A LITTLE OVER THREE YEARS LATER
The town of Norwalk, Iowa is objectively a bland and unpleasant place. Every time Dani comes back here she’s reminded anew of all the reasons she’s ever disliked it. According to Jamie, it’s devoid of any defining features, and looks the same as all the other suburban towns they’d passed on the highway, driving in from the airport in their rented Honda Civic. The land is flat, the roads wide, each street corner dotted with a McDonald’s or a gas station, and the city itself just makes Dani feel uneasy, like it can tell from her very presence that she doesn’t belong here.
“Nervous?” Jamie says from the passenger seat, covering Dani’s hand on the gearshift with her own.
“You’re not?” Dani says. She’s been chewing on her bottom lip, ripping off skin with her teeth, for the entire drive from her mother’s house (where her mom had insisted, however halfheartedly, they stay) to the wedding venue.
They’d received the invitations just about four months ago. Dani had brought in the mail after work, sorted through it while Jamie went out to get dinner for them. Ads, electric bill, ads, bank statement, and then at the bottom of the stack, something heavy. It was addressed by hand, fancy calligraphy in black ink, to Danielle Clayton & Jamie Taylor. She tore it open. Inside was a wedding invitation, gilded letters set into thick cream-colored cardstock, declaring the union of one Edmund O’Mara and someone named Elizabeth Larsen, whom Dani had never heard of in her life.
Over dinner — Indian, Dani’s favorite, from a place on the corner by their apartment — they discussed it.
“Why would he invite you?” Jamie said, spooning lentils over a plate of rice.
It wasn’t like Dani and Eddie were on particularly sour terms — they didn’t talk much, just seemed to have settled into an amiable awkwardness — but Dani had assumed that that would be the extent of their acquaintance, going forward. She didn’t really miss him. She’d gone back to the O’Mara house for coffee with Judy once while she was still in America, after the breakup, and had exchanged some tense niceties with him, but that was it.
“I don’t know,” Dani said. “I wonder if it was his mom’s idea. Or...maybe he thinks it’d be weird not to invite me, and he’s just hoping I won’t actually come.”
“Or,” Jamie said, “maybe he misses you. Wants to reconnect. Trying to extend an olive branch, of sorts.”
Dani shook her head. “No. Definitely not that.”
Jamie shrugged and dropped the subject, but they kept the invitation card affixed to their fridge with a magnet. It took a couple weeks of Dani agonizing over the matter, with Jamie listening and offering patient input, before she decided they’d go.
“You sure you want me to come?” Jamie said, the day they bought plane tickets. She kept a studied nonchalance, posing the question like it was casual. To anyone else it might have been convincing, but Dani could see the nervous clench of her jaw, the way she was avoiding eye contact. “Wouldn’t mind staying back, you know. If I did go I’d have to find someone to mind the shop while we’re gone, so.”
“Do you not want to come?” Dani said.
“No, God, no, that’s not it. If you want me there, I’ll be there. Just don’t want to make things any harder for you. Figure being the groom’s ex-girlfriend would be hard enough without having to, y’know, explain my presence there.”
“Jamie,” she said. “Of course I want you to come.”
She didn’t — wouldn’t — tell Jamie that it had crossed her mind too, however briefly, when she first saw the invitation; the truth was that it probably would be simpler not to have Jamie there. Eddie knew about them, but that was it, although whether he’d told his friends or family was anyone’s guess. It would be easier to go to the wedding alone, and she was ashamed to have even entertained the thought, however briefly.
“Yes. You’re coming. It’s final.”
She hoped she sounded braver than she felt. She was doing the brave thing, the right thing, even if it still terrified her a little bit. That was what counted, wasn’t it?
At the wedding venue they sit in the parked car while Dani tries to remember how she used to act around these people. Jamie leans over the console and places a kiss on Dani’s cheek, light enough that it won’t smudge her makeup.
“You look beautiful,” she says. “Absolutely fucking stunning. Don’t think I’ve had a chance to tell you that today.”
“You did tell me,” Dani says. She glances at herself in the rearview mirror. Her smile is shy and subdued, a faint blush staining her cheeks. “Only, like, a million times this morning.”
“Well. Wasn’t enough,” Jamie says, winking.
The last three years of her life have felt like a dream, except that even in her most insane fantasies, before, Dani had never dared to spin out a life this warm and bright, and this saturated with love. Jamie makes her feel so utterly present. So real. She hadn’t even realized that she was missing out on that, that she’d been spending her life as an inert passenger in her body. Being with Jamie is at once a dream and, at the same time, the best kind of waking, coming alive from long hours spent asleep, watching reality sharpen and fall into place around her.
They share an apartment above Jamie’s flower-shop, where they’ve been living for two years now. (At Jamie’s gentle insistence, they waited as long as they could before moving in together; to Dani, the waiting had been torture, but she couldn’t deny the wisdom of it.) Now her days all follow the same pattern, but are somehow never boring. In the mornings she wakes up when Jamie does, tries to convince her to stay in bed longer, luxuriates in the warmth that lingers on Jamie’s side of the bed after she gets up; her workdays, as an English teacher at an elementary school, are long and exhausting in a satisfying way, especially now that she’s been there for a while and has had a chance to befriend her coworkers; evenings are for Jamie and their small bubble of domestic bliss, for cooking dinner and washing dishes and watching TV on the couch and dozing off in Jamie’s arms.
It’s what she holds onto now, sitting in the car in front of the estate where Eddie is getting married, feeling, against all logic, like she’s about to step right back into the gravity well that defined the first twenty-seven years of her life.
Jamie’s hand on her own helps, some. Over the last three years it’s often acted as the grounding wire to the current that sometimes thrums hot and electric through Dani’s veins: Jamie’s hand in her own when she made that initial, terrifying phone call to her mom, Jamie holding her and petting her hair on a bad night, Jamie’s fingers massaging her shoulders after a long workday.
