The thing with Nona falls apart fast.
Like, remarkably fast.
Like, two days in.
“Wait, she dumped you?” Alex asks, sliding off the couch and landing half on top of Ren on the floor. The impact is not quite as controlled as she’d thought it would be and her elbow catches him just under the ribs. Ren lets out a harsh puff of air and goes limp, tipping over til they’re both sprawled in a tangle on the floor.
The gamepad goes flying from his grip and it lands with a clatter, causing his character to fire off a round into a crowd of civilians. Chaos erupts on screen, and Ren whines and reaches out to slap the pause button before he answers.
“Okay, she did not dump me,” he says. “Mutually , the two of us, decided together that-”
“Aw man, she totally dumped you,” Alex frowns, raising herself up off Ren’s body and patting his belly sympathetically.
“Yeah,” Ren sighs, finally, still flat on his back on the floor, looking utterly defeated. “She did. She dumped me.”
Suddenly, Alex feels kind of bad for teasing him. Ren doesn’t seem hurt exactly, but the comically exaggerated offense she expected to elicit from him is conspicuously absent, which means he’s actual, for real upset.
“Sorry, Ren,” she says.
He shrugs and shuffles around on his back until his head is in her lap. Alex drops a hand into his hair and winds a blond curl around her finger absently.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I mean, we were only together like, two days. Y’know, that’s actually not my worst record. Remember--”
“Tanya Amrit in third grade? You guys went out for half of recess until she caught you holding hands with Jenny Huber--”
“Okay, that wasn’t what it looked like, she was giving me a cooties shot--”
“A likely story. Face it, Ren, you were a little Lothario, even then,” Alex tugs gently on his hair until he opens his eyes and looks up at her. “You bounced back from that, right? This too. Soon.”
It gets a smile, actually, which is more than she expected. A little wobbly at the corner, but she’ll take it.
“Yeah,” he says. “You’re right. I guess I’m just a little…”
“Sad?” Alex offers.
His face scrunches up at the word, the same look as that time the dog had just walked into the living room and dropped a deuce in the middle of the floor.
“Yeah,” he says at length. “I mean it’s not really… I guess it’s more like. I, uh, kind of thought that, y’know, after everything that… happened...”
‘Everything that happened’ is the way they’ve taken to referring to the fucked up mess of events that took place on Edwards Island, now that they’re back in reality.
It’s hard to believe it was just two days ago. It’s been totally bizarre to go from that to trying to fit back into normal life.
She wrote everything down in a journal, as soon as she got back home. Well, after hugging her mom for twenty suspicious minutes (she definitely knew something was up) and taking a really long, much needed shower. She keeps the journal in her backpack now, finds herself glancing over at it periodically, like some kind of tic. She fills it in with the stupidest updates, sometimes once or twice an hour, as if that could be some sort of insurance against timeloops. As if having her life recorded somewhere can protect her from reliving it again.
“Ren?” she prompts him, when she realizes they’ve lapsed into silence.
He blinks and starts on her lap a little and she knows it must have happened to him too, that slipping away. She wonders when they’re going to talk about it. They talk about everything, they always have, but since the moment they stepped off the ferry some sort of unspoken pact of silence seems to have been enacted. It makes her uneasy, the waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the whole experience is too raw right now, the idea of dragging it out into the open herself is too overwhelming.
She guesses they can wait a while longer.
“Right. Sorry,” he clears his throat. “Uh… I guess, it just seemed really important to me that something good came out of that night, y’know? So that it would be worth it. Well, not worth it, but--”
“I know,” Alex cuts him off gently. And then, because she can’t help herself, “What happened?”
“Um. Y’know, just. It didn't’ work out. For reasons. And that’s all I’m saying about that,” Ren says with a wince. He turns his head on her lap, exposing his ear. “I’m thinking of going up a gauge size. What do you think?”
“A bigger hole in your ear to match the hole in your heart?” she teases, tapping a nail against the plug through his lobe, trying not to feel too dismayed by the obvious evasion.
“Yeah, could be a good experience for a new Bedwetters song,” he says. “‘I Wear My Heart on My Sleeve and My Heartbreak on My Earlobes.’”
