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The Illumination of Coley Taylor

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Part One: Fall Semester 1992

Don't kiss trainwrecks. Don't kiss knives. Don't kiss.

**

The day Cam leaves for God's Promise, Coley almost tries to say goodbye. She borrows the truck, lies to her mother, and drives the forty miles into town.

It's a dusty Montana morning, already a little warm. She passes the library, all the banks, Kip's Minute Market. At the last possible second, she passes Wibaux Street, too. She slows down for the pullover but doesn't make it, her hands shaking, too tight on the wheel. Cam's house surges into her rearview mirror, enormous, and then disappears.

Coley veers into the Taco John's parking lot. It's deserted. Too early. Too late. She slams the door of the truck too hard. The sound shivers through her and lodges in her bones.

"Four Choco Tacos to go, please," she says, never once looking up from the counter.

**

Sophomore year starts slowly, with a cough and a sputter. The first day of classes---picking her seat carefully, screwing on a smile for her neighbors. The Firepower Welcome Back! Bash, where everybody wants to know but nobody wants to ask. The first awkward check-in with Pastor Crawford. The second awkward check-in with Pastor Crawford.

Lydia Dixon is in four of Coley's classes this year. Coley doesn't know her very well. Lydia doesn't talk a lot at school or at church, so Coley has mostly always thought of her the way Cam described her, which wasn't always nice. Now that Cameron is gone, Coley is surprised to discover how many people she likes more than she thought. But also, how many people she suddenly doesn't like at all.

"You just don't seem yourself," her mother says often, tenderly, touching Coley's cheek in the place where a tear would be.

It's just that Coley kind of thought, with Cam gone, everything would go back to normal. And she would feel the way she felt before, and she wouldn't feel the other things.

But it doesn't. And she does.

**

Lydia Dixon always comes into first period with two neat French half-braids, but by the middle of the day a thousand soft wisps have escaped down the back of her neck. One time in study hall, just one time, without thinking, Coley reaches out a hand to smooth them.

Thank God, thank God, the bell rings.

**

Sometimes Coley wonders what it's like where Cam is. Some days Coley is sick with guilt, other days with envy. Cameron could be getting fixed, right now, while Coley stays home, dizzy, wrong. Cameron getting better while Coley gets worse, every day, in secret. Sometimes Coley relives that night and wakes up feverish, pulsing, terrified to be alive.

**

Two and a half weeks before Christmas, Coley has sex with Brett for the very first time. Brett is desperately nervous, much more nervous than Coley's ever seen him before. He is afraid to do anything that might hurt her or make her uncomfortable. His fingers tremble on her breast, on her thigh, as if he's never touched them before---as if he hasn't a hundred times slid his hand up under her shirt in the car; as if they weren't half an hour ago lying on the couch together, his thumb idly tracing the line of her shorts. She wonders how often he thinks about what she did here, in this bed, the moment he turned his back. If he's thinking about it now.

"Are you sure?" he says, yet again, as she shimmies out of her underwear. "It's okay if you want to wait. I know it must be---"

Coley draws his mouth to hers and kisses him, urgently, until he eases into it, until his hand fumbles up and rests warm on the small of her back, where it belongs. "Stop it," she says. "I want to." She ducks her head a little and he smiles up at her and there, for a moment, Coley feels entirely safe again.

The actual sex part hurts a lot less than she expects it to. He goes slowly, and it feels very strange, but it isn't so bad. She likes it, and she's surprised, and she's surprised to realize she's surprised. Brett collapses next to her afterward, breathless and sweaty, just a heap of adoring boy. He reaches for her and tucks a piece of hair back behind her ear. It is, he is, the most familiar thing in the world. She loves that about him.

She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Behind the closed door, she presses a hand to her jangling heartbeat, every breath a sob of relief.

**

One week before Christmas, Coley almost kisses Lydia Dixon. Right there at the Ben Franklin lunch counter---in a room full of people, in front of the gangly busboy---she almost does it. They've become friends in the last two months, since a group project in history with Clay Harbough and Steph Schlett, and Coley's started hanging out with her and Mary Tressler sometimes after school. But Mary was out sick today, so Coley and Lydia are alone.

"You have chocolate on your chin," Lydia tells her, smiling, over milkshakes. Lydia has such an earnest face: wide eyes, delicate mouth. She can point out embarrassing things like this, and Coley never feels embarrassed, only...cared for. "No, other side. Right---there."

Lydia leans up on the table and reaches across to point the spot out. Coley tips her face up helpfully, and everything is normal until a memory licks through her, sudden, hectic. A kissing memory. A kissing urge. Her heart crawls up into her throat to hide. It's going to happen again. She wants it to happen again.

