They lie down, the lesbian and the straight girl, flat-backed in the sour dripping grass. The hill shrivels into a plateau at the top, a bit sunken, like it’s tired. The lesbian girl and the straight girl blink sleepily at the sky, hearts tense and stretching against rib skin.
“Oh, look,” says the straight girl, and they watch an angel-winged tern flip across the sky.
The sky is nice today. The sky lips at them like a full-mouthed lover, the blue large and solid, like you could press your finger against it if you stretched your arm long enough, fingertips yearning.
The straight girl feels overwhelmed; the lesbian touches her own thin finger into the air. It is cold and they are both shivering. The wind is kind though, creeping around them in rimpling eddies, and careening off later.
“When does the sky end and become space?” says the straight girl. She is a talker, her voice timbered and painful sometimes, though she doesn’t know it. She respects silence. She understands it makes you unreachable and desirable, but there are words and there is not enough time.
“Huh? Oh, I dunno. I guess they’re the same really, it’s just where the blue ends for us. For our eyes, you know.”
The straight girl laughs, because that’s what she does. Not because she is straight, only that she laughs at things she likes and her laugh is honest and ugly and extremely recognizable. Once, she and her friends were on the field playing soccer, 3 versus 2, and her friend Mitch, who was biking, found them from a mile away by following her laugh. Like echolocation.
When she laughs, something always breaks free. Her laugh cracks things open.
But what the lesbian girl said wasn’t funny, it was just there, and the straight girl’s laugh likewise is only there to fill the space. It blooms, knowingly.
The lesbian girl read somewhere that true friends are comfortable despite silences in their conversation. She shifts in the scratchy bowl of grass and smiles blinkily. The straight girl’s heart is throbbing, for herself and for the lesbian. The hill, the bitter grass, the curling winds, it all comes together to make a nest. Separated. She doesn’t dare to look down the hill, because she doesn’t care to think of what’s down there.
Come up with me, she said to the lesbian, earlier that day. The lesbian sat at the bus stop, legs curled up on the hole-punched metal bench. Are you going somewhere? she asked, and the lesbian said, Actually no, shame blushing into her cheeks. She put down the bus schedule like a mask. The lesbian girl wore skinny jeans too thick for her stick legs and a blue jacket, her hair ponytailed, her eyes large and pearled with wetness. The straight girl saw all this— she was good at such things, having spent countless hours wandering the hills, marking the nests of mourning doves and mockingbirds and red-tailed hawks— and in the lesbian girl’s eyes she saw the car-struck doe on the side of the road, whose black lashes were ringed with tawny and dust, last breath escaping into the palm of the straight girl’s hand.
I’m going into the hills, do you want to come?
I’ve packed lunch, I’ve got, sandwiches. Turkey and hummus. I was supposed to go with someone but they didn’t show up-
Yeah, then. Thanks.
The lesbian girl stuck the bus schedule back into the plastic pouch. They hiked up through the hills together, hands in pockets. The dirt gray and crumbly, tinged with wet, like a sucked thumb. Dried yellow grasses skirted the path and made a fringe down the middle, so that the two girls walked on different sides, like cars unswerving in their own lanes.
They passed the drainage pond, with the sewage tube prodding out of the dirt. A circle of plastic bottles and filmy candy wrappers bobbed astrally in the water, trapped in by a halo of green and yellow reeds and opaline tree skeletons. The rest of the pond was brown and swirled, gravy-like; cinnamon teals paddled through the curdled surface, leaving spotty trails of blue underneath.
They passed this and went up the hill, where they now lie quietly. It’s the good thing to do right now, even though it’s hard for the straight girl, whose mouth hums with unspoken words. She tilts her head to look at the lesbian girl, face slanted towards the bottleneck sky.
The straight girl still remembers the lesbian in a lemon-ruffled bathing suit, toes melting over the stubbled edge of a swimming pool, at some girl’s birthday party. A bird-like ten-year-old staring over the frame of the pool and seeing only a skeleton. Moppy hair pulled loosely back, being afraid. Afraid of being afraid, and mad at her fear. The straight girl was already in the water, Gatorade blue, the pool filling all of the spaces between her limbs. Her body raising the water level. That was the difference.
“Are you hungry?”
She can’t resist. She pops up and grabs the brown sack. “Well, I am.”
“Okay, me too.”
