There is no part of a wedding Dani Clayton feels comfortable planning. She’d thought--hoped, maybe--it would fall into line over time, like picking up a foreign language by immersing yourself in a new country. She’d thought it would start to get easier, bit by bit, as the months wore on. Flower arrangements. Meal options. Venue decisions. She’d thought each would start to make a little more sense, that she’d start to recognize why people do this. Why they sink so much money and effort into tying themselves to another person.
Shackling themselves, she tries not to think, staring at the ring. A circle. An enclosure. An infinite loop. It’s supposed to be symbolic of the endless nature of love. ‘Til death do we part--and, she’d hoped as a child, watching her father succumb to illness, maybe not even then.
She doesn’t hope that now. It makes her a little sick to think about it. To touch the ring and think not about devotion and eternity, but of a cuff too subtle for anyone else to notice. A trap she walked willingly into. She can’t argue it. She's already in.
In, and in far too deep, to boot. She lives here now.
But, oh Christ, it isn’t getting easier.
“Stop fidgeting, Danielle.” Her mother’s voice is already lightly greased. Karen Clayton has not been helpful, per se, working out the intricacies of this wedding, but she has been present. Physically, anyway. It’s more than Dani had expected, announcing the engagement.
Judy smiles, a spring day tucked into a blue blazer. “She’s nervous, Karen. Don’t you remember the butterflies of your dress fitting?”
Karen drops a cool note into her champagne, a sound that might--on a less together woman--have been a grunt. “I wasn’t nervous. Should have been. If I’d known what was coming--if I could go back--”
Dani’s ears are ringing pink, her teeth clenched against the ancient urge to ask her mother to stop. Stop talking about him that way, Mom. Stop acting like you didn’t love him, Mom. Stop pretending losing him didn’t reshape your entire genetic code, Mom. Wouldn’t be a point to any of it; she can’t remember the last time she actually said the words out loud. She’d been no older than ten, scraped raw by loss and loneliness, and all she’d gotten for her trouble was a trip to her first boarding school.
“Nothing to be nervous about,” Karen is saying. “Except for time wasted. Where is that seamstress--”
The universe, Dani sometimes thinks, operates by cue card. Wonder if maybe there’s something not quite right about the way she looks at women in flowing dresses in the movies? There’s Eddie, eager to kiss her on a dare. Start to think maybe all his well-meaning boyish charm isn’t enough? There’s the ring, waiting in a little blue box to wash it away. Begin to believe, maybe, that the seamstress won’t turn up, that this will finally, finally fall apart as she’s been hoping it would for years?
The door opens.
She shuts her eyes against a wave of disappointment. Of course the seamstress is here. Of course. The road stretches out before her. The car keeps rolling. The universe, offering unwelcome answers to all her deepest questions.
“Sorry ‘m late,” an accented voice--British, Dani registers with the singular part of her not occupied with unease--says lightly. “Traffic in suburbia is murder.”
“It’s fine, dear,” Judy says helpfully, neatly cross-cutting whatever Karen had been about to greet the poor woman with. A back-handed compliment, maybe, about the seamstress’ delightful ability to offer them more time to chat amongst themselves. She isn’t nearly drunk enough--yet--to do much worse.
Give it time, Dani thinks wearily, and opens her eyes.
The woman does not look like a seamstress.
Not, Dani hurriedly reminds herself, that you can ever guess a person’s profession from their face. Or their carriage. This woman--dressed professionally enough in a neat button-up laid open to reveal white lace, gray slacks, and a pair of suspenders--doesn’t carry herself like any of the seamstresses Dani has met. She doesn’t carry herself like she wants to please the bride and her mother, like she’s all fine manner and good grace. She carries herself, instead, like a woman who has just narrowly avoided a car crash and is still in the irritable-recovery period.
Or maybe that’s just the way a strange woman looks, faced with Karen Clayton’s shark smile.
Dani can’t exactly blame her.
“You’re not,” Karen says, “the woman I spoke to on the phone.”
“No,” the seamstress agrees, a half-smile curling her mouth. “She’s taken ill, I’m afraid. Jamie. I promise, you’re in good hands.”