It doesn't. Lydia, oblivious, pokes Coley in the chin by accident, probably because of Coley moving in too far, and Coley jerks back as if electrocuted. "Sorry!" says Lydia quickly, giggling apologetically. Coley grabs a napkin and wipes the chocolate off.

"No---thanks," she says. "You're a good friend."

**

On Christmas Eve, they go to church, as always. Cam is back in town, her presence a whisper through the congregation. Coley had thought she might be ready to face her, if only to say hello, but she isn't. Lydia waves and smiles, and Coley pretends not to see her either.

In the new year, she promises herself, squeezing Brett's hand tighter---none of this. No more.

 

Part Two: College 1995-1999

Lie to yourself about this and you will forever lie about everything.

If you want to know what happens to Coley in the rest of her Custer career, it goes something like this:

1) She is indeed nominated again for queen of Bucking Horse. She loses sophomore year but takes the crown junior and senior year. The junior-year crown earns her several enemies.

2) She hears through the Gates of Praise rumor mill about Cameron Post's escape from Promise. She whispers about it at Firepower and denies having any knowledge of it (the truth). She shakes her head sadly over it at home and expresses her disapproval and shock (a lie). She has one surprisingly honest conversation with Lydia---once, just once.

3) She joins the school newspaper and the yearbook committee and throws herself into them wholeheartedly, if only because she must throw herself into something. To her surprise, she likes them both a lot and begins to consider journalism school. Jamie, who has the most forgiving nature of anyone Coley knows, develops a habit of joking that Coley's dream is to one day write for a publication with a better name than the Signal Butte.

4) With time, she and Brett reclaim the back row of the Montana Theatre. They stay together through graduation and both apply to several schools in New York City. Each of them knows the other is a lock, but they're both secretly afraid that one of them will get in and the other won't.

Luckily, that doesn't happen.

5) The Internet.

**

The Big Apple is not as Coley has always imagined it. It is three times as crowded and five times as loud as she could ever have guessed, and it smells like the worst kind of outhouse. She doesn't understand how anyone ever gets to sleep, and she doesn't want to know why the streets always seem to be damp and steamy. It's light out when it should be dark, and it's dark out when it should be light. She misses Montana within a week.

Also, her roommate is a lesbian.

"It's not funny! Don't laugh," she says to Jamie, over the phone. He is cracking up and doesn't hear her.

Her name is Jenn Gleason, and she's a volleyball player. She is very freckled, very toned, and (apparently) very promiscuous. She brings a new girl home every night, or at least that is how it feels to Coley.

Coley pulls her pillow over her head, her face hot, and tries not to listen.

**

In November, Brett and Coley finally break up. They have been together for just over four years. He is her best friend in the world.

Because he is her best friend in the world, it's an easy breakup. Which is to say, it's heartbreaking, but nobody needs to explain anything to anyone. Your best friend always knows.

Coley's glad they won't be going home for Thanksgiving.

**

Winter comes to "the city" in the form of a chill breeze and several muddy flurries. Compared to winter back home, it's nothing. Coley's started to like New York by this point: she's gotten the hang of the subway, made a couple of real friends, and bought a good pair of earplugs. Jenn has also eased up a little with the sleeping around, seems to be getting into a groove with this one girl, Louisa. Coley wishes they'd spend a little more time in Louisa's room and a little less time in Coley and Jenn's, but still---it's an improvement.

One night during finals, Lou invites her friend Amy over. They're all celebrating being done for the semester, except for Jenn, who is cramming for her psychology final but insists, with a wink, "I study better drunk."

Amy has purple hair and a tongue ring. She knocks loudly on the open door, shrugs her snowy coat off right onto the carpet, and introduces herself to Coley with a bottle of Malibu and a once-over. Out of the corner of her eye, Coley sees Lou gesture to knock it off.

"Leave her alone, Ames," Lou says, pouring Sprite into a red cup and reaching for the Malibu. "She's straight."

Three hours later, very drunk, Coley comes hard with Amy's fingers inside her.

**

In the spring, Coley starts dating Michael. She doesn't know why she does it, exactly, except that he asks and she says yes. He's a musician, thoughtful, romantic. He has long dark curls that make her slightly uncomfortable, because it doesn't seem right that he should have nicer hair than she does. Brett likes him. Possibly Brett likes him more than Coley does.

Over the summer, she stays in the city while he goes home to Seattle. She kisses him goodbye at the airport and then rides the subway back into the city, feeling a curious sense of lightness.

One week later, she meets Janine.

**

It is the summer of trying new things. Coley enrolls in Painting 101, because she's always loved beautiful things and wished she had the talent to create them, and because Michael encouraged her and it was her one extravagance of the year. Janine is the TA.

