When it’s hot, I think of Michelle. Usually, when she crosses my mind, I’m filled with a regret that makes my pores sizzle with dread. For that reason, I try to avoid thinking of her at all costs, but when it’s hot, I can’t help it.
It was a Wednesday in May and we were walking up Thompson Street. It was the first day of the year that made me remember how much the back of my knees could sweat if given the opportunity. The streets were empty and slow-moving. Everyone was stuck in tar somewhere, or lingering outside of coffee shops with open doors and air conditioning that blew into the street and created small patches of frozen land for the taking. No one bothered speaking—the mouth was a cool dry place that needed to be preserved. Instead, everyone walked around with lips pressed tightly together, eyes squinting, determining what was real and what was a mirage.
Michelle and I made our way side by side, with my hand in her back pocket and her arm around my shoulders, like she was a high school quarterback and I was her wannabe prom date. She was my protector, regardless. We stepped lazily, our feet flopping and our heads bouncing. She had called me an hour earlier and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I had said yes.
I had on a blue t-shirt and jeans. Michelle asked me how I could possibly be comfortable wearing denim and sleeves in the heat. I said I wasn’t, but that I didn’t want people to see the triangle of fat that rested at the intersection of each armpit, like a decorative sconce. Michelle rolled her eyes and kissed me sloppily on the cheek in a way that said she couldn’t care less about my armpit fat. She had on a faded orange tank top with a little stick figure on it that said, “Life’s Good.” and high-waisted red shorts. She wore brown leather sandals, like Jesus or a pottery instructor. Her skin was brown and shiny and hot to the touch, her long hair piled heavy on top of her head. I wished that it was down, that I could move my hand through it like hot silk.
School had ended for the year, which meant we were no longer freshman. I was still 18, though. I had a late birthday. The next day, both of us were leaving New York for the summer. Returning home to our parents’ houses, which now felt like foreign hostels. She to Minnesota, I to Nebraska. We had bonded over that fact: a couple of Midwestern girls out here in the big city—yet Michelle had always seemed too aware to be a girl who had stepped out of a swamp.
Months ago, we had pored over a map and organized highway routes for the purpose of summertime visits. The drive was only six hours on a clear day. Maybe not a hot day like today, when your tires stick to the road and are pulled away forcefully with every rotation. But that plan, drawn in December, was in a desk drawer now. This was May. And neither of us had decided what would become of us.
That’s not true. Michelle had decided. Or, more accurately, didn’t need to decide. She was one of those girls. The kind who had taken another girl to prom, who was oblivious to onlookers clutching their cross necklaces. Who had parents that were proud, almost too proud, that their daughter spilled out of the mold in some profound way. I squeezed her waist hard, as though that could make up for the fact that I, too, had subconsciously decided.
The night before, we had gone to a club. Michelle borrowed a pair of fake ID’s, and I was Anna Strakovich, 23, for the night. I had never been in a room with so many other women before. Though our bodies all pressed together in a singular mass, each one of us was so distinct. Butch women with tattoos, tall women I recognized from makeup ads, older women with bad Botox, young and strong girls like Michelle. I couldn’t help but feel my only distinction was “liar.” But Michelle spun me around enough times that I began to feel myself melding with the core of who I was. For a moment, I was certain of us. A future involving Subarus and golden retrievers. And less than that: security. We went home and I whispered “I love you, I love you, I love you,” a thousand times. Michelle stroked my hair and hummed. Maybe she knew. She probably knew the whole time.
As we were walking, we passed another couple. They moved quickly, creating their own breeze as their bodies sliced through the heat. Their eyes were cloudy, their mouths scrunched. They looked angry now, and like they would be angry tonight and tomorrow and the day after. Michelle waited until they had turned a corner before she let a laugh squeak out of her full, wide mouth. That will never be us, she said. And she was right, it wouldn’t. She nuzzled her face into my neck like a cat. When she pulled away, the sticky skin was like tires peeling up from asphalt on their way from Omaha to St. Cloud.
Michelle loved telling people the story of how we had met. She was the vice president of the LGBT Student Union because of course she was. I attended the second meeting of the year, as I’d thought showing up to the first might seem too obvious. But I was still too obvious regardless, and Michelle came straight for me as soon as the meeting was dismissed. She asked me where I was from, and gave a knowing nod when I told her—as though she could divine the tobacco-chewing father and the french tips-wearing mother that I had left behind. With Michelle, I did leave them behind. I was no longer someone who kissed girls in darkness and cried when they returned to their boyfriends the next day, but someone who walked down Thompson Street and caressed the face of the light beam next to me. I felt glorious in her presence. She knew all, and I was merely her disciple. I was honored to have been chosen to learn from her. And she was a gentle and honest teacher, but I was a treacherous follower. Ashamed I couldn’t overcome my self-doubt, even for her.
