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The Other Half of It

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Aster Flores takes to art school the way a dog does takes to seeing its owner after a long absence: with great joy and excitement. She'd only been there a few days, but already she is enjoying her classes, her teachers, even her classmates, all of which she's never even cared much for before, when she was in high school.

Most of high school has been spent in a daze, going from one class to another half-asleep, barely staying awake for any of it, except for English class, and mostly, even then, she'd much rather read her own books. But senior English class had been interesting, their teacher was nice, and she'd always wondered how her classmates survived discussions of Sartre without breaking down or short circuiting, but she thought it must be Ellie Chu, the smart Asian kid who was always trying to look like she wants to disappear off the face of the earth.

For four years, Ellie Chu had endured bullying from the other kids, being called "Chu!Chu!"to her face, as she walked the halls in her jeans and flannel and shirt and Chucks and round glasses and backpack and books and notes clutched to her chest, even as they enjoyed her services. Aster knew she was smart even though she rarely heard her in class for the four years they've shared classes. Her speaking out loud following Trig's marriage proposal at church had been the longest speech she'd heard Ellie say. Ellie Chu breezed through classes like it was nothing and she knew that even her ex-boyfriend, Trig, had, for four years, enjoyed her writing services. Ellie Chu fascinated her. Ellie didn't seem to care what the others think, didn't believe in God, always seemed focused and determined and driven. Aster knew she was at least a consistent straight A student and that she took AP history, AP calculus, AP English and had aced her SATs. She'd never talked to her, for those four years, even though she'd played organ at church, and was in the music class with her. She always saw her riding her bike to school, or rushing to class or to work, always alone, under the trees or on the grass or quad. She didn't seem to have friends. She didn't seem to need them. Or care about them. Ellie Chu fascinated her, if only because Ellie Chu is an outsider, somebody who'd never fit in, never belong, one of the few Asian Americans at school amongst the blond and blue-eyed and white population. That at least she and Aster had in common. Her family name already indicated she was part of the other and she felt a certain connection, affinity, to Ellie Chu.

Ellie Chu didn't seem to mind being different though. Didn't seem to care about that either. And even though proms and homecomings and spring dances and what-not came and went and nobody seemed to ask Ellie Chu out and she never bothered going to the dances, Aster Flores couldn't count the number of times she'd wanted to just go up to Ellie Chu and talk to her. She couldn't explain this urge to talk to her, see her smile, see those eyes look at her. She'd wondered what she would say, how Ellie Chu would respond, what they would even talk about and whether she would find Aster Flores interesting enough to talk to or just find her as shallow, boring and uninteresting as she seems to see the other people in the school. She thinks maybe this urge to talk to her stems from that intelligence in her eyes, in the way she spoke, and even in the clever way she'd managed to make money off of unsuspecting classmates. Ellie Chu is smart. She liked smart people. But never, not once, had Ellie Chu even so much as glanced at her. She didn't know why but this bothered her. She wasn't dumb. Guys had been offering to carry her books since she hit puberty, girls either loved or hated her, depending on what part of the social spectrum of the school hierarchy they were, but Ellie Chu didn't even notice her, walked past her everyday, ignored her in class, like she didn't even exist. And for some strange reason, she wanted Ellie Chu to notice her. People at school always noticed her, said hi to her, admired her, included her in their cliques, but somehow she felt like she didn't belong. And now, four years later, with everyone about to graduate soon, she is filled with regret. She'd have wanted to talk to Ellie Chu.

And so bumping into her seemed serendipitous. Like a sign of something. Then she'd seen her book, "Remains of the Day" and her heart skipped a beat. Ellie Chu seemed like the only senior who carried a book around, and especially a literary one, but she hadn't known how deep Ellie Chu was. When she'd help pick Ellie Chu's books and notes, she wasn't even looking, she'd been too busy gathering her notes towards herself. She'd seemed annoyed, Aster remembers that. But Aster couldn't focus because Ellie Chu was near, nearer than she'd ever been, and she was so close she could smell her, something minty and fragrant, and something else, something that struck her and she'd stopped, for a second, considering the smell. Ellie Chu smelled nice, and she looked neat and clean and fresh and Aster didn't know why her heart was beating fast, why her hands were cold and sweaty, and why, when she looked at Ellie Chu, her eyes wandered to her eyes, her cheeks, then her lips. Ellie Chu has perfect lips, she remembered thinking, bow-shaped and graceful, perfect for a portrait, or a sketch, perfect for kissing and then Aster felt her face warm and she swallowed, confused, relieved Ellie Chu didn't notice her being embarrassed. She'd smiled and given Ellie Chu's phone back to her. Ellie Chu doesn't say anything as she leaves.

***

Aster Flores had been praying for a sign. She'd overheard Trig, her boyfriend, and her father, Deacon Flores, talking about her, about Trig proposing to her. She should be happy, she knows. Trig is a catch. And in Squahamish, she could do worse.Trig was as good as it was ever going to get. But overhearing her father and Trig talking made her heart sink. There seemed to be an inevitability to it. They hadn't even discussed her future, or what she wanted. They'd expected her to say yes, get married, have children, get a mortgage, grow old and die. They hadn't even thought about her future. It would be great if she knew what she wanted for herself. The problem was she didn't. She thought she loved painting and she'd go to art school, but that had been a ridiculous dream. Even her father thought it. It was a selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed profession that didn't actually contribute to anything. If students weren't studying medicine or nursing or any health related degree, then they were better off just not going to college at all. She'd been hoping her father would warm to it, but he is old-fashioned and if she ever wanted a chance she knows she'd have to say something about it, but she knows she's too afraid to say anything. As graduation nears, she feels a sense of urgency, a sense of wanting something interesting or different happen to her before high school ends and she marries Trig and realize years later that she'd made a mistake.

***

The letter had been unexpected.
At first, seeing it in her locker, she'd felt a mixture of emotions.

Excitement, curiosity, anxiety. Who still writes letters by hand and secretly inserts them in their locker in this day and age? She stares at the envelope, does not recognize the handwriting. Who could it be? Right away, she knows it's not Trig. Trig's handwriting isn't as legible as this one, she thinks. She guesses it's not a girl, although a random thought comes to her, that she hopes it might be Ellie Chu, and her heart jumps at the thought and a blush comes up to her face and she glances and sees a glimpse of Ellie Chu and blushes even more. She slips the letter in her bag so she can read it later, creating a game of wondering who it's from. When she opens the letter later, scans it and sees the name below it, her heart deflates. Paul Munsky. She sighs. She knows the boy from the football team, but she's barely talked to him and wonders why he's writing to her now.

***

The first clue should have been the Wim Wenders quote. And the subsequent letters and eventual texts after. She discussed Audrey Hepburn and Kazuo Ishiguro and art and art theory and life with the letter writer in a way that she never had with other people. An eighteen-year old jock who grew up in the family restaurant business couldn't have been able to strike up conversation on any of that. The letters were thoughtful, thought-provoking, even challenged her. The letters made her open up in a way that she'd never done with anyone, including Trig. They were intelligent letters, full of insights and surprising thoughts about life. And the writer made her feel seen, made her thoughts and feelings valid, paid attention to her. No one, not even Trig, did that to or with her, with their parties and away games and ridiculous stunts and matching scarves.

So yes, Paul Munsky couldn't have written any of that. She suspected he didn't or couldn't. She'd been around jocks long enough to know all they cared about was scoring on and off the field, in the game, with beer or with girls. Paul wouldn't have been an exception. And she hadn't spotted him with books. Hadn't even heard him speak in English class. In French class, he'd complained to the teacher and said, "Shouldn't we be, like, learning Mexican?" That random quote from "Remains of the Day" should have given her another clue.

The second clue was the texts. When it was really Paul, there were emojis galore. When it was Ellie, there were none.

The third clue was the first couple of days they went out on. The first one, Paul Munsky had looked at her blankly, when she'd mentioned specific books. His face was blank, clueless. It was Trig's face all over again. He didn't care about books. Only NFL and anything that involved it.
The final clue was Paul Munsky and Ellie Chu hanging out after four years of being virtual strangers. Ellie Chu didn't hang out with people, especially people like Paul Munsky, and she should've guessed it then: that the one writing her and the one who took her out on dates were two separate people.

***

When she first sees Ellie Chu in Paul Munsky's basement, butterflies flutter in her stomach, she doesn't know why. Ellie Chu is defensive, tells her there's nothing going on between them, assures her Paul Munsky really likes her, and Aster's heart sinks. No, don't tell me that, please, she begs her in her mind. She doesn't want another guy who just likes her for her face and her body - they almost always do, even Trig. He says it often enough. She sees the way Paul Munsky looks at her. Ellie Chu doesn't look at her like that. She looks panicked, stressed, anxious but never any of those other things.

And then, Ellie Chu sees her sketch painting and her face changes, eyes searching, as she analyzes the painting. And then she mutters her opinion and Aster is surprised. She knew Ellie Chu was intelligent but she didn't know how deeply intelligent she was. She remembers the "bold strokes" discussion they had on an outdoor, concrete wall and she should have known it wasn't Paul Munsky. It had been sweet and touching, to find someone who would encourage her to paint again. She'd been tempted to spy on her invisible letter writer, just to see how he responds to her comments on the wall, but she decided not to. The air of mystery and excitement was half of the fun of the letters. Later, Paul Munsky sees her painting and only says "It's nice" and her heart deflates.

As she watches Ellie Chu leave now, she takes a chance. She asks Ellie Chu if she could go with her.

***

Ellie Chu is quiet though.
All the way to the station as they drive there she doesn't say anything. She only speaks when asked a question, but Aster just wants to listen to her more.

She finds herself smiling at Ellie Chu and invites her to her secret place.

***

Nobody knows her secret place. Not Paul Munsky. Not her family. And certainly not Trig. She'd found it one day exploring the backroads of Squahamish. She'd never shared it with anyone else, felt like they would ruin it, desecrate it, but with Ellie - she knows Ellie would appreciate it, respect it, enjoy it for what it is.
Ellie Chu had been quiet all the way, too, refusing to look her in the eye. That saddened her, somehow. She didn't understand it, or herself, but she wanted Ellie Chu to like her, wanted her to talk to her. That she didn't and didn't know what to say, made Aster feel that her assumption was wrong. Ellie Chu wasn't writing Paul Munsky's letters. She barely talks to her as it is. She doesn't like her like that. Aster doesn't understand it but somehow she wishes it was Ellie Chu writing to her and not Paul Munsky. And yet, and yet, Ellie Chu was respectful, turned around when she stripped, was quiet and serious. She's adorable, Aster realizes. But she is careful, because she feels like Ellie Chu would bolt at the first sign of trouble. That she'd already agreed to come had been a victory in and of itself.

***

She finds herself mesmerized by Ellie Chu. The way she knits her brows when she thinks. The way her forehead wrinkles when she's trying to figure something out. The way she purses her lips together, or wrinkles her nose or hugs herself when she is cold. She has the urge to go to her, touch her, rest her forehead on Ellie Chu's shoulder, taste the smell of sweat and water and cologne on her neck, feel Ellie Chu's arms around her, but Ellie Chu cringes, almost freaks out when she nears and she makes her way to the shore instead, plays the old casette player and they float on the water, stare up at the sky as Ellie Chu talks about gravity and matter and how "If You Leave Me Now" was her mother's favorite song and Aster wants to hold her and kiss her. But she isn't as brave. She's afraid. And so she listens to Chicago, arms frozen by her side and wishes she could be braver.

***

"I hope you find something to believe in," is all she ends up saying to Ellie Chu after an enjoyable, peaceful afternoon that could have been considered a date had they been male and female. Ellie Chu only nods and already she's far away. She doesn't like Aster. Not like that. Aster ends up kissing Paul Munsky instead and feels again how empty she is inside.

***

Paul Munsky had been about to kiss Ellie Chu. That's what she'd walked on. She'd wanted to congratulate Paul for scoring a touchdown, it seemed right, even though she didn't want to and spent most of the game feigning interest. It was exciting, sure, but mostly she'd been looking for Ellie Chu, wondered if she would come, her face a welcome distraction in all of this, sweet and kind and warm. But when Ellie Chu does come, she doesn't see her, only sees Paul Munsky and she sits there on the bleachers with this unexplainable feeling growing and growing.
She catches them at the exact time Paul Munsky asks, "You don't want to kiss me?" and Ellie Chu all but shouts "No!" and Aster's heart freezes. At first she thought Ellie Chu likes Paul Munsky, but it's pretty obvious now that she doesn't. She stands frozen, on the spot, and when Ellie starts to stammer about it not being exactly what she thinks it is, Aster loses it. She leaves, confused, even when Ellie Chu tries to call her name.

***

She's confused.

Paul Munsky doesn't like her.

And despite evidence and her growing suspicion that Ellie Chu is writing his letters, Ellie doesn't like her either.
Paul tries to call her. And text her, with emojis, but she can't and doesn't want to answer them.

At school, she avoids both of them, but she can't help her heart skipping everytime she sees Ellie Chu.

***

Trig finally proposes at church.
There'd been a long, drawn out speech, echoing all throughout the church and she'd wanted it to end, wanted to disappear off the face of the earth, wanted Trig to stop. His mouth was moving but she can't seem to understand what he's saying.
Trig is handsome. She knows this. Handsome and rich and athletic. But looking at him now, making his speech, she could see it, in her mind's eye, their future: Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Fourth of July and Memorial day weekends, church on Sundays and church meetings on weekdays, donation drives and PTA meetings, a two-story house with a lawn and a picket fence, two kids, a boy and a girl, vaguely Hispanic looking, and their family picture will be on their yearly Christmas card sent out to all the same people she's known her whole life, in Squahamish, a life stretching out into the foreseeable future, certain and safe and predictable. She feels herself deflate. Trig has finished his speech and the silence is defeaning and everyone is turned to her and she's so embarrassed and maybe a little angry at Trig's small stunt because it's calculating and manipulative. He knows in a crowd, Aster wouldn't be able to turn him down. Would be embarassed to do so. And he's right. And she hates him for it. It's why she eventually breaks up with him.
And she feels like someone being swept into a flood, things going awry, beyond her control and she feels like she's no longer in control of her destiny or her own life.

But then, Ellie Chu speaks out, her voice echoing throughout the church. She speaks about love and how to define it and what it really is and at first Aster doesn't understand what she's doing or saying but she feels her heart start to beat fast, pound hard against her chest and then Ellie Chu descends the stairs, looks her straight in the eye and asks her, "Is this the boldest stroke you can do?" And Aster's heart stops and she feels the blood rush to her ears. The meaning is clear. Ellie Chu has been writing the letters and asking her if this life Trig has chosen for her is the best she can do for herself. She's angry. Angry at the subterfuge. Angry at Trig. At Paul. At Ellie Chu. But mostly she's angry at herself for letting Trig decide her life without her. Angry at everything. Ellie Chu has perfectly summed up the question she's been trying to form in herself. With nothing else to do or say, she walks up to Paul, stops, and eyes not leaving Ellie Chu, slaps him with all her might. Ellie Chu looks at her, never leaving her face. Ellie Chu understands. Much like Paul using Ellie Chu to express his feelings and Ellie Chu using Paul for hers, Aster is using Paul to express the betrayal and hurt she feels at Ellie's deceit.
She walks out of the church and never comes back.

***

It is Paul Munsky who first tries to talk to her one day, on her way to her car at the end of the day.

"Aster, can I talk to you?" Paul asks.
She ignores him, proceeds to her car. Unlocks the door. Enters and slams it. Starts the engine.

Paul stands by the driver's window, leans, face up on the glass. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? Can we talk please?"
The engine refuses to start. Dammit. She tries again. It doesn't budge. Only coughs and wheezes. Stupid car.
Paul is still there, patiently waiting for her. "Car trouble? I, I could help..."
She glances at the clock. Late. She needs to get home. She opens the car door so hard Paul jumps back. She regards him for a few seconds, opens the hood of the car, gestures to Paul to check, crosses her arms infront of her and says, "Talk."

Paul shifts from one foot, swallows, looks both ways then goes near her, nervous and fidgety, as he takes a look under the hood. He starts to talk.
"I'm sorry, Aster. It wasn't...it wasn't supposed to be like that...Ellie and I...we never meant to hurt you," he says softly now. "I...I didn't know how to say things and I've liked you for a long time...and I thought, it's senior year, why not take a chance? What's the worst that could happen? I knew Ellie was good with that and I thought she could help..."

"How much?"

"What?"

"How much did you pay her to write all that...stuff for you?"

Paul looks at her, then away."Fifty dollars?" He swallows. "She didn't want to. I swear. I...I made her do it. She said she'd only do it once and that was it."

Paul hesitates.

"But...but you replied. And you mentioned Wim Wenders and I didn't even know who that was and I knew I was way in over my head and I had to ask her to write more letters for me...I...I paid her double for it."

"So, none of those letters were yours?"

Paul shakes his head. "No. And the texts. Oh, except for that one text with the emoji."

"Figures."

"I'm really sorry, Aster."

"At what point did you realize you liked her?"

Paul stops tinkering with the engine. Looks at it. Doesn't say anything at first. "You know, at first, I thought I loved you." He smiles, looks at her. "Sorry."

"It's fine." Aster doesn't understand but she feels like crying.

"So yeah, at first I thought I loved you and Ellie asked me 'How do you know?' and I told her you were beautiful and nice and kind and she scoffed at that, you know? She didn't think I was in love with you." He stops, leans over more, blinks his eyes, wipes his eye with the back of his hand. He straightens up, takes a deep breath, turns around, leans against the hood, refuses to meet Aster in the eye. "She was right. I only thought I loved you. But I hardly knew you. Actually, I thought I knew what love was. Turns out I didn't. Ellie showed me that. Once, she got so drunk I had to take her to my house so she could sleep it off and I saw these letters she'd written to all these...places, I guess? And I guess she was writing about my taco sausage and everyone else thought it was a stupid idea but she supported me. I knew you were way out of my league but she supported me. And then I got to know her and realized she was more than smart and all that stuff. And I knew then, that moment I discovered those letters, that I cared for her."

He looks at Aster then.

"And then you kissed her."

Paul rubs the back his head. Nods. "Yeah. I knew when she wasn't kissing me back that she didn't like me like that. And I definitely knew it when she pushed me away and yelled, 'No'." Then he looks at Aster then. "And I knew it when she looked at you."

Aster starts to feel her face warm and she tries to look away but Paul holds her gaze.

"And I think you like her, too," Paul says, softly, in that defeated tone, as if he's accepted the inevitable and has to live with it.

Aster doesn't say anything.

"You don't like me. Not really. Even when you kissed me you didn't, did you?" Paul asks. When Aster doesn't answer he continues. "You liked the one who wrote the letters. But the one who wrote the letters wasn't me. It was Ellie. She didn't want to. But I made her. And she went out of her way to write those letters. Taught me about books and movies and how to make conversation. I still don't understand Remains of the Day or Kazuo Ishiguro or Wim Wenders movies or art but she does. And you do. And you get each other. I don't think she meant to fall for you and all the way up to the end, she was denying her feelings for you because of me. That's the kind of person she is. Willing to sacrifice her own happiness for other people's. And I couldn't do that to her. She doesn't like me back, that's fine, it sucks, I can live with it, because she's a great friend and an even better wingman and I'd rather have her as a friend in my life than not have her in it at all."

Aster still doesn't say anything.

"But she likes you and I wanted to do something about it. And to apologize. And I'm not being a white savior or anything, Ellie told me about that, I'm just a friend, talking to another friend, trying to make things right. Asking you to give her chance. Because I think..." Here he hesitates. "I think you like her, too," he repeats. "And she's a great person. And I think you're perfect for each other."

Aster studies him. She could see it had been hard for him to say all of those things, knowing he cared for Ellie, too.

He turns to the car. "You can start it now."

Aster mutters her thanks and does so. She starts the engine and it hums to life. Paul nods and smiles sadly. He goes to her window then, leans over and says, "Just...give her a chance, yeah? Talk to her or something...just...you know..." He smiles again, lightly raps at the door and walks away.

Aster sits in her car, engine idling, thinking about what Paul has said. Thinking about Ellie.

And then the tears start to fall.

And she cries. For what's ending. For the end of high school. The end of her relationship with Trig. The end of whatever had been with Paul. The end of whatever it was she had with Ellie. She cries for the hurt and pain and betrayal. And she cries and cries. Because Paul is right.

She likes Ellie, too.

***

She swore she wasn't going to talk to Ellie Chu if and when she sees her.
She'd avoided her at school. Graduation had come and gone without them seeing each other. Summer came and went without her seeing her. But the absence of letters and texts make her yearn for those days when Ellie wrote to her or texted her. She misses her. Misses talking to her. Misses her letters and texts. She feels like a hole has opened in her being since she and Ellie stopped writing letters, a hole only Ellie can fill. She wants more now. Ellie has opened possibilities for her, in her life, asked her to do more, be more, challenged herself, pushed her. No one has ever done that: see her as more than a pretty face.

So it's a surprise when Ellie appears outside the restaurant where she works, asking her why she hasn't been to church. Aster's heart starts to pound against her chest, lump forming in her throat, butterflies flying in her stomach. No. There isn't any denying now. She's attracted to Ellie. Likes her. Cares for her even. And not just because she's smart, that's just part of it. Or right now, looking cute and afraid. She finds even the glasses look cute on her, imagines what it would be like to take them off. Feels her face warm. She tries to be aloof, detached, uncaring, uninterested, voice flat, face a mask, unreadable and when Ellie says she goes to college the next day, her heart sinks. She says, "That's great" and leaves.
But she underestimates Ellie Chu. Her tenaciousness. Her determination. Her earnestness. Things she really admires in her. She apologizes, then puts up a valiant fight, challenging Aster about being different, being sure, and knowing how one can be sure when nothing really is. She ends up telling her she'd be sure in a couple of years.

They end up smiling and Aster knows a storm has been weathered and they'll be okay, that whatever happens they'll get through it.She says goodbye to Ellie Chu by saying "Go find something to believe in in Iowa, heathen."

Ellie Chu smiles and walks away, bike in tow. Aster almost kicks herself for not saying something more clever. She stands there, watching Ellie Chu walk away, and she looks down at her feet but then she hears the clunk of something, as of something crashing on the pavement, and pounding footsteps, and she looks up and it's Ellie, running towards her, grabbing her face and kissing her. It's so sudden it surprises her but then she kisses her back and holds her and all she can think of is, Ellie Chu is kissing her, really kissing her and how it's different from kissing Trig or Paul and how soft Ellie's lips are, and how soft and tender her kiss is, and how she's holding her face and how near she is and how she never wants it to end. But it's over before she knows it and Ellie's hurriedly saying "I'll see you in a couple of years" and hope and possibilities bloom in Aster. And more than that, something else. Happiness. Or the possibility of it.

***

Aster doesn't expect Ellie Chu to text her, but she does, on ghost message after.

"Hey, it's me, Ellie. I'm leaving tomorrow. I just wanted to say goodbye. Can I still message you and write to you?"

Aster smiles. "Sure. Do you want me to see you off at the station?"

There's a long silence then Ellie replies, "No." A pause. "I'm afraid if you come by tomorrow I'd want to kiss you. Again."

"What's wrong with that? I wouldn't mind. I'd like it."

Another hesitation. Ellie types, "Really? 'Cause if you let me I'll just end up kissing you over and over again and I'd miss my train. Heck, I don't think I'd be able to get on that train. After kissing you, I'm not sure I'd want to."

Aster laughs and blushes."Yeah?"

"Yes."

"Well, if you stay, how are you going to work? I'm going to art school. One of us has to put food on the table."

"Right. I'm supposed to support your dream.haha! Okay. I'm going. But seriously, don't go. I'm not that good with goodbyes. Especially with people I care about."

Aster smiles. Feels her heart expand, beat fast, feels it plunge below her chest. Wants to reach out to Ellie and hold her. "Okay. You take care, yeah?"

"Okay."

Aster hesitates, then types. "'Cause I wouldn't want to worry too much about the people I care about."

There is silence on the other end, but then Ellie types, "Okay. I know I said I'd see you in a couple of years but...can I text you or I message you or call you sometimes? I know college is going to be great but...it's Iowa...and I miss writing to you. I miss you."

