“Would you two just calm the fuck down already?”
I pull hard on both leashes to regain control of my dexterity, but Flot and Jet don’t seem to care. It only serves to make them both let out hoarse choking sounds as they continue to drag me behind them. So I decide to just go with it and start jogging. This was a stupid idea because I’m quickly sprinting and it’s still not fast enough. Normally, they are perfect gentlemen on the leash, but Spencer has just pulled up, and they can’t contain their enthusiasm. A beaming grin splits her face when she finally gets out of the Toyota and sees us barreling towards her.
“My babies,” she exclaims, making all kinds of ridiculously cute noises at them, getting down to their level so that she can be mauled.
The dogs whine out their appreciation too. It’s getting harder and harder on everyone to keep this odd little family apart. They finally start to calm down and Spencer turns her attention to me as she stands upright again. I decide to act like the dogs, coming up and playfully lolling my tongue, wagging my ass, and just generally acting obnoxious.
She laughs, and well, that was the point.
“Hey to you too,” she says once I’ve dropped the nonsense.
“What, no petting, cooing, and kisses for the humanimal?”
She ruffles my hair and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I make like I’m going to lick her face and she fights me off with a disgusted squeal.
“It’s no wonder they love you so much. You’re one of them.”
“That’s right,” I say in my cockiest voice. “I’m an animal, baby.”
She lets out a, “Pfft,” sound and I hand over Flot’s leash.
She can walk her baby and I’ll walk mine, as is per usual. We set off down the Runyon Canyon trailhead and immediately settle into a familiar rhythm.
“How’s your hand,” she asks.
“It’s good. I can play guitar again.”
“Oh, well, that’s all that matters then.”
I nod, because she’s right. I look down at it. Outside of some small splotches of almost completely faded bruises that I can’t really feel anymore, two weeks has been kind.
I reach up and scrub at the back of my neck, and she chuckles.
“Are you still avoiding her?”
“No,” I say. “She’s fine… I think.” Spencer gives me a look and I sigh. “We’ve met up a couple of times, but everything feels different now.” I shrug. “I think she’s mad at me, though she says she’s not. It’s exhausting.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…”
“It’s not your fault, Spence. I’m just giving us both some space. Right now, I don’t expect to see her again until San Francisco Pride.”
“Oh, so you’re going?”
Her brows touch in the middle. “Kyla said you weren’t.”
“It’s on the list,” I say. She looks over at me and her face drips with guilt. “Spence, it’s okay that you guys aren’t going.”
“Ash, we are going… and I don’t understand why Kyla said we weren’t…”
So Kyla didn’t want to go with me. That stings. “Oh…”
“Ash, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”
“It’s no big deal,” I try to lie.
“Well, I’ll go with you and she can go with Ai-”
Spencer starts rambling, her voice sounding like she just ran over a puppy, and I sort of feel that way too as I realize why Kyla lied.
“No, you keep your plans with them, Spence. I’m going either way.”
“Well, are you driving?”
“No, it’ll be quicker to fly.”
“Is Erin going with you?”
“No, I’m flying alone, but she’ll meet me there.”
It’s quiet for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
“The flight is seriously only an hour, Spence. It’s no big deal.”
“Well, I’d still rather go with you. Those two are sort of…” she wrinkles her nose like she’s just smelled something bad. “Disgusting.”
I look over at her and can’t help but smile. I’d rather she come with me too.
“Well, it’s up to you, just let me know.”
“Okay,” she nods. “I’ll talk to Kyla.”
I nod as well.
“Why isn’t Erin flying with you?”
“She has a family tradition to uphold, and apparently the trip up there is part of it.”
“Why don’t you ride with her, or is that against the tradition rules?”
“No, she offered, but I don’t really relish the idea of being trapped in a car with her for five hours.”
“Ash, have you apologized for what happened and asked her what’s wrong?”
“Yes, many times. That’s what makes it so exhausting.”
“What did she say?”
“She says I’m an asshole. That I’m insensitive. That the word disabled is insensitive.”
Spencer frowns over at me. “What’s wrong with the word disabled?”
I let out a long breath of frustration. “She says that it implies negativity, like it says that there’s something wrong with that person. She says the correct phrase is intellectual or cognitive disabilities.”
“But it’s all the same thing…”
“I know,” I nearly shout, finally relieved that someone gets it. “But you should see her, Spence. She was really upset that I’d used the word retarded at all, let alone on Kyla. And that’s sparked her into looking for something negative in what feels like every word I use. Now she’s swung from being mad at me to trying to… I don’t know… educate me?”
“Well, you realize that Erin’s a political activist, right?”
I look over at her. “No… what are you talking about?”
She pauses in her stride to stare at me like I’m stupid, and I’m getting really sick of that lately.
“Ash, her car is covered in political bumper stickers. You’ve seen her car, right? I mean, you’ve been seeing her for months…”
She starts walking again and I fall in line beside her, puzzling over what she’s just said. “Of course I’ve seen her car, Spencer.” And I had seen the stickers; they just never stood out to me. Some of them are bands, but come to think of it, I distinctly remember one of them saying, ‘Punch a Nazi.’ But then who doesn’t want to punch a Nazi? “A lot of people cover their cars in bumper stickers. That doesn’t make them an activist. I mean, she’s not rioting in the streets…”
Spencer raises a shoulder. “That’s not the point. The point is that she feels the need to preach to people. She’s opinionated, and I doubt that she has a lot of tolerance for those who disagree with her.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, she has some stickers that promote love and tolerance, and then some that talk about shooting cops and killing oppressors. If that’s her philosophy, then yeah, she’s probably going to get really upset when you say something she disagrees with.” She laughs. “And we both know that you’re not the most agreeable person.”
“So what am I supposed to do? I hate worrying about what I’m going to say that might upset her and she won’t talk to me about it unless it’s just to correct me. Like I said, it’s exhausting.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling…” She smiles at me and I give her my best bored glare to let her know that her insinuation wasn’t lost on me. “But there’s really nothing else you can do.”
We’re quiet for a while as I mull this over in my head. Maybe Spencer’s right. Maybe Erin is just very politically charged. That’s not a deal breaker. We don’t have to vote for the same person to have fun together. Hell, I don’t vote at all. But I really don’t like not being able to speak without fear that something’s going to upset her somehow. It’s like now that she thinks that I’m an asshole, there’s no going back. I’m irredeemable.
“Maybe I need to talk to her about how I feel instead of expecting her to open up to me,” I say quietly.
I can feel Spencer looking at me so I glance over at her. She has a wistful expression on her face and she loops her arm through mine, saying, “I think that’s a really good idea, Ash.”
I find myself feeling better about the situation. “Thanks, Spence.”
“Anytime,” she repeats before swallowing hard and changing the subject. “So, I think it’s safe to assume that you haven’t talked to Kyla about Aiden yet.” I groan and she laughs. “Ash…, why are you putting it off?”
“I don’t know,” I lament. “I guess I’m still not sure how I feel about it yet, especially with her most recent lie.”
“Are you mad?”
I consider that for a minute, and decide that I’m not. “I’m more frustrated with her than anything.”
“Well, if you’re not mad I don’t think it matters at this point. I mean, you two are good, right?”
“Yeah, Kyla and I are fine. Same old nosy, pushy, bossy kid sister and sibling hijinks at the Davies homestead.”