“I thought you weren’t heartbroken.”
“It’s called poetic license, Alex.”
And it’s not that she’s nosy exactly, it’s just that she can’t stop thinking about what Ren said to her that night on the island. That something broke between them. They haven’t talked about that either and it’s kind of been driving her nuts. She’s seen Ren through half a dozen breakups and he’s never been this dodgy before, so either there’s something about this breakup that’s different from all the others or there’s something about them that really has changed and she needs to know which.
“No, really, why’d you guys break up?” she asks. Ren sighs and drags himself out of her lap but doesn’t answer, chewing on his bottom lip. “C’mon, isn’t the silent treatment a little hypocritical from the guy who wants to hear everything?”
“Isn’t the Alex inquisition a little hypocritical from the girl who just lo-oves to remind me that I don’t have to hear everything?”
The rebuttal hangs in the air for a moment, and she’s not sure which of them is more startled by the edge in his voice.
“Okay,” she relents. It’s not easy, to tamp down on the part of her that wants to dig and needle and push until the he breaks and they finally have it out so things can go back to normal. Like, lancing a boil or something, but one filled with fraught interpersonal dynamics instead of gross pus. Thankfully, another, more logical part of her knows that respecting Ren’s newly erected but still valid boundaries is probably going to do more to preserve their relationship than pushing him into a confrontation he was clearly trying to avoid would. “So, what are we doing?”
“Uh, well, I’m sulking and playing video games, and you’re playing the role of tactful and sympathetic best friend to varying degrees of success.”
“No, I mean to get you over your breakup,” Alex clarifies, bumping his shoulder with hers. “I could call up some of the guys, get them to meet us at the pier tonight with few six packs?”
Ren grimaces, “I could probably do without another beach party for, uh, the rest of eternity.”
“Ah. Yeah,” Alex hums. “Good point.”
“Besides, it’s a Tuesday! Since when are you planning ragers on a school night?”
“Since when are you turning down ragers at all?”
“Good point,” he echoes.
Okay, time to try again.
“Then I’m calling Jonas,” she says, already slipping the phone out of her pocket. “He has the car tonight. I’ll get him to swing by and pick us up, and then the three of us will go to the burger joint and I’ll buy you the Gut Buster and you can flirt with that cute girl that works the register.”
Ren smiles again, but it’s kind of creepy because he’s still staring straight at the TV and his character is mowing down a row of cops. “You’ll wingman?”
“Yes,” Alex sighs, swiping through her contact list to find Jonas.
“And you won’t do that thing where you pretend we’re dating and ruin my chances?”
“Okay, that was one time and it was really funny. ”
“It was not funny,” he protests, but she can hear the laughter in his voice. It totally was funny, and they both know it. “Alright, though.”
“Great,” Alex grins, tapping the call button. Ren leans over a little until their shoulders are touching and Alex knows that whatever broke between them, if anything ever really did, is something they can mend.
She runs into Nona at school the next morning. Well, it’s not running into her so much as making eye contact from several feet away and exchanging awkward smiles. Nona’s shuffling down the hall by herself, looking distracted and Alex is hovering a respectable six feet from the boys bathroom -- it’s not weird, she’s waiting for Jonas. For a moment it looks like Nona might come over to greet her but she seems to change her mind and disappears around the corner. Alex isn’t sure if she’s more disappointed or relieved.
Mostly she’s just surprised to see Nona at all; it’s the last full week of school and she’s already skipped Monday and Tuesday. Alex half expected Nona to just take the rest of the year off.
But nope. An hour and a half later, Alex skids into Mr. Tuttle’s second period class just before the bell and finds Nona occupying the normally-vacant seat next to hers. Alex pops a curious eyebrow at her as she slips down the aisle to take her seat.
“Don’t you normally sit up there?” Alex asks, tilting her head toward the empty desk near the front of the class.
“Yeah,” Nona says and shrugs and well.
Tuttle takes roll, looks nearly as surprised as Alex had felt this morning by Nona’s attendance, and then urges them all to quiet down for the morning announcements. There’s a sharp burst of feedback and a bit of static when the school’s loudspeakers turn on and Alex can’t help it.