But Jamie, as much as she wants to, can’t fix everything for Dani, and this particular mountain is really Dani’s alone to surmount.
She doesn’t realize she’s been sitting there for an awkwardly long time, hand frozen on the door handle, until Jamie says, “You know we don’t have to go in if you don’t want to.”
“What? No. No, that’s…”
“Could blame me for it,” Jamie says. “I’ll get out there and pretend to be terribly sick. Stagger around a bit, really play it up. Claim a heart attack or something equally dramatic.”
Dani’s laughing now. “You really have to jump straight to a heart attack as your excuse?”
“Well, you can hardly skip a wedding due to, like, a cold, can you? It’s gotta be something big.”
“I love you,” Dani says.
Jamie raises an eyebrow before saying, “I love you too,” like she’s surprised to be hearing it. Sometimes Dani still catches her wearing this sort of expression when Dani tells her she loves her: a little flash of wonder, seemingly out of place in a relationship that’s been steady and untroubled for so long. Jamie once told her, at some point during the first year they were together, that she really did feel that thrill of disbelief sometimes. She’d said it in that stoic Jamie way, pretending it wasn’t a big deal (the way she did with everything that was actually a big deal), but Dani had found it deeply affecting.
“Let me kiss you before we go in,” Dani says. “For good luck.” At this point she’s just blatantly stalling, but Jamie isn’t going to call her out on it.
“What about your lipstick,” Jamie says, leaning in. “And mine.”
“I have it in my purse, I’ll just fix it before we go in.”
Jamie grins and presses one close-mouthed kiss to her lips, prompting Dani to whine and go in for another one, deeper, which does end up smearing her lipstick slightly. She dabs at it with a Kleenex after they break apart.
“Keep this up, and we’re never going to make it inside,” Jamie mumbles through a grin.
“Maybe that’s the point.”
The wedding venue consists of sprawling gardens surrounding a refurbished barn, resplendent with string lights, tea candles flickering in mason jars, lots of decorations made of wood. Each table’s centerpiece is a tin watering can containing an arrangement of white flowers, which Jamie apparently finds hilarious.
“Looks like they were aiming for rustic but got stuck at Pinterest instead,” she mutters, earning a sharp look from Dani.
“Be nice,” Dani says.
The ceremony itself is outdoors under a pavilion. They take their seats on the groom’s side. Dani tries not to look at anyone long enough for them to notice her. It’s a fairly small wedding, and a significant chunk of the guests are Eddie’s family and close friends from high school, which means Dani knows almost everyone; she’s spent Thanksgivings with these people, exchanged Christmas presents with them, been to their homes for dinner parties, babysat their children. She wonders if they remember her.
Jamie takes her hand and squeezes it. Dani squeezes back, a silent signal that she’s doing alright. The contact provides her with an additional suffusion of courage, and she looks up for long enough to catch Judy O’Mara’s eye, even though she’s sitting rows and rows ahead of them, up front.
Dani offers a smile and a tiny wave. Judy returns both.
Three years ago, during the two months she’d spent back in Iowa after Madrid, Judy had invited her over for afternoon coffee. Eddie had already done the hard part himself, of breaking the news of their separation to his family; he texted her once he’d done it, and almost immediately afterward she received a call from Judy, asking if she was okay, expressing her sadness in a way that somehow managed to not make Dani feel guilty about it.
She went over to the O’Maras’ for coffee. She didn’t tell Judy she was gay. Instead, feeling slimy and cowardly, she just rambled on and on about how she loved Eddie but it just wasn’t working romantically, how it was the best thing to do for both of them, something along those lines.
Judy nodded, her face lined with worry. “Honey, you don’t have to explain yourself to me,” she said. “These things happen. I get it.”
“I — I know. I just don’t want you to think I — it’s not like Eddie — did anything wrong, and I never wanted to — hurt him, or you guys, but —”
“Danielle,” Judy said. “It’s alright. Really.”
“I know things will probably be a little tense between you and Edmund for a while,” Judy continued, “but I hope you know — you always have a place in this family, okay? I don’t want you to feel like you’re no longer welcome around here, or like you can’t reach out if you need anything. Keep in touch.” She covered Dani’s hand, resting on the table between them, with her own. “If you want to, of course.”
At any point within the last three years, she could have called up Judy O’Mara and told her the truth. It’s not like she would say anything negative; Eddie’s own brother is gay. And yet, for reasons Dani doesn’t fully understand, she hasn’t done it.
Dani’s own mother, for her part, didn’t care much when she told her. She’d responded to news of the break-up with a heavy, beleaguered sigh, as if Dani had done it to personally spite her. It had annoyed Dani so much that she’d immediately followed it up with, “I’m gay.”
This caught her mother’s attention at least a little more. She ashed her cigarette on the glass tray in the kitchen and said, “You’re what?”
“I’m gay,” Dani said, her voice steadier this time.
Dani’s mother took a long drag from her cigarette and blew out all the smoke before saying, “Hm.”
Theoretically this should have been a neutral reaction, but her mom had always been good at hiding scorn under silence. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
Her mom shrugged. “It’s your funeral,” she said, which, Dani didn’t have a fucking clue what that was supposed to mean, so she left the conversation there. She’s since told her mom about Jamie, over the phone that time, and received a similarly tepid reaction. It hurt, but at least it wasn’t a surprise.
When she looks back up, Eddie has taken his place up at the front. Dani hasn’t seen him in years. He doesn’t have his glasses on, has apparently realized the value of contact lenses. His smile is wide and genuine. He looks well; he looks happy.
The music starts to play, and the processional begins; bridesmaids Dani doesn’t recognize come walking down the aisle with each of Eddie’s groomsmen, all his high school friends who know her. She tries not to duck her head as they pass. One of them locks eyes with her but doesn’t acknowledge her beyond that. Eddie never said what he’d told his friends about the reasons behind their breakup; maybe he told everyone about her being gay, about Jamie, and now she’s known to them as the gay ex who cheated on him. It would actually probably be a relief. That way she wouldn’t have to tell any of them herself.