Janine is an excellent painter. Her strokes are elegant and precise. Sometimes, while they're being instructed, Janine paints off to the side, and Coley loses herself staring at the canvas, at Janine's small, careful hand moving easily over the colors. She never hesitates, never seems to need to think about where to put the brush---here a smear, there a fleck---she doesn't stop. She is the kind of person who makes everything she does look deliberate.

Coley can't help herself. It is love at first sight.

When Janine leans over Coley to give pointers, Coley feels lightheaded and clumsy. Her hand shakes and makes an ugly green splotch in the middle of her river. "Sorry, sorry," she hears herself say, laughing, nervous, every ounce of concentration going towards Being Normal. "I'm just all elbows today."

Janine shrugs.

For six weeks, Janine never comments. She shrugs. She puts her hand over Coley's to guide the brush, and Coley thinks she will faint. She draws her finger along the canvas and makes Coley follow its arc, and nods when Coley gets it right, their faces so close they could kiss.

They will kiss. They will. Coley has never wanted something so badly in her life.

**

After the last class of the session, Coley lingers. She makes a big show of packing up her paints extra-slowly, goes to the bathroom, gets a drink of water. She fidgets with her sleeve while Ray Eisler sucks up to Professor Leahy, pretends to be absorbed in an invisible loose thread. She wishes Ray would hurry up and leave already.

Janine is back to painting in the corner, completely unaware. Coley sneaks a glance at her over her shoulder. Her palms are sweaty. Had she even known before Janine that her palms could sweat? No. This is new. Very new.

"You good there, Montana?" Janine says, suddenly. Heat flares in Coley's cheeks. She wouldn't have expected Janine to notice.

"Um---" Coley eyes Ray and the professor, slides between two tables to get over to Janine's corner. She lowers her voice. "I was just---I was wondering… I didn't know if you maybe wanted---I mean. No. I wanted---" Oh, for heaven's sake.

She simply cannot get the words from her brain to her mouth. Thought to reality. A slow smile changes Janine's face, easy, confident. Go on, ask me out.

Coley shakes her head. "Never mind, it was… Never mind." She makes an awkward little wave (oh, God, just forget it) and is turning to go when Janine puts a hand on her wrist.

Like an animal stunned. Coley freezes, caught in spite of herself. Desperate to get the hell out of there and pretend this never, ever, ever happened. Also desperate to stay.

"Come on, what were you going to say?" Janine prompts. She nudges Coley 'round again to face her, a gentle touch to set her back in the right direction. Just like all those weeks on the easel. It strikes Coley that there's something very kind in Janine that she never saw before. Under the rough, paint-stained jeans; under the sharp dark eyes and wickedly curved mouth.

"I'd really like to spend more time with you," Coley says, before she can stop herself.

Janine's thumb twitches thoughtfully against Coley's pulse. Coley wonders if she can feel her heartbeat ratcheting up to fever pitch. "Funny," Janine says, the warmest smile out of her. "I'd really like to spend more time with you."

**

Coley loves Janine as she has never loved anyone. She loves the way she paints. She loves the way she studies---lying on her back, occasionally dropping the book onto her own face. She loves the way she settles into bed first at night and opens her arms for Coley to come to her.

Coley loves Janine with a constant, recognizable seizing of her heart. Coley loves Janine with such a fierceness and momentum that it is impossible to deny.

So, when Janine invites Coley home with her over spring break, Coley goes. She says to her mother that she just wants to save the price of another plane ticket, and she'll see them again at Christmas---and they take the train up to Connecticut, and Coley meets Janine's family. Her mother, the artist, very blonde, very effusive. Her father, the Japanese-American lawyer, very unassuming except when cracking jokes. Her little brothers, a riot of toy cars and, "Noooooooo, he hit me first!" Janine rolls her eyes and drags Coley up to her room.

Coley meets Janine's best friends from home, Anna, Marie. "You're so much better than her last girlfriend, believe me," Anna says, confidentially, while Janine protests. A warmth bubbles up inside Coley, the familiar reassuring sensation of being well-liked. Also, happiness.

**

The next Christmas, Coley decides to bring Janine home to the ranch. She means it when she says it, but something funny happens in the air over about Chicago. A trickle of dread in her chest, which builds and builds and spills over as she sees Bozeman come into view through the clouds.

"This is my friend Janine," she says to her mother at the airport, struggling to keep her voice steady.

"Of course!" her mother says enthusiastically, pulling Janine into a hug. "I've heard so much about you."

Later, locked in Coley's childhood bedroom with her crayons and her Cabbage Patch Doll, they have their first and last real fight. Coley loses.

Coley loses Janine.

**

Spring of junior year is a long and difficult semester.