She jumps in her seat, the sudden scrape of the metal legs of her desk against the tile drawing attention from the rest of her class. She blinks and smiles sheepishly, faking a yawn to give herself an alibi and dropping her gaze to her desk to avoid Tuttle’s disapproving frown.
She tunes out the sound of the bored ASB kid reading the day’s bulletins, focusing on tapping out a steady rhythm with her heel to time her breathing against, hoping it can calm her racing heart. The sudden, soft pressure of a hand on her wrist breaks her focus.
Nona slides her fingers gently under Alex’s palm and breaks the grip she’d had on the side of the desk. Her fingertips ache, she realizes suddenly, and her palms are wet and cold with sweat. Nona catches her gaze, brown eyes intent and sympathetic. Alex feels herself start to blush, forces a shaky smile in response.
Nona doesn’t bother asking if she’s okay, just holds onto her hand for a moment longer than strictly necessary, before releasing her with a squeeze and a reassuring swipe of her thumb.
Alex drops her hands into her lap, drags her sweaty palms down the fabric of her jeans.
You’re alright, you’re alright, you’re alright, she tells herself.
It doesn’t quite feel like the truth yet, so she dips into her backpack and pulls out the journal. She’s feeling too wired to read through any of the entries, so she settles for flicking through the pages, tracing the grooves the the pen marks on the pages with the pads of her fingertips.
They don’t really talk in class, which is a little weird because then why did Nona sit next to her in the first place? Not that Alex doesn’t want to sit next to her, it’s just, well--
The timeline of their relationship is like this:
Freshman year, Nona moves to town and promptly becomes best friends with Clarissa, thus rocketing past Alex’s social stratosphere. Sophomore year, Nona’s best friend dates Alex’s brother, and somehow their only interaction is still limited to one awkward car ride to Michael’s homecoming game that Nona apparently couldn’t even remember. Junior year, they continue to Never Interact until the night they all go to Edwards Island. Oh, and then Nona begins dating and then promptly breaks up with Alex’s best friend. And then she sits next to Alex in class and they don’t talk.
But when Nona catches the sleeve of her jacket on the way out of class and cants her head toward the quad, Alex follows dutifully.
It’s warmer outside, but much quieter than the halls. Nona leads Alex to an alcove around the back of the building, and fishes a cigarette out from the band of her beanie.
“So, that’s why you’re wearing that in the middle of June,” Alex notes, impressed. “What else do you keep under there?"
Nona shrugs and smiles and lights the cigarette, collapsing back against the brick wall they’re standing by with a long sigh. She looks tired, Alex thinks.
“It’s full of secrets,” Nona breathes through a puff of smoke, smile going crooked when Alex laughs. “Do you want one?”
Alex shakes her head, nose wrinkling at the memory of bumming a smoke from Jonas on the pier a few nights ago. Just awful. “I’m good.”
There’s a fifteen minute break after second period, but they’ve already spent at least five out here continuing to not really talk. Alex is getting antsy.
“Are you--?” she starts and cuts herself off. She’s trying not to ask the others if they’re okay. It’s been like four days since the island, she knows they’re all varying degrees of not okay right now. But Nona’s looking at her now and Alex knows she has to say something, so, “Ren told me you guys broke up.”
Nona just keeps looking at her and Alex wants very badly to take a flying leap straight into the brick wall behind them because that would probably be less painful than her own awkwardness.
“Are you, uh, alright or… whatever?” she continues with a wince because she took them here she might as well see it through.
“Uh, I am,” Nona nods, looking down at her shoes and taking another drag of her cigarette. The fingers of her free hand fiddle with the hem of her shirt. “Is Ren…? How is Ren?”
Alex lets her eyes drift shut, lets herself fully visualize the flying leap into the wall, including the gross meat-impacting-pavement-with-terrifying-speed sound effect, pulled from the depths of her memory bank courtesy of Ren’s ill-thought-out mobile truck bed barbecue money making scheme from last summer.
“He’s, uh, y’know,” Alex waves her hand vaguely in the air, “alright.”
“Cool,” Nona says awkwardly, flicking her cigarette butt to the ground and dragging it under her heel. “Um, are you still coming over tonight?”