She feels the butterflies flutter in her stomach. "Okay."

Silence on the other end. "Great! Got to sleep. Long day, tomorrow. Good night, Aster."

"Good night, Ellie," Aster types back. "And, Ellie...?"

"Yeah?"

"I've missed you, too."

Ellie no longer replies to that, but Aster doesn't mind. For the first time, there is something, someone certain in her life. And she's slowly figuring out herself, too. She isn't sure about her father, Deacon Flores, or the rest of her family, but she is about Ellie Chu and she's fine with that.

She falls asleep dreaming of Ellie Chu.

Chapter Text

"If love isn't the effort you put in, then what is it?" -Ellie Chu

Aster's first few weeks in art school are tough. She has to sort out accomodation, adjust to living in a small, cramped room in a dorm, adjust to living without her family and the comfort and amenities of home and doing everything, laundry and meals included, by herself. Her father had been adamant about her not sharing a room with someone. He'd been particular about it since what happened years ago. As it turns out, he didn't want her leaving the town because of it. Squahamish had been one of the few that hadn't been affected. The town was already closed off to the outside world. People never came to Squahamish. And people never left. Ultimately, it's what saved the town, long after the death toll had mounted and panic and anxiety and unrest had swept the nation.

He'd only agreed to her going after much discussion and begging and weeping and gnashing of teeth. She had Ellie to thank for that, for giving her the courage to speak up, go after what she wants.

Chicago Institute of the Arts isn't too far from Squahamish that her parents will worry about her. It's a ten hour drive by car, shorter by plane. But it isn't too near that she runs the risk of surprise visits from Deacon Flores and family.

Her father hadn't wanted her to go to art school, was convinced art school would ruin her faith. She convinced her father an art degree would strengthen it. She'd also convinced him it's small enough that it would be safe and secure, in an area of Chicago that's safe as well, but not too small it's in danger of closing like all the other art schools in the area. They are small enough that the classes don't have to be cramped or overcrowded, with enough space for each student and they hold a mixture of online and offline classes, online classes for lectures and offline classes for practical, hands-on lessons to help students develop and learn more. The tuition fees are affordable, scholarships are offered (they offered her one and she wasn't going to turn that down), the acceptance rate and graduation rates are reasonable so it means the school is good. Plus it offers the kind of programs she wants to take, she tells her father. For now, she is required to take the few, required general education subjects but she already has major subjects for the first semester.

Ellie Chu hasn't messaged her. She's fine with it, but she misses the thrill of receiving her letters, the excitement, the looking forward to it. Ellie Chu is the only one she can actually talk to. She remembers the time they shared at her secret place. They'd talked a bit about where they both were from (Sacramento for her, Souzhou for Ellie), possible prospects after high school, but mostly they just talked about things teenagers try to avoid: the future, their plans, gravity, and so on. She'd really enjoyed talking to her then, enjoyed teasing her. Ellie Chu had a patience and an earnestness that she liked, that she could respond to. Ellie Chu paid attention to her, listened to her. Trig was always about himself, Paul was sweet, but she could see him struggling to string the best sentences to impress her. Ellie Chu moved into conversation with a confidence and ease that she admired. Floating in that small hot spring in the middle of nowhere, wearing Ellie's shirt, the towering trees hovering above them, leaves gently rustling, blue sky above, birds chirping and flying lazily overhead, "If You Leave Me Now" playing softly in the background, Aster feels at peace.

She missed discussing things with Ellie Chu. Even when Ellie Chu was pretending to be Paul Munsky and vice versa, she'd enjoyed her conversation. Looking around the Chicago Institute, at the paintings and sculptures and films, all she can think of is wanting to share them with Ellie, wanting to read and hear what she thinks of things, giving her insights into things.

She debates whether to write her or not, thinks maybe she is busy.

Ultimately, her need to email her triumphs over anything else. And so she does.

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Sep. 23 at 1:34 AM
SUBJECT: Hey

Dear Ellie,

Hey.

It's been weeks now since I got into art school. Life's been hectic and I'm constantly figuring out lessons and classes. I've been so busy I forgot to say my prayers (don't worry, I prayed...a lot, just to be safe).

I have gen ed and some majors. I'm studying intro to art history and art theory. I have a freshman humanities class, which is, aside from my intro to art history and art theory, my favorite class.

Good thing I only have a semester of gen ed. I'll have more majors next semester.

Any chance you can help me with my essays?

On the first day of humanities class, I had an argument with my classmate. He said poems have to rhyme. I said they didn't have to. It was a lengthy discussion.

This is still way better than high school though. No cliques, no mean girls, no one judging you for your clothes or your money, no one asking you to color coordinate outfits and accessories.

So, how are you?

Hope you're doing fine there.

***

She doesn't hear from Ellie Chu for weeks. She tries not to think about it so much, but she starts to worry. Had Ellie changed her mind? Had it all been a dream? Was that kiss just a spur of the moment? Ellie Chu being in the moment because she was going away to college?

She need not worry.

She receives a text from Ellie Chu days later.

***

'Poems don't have to rhyme', Ellie Chu replies to her.

It is eleven in the evening, and Aster is already lying on her bed, reading Rainer Maria Rilke when she receives the text. She can't help the smile on her face as she reads the message on her phone. She could picture Ellie, with her long, dark hair in a ponytail, in her layered clothing of long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeved one and a plaid shirt and jeans, round glasses perched on her nose, cute smile on her impossibly cute face. Aster finds herself smiling, a wave of tenderness washing over her. How does Ellie continue to make her feel this way? And why? At the back of her mind she pictures her father and his fire-and-brimstone, burn-in-hell tirades against gays ("Homosexuales! Que terrible! Que immoral!") when the Supreme Court rejected repeated appeals against gay marriage and she feels herself shrivel. He'd once done that while they were gathered around the living room watching the evening news and she'd had to sit there, listening to her father as her heart pounded fast and her hands went clammy and she could feel the anxiety form within her gut. She'll burn in hell, she thinks. She'll burn in hell. These growing feelings she has for Ellie...she swallows. Takes a deep, deep breath, pushes the anxiety down, manages to reply.

'Right?!? That guy was an asshole.'

'Probably. You sound pissed. That's the first time I've ever heard you use a word like 'asshole'.'

'Well, he was being a jerk.'

'Skipped church yet?'

'Almost...but not quite there yet...'

'Wow, look at you, living dangerously! Between that and you forgetting to pray and congregating with us heathens, whatever will Father Shanley think?'

'Ha-ha. That I'll burn in hell?'

'You believe in that?'

'I don't know.'

'Well, you know what Sartre said...'

'Hell is other people.'

'Yup. Anyway, I read somewhere that poetry doesn't belong to those who write it; it belongs to those who need it. So, rhyme or not, a poem is a poem whatever its structure or intent or whatever. It serves its purpose when it...touches your soul, I guess.'

'That makes sense.'

There's a silence between them then. Then Aster hesitates, before she says, 'And anyway, much like my dad, you're probably my favorite heathen, now. So...'

'What, your friendship with me trumps going to hell?'

Aster grins. 'Oh, my god.'

'What?'

Aster stops, before she jokes, against her better judgment, 'Are you already friend-zoning me?'

Ellie takes a few seconds to reply, then sends a smiley emoji.

'Oh, my god, your first emoji,' Aster teases, ignoring Ellie's non-answer. 'Will wonders never cease?'

'Lol. How are you? How's art school?'

'Okay. It's great. I have this art professor, Ms.Garcia. She's cool. She teaches our intro to visual arts class. A bit hard to please but she pushes you to do your best. How about you?'

'Great! Grinnell is as cool as Mrs.Geselchap says it is,' Ellie replies.

'Made any friends yet?'

'There are prospects. Thought about what you're going to major in yet?'

Without hesitation, Ellie answers, 'General Science. I think it's perfect for me.'

'Yeah?'

'Yup. It's an interdisciplinary major that'll give me a good, broader overview of the multiple sciences. I can study biology, chemistry, computer science, physics, or psychology — and math. Lots of it. It's going to give me a bit of flexibility with choosing what classes to take 'cause it's a bit less structured so it'll help me explore what interests me more. I can choose one science as my concentration and I can major or minor in something else outside the sciences.'

'Wow. What other degree were you planning to study?'

'English. I enjoy it. I haven't thought about what to do after college, but I think the General Science program is good. I could go into environmental policy and lobbying. Or law. After graduation.'

'Wow. So you've already got it figured out and everything.'

'Not everything but yeah. I just know what I want.'

'Decisive.'

'You know it.'

'That's pretty cool.'

'Yeah. It is. I'm kind of excited about it.'

'You're the only one I know who gets excited about school.'

'Lol. I know. I'm a freak.'

'No, you're not.'

'Yes, I am. And I'm okay with it. Smart people are genetic freaks. Whenever the ability to do a certain thing is limited to a hundredth or a thousandth of one percent of the general population, then by definition those with such an ability are freaks. So, yeah, I'm embracing my inner nerd.'

'Okay. But you're an adorable nerd. It's actually one of your best qualities. Anyway, chicks dig smart chicks. Or just, you know, smart people in general. I bet a lot of girls have already asked you out since you got there...I bet by the time you graduate, you're going to have, like, phone numbers coming out of your ears...'

'Lol. That's not a thing. What are you even talking about? No.'

'No? No girls coming up to you asking you out?'

'No. Not really. Or maybe I just don't notice them.'

'No?'

'No, not really. I'm too busy setting up my ghost-writing business.'

Aster smiles, feeling something twist in her chest. 'Oh, my god, really?'

'Lol. No, not really. They have a strict anti-plagiarism policy. I could get kicked out. And anyway, a lot of my classmates don't need to have somebody else write their papers for them. It's not Squahamish. Which is a good thing.'

'Ah. Keeping your nose clean.'

'Yeah.'

'So, tell me about your day...'

***

The one email and text leads to more, which helps relieve Aster's uncertainty, but sometimes she still feels the anxiety go through her.

How does Ellie do it? She wonders. Ellie seems so certain about Aster, about herself, if her letters and the one kiss they shared is anything to go by. She wishes she could be as confident and certain as Ellie about what this, whatever it is, is.

That's the other thing. What are they really, to each other? What is this that she is even feeling for her? And why hasn't it gone away?

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Sep. 30 at 11:00pm

SUBJECT: Rilke

So, life's still hectic and tough, but I'm getting there. I found a job at a restaurant. It doesn't pay much, but I could use the extra cash, so.

Today, we discussed Rainer Maria Rilke in class. This line stood out for me: 'It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical will live the relation to another as something alive.'

What do you think?

***

FROM: elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.1 at 2:00am

SUBJECT: Re: Rilke

Hey. So sorry, school's been busy. Today, we learned about Pascal's Triangle and how the rows of numbers on the triangle could, among other things, provide exact answers to an almost infinite variety of questions about how numbers can combine. In another class we reviewed the mathematical formula illustrating the relationship between integral and differential calculus as follows:

| f1 (t) dt=f(b) - f (a)

It's a formula arrived at in the late seventeeth century by both Sir Isaac Newton in England and German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an awesome achievement of intellect, it's like, the very foundation of modern science, capable of helping us get such information as instantaneous velocity of an object at any given time.

We've also been discussing the value of pi to over five billion decimal places, subatomic particles and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle by Werner Heisenberg, which has to do with events occurring at the subatomic level. It's all pretty cool.

Anyway.

I think Rilke sounds like a cool dude. Saw his book at the library and checked it out. It's nice that it's a thin book so I finished it in one sitting. I think he may be on to something. I like that he says it's shyness that's keeping us from experiencing new things and that only one who is ready for everything will be able to live, and not only exist.

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.2 at 1:00am
SUBJECT: Rilke, Pascal, Newton

Re: Calculus - sounds hard.

Rilke - yeah. You read the book? That's...so cool. He writes very well. I've been thinking about him a lot, lately. My art teacher keeps sending my art homework back with not- so good grades. If this keeps up, I'm going to lose my scholarship.

Anyway, speaking of readiness, how do you know when you're ready? More importantly, how do you know when you're certain? What does it mean, to be able to live?

Re:Leibniz/Newton - sounds cool.

And speaking of velocity, what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force?

***

FROM: elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.3 at 1:30am
SUBJECT: Re:Rilke, Pascal, Newton

Re: Calculus: Just saying something is difficult doesn't necessarily make it so, though.

What's wrong with your artwork? Hasn't your teacher discovered your greatness yet? Give her time. She'll discover it soon enough.

As for being ready - nobody knows. Nobody's ever ready, I think. Nobody's ever certain. You kind of just...take the plunge anyway and hope for the best. Carpe diem! As they always say.

Re: Immovable object meets an unstoppable force - Trick question. It can't happen. It never happens. If something can't be stopped, then it's not possible for something else to be there which can't be moved, and vice versa. They can't both exist. So, trick question.

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.5 at 12: 30am

Trick question, huh?

My artwork - thanks, that's...nice but I'm not that good yet. I don't know if I'll ever be that good.
So, what else have you been learning these days?

Today, we were discussing about light and color and how both can impact one's paintings.

I think I'm going to fail Ms. Garcia's class. Please see attached painting I made for class as reference.

***

FROM: elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.10 at 2: 30am

Today we learned about Max Planck. Max Planck was a German physicist who is regarded as the father of quantum mechanics. He made the revolutionary original theory of quanta. Planck also helped Albert Einstein come to several conclusions, including how light travels not necessarily in waves but also in discrete bundles which we now call as photons.

I thought of your paintings and light when we were discussing Planck and Einstein.

What about you?

Your painting looks nice. What did your teacher say? Why are you failing class?

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Oct.13 at 10: 30pm

Re: Ms. Garcia's class - Don't know...I just...feel like...like I'm not as good or as talented or gifted as all these other students. You should see the stuff they make! I'm not nearly as good as any of them.Everyone seems smarter than I am. They've read books by people like Anais Nin, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Ken Kessey. Today, I had this nice conversation with this girl and she'd asked me if I'd read Simone de Beauvoire and I had to say 'No' and it made me feel a bit embarassed. I feel like, I'm way in over my head.

I had an argument with my teacher, today. He says we live our lives as if we were the center of the universe when in fact we are nothing more than an accident of planetary evolution, a mote of dust in a far-flung arm of a minor galaxy in a universe of inconceivable proportions. Much like a drop in the ocean, we are insignificant, he says.

I was upset about that.

I don't think we're just an accident.

I don't know why it upset me. Maybe it's the Christian in me.
I just don't believe we are a Godless, cosmic accident.

I'm not sure about a lot of things now, but the thought of the opposite, not believing in God, seems like a terribly lonely thing. I still feel like He exists.

I believe in destiny, in things happening for a reason.

I have to believe in something. I have to. Else what is the purpose of this life?

***

Aster stands on the campus grounds, jacket tight around her, as the autumn wind blows around her, unaware of how the others, especially young men, are looking at her, but completely aware of her own loneliness.

Standing in the simple but tastefully designed lobby with its geometrically patterned tiled floors and contemporary, abstract, hand-painted artwork on its walls and contemporary sculptures placed strategically around the lobby, she thinks of only one thing: she is all alone.

This is her favorite part of the school. The architect, surprisingly, is a Hispanic one, Jorge Garcia, who wanted students and guests to have a sensory journey, so there are earthy elements and natural colors in and around the building. The Art Institute had a contemporary yet academic look to it, its inviting tones perfect for stimulating and inspiring and challenging its students.

There's a twelve foot blue structure made of two thousand pieces of handblown glass by artist Dale Chihuly just outside the building. It's her favorite structure, too. She cannot explain it but she feels overwhelmed by the beauty she's seen so far she feels like her soul can't assimilate.

Sometimes, when she's in class, barely able to keep her eyes open, having stayed up late with her books, easels, sketchpad, pastel, charcoal and laptop open to finish art homework and papers for class, she feels fatigue washing over her, feels the walls closing in, feels overwhelmed. Since she got here she's constantly worrying about money and class and failure.

She feels the angst and uncertainty hovering over her like flies at a Sunday dinner. She knows the fears and uncertainties lurking in the shadows of her soul, she had many and they were relentless. As she stands there, she feels displaced. Alone. Lonely.

And then, there are those thoughts of Ellie. She'd gone to church a few weeks ago and the priest, an old man with graying hair, had talked about the pandemic with glee, described it as the reckoning America deserved for making gay marriage legal, likening it to Sodom and Gomorrah, describing the fire and brimstone so vividly, she'd felt anxious and confused. Thinking about Ellie and whatever she feels about her had made her confused, too. And yet, thinking about Ellie makes her spine tingle, too. Ellie and thoughts of Ellie stir up things inside her she'd never felt before.

She'd begun to see the school counselor, Stephanie, a nice, amiable woman in her thirties with hair cropped short, tattoos, earrings and a ready smile who insisted she call her Steph. She'd been disarmed by that at first, rendered speechless, but the woman is encouraging and she finds herself opening up to her.

***

The first time she goes to Steph, she'd only meant to discuss her difficulties about school.

"Hi, my name's Aster, I'm a freshman, I'm studying art, I just...I needed to talk to someone? Because I'm worried about my grades and I'm worried about failing and...it's stupid, right? Why should I be worried about a stupid thing like grades?"

The woman only smiles and shakes her head, gently says, "No, it's not stupid at all."

Aster slowly nods, taking that all in, reassured, before she takes a deep breath and says, "I'm kind of just...worried about it...because I had to convince my dad to let me go to art school in the first place and he wouldn't let me go and I promised him I'd do well and that if I failed, I'd go back..."

Steph tilts her head. "Now, why would you do that?"

Aster shrugs. "I don't know. I just...a few months ago, I was supposed to be engaged to be married. And...I turned it down. Everyone expected me to marry my boyfriend, Trig, but...I turned him down. Everyone was disappointed. Including my dad...before that, I could do no wrong in his eyes."

"Was that what you wanted?"

"What?"

"To get married? At eighteen?"

"I'm almost nineteen, but no...It wasn't what I wanted...I wanted to go to art school..."

Steph nods, in understanding. "Okay."

"And now I'm worried, because if I fail...then it just means I'm a failure and I couldn't even make it...in art school and..."

"Is this what you want?"

"Yes, it is. More than anything."

"Why is it hard?"

"I just...classes are hard? There are projects and homework? And the materials are expensive? And I'm barely holding on...?"

"Did you get financial aid from the scholarships office?"

Aster nods. "Yeah, it's just...I also need a new job or another one, I think...my job at the restaurant is kind of stressful? And the shift's all over the place. And I'm tired and sleepy all the time and barely ever to cope with school?"

Steph nods. "Alright. Well, let me see what we can do...I could hook you up with some places that might be a bit more stable...do you have admin experience?"

Aster shakes her head but then quickly says,"But I can learn, I..."

Steph says, "That's fine...it'll probably be a lot of filing and alphabetizing and making coffee, so..."

Aster sighs. "Okay. Thank you. So much."

Steph smiles. "Sure. No problem. Just leave your number and email and we'll get in touch with you. Is there anything else?"

Aster hesitates. Steph must see her hesitation because she says, ever gently, "Not here to judge, Aster. We're here to help. But if you don't feel comfortable yet, I'm not going to push you."

Aster nods in relief. She doesn't say anything else during that first meeting.

***

The truth finally comes out when Ellie still doesn't email her back. She knows she could call her but she doesn't want to, for fear Ellie might think her too needy or clingy. They haven't even talked about the fact that Chicago is only three hours from Grinnell, in Iowa. But what does she really want from Ellie? She needs to figure herself out first. To be sure.

And so she ends up confiding to Steph, too.

***

"It's this girl," she finally tells Steph.

Steph slowly nods, in understanding, smiling at her, expression neutral but encouraging.

"This guy who liked me paid her to write letters for me because he didn't know how and I ended up liking the letters and the one writing them," she continues, encouraged. "Except I didn't know it was a girl writing them. And I kind of fe..." She stops, almost saying "fell" for Ellie but corrects herself. "Kind of liked her when I thought she was just this guy from my senior class and I hadn't even thought I could like a girl before I met her or talked to her through letters and..."

Steph doesn't say anything, only waits for her to continue.

Aster is kind of relieved that she's just letting her talk, and not interrupting her.
She takes a deep breath. "And I'm, I'm worried that..." She stops, unable to go on, wipes her clammy hands on down her jeans, turns her hands into fists, unflexes them and examines her nails.

"You're...worried your gay?" Steph asks gently.

Her words take Aster by surprise and she looks up, looks at Steph. But Steph only looks at her with kindness and compassion.

"I'm not here to judge you, Aster," Steph says gently.

Aster nods, relieved. Having Steph say it out loud feels like a relief for Aster. But at the same time, she realizes it isn't what she's worried about. She shakes her head.

"No, I'm not...I'm not worried about that, I guess? Once I got over the initial shock of finding out the person I liked turned out to be a girl...I kind of realized it didn't matter? She's amazing and intelligent and nice and just...really cool and it shouldn't matter whether she's a girl or not..."

"So what are you anxious about? What are you worried about?"

Aster thinks about this. This is the million dollar question, really. She looks up then and knows what the answer is. "The people around us. Like I don't know if I can even...people can be jerks...they could take one look at us, at me and...I don't know...it scares me, I guess...and my dad...he's very religious. He says it's what got him through one crisis after the next...I don't know what he's going to do if he finds out..."

"Does he support you?"

"He sends a bit of money...but it's mostly me and loans and a scholarship and my part-time job..."

"What's the worst that could happen?"

"That I'd burn in hell?" Aster hazards a guess.

Steph holds her gaze. "Do you really believe that?"

Aster thinks about that. Then she slowly shakes her head, realizes she isn't sure. "I don't really know, anymore," she admits. "I thought I did, but now everything seems..."

"Uncertain?"

Aster nods. "Yes."

"Well, does she like you back?"

Aster considers this. "Yes? I mean, I thought she did...and I haven't heard from her so, I don't know? Maybe? Does it even matter?"

"Aster..." Steph smiles at her. "That's all that matters."

Aster thinks about this long after the session is over and she feels a slow clarity descending upon her.

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO:asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Oct. 20 at 12: 30pm

Hey,

So sorry. I found a job. Two jobs actually. One's a Chinese-Korean restaurant with this nice guy named Mr.Kim who also let me stay above the restaurant for free so I could save on rent and the other's a gig for...never mind. It's good and it helps so yeah. School's as busy as yours. My professors have been riding us with experiments and researches and papers and that's been taking up most of my time. I'm sorry.

Anyway.

My father is an engineer. He believes in math and science. He thinks in a linear fashion and cannot free his mind to consider possibilities outside his own experience. He doesn't believe in God or destiny. Then, my mother died. And that cemented his conviction.

I just...can't quite conceive of some...God who's already decided on our fates. And I don't believe in destiny or divine intervention. I just don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my own destiny.

So, I read a bit of AI theory. In my free time. For fun. When I was doing my laundry. Anyway there's this interesting story. Maybe you've heard of it. It was in a movie called "Ex Machina". There's this thought experiment called "Mary in the Black and White Room." Mary is a scientist specializing in color. She knows everything about it, wavelengths, neurological effects, every possible property that color can have. But here's the catch: she lives in a black and white room. She was born there and raised there. She's been watching the world through a black and white monitor. And then one day, the door to her room is opened. And Mary steps out. She sees a blue sky. Green trees. Brown earth. And at that moment, she learns something that all her studies couldn't tell her. She learns what it feels like to see color. And here's the thing, Squahamish - that's our black and white room. We know everything about the world in Squahamish by watching a black and white television. Then a door is opened. Iowa for me, Chicago for you. And we see blue sky and green trees and brown earth. It's the same thing we've been seeing on TV, but now in color, like in a Wim Wenders movie. And I'm not saying Squahamish is bad, I'm just saying this whole world out there, well, it might be overwhelming at first, but I think eventually we're going to be okay. You're going to be okay.

So, I don't think you're not as good or as talented or gifted as the others. No, I don't want to see other people's stuff and I'm almost pretty sure you're as smart as any of them are. As for Anais Nin, I like her, haven't read Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, I like Ken Kessey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and, I know I'm going to get shit for this, but Jack Kerouac's overrated. Anyway, don't feel embarassed for not knowing. The first step of truly knowing is admitting that you don't know anything. So, no, I don't think you're way in over your head. You shouldn't allow people to make you feel worthless.

