You tell her you love her the day she graduates.
It’s a carefree spring morning, the perfect kind for the endurance training you sometimes did— to build up stamina, because stage work was tougher than it looked. The past week you’d all done laps with last season’s frost nipping at your heels, and the grass was still so damp with dew that Sophie had slipped and fell mid-run.
“Gosh, old age sets in really fast,” she’d joked.
Her laugh sent dandelion puffs into the cool air. You pulled her up and thought that it wasn’t old age: it was distance. Distance had set in so much faster than you could seize your courage and Sophie was on the train bound for Juilliard, going, going, gone.
And now your courage had finally caught up.
“I’ve loved you,” you say, “For years, now.”
The echo of your voice reverberates through your bones, into the ground, and up into Sophie’s spine like a tidal wave. It’s in the way Sophie takes a step back, her palms open, doe eyes wide like shutters in a storm.
“What?” Sophie breathes.
You have to force yourself not to look away. You know her, you remind yourself— thoughts of shared strawberry lipgloss, deft fingers braiding your hair— and square your shoulders.
“I just wanted you to know,” you manage. “I know you heard me the first time.”
See, you do know her. You’re not waiting for the fluttering lashes, the trembling mouth, the soft intake of breath like the mouth closing over fruit. You’re waiting for yes, me too. You’re hoping for the ring of her laugh like your first pinky promise.
“I— Alexa,” Sophie says, her eyes shocked, “Alexa, I never— I’m so sorry, I—”
You are seventeen going on eighteen, and your best friend doesn’t love you back.
Leadership settles over your shoulders like someone else’s old dress. You know, to be sure, how to make a script work and deliver a rousing speech. But everywhere you look there’s the memory of Sophie from the Christmas production, incandescent under the lights as she trilled beneath the falling, artificial snow. The glow of the fresnel backlit her dark hair like a halo and you were so in love with her you thought you were having a seizure.
“Hey,” Emma says. “What d’you think of our new recruits, huh?”
She flat on her back, tracing constellations between the glow-in-the-dark stars they stuck up on the theatre’s ceiling. You squint until you see the Big Dipper.
“I think,” you say, finally, “that they have potential.”
You can’t help wondering if that’s what Sophie used to say about you, when you first signed up for the drama club. The truth is, with the other seniors gone, the cast came up pitifully short. More than once you caught yourself waiting for Russel’s easy jokes, Kim’s loud voice, Sophie’s laughter and the shape of her moving into your space, large and all-encompassing, her eyes brighter than the last of summer’s daylight.
You dig your nails into your palms. Emma sighs and sits up, stretching this way and that.
“C’mon, President,” she says. “The recruitment flyers are waiting.”
The title sounds wrong in her mouth. You think about the Orion’s Belt of moles between Sophie’s shoulderblades, obsidian on russet skin.
I’m waiting, too, you think. But you don’t know what for. For the world to change, maybe. Because you’re a girl who loves a girl, and to top it off, you’re Asian-American and she’s Black. You know that even in New York, that means you’re fucked.
It’s three days later when Sophie calls you, sounding the way she always does.
“Hey, Alexa,” she says. “How are you?”
“Fine,” you say, trying to swallow around the millstone wedged in your throat.
You both exchange pleasantries for a while. You talk about the first-years who made the cut and the concert in July; Sophie gushes about how everyone’s talented beyond belief in Juilliard, her dancer roommate who looks like she stepped out of canvas.
“Everyone’s amazing,” she enthuses, “It’s just so hard— I see where I am and where I want to be, and the gap is enormous. I can’t begin to explain how frustrating that is.”
“I can imagine,” you say. You can tell without glancing at the clock that it’s seven, because that’s when Sophie always calls. “But that’s the thing: you can see that gap. You’re not the best possible version of yourself yet, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t getting there.”
Sophie sighs. The sound is low and sweet even through the staticky phone speakers, and if you close your eyes, you can almost feel that exhale on your nape. “You always think of the coolest stuff, did I ever tell you that?”
