It’s the first day of December, four months into the lease on their first apartment, when Megan comes home dragging a sad-looking tree behind her.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Graham asks, leaning against the door frame to watch Megan wrestle the thing through what passes for a living room, leaving a trail of needles in her wake.
“It’s a Christmas tree, silly,” Megan says when she stops to catch her breath. She looks up at Graham, smiling the same dopey smile that made Graham fall for her in spite of herself. “It’s not Christmas without a tree.”
Holidays were never a big deal when Graham was living with her father. They sure as hell didn’t bother with things like decorations or family dinners or even exchanging presents. At the most her dad would hand her some cash and tell her not to spend it on drugs, and that was only if she hadn’t gotten caught doing anything to embarrass him recently. She doesn’t remember much about the time when her mother was still in the picture, but if she tries hard enough she can remember huge artificial trees trimmed in expensive ornaments.
Megan’s tree looks nothing like those trees from her past. It barely looks like a tree at all, to be honest, but Megan looks so happy that Graham doesn’t have the heart to say so. Instead she watches while Megan drags out a tree stand Graham didn’t even know they had, and when Megan calls for Graham to tell her if the tree’s straight, Graham grins and pushes herself off the door frame to lean on the couch and watch while Megan gets the tree just where she wants it.
"So? Does it look straight?"
“Not in this apartment,” Graham says.
“Ha ha,” Megan answers, but she’s still grinning like...well, like it’s Christmas, and Graham can’t help smiling back.
They don’t come up with much in the way of decorations; what little money they make goes to rent and food, but Megan pops some popcorn and Graham sits next to her on the couch, eating handfuls while she watches Megan carefully thread kernels onto string to hang on the tree. Graham’s contribution is a star made out of tinfoil she steals from the restaurant where she busses tables and sometimes gets to help out in the kitchen. Only when one of the usual assistants doesn’t show up, but she likes it, and with enough experience she figures maybe she can work her way up to kitchen staff on a permanent basis.
Nobody misses the tinfoil she swipes, and when Megan gets home from her reception job – she’s scary good at answering phones and sounding like the friendliest fucking person on the planet – she finds Graham bent over their coffee table shaping tinfoil into a more or less recognizable star.
“It’s perfect,” Megan says when Graham hands it over, holding it like it’s something special she could break instead of a piece of wrinkled tinfoil. For a few minutes she tries to figure out a way to attach it to the top branch, but she finally gives up after hitting herself in the face with a snapped rubber band. Graham’s doubled over with breathless laughter, tears in her eyes and even Megan’s frown isn’t enough to get her to stop.
In the end she leans the star in some of the top branches, and it’s not perfect, but it’s theirs, so Graham figures that’s good enough. Megan seems pretty happy, anyway, and when she snuggles next to Graham on the couch, Graham touches the red spot on her cheek where the rubber band got her, then leans in to kiss it better.
It turns out celebrating Christmas isn’t so bad after all.
On New Year’s Eve Graham gets stuck at the restaurant until late, thanks to a last-minute no-show. She’s got plans with Megan, but they need her paycheck to make rent, so Graham calls home on her break and promises to catch up with Megan and their friends as soon as she can. It’s after 10:00 by the time she finally gets out, but she hurries over to the Cocksucker to find Megan at the bar, sipping a Coke and watching Dolph and Clayton grinding on the dance floor while some woman at least ten years older than them tries to chat her up.
Graham shoulders her way through the crowd to stop in front of Megan, soaking in her sunny smile for a second or two before she leans in to kiss her hello. “Sorry I’m late. Terry didn’t show again. He’s fired this time for sure.”
“Maybe they’ll finally promote you,” Megan says, arms around Graham’s neck to smile at her up close. She doesn’t notice when the woman who’d been hitting on her gives up and walks away, but Graham does. And she’s used to it, because Megan’s so friendly that she gets hit on wherever she goes, but it still gives Graham a little thrill to know she’s the one Megan’s going home with.