This last--name and oath alike--she offers directly to Dani, one hand extended. Her skin is warm, her grip firm. There’s a Band-Aid wrapped around her index finger and a tiny scar embedded in the joint of her thumb. Dani has been holding her hand too long.
Entirely too long.
She lets it drop, pasting on her usual for-strangers smile. “Dani.”
“Danielle,” her mother says--not quite correcting her, unless you’ve been listening to her arrange those syllables in that tone of voice your entire life. If that has been happening for nearly three decades, her meaning becomes instantly clear. Dani’s smile shifts, her teeth clenched as though around broken glass.
“Danielle. Yes. Pleasure to meet you.”
Shoulders back, neck long, head high. Remember you’re wearing your mother-in-law’s dress. Remember the women seated behind you on the bed, watching your every move. Don’t forget, Danielle. Don’t forget for even a moment.
Jamie is watching her with eyes that, in this light, are nearly gray. “Right. Well. If you’re ready to get started?”
Dani isn’t. Dani’s not sure she’ll ever be ready to stand here in her mother’s bedroom, wearing Judy’s pink-tinged wedding dress, while the pair of them squabble behind her. She’s not sure she’ll ever be ready to see that face shining back from the mirror--perfectly made-up, hair in a tight ponytail, shoulders carrying so much tension, she half-believes she’ll drop under its weight before she’s forty.
But what she’s ready for and what she’s doing haven’t correlated in years, so on she goes. Stand on the box. Straighten the spine. Try not to watch the young woman loop a measuring tape around her shoulders, slide a bracelet of safety pins around her wrist, scrutinize the back of Dani’s dress with eyebrows knitted.
Try not to watch the pull of the young woman’s mouth to the side as she considers her work. Try not to watch the light gleaming off the young woman’s eyes--almost green, when they catch just so--in the mirror. Try not to watch the young woman’s hands, lean and strong, brushing the fabric without quite touching Dani.
Try. Try hard, Dani. Try so hard, she thinks she might burst a blood vessel. Her teeth scrape together, her thumb pressed to the engagement ring’s modest stone hard enough to hurt.
“All good?” Jamie asks.
Dani opens her mouth to say, Of course. Nothing comes out. Her eyes dart to the reflected image of her mother behind her, clinking glasses with Judy, and something in her chest pulls tight.
“No worries,” Jamie says. With Dani on this box, she seems distant--as though Dani is standing on top of a terribly tall building, toes over the rooftop edge, weighing the merits of jumping. Jamie’s smile suggests she knows this. Jamie’s smile suggests she’s seen this before.
“I,” says Dani helplessly, looking again into the mirror. Jamie gives her sleeve a very gentle tug--not the work at hand, Dani realizes, but a pull for attention.
“Easier,” she says in a soft voice intended for Dani’s ears alone, “if you pay them no mind, I’ve found. This isn’t about them, after all. S’your day.”
And what if I don’t want it? Dani swallows hard. She is looking at the curve of Jamie’s fingers around her arm. She is looking at the blunt nails, carefully maintained, and the ridges of Jamie’s knuckles, and the small imperfections in her skin. She is looking, and can’t stop looking, and something in her stomach is sweeping hard to the left.
She’s out of character. She’s forgotten the role. She's veering too close to letting Dani Clayton out of the box she keeps her wedged into, letting Dani Clayton step into shoes bought and paid for with the intent of making Danielle shine.
“Help if I talk?” Jamie asks. Dani nods before she can stop herself, checking the mirror to see if they’ve seen her do it. Doesn’t seem so. Judy is topping off Karen’s glass, her expression wound tight the way it always gets when Karen is off and running on a tirade. She is, not for the first time, grateful to Eddie’s mother for this much. With Judy around, Karen’s attention often slides right off of Dani.
Jamie is pulling at the train of the dress, considering. “Story or explanation?”
“What?” says Dani blankly. Jamie catches her eye in the mirror, her smile easy as waking up.