There’s a moment of panic because Alex has no clue what Nona’s talking about. Clearly they had made plans of some sort but she can’t remember. What timeline is this? What happened? Where is she, who’s here, who’s alive, what happened--
“Your birthday,” Alex blurts, remembering suddenly. She’s so relieved she could cry. “It’s your birthday, you’re having a party, happy birthday.”
“Alex,” Nona bites her lip, looking at her with… Alex isn’t sure; fear or pity or concern it doesn't matter because Alex doesn’t want any of that.
She brushes off the hand Nona lays on her shoulder in a way she hopes is casual and adjusts the strap of her backpack.
“I’ll be there, yeah,” Alex agrees, just to move the conversation along, to get Nona to stop looking at her like that. “What time?”
“Seven,” Nona says. “It’s a school night, so it probably won’t go on too late or anything.”
“Cool,” Alex says, kicking off from the wall. “Cool, yeah, I’ll definitely be there. Who else is coming? Clarissa…?”
Nona shakes her head, “She’s out of town, remember?”
It takes her a second, but she’s able to recall the group text Clarissa sent at fucking six in the morning to let everyone know she was going out of town with her sister until next week.
“Yeah,” Alex says, fishing her phone out of her pocket to double check anyway. She takes note of the time in the top right corner of her phone screen as she’s checking her texts. Shit. Class is about to start, she hasn’t swapped out her books yet. “Damn, my locker’s across campus, I need to go now so I’m not late.”
She is late, but it’s the end of the year and the teachers are about as over it as their students, so she gets off with an eyeroll and no detention.
It’s not until she sees Ren during lunch that she realizes her mistake.
See, Alex isn’t exactly sure what the etiquette is for going to your best friend’s ex’s birthday party the day after they break up.
“What?” Ren squawks. “Go. Yes.”
“Okay, okay,” Alex says. “Are you going?”
“God, no, that’d be weird.”
“But it’s not weird if I go?”
“I don’t have a problem with Nona!” Ren says, glaring down at the carton of milk in his lap that refuses to open. “I like Nona! I want you to hang out with Nona. Or, at least, I don’t want you to not hang out with her for me. It’s fine, Alex.”
That's that, then.
She reaches out and plucks the stubborn milk carton from his grasp, fully intending on opening it in half a second and making him look both silly and weak but the milk carton has other plans, apparently. What are these things made of anyway? Jesus Christ.
So, here’s the thing, and Alex isn’t sure how to put it delicately.
The party sucks.
It’s okay. It’s exceedingly okay. It’s overwhelming okayness is the only notable thing about it. There’s a respectable number of people here, more than Alex expected to see come out on a Wednesday night, and they’re all milling about apparently having a good time. There’s a cake in the kitchen the guests have already helped themselves to, a pile of presents stacked on the dining room table, a cooler half-full of beer, and some admittedly decent party jams. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
Conspicuously absent, however, is the birthday girl herself (or anyone else for Alex to talk to).
“Anyone seen Nona?” Alex asks and is summarily ignored. She drifts to a different part of the house, tries again, this time directing the question toward a girl she recognizes as someone who used to hang out with Michael. Kristy or something.
“Yeah, she’s right over…” Kristy (or something) trails off, glancing around the room. “Hey, where is Nona…?”
Sooooo helpful, Alex rolls her eyes and shrugs, heading toward the stairs. It’s bad form to invite herself to the second level of a home she’s never been in, but, well, she’s bored. She doesn’t really know anyone here, or at least doesn’t like any of them enough to want to spend time with. Part of her regrets asking Jonas to hang out with Ren tonight. They’d be able to entertain themselves if he was here. It would be nice if she wasn’t the only outsider.
“Nona?” she calls at the top of the stairs.
There are a few shut doors lining the hallway, but it’s hard to say what rooms they lead to. Alex has already checked the front and back yards, as well as the garage and all the rooms on the first floor, so Nona has to be here somewhere. She’s pretty sure she remembers Nona saying her parents wouldn’t be back until late tonight, but Alex is still nervous about getting caught creeping around the house with beer.