“I’m not holding my breath,” Graham says, and it’s true, because she hasn’t been working at the restaurant all that long, so technically she’s still low man. She’s proven herself to be a lot more reliable than most of the crew there, though, so maybe one day her boss will actually notice long enough to do something besides give her more overtime.
Still, overtime’s better than being a prisoner in her dad’s house, or worse, True Directions. She doesn’t have a car or any money, but she has Megan, and they have their shitty apartment in a noisy building right in the center of town, and it turns out that’s better than all her dad’s money.
“What’s the matter?” Megan asks, tucking a stray piece of hair behind Graham’s ear, and she realizes she’s been staring for too long. “If you’re tired we can go home.”
“No,” Graham says, because she is tired, but not tired enough to pass up their first New Year’s together. She smiles and takes Megan’s hand, tugging until she takes the hint and slides off her bar stool. “Let’s dance.”
Living together is easier than Graham expected. They’re different in a lot of ways, but somehow they manage to find a way to come together when it counts. The living room curtains are a little more frilly than Graham would have picked out, and the bedspread’s a shade of pink that reminds her way too much of True Directions. She doesn’t really mind, though, because every time she looks at it she remembers the way she and Megan met, and meeting Megan was worth every second of torture Mary put them through.
They’re stretched out on flowery sheets Megan found at the second hand store, Megan’s head on her shoulder and her arm warm where it’s draped over Graham’s waist. Graham’s drifting on the edge of sleep when Megan shifts and turns her head to look up at her. “You awake?”
“Mmm,” Graham answers, which isn’t really an answer, but it must be good enough for Megan, because she shifts onto her side and props herself up on one elbow to look down at Graham.
“I’ve been thinking about school.”
She’s known this conversation was coming. The truth is she’s been expecting it since they moved in together, and she’s a little surprised it’s taken Megan this long to bring it up. Still, she doesn’t want to think about it, because she likes things the way they are, and she doesn’t want anything to change.
“What about it?” she says, turning to face Megan.
“There’s this program at work, where they help pay for your college classes. It’s not full tuition or anything, but with that and student loans it probably wouldn’t cost us anything, at least not right away.” She looks down at the mattress between them, plucking at a loose thread at the center of one of the little flowers.
“Don’t you need to graduate high school before you go to college?” Graham asks, smiling so Megan won’t notice the way her heart’s racing.
“Well, yeah, but there’s a GED class that meets a couple nights a week, and you’re working most nights anyway, so you won’t even miss me.”
The way Megan smiles at her makes Graham’s heart clench, and she leans up long enough to press a kiss to the corner of Megan’s mouth. “I think it’s a great idea.”
“Yeah?” Megan asks, like she wasn’t sure.
“Of course,” Graham answers, as though she wasn’t panicking just a minute ago at the idea of Megan leaving her and going back to her parents’ house to finish high school. “But you know they don’t have a cheerleading squad in GED class.”
“I know, but I figure once I get my GED I can try out for the college team. If they let part-time students try out, anyway.”
Graham smiles at the image of Megan cheering along with a bunch of college girls. It’s still scary, thinking of Megan going off to college and making new friends and maybe realizing that she can do better than Graham and their crappy apartment. But she’s not going to try to hold Megan back, not after Megan didn’t give up on her when she should have.
“Does that mean I have to come to all your games?”
“Not the away games.” Megan smiles again, then she leans in to kiss Graham, and that’s the end of any conversation for a while.
It’s Dolph’s idea to go to Pride. Granted, their local parade isn’t a huge event like the ones that get on TV, but it’s big enough to block off a few streets downtown and draw enough crowds to clog up the sidewalks. Graham manages to get the whole day off for once, so she and Megan meet up with Dolph and Clayton and they join the loud, happy crowds of spectators in time to watch the parade march down the center of Main Street.
There are rainbow colored balloons spelling out ‘pride’ on the sides of the first float, then a group of shirtless guys wearing short shorts marching behind and waving. Dolph and Clayton whoop and catcall along with the rest of the crowd, and even Graham joins in, just to see Megan blush.
