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maybe we were too close to be closer

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Judith doesn’t come out, not really. It’s her second week at women’s college, and they’re walking to a quad party when Marta Dyas, a junior, her rugby teammate, the most straightforward person she’s ever met, asks, “Are you gay?”

It’s not that Judith hasn’t given it any thought, just that no one’s ever asked her so directly. She realizes as she’s saying it that the answer is, “Yes.” That it’s simple, that it’s true. Marta says, “Cool,” and they keep walking, just like that.

The party is too many people in a too-small room. They seem to move endlessly, like a swarm, clapping each other on the back, pouring drinks into mismatched cups, dancing to music that blasts from a wireless speaker inside a dining hall mug. Judith sits on the end of somebody’s bed and holds her drink with both hands.

It has been a week of total information overload, and she’s forgotten most of the names she learned at rugby orientation. So instead of talking, she watches Marta, who is dancing with a girl with a thigh tattoo, fluidly, carelessly, lewdly — Marta presses her hand to the girl’s back and bends her over. When the song ends, they are doubled over laughing like nothing happened.

The two girls sitting next to Judith on the bed are making out now, what started as a dare seems to be escalating quickly. One girl pulls the tank top off over the other girl’s head and, giggling, hooks her fingers under the back of her red sports bra. Judith stands to refill the drink she still hasn’t finished.

Marta raises an eyebrow at Judith as she watches her drink half a jarful of straight vodka, painlessly. Judith doesn’t have any party tricks, but she has this skill, honed at too many compulsory parties with her parents, their colleagues, and their colleagues’ inescapable twin daughters, who shamelessly stole full bottles of top shelf liquor and could talk their way out of anything.

There is a pounding noise on the door and someone runs to hide the bottles before the campus police barge in. People begin to flee in all directions, like ants. The entangled girls on the bed scramble out of the room, abandoning the discarded tank top. Marta beckons to Judith, “Deuteros, let’s go!”

Judith conjures worst-case scenarios, imagines the call from her parents when they find out what she’s already done in only one week on campus. But Marta is laughing, grabbing her hand, pulling her out of the room. Judith feels the calluses on Marta’s wide hand. The hand from the tattooed girl’s back. She didn’t eat enough, the vodka is going to her head too fast. It is noticing, it is only that.

Judith tries another party, this time off-campus at a neighboring college with Greek life. She is going because the team is going, except for Marta, who rolled her eyes at the suggestion. As soon as their group is swirled into the crowd, her teammates disappear, leaving Judith in a dim, loud room full of men. She doesn’t last long.

A red-faced, obviously drunk guy in a lacrosse jersey asks Judith, “So, you come here often? I haven’t seen you around.”

“No. I go to Canaan.”

He smirks. “So you’re a dyke, then?”

Judith glares and turns to leave, making sure her boot lands on top of his foot with her full weight as she walks away, leaving him swearing behind her.

The stairwell out of the building is teeming with people, and Judith is shoved face-into-blonde ponytail of the girl in front of her, who is wearing a tiny, gauzy, lavender dress. When she begins to apologize, the face that turns to meet her is flushed and familiar.

“Jody! What are you doing here?” coos Coronabeth Tridentarius, liquor-stealer, dare-escalator, nemesis and companion from all those family parties.

“Corona. I go to Canaan now.” The timing is terrible. Judith knows well that it’s crucial not to give Corona anything to hold over her.

Corona grins. “This isn’t Canaan.”

Judith’s face is hot with humiliation. “I know. I was just leaving.”

“See you around, Jody!” Corona winks and walks off with a wide-shouldered girl with blunt cut hair.

Judith sees the glowing bus back to campus in the distance and literally runs, though her legs are still sore from practice and her new boots bite her heels. She flings herself into the still-open bus door, panting, but none of the drunken passengers seem to notice.

It’s midnight when Judith knocks on Marta’s door. Marta is awake, smoking out the open window from a blue glass bowl that looks like a fish. A zombie movie is playing on her open laptop. Marta has an open double room, and her two twin-XL beds are pushed together into one wide, flat bed that looks like a raft.

She holds the door open for Judith to come in. “Hey, Deuteros. How was it?”

“Terrible. Those guys are oafs. Some guy called me a dyke and I stepped on his foot,” Judith says, unlacing her boots.

Marta snickers. “Oafs — nice. Yeah, I hate those guys. You couldn’t pay me enough to get on that bus again.” Marta extends the bowl toward Judith, who shakes her head.

She sits on the edge of Marta’s immense bed and her eyes stray to the computer, where a man with a hatchet hacks a zombie’s arm off with a gruesome noise. Judith winces, and Marta, unaffected, asks, “I’m getting pizza, want anything?”

A while later, Marta jogs downstairs and brings up the food, two slices of plain pizza and two slices of chocolate cake, matching sets. They sit cross-legged next to each other on the bed. On Marta’s computer, the gore continues at a low volume. Now there is an accumulating pile of disembodied zombie limbs.

