Aster’s good at thinking. Her thoughts flow, an ocean of her own making, surging down her arms and into her hands and then onto paper. Harsh graphite, cloud-soft pastels, inky watercolours.
Aster has got so good at thinking that she can draw no-go zones in her mind, certain issues which are only vague impressions that she doesn’t touch at all, except to acknowledge to herself that at some point, she’ll have to deal with them.
But not right now.
The first time something disturbs the carefully maintained sense of calm in her mind, Aster doesn’t even recognise that it has.
She’s with Trig, lying in the back of his flatbed truck. Aster doesn’t think she’s ever seen the night sky so clear, the stars so bright that she can even see the Milky Way itself. Their parents had agreed to let Trig take her out to stargaze.
Trig had given her his jacket when she shivered, but even now she can feel the cold seeping up from the bed of the truck, curling up and settling in her bones. The view, however, more than makes up for it. The stars fill up the dark, overflowing out the edges of her vision, and when she breathes out she imagines the white cloud of her breath dissipating into the picture of it all and mingling with the hazy swirls of the universe. That a part of her is flying, high, somewhere beyond reach.
Beside her, Trig gasps and grabs her hand. “Babe! Shooting star!”
Even as he says it a streak of white flashes in the corner of her eyes. She cranes her neck further back, just in time to catch the tail end of it before it shimmers into nonexistence.
“What did you wish for?” Trig says. Aster is inexplicably shaken by the question, and something tightens low in her belly. But before she can delve into the implications and figure out why, Trig continues on, his voice loud even in the open where it doesn’t echo. “Guess what I wished for, babe. I wished for the prettiest girl in the world, and wow, she’s right here, next to me.”
Aster turns her head to see the light-coloured patches of his teeth as Trig grins at her, his eyes gleaming under the starlight. She smiles back. His breath ghosts across her face, fleeting warmth on her freezing nose and cheeks, and she fancies herself breathing in the air that he exhales, a part of him that is now hers.
Trig is still looking at her, and in the cold she can feel the shifts in temperature when he rolls into her, and props himself up on an elbow. In the dark she doesn’t see him reach out, and she startles when she feels his thumb drag across her lower lip.
Then she watches his eyes come closer and then he’s kissing her, his body half-draped across hers, warm and hard muscle that pins her to the flatbed, and his fingers are digging into her hip now, and why is she finding it so hard to keep up with what’s happening? Trig’s mouth has moved to her jaw already, then down her throat, and even as she gasps in surprised pleasure, a distinctly unpleasant pit is forming in her stomach.
“Yeah, that feels good, doesn’t it, babe,” Trig murmurs into her skin, his scorching-hot palm now splayed across her midriff and inching up to her chest. With an extraordinary amount of effort, Aster lifts her unmoving arm and places her hand on top of Trig’s, stopping it in its course.
Her struggle to say something is thankfully halted when Trig draws away and lies back down at her side, face tilted towards the skies. Aster breathes in, a rush of cold air filling her lungs.
“No, you’re right,” Trig says, “We shouldn’t. God already knows we’re destined to be together, we don’t have to prove it.” He smiles.
He drives her back soon after, placing a chaste kiss on her cheek as he says goodnight outside her door.
The next day, Aster draws the Milky Way with stormy watercolours, flecks of acrylic. The shooting star is a bright and gently curving line in the upper-right corner. She wonders what she should have wished for, wonders what she wants.
She gives the painting one last look before locking it in her drawer along with all her paints and brushes and art supplies. Her parents smile when she tells them.
The knot in her belly is still there, a heavy weight, nudging at the edges of her subconscious.
She sees Trig knock into Ellie in the hallway, and something tightens in her chest. Taking a deep breath, she goes to help pick Ellie’s stuff up.
Even as her mouth runs, she’s shocked by her own audacity. You’re his favourite heathen? Really, Aster?
As she hands over Ellie’s phone, Ellie’s finger brushes, and then jolts against her own. A tingle runs through her arms and into her spine, strangely electrifying.
Aster walks away, and unbidden, a thought springs to her mind: maybe.
In her room, Aster puts on the scarf the girls had given her. She stands in front of her mirror.