Not that it’s hard to make Megan blush, especially when the women’s rights group marches past wearing nothing but body paint. “They’re naked!” Megan squeaks, her eyes huge, but she doesn’t look away as they march past, laughing and waving and yelling back at the crowd.
Megan’s eyes stay wide for the rest of the day, and even though Graham manages to play it a little more cool, even she sees a couple things that make her look twice. Still, it’s fun being surrounded by people who don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, and it’s really nice not having to pretend Clayton and Dolph are their dates whenever someone looks a little too closely.
“Okay?” Graham asks when she notices Megan starting to hit sensory overload.
“Yeah, it’s just weird, you know? I guess I’m still getting used to not worrying what people think of me.”
Graham gets it, because it took her even longer to get there than it took Megan. It was hard to walk away from her dad knowing she’d probably never talk to him again, but she’s not sorry she did. Megan knows all that, though, so instead she just slides an arm around Megan’s shoulders and says, “Come on, let’s go find the guys. I’m starving.”
Megan’s parents visit for the first time not long after Megan starts the GED program. It’s weird, partly because Graham’s never really thought of herself as the type to make nice with anyone’s parents, but mostly because it’s pretty obvious Megan’s mother really doesn’t want to be there. Her dad’s trying, though, and she can tell by the way Megan spends the day before their visit alternating between hyperventilating and cleaning everything in sight that it’s important to her.
So Graham sits through an awkward dinner and does her best to keep the sarcasm to a minimum whenever Megan’s dad asks her a question about her job or her plans for the future. Her plans for the future mostly involve working her way up to kitchen duty at the restaurant and making sure Megan doesn’t decide she could do better after all, but she doesn’t say so. She has a feeling it’s not a good enough answer, and the last thing she needs is for Megan’s folks to decide she’s not good enough for their daughter.
Still, her dad’s nice, even if he’s kind of a dork, and her mom....well, she actually showed up for dinner, which is more than Graham can say for her own father. Not that she spends a lot of time dwelling on it, but it’s hard not to think about him when Megan’s parents are actually making an effort to stay in her life. She’s not jealous, because things are the way they are, and at least Megan’s folks don’t try to talk her out of leaving Graham and coming back home.
“Does your mom ever unclench?” Graham asks after their third visit, an awkward evening spent crammed in their living room eating food Graham helped Megan cook so she didn’t accidentally burn down the whole building.
Megan smiles in that way that tells Graham she feels guilty about it, then she shrugs and lets Graham pull her down onto the couch. “Not really. I think she’s still having a hard time with the whole ‘lesbian’ thing.”
“She’s doing better than my dad.”
Graham doesn’t mean to say it out loud; the last thing she wants is pity, even from Megan. They both knew what they were giving up when they left True Directions, and it’s not Megan’s fault that her parents love her and Graham’s father...doesn’t.
“He could still...”
“Don’t,” Graham interrupts before Megan can finish. “Look, we both know he’s not going to, okay? It’s fine.”
She can tell Megan doesn’t believe her, but she lets it go for once. Because it’s not fine, but there’s nothing either of them can do about it, so there’s no point rehashing ancient history. Besides, she’s happier in their cheap, crappy apartment with the leaky shower and the drafty windows than she ever was in her dad’s house, so it was worth the trade-off.
“Your dad’s really nice,” she finally says, offering Megan a small smile.
“Yeah, he’s great,” Megan says. “I think he really likes you.”
Megan nods and squeezes Graham’s hand, bouncing a little on the couch. “They mentioned coming for Easter.”
“That’s great,” Graham says, because Easter was never a big deal at her dad’s house either, but if Megan’s parents want to be part of her life, Graham’s not going to be the reason they change their minds.
They’ve been living together almost a year when Dolph and Clayton break up. It’s more of an implosion than a break-up, really, and Dolph spends the next few weeks on their couch, alternating between moping and insisting he was ready to move on anyway.
“You could go after him,” Megan suggests, not for the first time, because Megan still believes in True Love conquering all.
“I’m not running after him,” Dolph answers, right on cue. “He’s the one who left me, if he wants to come crawling back, that’s on him.”