“Yeah,” you say, idly scanning your planner for tomorrow. “You do that a lot.”
Sophie laughs and mumbles something indistinct. You turn the page, run your fingers down the lines of the new script. Last year you’d spent weeks discussing improvs, the both of you; you remember the rainy afternoons in Sophie’s bedroom discussing line changes, interspersed with the moments Sophie asked you to toss almonds into her mouth.
“Man,” Sophie said, chewing obnoxiously, “I could try out for the football team.”
“Don’t eat with your mouth open,” you’d said, exasperated, but your eyes were fixed on the delicate curve of her neck, the languid slope of her shoulders and the shift-swell-dip of her throat as she swallowed. The breeze that crept in from the window touched Sophie in a way you’d never done.
You spent those long afternoons in Sophie’s childhood bedroom surrounded by the smell of her fabric softener, breathing in her scent so deep it sunk into your bones, and you’d known: there was no recovering from a love like that. You almost hadn’t cared.
“Alexa,” Sophie’s saying, now. “Listen, alright?”
Something in her voice pulls at your attention. “Yeah?”
“Do you remember what you told me, the day I graduated?”
Your breath seizes in your lungs with dizzying ferocity. Your fingers slip on the phone and for one sickening second you almost don’t catch it; your stomach lurches like you’ve plunged into a frozen lake in January, and when you do get a hold of it, you’re breathless with terror.
Sophie sounds small. You swallow.
“I’m here,” you rasp, hoarse. “I remember.”
“Good,” Sophie says, relieved. She takes a breath, all crackly static. “I’ve been thinking about what you said and— I know I said that I’d never thought about it. You, or girls. I wasn’t lying.”
Hearing it for the second time doesn’t lessen the sting, but you force yourself to breathe through the burn.
“I know,” you say, proud of the way your voice doesn’t crack. “I’ve already told you nothing has to change. Forget it, okay?”
Sophie doesn’t say anything for a moment. You can almost hear her weighing words in her brain, picking and discarding them like she’s looking for the perfect skateboard trick to impress your little sister; the silence stretches, tethered only by the knowledge that two years of heartache weighs between you.
“The thing is,” Sophie says, finally, “I don’t wan’t to put it out of my mind.”
You stops breathing.
“You’ve always been my best friend and I think maybe we could try, maybe,” Sophie says, rushed. “it doesn’t have to be anything big. We could do the same things we used to, and maybe… see how it goes?”
You’re dazed, faraway, like you’re diving through a waking dream. “You don’t have to,” you start. “It’s alright if you don’t feel the same, or if—“
“No, listen,” Sophie barrels on, surer than she’d sounded a minute ago. “You’re important to me, even if it’s not in the same way I am to you, and— I just— want to know if that could change.”
You stare out the window. Somewhere above you, the fan in your room is spinning; somewhere outside, cars are inching across highways in crunch-time traffic. Elsewhere in the house, your wet laundry is giving way to evaporation. But between the satellite transmission of Sophie’s voice and the inch those sound waves had to travel to slide home into your ear, the entirety of your universe has been taken apart so smoothly you no longer recognise it.
“You want to try?” You hears yourself say. “Being—“
“Like, being together?” Sophie hurries. “Is it weird? I don’t know. I just think we could try. It’s just— Alexa, you’re my best friend.”
You watch your own face in the glass until your reflection blurs. You think about Sophie’s laughing face, her Cupid’s-bow smile, the way she ducks when she blushes, all the way up to her ears.
“Okay,” you swallow. “Let’s try.”
Right between Harlem 148th Street and Jackie Robinson Park, your high school nestles itself like a cat basking in the sunshine. It’s half an hour from Manhattan’s Upper West Side by bus, but your AP classes have you running ragged as it is.
Sophie, though, is learning how to drive. She drops by as often as her schedule allows, her voice an unchained bird soaring right through their high school halls, her laughter so sweet the bees cluster at the windows with starved eyes. She could’ve lit up the entirety of New York if she tried.