“Pick one. I’ll talk. You concentrate on not hearing whatever they’re goin’ on about.”
Dani doubts this will work--but Jamie’s looking at her expectantly, and there’s something about her smile that makes Dani’s knees feel as though they might have been replaced with foam tubing. She swallows. “Story.”
There’s a distinct feeling she gets when she’s just ordered something off a menu without entirely understanding what she’s about to get--she has it now, watching Jamie nod. Story could mean anything at all--the retelling of a recent movie, or a fairy-tale invented on the fly, or a silly anecdote--and looking at Jamie makes it impossible to guess what she’ll offer up.
The answer is unexpectedly personal, when Jamie begins to talk. Her hands have developed a mind of their own, pulling and pinching fabric, drawing and placing pins with care, and all the while she is telling Dani...all sorts of things. About growing up in England. About the 70's punk scene. About fistfights and bar nights and her favorite bands. She’s talking about learning how to sew (”Somebody had to keep my brother’s trousers up.”) and learning how to garden (”Damn sight better for you than throwing punches, as it turns out.”) and learning about herself in America.
“Still not sure,” she says, her accent muddy around a mouthful of pins, “it suits me. You Yanks are a lot to process. Haven’t found a decent bloody cup of tea in two years.”
“Why’d you come over?” Dani asks. She finds herself entranced, her head turning instinctively to follow Jamie’s movements beside and behind her, rather than in the glass. There’s a heat trailing in the wake of Jamie’s hands, which seem never to press to Dani’s skin, only resting momentarily against her through the dress when absolutely necessary. As if Jamie, too, is aware of the electric current turning Karen Clayton’s bedroom into something entirely new.
Jamie raises her eyes from the sleeve she’s pinning carefully around Dani’s upper arm. “You ever just...” She hesitates. Dani permits herself a tiny wiggle to urge her on, careful not to jostle the pins into her skin. “Ever just wake up and think, I can’t be this anymore?”
She isn’t quite looking at Dani, as if this simple sentence is a step too far from professional distraction. A step over a line drawn neatly between how Jamie pays her bills and who Jamie is. Dani’s mouth is dry.
“Yes,” she whispers, eyes flicking to the mirror. Her mother is saying something about Danielle’s taste in men. Her vision swims. “Sometimes.”
Jamie’s hands are small, like the rest of her, but there’s something expansive about the way she uses them. Something equal parts confidence and care, in the way she moves slowly around Dani. She never, Dani notes, looks into the mirror. Never uses Dani’s reflection to gauge what can be determined by gazing at her directly. It is an experience unlike anything Dani has been through before, and...and...
I’m comfortable, she realizes with a warm flush, and that realization is anything but comfortable. This woman is a perfect stranger--a perfect stranger with soft skin and pretty eyes, with hands that feel entirely too clever as they drift around Dani’s body--and there is not a single thing about her Dani should be within a country mile of finding comfortable.
Her eyes snap back to the mirror. Judy is downing her champagne in hard swallows, her face carefully neutral; she catches Dani’s eye and winks, and Dani feels a trapdoor in her stomach swing open. Judy O’Mara is so kind, so warm and sweet, the woman she’d lain awake as a child wishing would formally take her into the family. And now--now that she is, now that she’s offered up her generous heart and her patient tolerance for Dani’s mother and this dress Dani is watching shift around her frame to suit advancing fashions...now...
Jamie’s hands are at her back, gently smoothing the fabric into place. She is the picture of firm focus, her teeth sunk into her lower lip in a manner that draws shivers down Dani’s spine, and when her eyes flick up, her grin could unbind Dani’s entire life.
“Still hanging on?” she asks, nothing in her voice to suggest she can read Dani’s mind. Her gaze slides from Dani’s brisk nod to the tangle her fingers have become against her skirt. “Careful. Tryin’ to break it?”
Dani startles, letting her hands fly apart. There is an indentation in the pad of her finger where the stone bit in, a furious red dent standing out against her skin. She rubs at it, frowning.
His ring. His ring, on his fiancée, on his future. His mother back there, watching her stand in this gifted dress. His wedding. His dream.