“So it can’t be that bad. If you were mad at her, it would have come out by now.”
I think about that for a second and determine that she’s right. “Okay, but that’s all the more reason not to say anything. What if she gets pissed at me?”
“Ash,” she says in a sardonic tone. “When is she not pissed at you?”
I think about that for a second too. “Yeah, I can’t argue with that. I guess I’ll try to pin her down today, if she decides to come home, that is.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
“I will,” I say, and then deftly attempt to change the subject. “So anything new with you?”
She gets immediately animated. “Yeah, actually! I’ve been on a waiting list for a couple of months for an apartment that’s within my budget and not a complete dump. I’d totally forgotten about it but then I got a call this morning. They have a vacancy and it’s all mine!”
She does a little skipping, happy dance and I can’t help but laugh at her.
“Wow, Spence, that’s amazing.”
“I know,” she breathes out in an adorable way. “My first apartment!”
I frown a little bit at that. “You haven’t had an apartment before?”
“Well sure, but not alone. This will be just me. I’m so excited, and I get to decorate anyway I want!” I roll my eyes at her. “I’m going to need your help, of course. Lots of shopping.”
“Sounds like fun, Spence,” I say dryly.
She leans in close and jostles my arm. “Oh, come on. You like to spend money as much as anyone else.”
“You’re just full of wisdom today.”
That earns me a pinch and I get a bit serious. “Spence, not to burst your little rainbow bubble, but living alone can get lonely. You know that, right?”
She sighs. “Yeah, I mean, I know that it can, but I won’t know if I like it until I try it.”
“I think you’ll do fine,” I say. “But we definitely need to make a stop at Sports Time while we’re out shopping.” She gives me a stupid expression and I smile at how adorably she wears confusion. “Personally, my home defense weapon of choice is a baseball bat. But you… you seem like more of a taser kind of girl.”
“You want me to buy a taser?”
I nod. “Or a bat.”
“Ash, is that really necessary?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, pretending to think about it. “A beautiful, bubbly blonde, all alone, in a semi-dump, in the middle of L.A., in a society where six in ten women are sexually assaulted…”
She chuckles. “Okay, I see what you mean.”
“Besides, if you get a taser, you can carry it with you.”
“That doesn’t sound like an accident waiting to happen.”
“Nah, they have safety buttons just like anything else.”
“What about pepper spray instead?”
I chuckle. “Now that’s an accident waiting to happen: volatile chemicals getting jostled around in your camera bag in an extremely warm climate…”
“You mean my purse.”
“No, I mean your camera bag.”
“Why would I put a taser in my camera bag?”
“Because the camera bag is with you more than your purse. In fact, I think I’ve seen you with a purse a total of three times.”
“That’s not true…”
“Spence, what’s in your car right now, the camera or the purse?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Well, what about you? You have a guitar case more often than not, and a backpack today. Since when do you carry a backpack?”
I grin at her. “It’s a surprise for today.”
“Oh, I love surprises.”
“I never could understand why you don’t.”
“I just don’t.” I shrug.
“I know,” she repeats.
We get quiet but it’s a perfect kind of quiet, and that’s probably one of my most favorite things about Spencer. We don’t have to fill every moment with noise to be comfortable. We don’t have to do anything spectacular to be having fun. These walks are the highlight of my week, and from the happy smile on her face I think that she enjoys them as much as I do. It’s getting warmer the deeper that we get into June but it’s not unbearably hot yet and there’s a nice breeze swirling through the Canyon to help keep us cool. We continue for another half-hour or so, time immaterial as I’m enjoying myself so much. But then the dogs start to pant and I spot a bench up at the nearest slight summit.
“You hungry,” I ask.
“Starved,” she says dramatically. “I skipped lunch today and was late getting out of work, so I didn’t get to stop and grab something before coming here.”
“You realize that you tell that same story every time we meet, right?”
She frowns cutely. “Well, no… but I guess you’re right. So that’s what’s in the backpack?”
I nod and point to the bench. “You game?”
I lead her over and we sit down on the bench, the dogs immediately plopping down at our feet. I pull out two water bottles and pass her one. She holds it out and looks at it curiously, causing me to laugh.
“It’s for the dogs,” I explain, pulling the top on mine and squeezing so that water bubbles up into the little funnel attached to the top. I then hold it down for Jet and he starts to lap at it greedily. “See.”
She repeats my actions on her own bottle and gives it to Flotsam, and we both let them drink their fill.
“You’ve been watching late-night QVC programming again, haven’t you?”
“I will neither confirm nor deny that,” I say, feeling a blush creep up my neck.
“You’re so bad, Ash.”
“Oh, come on, don’t tell me that this invention isn’t brilliant.”
“No, you actually got a good one this time, but the gangnam style toothbrush…?”
“That find was pure gold, Spence. Kyla thanks me for hers everyday…”
She laughs full and throaty. “You’re positively evil, you know that?”
We put the bottles down and I start to pull out the food: two deli sandwiches, two human bottles of water, and a couple of bones for the dogs.
“Hey, you should see the gift I got you for your birthday next month,” I tease.
“Oh God, please tell me it’s not… Shittens… or something equally as repulsive.”
“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”
She tilts her head at me. “Wait, you already got my birthday gift?”
“Yeah, months ago.”
“Since when are your gifts on time, let alone early?”
“Well, in my defense, I didn’t really have the option to wait with this one. It’s not something I could get just anywhere.”
“Ugh,” she laments and then pokes me in the ribs.
“Ow,” I yelp because it actually hurts.
“Ash, are you okay?”
I rub at my side curiously and then something pangs in my memory. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Spencer. This happened when we first started hanging out, but in time I didn’t even notice it. I feel a smile light my face. But Spencer, she’s actually batting my hand away and lifting my shirt to check the spot, worry creasing her normally smooth face.
“Ash, you have bruises…,” she says seriously. “What happened?”
“Spence,” I chuckle. “It’s okay.”
“What happened? Did you fall or something? Are you feeling okay?”
She drops my shirt and literally puts her hand to my forehead. I put my sandwich down and take both of her wrists in my hands to pull them away, but it’s a bit of a fight to get her to stop. Once I do, I study her face intently, trying to figure out why she’s freaking out. I mean, it’s just a few innocent bruises…
“Spence, nothing’s wrong,” I try to reassure her. “I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I’m not… I’m not sick… not right now.”
She closes her eyes in a desperate way and I watch as she takes deep breathes in what appears to be an attempt to slow her heart. I let go of one of her hands and scoot in a little closer to put my arm around her. She rests her head on my shoulder and I lay my cheek against her hair. And part of me wants to hate the universe and curse at the clear, blue sky just like always, but the better part of me, the part that I’ve been watering and growing into hope, tells me that it won’t do any good.
I give her some time before I speak. “Spence, look, I-“
“I know,” she says quietly. “I know. I just…” She lifts her head and looks at me. “I didn’t mean to overreact. It just took me by surprise. I felt… panicked. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time.”
“I know,” I say. “It’ll get better the more time goes on though. Until then, you just have to remind yourself that not every cough, sneeze, sniffle, bump, or headache means more than it is.”
She pulls back again, her eyes clear and close and utterly heartbreaking.
“Until it does,” she says.