You are more than enough.

You matter. You might just be a drop in the ocean but what is an ocean? But a multitude of drops?

And don't compare yourself to anyone.

You have a different journey to take.

You are right where you belong, okay?

You are right where you are supposed to be.

Don't give up now, Aster.

Oh, and by the way, this Saturday, like a couple of days from now, go to these coordinates, at around ten in the morning:

41.8826° N, 87.6226° W

Don't ask. Just go.

***

Aster reads the email and feels her heart pound. She feels a warmth, that familiar tenderness spread through her being. She feels strong, brave, able to go on. Ellie writes masterpieces. The kind that gives one courage, the kind that can make one ready again.

She's unable to sleep the whole night. She googles the coordinates and finds out it is Millenium Park, at Cloud Gate, where the massive bean-looking steel sculpture is located.

She wonders what's there and remembers what Ellie did in high school, on the wall wit her.

She finally falls asleep to dreams of Ellie, wondering what she will see there.

***

She need not worry.

After figuring out how to get there, walking through the thin crowd, she cranes her neck, as the bean emerges in the distance. As she nears the sculpture, gray and shiny against a steel gray sky, her heart starts to beat fast, and she slowly quickens her pace, almost impatient to get there.

At first she doesn't see anything or anyone as the crowd slowly parts. There are a few business executives in suits and coats, mothers and their kids, an old couple or two, teenagers, a couple of tourists snapping up pictures, all of them consciously a few feet apart from each other. But then she sees someone, standing by the sculpture, hopeful but uncertain look on her face, looking for her, waiting for her. For Aster.

Ellie.

Ellie Chiu in a shirt and a plaid shirt and thick, brown jacket and jeans and her Chucks and backpack, pushing up her round glasses as she scans the crowd.

Then Ellie sees Aster then and a slow smile spreads on her face.

Aster can't help the answering smile that spreads on her face, heart pounding in her chest, hands suddenly clammy as she makes a beeline to Ellie and Ellie walks towards her, eyes never leaving her face.

And as Aster approaches her, she feels something, akin to hope and relief, settle within her. She thinks maybe things are going to be okay.

Chapter Text

"Love makes you screwy."
-Paul Munsky

Ellie Chiu doesn't exactly know what to do.

She'd dreamed of wanting to see Aster for months now. She knows she'd told her she'd see her after two years, but Aster's letters made her want to come, if only to see her, make sure she's okay. She'd been thinking about Aster's more recent emails while in class.

Once, her professor had made her think about her and Aster during a discussion of Schrödinger's cat.

Prof.Schrödinger, her teacher had said, hypothesized a cat in a sealed box, a can of poison gas and a trigger initiated by a random event at the subatomic level. Classical physicists believe the random event either happened or didn't and the cat is therefore either dead or alive - one just needs to look into the box. For quantum physicists, the two possible outcomes can be neither known nor predicted, and the very act of looking into the box has the potential of changing the outcome. Something had slowly dawned on her then and she remembers asking the teacher, "So, does that mean both outcomes are possible at the same time?"

The professor, delighted Ellie had understood, had nodded enthusiastically and said, "In an infinite number of different, albeit very real worlds..."

***

She'd thought about this again when Paul had messaged her.

'Did you ask her out already?!? Are you guys already dating!?!?!?' Paul had once texted her, teasingly, when he'd checked up on her.

'No.'

'C'mon, you told me texting and love letters count as dating,' Paul had pointed out. 'So technically, you guys were totally already dating...all that's left is a movie, popcorn, some burgers and fries, maybe a shared milkshake, holding hands and a good night kiss.'

Ellie had blushed. She'd already kissed Aster. Aster had kissed her back. There is no way she is going to tell Paul Munsky that though. Instead, she ends up blurting out, 'Schrödinger's cat.'

'Huh?!?!?!?'

So, Ellie quickly explains what Schrödinger's cat means to Paul then says, 'Our relationship is like...Schrödinger's cat.'

'What does that mean?!?' Paul predictably asks. 'It smells?!?!? It's trapped inside a box?!?!? My nana once had a cat and...'

'No,' Ellie replies in exasperation. 'It means...well, whatever we have, it's...suspended? Like in arrested development? As long as I don't look in or make a move, it's still full of possibilities...'

Paul doesn't say anything at first, then he says, 'I don't get it...'

'Well, as long as we don't...figure things out, the cat is both alive and dead...at the same time...'

'You lost me,'Paul says. Then, he quickly says, 'Oh, I get it...you're a wussy...!!!!!'

'No, I'm not...'

'Wussy!!!!!'

Ellie had thought about that for days on end, thinking about Schrödinger's cat in relation to whatever she and Aster are to each other, trying to figure out why it bothered her so much and failing.

When she finally realizes what it means, she comes to a decision.

***

So, she'd worked and saved and scrimped and here she is now, standing in front of the young woman she cares about and she doesn't know what to do or say.

She stands there feeling cold, tired and sleepy. She'd left Grinnell by bus at three in the morning and stumbled out into the Chicago morning at a little before ten, squinting against the gray sky. She feels filthy in her red and gray stained Grinnel tee shirt over her long sleeved shirt and jacket, her grubby jeans and her scuffed Chucks and she'd barely freshened up, dark circles under her eyes and eyes bloodshot and red.

But standing there, infront of Aster Flores, the girl she didn't even realize she'd liked for a long time and she thinks the seven hour bus trip is worth it. That Aster Flores is worth it.

She studies Aster's face. Looking at Aster now, in her tight jeans, pink floral blouse, jacket and boots, Ellie is reminded again how stunning Aster Flores is. Fair complexion, dark eyes, movie-star cheekbones and lips, perfectly shaped eyebrows and nose, wavy hair that reaches to her back and a soft smile that radiated peace and gentleness.

Everytime she sees Aster, it always feels as if she's seeing her for the first time.

She'd never forget that first time.

***

It had been high school freshman year when Aster Flores came to her English class and into her life.

Aster Flores had come in late. She'd been in a fuschia floral print dress and boots and a denim jacket, face flushed and smiling, apologizing to the English teacher - she thinks it was Mrs.G - for being late, as she hands the slip of paper to the teacher. The whole class had fallen silent, just staring at her, listening to her as she introduced herself. Her voice was light, raspy, and even that was music to Ellie's ears. When the teacher had told her she could pick any seat, the boys and some of the girls had excitedly offered her a seat. Ellie, seated at the back, in the corner, had stared, like the others, mesmerized by her, as she watches the girl flush and smile, looking for a place to sit.

On the first day of class, Aster Flores chooses a seat near her, smiles at Ellie before she takes her seat. Ellie flushes, stares, jaw open, at Aster Flores' back the whole class, almost missing the teacher's question to her. Aster sat straight, feet side by side. She looked at Aster's profile, perfect in every way, from the eyes to the lashes to the nose, fair cheeks, pale neck, hands long and tapering and clean.

She turns her head, catches Ellie looking. Eyes flick away. Aster smiles.

The class goes on, Mrs. G droning on and on about Emily Dickinson that Ellie doesn't catch. The bell rings, Aster gathers her things, runs a hand on her hair, leaves. Ellie sits there for a moment, watching Aster leave. Just to see Aster walk away. A pretty young woman walking. What is wrong with her?

Ellie doesn't know it then, but Aster Flores coming into her freshman English class would change her life forever.

***

She doesn't know why she'd been so taken by Aster Flores. She's pretty, yes, and smart and friendly and kind. But that isn't anything special. She's sure there are a lot of smart, friendly, kind people at school, and in town, but no one who is nearly as pretty as her. That was the first thing, of course, that she'd noticed about her. Everyone did. But she wasn't conventionally pretty, like the other girls were.

There was a difference, an other worldliness to it.

She was different from the other girls, too. She wasn't as loud, as irritating, as shallow or as uninteresting. She came to school in simple clothes, wore little make-up, and drove a simple, yellow car.

Aster fascinated her. She had a certain je ne sais quoi that Ellie couldn't explain. She was so pretty she could stare at her all day long. And she would have, if it didn't make her look strange.

A few days later, Trig Carson, son of one of the richest men in Squahamish, asks her out. Trig, son of a father that came from old money and a mother who came from a nouveau riche one, seemed perfect for Aster.

Trig and Aster start dating soon after and all the students who held hope that they could ask Aster out or hang out with her, were dashed, any potential, even for friendship, ruined. She had become popular overnight.

She'd have happily spent the next four years ignoring Aster Flores. She'll leave Squahamish soon enough. No point forming friendships that wouldn't last through college.

But then, of course, Paul Munsky happened. Paul Munsky, football jock, develops a crush on Aster Flores senior year, decides it's time to declare his love for her via a love letter and decides Ellie Chu, ghost writer extraordinaire for half the senior class, should write for him. She'd initially turned him down, because writing a letter for Aster Flores would probably be a bad idea.

Aster Flores made her feel things she absolutely cannot feel. It's in the way she sings a simple song like "Annie's Song" with so much pathos it seizes Ellie's heart. It's in the way she chuckles at a joke, the way she smiles, like you're the only one in the room, or the way she moves, sure and confident and graceful. It's the way she speaks. It's everything about her.

She'd never thought about it much beyond maybe just an admiration for someone incredibly attractive and smart. But even then, there was that sense of being drawn to Aster, that she couldn't explain. She doesn't think it was love or anything like that. She's seventeen and she doesn't know what it is and what it would feel like.

Now that she thinks about it, in retrospect, maybe it was.

And now years later, Aster Flores still absolutely makes her feel the same things.

***

For fifty dollars, she writes the letters out of desperation, thinking nothing of it until Aster replies, her letter playful and cheeky and sure.
And in the course of the letter writing and texting, she finds herself unexpectedly liking Aster.

But she didn't think Aster would like her back.

She didn't even think she had a chance.

But then, the day before she leaves for Grinnell, after all that's happened, her public objection to Trig's proposal, her non-confession at church, and her apology and Aster's quiet admission, Ellie realizes then that Aster could like her, might actually really like her and so she takes it a step further, and ends up kissing her. Then, wonder of wonders, something amazing happens, Aster kisses her back. Never in all her wildest dreams did she expect Aster to kiss her back. And her lips are as soft and tender as she'd dreamed they would be.

She hadn't planned on falling for Aster Flores.

She had never expected Aster Flores at all.

But life is what happens when the unexpected happens to you.

***

Aster Flores looks at her now, gorgeous eyes holding her gaze and Ellie feels speechless.

It's Aster who finally speaks. "Hey," she says, voice soft, as she looks at her. "You're here..."

Ellie reddens, feels embarassed and closes her eyes. "Yeah, I know, I'm sorry. I know we said a couple of years but...it seemed like a good idea at the time and Paul said..."

"Paul?"

Ellie flushes harder, her eyes flying open. Aster has a look on her face Ellie can't quite place. "And...I shouldn't have come..." Fuck. It was too soon, too fucking soon. She could kick Paul for convincing her to come. Moron. She really shouldn't listen to him.

***

She hadn't even planned to come to Chicago. Paul had just egged her on.

'Surprise her in Chicago!!!!!' Paul had suggested through text. 'Hang out with her!!!!!'

'What? No.'

 

'Dude! You kind of almost declared your feelings for her but not really...at church,' Paul reminds her.

'I did?'

'Yeah!' Paul says. 'Ask her out!!!'

'I have schoolwork,' Ellie says. 'She has schoolwork...'

'Dude, you know, I think she likes you back...'

'Dude, it's not that...'

'You can have a date on Zoom you know. Or Skype. Or even ghost message. You can have a watch party. That's a thing now."

'I'm busy.'

'Wussy.'

'Jerk.'

'Yeah. But you're still a wussy.'

'I'm a wussy? A wussy? I'll show you a wussy!'

***

"Hey," Aster's telling her now, smile gone from her face, concern replacing it. "Are you okay?"

Ellie squints, pushes up her glasses, focuses on Aster, and smiles. Aster. Aster, looking at her, concerned. "Hey. I'm sorry. I've been up since two this morning. The trip was murder and I haven't had sleep so..."

Aster nods. "You didn't have to come," she says, softly, eyes shining, searching Ellie's face.

"Yeah, I know, you seemed upset and I wanted to make sure you were okay and I mean, I could leave...."

"Oh, my god, stop it, I love that you're here," Aster quickly says with a laugh and a smile.

Aster is smiling, Aster is smiling and it's so bright it's like the sun coming up and she has to look away for a moment and she can't believe it's a smile that's directed at her instead of Trig or Paul and she still can't believe her own luck and she feels her own heart swell.

"Yeah?" Ellie manages to ask, smiling back.

Aster nods. "Totally. Thank you. It's the sweetest thing anyone's ever done for me," Aster says, expression softening, giving Ellie a look that makes her heart beat fast. She quickly learns later it's a look she gives Ellie and only Ellie. Ellie feels her face warm. Aster bites her lower lip. "I could kiss you."

Ellie's blush deepens. She swallows. And then she says something she wouldn't have dreamed of saying to Aster Flores in a million years. "Promise?"

Aster laughs then, cheeks flushing. "C'mon, let's grab a bite to eat."

"Oh, god, yes please, I'm starving."

As Aster turns and Ellie follows, Ellie moves to hold Aster's hand, hesitates, balls her fists and shoves them in the pockets of her jacket. Aster turns and smiles at her, then moves to hook a hand on Ellie's arm. They don't speak for awhile, each one overwhelmed, stealing furtive glances at each other, and Ellie feels like her heart could burst with happiness.

And Ellie realizes something then. The same thing she's felt writing those letters to Aster and reading Aster's letters. The same thing she's felt when she and Aster had spent that day at the hot spring. That sense of peace, of harmony with something, what, time or place. She couldn't quite understand it but she knows she feels it. Feels it whenever she's with Aster. Aster catches her looking. Ellie's eyes flick away. But both are pleased and Aster presses herself closer to Ellie's side as a cold breeze blows.

***

"So...where to now?" Aster asks her after a breakfast of pancake and juice.

Ellie pushes her glasses up and, says, "Um, sleep? I'm kind of sleepy? I swear I'll be good after I've had, like, five minutes of sleep. And a shower...probably..."

Aster nods, and leads the way to her dorm, Ellie marvelling at the deciduous trees ("Yes, they are,"Aster had confirmed with a smile when Ellie asks her), the quad, Dale Shihuly's glass sculpture and the overall design of the school, Aster explaining what she can about its design. Ellie ignores all the appreciative looks Aster gets from male students and a few of the female ones. Aster smiles and waves at the people who greet her and nod at Ellie. People don't give Ellie curious looks, they seem to just let her presence there in stride. She already likes this school.

When Aster unlocks her door at the dorm, she apologizes, says, "It isn't much, but it's mine, so."

Ellie nods, and as soon as she hits the bed, she's asleep.

***

She wakes up and it's already late afternoon out. At first she forgets where she is. Then she turns and sees Aster sitting beside her, notebook open, laptop on, a textbook and highlighters beside her and she remembers she's in Chicago. Aster is so near she can smell her, her warmth, everything about her, filling up her senses. Aster's changed into an oversized gray Chicago school sweat shirt and shorts, socks on her feet, and she can see clear, pale skin, thighs,legs, on display.

 

Ellie blinks then, grabs her phone and glasses, squints at the time and panics. She realizes it's late.

Ellie scrambles out of bed, then, muttering about catching the bus back to Grinnell, surprising Aster.

Aster just watches her from her bed, hair over one shoulder, drawing her knees up towards her chest and says nothing at first, before she says, carefully, "Um, or you could...spend the night? I mean, you came all the way here. You could rest first and leave tomorrow."

Ellie stops herself from grabbing her jacket, pushes her glasses up and says, "I have...to study...I have this reading on Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History on Time'..."

"When's it due?"

Ellie swallows. "Wednesday."

Aster runs a hand on her hair. "Plenty of time."

Ellie stares at her, unsure. "But I don't...have anything to wear..."

Aster smiles, "You can borrow mine. I'm almost pretty sure I have a shirt that fits you...."

"Are you sure? I don't...want to intrude..."

Aster shakes her head. "No, you're not...And anyway, you could always study here. What are the odds you brought the book?"

Ellie smiles sheepishly, grabs her backpack and fishes her copy of Hawking's book out of it. "Books," she corrects, pulling out a book called "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She swallows, as she hands it to Aster, face pinking a little. "I thought you might like it."

Aster accepts the book quietly, examining the cover.

"Thank you," Aster says, looking at her with a strange mixture of something Ellie can't quite place.

"You're welcome," Ellie responds, shyly.

She stands there in silence, not knowing what else to say, before Aster says, "So, what do you want to do now? You want me to show you around Chicago or just...hang out?"

Ellie thinks about that before she carefully says, "Um...I'd actually prefer if we just stay in? I don't think I have enough cash for going around? I just have enough for food and going back to Grinnell..."

Aster nods. "Okay."

"Really? You wouldn't mind?"

"It's autumn, it's cold out, my bed's warm, what's not to like?" Aster says with a shrug.

Just then, Ellie's stomach grumbles. Aster laughs.

"Hungry?" Aster asks.

"Starving," Ellie says with a sigh.

"We can order in, if you want," Aster offers.

Ellie nods, taking out her phone. "Yeah. I downloaded this app,I saw this really good place here, Yanxi Palace?..." she mutters, while opening the app and scrolling over the menu. "What about you? You want Chinese? Or Thai? Or something? "

Aster shrugs. "I'll have what you're having."

Ellie nods, tosses the phone on the bed, and slides beside Aster.

Aster settles comfortably on the bed, shifts against Ellie, warm body against her.

Ellie asks then, "Tell me about you. What's been going on with you?"

***

So they catch up on each other's lives, lying side by side on Aster's bed. Aster tells her about Ms. Garcia, her art theory class, her gen ed classes and what it's like to be in Chicago while Ellie tells her more about Grinnell.

They talk about their plans for Thanksgiving and Halloween, Neither one celebrates them, Ellie talking about a paper she's working on Schrödinger while Aster tells her about the art projects she has lined up.

"So, are you coming home for Christmas?" Aster asks.

Ellie nods. "Think so. Christmas break. Could use the break honestly."

***

They continue to tell each other news about their lives as the delivery arrives and they eat their late lunch cum dinner of braised pork with rice, dumplings, shumai, spring rolls and bubble milktea.

In the middle of dinner, Aster's parents call and Ellie notices the panic on Aster's face before the panic turns to a smile and accepts the call, chats with them for a few minutes as Ellie sits quietly in front of her, not saying a thing. After the call, Aster has an apologetic face and Ellie just shrugs and smiles. They don't talk about Aster's parents until later.

As Ellie dips a spring roll in soy sauce, it drips on her Grinnell shirt and she says, "Shit!"

Aster grabs sheets of tissue as Ellie apologizes profusely.

"I'm so sorry," she mutters.

Aster's shaking her head. "It's fine." She hands her a gray Chicago Institute of the Arts shirt. "Here, you can wear mine."

"Thanks,"Ellie says. She looks at Ellie shyly.

Aster presses her lips together, tries not to laugh and turns around as Ellie quickly changes into Aster's shirt.

"This is really good," Aster says as she sips at her bubble tea when Ellie is done changing.

"Right? So good," Ellie says, taking a sip at hers. "I discovered it at this Pan Asia-Pacific-Trans-Atlantic club kids I occassionally hang out with."

"That's a mouthful."

"Yeah, we call it PAPTA for short. It sounds like papsmear but whatever." When Aster laughs at that, Ellie smiles. "Anyway, we hang out just to swap ideas, or exchange recipes or recommend some great Chinese or Mexican place or whatever or occassionally organize protests when there's like some perceived slight against minorities at school."

"Wow, that's sounds cool."

Ellie nods. "Yeah. There's unlimited Yakult so yay for me. So last time, they introduced bubble tea to me. Which I didn't even know was a thing, living in Squahamish. Apparently it's the thing now in Asia. Oh, and there's like yakult bubble tea. Also a thing. And now, I'm totally addicted to it. I need help."

Just then, Ellie's phone buzzes. She grabs it, thinking it's her dad, but she stares at the notification and it's from Paul.

'Hey!!! How are you? Texted Aster yet?!?' Paul texts her. 'Tell her she's an ocean. Tell her you can drown in her oceans. Like five oceans!!!!'

Ellie glares at the text and replies, 'No...I am appalled by your inappropriate use of exclamation points and your overly enthusiastic use of emojis...It should be illegal to use that many wave emojis...'

'It's cool, right?!???? Tell her six oceans!!! Just to make sure!!! And tell her, even if it's only three, or one ocean, you'd still be into her!!!'

'You're incorrigible!'

'Ha-ha! Joke's on you!!! I don't know what that means!!!'

Ellie smiles at the text. Her phone buzzes again.

'Coach says you gotta take life by the balls if you want to win. Or win the girl. So carpe diem!!! Seize the carp!!!' Paul texts.

Ellie shakes her head and responds with, 'Sure, I'll seize the...carp? I've got to go, Paul. Talk to you later.'

Aster asks, "Who's that? Is that...Paul?"

Ellie pushes her glasses back up, shoves her phone into her jeans, a guilty look on her face. "Uh, yeah. He checks up on my dad for me...and...on me...Sorry..."

Aster shakes her head. "Don't be. That's sweet."

"Yeah. He met this girl and wants me to help him. Again."

Aster grins. "And look how that turned out last time."

Ellie grins back. "Yeah. But don't worry. He's learned his lesson. I only edit his texts now. Can't make him stop abusing emojis, though."

Aster laughs. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. It should be a crime, really. Can't make him stop talking about taco sausage too..."

"How is the taco sausage biz anyway?"

"He says it's doing fine. I mean, I guess people are warming to it? But don't expect him to become some taco sausage tycoon anytime soon."

Aster nods and smiles.

***

Ellie is surprised, of course, at how her friendship with Paul had blossomed amidst a shared admiration for Aster Flores. Ellie didn't really care much for football. The game and its immutability bored her. Football and other sports, are marked by timidity, rather than boldness.

People will keep doing a specific strategy many times as long as it's successful and effective and then take risks when it doesn't work anymore. Sports is a triumph of hormones over intellect and she'd seen enough jocks pass class, Paul and Trig among them, even if their teams kept losing. Consequently, jocks tended to bore or annoy her. Paul, though, had been different. His willingness to change for Aster, his willingness to let Aster go for Ellie, and to let his feelings for Ellie go as well, earned him a soft spot for Ellie.

***

After dinner, Ellie takes a shower and brushes and they both settle on Aster's bed, discussing what to watch on Aster's laptop. After much discussion, they agree on watching The Story of Yanxi Palace.

"What's this about?" Aster asks, curious.

"This girl gets a job in the palace as a maid to find out what happened to her sister and ends up embroiled in palace intrigue and mystery," Ellie explains. "It was very popular in Asia..."

"Yeah, never figured you for a TV soap person," Aster comments.

"Yeah, but this one's really good. They showed it at one of the PAPTA meets and I kind of got into it," Ellie says.

Aster nods, as Ellie proceeds to explain each character and the plot a little more. Aster nods absently, scratches on one arm. Ellie watches her long, tapering fingers, spots the freckles on Aster's arm.

"Hey, your freckles look like a constellation," Ellie says, TV show forgotten.

Aster looks down. "Yeah, in the summer I get all...freckl-y and stuff..."

Ellie is shaking her head. "No, it's cool, it looks like..." and here she pauses, grabs a pen, looks at Aster for permission. When Aster nods,

Ellie gently takes Aster's hand and draws the shape of the constellation on her arm, using her freckles as points, says, "It looks like Cassiopeia, see?"

Aster makes a face. "Isn't that, like that beautifully arrogant and vain queen who got the sea god angry so she was placed in the heavens upside-down on her throne stuck forever with her skirt around her shoulders and all the blood rushing to her head?”

"Uh, yeah," Ellie says.

They both stare at Aster's arm. Then Ellie says, "Well, alternately, if we turn it this way, it looks like the constellation, Lyra...you know, from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice."

Aster grins, her hand casually slipping into Ellie's. Aster's touch gives Ellie a jolt and she almost jumps and pulls her hand away. And with hands entwined, Aster asks, "So, what was that you were saying earlier?"

Ellie nods, prompted. "Schrödinger's cat."