She glances over her shoulder at the party that she really doesn’t want to go back to and decides she’ll take the risk.
The first door she tries is locked, the second is a bathroom, the third is an honest to god sewing room, and the fourth is also locked but when she jiggles the handle she hears something inside get knocked over.
“Nona?” she asks, tapping the door with a bottle. “You in there?”
There’s a beat of silence and then, cautiously, “Alex…?”
“Yeah,” she confirms, but Nona’s already opening the door before she finishes speaking. “I come in peace.”
Nona’s gaze darts from Alex’s face to the bottles in her hands for a moment before she reaches out and tugs her into the room, shutting the door behind her and locking it again. She snatches a beer from Alex’s grip and retreats to her bed.
“Whoa, dark in here,” Alex notes, shutting her eyes to let them adjust to the low light faster.
“Yeah,” Nona says. “Sorry, is that weird?”
Well, a little, but--
“Nah,” Alex assures her. She takes a step further into the room and hesitates, not sure where to stand. Nona must notice, because she pats the space next to her on the mattress.
“Liar,” Nona accuses lightly. “It’s probably super weird. I’m probably super weird, but no one ever has the guts to tell me.”
“Okay. Maybe it's sort of super weird to hide in your bedroom in the dark while your birthday party is happening downstairs,” and the girl you invited wanders around alone like an awkward loser, Alex thinks but doesn’t say. “What’s up with that?”
“Yeah,” Nona laughs, and purses her lips like she’d just bit into something sour. “So, this party was basically a huge mistake and I’m just up here because I don’t know what else to do about it.”
“Oh,” Alex isn't sure what else to say, surprised by Nona’s candor.
“These people aren’t even my friends, really,” Nona blurts, the words tumbling out like they’re too hot to hold on her tongue. “They’re all Clarissa’s friends, y’know, we only really hang out by proximity. And I don't want them here right now, but…”
This is probably the sort of situation where Clarissa would step in and use her trademark pushiness for good. But she’s not here now and Nona looks genuinely overwhelmed and, hey, Alex can relate. The party’s not exactly her scene either.
“Want me to ask them to go?” Alex offers. The thought’s more than a little uncomfortable, going back downstairs to tell a room full of people she hardly knows to get out of a house that’s not hers, but Nona looks so relieved that she can’t bring herself to take it back.
“You’d do that?” She breathes, sucking her bottom lip into her mouth and biting down.
It takes Alex a beat too long to answer.
“Yeah,” she says, shaking her head to clear it. Okay. “Is it cool if I drink this first or…?”
“Oh,” Nona blinks, glancing down at the beer in her hand like she’d forgotten she was holding it. Which was actually pretty likely, Alex thinks, given how distracted she’s been all night. “Sure. Did you bring anything to open these with?”
Shit, she hadn’t. Alex sighs and draws herself up from the bed, ready to head downstairs to grab a bottle opener and kick everyone out of Nona’s house with totally and unfortunately sober. “No, I totally forgot.”
“It’s cool,” Nona says, grabbing the lighter off her nightstand and wedging it under the lip of the bottle cap. She pulls down and the cap goes flying, bouncing off the ceiling with a metallic pop and landing somewhere on the carpet.
“Cool trick,” Alex says, watching as Nona repeats the process with the second beer.
“Thanks,” Nona ducks her head and Alex could swear she saw a blush. “I’m, uh, glad you came, Alex.”
“Yeah?” Alex smiles into the bottle, washing the compliment down with a mouthful of beer. “Me too.”
Getting everyone out of the house is easier than she thought it would be. First she says that Nona’s sick upstairs which sort of half-works to get people to leave but when she follows up with Nona’s parents coming home early to check on her everyone just disappears.
Alex lingers downstairs after they go, tidying up the place. Nona was pretty stressed out earlier, she shouldn’t have to worry about clean up tonight. Besides, the party was pretty tame, so there’s not too much work to be done, and Alex appreciates the distraction anyway. She sets aside two slices of cake before she puts the leftovers in the fridge and then heads back up to Nona’s room.
It’s empty, which is a little alarming, but then Alex smells the smoke drifting in through the open window which is a lot alarming.