I look away from her and focus on the rolling dips of the canyon vista in front of me, unable to really feel its mundane beauty even as I’m still aware of it. But I can’t look at her as everything yet again comes back to this and forces me to ask the question.
“Can you live with it,” I ask. “Because, you know you don’t have to.”
I feel impossibly small, impossibly delicate and fragile. The gentlest of hands touches my cheek and pulls my face back to hers. There’s something incredibly willful in her demeanor. It’s in her posture, voice, and eyes, and it’s so very different from just seconds ago. It’s so different than what I saw when I first rediscovered her. She’s strong and commanding, the Spencer that I remember, like a flame that warms instead of consumes. It’s in everything about her, like she’s become a gravitational force that won’t be denied.
“Any life I had without you in it, wouldn’t be a life at all.”
Her words linger on the air and I feel paralyzed, like to look away from her would end my life, or even worse, hers. It takes some time, though I have no idea how long, for me to find my thoughts, to find my tongue, to get my heart to start beating again. I know, without a doubt, that she means what she says. The intensity of her conviction has enough palpable force to break my ribs. But while I can’t deny the raw, naked honesty in her words, I can deny that she fully understands the immensity of the consequences.
I try to wear the strength that she’s wearing. I try to put just as much honesty and conviction into my words as she’s put into hers. I want… no, I need for her to truly understand just how terrible a life with me in it could become. I have to know that she’s fully aware of what she’s signing up for.
“Spencer, have you really thought that through? You have to be sure. Because that could happen anyway…”
None of her stalwart surety is lost as she says, “I know the consequences of the choice I’m making.”
“No, Spence, you don’t.”
“Listen to me, okay? Listen carefully.”
I take a pause, not only to make sure that she’s listening but because I hate what I’m about to say to her. She has no idea what it’s like, what I’m like, when I’m sick. I don’t want to get graphic with her, but she has to understand.
“Spence, if I ever relapse, that means I’ll be back on a really terrible regiment of chemo. It means that I will lose all of my hair. It means that I will be in a constant state of pain and vomiting. It means no sleep and weight loss to the point that you can see my skeleton. It means being weak and frail and unable to even get to my feet to wash myself or use the restroom. It means I’ll be a living husk, a shell of myself. And it could mean that I will die like that, hooked up to tubes, miserable, and probably angrier than I was the first time. I know that you could handle losing me. But I left before you saw any of that. You don’t know how terrible it really is.”
She’s quiet, a slight tremor to her hands as she considers what I’m saying, but it doesn’t seem like grief so much as anger. Her voice is too quiet, too calm, too gentle if it is.
“Okay, Ash. You’re right. I don’t know what that’s like. But I do know that there’s no consequence I wouldn’t pay to have you in my life. I love you, Ashley…”
Her words drift off as if there’s something more to say, or maybe because the words available don’t fully convey the honesty of it. She already knows what it’s like to live without me. She’s already paid that price. I’m still not sure she can fully understand until it happens, and I hope beyond all reason that it never does.
“I love you too, Spencer.”
“I know you do,” she says simply.
And with that, she leans in and angles my face down, leaving a soft kiss on the crown of my head. Nothing more is said for several long minutes. And despite just how deeply painful this entire conversation was, it doesn’t feel as terrible as it should. In fact, I’m able to take a deep breath and not be left wanting. The sword is still hanging above my head, but somehow its edges are duller and less threatening. It hasn’t lost its power over my life, but it’s lost its power over the quality of my life.
“Spence,” I say softly.
“Don’t you dare stop poking me in the ribs over this.”
She chuckles nervously. “I didn’t realize that I was that rough with you.”
I shrug. “You’re just you, Spence. I can take it.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you though.”
“Ash, your ribs are covered in them, like little, purple polka dots.”
“I tell you what, when I decide that I can’t handle being jabbed in the ribs, I’ll stop teasing you.”
“Ash, you can’t help being a total smartass.”
“Sure I can.”
“You’re just you,” she repeats me. “Besides, I can handle it.”
I smile at her because I know what she’s telling me, and it has nothing to do with my smartass mouth. She’s telling me that she can handle having me in her life. And while I’m not really sure yet if that’s true, I know that she’ll find a way to make it true. If Spencer wants something, she’ll work as hard as possible to get it.
“Everyone can change, Spence.”
She smiles, and it actually reaches her eyes. “Yeah, they really can.”
“So it’s a deal,” I ask.
“Deal,” she says, taking a huge bite of her sandwich.
I take a bite from mine too, knowing with complete certainty that I’ll still tease her and she’ll still poke me. This part of our relationship will never change, even as everything else is completely unsure. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I unlock the door and let the dogs into the house before me. They’re keyed up from seeing their mom and head straight for the kitchen where I hear Kyla shout at them.
“Stop it, you fucking maniacs!”
I can’t help the grin that stretches my face as I lock the door behind me and head to the kitchen. Kyla is holding Sheezus up on her shoulder. The rodent has burrowed into her hair, her beady eyes trained on the dogs in panic as Kyla tries to soothe her with a calming voice. It’s an impossible task as the dogs are whimpering, their nubby tails going ninety a minute as they gaze up at their favorite squeaky toy.
Kyla looks over at me. “Make them go away,” she pleads.
I pretend to think about her request and that just pisses her off more, but that was the point. I revel in her discomfort as long as I can, but I can tell that I’m getting close to going too far, so I order Flot and Jet to go lay down. They hesitate, looking back at Sheezus once more before reluctantly complying. Kyla relaxes immediately.
“I wish they listened to me like that, the bastards.”
I take a seat on one of the stools around the island and chuckle out, “Strong words for an animal lover.”
“They’re mean to Sheezus,” she says hotly.
“They’re dogs,” I say. “And that’s a rodent. What did you expect?”
“There are plenty of dogs who are kind to smaller animals. Those two are just assholes.”
I laugh harder and she gives me a glare before haughtily holding a piece of cheese up to Sheezus.
“You know that ferrets are only supposed to eat meat, right,” I can’t help but poke at her.
“Sheezus is a vegetarian like me.”
“You know that ferret food has meat in it, right?”
“Ash, it’s dry.”
I laugh again. “Whatever you say, Kyla. But you’ll kill her if you don’t let her eat meat.”
“Squishy Cat had a longer life than most ferrets, and he didn’t eat meat.”
“Okay, well, when you get a sec’, have a look at the ingredients on the ferret food bag.”
“Did you come in here to gross me out and terrorize my baby, or was there some other purpose?”
“No, I wanted to talk to you now that you’re actually here.”
“Okay… about what?”
“Well, I guess I just wanted to tell you that I know that Aiden’s in town, that he’s your boyfriend, and that’s where you’ve been most nights.”
Her mouth falls open just a little bit, but she’s forced to close it quickly when Sheezus perceives this as an invitation.
“Have you been following me,” she accuses, blowing the ferret hair from her mouth and making a disgusted face.
“What, no,” I say offended, and then move to blasé. “I hired a five-man private investigative team to do that for me. And I must say, Kyla, you hid it really well. They had a hard time spotting you… on the street… kissing him… in broad daylight.”
She deflates a little bit and takes a seat in one of the other stools adjacent to me.
“Are you mad,” she asks.
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve known for a while now. It does bother me that you don’t let me have a private life but then shut me out of yours. Of course, I might not be bothered by that if it weren’t Aiden, because I’m willing to respect your private life regardless of how little you respect mine. But he’s not just any guy and you know it.”
