When I told Alana I’d never been in love, she called me a liar.
“You loved Tempest,” she said.
I shook my head, denial.
“You’re only good at lying to yourself,” she said.
I glanced away from the road to look at her. She was still as thin as when we first met in seventh grade. Her light brown hair looked silkier than it had it middle school and I wondered what product she was using these days. Whatever it was, it was working.
“I’m the most honest person I know.”
She snorted, said, “That just proves you’re a liar.”
“I tell you the truth,” I lied.
We were driving around Tucson after getting sushi because it looked like rain and neither of us was ready to go home yet. We were in the middle of rekindling that seventh grade friendship gone stale in high school. We hadn’t really talked in the past nine years, but somehow neither of us felt like we’d ever stopped being friends. I felt close to her. Like I could tell her all but one thing.
The night was clouded purple, orange, and gray with incoming monsoon. My fingers tapped on the steering wheel. It was probably just the weather, but I seriously considered telling her the truth with each flicker of lightning. I’ve always thought the rain is a good place for truth. I’m always saying that I only ever fall in love when it’s raining. As if my heart were a seed and the rain what it needed to beat properly. It’s like the potential energy in the sky transfers to my synapses; lightning sparks nerve endings. I never feel more real than I do in the rain.
But even the rain couldn’t get me to be honest with her that night. I kept driving.
In the seventh grade, when Alana and I first met, she would sneak up behind me, grab me around the middle. I never hugged back. I was girl gone scarecrow. A stick up my ass. My somewhat-friends said this was why I wasn’t invited to the same parties they were. I was too closed off. Not friendly enough.
“Why do you stiffen up every time I hug you?” she asked me. “Don’t you like me?”
I asked my mom what to do. I told her it hurt to hug people. Hurt the way the seams in jeans, socks, certain pairs of pants, non-cotton shirts, t-shirt collars, embroidery hurt. Like when the hairdresser snapped the nylon cover around my neck and I would hold a quiet, hidden finger an inch away the skin of my neck so the fabric wouldn’t touch my skin. Grit my teeth. Force a smile at the hairdresser. It only takes 30 minutes for a trim. It’s not really even a hurt. Itch might be a better word to describe it, but that isn’t quite right either. It’s like cat scratches that leave no damage. Invisible mosquito bites.
“Sometimes, you just have to hug other people back. That’s how you show people you care,” my mom said.
I learned to flutterpat backs, arms bowed to touch less. Touch is how you care.
I found out Alana and I lost our virginity to the same guy while standing inside my closet where I’m trying on a skirt I wore to see Tempest. “I just wanna look cute. It’s not a date. She’s just stopping to visit me before going to her brother’s place,” I told her before stepping into the closet.
Alana said she was 18 and stupid when it happened. She said it took a while to understand sex could be good after that.
I could tell her I was 19 and stupid. I could tell her I’m still looking for good. I don’t know why I don’t.
Tempest kissed my hand the first time we ever hung out. She was a year younger than me, 21 to my 22, and I didn’t think she even knew who I was before that night, but somehow we ended up drinking beers in the Irish bar in downtown Flagstaff with a few of her friends. She was telling us the story of the last girl she had a fling with who apparently ended up moving to California that’s how wrecked she was over loving a poly girl like Tempest who had a primary partner she was always going to pick over her flings. I’d never met anyone in an open relationship before. The whole concept seemed bizarre to me.
I laughed about California girl. Said that would never be me. After all, I was straight as they came. “98%”, I said.
I love making up statistics. It’s 98% as effective to brush your teeth with your finger as it is with a brush. Sometimes I attribute quotes I can’t remember the author of to Mark Twain.
When I got up to leave, she grabbed my hand and pressed her lips to my knuckles. She barely left saliva behind. I didn’t even think about wiping away the feeling. My father used to joke I must not love him because every time he kissed me on the forehead, I would frown and scrub the residue off.
I let her lips linger.
I still can’t say the words “I’m bisexual” without feeling like a liar. I never had sex with Tempest. I wanted to. I didn’t want to. She never pushed and I never took the lead and I told myself that was okay. I told my friends I was afraid if I slept with her I’d fall for her. Fall like that girl who moved to California to get away from how overwhelming loving her was. I liked Arizona too much to risk it.
