Emily thinks about prescribed periods of grief, often; thinks about whether she’s crying enough, whether she’s taking it slow enough, whether she’s isolating herself long enough – as if heartbreaks are, in any case, viral or airborne or infectious.
The fact is, it’s the only thing in her head, in the first few weeks in such an alien place; an odd thing entirely, considering how it turns out to be the only thing that keeps Emily going at the time, this impossible ache right in the middle of her chest that she just has to keep running away from in the morning, only to come back to at night.
It’s just that she can’t help it, really; Naomi is everywhere even when she’s miles away. In one class, a professor says something objectionable, and it is Naomi’s raised brow that immediately comes to mind; in another, a familiar passage in a poem is enough to make Emily want to excuse herself, just so she can spend a few minutes waiting for her eyes to clear in the privacy of a closed cubicle. Plus it doesn’t really help either, that there are at least eight blondes in a couple of her classes, and by the time Emily gets to the end of her last class for the day, she is unbelievably tired.
Often Emily finds herself wishing Katie is there; she’s just not used to this, being alone, and most times she finds herself unable to define herself as just this single entity, when all her life she’s been a standard appendage to someone else.
So she walks around half, the first few weeks, barely making contact with anyone, save for the occasional necessary small talk and slight laughter with a few acquaintances. Twice she is approached by a couple of guys, ostensibly to flirt, and she turns them away with a wan smile and a slight shake of the head. Much to her surprise, in a bit there’s also a girl, but even then the interaction is too painful to carry on and in a while Emily excuses herself and blames the work left to do, though truth be told, there actually is none.
Instead, she sits down and writes Naomi an e-mail; tries not to sound too desperate or unable to cope with the distance while at it. She spends the first half hour of it trying to choose carefully her words, but all the while she is stuck with the beginning: “I miss you.”
When Emily puts up a calendar above her desk, she is quick to locate the date of that fateful trip to the lake; she uses a black marker to write Naomi’s name in the box underneath it, beside which she scribbles a smaller, hollow heart. Suddenly overtaken by an idea, she scrambles for a piece of paper and prepares a list of things: a fragment of poetry written behind a post card of something irrevocably cute (Perhaps a panda with its tongue sticking out. Or hot air balloons. Or something); a photo of the two of them that Emily brought with her; a pack of chocolates for good measure, just because. When she gets all of these together, she seals it and signs it with her name on the flap with green glittery pen, before shipping it to Bristol altogether, a couple of days prior to D-Day.
Via email, Emily sends a warning, “There’s something coming your way, Nae,” she says.
A few days later, there’s an email from Naomi with two attachments: a photo of her holding up the bag of chocolates in one hand and their picture in the other; and a short audio file of her reading the short passage written behind the postcard, which turns out to be one of a panda’s. (And when I touch you in each of the places we meet, in all of the lives we are, it's with hands that are dying and resurrected. When I don't touch you it's a mistake in any life, in each place and forever.)
Later, when she looks back on this gesture, Emily will think to herself: If only she knew this was going to be the last one, she would have sent something bigger.
At the time, the body of Naomi’s message itself says little else, other than, Get the fuck back here already, so I can thank you properly. She signs it with the letter N, and a smiley, and there’s really little Emily can do to keep from grinning herself.
Sometimes, Emily likes to think maybe Naomi did not break up with her altogether. But then, in moments like this, all she has to do is unfold Naomi’s note and read it again, because when she gets to the end of it – even with all that ambiguity – she still feels all too heartbroken, just the same.
She stops the habit of re-reading the note the moment she is flooded with other things to read – like course work, for instance, which by the second month start pouring in from all sides like mad, it’s almost daunting. At some point, she begins thinking, If Naomi were here. Because really, in such event, this will be easier as the half of it will be as good as done and perhaps they can move on sooner to other things, like making out in Emily’s dorm room, and then –
Emily does not even want to recognize it, but somewhere inside her, it is there, the anger – she had it all planned, Emily thinks, down to every excuse they will use with the dorm managers, should they ever be in separate rooms, and all of it, these plans for two, all but shelved, because Naomi isn’t here and is, instead, somewhere else.
That night, Emily sleeps huddled closely to the wall and pulls a pillow down beside her; suddenly, the bed is too big and inside her, there is this anger threatening to spill.
