Erin kisses James on a Tuesday and it’s nice. His lips are chapped and a little wet, but they’re warm and know what they’re doing and Erin almost forgets to be awkward about it. She doesn’t quite know what to do with her hands and she has to remind herself to close her eyes but it’s—nice.
“I’d rather like to do that again,” she says when they come apart, and so they do, and Erin remembers to close her eyes right at the beginning this time, and folds her arms around James’ neck while his come to rest uncertainly against her waist, and it’s good, it’s nice, and she needs another word to describe it except Michelle bangs open the classroom door with a yell and laughs ‘til her cheeks are wet with tears and it sort of ruins the moment, after that.
Erin catches James’ eye during the lesson and smiles. He smiles back. Michelle pretends to gag in Erin’s peripheral vision.
They announce their relationship before school the next day.
“Wait, really?” Clare asks, looking between the two of them where they stand a foot apart. “I mean not that I’m not happy for you, it’s just that it was unexpected, and you’ve taken us all by surprise, I’m sure, and—”
“You weren’t dating already?” Orla cuts in, tilting her head to the side. She sticks her lollipop back in her mouth with a bemused, “huh.” And that’s that.
James walks her home from Mass and kisses her at the door. They sit next to each other at lunch and on the bus and Erin makes sure to hold his hand whenever they’re walking side-by-side. It’s not like she has a checklist for couple behaviour, because that would be stupid. She just has—expectations. Things that are done when you’re dating somebody. And James doesn’t seem to mind—probably likes spending the extra time away from Michelle and her excessive eye-rolling, even if it does mean he trades in Michelle for Orla. Erin isn’t sure which is worse, really. She mostly tries to keep James to herself.
“Have you two—” Michelle starts to ask, when it’s just her and Erin for some reason or another, and Erin is thinking about painting her nails purple and wondering if she can convince James to help. She’s always been shite at doing her right hand with her left.
“Have we what?” she replies, looking at Michelle, who looks back and raises her eyebrows.
It takes a moment.
“Oh, Jesus, no!” Erin exclaims. “He’s your cousin, that’s disgusting.”
“I’ve never had an Englishman before,” Michelle grins. “Wanted to know what it’s like. Knowing James, probably shite. So you haven’t—”
“Can you please shut up,” Erin begs, and for once, Michelle drops it. She just sighs, and says:
“So’ve you done the English homework yet?”
Erin can’t forget it. She looks at James and thinks about Michelle’s words and wonders if they should’ve done it already. Erin’s always wanted to. She thinks James probably has too. And he’s nice, she likes kissing him, and one time they made out on the couch and he put his hand on her thigh and it didn’t feel like fireworks, exactly, but the heat of his palm was a comfort even if Erin shifted half a minute later and he’d snatched his hand back as if burned. She doesn’t know why they haven’t done it yet. Why they haven’t really done anything—why she likes spending time with him and laying her head on his shoulder but the thought of anything else just makes her toes curl up a little bit, like right before you jump into a cold swimming pool.
She’s just shy, she decides. She’s not like Michelle, and neither is James. It’s something they’ll have to work towards—talk it out, maybe, beforehand, lay down some ground rules, set up some kind of scenario where nothing can go wrong because everything in Erin’s life seems to go wrong, lately, and she can’t fuck this thing up, not this one nice thing that makes her stomach flip-flop in a way it hasn’t since Clare told them she was a lesbian. Which was a completely different thing, anyway. They all wear rainbow pins now and Erin’s over it, okay, she’s good. It was just, unexpected. And Clare has nothing to do with this—she honestly doesn’t know why she’s thinking of it.
Nerves, she guesses. That’s all it is.
She asks James about it when they’re walking home from school, a fair ways behind the others. “I think I’m ready to, you know,” she says, and James replies, “oh, okay,” and his eyes are wider than usual and he fiddles with the knot of his tie.
“Are you sure?” he asks, and Erin shrugs, and he says, “oh, okay,” again, then, “sure.” They walk in silence for a moment. “Um, when?”
“Tonight?” Erin presses, and James thins his lips together.
“Okay,” he replies. “So should I—come over later?”
“I’ll call you,” Erin says. “Everyone should be out at the movies by eight. Could you bring—”
“Yeah?” James asks, when Erin doesn’t continue.
“Well, you know,” she says, and James nods like he does know, and that’s it, sorted, tonight’s the night, and Erin’s palms are probably just sweaty from being in her pockets for too long. “See you,” she says, following Orla into the house, and doesn’t look back over her shoulder because she’s too busy trying not to throw up.
She calls James, at eight-fifteen, and he’s there ten minutes later. “I brought, um,” he says, and Erin ushers him into the house.