Aster nods, prompts her to continue. She explains what the concept of Schrödinger's cat is to Aster.

"Sounds interesting," Aster says. "So, at the point where we don't know if the cat is dead or alive, the cat is both dead and alive?"
Ellie nods.

"So, like alternate universes?"

"Yup."

Aster smiles. "That's so...cool...like straight out of a Twilight Zone or a Black Mirror episode..."

"Right?" Ellie says, excitedly. "I don't know, that kind of just fascinates me... I mean some people think thinking about these things are stupid, but alternate universes are interesting..."

"Sure," Aster says. "Like, what if you didn't come here today?"

Ellie nods.

"Or what if Paul didn't ask you to write letters to me?" Aster asks, a twinkle in her eye.
Ellie blushes. "Right."

"Or what if my father decided not to come to Squahamish at all? And decided to stay in Sacramento afterall?" Aster stops, looks at her, and casually tucks a stray hair behind Ellie's ear.

Ellie smiles, a small flush on her face. "That would've been..." She swallows, and says, "Uh, unfortunate."

Aster nods in agreement, eyes twinkling. "Tragic."

They lie there in silence, Aster holding her gaze. Ellie doesn't tell her her realization thinking about Schrödinger's cat: that whatever they are to each other or whatever they have with each other, is like the cat in the sealed box, suspended in animation, neither moving forward or going anywhere at all and that at that moment, it would be full of possibilities. While it had been fascinating to think about the possibilities and uncertainties of a sealed box to be opened after two years, Ellie had preferred decisiveness, a step towards a resolution. Two years feels long and she wouldn't admit this, not out loud anyway, but she misses Aster.

Ellie doesn't know who kisses who first, but the next thing she knows she's kissing Aster, and holding her and Aster's hands are on her face and Ellie's slowly rolling on top of her and kissing her.

The kiss is slow and tentative at first. Then Ellie feels Aster's lips part, the tips of their tongues touch and she deepens the kiss, inhaling the smell of mint and citrus and roses from Aster. Aster smells good. Aster always smells good. It's intoxicating. And she feels a slow, low wave of desire rising in her gut, threatening to overwhelm her, and she feels her heart start to pound in her chest, feels heat rising up in her and they kiss for a long time and Ellie doesn't even notice her hand wandering down Aster's side, snaking under her shirt and feeling the warm skin on her side.

Aster stiffens then, stops and before Ellie knows it, Aster is gently pushing her back. And the spell is broken.

"Ellie," Aster says gently. "I'm sorry, I can't..."

Ellie is already shaking her head, taste of Aster still on her lips, dazed look on her face as she looks at Aster. "It's ok. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..."

Aster shakes her head. "No, it's not that..." Aster sits up, runs a hand on her hair. "It's just..." And here, Aster blushes, hesitates, takes a deep breath and looks at Ellie. "I've never...done that before...and...I didn't...want to do it before I was ready...or...sure...."

Ellie looks at her, understanding dawning on her face. "Oh."

As Aster's blush deepens, Ellie says, "Oh," again and Aster says, "I'm sorry. I know it's stupid..."

"No, it's not, at all," Ellie assures her. "You never have to apologize for wanting to take it slow..."

"I know," Aster says softly. "With you, I feel safe and secure but...I'm kind of...also afraid..."

"Why?"

"I want to make sure I'm ready when...that happens but I'm..scared...if things go too far with you...I won't be able to say no to you..."

Ellie pauses, thinks about it, understanding slowly dawning on her. "Oh."

Aster nods, blush growing deeper. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..."

"What are you talking about? It's fine," Ellie says.

"Really?" Aster looks relieved.

Ellie nods. "Yes, totally."

"Oh, thank god, Amber and the other girls at school used to think it was weird, but..."

Ellie puts a hand on Aster's arm. "It's not weird, like, at all. I'm glad you told me. I'm sorry."

Aster nods. "Thank you."

They sit there in awkward silence, Ellie leaning on the wall opposite and Aster on the other side, so that they form an L on the bed, feet touching.

Ellie pushes her glasses up, smiles shyly. "So, what now?"

Aster smiles back. "Tell me about your parents..."

***

Those were the years when people still blamed people like them for the virus, a virus that had killed millions all over the world, and thousands within the country, when in truth no one, not even the country from where the virus had come from. It was what it was, she thinks. In the end, nobody probably was at fault, although people were quick to blame and find fault as the death toll mounted. In truth, the virus was really just a thinly veiled excuse to unleash the American tendency towards casual, and in the midst of the pandemic, vicious racism against people like them.

Ellie Chu has always known she was smart. The moment, in nursery school, when she could rattle out the alphabet and her numbers pretty quickly, she knew. It hadn't been a surprise, of course. Her father was an engineer with a PhD, her mother a scientist. Had she and her family stayed in China, she would have been considered average, her overachieving and nerdiness as normal as that of any Chinese kid competing for a place at a prestigious university in a country of over a billion and a half people. Her parents took one look at baby Ellie and knew they wanted her to have a better chance at life, free to pursue her dreams and be who she really is. They'd turned to America, right before borders closed, immigration suspended and the pandemic that would devastate the country and the rest of the world. They'd settled in Squahamish, a small town that seemed to promise a slice of that American dream. Her father had been young and hopeful and ambitious. But the dream had turned into a nightmare, when he slowly realizes that he'll never be good enough for his adopted country, that he'll always be judged by his appearance, the slant of his eyes, his accent, even his very un-American name. And then there had been the slow realization that he was never going to get the job promised to him, that he was either overqualified or not qualified enough, that he was too smart or not smart enough, or that he simply didn't have what it takes. He'd been lucky enough to get a job at the train station, work his way up then finally be promoted to station manager. But then after that, there had been nowhere else to go, he'd reached the limit and could go no further. No matter how many resumés and cover letters he sent out and no matter how impressive they were, he never heard from anyone. He kept sending and sending his resumés and cover letters until one day he'd stopped sending them and they stopped rejecting him.

And then there had been her mother. She'd been sickly and moving to America hadn't improved her health any. She remembers her as funny, fun, beautiful and that she loved Ellie and her dad. And then she got sick and her father had to witness her mother slowly wasting away, day by day until finally, tired of struggling, decides to give up.

The loss of her mother had broke her father. Her mother had been his strength, his reason for living, his inspiration. More than Ellie, her mother was Ellie's father's life.

Her father had slowly slipped into a depression from which he would never recover from. She remembers her younger years as mostly filled with take out or microwave food, TV dinners and just staying in, her father forever parked infront of the television, always watching old black and white films. She'd grown up on a steady diet of Katherine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, frozen dinners and lonely holidays. Until one day, she'd finally been big enough and old enough to do the grocery, to cook, to prepare dinners, to do things on her own. She'd been an only child, so she'd always been self-sufficient. And because she'd sensed how the others viewed her and her family, she'd consciously avoided making any friends, taking their casual racist bullying in stride, ignoring them and waiting for the day when she can leave Squahamish for good. She knew she was smart and diligent and studious and knew if she studied hard enough she could go somewhere else. So she threw herself into her studies, took her AP classes, ate lunch alone, started her essay writing business to earn extra cash and counted the days til high school graduation.
But it's not all sad, Ellie assures her. She tells her about Chinese New Year, the spring festival, red envelopes ("The only thing I lived for growing up," Ellie says with a grin.), moon cakes and dumplings, growing up different.

"How about you?" Ellie asks. "Where are your parents originally are from?"

"Dad's grandparents are from Cuba. He grew up in Florida. Mom's are from Puerto Rico and Mexico, originally. They settled in Valencia, in California. They met in Sacramento, where I was born," Aster explains and she proceeds to talk about her strait-laced, conservative life filled with prayer, confession, church, Quinciñeras and Cinco de Mayos, Dia de los Muertos and Noche Buenas, and that nagging feeling sometimes that she isn't living up to her father's standards.

"Why do you say that?" Ellie asks.

Aster shrugs. "I'm supposed to be this perfect daughter who could do no wrong..." she explains, looking down at her shirt and brushing away imaginary lint. "Art school, rejecting Trig, liking you..." Aster says softly, briefly looking up at Ellie, "I might as well be a disappointment, a failure, in my father's eyes."

Ellie is silent for a moment before she reaches out for Aster's hand, laces it into hers and says, softly, "You're not a disappointment, okay? Or a failure? You're..." And here Ellie searches for words, stumbles, before she says, "You're Aster Flores. You're awesome and talented and amazing..."

Aster smiles. "No, I'm not...."

"You're perfect," Ellie says.

"I'm really not, Ellie, trust me," Aster says.

Ellie is shaking her head. "People adore you, Aster."

Aster makes a face. "I don't want to be adored, I..." Then she stops, blushes, smiles at Ellie shyly.

Ellie just gives her a lop-sided smile in return. Then she starts to yawn.

"Sleepy?" Aster asks

Ellie nods.

"Then, I guess we can call it a day," Aster says with a smile.

"Okay."

They sit there awkwardly before Aster rolls her eyes and laughs. "Oh my god, let's not make this weird, all that...other stuff's put on hold right now but, that doesn't mean we can't sleep together..."

"Sleep together," Ellie repeats.

Aster just grins, nudges Ellie's foot.

Eventually they fall asleep in each other's arms, in perfect comfort and peace.

***

The next day, after breakfast, Aster takes Ellie to the bus depot and after an awkward, stiff goodbye, Ellie gets on the bus.

Aster doesn't leave until the bus leaves, watching Ellie's bus drive away.

They part, the situation nowhere near resolved between them, but there is one thing Ellie knows, the one thing that's clear and true about all of these: she still cares for Aster, she probably cares more for her now than she did before, and she wishes she could tell her without whatever fragile thing they have now breaking. They haven't talked about their families, Aster's conservative religious parents, Ellie's equally conservative Chinese dad, their own feelings for each other, and where whatever this is headed. She doesn't want to push it but she feels hopeful and happy, happy she'd been able to see Aster at all.

Halfway through her trip, she realizes she's still wearing Aster's shirt and she's left hers at Aster's. She falls asleep with Aster's face and smile swimming in her consciousness, her name in her head. 

Chapter Text

"Aimer et être aimé sera la grande affaire de toute notre vie."* Jean-Jacques Rousseau

 

"So...what happened?"

Aster sits fidgeting on Steph's worn brown leather couch, the couch squeaking as she shifts, pulls at the edges of her skirt around her pale knees and fidgets with her fingers, then mindlessly rubbing her arm, where Ellie had traced the constellation Cassiopeia with a Sharpie. She feels the ghost of Ellie's touch on her skin still and feels her warmth all over her.

She remembers Steph, sitting there behind her desk on a swivel chair, waiting for her answer and she pulls the sleeve of her jacket down on her arm. She considers Steph's question.

"It was...fine..." Aster says tonelessly.

She remembers that time spent with Ellie like it was still yesterday.

***

Aster couldn't believe Ellie had gone to Chicago for her. Couldn't believe she travelled the seven hours it took to get to Chicago just to see her. Couldn't believe she was there, standing infront of her, in all her bedraggled glory.The sight of Ellie had taken her breath away.

It had been the sweetest, most romantic thing anyone's ever done for her, and that includes Paul's love letters and Trig's necklace.

Ellie looked exhausted and bleary-eyed but her eyes were on Aster the whole time and she was cute and shy and awkward and adorable and all Aster would have wanted was to hold her and be with her, all day.

They talked about school, their families, mythology, science, constellations, Chinese TV dramas, food and bubble milktea and Schröedinger's cat and Chicago and Iowa and Grinnell and Chicago Institute of the Arts. She felt like they talked about everything and it still felt like it wasn't enough. They could talk about anything, even deciduous trees, and Aster thinks there'd still be more to talk about. Aster feels like they've known each other their whole lives. Or they've known each other for lifetimes.

***

"Just fine?" Steph gently asks. "It feels like there's more to it than that."

Aster opens her mouth, closes it, unsure what to say.

"Did something happen?"

Aster shakes her head."No..." She swallows. "Nothing I wouldn't have let happen."

"Ok..."

"We almost..." Here Aster stops, flushes, overcome with shyness.

"And did you...?"

Aster shakes her head vigorously. "God, no, it...it didn't go any further."

"And...how did she take it?" Steph asks. "She didn't do anything you didn't...?"

Aster's shaking her head before Steph could complete her question. "No, god, no. Ellie isn't like that. She was totally okay with it. She respected my decision."

Steph smiles. "Sounds like a keeper."

Aster smiles fondly, thinking of Ellie. "She is." But then her smile slowly disappears.

"But..." Steph gently prompts her.

"But..."

***

Ellie had been sweet that whole time. She'd held her hand, held her, ordered food for them, made a picnic on her floor, carefully laying out food on the mat on floor, then handing her chopsticks and food.

She'd been contemplating all morning, that morning, after Ellie had left, how much she enjoyed Ellie's company. And how much she feels Ellie's absence now that she's gone.
She thinks about Ellie kissing her and she flushes.

Ellie had wrapped her in her arms. She let her hold her. Already her arms were becoming familiar, more comfortable, her body molding a place in them and she recalls that feeling the day she'd first talked to Ellie, in the hall:. Ellie smelled of home. Ellie felt like home.

Ellie invokes feelings that blazed through her simply by being near.Her hands on Aster's face, fingers trailing her skin, her lips against her, pressing on her lips, on her skin, made her tremble. Heat had rushed through her, desire coursing through her veins. Ellie could do that, could send fire roaring through her. She'd never felt that as intensely as she did with Ellie.

Then she remembers her father talking about sin, living in sin, and she feels guilty. Visions of hell and fire and brimstone swim behind her closed eyes. She can't, she shouldn't do this, she'd be burning in hell. Sin, sin like a stain spreading in her soul, threatening to engulf her.
A wave of panic, of fear and anxiety and confusion, guilt and shame, crash into her. Overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame that wash over her, wrapping itself on her soul, threatening to consume her. She felt like she wanted to crawl out of her skin. The weight of them creates a tightness in her chest,claws at her and fear swarms through her like a swarm of angry bees.

She pushes at Ellie away then and tries to explain why. She isn't ready, she knows, she isn't ready and she isn't sure but mostly she's afraid, not only of how much Ellie feels for her, the depth of which she hasn't felt until that night, but also of her own feelings, her own desire for her Ellie. It's overwhelming and she feels like with Ellie she could lose control and she would be okay with it.

***

Aster sighs. "I just...feel so overwhelmed all the time..."

"About what?"

Aster waves her hand away as if swatting at something. "I...sometimes struggle...to reconcile what I feel for her and what I believe in..."

"What do you feel for her?"

Aster tries to casually shrug, as if to try to make light of it. "I don't..." She sighs. Tries again. "I..." She feels her heart start to pound erratically again. Ellie had emailed her. Ellie had emailed her a couple of times after her visit to Chicago. But she hadn't responded to either one, just yet. Quite frankly doesn't know what to say.

"You don't need to answer that," Steph says, with a smile.

Aster nods, feeling her eyes well up. She looks up at the ceiling, trying not to cry. Steph doesn't say anything, waits for her to compose herself, before she silently slides a box of tissues infront of Aster. Steph just watches, waiting for her to speak.

Aster slowly takes a tissue, dabs at her eyes, and, sniffling, softly says, "I'm sorry...I'm just..."

Steph waits before she hazards a gentle observation. "Something tells me you already know the answer...."

***

The truth is, Aster knows why Ellie had come, even if Ellie herself does not know or understand yet why she did.

It's that very same seven hours Ellie had taken to see Aster. It's that same intense gaze Ellie gives her whenever she catches her looking at her. It's the way she takes care of her, in that short time they were together, feeding her, making sure she's okay, the way she holds her hand, or holds her or kisses her.

Then Ellie had given Aster Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book, "Love in the Time of Cholera" and Aster felt like her breath had been knocked out of her. Felt her heart stop. She'd accepted the book, unable to say anything as she quietly looks at it, but there is something slowly dawning on her.

The story of Schröedinger's cat hadn't been lost on her, too. Ellie had wanted to articulate something with an intellectual discussion of a cat in a box. She understood it. Ellie had always been very stoic, each word spoken and written, done on purpose, nothing wasted. And she knew Ellie bringing up Schröedinger meant she wanted to say something: Ellie had wanted a decision, from both of them, had wanted them to define who they are to each other, what they are to each other. Their feelings were that creature in the box, with all its implications, what they are to each other, what they could be to and for each other, what hopes and dreams they could have together. Together. That was Ellie's unspoken question. For a brief moment, Aster's heart had seized at that thought. To be Ellie's girlfriend, and for Ellie to be her girlfriend. She hadn't considered that before, but Ellie was now asking her, making her think of it as a possibility. It's in every kiss, every look, every touch from Ellie.

But could she take it a step further? Knowing there's a lot more going on?

***

Aster's sister, Lucy, had called, and panic rose inside her, as if reality had come crashing down on a very good dream and she's reminded that she has a family, in Squahamish, a whole other world, an old world, so vastly different from the one she has now.

It had been a short conversation, actually, but her younger sister seemed to have wanted to tell her more. "Is everything okay?" she'd asked.

Lucy had hesitated, stammered and that told Aster everything. She'd felt guilty about that. Lucy, on the cusp of adolescence, had started junior high this year and she knows Lucy is probably going through the same thing she'd gone through, but with Aster not around, she had no one to talk to. Aster wants to talk to Lucy more, but Ellie is sitting across from her, waiting and she thinks she should talk to her more. They'd been closer when they were younger, but then they moved from Sacramento to Squahamish, she hit high school, met Trig, Amber and the other girls, had church youth group activities and the thousand and one activities a high school girl has and so they'd drifted apart. Trig alone took up much of her time, what with after school dates, dinner dates, dinner with Trig's family, watching his games, hanging out with him and Amber and their friends. In retrospect, Aster should've spent more time with her younger sister, treasured every moment with her family before she left for art school.

And now Aster is miles away and she misses her family. "Is everything okay?" she asks again, but this time in Spanish. She and Lucy didn't speak as much Spanish with each other as their parents did. They could speak it well enough, but having once witnessed some random white man angrily tell their mother, Elena, to speak English and not Spanish once in a grocery store, they spoke Spanish only privately.

"Si, everything's okay," Lucy had said softly. "I'll call you soon, okay?"

Aster had ended the call thinking about her sister and her family. She'd tried to push thoughts of her family down and spending time with Ellie had helped her forget about reality for awhile but then the next day, her mother had called, her mother had been speaking in rapid Spanish, her father in the background, speaking Spanish a bit more slowly, her younger sister speaking in English, trying to get a word in edgewise. Her mother asks her about herself ("Are you eating right, mija?" "Are you sleeping okay?" "You sound like you're sick, do you have a cold? Do you still have the vaporub I gave you?" "How is Chicago? Are you layering properly? Are you wearing your jackets?"), her father stiffly and seriously asking her about school ("How is school, mi amor?" "How are the teachers? Are they any good?" "How are your classes?") and her sister, excitedly asking her, "So, what's Chicago like?!? Are there any cute boys? Have you met someone yet?!?"

At which point, her father interrupts their conversation and asks, "Is there some other guy already?"

Aster blushes so furiously she's glad the screen can't show it. "No, dad, there isn't."

Her father had asked with a mild, neutral smile on his face, "Sure? No one has replaced Trig yet? You know he was just here last night. We had dinner together."

"Dad..." Aster sighs. "Don't encourage him..."

"Honey," Elena murmurs, admonishing him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Stop it."

"What? The boy's still obviously in love with our Aster," her father says. He turns to the camera. "Is there no chance of you guys getting back together? Nothing at all?"

Her mother hits her father on the arm.

"What? They're perfect for each other," Deacon Flores says. "He's handsome, kind and you know he can provide for his family."

"Then why don't you date him, dad?" Aster says in exasperation.

Lucy puts a hand on her mouth and tries to stifle the giggle coming out of her mouth, while Elena says, "Aster!"

"Sorry, mom," Aster mutters. "Sorry, dad."

"Don't think we can't ground you just because you're a big shot college girl now," Elena continues.

"Lo siento, papa," Aster apologizes again, this time more sincerely, then smiles at her dad, trying not to make a face. "And, no, dad, I'm too busy studying to date a guy..."

"Are you sure?"

"Trust me dad, there is no guy," Aster says more firmly, her face still warm.

"Well, I'm still hoping you could give him a chance," her father says. " He's a good young man."

Aster sighs. "Yeah, I know."

The thing was, he'd been good about their break-up, and she'd felt guilty even breaking up with him. He'd treated her right, took her out to dinners and to the movies, gave her expensive gifts and took good care of her. He'd looked at her with a sad, hurt, defeated expression on his face when she told him they were breaking up and he'd asked, "Is there someone else?" She'd been unsure how to answer that, and the image of Ellie had immediately come to mind. She hadn't wanted to hurt him more, and so she'd shaken her head, "No."

After a bit more catching up, her father and mother say goodbye, leaving Lucy with Aster.

Aster peers into the screen then and asks, softly, "Hey, how are you?"

"I'm fine," Lucy says, with a shrug.

"But...?" Aster prods her.

"But..." Here Lucy hesitates, shakes her head, then says, "I'm worried about dad..."

"Why?"

Lucy shrugs. "I just...he's been complaining about being tired all the time...and headaches..."

"Is he okay?" Aster asks, suddenly worried.

"I don't know..."

"Did he go to the doctor?"

"You know he doesn't like doctors and anyway...who needs doctors when you have God?"

Aster thinks about this and sighs. Their father has always been stubborn. He's also as healthy as an ox. If Lucy is worried about their father, then it is cause for concern. But she knows though the reason why her father wouldn't want to go to the doctor: like most people, he wouldn't go until he's really sick. But she doesn't want Lucy to worry, so she says, "Well, you know how dad is. Maybe it's nothing and you're worrying for nothing."

Lucy looks at Aster skeptically, so Aster says, "C'mon. It's dad. He's as strong as an ox. He'll outlive us all. Don't worry, okay? He's going to be fine."

That seems to calm Lucy a bit so Aster is relieved and they say goodbye and Aster is reminded how much she misses them and she suddenly she feels guilty all over again.

***

And then, of course, there are her classes. Or one class, in particular: Ms. Garcia's class.

It is right after her class with Ms. Garcia. The classroom is slowly emptying as Ms. Garcia shouts out reminders, emails, the video they need to watch, the group chat they need to check, the Zoom meet they have to join later, a virtual art tour they have to sign up for as Aster slowly gathers her things, gets up and makes her way through the desks - equidistant from each other, each one six feet apart from the other in the large, well-ventilated, well-lit classroom, walls decorated with posters of works by different artists like Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Helen Frankenthaler, Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keefe, Nancy Graves, Eva Hesse, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso, the last one a source of consternation for some of the female students.

As Aster passes by Ms. Garcia, she bows her head, hoping the other students might shield her from the teacher. But save for a few students, most of her classmates are a few feet apart from each other, leaving a gap in which Ms. Garcia spots her even before she can bolt for the door.

"Ms. Flores, can I talk to you for a second?" Ms. Garcia asks her, as she herself gathers her papers and notes and stashes them into her leather bag with her Macbook.

Aster stops, back turned to Ms.Garcia. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and slowly makes her way to Ms. Garcia. She stands in front of the teacher, waiting for her to speak, as Ms. Garcia finishes clearing up her things for the day. A student says, "Bye, Ms.Garcia!" and Ms.Garcia stops, looks up, smiles and waves before she stashes the last of her papers into her bag.

"I tell you, Ms.Flores, never be a teacher," she mutters to Aster, "It's too much paperwork and not enough time!"

Aster smiles, looking at Ms. Garcia. "My father's a teacher."

Ms. Garcia stops, looks up, considers Aster's face and smiles absently. "Then you must know what I'm talking about."

Aster nods. Deacon Flores is the quintessential parent cum educator, their house always filled with student papers, folders, grade sheets and projects. Like Mrs. G and the others, Deacon Flores rarely got angry, and rarely did with Aster. But he had a way of expressing his disappointment in ways that made Aster feel it for days and months on end. She can already imagine his disappointment if she fails this class. She looks at Ms. Garcia. Ms. Garcia is a few inches taller, twice her size, wears glasses with a chain, has long, light reddish brown hair with streaks of gray in it, laugh lines and crow's feet on her face and iron gray eyes that radiate firmness and kindness in equal measure. Ms. Garcia likes to wear long, colorful batik skirts and blouses, with beads of necklaces, dangling earrings and bangles. She felt like a cross between Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand, but Hispanic. Ms. Garcia is one of the artists-in-residence of the Chicago Institute of the Arts. She doesn't speak at first, just studies Aster, her piercing gaze making Aster so uncomfortable that she starts to fidget.