The first time I admitted I liked girls, or at the very least, that I really liked this one girl, I was standing in a closet. With my back against my clothes, plastic hangers digging into my back, I sniffed cedar from mothballs the previous owners had left behind and whispered into my cell phone, “I think I might kind of maybe be seeing a girl. Kind of. It’s not serious, but I don’t think this is just a college lesbian experience. I don’t know.” My mom started listing all of the friends she has with gay daughters. “You should get coffee with some of them! Maybe they can give you advice!” My mom is the queen of set-ups, but even so, she’d never tried to set me up before. I stepped out of the closet where my roommate waited for me. “Guess I’m officially coming out of the closet,” I said with jazz hands for emphasis. She rolled her eyes.
I’ve always loved closets. Growing up, my closet was the closest thing I had to a doorway to Narnia or wherever else I needed to go. My closet is where I hid when I was sad or angry. I’d sit in the refrigerator box I used to hold my dress-up clothes for hours waiting for someone to come and find me, to notice I was gone. When I had play dates, I would hide my friends in the closet beneath the skirt of one of my mother’s more odious bridesmaids dresses so they might be able to stay longer even as their parents waited impatiently to take them away from me.
“She went to Mars,” I’d say, widening my eyes to look more innocent.
They never believed me.
Tempest brought me pens instead of flowers on our first date even though I’d insisted it wasn’t a date. Or maybe I said we would decide what it was afterward. I don’t remember. She handed me the packet of PaperMate Flair pens and said, “I thought this would be a better gift for a writer.” I liked how she called me writer even though she was the one writing cheesy poems that she Snapchatted to me so I couldn’t save them without her knowing about it.
We sat in her car outside my house for an hour listening to Tracy Chapman. She took my hand. I was surprised how much I liked it. When she held my hand, she didn’t shove her fingers between mine, she just ran her index finger across my knuckles.
She said, “Every person I’ve ever kissed has said I give the best kisses they’ve ever had.”
“Does that line ever work?”
I wanted to be coy, aloof. I wanted to be the girl that Tempest’s cocky smile, green/blue eyes, ridiculously perfect hair swoop, and style of dress better suited to a professor than a student wouldn’t work on. But I wanted to kiss her more. So I said fuck it and leaned in. Her teeth scraped mine. She didn’t stick her tongue in my mouth. She thought the way I bit her bottom lip was sexy. She bit me back. She asked me what kind of kissing I liked.
When Alana told me about John I wanted to panic. I didn’t want to know that. I almost said his name. I almost said me too. Part of me thinks we’d bond over it—how we didn’t know we both had sex for the first time with the same guy. What a small world after all. I pinched myself. I dragged a finger down my neck, shuddering. I yanked at my earrings. Pointy. Good. I thought about how much pressure I would have to put onto the small dancing silver points to draw blood. I thanked a God I don’t even believe in for the closet door blocking my face. “I’m sorry your first time was so bad. I hate him…He’s kind of a misogynistic asshole,” I said, adding the last part so she didn’t think I had any personal reasons for my hate.
Tempest had more confidence than I knew what to do with. More love. I liked how easy she was. I wanted to be easier. I still want to be easier. I want to feel like I do when it’s raining all the time. Instead, I’m all don’t touch me there, I’m sensitive, no, please, don’t hug me. I can’t take it. Touch invasive pain. I broke. I break. My mother says I’m just sensitive. The doctor says there’s nothing wrong with me. Men I’ve dated say I’m a liar. There’s no way I could be that hyper after drinking two shots of espresso. No way I could be that dizzy after not drinking any water all day. No way I could be that drunk after just two shots of whiskey. No way it was really that uncomfortable to hold his hand in the movie theater while he stroked his thumb across mine too hard too long too much. “Did you like the movie?” Lie even though you didn’t watch it, spent the entire time thinking: Holding hands is supposed to be nice. You are supposed to like this. You like this.
Alana told me it took John so long to put on the condom that she felt like leaving but he was already on top of her. It felt too late to leave. I know. I know. I know.
Sometimes I think she told me her story so I would tell her mine. I have to remind myself she might not know I’m lying to her even if she knows I’m a liar. I don’t know if she believed me when she asked, “Was it someone I know?” and I said, “No.”
She cried in the passenger seat of my car when I told her I lost my virginity two days before my twentieth birthday after taking two shots of whiskey. One after the other. My lips didn’t close between shots—open.