“He didn’t leave you, he went to college,” Megan says, though the truth is that he did leave. He could have asked Dolph to go with him, or maybe chosen a college in town like Megan did. The truth is that he gave in to his parents and their tuition money and went to a school that took him far away from Dolph, and Graham doesn’t blame Dolph for not wanting to grovel.
Still, she wouldn’t mind having their couch back. She likes Dolph and all, but their apartment’s pretty tight with just two, and having Dolph around all the time means they have no privacy at all. She waits a month, then she waits a little longer, until finally she catches Dolph when Megan’s not home to frown at her.
“So what’s the plan?” Graham asks, handing him one of the beers she bought from the guy who supplies the restaurant, because he doesn’t care about fake IDs. “Not that we don’t love having you around, but if you’re staying, we need to think about getting a bigger place.”
Dolph sighs down at his beer for a second or two, then nods and looks up at her. “I know, I need to figure out something. You guys have been great. I really appreciate you putting up with me.”
“Don’t mention it,” Graham says, watching him over the top of her own beer. “Listen, I’m sorry about Clayton. I thought he was stronger than that.”
Dolph shrugs and tries for a smile, but it doesn’t really work. “Yeah, well, I’d rather find out now, you know? It’s better than him cheating with some guy he meets at school.”
Graham doesn’t say that she’s been worrying about the same thing, but it must show on her face, because Dolph laughs and shakes his head. “No way, Megan’s not like that. She’s crazy about you.”
“She’s going to be meeting all kinds of people in college.” It’s the first time she’s said it out loud, and now that she does, she hears how dumb it sounds. “She’s talking about trying out for the cheerleading squad.”
“Yeah, but she’s staying here with you,” Dolph says. “Clay just left.”
“Only because his parents bribed him,” Graham answers, though she knows that doesn’t make it any better.
“To tell you the truth I think he was looking for a way out anyway.” Dolph shrugs and takes a long pull of beer, then he sets the bottle on the table in front of him. “We kept fighting about dumb stuff, you know?”
Dolph laughs and shakes his head. “Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t. You and Megan are the real deal.”
“Yeah,” Graham answers, because it’s true, and she’s planning to hang onto it for as long as possible.
“I’ll start looking for someplace to live tomorrow,” Dolph says, grinning at her now. “Before you guys start fighting about me.”
It takes a long time for Megan to finish her degree, and there are a few times where Graham wonders if they’re going to make it through. Between both their jobs and Megan’s night classes, then hours of homework, they don’t have a lot of time for each other. Graham tries to understand, but there’s a lot of Megan’s life that she’s not really a part of anymore, and it’s hard not to worry that Megan will decide at some point that she likes that life better. Megan always comes home to her, though, and somehow they manage to make it through the stress and the all-nighters, until finally Graham’s sitting next to Megan’s folks at her graduation.
Megan’s planning to be a high school teacher, which means student teaching and long hours even after she graduates. Meanwhile Graham doesn’t even have a high school diploma, but she’s a line cook now, and nobody in the restaurant industry cares that she never finished school. She likes her job and she’s good at it, figures maybe someday she might even open a little place of her own, once Megan’s settled in her career and they have a little extra money.
And even if they never have any extra money, it’s okay. Graham doesn’t care if they never have a bigger apartment or even a house of their own. She doesn’t mind that Megan’s gone most days and Graham’s still working nights, because the time they do get is just as good as it was back when they were young and clueless and working out how to build a life together. Still, she’s not surprised when Megan starts talking about finding a place of their own, and she’s even less surprised to find herself giving up her Sundays off to follow Megan and a real estate agent through a series of cottages.
They finally pick one that looks enough like a doll house to make Megan happy, but has a big enough deck in the back yard for Graham to park a big grill. Dolph and his new boyfriend help them move in, and Graham thanks them by breaking in the grill with steaks and cold beers. They’ve entertained several of Dolph’s boyfriends over the years, but this one’s different. He’s more like Clayton than the others, for one thing, and he’s pretty clearly head over heels for Dolph.