She looks tired, she thinks. There are faint dark smudges under her eyes, a certain wasted quality to her thin wrists. Even the scarf can’t hide the slump in the line of her shoulders that she would read as ‘defeated’, if she were trying to analyse a portrait.
The scarf’s bright colours are jarring against her outfit. Stripping it from her neck, she throws it onto her bed. She frowns at her reflection, still stifled in her own clothes. They itch against her skin, the soft linen becoming abrasive, so she takes off her jacket, her blouse, jeans, on and on, movements growing frantic and desperate, until she has clawed everything off and is standing naked, breath heaving and hair brushing against her bare shoulders.
She looks at herself in the mirror. Only her, in her own skin, with her own eyes, windows to her soul.
She looks, and looks, and closes her eyes and turns away.
The first letter appears, then the second, the third, and more. She begins to look forward to checking her locker every morning, finds herself grinning when she gets a new letter.
And they even paint. It’s the first time she’s done anything remotely artistic since the watercolour night sky that she drew ages ago, and it settles inside of her, slots into an emptiness she hadn’t noticed, feels familiar and right even though it’s the first time she’s held a spray paint can in her entire life.
She gets a text from Trig in class. Something simmering inside her all along bursts, shivers and blooms, so she lays pencil to paper, and draws it.
I’ve started drawing again. They’re just sketches, but it’s been over a year and I’m quite rusty. I guess what you’ll say in response to this, is that at least I’ve started, right? I hope it’ll come back to me. And thank you. This is all because of you. I hadn’t realised how much I’ve missed it, how much I’ve missed being able to put pieces of myself into my art. I feel more solid, for lack of a better word, now that I’m painting again. Would you like me to draw you something next time?
Here’s something else I’ve been thinking about: who would you be, if you were able to choose any and all aspects of who you are? I don’t think I know who I’d want to be even if I could choose.
That is indeed what I’d say: you’ve started, and now you can go anywhere you want from here. I’ve been reading ‘Maurice’, and this line struck me as something that would probably resonate with you – "But his heart had lit never to be quenched again, and one thing in him at last was real." I thought it sounded like you, with painting.
Plus, you give yourself too little credit. I started the mural with you, but you were the one who pushed yourself to draw the woman. It’s beautiful, by the way. I’m not sure I’ve managed to get that across before, properly. The deconstructing hair, the way the viewer’s eye is drawn towards the star, all of it. It’s transfixing. Warm, but with the stark clarity of a single moment suspended in time, the woman poised on the brink of getting everything she might have wanted. I love it.
I’d love it if you drew something for me, too, but I’ll admit that I already think of the mural as something you created that I had the privilege of having, if only for a brief moment.
As for your last question… I think we’re already choosing who we are, every single second. We are the books we read, the anger and indignation we feel at injustices, the art that comes out of our hands, the things we say to others and ourselves, everything we choose to do and feel. As for certain things that we can’t change about ourselves, well, fighting them won’t get us anywhere, so I just try my best to accept myself. At the end of the day we’re all just trying to be happy, I think.
The quote. Forster. It shakes her. She’s not sure if it’s because of how scarily accurate it is to what she feels, how it lays her bare, or because it reminds her of the time she tried to read Forster in the house. Her father had walked past her bedroom door, and she had thrown the book under her bed so quickly that a corner had dented.
Paul’s letters feel just as dangerous as trying to read Forster. They shouldn’t be allowed. How can someone see her like this? The quivering, bleeding truth of her.
The letters are gut punches of how much he understands her, always leaving her breathless, and Aster thinks about how he says he loves her art, these precious pieces of herself, how he understands her through it. She thinks about the quiet certainty of him simply trying , choosing every day to try and accept himself and be who he wants to be, even as he’s wading through the uncertainty of living.
Aster didn’t know it was possible to feel like this, like something has shaken loose in her chest and is being cautiously, slowly tugged on from the outside.
Somehow, the last part of the letter reminds her of Ellie and her copy of The Remains of the Day . She folds this letter carefully and tucks it in between the pages of her own paperback copy of the book, before putting it back on her shelf.
All that barely repressed longing, she had said to Ellie.