Jamie is still working, still talking in low tones about the differences in British and American culture she can’t wrap her head around, but Dani gets the impression she isn’t doing any of this blindly. Her gaze keeps sweeping over Dani’s entire frame--settling around her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the dart of her eyes--and Dani suddenly thinks, She’s trying to talk me down. She’s trying to talk me off a cliff without looking like she’s talking me off a cliff.
Sure enough, the next thing out of Jamie’s mouth is a carefully-indifferent, “Doin’ great. Just a little more.” Then, on the heels of only the smallest beat of hesitation: “You’ll be stunning.”
You’ll be. The words hitching oddly, when everything else Jamie’s said this afternoon has felt smooth and effortless. You’ll be, like she’s actively prevented herself from grounding the statement in the present-tense.
You’ll be, like she’s forcing herself away from you are.
Dani can't look at her anymore--can’t let herself follow Jamie in the physical world with hungry eyes. Someone, she’s sure, will notice the way her hips jut awkwardly in Jamie’s direction, swiveling without her intent when Jamie steps around her. Someone, she’s sure, will call her on the way she’s biting the inside of her own cheek, her eyes glazed as Jamie’s hand rises to push an errant curl off her forehead.
She can’t look at her dead-on, but she can’t seem to look away, either. She finds herself negotiating a middle ground--letting her eyes track Jamie’s movements in the mirror--and is disheartened to discover Jamie in reflection is no less captivating. It almost makes it worse; instead of preparing herself for Jamie’s touch, she finds herself taken by surprise by the weight of her palm against the small of her back, sliding around to balance at her hip. Her stomach tightens. She wants to evaporate on the spot, sinking through the carpet. She wants to remain here forever, suspended in an afternoon where Jamie will do nothing but touch her.
She wants to be someone else entirely--someone who never took this ring, someone who never accepted this dress, someone who might have met Jamie in a diner or an English pub or on a random street somewhere. Someone who could do this. Someone who could be the Dani beneath the paint and ponytail of Danielle.
Jamie, she realizes, is looking at her--her hands still, one propped with as little intrusion as possible against Dani’s back. “What?” she asks, aware of the shiver in her voice. “What’s wrong?”
“You look...” Jamie frowns. “Flushed. Need a minute? Some air?”
“Yes.” Dani grasps at the out with both hands, feeling flaily and disheveled. The girl in the mirror is still steady, for now. The girl in the mirror is a bit pink in the cheeks, a bit dazed around the eyes, but you’d have to look closely to watch her unravel.
Won’t last. Not with Jamie inches away, long fingers bridging the gap where the zipper needs replacing, where Dani’s bare skin meets Jamie’s own. Not with Jamie’s voice in her head, less hearty than before: You ever just wake up and think, I can’t be this anymore?
“A minute,” she repeats. “I need a minute. Do you--do you need a minute?”
Jamie regards her uncertainly, letting her hand fall to her side. “Could do with a smoke, sure.”
“Great.” Not. Wisdom is knowing the difference between a dream and solid ground, and the way Jamie looks at her--like she cares, like she has any reason to care--has no business being the latter. Dani darts a gaze to the bed. “We’re going to get some air.”
Karen is wearing her tipsy flush like recklessly-applied makeup, her eyes magnified behind her glasses. “Danielle, we don’t have time for--”
“I’ve seen this before,” Jamie interjects smoothly. Karen’s expression snaps shut, every atom of her screaming that Jamie is the help, Jamie has been hired, Jamie’s opinion on anything other than shifting seams or trimming hemlines is unwelcome. Jamie ignores it all. “Best to get her a break. Whole thing takes longer, when they pass out.”
“Pass out?” Judy repeats, alarmed. “Danielle, are you--should I get you some water? Here, sit--”
“No,” says Dani quickly. Her hands are digging together again, spinning the ring around and around. His ring. His dream. His girl. “I’m fine. Ten minutes.”
She doesn’t take Jamie’s hand, and Jamie doesn’t offer it. She’s profoundly grateful for that much. Profoundly grateful that, though Dani Clayton is slamming her full weight against the box Danielle has made up for her, she has not yet wrestled full control of the situation.