**

Over the summer, Coley resolves to stay single. She has an internship at the Post, which she was incredibly lucky to get, and she's going to make the most of it. She flirts with the guys at the office, and she fantasizes secretly about this one reporter, Kristen, but besides that, she does nothing. She eats lunch by herself every day and pores over back copies of the paper.

"Wow, this is even sadder than I thought," says Brett, leaning on the edge of her boss's cubicle when he comes to visit her one afternoon.

"It's not sad," says Coley. "Don't be like that. I'm clearing my head."

"Are you sure you don't want to just make up with Janine? I know she graduated, but she's still in the city. You could get back together."

"No," says Coley. "She's dating Karen Kennedy. I saw them together."

**

Senior year...happens.

On Halloween, Coley sleeps with Andrea Lynch. That's a mistake.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Coley sleeps with Katie Glazer. That's an even bigger mistake.

Right after Thanksgiving, Coley sleeps with Andrea Lynch again. The biggest mistake of all.

In January, Coley falls in love with a straight girl, Dana Marshall. Dana makes frequent appearances, star turns, really, in Coley's bed, but she won't ever talk to Coley before about eleven-thirty or midnight. In this way, Dana effectively steals four months of Coley's life.

"How ironic," says Brett cheerfully, reminding Coley of Cameron Post for the first time in years.

 

Part Three: Seattle/Tacoma 1999

Baby, we know better than to try and pretend…

With tremendous effort and the help of a glowing recommendation from Kristen-at-the-Post, Coley lands a job at the Seattle Times after graduation. She sublets a room in Tacoma from Michael's sister, Elise, and moves there in August of 1999.

Her first job is to interview a local music producer who's "making waves," according to Ken, her boss. Anxious to please, she clips everything about him she can find and even tries to Ask Jeeves. (He is less than helpful.) She arrives to her interview twenty minutes early and nervously approaches the spiky-haired girl reading behind the front desk.

"Hi, I'm Coley Taylor?" she says, cringing a little as she hears it come out like a question.

The spiky-haired girl stares at her. She looks about Coley's age, but Coley suddenly feels about twelve. She hesitates, fidgeting, wondering if she's walked into the wrong office by accident.

"I have an interview with Darren?"

"Sure," the girl says, with a funny little half-smile. Coley is charmed and confused at the same time. "Yeah, take a seat, Coley Taylor. I'm Lindsey. Can I get you something? Water?"

**

After the interview, Coley hovers at the elevator bank, changing her mind and changing it back again. Finally, she goes back in. Spiky-haired Lindsey looks up from her book, her expression bored---or amused---or both. "Forget something?"

"Yeah," says Coley. "Do you want to get...coffee sometime?" Coffee seems like the right thing to ask. It's Seattle, after all.

Lindsey is unreadable. For a long minute, she just looks at Coley.

"I'm having a party tonight," she says finally. "You want to come?"

**

Nine o'clock on the dot, Coley arrives at Lindsey's apartment. She lives in a nicer part of town than Coley expects, based on the way she was dressed at the office. It's right by the water, the evening mists drifting off it and making Coley feel like she's in a dream. She buzzes at the front door and gets let in without even being asked to identify herself. She thinks that seems a bit reckless, but then again, so does Lindsey. Anyway, it's a party, right?

Music pulses from underneath the door of apartment 4C, the bass line heavy and seeming to thrum up through the soles of Coley's shoes. She knocks and stands there like an idiot for three minutes, probably, while no one answers, until she decides to try the door. It's unlocked.

For a second, Lindsey's apartment seems to be just a hallway full of drunk strangers.

And then.

**

Cameron Post cracks open two sweating beers in Lindsey's narrow kitchen and holds one out to Coley. It's such an easy gesture that it stuns her for a second. She can't get over how different Cam looks, how much less awkward than Coley remembers her. She has on a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt and a red plaid button-down, reminding Coley of Ty, in a weird way. Also of Jamie. Her hair is cropped short, not as short as Lindsey's, but shorter than Coley's ever seen it. And---

"No?" says Cam, startling Coley into the reality that she's just standing there, staring.

"No---I mean, yes. Thank you." She reaches out to accept the beer, and takes a pull. Then they just look at each other, for what feels like a very, very long moment. Coley tries for a smile. "How are you?"

"I'm good," says Cameron, her face transparent with indecision. This, too, is very different about her. The Cameron Coley remembers was never transparent about anything. "Really good," she adds, after a beat, like she means something by it. It could be a good something. Or it could be a bad something. Suddenly, she's past-Cameron again. Opaque.

Guilt simmers in Coley's chest, immediate, pressing.

"I'm sorry---" she says, at the same instant that Cam bursts out, laughing, incredulous:

"Did you really ask Lindsey out?"

"Okay---"

"No, it's just." Cameron puts her beer down, not laughing anymore. Something flickers between them, uncertain. "I can't believe it."