She doesn’t know what it is about being back here — not back home, she reminds herself — that brings her right down to this place again, this place where her motivations boil down to fear and security and picking what’s safest. It’s not like she’s ashamed or embarrassed of who she is. All her coworkers in London know about her and Jamie; she’s never hesitated to take Jamie’s hand or kiss her in public; she’s thirty now, and she should be well past all this. She’d thought she was past all this, but maybe she was wrong, and now Jamie is going to have a front-row view to this awful side of her.
The bride, a pretty blonde woman who Dani has never seen before, starts her walk down the aisle, bouquet in hand. The crowd turns around in their chairs and makes various awestruck noises. Next to her, Jamie laces their fingers together, and for a moment Dani thinks it’s for her sake — that Jamie thinks she’s panicking or something, which she really isn’t — but then she turns to look at her and sees the soft smile on her face, the light in her eyes.
“What?” Dani whispers out of the corner of her mouth.
Jamie shrugs with one shoulder, but she still has that silly little side-smile, the one that sets off butterflies in Dani’s stomach, butterflies and fireworks and all the old romance clichés that Dani never thought were based in reality until she met Jamie. It makes it very hard to tear her attention away and refocus on the actual wedding ceremony.
In all three years they’ve been with each other, Dani’s never kept anything from Jamie. She’s never had any reason to. But now, for the first time, she has a secret, something she’s been actively hiding for a few months: a ring in a velvet box, nestled inside another couple of boxes for good measure, that’s been tucked away for months in a corner of her jewelry organizer. Presently it rests in Dani’s carry-on purse, back at her mom’s house.
The idea had been percolating in her mind for a while, but she didn’t really start giving it any practical thought until the night after their three-year anniversary dinner. Jamie had surprised her after work with flowers and chocolate and a new set of earrings, whisked her away to an unbelievably nice restaurant, treated her to a massage afterwards; Dani gave Jamie a book of love poetry in which she’d highlighted and annotated all the lines that made her think of Jamie, along with a nice watch. Jamie had loved the poetry book in particular, and read the whole thing in one sitting, trying to hide all the times she teared up.
(It was sort of a point of pride for Dani, because normally Jamie was the excellent gift-giver in the relationship. Dani didn’t know how she did it, but she had a knack for finding the sweetest, most sentimental presents for every occasion — for their anniversary last year, she’d gotten an art print featuring a set of maps of all the locations that were significant to them, spots all around London or Madrid where they’d shared important moments — and even when they weren’t strictly romantic in nature, they were always things Dani had mentioned offhand once and forgotten about, or things Dani hadn’t even realized how badly she wanted until Jamie presented her with them.)
Dani was brushing her teeth that night after dinner when Jamie came up behind her and wrapped her arms around her midsection, kissing a line down her neck to her shoulder. She rinsed out her mouth, ran her toothbrush under the tap, said, “Hi.”
“Is it absurd,” Jamie said, “that we’ve just spent the whole evening together, and I still can’t get enough of you?”
Dani smiled, although Jamie couldn’t see her because she was busy pressing a kiss behind her ear. “I mean, I’m pretty irresistible.”
She leaned back, let herself relish the sensation of Jamie against her, and then said, distantly, “Would you ever wanna get married?”
Jamie stilled and drew back so she could look at Dani. She didn’t look surprised by the question, just thoughtful. “In general, or are you, like. Proposing?”
“No, no,” Dani said. “I mean, not no as in never, but also, I’m not asking right now. Which doesn’t mean I never will — would — ask, but —”
“Okay, okay,” Jamie said, laughing. “At ease. I get it.”
“Sorry. Yes, I mean in general. Like, is marriage something you would ever want.”
Jamie was silent for a long several seconds, watching Dani in the mirror. “Honestly, I...can’t say I ever gave it much thought before you. Couldn’t imagine finding somebody who I’d want to promise my life to. Or someone who’d want that from me.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said. She didn’t sound unsure. “I mean, it’s a big conversation, but I suppose there’s no point being coy about it. Yeah, I could see myself getting married, I think. I’d want that.”
Jamie nodded against her shoulder. “What, did you think I was talking about Owen?”
“Well, it’s pretty hard to compete with him,” Dani said, laughing and feeling a little weightless, helium-light with the knowledge that that was as simple as the conversation needed to be. That Jamie hadn’t needed time to think it over.
Dani went out and bought the ring the following day. She still doesn’t have anything planned, as far as a proposal goes; she’s been waiting for the right moment, waffling back and forth between setting up something lavish and elaborate or just asking during a simple quiet moment. Jamie would prefer the latter, probably.
At the reception she and Jamie are seated at a table with a couple people she vaguely remembers from high school, a few from their college friend group. It strikes her as a little depressing that they’re in their thirties now and these people all still operate in the same social circles, but they seem happy enough, so she tamps down the urge to feel superior for having gotten out. Just because this town was a cage for her doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone. She drinks a glass of champagne, listens to Eddie’s brothers give their toasts, drinks another glass of champagne, lets the bubbles and the buoyancy of the night fizz in her chest, and places her hand on Jamie’s thigh, underneath the table.
Old friends — mostly Eddie’s, not people Dani ever had a real connection with — come by to make small talk and catch up. Her first instinct is to stiffen, to start putting up defenses the moment she introduces Jamie as her girlfriend, but in the end no one says anything negative. There are surprised looks, to be sure, and awkward, implied questions, but it isn’t nearly as awful as she feared it would be. Maybe, she thinks, while she’s been changing, the world — and this tiny town — has been changing right alongside her.
