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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 twenty-one years old when she decides that this is her tragedy: there’s no way to make her story interesting, because nothing ever changes. It’s always her, choking, at everything.

A girl, another girl, a god, choking. It happened at fourteen, at seventeen, at eighteen, at twenty, and now again at twenty-one. She is always choking. It’s almost a synonym for being, at this point.

There are fingers wrapped around her neck her entire life. She doesn’t know this, because she is never not choking long enough to differentiate it from being able to breathe like a normal person.

She should know this, though, because the fingers have been her own, as well.

It’s almost a pattern, she muses. The universe wants this for her. She must be a bit like Atlas, with blood running down her chest, knees buckling, trembling muscles, choking on the weight of the entire fucking world, but not on her shoulders, but around her throat.

Aster thinks that this is her tragedy: the weight of holding the entire world around her throat is choking her.

 

She doesn’t know that when you’re holding the entire world, it’s also entirely yours to shape.

She doesn’t have a fucking clue.)

//

Ellie stands in the door opening, warm and smiling and right in front of her and Aster’s heart stops for only half a second before continuing its frantic beating.

“Hi, Ellie. You look…” Beautiful. “Older.”

“So do you. More mature,” Ellie says. “Did you dye your hair?”

“Yeah, I did, a couple weeks ago,” she says. She hears her father ask who’s at the door, and she turns to Ellie. “Do you wanna go for a walk with me?”

They go for a walk together.

Aster watches Ellie’s legs and Ellie’s face and considers how she has grown. She is a bit taller than two years ago, she has new glasses, her jawline is sharper and more defined, her hair is longer and darker, she’s wearing mascara. She is the same, yet different.

It makes Aster’s heart yearn for all kinds of reasons.

“I’m leaving for Grinnell tomorrow morning,” Ellie says. “Paul told me you were home.”

Aster swallows hard. “Yeah.”

If I die during this conversation, she thinks, I’m gonna fucking kill you, Munsky.

“How is Grinnell?” Aster asks, and she wants to hit herself because she can hear Valentine in her mind, teasing her, “Really, Flores? Is this the best you’ve got for the girl whose babies you wanted since you were eighteen?”
But despite that, she sees Ellie grin. “Good. I write a lot.”

“Really, what do you write?”

“Poems, songs, stories. I actually started writing a novel, a few months ago.”

Her answer surprises Aster. “What is it about?”

“A popular girl from a small town in rural Washington who re-discovers herself in college,” Ellie answers, a sly grin playing on her lips. “It’s partly based off of real-life events.”

Aster just laughs. “I can’t wait to read it,” she tells Ellie honestly, and she thinks about what Einstein once said: gravitation is not held responsible for people falling love.

And then she thinks: Ellie Chu, I’m gonna fall in love with you. Just you wait and see. I’m gonna fall in love in you and no one can stop me, not even gravity and not even God himself goddamnit.

(Here’s the thing: someone does stop her.

It’s not gravity, it’s not God.

It’s someone much, much worse.)

 

//

This is what happens: They run into Paul on their way back home. He takes them to his house and offers them both a beer. When Aster pops off the cap and takes a big sip, she can feel Ellie’s eyes on her from the other end of the couch.

“You drink?” she says, baffled. “What have they done to you in Seattle?”

“She has a few tattoos, too,” Paul says, quirking his brow. “She has this pretentious poem about love right beneath her left boob.”

“It’s Shakespeare,” Aster shrugs, taking a sip. “Spare me your tirade; I know how cliché it is.”

Aster can’t help but grins when Ellie looks at her in disbelief. “I may have become a bit of a heathen myself,” she muses.

Ellie shakes her head. “God, next you’re gonna tell me you date women too,” she says, only half-joking.

Aster takes another sip and winks. “Well, I don’t think God has anything to do with it, but yeah, I actually do date women too.”

The sentence makes Ellie choke on her beer.

(It applied to Aster when she was fourteen, young and fresh faced, and it still applies to her now, twenty-one and a lot more certain about what she wants: the higher the climb, the harder the fall.

She should know this by now.

But then again, she should know a lot of things by now.)