“I wanted to tell you, Ash, but Aiden-”
“I know,” I interrupt.
“Yes, I asked Spencer about it first. She told me that he doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
“Well, she’s wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s pissed at you, Ash. So, yeah, he says he wants nothing to do with you, but I know that he does. That’s why he’s so pissed.”
“Well, it’s seems really pointless to me that you’d date someone who couldn’t be around me, Kyla. Unless you plan to cut me out of your life for him…”
“What?! Of course not!”
“Then how do you expect this to work? I mean, you’re serious, right, with him? You certainly looked serious.”
“Yes, we’re serious. I’m… in love with him.”
That takes me a little off guard. Hell, it even takes Kyla off guard. We just stare at each other before a smile breaks out on her face, nearly splitting it in half.
“So what’s the plan,” I ask, looking down at the countertop for something to fidget with and coming up short.
“The plan was to buy enough time to talk him into getting over it. I was hoping I could convince him to come out, so to speak…”
“And what if you can’t?”
“Then… well… force a confrontation…?”
I roll my eyes. “Of course you would.”
“Well, what else can I do, leave him?”
The pain that flashes across her face has me putting that idea in the garbage. So I focus on an actual solution.
“Has he loosened up even a little bit?”
“No,” she says in frustration.
“So what if he won’t,” I say, only I’m gentler about it this time.
“I shouldn’t have to give up either of you.”
“No, you shouldn’t. If he’s willing to work it out, I am.”
“You are,” she asks, her face melting into puzzlement.
I shrug. “Yeah, I mean, he was one of my best friends. I didn’t realize until I saw you with him how much I’ve missed him. I’d have already talked to him if Spencer hadn’t told me that he didn’t want to talk to me.”
“Well talk to him anyway! If Spencer and I can’t convince him, which we’ve tried, maybe you can.”
“You really think that would help? It might make it worse, Kyla. You could lose him if it doesn’t go well.”
Tears well up in her eyes. “I’m going to lose him no matter what if he doesn’t figure this out. I’m so tired of hiding and getting my head bit off every time I bring you up. I’d do anything for him, but I won’t shut you out of my life. You’re my sister, for fuck’s sake! Gah, he makes me crazy!”
It’s surreal to hear her talk about someone this way, especially such a ghost from my past. And the feeling is only compounded by the fact that he makes her crazy, if her demolishing the piece of cheese in her hands is any indication. Kyla is implacable, unless she loves you. Despite all of that, I feel happy for her, even if I’m inadvertently in the way of that happiness. She pulls some pickles over and starts to munch on one between bites of cheese. I can’t help but make a face.
“Kyla, if he’s good to you and you could be happy with him I wouldn’t want you to choose me.”
“Just… shut up. I’m not choosing, so both of you can kiss my ass.”
She crosses her arms over her chest in that obstinate way that reminds me that she’ll forever be a five-year-old, at least to me. But I don’t get what it is that she’s expecting me to say as she stares me down. I’m not going to try and change her mind. I actually feel like it would be wrong for her to cut me out of her life, not just because of my principles on family, but because she shares those principles just as strongly. She wouldn’t be happy if she caved in on her own core values.
I snatch a fresh piece of cheese from the carving block on the island and find that her eyes are tracking my every move. It lasts for a long minute and I finally blurt out, “What?”
“You,” she says. “You’re… freaking me out.”
“Oh, well, that narrows it down.”
“You walk in here with the intent of talking to me without being prodded; I don’t have to ask for any of the details because you just spill them; you say you’ll talk to Aiden and try to fix it without coercion; you gave me personal details, emotional ones, like the fact that you miss him; and to top it all off, you tell me that you want me to be happy, no matter what that means to our relationship.”
“Yes, well, I hope it was everything you thought it would be. You’ve certainly been trying to ‘house train’ me since you got here.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. This might be a sign of the end times.”
“Well, if the world’s going to end, why don’t we scour the Porsche for your hidden stash and get high together?”
By the stunned look on her face, I’d say I’m finally winning a conversation with her. This is a really good day.
“I… wh- I, uh… don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I snort. “Secrets and lies? Seriously, Kyla?”
She doesn’t say anything so I decide to go right to the crux of the issue.
“Are you smoking pot because of Aiden?”
She rolls her eyes. “No, I’m not smoking pot. It was Aiden’s. He does it, not me.”
That makes me feel better, if it’s true. She takes another huge bite of pickles and cheese.
“Yes, well, he got me arrested.”
“I know,” she groans, slumping her forehead to the countertop. The following, “I’m sorry,” muffled by the granite and lump of food in her mouth.
“Is that all he does?”
Her head snaps up and her voice takes on an irritated timbre. “Yes, I’m not stupid. If he had a substantial drug habit, I wouldn’t be with him.”
That makes me feel all the way better.
“Just keep it out of my car, okay, at least until it’s legal.”
She turns her head against the countertop so that she’s looking at me and nods once. I get up to leave and reach over and ruffle her hair. In a happy surprise, this just irritates her more.
“Hey, when are you going to talk to Aiden?”
I stop at the entrance to the hallway and shrug. “I don’t know. I know where he lives, but I don’t want to just show up on his doorstep.”
She gets up and grabs a spoon before raiding the freezer for ice cream.
“He’d just slam it in your face,” she says, punctuating the ‘slam’ with the freezer door.
I watch as she takes a huge bite of ice cream, followed by more pickle and cheese.
“Okay, so it would be better if he met me somewhere willingly,” I say, feeling more and more disgusted as I watch her.
“I can arrange that.”
“Then you pick when and where, and just let me know.”
She smiles, licking her spoon. “How about gay pride?”
It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “Why would you want to ruin gay pride, Kyla?”
“I don’t, but it’s perfect. He already plans to go with me and Spencer.”
“And he won’t suspect that you, a straight girl, are going to gay pride with your gay sister?”
“Nope,” she says, the master manipulator sparkle alighting in her eyes. “All he knows is that Spencer and I are going. In fact, I sort of already told him that you aren’t going.”
I feel my brows knit together. “Why did you do that?”
“Remember that whole ‘force a confrontation’ thing?”
It dawns on me that this is why she told Spencer I wasn’t going. It’s not because she didn’t want me there. It’s because she didn’t want either of us to know that the other was going to be there. Jesus, my sister is a fucking snake in the grass.
“Were you planning to tell me about this before the fact?”
I’ve seen that look on her face before. It’s the face that dogs wear when their humans come home and find the trash strewn everywhere.
“Of course,” she says.
“Uh huh,” I reply in monotone.
“Fine,” she yells, throwing her hands in the air and letting the spoon thud back into the container. “I wasn’t going to tell you because you wouldn’t have done it.”
“Clearly,” I say. “Since, you know, you had to work so hard to get me to agree.”
“Well, it’s not my fault that you’re all weird now.”
“Right, because you haven’t pushed and shoved and prodded me for almost a year now.”
“How was I supposed to know it worked,” she asks in exasperation.
“Well, the benefit of the doubt can go a long way, even if it doesn’t work.”
“Fine, I’m sorry. I should have asked.”
“Yes, you should have.”
“Okay…,” she whines and it grates on my nerves. I turn to go to my studio and I hear her call out, “So you’ll talk to him at Pride?”
