“Will you just help me cut off this little part?” Sage asks, struggling to angle their head while keeping eye contact with the mirror.
I’m in the doorway, keeping a safe distance, watching in awe as the porcelain sink catches pieces of their blonde hair.
I answer, “I don’t think you want me to do that.”
They tug at the remaining chunk in the back and hold the scissors out for me. “It’ll be fine, I promise.”
I hesitantly wrap my fist around the blades, like they teach you to do in preschool so you don’t accidentally stab someone. Sage turns and bows their head slightly, exposing the tuft of hair.
I often forget they are shorter than me.
The first time we met their hair was well past their shoulders and fell from the edges of a bright orange beanie. Seated next to each other at the bar, some strange men bought us a lot of whiskey and they touched my knee.
I close my eyes as I cut and the final chunk of hair falls to the bathroom floor. They turn to smile at their reflection in the mirror.
“It’s a little shorter than the rest,” I say, but they don’t care.
I’m playing Candyland with Ambrose on the floor of her family’s playroom. Her and her sister are only allowed 30 minutes of TV a day and I foolishly let them use it all before 9 a.m. I am partially paying attention to the game and mostly scrolling through instagram waiting for the coffee I stole from the bottom of the pot downstairs to kick in.
Mae, Ambrose’s older sister, is almost 10 and wants nothing to do with me. She has locked herself in her room to read a book about tigers. Ambrose is 5 and thinks I am amazing.
“Dos rojos!” she exclaims, holding the card with two red squares on it high above her head, elongating her tiny body. I feign excitement.
“I’m going to beat you!” she says, returning to English. “I never beat Mae but I always beat you.”
I pull the curtain back from the window, allowing the early summer light to fill the living room. This is my third day nannying and the reality that I have to occupy these small, curious brains for hours a day—for days a week, for a whole summer—is beginning to hit.
“Do you want to go to the park, maybe?” I ask. She shrugs.
Ambrose informs me that she is only wearing red today. She puts on red tights, a red skirt and a red sweater.
“You won’t be too hot in that?” She stares at me blankly and I decide not to push it.
On the swing at the park she asks me how old I am. “22,” I tell her.
She stops swinging, digging the heels of her red shoes into the bark. “I’m going to be 5 until I die.”
That night I go out with Sage and their friend Henry for his birthday. We meet him at a dance club. He buys me a gin and tonic. When I finish it quickly, Sage buys me another. I’m slightly drunk when Henry grabs me and starts dancing to Rihanna. I look to Sage, who is talking to some guy that neither of us know, and we exchange a glance. Neither of us wants to be doing what we’re doing.
I imagine what Sage’s arms would feel like around my waist.
When we get back to our house, I have another gin and tonic and become undeniably drunk. We share a cigarette on the porch as they tell me about black holes and how the universe recycles itself. “Isn’t that amazing?” They jump up onto the railing, eyes upward.
I think about our lease and how we were supposed to be just friends and then just roommates.
“That nothing is permanent?”
I stand closer to them, my body in between their open knees, and touch their thigh with my palm.
Their gaze comes back to earth.
We kiss for the first time and it tastes like tobacco and limes. We wake up and we don’t talk about it.
My friends ask me what’s new and I don’t tell them.
They take me out for my 23rd birthday and I don’t tell them.
I begin thinking that everyone must already know, that they can see it on my face. I’m more aware of everything I do, say or wear—certain something will give me away.
My best friend Audrey and I go to a show and a man assumes we are dating.
“It’s your Doc Martens,” she says, dismissively. “They make you look kinda gay.”
I see a spider on my shower wall and with shampoo dipping down my face, I tell the spider everything. I want to hear the words out loud.
Ambrose’s pet fish died. It’s the second casualty of the summer. First there was Hair the Fish and now, Hair Again, floating lifeless at the top of the bowl.
“She probably won’t notice,” Ambrose’s mom tells me, keys in hand—heading out the door. “But if she does,” she pauses and shrugs, “good luck.”
I imagine explaining death to a five year old. I wonder if she knows the Spanish word for death.
I suggest we play outside today, to hopefully avoid seeing the corpse fish. Ambrose climbs onto her swing and tells me she wants to live with Mae when she’s an adult. “But Mae says I have to live with my husband. I don’t even want a husband!”
I laugh. “I don’t either, Ambrose.”
Later that week, Sage and I load up their car. Their dog has already perched herself in the passenger’s seat, eager to be a part of the adventure. The sun shines bright and hot—it’s the longest day of the year.
