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

Chapter Text

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).

Chapter Text

This is a very old story, Aster thinks, this thing between them. Ellie wants something Aster can’t give her yet and so Aster just keeps throwing herself into the abyss with a passion she never knew she had, until she’s ready to be just as bold as Ellie.

(But then again, maybe there was no such thing as “wrong time wrong place”, maybe Aster and Ellie only had right here, right now and were they both exactly where they needed to be.)

//

Aster leaves at six o’clock on a cold Sunday morning, with her back straight and a grace that aches at her bones.

She has packed some clothes and all the books she could find into a suitcase and presses a quick kiss to her sister’s forehead, who is being held in her mother’s arms, before stepping into her car. She feels hot tears burning behind her eyes, but she doesn’t look in the rear-view mirror until her family’s out of sight and she sees nothing but trees and trees and something that looks an awful lot like freedom.

//

(She passes the hot springs and her heart does this sporadic little hiccup.

She does not stop to take a quick swim.

She keeps driving, instead, partly because she’s okay, partly because she’s not.)

//

The University of Washington is – really something.

(Not that Aster has been anywhere other than Squahamish or Sacramento, but hey, give the girl a break).

The hallways smell like Cheetos and hotdogs, there are people drinking beer at 11 o’clock in the morning and she’s pretty sure some frat boy just tried to grope her –

Nothing here looks anything like Squahamish. The corners of Aster’s mouth involuntary creep up into a small smile.

When she opens the door of her dorm, she’s greeted by a boy with pink hair, light blue glittery eyeshadow and those glow-in-the-dark sticks that you bend into bracelets around his wrists.

“I’m Valentine Mitchell,” he smiles cheekily, holding up a bottle of wine, “you must be Aster Flores. I’m your roommate. Wanna get drunk?”

//

They are lying on his bed, together, an almost empty bottle of red wine next to them, staring at the ceiling.

As it turns out, Aster is a lightweight.

She doesn’t really like alcohol, to be honest. A cup of vanilla tea and a good book, that’s more her thing. But the fastest way to make friends is getting drunk together, a very wise girl had told Aster once in the bathroom at Trig’s eighteenth birthday party, a few seconds before she passed out.

And this is college, after all.

As Aster’s lying on the bed, she is reminded why she doesn’t like to drink alcohol: her body feels feverish and her head is pounding and blood rushes to her ears and she keeps thinking of –

(Well, if she’s being completely honest, in the back of her mind she’s always thinking of –

But drunk, it’s a lot harder to ignore that constant buzzing in her mind.)

In conclusion: being drunk is not a state of mind Aster thoroughly enjoys, but, she thinks, it’s nothing I can’t handle for one night.

Valentine reaches over, grabs the bottle and takes a big sip.

“So, let me guess: pretty girl from a small town, huh?” He grins. “Parents didn’t approve of their angel daughter doing something as “free and liberal” as art school, but she had to go, even if she broke her poor boyfriend’s heart, because for once, she followed her own heart.”

Aster smiles, but it’s watery. She thinks of Trig and his dimples and her father and his church and something thugs in her stomach.

“Something like that,” she decides eventually. “What about you?”

Valentine shrugs. “A bit of a cliché as well. Was really into art when I was young. Anything I could get my hands on – theatre, museums, those art house cinemas, even went to a ballet performance a couple of times.”

He puts the bottle against his lips and finishes the drink.

“When I was sixteen, my dad found my drawings. Kicked me out. Lived with a friend for a couple of years. Then decided to try out for art school and make something of myself. Now I’m here.”

Aster frowns. I’m not usually this stupid, she thinks when she realizes she has no freaking idea what Valentine is talking about.

“Why would your dad kick you out because of your drawings?” she asks.

“I drew boys.”

Aster still doesn’t understand.

“Aster, they were of boys, kissing.”

Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.”

Valentine looks at her with his blue glittery eyeshadow eyes and his pink chapstick lips and he starts laughing and then Aster laughs too, because she is drunk and she can still feel Ellie’s letters burning holes into her heart and, and, and –

Valentine nudges her side. “God, you really are a pretty girl from a small town, aren’t you?”

//

Aster doesn’t celebrate her nineteenth birthday with a party.

Instead, she wakes up, turns off her phone, treats herself to cappuccino and strawberry cheesecake as breakfast, sits down in one of the comfortable armchairs of the school library and pulls Remains of the Day out of her bag.

Third time’s a charm, she thinks when she starts reading.

It’s the nicest birthday she has had in a while.

//

The remainder of Aster’s first year of passes quickly.