//

This is what happens: They stay up the entire night, the three of them. They share every story that they can think of, stories about their childhood, about college, about taco sausages, about Trig (but not too many, because they hurt Aster a little, still), about the hot springs, about church, about the future. The good and bad, ones that make them laugh, others that bring tears, they share them all. Until the night makes place for the morning, until it’s already light outside again and Paul has fallen asleep on the couch, his eyes half-closed and drool dripping from his mouth.

This is what happens: Ellie smiles at her and Aster smiles back, her heart burning up. Part of Aster wishes to never leave this moment, part of her knows they already have two years ago, when Ellie kissed “see you in a couple years” right into her mouth.

The thought makes her feel warm and dizzy and a little nauseous. Or it’s the alcohol. She’s too drunk to tell the difference.

This is what happens: Ellie walks her home and she wishes her goodnight and, and –

“Thank you,” Aster says.

She can tell Ellie is surprised. “For what?”

Aster smiles, a little tired, half-shrugs. “Walking me home. Coming over before you go back to Grinnell. Being amazing. I just didn’t think I’d ever find somebody who could – who saw me. I mean, you saw me. You were so young, and you saw me when no one else did.”

And, Aster realises, this is what happens: she says it as she’s lifting her head and kisses Ellie’s cheek softly.

“You really have become a heathen,” Ellie breathes.

Aster laughs so loud she thinks she might wake up the whole neighbourhood. “I think you might be the one to blame for that,” she says, walking up the front porch steps. “Sweet dreams.”

This is what happens: when she closes the door, she can’t help but laugh to herself. “I’m going to fall in love with you, Ellie Chu,” she mumbles to herself, feeling lighter than she has in years.

She’s going to fall in love with a girl and it’s okay.

It’s okay.

Until it’s not.

(This is what happens: her father comes down the stairs, visibly upset. He asks her where she has been.

“I’ve been at Paul’s, papá,” she answers, truthfully. And then: “Ellie Chu was there, too.” It slips out before she can stop herself, her words suffocating in the air around them.

“Ellie Chu?” her father asks.

Aster swallows. “Yes.”

“Is Ellie Chu that girl outside? Because I saw you two together. You kissed her,” her father says, venom dripping from his mouth.

Aster feels like she has been punched in the stomach.

“I heard what you just said. You’re said you were going to fall in love with her.”

For a fleeting second, Aster wants to tell her father that she is.

“I am going to fall in love with Ellie Chu, papá,” she’d say. “I going to fall in love with Ellie Chu and it’s going to be incredible. It’s the kind of love that is going to bury itself in me, going to enrich my soul, going to give me a second heart.”

For a fleeting second, she actually thinks about saying all of that.

Then, she panics.

Aster’s throat is closing, and tears are blurring her vision and she nods and somehow, her heart feels it before her ears hear it: You disgust me.

“You disgust me,” he spits at her before turning around and disappearing into the dark, the door slamming.

For a moment, it feels like nothing has changed the last three years. She feels as if she’s eighteen years old again, young and confused, thinking about Trig and Ellie and Tommy Fulton and Paul and Lily and taking those pathetic “am I a lesbian?” Buzzfeed quizzes that tell her she’s gay every single fucking time and she is so fucking terrified of it all.

This is what happens: her painting, with those beautiful four strokes, burns until there’s nothing left, except ashes and ashes and ashes).

//

When Aster leaves for college, her father doesn’t show up. Her mother does, but her lips are nothing but a thin line and she can’t seem to look at her daughter.

Her sister Isabella hugs her tightly when she leaves. “Don’t go, please,” she begs Aster, voice hoarse.

“I love you, Isa,” Aster says, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

Aster kisses Isabella on her forehead softly, and she feels like crying.

When she pulls away, she sees that Isabella also has tears in her eyes.

She’s too afraid to ask why.

//

Valentine hands her a poetry book, the first day of their third year.

He has underlined a particular phrase for her: because you, like Rome, were built on ashes, and you, like a phoenix, know how to rise resurrect, it reads, with a small drawing rainbow heart next to it.

When Aster hugs him, and he grins at her, her eye catches the glow sticks bracelets around his arm and she half-expects him to point at one of them and whisper: “This is my halo, I keep it around my wrist for you, so I can protect you and love you”, because this boy can’t be anything but a guardian angel, she’s sure of it.

//

Things get worse before they get better.

