April doesn’t really pay much attention to what’s on the radio. Her parents always tune it to either Christian pop or contemporary country, depending on who’s driving, and neither of those genres exactly do it for her. Not that she has anything against Jesus or… tractors, but it’s nothing compared to the songs she hears when she catches an old musical on cable, the vibrato on those women not even in the same category as her parents’ music.
When she’s in other people's cars, sometimes she hears snippets of songs that sound more interesting than ones her parents play. Sterling’s mom always puts on the other country station, the one that features women’s voices harmonizing with each other. April has to say she enjoys it much more than her dad’s music.
One day in the fourth grade, April’s in the backseat of the Wesley car when a particular song comes on, and Mrs. Wesley turns the radio up so loud it drowns out even Blair.
“Mom,” Blair intones, “this song is so lame.”
“Oh, hush,” Mrs. Wesley says, “this song played at-”
“Your and Daddy’s wedding, you danced, we know.”
April laughs a little at the now familiar squabbling of this family, that always feels more comforting than when her parents argue. Sterling turns to April from the middle seat, voice barely audible over the music as she whispers, “I like this song.”
Then the chorus comes and April can’t hear anything over the woman singing, “you’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to, you’re the one I want for life.”
In the front seat, Mrs. Wesley is singing along, loud and off-pitch, which always bothers April in choir, but somehow doesn’t here. Sterling and even Blair join in, knowing all the words by heart. It makes April wish she knew all the words too.
When the song ends, Mrs. Wesley turns down the radio, smiles at her daughters in the rearview mirror and says, “no one gets me like Shania, I tell ya girls.”
“Who’s Shania?” April asks. She immediately regrets it as both twins turn to her. Even Mrs. Wesley looks shocked. April blushes a little, embarrassed by her uncharacteristic lack of knowledge.
“Oh we have some educating to do, Miss April,” Mrs. Wesley says, grinning.
When they get to the Wesley house that afternoon, Mrs. Wesley spreads an impressive number of CDs on the kitchen counter.
“No one even uses CDs anymore, Mom,” Blair informs her, before grabbing some chips and going to watch TV.
“I still use CDs,” Mrs. Wesley tells April, like they are in on some secret together, “I want all these ladies right here in my house, not up in the cloud or wherever. Now, we have to start with the classics.”
They start with Dolly Parton, who of course April has heard of, she’s not ignorant, before they move on to Reba and Tanya and Faith and Shania herself and a group called the Dixie Chicks.
“Now, April,” Mrs. Wesley says, “they stopped playing these girls on the radio for silly reasons a while back, but no one can tell me Natalie Maines doesn’t have the best darn voice in country.”
Sterling, who has been sitting by April’s side during this whole time, even though she’s clearly heard all this before, leans in to April to whisper, “Mom got into a big fight with Big Daddy about them once.”
April really wants to know more about that, but then Mrs. Wesley puts in the CD and Sterling is enthusing, “ooh I love this one” and jumping up.
Mrs. Wesley smiles at her daughter and then April just watches as they start singing the song together, Sterling clumsily moving along to the music until Mrs. Wesley’s hands guide her, twirling Sterling as the late afternoon sun lights up both of their blonde hair.
April doesn't quite know how to name what that sight does to her. Her friend - her best friend - so happy at home, like she was built to dance in this kitchen with her mother, makes her heart do that thing it always does around Sterling, feel these new ways to be content. But then, something darker slides in her ribs, this knowledge that she could never do this with her own mother, that same ease would never live in the walls of her home.
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself, the song croons as Sterling laughs into her mother's arms, guess I could have made it easier on myself.
And April kind of wants to cry, but before she can, Sterling is in front of her, breathless and red-faced, extending her hand with a grin. And April can do nothing but take it, until she is being spun around the kitchen floor with Sterling and her mom, like she was always meant to be here, like her awkward ten year old body was built to move to these women’s voices.
By the time the song finishes, she doesn’t even remember feeling like she didn’t belong.
Sixth grade is far too early to start having school dances.
It’s not that April doesn’t appreciate the art of dance; she’s actually pretty sure she’s more cultured than most eleven-year-olds in that regard. In fact, last summer, when Singin’ in the Rain was the movie of choice to be playing on TV, April would time her trips to the living room so she could watch Debbie Reynolds in that scene on the ladder over and over again.