She’s moving quickly, leading the way through her childhood home like a woman on a mission. No time to stop and pencil in all the tourist attractions: the bedroom where she’d grown up lonely, and the kitchen where she’d made her own meals, and the living room where she’d sat up late, wondering where Karen was this time. No time. No air.
She bursts through the back door, clattering in pink heels down the brief flight of steps to the grass. The garage is leaning a little, gray with disuse. She does not draw breath again until she’s tucked safely behind it, out of sight, shielded on all sides by Karen’s untamed shrubbery.
Here, safe at last, she props a hand against the once-white siding and inhales deeply. Jamie, pausing a careful distance away, draws a pack of cigarettes from her hip pocket.
Dani shakes her head. This isn’t quite a panic attack, not yet. If she keeps breathing in time with the count in her head, she might still stave it off. If she keeps looking at the ring on her finger, the ring on her finger, the ring which is his, which is his, which is--
“Don’t mind my saying,” Jamie says quietly, “but this isn’t actually how it usually goes.”
Dani barks out a laugh. It is a Dani laugh, not Danielle’s--high and fluttery and cut carefully into acceptable beats. Dani’s laugh is jagged, unpredictable, too loud and too wild. Jamie doesn’t so much as flinch.
“Nothing,” says Dani, so quickly, it sounds rehearsed. She shuts her eyes, embarrassed. She hears Jamie utter a low sound under her breath, then the soft rustle of paper on plastic, the soft flick of a flint wheel. A deep breath. An airplane overhead. A dog, three doors down. A whole world in motion.
The universe, Dani thinks, moves around her like she’s not even in it. It’s been doing that longer than she can remember, for years and years of another night, maybe. Another time, maybe. Years and years of glancing at the woman in the mirror and barely recognizing the blue eyes staring back.
“One more time,” Jamie says, and Dani feels, rather than sees, her shoulders strike the siding as she leans into the garage. “Then I’ll leave it be. But you look like you could use the company, at least. So: what’s wrong?”
Dani shakes her head. Dani’s hand slips on the siding. Dani’s wearing a dress she didn’t ask for, a hairband tight enough to draw a migraine down her scalp, a ring she hasn’t gone a day without wanting to pitch out of a moving vehicle since Eddie offered it up.
Jamie, true to her word, doesn’t ask again. She doesn’t leave, either; when Dani cracks open an eye, she finds Jamie leaning her head back to inspect the clouds, smoke jetting from her nostrils. Jamie in a white blouse and gray slacks and those idiotically-appealing suspenders. Jamie, who came to tailor her wedding dress.
Jamie, who is maybe the first person in ten years to notice Dani isn’t okay.
“You don’t know me,” she says. It comes out like an accusation. Jamie nods.
“True enough. Want to tell me anyway?”
“You shouldn’t care,” Dani says. Her chest is caving in, her skin buzzing with a thin electricity she doesn’t know how to release. “I’m just a girl in a dress.”
“Easier,” Jamie says, “sometimes, to say things to people who don’t matter. Like writin’ ‘em down and burning the page.”
Dani wants to shake her head again. Wants to laugh again. Wants to take off this god-forsaken ring and chuck it as hard as she can over the fence between yards.
“I don’t know,” she whispers, “if I can do this.”
She’s never said it out loud before. She’s never told anyone this before. She hasn’t even had the strength to murmur it to herself in the dark, alone in a house she can’t quite convince herself to call home.
Jamie looks slightly perplexed. “Which bit? If you don’t like the dress, I can help. Could make you a new one from scratch, if you--”
“This,” Dani says helplessly, her voice barely audible over the snarl of a nearby lawnmower. “Any of it. I don’t--know if I want--”
“Ah.” Jamie scratches her hand, fingers bent carefully around her cigarette. Then what are you doing here? “Not the right guy?”