Emily forgets much about it though, by the time the “real stuff” start happening (as her mum is wont to say: This is the “real world”, as if Bristol weren’t real at all) and suddenly Emily finds her hands full, not only with course work, but somehow, with friends – something the amount of group coordination required somehow facilitated, and really, smart girls like Emily don’t normally run out of people who want to work with her.
She warns Naomi about it as if she even has to – as if this is the sort of long distance relationship that actually merits such reportage. That time, she barely gets to the end of Naomi’s message – apparently she’s in the middle of her application to some political organization on campus and people discuss things like Das Kapital fluently, their drunken states notwithstanding – and Emily doesn’t even remember what she actually sends off as a reply.
When she checks her Sent folder the following day, she finds her message is short; turns out she’d said something about Naomi looking like she’s having the time of her life, and though Emily means it to be really complimentary, somehow, that time, the anger manages to seep through it, unguarded.
Soon, Emily constantly finds herself in a state of perpetual lack of time – to read everything she has to, write everything she needs to; to think of Naomi as much as she wants to, though really, the exercise is absolutely detrimental to her efforts at academics altogether, that somewhere along the way she tells herself to stop. One time, she even hears herself say, “Focus,” loud enough to turn heads in the library over to the direction of her table, where she is sitting by herself, and that time it hits Emily rather hard, how she feels so incredibly alone.
Several times she finds herself staring at an e-mail to Naomi that stays unwritten for the next fifteen minutes, and Emily thinks, Is this how it’s supposed to end, with this wordlessness, with this utter lack of anything to say, with this difficulty in remembering how it is to feel just so madly in love with Naomi, in a manner that is separate from all this heartbreak, and anger, and exhaustion, and.
In each of those times, Emily just finds herself closing the window altogether; more than anything, she is afraid, and the grip this fright has on her just leaves her with nothing to say.
Sometimes, Emily manages to send a brief message, tries to stay online to wait for the reply, but then, at the time, Naomi must be out somewhere, drunk or high or dancing; there’s usually no response until late the following day, and Naomi’s telling Emily of a hangover.
Emily misses this hard – getting fucked up in Bristol in general, and with Naomi, in particular. It’s not even that there are no new people to get fucked up with – as a matter of fact, she has found herself a relatively nice circle of people to pass the hours between class with, and at times, Emily finds herself marveling at how more functional they actually are, most times, and quite frankly, Emily likes it for a change, that people can be fun AND sober at the same time.
Still, it does not make Emily miss Naomi less; not even when time actually comes that there’s a new girl around. Certainly, Lily’s attractive and interesting, and she’s making Emily feel things, but really, when it comes down to it, Emily knows it’s mostly Naomi she’s seeing in her.
Of course, Emily knows it’s unfair, but it’s so hard to not be around her when she’s always there.
Some days, when Lily gets unbearably pretty, Emily considers falling in love. Surely it can’t be that difficult, she tells herself; some days, when Emily looks extra carefully, she sees more than just Naomi in there, something resembling a new person altogether, and the way the feeling catches her off-guard makes her look away and breathe in sharply at this sensation of something gripping her heart, too familiar to be comfortable.
“So what’s her name?” Lily asks finally, one day; they’re sitting on one of the benches waiting for their next class to begin when she springs the question upon Emily, who looks up from her book with a raised brow, for a moment distracted. “I mean, the girl.”
“What girl?” asks Emily, shifting her eyes back to the page, pretending to read, as if she’s not stuck as it is, re-reading the same passage over and over. As if the question is something ordinary and not severely premeditated altogether.
“The girl you’re still holding out for?” Lily looks away as she gets that out, lighting a fag. “Certainly she must be something.”
Emily breathes in, nods and says, “Yeah.” She closes the book and puts it to the side, brushes her hand against Lily’s bare knee when she motions for the cigarette pack.
“What,” Lily says, pressing the pack into Emily’s hand, “That’s all you have to say about her?”
Emily fixes her eyes on Lily’s fingers, at the thing between their hands, and then, realizing how she’s actually staring, Emily pulls her hand abruptly to herself. “Her name’s Naomi,” she says, as casually as she can muster after that brief breakdown. Emily lights up a fag before adding, “I really have nothing much to say about her, honest.”
“Right,” Lily just says, sounding entirely unconvinced, and for a while they turn to their respective fags and smoke in silence, looking the other way.