“It’ll be great,” They say. “We can be different people in Nashville.” I throw my bag in the backseat.
“What if your sister doesn’t like me?”
I hope to one day stop caring what people think. Sage rearranges the CDs in the car. Their aux cord stopped working and I know we’ll listen to the Volcano Choir album the whole way there.
“Shut up.” They slam the trunk. “She’ll love you.”
We drive as the sun sets and when we get to Nashville, we go on our very first date. I slurp Ramen across from them and they pay.
In the back of the bar, where their sister’s boyfriend is playing a show, they put their arm around me. I’m surprised at how normal it feels, how I’m not worried at all. I point out a girl leaning in to talk to her friend, balancing on a single barstool leg.
“She’s gonna fall,” I predict, seconds before she hits the ground. Sage laughs. “Are you a witch?” There is barely time to see if she’s okay before we are kissing, smiling, forgetting the music and the drunk girls and anyone else.
Their sister takes us to a bar after the show with the guys in the band. I feel important sitting at the table with a beer in front of me. Sage is touching my thigh under the table. I imagine what it would be like to do this back home. I am sick of making lists in my head—those that would care, those that would not. How many casualties would there be? I am sick of getting in my own way. I grab their hand and squeeze it.
We tell each other we love each other on a couch in the dark. I play the same records over and over again until they become a sort of soundtrack. I’m ruining them. They will forever make me think of us on this couch.
In the afternoons, after I’ve left Ambrose and Mae’s, we go to the creek and read. Sometimes we go with friends and we all act like friends. Sometimes we go alone, take off our bathing suits and submerge ourselves into the crisp, clear water. No one is around.
Back at our house, we shower, rinsing off the Tennessee river.
“You know that I don’t know what I’m doing either, right?” Sage says, standing in the steamy bathroom. We’re both wrapped in towels and I have mascara rivers running down my newly freckled cheeks.
“You aren’t the only one having a difficult time.”
I adjust the towel from underneath my armpits to over my shoulders, letting my hair block my face. Feeling, at once, exposed.
“You’re just,” my voice softens, “Braver than me.”
They turn away from me and hit their fist against the tile of the shower wall. I jump.
They almost say one thousand different things.
They say nothing and walk to their room.
I make a running list of things they’ve called me:
So cute they could throw up.
Kudzu, slowly taking over.
One late afternoon, they ask me about Henry. He asked me out at the coffee shop one day and I panicked and said yes.
“I didn’t know what to say to him,” I answer with a shrug. “It’s not like I actually like him.”
“Yea, but now he thinks you do.” They hold eye contact but I look away. “Or at least—he thinks that you might.”
“Look, I’ll go on one date—it will be terrible—and that’ll be it. He won’t want to go out anymore.” I move from the railing of the porch to the swing, next to them. “Problem solved.”
They wait to respond—always careful with their words.
“You know I can date too.”
“Yes, I know. We date.”
“This is a date” I say gesturing to our set up on the porch: the half empty beer bottles, the window open so we can hear the Hurray for the Riff Raff record yodeling from the living room, my bare leg reaching across their lap.
“This is not a date.”
I lay my head on their shoulder and I know they don’t want to but they smile, repeating, “It’s not a date.”
That night Sage and I go out for beer and sandwiches. Ambrose’s dad is there with some men who I assume to be coworkers. He says “hi” and I introduce Sage and he stares for a moment too long. It makes me uncomfortable. I think back to our Nashville date and “being other people”. I try to go to the place in my mind where nothing matters. I try to care less. I end up asking to leave after one beer. We kiss when we get home but they sleep in their own room.
I’m supposed to meet up with Henry for a drink. Letting someone down is hard when you want everyone to like you. I feel guilty that I’m ok with hurting Sage’s feelings to spare Henry’s.
I’m early to the bar so I scroll through Facebook on my phone. I stop at a post from Ambrose’s mother. The whole family is playing The Game of Life and Ambrose has stuck a second little plastic pink person into the car next to the plastic pink person meant to represent herself. She’s married a woman. The caption reads “Hooray for advancements in equality. Life is good.” I press the side button on my phone and the screen goes black. I see my reflection and the tears collecting in the corner of my eye.
I get up and leave the bar without texting Henry.
The summer is ending and Sage goes home for a weekend to visit their family. They leave a note tucked into the bathroom mirror instructing me to eat the tomato that has grown in the tiny garden in our backyard. The house feels so empty without them. I slice the biggest one up, put it on a sandwich and go into their room to eat on their bed; desperate to be around their things.