“Not the right anything.” Every sentence feels like swimming a little further out. Every sentence pushes her deeper into uncharted waters. There are sharks out here, she’s sure. Sea monsters. Sacrilegious truths. “The dress. The ring. The...him. I love him, but I don’t--I can’t be--”
She shuts her mouth, the clack of teeth reverberating up into her skull. This is the opposite of Danielle behavior. This is slouched shoulders, hissed honesty, unacceptable in every way. She shouldn’t be telling Jamie this. She shouldn’t be saying it at all.
Her eyes settle again on Jamie’s hands--graceful, steady, carrying the cigarette to parted lips and back again. Those hands have spent an hour brushing against her like she was made of porcelain. Like, if they ever did more than graze, Jamie wouldn’t be able to forgive herself the transgression.
“Are you always,” she hears herself say, “so careful?”
Jamie smiles faintly. Takes another pull of smoke into her lungs. She is buying herself time, Dani is sure, and suddenly, she wants to know why.
"Explanation,” Jamie says, in lieu of answering, “or story?”
“Story,” Dani answers without hesitation. Tell me. Help me.
Jamie nods thoughtfully, smoking the last of the cigarette like they aren’t on a deadline. As she does--as Dani watches with indecent hunger the casual path of her hand to her mouth, her lips curved around the filter, the way her simple silver necklace catches the sun--she talks. About girls in England. About mistakes one might make, thinking ownership and love are synonymous. About how such errors in judgment are not swept neatly away just because one comes to one’s senses.
She doesn't look at Dani as she speaks. It’s the first time all afternoon she hasn’t been looking at Dani. Propped against the garage with the cigarette burning down to nearly nothing, she looks like an art installation. Like a dream.
“You didn't stay,” Dani says, and hates that the note of accusation is still in her voice. You didn’t. You. As though Jamie’s story in any way reflects her own.
“I did.” There’s a thin note of laughter in Jamie’s voice. Not joyful laughter. The kind you can’t help while remembering the worst of your choices. “Did stay. Sometimes staying is the wrong answer.”
Dani looks at her sharply. “You’re saying I shouldn’t?”
“No. I’m saying no one can work it out for you.” Jamie looks her in the eye, and smiles, and for all the world, Dani can’t believe they only met this afternoon. Something about this woman rings too true for strangers. Something about her feels like Dani has never not known her.
“I don’t know,” Dani says. Her voice is hollow. The ring is suddenly too tight, as though it has contracted in answer to her doubt. Or to her certainty. “I don’t know how to--”
“Break it off?” Jamie supplies. She isn’t smiling now. Dani swears under her breath.
“Everything I’ve been feeling--everything I can’t feel--I mean, how do you know?” She presses a hand to her forehead, feeling too warm, too shaky. She wants to peel the makeup from her face in strips, wants to jerk the hair tie loose and shake all the glittering shards of Danielle free. “What if I do it--break his heart--and it’s still wrong?”
“Which part,” Jamie says carefully, “about being honest with yourself is wrong?”
Dani snorts. It is maybe the least Danielle thing she’s allowed herself in an afternoon of anti-Danielle moments, and it makes Jamie’s eyebrows raise in amusement.
“Dani,” she says, because in for a penny seems the least of her worries just now. She’s given too much information to this woman. Might as well get the goddamn name right.
Jamie’s mouth quirks. “Dani. Can I ask you a question?”
“What’s one more?” Dani says flatly. Jamie’s mouth twitches again, like she’s warding off a real grin.
“What do you want?”
“Don’t think about it,” Jamie adds. “No time. Just--if you only had one day. One single day. What would you do with it?”
One day. Dani’s never thought in those terms before. Dani’s whole life has been scripted out in structure: four years of school, and four more after that, and a steady career, and the can-should-must of time with Eddie. The wedding will come. The honeymoon will follow. There will be kids. There will be a black hole of decisions made for her: dinners to cook, and rooms to keep tidy, and Sunday dinners at Judy’s. Down the rabbit hole. No way back out.
“Don’t think,” Jamie repeats softly. She’s close, Dani realizes. The cigarette is gone. Her hands are empty, her face sunlit and lovely.
