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i'm glad it left a mark

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i.

Melissa had invited her over for dinner on Friday night.

Barbara arrived on edge, her mood the product of a tough work week and what appeared to be a knowing glance from Gerald as she’d left the house that evening. It had all melted away, though, as Melissa greeted her at the door with a warm smile, hair brushed over one shoulder and feet bare on the hardwood. It's how Barbara likes to imagine her, casual and at peace in the space they've created for themselves, Melissa pulling her into an embrace that says it's okay to finally exhale.

Once they'd separated, Barbara couldn't help but let her eyes rake over Melissa’s curves, noticing she was wearing the same dress she'd worn to the Abbott Christmas party a few months earlier. It reminded Barbara of a woman who used to attend her church years ago, always dressed more for the red carpet than the pulpit, cleavage highlighted by bright colors and plunging necklines. Barbara often found her eyes drawn to the woman’s calves, visible from where she sat a few seats parallel to her, before she refocused on the Bible in her lap. She'd think about her on the way home every Sunday, envying the way the woman existed just as she was; wanted, too, to be able to worship without compromising.

“Maybe you didn’t want to be like her,” Melissa had suggested once, wiping the sweat from her brow before settling back into bed. “Maybe you wanted to be with her.” 

The thought of it made Barbara squirm; the mere notion that she would look at a woman in the house of God and in some way desire her, especially against the woman’s will. Even so, she let herself look at Melissa just as lustfully, and at least the knowing look in the other woman's eyes told her the attention was far from unwanted.

Barbara handed Melissa the bottle of wine she had brought as they walked into the apartment. The smell that permeated the air was divine, the result of the ten-hour marinara Melissa had been nursing on the stovetop. “It’s no big deal,” Melissa ensured, her hand finding its way into Barbara’s back pocket as they stood together in the kitchen. “I’ll get you something to nosh on while I finish up.”

She pointed Barbara to one of the stools at the kitchen counter and handed her pieces of carrot and cucumber as she chopped them. Barbara poured them both a glass of wine, and for what seemed like the millionth time she was struck by how easy it all was. How she yearned for a life she didn’t feel she had to control so carefully, where she could sit down for a moment and relax, be taken care of without asking.

“Hey, you should come with me to that convention in Pittsburgh next month,” Melissa said, catching Barbara with her mouth full. “Passes are already paid for, and we could split gas and a hotel room. Maybe stop off in Lancaster to get that cheese you like.”

Thinking back on it, Barbara knows she should have just smiled and nodded. Instead, she put her foot in her mouth. “You know we can’t do that,” she said.

Melissa waved a hand in the air. “Oh, we don’t have to share a room. I can call a guy and get two singles for cheap.”

“I don’t think—”

“We could even invite Jacob if you’re worried about it. Sure, I’d prefer some alone time, but we can still—”

No,” Barbara said harshly, and Melissa’s head snapped up to look at her in response.

Melissa’s expression made her want to dig a hole in the ground and dive in headfirst. “Right,” she said with a curt nod. She turned around to stir the sauce, and Barbara resisted the urge to click her nails on the countertop.

“For the record,” Melissa threw over her shoulder, “that wasn’t a come-on. I just thought it would be fun to go together,” she paused and added with audible frustration, “as friends.”

“Oh,” Barbara heard herself say. She looked to the ceiling to avoid Melissa’s eyes as she leaned back against the counter.

“Jesus, don’t do that,” Melissa said. Her voice might have sounded shaky, but her expression was resolute, cast in stone.

“Do what?”

“Act like you’re searching for the right words to placate me. I’m not an idiot, Barb, and you don’t need to treat me like I’m some whiny mistress. I get it, alright?”

Well, this was a mess. Barbara put her palms flat on the countertop as she took a deep breath. “I’m not trying to placate you,” she insisted, though in all honesty she didn’t believe a word coming out of her mouth either. “I’m trying to keep the lines from being blurred.”