“It just feels so surreal,” Sophie tells you, after dinner.
She’s walking in that slow, deliberate way she does when she wants to talk. “You mean, making it into Juilliard?”
“Yeah,” Sophie scuffs her sneakers with each step. “It’s— you know, I hoped. But I still can’t believe it’s real. Sometimes I feel like I’m gonna wake up and find out it was all a dream. Is that weird?”
Under the streetlights, the set of her shoulders look like the city skyline. She’s wearing her new jacket out in the night chill, and it fits her perfectly, gathering dusk in the trench of her back. Your hand stings because it isn’t there.
“It isn’t weird,” you say. “That’s just what it feels like when you hope for something. When you’ve hoped for a long time.”
Sophie turns so suddenly you walk into her. Her body’s all curved lines of shocking heat, solid and so very real, and your hands come up around her instinctively.
“Oh—” you start, as Sophie says, “Sorry,” winded and too-loud. Her eyes are the size of the moon. “I, just—”
“Sure,” you mutter, flustered. “What is it?”
Sophie says nothing for a moment. Her jaw is set, intent. It’s the look that’s changed a game, the academy’s performing history, and in a few moments, your life, probably. Your heart kicks against your ribs traitorously.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie blurts out. “About— everything. Not that you love me, because I can’t be sorry about that. But I know how much it hurts to wait. I know how much it hurts to want something so badly.” She swallows. “I’m sorry for making you wait.”
She says all this in a rush, her breaths billowing between you in a whisper. A young couple steps around you on the sidewalk, oblivious, their laughter reverberating in the cool night air.
“It’s only a little hurt,” you scrape out.
“Don’t,” Sophie says, soft. “It hurts so much you could die. I know.”
Your fingers twinge. Distantly, you realise you’ve balled your hands into fists. Uncurling them aches, too, but at this point there’s nothing that doesn’t.
“Two years was enough to get used to it,” you rasp.
In the distance, highway traffic slows to a crawl. Sophie takes half a step forward.
“When did you realise?”
Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth. In another universe, the words rise from your throat like a river pulled by the moon. In another universe, you say: I fell asleep and I woke hungry for the soft peach of your lips. One day, I realised your smile could make flowers grow. When you laughed, I was struck with a love the size of the whole world.
But this isn’t that universe. In this one Sophie’s still waiting, her brows creased like she’s trying to pinpoint the moment a jump turns into a fall.
“Since my first year in the club,” you say, at last. “I knew that time before my first show, when you said that I shouldn’t care about anyone else, because art only means anything if it’s for its own sake.”
Sophie looks at you so long, your capillaries flood to the surface like koi in a pond. Your hands brush.
You look at her and in this light it’s easy to imagine the both of you three months after this night, walking outside after her play, the sunflower in your hand damp with sweat along the stalk. Your skin would tingle so much it’d feel like you’re vibrating, throat hoarse with cheering her name, heart swollen like a fist.
“I’m glad you came,” she’d say, pink with the flush of first love. “Isn’t it weird we worked out after all? Did you know it’d be this way?”
“No,” you’d say, because loving her had been a surprise up to the very moment she learned to love you back. “No, I didn’t know. But I hoped.”
But that’s three months from now. Sophie’s watching the flurry of movement in Central Park, friends darting about like moths in the darkness, the distant shouts of teenage surprise. Her lips are so very lightly parted and it’s startling to realise you’ve never wanted to kiss a girl before her.
“Let’s go,” Sophie says, abruptly. When she turns to face you, her eyes are bright as fireflies. “C’mon, A. We can grab dinner in a bit.”
“Where are we going?”
Her fingers find yours and fit between them.
“Somewhere else,” she says. When she leads, you follow.
The featured image, ‘From the Stillitory of they Face Excelling’, has been used with permission of artist, Margaret Orr.
Margaret lives in Cape Town, an believes in regular art practice to keep her sane, and to allow her a playful escape from her day job as an executive coach. Her medium of choice is collage, both traditional and digital. Her work is available online at redubble.