Lily walks Emily back to her room that afternoon after class, the entire time quiet. Emily tries to think about what else she must have told her, other than the fact that there is a girl back in Bristol, which, at the time, is only supposed to dispel rumors that the only reason she’s not going out with the blokes in her class is that she’s somehow engaged or something similarly serious.
At the door, Lily just says, “She’s lucky, you know. Not too many girls like you just wandering around, faithful and all.”
Emily bites her lip at that. “Obviously,” she begins, “That’s not really the entire story as it is, but well, some things best left unsaid, yeah?”
Lily tilts her head and looks at her, adjusting her bag on her shoulder in the process. “Perhaps,” she just says. “But well, if you want to, you know, talk? You know where to find me.”
Leaning against the door, Emily watches as Lily walks away; waits as Lily’s figure disappears as she turns at the far corner. Emily considers the offer briefly, mulling the thought over with a lit fag in hand, the whole prospect of coming clean and starting over thereafter too attractive and too frightening at the same time.
They bring Naomi up every now and then, in casual conversation between classes, but there’s never anything heavy, like how Emily’s finding it difficult these days to come up with a simple e-mail, or how Emily still cries when she re-reads Naomi’s note. She’s unbelievably stuck, Emily thinks, and sometimes it does strike her as kind of pathetic, the way she is still in love with her even when it’s pointless.
And all this while, Lily’s just listening like it’s the most interesting thing to waste a good cigarette pack over; as if she hasn’t heard of everything at some point before. Sometimes, when Emily looks at her every now and then, Lily’s eyes come off as the exact same shade of blue Naomi has that Emily has to shake her head to get the thought out of her head.
At some point halfway through their second pack in an hour, Emily says, “I don’t think I can smoke anymore, I feel I’m gonna toss, or something.”
Lily looks at her with half a smirk, then hands her a bottle of water from her bag. Emily thanks her quietly, and Lily scoots over closer to stroke her nape, and it gets comfortable for a while, until it becomes a bit too familiar that Emily chokes a little on her drink.
“You all right?” asks Lily, for a moment stilling her hand, and Emily nods mutely, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand before capping the bottle and standing up, moving away.
Emily braces a hand against the wall as she catches her breath, justifies the way her heart’s racing as simply too much nicotine. “I’m fine.” And then, “I can’t breathe.”
“There, there,” Lily’s saying, now standing beside her, a hand on Emily’s back. “We’ve had a bit too much to smoke, yeah?” Emily follows her eyes as she looks over to the space they left and how it is littered with cigarette butts.
“Wow, I’m getting old,” Emily says, offering a weak laugh. “I mean, what is this concept of too much?”
Lily laughs a little in kind, says, “And it’s not even 4 yet -- you’re losing your touch Fitch, fucked up this early.”
“Give me five minutes,” Emily says, pouting a little. And then, her face softening, “Hey, um. Thanks, yeah?” she says, a bit serious.
Lily furrows her brows a little. “What?”
“For putting up with me, I meant. I reckon I’m not the most fun to be around when we’re talking about, um--”
“Nah, don’t mention it,” Lily says. “I mean, I bring her up, don’t I?”
“And then I talk about the same things over and over, it must be infuriating.”
Lily smiles at that, in a way that makes Emily look away. She’s standing so close that Emily feels like she’s pinned against a row of lockers (she closes her eyes momentarily at that; how does she do this, Naomi, be fucking everywhere all the time?). “I’ve always meant to ask about that,” Lily’s saying, and Emily forces her eyes open, finds Lily looking at her curiously.
“Why you’re talking about the same things over and over.”
Emily almost says, Because there’s really nothing else left to talk about, but then she bites her tongue, says, “Because it’s the easy thing to do,” instead.
“Is it?” Lily asks, and for a split-second Emily swears she sees something spark and darken in Lily’s eyes, and Emily almost braces herself as if she is about to be kissed. But then, the moment is brief; it passes quickly, and then Lily’s blinking, and saying, “Sorry,” and moving away.
It’s all so quick that it leaves Emily, at best, flustered. “Lily, I—”
By the time it’s out, Lily’s already picking up her bag. “We have to go,” she’s just saying, and Emily’s still wondering what she’s actually apologizing for, as she picks her bag up in kind and follows.