They text me photos of blackberry bushes and Tennessee farmland. “I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”
Audrey asks me where I’ve been all summer. “The zoo. The park.” I shrug, trying to make my nannying job sound much more demanding than it really is. “I don’t know, hanging out with a 5 year old.”
On the first day of class, I write Sage a letter that I don’t think I can do it anymore. I can’t date them. “If I was going to be comfortable with it, I would be by now,” I write, hand shaking.
When I return home from art history, they hug me and say they understand. We’d had conversations where I’d said a variant of the same thing – I’m sure they were tired of hearing it. I’m sure they didn’t believe me.
“Will you tattoo me?”
A strange request, on the day of our break up. An ask to make permanent what I was trying so hard to dismiss as temporary. “Like a little rosemary branch? I trust you.”
“I don’t think you want me to do that.” I thought about the hair in the sink, the uneven layers still growing out in the back. I wonder why they trust me with anything.
I open a beer. “Um, will you tell me how?”
They show me how to wrap a string around a needle. How to drip the jet black ink down the string. They point to the back of their arm, the fleshy part above their elbow.
“I promise you won’t hurt me.” How could they promise that when it felt like all I’d been doing was hurting them? I touch their arm. I feel dumb enough to try.
We sit on the living room floor and I light the end of a needle on fire before dipping it into the ink. I gently press it into her skin.
“I think you have to go deeper.” I push harder, black ink dripping down my hands. They’ll be stained for weeks. “Like this?” They nod without looking. Soon, a small dotted rosemary branch lives on their arm. My first tattoo on my first ex-girlfriend.
I get back from class and they’re making breakfast with a girl I don’t know. They are laughing and tearing apart stalks of kale. I turn around and silently walk back out the door I came in. I pace around in our backyard, I think I start screaming. I hear Sage saying, “ignore her” to the mysterious girl in a tone of voice that, thank god, convinces me neither of them are able to. The unique intensity of what I’m feeling makes me wonder if I’ve ever really been mad at all. This is it, I think. This is anger.
Sage runs after me, letting the coffee from their mug spill into the grass, as I back down our driveway. I speed to Audrey’s house and I tell her everything, in choking tearful gasps. A pillow in my lap, I stare at the black screen of her TV. I can see my reflection. How my hair is matted and stuck to my wet cheeks. “It’s ok,” Audrey says, repeatedly. I feel her eyes on me, but I don’t look at her. “You’re ok.”
It’s my last day with Ambrose before she starts Kindergarten and I take her and her sister for ice cream even though it’s noon and I should probably be feeding them lunch instead of dessert.
She is dressed head to toe in green clothing and orders avocado gelato, to fit the theme, despite my warnings that she probably won’t like it.
“Did you know Hair Again died?” She says, as a sticky green drop slides from the plastic spoon onto her tiny wrist. “The fish. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, Ambrose”
I try to remember what I was like at 5 years old. When did I start paying attention to what everyone else thought? Did it happen gradually or all at once?
Ambrose doesn’t look up. “Oh, it’s ok.”
She’s watching the ice cream trail closer to her elbow, thinning out as it runs.
“I’m going to get another fish. And do you know what I’m going to name it?” She licks her wrist and swallows.
I laugh in admiration.
“I’m going to name him Crocus. After my favorite flower.”
We’ve run out of tape and wine so Audrey leaves, saying we’ll finish packing the rest tomorrow. “Get some sleep,” she kisses my head. I look around at my disassembled room and nod. I lock the door behind her as she leaves. I don’t know where Sage is and I text them to ask, though I know I should probably just leave them alone. I lay back on the couch in the dark, sinking into the red wine daze. A few minutes later Sage answers. “Out. You ok?”
“Can you just come back?” I know this is selfish because I know that they will.
We kiss in the dark. They know I am drunk. They always do. I never know when they are but lately I assume it’s often. They kiss me like they’ve missed it too. They pick me up off the couch, always smaller but stronger, and carry me to my bedroom. I’ve forgotten about the boxes and Sage nearly drops me on the floor. “Emma.” they whisper. I’m catching up: I realize they are realizing I am leaving. I catch my footing and try to grab their hand to lead them across the hall to their own room. I say “I’m sorry” or I say “Come on” or I say nothing and just wait, I don’t really know. They
look at me in a way I’ve gotten used to, at once full of expectation and disappointment. They go to their room alone and close the door.
I sit with my back against a cardboard box and cry.
Maybe we are both crying. I don’t stop to listen.