August turns to September, which turns to October. None of the days feel like her own, yet she smiles and writes and paints and hopes there will come a day where she doesn’t feel like choking anymore.

(Spoiler: it doesn’t come).

//

Aster turns twenty-one completely wasted, with a warm tongue that belongs to a girl named Jane, or June, or at least something with a J, between her legs.

It might be her most pathetic birthday yet, she muses as she drags the girl to the bathroom. Her parents didn’t even send her a present, they didn’t even call.

But, when in pain, medicate in vain.

Or something.

The girl, Jane/June, mumbles how much she’s been thinking of “getting Aster out of that dress the entire night”, in a way which Aster thinks would turn her on if she weren’t so fucking miserable.

(It involuntarily reminds her of her first time with Trig.

How her dad had told her that he was a good boy, how she took it as a sign.

Aster thinks about how her father would react if he could see his daughter right now: a freshly twenty-one-year-old Aster, drunk, wearing a little black dress that shows off just a little too much, underwear pooling around her ankles in the bathroom of some random club, with some random girl whose head is between her legs.

She wonders if this is a sign from God too, and if it is, what it means.

She thinks it means something like –

Like –

Like –

Okay, here’s the truth: Aster’s really fucking hammered and there’s literally a girl going down on her right now, so she doesn’t really know what the sign is supposed to mean this time. She just thinks it shouldn’t hurt as much as it does.

She also thinks she probably shouldn’t think about her dad right now).

After Aster finishes (which is still embarrassingly fast, given the circumstances), the girl wipes her mouth and gives Aster a wet kiss square on the lips. “Happy birthday,” she winks. “Glad I could be of service.”

When she puts her long, black hair in a ponytail and adjusts her glasses in the filthy bathroom mirror before leaving, she suddenly reminds Aster of someone.

(It might or might not be one of the reasons Aster sends a drunk, frustrated text message to Ellie Chu, because she’s lonely, about seven tequila shots deep, thinking about the way Ellie’s tongue would feel on every part of her body.)

//

Things get better, eventually.

It starts when Ellie texts back the next morning. Then, Aster gets an A+ on her essay. Her mother calls her a few days later. Her voice sounds hesitant and rushed, but she does wish Aster a belated happy birthday and she even ends the call with a soft “that’s my girl” when Aster tells her about her A+. Aster kisses a few other girls over time. She even has sex with a few of them. Ellie and she keep in touch. She finds 40 dollars on the street. She discovers a new painting technique. Coming out to people gets easier and easier.

It’s almost suspicious, how fast things get better.

But: “You just pulled an Uno reverse card on the universe,” Paul encourages her, his mouth full of banana and ketchup pizza (his latest invention). Paul came to visit her impulsively, so they decided to order Chinese and give his banana and ketchup pizza a try.

And Valentine agrees: “Thank you, Paul Munsky, for your wise words. I would like to add, and not to be overdramatic, that your Uno reverse card must be insanely big, because the universe really fucking hated your guts, Flores.”

Even her fortune cookie agrees: All things are difficult before they get easy, it reads.

“What does the paper in your fortune cookie say, Paul?” Aster asks.

“My what in my what now?” Paul says, munching on the entire cookie.

//

There’s only one conclusion here, really: good things come to those who drunkenly text the girl they’ve liked since they were eighteen.

Aster thinks it’s a shame they don’t put that quote in fortune cookies. Huh.

//

(The fingers around her throat, they loosen, steadily.)

//

Her mom comes to visit her in Seattle. Aster thinks she might have pulled an entire Uno reverse deck on the universe for this to happen.

“Do you go to church here?” her mother asks, her voice a few octaves higher than normal, when she sees a brochure on Aster’s whiteboard.

“Yes,” Aster tells her honestly. She is sitting on her bed, her heart beating out of her chest. “I used to, at least.”

“Used to?”

Aster nods “I’m not really going to church anymore,” she admits, biting her lip. “It’s… difficult.”

Her mother sits down next to her. “Niña, your relationship with God is always going to be difficult. There are even times when I doubt His existence. You can’t always be certain he exists. But that’s the beauty of believing too, you know.”

Aster lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Her body doesn’t feel her own. “I don’t think dad ever doubts God’s existence,” she manages to say.

Her mother shakes her head. “Trust me: even he does, sometimes.”