In the nights thereafter, Emily finds herself with too much to say and no one to tell; how she manages to keep on backing herself into these wordless corners remains mostly a mystery to Emily, and after a while, it does get frustrating and Emily’s doing her best not to shove herself against a wall, head first, or, god forbid, something else not so comical altogether.
Some nights, Emily thinks about how Naomi’s the only other person who is likely to understand everything, though for the most part, she realizes that perhaps it’s because it’s all an exercise in déjà vu. Certainly, Emily can’t find it in herself, to hurt Naomi like that, her note about changes notwithstanding; though with every day she spends sitting beside Lily in class, Emily is inclined more and more to read it differently.
The first time it happens, it’s in a birthday party, and Emily’s unbelievably sober. She brushes against Lily in a narrow hallway leading to the bathroom and before Emily can stop herself, she’s already wrapping a hand around Lily’s wrist and pulling her close, and really, it’s the most proactive Emily has ever been around her, granted her state.
At parting, Lily just says, smiling slightly, “Fucked up already, are you, Fitch?” The way the corner of her lips curl up a little just so makes Emily lick her own lips, and she tastes the cherry hint of Lily’s lip gloss that’s still there.
“You’ll be surprised,” Emily just says, falling against the wall behind her, eyes shifting between Lily’s eyes and mouth, and all things taken into consideration, Emily thinks that this is actually easier than first expected, granted that Lily’s not really walking away, or at least, not yet.
The moment ends when a round of loud laughter interrupts it; just like that, the spell is broken and they’re laughing along and moving.
Later, when they’re each holding a drink – Emily her vodka, Lily her beer – Lily leans in and asks about the kiss, finally, after skirting around the issue with all that heavy eye-flirting and arm-touching. “So,” she’s saying, trying her best to not slur. “This thing a while ago.”
This thing a while ago. Emily takes a sip before saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” but then, off Lily’s laugh, still lovely despite the alcohol, Emily follows it up with, “No, of course I know what the fuck you’re on about,” shaking her head and laughing along. “Not gonna lie about that, not this time.”
Lily quirks a brow at the last segment, intrigued. “Not this time?”
“The first time I snogged a girl,” Emily begins, leaning even closer. “I told everyone I was on MDMA.”
“And you weren’t?” Lily asks, and then, “This is Naomi, isn’t it?”
“Well, not exactly – I mean, the MDMA,” says Emily, gesturing absently with a hand, “but then, you know how it is. Sometimes, you have to take the easy way out, and I did.” When Lily looks away, Emily feels her heart plummet, a little. She reaches over to tug at the hem of Lily’s blouse lightly. “It was very clear, this thing a while ago. Just so you know.”
Lily finishes her beer before setting the bottle down on a nearby table. “Not under the influence this time around, are we.”
“If that makes all the difference it should,” Emily just says. “I want to do it right, this time; been waiting for a do-over all this while, really.”
Lily bites down on her lip at that. “Emily,” she begins, soft as if completely sober, “It’s not that I – how do I say this exactly?” Emily forces herself to study the look on Lily’s face, even as inside her chest, her heart begins a steady, painful throb that extends further down into her stomach. “It’s not that I don’t feel anything. To be honest, I’ve felt nothing quite like it actually, as far as I’m concerned, but…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Lils,” Emily just says, downing the rest of her vodka. “Just – please.”
Lily breathes in. “It’s not that I don’t like you, okay? God, I’m actually saying this, aren’t I,” she pauses a little, if only to laugh lightly, nervous. “But I’m just saying – I feel like I’m going to get my heart broken, yeah? And you’re in a very good place to do that, so let’s just...”
“This the part where we say let’s be friends?” Emily interrupts, her voice hoarse; she flinches despite herself at how familiar this is becoming, stops herself actively from appending, Because we say that, don’t we?
“I was gonna say, I want to do this right, too, this time, but if you want to put it that way, then…” Lily looks away as the sentence trails off, and Emily moves to touch Lily’s hand lightly, a last ditch effort to keep the night from spiraling into something unpleasant altogether.
Emily clears her throat. “Okay then,” she says, squeezing Lily’s fingers slightly, and Lily smiles, a little.
“You’ve got to figure it out, Em,” Lily just says.
Emily closes her eyes at how comfortable and familiar her name comes off Lily’s tongue; again, she’s remembering Naomi, and Emily can’t help but wonder just where and how to begin trying.