Paul sits across the table from her at the diner, fidgeting with his phone. He keeps opening and closing his mouth, and Aster finds it rather pleasantly novel that there is someone who hesitates to speak to her, even as she struggles to start a conversation.
Something tickles at the back of her brain. The discrepancy… She shunts it off into a new no-go zone, desperate to keep this good thing in her life exactly that – good.
Because Paul’s an absolute sweetheart, whose letters and texts makes her remember what it feels to be alive. Sitting here he feels safe, just like Trig, except he’s somehow sweeter and actually wants to listen to her.
Maybe that’s what she’s always been chasing after. To feel safe. That’s what she’s been looking for, why she gave up painting, why it feels good to stay with Trig even though he expects too much from what he insists is a casual relationship, why she tries so hard to appease and appease and appease .
She doesn’t know what she’s running from, though. What is she afraid of?
But between Paul and Trig, who both feel safe, she thinks. She thinks she’s allowed to want. To want Paul, who’s tall and strong and warm and sweet and solid. Safe.
But what about the letters? The letters, which make her belly tighten and swoop, and make her feel like she’s walking along the edge of a cliff, about to fly off into the night.
Does she want Paul?
Has she ever known what she wants?
The scathing question catches her by surprise, this viciousness that springs from her own head.
She knows what Trig wants from her. What both their parents want when she’s at home, what the customers want when she’s at work, what her friends want when she’s at school, and at some point between doling out parts of herself to all of them, she had started existing solely for their expectations, started being quiet and only smiling and saying yes . Started shoving what’s left of herself into the back of her mind, following some twisted logic to preserve them by neglect.
Is she even allowed to want anything else?
She thinks of Trig, forever sure of himself and what he desires, and feels a crashing wave of envy and admiration and resignation and resentment all mixed up together and drenching a canvas, spilling over the edges. He’s always so sure that she’ll stick with him to the end.
And finally, finally, she lets herself acknowledge that everyone around her is so sure of her even when she isn’t, because her problem has always been that she’s never learned how to say no.
Paul kisses her without asking. It makes her think of being trapped between a cold flatbed and a warm body.
Next time, she kisses him first before he can do it again.
She wants this, she decides. This is probably what people do when they want this.
Ellie sits opposite her in the hot spring, ripples travelling from each of their bodies to gently collide midway. The water cradling them is warm, so warm, and Aster thinks that if she touched Ellie’s face, it would probably feel cool on her heated skin.
Before she can stop herself, Aster makes a split-second decision and moves towards Ellie, reaching for her shirt. Ellie’s eyes widen impossibly, and she struggles, says I am a Russian doll of clothing , and Aster laughs even as she thinks of herself standing in front of a mirror, furiously stripping off layer after layer. Ellie keeps protesting right until Aster rests her hand on her hip, against the hem of her pale yellow shirt, and they both go quiet.
They stare at each other. Ellie puts her hand on Aster’s arm but doesn’t push her away, so Aster carefully tugs her shirt up and off her, Ellie’s hand only leaving for a second before returning to her arm. The music plays at the edge of Aster’s hearing, her entire being tunneling down to the way Ellie’s eyes darken, Ellie’s cool palm against her skin, the way the wet shirt clings to Ellie’s body. She wants to feel Ellie’s shirt on her own skin, so she puts it on. It’s soft, like Ellie’s voice.
Ellie, Ellie, Ellie. She looks at Aster, looks and looks and doesn’t turn away, and Aster thinks that she feels just as horribly vulnerable as when Paul hits a little too close to home in his letters. She thinks about how Ellie is probably the only person who knows about feeling alien in Squahamish even better than Aster does.
Ellie’s eyes sweep down her body quickly, almost unintentionally, and then jump back up to Aster’s face, before Ellie adverts her gaze entirely. The ever-present knot in Aster’s belly tightens, moves up and lodges in her chest.
None of this feels safe. Aster tries very hard not to think about why she brought Ellie here, tries very hard not to think about what Ellie said in Paul’s room. She lets herself get carried away by Ellie’s pleasantly deep voice, her long and winding thoughts, the gestures of her veined hands.
And then Ellie starts singing.