But then, Ms. Garcia slowly smiles at Aster and says, "Ms. Flores, how are you?"

Aster smiles faintly. "I'm fine, Ms. Garcia, thanks."

Ms. Garcia's smile widens. "Please, call me Morgan."

Aster nods.

Morgan Garcia steps away from her desk, bangles and jewelry jingling, to stand in front of Aster, a sheet of paper in her hand. She crosses her arms behind her. Then, she surprises Aster by saying, "Come with me," and without waiting for Aster, she turns and walks towards one of the poster paintings mounted on the wall. Aster, wondering what Morgan wants her to do, follows.
Morgan stops in front of one of the paintings. Aster respectfully stops a few feet behind her, waiting for her to speak. Morgan turns.

"Pop quiz," Morgan says with a smile. "Who is this guy?"

Aster carefully studies the painting, an explosion of color on canvas. "Jackson Pollock."

Morgan nods. "Correct. The drip painter. Okay. What was he famous for? Other than his paintings?"

Aster replies, "He'd let his mind go blank, and let his hand go where it wanted. Not deliberate, just not random."

Morgan nods. "Some place in between. Good. That's right. So you were listening in class. I wasn't sure."

Aster blushes.

"And what is this type of art called?"

"Automatic art."

"Right again," Morgan says. "Okay, so let's make like this is a Star Trek episode and engage the mind, okay?"

Aster nods, feeling her heart start to pound. Morgan is giving her that look Deacon Flores would have whenever he wanted to use the Socratic method on his own daughter.

"I'll be Janeway or Picard, take your pick and I'll engage your mind like it's a warp drive, okay?" Morgan says. "Not that big of a fan of Pollock, but what do you think would happen if Pollock had reversed the challenge?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if instead of making art without thinking, he said, 'You know what? I can't paint anything, unless I know exactly why I'm doing it.' What would have happened?"

Aster thinks about this. "He never would have made a single mark."

Morgan nods. "Yes, that's right! You see, there's that young lady who submitted that portfolio before the semester began, with paintings with so much promise and talent," Morgan says.

Morgan produces the paper she's been holding behind her back, shows it to Aster. "Recognize this?"

Aster nods, her blush growing deeper. "It's...one of mine." It's a self-portrait of hers, a sketch she made with charcoal. She could see the outline of her face, the dark, wavy hair, the dark eyes, the nose and the cheekbones and forehead.

"That's right," Morgan says, looking at her sketch. "This is a nice self-portrait, actually, but..."

Aster can no longer keep it to herself. "I don't understand, Ms. Garcia. I followed what you said. The conventions, the rules, the principles, everything..."

"Is this what I taught you?"Morgan asks.

"What?"

"To have works that are lifeless? Devoid of emotion? Of joy?"

"I don't understand..."

"Aster," Morgan says, gently. "You got in not just because you ticked off all the boxes, but also because you had real potential. But judging from the work you've been turning in, I have yet to see that potential..."

Aster doesn't know what to say.

"Aster, this isn't just about following conventions and rules and principles," Morgan says, voice soft but passionate. "The only way you will be a good artist is to get out of the shadows. There's still a lot more to do."

Aster says, "But I've done all I can do."

"You've done all you're willing to do. You haven't done all you can do."

Aster looks at her, feeling as if she's been slapped.

"The challenge is not to act automatically. It's to find an action that is not automatic. From painting, to breathing, to talking, to falling in love...that's what art is. Art is life. Art should be full of life," Morgan says. "Qui n’avance pas, recule," she continues. When Aster looks at her questioningly, Morgan translates, "Who does not move forward, recedes."

***

And then, one day, there was that day when Lucy calls her and says, panic-stricken and worried, "It's dad. Dad's in the hospital."

Chapter Text

Qui vivra verra. *

***


"But he's going to be okay, right?" Aster asks her mother anxiously, fingers fidgeting with the hem of her tee shirt. Her eyes are bloodshot, dark circles under her eyes, Ellie's gray Grinnel shirt rumpled from the long bus trip from Chicago to Squahamish. She'd taken the first bus to Squahamish to see her father against her mother, Elena's wishes. They are standing outside her father's hospital room as the nurse checks his vitals, Aster and her mother huddled together in the hallway, talking, Lucy curled up in a chair, asleep.


Elena nods. "Si. The doctor says it's just...fatigue, stress, a little viral infection...Your father's just really overworked and under a lot of pressure... "


Aster nods, taking this all in.


At first they'd thought it was the virus. Aster's father had gotten it before and recovered, when thousands had already died all over the country. He'd been young and foolish and thought himself invisible. He would go out, in defiance of the orders to stay home and would join the concessional protest, even if he had no political inclinations himself. It was during the waning days of the virus. The virus struck when he'd least expect it and he spent several harrowing days in the hospital, losing his sense of taste, having fevers and chills, finding it difficult to breathe. He thought he was going to die. And in truth he would have, but for some reason he didn't. He'd remembered a minister that day, outside, just praying over him and he hadn't forgotten that. He'd lost consciousness then. The doctors later told him he'd died for a few seconds and that they'd frantically tried to revive him. All he remembers is a blinding white light and a tunnel and an unfamiliar feeling of perfect peace. When he'd regained consciousness, he'd vowed he'd dedicate his life to God. That had been years ago. He'd been a young, brash man who'd certainly end up in trouble or in jail or dead, not because he was a particularly bad egg, but because he kept hanging out or ending up with the wrong crowd. He was lazy, unmotivated, brash, cocky, uninterested in school and equally uninterested in learning life skills, always did the barest minimum in anything. His near death experience had changed his life. After leaving the hospital, he'd also left his old life behind and decided to commit his life to God. He'd resigned himself to being alone, his life dedicated to God, as he ministered in poor Latinx communities, when he'd met Elena, who'd been volunteering in on the soup kitchens in the same community. They'd become friends, fallen in love, dated, gotten married, had Aster, moved to Squahamish, had Lucy and slowly built life for themselves in Squahamish. It's not the life that Aster's mother had imagined, but it's better than they expected. And they were happy. But now, Aster's father being sick is threatening this life they have built for themselves.


"The doctor says he just needs to take some time off from work and he'll be fine," Elena continues, interrupting Aster's thoughts.


"And you believe that?"Aster asks anxiously. "That he's going to be okay?"


Elena nods.


"He's working too hard," Aster comments, glancing back at the room where her father, surrounded by machines and wires and tubes, is amiably chatting with the nurse, no doubt proselytizing to another potential convert. Her father could be very persuasive and charming. She turns and she sees the guilty look on Elena's face. Aster quickly shakes her head. "I didn't mean..."


Elena had stopped working when Aster and then Lucy, had been born so she could raise them. Aster's father had been the sole breadwinner ever since.


"No, you're right, he is," Elena concedes with a sigh.


Aster sighs and nods. She looks at her mom. "I should quit school, mom."


Elena is already shaking her head. "No..."


"Mom...this is too much. With me in art school, and Lucy about to go to college soon...I don't think we can afford it..."


Elena is still shaking her head. "No, Aster, no..."


"Mom, dad doesn't look too good," Aster says, face looking worried. "I can't..."


Elena puts a hand on Aster's shoulder. "It's your father's wish that you finish art school, mija."


"But I thought he disapproved of it."


Elena smiles. "He's coming around to it..."


Aster smiles faintly, knowing her mother must've had something to do with it and nods. "I could get another job...or I don't know, take a year off...a gap year or something..."


Elena shakes her head and touches Aster's arm. "No, honey. It's fine. We'll figure something out."


Aster looks at her, dubious. "Are you sure?"


Elena nods. "Si. Don't worry your pretty little head about it. The Lord will provide. You'll see."


***


Aster sits on the only chair in the hospital room, staring out the window. She'd sent her mother and sister home and insisted she stay at the hospital for the night. To let her mother rest.


She stares out the window, at the darkness and emptiness outside, idly playing with her phone. The room, the hospital, is eerily quiet and cold, save for the steady beep of the machines helping to monitor her father's vitals, the sound of voices outside, the occasional car driving in or out of the hospital, a siren in the distance.


She is tired but not sleepy. She turns to her phone, checks her email, finds messages from professors and classmates, and one from Steph, but then buried under all that email is one from Ellie.


***


FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com

TO:asterflores@gmail.com


DATE: Nov. 15 at 12: 30am


Hey,


It's November, the autumn leaves falling, moon in its last quarter. Halloween has come and gone and things are still pretty busy for me. I think they are for you, too.


How are you? Haven't heard from you in a while. I hope everything is fine with you. As for me, I'm pretty busy with work and school. I think you are, too.


Look, I'm sorry if I freaked you out when I visited you. I'm sorry it went too far. I'm sorry if it felt like I've put too much pressure on you. I didn't mean to. And I'd never make you do anything you'd be uncomfortable doing. I think you already know that. If my life is anything to go by right now, I'm sure you have a lot on your mind. I understand that.


And if, for example, whatever we have, or I thought we had, is gone, it's going to be hard for me. Not going to lie. But if all you ever want for now, is to be friends with me, then I'm okay with that, because at least I'd still have you in my life. I like talking to you. I miss talking to you.


Hope everything's okay with you.


P.S. I'm still going to write you these emails though, unless you tell me to stop.


***


Aster stares at the email, unsure what to do, before she opens ghost message and texts Ellie.

***
'Hey,' is what Aster starts with.

'Hey,' Ellie says, surprised, not knowing what else to say, feeling her heart pound.

'How are you?'

'I'm good. You?'

'Fine, thanks.'

'That's great,' Ellie says. And then, because she doesn't know what else to say, she says, 'I'm sorry...'

That elicits a response from Aster. 'For what?'

'For...what happened, when I visited you...I shouldn't have...'

'No, it's okay, don't worry about it,' Aster says. 'Don't think I didn't want what happened...when you came for a visit...I wanted it. I've just...had a lot on my mind lately and...'

'I understand,' Ellie says. 'Do you want to talk about it?'

Aster feels relieved. She sighs and says, 'It's my dad...'

'Tell me...'

And so Aster tells her what's happened so far with her father. Ellie listens, asking questions when she wants something clarified, but not offering her own opinion, only supports Aster.

'Wow, that's...' Ellie fumbles for something to say. 'I'm glad he's okay.'

'You and me both.'

'So what are you going to do now?'

'I don't honestly know. Mom says I shouldn't drop out and that my dad fully supports my going to art school but...'

'You're worried about the money...'

'Yes.'

'That...sucks...' Ellie says. 'Is there anything I can do?'

Aster is silent for a while, fingertips hovering over the keypad. Ellie patiently waits. Finally, Aster types, 'No, nothing. Your friendship is enough. Thank you for listening.'

Ellie sighs. Clearly Aster had taken some time to think about this. Ellie feels like she's being let down easily. She wants to tell her so much, about what she feels for Aster, and what she's willing to do for her, but her feelings are overwhelming her and words are failing her.

When Ellie doesn't respond, Aster types, 'I'm sorry...'

Ellie swallows, feeling the hurt stab her like a knife. 'It's...okay.'

Aster feels something twist in her heart, could swear she could feel Ellie's hurt through the phone but she doesn't know how to make Ellie feel better. 'It's...it would be nice if we could still be...friends...'

Ellie takes a deep, shaky breath. Her hands are shaky, clammy, her heart feeling as of it's been ripped out of her chest. This is how it must feel to get dumped. To get your heart broken. But they never actually even dated. This fills Ellie with sadness.

'I'm sorry, Ellie... But I don't want to jump in right now without fully being able to wrap my head around this first...and like I said, I have a lot of stuff going on...with school and work and dad and...'

'Okay,' Ellie says, with a sigh. 'If that's what you need right now...'

'It is...'

'Okay,' Ellie replies. 'Oh, hey, your shirt is still with me...I forgot to return it...."'

'Keep it...'

'Yeah? You sure?'

'Yes.' When Ellie doesn't say anything else, Aster says, 'Thank you, Ellie. It means a lot to me...'

'You're welcome...' Ellie says. The smile slowly fades from her face. She feels something in her seize and unfold. A pain. This must be love. She thinks. Which wrenches and wounds. She feels something sting her eyes. She looks up, feels her eyes go blurry. She rubs at her eyes with the back of her hand. Her phone buzzes. Aster has texted her again.


'So...' Aster begins, 'Tell me about your day...'

And because Ellie feels like her heart is being ripped in two but she still wants to talk to the girl who ripped it apart, she does.

Chapter Text

À cœur vaillant rien d'impossible. *

***

Ellie leans against the cold glass window and looks out at the world outside. It is late autumn, and she can already feel the chill of the coming winter in the air. Days had come and gone without a word from Aster. She clutches her phone in her hand, debating whether to email or text her before she decides to just toss the phone on her bed. After staring out the window for a few more minutes, she sighs, grabs her apron and heads on down to the restaurant.


***

The Jade Palace is a small Chinese-Korean restaurant a few blocks from Grinnell that's popular with the college crowd and the local community for its noodles, chow mein, dumplings, kimchi, spring rolls and other Chinese and Korean dishes. Personally, Ellie loves the braised pork, pork chao fan, roast duck, shumai, spicy chicken and samgyeopsal. It's a simple restaurant with tiled floors, tables decked with red-table cloth, plastic chairs, walls decorated with Chinese and Korean traditional paintings, a Buddha off to one side, with incense, a statue of Confucius, and a shiny, golden cat with one paw bobbing up and down. There's a red poster decorated with the Chinese characters for fortune and good luck, hung there from the last Chinese New Year and a calendar on the wall.

When Mr.Kim's son, Cho, isn't around, she helps deliver using the motorbike Mr.Kim has kindly lent her, or she's helping serve food or helping out in the kitchen. Mr. Kim is frugal but a good boss, and gives Ellie fair wages. It's minimum wage, but Ellie can't complain that much though because she gets to keep her tips, she has free Chinese or Korean food and she can live above the restaurant virtually rent-free, she only has to pay for utility bills. Mr. Kim and his son live a few miles away and sleeps easily knowing someone is staying above the restaurant. Mr.Kim is a tall, thin bespectacled man with thin, iron gray hair, in his fifties or sixties, Ellie isn't sure, a second generation immigrant son of a Korean father and a Chinese mother. Mr.Kim is given to nagging Ellie about not eating enough, her helmet use and working too hard and she thinks it's because Mr.Kim only has the one grown son.

Today, the restaurant isn't too busy, as she makes her way down, so she grabs a mop and starts to clean the tiled floor as Mr.Kim talks to a couple of customers by the counter. She's relieved he's busy, so she doesn't have to make small talk. She has a lot on her mind and she needs some time alone to think.

***

She thought her trip to Chicago had gone well. Aster had looked delighted to see her. And everything had gone well - they talked, ate dinner together, even made out, but then it had suddenly changed and Ellie is still regretting whatever she's done.
She'd thought they were okay, but then Aster's father had fallen ill, and Aster had decided they should just be friends. Ellie could pretend it's okay for her all she wants but the fact of the matter is she doesn't want to just be friends with Aster. She wants to be more. But she knows she can't force the issue and she has to respect Aster's decision. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt or that she doesn't miss her and she's torn whether to message her or just break off all communication with her altogether because it hurts too much, pretending everything's okay.

But she knows this isn't as easy for Aster as it is for her. She'd known she's liked girls since she was at least nine, even when she hadn't known the word for it, one day when she'd stood up to some boys for bullying a girl in class and the girl had been so grateful she'd kissed Ellie. Ellie knew then. And Ellie knew the first time she'd seen Aster. And now that her feelings are all tangled up in confusion and repressed longing, she is pretty certain of her feelings for Aster. But Aster isn't. She could see it in church, when she'd confessed her feelings for Aster, Aster's face wrapped in confusion and doubt and fear, at the restaurant, when she'd admitted she'd thought about Ellie and the possibility of liking her, but wasn't entirely sure, she could feel it even when she'd kissed Aster and Aster had hesitated. She could even feel it when she'd visited Aster in Chicago. She could feel that Aster likes her, but she could also sense Aster struggling with her feelings for Ellie. 

Mercifully, things had gotten busy at school and at work, and rather than dwell on the state of uncertainty that is her situation with Aster, or her feelings for her, she throws herself head first into her work and school projects, leaving little room for anything else, only giving her a little time for brief emails or messages to Aster: updates on life in Iowa, schoolwork, readings and papers to write, her job. At first, it felt easy to just write brief emails or fire off short texts, but by Thanksgiving, she realizes it's getting harder to pretend everything's alright between them.

Thankfully, other than work and school, she has her dad and Paul, checking up on her ever so often.

***

"Well, I wondered what happened to you," Paul says, over Skype, grinning from ear to ear, Mr.Chu in the background. "We thought you might be sick. Or in some kind of trouble. Your dad was worried sick. He thought it could be the snow, but is it snowing there now?"
Ellie shakes her head. "No. I mean, it's cold all the time now, but no snow yet...I do feel like I'm going to come down with a cold though." Then she sees her dad and she smiles, "Hey, dad."

"You look thin," her father begins by way of greeting. "Are you eating enough?"

Ellie nods, noting he sounds more confident now, speaking in English. She notes maybe it's Paul's influence. "Mr.Kim lets me have all the leftover dumplings...oh! And chao fan."

"Aiya! Dumpling, that is not enough," Mr.Chu says. "You need fruits and vegetables."

Ellie is already nodding. "I know, dad...I'm eating my fruits and vegetables..." She could see Paul grinning behind her dad and tries not to glare at him.

"Are you taking your vitamins?" Her father asks. "It is flu season now...be careful...wash your hands all the time...do not touch your face...use alcohol all the time...stay away from crowded areas..."

"Yeah, I know, dad, I know," Ellie says, rolling her eyes.

"Did you get the herbs I sent you?"

Ellie grabs the envelope of herbs and shows it to her dad. "Yep." She opens it, smells it and makes a face. "Ugh, what is that smell?"

"It is to improve your chi," her dad explains.

"It means it's supposed to help with dating prospects!" Paul chimes in. Her dad just looks at Paul, expressionless, Ellie gives him a dirty look and Paul just chuckles.

Ellie scrunches up her nose at the smell.

"It's all natural, no side effects," her father says.

"Fine, dad, thanks," Ellie says, after which her father proceeds to explain how to brew it.

"Who's in Chicago?" he suddenly asks.

"What?" Ellie asks, but then her father points to her shirt, and Ellie looks down and remembers she's wearing Aster's Chicago shirt. "Oh, um, nobody," she says, face suddenly falling.

"Oh," Mr. Chu says, then proceeds like nothing's happened. Once he's done, they chat a bit more before he says he has to go make dinner for him and Paul. A pang of sadness hits Ellie then, realizes she's missing her father, and feels a bit of envy that Paul gets to have dinner with him and she can't.

"This ginseng stuff is pretty cool," Paul says then as he takes over the chat. He'd gone out of earshot so he could chat more privately with Ellie.

Ellie makes a face.

"It's true. Mom's pretty much digging the whole ginseng thing, and it's healthy, too!"

"Ugh, please don't. I hate jasmine tea and ginseng and all that stuff," Ellie says, making a gagging sound. "What's for dinner?"

Paul grins. "Stinky tofu."

"Ugh. You'll never get the stench out of there..."

Paul smiles. "Don't worry. I bought an extra strength spray for just this occasion..."

Ellie tilts her head. "Oh, wow, are you replacing me now as my dad's kid?"

Paul laughs. "Never! Your dad adores you. Won't stop bragging about his genius hotshot daughter studying in some low key Ivy League school."

"Yeah?"

Paul nods. "Yeah. Don't think I'll be replacing you anytime soon..."

***

'I freaked her out,' Ellie confesses her suspicions to Paul a few minutes later, once they've settled down to watching Pedro Almodovar's "Habla Con Ella" online, their faces on little squares beside the screen as they do so. Ellie is comfortably lying on her bed in her pajamas and socks.

'What do you mean?'

'I don't know. Maybe she doesn't want this. Maybe she doesn't want to be with me.'

'Don't be weird, dude, she's totally into you.'

'Dude, it has nothing to do with whether she's totally into me or not. She could totally be into me and this thing might still not be happening...'

'Maybe she isn't ready.'

'Yeah...'

"What are you gonna do?'

'Dunno. I'm thinking of giving up. Make a clean break for it.'

'That what you want?'

Ellie shrugs. 'Dunno.'

'But she's still your friend, right? I mean, that has to count for something...'

'Yeah, but...'

'Dude, never figured you for a quitter.'

'Awww, leave me alone, dork.'

She could practically hear Paul laugh out loud.

She spends the whole movie thinking about Aster.

She wishes she could give up on Aster and her feelings for her. But the problem is, she can't. And she doesn't think she wants to. She reads a book by Carl Sagan and realizes she at least wants to give it another shot. She can't call herself a student of science and not apply her beliefs to her own life. 

She sighs and reaches for her phone. 

***


FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO:asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 15 at 12: 30am

Christmas has officially come to Iowa.

My boss, Mr. Kim, this tall, shy and translucent-looking man that looks a bit like a squid, has gone overboard decorating the restaurant. There's a crocodile with pom-poms by the window greeting passersby, a Christmas armadillo singing "All I Want for Christmas is You" standing beside it, a Mother Mary with two baby Jesus (Jesuses?) beside the Christmas armadillo that Mr.Kim has told me, "Let's just pretend Mary had twins."

He's given to making me and his son, Cho, a slightly serial-killer looking tall guy with thick glasses, a thick mop of hair and long-sleeved shirt, greet his customers with "Merry Christmas!" but he's since made us stop because apparently we "make it sound like a death threat".
His son, Cho, has been asking me to go have coffee with him, but I've turned him down.

"If you must know, you're not my type," Cho once told me.

"You're not mine," I told him.

"What IS your type?" he asked me.

I walked out on him as he says, "I like a good challenge!"

Once, he asked me, "Do you want to take a walk?"

And I said, "No. What am I, a dog?"

" C'mon, come out with me. I think you're the one for me... Why aren't you giving me a chance?"

"The one? What, am I some kind of lobster?" I retorted.

Once, he remarked, "You don't use make-up, do you?"

And I replied, "What's the point? I'd still look like me, only in color."

When he asked me out again, and I turned him down, he says, "Oh, I get it, you're one of those career Chinese!"

I gave him a dirty look. "I am not a career Chinese!"

"I can't wait for you to go out with me!" he'd once told me, to which I said, "You probably can, actually!"

Anyway, don't worry, his father watches him like a hawk and once told him, "Cho, if she's turned you down once, the next time she asks you and she turns you down again, it's called sexual harassment. And stalking. If you don't stop this right now, I'll call the police myself."
Cho had grinned at that but he'd backed off, so that's good. He's a good guy, just very misguided. Mr.Kim wanted him to dress as an elf but he bombed and he scared the customers so he stopped because Mr.Kim kept calling him "Crushing Disappointment Elf", or "Lazy the Elf" or "Waste of Money the Elf". So, Cho would say, "I curse the day I was born!" and Mr. Kim would say, "I curse it, too!"

Anyway, as someone who doesn't believe in God or Christmas, I think Christmas is overrated anyway. It's just this blatantly commercial holiday that encourages people to be desperately happy so they can part with hard-earned cash and trick themselves into believing the world's getting better when it's not. Holidays are irrational and completely full of contradiction.

The mathematical world, on the other hand, is completely rational, and is the language of science.
I'd much rather go back to trying to understand the essential nature of the universe. Is the universe an inherently irrational place? Random and chaotic?

The other day we watched this movie about physics and it made me think about things like what is cinema? What is life? If, as Sartre says, the internal self is a myth, and we only exist through external action, do we exist at all?

***

'Hey. Got your email. Are Chinese people this cynical?' Aster had texted her with a smile.

'These are dark times,' Ellie had replied, a smile on her face.

'Lol. You don't like Christmas because it's full of contradictions?'