Judith scowls around a mouthful of tongue-burning cheese. “I don’t know how you watch this shit while eating.” Marta shrugs, mouth full, and gives Judith a closed-mouth smile.

“I saw someone I knew from home,” Judith says, as if just remembering.

Marta makes an interested noise and asks, “A friend?”

“Not exactly,” Judith says, and Marta nods, neither of them looking away from the screen.

By the time they finish the food and all the zombies are slain, it is very late, and even though Judith only lives two floors downstairs, Marta turns down the corner of the sheets closest to Judith, and Judith stays. Marta tosses her an oversized college t-shirt to sleep in, and Judith employs one of those locker room magic tricks, removing her sports bra from under the t-shirt without showing any skin. Marta doesn’t bother with those tactics, and Judith quietly observes the deep brown expanse of her back as she swaps one t-shirt for another.

And then they are under the same sheet, separated in the middle by a hard seam at the joint where the two narrow beds that make Marta’s giant bed meet. Judith has not shared a bed like this since she was a small child, one time when it got too late at one of those parties, and the Tridentarius family’s nanny had put her to bed along with the twins. Corona had the top bunk to herself, and Judith ended up sharing the bottom bunk with Ianthe, who hogged the blankets and kicked in her sleep.

Marta faces the wall, and Judith faces Marta’s back, staring into her shoulder for a long time, listening to her breath slowing until they both fall asleep.

Judith thinks about it every other night of the week, but she doesn’t show up at Marta’s door until Friday. Judith doesn’t even say hello, she just asks before she loses her nerve. “Will you cut my hair?”

Marta closes her textbook and simply asks, “How short?” and fetches the set of clippers from her closet.

They stand under the buzzing fluorescent lights of the dorm bathroom, and Marta’s clippers hum to life. She starts at the nape of Judith’s neck, and the counter is gradually covered in little dark clippings of her hair. Judith watches Marta as she registers the look of terror, the look of thrill on her face. She seems to understand the precarity, and opts not to say anything but, “Turn around.”

She grasps Judith by both shoulders and turns her body to face her. “Almost,” Marta says, and turns Judith again so her shoulder faces her chest. Judith has felt distant parents’ hands resting on her shoulders, proud and proprietary, at athletic and academic awards ceremonies. She has felt Corona and Ianthe Tridentarius’ nails dig into her flesh in childhood play-fights. But she has never really been held.

Marta steps closer and bends the tip of Judith’s ear away from her skull, bringing the clippers in a slow arc to trim the hair closest to her ear. It is over too soon. Both girls scoop fallen hair into the trash bin. In the mirror, Judith’s hair is shaved close at the sides, left long on the top. The lines of the fade are only a little bit crooked. She presses her fingers to the edge of her hair, by her ear, where Marta cut so carefully.

After the haircut, Judith begins to get attention. She feels the eyes of girls on campus following her as she walks to class. Something about her is obvious now, and though she did this on purpose, it feels more frustrating than anything else. Nothing important has really changed about her, but no one had looked at her before, except the oafs at the frat party, and Corona, in the stairwell — a familiar look, condescension. The necessity of legibility makes it no less exhausting.

In the rowdy group study area of the library, a teammate is urging everyone to make profiles on OKCupid. Judith resists as long as she can, until Marta shrugs and says, “Come on, Deuteros, why not?”

So Judith clicks “Join,” and a teammate takes over her laptop, indicating she is looking for relationships and for casual hookups, a phrase Judith can’t imagine saying out loud. Before long, everyone is swapping computers and liking each other’s profiles in a flurry of notifications. Judith has a “;P” in her inbox from Gideon, the overeager redhead in her cohort of rugby first-years.

“Judith! You have a message from this incredibly hot blonde girl?” Gideon announces to the team. Judith reaches and fails to regain control of her laptop. “It says she’s looking for — yummy butches and — I quote — tender jocks to step on.” Gideon is blushing.

“She says,” Gideon clears her throat for the drama. “Nice haircut, Jody. You look handsome. And one of those kissy emojis — Deuteros!”

Judith growls, “Please stop —”

Marta raises her eyebrows. “Jody?

And Judith cannot meet her gaze.

For weeks, Judith has felt unable to focus. Every place she goes is busy with people. She travels in a pack with the other rugby first-years, drifting in and out of conversations, looking for Marta as she passes the halls where she’s learned that her classes meet.

After her night in Marta’s room, Judith’s own bed seems comically small. She is freshly showered after practice and dinner, and she is alone, for once. Judith takes advantage of the rare opportunity. She shuts her eyes tight and feels the sickly sweet tug low in her stomach as she slides her fingers under her waistband and finds herself slick.

Judith tries to focus on the mechanics, the up-and-down of her fingers, just stimulus and response. She shudders, breaking the silence of the room with her breathing. This is pure physicality, a means to an end, so she fights off the trespassing images — Marta’s strong thighs in her uniform, the deep neckline of Corona’s barely-there dress. Judith does not allow herself these visualizations, even as her hand speeds up and it gets harder and harder to fend them off. She comes with a little breathy gasp.