They eat turkey and hummus sandwiches. Inside the bag there are also slices of pumpkin pie, a plastic tub of raspberries and blueberries, still-warm brownies. The lesbian girl watches the other, silently; she has found a feather on the ground, is tracing the crimps of its pleated barbs tenderly. Who was this feast for? How could they have left her?
The lesbian girl has a girlfriend who’s always staying over, because the girlfriend has parents who fail to understand. The girlfriend has a pale face, light brown eyes; lately she seems stiffer, marbled, her hair like copper wires, brittle and conductive.
She can’t explain why she snuck away at 5 a.m., while the girlfriend was asleep on the couch. The white light cradling her cheeks, leaving lacteous traces in her hair. The lesbian girl closed the door, not softly, as if hoping. Stood on the other side of the wood hoping. But the girlfriend slept, as she would.
Bus stop at 5 a.m., milked in amber light. She went to a lamppost, reassured by the lack of people, the expanding silence. Touched the speckled black metal, put her body flat against the pole and looked up, where a cloud of moths swirled to the light like blown bits of cardboard.
She turned into one of the streets and entered a trail. The hills dry and chipping against her calves. In spring, baby hairs of green bloomed over the scalp of the hills. The lesbian girl was a runner, legs whittled to flutes of bone and skin, the roughened pads of her feet knew the curves of the hills well. She traveled over them, walking, then running, her lungs pumping in the old familiar way.
It was like running with your eyes closed. Always worrying about what’s in front, underneath, above. Glowing red barrier could be there and then not anytime.
She ran until exhaustion, then went back to the bus stop. By then the sky was bristling with new colors, softened by glowing tree tips and roof tops. She sat on a metal bench, skeletal, anonymous; she grabbed a bus map from the plastic pouch and pretended to be waiting.
“It’s always one thing or another isn’t it? Always one or the other,” she says. “And we don’t ever get to pick.”
“Uh huh. And then by the time we get there, we’re out of love.”
“I don’t even remember what I’ve learned,” and her voice is panicked. “You could ask me anything and I couldn’t know. I couldn’t tell you direct.”
“Yes… I don’t remember the last time I could say something… without falling all over the place.”
“Does it mean anything, you think?”
“Everything? Or… anything? I hope not.”
“I wish someone would tell me exact what to do.” She sprawls backwards into the grass, eyes raised to the sun. But it’s not about religion, yet, or ever, because God isn’t in the air molecules, and if he is he wouldn’t be a religion.
“Why are you here?” And the lesbian girl sits up and leans over and looks at the straight girl on the ground right in the eyes, unflinchingly, the way only a dead animal could. “What I mean is, why are you on this hill? With me?”
The straight girl is startled but pretending not to be so, letting herself into the other girl’s darkly brown eyes. “I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell you anything, remember?”
She smiles, uncertainly, trustingly, and the lesbian uncrosses her legs and lies back down crying. The tears obey gravity and slide towards the leaf tips of her eyes and down her temples.
The straight girl scoops the lesbian girl into her arms and holds her like a child, like someone who is crying. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she says firmly, and she doesn’t know which meaning she means.
The straight girl travels with a camera sandbagged around her neck; sometimes you’ll find her flattened on her stomach, lenses shifting on a baby lizard frozen in the dirt, its mosaic skin fluttering in and out. Every scale eroded into iridescence.
6a.m., she finds, is the best time to find animals. No humans, just light. Spider webs burning with silver droplets and the sky a flat, pieceless gray. In the washed-up dawn, gophers stick their heads out the ground, crowned by pie crumbles of dirt, whiskers glistening like fish bones. Turkeys lurch in flocks on the fields, and in the gently wooded lands deer move like flying fish. What she loves most, though, are the birds. A red-tailed hawk, who she’s named Riveter, is perched on a branch, meeting her eyes with its intense amber ones, a blessing. She doesn’t dare raise her camera.
It moves its wings like it is considering flight. She looks down, understanding, and continues walking.
Most times she’ll see northern mockingbirds, flashing the white of their wings, spiraling through the air like they’re playing catch with their own bodies. Coveys of quails run through the yellow grasses. In the pond that is really a drainage basin, green herons stand priestly on branches which finger the water, and flocks of red-winged blackbirds plunge knife-like into the reeds. There will be snowy egrets sometimes, unexpected, individual plumes of smoke rising from the grass.