“Nona?” she calls, hating the tremble in her voice.
“Out here,” Nona says. A beat later her head pops in through the window. “Come out here with me. Is that cake?”
Alex passes the cake to Nona through the window before cautiously hauling herself out onto the roof. The incline is very slight, she doesn’t really feel at all in danger of sliding off and it’s not actually that high up, but it’s still a little nerve-wracking to climb around on top of someone’s house.
“Is everyone gone?” Nona asks around a mouthful of cake.
“Yeah,” Alex nods. “I told them you were sick and your folks were on their way home.”
“I can head home too, when we’re done here,” Alex says, carefully lining up a bite with the perfect icing-to-cake ratio. “If you want.”
Nona frowns, and Alex feels bad because no one should ever look sad while they’re eating cake. “You don’t have to. I mean, you can, but…”
Do you want me to stay? Alex almost asks, because for some reason she really wants to hear Nona say it. The answer is plain enough, it’s the sort of pleading look on Nona’s face, it’s the shake in her voice, it’s the anxious tap of her foot against the roof.
It’s not that Alex is itching to leave or anything. She likes Nona. And, okay, it shouldn’t be this hard to believe but it seems like Nona likes her too. She can only imagine what kind of awful things Nona must have heard about her from Clarissa all this time, but well, here they are on a roof together anyway, sharing birthday cake.
A night (or a dizzying, horrifyingly incalculable number of nights?) of surreal, traumatizing terror might be a weird way to start a friendship, but Alex is ready to stop looking a gift horse in the mouth.
“So… the stars are nice?” She’s not sure why she says it as a question, but thankfully Nona just nods and takes another bite of cake.
“I always like to come out here and look at them, but I don’t know any of the constellations or anything,” Nona says. “I thought it would be cool to teach myself, but I never get around to it…”
“I only know, like, the Big Dipper,” Alex admits. “And Orion’s Belt. But just his belt, I don’t even know where the rest of Orion is. Or if he has other clothes.”
“Orion’s shoes?” Nona offers.
“Orion’s stylish cravat.”
They go on for a while, pointing out random stars and naming them until Nona finally wins with “Orion’s pasties.”
Ren calls when they’re in the middle of a conversation. Alex doesn’t want to climb back into the house for privacy, so she takes the call right there next to Nona despite the awkwardness. It’s not so bad, really. Brief. It makes Alex realize how late it is; already a quarter past ten, and she only planned on staying until nine.
She lets him go after assuring him that she’ll send him a text when she makes it home and turns to find Nona playing with her lighter.
“Everything okay?” Nona asks, a strain in her voice that Alex hasn’t heard since dismissing the other partygoers an hour and a half ago. “Do you need to leave?”
“Yeah,” Alex says. “And no. In that order.”
Add ‘Nona tilts her head like an adorable puppy when she’s confused’ to the list of things that Alex has learned tonight.
“Everything’s fine and I don’t have to go,” Alex clarifies.
“Good,” Nona smiles. ‘Nona has a really pretty smile’ was added to the list earlier in the night, but Alex goes back and mentally underlines it a few times because jeez. “You, um, kind of saved me tonight, Alex. Have I mentioned that I’m really glad you came?”
“Maybe, yeah,” Alex grins, bumping Nona playfully with her shoulder. “But I don’t mind hearing it again.”
“I’m really glad you came,” Nona repeats with a breathy little laugh. “I really thought you wouldn’t, actually.”
“You know, the whole… Ren thing….”
“Oh,” Alex frowns, biting her lip. Is this a good time to ask? Should she ask? Okay, she probably shouldn’t, but Ren didn’t tell her not to, he just made it clear he wouldn’t be the one to explain why they ended things. “What’s… up with that, anyway?”
“Up with what?” Nona asks, dropping Alex’s gaze to pick at a hole at the bottom of her sweater.
Alex hesitates, regretting the question. She shouldn’t have asked, it wasn’t her business, and now she made everything weird. “Nevermind, it’s stupid--”
“No,” Nona sighs. “Just ask what you want to ask.”
“Why did you and Ren break up?”
Nona blinks, “You mean Ren didn't tell you?”