Emily likes to think that she’s figured it out by the time it happens again; this time, they’re in Lily’s room and it’s the Saturday before Christmas break. Emily comes over with gifts and a bottle of vodka and Lily answers the door obviously only half-awake and Emily tries her best not to kiss her just then.
“I can’t believe you’re even up already,” Lily says, rubbing her eyes slightly. “I mean, weren’t you here, like, six hours ago?”
Emily pouts at the gesture and reaches over with a free hand. “Don’t rub your eyes,” she says, affectionately gripping Lily’s arm. And then, “Yeah, but it’s almost noon, Christ - of course I’m up.”
“It is?” Lily squints a little, looking out briefly and shielding her eyes instead of rubbing. “Well, come on in,” she’s saying, grinning at the things in Emily has with her, finally noticing. “Drunkard,” she adds, touching the bottle Emily’s cradling. “I mean, haven’t you had more than enough alcohol last night?”
“God, I don’t even know,” Emily says, stepping in and rolling her eyes. “This party week sure is long; I think I’ll practically sleep through the holidays with a hangover.”
The moment Lily closes the door, it strikes Emily just then, how she’s never been in Lily’s room before, all these months of hanging out notwithstanding. Emily looks around and tries very little to hide it – the way her eyes are studying the corners, the pictures on Lily’s dresser, the sheets; the way she’s unmistakably breathing in, this place that distinctly smells like the heady mix of Lily’s skin, cherry, vanilla and nicotine.
“Had you called or something, like, 15 minutes ahead,” Lily’s saying, settling by a chair near the wall. “I would have had a little time to clean up, you know.”
That snaps Emily out of her somewhat touristy trance. “Sorry,” she says, blushing as she looks down. “I mean, it’s just that… Your room’s nice, you know?”
“You mean, you’re not currently getting strange urges to clean, or something?” asks Lily, and when Emily looks over, she sees how Lily is now fully awake, or at least, awake enough to manage sarcasm.
“What?” asks Emily, laughing as she sets down the bottle of vodka on one of the nearby tables, beside the ashtray. “No, of course not,” she says, and then, “I actually envy that you can smoke here.”
Lily moves to settle beside Emily before taking a pack of fags right out of a drawer. “Not technically,” she says, sliding a stick out and offering another to Emily. “But it’s not like anyone gives a shit around here, anyway.”
“Right,” Emily just says, taking the stick and lighting up in kind. The room is dim, save for the sunlight coming through Lily’s heavy curtains, and in the little light, Emily could see how the smoke comes out of Lily’s lips in thin, curly wisps. When Lily catches Emily looking, Lily throws her head back, pouts a little and exhales the smoke in tiny rings.
“Show off,” Emily says, smirking lightly and touching Lily’s arm.
It all blurs from there, despite the lack of alcohol; or perhaps, it’s all the other nights finally taking their toll, because right then, Lily just moves over and kisses her, one hand on Emily’s cheek, the other expertly crushing her fag into the ashtray to the side.
When they come up for air, Emily opens her eyes for a moment, if only to stub out her cigarette herself. “Whatever happened to ‘figure it out, Em’?”
Lily just rests her forehead against Emily’s. “Won’t you have the entire holidays to do that?”
They kiss again after, with Emily leaning in first this time. Inside, she knows this is not the best way to do this, but then again, Lily’s so close, and her lips taste faintly like cherries and cigarettes and all of it’s just making it so damn hard to not just give in.
Later, Lily says, “I think you should cut your hair.” They’re in her bed and Lily’s running her fingers through Emily’s hair in a way that makes Emily’s eyes flutter close. The telly’s on, and judging by how the light is now subdued tells Emily that it may be well into the afternoon, if not late altogether. “When’s your flight?”
Emily’s jolted by the question entirely that she pushes herself off Lily for a moment to sit. Fixing her stare at the unopened bottle of vodka on the table, Emily just says, “Wednesday.”
“So,” Lily clears her throat, “How about it? A haircut on Monday? Perhaps a different color as well?”
Emily bites her lip, tries not to say, I don’t think Naomi would like that; tries very hard not to get visibly upset at how, after all this time, Naomi still manages to weave through everything. “Maybe in Bristol,” she says instead, and that is the last time they speak of it.
Lily doesn’t see her to the airport; the fact is, no one does, and Emily is okay with that.