“Yeah, yeah…,” I shout back. “You’re welcome, by the way!”
“Yeah, yeah…,” she mocks.
I turn around and see Erin approaching with a group of people.
“Hey,” I say. “I was beginning to wonder if you were gonna make it.”
“We never miss it,” she says with a smile.
She seems better, more normal than any of our other encounters since the bungee jump, so I take that as a good sign and hold the flowers I brought out to her.
“These are for you.”
It’s corny and cheesy and some other food group that people scoff at, but I really want to start this encounter off right. I’m tired of the awkwardness.
“Oh, wow,” she says a little surprised, but she takes them and smells them nonetheless. “That’s very sweet. Thanks.”
I smile back at her and she turns to her group and points to each one in turn. “Ash, you’ve met Gavin, but this is my big brother, Column; my little brother, Connor; my little sister, Shannon; and this is my best friend, Janice.”
Gavin snickers and Erin chuckles.
“Correction: my other best friend, Janice. Everyone, this is Ashley and Spencer.”
I smile at them and say, “Hello.”
Spencer does the same, and at this moment, I’m really glad that she chose to come with me. This crew is a little intimidating. Column looks like a reject from the village people, his long hair going to his mid-bicep and crowned by a leather hat. The rest of him is only covered by a thin matching leather thong and assless chaps. He has to be the biggest man I’ve ever seen in person, more than six feet tall and buffed out like Schwarzenegger on steroids. He’s clearly the eldest, easily in his mid-thirties, bare-chested and covered in tattoos and piercings. He’d be fairly scary looking if his beard wasn’t painted in the colors of the rainbow, every portion of exposed skin shimmering with glitter, and he hadn’t said, “Haaaay,” in an extremely effeminate manner.
Connor is tall, but his frame is lanky and wiry beneath what appears to be an unknown queer super hero outfit. He takes one look at me and Spencer, and hides behind Column’s oversized arm.
Shannon looks like a carbon copy of Erin, and she clearly has her big sister’s attitude. She bats Erin’s hands away for ruffling her hair and says, “Hi” to me and Spencer in this way that feels more like a bored ‘whatever.’
They all have the same dark features as Erin, and it’s not hard to tell that they’re related. Janice though, is stunningly gorgeous, like an African supermodel with a tall, slender frame, unnaturally clear, dark skin, and exotic features. All of this is offset by her artfully shredded The Clash t-shirt, holey jeans, and flip flops. She smiles genuinely at us and reaches for each of our hands in turn, taking them delicately and saying, “Nice to meet you,” in a really gorgeous lilt that I’ve never heard before.
“You too,” Spencer and I chorus.
Gavin looks just like he did the day I met him, like a trendy lumberjack with a man-bun.
“So, is it just you two today,” Erin asks hopefully.
“Well, for the parade, yes.” I say. “But then we’re meeting up with Kyla and her boyfriend at the Starbucks down Market to check out the after-party. After that, I’m not sure.”
“Ah,” she says uninterestedly. “Why aren’t they with you for the parade?”
“The band isn’t here. Kate couldn’t get off of work, and Jac and Jon needed some… alone time.” I look to Spencer and we both snicker. “Besides, I figured you might like to have a little break from the group.”
This makes her smile, and inside I just want to sigh. I knew that answer would placate her, though it’s not the real reason they didn’t come at all. However, I can’t very well explain what’s going to happen with Aiden. Either way, she takes my hand and says, “That was really thoughtful, Ash,” before giving me a kiss.
This is definitely a vast improvement since the jump, but it still feels off and I can’t help but wonder if it’s me, not her. It’s about this time that all of the people milling about start to move in closer behind us and cheer raucously. We look down Market to see the beginning of the parade marching forward and focus our attention on it.
There’s a strange energy in the air. Everyone’s smiling and dancing, decked out in the colorful, crazy, and utterly mundane. There are people from all walks of life, all races and nationalities, and orientations. There are families with small children and people on bikes and motorcycles, and it all feels normal, innocent. But something about it feels skewed. It’s the same feeling I’ve been having with Erin. I can’t pinpoint it but it pangs in my guts all the same. All I can really tell is that this is not how I remember Pride, and definitely not what I thought it would be when I put it on my list.
At first, I think it’s just me. I mean, I’m the only common variable in both equations. But then, about halfway through the parade, I’m able to pinpoint the problem. And it just so happens to coincide with a Clinton button being hurled at me, and it’s not even remotely the first one. Political propaganda is everywhere. And more than a few congressmen have rolled by in their overpriced Chrysler convertibles.
When did Pride become a political lobby? When did a community become a legislative platform? When did lives become fodder? I don’t really expect any less from greedy politicians, but I can expect more of this community that I supposedly belong to, can’t I? The fact that everyone around me seems to buy into it actually starts to piss me off a little bit.
I’ve never been a politically inclined person. I think it’s all bullshit. I think the government is bullshit. I believe that people can govern themselves if they’ll quit looking for civil distractions, buying into lies, and focusing on personal bias and religion. So mostly, I have always just done my own thing and expected others to leave me alone as I leave them alone. But everyone, even Erin, they’re all totally into it, buying what feels to me like a gut-wrenching lie and an absolute waste of time. The political buttons and stickers and flare are everywhere. Of course there are beads, candy, and other items that indicate a celebration of life and love, but they’re always interspersed with propaganda. There’s even a moment when a flash mob of marchers falls down, holding up pictures of the Orlando shooting victims and chanting, ‘Silence is Violence’ as others outline their bodies in chalk.
Erin, her family, and the entirety of the crowd take up the chant, even punching their fists into the air. And to me, it feels like I’m suddenly not at Pride, but at a queer supremacy rally. I look over a Spencer and sigh with relief to see that she’s not doing it. In fact, she looks just as uncomfortable with it as I am. When did Pride start to feel so… dirty?
I don’t want to be a part of this. I don’t want to push a political agenda, especially not on the corpses of innocent people. In all honesty, I just want to leave, but as I look around me, I know that this is a pipe dream. The crowd around us is at least twenty thick, and it stretches for miles down Market Street. I watch Erin happily pin her fifth Clinton button to her shirt before smiling at me, and I feel myself return it, though it’s only by rote. With a sigh, I settle in to wait out the remainder of this parade.
When the procession finally comes to an end, it’s with relief that I nod to Erin’s question of, “Starbucks?”
She offers me her hand so we don’t lose each other and leads us through the crowd. Oddly enough, it’s for this same reason that I take Spencer’s hand and the awkwardness of this day almost doubles. I begin to believe that I should have just stayed home, inside, and away from people. It’s not Friday the 13th and then I wonder if there’s just a full moon or something. But I can’t find any reason to explain my discontent away.
We make a slow, crawling trek down Market, doing our best to stay on the outskirts of the thickest parts of the crowds. Erin’s clearly a pro at this, but there’s only so much she can do to avoid the obstacles that keep popping up. Distant music starts to vibrate from different locations, melding into a confusing background of competing rhythmic noise, and our progress is stop-and-go as random people group up around various vendor booths that line the street. Despite it all, as we draw close enough that the Starbucks logo is in sight, we can hear shouting, and it’s not the fun-loving joyful kind. It’s clearly a fight.
“NO FUCKING TERFs,” a deep voice shouts.