“That Gene Kelly sure is handsome,” her mom said when she caught her daughter watching the scene for the fourth time.
“Sure,” April agreed, though he hadn’t exactly been what had caught her focus.
But just because April is a connoisseur of art, it doesn’t mean that that in any way relates to being crushed in a sweaty gym with people she has to see every day. She thought that Christian education meant she could miss out on these inane traditions, but apparently not.
At first, she wasn’t even going to go to this dumb dance, a Saturday night that could be spent doing homework or watching a civil war documentary with Daddy, but there is a social hierarchy here. And popular people go to dances. And April will be popular. It only makes sense - well-liked people tend to be elected to leadership positions, which look good on college applications. And if a side effect of popularity happens to be that certain people who thought they could just stop being friends with April will grow to severely regret it, that’s just an added benefit.
So April leans on the side of the middle school gym, sipping her punch, standing between two of the Hannahs as a bumbling group of white pre-teens try to find any sense of rhythm. She thinks she can get away with maybe not dancing at all at this dance - it seems that most of the sixth graders stick to the edges anyway, except the particularly obnoxious ones forming a large circle.
But then, a song comes on the speakers that April intrinsically knows, a song that makes all the girls scream and the boys groan. April really doesn’t want to go into that circle of sixth graders, but, before she knows what’s happening, Hannah B. is grabbing her hand and dragging her in.
“April, you love her,” Hannah B. is saying and it’s too loud and chaotic for April to correct Hannah that she used to love her, but not anymore.
But it’s too late, because April is already thrown in the circle of girls, jumping and screaming the lyrics. April looks up, and of course finds her eyes locking with Sterling, who is of course directly across from her, who is of course, yelling the words the loudest.
So it’s gonna be forever, she screams, or it’s gonna go down in flames, and April remembers Sterling singing these same words in her mom’s car on the way home from school when this album came out, remembers singing them alone with Sterling up in Sterling’s bedroom together, back before April knew that Sterling was the kind of person who just tossed others aside.
Sterling’s eyes are bright when she meets April’s and April sure as hell isn’t going to look away first, so they just stare at each other and then Sterling is smiling and bouncing and singing and it’s so loud and crowded and overwhelming that April can’t do anything but look at her, feeling her mouth form around the particular lyrics like muscle memory.
Sterling lights up a little when she sees April is singing too, grinning wider. April finds herself smiling too, despite herself, caught up in the music and the memory and the way Sterling’s hair shines under the disco ball they put up in the gym for this. The light also highlights the way Sterling’s shirt has ridden up during the dance, her skin looking soft and almost glowing on her stomach, all the way up to her face, the way her hand comes up to brush her hair away as she still smiles.
Cause we’re young and we’re reckless, she sings directly at April, we’ll take this way too far.
And April feels her throat go dry, feels sweat pool in the back of her neck, feels a sinking in her chest as her eyes are unable to stop staring at Sterling. Her heart beats fast, both from the way Sterling’s sweat falls down her neck and the way a dread rises harshly in her.
Sometimes April wishes she wasn’t so smart. She wishes she didn’t recognize patterns. Wishes she was dumb enough to ignore this, wishes this was the first time she had felt this way looking at a girl. Wishes and prays to God that it wasn’t happening with this particular girl.
But it is. Sterling’s mouth is saying, stolen kisses, pretty lies, April is thinking about Sterling’s mouth. And she cannot do that.
Before these thoughts have a chance to take over, April forces her way out of the dance circle, back to the edge of the gym and over to the bathroom before Taylor can even get to the bridge.
She stares at herself in the mirror, red and sweaty and unkempt. That won’t do. She is not unkempt. She is not unkempt because she thinks about girls. And she is definitely not unkempt because of Sterling freaking Wesley.
She splashes cold water on her face, takes a deep breath in, forces herself to be calm, forces her mind to remember that Sterling is bad news, Sterling is mean and awful and not even that pretty and someone that April needs to avoid at all costs.
Then Sterling herself walks into the bathroom.
The Lord is testing her.
“What are you doing here?” April snaps.