Melissa’s eyes widened in disbelief before her expression settled into something eerily calm, equally terrifying. She crossed her arms over her chest. “So that’s how it is, huh? Six years living some semblance of together, and you still don’t trust me enough to know where the fucking line is?” She shook her head, the façade crumbling a fraction as her chin trembled. “That really hurts my feelings.”

She busied herself with wiping down the counter as Barbara opened and closed her mouth once, then twice. “Mel—“

“Just to verify: you and you alone have the sole right to decide where the line is?” She threw the rag she’d been using into the sink. “Because last time I checked, I hadn’t signed a contract that said: ‘Barbara gets to make all the rules, and Melissa gets to follow her around like a dog begging for scraps.'” She paused and made a show of pointing to her temple. “Actually, I think it was your husband who signed that, right?”

Barbara looked down at her hands, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from saying something she’d regret. Instead, she stood up wordlessly, straightening her blouse as she eyed her jacket hanging in the entryway.

“You leavin’?” Melissa asked in faux surprise.

“Yes.”

Melissa nodded in a way that said, of course you are. “Have a nice drive.”

Barbara stood in the middle of the room for a moment, hoping Melissa would at least look at her, but she refused to cast a glance in her direction, the only sound he pasta water boiling on the stove. Barbara tapped her foot on the floor before clicking her tongue, walking down the hall and out the door just as the sky broke open.

On the way home, she’d sat at a stoplight long after it had turned green, a long line of cars honking behind her. The windshield wipers kept time with her heart beating in her chest, quick and steady, and when she’d finally stepped on the gas it was as if the dam had broken. She hit the steering wheel with the palm of her hand, hard enough to sting. Goddammit, she thought, and she didn’t have the energy to feel bad about it.

Leave it to Melissa Schemmenti to make her feel more sinful than a Sunday service ever could.

 

ii.

 

It’s Monday, and the haziness of a weekend spent angry and resentful has cleared. All that’s left now is an uncomfortable embarrassment, a deep sense of shame that—while something she’s learned to live with—makes it hard to focus on the day ahead.

Melissa hadn’t come into the lounge this morning. Barbara had seen her beeline from the front door straight to her classroom, an apparent attempt to avoid her, and the longing she feels mixed with the residual guilt from their argument is enough to leave her emotionally doubled over. Even so, after letting it sit in her mind for the past two days, she still feels the same about the suggestion of the trip.

She’d meant what she said, no matter how much it had hurt Melissa. Some lines were drawn, and they were clear, and they existed for a reason. However challenging they might be to navigate, Barbara was firm in her belief that they were the only things keeping her from becoming a pillar of salt. She couldn’t just step over them as easily as Melissa made it seem.

The morning comes and goes with little effort, Barbara existing but not living. By the time lunch rolls around, she finds herself next to Jacob on lunchroom duty. He waxes poetic about pour-over coffee and Sam Cooke, but Barbara can’t bring herself to listen. If Jacob notices, he doesn’t mention it; just continues to blabber on in the dorky and endearing way that Barbara has found herself growing quite fond of.

It’s close to the same feeling she had felt when first meeting Melissa all those years ago. A frozen moment in time where she looked at the woman sitting across from her and thought: haven’t I met you somewhere before?

By recess, Barbara is functioning only on backup power. She can’t tell if she’d rather bury herself in work, a good book, or somewhere underground, and she checks her watch just as there’s a commotion somewhere off to her left. The squeals of the second graders are followed by the sound of Melissa’s calm reassurance, and Barbara closes her eyes against it, wishes it was for her.

“Cazzo!” Melissa’s voice bounces off the brick, and for the first time today, Barbara feels alert. She tries to pick Melissa out in the crowd, eyes settling on red hair in a sea of blue, and she has to crane her neck to be able to see the rest of her.

Melissa’s eyebrows are drawn tight together as she inspects her forearm. It’s the same look she has when she tries to read without her glasses: a sweet, befuddled expression that makes Barbara want to hold on and never let go. There’s something else to it, though, that makes her stomach ache. It pulls her in like a magnet, and she weaves through the crowd of students, making her way to Melissa’s side. When she finally reaches her, she can’t bring herself to make contact, open palm stopping an inch from Melissa’s shoulder. “What happened?” she asks.