I said no twice, but then okay, okay, okay when he pushed and kept pushing when he said “it seems like you’re ready to me” when he said “maybe you should just leave” and I wanted him to like me and I wanted to be brave and I didn’t want to be aloof or cold anymore and I was curious and I didn’t want to leave and I wanted him to like me and I didn’t want him to be angry and I was kinda drunk and for once touch didn’t hurt because alcohol dulls the senses and mine are too sensitive and I felt like a body that wasn’t mine and I wanted him to like me and I wanted to be easier and it was my last night in Tucson before I had to go back to Flagstaff for college and I didn’t love him but I did care and he said don’t you care about me? and sometimes when you care about someone you let them do what they need to and you wait to be released and I would be okay and I could say okay even if I couldn’t say yes or I want to so I said okay, okay, okay and he forgot how many times in the last month he’d said “You can’t just say okay, okay doesn’t mean yes. They’re different.”
Later, I said, “I feel wrong about what we did.”
He said, “I wasn’t going to let you leave.”
He said, “I’m not sorry.”
Two years after I unfriended John on Facebook, Tempest and I were lying in her bed watching and re-watching the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy is so overwhelmed by the touch of Lizzie’s hand that he splays his fingers, as if to reach back through time for memory of her skin on his.
“That’s what love is,” she said the fifth time we watched the clip.
She said if she ever got a tattoo, it’d be a quote from Pride and Prejudice. I told her about the hummingbird on my back. I pulled my sweater off of my shoulder to show her, followed by the slip of my bra strap as I leaned forward into a mound of yellow pillows. I never understood why she liked the color yellow so much.
“Do you have any idea how sexy you are?” she asked.
“Can I touch it?” She waited for my nod. I braced myself for touch, shivering when it came.
“Does that happen every time someone touches you?” she asked.
No one had ever asked me that before.
“It’s not a problem if you don’t stay in the same place for too long,” I said.
She pulled my shirt over my head and just rolled her fingertips down my torso, barely touching me. She was careful to avoid my neck.
“I know I’m weird,” I said, sorry unspoken, but understood.
“Are you kidding?” she asked. “This is the most fun I’ve had in forever. Girl, I wanna make you shiver.” She stopped touching me to play the song “Shiver, Shiver” by Walk the Moon.
I choose the methods I do best.
She whisper sang-serenaded my eardrums to shiver. It should’ve been cheesy (maybe it was), but mostly it was just hot. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a negotiation. As her fingers tapped down my arms, I started to wonder if my sensitivity might not be as much of a problem as I’d thought. Maybe it could be a bonus. Maybe I would be able to find what would be good for me. Maybe sex could be good.
My back arched upward with the trace of her thumb across my stomach. I licked her neck the way she liked. She strolled fingertips from bellybutton to shoulder blades. Middle finger to elbow. We lay between her yellow pillows, fingers barely touching until I lay my hand on top of hers. I closed my eyes.
A week after I went driving with Alana, Tempest visits Tucson just to see me (and her brother who also lives here, but I like to think it’s just for me). I tell Alana it isn’t a date before rushing into my closet to try on my orange skirt. She doesn’t believe me. By the end of the day I don’t even believe me.
Between storms, Tempest kisses me. Water floods the street, strong enough to steal a flip flop in the flow. I almost lose one of mine. She laughs when I chase after it. Rivers, streets, streams. It’s all the same during monsoon season.
I want passion to take over. Undiluted. Slap the pavement. Drench Infinite Jest. The pages stick together. We go back to my apartment before she has to leave. Inside, I bite down on her lips. Palm her breast.
Yes, touch me there.
But I pull back. Same as always. I say words. Meaningless ones. Never what I mean. Never I love you. I feel like a coward but the truth stays under my tongue.
I walk her to her car down the chipped wooden turquoise stairs. Thick clouds. An uprooted mesquite missed squashing her car by mere feet. We skirt the broken sidewalk. My orange skirt is soaked and I wonder if it’s time to tell her the truth, to stop lying about how I feel. My lips are dry. The air conditioning drips on the stairs. We’re standing in a puddle. Kiss again. I wish her hair were longer or more tangled so my fingers could linger. Stay.
I watch her drive away. Everything stinks creosote. Petrichor. Cicadas blur the sound of car tires whizzing through the waterlogged streets. A snickers wrapper flows down the gutter while I watch.
It starts to rain as I start to cry. But it’s so fucking cliché, I can’t help but interrupt my crying with laughter and I go back to feeling heavy without release, wishing I were a cloud above losing my load over the city.
“I love her,” I tell no one or anyone who might be listening.
I call Alana to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was right about me.