Then, she pulls her daughter in for a hug. “Your dad will come around, mija. I promise you. Just give him some time.”

//

Aster Flores goes to church, again. Aster Flores questions her faith. Aster Flores kisses girls. Aster Flores prays to God. Aster Flores likes how these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Aster loves the person she’s becoming, because she has been and still is fighting so hard to become her. Finding yourself is one hell of a mess. Don’t get her wrong: she still has bad days, but this is just the trauma of her childhood that is being spat back at her, she now knows.

She’s Aster fucking Flores. There’s nothing she can’t handle.

//

In November, Ellie comes to visit Aster in Seattle, and it’s –

Here’s the thing: Ellie’s an exact copy of what Aster has always wanted her art to be. Bright, burning, vibrant and so utterly and completely hers.

//

For some unexplainable reason, Aster ends up getting coffee with Trig. He texts her one day, and one thing leads to another, and here they are.

He looks older, more mature, but he still has his dimples and his toothpaste commercial smile, and he still wears a cross around his neck. It makes Aster long for something she can’t put into words.

“So you’re a lesbian now, huh?” he says, nudging her in the side. “That’s hot.”

Aster lets out a carefree laugh.

“I can’t believe I used to have sex with you,” she tells him. It’s amazing, really, how talking to Trig is simple in a way almost nothing else is.

“I’m going to take Ellie to my parents next week,” she says, then.

“Aren’t you scared?” Trig asks, taking a sip of his latte.

Scared? I’ve been scared for about twenty-one years now.”

Trig gives her a look she can’t decipher. He grins, then. “Internalized homophobia can be a real motherfucker, am I right?”

God, Aster thinks as she looks at her ex-boyfriend, soft dimples and clear eyes, we have even more in common than I realized.

//

Aster kisses Ellie right there at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It’s all warm lips, soft hands and tangled limbs and Aster decides that this is going to be her year, when they stumble into the bedroom, a little drunk, a little in love.

Ellie is warm and soft and pressed up against her, and Aster feels herself unravelling under her touch.

When she crawls between Aster’s legs and opens her mouth against her, she gasps.

Home, she thinks, I have found home.

//

Aster wakes up first the next morning, turning to face a sleeping Ellie and whispering, “time to get up,” and peppering her face with little butterfly kisses. On her forehead, on her eyelids and on her nose, until Ellie’s lips softly creep into a smile. She opens her eyes, and says “good morning, Aster,” in her sleep-rough, husky morning voice, asking for five more minutes.

She is indeed home, Aster decides.

//

Spring is known for her overall lighter tone. She is more transparent and clearer than winter.

And just like the Spring, Ellie and Aster become more transparent with each other. Their relationship blossoms and evolves into something else entirely.

(This is what that means: it means talking, kissing, watching the stars together, cheesy Ed Sheeran mixtapes in the dead of night, going to cheap coffee shops and having sex, mostly.

Aster now knows that there’s an orgasm, and that there’s an orgasm.

It’s important to know these things, really.)

“How was the weather in Seattle last night?” Paul once asks while peeling a banana to put on his ketchup pizza.

Aster smiles innocently. “It got pretty wet here, right, El?”

It takes Paul a solid five minutes to recover after choking on his banana.

//

On Aster’s twenty second birthday, they stay in bed all day, together, their bodies pressed against each other.

Naked on the mattress, nothing covering their bodies, lazy kisses between the sheets, the morning only mere hours away.

 

They kiss. Their lips graze against each other sweetly. Ellie’s drawing circles between Aster’s shoulder blades, creating triangles on her spine, making rectangulars on her lower back.

Ellie looks at Aster, and Aster looks back at her, and Aster decides that her fifth stroke is finally painted.

It’s not grand like the other four, not something raspberry golden like the first, not even close to the nerve-wrecking second, not something divine and grand like her third or something as wonderful as her fourth.

Her fifth stroke is this, nothing and yet everything all at once. Her fifth stroke is Aster Flores at twenty-two years old, deciding that she does like girls.

And that she likes this one in front of her very, very much.

Ellie leans her head against Aster’s shoulder and whispers, “I love you, Aster Flores.”

Aster smiles, dazed. “I love you too, Ellie Chu.”

Ellie throws her head back laughing and it’s –

(It feels like breathing, Aster decides.)