Melissa turns to look at her, and her expression says Barbara’s presence isn’t unwanted, necessarily, but unexpected. She can’t tell which is worse.

“Wasps, two of ‘em.” She directs Barbara’s eyes to her forearm, already red and angry. Hives are beginning to form across Melissa’s skin, and if memory serves correctly, they’ll soon cover her stomach and chest as well.

Barbara forgets their argument, can’t help but reach out to delicately touch where Melissa had been stung. “How long do we have?” she asks.

“Dunno,” Melissa shrugs. “Ten minutes maybe.”

“You should lie down.”

“Wh—right here on the concrete? Barb, there’s kids around.”

Melissa,” Barbara warns. 

Melissa sighs—shallower than usual—but gives in, holding her arm above her head as they push through the crowd of students and make their way to the small patch of grass by the school doors. “I cannot believe you’re stage managing my anaphylaxis,” she says as she sits down on the ground with an oomph.

 Barbara kneels next to her, cradling her head as she leans back. “Nothing I haven’t done before.”

It’s not an exaggeration, either; she’d been with Melissa during another attack almost eight years ago. It was in the before, as Melissa calls it, when something existed between them that hadn’t been given a voice yet. Barbara can still remember how Melissa had tapped her on the shoulder, apologetic smile in tow, as they sat together in a nearby park for a school in-service.

I hate to do this to you, Barb, she’d said, but I’m allergic to bees and have about two minutes ‘til I hit the ground. Hope you’re good with needles!

Despite the brevity Melissa tried to approach it with, it had been traumatic for both of them, and the threat of it still hangs in the air between them. Sometimes Barbara will wake up in the middle of the night, the memory of Melissa gasping for air playing on a loop, and tiptoe downstairs to where her cell phone lies charging on the kitchen counter. She’ll open it, carefully listening for any movement from the bedroom, and navigate to her and Melissa’s text conversation.

She’s never able to bring herself to type anything out—not in the early morning hours, anyway—so she stands, unmoving, looking at Melissa’s contact photo until her eyelids begin to droop. Only then does she haul herself back upstairs to bed, the promise of more fitful sleep awaiting her, at least this time accompanied with the image of Melissa and her crooked, sultry smile.

Janine approaches from across the courtyard, Jacob and Gregory trailing close behind her. “Everything okay?” She asks.

“I’m going to need an EpiPen,” Barbara replies. Her voice is calm, but the edges waver with something that could give her away; not quite panic, yet, but a brand of worry that’s too close to the truth.

Ava materializes seemingly out of nowhere. “Uh, yeah, we don’t have any of those,” she says, and Jacob and Janine’s jaws drop in response.

“Do you have any idea how dangerous that is—“

“How can you not have—“

“Jacob,” Barbara breaks into the chaos. “In my purse, underneath my desk. Go. Now.” He nods once before running to the building. Barbara rubs Melissa’s chest. “Try to stay calm, sweetheart.”

Janine calls 911 while Gregory and Ava start wrangling the students inside. It's almost funny, Barbara thinks, that birds continue to sing and cars continue to honk, the city in full motion even as Melissa struggles to breathe. An eerie, quiet calm soon follows the rush of chaos, and the two of them are left alone on the smallest patch of grass in Philadelphia.

“This is…so stupid,” Melissa wheezes from where she lays, voice hoarse. “Why does this keep happening?”

If Barbara knew her less, maybe she’d think Melissa was talking about the wasps. Instead, she knows she’s talking about their argument, the same one they’ve been having for over six years now. A vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over, neither one of them able to stop it. Sometimes, Barbara thinks, all they know how to do is have the same stupid fight.

“I don’t know. I wish it wouldn’t,” Barbara says. “I wish I could stop myself.” She opens her mouth to say something else but instead cautions a glance to the school doors, verifying they’re alone before leaning down to drop a kiss on Melissa’s forehead. “I’m sorry,” she says, and it’s not lost on her that she spends more time on her knees asking for forgiveness than almost anything else.