The real obstacle to surmount is Eddie. She wonders if she’ll have a chance to talk to him tonight. She hasn’t decided if she even wants to.
When the music starts up, everyone migrating gradually to the dance floor, she extends a hand to Jamie with an exaggerated flourish. “Dance with me?”
“Oh, God, I dunno if I’m drunk enough for that,” Jamie says.
“Jamie,” Dani says, putting on her best wide-eyed pleading look, the one that always works, “please, just one dance? Please?”
Jamie downs the rest of her champagne. “Not fair of you to pout at me like that.”
She pouts harder.
“That is a fucking weapon of mass destruction, that face,” Jamie says, rolling her eyes. “Alright, then. Come on.” She allows Dani to lead her to the dance floor.
Dani is taller than Jamie in these heels but she takes Jamie’s hand and places it on her waist anyway, puts her own hand on Jamie’s shoulder, interlaces the fingers of their free hands. They sway in time to the music, some syrupy Ed Sheeran number. She pulls Jamie in closer so that they’re flush, chest-to-chest, the heat of Jamie’s body suffusing through the thin fabric of her dress. Jamie’s chin rests on her shoulder.
“How’re you doing?” Jamie murmurs into her ear. “With all this.”
“I’m okay,” she whispers back. Her nose brushes Jamie’s cheek. There’s a warm thrill that accompanies dancing like this, in front of all these people, so close but unable to touch Jamie the way she most wants to. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.”
“Everything’s so much easier with you,” Dani says. “I mean, it’s still weird, being here, and I haven’t even talked to — Eddie yet, or his mom, which, that’s gonna be hard, but. With you, it’s like. It just all feels a lot lighter.”
Jamie smiles. “Good.”
“What about you, how are you doing?”
“Just fine. Peachy.” She frowns. “Except when you went to the bathroom and somebody at our table started interrogating me about life in England.”
“She was very drunk, and very interested to know if I actually eat beans on toast,” Jamie says, “and I told her I do, for every meal, and anybody who has something to say about it can fuck right off.”
Dani allows Jamie to twirl her, laughing when she returns to her arms. “I’ve never seen you eat beans on toast.”
“Yeah, I had it all the time when I was a kid, can’t stand it anymore. But,” she adds, “my national honor was at stake. Had to tell a little white lie, I reckon that’s excusable.”
The music shifts to something thumping and bass-heavy, then, and Jamie raises her eyebrows.
“Think we can sit this one out?” she says.
“Ugh, fine,” Dani says, though she’s smiling. Her feet hurt anyway, and she could use a break. As they’re making their way back to their table, though, she spots Judy O’Mara across the room and freezes.
Jamie follows her gaze. “That’s Eddie’s…?”
“Mom, yeah. She’s really nice, but I — oh, shit, she’s coming over here, don’t look, don’t look.”
“What — how is that gonna help?” Jamie says. Dani just motions for her to be quiet, but Jamie continues, “Dani, seriously, d’you want me to go somewhere else so you can talk to her, or — ?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” she says, right as Judy gets to their table, her customary warm smile on her face. Dani stands up to give her a hug. In an unusually high voice — the voice she uses at parent-teacher conferences, or on the phone — she says, “Judy! Hi!”
“Oh, Danielle, it’s been so long,” Judy says, returning the hug with a ferocity Dani had forgotten about. “How have you been? How’s London? Are you still teaching? You’ll have to tell me everything about England, I’m so excited to hear about it.”
“Good, great, everything’s great,” Dani says. She wonders belatedly if it’s rude to sing the praises of her current life, far away from her ex-boyfriend, directly to said ex-boyfriend’s mother, but then she figures they’re at Eddie’s wedding, so it’s probably acceptable for her to be happy too. “Still teaching.”
“Still working too hard?” Judy says with a conspiratorial wink.
“Well, you know me,” Dani says. And then, possessed with a courage that she can’t place the source of — the champagne, maybe, or Jamie’s presence behind her, her hand on the small of her back — she steps away and gestures to her. “Oh, Judy, this is, um — my — my girlfriend.”
Judy, to her credit, only raises her eyebrows mildly, looking between Dani and Jamie’s faces with her mouth open in a small circle of surprise. Jamie steps forward and offers her hand, which Judy accepts. They shake.
“Mrs. O’Mara, is it?” Jamie says. Judy nods. “Jamie. Lovely to meet you.”
“You too,” Judy says. She recovers quickly, and her smile reappears back on her face. “How long have you two been…?”
“A few years,” Dani says. She’s not embarrassed of her and Jamie’s history, but she certainly doesn’t need Eddie’s mom to know that she began another relationship mere months after breaking things off with her son.
“Oh, how nice,” Judy says. “You two make a wonderful couple, I can tell just looking at you.”
Dani blushes and looks at the floor. There’s so much more she wants to say. So much she wants to tell Judy but can’t, or shouldn’t, right now. Jamie, perceptive as she is, seems to pick up on this and says, “I’m just gonna run to the washroom really quick. Dani? Back in a mo?”
“Okay,” Dani says, and then she’s alone with Judy, who takes a seat at their table and pats the chair next to her for Dani to sit down. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, like, not tell you guys, or — I wasn’t trying to hide anything, I just felt —”
“Oh, gosh, no, no, don’t apologize. Listen, Danielle,” Judy says, leaning closer. “I don’t mean to presume, but I...I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with why you haven’t been keeping in touch.”
It has everything to do with why she hasn’t been keeping in touch. At first she just kept putting off returning Judy’s calls or replying to her Facebook messages; then, eventually, they stopped coming. “I...I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to…say it, I guess. I didn’t want you to — see me any differently,” she says, and wonders why it feels like an admission of guilt.
“Sweetheart, of course I wouldn’t have seen you differently.”
“I just, I know you were probably disappointed when things ended with Eddie —”
Judy makes a tsk sound and says, “Don’t worry about that, that’s all in the past. And besides, if I was ever disappointed it was only because we just loved having you as part of the family — and, well, you still have a place with us, you know that.”