Beautiful, even. Too beautiful. Her eyes are bright, and her smile is unquestioning, and when Dani’s hand moves to brace against her shoulder, her fingers steal too easily around the strap of suspender. The texture of it is smooth beneath her skin. The shirt is silk-soft. Jamie, beneath that, is warm.
“One day,” Dani breathes, and this is not Danielle. This is not befitting of her lipstick and ponytail, Judy’s dress or Eddie’s ring. This is what she has spent years and years telling herself she does not want, can’t possibly look for, could never find even if she did.
Jamie is inches away. Barely even that. Jamie is leaning against the garage, wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue, and Dani shouldn’t. Dani shouldn’t. Dani--
She wouldn’t have, if it had only been Jamie’s capable hands working the fabric to suit her height and build. She wouldn’t, if it had only been Jamie telling surface-soft stories to keep her mood up. She wouldn’t, if it had only been the brush of fingertips against the gap in the dress, a light burn at the small of her back. She wouldn’t have, because Danielle wouldn’t have. Because there, that room, was all clean glass and clinking champagne and a ring digging so hard into her hand, it hurt.
But Jamie offered her a break. Jamie offered her a smile. Jamie asked if she was all right, and when Dani answered, she wanted the truth.
And now Jamie is kissing her back. Jamie’s hands are confident without being aggressive, smoothing down Dani’s arms, slipping around her waist. She tastes of smoke, and her lips are slightly chapped, and Dani can’t for all the world imagine kissing Eddie again after this. This--this one kiss with a woman she barely knows--eclipses every kiss she’s accepted since she was ten years old.
She’s pushing against Jamie without stopping to dissect the urge, without drawing a hopscotch board in her head: two minutes of kissing, and then--hop--he’ll try to move his hand up my blouse, and--hop--I’ll have to come up with a reason, a reason to get away, what did I say last time-- She’s pushing against Jamie, and there is no pause in her head to say careful, no glaring signs to say if she lets her lips part just so, if she allows her tongue to brush into a warm mouth, if her body falls against another, she’ll be locked into this cage until the end of the road. She wants to be kissing Jamie. She wants Jamie’s hands firm at her hips, and Jamie’s thigh wrinkling her skirt, and Jamie’s hand winding her ponytail tight around a deft grip. She wants Jamie against the garage, unable to kiss quietly, her voice low and raw when Dani moves against her.
She wants. She wants this. She wants this, and she’s wanted this, and for the first time in her life, she’s vividly aware that some doors--once shut--can never be pried open again. Some boxes open not with a simple slash of tape, but with dynamite.
She breaks first--or maybe Jamie does--both of them dragging marathon breaths. “Oh,” she says, closing her eyes. “Oh.”
Jamie exhales, her hands bracketing Dani’s hips. There is, Dani realizes, a pin not far from her left ring finger. There are, Dani realizes, pins everywhere, sticking out of her like metallic metaphor. Careful. Do not touch. Danger.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I--Jamie. I didn’t think--”
“Told you not to,” Jamie says, staring at Dani’s mouth like she’s never seen her before. “Didn’t quite think you’d--but...”
“I’m engaged,” Dani says. The ring feels immeasurably tight now. She wonders if she’ll need to smash it free with a hammer and blowtorch. “I’m still engaged. I kissed you.”
“All true,” Jamie says in a voice that seems to be straining toward calm. “Dani--”
“I kissed you,” Dani repeats. “And I felt...I feel...”
Jamie says nothing. She’s reaching up, brushing her fingers against her lips. There is, Dani notes with a hurtling heat she feels unequipped to handle, lipstick staining her skin.
“Bathroom,” Jamie says, as if reading her mind. “I’ll scrub up. It’ll--can be like it never--”
“Stop.” Dani is gripping her by the shoulders, her hands trembling. “Stop, don’t say--just give me a minute.”
Jamie glances toward the house, leaving unspoken the elapsed time between ten minutes and a kiss that could have gone on the rest of Dani’s life. She isn’t quite pushing Dani away--isn’t quite leaning in, either--seems, for the first time, not quite sure how to stand.