“He wouldn’t say,” Alex says. “And, I mean, if it’s, like, embarrassing or an invasion of his privacy or whatever, I don’t want you to tell me. I’m just nosy, I know it’s none of my business but--”
“No, it’s, I mean, it’s fine,” Nona says slowly. “You guys are so close, I figured if he told anyone, it’d be you, so…”
“Well, not this time,” Alex says, hoping that the so-slight-as-to-almost-be-nonexistent bitterness she still felt about the whole thing wasn’t audible in her voice.
“I’m not sure,” Nona starts, and there’s a catch in her voice that startles Alex into paying full attention, “that I like boys.”
“Oh,” Alex says.
“I like Ren,” Nona rushes to say. “Like, a lot. But I don’t know if I like him like that and it’s not fair, y’know, to waste his time when I’m not sure.”
“So, do you like girls?” Alex asks before she can stop herself.
“I don’t know!” Nona laments, smoothing her palms over her thighs. “What was it like for you?”
“Uh,” Alex swallows hard, heartbeat kicking up. “What do you mean?”
“Like, when you realized you were bi,” Nona says, then winces. “I’m sorry, is that a dumb question?”
It’s not that Alex is in the closet or anything, she’s just never formally come out. It’s not because she’s ashamed or unsure or hiding, but when Michael came out as bi in his Junior Year it had been a big deal. She had been a freshman at the time, just foggily starting to work out her own sexuality. It’s not that it went badly for Michael or anything. Camena was pretty liberal, he was already incredibly well-liked. The only thing that had worried them at the time was the reaction from the rest of the football team; but those were guys that he grew up with and their main problem had been that his first boyfriend was on their rival high school’s basketball team.
And maybe it was stupid to feel this way, but she’d always been nervous to officially ‘come out’ because she was afraid it would look like she was just copying Michael. That people wouldn’t take her seriously, or worse, they’d think it was some pathetic attempt to emulate him.
“I didn’t know that you knew,” Alex admits, going for honesty because she’s a little too caught off guard for a smooth half-lie.
“I’m sorry,” Nona’s hand flies to her mouth. “Was it a secret?”
“No, no,” Alex assures her and thinks, briefly, about explaining. But that’s a lot and Nona’s dealing with enough right now without Alex bringing her issues into the conversation. “I guess I just started getting crushes on girls. It was hard to tell exactly what I was feeling though because, like, my parents were cool or whatever but growing up I didn’t even know it was possible for girls to like girls and…”
“Yeah,” Nona sighs, looking forlorn. “So, was that it? You just… weren’t sure and then one day you were and…?”
“Okay,” Alex breathes, shifting to face Nona. Her heart rate picks up a little, because this is something that she’s only ever really shared with Ren, but, “There was one other thing. I’m not, like, recommending this or anything but if we’re talking about what it was like for me…”
Nona perks and and turns toward her, so that their knees are nearly brushing. Alex fights back a blush. “Yeah?”
“I made out with Becca Mason at her Halloween party last year,” Alex breathes out in a rush. “And, uh, I liked it. And that’s how I knew for sure.”
“Maybe I need to try that,” Nona laughs a little before the corners of her mouth slide down. “I kissed Ren and it was okay, but… I don’t know. I wish I had something to compare it to. Like, that’s the problem, I don’t know how anything is supposed to feel, you know?”
Alex nods sympathetically, “Well, Becca graduated last year, but we could probably track her down. I think she got into Dartmouth, but we could make a road trip out of it, y’know? Teen movie style. I already have ideas for the soundtrack.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant,” Nona smiles sheepishly. “Um, I’m gonna ask you something really stupid, and if you hate it, I’m sorry, it’s just because I’m kind of drunk, okay?”
“Could you kiss me?” Nona asks and then buries her face in her hands and Alex has the presence of mind to think God, that’s cute before the reality of the situation slams into her.
“Uh,” Alex says, eloquently.
“I’m sorry,” Nona groans, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, nevermind, that was dumb.”
“No, it’s fine,” Alex’s voice breaks embarrassingly on the words and she wants to scream. “It’s just… you just broke up with my best friend, and…”
“I know,” Nona flops back on the roof, staring up at the sky. “Just forget it.”