“Even —” She pauses. She isn’t sure how she was going to end that sentence — there’s too much to apologize for, she could count off all the things she’s done wrong: breaking Eddie’s heart, disappearing off the face of the Earth for a few years, lying about who she is — so she just says, “Even still?”
“Of course. You always will,” Judy says.
It makes Dani want to cry. “Thank you. I’ll — I’m sorry I haven’t — called, or texted, I’ll — I’ll keep in touch, I promise.”
“I would love it if you did.” They sit back and observe the crowd. “You do seem happy, by the way. With her. It’s nice to see,” Judy says.
“I am,” Dani says. “I really am, she’s...she’s incredible. I’m lucky.”
“What did your mom say?” Judy lowers her voice as if Dani’s mom is nearby. “She knows, right?”
Dani sighs. “I mean, she was kind of...awkward about it. I don’t think she cares, I mean, we’re staying at her house while we’re in town, so I guess she's not — it’s fine, it doesn’t matter.”
Judy watches her shrug it off with a look that says she knows how much it does matter, only because she’s known Dani for too long to not see through that veneer she puts on when it comes to her mom, the little performance she puts on where she pretends it doesn’t still hurt a bit.
Thankfully Judy doesn’t call her out on it. “She’ll come around, I’m sure,” she says. “You know what, I’ll talk to her.”
“That might help.” To change the subject, she nods to the front of the room, where Eddie and his bride are taking pictures. “So. Tell me about this girl. How’d Eddie meet her?”
Judy tells her the story: they worked in the same office building, him at his accounting firm, her as an architect on the floor below; they’d always get there at the same time each morning, make small-talk in the elevator, getting to know each other gradually; eventually he started bringing her coffee, and she’d stop by his desk at lunch; one thing led to another.
“And you like her?” Dani asks. “I mean, you think they’re good together? He’s happy?”
“Oh, yeah,” Judy says. “Absolutely.”
It’s somewhat of a comfort to know. At least she didn’t wreck his life in the wake of her belated self-discovery.
Jamie returns to their table once Judy has gotten up and drifted over to the circle of moms in the middle of the dance floor.
“You didn’t have to wait for her to leave, you know,” Dani says.
Jamie shrugs. “Just wanted you to have your space.”
She spots Eddie in the corner with a group of his friends and his now-wife. Jamie tracks her gaze.
“Have you had a chance to, like. Say hi to him?” she says.
Dani shakes her head. “I feel weird. I mean, I know I should, but it’s so weird. Like, what’s the polite thing to do here? There’s not exactly prescribed etiquette for how to behave at your ex-boyfriend’s wedding.” She takes a sip of her drink and continues, “Your ex-boyfriend who you broke up with for your best friend after realizing you were gay the whole time.”
Jamie snorts. “You make it sound like a plot twist in a movie.”
“Probably felt like one, for him.”
“He wouldn’t have invited you if he was holding a grudge or something,” Jamie says gently. “Clearly he wanted you here for some reason or another. Might as well go talk to him, find out why.”
Dani bites at her thumbnail, an old anxious habit that hasn’t made a resurgence for a while. She used to bite hard enough to draw blood. “You wouldn’t mind, would you? If I talked to him?”
“What?” Jamie says. “Why, d’you think I’d be scared he’s gonna steal you away from me or something?”
“Okay,” Dani says, laughing. “Yeah, that was a dumb question. I guess I’ll...I guess maybe I’ll talk to him.”
“You don’t have to. But — it seems like you want to.”
“I want…” She trails off. She’s not sure what she wants, but it feels like there are disparate loose threads here that need to be tied up. “I don’t know. It’s not even like I miss him.”
“It’s okay if you do, y’know,” Jamie says. “I mean, I’m not gonna lie, I think he’s a bit of a muppet —”
“Jamie,” Dani says, trying to make it sound like an admonishment through her laugh.
“— but he was still your friend, regardless.”
“Yeah.” She chews on her bottom lip. “I guess I just want to know I — oh, God, this sounds so bad, but I — want to know I didn’t, like, mess him up too bad. Which is selfish, because I hurt him, and that happened no matter what he says now, but sometimes when I think about it I still feel bad.”
It’s only when she puts it into words that she realizes: what she really wants is to be absolved. The thought only makes her feel worse. She takes Jamie’s hand, runs her thumb over her knuckles, wills Jamie’s steadiness into herself.
“Talk to him,” Jamie says again. “I’ll hang out over here, take your time.”
Eventually Dani finds him: by the bar, by himself, ordering drinks. She approaches slowly so that he has a chance to see her coming. When he spots her, his face goes through an evolution of expressions before ultimately settling on a bright smile. “Danielle!”
“Hi. Um, congratulations,” she says. She extends a hand, and he shakes it. His hand is clammy and warm. She’s not sure why she decided to go with a handshake as a greeting, but now she’s committed to it. “I’m happy for you, you guys are — you look like you make a — great couple.”
“Oh, thanks,” he says. There’s a beat of silence. He blinks owlishly down at her. “Alright, this is weird, isn’t it?”
“Super weird,” she says, and then he laughs. It’s a relief to acknowledge it. “I, um. I’m glad you invited me, though. I was kinda nervous, but...it’s nice to see that you’re doing okay.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, no, I’m good. Really good. Um — do you wanna sit down, maybe?”
She nods, and they find a small table in a somewhat secluded corner. “Where’s...what’s her name? Elizabeth?”
“Beth,” Eddie says. His smile when he talks about her, even briefly, is soft and genuine. “God, she’s still dancing with her friends, I think. I had to sit this one out, my feet are killing me.” He takes a sip of his beer, tapping his thumbs absently against the bottle. “So. You and Jamie still — doing well?”
