throat to speak first.
                “Well, I don’t know what Jeff’s talking about ‘prepared,’ I stole this from the internet.” Our friends and my family chuckled as she unfolded a piece of paper. “No, that was a joke, I did write this. Crystal, I know it’s customary to say in one’s vows that today is the day I’m giving you my heart and my hand to love and to hold for the rest of your life. But that’s simply not true.”
She paused for a second, and nobody took a breath until she continued.
“You’ve had my heart since the moment I laid eyes on you, and you’ve had my hands since the very first time you held them. I have, then, only a few things left to say. When we were first dating, I told you that I didn’t believe in soul mates. At first you were hurt, and I felt like a monster. I need to amend that today. Your love, your belief in me, the time we’ve spent together, and my love for you has proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only do soulmates exist, but that you are mine.”
 Tears pricked behind my eyes and I willed them not to come out, but I felt them start streaming anyway.
“You know as well as I do that my family is not the most supportive, but from the day I met you, you have been the only family I have needed, and you always will be. I promise to be faithful to you and only you, I promise to shoulder your burdens with you to make them lighter for you to bear. I promise to support you in your every endeavor, I promise to live in truth with you, and I promise to love you until my dying day.”
By the time she finished, the audience was a blubbering mess, and I was right there with them. It was my turn to speak, so I swallowed hard, wiped my eyes, and took Kathy’s hands in mine.
                “I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow that,” I giggled nervously, before making eye contact with Kathy and letting the rest of the world melt away.
                “Kathy, this is the best day of my life. But until today, until this moment right here, the best day of my life was the day I fell in love with you, the day I knew I was going to marry you, the day you told me my shirt looked better tucked in.”
A tear tracked its mascara-laden path down her cheek and it was all I could do not to reach up and wipe it away.
“I am not making any promises to you today.” I took a page out of her book and paused for effect before continuing,  
“I don’t see what I’m about to say as promises; I see them as privileges. I get to laugh with you and cry with you; I get to run with you and walk with you; I get to grow with you and live with you; I get to care for you and share with you. I am blessed enough to be able to respect you, be faithful to you, trust you, celebrate your triumphs, and love you in times of trial and failure. I get to be your playmate, your navigator, your sidekick, your helper, your best friend, and your wife. I get to give you my whole self, and I get to be with you until the very end. Thank you for letting me be a part of your life, and for letting our separate lives become one life. I love you so much.” I clumsily slid the ring onto her finger as I repeated after Jeff, ending with that fateful “I do.” Kathy did the same, tears running freely down both our faces. We kissed delicately and promenaded down the aisle to a much more celebratory tune than the pastoral one we’d entered to. I held her tightly as staff came out to move the chairs from the ceremony to the tables set up near the tree line. We walked slowly to the head table, holding hands and smiling.
“That was beautiful.” I said, glancing up at her.
“Are you kidding? Everything you did surpassed mine by a million miles.”
“Did not. But hey,” I gestured to myself, “The dress.” She stopped and looked at me.
“The DRESS.”
“Were you ready?”
“I was far from ready.”
“Right?”
“The only thing more attractive than you in that dress is you out of that dress.”
“Hey!” I chided her, grinning, “there are children here!”
“I try to ignore the fact that our college friends are having kids already.”
“I had friends from high school with kids while I was in high school.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, you two!” My mother shouted, “Get over here for toasts!” She waved hugely and pointed to the two seats designated for us. We smiled and walked into the rest of our lives together.