She’s tempted to. She knows she should, it would probably make things a lot simpler. Ren says he’s fine with them hanging out, but Alex isn’t so sure if he’d be fine with them making out.
But, before Alex even knew about his crush, she’d spent the majority of the school year staring at the back of Nona’s head in class and maybe, maybe she’d developed a teensy-weensy crush of her own. Like, a little one. So small.
And she’s seventeen, and it’s a warm summer night, and she’s star-gazing with a really cute girl that apparently wants to kiss her.
Alex reaches out, tentatively, and covers Nona’s hand with her own.
“You’re, uh, not actually drunk, right?” she asks.
Nona catches her gaze and the moment hangs heavy between them before she sits up, answering, “No.”
“Okay,” Alex licks her lips. “Okay, good, otherwise this would be really sketchy. C’mon, lean in.”
Nona does, and then Alex does, and then they’re kissing.
It’s kind of the most formal circumstance Alex has ever kissed anyone under and she’s a bit nervous, especially with the knowledge that Nona’s kissing her specifically to compare her to other people lingering in the back of her mind. She pushes the thought down and leans a little further into the kiss because this is a public good she’s doing, basically, helping a confused girl figure things out. She owes Nona the best kiss she could possibly give. It’s her duty as a good samaritan.
It’s easy to get lost a little once she stops thinking so hard. Nona’s lips are soft, and the way she tilts her head up to meet Alex’s mouth is kind of, wow, kind of great.
Alex pulls back after what feels like an appropriate amount of time, lets herself take a breath and is surprised when Nona gasps into the space between them and chases Alex’s mouth until their lips reconnect.
“Okay,” Alex laughs into her mouth, and kicks herself because why talking. Mercifully, Nona ignores her, grabbing a fistful of Alex’s jacket and pulling her closer instead of replying. Alex kisses back and lets her lips fall open because why not and Nona takes the cue, tongue darting out into Alex’s mouth. She tastes like cigarettes and vanilla frosting and just a little like the beer they’d shared earlier. It should be a terrible combination, but Alex finds that she likes it, brings a hand to cup Nona’s jaw and lick her way further into Nona’s mouth for more.
They spring apart at sound of a car pulling into the driveway at the front of the house. Nona’s parents. Alex is pleased to find Nona looking as dazed as she feels, at least. Her bottom lip juts out invitingly and Alex wants to lean back in, to tug it between her teeth and soothe it with her tongue.
She hears the slam of a car door and decides against it.
“Did you get rid of all the beer?” Nona asks.
Alex nods, “Yeah, I took care of it. All that’s left downstairs is your gifts.”
“I guess I should open those,” Nona says absently, brushing the pad of her thumb over her lips and man it’s hard not to kiss her again.
“Yeah,” Alex agrees. “We should go back inside?”
They do. Nona’s parents greet her warmly, despite never having met her before, and offer to let her stay the night. Alex can feel the weight of Nona’s gaze on the back of her neck, though, and that feels like a bad, bad idea so she declines politely.
Nona drives her home. It’s a short ride, quiet and full of tension. It’s not uncomfortable though, kind of exciting. Whatever it was they started on the roof tonight, it’s not over yet, and Alex is eager to see it through.
Nona pulls into her street and brings the car to a stop at the curb a few houses down from her place. They twist in their seats to face each other.
“So,” Alex starts off, nervous and then laughs at herself. “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks,” Nona smiles, smile pretty and blue in the glow of the dashboard lights. “Thanks for earlier.”
Alex isn’t sure which part of the evening she’s talking about, but she decides to take a chance. “Did it help?”
“A little,” Nona’s smile turns sheepish and she ducks her head, lock of black hair falling in front of her face.
“A little?” Alex echoes, mock offended. Then, boldly, she reaches out and tucks the strand of hair behind Nona’s ear.
“Yeah. I might need to try it a few more times, y’know, to be totally sure.”
“Like, uh, right now?” Alex asks, already leaning in. Reckless, they’re right in front of her house, but how can she do anything else when Nona’s voice is that soft and her eyes are that intense?
Nona nods and closes the distance between them.