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i am singing now while rome burns (we are all just trying to be holy)

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Aster Flores is fourteen years old when she decides that she does not like girls.

It’s sort of unsettling, sometimes, the way her chest tightens, how her hands get clammy and how she starts to feel lightheaded, how time seems to stand still when she sees a pretty girl – it’s like a trap, a mess.

There’s nothing wrong with people who do (contrarily to what her father might say at mass), Aster just doesn’t.

//

“Honestly, Aster, you don’t know how lucky you are!” Emma Daniels, Aster’s best friend, tells her one afternoon. Emma doesn’t even bother to disguise her jealousy when she continues: “you could have any boy you want, and you don’t even spare them a single glance.” She shakes her head. “What a waste.”

Aster sighs and closes the book she’s reading. “Boys are stupid.”

//

Her first kiss is with a boy named Tommy Fulton.

Tommy is the most popular boy in her class, he has big blue eyes and he makes it no secret he likes her.

“He’s so into you!” Emma tells her. “Look at the way he’s looking at you!”

Aster blushes. “Shut up,” she mumbles. “He’s not into me.”

But as it turns out, Tommy is into her.

He asks her if he can kiss her. She says yes.

It’s rather uneventful. He kisses with way too much tongue and his lips feel a bit like two wet worms against hers, but she reminds herself that this is Tommy Fulton, the handsomest boy in her class, kissing her, and then her heart flutters a little.

Or something.

//

Tommy kisses her goodbye when they walk home after school together, he brings her flowers and a card on Valentine’s Day and one day, he asks her out to the cinema.

That one date becomes more dates and Aster is pretty sure they’re boyfriend and girlfriend right now.

“I’m so jealous,” Emma sighs dramatically. “He’s, like, the hottest guy I’ve ever seen. You must so be in love with him.”

Aster throat closes. She suddenly feels as if she’s going to throw up and she doesn't know why.

(She doesn’t tell Emma this.

She just doesn’t know how to.

The thought is so cynical that it almost makes Aster laugh, because she has read so many books, words are kind of supposed to be her thing).

//

In May, a few days after Aster’s fifteenth birthday, an exchange student from England joins their class. Her name is Lily and she’s from Manchester.

Aster thinks she’s the most beautiful girl she has ever met.

She tries to kiss her, once.

It’s a searing hot Wednesday in July, when Lily asks Aster to go get ice cream with her.

And Aster tries not to notice it, tries not to pay attention to it.

It only comes as this sort of an afterthought, a little thing, but once Aster has noticed it, she can’t seem to not think about it anymore.

It just – there’s something about the way Lily smiles at her, with bright eyes and the tip of her tongue poking out between her teeth, it’s, it’s –

(Aster remembers how her father once said that angels are the most beautiful creatures of God’s universe, and how Lily looks a lot like that right now).

The feeling Aster is then overwhelmed with, it’s so big, it’s almost physical. Something Aster could catch with her bare hands if she tried a little harder.

And so she does.

She doesn't think twice about it. She doesn't think of Tommy and she doesn't think of her father and she doesn't even think of God, she just leans in, the ice cream still in her hand, her breath hitching in her throat. She closes her eyes and licks her lips. She can feel Lily’s nose against her own, and then –

“What are you doing?” Lily yells, panicked.

Aster’s eyes snap open. Her head feels drowsy. She suddenly remembers Tommy.

“I –” She tries to say, but words won’t seem to come out.

“Were you trying to kiss me? Fuck off, I’m not a bloody lesbian!”

Lily stands up, shocked, and runs away.

Two days later, Aster walks in on Lily practically shoving her tongue down Tommy’s throat, her hands tangled up in his hair, kissing him fiercely.

Aster don’t know who she’s supposed to be jealous of.

//

(It’s the oldest law in the universe: the higher the climb, the harder the fall.)

//

Aster buys a book from the second-hand bookstore in Squahamish.

Orlando, it’s called, written by Virginia Woolf. Aster has never ever read anything quite like it before. It’s so free, so wild, so different.

“Did you hear about Ashley Robinson?” Aster hears her mother ask her father one night, while she’s reading a passage of Orlando. “She left her husband for a woman! Her secretary, for God’s sake!”

“I always knew something was wrong with that woman.” Her father shakes her head. “Disgusting,” he says with such firm determination that his words make Aster’s tongue feel like chalk.

She throws Orlando in the trash the next day.

//

Aster starts reading the Bible, instead.

It was inevitable, she thinks in hindsight, stumbling upon that particular verse.

Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Aster reads the verse again and again and again, every night before she goes to bed, until she has read it so often, she feels as if she could suffocate between God’s words.

//

Aster prays.

Aster also thinks.

Aster thinks a lot.

Some things she tries not to think about.

//

She kisses many boys over the year.

She even tries to date a handful of them.

It doesn’t work out.

It never does.

//

At Aster’s sweet sixteen party, she meets a boy called Trig.

“He and his parents just moved here,” her father tells her, with a stern smile. “He’s a good boy, Aster.”

Her dad’s right. Trig is handsome and polite and charismatic and funny and his jawline – oh, his jawline could probably cut diamonds.