She usually sits in the back of the class, next to Valentine, doodling in her notebooks or painting whatever comes to mind.

“What was your biggest motivation with this painting, Aster?” One of her teachers, Mr Grayson, asks her when she’s working on her final project. The class looks at her expectantly.

“Well, someone once told me the difference between a good painting and a great painting are just five strokes,” Aster answers, her eyes twinkling. “The question is, of course: where do you put these five strokes?”

Mr Grayson nods, a small smile playing on his lips. “They sound like a very wise someone.”

Aster smiles back. “I’d like to think they are.”

When she goes back to her painting, her brush moves across the canvas more steadily than ever.

(She’s not certain what that means, but she knows it must mean something.)

//

Aster goes home to Squahamish in the summer and is reminded that nothing ever changes here.

Her father asks how Seattle is treating her. Aster knows what he means, she knows what he wants her to say.

She clears her throat. “It’s good. I think I’m really starting to settle in there.”

“That’s my girl,” her mother says affectionately. “And, have you met someone yet? How about that roommate of yours?”

Aster smiles. The broccoli tastes soggy in her mouth.

Aster tells her parents about this cute straight boy named Valentine, with blonde hair, a father who works at a big law firm in Seattle and a cross around his neck. She recites lie after lie, smiling tight-lipped, laughing, white teeth and all, until she’s so tired she can’t smile anymore.

 

(She wonders if it will ever end.

Perhaps this never end, not really, perhaps she’s already way past that and perhaps the lies will haunt her forever and ever and ever).
//

Paul drops by the evening before she goes back to Seattle.

“I made you some taco sausages,” he says while handing her a small paper bag. “For on the way.”

“What are taco sausages?”

Paul looks astonished. “You’ve never had a taco sausage? They’re my specialty! Well, you’re in for a treat, then.”

Aster smiles, genuinely, for the first time in days. “Well, I look forward to trying them. Thanks.”

They are both quiet for a while, after that.

“Ellie is still in Iowa,” Paul says, suddenly. He scratches his neck. “She’s doing some summer school project about... erm... oh, yeah, about that German guy who thinks we killed God.”

“Friedrich Nietzsche.”

“Yeah,” Paul nods, smiling. “Him.”

They say their goodbyes after that. When she’s about to drive off, he comes running outside and yells: “I forgot to tell you, but the taco sausages taste really good with curry and some pickles!”

Aster can’t help but laugh. “You’re sweet,” she tells him.

The blush he gets when she kisses his cheek is worth a million dollars.

//

Aster thinks a lot about a poem she read once: How much can you change and get away with it, before you turn into someone else, before it's some kind of murder?

//

Aster considers talking to Valentine, when she comes back from Squahamish. For a little while, she thinks about telling him.

“I kissed a girl,” she would choke. “Or, she kissed me. And now I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“Oh, Aster Flores kissed a girl and she liked it,” he would probably sing, his eyes twinkling.

She thinks about telling him, she actually considers it, but eventually, she decides against it.

If she stopped even for just a second to try and makes sense of everything, it would all fall apart at once.

(For how much it hasn’t already, she thinks.

She doesn’t know how to come to terms with that.

But then again, she doesn’t know how to come to terms with a lot of things).

//

“Have you ever denied yourself something for so long, just to see if you how long you’ll last?” Aster asks Valentine one day, looking up from her book.

Valentine lets out a loud laugh. “Do you mean, like, ice cream and chocolate when you've been dieting for a while, or do you mean something more like an orgasm?”

“Yeah, something more like the second one,” Aster whispers, choking.

//

Not everything is art, Aster realises, a few months into the second year, when her grandfather dies.

Valentine comes home with her. Her mother almost faints when she sees him, with his newly dyed purple hair, pink-and-yellow nail polish and a rainbow scarf around his neck.

(“Valentine is … a nice boy,” her father tells her, after the funeral, not even bothering to hide his disgust. “But don’t let those people influence you too much, Aster, because –

“Those people? Just say what you mean, dad.”

“Cariño, I think it’s important to have fun when you’re young, but –”

“But?”

“Well, soon you’ll find a good boy and you get married and you have children. You can’t keep behaving so foolish forever, Aster. You used to be so mature for your age, but since Trig left you, you’re - You’re ruining your life with art and books and, and, and now with those homos!”

“Dad!” Aster yelled.

“I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have said it like that. You’re my daughter and I’m proud of you. But this is not who you are, mi amor.”

He sighs, defeated. “Please, just – be a good girl for me, Aster. It’s enough to be good.”

And Aster wonders, is it?)

//

(It’s not always enough to be good, Aster realises in hindsight. You have to be bold, too, sometimes.)