We pull up on the edges of a semi-angry crowd, several of them adding to the fray with a chorus of, “Trans women are women!”
Some of the crowd is holding signs that say things like “TERF is a Slur” and “Transmisogyny.” And others are wearing pastel flag shirts with the words, “Suck My Girlstick” on them. I look to Spencer, who’s clearly looking for a way around or through, but the on-lookers have gathered too thick and there’s no way out in sight.
“MEN AREN’T WOMEN,” a woman shouts her reply from somewhere deep in the crowd.
I feel a tug on my arm and look back over at Spencer. She nods her head towards a side street on the other side of Market, a clear indication that we should just go down a block and double back to Starbucks. I start to follow but my other hand is still locked with Erin’s and she pulls me to a stop. I look back at her but she doesn’t seem to realize I’m even here.
She drops my hand, throws her flowers on the ground, and starts to shout, “TRANSWOMEN ARE WOMEN,” in a shrill voice that sets my teeth on edge.
Of course, her family takes up the chant as well, except for her younger sister who just rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest, as if she’s seen this enough times to be utterly bored to tears by it. Even Connor doesn’t seem that concerned as he stays attached to his younger sister’s side.
“TRANS MISOGYNY,” is the rebuttal chant, and this continues to go on for several minutes, voices increasing and more people taking up differing arguments and slurs and slinging them out into the already volatile atmosphere. But then something in the crowd shifts. Like race horses waiting for a gunshot, the crowd starts to collapse in on itself and the chanting turns into panicked cries. Erin, Column, and Janet are swallowed up in it and my pulse starts to race.
“ERIN,” I shout.
Shannon comes over to us and pulls us all back out of the way.
“Don’t worry,” she says loudly once we’re clear of the commotion. “She’ll be fine. This has been happening for a couple of years now.”
My stomach feels sick as I watch people try to mediate and control the more militant at the heart of the crowd, but it’s no use. Arms and various barbs are flying fast and furious.
“What is this,” I ask. “Why is this happening?”
Gavin looks at me as though I’ve grown a second head.
“TERFs,” he says with a pinched face. “Duh…”
“TERFs,” I repeat stupidly.
“Well, yeah. They keep showing up, like herpes. They just won’t go away.”
“What’s a TERF?”
Gavin pats me on the shoulder in a condescending manner. “It means trans exclusionary radical feminist,” he explains. “They hate trans people. Well, specifically transwomen.”
“Why,” I ask.
“Because they think transwomen are men.”
I feel my brows draw tight over my eyes. “Wait, they’re not?”
He eyes me curiously. “No…”
He doesn’t have to say it this time, but I can still hear the implied, ‘Duh…’ on the end of that sentence. And now I’m confused more than ever.
“Wait, so transwomen are women,” I ask.
I look to Spencer to see if she understands, but she seems just as perplexed by this as I am.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t get it,” I say. “I thought transwomen were men who wish to become women…”
Gavin squints his eyes at me and Shannon giggles.
“That’s what a transwoman is,” she says.
Gavin turns his attention on her. “Shannon, don’t be a cunt. Ashley, a transwoman is a woman, regardless of her body,” he clarifies for me. “TERFs think women are just vaginas with no emotions or character.”
A dull ache starts to pang behind my eyes. “So a TERF is a feminist that claims that transwomen are men, and they hate them for it…”
“Yes,” he says, clearly pleased.
“No,” Shannon says. “A TERF is a feminist who recognizes that the only difference between men and women is biological sex. They believe that gender is a role, something that someone does or wears, and that there is no role or outfit that should be limited to a specific sex because that’s confining and oppressive.”
“Okay,” I say. “What’s wrong with that?”
The look that Gavin gives me would vaporize me if that were possible.
“What’s wrong is that is it dehumanizes and invalidates transwomen, who are women because a woman is more than just a vagina.”
I think about that for a moment. “Well, yeah, women also have a uterus, XX chromosomes, and significantly different hormone production. But men are humans too, so how does being called a man dehumanize someone?”
“Not all women have those things, Ashley, and what you’re saying right now is not only consistent with TERF hate-speech, it’s violence. What you’re saying gets transwomen killed.”
I feel my stomach flop. “How could biological differences get someone killed? It’s just science…”
Shannon interrupts again. “This is exactly the problem that TERFs have with trans people: they promote gender stereotypes, literally claiming that wearing a skirt and heels, getting implants, and growing their hair and nails is what makes a woman a woman. When TERFs explain this to trans people, they try to guilt TERFs with suicide and death threats.”
“Do you have any idea how many transwomen kill themselves because of their body dysphoria, Shannon?”
“Yes…,” she says. “More than forty percent.”
I’m taken aback by that. Suicides weren’t even that high during the Great Depression. The only thing in history that comes close is the Jews in Nazi Germany. But both of those are at least understandable circumstances.
“Why are they doing that over science…? I mean, that sounds… crazy.”
“They’re not crazy, Ashley, and that’s a super insensitive thing to say. I mean, Erin told me what happened when you went bungee jumping, but I thought she was just over-reacting. I’m not so sure now.”
“Ashley’s the kindest person you’ll meet,” Spencer says hotly.
“Gavin, I’m not trying to be mean. I really just don’t understand what you’re saying. Why would science make someone kill themselves?”
He sighs. “Because biology isn’t everything. Women aren’t vaginas and men aren’t penises. There’s more to it.”
“Okay, even if that’s true, why would someone kill themselves if I explained… oh, I don’t know, gravity to them. I mean, it’s just science…”
“This particular science excludes the lived experiences of trans people. Clearly trans people exist, so the science isn’t one-hundred percent true.”
I find myself gaping at him incredulously. “So you believe that the biological conclusions behind human reproduction are wrong?”
“Some of it, yes.”
Okay… “Which part?”
“The part that says that only women have vaginas and only men have penises. Some women have penises and some men have vaginas.”
I literally feel like my IQ is dropping, but I try to wrap my head around this and reconcile it with science. Science has determined that there are two sexes, but that there are also people who have a mutation or defect that causes them to exhibit some of the reproductive characteristics of both sexes. If I remember correctly, they’re called intersex, and if they’re not barren because of it, they generally have only one functioning reproductive role even if their external organs are ambiguous. So, the assessment that a man can have a vagina and vis versa is scientifically sound if that’s how he’s looking at it. But if that’s what he’s saying, I’m still very confused because that’s not what I thought trans people were.
“Okay, so trans people are intersex people who look like the opposing sex but have the reproductive organs of the sex they identify with?”
Shannon laughs. “No. Trans people are literally males who feel female and females who feel male. They aren’t intersex.”
“So a transwoman is a man and a transman is a woman, like I initially thought.”
“Yes,” Shannon says.
And we’re back to square one where nothing he says makes any fucking sense.
“No,” Gavin says. “Gender identity makes you what you are, not biology. And when you tell someone who identifies as a woman that they are a man, you’re completely invalidating their life and humanity. You’re harming them, deeply. It’s bullying, it’s wrong, and it gets trans people killed. Do you really want to do that to someone?”
“Of course not…”
“But I’m not going to lie to someone just because they’re suicidal either.” He sighs and it sounds angry. “Gavin, you’re telling me that if I recognize biology as the distinguishing factor between the human sexes, and that upsets a transwoman to the point that he does something terrible, it’s my fault because I made him feel subhuman for calling him a man. That’s… insane.”