She tells herself it’s enough.

(It’s all she allows herself, so it sort of has to be.)

//

Aster loses her virginity when she turns seventeen years old.

“Trig, what are you – oh my God,” Aster mumbles when his warm lips trail open mouthed kisses on her neck.

He looks at her, with big, bright eyes and a warm smile. “Are you okay? Do you want to do this?”

(She remembers her father’s stern voice saying: “He’s a good boy, Aster.”

She mistakes it for some kind of sign of God and nods.)

It’s sickeningly sweet, the whole thing. It’s just how it’s supposed to be. He is warm and close and pressed up against her, and he’s so slow, so patient, so –

He’s also a teenage boy. Aster gets it.

She gets it, she really does.

But she still thinks he kind of ruins the mood when he takes the used condom off, laughs and throws it at her when they’re done.

//

A few days after Aster’s eighteenth birthday, Ellie Chu accidentally drops all her books in the hallway. Aster bends down to help her pick them up.

“Remains of the Day,” she smiles. “Loved it. All that barely repressed longing.”

Ellie stares at her, dazed, as Aster walks away.

The rest of the day, her world feels warm and fuzzy around the edges.

(She doesn't let herself wonder about what that might mean.

She does desperately pray to God to give her some kind of sign.

But God stays quiet like he always does).

//

Inspired by Ellie, Aster starts rereading Remains of the Day.

Then, the first letter appears.

And the second.

And the third.

//

Here’s the thing: Paul Munsky is unlike any boy Aster has ever known before.

Paul’s good-looking, but he doesn’t flaunt it. He’s a bit of a dork, but somehow still very popular. And he’s nice, not because other people expect him to, but because he genuinely wants to be.

He’s different than in his letters, but that’s okay. Aster can give him time.

When they leave the diner, she looks up to him. She sees his eyes flit to her mouth, and then back up.

She could fall in love with him, she muses. If she tried.

She starts thinking about it. Tries to imagine them together. His eyes are lingering on her lips and fingers. She sees his blonde hair waving in the soft evening breeze. She looks at his broad shoulders and leans in.

When he kisses her, her heart burns up from the inside.

(But still, Aster wonders, if there’s something off about the entire thing.

Something she can’t quite grasp. As if Paul was never even real to begin with.)

//

She shows Ellie her painting.

(She says something that –

“I like this stroke off to the side. Lonely, but hopeful,” she says.

It’s almost as if –

But –)

She takes Ellie to her secret spot in the woods.

It strange, she thinks, that she can’t remember a moment she felt more like herself than she does now, swimming in a geyser in the woods, Sharron van Etten playing in the background, wearing nothing but panties, light-heartedly joking and sharing her intimate truth with the most beautiful girl she has ever met.

(She wonders if this is what it’s like to paint a bold stroke.)

//

And then, she makes a colossal mistake.

She accepts Trig’s marriage proposal and all hell breaks loose.

//

After the church intervention, Trig breaks up with her.

Despite everything, it still fucking hurts.

//

“Mom, is there something wrong with me?” Aster whispers. She is sitting on her bed.

“What do you mean, mi amor?” her mom says, kissing her forehead sweetly, “There is nothing wrong with you.” She promises Aster that everything is going to be alright, but Aster can’t find any comfort in her words. She doesn’t know how to explain that she has these feelings, and that they are scarier than anything she has ever encountered before.

(In retrospect, she should’ve known. She should’ve known you can only bury your thoughts for so long until they turn into ghosts to wrap their lithe fingers around your throat to choke you).

//

Aster decides not to go to church anymore.

She stays home and draws.

It’s a rather slow process – this whole “coming to terms with yourself”-thing.

But, time passes. Aster heals. And she thinks. And she realizes.

//

Ellie is waiting for her at Turning Point. Her face is tender and soft and it’s so –

Ellie smiles at her – a tired, nonetheless warm smile.

“For what it’s worth,” Aster starts. She feels a little feverish and she can’t seem to look at Ellie. “It’s not like the thought never crossed my mind.”

I just never wanted to think about it, she thinks. But she doesn’t say that. She says: “If things were different.”

Then, she pauses. She feels light in her head, as if she might faint. “Or I was different.”

“You could never be different,” Ellie answers, cynically. “‘How do I know I’m different? How do I know I’m sure?’”

“Hey,” Aster says, indignantly, “I can be sure!”

“‘I mean, what does God think?’”

“Oh my God.” Aster scoffs. “You know, you watch, okay? In a couple of years, I’m gonna be so sure.”

And then they say goodbye and then –

Ellie kisses her.

It takes roughly three seconds and Ellie tastes like raspberries and wisdom and stardust, and she kisses her so hard Aster sees a painting blooming behind her eyes and in her mind, she sees the paint dripping onto the canvas, five strokes to the right, spreading right into her lips and Ellie –

“See you in a couple of years,” Ellie says before leaving.

Aster smiles, dazed.

(Here’s the thing: There have been so many people who tell Aster they have to offer her the world.

Ellie doesn’t. Aster knows that Ellie will help her shape her own).