'Yup! And don't get me started on Easter! I mean, it's a Christian holiday, but how are Easter eggs connected with Easter bunnies? And Easter egg hunts?'

'Welp, you got me there,' Aster replies. 'That's something for someone like my dad to answer.'

'I'm sure he has all the answers, ha-ha!' Ellie says. When Aster doesn't reply to that at first, Ellie asks, 'How is your father?'

'He's...doing great...considering what's happened. They've put him on indefinite leave which he isn't really too happy about but he's since found the time, at home, just...clawing the cupboards, looking for something to do...'

'I can imagine...'

'Dad says hi, by the way...'

'Oh?'

'I was wearing your shirt once and he saw it and wondered...'

'Oh...'

'Yeah...I told dad Paul gave it to me since it didn't fit him.'

'Good save.'

'Yeah. The lies just keep piling up..."

" Lol. Yes." Ellie pauses then, before she continues, 'So, um, I've got to go now...got to study for finals...but I'll talk to you, soon?'

'Sure. Or I'll see you soon? It's Christmas break coming up...'

'Yeah, of course...'

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO:asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 23 at 1: 30am

So, I'm writing this after having read an article about scientists discovering that there might be a parallel universe similar to ours. Apparently, they are saying that at the moment of the Big Bang two universes were formed – ours, and another one that from our perspective is running in reverse. What's exciting is that if people existed in this mirror universe, they’d totally see ours as the backwards one.

The thing is they discovered it by studying energy particles that can pass completely through the Earth, barely interacting with the substance of our planet at all. But higher energy objects are stopped by the reassuringly solid matter of the Earth. It's pretty exciting stuff, and they discovered it only because they were doing experiments with high energy particles called tau neutrinos that were exhibiting changes in behavior as they passed through Earth and back again and they concluded that the only way this could happen is if there's a parallel universe and if the particles were actually travelling backwards in time.

Quite exciting stuff, huh?

It kind of justified all these theories about the multi-verse that's been going around since at least the 50's. The Theory of Multiverse, which originally came from scientist Hugh Everett posits that every version of our past and future histories exists just in an alternate universe. This means that every choice you make has already happened in an infinite number of ways and that an infinite number of universes exist where you made a different choice. And in this way we can live multiple lives. I don't know why but that's comforting to me. And that's why I can email you now. Not quite sure what universe I'm living in now, but I do know there's a universe where we get the happy ending. Maybe.

But one thing I'm sure of is this: whatever is going to happen between us, whatever's happening now between us, whatever brought us together, you and I were brought together for a reason. You're as much a part of my life now as I am of yours.

Put in another way, I'd quote David Mitchell: "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." My life isn't my own. I'm as much bound to you as I am to my past and present, by each act and kindness and together, we can create our future.

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 24 at 7: 30am

That was beautiful.

Merry Christmas, Ellie.

Can I see you on Christmas day?

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 24 at 10: 30am

Thank you.

I'm kind of busy right now, though and not sure when my schedule's going to free up but will let you know.

I remember one class I had before where we discussed Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan once said human beings are like butterflies. We flutter for a day and think it's forever. Compared to the lifespan of the universe, our lives begin and end on a single day. I've come to understand it this way: the stars are just balls of gas burning billions of miles away. They are also a reminder of the brief time we have on this planet. Time and distance are the heart's enemies. Everyone we meet, everyone we love, how we got here, what path we choose, who we choose to remember, that's part of our story. But we can't allow the story to choose us, because we don't have forever, all we have is a single day. I don't have much time. And neither do you. Neither does anyone else. And so I'm just going to keep reminding you that I'm here and and I care for you and that's probably not going to change anytime soon.

You can't stop what's meant to be.

Merry Christmas to you, too.

***

'You're crazy,' Aster texts her after she's read her email.

'Why's that?'

'What if I never figure things out?'

'Somewhere, in a parallel universe, you did.'

'Fine. What if I do, but it takes years and years and years?'

'Time does not exist,' Ellie quickly replies.

'What?'

'Time is an illusion.'

'I don't understand...'

'What time is it now?'

'It's 1:30am...'

'Aha! Yes. But even as you say 1:30, it's not precisely 1:30 is it? It's already 1:31! And even as I type that, it's actually more accurately 1:32am...'

'You lost me...'

'Even as you ask me about time, the future has already become the past. Therefore there's no present and therefore time does not exist.'

'I never thought of it that way...'

'Well, one way of looking at it would be, we're actually living in the eternal present...'

'I like that,' Aster replies. 'Is it possible college has made you even smarter?'

'The better, according to Paul, to pick up chicks.'

'Lol. And have you?'

'No, not really. You remain the only one interested in talking about physics and quantum mechanics with me...'

'Not even Cho?'

'Eeewww...'

'Lol. You're cute. Freakily smart, but cute.'

'I know. Did you feel that?'

'What?'

'Somewhere an atom collided with an atom that collided with an atom and so on until they collided with us.'

'Lol. Dork. I have to sleep now. Good night, Ellie.'

'Good night. I love you.' Ellie had sent the text before she'd realized she'd said it, and then by then it's too late. She starts to panic but then, Aster replies.

'I know.'

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 25 at 1: 10am

So it's basically Christmas day and I'm still up. In a few hours, I have to go back to work because Mr.Kim wants me there and basically, Cho is useless.

This is just one of those quiet times I'll have for myself so I'm enjoying it when I can.

So, I think I already told you my mother was actually a scientist. My dad told me we came to America so I could become like my mother, not like my dad. I told him, "You don't mean dead, right?" And he said, "I hope not."

Anyway, so my mother discovered a comet. It was named Chu's Comet and it's supposed to be coming back soon. And when it comes back she'd be riding on it making sure I was okay. So, in a few weeks or months, I'll be waiting for this comet to come back. I think in some ways, having a star named after my mom is comforting to my father. When my father looks up, he knows somewhere out there is a comet named after my mother. He used to say that when my mom looked at the stars she didn't really see stars, she only saw great seas of fire and nuclear furnaces, said it was like a very violent ballet that was too small to see.

***
FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 25 at 7:00am

That's beautiful.

***

FROM: elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 25 at 8:00am

It is.

It was my mother who named me actually. My father likes to say I was lovingly named. If you know Chinese culture, this is a big deal since we're very practical, utilitarian people.

My name, Ellie, means bright, shining one. It's a way for my parents to share their hopes and dreams for my future.

In Chinese, the family name comes first though. It's a way to honor and show respect to our ancestors. It's a way to show us where we're from and where we're going. In Chinese, I would be Chu, Ellie, because the family name - xing (姓, xìng) which js followed by a personal name called ming (名, míng) is the standard way of using names. In general, using the given name connoted the speaker's authority and superior position to the addressee. Peers and younger relatives were barred from speaking it.

Owing to this, many historical Chinese figures—particularly emperors—used a half-dozen or more different names in different contexts and for different speakers. Those who had the same names as the emperor's were frequently forced to change them. Anyway, so it was weird when people used my full name. They seemed to have power over me.

Except you. You don't call me the way others do.

Anyway, I have to do a bit of work but quick question what is your most treasured memory?

P.S. I like that your name means "Star". It reminds me of my mother.


***


FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Dec. 27 at 3:00am

Hey.

So I got your gift.

I was kind of surprised. The postal worker had come to the house at an unholy hour with a package for me and I was surprised because I never get any package and I take a look at it and see that it's from you.

I was so glad my family was still asleep so I could open my gift in the privacy of my room and I carefully open it with trembling fingers because it looks so carefully giftwrapped and finally, inside the box, I see another box. It's a watch. An ordinary watch with a black strap. I know I've received gifts before, but I don't know this seems more special somehow. And I've spent the whole day and night just thinking about what to say and I don't know...your gift has left me speechless. I hadn't even seen the best part, that engraved message at the back of the watch, "Only time can tell how much I care for you..."

Ellie...this is the best gift anyone's ever given to me.

And I know you wrote in your note that you don't expect anything in return but, I hadn't even given you anything for Christmas what with everything that's been going on...but, you could check this link out though: diegarivera20.tumblr.com. I've just been doing a lot of stuff here and I hope this makes up for it.

Merry Christmas, Ellie. Thank you for your gift.

When can I see you? I hope to see you soon.

Love,

Aster

Chapter Text

*À l'impossible nul n'est tenu.

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Jan. 15 at 10:00pm

Hey!

I'm glad you like my gift. So sorry, have been so busy with finals and the work and holidays and stuff absolutely didn't have enough time to go back to Squahamish. Thought I could come back on New Year's eve or after the New Year but as it turns out it's even busier than any other time of the year. Then before I knew it, second semester had already began and I'm studying epistemology, ontology, hermeneutics, game theory, and new favorite: thermodynamics. This class is such an important part of science that, according to my teacher,"Not knowing thermodynamics is like not knowing Shakespeare." I like this class because laws of thermodynamics are precise... so precise they are expressed in mathematics. My teacher told us, "Thermodynamics is present in everything we encounter in the world around us, in ourselves, in our machines..." We can find it in quantum physics, biology, engineering, everything. Curiously, these laws were developed for the steam power engine and evolved into its philosophical consequences.
Anyway, I've been learning about the laws of thermodynamics. The first law of motion is law of inertia. If an object is moving and nothing touches it if it is undisturbed it will continue moving in a straight line with the uniform speed forever.

The first law of motion states that for every action applied to the body there is a reaction force that is equal in size and opposite in direction. A body accelerates in a proportional way to the force applied to it. That is the action and reaction principle.

It's kind of cool, isn't it?

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Jan. 16 at 10:30pm

It sounds very cool. :-)

Sounds like you're having a great time.
I'm studying Impressionism at the moment. I know a lot of people think impressionist art is great from afar but just really one big mess up close, but I'm really liking it. There's something about the use of colors and light in impressionist paintings that I really like.

These are the ones I am liking so far.

I'd like to report more but have just started working at student affairs and it's crazy busy, but it helps with tuition and stuff.

.attachments

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Jan. 17 at 11:00pm

Yeah, I totally see what you mean. Monet, Rembrandt and Renoir have really awesome paintings. Don't know why people think they're a mess up close.

Yeah, I know what you mean, re: work. Hey, what about tumblr? You could post your art there and get commissions.l think it would be awesome. :-)

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: DATE: Jan. 19 at 9:00pm

I don't know...

What would I even draw?

***

TO:asterflores@gmail.com
FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Jan. 20 at 10:00pm

Entirely up to you. :-)

I'm sure you'll think of something.

***
Ellie looks at her reply to Aster, sighs and pockets her phone. After she'd gone back to school she'd busier than usual, still working at the Chinese-Korean restaurant, while studying. A student bumps into her and she looks up, remembering where she is, at school, by the bulletin boards, having finished classes. She remembers why she is standing there in the first place.

Ellie looks up at the bulletin board, checking out the announcements. She spots a post for a summer research project in Alaska. The flyer is looking for a research assistant. She sighs. Might as well. Her feelings for Aster hasn't diminished, but over the holidays, she's also decided she wouldn't let her life revolve around her feelings for her. She doesn't think Aster's nowhere near being able to accept her feelings for her and over the holidays, as she worked and studied and contemplated about her life she'd realized she'd spent too much time thinking about Aster. She should let Aster figure things out, live her life, rather than push her into something she isn't ready for.

She sighs. Closes her eyes. Fuck being in love seriously. If someone had told her it would be like this, alternately exhilirating and confusing and scary and uncertain and anxiety-inducing, capable of making her cycle through different emotions, sometimes in the space of a few minutes. She'd decided, that Christmas, to give the watch, both as a gift and as a declaration of how much she cares for Aster. She'd decided, as part of her New Year's Resolution, that she'd give Aster and herself the time and space to grow and to figure things out and to come to terms with how they feel for each other.
She remembers that night, composing that email, thumb hovering over the send button, before taking a deep breath, hitting send, tossing her phone on the bed, lying back and smiling. She'd never felt freer, like a weight had been lifted, than when she'd sent that email. Any emails they'd exchange after that, would just be that...emails.

***

Ellie takes the flyer now, takes note of the contact details, fires off a quick text and email asking if the position is still available and shoves it in her backpack.

She turns then, and heads to the library, thinking she could do some advanced reading on thermodynamics before her next class later.
As she takes her seat, she spots a girl a few feet away, looking at her. When she looks back at the girl, the girl quickly looks away, grabs a book and shoves her nose in it. Ellie knits her eyebrows. She's seen the girl before. She thinks she's in her thermodynamics class. She thinks nothing of it, until the girl gets up and makes a beeline for her.

***

"I've seen you around campus before," the girl she'd met at the library, Lauren, says, taking a sip of her hot coffee.

"Yeah?" Ellie asks, pushing her glasses up and taking a sip from her coffee. She cups the warm cup in her hands and looks out over the snow covered campus, landscape dusted with snow and sludge, students in coats and scarves and beanies, clutching backpacks and books hurrying to their next class or hurrying back to their dorms. Everything is still and very cold, everything submerged in snow and ice, binding the earth with the cold. The coffee shop, a favorite among students for its cheap coffee and sandwiches, is warm and inviting, smelling of brewed coffee and muffins. In the gloom, there are fluorescent halos, a solid stack of equidistant tables and chairs, silhouettes of the few students brave enough to study here and have coffee in the other tables, hunched over textbooks, notebooks and laptops, face squinting on screens and papers. Ellie and Lauren sit across each other, each one cupping a cup of coffee, uneaten plates of muffins and bagels infront of them.

Lauren nods. "I'd been wanting to...talk to you..." When Ellie looks at her, Lauren blushes and says, "I mean to discuss class and stuff. Honestly, I didn't think you would say yes."

Ellie smiles. "Yeah?"

Lauren nods. "I..." She starts, nervous, swallows, blushes, then says, "I...I was wondering if...if you could tutor me...in thermodynamics?" When Ellie doesn't reply, eyes narrowed, studying Lauren, Lauren blushes even more, and speaks faster. "I mean...um...you probably don't tutor and I'd totally understand if you don't and you're probably busy and I'm probably just another Karen to you...but I'm flunking our class, or at least I think I'm almost pretty sure I'm going to flunk class and you're so smart...like super smart...and like, super cute...with your glasses and stuff...not like I have a fetish for Asians and stuff...I mean, I'm not like that at all. I have Asian friends. Which is a stupid thing to say to someone Asian. But what is race even? That's like...some freaking construct anyway. God, I should just shut up. Please forget I ever said that. I thought if there was someone who could help me understand thermodynamics it would be you..."

Ellie smiles a lop-sided smile. Lauren reminds her a bit of Paul, not physically, Lauren is slightly smaller but athletic, a varsity player for Grinnel's basketball team, but more the earnestness and the rambling and the stuttering. She also looked cute, with her long, wavy auburn hair in a pony tail and her green eyes and her pink cheeks.

Ellie looks at her and nods. "Okay."

"Yeah?"

Ellie shrugs. "Yeah. Sure. I could use the money."

She could hear Lauren's audible sigh. "Oh, thank god, you're a lifesaver!" she says, putting her hand over Ellie's before she blushed again and pulls it back. "Sorry," she mutters.

Ellie shakes her head. "That's fine," she says, taking out her notebook and pen. "We just need to figure out schedules and lessons and stuff. So...how do you want to do this?"

***

Steph looks at the gift Aster has received from Ellie.

Steph gives her a neutral smile. "Wow. Bold."

Aster nods. "Yes."

"What are you going to do about it?"

Aster shrugs. "I wanted to see her for Christmas. But she said she was busy. She actually didn't come home for the Christmas break."

Steph nods. "Does that bother you?"

Aster shakes her head. "No, not really."

"But?"

"But, I did want to talk to her..."

"Does she do this often?"

"I don't...know..."

"What were you supposed to tell her?"

"I...wanted to figure things out, I guess?"

"That's good, though, right? Progress?"

Aster nods. "Yes. But I also feel like my dad falling ill is like God's punishment...for me liking Ellie."

Steph smiles. "Have you heard of Lawrence Kohlberg?"

"Who is he?"

Steph leans forward and explains who Lawrence Kohlberg is.

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Feb. 1 at 10:40pm

Hi!

I learned something new today: Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Kohlberg identified three levels of moral reasoning: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Each level is associated with increasingly complex stages of moral development.

Briefly, Level 1 is preconventional where we accept and believe the rules of authority figures, such as parents and teachers. We focus on what external consequences our actions will bring. We want to obey rules and we don't want to be punished and we behave according to the best interest of the group.

Level 2 is Conventional level where our sense of morality is connected to personal and societal relationships. We accept the rules of authority figures, because we believe it is necessary to ensure positive relationships and societal order. This is where we want to be good boys and girls, we want the approval of others so we don't do stuff that people will disapprove of. We blindly accept rules and convention so we can maintain a functioning society.

Then there is Level 3, the Postconventional level. In this level, our sense of morality is defined in relation more abstract principles and values. We understand that some laws are unjust and should be changed or removed. We realize we are individuals and that we can break rules that don't follow our own principles. People who live at this level live by their own ethical principles—like life, liberty, and justice—and see rules as useful but changeable mechanisms, not absolutes that must be obeyed at all costs. We view the world as a place of varied opinions, rights, and values and that these should be mutually respected. Moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles.

Kinda cool, huh?

***
FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: Feb. 19 at 11:00pm

Hey,

How are you?

So sorry. Neck deep in thermodynamics,science, math and GE classes (GE classes! Why?!?) and thus neck deep in required readings, homework, papers, projects and work.

And in other news, thermodynamics is still my favorite class this semester.

We're discussing the law of gravity this week. The law of gravity states that the gravitational attraction between two bodies depends on the product of their masses and also inversely proportional to the distance between them.
Isaac Newton's brilliance is discovering that gravity is why planets revolve around the sun. And why things fall to the ground.

The curious thing though is although we know the formula thanks to Newton, exactly what gravity is remains a mystery.

We don't know where it comes from or why bodies attract each other but we know that they do.

Anyway, so what level are you in now based on Kohlberg's discussions?

***

FROM: asterflores@gmail.com
TO: elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: Feb 28, 10:00pm

Hey,

Level 1.

I know, I know, don't hate me. I realize now it's been hard for me because of this. It's just really hard for me to...break free. I'm scared of a lot of things. Scared I'd burn in hell. Scared of what other people will think. Scared my family will accept not accept me. Scared they will turn me away. Scared I will lose them. If I lose them, what's going to happen to me? I've known them my whole life. My family is my life. If I lose them...then what am I?

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: March 8 at 8:00pm

I could never hate you. You know that.

And I understand.

I'm not asking you for anything.

I'm not asking you to do anything...

You don't have to worry about that...

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: March 10 at 10:00pm

What do you want from me, Ellie?

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO:asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: March 13 at 12:00am

I want you.

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: March 13 at 1:00am

Ellie...

I'm sorry...

I can't...

Not right now...

***

FROM:elliechiu314@gmail.com
TO: asterflores@gmail.com
DATE: March 13 at 1:30am

I know.

Whatever happens, I'm just here.

Just...don't forget me.

***

FROM:asterflores@gmail.com
TO:elliechiu314@gmail.com
DATE: March 13 at 1:45pm

I won't remember anything else.

Chapter Text

Ellie's phone buzzes and it jolts her awake. At first she feels disoriented, staring up at the ceiling, then at the walls filled with post-its, newspaper clippings, notes, pushpins, a map of Iowa, and she realizes she's still in Iowa, above her landlord, Mr. Kim's restaurant, it's summer, and she's actually given up her summer to work on a draft of her research for senior year: the impact of agricultural land-use in Iowa on its climate, energy consumption, air pollution using chaos theory and statistical climatology. She's hoping that if she does well with her senior thesis it would grant her a spot at Washington State, which has a good graduate school program for the master's degree she intends to study. She also hopes they'd give her a spot as a research assistant.

Her phone buzzes then and she opens it and it's Lauren, whom she's dated briefly freshman year and has now become one of her friends.

"Hey, gorgeous," Lauren says with a smile.

Ellie grins, blinks, grabs her glasses and looks at Lauren. "Hey, Lauren. What's up?"

Lauren shrugs. "Nothing much. But check this out! " She moves her cellphone and Ellie can see a a view of the ocean.

Ellie whistles.

"I know, right?" Lauren says, with a chuckle.

"How's Cabo?" Ellie asks.

"Okay," Lauren replies. "Not the same without you, though."

"Lauren..."

"I know, I know, you've got to study and do your research and be all alone and single and whatever but this place is awesome!"

Ellie smiles, yawning.

"I'm starting to think not having a love life is your thing," Lauren teases her. "You need a love life, Ellie."

"I have a like life," Ellie mumbles. "It suits me fine."

Lauren chuckles. "Sure, sure. But I'd get on that love life ASAP if I were you. Don't want to grow old alone with only your cats and your dusty, old uterus for company now, do you?"

Ellie makes a face. "Alright, first of all, that's sexist, if I were to grow old all alone, that would be by choice..." Ellie ignores Lauren rolling her eyes as she continues, "And second of all, what makes you think I'd want to have kids anyway?"

" What, not in your cards?"

Ellie shrugs. "Dunno, too early to tell." Her phone beeps and she sighs with relief. "Hey, I've got to go. Someone else is calling me. Bye!"

She ends the call before Lauren can say anything else. Truth is she just didn't want to be teased this early in the day. She and Lauren had dated briefly but they'd decided it was better to remain friends. She'd dated a few more people - women in her program, women in other colleges - but none of them seemed to work out. There just didn't seem to be any...spark. Each date seemed a chore. There was the jock who, over dinner, told her she was a "self-defecating girl", which, what did that even mean? The girl, Britney, was blonde and hot and muscular but she spent all evening talking about protein shakes and her workout routine and extolled the virtues of kale. There was that Chinese American girl who majored in Accounting who calculated their dinner to the last cent, insisting she only pay for the chao fan and dumplings even if she ate part of the roast duck because, "You ate more" and flatly refused to give a tip and was rude to the waiter besides. There was the Psych major who came to their date in a very tight, very revealing dress, cleavage spilling out of her dress, nails long and red, heels high and red, lashes thick and fake, insisting on asking Ellie about her childhood and her relationship with her father. Carmen, that was her name. She was sweet and nervous but also didn't seem right for her. And then there was that nice Japanese exchange student who didn't even speak at all the whole time they were eating their dinner of sukiyaki, California maki and sushi. She spoke in careful, accented English, fairly conscious of her English but liked Ellie and they went to a karaoke place after. At the end of the night, Yuri had leaned over and kissed her and Ellie had kissed her back, wanting it to be more than it should be, wanting the flare of heat and desire and want at least, and finding nothing but emptiness. They'd parted that night with regret and sadness.

"You're too picky!" Lauren and Paul had both told her, one over Skype, the other in person, as Lauren went through her wardrobe.

"And also, do you not have a wardrobe that's less..." And here, Lauren pauses, throws her hands up and sighs, "Gay?"

"Hey!" Ellie says as Paul bursts out laughing. She glares at Paul and Paul stops laughing.

Lauren shows her her clothes. "Flannel, flannel, flannel," Lauren says, lifting each sleeve from her cabinet, "Tee, muscle shirt, oh, just when I think there can't be any more flannel, oh, look, more flannel!"

Ellie hears Paul snickering over the camera and her head whips back and glares at Paul over the phone. Paul gives her a toothy grin and an insincere "Sorry."

"It's comfortable," Ellie says, grabbing the flannel shirt Lauren is holding in her hand.

"It's flannel."

"It screams nerd."

Ellie glares at her now.

Lauren rolls her eyes. "Fine. I don't even know why you keep going out on dates anyway. You never even last through the first date..."

"Not true."

"It's true!" Paul says in the background.

"Let's see, you think they're either too rude or too nice, too dumb or too smart, too tall or too short..."Lauren ticks off on her fingers. "Am I getting warm?"

"What, should I just...sleep with the first girl that comes through the door or something?"

"No, of course not," Lauren says with a huff. "But that's a start... "

And then Lauren gives her this look and Ellie has to look away. She recognizes the look. She thinks it's the same look she sometimes has on her face, when she's on one of her dates: a look of longing, of wishing she were somewhere else, of wishing she was with someone else...

***

She swipes through her phone now and Paul's face appears on her screen. She thinks she and Paul would have stopped calling by now, but she's underestimated Paul's tenacity and his capacity to be a good friend against all odds. This phone call, one of many, is an example of that.