We turned the corner onto Houston Street and headed for campus. I had finished packing that morning, but Michelle’s room was still in a half-demolished state. I was trying to make my own exit as clean as possible, while she was holding out for me. Or, us.
I put my hand to the fabric of my shirt, where I could feel the outline of the necklace Michelle had given me for Christmas, resting just below the collar. It was a silver “M” on a thin chain. M for Michelle. M for my last name. It was clever. I’d continue to wear it for years, and no one would know. The metal was steaming against my skin and I was certain that when I took the necklace off later, I would be branded. Part of me hoped.
I had given Michelle a book for Christmas. Essentially a stack of paper and cardboard. But she had read it three times already. She highlighted quotes for me. I don’t know if she was trying to make me feel better about the lame gift, or if she really loved me that intensely. Or, I know it’s the latter but I prefer to deny it.
Washington Square Park was full, like an oasis amid the dunes. The grassy patches were dotted with skin laying on skin and squirrels eager to snatch abandoned fries. Breakdancers invited us to watch their routines. Children splashed around the slippery edges of the stone fountain. Michelle loved the energy of crowds, but I found myself suddenly wishing we were completely alone. Was she walking faster now, or was it just my imagination? I wanted to say STOP, let’s sit there, on that open bench. By those two junkies. I don’t care who hears. Let’s figure this out. Please don’t let me regret this forever. Please. I’m bigger than my fear. Please.
The tree line of the park was growing closer. Michelle’s dorm was just across the street. Thompson Street already seemed so long ago. The armpits of my t-shirt were bunched up and dripping. Michelle was holding my hand, but I didn’t even feel it. I wanted a giant lemonade. I thought, if only I could have one of those big lemonades they sell at carnivals, with half the lemon inside the cup, my head would be clear enough to do the right thing. What a stupid thought. I could feel sunburn climbing up the bridge of my nose.
With a step, we were out of the park. We crossed the street. I loathed Michelle for moving so fast, for acting like everything was okay. It could have been okay, though. She was preparing the role for me.
Michelle stepped through the front door of her dormitory. I followed. The exterior of the building was brick, nearly invisible within the New York landscape. Inside, though, everything was cut out pictures and bulletin boards. The entryway felt unusually cool and dark compared to the blaring sensations of the outdoors. My eyes flickered with green as they tried to quickly adjust. Michelle swiped her ID card and the gate released. She stepped through and pressed the elevator button. I stood where I was. It took her a moment to realize I hadn’t moved.
“Do you want to come up?” she asked. Her voice was thin. It was a strange question to be asking, we both knew. Of course I wanted to come up. I never needed the request, I simply followed—eagerly. But she was asking me much more about what I wanted than simply following her upstairs to watch her pack suitcases with unfolded clothes. All of the opportunities I had missed this afternoon to say something, she was giving me that chance now. She was tired of waiting. I wanted Michelle to be my savior, and she simply wanted to know I loved her enough.
I had only ever seen her cry once. In March, her mom had called on a Tuesday morning to tell her that Pippi, her Jack Russel Terrier, had died. The dog was 16 years old and blind. It wasn’t shocking, just plain sad. I had tried to comfort Michelle, but I didn’t know what to say. I’d never had a dog. I thought it seemed strange to invest yourself into something you would someday be forced to watch suffer.
The elevator door slid open. Michelle stared at me, waiting for an answer.
“I think I’m going to go, actually,” I finally said. I couldn’t come up with an excuse. Nowhere I had to be, no one I had to meet. I just had to go.
I turned and left before Michelle had the chance to say anything else. I knew she wouldn’t follow me. She’d followed me enough. She would call me the next morning, though, asking if I wanted to get breakfast before I had to catch the bus. That made me feel worse—that she knew what I was doing and was giving me a chance to save myself.
It’s revolting to think you could so easily cast aside one of the great loves of your life. That someone who shaped you would be casually disposed. To think, there was nothing physically tearing us apart besides my insecurities. But there’s a difference between regretting something and believing you could have changed your fate. But I am a coward, and there’s only one fate.
If I could go back to that day, my face dripping with sweat and my hair slick with grease—I would, if only to kiss Michelle’s ears again. But, when the time came, and I know this is true, I would always walk away. There is no version of this story in which I didn’t spend the entirety of the bus trip curled up in the singular seat next to the chemical-scented bathroom, weeping for myself.
Kate Fustich is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently working on her first novel.