//

“What did coming out feel like?” Aster asks Valentine when they’re painting together, just before midnight, her twentieth birthday only mere seconds away.

“Well,” Valentine starts, eyebrows crossed. “My father got really angry. He tried to hit me with a chair.” He dips his brush into the red paint and licks his lips. “But… what did it feel like? Well, As, I think –

I think not everything feels like something else.”

Aster blinks, and then, something clicks in her head.

Valentine looks up. “Why’d you ask?”

Aster turns twenty years old the second she says, “I think I might be gay too.”

(Her brush hits the floor first.

Then she does.)

//

(Valentine embraces her in a warm hug and tells her that everything is going to be alright with the biggest possible smile, and Aster feels like she has swallowed a thousand bullets. The unbearable truth is finally out. That realisation doesn’t even come close to anything else Aster has ever experienced.

Valentine was right.

She doesn’t know if she wants that to be a good thing or a bad thing.)

//

Finding yourself isn’t nearly as terrifying as Aster thought it would be.

It’s also a process, rather than just waking up one day and realising you’ve finally become you.

But she’s getting there, step by step, day by day.

//

“You don’t have a girlfriend, do you? Because I’ve got this really beautiful girl in my art history class. Her name’s Mariana, she’s from Spain and she has amazing boobs.”

“Valentine!”

“… Breasts.”

Aster lets at a breathy laugh. “As great as Mariana sounds, I can’t go on a date with her.”

“Why not?” He asks. “Is it the boobs? Because I think that -”

Aster shakes her head, bites her lip. “It’s too soon.”

Valentine gives her a look.

“And I’m kind of waiting for someone.”

“So you do have a girlfriend,” Valentine says. “Or at least something like that. Fucking amazing. Tell me everything.”

Aster’s cheeks are red when she says, “Have you ever wondered who that wise someone is who told me about the five strokes?”

//

“You should come to church with me this Sunday,” Valentine suggests, a few weeks before Christmas.

Aster is bewildered, to say the least. “You’re going to church?”

“Yeah, where did you think I go every Sunday morning?”

“I don’t know,” Aster says, a little exasperated, “your secret lover?”

“Me, a sinner?” Valentine looks at her with an amused expression. “Never.”

//

Valentine's church is not a church, per se. It is an attic in an old building on the Eastside of Seattle, with a priest who can't be older than 25 and a rainbow flag draped around the pulpit. Her father's face would probably turn all kinds of red and green and he'd sputter something about "disgusting blasphemy" if he ever saw something like this. Aster likes this church already a lot more than the one back in Squahamish.

//

She goes to Valentine's church every Sunday.

Everyone welcomes her with open arms. “There's room for everyone here, Aster,” the priest, David, tells her, with tender eyes. “I like to think we're making the world a kinder place, one day at the time. We're proud to have you as a member of your community.”

//

She thinks about God, a lot more often than she did before. She thinks about His old, knowing eyes, looking at her from Heaven.

“Give me a sign,” she prays, at Midnight Mass. “I need to know who I am, please. I need you to be okay with me. I need to know this isn't wrong. Give me a sign.”

It's a cold, particularly snowy Christmas Eve in Seattle. It's warm, cozy in the attic. Aster sees a girl kissing another girl by the fireplace, feverish cheeks, soft smiles on their faces. She sees the priest, holding hands with a boy with dark curls, talking quietly about their holiday plans. She sees the faded lamps flickering somewhere in a street below her, worlds away from her, and the night is murky, Valentine has his arms wrapped around her, his breath is warm against her neck, and she takes a small sip of her chai tea, and finally, God answers.

“Wrong? How could this be wrong?” God answers. His voice is calm, warm, like the small ripples of the tide, like honey sliding down her throat, heating her up from the inside, a blankness playing at the edges of her mind.

Like the entire world, more than the entire world, like the universe and the whole wild, wild, infinitely big galaxy and even more than that.

“Aster, child, you're soft. Don't let the world make you hard. You are bold. Don't let the world tell you otherwise. Make your own pride and seize it, despite the entire world disagreeing. Be proud, for you've been waiting long enough to do so.”

Aster thinks about God, and then about Tommy Fulton, about Trig, about all those other nameless and faceless boys she has kissed, she thinks about Paul, about her father, and then she thinks about Ellie.

Her grandmother had once told her, when Aster was just a young girl, “Be with someone who makes love feel easy.”