"Dude! What took you so long?!?"Paul asks. The video call is choppy, the quality grainy, the video shaky but it's Paul, in what seems to be a coffeeshop, in Squahamish. Since taking over their restaurant and being given free reign, he's been going around the east coast checking out ingredients and recipes, and he'd been busy renovating their restaurant. He'd started a food vlog to bring more exposure to the restaurant. Ellie watches his vlogs weekly and is impressed at his video and editing skills, wonders who does his graphics - Paul hadn't exhibited any artistic skill, not even a bit, in high school. The vlog is slowly building a following and views, making people hear more about Paul, his taco sausage and his Nana. He's wracking up adoring followers who find his fumbling, rambling, stammering thing adorable. A particularly funny video of him catching fire cooking sausage has actually gone viral. She would watch it when she feels sad. Never gets old. She couldn't be more proud.

He is now busy with the grand re-opening of their restaurant and wants Ellie to be there. Ellie hadn't been to Squahamish in so long.

"Sorry, I was on the phone with..."she sighs, "Lauren..."

She doesn't miss the shadow that passes through Paul's face, not exactly a dislike for her, she knows Paul gets along with Lauren, but more discomfort, a sort of awkwardness. She knits her eyebrows but ignores it.

"Oh, okay," Paul says. "How is she?"

"In Cabo for the summer," Ellie says.

"Lucky,"Paul says.

Ellie chuckles. "Is that really the word we're looking for for a place with a bunch of drunk, probably stoned crowds of college kids on spring break making bad choices?"

" Fair point."

" Yup."

"You could be in Cabo..."

"Yeah, but I've got that internship and my research. I want to get a headstart before senior year in the fall," Ellie says.

"What are you majoring in again?"

"Environmental conservation and climate change management,"Ellie says. "It seemed like the right choice." Ellie peers into her phone.

"Ugh. In about a minute she's going to send me pictures of her in a bikini and tell me again, what I'm missing..."

"Lauren in a bikini?"

Ellie laughs and nods.

Paul looks off infront of him, then to the side, then he looks at Ellie.

"Are...are you back together?" Paul asks carefully, voice low and measured.

Ellie laughs. "We might as well be, right? I could do worse, plus she was a good girlfriend kind of, last time. She's..."

Paul clears his throat. "Um, yeah, I've got to go...See you at our grand re-opening on Sunday, yeah?"

Before Ellie could respond, Paul has ended the call.

***

"Who's Lauren?"

Paul looks up and across the table at Aster Flores looking at him intently. Paul swallows, fiddles with his phone. He's forgotten how intense Aster's looks are. How it feels a bit like being stripped naked. He doesn't know how to answer that. When he'd asked her to help out with his food vlog, she'd smiled and said yes. She'd finished the two-year Associate course in Fine Arts and Graphics Design in Chicago and had moved to the city, just a few hours from Squahamish, working for a graphics design studio, her work being featured in advertisements and PSAs and what-not. She plans to go back to school soon to get a Bachelor's degree. He'd stayed in touch with her and on ocassion, when he'd gone to the city for supplies, he'd make sure to meet her for coffee. They'd talk about her work and his restaurant and their classmates in school - who's dating who and who might get married soon - but they'd usually skirt around the one common thing they have: Ellie. And now she's come to Squahamish to visit her family and help Paul out with his restaurant for the launching.
Paul doesn't know what happened, but Ellie had stopped talking about Aster and Aster was the same and he didn't want to pry. Then Lauren and all the other girls started coming and Paul had realized maybe Ellie was moving on, from Aster and whatever they had. Still, none of the girls seemed to stick. Lauren was the longest but he'd thought Ellie had friendzoned her, but they seem closer than ever...

"Um..." Paul hesitates, debating whether to tell the truth or lie. But Aster looks at him with those dark, earnest eyes and Paul decides to tell the truth. "A girl Ellie used to date...?"

Aster nods. "And...are they back together?"

"Um..." Paul squirms, uncomfortable. "I don't know...? I mean, they're good friends...? Like...like us, I guess?"

"Paul," Aster says gently, "You know that's different."

Paul stammers then. "Um, you...you should probably ask Ellie? You know she doesn't really tell me anything. Even her feelings for you..."
Aster nods, deep in thought.

"Sorry."

Aster smiles her sad smile and looks off into the distance.

***

Ellie had stopped emailing her.

Somewhere around the second semester of their freshmen year, Ellie's emails had slowed down. First, her usually lengthy emails had progressed to increasingly shorter and shorter emails, each email taking longer than the last. She'd get responses only after days or weeks, and usually it would just be about school or work and nothing else. Gone were the insightful discussions on science and life and love, replaced with cold, terse messages that seem more like obligatory replies and nothing more, until the day came when Ellie stopped messaging altogether.

***

Ellie hasn't actually stopped writing Aster.
She'd only stopped sending her the letters. In fact, she'd taken to writing her responses to her by hand, missing hers and Aster's sweet handwritten exchanges. In truth, she misses Aster. She missed her so much she dreams of her. But she could see how much Aster struggled with her feelings for Ellie, could see how much it was hurting her. She didn't want to force her into something that she wasn't ready for.

So she gradually stopped emailing her, even though it hurt her to do so. She threw herself into her schoolwork, tutored Lauren after they realized it wasn't going to work out between them, tutored other students when she could, did a gig or two at a local bar frequented by students, tried to forget Aster.

But that was easier said than done.

***

Paul looks at Aster, considers her face, thoughtful and quiet as it looks out the window.
Aster looks even more beautiful now. And even hotter. She looks sad though.

Paul sighs, grabs his messenger bag beside him, gropes inside, finds what he's looking for, pulls them out and puts them on the table. Aster doesn't notice him though as lays them on the table. Then Paul clears his throat and pushes the letters towards Aster.

Aster looks at the letters, curious. "What are these?"

"Um..." Paul swallows. "Letters? Maybe you thought Ellie stopped writing you? But actually she hasn't, she just stopped sending them. She's like...written you tons of letters...she wasn't supposed to give them to me. And I haven't read them. Swear. She made me read one and I didn't understand it anymore than I did stuff like Wim Wenders. Anyway, she just kept writing you over the years and she was going to burn them but I convinced her to give it to me for safekeeping and that I wouldn't read it but I also made her promise if the time is right, I'd be allowed to give it to you..." Paul smiles, watching Aster carefully take the letters, curious and wondering. When she doesn't say anything, Paul says, "She's miserable without you, Aster... I don't know what happened between you two...that's between the two of you but...except for maybe my mom and my Nana, you guys matter to me...I hope you can work things out..."

 

***

September 20, 20--

Aster,

Hey!

How are you?

Hope all is well with you. I'm sorry it took so long to write. I thought it best to stop writing you for awhile. Self-preservation, you know? And it just hurts too much, I guess. But I'm better now. Not going to send this to you though.

So I'm just reading up a bit more on classical physics, people like Nicolas Copernicus and Galileo Galileo, who started a new scientific era in the 16th century, waking everybody up to the idea that we were the ones revolving around the sun. It revolutionized everything. Earth was no longer the center of the universe, just another wandering body.

Back in freshman year, I remember learning something interesting: When it comes to short distances other forces become more important than gravity. There are three basic forces, the rule, the behavior of molecular and subatomic particles. Electromagnetic force, which over short distances is vastly more intense than the gravitational force. The electromagnetic force can operate in two directions. It can either be attractive or repulsive. The action of the electromagnetic force is responsible for everything in life. It's responsible for everything that's happening in chemistry and biology. The weak nuclear force - can either attract or repel, does so over the shortest distances. The strong nuclear force - force responsible for keeping the particles of the nucleus together. The special characteristics of the strong nuclear force - it does not diminish the distance, it increases it.

...Okay, I wanted to bring this up because...science can be an amazing metaphor for life and I think more than gravity and electromagnetic force, emotions - love, hate, longing, this full spectrum of feelings - they're stronger than anything science could offer. I should know. I've tried and I've tried but there's this...unstoppable force, this unstoppable emotion that I feel everything I think of you. And the more I resist, the stronger it becomes.
It's sad right?

Especially because I think I may have lost you forever.

I miss you, Aster. I miss you all the time.

***

October 23, 20--

So, I'm going back to stuff I learned freshman year and wishing I'd written about them to you. Whenever I learn something or see something, a sunset,a beautiful sunrise, and Iowa has a fair share of them, I always want to share them first with you.

I remember once learning about the second law of thermodynamics, one of the strangest, most inescapable laws ever, that brings up profound questions, such as meaning of time and the destiny of the universe. This means any system devolves and degrades to some extent. It seems to suggest why the universe goes in a particular direction, and things can get worse. It's called entropy.In any isolated system, the entropy would always increase. It gets larger and larger every second. Entropy is the measure of loss of energy that cannot be recovered. Even though heat is one of the most common forms of energy transfer we are used to in our daily life. It's very inefficient. We cannot create anything from heat so heat and entropy is a bad thing. Heat is the most random. Heat is the byproduct of an engine's operation. Entropy is a measure of useless wasted energy. Heat is microcoscopic. Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. Entropy tends to create disorder. The consequence of entropy is the loss of energy. It can be overly deterministic. When you start a process, entropy will increase and it's irreversible. Time moves forward,irreversible process happens. It is impossible to move to the exact same initial conditions . This goes to the heart of the very nature of fundamental processes. What's alarming is that if all the energy in the universe deteriorates irreversibly. In the far future, there might not be enough to sustain the processes of the universe. It would result in the heat death of the universe.

I think of entropy when I think about us. Maybe this is what I was afraid of. Maybe I was afraid of what entropy would do to us, in the long run. Doesn't thermodynamics impact on biological life, too?

But...a part of me wants to rebel against this now, this idea of inevitability in relation to the irreversible deterioration of life as we know it. If the universe is headed to its eventual heat death, shouldn't that mean we should live our lives even more fully? Life is short, and fleeting and should be lived like we could live forever.
I'm afraid I've spent too much time just focusing on my studies and the future and work and money and everything else. And not on the things that really matter.

Like you.

But maybe I'm too late. Maybe you've moved on and as such has contributed to this law of which they speak of...

***

November 17, 20--

Dear Aster,

So sophomore year is done and I am going to be a junior come September. I'd like to say time flies but as Albert Einstein and the Theory of General Relativity says, time is relative. This theory revolutionized science. Einstein had posited that space contracts depending on the position of the observer. So, time is relative and no measure of time is more valid than the other. It only depends on the observer.

So, I guess time is really an illusion and we could still be high school seniors, hopeful and excited for the future.

We've also been discussing gravity and how freely falling into gravity is completely equivalent to being accelerated. Gravity does not act like a normal force. You don't have to think of gravity as a force. You can describe gravitational attraction.

I can think of another force that acts like gravity. Falling in love. I know because thinking of you is like having a cardiac aberration, my heart accelerating at the thought of you.

***

December 20, 20--

Dear Aster,

It's almost Christmas but I can't really think of anything else because it's junior year and I'm reminded of the Uncertainty Principle which are two quantities that cannot be measured at the same time. If you measure where a particle is, you don't know how fast it's travelling. But if you measure how fast it's travelling you don't know where it is. There are always limits to what we can know about a particle. Because of these uncertainties observed in a particle affects its situation. It's like it's only doing what you observed, while you're observing like it's performing only for you. The rest of the time you don't know what it is doing. When you're not observing a particle we like to observe it as being spread out in some kind of cloud of probability where we might say it's not doing anything in particular but it's doing everything. In the probability cloud although some things are more probable than others.

This means anything is possible, it is even possible that a particle can be in two places at once. Everything in the universe can behave as a wave or a particle. One particle can be only in one place but when we're not observing it, it behaves as a wave. It is at all these places at once. We cannot know where it is, but the value of the probability of finding where it is. If you study a sufficient number of particles, you can be sure that probability is always right. In the long term, it's infallible. When two particles have been joined for example forming the nucleus of an atom, a quantum entanglement. It appears and they both serve a complimentarity even if they got separated. Despite being separated, they are still connected. You measure one of them and you force the other one to be in the other state. Not only does the state of one tell you the state of the other, but manipulating the state of one affects the other. It doesn't matter how far they are from each other.

Right now, we're still far from understanding reality. The universe isn't immensely large, but it's expanding. All the bodies are moving away from each other and the further they are, the faster they move...

I like to think human beings behave like particles and that the observed and unobserved human is doing nothing and everything at the same time. Then I inevitably think about you and wonder how you are, what you're doing, whether you've finished or will continue with your degree. Paul tells me you finished your Associate degree and that you've moved to the city, working in design. I hadn't thought of that as something you might do, but graphics design seems to be you. It suits you. As does doing interior design for Paul's restaurant renovation. I think about you and think, do you think about me? Do you look up at the stars and sky and wonder about me, too?

Ah, fuck it. I miss you. So fucking much.

***

January 5, 20--

Dear Aster,

So, our professor has asked this once in class: where is the universe going? It's an interesting question in Thermodynamics. He says, the universe is not expanding, it's moving away.
This is all well and good but...I'm also interested in knowing where you and I are headed. Where this is headed...to something good? Or to something akin to entropy? To an irreversible deterioration?

***

Aster reads Ellie's letters in the privacy of her room and she cries.

Chapter Text

"Nobody programmed me to be straight."

"You decided to be straight? Of course you were programmed, by nature or nurture or both and to be honest."

"I don't believe God would 'program' us to be straight... God isn't some computer programmer and we are not...algorithms or whatever it is you call it," Rev.Flores, Aster Flores' father, says to Mr. Chiu.

Mr. Chiu, unfazed, continued, "Why did God give us sexuality anyway? We don't need sexuality. We could just be gray boxes."

Rev. Flores looks both exasperated and challenged. He pushes his glasses up and sighs. "Hmm. Actually, I don't think that's true. Can you give an example of consciousness, at any level, human or animal, that exists without a sexual dimension?"

Mr. Chiu shrugs. "Sure. But they have sexuality as an evolutionary reproductive need. Also, churches have always made a big deal about sexuality being a sin, no?"

Here Mr.Flores half laughs, half coughs and says, "What do you mean?"

"Haven't religions, since time immemorial, tried to...how to say? Suppress? Repress human sexuality?" Mr.Chiu says.

Ellie looks on in horror as she sees Reverend Flores flare red, cheeks burning bright red.
"I'm sure that's not true," Reverend Flores says.

" Oh, I'm pretty sure it is. Name me one religion that hasn't tried to make its citizens be ashamed of their sexual desires..."

"Oh, my god," Ellie whispers.

"I don't know what they're actually talking about, but it sounds kind of...tense," Paul, watching beside her, whispers to her.

Ellie nods her head vigorously.

"Well, my God isn't a God that does that, does your God do that?" Reverend Flores says, clearing his throat.

Mr.Chiu smiles. "I don't believe in God."

A silence ensues in which Reverend Flores doesn't seem to know what to say.

"Quick, give them....h'ors d'oevres or something!" Ellie hisses, as she grabs a tray of h'ors d'oevres from the table. When a man in a uniform passes by, with wine glasses on a tray, Ellie says, "And maybe some wine!"

Paul nods, grabbing the tray from Ellie and making a bee line towards Reverend Flores and Mr.Chiu, motioning to the man - one of his cousins, Ellie thinks - to pour wine for their wine glasses.

As she watches them, she takes in Paul's family's newly renovated restaurant. It looks better, more modern looking. Gone are the walls with the paint falling off, the water stained ceiling, the old floors. The walls and ceilings have been re-painted, the floors re-tiled. The old colors have been replaced with something brighter, pastel colors on the walls, pastel curtains, pastel table cloths and place mats. The smell of tacos and sausage and assorted other food wafts through the kitchen. The grand re-opening party is in full swing, and she can see familiar faces from high school, parents, people from church, all talking and laughing and smiling amidst the clinking of glasses and forks against china and soft music playing and suddenly Ellie feels a bit out of place, a bit lost, as if she shouldn't be here at all. So she steps to the side, chooses a corner, and focuses on a painting she hasn't noticed before. She squints her eyes, pushes up her glasses and stares at the painting. It's that of a lily, white and pure and elegant petals painted on a black background. The contrast is nice and makes the lily stand out. The painting is mounted on the wall, above a table and when she turns, she notices another painting, this time, a familiar one, a woman reaching up to the sky, a lone star shining above, one hand trying to reach for the star, the other holding a lily, background of dark blue sky. Suddenly a memory comes back to her, a long forgotten one, of a similiar painting done on a concrete wall. She stares at the painting, mesmerized, tranfixed, unable to tear her eyes away from the painting. She sees something scribbled on the side of the painting and tries to make it out. The scribble is actually a signature, "Aster Flores, 20--".

She could still vaguely hear her father and Mr. Flores argue, "What imperative does a human have to interact with another human?" "Can consciousness exist without interaction?" "Sexuality is fun. If you're going to exist, why not enjoy it?" But their voices, the music, the laughter and voices, clinking of glasses and china are fading away, as she remembers a distinctive voice, raspy, girlish, full of life, eyes darker than night, a face as beautiful as anything she's ever seen, a conversation, a long one, on torn off ink-stained notebook paper, and walls and texts and ghost message, and suddenly, she feels an ache, a longing, an urge to see her face, Aster's face, an urge to touch her, to see her one more time. And then she turns and then there's one last framed painting, this one simple, a portrait, faceless, but with Ellie's unmistakable hair, and flannel and glasses and it feels like someone has punched the air out of her lungs, like someone'ss gripped her heart and she can't breathe. The last painting is of her, faceless, reflected on water, and she knows exactly where that is. Knows the time of day. The blueness of the sky. The breeze blowing gently through the trees. Music playing softly from an old radio. The coolness of water against her skin as she floated on it. Dark eyes and deep, throaty laughter, of words unsaid and feelings unshared.

Three paintings. Three paintings - all from a time she'd shared with her, of memories she'd tried to forget but can still remember. It only takes three paintings to take her back to a feeling, an emotion, a longing she'd thought she'd overcome and forgotten, but seeing it all here, laid bare, for her to see, she is speechless, unable to say anything and she feels something sting her eyes. She tries to swallow but a lump has formed in her throat.

Suddenly, a voice, raspy, soft, speaks from behind her.

"You like it?"

Ellie recognizes the voice even before she turns.

"You like it?" Aster repeats the question, looking at her with an uneasy smile.

Ellie only nods, unable to speak with the lump in her throat.

"Paul wanted me to share some of my work in his restaurant," Aster begins. "I thought these would be nice."

Ellie nods again, pursing her lips in a grim line. They stand there, not knowing what else to say.

"So, you're back in town," Aster begins again, sensing an end to their one-way conversation. "How long will you be in town for?"

Ellie shrugs. "Not long," she manages to reply.

"Oh," Aster says. "Maybe we could have coffee before you go? I hear you're a senior now. I just finished mine, too..I'm working in the city now and..."

Ellie nods and says, "That's great, Aster, take care," bringing the conversation to a close as she spots the back door and makes for it, muttering an "Sorry, I have to go," to Aster, refusing to meet her eyes. She could hear Aster saying, "Ellie...wait..."

She had to leave. Had to get out of there. Needed some air. Couldn't breathe. Felt her heart pound so hard she thought she'd pass out.

She pushes her way through the crowd, before finally making her way to the door and into fresh air. She gets out the door and breathes it in, the crisp autumn air, cold and fresh and inviting. She draws her flannel shirt over her t-shirt, pushes her glasses up, looks up at the sky and quickly makes her way down the steps and into the dusk.

She hears the door open and close behind her, footsteps and a voice calling out, "Ellie...wait!"
She stops.

"I'm sorry."

Ellie closes her eyes. She should walk way. Take that first step and walk away. Walk away and avoid the hurt, the pain, the heartbreak. She reminds herself Aster isn't ready, isn't sure, and she should walk away before she starts to hope and break heart again.

But she remains rooted to the spot, as if an invisible hand is holding her in place, refusing to let her go.

"I'm sorry," Aster repeats the apology, more softly, this time, gentle, coaxing, pleading. "I...I never meant to hurt you."

Miraculously, Ellie finds her voice.

"Aster...don't...it's fine..."

"No, it's not," Aster says, voice louder now and Ellie sighs, closes her eyes briefly and turns.
There, face golden in the dusk, is Aster, face older, more beautiful, looking at Ellie earnestly, intently. Her hair is still long, wavy, growing past her shoulders, her frame still slender and graceful in her red dress and heels. She has her arms crossed infront of her and Ellie remembers a different time, when something like this had happened between them, except the roles have now been reversed and she's the one running away.

"I'm sorry I wasn't...brave..." Aster continues. "I'm sorry I wasn't sure...that I was too afraid of..." And here she pauses, swallows and continues, "What I felt for you and what you felt for me..." Her voice trails off then.

Ellie doesn't say anything, heart still pounding so strong against her chest she can barely hear herself think.

Aster takes a step toward her and Ellie instinctively takes a step back, almost afraid of what's going to happen next.

"It was just...things were different back then...I...was a different person back then," Aster continues. "And I'm...different now..."

Ellie couldn't help the words that spill out of her mouth. "That's great, Aster. I'm happy for you. I've...I've got to go...I'll...I'll see you around..."
She turns around then but not before Aster says, "I never figured you for a quitter."

Ellie stops. Sighs. Turns around. "What are you talking about?"

Aster shrugs. "I didn't think you'd give up so easily...on me...on us..." Ellie feels a pang inside at Aster referring to them as "us". She shakes that away.

"Aster, there is no us."

"So, those long, rambling love letters of declaration were all just..." And here Aster waves a hand away, irritated, "A bunch of lies?"

Ellie makes a face. "My letters aren't rambling," she says, offended.

"Oh, they do, and you do, ramble a lot," Aster insists. "In fact, I've never read anyone ramble as much as you do...you're losing your touch..."

"I don't ramble," Ellie insists, annoyed now.

"So, those lengthy discussions about thermodynamics and relativity and heat death and entropy and all that...stuff...weren't some lame ploy to make me fall in love with you more?"

Ellie is even more annoyed and offended now. "What are you talking about, I don't...use science to woo girls...I..."

Aster is grinning now, taking a step towards Ellie. "Okay, first of all, woo? Really? Who even uses that word anymore?"

"Whatever. I wasn't using science to..."

"Score? Or something crass like that..."

Ellie is blushing now. "No, you've got it all wrong..."

"I mean, it's pretty impressive,"Aster continues. "I'm sure Lauren fell for it."

Ellie's blush deepens. "Okay, Lauren's just a friend. And how'd you know about heat death and entropy...?" She stops. "Paul. I'm going to kill him."

"Changing the subject," Aster says. "So, you've decided to just...give up on us then..."

"I...I didn't..." Ellie says, watching Aster take a step closer.

"No?" Aster asks, now face to face with Ellie. Ellie doesn't say anything. For a while they just stand there, looking at each other, as dusk falls all around them and a cold breeze blows and Ellie shivers but she doesn't break eye contact until finally she has to, looking off into the distance. The noise from the restaurant seems to fade away. "You stopped writing," Aster finally says, voice soft and sad.

"You said you weren't ready."

"You said you wouldn't give up."

"I didn't think it would hurt so much."

"You think it wasn't painful for me, too?"Aster asks then, gently, imploringly that Ellie has to look at her. "You think it was easy for me? Saying all of that? Knowing it was tearing me apart?"

"I...I thought it was better that way...I decided..."

"You decided?" Aster asks, voice accusing. "Ellie, you don't just get to decide what's best for both of us..."

"What?" Ellie doesn't seem to understand what's going on.

Aster takes her hand then, and it's warm against Ellie's clammy fingers. "I care for you. More than you'll probably ever know. More than anyone actually cares for someone...and I know you do, too...you wouldn't give me a watch otherwise..."

"But your family, your dad..."Ellie begins, conscious of Aster rubbing her thumb on the back of Ellie's hand. Complete darkness, save for lone lamp post just a few meters away, has engulfed them, but Ellie can make out Aster's glittering eyes.

Aster is shaking her head. "I'm still terrified." She then takes both Ellie's hands in hers. "But not as terrified of losing you and wondering what could have been if I took a chance on us."
Ellie is shaking her head. "I don't...I don't understand...what changed?"