“So we have,” she checks her watch, “an hour and twenty minutes. That should be—fine, right?” She sneaks a glance into the kitchen. “Um. I’m going to have some wine. Do you—”
“Please,” James blurts out, and Erin feels a little better knowing he’s nervous, too. This is fine, it’s—normal, she’s sure. Just a glass of wine, and then, and then.
They end up drinking the whole bottle and wind up sitting on Erin’s bed with the room swaying around them. “So do you want—” James says after a while, and Erin waves him to a stop.
“Um, maybe. Soon. Just need to—get pumped up, you know?”
James is looking at her, all concerned-like, and the wine is making her eyes all watery and God Erin is such a stupid little girl, because it wasn’t supposed to go like this. It was supposed to be—good. Perfect. Nice—God, she hates that word.
“Erin,” James says her name all slow and careful, “we don’t have to do this. We can just—hang out. Like always.”
Erin waits. Feels how fast is heart is beating and how sticky her palms are and how a headache is forming just behind her temples and she nods. “Okay,” she says, in a small voice, and leans forward into James who catches her, brushes the hair behind her ears, kisses the top of her head and just holds her, gentle, safe.
She doesn’t tell Michelle, couldn’t stand the snorting derision. She doesn’t tell Orla, because Orla will tell everyone, and Erin just—can’t.
She tells Clare, even though Clare might also tell everyone, but because she knows how to keep a secret when it matters. And she’s Erin’s best friend, at the crux of it all. That has to count for something, even if it isn’t much, in the end.
“Maybe you’re just not ready,” Clare says when Erin’s finished. “That’s okay, you know.”
“I mean, it’s really not,” Erin replies, covering her face with her hands. “But what’s done is done, or whatever.”
“Well.” Clare lies back in the grass to join Erin and shields her eyes with a hand in front of the sun. “You can always try again later. When you feel more ready.”
“Yeah,” Erin says, and wants to want that. Wants to want to want that. “Of course.” She touches a hand to the half-heart pendant she wears around her neck. She feels Clare’s eyes on her, but doesn’t move her hand away.
They lie like that, ‘til the bell rings, and then a little after, too. It’s worth the detention.
Erin and James try again, a week later, and again, another week after that. A month goes by and they’re lying side-by-side on Erin’s carpet, fully clothed, and James says, “maybe this isn’t for us.”
“The sex?” Erin asks, and James turns his head to look at her.
“The dating, Erin,” he says gently. Her throat works for a moment.
“Get out,” she manages to whisper, and he goes.
“Surprised you two lasted that long,” Michelle says the next day. “Given, you know, the whole gay thing.”
Erin’s stomach drops to her feet. “What?”
“I mean, he denies it,” Michelle continues, “but we’ve all known it for forever.”
“Oh, right,” Erin says, and thinks: I didn’t, I didn’t, even though she thinks she did.
The term rushes on. Another girl in their year comes out and asks Clare on a date and Clare says yes and it makes something ugly and twisted form in Erin’s chest. Just before Easter, James clears his throat as they’re all lounging outside the wee sweet shop and says, “I mean. I guess I’m gay, then,” to which Michelle replies, “duh,” but she gives him a hug hard enough to break a rib, too.
“I’m sorry,” he says to Erin. “I sort of knew when we were dating, and I shouldn’t have led you on like that.”
“It’s okay,” she says. Behind them, Clare is talking Orla’s ear off about Niamh, her girlfriend. She’s lit up in a way Erin has never seen before and when she looks at James she sees that he is, too. And Erin—Erin wants that. For real, this time. She’s gotten better at knowing the difference.
It’s summer again and Erin’s family goes to Belfast for a week and when they come back Erin’s nose is peeling with sunburn from the beach and Clare’s broken things off with Niamh. Erin goes by her house the day they come back and lets herself in with the key Clare’s ma had made years ago, takes the steps two at a time and knocks gently on Clare’s door until a soft, “yeah?” invites her inside.
“I got you something,” she says, pulling the flag from her backpack, and watching with a lump in her throat as Clare unfurls its rainbow stripes like a piece of finest silk. “Do you like it?” Erin asks. “Because I got a matching one for James. And, well—one for me too, you know, in solidarity and everything.” She meets Clare’s eyes. “And, you know, maybe, for something else. Something—soon. When I’m ready.”
Clare smiles, and drapes the flag over her bare shoulders like a cape. “Take your time,” she says, and really, that’s the thing, isn’t it—it’s summer, and the ceasefire’s over, but Erin finally feels as though she fits right in her skin, and maybe things aren’t nice anymore but nice, she has since discovered, is kind of overrated.
And really—they’ve got all the time in the world.