It’s a cycle then, though sometimes it feels more like a domino chain crashing towards the end piece. Yesterday, a coyote died on the road. It stood in the middle of two lanes, body rearing, eyes bursting mad with fear as the cars came too fast-- she could see its searing gold eyes even from afar-- and it was wavering, swerving back and forth, caught in the webbings of white headlights. The sound of the crash, of metal against ripened flesh, sent a physical rod of panic down her spine. When she was breathing again, and could see through the snarl of tears, she ran down to the edge of the sidewalk. The body wasn’t gruesome; it was intact, which only made it worse. Sprawled like a dog, the fur silver and russet and unguarded. Harmless. She didn’t want to imagine the fragmented ribs beneath its skin.
She had taken a picture of it, slowly, like a prayer.
For all anyone knew, it was a sleeping coyote, muzzle glittering against the asphalt.
“I wish someone would just tell me what I am,” she says.
“You don’t want that.”
“I don’t mean… I mean I want to know who I am truly. I don’t know. I don’t know how to start, even. Wish God would just come and tell me so I wouldn’t have to search.”
“God isn’t very nice,” the lesbian girl says.
“No, he isn’t ever. He’s like a big trickster, isn’t he? Always deceiving and changing his mind. I don’t think I’d want to meet him.”
“So what are you confused about? I could tell you what you are.”
“What am I, then?” she laughs, the slightest bit desperate. “I mean, does it even matter? Sometimes I feel stupid for caring because, let’s just say, the trees don’t think, why am I a tree? They just stand and dig their roots all the way down and raise their arms wide open. They just let all the squirrels and birds and ants roost in them and make their homes. And if trees can do it, why can’t I?”
“Because,” says the lesbian girl, lost.
The sky is a wide mouth threatening to swallow. The high bulge of it, where the sun sways like an Adam’s apple, shines brightly as they sit, motionless.
“Like that,” says the straight girl.
They feel homesick for places that aren’t home. They agree on this without quite understanding the meaning of it. The lesbian longs for her copper-haired girlfriend, the soft electric hum of her hair, the smell of it, like burnt bread. The straight girl remembers a foreigner and his easy laugh and his innocence most of all, and the snake he held in the cradle of his palms as he whispered the species name. He was twice her age and it was wrong; but he never looked at her like that, only like a sister, with his eyes that she can’t describe, and she loved him and loved him and loved him.
It’s truly a sickness, the straight girl thinks, eyes wide to the sky. She curls on the grass, shivering, the trees unkind and thrashing. I feel it in my stomach, right there… and here, and here…
And then the winds come, burning and burning a wreath around her, threatening to shred off her skin. She read somewhere that it takes two weeks for skin to replace itself, the cells regenerating, newly born, testing the air. Strange to think that this skin that she is wearing is trying everything for the first time-- the grass, the feather, the coldly damp air. Strange to think that this skin, the one she is trapped in, has really truly never felt love.
“Violet,” she says. “Violet, how does…”
“It feel?” Because the lesbian girl already knows. “It feels like something to look forward to. And something to look back to.”
“So she’s your future and your past then.”
“I’ve got nowhere else to look.”
“Why were you at the bus stop?” the straight girl asks, and the longing to understand overwhelms all waves of sense.
Birds flare from the trees as the straight girl uncorks her laughter. And the lesbian girl realizes-- that’s what it is: stunning.
“I think this is why,” the straight girl says. “Do you ever feel it? The not knowing?”
“Yes,” says Violet. “It’s very physical. They don’t think it’s physical, but it is. It’s right here,” she points to her stomach. “And every time you try to shed your skin, it pulls you back. You try to grow, and you can’t.”
“Yes,” the straight girl responds. Above them the sun blinks uncertainly.
Summertime allows for inconveniences. The twilight is gentle with their bodies, wrapping their settling limbs in purple-golden gauze. They eat cold brownies and it’s like eating dirt, brown crumbly and mineralized, ever good. They lie on the grass like fallen leaves, arms and legs sprawled wide, glittering in the old way of far-off stars. They are no older despite the time. They are growing backwards now, scrambling down the hill, sucking the dusky sweet air into their lungs, their mouths formed like kisses. They are running down the hills. They are running by the pond, before it became a drainage basin. Before the hills came into being, they were in love.
Dougherty Valley High School
San Ramon, CA 94582
Awards: Short Story
Best-in-Grade Award, 2020
Gold Medal, 2020