“Yeah, she...opened her own flower shop, so that’s going great. We live together now,” she adds. “Um...what else is new...I still teach.”
“Oh, good,” he says. “I mean, I can’t imagine you not teaching, so I’m glad that’s still — it’s good that you still have that.”
The conversation is stilted and clumsy, the way it can only be between two people who know some parts of each other impossibly well and others not at all. They stagger over subjects that would have been natural to share only years ago. It seems bizarre and sad that the friendship they used to have — which Dani doesn’t even remember the details of, just the general feeling of it, the warmth of the O’Mara house after a day at school — has dissolved into this. But it’s not like Dani wants back what they used to have, or like it’s even possible to regain it. Her life is good the way it is now: Jamie, obviously, but also all her other friends, and her job, and the way London has already become home to her. It isn’t that she wants any of that to change in favor of something she used to have. She doesn’t miss her life in this town. It’s just strange to see how much she’s changed, how much everyone and everything here has changed, and how she can never go back to the way things were. It’s created an artificial sense of loss, a bittersweet cocktail of nostalgia.
“Can I ask,” she says eventually, “why you invited me? I mean, not that I’m not happy to be here, but I was kinda...surprised, when I got the invitation.”
He picks at the label on his beer bottle. “You know, honestly, at first it was my mom’s idea.”
“Oh, I knew it!”
“No, no, wait,” he says, laughing. “When she suggested it I was like, I don’t know, that might be weird. But then I thought about it, and I was like —” He pauses, frowns into the distance. “Maybe I’m being too honest because I’m pretty drunk. But, like...I loved you, like, a lot. For a long time.”
“Eddie,” she starts, but he shakes his head.
“Hang on, hang on. I did, and I thought it would always be that way, even after we broke up. And then we started planning the wedding, and my mom brought you up, and I was like...huh. And when I thought about it I realized I really didn’t think of you that way anymore. I hadn’t for a long time. Especially now that I’ve been with Beth for so long, and I…don’t take this the wrong way, but by the time we broke up we weren’t anywhere close to the same people we were when we got together. You know?”
“I mean, we were so fucking young. Right? It was like, we were supposed to be growing up and changing together, but in the process we just — became totally different people when we should have been, like, growing in the same direction or whatever. Which, honestly, by the time you broke up with me I was already on the way to figuring that out. I just — didn’t want to let go of it. But I’m glad you did, and I’m glad we’re...where we are now.” He furrows his brow in concentration, which is funny considering how unfocused his gaze actually is. Then he lowers his voice. “Also, you’re gay.”
That makes her laugh out loud, and then he starts laughing too, tries to take a sip of beer but chokes on it, which makes both him and Dani laugh even harder.
Coughing, he says, “So, you know, it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.”
“Yeah, no, it was...really a lost cause.” She smiles, but for some reason she wants to cry even though she’s happy. “I do feel bad about that, though.”
“What, being gay? Jesus, no, that’s —”
“For not being honest for so long. For...everything with Jamie, and...I don’t know. I wish I would have told you sooner.”
He shrugs. “It’s over. We’re both happier than we were.”
“Yeah. Oh, um, by the way, does everyone here...know?”
“That we broke up?”
“That I’m gay.”
“Oh,” he says. “God, no. No, I didn’t wanna say anything, I didn’t know who you’d told, so I just made up some bullshit about why we broke up and left it at that.”
This shouldn’t strike her as particularly kind or thoughtful, but it does. “Well, thank you. I’m — I think I’m definitely ready for people to know.”
“Feel like maybe the cat’s out of the bag at this point, though. Considering you brought Jamie as your date.”
She laughs. “Guess so.”
He orders them another round of drinks and they fill each other in on the other loose details of their lives. It’s still a little awkward, and she doesn’t know if they’ll really stay in touch after this, but it feels good to not have to avoid him anymore. To not have to pretend that such a major chunk of her life didn’t exist. After they finish their drinks he smiles at her over the lip of his glass, and he looks a little more like the goofy boy she met in third grade.
“You know, Danielle, I’m honestly really glad you could make it,” he says.
“Me too. And — actually, it’s Dani. I prefer Dani.”
“Oh. Okay. Jeez, I’m sorry, I guess I’ve been — calling you the wrong name for a while, then, haven’t I?” He leans back and regards the whole of her. “Dani. Fits you a lot better, actually.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” she says.
She and Jamie manage to escape the reception a little later that night. Dani is too drunk to drive, so Jamie has to figure out driving on the right side of the road on the fly; it’s very illegal and definitely dangerous, but Dani’s mom’s house isn’t too far from the wedding venue. They manage to make it back in one piece.
Her mom is still out at the reception, so the house is dark and empty when it greets them. It’s a squat split-level with a brick façade and cream siding, the most suburban American looking home a person could imagine, sitting atop a lawn that’s yellowing in the summer heat. A rusty old basketball hoop stands at one end of the driveway.
“I don’t even know why we still have that,” Dani says, when they get out of the car and Jamie points to it. “My dad and I used to play sometimes. Well, I say play, but I was seven, so it was mostly just my dad lifting me up so I could dunk.”
They settle into Dani’s old bedroom. For the most part, the room has been scrubbed of all the high-school relics it used to be littered with — one summer back from college, Dani had redone it, and now it’s all tasteful pastels and art prints — but there are still some left to discover. They hadn’t had time yesterday, having arrived in Iowa jetlagged and exhausted, but now Jamie pokes around (with Dani’s consent) and is unreasonably delighted by the few early-2000s teenage girl memorabilia she finds. A few faded pictures of the Joans Brothers are still glued onto the surface of her desk (“I was definitely trying to prove something to myself,” Dani says), and a poster of the Union Jack, emblazoned with the text “Keep Calm and Carry On”, hangs on the inside of her closet door.
When Jamie finds it, she laughs and says, “Oh, God, no, why do you have this?”