Stealing starts a little but doesn’t look away, even takes a step toward her.
“I mean, it’s the girls’ room,” she says with an apologetic smile, “but I, um, you kind of ran out pretty fast, and I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I’m fine,” April says, even if part of her heart does something at the idea that Sterling was noticing her. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“April, can’t we just-” Sterling reaches her hand out to touch April’s shoulder.
April flinches away, knowing without a doubt that she cannot be touched by Sterling. Not now. Not ever.
“No we can’t,” she says firmly. “Please don’t talk to me.”
Sterling’s face visibly falls.
“What did I just say?” April snaps, ignoring the way Sterling’s voice saying her name makes her want to forget it all, makes her want to spend her nights at Sterling’s house like she used to, before everything got weird and hard and complicated. “Now get out of my way.”
So Sterling steps aside slowly. April doesn't look at her face. She can’t. She leaves the bathroom, back to the crowded gym and the loud music. She takes a deep breath and plasters on a smile.
Later - after she makes it through the night without looking at Sterling, after her mom drives her home and asks if she danced with any cute boys - when she’s alone in her room, she finally lets herself cry.
“Hey, do you want to go to Homecoming?”
April turns her head sharply to look at Sterling in the backseat. Blair also turns around to look at Sterling, even though she is, in fact, driving a moving vehicle.
“Eyes on the road,” April scolds Blair, who reluctantly looks back to where she’s going.
“Sorry, I just was so overwhelmed by my sister’s boring way to ask you to a dance.”
“Hey!” Sterling pipes up.
“I would expect more from you,” April admits, but she’s smiling.
“Hey!” Sterling says again, indignant. “I wasn’t, like, doing a prom-posal or whatever. For homecoming. Home-posal? Come-posal?”
“Y’all did that one last night,” Blair says without missing a beat.
April and Sterling both blush a little, even though this is not the first time Blair has called them out on this particular issue. In fact, the past two months of April living in the Wesley house has involved a shocking amount of Blair very knowingly being aware of Sterling and April’s sexual habits.
Which is oddly not as strange as the other adjustments of this new situation - things that shouldn’t feel like a world shift for April - family dinners, genuine inquiries about her well-being, and Sterling’s parents knowing about them, and still treating April like she deserves to be in that house.
“I just was genuinely asking,” Sterling continues, “if Homecoming was something you were interested in.”
“Hard pass,” Blair says.
“Not you. April?”
April considers for a second even though she already knows her answer.
“It's never exactly been on my bucket list, but if it’s something you’re interested in,” she tells Sterling easily, “sure, let’s go.”
“Really?” Sterling says, all soft and disbelieving like April proposed marriage (she’s waiting till they graduate college on that one), instead of saying she’d go to a school dance.
“Yes, really,” April says, rolling her eyes. “If it will make you happy.”
Blair mimes gagging from the passenger’s seat. April hits her on the arm.
“So are you guys gonna go together?” Blair asks once she’s recovered from her fake vomiting.
“Well, we all live together, it would only make sense to-”
“You know what I mean.”
And April does know what she means. She means together.
It’s funny, April always thought coming out would be this big thing, like in those bad teen movies that Sterling loves, where there is a big announcement one day and the school just knows.
It hasn’t gone that way. The night before senior year started, Sterling and April stayed up almost all night discussing what they would do at school now that they weren’t just together, but also lived together.
They settled on not trying to hide it but also not really making a big deal out of it, telling only the important people, letting the rumor mill do the rest. And it mostly worked. They held hands on that first day of school walking between AP Lit and AP Physics and April had felt like her heart was going to stop every time someone so much as looked at them.
But people barely did. It helped that someone found a pregnancy test in the trash that day, so that kind of took precedence gossip-wise, but still. It’s been… odd.
“We could go together,” April says ,in a nonchalant way that would make herself a year ago question her very sanity.
“Okay,” Sterling says, smiling that smile she has just for April. “Let’s go together.”
“This was a horrible come-posal,” Blair remarks.
April hits her again.
Turns out there isn’t much difference in going to a dance together than going to a dance together. Their dresses kind of match, but not too much - ever since Blair showed April that Instagram, “siblings or dating,” April had been very intentional about making sure she and Sterling aren’t too matchy.