Shannon laughs but I don’t find it all that funny.
“You’re pushing someone to harm themselves by being extremely cruel to them.”
“What’s cruel about being a man?” He throws his hands up. “I’m sorry. I still don’t get it. I mean, gay and lesbian couples can’t have biological children together. That’s a scientific fact and a cruel reality, but you don’t see gay and lesbian couples killing themselves when a fertility doctor explains it to them. They just adopt, inseminate, or use a surrogate. And I would hope that if I thought that I could knock a girl up, someone would tell me the facts.”
He shakes his head. “It’s not the same!”
“She’s right, Gavin, and you know it,” Shannon smiles at him.
It’s about this time that Erin and her crew come jogging over to us, out of breathe and with huge smiles on their faces.
“Are you okay,” I ask, taking in her disheveled hair and the beginnings of a shiner on her left eye.
She laughs. “Oh, I’m great. One of the TERFs hit me so Column knocked her out.”
She turns and gives him a high-five, and I swallow the lump in my throat.
“Someone hit you,” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says smiling.
“Why,” I ask.
“Because I spit in her face.”
I glance over at Spencer and feel an extreme desire to take her hand and flee.
“Look, we need to go,” Column says. “The pony po-pos are almost here and I don’t want to spend the night in jail for hitting a woman.”
Gavin snorts. “TERFs aren’t women.”
Erin laughs with him and Column at their joke.
I glance over to the other side of the crowd to see policemen trying to push through on their horses. This time, I don’t let anything stop me as Spencer pulls me through to the side street so that we can go around. It doesn’t take long to get far enough away from the cacophony that I start to feel a little more at ease, at least until Shannon starts to speak.
“You missed it, Erin,” Shannon pipes up happily. “Ashley and Gavin have been talking about identity politics and she’s already at peak trans.”
Erin looks at me curiously and pulls us both to a stop, and Column asks, “You’re a TERF?”
I gulp and Gavin answers, “Yeah, she is, but it’s genuine ignorance, not blind hate.”
“Wow,” Spencer says to him. “You remind me of my brother.”
“Handsome guy, hey?”
She snorts. “I was mostly referring to the fact that he’s an asshole.”
I glance over at Spencer, slightly taken aback. She’s pissed, and that’s extremely unusual. She’s usually very… mature. She gives me a defiant look, like she wishes that she were sorry, but she’s really just not.
Gavin crosses his arms over his chest. “Oh look, Erin. Ashley has a dyke in shining armor.”
“Gavin, what’s your problem,” I ask, starting to feel offended.
“Your gross politics,” he replies.
Erin just frowns, her eyes scanning my face as she ignores everyone else. “You’re seriously a TERF?”
I feel a frown forming also. I can lie to her, just like I have been for weeks. I can tell her that I recognized that she hates my friends by calling it a need for a break; I can tell her that I’ll try to be less of an asshole when I didn’t even feel like one to begin with. I can tell her that science is wrong and she’s right, but it won’t be true. None of it’s true, and the reason behind the awkwardness slaps me in the face. It’s all because I’m pretending with her now. I’m trying not to be myself with her because I don’t want to hurt her or scare her off.
And I make the decision right now to stop it, not because I want to hurt her, but because I respect her too much to lie to her.
“If you’re asking me if I believe that men and women are biologically different, then yes. I’m sorry, but science is pretty clear on this one.”
Her frown gets deeper and she seems almost sad, especially when her friends and family tell her that they’ll catch up to her later and start to leave. I can tell that she wants to go with them, and to be honest, I sort of want her to go as well. Watching her jump into a fight over politics, become militant and accusatory over an ideology… well, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. I only know that I don’t want to confront this here and now, in a strange city surrounded by her family and with Spencer standing next to me practically seething. And then I have Kyla and Aiden to attend to in the coffee shop…
It’s just too much.
“Look, Erin, why don’t you go with your friends and family. We can talk about this later.”
She seems really confused and torn, but not for the right reasons.
“Are you sure,” she asks.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. “You don’t want to be around when I get to Starbucks anyway.”
That’s probably the first honest thing I’ve said to her since the bungee jump.
“Okay,” she says. “I-I’ll call you later.”
I nod and she jogs to catch up to her friends. I stand here with Spencer until I can’t see them anymore, trying to understand how everything went so wrong when it was going so right, but no answer is forthcoming. So I turn to Spencer but only find air. I scan my immediate area and see her sitting on a bench across the street and staring into her lap. She seems defeated so I sit down next to her.
“Hey, you okay?”
She huffs. “No, Ash, I’m really not.”
I want to tug at the hair at my temples. This day has been nothing but drama.
“What’s wrong, Spencer?”
“The way that idiot was talking to you made me want to slap the shit out of him, that’s what.” I feel myself blink a few times as I try to process what she just said. “Ugh, he was so smug and… just an asshole!” I start to laugh and that causes her to shove me on my arm kind of hard. “I’m not kidding, Ashley. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hit someone so much in my life!”
“Not even Glen,” I chuckle out.
“No! Not even Glen! But then Gavin…” She says the name with increasing venom. “…is just like Glen, only on steroids or maybe an opiate like PCP or Bathsalts.” I laugh harder and she starts to as well, only she’s fighting it. “I’m serious, Ash. Where did he get off talking to you like that?”
I shrug. “I don’t really care, Spence.”
“Well, I do.”
“And I appreciate it, but seriously, he’s not worth it.”
She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Yeah…”
We’re quiet for a moment, and despite the way this day has been shaping up, I still seem to find myself smiling about it. I mean, it’s all just so ridiculous. I check my watch and see that I’m running late to my next encounter with Kyla’s fresh hell and glance over at Spencer.
“We’re late,” I say.
“This day just keeps getting better and better,” she laments.
“Want to skip out on them, maybe go to the beach or hit the bay area?”
It’s tempting, truly, but I shake my head. “As much as I’d like to, Spence, I think it’s time to get this over with.”
She nods in understanding and takes to staring into her lap again. And I can feel something pang in my viscera, as if some part of me innately knows that some part of her is hurting beyond the frustration of a warring crowd and belligerent gay boy.
“Spence, you don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”
She sighs and looks up at me. “No, I want to be there.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she says. “I was just really upset by how Gavin was treating you.”
I take her hand and she squeezes my fingers in return. Nothing, not her words nor the comfort of her warm hand, settle that uneasy feeling in my guts, but I give her a small smile nonetheless and she returns it.
This time I lead the way and we progress down through the milling people until we can cut back up to Market and double back on the other side of where the fight occurred. The chaos in that area is somehow more subdued, even as more people have crowded in to take a side in the argument or just spectate like we did.
The spectacle I witnessed today leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I still can’t seem to get my head around denying science or threating to commit suicide over it, but if that’s what our community has come to, then I guess I’m not part of the LGBTQwerty+, or whatever the fuck, community. I’m just me. I’m a lesbian and a woman. My community is my friends and family. And I’m perfectly okay with that.
But there are some things that the community as a whole needs – some things that are necessary to see from a grander perspective, things like Shirley and Sam’s crisis center. I’d have died if not for that place and I’m sure the same is true for many others. I wonder if they have this problem…
I snap out of my thoughts long enough to see Spencer holding the door to Starbucks open for me and I step inside. There’s a faint undercurrent of trepidation in my nerves, especially when I lay eyes on the two of them talking in a booth by the far window. But really, I’m just ready to face this and move on.