“I kissed you,” Dani repeats, working out a math problem that had, until this moment, felt too complex to look at. She’s surprised, upon finally scratching it onto the page, to find it readily resembles two plus two. “I kissed you. And I felt--everything. Everything.”
Jamie looks as though she truly is not certain how to feel--if Dani looks closely, she can see pride wrestling with guilt, misery locking swords with pleasure. Dani can’t look at her right now. It isn’t--
“--about you,” she realizes she’s saying. Jamie’s eyes widen, and she barrels on. “I mean. The kissing was. I wanted to kiss you. I still--” Her eyes linger at Jamie’s mouth, at the swollen lower lip streaked with the wrong shade of lipstick. Her whole body seems to pull taut. “But that. That was what I’ve been trying for years to feel with--because I’m supposed to. I’m supposed to feel it.”
“Says who?” Jamie asks, so quietly, Dani almost misses it altogether. Her expression is shuttered, but her eyes burn. Dani presses a hand to her cheek. Her heart is racing; she wonders if Jamie can feel it in the pad of her thumb, pressed to soft skin.
“One kiss with you,” she says, “and I...I...it’s like waking up and realizing, I can’t be this anymore.”
Jamie’s jaw tightens, something Dani can’t read flashing behind her eyes. Hope, maybe. Wariness, maybe. She wouldn’t be surprised to find they’re one and the same.
“I didn’t know,” Dani says firmly. “I didn’t know if it would feel different. If it would be right. So I couldn’t try. I couldn’t. Do you understand?”
Jamie nods slowly. “And now?”
Dani’s hand moves to the ring. It’s so tight. It’s so unbearably tight, driving the skin beneath pale. And still, when she twists--when she tugs--it comes loose as though made of little more than string.
“I don’t think,” she says, her heart thundering, “I’ll be needing this dress.”
There’s more to it--it’s never so simple as a ring removed, a seamstress sent away early. The universe never allows for simplicity, where Danielle is concerned. Life is a pageant. There are rules. There is structure. There are steps to complete, lists to check off, for Danielle.
For Dani, maybe life could be something else. For Dani, maybe life is a blank slate. A sheet of paper unstained by promises she didn’t mean and can’t keep.
She doesn’t kiss Jamie again--not walking back to the house, not moving slowly back through the museum of her childhood, not standing in the front door as Jamie steps onto the porch. She wants to--but some roads, once started down, must find their dead end before the next stop can be visited.
“They’ll wonder,” Jamie points out, “what happened.”
“I’ll tell them.” At Jamie’s alarmed look, Dani almost laughs. “Not that part. That’s...not their business. But...later. After he knows. After I give this back, I’ll...”
She gestures vaguely in the direction of her mother’s bedroom. Jamie nods. She’s beautiful, standing on the porch with the tape measurer still draped around her neck, looking at Dani like she can’t quite convince herself to walk away empty-handed. She’s beautiful, and when Dani reaches for the pad beside her mother’s phone and etches seven numbers onto it, she looks more than a little shell-shocked.
“If you want,” Dani says. “It’s okay if you don’t--”
“I do,” Jamie says, and winces a little. Dani bites down on a laugh. “But...after. Yeah?”
After. After she tells Eddie. After she does the thing she’s been putting off for most of her life. After she puts truth first--puts Dani first--she can do this right. It’s only fair to everyone. It’s only fair to her.
Tonight, she promises herself, watching Jamie walk slowly back to the truck parked neatly at the curb. Tonight. No more waiting. No more another time. Tonight, she will tell him. At dinner. And tomorrow, maybe, her phone will ring. Tomorrow, maybe, a soft voice with a lilting accent will say her name--her name, Dani Clayton, the woman who could not remain boxed up forever--and the universe will have a new set of cue cards to read from.
She watches Jamie drive away, her ring finger bare, and makes up her mind not set foot back in that room until she is dressed in her own clothes. A green skirt. A white t-shirt. Simple. Unadorned.
Chosen by her own hand.
“Eddie,” she says into the phone, her voice steady. “We need to talk.”