Relief, for a moment, and then that waterfall of shame as she lies there and throbs, staring at the ceiling, trying to make her mind go blank enough for sleep.

This time the rugby team has nowhere in particular to go. After sitting on the steps of someone’s dorm passing around water bottles full of indeterminate liquor, they chase each other around the perimeter of the quad in a clumsy race. Gideon slips and falls on the dewy lawn, swearing, putting Judith solidly in the lead. Somehow the cool night and the alcohol make her laser-focused, and with her arms outstretched, she’s running faster than she’s ever run on the field, until she passes even Marta, who pants, “Fuck, Deuteros!” but doesn’t speed up.

When she’s won, Judith presses her hands to her knees and catches her breath as she watches her teammates catch up to her. After the race, they lie on their backs on the damp lawn, talking intermittently. The group steadily trickles off in the direction of home until it is just Judith and Marta. Judith doesn’t tell her that she hates parties, that the reason she still goes out with the team is that she and Marta always walk home together at the end of the night, recapping the night’s events, or, like now, just quiet.

Judith and Marta look up at what they can see of the stars beyond the glare of the streetlights that encircle the lawn. Judith lies with her arms outstretched, the same stance as her running stance, and her fingers are only inches away from Marta’s.

There is silence for a long time before Judith says, “Marta?”


And Judith feels the dew soaked into the back of her shirt as she rolls over toward Marta, until her face hovers over hers, until they’re barely apart, and their mouths are so close Judith can feel her exhale.

Marta sits up and says, “Judith —” and she never calls her that. “Judith, I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Judith says, sitting up to match, and the apologies tumble out of her, just one feeling far from enough. Her eyes are burning with the effort of restraint. She touches her forehead to her knees. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I should never have —”

“It’s okay, Deuteros,” Marta says, as calmly as ever. She places her hand on Judith’s shoulder very gently, which, in its kindness, makes the situation infinitely worse. “You know, we live in the same dorm. We’re on the same team. It’s easy to become — codependent. I think it’s better that we’re friends. And I’m really glad we’re friends.”

Of course,” says Judith, too quickly. The stream of apologies continues, “I’m so sorry, Marta, I’m so sorry. Can you — please don’t tell anyone from the team?”

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t say anything. I know it can all be —really confusing. Nothing to tell.”

“I - thank you. I’m so sorry. Thank you —”

Marta stands up. “It’s okay, really. See you at practice. Goodnight, Deuteros,” and she is waving at her and walking away.

“Goodnight, Dyas,” Judith says weakly, waving back. The tears that threatened her a moment ago are gone now.

Nothing,” Judith whispers to herself as she trudges back to her room.

Judith’s room is empty. Her disagreeable, ever-present roommate is gone for the whole weekend on some spiritual retreat. Corona had always called Judith uptight — if only she could see Judith’s roommate, a smug girl with a tight white-blonde braid, a member of a vague and zealous religious group on campus, silent and judgmental and always asleep before 9 pm.

Judith is grateful to be alone with this deep sensation in her chest, heavy and empty all at once. She lies face down in her bed, half-dizzy with residual drunkenness, and lets the weight of what she’s just done take her out. A terrible, ruinous mistake. Pathetic, her brain repeats, to quite literally throw herself at the first person to show her any real kindness.

How could she have been so stupid, so deluded as to try to make things different between them, she wonders, and she pictures Marta, two floors above her. Marta, handsome and strong, who can easily have any girl she wants. Marta, preparing to sleep in her t-shirt and boxer briefs, in the too-big bed where Judith had once slept beside her.

The first ding is easy enough to ignore. Judith hides her phone under her pillow. It’s Monday evening, and Marta’s been remarkably normal since Judith’s indiscretion on the lawn. Did she really mean it when she said it was nothing? They greet each other with their last names and have their meals together with the team as always, but in her head, Judith keeps hearing, I know it can all be — really confusing. Really confusing. Really confusing. I know —

The fine print PDF on her computer is giving her a headache, and she hasn’t retained much of the 20 pages she’s just read. But the phone keeps dinging, so she extracts it to turn off the sound. Six texts from Coronabeth Tridentarius, who hasn’t texted her since they congratulated each other months ago on enrolling in neighboring colleges.

you’re avoiding me…
i know u saw my message
u can make it up to me
come to my party on saturday
bring your hot rugby friends ;)

Judith is unsurprised. Corona always wants something — what she means is never just what she says. And now, in this new context, Judith is no more than a means of accessing more desirable people. After Judith has looked at her too long and held her tongue for so many years.

The mental picture of Gideon’s eyes bugging out of her skull at the mere sight of Corona is bad enough. Judith couldn’t possibly give her that. And the thought of Corona and Marta in the same room is enough to make her wince. It is untenable, completely out of the question. Better to cut this off now before it gets worse, Judith thinks, and starts typing:

Thank you for the offer. But not in this life or in any other.