So they were subtly matching dresses, hold hands and the entrance of the gym, and no one seems to fucking notice.
Which is fine. It’s probably better if she doesn’t have to hear aloud what her homophobic peers think, but come on, at least give her something.
“You want them to notice, don’t you?” Ezekiel asks in her ear. He had been the first person she'd told, way back in summer.
“Is that so bad?” she asks.
“That you still want to be that bitch who causes all this conversation?” he says.“No, it makes perfect sense. You’re a diva.”
“I’m not a diva.”
“You’re such a diva,” Sterling says from her other side, before kissing her cheek.
And no one freaking notices.
But whatever. It’s fine, the dance is fine. The music is stunningly mediocre, but Sterling’s eyes still light up whenever a pop hit comes on, dragging April to the dance floor. And April follows her. Because how could she not?
Ezekiel keeps going up to the DJ booth trying to get them to play Beyoncé’s Homecoming, because “I’m assuming this dance was named after her Coachella performance,” and keeps coming back disappointed that “the establishment won’t play any of her music post-Super Bowl.”
Finally, they must come to some sort of compromise, because a loud, bring the beat in, sounds from over the speakers and the little group that they’re in cheers, and April can’t help but laugh as Sterling launches into the song, very off-key, but very passionate.
But then the chorus hits and Sterling is looking dead into April’s eyes and singing, baby it’s YOU, you’re the one I LOVE, you’re the one I NEED.
And it’s a pop song from a decade ago but April is suddenly speechless. She suddenly can’t believe she’s here, surrounded by people, having this girl sing loudly that she loves her and no one cares.
Well, April sure as hell cares.
When I need to make everything stop, Sterling sings and everything does stop. Sterling’s hair is bouncing on her shoulders and she’s glowing and she’s laughing and she’s the most beautiful person April has ever seen in her life.
So April leans forward and kisses her as Beyoncé sings the word finally.
It’s not a tame kiss. It’s not a kiss for two girls at Christian institution. It’s April’s hand on Sterling’s neck, it’s Sterling’s body intrinsically pressing into April’s, while still moving to the music, it’s Sterling’s surprised gasp, which quickly turns into her very pleased gasp, it’s the fact that April knows Sterling’s gasps by heart now.
And also, perhaps most importantly, it’s how everyone in the gym turns to look at them. And maybe it was never really about coming out, maybe it was something more base than that. Maybe April just wanted all these blowhards she’s spent 12 years in school with to know that she is here with the most gorgeous person in the place, and despite what she’s heard whispered in hallways for so much of her life, that she is loved.
So they can all fucking choke.
Look, she never said she was a great person.
Unfortunately, April doesn’t get too long to revel in it, because they’re being gently pulled apart, being told, “hey now girls, leave room for Jesus.”
April reluctantly pulls away from Sterling, who looks simply overjoyed, to see Ellen looking at them, one hand on each of their shoulders.
“Girls,” she repeats the word falling from her mouth as it hangs open, clearly some processing going on. “Girls… ladies… you two… are…” April can almost see the gears turning, like they’re in a cartoon. Then, the proverbial lightbulb over Ellen’s head dings. “Well, I’ll be. Good on ya, carry on. Well, don’t fully carry on, still leave room for Jesus, but you know, carry on just… being you. Love ya girls.”
Then she smiles at them, squeezing both of their shoulders, and something lodges itself in April’s throat.
So maybe it is a little bit about coming out. Whatever.
“Guess who just finished their essay on pop culture’s role in America’s return to conservatism post-9/11?”
“God, April, I’m in public, you can’t just dirty talk like that.”
April grins into the phone, the one-two punch of turning in a stellar piece of academic writing combined with hearing Sterling’s voice giving her a temporary euphoria.
“Apologies, how dare I? So how is Jason’s birthday going?”
“Fun! Better if you were here, obviously.”
“We’re heading to Machine next, if you have enough energy to join.”
If speaks to how long April’s known Sterling that she can tell that Sterling is actively trying not to sound too hopeful. And miserably failing.
“Hmmm,” April says, mock-considering.