“I think I bought it in middle school?”
“Don’t tell me you were some sort of Anglophile.”
“I wish I could,” Dani says, utterly unembarrassed.
Some of the remnants are almost sad rather than funny, like an old journal she digs out of a drawer. They flip through it together, sitting on the floor with their backs to the bed, Jamie’s arms around Dani. There are pages and pages of mundane entries, stupid stuff about exams and extracurriculars and school dances — “Prom queen,” Jamie says, “that’s actually a thing?” “Yes, and before you ask, yes I was. My senior year.” “Jesus, you’re so out of my league.” — replete with taped-in pictures of her with her friends and with Eddie. Almost every day has its own entry; even though nothing she did was ever very interesting, she’d still faithfully recorded all the details.
In hindsight, she thinks, maybe she thought that by writing everything down she’d be able to uncover some secret about herself or her life. She doesn’t remember much about being a teenager, but she does remember how nebulous and terrifying everything felt.
“What were you like, in high school?” Jamie asks, quietly.
“I was…” She trails off. “Pretty popular, I think. Very, like, preppy, as in I got up insanely early every day to do my hair and makeup. Kind of a teacher’s pet type, but not in an annoying way. I hope.”
“Ah,” Jamie says. “Yeah, I can picture it.”
“What about you?” Dani says. “I mean, just around that age.”
“Oh, I was a little shit. Total nightmare, I got in trouble all the time. You would’ve hated me if we knew each other.”
“I bet I would have been, just, totally in love with you. From afar.”
Jamie laughs. “Could’ve had that whole forbidden schoolyard romance thing going. You and me, from two different worlds...the — perfect prom queen and the dropout fuck-up —”
“No!” She hits Jamie’s shoulder lightly. “Stop it, don’t say that.”
“Just the truth.”
They flip through a few more pages. “Honestly,” Dani says, “when I think back to high school, I mostly just remember being really sad and scared. I’m surprised I didn’t write about that stuff more.”
Jamie looks away from the journal, at that, and straight at Dani, leans over and kisses her cheek, feather-light.
“S’weird,” she says, “being here. Seeing the place that made you who you are.” She brushes a lock of hair back from Dani’s face, tucks it behind her ear, presses another kiss to the side of her head. “You feeling okay tonight?”
“Yeah, fine, why?”
“Dunno. You’ve just seemed a tiny bit off. Nothing major, just — seems like you’ve got something on your mind.”
Dani shifts from her current position next to Jamie and settles instead between her legs, so that her back rests against Jamie’s chest.
“You know,” she says, “all night I’ve been thinking — it’s like I regress, when I’m here. You know? Like, I don’t like the person I become when I’m back here, I feel like I fall right back into all these old habits and patterns, and I —” She sighs. “Even at the wedding, I could kinda feel it. I just felt, like, wrong. Like I didn’t fit in my own skin.”
“I get it,” Jamie says.
“And I don’t...I don’t like the person I was when I lived here. I don’t like feeling like I’m that person again.”
“Dani.” Jamie’s voice is gentle, nonjudgmental. She tucks her face into the junction between Dani’s jaw and shoulder, presses a kiss into her neck. “You’re not. And — besides. The person you are now wouldn’t exist without the person you were, then.”
She smiles and closes her eyes. “How do you always have something ridiculously wise to say?” She feels Jamie shrug against her. “I guess I’m just a little embarrassed, too. I feel like there are parts of me that you still don’t know, and if you find out about those parts, you’ll —”
“Okay, none of that,” Jamie says. “There is quite literally nothing you could show me that would change anything.” Dani leans forward to cast a skeptical look at Jamie. “Seriously! ‘M in too deep. You could be a murderer and I’d still have no conscious say in how I feel about you.”
There’s something to be said about this aspect of her relationship with Jamie, the drive it inspires in her to be known, even right now, with the parts of herself that she’s still ashamed of or wants to leave behind. This desire to be fully seen by Jamie, to be understood, hasn’t abated since the day they met.
“I love you,” she says, and Jamie kisses her shoulder and whispers it back, into her skin.
In bed that night, she kisses down Jamie’s chest, her stomach, between her legs, and revels in the gentle tug of Jamie’s grip in her hair, her insistent touch a reminder that Dani’s here, in this moment, in this life and not in any of the other ones that she could have had if she made different choices. Afterwards she wraps her arms around Jamie from behind, lets herself be warmed by Jamie’s body heat as if from the sun, and listens to her breathing even out as she falls asleep.
It seems impossible that she’d laid in this same place over a decade ago, unable to sleep the night before the SAT or a school dance or, one semester, trying to figure out why she was always so stressed out the night before bio lab (in hindsight, it was because her lab partner was gorgeous and kind, and she had a massive crush). She’d lost her virginity in this bed, which she doesn’t remember as even being particularly terrible; she just remembers it being a whole lot of nothing, lying there after it was over and thinking that was it? while Eddie held her and babbled about how much he loved her. A whole chunk of her life, she thinks, lived the wrong way. She’s spent a lot of time over the past three years — more than she’d like to admit, more than she’s even shared with Jamie — regretting it.
But Jamie had been right: she wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t been there first. The knowledge doesn’t erase the years that she spent feeling lost and displaced, but it does help. She curls herself tighter around Jamie and hopes she can feel it even in her sleep.
The next morning they have a quick breakfast with Dani’s mother, who is still just as generally disinterested in Dani’s life as she has always been, but seems to at least be amenable to Jamie’s presence there. Shortly afterward they start packing; their flight leaves in the early hours of the evening. Dani takes a shower and comes back to her room to find Jamie on her knees with their suitcase in front of her, folding clothes neatly into it, and there’s nothing special about the act itself but it makes something in her ribs swell until it’s almost painful.