Melissa smiles as best she can with puffy lips, tendrils of red reaching up her neck like flames. She lifts a weak hand to cup Barbara’s face, thumb running gently across her cheek, and Barbara hums as she leans into it. Wasps aside, this is how their apologies tend to go: silently and filled with mutual regret.

Melissa breaks the moment with a cough that becomes a chain reaction, sharp and rattling. Barbara can hear the ambulance now, siren signifying it’s close but not yet close enough. The feeling of dread in her gut is like a bucket of ice water; cold soaking from the top of her skull straight to her fingertips, and she closes her eyes in practiced fashion. Take away everything else, she prays silently, but give me this.

She’s delivered by the sound of Jacob’s feet on the concrete steps.

After the first time this had happened, Barbara signed up for CPR training. It gave her something to funnel her nervous energy into, a way to feel in control of something completely uncontrollable. She’d walked out fully certified, feeling capable, and had gone home to put even more time into research; late nights spent reading academic journals and watching instructional videos. Gerald had (kindly and gently) called it obsessive. Barbara had called it necessary.

Now, as she uncaps the EpiPen and plunges it into the outside of Melissa’s thigh, she can’t help but feel righteous. She counts to three, clenching her jaw and dropping the empty syringe onto the ground with a hollow clunk.

“She gonna be okay?” Ava asks from above her, and Barbara startles. She can’t help but revert to her teacher's voice in response to the guilt that’s present in Ava’s, and she delivers her answer clearly and firmly as she rubs Melissa’s thigh where she’d given the injection.

“She will be fine,” she promises, and it’s more for herself than Ava. “I need you to come down here and keep her feet elevated.”

Ava does as she’s told, for once not offering a sarcastic aside. Jacob, now task-less, paces on the front sidewalk as they wait for the ambulance. Barbara keeps a steady eye on Melissa’s breathing, short but steady after the shot of epinephrine, and tries to ignore the fact that the threat of this exact moment is what has kept her up at night for the last eight years.

She’s not sure if it’s been minutes or hours, but the ambulance finally pulls in, paramedics surrounding them in a flash of movement. Soon, they’re pushed to the side, and the three of them stand in stunned silence as the crew sets to work. Barbara has to lift her face to the sun to keep the tears at bay, her hands shaking so badly she has to curl them into fists at her sides. She hears the paramedics asking questions and feels herself answering, but the sound of the exchange is muffled, almost as if she’s outside of her body.

“Lucky you had that EpiPen on you,” Jacob says, bringing her back to earth.

Barbara looks over at him and crosses her arms protectively in front of herself. She doesn’t like the way he’s been looking at her lately, like she’s a puzzle for him to solve. His knowing eyes feel too much like a reflection of what she knows herself—wishes she could hide—now more prevalent than ever.

“Yes,” she replies. “You can never be too careful with children around.”

“She’ll be okay.” He puts a gentle hand on her shoulder, and while it feels foreign, she finds herself turning toward it. They stand like that while Melissa’s loaded onto a stretcher, one of the paramedics stopping to ask if anyone will be riding with them to the hospital. 

Barbara steps forward, not bothering to look back at Jacob or Ava. She only pauses when she rounds the passenger side of the ambulance. “My class—“

“We’ll take care of it,” Jacob promises.

And if the cost of being seen by him gives her this moment, en route to the hospital at Melissa’s side, then so be it.

 

iii.

 

She fluffs the pillow for the third time, and Melissa has to shoo her away. “Fluff that thing any more and you’ll have to pay child support,” she says. “Would you sit down already?”

The nervous energy is rolling off of Barbara in waves, and she melts into the chair by the bedside. It’s nighttime now, the view of the city clear and bright through the hospital room window, and she lets the lights slip out of focus just enough to make them look like fireworks. Melissa looks at her tenderly, and if it weren't for the leftover puffiness in her face—the redness now faded to a pale pink—you might not be able to tell she was close to death only a few hours ago.