The thing is, it’s midnight on a Friday night, April has gotten minimal sleep in the past week, and has only just finished her last final of the spring semester of her freshman year right under the wire. Her body is running on dining hall cereal and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and she would have to take two trains to even get to Machine, and would probably only have an hour there before it closed.
But she’s already opening her closet to get a new outfit, because well, because it’s been a whole week since she’s seen Sterling and if she has to do it on no sleep at the only gay bar in Boston that does 18+ nights, then god damn it, she’s going out.
“Give me 20 minutes,” she tells Sterling.
“The T will take at least 30,” Sterling says, smile more than apparent in her voice.
“When has underestimating me ever worked out?”
“Great point. See you in 20.”
April’s still grinning as she hangs up the phone, picks out a low effort outfit that still makes her look at least presentable - just shorts and a tank top that’s too small on her in good way - and throws on a Red Sox cap backward as opposed to trying to make her hair do anything. She looks at herself in the mirror. Well, good thing it’s a gay bar.
It’s funny really, April thought back last year when she and Sterling managed to get accepted into colleges in the same city, that it would just be business as usual. But going from a year of living together in the same house to being separated by the Charles River and train lines and class schedules and different extracurriculars has been… challenging. Especially during finals week, when both of them are so caught up in their worlds that they can’t even stay over at one another’s dorms.
But it’s over now. April is on a train over a river to see Sterling (well, technically to attend a birthday party of Sterling’s friend Jason, but that’s just semantics) and next week they’ll fly back to Atlanta together, and they’ve already signed their lease on an apartment for next fall in Boston. April feels like she can just reach out and touch her future at this point.
April has maybe slept a dozen hours since Monday, but this thought makes her a ball of energy as she transfers trains with perfect timing, as she jogs up the steps and out on the sidewalk, and then to the front of the club, all in all a journey that took her nineteen minutes and 30 seconds. Ha.
By the time she’s inside the bar, which is apparently having 90s night - an odd nostalgia for mostly people who were born a decade after the fact - she can feel the music vibrating in her feet.
It’s playing some boy band song that April doesn’t recognize as she tries to find Sterling in the crowd, but then the music fades out and an ever familiar riff comes over the speakers. Aprils face breaks out into a grin, a wave of nostalgia washing over her as Shania Twain and a sea of gay people bellow, “let’s go girls.”
But one voice rises above the rest, the voice that April came here to see, the voice that yells, “they’re playing Shania in the club!” so loudly that April immediately knows where to go.
She sees Sterling finally through the throngs of people, hair up messily, a night of drinking and dancing more than apparent on her face as she leans over to Jason, yelling, “you don’t understand, they’re playing country music in Boston.”
“I got that, honey,” Jason calls back.
“You don’t get how huge that is though! I need - where the hell is - ”
And then Sterling spots April and her face does something that April doesn’t think, even after years of this, she will ever get used to, a full unabashed smile, like seeing April is something Sterling has been waiting her whole life for.
“I told you, twenty minutes,” April yells and then she’s being engulfed in Sterling’s arms and she’s laughing and her face falls in the crook of Sterling’s neck where it belongs.
“I missed you so much,” Sterling yells over Shania.
April sometimes wonders if there was a world in which she ever was with anyone else, if they would be the kind of person who would miss her like these after only a week. If they would wrap April up like it’s been a year, with no shame whatsoever about how silly that seems on paper, just pure and utter joy. April feels bad for that poor hypothetical person; it’s a shame they will never experience love the way Sterling Wesley does. The way April gets to.
Sterling lets go of April to scream with the crowd the best thing about being a woman, is the prerogative to have a little fun.
April screams right along with with her, remembering being ten and learning the word prerogative from this song and Debbie Wesley.
“We have to tell my mom they played Shania at the club,” Sterling says, as if reading April’s mind.
April nods and grins at Sterling, before singing the chorus with their little circle of queers that April figures she should probably say hi to at some point. When Shania gets to the titular Man! I feel like a woman, Sterling picks her up, twirling her around and kissing her and April realizes she would ride a thousand trains over a thousand rivers just to be with this girl.
“You should do it.”
“I’m serious. It doesn’t affect me.”
“There’s no way it doesn’t affect you.”
“A decade of therapy and also your parents have done a wonderful job of making sure it doesn’t affect me.”