She sits down next to Jamie, cross-legged, and drags her purse over from where she’d tossed it last night. The ring is in it, buried all the way at the bottom. Last night she’d lain awake with her knowledge of the ring burning in her mind, unable to sleep from some shapeless excitement, the tips of her fingers buzzing from it.
“You look nice,” Jamie says, glancing up at her and smiling out of one corner of her mouth. “I was thinking after we get back we could go to that Indian place you like, if we’re not too tired. Maybe get takeaway.” She picks her sleep shirt off the floor, folds it, tucks it into the suitcase. After a moment of silence, she says, “Dani?”
In a moment of impulse, a split-second crossroads, she makes a decision. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t planned, but it’s them, here, together, and Jamie is so beautiful and soft and real in front of her, and Dani wants —
“Marry me,” Dani says.
Jamie looks up from the suitcase. Opens her mouth. Closes it. Blinks at her. Dani tries to read her face for any sign of reluctance or hesitation and finds nothing there but blank surprise. Dust motes dance around her in the sunlight pouring in through the window.
Finally Jamie says, “What?”
“Marry me.” She steels herself. “I actually have a whole speech. If you want to hear it.”
“Dani,” Jamie breathes. “You’re being serious?”
“Yeah.” She opens her purse, digs around until her fingers close around the velvet box, which she pulls out. Her hand shakes.
Jamie is still staring at her like she can’t comprehend what’s happening. Quietly, she says, “Let’s hear the speech, then.”
“Okay,” Dani says. She takes a deep breath. Her chest is tight, even though she has no real reason to be nervous. “It’s just, um, you’re my best friend, and I love you, and I feel like I fall more in love with you literally every day, which, that shouldn't be possible but somehow it's like, even after all this time I keep finding out new little things about you that are just — I guess what I'm trying to say is you're such an incredible person, and I love that I'm still discovering you. And I love how badly I want to share all of myself with you, how much I want you to know all of me, even the ugly parts, because I know — I can trust that you'll still love me. Which is...really not something I ever thought I'd get to have.”
She puts the box down and shifts closer to Jamie, so that their knees are touching, and takes Jamie’s face in her hands, enraptured. Her eyes are wet, brows pulled together.
“This is what I want the rest of my life to look like, Jamie,” she says. “Waking up with you and going to bed with you and all the dumb little life things like — I don't know, doing taxes together and stuff — I want it all. I want it with you." She opens the ring box and holds it out, and Jamie chokes out a tearful laugh. “So?” Dani whispers. “What do you say?”
“I — Jesus fuck, Dani, I love you,” Jamie says. “And — fucking — yeah, yes, of course.”
“Yes?” Dani says, and she isn’t surprised, exactly, but she is crying now, along with Jamie. “Really?”
“Yes,” Jamie reiterates. “Yes, yes,” and then she pulls Dani in for a kiss that’s messy, mostly tears and teeth, because they’re both smiling. They break apart long enough for Dani to rest her forehead against Jamie’s for one brief moment before kissing her again, and again, and again.
“Lemme put this on you,” Dani says, lifting Jamie’s left hand and sliding the ring on her finger. She holds it up to the light, watches it glint, and then drops a kiss on her knuckles. With the back of her other hand, Jamie wipes her eyes dry, sniffling.
Later, with a couple more hours to kill before they’re supposed to be at the airport, they go on a walk around Dani’s neighborhood. She shows Jamie the spot on her cul-de-sac where she skinned her knee learning to ride a bike; the massive tree that used to have a tire swing tied to it; the neighborhood park that isn’t much of a park at all, just a bike path circling around a pond. They sit by the water and listen to the buzzing of summer insects.
Jamie can’t seem to stop touching her ring. Dani catches her doing it in idle moments, rotating it around her finger, gazing down at it in disbelief. Dani has a matching one for herself, but she’d forgotten it in their London apartment.
“Can’t believe this is actually happening,” Jamie says, holding up her left hand. “To tell the truth, I was gonna do it myself. Been thinking about asking you for years, just —”
“Oh, yeah. You’re quite the catch, Poppins, I didn’t want to wait to lock you down,” she says with a wink. “But, y’know, I figured — your track record with proposals…” She trails off long enough for Dani to laugh and roll her eyes. “...hasn’t exactly been great.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Dani says. “Not that I wouldn’t have said yes, if you did, but I like having the chance to do something for you for once.”
“You’re always doing things for me,” Jamie says. She lies back on the grass and takes Dani’s hands, tugs her down until she’s half on top of her. Dani almost looks around, tells Jamie what if someone sees, but instead she leans down to kiss her, laughing not because anything’s funny but just because of the dizzying joy of the day, and the sun warming the back of her neck, and the blades of grass tickling her legs, and the fact that she’s in love with Jamie and Jamie’s in love with her.
She doesn’t think it’s sunk in yet that she’s engaged. “Jamie,” she says. “We’re getting married.”
“Shit, is that what the ring implies?” Jamie says. “Didn’t realize.” There’s a stupid grin plastered on her face, and Dani loves her.
In an hour and a half they’ll be driving their rental car to the airport, flying back to the home they share. Far away from Iowa, from all the history that she’ll be carrying it with her regardless of where she ends up, and Jamie’s arms are warm and wonderful around her, and Dani can be okay with the knowledge of all those misspent years living the wrong life, because they ended up leading her here.
She looks out at the pitiful pond they’re sitting next to and she thinks of her mother’s house and this neighborhood and all the places she’s been, good and bad, every point she’s passed through on the way here, to where she is now; she thinks of Jamie and the rocky geography of her own life; she thinks of the way their paths have intersected, the life they’ve built. The soil from Jamie’s plants, littering the floor of their apartment; their weekly grocery trips, bickering over what brand of cereal to buy; the way their bed looks in the morning, warm and unmade.
Mostly, though, she thinks of the road ahead; she can't be sure what it holds, but she can trust that they'll forge it together, and that's enough for her.