“You should come home with me,” Barbara blurts, vision sharpening again.

Melissa blinks in surprise. “Where’s Gerry?”

“He’s surveying a worksite in Newark. He won’t be home until Thursday night.”

“Wow, lucky me,” Melissa says, toes wiggling with excitement under the blanket. “If I’d known all it took for a personal invitation to your house was a couple of wasps, I would’ve stuck my head in a hive a long time ago.”

Barbara rolls her eyes, and her half-hearted attempt at a smile must not be convincing enough, because Melissa tilts her head in question. “You okay?” she asks. The hilarity of her asking this from a hospital bed isn’t lost on Barbara. Still, she can’t bring herself to laugh.

“I don’t think I’ve recovered from the last time this happened,” Barbara hears herself say. “So having it happen again is, well.” The tears are welling up in her eyes before she can stop them.

“Oh, honey,” Melissa says, the sound of it like a balm. “I’m sorry.”

Barbara waves her hand in the air, wipes at her face. “Please, you have nothing to apologize for. This mess wouldn’t have happened if—“

Melissa stops her by grabbing her hand, holding it against her chest. “Hey, last time I checked, wasps don’t care if you and your...” she pauses here, wheels visibly turning, “best friend get into an argument. They just sting.”

“Mm,” Barbara hums. The weight of what she’s feeling sits on her chest, and she worries if she says one word, she’ll say them all. The small television in the corner of the room plays at a low volume, covering for what she can’t bring herself to say out loud. The silence brings her back to earlier—the sound of the birds mixed with Melissa’s labored breaths, the fear of losing her, the helplessness of having to sit there and watch.

“Was I at least graceful?” Melissa asks after a moment.

Barbara is still in the courtyard outside Abbott. She shakes her head to return to the present. “What?”

“Y’know, was I graceful? I know anaphylactic shock might not be the sexiest way to die, but—“

Barbara laughs, finally, and after the past two days it feels akin to the first breath of air after almost drowning. “For real?”

Melissa leans her head back against the pillow. “God, no. I just wanted to see you smile.” She lets go of Barbara’s hand so she can itch at the leftover hives on her neck. “You deserve it after today, huh?”

Barbara doesn’t want to cry again, so she just nods, clears her throat. “Hard day,” she manages to get out. 

She should have pluralized it, really. A whole list of hard days blurring together, making her feel like she’s standing on uneven ground, waiting to fall harder than she already has. She looks at Melissa, her own tears now threatening to fall. “Oh, not you, too.” Barbara grabs the box of Kleenex off the bedside table.

Melissa scoffs. “Let's just say that experience is not high on my list of things I’d like to do every day—or ever again.” She accepts the tissue Barbara hands her. “But you saved me, just like you always do.”

Barbara zeroes in on a loose thread on the bedspread. “You would have been fine without me.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Melissa shrugs. “But I don’t want to test that theory. Do you?”

“No.”

Melissa smiles. “Well, guess that settles it,” she says, and Barbara knows she means for more than just today. “So, your house, huh? You gonna tuck me in and rub my feet? Let me stake a claim on the remote control?” The twinkle in her eye gives Barbara butterflies, makes her feel like she's sixteen again. “Sounds like a pretty big step over the line if you ask me.”

Barbara looks to her hands, suddenly unable to look Melissa in the eye. “After a day like today, it’s clear that some lines might...need to be redrawn,” she says, and while not a promise, it’s a start. A conscious step forward that makes Melissa’s shoulders visibly relax. 

In fact, she looks more at peace than Barbara has ever seen her. She reaches forward to brush Melissa's hair out of her eyes, wishes she had the words to tell her the things she doesn't yet know how to describe. Maybe someday she will—without a traumatic event acting as a catalyst, at least—but for now it's enough just to exist together, the exhaustion from the day finally setting in.

And with the promise of Melissa in her home for a few days, their own sanctuary, her feet in Barbara's lap as they sit on the couch and watch Jeopardy, well. It’s more than Barbara could have ever imagined for herself.

It’s even better.