“Well, I don’t want to do it. It’s a stupid tradition.”
“Sterl. All weddings are is a series of stupid traditions. But this particular one could be really sweet for you and Anderson, you two have been through a lot.”
“I know, but -”
“Take me out of the equation, okay? If it was just you and your dad, you’d want this, wouldn’t you?”
“I can’t take you out of the equation!”
“That’s basically a concession.”
“It is not!”
Which is how April, a woman who has not spoken to her own father since she was eighteen years old, finds herself watching the father-daughter dance at her own wedding. And it oddly doesn’t bother her.
Sure, it would be nice to have a world where her father was someone she would do this with, where he would give an easy smile at her as Paul Simon played in the background, but at least Sterling has that. Her hands look small in Anderson’s, and she’s smiling at him like she did when they were kids and April would be so jealous without being able to name it. But now she’s not even jealous.
Because this man, who is twirling his daughter and has been actively crying for most of the day, is the same man who once taught April the precise amount of time to grill an ear of corn; talked with her specifically about investing when she landed her first salaried job; and took her aside the day she and Sterling left for college to solemnly say, “I don’t need to tell you to take care of my girl, because I know you will, but I just wanted to thank you for it.”
So, yeah, April can put aside the fact that her technical father is persona non grata, if she gets to see this man dance with his daughter on her wedding day.
She’s perfectly content to sit this one out, in fact, but then an arm is being extended to her and April looks up from her table to see Debbie smiling down at her.
“If our honeys get to dance with each other, I think we should do,” she states.
April just smiles at her and nods. Her tear ducts are still pretty loose from the vows and the toasts, but she swallows them down as she joins Debbie on the dance floor.
I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow, sounds in the background as she catches eye contact with Sterling, who is less successful than April at not crying today, and sniffs a little bit herself.
“That girl never really stopped wearing her heart on her sleeve, did she?” Debbie asks with a smile.
“Sure didn’t,” April says, laughing a little.
“You know, there was a second there,” Debbie says, a little shakily. The whole Wesley family is absolutely awful at not crying today. “There was a second there where I thought she might - thought she might stop being the sweetest girl that ever walked this earth but…”
“But she never could.”
“But then you came along, April.”
Well, April is finally legally a member of this family today, so she apparently joins their ranks of being awful at not crying.
“I mean it April, I know I said the whole thing in my toast about how after years and years of being part of my family, I now get to officially call you my daughter but -”
“Christ, you’re really going for the jugular here,” April says, somewhat tearily.
“Oh, let me finish. All I’m saying is if you and her didn’t - if she didn’t fall in love with you all over again during that year, I don’t know if I’d have my girl back the way I do now. So thank you.”
April’s fully crying now. Debbie hands her a tissue from god knows where and April gracelessly blows her nose on the dance floor.
“You know, I should really be thanking you here,” she says when she finally gets her voice back.
“Oh, hush. You’ve done enough of that to last a lifetime.”
Then the song changes, a familiar, distinctly 90s, intro that April now knows intrinsically.
“Well, at least let me thank you for introducing me to Shania,” April says with a laugh.
“Now, that I will take credit for,” Debbie says grinning. “You know, this song played at Anderson and my wedding.”
“We know, Mom,” Sterling says from where she’s appeared at April’s side, “and now it’s playing at mine.”
Both April and Debbie actively try to not cry again at that, and are luckily saved by Anderson coming over, giving a cliched, “mind if I cut in here?” before his wife takes his hand.
“Shall we?” Sterling asks as Shania sings, looks like we’ve made it, look how far we’ve come my baby.
April feels herself fall into Sterling’s arms as she’s done countless times now, one of Sterling’s hands solid on her back, the other softly stroking her hair as they aimlessly move to the music.
“You know,” Sterling says, after a few minutes of this, “about the whole father-daughter dance, you were right.”
April’s head springs up off Sterling's neck just so she can smirk at her.
“The three words every little girl dreams of hearing on her wedding day.”
Sterling rolls her eyes. Her beautiful eyes on her beautiful face that April has known she would spend the rest of her life with since she was seventeen years old, but now the whole world gets to know it too.
“Oh, shut your mouth and just dance with me.”
April has never been happier to oblige.