Aster only smiles. "Therapy. Lots and lots of it. And realizing that no matter happens...I just want to be with you..."

"But..." Ellie begins to say then, but Aster leans over, cuts her off, gently grabs her face between her hands and kisses her.

Ellie is surprised at first, then the realization that Aster is kissing her, really kissing her, suddenly dawns on her, and she brings her hands up, cups Aster's face in her own hands as Aster's hands snake through the back of Ellie's neck and they kiss some more. They kiss for what seems like forever, Aster's lips soft and gentle against her, tongue probing and curious and warm and sleek and Ellie feels a warmth spread from below her gut, surging up to spread through her chest and the love and desire and happiness surge through her in equal measure. Suddenly, all she wants is Aster, in her room, on her bed, naked and alone with her.

With some effort, Ellie draws back. "Do you want to get out of here?"

Aster is already nodding even before Ellie has finished the question and is already grabbing her hand to lead her to her car.

They barely make it to Ellie's house, barely make it to Ellie's room, but they do, and, hands cold and trembling, they undress each other, reveling in each other's nakedness and warmth, Ellie's lips trailing kisses all over Aster's smooth skin, Aster's moans, the way her body responds, writhing and moving beneath her, encouraging her, and finally, when she touches warmth and wetness, enters and touches her core, she feels as if something explodes, as a dam, waves of pleasure slamming against them, over and over and over again, and Aster clings to her, voice in her ear, whispering words in Spanish and English and Ellie feels herself tighten but then Aster touches her and Ellie feels like a flame exploding. They spend the whole time together, whispering and laughing and breaking up the conversation to fervently kiss and make out, lowering their voices even more when her father comes home and then, finally they fall asleep, blissful and content, in each other's naked arms.

***

In the morning, Mr.Chiu takes one look at Ellie's bruised neck and disheveled hair, and at Aster trying to sneak out, and without missing a beat, invites Aster to breakfast. Aster and Ellie are silent during breakfast, Mr.Chiu quietly reading his Chinese language newspaper, flipping from one page to the next, before Aster finishes her orange juice and announces, nervously, that she has to go. Ellie nods and sees her to the door. When she comes back, Mr.Chiu's face is the same expressionless face as he puts his newspaper down and looks at Ellie dead in the face. He studies Ellie for a second, not saying anything, making Ellie squirm in discomfort, before he begins a conversation with her in a mixture of Chinese and English.

"So, what are you going to do about this?"

"About what?" Ellie asks, confused.

Mr. Chiu waves his hand impatiently. "Minister Flores' daughter, Aster..."

"What about her?" Ellie says, as casually as she can, whilst taking a sip of her coffee.

"You've just deflowered his daughter," Mr.Chiu explains. "You have brought dishonor to his family. And perhaps ours."

Ellie's blush flares, crawls up her neck and onto her cheeks, and she almost chokes on her drink. "Dad! What the hell?!?"

Her father doesn't flinch, only considers her face. Ellie clears her throat.

"Okay, first of all, there was no deflowering," Ellie tries to clarify. When her father doesn't say anything, her blush deepens. "Okay, there might have been a little...wait, why am I talking about this with you? And who uses deflowering anymore anyway?"

"If this were China before the Cultural Revolution, you would have been married off to her..." he continues.

"What, eewww, I'm only 23, dad, that's so wrong on so many levels," Ellie says, making a face.

"Be that as it may," Mr.Chiu says, "What are you going to do with her father?"

Ellie swallows. "I don't...I don't know..."

"Does he know about you and his daughter?"

"I don't...think so," Ellie says, shuddering at the thought of what Aster's father would do. She looks at her father. "You're awfully cool about all of this, yourself, dad..."

Mr.Chiu just looks at her. "Should I not be?"

Ellie looks at her coffee cup. "I don't...know..."

They sit in silence for awhile before Ellie says, softly, "Dad..." she swallows, forces herself to continue, "Wo ai ni..." She hesitates. "And I'm...gay..."

Mr.Chiu doesn't say anything. He carefully takes his glasses off, slowly wipes them, puts them back on, then looks at Ellie and says, "I know..."
Ellie swallows hard.

"I've known since you were...young," Mr. Chiu continues. He runs a hand on the newspaper, busies himself with his coffee cup and toast, before he says, slowly, carefully, "I can't say I understand, and I don't know if I ever will...but I love you, too...and that will never change..."

Ellie feels the tears sting her eyes then, feels like a heavy burden being lifted off of her chest and she smiles through the tears in her eyes.

"And for what it's worth," Mr.Chiu says, "I think she is a lovely girl."

And Ellie's smile feels like the sun coming up. Mr. Chiu nods, which Ellie already knows, is approval itself. She gets up and hugs her father. When she gets back down to drink the rest of her coffee, her father adds, "Maybe a little warning next time though, daughter."

Ellie laughs and smiles, apologizes.

"You really don't mind...?" Ellie asks, as she sips her coffee, leaving the question unfinished.
Mr.Chiu considers this question before he shrugs and says, "Why should I? You can still give me grandkids."

And Ellie almost chokes on her coffee again.

Chapter Text

"You told your dad about us?" Aster asks, as Ellie kisses her, dropping her bag by the front door, and hurriedly toeing off her Chucks, door slammed shut and locked behind her.

Ellie nods as she draws back. "Yeah. Why?"

Aster looks at her, incredulous. "Really? Does he know we have..." Here she lowers her voice, scandalized, "Sex?"

Ellie grins. "No, he thinks I just come all the way here, from Iowa, to conjugate French verbs with you. And maybe occassionally discuss stuff like the Fibonnaci series."

Aster looks at her.

"Sorry, I couldn't resist," Ellie grins again.

"You're incorrigible," Aster says.

"Not the first time I've heard that. Also not the first time I think it's awesome you have your own apartment," Ellie says as she leans over to kiss her again as she slowly pushes her back, towards the apartment, hands snaking beneath Aster's tank top, the warmth of Aster's skin, her lips on Ellie's sending a flare of desire inside her. Aster reaches for jeans, unbuckles her belt, unbuttons her jeans and zips it down, even as Ellie takes off her flannel shirt and lets it fall to the floor. Aster is already reaching for her white shirt, skilled hands touching skin, and she's pulling Ellie's shirt over her head and they have to stop in the middle of the room, and Aster tosses the shirt away and Ellie reaches for her again, one hand cupping her face, the other hand rubbing up and down her thigh, reaching beneath her skirt, feeling the edge of Aster's underwear.

Ellie hums in approval. "I like your dress. You should always wear dresses," Ellie murmurs as she puts a finger on the hem of Aster's panties, kissing her again. Aster gasps at her touch and Ellie grins into the kiss. "I'd like it better if it were off though." Ellie chuckles as Aster rolls her eyes, starts to reach up and unzip her dress. Ellie plants her hands on Aster's waist, helps Aster take it off the rest of the way, dress pooling at her waist. Aster is standing naked infront of her now save for her panties and bra and Ellie feels the unmistakable flare of desire in her and she murmurs, "Fuck, you're gorgeous." Aster blushes as Ellie kisses her again and they fall back on Aster's bed, kissing and kissing and kissing as Aster pushes Ellie's jeans off her. And then Aster's touching her and it feels like fire and she heats up all over, like glowing embers and the ache comes and all she can do is touch Aster back, pepper her with desperate, urgent kisses, tongue flicking to lick at her neck, her throat, tracing a trail down her chest, following the errant drop of perspiration rolling down her chest, catching a droplet on her tongue, before swirling down a breast, sending Aster into a frenzy, before engulfing one nipple, soft, delicious with her lips and Aster arches her back, wraps a hand on her neck, closes her eyes and Ellie sucks even more, her fingers slowly caressing her stomach, her inner thighs, her own thigh pushing against Aster, making Aster moan in pleasure, then her fingers start to dance on the inside of Aster's thigh and she feels the heat radiate from Aster and Aster's moving urgently against her, desperate, elegant, like a wave, and her fingers touch Aster and Aster gasps, moans, fingers gripping at Ellie's back, legs wrapping around her and they establish a rhythm and Aster's making those delicious sounds in Ellie's ear and Ellie kisses her as she enters her and it's warm and soft and feels so much like home and heaven and she hears Aster's sharp intake of breath and she clings to Ellie, tight, and as Aster comes, she whispers "Te amo" and Ellie whispers back, as tenderly, " Wo ai ni". And they would lie by each other's side, Ellie cradling Aster's head on her arm, Ellie's arms engulfing her, and Ellie inhales the intoxicating scent of Aster's shampoo and soap and perfume and she feels drunk in love, and suddenly the flame of desire is lit within her again and all she wants to do is taste her on her tongue, to savor and explore Aster's skin, her body, with fingers and tongue and lips, wanted to be inside her again, wanted her inside her, wanted her moving against her, and then Aster's tongue starts to explore and it drives them both to the brink and in an instant she's between Aster's legs again, tasting her, savoring her, drowning in salt and sweetness and wetness and warmth and Aster's love flowing deep, deep inside of her, clinging to her, anchoring her, guiding her home...

***

It always feels like the first time for Ellie. They've been dating since the end of summer the year before Ellie hit senior year, and it's been a challenge, but they've been making it work. They write emails and messages to each other, call each other on Skype or messenger, and they visit each other when they can - Ellie only able to stay over the weekend, Aster, able to stay longer.

Their conversations online have not changed, Ellie still driven to ask questions such as "Is there intelligent life in other planets?" And Aster gamely replying, "I think so. If there isn't, it seems like an awful waste of space."
Aster would text her, "What are you doing?"
And Ellie would promptly reply with the "Fibonnaci series - two, three, five, thirteen, twenty one, thirty four, et.cetera is derived by adding the numbers in the upward diagonals."

"I'm sorry I asked."

To which Ellie would reply with "A physical examination of the sunflower itself reveals that the left and right-hand spirals of the blossom typically are represented by adjacent numbers in the Fibonnaci series. I'm currently looking for patterns...I'm annoyed it took me this long to enroll this subject."

"There are patterns in everything. You just have to look for them, distinguish between them, separate and understand."

"That's true."

Once, when Aster had asked what she was thinking and Ellie had replied, "The laws of thermodynamics, the action and reaction principle and how it applies to orgasms", which would make Aster blush so hard, in the middle of a work day that she has to duck in her cubicle. Once, when she'd called Ellie, who'd been listening to rock music, to ask her how she's been, Ellie had said, "I'm thinking about rock music, and how the rhythm of the drumbeats match the rhythm of orgasms. It's so fascinating it's almost subversive" to which Aster, speechless, would finally find the words to say, "Stop smoking weed, babe."

But mostly, in between Ellie's jokes, their banter, their weekly calls and regular visits to each other, they've slowly and naturally slipped into a relationship, comfortable and inevitable, Aster coming over for Halloween and rolling her eyes at college seniors in zombie and vampire and Dr.Who and Star Trek costumes, and Ellie grinning, staying close beside her, as they hang out at one college party, hosted by Lauren and the others.

It had been Aster who'd said it first. Lauren had come up then, gamely hugging Ellie and then cheerily asks, "Who's your friend?" And Ellie stammers, before saying, "This is, uh, um, my...uh...this is Aster."

And Aster smiles, gamely shakes Lauren's hand and Lauren asks, casually, "The girlfriend?"

Aster nods. "Yes," she responds, "The girlfriend," and she smiles and Lauren nods.

"Cool! Nice to meet you, Aster!" Lauren says before disappearing into the crowd.

And just like that, an understanding, a confirmation passes between them and Aster is Ellie's girlfriend and vice versa. Ellie can't help the happiness fit to burst in her chest. Aster leans over, smiles at her and holds her hand.

"We should totally check out Dia de los Muertos next," Aster whispers in Ellie's ears.

Ellie nods, tickled by Aster's breath in her ear. "Only if you celebrate Chinese New Year with me," she manages to say.

"Deal," her girlfriend happily agrees.

***

At Thanksgiving, Ellie travels to Seattle to visit Aster, and helps her prepare Thanksgiving dinner.

"It's a lame holiday," Aster says, by way of a greeting as she kisses Ellie and hands her the potatoes to mash.

"And kind of racist," Ellie adds as she starts to mash the potatoes.

"But it could be our holiday, and we could make it whatever we want it to be,"Aster says firmly and Ellie smiles.

Aster wants to make memories, Ellie realizes. She wants to make memories with me, she thinks as she watches Aster flit around the kitchen. And she grabs Aster from behind and holds her and they stand there for a moment and Ellie kisses her on the neck and Aster turns and kisses her back, all thoughts of Thanksgiving forgotten.

For Christmas, they both go home to Squahamish, Ellie coming to the Seattle first before they both go back to their hometown together in Aster's trusty yellow car. They hold hands all the way to Squahamish, only separating when Aster has to switch gears. They listen to music, chat idly about Grinnell and Aster's work, both avoiding the issue of Aster's family. Ellie doesn't push and for that, Aster is grateful, but a part of her wishes she could just spend the holidays with Aster.
But Aster comes for Christmas dinner, and spends Christmas eve with her, and finds the time on Christmas day to be with her, to Ellie's surprise and protests.

"Are you sure your family won't mind?" Mr.Chiu had asked, concerned.

Aster had shrugged and said, smiling, "Christmas day is church day, and soup kitchen day and visit the less fortunate day." She sidles up to Ellie on the sofa and says, "I made a bargain about volunteering at the shelter for the rest of my holiday, so dad's good."

Ellie doesn't go to church, as she no longer plays the organ. Reverend Flores found someone else to play in her place.

They are discreet, and don't go out together in public, and when they do, Paul comes with them, for coffee or cheeseburgers and fries or for a round of bowling at the bowling alley.
But mostly they stay in Ellie's room, or hang out with Ellie's dad, and Paul, in the living room, eating dumplings and noodles, as Ellie teaches Aster to use chopsticks and Mr.Chiu and Paul watch on in amusement. They watch "A Wonderful Life" together, a re-runs of old, black and white movies like "Wings of Desire" and Paul still says, "I still don't get it" and Ellie and Aster just smile at him.

Mr. Chiu accepts Aster in Ellie's life almost as easily as he did Paul, although the first time Aster was invited to make dumplings with them, Aster had been nervous and couldn't get anything right. But Ellie had been there, by her side, encouraging her with a smile, a touch on her thigh, a nod and Aster feels good and strong and okay.

Mr.Chiu hardly says anything to her, but Ellie assures her he was like that with Paul, too.
"We're Asian," Ellie explains. "And Chinese. I know it's a stereotype, but yeah, dad's one of those more traditional, silent Asian parent types."

"But he doesn't hate me though?" Aster asks. "For, like, corrupting his child?"

Ellie had grinned then, shaking her head. "If anything, I should worry about your dad thinking his favorite heathen had corrupted his child."

Aster had smiled at that. She still goes to church, but only when she's home. In Chicago, and now, in Seattle, she's stopped going to church altogether, although that hasn't stopped her praying at night. She still has a lot to be thankful for - a place to stay in, a job, food on the table, money for the bills, a family that loves her, and Ellie, always Ellie, loving her, being in love with her.

After Christmas, Ellie goes back to Grinnell, Aster to Seattle. It's Ellie's last semester in Grinnell, and her graduation is a foregone conclusion. She knows she will graduate. She's given out her resumé and application letters, hoping one will stick and she'd get a job by fall, at least. She and Aster don't talk about it, when she comes for a visit and when Aster visits her in Grinnell. It's a cloud that hangs on their head and neither one wants to bring it up, until weeks before Ellie's graduation day.

***

Ellie shows up one weekend on Aster's doorstep, nervous and anxious. Ellie takes one look at Aster in shorts and a tank top and she swallows.

"Hey," Aster says, with a smile, pulling her in with a kiss and a hug. "This is unexpected. What's up, babe?"

Ellie smiles and paces the floor and then stops and looks at Aster. "So, I graduate in a few weeks..."

"Yes..." Aster begins, cautiously. "That's what happens when you study for four years...you eventually graduate..."

Ellie nods. "Yes, right, so um, I graduate in a few weeks," she repeats, and starts to pace again. "And I've kind of started emailing applications months ago, and there are some promising ones, and they're all kind of cool and..."

Aster raises an eyebrow. "Yeah? That's also what's expected of you after you graduate, I guess? Unless you're one of those people who really love studying and want to go to graduate school?"

Ellie stops. "I am going to graduate school."

"Oh."

"In Washington State."

"Ah."

"Here," Ellie says.

"Yeah, okay."

"I mean, I've applied and I've passed all the requirements and exams but I just need to attend a final interview but my chances of getting in are good," Ellie says, nervously. "They have a good conservation and climate change program and their research programs are pretty awesome."

"Okay," Aster says, confused. "But your job?"

"Yeah, I applied to be research assistant at the university? And some non-profit environmental groups and they sound promising, too..."

Aster smiles. "That's great!" she says. "I mean, that's great, right?"

Ellie nods. "Yeah, it is."

Aster raises her shoulders. " So...what seems to be the problem?"

Ellie doesn't know what to say. They hadn't talked about what would happen when Ellie graduates - if she should join Aster in the city or if she should try somewhere else. Aster seems okay with any decision she will make, but really all Ellie wants is to be with her and it just so happens there are opportunities in the state, and she can apply and the possibilities of getting in are at least high. But she doesn't want to seem too clingy or needy, and she doesn't want to seem irrational, making career decisions based on where her girlfriend is, but isn't that where this is going anyway? To the inevitable serious road? A deeper commitment? Ellie had already considered this and she isn't even surprised at how okay she is with the idea of spending the rest of her life with Aster, realizes it's only Aster she wants to be with but then wonders if Aster even feels the same way. And that has kept her up a few nights so much so that it's compelled her to come here. She's a cliché, she thinks. A walking gay cliché.
But she's a cliché in love with her girlfriend.
When she still doesn't answer, Aster breaks through her thoughts, "Babe, I can literally hear you having a meltdown over here..."

Ellie shakes her thoughts away. "Sorry, just...I was distracted..."

Aster smiles, and without losing a beat, she comes up to her, wraps her arms around Ellie's waist and says, eyes holding Ellie's gaze, "Do I get to go to your graduation?"

Ellie looks up, surprised. "What?"

"I'm almost pretty sure you're going to graduate with honors or something," Aster says, "And I definitely want to be there to see that. If it's okay with you..."

"Really?"

Aster nods. The relief in Ellie is so palpable, Aster could feel her whole body exhale, as she reaches for Aster and gives her a deep, long kiss, hands snaking underneath Aster's top, all anxiety for the future forgotten.

***

Later, naked and sated in Ellie arms, Aster's head resting on Ellie's shoulder, her leg thrown over Ellie's legs, Ellie absently rubbing Aster's shoulder, finger tracing circles on her skin, Aster slowly lifts her head and looks at Ellie.

Ellie stops then, looks at Aster. "What?"

Aster hesitates at first, before she begins, careful and wary, "What are we going to do now?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

Aster moves away a bit, and Ellie immediately feels the loss of warmth, misses naked skin, but Aster has propped herself on her hand, watching Ellie, something indescribable in her eyes in the low light of her cozy room.

Aster makes a vague gesture at herself and Ellie and sighs. "This. You. Me. You graduate in a few weeks. Are you going to stay in Iowa? Are you going to some research project in the Arctic? Are we going to keep this...long distance relationship indefinitely?" When Ellie doesn't say anything, Aster quickly adds, "I...I need to know we're going somewhere, not that...this is all there is to this..." She stops then, voice trailing off.

Ellie gets up, rests her weight on one arm, and with one hand kisses Aster, a long, breathless kiss that leaves Aster speechless. "You think this isn't going anywhere?" she gently asks her girlfriend.

Aster shakes her head. "No...I mean, we're young, I know...and there are rules and stuff about all this - like get a job first, get promoted, secure your 401k, get a house, whatever...I just..." She sighs, looks at Ellie. "I don't see the point of going on if it isn't going anywhere..."
Ellie feels a pang within her, but also relief that Aster is the first to bring it up. She'd been thinking about it for awhile now, but was unsure about how to bring it up with Aster. She leans up to kiss Aster tenderly. "Aster..." she begins softly. She takes a deep breath. "You're it for me. I don't know what's going to happen in my future, but I know that I want you in it. I want to be with you, Aster. Like, all the time... "

Aster smiles, the relief palpable on her face. "Really?"

Ellie nods. "I love you. Nothing else matters."

Aster surges up to her and kisses her and Ellie meets her in a deep, passionate kiss.

***

Ellie's graduation ceremony is simple and unostentatious. The graduates of class 20 -- gather on the football grounds and listen to some successful alumni talk about new beginnings and how life is a journey and things come full circle and they should never give up and his life was like that, too, how he found his calling and lost everything and found everything again and Ellie isn't exactly listening, she's scanning the crowd until she spots Aster in the crowds, sitting beside her father, and she waves and Aster grins and waves back.

"Lucky you," Lauren whispers from behind.
Ellie looks back and grins.

Later, over a quiet dinner with her father and Aster, she holds her hand under the table as they share a plate of roast duck and dumplings, Mr.Chiu looking around approvingly at the restaurant that Ellie has worked for the past four years. This is her last dinner at the restaurant, and Mr.Kim looks at her with a mixture of pride and regret and later, the next day, as she takes one last look at her empty room, boxes and luggage loaded onto Paul's truck, Aster waiting patiently to drive them back to Seattle, Ellie smiles and closes the door one last time.

***

The drive is long and exhausting and they stop by a motel to spend the night halfway through.
The next day, Aster resumes driving, but not before teaching Ellie to drive on a long, empty backroad and letting her drive a few miles, to Aster smiling and encouraging beside her.
After a few miles, Aster takes over and she takes a detour. The landscape changes - all trees and empty road and squirrels and deer running through the undergrowth.

"Where are we going?" Ellie asks.

Aster only grins and says, "You'll see."

A few minutes later, they round a bend, Aster drives the truck through a thick clump of trees and undergrowth, stops the car and says, "C'mon!"

Ellie narrows her eyes as she watches Aster grab purse and cellphone. She gets out of the car, follows Aster through a grassy path. They don't walk too far, she could still see the truck in the distance. In front of them is a small lake and Ellie raises her eyebrows in surprise.

"Did you just...?"

"Yeah, it's my new secret place," Aster says, as she begins to take off her clothes.

"Aster..."

Aster just rolls her eyes but she's already in the water.

"What is it with you and your urge to strip naked wherever there's a body of water in sight?" Ellie asks, as she takes off jeans and jacket, making a splash as she gets into the water.

Aster laughs as she swims to Ellie and kisses her before Ellie can say anything else. "What is it with you and your need to layer?"

Ellie blushes.

"Never mind, it's cute," Aster murmurs with a laugh as she kisses Ellie again.

Silence ensues as they continue to kiss, birds and crickets chirping above them, the breeze flowing on the trees, making the leaves rustle, the water ripple. Aster shivers and Ellie puts her arms around her waist, draws her closer, Aster putting her arms around Ellie's neck, legs wrapping themselves on Ellie's torso.

"It's cold," Ellie complains, shivering.

"It's good,"Aster says. "It's fun."

A breeze blows again and Aster shivers. "It's cold."

Ellie throws back her head and laughs, before kissing Aster again. "Marry me," she blurts out.

Aster freezes then.

Ellie must have realized her error. "I'm sorry. I didn't I mean...I mean, not right now...but like..."

Aster shakes her head and kisses Ellie to stop her from speaking. "Yes."

"Yes?"

Aster nods. "But...maybe, not right now..."

Ellie nods, heart starting to pound. "Um, yeah..."

"Don't freak out," Aster says with a smile. She reaches for Ellie's hand and squeezes it. "I want to be with you. I want to marry you."

Ellie breaks into a smile. "Really?"

" What, you don't want to? You're not sure?"

Ellie grins. Because if she isn't sure now...

They make their way back to the truck and to Seattle.

Ellie gets a job at a university as a research assistant, enrolls in graduate school. She takes on another job in the meantime to pay for the bills. After a brief discussion, and a few months apart, she and Aster finally move in together. They're both in the twenties, they are barely making ends meet, but they both have a bright future ahead of them. Aster still isn't out to her family, especially to her father, and Aster still doesn't know if he'll be able to accept her, or Ellie, but with Ellie by her side, Aster feels brave. Together, they can take on the world together.

And that's all that matters.