Looking back, loving Trig hadn’t been easy. His love was selfish, dependent and a little shallow. In hindsight, Aster knows she never really loved him. Not in the way he loved her. She stayed with him, merely because he put so much work into loving her, because she thought that she would be able to change, that she would wake up one day and realize that it was easy after all, but –

Paul was different than most boys. His love was easy to receive, because was so honest. There were good days, days when she thought that she'd be able to love him. Any girl would be lucky to have him. But, if she's being honest, there was always this disgusting feeling of something close to guilt buzzing in the back of her mind, spreading through her body, dancing through her veins.

And Ellie –

Ellie is, for once in Aster’s fucking life, incredibly easy to love. She thinks about Ellie's hands and lips and nose and deep, raspy voice and her glasses and her bike and how she's in the back of her mind always thinking about kissing her.

I am in love with Ellie Chu, Aster thinks.

“I'm in love with Ellie Chu.”

And, for the first time, Aster is truly okay with that.

//

In January, Aster meets a girl called Lana in church. She is Australian, has icing blue eyes and a nose piercing and the first thing she says to Aster is: “My God is a woman and she’s really fucking gay. I’d like to think she’s eating pussy right now.”

Aster thinks she might have fallen in love a little bit on the first sight.

“Don’t you think she’s hot?”

“I –” Aster stops and looks at Valentine. “Aren’t you gay?”

Valentine lets out a loud laugh. “Aster, darling, even I can appreciate when a woman is attractive even though I am a raging homosexual. So, do you?”

“What?”

“Think she’s hot?”

The shy smile Aster gives him is enough for Valentine.

//

She calls Paul on his birthday.

“I’m gay, Paul,” Aster says, “I’m a lesbian.” Despite all the progress she has made so far, she still kind of chokes on her words.

“Don't you think that's wrong?”

“No, I don’t,” Paul says immediately. She can hear him shaking his head resolutely. “I think - I think that we don’t get to choose who we love. But we do get to choose how we love them.”

And Aster wonders how this is the same boy she left behind in Squahamish two years ago, how this boy has so much wisdom inside him. She wonders how this is the same boy who thinks parmesan is written as "Farmer John" and the same boy who thinks women who have triplets are pregnant for 27 months.

//

Aster goes on a date with Lana. She goes on a date with Lana and she goes on a date with Belinda and with Mariana (who, in fact, does have great boobs) and with Simone and then with Lana again and again.

When she turns twenty-one years old, she does something so bold, Aster likes to think Ellie's eyes would pop out of her sockets if she saw it happening: she kisses a girl.

It just sort of happens.

(“You kissed her!” Valentine exclaims, making all kinds of hand gestures. “That doesn’t just ‘sort of happen’.”)

But it does.

Lana takes her to her aunt's bookshop in the centre of Seattle, and it's -

When she looks up from a book she's holding, and hears The Lumineers playing softly in the background, accompanied by the sounds of raindrops against the slightly ajar window, Lana smiling at her with that cheeky smile, Aster feels like kissing her.

So, Aster kisses her.

(“How was it?” Valentine asks mischievously, lurking his eyebrows.

“It – it was nice,” she stammers. It wasn't nice. It was everything, and then some more, she thinks.)

In the end, it doesn't work out, because Lana has this ex she's still a little bit in love with and Aster doesn't blame her because -

(Perhaps Aster has an ex like that too.

And perhaps that person isn't even an ex.

And perhaps that only makes it worse).

//

Aster goes to Squahamish again, after her second year. She sees the trees and the houses and the people and wonders why she ever considered this her home.

Her parents don't ask as many questions as last summer, Aster doesn't lie as much as last summer. She likes to think they've all grown a bit.

On the third night, the door bell rings.

When Aster opens the door, she is met with a beaming Ellie.

She slams the door in her face.

She opens it two seconds later, the apologies spilling out of your mouth. Ellie is still smiling, warm and mature.

“Hi, can I come in?” She rasps with her bright eyes and Aster falls in love for what it feels like the millionth time.

//

Some parts of her are the artist, other parts are art itself, Aster learns.

She likes to think her first stroke was the kiss.

The second stroke was coming out.

The third stroke was God (and that was a beautifully bright one, full of colour, red, orange, green, blue, purple, splashing onto the canvas in her heart).

The fourth stroke was Lana.

And after everything, after painting these four bold strokes, it’s not the artist that has survived, Aster thinks, only the art itself.

(Here's the thing: Aster doesn't know where to put her fifth stroke yet, she doesn't know how it's going to look and she doesn't know which colour she's going to use, but that's okay for now. She has suffered enough. She has time to heal.

She's going to fall in love with Ellie a million times more if she has to, until she finds the fifth stroke).

Chapter Text

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.)