Truth be known, if Aiden spits in my face and never wants me to darken his doorstep again, I can live with that. I miss him, but I don’t need him to survive. I would like to get to know him again, but it won’t kill me if I don’t. It’s really all up to him. I’m more concerned for Kyla than anything else. The look on her face when she spoke about him, the easy way she declared her love, I know that any failure to reconcile puts her in a precarious position at best. Losing him or me would be catastrophic for her. But part of me believes that it would be worse for her to lose him.
I know what it is to lose that one person, the lightning strike – if that’s what he is for her, and I don’t want to put my baby sister through that kind of heartache, not if I can help it. And as I approach their table, as Kyla sees me first, I also realize that any attempt to reconcile without complete honesty would be an injustice. So I make an unconscious decision to do this the right way, even if it’s much like a moose in a china closet.
I grab one of the floating chairs from a table in the middle of the room on my way over and I place it right at the edge of the booth where Aiden is sitting. It’s this that alerts him to my presence. I’ve blocked him in and I take a seat in the chair to make sure that I have bought enough time to at least have him hear me out.
He’s looking at Kyla, the expression on his face one of questioning fury. I decide again to just be honest.
“That’s right, Aiden. She set you up.”
“Ash,” Kyla squawks, but we both ignore her.
I have his attention, his blue eyes boring into mine but I don’t cower or shrink or try to make excuses.
“I don’t want to talk to you, Ashley.”
He’s not mean, not even biting, just straight-forward and I can respect that.
“Okay, then let me talk and once I’m done, I’ll leave you alone.”
“I really don’t want to hear anything either.”
“Well, the way I see it, this is a compromise. If you had it your way, I wouldn’t be here. If I had it my way, you’d not only listen, but respond. Since neither of us is going to gift the other everything they want, I’m not moving anytime soon. And yes, you could attempt to climb out of the table, but we both know you’d fall all over yourself and the random strangers behind you because you’re huge. So, I guess you’re going to have to work with me here. You listen and I talk. And if you don’t want to respond when I’m done, then I leave you alone. We both give a little to get a little. Deal?”
I watch his jaw work at grinding his teeth for a moment before he nods in the affirmative.
“Okay,” I start, not wanting to waste any time. “I’m going to make this blunt and quick.”
“I’d like this over as soon as possible.”
I nod. “I got sick at prom and it never went away. It turned out to be cancer, a problem with my blood, and I had about six months to live.”
He clearly didn’t know this because the way he’s looking at me is sort of heartbreakingly beautiful.
“I tried to tell you,” Kyla says, but again, we both ignore her.
“I was stupid and thought that if I ran off to die and no one knew, no one would be hurt. I wasn’t supposed to live, but I met a woman at the LGBT Crisis Center and she took me in. Long story short, I purchased a bone marrow transplant from my birth giver and it saved my life, at least for the time being. I’m in remission. Kyla found me and forced me to reconnect with everyone, just like she’s doing to you right now. It’s pleasant, isn’t it?”
At this he glares at Kyla and she glares at me, but I’m not fazed in the least.
“But while I hate to admit this, Aiden, she was right. What I did was stupid, and I not only owed the explanations and apologies to the people I hurt, I needed them, and I wanted them in my life. She just forced me to do what I already wanted to do.”
His eyes soften a little and he looks down into his coffee.
“So this is the part where I give you an apology. It’s completely useless and it changes nothing. It’s not good enough for what I did and it makes up for nothing, but it’s all I have. I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t leave any of you because I didn’t care. I didn’t fail to say goodbye because you didn’t mean anything to me. I was trying to do the right thing and I fucked it up. Can you at least accept the apology for what it’s worth?”
“What’s it worth,” he asks in a bored tone.
“If nothing else, see it as an expression of my remorse and regret for what I put everyone through, because that’s all I have.”
He glances over at me and I can tell that he’s angry.
“I’m sorry, Aiden.”
“You said you want me to talk, to respond.” I nod. “Well, let me talk then. Do you have any idea what I did for you? Let’s see, uh… I stuck around through your endless dramas. I defended you when people talked about you behind your back. I let you use my house whenever you wanted. I loaned you my car and lied to Spencer’s dad for weeks. And every time I did these things I got in trouble. I got into fights. I got the shit beat out of me by my dad…”
He moves to get up and I instinctively get out of his way. The anger is pouring off of him like steam.
“I was getting the shit kicked out of me and you didn’t notice or care. It was always about you and Spencer. But at least Spencer checked on me and took my calls. At least she didn’t use me and helped me when my situation got so bad that I was…”
He’s not shouting. He’s not even drawing attention to us. He’s just calmly relating all of these things as if he’s reading it from a carefully scripted paper that tells him what to say and what faces to make at the appropriate times. I can see the anger and the hurt in his eyes, in the severe angles of his face and the small lines around his brows.
“Aiden, I didn’t know that your dad was doing that to you. Your parents were never home, and you always seemed so happy, so cocky, always cracking jokes…”
“Yeah, well, I guess that proves that you never really knew me.”
“Aiden, I’m sorry. I wish you’d told me.”
He laughs, quiet and sarcastic. “Like you’d have cared. You walked away from it and none of it even touched you.”
“That’s not fair, Aiden. You were one of my best friends.” He snorts this time. “I’ll admit that I was completely wrapped up in myself while I was getting ready to leave, but you can’t really hold that against me. I thought I was dying. What eighteen year-old handles that well? But before that-“
“It was all about Spencer,” he says. “I was just an after-thought or a convenience to you.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, that’s not how I see it. You didn’t leave a note, you didn’t call, not even a text. You couldn’t stick around long enough to even just say goodbye.”
“Yes, you could have, at least with me. I always kept your secrets. I was there for you time and time again. You could have told me.”
He points to himself, staring down on me with an expression of betrayal, and I don’t really understand why.
“I know, I’m sorry. I suck. I’m a terrible person. What more do you want me to say?”
“Well sorry isn’t good enough. You see, that’s the whole point, Ashley. I used to want things from you.” He turns to Kyla. “But not anymore.”
“She’s my sister, Aiden…,” Kyla tries, tears forming in her eyes.
“That’s fine,” he says. “But she’s not my sister.”
“So what, I’m supposed to pretend like she doesn’t exist so long as I’m with you? I can’t do that, Aiden.”
“Then I don’t know what to do, Kyla, but I don’t need any more shitty friends in my life.” He looks back to me. “I mean, look at you. You’re the same person you were before any of this happened, and I’m done with that.”
And with that he walks away, leaving me stunned and Kyla crying. I look to Spencer and she indicates that she’s going to follow him. I just nod my head and slump down in the seat that he vacated feeling utterly spent.
I still find it within myself to say, “I’m sorry, Kyla.”
She sniffs. “Don’t. This isn’t your fault. He’s just so… stubborn.”
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I’m worried that he’s going to try and make me choose, and I don’t know what I’ll do if he does because I can’t…”
She starts to cry harder and I switch to her side, putting an arm around her and absorbing it into my shirt. It takes some time, but she finally leans back and uses a napkin to clean up her face and blow her nose.
Her eyes are big and clear from the crying as she turns to me and says, “Ash, I think… I’m pregnant.”