Megan seems to think this one’s going to stick, anyway, and Graham’s not interested in arguing. Not when there are so many other things they could be doing with their time together, and she’s planning to start on that just as soon as they find the sheets and make the bed.
“I always knew you two would make it,” Dolph says, smiling at Graham and Megan like he had something to do with it. And okay, maybe he did, a little. He helped Megan hatch her plan to liberate Graham from True Directions, anyway, and he’d stuck by them ever since.
Megan beams right back at him, and when Graham laughs, Megan turns to smile at her. “What, you didn’t think we’d make it?”
“Are you kidding? I never had a doubt,” Graham lies, grinning when Megan laughs. “Okay, maybe in the beginning I wondered if you’d ditch me and go back home to your folks. But it all worked out okay.”
“Okay? It worked out perfect,” Megan says, and Graham rolls her eyes and doesn’t argue when Megan leans in to kiss her.
Megan goes all out for their first Christmas in the new house. Graham’s not sure where she gets the energy between work, grading papers, and her new role as the assistant cheerleading coach at school. Just thinking about Megan’s schedule makes Graham tired, and she’s the one who works in a busy restaurant until 11:00 most nights.
The sound of something scraping against the outside of the house wakes her up on Sunday morning, and she stumbles out of bed and onto the front porch to find Megan on a ladder stringing lights along the portico.
“What are you doing?” Graham calls up to her, her voice a mixture of amusement and annoyance.
“Decorating for Christmas,” Megan answers, pausing long enough to grin down at her. “Can you hand me up another string of lights?”
Graham rolls her eyes but does it anyway, watching more to make sure Megan doesn’t fall off the ladder and break something than because she’s actually interested in decorating their place. Still, she’s used to Megan’s enthusiasm by now, and she knows this is at least fifty percent of the reason Megan wanted to ditch apartment living for a house of their own.
Once she’s done with the lights she drags out a set of oversized plastic candy canes and uses them to line the walkway up to the front porch. When she plugs them in they light up, and it’s not very impressive in the daylight, but Graham can picture exactly how tacky they’ll look at night.
“Festive,” Graham says, but she smiles when Megan grins at her.
“Come on, help me get the tree decorations out of the attic.”
“We don’t even have a tree yet,” Graham says, but she follows Megan into the house. “Can I at least get some coffee first?”
“It’ll just take a minute,” Megan calls over her shoulder. “Then we can have breakfast and go get a tree.”
Graham rolls her eyes again, but she follows Megan up to the attic and helps her carry down the few boxes of decorations they’ve accumulated in their years of living together. It’s not much, but as soon as they get back to the living room Megan opens the first box and starts digging.
“Didn’t you say something about breakfast?”
“In a minute,” Megan says without looking up. She’s setting decorations out on the coffee table, placing each one as gently as she can, like anything they own is worth being that careful with.
Graham’s about to ditch her and head for the kitchen to make coffee and get started on breakfast when Megan pulls a tissue-wrapped decoration out of the box, and when she unwraps it Graham recognizes the crooked tinfoil star she made for their first Christmas tree.
“Isn’t it about time we replace that thing with a real one?” she says, but the look Megan shoots in her direction tells her it’s the wrong thing to say.
“You made this.” Megan’s eyes go wide and sad, like Graham just suggested they spend the afternoon kicking puppies.
“I know, that’s why it’s so pathetic.” Graham pulls the star out of Megan’s hands and straightens one of the points that’s gotten bent in storage.
“It’s perfect,” Megan says, taking it back and smiling down at it for a second before she looks at Graham again. “I love it.”
It’s not perfect. It’s crooked and homemade and the points are all bent beyond repair. It doesn’t even sit right on the top of the tree, not the way a store bought star would. But it’s the oldest Christmas decoration they’ve got, older than the ones Megan’s mother bought them when she finally gave up Megan growing out of her lesbian phase, or the ones Megan made for their second Christmas tree. She’s not even sure how it survived all this time, but it’s still here, and maybe that makes it perfect enough.