She sings along to the radio, the last verse of the song that she said her mother loved. Her singing voice is surprisingly high and clear, distinctly different from her speaking voice. It’s intoxicating, and Aster shifts her head out of the water to listen to Ellie better. The notes wind their way into Aster’s chest, and she floats on this heady feeling until the song ends. Aster sits up, and twists around to stare at Ellie.
“I… wow,” Aster whispers. “Your voice is beautiful.”
Ellie blushes. “Thank you.” Her voice has gone back to that gravelly depth that makes Aster shiver.
“Do you sing a lot?”
“I– yeah, I guess. I’m, uh, trying to write my own songs too.”
Oh wow. Aster closes her eyes against the wave of affection and admiration and something that she feels for Ellie; withdrawn, talented, precious Ellie.
“I’d love to hear your songs,” Aster says instead.
A corner of Ellie’s mouth quirks up. “The entire school heard one of my songs at the talent show. But I guess you weren’t there.”
“Oh.” Aster fights against a perplexing sense of loss. “Next time, then.”
“Yeah. Next time,” Ellie says.
They fall silent, the music from the radio taking centre stage on Aster’s hearing again. She lays back down properly and lets the water bear her weight.
Her view of the sky is ringed with trees, nestling close to each other. She’d say the whole picture of it, surrounded but open, makes her feel safe, and normally it would, but. But.
She just feels so much around Ellie. So many feelings that she can barely name, barely process, and they keep coming, unstopping, wave after wave after wave, and Aster itches to get home and draw all of it, to give them shape and structure with her brushes, so that she can look at them and know them for what they are.
Aster turns her head to look at Ellie. She’s floating in the water, seemingly content, a faint smile on her face.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, Aster thinks.
Maybe she is allowed to want what she wants.
And then she sees Paul try to kiss Ellie and Ellie jerks back and drops her things and then panics when she sees Aster and none of this is making sense in Aster’s head, all the lines are jumbling and smudging together, and God, she knew not thinking things through was going to come back around and ruin her.
How did she let herself believe?
So when Trig asks her to marry him in front of the whole church, Aster gives in to what everyone wants again; she doesn’t think she has another choice, thinks she was dumb to have ever thought it could go any other way. She can’t bring herself to say yes, but everyone’s looking and waiting and expecting, so she forces the corners of her mouth up and nods shakily.
It’s a completely average day, when Ellie kisses her. It’s out of the blue, and it doesn’t feel safe but the tangle of knots in her belly is loosening and bubbling up her body into her throat, washing pleasantly through her arms and legs, into her toes. It feels utterly and delightfully dangerous, and for once Aster doesn’t mind.
She kisses back, and probably, this is what it should feel like. Like recklessly splashing stars onto an entire night sky and reaching for the brightest one, soaring high enough that the fall would break her, but trusting she’ll be caught if she does fall.
“Hey, birthday girl,” Ellie’s voice crackles over the phone, the video of her slightly glitchy. “How’s your first college birthday?”
“Good,” she says. It’s true. “It’s nice. Being around all these people who… who actually know me. Well, who I’m becoming, I guess. It’s so different from how it was at home.”
“Yeah? That’s good,” Ellie says. Her head turns away on Aster’s phone. “I, uh, wrote you a song. If you want?”
There’s a flutter in Aster’s chest, and a smile tugs at her lips. “Yeah. Of course I do,” she says.
“Alright, gimme a sec…” The view on Aster’s screen shifts, and then settles, this time showing Ellie sitting with her guitar, a bit away from the camera.
“Here goes nothing,” Aster thinks she hears Ellie mutter.
Then Ellie’s voice, lilting and beautiful, rings out from Aster’s phone.
Take a break, Mary Sue, you’re not you
When they kiss your wearied cheek you cry
But can they taste the sting of what’s true
Salt-sweet and leaking from your eyes?
You and I, we’re unspeakables of the wild
Running ‘round like a child
Looking for something to keep us from exile
Speak your truth, you are not Mary Sue
You are not who they want you to be
Rest your head, dear, shed your worn-down shoes
You can take your time when you’re with me
Aster’s still not sure exactly what she wants or who she is, but she thinks she’s coming to accept that she is allowed time, she is allowed to think it through, she is always allowed to change her mind.
Ellie smiles at her through the phone, and Aster, heart ridiculously full, thinks: