It hurts me the longing
for that time when I inhabited you
like salt infusing the sea
like light contracting
the surprised pupils of the eyes
— "Longing", Mia Couto
“Good God, woman,” Owen says.
Jamie is bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, more nervous than she has been in years. Her palms are sweaty. She wipes them off on her jeans for probably the hundredth time today. “What?”
He puts both his hands on her shoulders and pushes down gently, as if to settle her physically into the ground. “You’re making me anxious, doing that. Acting like a fucking yoyo.”
“Oh, let her be, Owen,” Hannah says in that good-natured stern voice of hers, although she’s smiling and rolling her eyes at them.
“It’s for her own good,” Owen tells her. “Take a breath, seriously. It’s just Dani.”
“Yeah. I know.” She wants to say, that’s the problem, but he already knows that, and is really just being annoying for the sake of it.
“Hey, you know what,” he says with a faux-thoughtful tap on his chin, “if you get up on my shoulders you’ll have a better view.”
Hannah shushes him. Jamie is too busy craning her neck to try to see over the crowds at the airport to think of anything witty to say back. It’s late March, spring break season, so Arrivals is full of American college students mulling about, large groups of sunburned twenty-somethings clad in fraternity t-shirts and cargo shorts. She thinks she could probably spot them from a distance, though: Edmund, she knows, is tall enough to stick out over the throng, and Dani is, well, Dani.
Jamie knows that Owen, infuriating as he is sometimes, is probably right: it’s just Dani. They’ve been friends with her for five years, having met during a study-abroad year she took in London. On her first day of class there, Dani had stumbled into the bakery where Owen worked part-time, saving up for culinary school (and where Jamie would loiter on her lunch breaks), and asked for directions. This would not have been anything out of the ordinary — the shop was close to campus, and in a touristy enough area — if Dani hadn’t been so immediately effusive and open, telling them about her studies and her thoughts on London so far as if they were all already friends. Owen had offered her a cup of tea (“On the house, to inaugurate your first day,” he’d said, winking, and Jamie had wondered how long it would take this girl to fall for him), but she’d turned it down.
“I haven’t quite figured out tea yet,” she said.
Jamie, sitting at her usual corner table with a book propped on her knees, had overheard. “What’s there to figure out?”
“Oh, y’know, it’s just a whole different thing in America. I like mine iced,” she said, waiting until Jamie made a face to say, leaning toward her and lowering her voice to an exaggerated whisper, “with lemonade in it.”
“Sacrilege,” Jamie said, putting a hand to her chest in mock outrage. Dani laughed.
The next day Dani came in at the same time again, right in the middle of Jamie’s break. Jamie worked at the nursery across the street, and would come in to see Owen every day at noon. He’d save her a lemon tart from earlier in the morning, place it on her table for her to have after her little brown-bag lunch (sandwich, yogurt cup, carrot sticks, the same every day, which Owen thought was sad), and chat with her from his position at the counter in between customers.
“Ah, the American,” Jamie said when Dani came in again.
“That’s me,” Dani said. Owen motioned for her to take a seat at the counter and slid over a cup on a saucer.
“An introductory course to tea,” Owen said.
It was easy for them to decide that they liked Dani. She listened to their banter, laughing or rolling her eyes at appropriate intervals; she nodded along to their stories, taking them in with wide eyes; she was funny, and sweet, and cared deeply about her classes (she was studying education, she’d told them), talking about them at length when prompted.
She’d also, Jamie learned after a week of knowing her, come to London with a long-term boyfriend. “We’ve been together since high school,” she said one evening, after the bakery had closed and they’d all gone to the neighboring pub. “But it feels like it’s been much longer than that.”
After Owen and Jamie had walked Dani back to her university-provided housing for the night, he’d turned to Jamie and said, “You heard the bit about the boyfriend, right?”
She pretended not to notice his tone. “Sure did.”
“No reason,” he said, in an unconvincingly casual voice.
“James.” He put his hands in his pockets, kicking a pebble across the footpath as they walked. “I’m just looking out for you.”
She rolled her eyes at him, although secretly a small pit had opened in her stomach when Dani had said it. Eddie , she’d called him, and showed them both a picture on her phone. (He looked alright. Like any other human man, Jamie thought, but if Dani liked him, then whatever.) “I can look out for myself, thanks.”
Now she stands in the airport in Madrid, hating the way she has to clench and unclench her fists to keep from losing her mind. It feels like her nerves are physically jangling around inside her. She needs a smoke.
She’s about to tell Owen and Hannah as much, that she’s going to pop outside for a minute, but then she hears Dani’s voice, clear as a bell above the din, and immediately recognizable even though it’s been five years since Jamie heard it not coming through a phone speaker. A second later she spots the boyfriend (Edmund, she reminds herself, and then wonders if she should call him Eddie), a head full of dark curls, an easy grin, and those ugly round glasses.
“Oh my God,” Dani says once she gets closer and catches sight of them. Something buzzing and hot rises in Jamie’s chest, which she tries to push down by taking a deep breath. Owen and Hannah are beaming and waving, and Owen is already gesturing for her to let him take her bag. She drops it immediately, and does a cute little sprint to give him and Hannah a combined hug. “You guys! Ah!” She steps back to take them in, says, “Owen, love the beard. Hannah, you look so good, are you ever not radiant?”
Jamie stands behind Owen and Hannah, feeling a little awkward with her hands in her back pockets, a couple stray curls falling over her forehead (she had, admittedly, spent an embarrassing amount of time and hairspray that morning getting her hair to look perfectly tousled). She catches Edmund’s eye over their shoulders, and he gives her a friendly wave and smile, so she does her best to return it.
Finally Owen and Hannah part, and she can see Dani up close. Even fresh off an eight-hour flight plus layovers, hair a little rumpled and a neck pillow still resting on her shoulders, she looks like a beam of sunshine bottled up and put on earth. It’s how she’s always looked, except Jamie hasn’t seen her in years and is therefore no longer as inured to the effect as she used to be.
“Hey, you,” Dani says. “Are you just gonna stand there or are you gonna come give me a hug?”
Jamie pretends to be reluctant and grumpy about it, but then Dani has her arms wrapped around her, holding her close to her chest. They’re almost exactly the same height and size, all of their limbs matched in length, so that it feels like they could melt into one body if they got close enough. She can feel the warmth of Dani’s cheek against her own.
“Hi,” she says, sounding more self-conscious than she ever has. She clears her throat. “Flight go okay?”
“I slept through it, but we made it in one piece, so, probably.” Finally she lets Jamie go and holds her at arm's length, with both her hands wrapped around Jamie’s biceps. She looks her up and down. “Wow, look at you. Have you been working out?”
“Um,” she says. “A — a bit, yeah, here and there.” The tips of her ears are burning, so she detaches herself from Dani and looks to her boyfriend. “Edmund, is it?” She holds out her hand, and he shakes it, beaming at her.
“You can just call me Eddie,” he says. Shit, he’s nice, Jamie thinks.
“Good to meet you, Eddie.”
He squints at her and then snaps his fingers. “You’re Jamie.”
“Danielle’s talked a lot about you,” he says.
“That so?” she says, looking at Dani, who shrugs, smiling. “All good things, I hope.”
On the walk to the taxi, Jamie tries to get some idea of what Eddie is like. She’s heard plenty from Dani, over the years, but she’s never actually met him for herself. Now she watches his glasses slip down his nose, his arm wrapped around Dani’s shoulder, talking animatedly about wanting to visit the football stadium in the city, and decides, tentatively, that she likes him well enough, if she has to.
She hasn’t seen Dani in person since the culmination of her year in London. They’ve talked on the phone and over Facetime in the intervening years, of course — often, at first, and then less as time went by — but Jamie is quickly realizing that the experience of hearing Dani’s voice alone, or seeing her pixelated face on a phone screen, differs starkly from the reality of being near her in person. She’d allowed herself to forget, sort of, the visceral rush that she used to get from just the scent of Dani’s perfume or from making Dani laugh, which is probably how she’d convinced herself that this vacation wouldn’t be such a big deal. All the things that passed between them during that year — not only the closeness of their friendship, but also the things that went unsaid, the things they shared but never actually talked about — seemed, before, to have been part of some bizarre fever dream that Jamie and Dani shared, detached from either of their real lives, a rose-colored bubble they’d built for themselves.
Jamie had thought she’d reconciled herself to that. Learned to appreciate the fact that she’d had it at all, in whatever limited capacity. But now Dani is here, in front of her, and everything feels too real and too present.
Their Airbnb is a large flat, three bedrooms plus a balcony, not too far from the city center. The building’s facade is made of old, worn brick, the door a massive iron thing with a heavy knocker. Their host lets them in and gives them two sets of keys.
“I forgot how old things are over here,” Dani says, looking up at the ivy that spreads across the brick. “Everything has a history, you know?”
The building doesn’t have an elevator, so they have to climb up three flights of stairs with their bags. Owen takes Hannah’s, Eddie takes Dani’s, and Jamie carries her own suitcase plus the bag full of food (heavy food) that Owen insisted on bringing.
“Oh, let me help you with that,” Dani says, reaching for the suitcase.
“I’ve got it,” Jamie says, hoping the strain in her voice sounds gruffly stoic.
Dani and Eddie are jet-lagged from the trip — somehow Dani is still tired, despite the six-hour nap she claims to have taken on the plane — and they retreat almost immediately to their room to sleep before dinner. It’s only three in the afternoon, which leaves Jamie enough time to join Hannah and Owen on a walk around the neighborhood, and maybe a coffee.
“You sure you don’t mind if I tag along?” she asks, not wanting to third-wheel; really, though, she’s been third-wheeling with them for their entire relationship, and they’ve never once minded.
The street that their flat is on is paved with stone, charmingly uneven, and only wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic. There are no cars out, though, and pedestrians are strolling on the road itself, little dogs in jackets sprinting to keep up with their owners, families of tourists with cameras hanging from their necks. They find a small cafe and sit at a wooden folding table on the footpath right outside. Jamie orders tomato toast while Owen and Hannah share a chocolate croissant.
“So, uh,” Owen says, “how’re you doing?” When she raises her eyebrows at him he says, “Oh, come off it, you can’t keep pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Jamie shakes her head. “I’m fine. It was a crush, alright?” She scrapes tomato jam onto her toast and takes an indignant bite. She sounds convincing enough, she thinks. She could probably convince herself if she tried. “I was, like, twenty-two, it’s been years.”
“So you’re saying you weren’t a bit flustered, meeting the famous Edmund?” He waggles his eyebrows, clears his throat, and says in a deep voice and exaggerated Northern accent, “Ah, good to meet ya, Eddie.” She laughs and tosses a sugar packet at him, which he dodges. “Seriously, that’s how you sounded! I was like, Christ, who invited Batman?”
“Someone’s gotta put the fear of God in the man,” Jamie says. “Make sure he stays in line.”
“He seems nice enough, to me,” Hannah says. “He certainly looks at her like she hung the moon.”
“Well, he should,” Jamie says. “It wasn’t always like that, though. The fights they used to have, d’you remember that, Owen?”
Owen nods. “Right, yeah.”
“They seem alright now, though, don’t they?” Hannah says. Hannah had met Dani halfway through the autumn term, after she and Owen had finally stopped tiptoeing around their obvious attraction and stealing silent glances at each other when Hannah came into the bakery for breakfast. By that point Dani had stopped talking as much about Eddie.
“We’ve only been around them for like half an hour,” Jamie says. “He’s fine, I suppose. Bit of a numpty, though.”
They drop the subject after that. Hannah takes out a little notebook on which she’s listed things she wants to do and see over the course of the week, and Owen and Jamie offer their input. Jamie tries not to think about Dani, who probably has a color-coded Excel sheet of all the museums in the city she’d like to see. She wonders if Eddie likes museums, if he minds waiting next to Dani while she’s looking at the exhibits — she likes to take her time, to read the placard next to each piece, maybe Google the artist, pore over the artwork itself until she’s satisfied by her understanding of it — or if he gets impatient, tries to hurry her along. Jamie isn’t sure which would make her dislike him more.
The fights between Dani and Eddie were mostly conducted over Whatsapp messages to each other. Jamie could always tell when something was going on because of how Dani’s face would fall when she pulled out her phone, the furious way she’d jab at her phone keyboard, suddenly only half-present in the conversation. After a few incidences of this, Jamie finally asked if everything was alright, and Dani, with an exhausted look in her eyes, set her phone to silent and put it back in her purse.
“It’s just Eddie,” she said. “Nothing serious, he’s just being annoying.”
It was a couple weeks into Dani’s first term, and they’d invited her to Owen’s flat for dinner for the first time. He was in the kitchen cooking, while Jamie and Dani drank his beer and watched cricket, at Jamie’s insistence, on his TV. The air in the flat smelled of garlic and caramelizing onions, and they could hear something sizzling from the stove.
“You sure?” Jamie said. “It’s just, you get this look when you text him sometimes, like —” She did her best impression of Dani’s expression, which was just barely a frown, eyebrows pulled together a bit, lower lip between her teeth. She expected Dani to laugh, but instead Dani just sighed.
“I’m okay, I promise. It’s typical long-distance stuff.”
“It must be hard,” Jamie said. “Being apart.”
“It is. For a lot of different reasons.” Dani breathed out through her mouth, so that her bangs fluttered and landed messily over her forehead. “I mean, obviously we miss each other. But it’s also — the longer I’m here, the more I wanna do stuff that’s just for me, and not for us, y’know?”
“He’s grumpy because I told him I wanted to stay a little longer after the semester ends. Before I go home for Christmas. Just to see a little more of the country, or maybe go to France, or Spain. I figure you only get an opportunity like this once, you know?”
Jamie took a sip from her beer. By then it was warm and disgusting, but at least it gave her something to do with her hands. Around Dani she always felt a heightened awareness of her body; not self-conscious about her looks or anything like that, simply more attuned to things like the way she held herself, the way she stood, which side of her mouth she talked out of. For example, her hands: did they look natural, like they did with a beer in them, or did they look useless and unwieldy, like when she walked Dani home and wasn’t wearing a jacket or pants with pockets, so she had to just let her hands hang there stupidly the whole time?
“Seems like a dumb reason to be angry,” Jamie said.
Dani shook her head. “He just doesn’t get why I’d want to be apart for any longer than we have to, I guess. I’m like, it’s not about that, and plus we have the rest of our lives together, anyway, so what’s a couple more weeks?”
Jamie remembers this conversation partly because of that: Dani’s casual certainty that she’d be spending the rest of her life with Eddie. The thought had fought its way into her brain and settled like a stone underneath whatever else she’d begun to feel for Dani over the years. Dani had her own plan, her own path she was already on; Jamie was just lucky enough to briefly cross it.
Months later, in early November, they had their biggest fight that Jamie remembered. They were at Owen’s again, the whole group. They’d been drinking and playing cards when Dani’s phone rang, the buzzy grating ringtone she reserved for Whatsapp calls, and instead of blindly hitting decline like she’d started doing, she picked up the call.
“Eddie,” she said, in a steely voice. She put her beer on the coffee table and stood, covering the phone’s speaker with her hand. “Owen, do you mind if I use your room for a minute?”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Owen said, looking up from his hand of cards with a look of faint concern.
“Thank you,” Dani said, with an odd formal sort of nod. She pressed the phone back to her ear and left.
The rest of them continued to play cards in silence; they were in the middle of Go Fish, which Jamie thought was unbelievably stupid, because Owen and Hannah were sitting on the same couch and he’d angled his body toward her in such a way that she could see every one of his cards. He hadn’t noticed yet, just kept staring at her with that awful syrupy smile he’d developed around her. He was disgusting when he was in love. Jamie was deliriously happy for him.
“Have you got any aces?” Hannah asked Owen sweetly.
“What the hell,” Owen said, handing over three. “It’s like you’re reading my mind.”
Jamie laughed at this, although privately she was concentrating on the hallway that led to Owen’s room. It was dark, but she could see a strip of light coming from underneath his door. She couldn’t hear anything, though, and besides it wasn’t any of her business what Dani talked about with her boyfriend, never mind that Dani had, by that point, called Jamie exactly five separate times in the middle of the night, upset about something Eddie had done. (She would never go into detail about what had happened, would just tell Jamie she couldn’t sleep and could she please just talk to her for a little bit, and Jamie would ramble on about her day until Dani fell asleep on the phone with her.)
A short while later, they heard Dani raise her voice, speaking loud enough that even through the closed door they could somewhat make out what she was saying, which was something that sounded like Will you just listen to me. In their two-odd months of knowing Dani, none of them had ever once heard her raise her voice. Then there was a frustrated-sounding groan, and then Dani threw the bedroom door open so hard that it slammed into the wall.
“Oh, crap,” she said. “Sorry.”
“All good?” Jamie said, watching her cautiously. Dani strode into the living room with her fists balled at her sides, her shoulders pulled high.
“Yeah,” Dani said in a high voice. She fiddled with the latch on the front door. “I’m gonna step out and just — get some air, if that’s okay.”
“Are you sure you’re —” Hannah began, but Dani had already slipped out of the flat.
Jamie stood before she could even think about it, and then she did think about it, and sat back down. Owen and Hannah exchanged a meaningful look, which they’d begun doing with alarming frequency.
“Someone should check on her, right?” Jamie said. “I should — I mean, someone should make sure she’s alright. It’s dark out.”
“Go,” Owen said, and then she did.
The stairwell was cramped and dimly lit, half-blown-out tube lights buzzing over the dirty concrete floor. She found Dani on the landing a couple flights down, looking out of a narrow window, which had been opened.
“Hey, you,” she said. She kept a safe distance, in case Dani felt that her presence in that moment was an invasion of her privacy.
Dani didn’t say anything. Her back was turned, so it was only as Jamie took a few steps closer that she noticed the tight, rapid breaths Dani was taking. She could hear them coming out ragged and shallow, could see her shoulders rising and falling. Dani had one hand splayed against the wall, the other hand on her knee, and when Jamie joined her at the window she put one arm around her back, to help hold her up.
“Dani?” Jamie said, dipping her head so she could see Dani’s face, which was pale.
“Sorry,” Dani said, in a high, choked voice. “Sorry, I can’t —”
“Whoa, hey. S’okay, it’ll be okay,” Jamie said, although she wasn’t sure what exactly she was reassuring Dani about. Dani blinked at her for a moment and then folded herself entirely against Jamie’s chest, her arms wrapped tight around her own midsection, like she was trying to hold herself together. Her forehead was pressed against Jamie’s neck, and Jamie could feel her breathing hard out of her mouth. Jamie, like an idiot, hoped Dani wouldn’t notice how hard her heart was beating.
Slowly, cautiously, Jamie put both her arms around Dani. Not too tight, so that Dani wouldn’t feel trapped there, but still firm. They stayed like that for what felt like a long time, until Dani sniffed and said, in a small voice, “Thank you.”
“Just being around,” Dani said.
From this angle, Jamie could smell Dani’s orange-ginger shampoo. “Anytime,” she said.
Eventually Dani extricated herself from Jamie’s arms, rubbing at her nose self-consciously. She turned to face the open window, and Jamie stood next to her with her elbows on the windowsill. There was a faint breeze which blew back some of Dani’s stray hairs, and which made parts of her face look pink and raw. She was beautiful even under the ugly industrial lighting.
Later Jamie can look back on this night, turn it over and examine it with the added perspective of five years of age (and free of that initial delirium that she’d fallen under after becoming friends with Dani, the insane spell that caused her to think constantly of things like the half-lidded look she’d get when she was thinking, or how her smile varied based on her mood, or the way she’d fidget when she was anxious, which was always), and acknowledge that this was probably a point when she crossed some sort of mental or emotional line. But in that moment all she could think of was the delicate lines of Dani’s face, gilded by the moonlight coming in through the window.
“So, ah,” Jamie said. “What’s going on, then?”
“It’s Eddie,” Dani muttered. “I guess that’s obvious. Just — he’s — I don’t know.”
“Mmm. Men,” Jamie offered, unhelpfully.
Dani made a sound through her nose that could have been a laugh. “You know a lot about the subject, do you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jamie said. “You know me. ‘M an expert.”
Dani already knew she was gay. She had known from the first week of their friendship, when Jamie had mentioned an ex-girlfriend without thinking, and then been immediately, secretly terrified that Dani would feel weird about it — which was unusual, because Jamie was not prone to giving much of a shit about what people thought of her personal life, and still, the idea of Dani thinking any less of her had been untenable. But Dani hadn’t even acknowledged it as something worthy of special attention; she’d just continued listening to Jamie’s story. Nothing had changed between them. Jamie felt guilty for even having thought that something like that might matter to Dani.
“D’you wanna tell me about it?”
“He’s — it’s kind of my fault, too, honestly,” Dani said. “I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go home for Thanksgiving break. Normally we spend it together, you know, we have since we started dating. Actually, even before that, ‘cause my mom didn’t — anyway, his family always has a big dinner the day of, all his aunts and uncles are cousins are there, it’s a whole thing.”
“Big family gathering with the in-laws? Sounds lovely,” Jamie said.
Dani smiled. “It’s not that bad, honestly. That’s not even why I don’t want to go, I just think it’s pointless to spend all that money on a ticket just to be there for barely a week. Like, it’s one Thanksgiving.”
“He probably misses you too, though, right? That’s why he’s upset?”
“I guess. We just saw each other, though. It’s barely even been...” Dani paused, looking at the ceiling. “A month. It’s been a month.”
Privately, Jamie thought that this seemed like a long time to go without seeing Dani. Too long. Sometimes, while doing something mundane like watering her plants at work or washing the dishes, she would remember out of nowhere that Dani would be leaving at the end of the school year; the thought would strike her like thunder, spark something like jealousy, roiling and ugly in her gut, and she’d have to do something mindlessly physical to distract herself (pulling weeds if she was at work; going for a run, otherwise).
Dani sighed. “Well, anyway. Bottom line is he’s mad. I’m mad. I mean, it’s — I’m not being selfish, am I?”
“‘Course not,” Jamie said.
“You know what, even if I am. I’m allowed to do some things for myself,” she said, sounding unconvinced. Jamie nodded. “I mean, I stayed in fucking Iowa so we could go to college together,” — at this, Jamie felt herself flinch, because Dani rarely ever swore and it was jarring when did — “so I shouldn’t have to feel bad about this. Right?”
“I just,” Dani said. “I don’t know, sometimes I just feel, like, trapped. I mean, I — I love him, I do, but I’ve never — we’ve never really had separate lives, you know? And sometimes I —” She pressed her lips together. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this.”
“It’s alright,” Jamie said. “You can say anything you want, I’m not here to judge.”
Dani’s voice was almost a whisper, quiet enough that the wind whistling from outside almost kept Jamie from hearing her. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on something.”
They stop by the small grocery store near their apartment to pick up ingredients for dinner, reading from a list Owen has scribbled on a notepad, along with enough bottles of wine to stock a cellar. When they get back to the Airbnb several hours later, Dani and Eddie are awake. Eddie is standing over the stove, fiddling with a Moka pot. His glasses slide down his face when he frowns, and Dani tuts, pushes them back up on his nose.
“I can help you with that,” Owen says when he catches sight of him.
“Oh,” Eddie says. “Thanks, man.”
“Where’d you guys go?” Dani says. She must have taken a shower; her hair is damp, a little darkened. She’s wearing a thick pink sweater, gold hoop earrings, and the same watch that she used to keep on all the time when Jamie first met her.
Jamie is beginning to think that perhaps this trip was a bad idea.
“Found a cafe not too far from here,” she says. “You look nice.”
“Oh, I — thank you. I just got this.” Dani gestures toward her sweater.
“Pink is your color,” Hannah adds.
At some point Dani or Eddie must have opened the windows in the apartment; the midday heat and sunlight have saturated the place, soaking everything in a languid summery haze. Jamie rummages in her backpack, which she’d thrown haphazardly on the couch earlier, and produces an old camera.
“Dani,” she says, holding the camera up. “Over here.” When Dani looks at her, eyebrows raised just slightly, her profile stark against the yellow-white light from the window, Jamie holds the camera up to her eye and snaps a picture. The shutter makes a noise, and Dani starts.
“I wasn’t ready!” she says, trying to sound indignant, but smiling.
“That’s what makes all the best pictures,” Jamie says. She winks. “I like ‘em candid.”
Dani reaches for the camera, but Jamie pulls it away. “Lemme see.”
“It’s on film, Poppins, you can’t see it yet.”
Dani used to poke fun at her, gently, for being willfully old-fashioned — her penchant for 80s rock music, her cigarette habit, her preference for keeping a paper journal rather than just using her phone — and even now Jamie is mostly the same, although the performative aspect of it has worn off now that she’s no longer a twenty-two-year-old desperate to seem cool. She prefers the imperfect quality of photos captured on film, is all.
“Jamie’s still a bit of a Luddite, I’m afraid,” Owen says over his shoulder. He and Eddie seem to have gotten the Moka pot figured out; it’s bubbling merrily on the stove, and the smell of coffee drifts from the kitchen into the rest of the room.
“I always liked that about you, actually. I think it’s cool,” Dani says. “You’re, like, timeless.”
“Ah, well.” Jamie rubs at the back of her neck, which suddenly feels warm to the touch. “Did you, erm, have a nice nap?”
“No. Eddie snores —”
“I can’t help it!” he calls from the kitchen, indignant.
“— so I gave up after half an hour and just took a really long shower. I’m gonna be out like a light by eight.”
“You’ve got to stay awake for dinner, at least,” Owen says. “I’m making carbonara. And” — he points at Dani with a coffee spoon — “we’re living like Spaniards this week, so it won’t be ready till late.”
“And you’ll be using us all as your little sous chefs, will you?” Jamie says.
“Of course. You, my dear, are on cheese-grating duty.”
“Right, the job that’s impossible to fuck up, thanks.”
Later in the evening, once Dani has started chain-yawning, Owen finally puts them to work. Eddie, who seems to have taken an immediate liking to him, follows him around the kitchen like an excitable puppy and pays rapt attention as Owen explains to him the contribution of each ingredient, the ratio of egg yolk to whole egg, the importance of reserving leftover pasta water. Hannah, who has conveniently not been given a task, sits at the dining room table with a book and a glass of Cab Sauv, casting occasional fond glances in Owen’s direction.
“Is Eddie much of a cook?” Jamie asks, watching him whisk an egg. She and Dani are set up on the counter on the other side of the room with a couple of cutting boards. Dani chops guanciale into strips that are somehow all the same precise length, while Jamie drags a block of parmesan across the surface of a grater with rough abandon.
“Not that I know of,” Dani says. “I think he’s just enamored by Owen.”
“Better watch out, you’ve got competition.” She watches Dani’s deftness with her knife, the way the tendons in her hand flex and move under her skin. “How are you so good at that?”
“I don’t know, I just am.”
“Good to know you’re better with a knife than you are with a tea-kettle. Although I suppose that’s a pretty low standard.”
Dani laughs and holds up her knife in the space between them. “Don’t test me, okay, I have a weapon.”
The cheese doesn’t take long to grate, and soon Jamie is finished and pouring herself a generous glass of wine. She places it by her cutting board and hoists herself onto the counter, so that she’s sitting right next to where Dani is still slicing the meat.
“So. How’re things with, y’know.” She nods toward Edmund. Dani swivels around to look in his direction. He gives her an oblivious salute. “Okay, I didn’t mean for you to look straight at him.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?”
“I’m trying to engage in gossip .”
“Oh, are you trying to get me to talk shit about my boyfriend?” Dani says, raising her eyebrows, putting a hand on her hip. For a moment Jamie feels genuinely chastised, but then Dani’s stern-teacher expression drops, and she smiles. “Kidding. No, it’s — things are, you know, good. The same, pretty much. Not much to report.”
“Yeah?” Jamie says. She tells herself it’s cruel that her heart is sinking a bit at this news, and manages to tamp down the feeling. “You’re not..?” She holds up her left hand, wiggles her fingers.
“What — oh, God, no. No!” She looks around furtively. Nobody else is paying attention. They’re far enough away from the others that if they talk quietly, no one will even be able to hear them. Dani lowers her voice. “I mean — I — I think he wants to, probably. Soon. He keeps...bringing it up. Like, enough that it seems like he’s trying to test the waters, see how I feel about it.”
Jamie takes a measured sip of her wine. “How do you feel about it?”
“Mmm.” Dani sighs. The guanciale is all sliced; she puts her knife down and leans on the counter, toward Jamie. “That’s the question, huh?”
“Some would say it’s a big part of it, yeah. Your feelings on the matter, I mean,” Jamie says. “Unless he plans on carting you to the church against your will.”
“Y’know,” Dani says thoughtfully, “sometimes I kind of think he wishes he could.”
Jamie inhales her sip of wine a little too fast and chokes on it, spluttering and coughing. Finally, in a hoarse voice, she says, “The fuck does that mean?”
“Well — no, not that, exactly, that came out wrong. That makes it sound like I’m, like, being held hostage. I just meant — oh, you know how it is.” She makes a face like she’s just said something blithe and lighthearted.
“I absolutely do not.”
Dani chews on her lip, looking over her shoulder. She’s fidgeting the way she always does when she’s nervous, rubbing her thumb against her index finger. Her hand rests barely a centimeter away from Jamie’s thigh.
“I guess I just wonder if he really knows what I want, sometimes,” Dani says. “Or — if he cares enough to find out.”
It is dangerous territory, Jamie knows, to be talking so frankly about Dani’s relationship, and not only because half of it is standing only meters away. Jamie is not an objective third party. Still, she says, “And what do you want, exactly?”
“What do you want?”
Dani frowns up at Jamie. Her face is pulled tight, like she’s compressing something inside herself. Jamie can make out the light sheen of Chapstick on her lips. The moment feels like it lasts forever, and then right when Dani opens her mouth to say something, Eddie, from the kitchen, says, “Babe, c’mere, we’ve gotta try this sometime,” and whatever Dani was thinking shatters like ice. She smiles, her mouth drawn wide and tight, and then Jamie watches her go toward Eddie.
Dinner is magnificent, as expected. They sit around the dining table to eat: Dani and Eddie next to each other on one side, Hannah and Owen on the other, Jamie awkwardly placed at the head of the table. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today,” she jokes when she sits down.
Throughout dinner, she can’t help but pay specific attention to Eddie. His behavior, the way he looks at Dani, how he talks to her. Does Dani mind that he keeps his arm slung around the back of her chair like that? Is she angling her body away from him, or just trying to reach the salt shaker? Most importantly, is she actually happy with him?
It isn’t any of her business, just as it wasn’t her business in London, when she used to act as a sounding board for Dani’s complaints about him. Even then she’d realized how quickly her feelings had started running hot. She’d tried to distance herself — the smart option, the cool-headed, most Jamie-esque option — and succeeded for approximately three days before deciding she could put up with the feelings, and would simply stuff them somewhere where they’d never have to be seen or acknowledged. Now the same problem has presented itself to her: it’s impossible for her not to care deeply about Dani Clayton.
“So, Jamie, what do you do?” Eddie asks.
“Gardener,” Jamie says through a mouthful of garlic bread.
“Use your words,” Owen says.
She makes a face at him. “I work for a company that does landscaping, gardening, the like.”
“Jamie’s going to have her own flower shop soon, though,” Hannah says, with a warm smile in her direction. “Isn’t that right?”
Everyone makes impressed, improving sounds at her. “Saving up,” Jamie says. “Hopefully soon it’ll pan out. Fingers crossed, and all that. What about you, Eddie?” Maybe if she gets to know him, like him, form him into a real person in her mind, she can find it in herself to be genuinely happy for Dani.
“Oh, I’m an accountant,” he says. “Pretty boring stuff.”
Never mind, Jamie thinks.
After dinner, she pours herself another glass of wine and drinks it while she washes the dishes. Hannah stands next to her and dries them off. The whole time she has this sense that Dani’s watching her, her skin buzzing with the weight of Dani’s eyes on her, but when she looks up, Dani is listening intently to Owen, who is laid out on the couch and telling a story that involves lots of exaggerated gesticulating. She’d forgotten what it was like, to feel like this. To be in a room with a person who she’s attuned to with her whole being, like the needle of a compass swiveling frantically toward its north. It’s distracting. She’s got dishes to wash.
Everybody retreats to their respective rooms a little after ten, which is when Jamie realizes that the room she’s been saddled with is the one directly adjoining Dani and Eddie’s. The rooms share a wall which, Jamie thinks, can’t possibly be thick enough to block out sound. There’s a rickety wooden bed frame holding up a thin mattress, a couple nondescript pieces of artwork on the walls. Compared to her one-bedroom in London, it’s a palace, and plus, there are two massive east-facing windows on the wall next to the bed, so she’ll be able to wake up with the sun.
Jamie lays in bed for approximately ten minutes before deciding that she isn’t going to be able to fall asleep, so she goes out to the balcony attached to the living room and lights a cigarette. The night air is cool and damp against her skin. A group of teenagers pass by on the street below, laughing and yelling at each other. It smells like a combination of barbecue smoke and rain that makes her suddenly nostalgic, not for anything in particular but in a general, all-encompassing way.
She’s nearly halfway through her cigarette when she hears the metallic squeak of the balcony door behind her. It’s Dani, wearing an oversized sleep shirt with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She stands next to Jamie and says, “Hi.”
“Evening,” Jamie says.
“You still smoke, huh?”
“Notoriously hard to quit, so, yeah.”
“Can I have one?” Dani says, nodding toward her cigarette. Jamie raises her eyebrows at her.
Normally she is not a person who lets others bum cigarettes off of her — they’re expensive, and there’s nothing worse than a non-smoker, “I only smoke when I’m drinking and/or feeling rebellious”-type to waste a cig on — but she has known for a long time that normal behavior doesn’t apply when it comes to Dani, so she just says, “Oh, don’t tell me you’ve started,” already pulling out her packet and tapping one out into her hand. Dani puts it in her mouth and lets Jamie light it for her. She inhales and then coughs once, briefly. Jamie laughs. “Jesus. I’m a bad influence on you.”
“What else is new,” Dani says. She bumps Jamie’s shoulder in what is probably supposed to be a playful gesture, but instead sends something painful, static-electricity-heat, skittering along Jamie’s nerves. “Actually, serious question. What is new? With you?”
Her shoulder feels warmer where Dani brushed it. She takes a long drag to distract herself, watching the smoke curl out when she exhales, and shrugs. “Oh, you know me. Not one for change. ‘S all the same, for the most part.”
“You might be opening up your own shop soon, right? That’s new.”
“Yeah, that’s true, I suppose it is.”
“That’s exciting! You’re not excited?”
Dani is beaming at her. Jamie can’t look straight at her for long, so she stares instead at her cigarette between her knuckles, watching the cherry glow and then dim. “I am, I am. I just don’t like to, I dunno, brag, is all. Don’t care much for the attention.”
“You should be bragging, you deserve it,” Dani says. “Fine, I’ll brag on your behalf.”
“Oh, thanks,” Jamie says, smiling out of the corner of her mouth.
Somewhere in the distance, a car horn honks, and then a man yells something in Spanish. Jamie hasn’t traveled much in her life, but in this moment, on the balcony looking out at Madrid, she can see the appeal. There’s a heady, delicious newness to everything, a distinct sense of possibility in each moment, in this disruption to her usual day-to-day, week-to-week drudgery. Here she’s just a person, having experiences. Here she can stand next to Dani, their arms nearly touching, and feel her heart racing and her skin flushing, and one day she can look back on it as a lovely little interlude in reality.
“Okay, so,” Dani says. She hooks her elbow around Jamie’s upper arm and leans gently into her shoulder. “Anything new in the, you know,” — she makes a broad gesture with her hand that clarifies nothing — “women department?”
Jamie gives a sidelong, amused look. “The women department , really?”
“You get the point.”
She shakes her head. “Nothing at all, no.”
“Yeah, no,” she says, wishing they’d move on from this particular subject. In fact, the last time she’d had anything remotely serious with a girl, it had been a year after Dani left London, and the girl in question had gotten sick of Jamie spending so much time on the phone with Dani. Which was fair, obviously; Jamie hadn’t been angry about it. Actually she hadn’t cared at all. Since then, there hasn’t really been anyone else.
“I remember you being sort of a player,” Dani says.
“Oh my God,” Jamie says. Dani giggles. “I was not.”
“Mmm, I dunno. I can name, like, five or ten girls who might disagree?”
“Not ten,” she protests. Dani is talking about the string of half-hearted hookups that Jamie undertook in February of Dani’s London year, in a misguided attempt to flush Dani out of her system (although Dani doesn’t know that last bit). “Well. Maybe ten.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Dani is teasing her, Jamie knows, smiling with her tongue between her teeth, leaning further into her still. “I’ve, um — I’ve really missed you.”
“We talk all the time,” Jamie says, which is not exactly true. They talk probably once a month now.
“Yeah, I know, but.” She lowers her voice, as if they’re discussing some sort of secret rather than the very public and un-scandalous fact of their friendship. “You know it’s not the same.”
For a year after Dani left London, she and Jamie would talk on the phone almost every day, despite the six-hour time difference. Sometimes Dani would call her at the end of her day once she’d gotten back from the library or from her student-teaching hours, and even though it’d be eleven at night in London, Jamie would pick up and they’d talk until two or three in the morning. Often Jamie would fall asleep on the phone with her and wake up the next morning to find that Dani hadn’t hung up even then, had just fallen asleep herself, and Jamie would stay as still as she could in bed, listening to her breathing on the other end of the line for long enough to feel like a creep before hanging up. Other days Dani would call for just a few minutes in between her classes, each time saying something torturous and lovely like, “I’m busy tonight, but I just really wanted to hear your voice for a sec.”
Then Dani graduated from college (summa cum laude, which Jamie had had to Google). Jamie and Owen had wanted to come visit for the ceremony but hadn’t had the money, at the time, for a flight to America; Dani had offered to pay, but Jamie’s pride hadn’t let her accept. She and Eddie — they’d apparently patched up their relationship after the fiasco that was Dani’s study-abroad year — moved in together. And slowly the calls had puttered out. It was understandable, Jamie knew; Dani was falling asleep next to someone else now, next to her actual boyfriend and probably eventual husband, and besides it was probably weird to be spending forty hours a week on the phone with someone you weren’t dating, anyway.
Jamie knew that. She knew that when the phone calls started and she knew that even before, back in London when Dani started spending the night at her flat and would curl up into her in her tiny twin bed without any acknowledgement of what was happening, and she knew that when it stopped through some mutual, silent agreement between them. She only let it continue for as long as it did because it felt good, because she felt good with Dani, alive in a way she hadn’t before, and the good outweighed the hurt of knowing that to Dani, it meant nothing more than what it was on the surface. Dani was a good friend; Dani thought Jamie was a good friend. The rest of it, the affectionate touches and the late-night calls and the inordinate amount of time they spent with each other, was just Dani being Dani.
“Yeah,” Jamie says, before the silence can stretch on between them for too long. She looks back at the city, sprawling out before them, alive and glittering with light. “Yeah, I’ve missed you too.”
Come find me on Tumblr at @ glutaminase!
This is an absolute monster of a chapter; I keep trying to write reasonable-length works, and then bam there's almost 9k words on the page. Content!
Also, I apologize for any errors in Britpicking. If they exist, it's due to the fact that I have never actually met a British person. Feel free to point them out to me if you spot any.
The next morning, Jamie wakes up later than she usually does, which is still earlier than anyone else. She puts on a pot of tea and listens to it steam and hiss, and then she puts on coffee, too, for Dani. Dani has no concept of what makes coffee good or bad, and will happily drink anything caffeinated that’s put in front of her, but Jamie takes out her phone and Googles “how to make good coffee in Moka pot” anyway. She grinds beans and heats water and measures their ratios according to the online instructions, paying meticulous attention to the process, hoping all the while that no one will come out of their room and catch her doing this. Owen would never let her live it down.
When everyone starts waking up and mulling around, getting ready for the day, Jamie takes the pot off the stove and pours it into one of the ceramic mugs she found in the kitchen cabinet. Dani comes ambling down the hallway a little after Owen and Hannah, and Jamie says, “D’you want coffee?”, holding up the mug.
Nobody else looks over at them or seems to consider this out of the ordinary, but Dani says, “Oh, did you make that for me?”
Jamie shrugs and hands her the coffee. When Dani takes a sip of it, she gives Jamie a small private smile over the lip of the mug.
According to Hannah and Dani’s consolidated trip agenda (Jamie had been right: Dani does, also, have an itemized list of things for them to do), today’s plan mainly consists of museum-hopping: the Reina Sofia, the Prado, the Thyssen if they have time.
Jamie used to be somewhat indifferent to art, but in London, Dani had insisted on taking her to the Tate once, which Jamie had never been to despite living in London all her life. When Jamie told her this, Dani made a face of exaggerated surprise. “Tickets aren’t free, you know,” Jamie said, and the next day Dani showed up at her flat with two electronic tickets already on her phone, telling her, when Jamie protested (more at the idea of Dani paying for her than anything else), that their entry had already been paid for, and would go to waste if Jamie said no. So she followed Dani around the museum, feeling ridiculously out of place as a twenty-two-year-old in her old faded jeans and a ratty t-shirt among families of tourists and well-dressed couples on dates.
Looking back, she thinks Dani had probably picked up on her nervousness, unspoken as it was; she’d taken Jamie’s hand in her own, holding the little exhibition map in the other, periodically reading off interesting facts about the artists, and didn’t let go of Jamie until they were back at her flat. Jamie had always been so focused on the things she wanted to do for Dani, the concrete kindnesses that she could provide for her, that she’d forgotten all the small ways in which Dani took care of her, too.
(Also, she does like art, as it turned out.)
The Airbnb is fairly close to the Reina Sofia, so they walk over after everyone finishes their various morning routines. It’s a hot, sunny day, and by the time they get to the plaza where it’s located, Jamie’s skin is already sticky with sweat and the sunscreen that Dani insisted she wear. Their tickets don’t allow entry until noon; they pass the time until then by sitting at a nearby cafe and snacking idly.
Eddie sits with his arm around Dani’s shoulders, and talks at length about something going on at his accounting firm while Owen and Hannah nod along politely, asking questions at the appropriate intervals. Eddie, although overall friendly and sociable, doesn't seem to be very good at reading other people’s responses to him, which is probably why he thinks absolutely anyone at the table gives a shit about equity-based financial instruments or whatever the fuck it is he’s on about now. Jamie, who has a nearly pathological inability to pretend to care about things, ignores him and just watches Dani instead. She’s staring blankly into the table as she eats her croissant in tiny careful bites, a distant expression on her face. She doesn’t even look bored, just absent. Periodically Eddie directs a comment in her direction and she looks up for long enough to make a hum of assent.
“So,” Jamie says when she’s had enough of Eddie’s blustering. “Poppins. You finding everything alright with the new school?”
Dani has just started a new job teaching at a secondary school, which is a first, for her. Previously she’s only taught primary school, as far as Jamie can remember.
“Poppins?” Eddie says. “What’s that?”
“As in Mary,” Owen explains.
Eddie continues to look puzzled, so Jamie adds, “Governess, schoolteacher, same difference.” She didn’t actually give it much thought when she gave Dani the nickname; it just sort of came out of her mouth once, and happened to stick. “Anyway.” She nods at Dani, who is mid-bite of her croissant.
“Mmm,” she says, and swallows. “Actually so great. Seventh grade is such a weird age, you know, so I was super nervous to start, but — the kids seem to really like me, or at least last year they did, and the school has so many extra little opportunities to help out —”
“She’s teaching an ESL class after school next year,” Eddie adds. “No extra pay, just on a volunteer basis.”
It doesn’t sound like a negative thing when he says it, but Dani’s face draws just the slightest bit tighter, probably not even in a way that would have been noticeable if Jamie wasn’t always paying such rapt attention. “Well, you know, there’s a lot of kids in the district that need it,” she says, quietly, to Eddie.
“Right, yeah, of course,” he says.
“Oh, you were always so good at that sort of thing,” Hannah says. “Do you remember those kids you used to watch for a little while? What were their names again — they lived right down the street from the bakery, isn’t that right, Owen?”
“Miles and Flora, yeah,” Owen says. “Mr. Wingrave’s kids, I think. Wingrave,” he tells Eddie, “owned the place where I used to work.”
“His niece and nephew,” Dani adds. “Good kids. I wonder how they’re doing.”
“You never told me you were babysitting when you were there,” Eddie says.
“Yeah, I don’t — I think it was when we were, you know, not really, um, talking that often.”
“It wasn’t much, anyway, I’d just go over there a couple days a week after class to watch ‘em.”
Owen reaches over Hannah to grab a biscuit from Jamie’s plate, dodging her attempt to swat his hand away. “D’you know,” he says, “I hear they’re in America now. Wingrave sold all his properties, stopped drinking so much, started giving a damn about the kids, and fucked off out of London, I suppose.”
“Oh, that’s such a relief to hear,” Dani says. “I honestly got the impression that he barely even, like, knew their names. They’d try to pretend they didn’t care that he didn’t seem to want to spend any time with them, which is just — you know, awful to see from a kid. They can’t have been any older than eight and ten at the time.”
Jamie had met Flora and Miles a few times, when Dani had asked her if she wanted to keep her company while she watched them. They lived in a massive flat, two floors separated by a wrought-iron spiral staircase that Jamie thought was bound to cause some horrific accident, with minimalistic yet expensive-looking decorations that gave the whole place an anesthetized look, like the waiting room of a hospital.
“I feel like I’m gonna break something just by standing here,” Jamie said when they were inside.
“Honestly, you could shatter everything in this damn apartment and Henry wouldn’t notice.”
Flora took an immediate liking to Jamie, who hadn’t interacted with an eight-year-old in years and wasn’t sure how to respond to one calling her the coolest. They found an old checkers set in a closet, and Jamie taught Flora how to play, letting her win enough rounds that Flora began to suspect that she was losing on purpose.
After both the kids were put to bed, they sat in the living room drinking Mr. Wingrave’s fancy whiskey, which was apparently allowed, and watching terrible romantic comedies off of Dani’s Netflix watch-list. Dani had been uncharacteristically silent for much of the evening, and it was clear that there was something on her mind.
“I wish I could do more for them,” she said during a lull in the film’s plot, when Jamie asked what she was thinking. “I mean, obviously as a babysitter I just have to, like, keep them fed and alive, but — they need so much more than that, you know, and there’s no one looking out for them to make sure they get it.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, watching Dani. She had her brow furrowed, eyes cast to the ground. “But I’m sure the time you spend with them counts for something, too. I mean, they love you, having you around is miles better than nothing.”
Gently, Jamie said, “You can’t save everyone, Dani.”
“Well, I can try.”
Jamie raised her eyebrows at her. Dani sniffed and moved closer to her on the couch, tucking her legs underneath her, and rested her head on Jamie’s chest. Jamie put her arm around her almost automatically; by that point it might as well have been muscle memory.
“I think maybe I’m projecting a little bit,” Dani said. “They just —”
She stopped herself. “What?” Jamie said.
“Never mind, it’s — I don’t want to make it about me.”
Jamie shrugged. “Feel like it can be at least a little bit about you. You’re part of it.”
“Hm.” She took a sip from her glass and then scrunched her face up, wrinkling her nose. “Ugh, God. I keep trying to like whiskey, but I just can’t.”
“Well, Christ, don’t waste it then,” Jamie said, laughing. “That’s good stuff. Give it to me if you don’t like it.”
Dani pressed the glass into Jamie’s hand. “I guess what I was trying to say is just — they remind me of me, when I was their age. You know?”
“With your mum?” Jamie said.
“Yeah. I don’t know, I just see how fast they’re having to grow up, how they have to, like, navigate their lives now without anyone really there to help them, and it’s — I mean, it just sucks. And I hate feeling like there’s nothing I can do.” She sighed. “It’s not even malicious on Henry’s part, I know it isn’t. He just doesn’t know how to do any of this. But it’s still —” She shook her head. “Anyway. It’s just upsetting to watch, you know.”
Jamie hadn’t yet told Dani about her own childhood: her father’s absence, benign as it was; her mother’s various forms of escape, first into other men and then literally; the foster homes and trouble with the law. She’d tell her, eventually, but that was for another night. Still, she nodded, and said, “I know.”
A long while passed in silence. On the TV, the characters of whatever they were watching seemed to be having a dramatic moment: a girl was crying and reading out a poem, while a boy, ostensibly the subject of the poem, watched her with an expression that seemed significant. Jamie sniffed.
“Are you — oh my God, are you tearing up?” Dani said, craning her neck to look at her face. “You are, you big softie.”
“No,” Jamie said gruffly, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. She kept her eyes fixed on the screen, but could see, in her periphery, Dani grinning at her.
The movie ended, and then the next one in Dani’s queue one came on automatically. Jamie remembers the sweet woody burn of the whiskey, the heaviness settling into her bones after she finished her glass and then Dani’s, the heat of Dani in her arms and the steady rise and fall of her breath. She remembers how badly she wished she could stretch that moment out forever, how she regretted the alcohol because of the way it’d blurred her senses; if she were sober, she thought, she could experience it all with sharper clarity, and could commit it to memory that much better. Instead, she let her eyes drift shut, falling asleep sometime in the middle of the second movie. When she woke up a few hours later, Dani was watching her with a strange, tender light in her eyes.
At the Reina Sofia the five of them stand in front of Guernica, which is massive, much larger than it looks in pictures. Dani nudges Jamie’s shoulder and says, “What do you think?”
“It’s big,” is all she offers. In reality she thinks it’s affecting and arresting in a way that goes beyond theory, but she doesn’t know how to put it into words in a way that won’t sound pretentious, like she’s playing at something beyond her grasp.
As usual, Dani has the map they were given at the entrance unfolded in her hand, and is directing them in the recommended order of exhibits. Her other hand is clasped in Eddie’s; it looks almost comical, her small hand dwarfed by his larger one. Jamie ambles along awkwardly at her side, listening as Dani tells them both about the pieces she most wants to see. It’s sweet, the way Dani keeps going out of her way to make Jamie feel included, too.
Once they’re done with the exhibits, they loiter around the garden in the middle of the museum, where Owen takes pictures of Hannah in front of various flowers and posts them all to his Instagram story, captioning them with increasingly bad puns. Hannah, posing in front of a hibiscus and suppressing a smile, says, “How many bloody pictures of me do you have on that phone?”
Owen, taking several more, says, “Not enough.”
“God, they’re cute,” Dani says. Eddie nods his assent.
Jamie allows a small side-smile. It’s difficult to watch Hannah and Owen without feeling a little sentimental about a good love story. “You know, the fact that they’ve been together for more than five years, and they still fuckin’ adore each other, that’s really something.”
“Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” Eddie says.
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “Rarely ever is, though, at least in my experience.”
Dani, Jamie notes, stays pointedly silent on the matter. She bites at her thumbnail, looking off into the middle distance again, the same way she was at the cafe. She’s gotten so much harder to read, Jamie thinks. Before, Jamie used to be able to tell from a single look what Dani was thinking, how she was feeling. Actually, she rarely even had to think about it, because Dani had never gone to much effort to hide anything from Jamie; if she was upset, or angry, or even particularly happy, she’d tell Jamie all about it, eventually.
Now, there seems to be a second layer to everything Dani does, and Jamie isn’t sure how to reconcile these new parts of her — her wearier eyes, her occasional lapses into silence — with the girl who used to be so open, so alive. It isn’t that Dani’s changed, really. It seems more as if parts of her have retreated somewhere else, replaced by what looks, to Jamie, like a shiny plastic veneer.
Or, she considers, she’s reading far too deeply into things that have nothing to do with her, and don’t require her analysis or input. Possibly Dani is just jetlagged. Or hungry, or any number of other things. But then there’s also the matter of the cryptic things she said before dinner last night, the little groove of a frown between her eyebrows that appeared when she was talking about Eddie.
Jamie has directly brought up this subject — of Eddie, and the question of Dani’s happiness with him — exactly once, of her own volition. It was in January, Dani’s second term in London, the week she got back from her Christmas vacation. Prior to Dani’s departure, they’d had a lot of long, torturous conversations about him, during which Dani would dissect every aspect of their relationship and why things weren’t working, while Jamie nodded along and did her best to offer input that was both honest and not too invasive. Jamie thought that Dani, prior to leaving, had settled on the idea of breaking up with him, but a couple days went by after break without Dani saying anything about the matter. Jamie had finally brought it up while Dani was over at her flat one evening.
"So," she said, gently. "Did you — did anything happen with Eddie?"
"What do you mean," Dani said. She had her notebook open on her legs and her laptop up on Jamie's small dinette table, displaying a Powerpoint for one of her classes, from which she was scribbling down notes.
"Well, I thought you said you were...thinking about...maybe breaking up with him."
"Oh. Yeah, um, I didn't. I didn't end up doing it."
"Ah," Jamie said, trying to keep her face still and neutral. "How come?"
"I just changed my mind.”
Jamie nodded. "Right. Okay."
She continued washing dishes in the sink while Dani did her work at the table. The silence felt different than it normally was when they were together; there was something that remained unsaid, Jamie thought, that was stretching like elastic in the space between them.
Dani poured herself another glass of wine. All Jamie could hear was the sound of her pen scratching at her notebook and the tap-tap-tap of her foot, jiggling underneath the table. She finished doing the dishes and then cast about for another kitchen task to do. Finally Dani shut her laptop with a percussive click and said, flatly, like it was something she'd rehearsed, "I don't appreciate your tone when you talk to me about Eddie."
Jamie, in the middle of wiping down the countertop, fumbled and dropped the sponge she was holding. "What?"
“Like you’re — like you think I’m doing the wrong thing, or judging me, or something.”
“Dani,” Jamie said. “What are you —”
"I know you think I should break up with him," Dani said.
"I don't — I didn't mean to sound like I was — "
"It’s just, it’s not that easy. I'm doing my best," Dani said, in a tremulous voice. She was picking at a sticker on her laptop, a little cartoon of two otters holding hands. Jamie had a matching one on her water bottle, the only sticker on there, in fact; Dani had sent it to her as part of a Christmas gift, enclosed in a card that said We need each otter. "I'm doing the best I can, okay, I'm trying to — I don't know, just, figure out what's best for myself and for him and his family and my family, and there's, like, a million people around me always telling me what I should do, and I don't — I don't need you joining in, telling me what to do. I know, I know, you think I'm making a mistake staying with him, you don't think he's right for me — "
"I've never said that," Jamie said, though she'd thought it enough times that she might as well have spoken it out loud.
"Yeah, well, you sure don't try to hide it."
Jamie's chest felt tight. This conversation had gotten away from her so rapidly and so dramatically it was making her dizzy to try to retrace its path. “I remember we talked about it before you left,” she said, slowly. “So I just wanted to check in.”
Dani remained silent, still staring down at the lid of her laptop. She was clenching her jaw, her nostrils flaring just barely, the way they did when she was angry and trying hard not to be.
After a few minutes of increasingly tense silence, Jamie ventured, “D’you want me to walk you home?” Still silence. Jamie ran the sponge under the tap and wrung it out. “Not — not that I want you to leave, you can stay as long as you like. Just, if you did want to leave, I can walk you whenever.”
She was about to say something else, maybe offer Dani a cup of tea, when there was a high, choked sound from Dani’s direction. Belatedly, Jamie saw that Dani was crying, silently for the most part except that small noise that had escaped, her eyes closed and her mouth trembling.
“Fuck,” Jamie said. She dropped the sponge and knelt next to Dani, wiping off her still-wet hands on her t-shirt and then rubbing small circles into Dani’s upper back. “Jesus, Dani, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to — well, I guess it doesn’t matter what I meant. I’m really sorry.”
“No, it’s not you,” Dani said after a moment. She took a steadying breath and wiped at her eyes with the heel of one hand, blinking up at the ceiling once she’d managed to stem the tears. “I’m sorry, it’s really not you.”
“Nothing. Or, just, everything, I don’t know.” She sighed and put her face in the crook of Jamie’s neck. “I just had a really stressful break, I — I hate being home.”
“Well,” Jamie said. “You’re here now. So that’s one good thing.”
“London’s missed you.”
“Is that your emotionally-unavailable way of trying to tell me you missed me?”
Jamie laughed. “Yeah, I s’pose it is.”
“You’re cute,” Dani said. She hooked one arm loosely around Jamie’s shoulders, the other around her neck, so that they were sitting in an odd sort of almost-embrace. “I missed you, too.”
Jamie wanted so badly to kiss Dani, then. On the surface it felt like the perfect moment for it: Dani’s face just inches away from her own, her cheeks flushed, lips slightly parted. Blue eyes searching Jamie’s, looking a little too long and too deeply. The flat somewhat dim around them, because the bulb over the dinette had blown out earlier that day and Jamie hadn’t had time to replace it yet. She could see the tears still wet on Dani’s eyelashes.
Once, a few years after the fact, Jamie had a dream about this night. In it, she put her hand against Dani’s face, curled her fingers around the back of her neck, guided her closer. It felt so real, the heat of skin against her palm and Dani’s hair tickling her hand, and she pulled her in and then she kissed her, long and languid and real, and then she woke up.
In reality, the moment lingered for a little longer than normal, and then Dani looked away and said, “And I’m insanely busy already. It’s supposed to be syllabus week, and I already have a freaking massive reading list to get through.”
She turned back to her laptop. Jamie resumed cleaning the kitchen, and then they talked some more about Dani’s break, along with less important things, and then it was time for Dani to go back home.
The Prado, where they go after a quick lunch, is grand and sprawling. Jamie tries to take things in with a discerning eye, listening to Dani talk about Bosch and Velázquez and Goya, but mostly her aesthetic sensibilities boil down to the simple, completely non-intellectual fact that she just likes looking at beautiful things, which the museum has no shortage of.
At one point, she becomes aware that Dani is watching her with a small smile on her face. Her gaze feels hot on Jamie’s face, like a concentrated spotlight.
“What?” Jamie asks.
Dani shakes her head, blushing slightly at being caught. “Nothing.”
“There must be something, or you wouldn’t be looking at me like that.”
“It’s just funny how you always say you don’t understand art and whatever, and here you are, understanding art.”
“How do you know if I’m understanding anything?” Jamie says. “Could just be staring, not comprehending shit.”
“Just the way you’re looking at it. I can tell you’re thinking.”
“Oh, yeah. I can practically...” She puts a finger to Jamie’s forehead, taps on it. “...see the gears turning in there.”
Jamie laughs. “Not sure how many gears there are to turn, but thanks.”
They move on to the next painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, which is fucked up in the kind of way Jamie wants to keep looking at. Dani says, “So are you gonna tell me what you’re thinking about?”
“Think I like these more than the contemporary stuff from earlier,” Jamie says, looking up at the painting.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s — more evocative, for me, if that makes sense. But I dunno if that’s just because I’m not smart enough for the other stuff. It all seems very abstract, you know, over my head.”
She follows Jamie’s gaze up to the painting, her brows furrowed. “No, I agree, I think,” she says.
“‘M hardly an art critic, though, so take that with a grain of salt.”
Dani rolls her eyes, smiles in a familiar, fond way. “I just like hearing what you think about things.”
It’s a small compliment, nothing out of the ordinary from Dani, but it echoes in Jamie’s mind for the rest of the afternoon.
For dinner that night, they go to a tapas place. They order everything on the menu that looks good — patatas bravas, ham croquettes, platefuls of shrimp, mushrooms smothered in garlic, a massive cheese board that comes with an assortment of breads, and, of course, a couple pitchers of sangria — and share everything, reaching across the table to steal from each others’ plates. It is the sort of evening Jamie wishes she could bottle up to return to on rainy London days, purely distilled warmth and joy and indulgence.
Owen drinks too much and becomes immediately sentimental and clingy, insisting on holding Hannah’s hand throughout his meal, which she pretends to be annoyed by but convinces no one. Dani, too, seems much more present than she was during lunch. Jamie tries not to look in her direction too often or too obviously, but every time she smiles it’s like a magnet that draws Jamie’s gaze in, her white teeth and the easy music of her laugh.
“This is so nice,” Dani says through a mouthful of potato. “I missed this.”
“Move to England,” Owen says. “Could have this every day.”
“Y’know, I wouldn’t mind that, to be honest.” Dani scrapes one of the soft cheeses on the board onto a piece of bread. “Not even kidding.”
“London misses you,” Jamie says. Dani smiles in her direction.
“Oh, we’re actually flying back that way, when we leave,” Eddie says.
Jamie blinks at him. “For real?”
He looks at Dani. “Yeah. Danielle wanted to spend a day there, so we booked a flight out of Heathrow instead of from here.”
“I just miss it, you know,” Dani says. She hasn’t visited London since her study-abroad. “Wanted to at least get a little glimpse of it before we go back.”
“That’ll be nice,” Hannah says.
Jamie tries to put these pieces together in her mind again, imagining Dani in London, Dani and Eddie in London, again. It feels somehow wrong. Dissonant, like a misplaced chord in a song. Actually London has felt a little dissonant to her ever since Dani left, which is weird, considering it’s Jamie’s own city. But it’s funny, she thinks, how much one person can change the way everything about a place feels. How, with Dani around, a cloudy day could feel cozy and warm, and a regular day at work could be brightened by the prospect of a quick lunch together, and a night spent indoors, watching the same movies as always, could feel new every time. After Dani left, there were a couple nights where, unable to sleep for some reason or another, Jamie would retrace some of their old routes around the city: she’d walk up to the student-housing flats where Dani used to live, past the park where they fed ducks (and then immediately been admonished by the police because apparently that made the ducks aggressive), over the pedestrian bridge that they’d been strolling across when Dani had first reached out for Jamie’s hand, all the way back in September.
Without Dani the city became cold and grey again, and a small part of Jamie used to think that maybe she, too, was that way, that she’d been brought to life by Dani alone. She understood, on a theoretical level, that it was absurd and unhealthy to think that way. She’d been to enough therapy, she knew all the principles and practices, that there was nothing another person could give to her that she couldn’t give to herself, etc.
Still, she felt it, sometimes. She could probably feel it even now if she let herself.
After they’re finished with their meals and have moved onto their third round of drinks, Dani gets up to go to the bathroom. Eddie leans out of his seat for several seconds, watching her disappear down the long hallway that leads to the restrooms. Once she turns the corner, he turns back to the table and gestures for everyone to get closer to him.
“I’ve gotta tell you guys something,” he says, “but you can’t tell Danielle. Absolutely cannot say a word to her.”
“Mmm.” Jamie frowns. “Weird request. Out with it.”
“Well — no, no, it’s not, like, a bad secret.” His face is slightly reddened, his hair a little messy from the way he’s always running his hands through it.
“Oh, I love good secrets,” Owen says.
“Okay, okay.” Eddie glances at the bathroom hallway again, and then lowers his voice to a whisper. He’s a bit drunk, so he’s really not being as quiet as he thinks he is. “I think I’m gonna — I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”
For a moment, there is only stunned silence. Jamie looks at Owen and Hannah, both of whom who are staring at Eddie with wide-eyed faces of surprise that make them look like they’re trying to decide on the appropriate amount of joy to express. She says, cautiously, “What — tonight?”
“No, no, not tonight,” Eddie whispers. “But — on this trip, hopefully, if I can find the right moment. I brought the ring, do you guys wanna see —?”
Owen and Hannah lean in over the table to look as Eddie takes a small velvet box out of his pocket. Jamie hangs back and tries to act coolly indifferent, but when he flips the lid of the box open, she can’t resist glancing at it.
“My God,” Hannah says. “That’s beautiful.”
Jamie disagrees. It’s flashy and ostentatious, with a giant diamond sitting on top of a gaudy, studded gold band. She can’t imagine it’s something Dani would ever want to wear, but she is, of course, not the one Dani’s been dating for over a decade.
“It’s, uh, quite a ring,” she says.
“You think she’ll like it?” Eddie asks. He looks so hopeful, so happy, like a little boy behind those stupid glasses. Jamie wishes it was easier to dislike him.
“Sure,” Jamie says; at the same time, Owen pipes up and says, “Absolutely, she’s gonna love it.”
Eddie looks relieved. He pushes up his glasses with his knuckles. “Oh, good, good. It’s — my mom helped me pick it out, so.”
“When are you going to do it?” Hannah says.
He shrugs, which seems to Jamie like a gesture that should not be used when it comes to asking someone to marry you. “I’m not a hundred percent sure yet. Whenever it feels right, I guess? I mean, I’ve been carrying this thing around with me all day today, even. But I’m also, you know, nervous as hell, obviously.”
Jamie raises her eyebrows at him. “It’s fair to assume you two have...talked about this, yeah?”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” he says. “I mean, she —”
“She’s coming back, she’s coming back,” Owen hisses, and Eddie snaps the box shut and fumbles it back into his pocket, just seconds before Dani rounds the corner and comes back into view. Eddie is tomato-red when he pulls Dani’s chair out for her to sit back down, but if she notices it, she doesn’t say anything.
By the time they get back to the Airbnb, it’s late enough that everyone quickly disperses into their own rooms for the night. Jamie dims the lights in her own room and takes off her earrings, drapes her jacket across the chair in the corner of the room, pulls the curtains back. Through the window she can see grey, cotton-wisp streaks of clouds obscuring the moon.
She was right about the wall between her room and Dani’s: it’s too thin to block noise. She can hear Eddie and Dani’s voices — too quiet to make out any discernible words, but the high lilt of Dani’s speech is clear, as is Eddie’s much lower register. Distantly, she wishes Eddie wouldn’t have told them about his plan to propose. Now every nice moment is going to be a potential occasion for him to get down on one knee and bumble his way through a rehearsed speech. Maybe he’d read it off the Notes app on his phone, or just string together some platitudes on the spot, some generic tripe about love and marriage, without ever once saying anything specific to Dani.
Or maybe she’s being unfair to him. Possibly she just needs to get out of her own head, and spend five minutes doing something that doesn’t involve thinking about Dani. She’s not sure when she became a person who needs to tell herself that, but she doesn’t like it.
When she’s done brushing her teeth and washing her face, she settles into bed and turns on the TV, flips through channels aimlessly until she realizes that everything is in Spanish, and then turns it back off. She’s going through her backpack, trying to decide whether to journal (an old habit, a useful holdover from therapy), read, or just switch off the lights and go to bed, when she hears something odd from the other side of her wall.
A creaking sound, like a door opening, or — bedsprings, Jamie thinks belatedly.
For a moment, there are no further noises. Jamie realizes she’s been sitting with her ears almost physically perked, the way a dog would upon hearing something interesting, which is a new level of pathetic, for her. Then she hears a hushed groan, distinctly male, followed by a, “Fuck, Danielle—”, aborted halfway through, like he’s been shushed or physically quieted. Jamie allows herself to imagine Dani’s hand clapped hastily over his mouth, maybe a whispered shut up.
She sits there, frozen with what could be amused horror (that this is happening to her), irritation (that she won’t be able to go to sleep until this is over), a shameful sort of jealousy (obvious reasons), disgust (at herself, for the aforementioned jealousy) — she can’t decide which one, it could be all of those at once — until a rhythmic knocking starts up, ostensibly the headboard against the wall, at which point she scrambles out of bed and, almost unthinking, throws on a pair of running shorts, a thin tank top, and her trainers.
Minutes later she’s stepping out of the Airbnb’s building and into the warm night. Earlier, when they were walking to dinner, the footpath was choked with strangers falling out of bars and sitting at outdoor restaurant tables, but now, well past midnight, it’s considerably emptier. She pulls out her phone and drops a pin at her location on Google Maps (the embarrassment of getting lost would maybe be worse than having to hear Dani and Eddie having sex mere feet away from her), puts her headphones in, turns her music up high, and starts running.
Jamie initially took up running a couple years ago, during a brief attempt to quit smoking; a friend had suggested it as both a physical distraction and as added motivation to stop fucking up her lungs. The not-smoking didn’t stick, although she does smoke much less now than she used to, but the running did. It’s meditative, the slap of her shoes against concrete, the burning in her chest. Like the more physical aspects of gardening, it gives her something to do with her body while she thinks.
The problem, she thinks, is that she hadn’t even known that there was a little vestige of hope left in her until this trip. That misplaced hope, that all of Dani’s small glances and touches and tender smiles could mean something in secret, had sustained twenty-two-year-old Jamie for so long, until it hadn’t. She’s older now, too old for this, and Dani is older too, and soon to be back across the pond, married before thirty.
This is what she tells herself. But underneath the stupid, visceral hurt, there’s something else — a sort of pain that’s almost exquisite in its potency, in its ability to make Jamie feel so much at once. Like the prickle of frisson upon hearing a moving piece of music, or the urge to press on a bruise. It hurts because she’s alive. Around Dani she feels more alive than she ever has, and Jamie is no longer the kind of person who would trade authentic pain for the anesthetic of running away from it.
When she was young, really young, she used to cry at everything: at sad Disney movies, and after seeing the new kid eating alone at lunch, and often when her dad would leave for work early every day, and especially when her mum would grow impatient with her and snap at her to stop crying, dammit. As she got older she figured out how to hide it, a little better each year, in the normal way that kids have to, when they start growing up and realizing it doesn’t do a person much good to feel so strongly and so visibly. Then her mum left, and she’d been saddled with Mikey, and she had to learn how to hide the rest of it all at once; there was no longer any time or space for her feelings, which was just the nature of the situation, no one to take the time to listen to you or care when you’re being shuffled in and out of foster homes every few months. It was out of necessity and later experience that she’d been molded into the persona she carries now, the acerbic exterior, but sometimes — more often than she’d like to admit — she still feels like that hypersensitive, lonely little kid, the one who hurt too much for her own good and didn’t have anywhere to put all of it.
That’s the thing about Dani; something about her says safety, to Jamie, safe to put her love into and safe to show the ugly parts of herself to. Safe to lean on. It’s hard, she thinks, getting to have that and then trying to give it up.
When she gets back to the flat, a little less than an hour later, Dani is in the kitchen. Something in Jamie’s chest gives a funny little squeeze at the sight of her, huddled on a barstool with her hair down and her makeup off. She likes Dani best this way, with an unassuming softness about her.
“Poppins,” Jamie says. “What are you doing up?”
A tin of biscuits sits at Dani’s elbow, a book lying open in front of her. She turns a page absently, eyes down. “Could ask you the same —”
Dani looks up, a biscuit half-bitten off and in her mouth, and takes in Jamie’s sweat-soaked form: her tank top sticking to her stomach, her hair in a hopeless tangle. Jamie runs one hand through it and shifts awkwardly from one foot through another. It’s not the best she’s ever looked.
“Y — you’re, um.” Dani quickly chews and swallows the biscuit half, makes a broad gesture to indicate Jamie’s body. “Sweaty.”
“Oh, am I?” Jamie says, plucking at her shirt. She leans against the countertop behind her. “Didn’t notice.”
“Why?” Dani says. “I mean, why are you — did you go somewhere?”
“Went for a run, yeah.” She turns on the cold tap and leans over the sink so that she can splash water over her face.
“You run now?”
“I try to.” She wipes off her face with a paper towel. “It’s an alternative remedy for nights when I’d otherwise be chain-smoking until dawn.”
Jamie pulls down a cup from above the sink and fills it with water, taking a long, greedy drink from it. A thin trickle of water spills from the lip of the cup and down her chin, landing on her chest. “Shit.” She lifts her top at its hem and wipes the water off, then wipes her face dry for good measure.
“It’s kinda late,” Dani says, without taking her eyes off of Jamie. “To be going for a run.”
“Yeah. Nice night for it, though.”
“Hot. Outside,” she clarifies, when Jamie gives her a questioning look. “It’s, um, hot. Outside, it’s a — it’s hot out.”
“Ah. Sure, yeah, it’s pretty hot out.” Jamie raises an eyebrow at her. “You alright?”
Jamie settles down on the stool next to her and steals a biscuit from the tin. Dani watches her do this with an inscrutable expression. Her cheeks look a little pinker than usual, flushed in the way she gets when she’s embarrassed, or, well — probably from earlier, which Jamie is trying very hard not to think about now.
“Fine,” Dani says.
Dani shows her the cover. Sense and Sensibility.
“Mm,” Jamie says. “Good stuff.”
Dani hums, smiles. “If I didn’t know you better, I wouldn’t have pegged you for an Austen fan.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?’
“You know, you’ve got your whole…” She waves her hand in Jamie’s general direction. “Aesthetic, your look, whatever you wanna call it. Oh, Eddie thinks you’re, like, unbelievably cool, by the way.”
This is news to her. “And?”
“And nothing,” Dani says, rolling her eyes. Jamie likes when Dani tries to be snarky, or sarcastic, mostly because she always does it with a badly-suppressed smile, as if even the idea of trying to be mean is inherently funny to her.
“It’s just,” Jamie says, “you’re saying it like you disagree, so —”
“Alright, alright, your ego doesn’t need me feeding this any further.”
“— so I’m getting the sense that you think I’m not cool, which is just hurtful.”
“Yeah, okay,” Dani says, “you look real wounded right now.”
Jamie scoffs, which draws a laugh out of Dani. She knocks her knuckles against the countertop absently, trying to think of something else to say so that she doesn’t have to stop talking to Dani, or go back into her room by herself. They’ve already discussed the weather, so that option’s out.
In the end she doesn’t have to think about it for long, because after a moment, Dani says in a low voice, “Can I talk to you about something, really quick?”
Jamie says — quickly, probably too quickly — “Yeah, anything.”
“Okay,” Dani says. She looks nervously around the room, then down the hallway. Then she leans forward and takes Jamie’s hand in her own, pulling her forward until Jamie takes the hint and slips off her stool. “Can we — do you mind if we go to your room? Just for a sec.”
Once they’re inside with the door shut, Dani collapses on Jamie’s bed with her arms spread out, the way she used to when she’d come over to Jamie’s flat for the night (if she was stressed or anxious, she’d pancake onto the bed like this; otherwise, she’d wait for Jamie to sit down first). Jamie climbs onto the bed after Dani, sitting far enough away that they can’t touch, or accidentally cuddle, which was also something that used to happen (first with inexplicable frequency, and then every night).
If this was London, and if they were five years younger, it would play out like this: they’d put on a movie, turn off all the lights except for the string-lights that Jamie had over her bed, and Dani would watch the movie while Jamie tried to act like every nerve in her body wasn’t actively on fire with Dani so close to her. Then Dani would inch closer until finally her head was in Jamie’s lap, like it was an accident, and Jamie would try not to think too much about the warm weight of her against her legs, and if she was wearing shorts she would try not notice the feeling of Dani’s breath ghosting over her shins. And then, because Dani looked so beautiful, always but especially in those private moments with the blue TV light flickering over her face, Jamie would start playing with her hair, brushing it out of her eyes, combing her fingers through it absently and without full awareness of her movements, as if she was a marionette on strings, and then Dani would hum contentedly and close her eyes.
Other times, it would happen differently: they would be next to each other, leaning against the headboard and talking about nothing in particular, talking just to talk. Dani would make a big show of yawning and pointing out the time, how late it was, and Jamie would offer to walk her home, and Dani would say oh, it’s way too late, I’ll call a cab, and Jamie would say I’m not gonna let you take a cab by yourself this late at night, which in hindsight was an attempt at chivalry that was probably misguided and paternalistic, although Dani never seemed to mind. Then Jamie would offer to let Dani spend the night, saying something fake-reluctant like alright, just don’t hog the bed again, as if they hadn’t both already known that that was what was going to happen when Dani came over at 8 p.m. They would settle in on separate pillows, and the lights would go off and somehow Dani would always end up with her face touching Jamie’s neck, and Jamie would bring her arm up to wrap around Dani’s back, and then Dani would lean even further into Jamie and put her own arm around Jamie’s waist, her leg hitched up by Jamie’s hip. Sometimes when they settled into this position, Dani would make that same hum of contentment, that little peaceful noise, and then allow her whole body to sink completely into Jamie’s. Dani would fall asleep almost immediately, and Jamie would stay up, unable to stop thinking about the tiniest details, like the soft cotton of Dani’s sleep shirt (borrowed/stolen from Jamie) or the odd clicking noise she made with her mouth right as she was about to fall asleep. In the morning, Jamie would wake up before Dani and try to stay still for as long as possible, to prolong the moment. Eventually she’d have to extricate herself from Dani, and then Dani would wake up, and their spun-glass bubble would shatter.
But this isn’t London, and they are no longer twenty-two.
“So, I, um,” Dani starts. “I think Eddie’s gonna propose to me.” When Jamie doesn’t say anything — considering whether to tell Dani what Eddie said at dinner — she continues, “Like, soon. As in, I’m pretty sure he brought a ring with him on this trip.”
Christ. It’s almost funny that Eddie only managed to keep it a secret for less than a day.
Jamie tries to read Dani’s expression. She certainly isn’t smiling, but she doesn’t necessarily look unhappy about it, either. Nervous, maybe, which is probably normal, but then she thinks back to their conversation yesterday. “Is that...a bad thing?”
Dani groans exaggeratedly. “I don’t know. I mean, aren’t we too young, still?”
Having a conversation with Dani in which they have to talk about Dani’s potential future marriage is maybe the last thing on earth that Jamie wants to do. But Dani is looking at her so hopefully, like she can offer her an answer, steer her in the right direction.
“You’ve been dating for so long, though,” Jamie points out.
“I guess,” Dani says, which is a terrifyingly noncommittal answer.
“I don’t think,” Jamie says, “that you have to, like, answer him straight away, even if he does ask. Right?”
“I can’t, I — that would hurt his feelings, if he asked and I was like, let me think about it, or something. ”
“Maybe you can bring it up to him before he does it. Preempt it a bit. Suggest that you need some time, even before he asks.”
Dani worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “I don’t know.”
“Look, I can’t tell you what to do — ”
“Kinda wish you could,” Dani says with a tired smile.
“ — but,” Jamie finishes, “whatever it is, you’ve got time to figure it out, alright? And, y’know, I’ll be here, if you need to...panic about it to somebody. Or celebrate, as it were. Whatever you need.”
“Okay,” Dani says. She sighs, and her shoulders fall. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to put all this on you at once.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You never do,” Dani says. Jamie isn’t sure what that’s supposed to mean. “I wish I had someone like you back home. It’s so lonely there.”
“Well, I wish I had someone like you in London, so where does that leave us?”
Dani laughs. “If it weren’t for Eddie I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“Yeah, for sure. I thought about it a lot, actually, after I got back to Iowa.”
“You never mentioned anything about it,” Jamie says. “Before tonight. That I can remember, at least.”
“I mean, I knew it was never actually gonna happen.”
“Think you’re also just biased. ‘Cause literally anywhere else in the world is better than Iowa. Which, I still don’t know where the hell that actually is, I’ve just been taking your word for how boring it is.”
“Cornfields and Republicans,” Dani says. “As far as the eye can see.”
Jamie needs a shower and then a long, uninterrupted night’s sleep, but Dani hasn’t made any intimations of getting off the bed anytime soon, and Jamie doesn’t think she has it in her to kick Dani out. She shifts awkwardly and says, “Well, it’s, uh…’s past my bedtime. So, uh...”
“Oh,” Dani says, her eyes going wide. “Right, sorry. I’ll, um — I’ll go back to my room. Thank you, for, you know. Talking to me.”
“Anytime,” Jamie says, as if talking to Dani is a favor to her and not something that comes as naturally to her as breathing.
She takes a clean bath towel out of her dresser and hangs it on a hook by the shower in her attached bathroom. When she comes back, Dani is still sitting on the bed, picking at a loose thread on the bedspread. They start speaking at the same time, Jamie saying, “Are you —” while Dani says, “Can I —”, and then they both stop at the same time.
“You first,” Jamie says.
“Well, I was just going to ask,” Dani says. She’s still looking down. “You don’t have to — it’s probably weird, but — if I go back in there right now, I’ll wake Eddie up, y’know, with the noise and all, so if I could — if it’s okay with you —”
Immediately, Jamie knows what Dani is trying to ask. She almost wants to wait and let her stumble along to the conclusion, just to see if she’ll actually put it into words the way she used to do it before, back when it seemed so easy and not fraught with all sorts of weirdness, but — she’s not that cruel.
Eventually she says, “Do you still do that thing when you sleep? With your elbows?”
“What? No! What thing?”
“The thing where the second you fall asleep you start stabbing me in my stomach.”
“No,” Dani says. “Maybe.”
Jamie laughs and shakes her head. “Alright. Sure, you can — I tossed the extra pillow on the floor somewhere,” she says, and Dani’s already looking for it. “I’m just gonna” — she tips her head toward the open bathroom door, wondering why she’s being so fucking awkward all of a sudden, when it’s just Dani — “have a shower. You don’t have to wait up for me.”
“Okay,” Dani says.
When she steps out of the bathroom some twenty-odd minutes later, dressed for bed but with her hair still wet, the room is dark except for the glowing rectangle of Dani’s phone.
“Told you not to wait for me,” Jamie says, sinking into her side of the bed. Dani is theoretically laying on a different pillow, but she’s so close that it would only take a few sideways rolls for her to get to Jamie’s side.
“I wanted to.”
Something about their configuration — Dani scrolling on her phone in the dark, inches away from Jamie — clicks like a puzzle piece into Jamie’s memories, and for a moment it feels so achingly familiar that she almost reaches her arm out for Dani to nestle her head into.
Jamie doesn’t do that, of course. Instead she says, “Night, Poppins,” and turns over so that her back is to Dani, and hopes that she’ll be able to fall asleep with Dani so close to her, which is unlikely, because even now Dani’s presence still fills her with a thumping, urgent sort of adrenaline rush.
She doesn’t close her eyes until she hears Dani’s answering, hushed “Goodnight.”
This chapter comes with a warning for mild violence and mentions of blood. Nothing remotely graphic or dark, but I figured I'd mention it beforehand just in case; if you would like details about this warning before reading, you can skip to the end note for the specifics. Also it's 10.6k words long lol happy Friday!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In mid-October of Dani’s first term in London, Jamie brought her up to her flat for the first time. It was a Saturday, and she’d been keeping Dani company in the library while she studied, trying to read her book but instead passing the time by looking through the thick fogged-up windows at the drizzle outside. By the time they left, sometime around 8 o’clock, it was storming properly, and neither of them had thought to bring an umbrella.
“D’you want to come shelter at my place for a bit?” Jamie said. It was raining hard enough that she had to raise her voice to be heard over it. “It’s closer than yours. Can make you a bite to eat, if you like.”
Dani agreed, and it was only as they approached Jamie’s building that she realized how nervous she was. Her flat was cramped — one closet-sized bedroom, a kitchenette, barely enough extra space for a couch — and necessarily cluttered because of the size, though she tried to keep it as neat as possible. It was peppered with furniture that she’d mostly scavenged from the curb, along with a few things from Ikea, particle-board end tables and the like. Also, plants. Lots of plants.
The first thing Dani said when they walked in was, “Wow.”
“Mm,” Jamie said, closing the door behind her. “Not much, I know.”
“Are you kidding? This is so nice, it’s so green in here!” Dani took a few steps forward, into a section by the wall that was lined in clay pots. “How long have you been, you know —” She made a sweeping gesture at the row of plants closest to her. “Planting stuff? Gardening?”
“Not very long. Probably four or five years, something like that?”
The truth was that she’d picked it up at seventeen during her year-long stint in a youth prison; it was mandatory for everybody to take part in some sort of continuing education, and a gardening class had seemed like the least boring option at the time. But Dani, Jamie thought, didn’t need to know that. At the time she’d thought it might scare her away — good, kind Dani, who was in school to be a teacher, and who’d admitted to Jamie just a few days ago, upon being invited to smoke with her and Owen, that she’d never even seen weed before — so she’d awkwardly skirted around Dani’s innocent questions about her youth.
“This is just so cool,” Dani said. She crouched down to look at an anthurium, touching its leaves with a delicate reverence. “I don’t have anything resembling a green thumb, myself.”
“They’re just plants,” Jamie said, a little embarrassed by the attention. “Don’t take much. Just effort. And, y’know, water and sunlight.” From the linen closet, she took down a towel and gave it to Dani so she could dry off.
“One time Eddie gave me this kind of plant — I think an air plant, or something? — I’m not sure what exactly it was called, but you literally just had to run it under a tap every couple of weeks to keep it alive. And…”
“Oh, don’t tell me you killed it.”
“...I killed it.”
“Dani!” Jamie said, laughing.
“I know, I know! I forgot about it! I found it, like, crammed into the corner of my windowsill a month after I got it, it looked so sad.”
“You’re a murderer,” Jamie said. “Cold-blooded killer.”
“Guilty. What’s my sentence?”
“Hanging out with me. Punishment enough, I think.”
Dani rolled her eyes. “Oh my God, stop it.”
They changed out of their wet clothes; they were roughly the same size, so she let Dani pick out whatever she wanted from her closet. She settled on Jamie’s old London Calling shirt and a pair of grey sweatpants, neither of which Jamie would ever have returned to her, after the fact. Outside the rain lashed at the windows, a strong gust rattling the panes. Jamie turned the TV on so that there would be some background noise other than the storm. She made a couple packets of instant noodles for herself and for Dani, and they ate sitting cross-legged on the couch, facing each other, their knees almost touching because of the couch’s meager size.
When they were done eating, Jamie lit a candle to put on the coffee table and turned off some of the lights. Dani, watching her do this, said, “This place is so cozy.”
“Really?” Jamie had never thought of it as cozy, or as anything more than a place to sleep, really, but for a moment she could see it as Dani saw it.
“Yeah,” Dani said. “It’s very you, I love it.”
Dani had a habit of saying things like this, tossing out casual observations about Jamie that made it apparent that she was actively thinking about her, trying to figure her out. It made Jamie feel more alive, more like a real person, knowing that Dani was watching her like that in idle moments.
“I’m — cozy?” she said.
“Maybe cozy isn’t the right word,” Dani said. “More like...stable, I dunno. Safe.”
“In a good way.”
She looked at Dani for a moment, at the darkness of the night outside, and then said, “I wanna show you something. You’ll like this.”
“Yeah?” Dani said.
In the kitchen, right above the sink, there was a narrow window with an attached box, the perfect size to accommodate a window garden. Jamie used it for smaller, more season-specific flowers that didn’t warrant their own pots inside. She pulled the window open — the rain had abated somewhat, although it’d been coming in fits and starts all evening, so there was no telling when it would start back up again — and ushered Dani over.
“You see this?” she said, indicating a large white flower, unfurling slowly as they watched.
Dani leaned over the sink toward the window. She was standing very close. Jamie could feel the end of her ponytail brushing her bare shoulder.
“Wow,” Dani breathed. “That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a flower blooming in real time like that.”
“‘S a moonflower,” Jamie said. She had, of course, seen these before — she’d been growing them for several years — but Dani’s awe was contagious. “They only bloom at night, a couple months of the year, here. Plus, each bud only blooms once.” She nodded toward the flower Dani was looking at. “That one’ll be dead by morning.”
“Jeez,” Dani said. “So beautiful, though.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, although she was watching Dani now, mapping the slow spread of her smile.
“So you put in all the work to grow these just for, like, one night’s worth of flowers?”
“Well, there’s other buds in there that haven’t bloomed yet. But, yeah, effectively.”
“Dang,” Dani said. “That’s dedication.”
Jamie shrugged. “It’s not so different from growing anything else, really. Everything dies. This one just does it on a much shorter timescale.”
“Oh, yeah. Real deep stuff.” Jamie looked away, rubbed at the back of her neck. “You’ll laugh, but I actually do sort of like the poetry of it.” She waited long enough to register Dani’s inquisitive eyebrow raise, then continued, “Like, the idea of something so beautiful that you know you can’t — keep for yourself. Or necessarily get anything out of, other than just...the joy of having it for however long you do. There’s no sense of possession or ownership, you just take it for what it is, y’know, and that’s enough.”
“Wow,” Dani said. “That’s amazing, seriously. I love the idea of that.”
Jamie cleared her throat and rubbed at the linoleum floor with her toe. She could feel her face growing hot; she’d never actually expressed any of this to another person before. Normally she saved the rambling for her journal.
“You’re a secret romantic,” Dani said, which Jamie was also embarrassed by, but she couldn’t deny it. Dani leaned her head against Jamie’s shoulder, and for what felt like a long time, they stood silently together and watched the moonflower blooming in the rain.
It takes a moment, when Jamie wakes up, to remember where she is. She’d been having the nicest dream, and now there’s a warm body on top of her, and sunlight coming in through the window, heating up her skin. The morning has that lovely blurry haze to it, the lazy joy of waking up with someone in your arms. Slowly she reorients herself: Madrid, her Airbnb bedroom, and the tangle of limbs and blonde hair in her bed is Dani, who is currently groaning faintly into Jamie’s pillow at being woken up, and they hadn’t fallen asleep pressed together like this, had they?
Jamie thinks back to the previous night. They’d definitely started out on separate pillows. She makes a mental note that Dani is still a bed hog.
Briefly Jamie considers the question of whether she’s a bad person for relishing this a little. Dani seems to be only half-awake, because now she’s wrapping her arm back around Jamie’s waist and nestling further into her. In sleep she looks wholly innocent, peaceful, free of the tension that normally keeps her brows furrowed and her eyes wide. Looking at Dani like this for too long makes something inside Jamie hurt, almost physically; she remembers having the same feeling when they’d wake up together in London, a near-painful desire to remove every source of pain from Dani’s life — everything that upsets her, makes her so nervous all the time, brings that exhausted look into her eyes — and then the knowledge that she can’t. That there’s nothing material that Jamie can do to help.
She can be there, she supposes. She can be around. It might be enough.
“Hey,” she says, “Dani,” after enough time has passed that she feels weird about just staring at Dani’s sleeping form.
“Mmmmm,” Dani says. The sound vibrates into Jamie’s sternum.
She jostles Dani’s shoulder gently, which gets her to open her eyes. She blinks sleepily up at Jamie. Part of her hair has been compressed against her face, and there’s a faint imprint of the folds in the sheets on her face, and she’s left a small spot of drool on Jamie’s t-shirt. The whole thing is far cuter than it should be.
“Time to get up,” Jamie whispers.
“What d’you mean, why?”
Dani frowns, bottom lip pushed out in a pout, and closes her eyes. Jamie wonders if maybe God is real after all, and has decided to inflict this on her specifically to punish her for — being gay? Being an ex-con? Not having gone to church since she was ten years old? The possibilities are endless.
Again she says Dani’s name, more urgently this time, and at last Dani opens her eyes for real. She rolls off of Jamie and onto her back, which leaves Jamie feeling cold and empty, even though this is the way she wakes up every morning so she should be used to it.
Jamie turns over onto her side, facing Dani. “Good morning,” she says.
“Morning,” Dani says. Her voice is rough with sleep. “What time is it?”
“It is…” She checks her phone. “Jesus. Nine.”
“Not for me, it isn’t.”
“Everybody else is probably still asleep,” Dani says. “We could just hang out here a little longer, no one’ll miss us.”
The way Dani says it, it sounds like they’re doing something that should be hidden, something more sordid than just crashing in a friend’s room for the night. There must be some sort of line being crossed here, Jamie thinks. She just can’t figure out what line it is, or which of them is doing the crossing.
“Won’t Eddie think it’s odd that you slept in here?” she says. “Like, should you...I dunno, get back before he wakes up?” Something in Dani’s expression darkens at the mention of him, and Jamie immediately regrets bringing it up.
“Yeah, I guess,” Dani says glumly, sliding out of bed.
Soon everybody else is awake, and Dani is back at Eddie’s side, where she should be. At Hannah’s insistence, they spend the morning at a massive open-air flea market that spreads across several streets, with stalls and vendors packed close together along the road. The place is so clogged with pedestrian traffic that Jamie, hanging back behind the rest of their group, almost loses sight of them several times, until Dani turns around and offers her her hand to hang on to.
When Dani, Hannah, and Owen are busy looking over the offerings at an antiques vendor, Eddie taps on Jamie’s shoulder and says, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure,” Jamie says, against her better instincts.
They meander away from the antiques stand, far enough that they’ll be out of earshot, and end up next to a stall selling shoes. Eddie crouches down next to a set of expensive-looking Nikes, frowns, and says, “Hm.”
“What?” Jamie says.
He stands and nods at the shoes. “Those are fake,” he says, with all the wisdom and confidence of a jeweller appraising an old ring.
“Ah,” she says. “You a, uh, big...trainer...fan?”
He nods eagerly. “Oh, yeah, for sure. I collect ‘em.”
Jamie, not sure what to make of this, says, “Hm. Cool.”
“Nah, it’s more of a money pit than anything.” He gives her a self-effacing grin, runs his hand through his hair, and she thinks back to what Dani said the night before, about him finding her cool. She should probably be nicer to him. “Anyway. I promise I didn’t drag you over here to talk to you about sneakers.”
“Right, yeah. What’s up?”
“Well,” he says. He’s so tall that he has to lean down slightly so that she can hear him. “I wanted to talk to you about — you know, about Danielle. The — proposal, and stuff.”
It is probably a portent of impending doom that the word makes her stomach feel like it’s curdling into itself, but she tries not to let that show on her face. “‘Course. Go on.”
“I guess I just kinda wanted to get your input on it. When would be a good time, what she’d like, things like that.”
“Don’t mean to be rude, but aren’t you a much better source on that than I would be?”
They start walking down the main thoroughfare. Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie catalogues the vendors’ wares — rosaries, earrings, graphic t-shirts that look oddly anachronistic among all the old-fashioned buildings lining the street — and keeps an eye out for something Dani might like.
“Sure, yeah, but I — sometimes she’s so hard to read, you know? She never tells me anything, it’s like I’m always trying to...read her mind, figure out what she’s thinking.” He shakes his head. “Sorry, I’m not complaining or anything. I just want to make sure I do this in a way she’ll actually appreciate. And you’re pretty much her closest friend, so I figure you might have some idea what she’d like.”
“I’m her closest friend?” Jamie says.
Eddie gives her a confused look. “Um, yeah,” he says, like it’s obvious. “She’s always talking about you.”
“What does she —” She stops. “Mm. Anyway. The proposal.”
He snaps his fingers. “The proposal.”
Jamie stuffs her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. She has to walk faster to keep up with him, two strides to match one of his. “If you want my opinion,” she says, looking away from him, “Dani would like something — something small. Something personal. No grand gestures or public displays, or anything like that.”
“Really. She’s not one for spectacle.”
“Okay. Gotcha.” He nods, his face pinched in concentration. He’s listening, she realizes. He’s trying. Somehow it’s worse than if he wasn’t.
“So if I were you,” she says, “I would — pick a small moment, right. A quiet moment. And just, you know, be honest. Tell her why you love her, why you want to — spend the rest of your life with her. All that good stuff. And then you...ask. I think, for Dani, that’s really all there is to it.”
“Alright,” he says. “Cool. God, I’m so nervous. I know it’s dumb, but, like — it’s scary, y’know?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “I get it.”
They walk in companionable silence for a little longer, making a loop around the street as they approach the stall where they left the rest of the group. It occurs to Jamie that this is, perhaps, a preview of what her role in their relationship could continue to be like going forward: the middleman, the go-between, translating between Dani and Eddie when they choose to avoid communicating directly, which seems to be a pattern for them. It’s a comically active role to play in her own suffering. She imagines offering input at wedding dress fittings, advising them about the floral arrangements. Sitting with Dani on the day of, watching someone do her makeup, her hair. She imagines how beautiful she’d look.
For a moment she wonders whether there’s any plausible excuse in the world that would allow her to miss Dani’s wedding. Dani wouldn’t even hold it against her, but she’d never forgive herself, which is really the problem. Even at twenty-seven, Jamie still hasn’t learned how to choose what’s actually good for her over what feels good to her.
In February of Dani’s London year, she and Eddie decided to take a “break”. From Jamie’s understanding — based on a late-night, multiple-paragraph text from Dani — this had been initiated mostly upon Dani’s insistence that she needed space, and meant that they wouldn’t text or call each other for a few days. Jamie didn’t see the point of this, but she didn’t tell Dani that. Instead she said, “Feel like a break is usually a preamble to a proper break-up , no?”
“Not necessarily,” Dani said. “Honestly, at this point, I just need, like, some room to breathe. Plus, it’s not like we’ve said we’re gonna see other people or anything, we’re just — giving each other some space for a little while. It’s fine, this’ll be good for us.”
By that point it had started feeling more and more like whatever string held them together was being drawn taut, too taut, paradoxically, even as they continued to grow closer. They were only apart when Jamie had work and Dani had class; otherwise, they’d been spending every free hour of their days together, both waking and otherwise. Now Dani had started sleeping over every night without either of them ever saying anything about it, both just allowing the thing to take its natural course. The whole time Jamie had this sense that they were freefalling toward a big nothing, like she’d let herself jump without knowing what was there to catch her, and the longer they fell the clearer it became that there was nothing awaiting Jamie but cold, hard ground, and still she couldn’t reverse the course they’d set themselves on.
The same weekend that Dani and Eddie began their “break”, one of Dani’s university classmates threw a party. Normally Jamie was not one for parties, but Dani had wanted to go. Jamie found herself nursing a watery lager on the hosts’ ratty couch, scrolling through her phone and keeping an eye on Dani, who was currently on her third cup of the suspiciously delicious jungle juice sitting in a Dutch oven in the kitchen, flitting around the crowd and talking to people she knew from class.
There was a girl leaning with both elbows against the arm of the couch, trying to draw Jamie into conversation. It was obvious that she was flirting; at one point Jamie made some offhand remark about her beer and the girl giggled like it was actually funny, putting her hand on Jamie’s arm and letting it linger there.
Jamie tries not to think about this night too often, or ever, if she can help it. But when she does, the thing she remembers most clearly is how strange Dani was acting. The whole night — even before she got recklessly drunk, even during the walk over from her flat — she’d been buzzing with this uneasy energy, something roiling just underneath the surface of her, itching to come out. Jamie could see it in her eyes, how they seemed to reflect exhaustion and brightness at the same time, like a caffeine buzz after a night without sleep. So she would have been watching Dani anyway, even if she hadn’t been drinking far faster and heavier than she usually did.
She could see Dani watching her from across the room, distantly, like she couldn’t tell or didn’t care that Jamie was watching her right back. It was too far away for her to decipher the look in Dani’s eyes, but it sent an ugly thrill through her to imagine Dani seeing her with another girl. The message it would send: look, I don’t need you, either, not that that was remotely true, or that she’d ever want Dani to actually feel that way.
“S’cuse me,” she told the girl, standing up and pushing her way through the crowd until she got to Dani, whose face lit up immediately once she realized Jamie was coming toward her.
“Hi,” Dani said. She wrapped one arm clumsily around Jamie’s waist. “Miss me already?”
“Uh,” Jamie said, peering into Dani’s nearly-empty cup. “How much have you had to drink?”
Dani brought her other arm to rest on Jamie’s shoulder, stepping in so close that their bodies would have been flush if Jamie hadn’t backed away immediately. She didn’t know what it was, but it felt different from a regular embrace somehow, with the dangerous way Dani kept swaying forward into her.
Eventually Dani put her mouth to Jamie’s ear — too close, way too close, she could feel Dani’s lips against her skin — and slurred, “You wanna get out of here?”
It was only about a ten-minute walk to Dani’s flat. The night was chilly, and Dani was wearing a thin long-sleeve shirt tucked into a skirt, so Jamie gave her her jacket and pretended she wasn’t too sober to not be cold. The whole way there, Dani walked with both her hands wrapped around Jamie’s upper arm, stumbling into her side occasionally. She was far more drunk than Jamie had realized at the party. When they got to her flat it took her several tries to open the door, and she nearly tripped over the threshold as they stepped inside, would have gone careening into the bookshelf by the door if Jamie hadn’t caught her.
She sat Dani on her bed — it was a twin, too cramped to comfortably fit both of them, which was why they spent the night more frequently at Jamie’s — and got her a glass of water and a couple of ibuprofen tablets for the inevitable headache she’d have in the morning.
“Right,” she said, hovering in the doorway to Dani’s bedroom. Dani, now laying back against the headboard with her comforter around her shoulders, looked up at her with heavy, half-lidded eyes. “Are you all good?” She waited for Dani’s answering nod, then said, “Okay. I’ll probably get going, then. Give me a ring if you need anything.”
“Wait, what?” Dani said. She leaned forward as if to reach for Jamie. The comforter slipped off. “What about — you’re not gonna spend the night?”
It was as close to discussing the strangeness of the situation as they’d ever gotten. In fact it had been weeks since either of them had slept alone, and it wasn’t that Jamie wanted to leave, not really; it just felt like the correct thing to do at the time. Jamie wonders, now, if her impulse to leave that night had been the result of some protective impulse, the last vestiges of self-preservation she had left in her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t — I don’t want to keep you up or anything. You’re pretty drunk, you should — you know, sleep it off.”
“I sleep better when you’re here.”
She hated everything about this already: the little crease of a frown appearing between Dani’s eyebrows, the pleading edge to her voice. Mostly she hated that she knew, already, that she’d end up staying.
“Please,” Dani said, “stay with me.”
Fuck. Jamie sighed and made a show of rolling her eyes, even as she took off her shoes, folded up her jacket and placed it on Dani’s desk, pushed the bedroom door closed. “Okay,” she said. “Alright.”
“Okay,” Dani repeated, through a relieved, too-wide smile. She scooted over on the bed to make room for Jamie, watching with unfocused eyes as she slid into bed next to her.
Jamie leaned over and turned off the light on Dani’s nightstand. “Did you have a good time tonight?”
Dani settled her head on Jamie’s shoulder, her nose pressing hard into her collarbone. They were, of course, always comfortably physical with each other, and Dani was usually an affectionate drunk anyway, but there was something about the way she kept touching Jamie that night. Everything was a little more intense, felt a little more desperate, than it normally would have been.
Finally Dani said, “Mmm. It was fine.”
She could hear Dani’s breathing, sharp and rapid through her mouth. “Just fine,” she said. She lifted her head then, and Jamie turned to face her. It was too dark in the room to make out anything other than the glassiness of Dani’s eyes looking intently into Jamie’s.
“Hey,” Jamie said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Dani whispered, although she was still looking at her like that. “Jamie, what am I gonna do when I go back?”
“What, to America?”
“What do you mean?”
“Without you,” she said. Her voice was high, tremulous. “What am I gonna do without you, how am I gonna — I don’t wanna have to — I can’t even go a whole day without talking to you, what do I do when I’m — across the fucking ocean —”
“Dani, hang on, hang on,” Jamie said gently. “Breathe.”
The truth was that she’d been thinking about it too, about the life she’d have to go back to once Dani left. They’d never talked about it, though. Dani had her whole life in America, her school, her friends, her family, her boyfriend. Jamie still hadn’t considered that she gave Dani something she didn’t already have in America too.
“Look,” Jamie said, “you were fine without me before, yeah?”
“I’m gonna miss you too. But we’ll figure it out — we will,” she added, when Dani gave her a stubborn pout. “You know they’ve got these things called phones now, have you heard of those?”
“Oh, come on,” she said, laughing when Dani allowed a smile. “I’ll call you as often as you want, promise.”
“Every day,” Dani said.
“Sure, every day, if that’s what you want.”
Dani fished Jamie’s hand out from underneath the blankets and linked their pinky fingers together. “It is what I want.”
Distantly, she considered that maybe she should not be going around making promises like that to a person who could set her skin on fire just from laying this close to her. It was likely, even, that Dani was only saying all of this because she was wildly drunk and therefore overestimating Jamie’s importance in her life. But she knew then, looking at their intertwined fingers, that she’d do anything Dani asked of her. For Dani, she’d keep making that jump.
The part of this night that Jamie now tries not to remember happened when, finally, she slipped her hand out of Dani’s grasp and said, “It’s getting late. We should probably try to get a least a little sleep, I’ve got to be up early.”
“Jamie,” Dani said.
“Yeah?” she said, missing the way Dani was looking at her, Dani’s eyes flitting from her eyes to her mouth, Dani’s hand now on her cheek. “Dani, what —”
When Dani kissed her, it took her brain a moment to catch up. It felt as if reality was operating at a lag. One moment there was Dani’s face in front of her, and then a fraction of a second later there was just the taste of alcohol cut with fruit punch, the heat of Dani’s mouth against hers, and then the cold empty air when Jamie pushed her away.
“Dani,” she panted. “What are you — what are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” Dani said. She was still looking at Jamie’s mouth, swaying back and forth on her knees, like she couldn’t keep her balance. “I don’t know.”
“Eddie,” Jamie said, as much to remind herself as Dani. “You can’t — you don’t — you have Eddie.”
“Eddie and I are” — hiccup — “on a break.”
“Yeah, but you said you’re not — seeing other people or anything. Right?” She felt delirious. She wondered if she had somehow gotten drunk herself, too, or if she’d fallen asleep and was dreaming this, or if she’d just fully lost her mind.
“Right,” Dani said.
She brought one hand up and brushed a lock of Jamie’s hair behind her ear, a gesture that was so absurdly gentle and tender for the situation that it would have made Jamie laugh, if she wasn’t already close to crying.
“You don’t want to do this, do you?” She was practically begging, now, for Dani to put a stop to this, whatever it was. She didn’t think she could take having it, even for a moment, only to have it be the result of a nonsensical drunken whim. “To Eddie?”
“I don’t — I don’t care,” Dani slurred, pitching forward again. Their noses collided. Dani wasn’t even kissing her at this point, just pressing their faces together. “Jamie, I’m so — I need —“
Jamie put one hand flat against her chest and pushed her away, gently. It would have been maybe the hardest thing she’d ever had to do in her life, a Herculean display of self-control, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Dani was so drunk she could barely keep her eyes open.
“What you need,” Jamie said, “is to go to bed. Okay?”
For a moment Dani looked genuinely hurt, and Jamie wanted to die. “You don’t want —?”
“Now is not a good time to talk about what I want, alright? We can — talk about it in the morning,” she said, doing her best to keep her composure.
“Okay,” Dani said.
Jamie brought her blanket back up and wrapped it around her; within minutes she was asleep, sprawled diagonally across the bed so that there was no room for Jamie, and anyway Jamie wasn’t in any state to sleep next to her after what had just happened. She found an extra blanket in Dani’s closet and took it over to the couch, where she slept terribly, kept having recurring dreams about the kiss, and every time she woke up she had to take a drink of water to wash the taste of Dani’s lips out of her mouth.
She didn’t want to talk about it in the morning. She didn’t want to hear Dani tell her that it was a mistake, that she did it because she was lonely, because she missed Eddie, or because she was upset that things weren’t going well between them, or any of the other things Dani would tell her to excuse it. Frankly she’d never much minded being some straight college girl’s chance to experiment, to rebel a little, but she didn’t think she had it in her to know that Dani had, however briefly, seen her that way too. Most of all she hated the small thrill of hope she’d felt at the first contact of Dani’s lips to hers.
When she woke up the next day, Dani wasn’t in the flat, and there was an unread text on Jamie’s phone that said: Thank you for taking care of me last night:) I honestly don’t remember anything that happened after midnight haha so I apologize for whatever insanity I might have inflicted on you afterward. I def will not be getting that drunk ever again!
They never did end up talking about it. Jamie believed Dani when she said she didn’t remember anything, but afterwards things became a little strange between them regardless; it could have been because Dani knew on some level what happened, or it could have been simply because Jamie spent the next few weeks unable to breathe properly around her, reminded, whenever they were together, of how it felt to have Dani’s hand in her hair, pulling her closer.
After they get back to the Airbnb, Jamie steps out onto the balcony to smoke. Owen follows her out and closes the door behind them. He stands next to her, leaning against the railing, an iced coffee in one hand.
“So,” he says.
“I noticed that the, uh, boyfriend spirited you away earlier. What was that all about?”
She takes a drag from her cigarette and mulls it over, how much exactly to tell him, as she breathes in. “Wanted my opinion on the proposal. How to do it. Et cetera.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“Told him exactly what I thought,” she says. “Was honest. Told him what I thought she’d like. What else could I have said?”
A warm breeze ruffles Jamie’s hair and puffs out her loose-fitting shirt sleeves. The sky is blue and nearly cloudless. It almost makes her miss London; it’s so much more satisfying, she thinks, to let yourself feel dramatic and melancholy when it’s rainy and grey out. Being sad when the weather is beautiful just feels stupid.
“Should’ve gone with a sabotage plot,” Owen says. “‘Oh, Dani loves big, public displays of affection. Definitely arrange for a flash mob, some fireworks. Hire a plane to spell it out in the sky.’”
She laughs. “Jesus, man.”
“I’m serious! Missed opportunity.” He looks at his, his mustache twitching when he smiles. “Alright, alright, now I’m actually being serious. How, uh. How are you — feeling about all of it?”
“Fine,” she says. “I’m peachy.”
They’ve never really been the types of people who talk freely about their feelings often. Not because they aren’t close enough, but — they offer their support in other ways, with more practical displays of love. She’s only talked to Owen about Dani a few times, but he knows. He told her once that it was difficult not to see it, which would have made her reconsider all her interactions with Dani if Dani herself wasn’t so damn oblivious by disposition.
“Okay. Yeah, it’s, um.” She glances back at the door. The others are all napping, but still. “It’s hard, obviously.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. Christ.”
“Didn’t think it was going to be so fucking hard, but it’s — she’s — still the same way, with me.”
She huffs out a laugh. Owen knows about all the nights that she and Dani had spent together; he does not, however, know about the kiss.
“Yeah,” she says, “I know. And it’s worse, actually, now that we’re older, ‘cause — back then it was like, okay, I’m twenty-two, she’s — pretty and charming, she’ll leave in a year and I’ll be fine. But it’s still the same way. I mean, I feel the same way, even still.”
“And what way is that?”
Jamie just looks at him, confused. His expression doesn’t change; his eyes stay fixed on the horizon.
“What I mean is,” he says, “if you had to...describe how you feel about her, what would you say?”
“Shit, Owen, I don’t know.” She taps her cigarette against the railing, and a bit of ash falls off. “What am I supposed to say?”
Without looking at her, he says, slowly, “Do you think you would call it love?”
She scoffs, shakes her head. "Love's a big word."
"Yeah, of course. Massive."
The day is pleasantly warm, the sun gentle on her skin, but still she feels suddenly too hot. It’s not like she’s never thought about it before, the word love, but really that’s where it’s always remained for her: a private, secret thing, a possibility, never anything that’s had a concrete place in her life. Actually she’s never even said it to a girl.
After a long pause she says, “I just think it'd be a bit, you know, unhinged to be talking like that about a friend."
"Okay," Owen says, "I know you think I'm too sentimental for my own good — "
"I stand by that."
"— but I think...that it's okay to be honest, if it does sound a bit unhinged." Jamie just looks at him. "Look, at least with me, you can be honest. What am I gonna do, make fun of you?"
Jamie snorts. "Yeah, you do enough of that as it is."
"Exactly. So you've got nothing to lose." He takes a sip of his coffee and says, “I won’t push, if you don’t want to talk about it. But you’re allowed to let yourself think it, you know. You don’t have to keep pretending you’re unaffected.”
She makes a face like she’s thinking about it, but the reality is that she doesn’t need to. She already knows what she feels. She’s too self-aware for her own good. Idly, she wonders what it would be like to just tell Dani. To admit it outright, first to herself and then out loud. Would it feel good, or would it feel like wrecking one of the only real things she’s ever had in her life for no reason but to appease her own impulses?
A moment later Owen finishes his iced coffee, claps Jamie on the shoulder, and leaves her by herself, alone with her thoughts and the last half of her cigarette. She can feel it again, that free-falling sensation. The vertigo, little lurch in her stomach, guilty thrill of knowing she doesn’t have much of a choice anymore, both in how she feels and in what she’ll do for Dani.
Their plans for tonight include going to a club that purportedly has seven floors, a strict dress code, and a steep (in Jamie’s opinion) cover charge. To Jamie this sounds like a nightmare, but Dani is excited about it, so she supposes she can be, too. Owen suggests pre-drinking before they go out so that they won’t have to spend fifty euro apiece just to be drunk enough to dance, but they don’t have any liquor in the flat — all they have is the wine they bought on the first day, and it seems somehow profane to go to a club wine-drunk — so Jamie volunteers to go to the corner store to pick some up. Dani offers to come with her, and they walk to the store side-by-side in the cool evening, their knuckles nearly touching.
“I’ve barely seen you all day,” Dani says in a soft voice.
It’s true; Jamie has been, well, not avoiding her exactly, but — strategically keeping herself in places where Dani wasn’t. At dinner she sat in between Hannah and Eddie, which meant that Dani was one place removed from her, in a spot that made it inconvenient to look at or talk to her. Other free moments she’s spent either by herself or with Owen. It’s not that Dani has done anything wrong — it’s just the magnetism she holds, through no fault of her own, and the only way Jamie knows how to resist it is by staying away from her entirely.
But now Dani is looking at her with a question in her eyes, something wounded, so Jamie says, “Just been tired. Needed a couple hours by myself.”
“Didn’t sleep well last night?”
“Come to think of it, someone took up more than their fair share of my bed, so can you really blame me?”
Dani giggles. “Well, I slept great myself, thank you for asking.”
The glow from the sunset dances off of Dani’s hair, gilding her in a halo of light. It makes her look sort of ethereal. Otherworldly.
“Did you, ah, have any more thoughts about our — conversation last night?” Jamie says. “About Eddie?”
Dani presses her lips together, casts her eyes to her feet. There’s a pebble on the pavement in front of them that she kicks forward, little by little, as they walk. “Nothing constructive.”
“Lots,” she says with a humorless smile.
They get to the corner store before the conversation can continue any further, and quickly find the liquor aisle. Jamie looks for something neutral that everyone might like. Dani, on the other hand, comes to her with two bottles of flavored Smirnoff.
“Which one?” she says, holding them up.
Jamie makes a face. “Is that fucking blueberry vodka?”
“It’s good!” Dani says, examining the bottle and then putting it in their basket. “This is the first thing I ever drank. Freshman year of college, one of my friends snuck some into our dorm. We thought we were so cool.”
“God,” Jamie says. “Think I was fourteen when I had my first drink.”
“I feel like you’ve told me that story.”
“Pretty sure I have, yeah.” She stands on her toes to pull some Tanqueray down from a high shelf. “We’ve led very different lives, Poppins.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Jamie laughs. “Makes me feel a bit like a corrupting influence on you, is all,” she says. “Like, what’s a nice girl like you doing hanging around a ruffian like me?”
“That sounds like a line,” Dani says, and Jamie winks at her.
They toss the alcohol and a couple fruit juice mixers into a cloth grocery bag that Dani brought. Dani carries it for roughly thirty seconds of their walk back before complaining that it’s too heavy, and then Jamie takes it from her and pretends that she isn’t nearly sweating from the effort of holding it. The pavement is more than wide enough for both of them to leave some space between them as they walk, but they keep bumping into each other anyway, their shoulders brushing.
“Can I say something,” Dani says, “that’s going to sound, like — crazy?”
“Sure,” Jamie says.
“I’ve been thinking about what we talked about. And trying to figure out what I really want. If I really want to — be engaged right now, which means being married in, like, the next year, which means — well, anyway, I’ve been thinking about it.”
Jamie can already feel her heartbeat starting to speed up. She swallows it down, says, “What’s the crazy part?”
“I’m just —” Dani stops, and Jamie ends up several paces ahead of her before she realizes it and turns to face her. Dani lowers her voice to a near-whisper, even though it’s mid-evening and there’s so many people around that even if someone cared to listen to them, they wouldn’t be able to. “It’s crazy, but I don’t — I can’t remember the last time I wanted something and went after it. Something that I could — that I could have, anyway. I was trying to think back to the last thing I did just for me, just because I wanted to, and I think it was going to London. That was the last time, and it was five years ago, and that kind of scares me. You know? It’s, like — it makes me feel like I’m not in control, like I’ve just — hit cruise control on my life. Does that make any sense?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “But it’s never too late to start, is it? Going after what you want, I mean.”
“I feel like I’ve forgotten how,” Dani says helplessly. “I’m starting to think there’s some people who just. Don’t get to have what they want.”
“That’s not true.”
“Maybe it is, for me.’
“Jesus. No, it isn’t. Name one thing you want,” Jamie says. “Something stupid. Right now.”
Dani just stares at her.
“Come on,” Jamie says. “Simple enough task. Anything you want.”
“And then what?” Dani steps closer. Around them the flow of pedestrian traffic continues uninterrupted. “If I tell you something I want, will you give it to me?”
She’d meant for Dani to play along and ask for something concrete and silly — one of those mini bottles of moscato from the corner store they were just at, or a trinket from a nearby tourist shop — and then Jamie would go and get it for her, and it would be a small sweet thing they could share. But now Dani is looking at her with something distant and aching in her eyes, and Jamie has a feeling they’re having two entirely different conversations now, one literal and the other buried, unspoken.
Dani says, in a voice like crushed velvet, “Anything?”
The moment swells, dark and full like a cloud portending a sudden rainstorm, just this heavy, invisible thing strung between them as they stand looking at each other in the street. It’s fragile; she could easily reach out and shatter it, if she touched Dani right now, if she asked her what she was really thinking. She stays frozen in place, watching the nearly-imperceptible movement of Dani’s eyes. For one wild moment she thinks she can see Dani moving slightly toward her, gaze flickering down toward her mouth, and it feels familiar in a terrible way, like a dream in which a few things are just barely not right.
But Dani doesn’t lean in, in the end. She just says, “All the things I want are too big to ask for,” in a quiet, small voice, and then starts back up the road to their flat.
The club is loud, hot, and crowded, and the whole place smells of stale sweat and cologne. With every step Jamie can feel her shoes sticking to the gummy residue of spilled drinks on the floor. Theoretically, being already quite drunk should have made it all more tolerable, but instead it seems that she’s missed the fun part of tipsiness and gone straight into the grumpy part, which seems to be happening more and more the older she gets.
“Come dance with me,” Dani says to her, holding an electric-blue drink in one hand, offering the other hand to Jamie.
The music is all bass. There’s probably a melody in there somewhere, but she’s too drunk to discern it, can really only feel the pounding of the beat vibrating up through the soles of her feet. “I’m okay, thanks,” she says.
“No, c’mon! Please?”
Jamie shakes her head and pulls her beer close to her chest. She must look genuinely annoyed, because Dani drops it immediately, and goes off to find Hannah and Owen. Eddie is up at the bar, trying to elbow his way through the crowd to get more drinks for them. Jamie watches from her spot by the wall as he goes over to the rest of the group with a glass in each hand, and gives them to Hannah and Owen.
She pulls out her phone, scrolls aimlessly through her messages. The last girl she texted was one she met at the nursery; she used to come in while Jamie was working, walk through the aisles and ask questions, linger while Jamie was elbow-deep in fertilizer and dirt. Eventually she gave Jamie her number, along with a shy smile and an invitation to get drinks sometime, if you want to. She’d reminded Jamie of Dani, actually, because she was obviously nervous but had powered through it anyway, and left Jamie’s workplace with a proud smile after Jamie took her number and said yeah, sure, I’d like that.
Jamie hasn’t yet gotten drinks with her, though. Maybe she’ll do it when they get back to London. Get her mind off of all this.
She puts her phone back in her pocket. When she looks back up to where the group is, she can see Eddie behind Dani. She probably shouldn’t be watching, but she does anyway. The song has changed and now the beat is even more insistent, driving, and Dani and Eddie are dancing together. He’s behind her, holding her by the hips, grinding into her, his mouth on her neck. Jamie closes her eyes and leans her head back against the wall. She doesn’t need to see the rest of it: Dani pressing up into him, her hand gripping his shirt or sliding up to his jaw or into his hair.
When Jamie opens her eyes, Dani is looking at her, she can tell even from all the way across the dance floor. She stands on her toes and leans up to whisper something into Eddie’s ear, and then she’s coming back toward Jamie, edging her way through the crush of bodies. Somebody — short, not much taller than Jamie, muscley — jostles her, and some of her drink spills.
Jamie pushes off the wall and yells, to the guy who bumped into Dani, “Watch where you’re fucking going,” but he’s not paying attention. Dani gives her a mollifying look.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” she says. Jamie starts into the crowd to find the guy, but Dani holds her back with a hand on her shoulder. “What — it’s just a drink, would you relax for a second?”
She makes a frustrated sound, clenches her jaw to keep from yelling again. Takes a deep breath through her nose. “Sorry.”
Dani is still watching her. She looks worried now, which somehow just puts Jamie in a worse mood. “What’s going on with you tonight?” she says. “You’re all...you seem off.”
“Nothing, I’m — I don’t know.”
On one level there’s something obvious that’s bothering her, but on another level she can feel a formless, shifting anger, which doesn’t make sense. All night she's felt it growing, bubbling, something ugly and gnawing in the pit of her stomach. Who is she angry at? Certainly not Dani, who’s done nothing wrong; not Eddie, whose only crime is being lucky enough to be loved by her. If anything, actually, it's herself she's angry at.
“You wanna go outside?” Dani says. “Get some air?”
Jamie shakes her head. “Gonna get another beer.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Don’t care,” she says acidly. But then Dani recoils, looks genuinely hurt for a second, and the anger deflates a little bit. “Fuck, I’m — yeah, okay, sorry. We can step out for a bit.”
Outside, there’s a long line of people snaking in through the entrance, and more people falling out of the exit, loitering around the edges of the street, smoking or waiting for their Ubers or making out against the building. Everything feels muted and too vivid at the same time. She almost trips over a crack in the pavement, and has to catch herself on Dani’s shoulder.
“It’s a little quieter over this way,” Dani says, and they head in the direction she indicates, toward the side of the building. Once they’re away from the crowd, Dani turns to her. “Did I — do something?”
Jamie frowns at her, confused.
“Or, like, say something wrong?”
“No,” Jamie says. “‘Course not.”
Dani makes an incredulous face at her. “Jamie.”
“What makes you think you’ve done something wrong?”
“Well, you’ve just — you’ve been acting — different. All day. And it feels a little like you’re avoiding me, which, I don’t know, maybe I’m just imagining that part. And then there’s whatever that was, I mean, what were you gonna do, fight that guy?”
Jamie scowls at her shoes. She’s sulking, she knows. It’s childish, it’s unreasonable, and still she can’t shake it off.
“It’s not you,” she says finally. “It’s not, really.”
“Then what is it?”
From where they’re standing, they can still hear faint snatches of music coming from inside the club, except muffled so that it sounds like they’re listening to it underwater. It shouldn’t sound good but it does. It reminds her of weekends in London with Dani, walking through the part of town — Dani’s part of town — that came alive with students late at night. It reminds her of the sweet ache of being drunk together, the way she’d buzz with want in a way she never did sober. Even the night Dani kissed her, the night she doesn’t think about (except when she can’t help it, like right now, like all fucking day today), seems to have a heady glow to it in memory. It hurt — all of it hurt, even the good parts — but at least it was real.
“I just,” Jamie starts, “I,” and then she’s interrupted by her voice breaking, the sudden hot prick of tears behind her eyes, which would be embarrassing enough as it is but is made worse by the laser-beam attention Dani is focusing on her. She sniffs and runs one hand over her face.
“Jamie,” Dani says, in a voice that makes it clear that Jamie wasn’t successful in hiding her tears. “Talk to me, what’s wrong?”
She can’t. She wants to, but she can’t do it, she can’t be honest with Dani when the consequences of that would mean the probable destruction of their friendship, and hurting Dani. Then Jamie would have even less of her in her life than she already does. She can learn to be okay with this, she thinks. It just might take time.
Jamie takes a deep breath and blinks out the rest of the tears, wipes them away with the back of her hand. “I’m good. I’m — feeling better, we can go back inside.”
“I’m good,” she says again.
For the rest of the night she does a passable job of pretending everything is fine. She stands in their little circle instead of on the periphery of the club, not quite dancing but at least swaying in time to the music. She has a couple more drinks through the course of the night, despite Dani’s watchful gaze. It doesn’t quite have the numbing effect she wants; instead, the more she drinks the more she develops a kind of tunnel vision, blinders on to everything except for her little self-pity party, and Dani’s face lit by strobe lights across from her.
They stay until the place closes. By the time the lights come on, Jamie is well and truly drunk. When they step outside amidst the flood of other clubgoers leaving, Eddie pulls out his phone to call a car for them, and the five of them stand in a line by the street, squinting to read the license plates of each car pulling up to the curb. A man wearing criminally tight jeans and a football jersey, standing a little too close to them for Jamie’s comfort, says something to his friend in Spanish. She thinks she can see him looking toward Dani. She doesn’t like his expression, the way he smirks when he talks, looks at them. Jamie moves so that she’s standing on the other side of Dani, blocking his view.
“What?” Dani says.
“That fucker over there,” Jamie says in a low voice. “Looking at you.”
Dani cranes her neck past Jamie. “I don’t think he is. Is he?”
“He definitely is,” she says. She glowers at him, meets his eyes.
Dani sighs. “Who cares, Jamie, just leave it.”
That impulse from earlier, the formless sinking feeling looking for a target, is back, itching at her. When the man’s gaze returns to them, she says, loudly, “What’s your fucking problem, mate?”
“Jamie,” Dani says, but Jamie shakes off her grip and starts to approach him anyway.
No one else seems to notice. “Our Uber’s here,” Eddie calls, pointing to a car parked just past the group of men. They head in the car’s direction. Now the man is definitely looking at Dani in a lecherous, leering sort of way, and Jamie glares at him as they pass, but he doesn’t pay attention. Instead he just whistles at them, long and low, and then Jamie turns around and lunges at him.
It’s not really much of a fight. She thinks she lands a punch somewhere on his face, and then he swipes back at her and she’s on the ground, and Owen says something like, “Whoa, whoa, what the hell,” and Dani screams her name just once and drops to the ground next to her, along with Hannah. She’s too drunk to discern where exactly he hit her — when she runs her tongue over her teeth she can taste blood, but nothing really hurts — and the other guy’s nose is bleeding, which is at least a little gratifying. Eddie is standing over her looking vaguely protective, his gaze darting between the man and his friends, who are leading him away even as he continues to yell something ostensibly profane in Jamie’s direction.
It's over as quickly as it began, and then Owen and Hannah are helping her into the Uber, and she's left feeling exponentially worse, like a reckless, stupid teenager again, the old Jamie, the Jamie that existed before she met Dani, angry at nothing in particular, lonely but also, in secret, horribly desperate for a place to put the love she'd always privately believed herself to be capable of, if only she had the chance to show it. It's embarrassing, to be reminded of those deepest parts of herself that haven't really ever changed, despite her best efforts. She'll always be a little fucked up.
Back at the Airbnb, she sits on the couch with an icepack pressed to the side of her face, where a bruise is quickly forming. It turns out the blood in her mouth came from her lip being split open; it looked a lot more dramatic than it actually was, and in the Uber she bled all over her shirt from it before Dani pointed out where the blood was coming from and held a paper napkin to it. Now the adrenaline is wearing off, replaced by an awful cocktail of shame, embarrassment, and also something darker that she doesn’t want to look too closely at right now. It’s well past three in the morning, but everyone is still up, wired from the night’s events.
Hannah sets a glass of water on the coffee table in front of her, presses a damp towel into her hand, and says, “How are you feeling, dear?”
“Like a dickhead,” Jamie says. Her eyes are closed, her head bowed. She uses the towel to dab at her lip, which has started bleeding slightly again.
“Mmm,” Hannah says, in a voice that makes it very clear that she’s holding her tongue to be polite.
“You’re okay, though?” Owen says. “Not — like, concussed, or anything — ?”
“‘M fine. Face hurts like fuck. Pride’s a bit bruised. Other than that, right as rain.”
Dani, who is sitting on the couch next to Jamie, keeping a clear foot-long distance, stays pointedly silent. She hasn’t so much as looked at Jamie since they got back. She has her hands knit together in her lap and is staring down at them, her nostrils flaring occasionally, lips pursed.
From the kitchen, Eddie says, “I have to admit it was, like, a little badass. Just a little bit.”
“Eddie,” Dani says sharply. He shuts up and raises his hands in surrender.
“It’s not too big of a deal, is it?” Owen adds. Even drunk and exhausted, he’s still as bracingly chipper as ever. “Could’ve been a lot worse, really.”
In a tight voice, Dani says, “Yeah. Like, a lot worse.”
Eventually the others filter out of the living room, and then it’s just Jamie and Dani on the couch. The ice pack is already melting, and now cold water slides down Jamie’s wrist and onto her lap. Still, she keeps it pressed to her face.
“You’re getting blood-water all over your pants,” Dani says.
She glances down. Her lip is still bleeding. “Fuck.” There’s another long, heavy silence, and then finally Jamie says, “I’m sorry.” Dani doesn’t say anything. “I can tell you’re pissed off at me, I — I would be too. I really am sorry.”
“Jamie,” Dani says. It’s the third or fourth time Dani has said her name like that tonight: not quite an admonishment, not quite a plea for answers. Something in between.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t, clearly.” She takes a breath. “He was — I didn’t — I didn’t like the way he was looking at you.” The real answer is that she doesn’t know what she was thinking — it wasn’t really about some creep, that much is clear — but this is the digestible version.
“Okay,” Dani says. “Well, I’m a grown woman. I can take care of myself, I don’t need you picking fights with guys twice your size to, like, defend my honor or whatever.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says quietly. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Soon the alcohol will wear off and she’ll probably ache in a few more places than she does right now: her back, for one, where she hit the pavement. She stares down at her shoes, which also have a couple of spots of blood on them. Jesus, she thinks, how much can a single busted lip bleed?
Wordlessly, Dani gets up and goes to the kitchen. She comes back with more dampened towels and a Zip-loc bag filled with fresh ice from the freezer, also wrapped in a paper towel. “Here,” she says. Jamie lowers the now-dripping old ice pack, and Dani does a visible double take.
“That bad?” Jamie says.
“No,” Dani says in a high voice. “Just — very...purple. It doesn’t hurt?”
“Not really. It looks a lot worse than it is.” She waits for Dani to hand her the bag of ice, but instead Dani applies it to Jamie’s face herself. Jamie tries not to look at Dani as she does this. She’s very close now, chewing on her bottom lip, her brows furrowed in concentration as she holds the ice in place. Her face is flushed for some reason. To distract herself, Jamie says, “Did you see the other guy, though? Man’s face was, like, covered in blood.”
Dani raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, I get it, you’re very macho and strong.” Jamie laughs, and then finally Dani smiles, too, although it’s tight, pinched. “I hope you know I’m just — I’m just worried about you.”
“I know,” Jamie says. “I’m sorry. Again. I don’t want you to have to worry.”
“Well, I’m always gonna worry about you. Just don’t give me more reasons to.”
With the moistened towels, Dani dabs at a few spots on Jamie’s face, so gently it makes Jamie want to cry. She brushes a particularly tender spot, and Jamie winces. Her heart is beating so hard, her pulse hammering in her neck.
“Oh, shoot, sorry,” Dani says. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Jamie says, even though technically she did. “No, keep going.”
She lets Dani clean her face up the rest of the way, press the ice bag to her cheekbone, run her thumb against the edges of her bruise, all feather-light, like Jamie could shatter if handled any less tenderly. The situation feels backwards in a way: Dani taking care of Jamie and Jamie allowing herself to be taken care of, instead of the other way around. It makes her feel vulnerable and raw, stripped bare like an electrical wire. For once everything is quiet: the city, outside the flat; the usual clamor in Jamie’s head; the rest of their friends, laughing and talking over each other and living out their own lives together. There’s only this, the two of them sitting together in the darkened living room.
End note warning: Jamie gets into a brief drunken fight with a guy who's being creepy to Dani, sustains a split lip and a bruise but is otherwise fine.
I changed the chapter number to a ? because it's probably going to be 6 or 7 chapters, but I'm still not sure how many exactly. Definitely more than 5 lol. Also - I'm sorry I haven't replied to comments on ch 3 yet! It's been a busy week. I promise I read and deeply appreciate them all!!
Over coffee the next morning, Owen, Hannah, Dani, and Eddie discuss the day’s plans while Jamie lies on the couch, looking pitiful, in joggers and an old t-shirt whose print is so faded she can’t tell what it’s supposed to be anymore. They’re supposed to be going to Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid’s home stadium and an apparent bucket-list-level venue for both Owen and Eddie. (“I didn’t even know you liked soccer that much,” Dani says to Eddie as he’s talking about it, and he frowns and says, “I literally have a whole drawer in our room dedicated to my jersey collection.”) They already have tickets, a whole tour booked that’s supposed to be an hour and a half long, then late lunch reservations at a restaurant that Owen had picked out earlier. And Jamie’s head is fucking pounding — whether from getting hit or the hangover, she can’t tell — and the bruise on her face is smarting worse than it was last night.
Dani has been fretting over her all morning, providing her with painkillers, tea (which, Dani clarified upon seeing Jamie’s wary look, was actually brewed by Hannah), breakfast in bed in the form of scrambled eggs and a jam-slathered croissant, and a steady flow of concerned questions about her health. Now she perches on the armrest of the sofa and says, “Are you sure you’re feeling up to going out today?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can —” She sits up, groans, lies back down.
“I’m gonna take that as a no.”
“You should rest,” Hannah adds. “There’s no need to over-exert yourself.”
“Yeah, you got hit in the head, Jamie, you need to take it easy today,” Dani says.
“We can always reschedule,” Eddie adds uncertainly. “Try to get tickets for tomorrow. I’ll look it up, one sec.”
“Jesus, no,” Jamie says. “We’ve only got a couple days left here, I’m not having you lot throw off our whole schedule on my account.” Something in her back hurts when she moves. She winces, but tries not to let it show. “Shouldn’t have to miss anything just because I’m an idiot.”
Owen comes over to take her empty teacup and plate to the sink, and says, “Jamie. Come on.”
“I’ll — fuck,” she says, flexing her hand. Her knuckles are slightly bruised. “Okay. Yeah. Might have to sit this one out.”
“Oh, good,” Hannah says. “Owen, do you want to call the restaurant, see if they can change our reservations?”
“No, no,” Jamie says. “Seriously, I don’t want the rest of you staying back because of me.” Everybody pauses what they’re doing to frown at her. “Christ, don’t look at me like that. I’ll be fine staying back, I just need to — lie around for a bit, and I’ll be good.” Owen looks like he’s about to protest, so Jamie adds, “I don’t even like football that much!”
“I just don’t like the idea of you being all alone here all day,” Hannah says.
Dani says, “I’ll stay back with her.”
Jamie expects Eddie to insist that Dani goes with them. He says, “Aw, okay,” in a vaguely disappointed tone, but he mostly just looks pleased that he won’t have to miss the stadium tour after all. It’s settled, then. The rest of them leave at a quarter to ten, and then it’s just Dani and Jamie in the flat, alone.
They’ll have most of the day to themselves; up till two or three in the afternoon at least, longer if Eddie, Owen, and Hannah find other things to distract themselves with after lunch, as Jamie expects they will. That leaves them with four or five hours to fill. It’ll be the longest stretch of time that they’ve spent alone (and awake) since London, and the thought makes Jamie’s palms start to sweat, makes her nervous for reasons she can’t articulate.
In London they’d sometimes spend entire weekend days together in Jamie’s flat, huddled close in her bed watching something from Dani’s Netflix queue, with seemingly every part of their bodies touching. They’d only leave their place on the bed to pick up the food they’d had delivered to her doorstep, and then Jamie would let Dani steal half of her own meal (despite her previous insistence that she didn’t want any of her own fries), and their legs would tangle together under the sheets, and Jamie would grow dizzy with the knowledge that this wouldn’t last, and wasn’t hers to keep, and still she liked this, liked giving Dani whatever it was she was getting from their friendship.
It isn’t exactly the same, now, but it feels similar enough. The day stretching out before them, a great open expanse of possibility. More than anything this is what Jamie wants: these mornings with Dani, the ones she can trust will turn into whole days spent together.
“You okay?” Dani says from the kitchen, where she’s heating up leftovers from last night. She’s freshly showered, with a towel slung around her shoulders to catch the water from her still-wet hair.
Jamie blinks. She’s been distracted. “Hm?”
“For a second you were kind of spacing out,” Dani says, and Jamie shakes her head.
What makes her feel most foolish is that it’s these tiny mundane moments that affect her so deeply. Dani spreading a truly absurd amount of butter on a piece of toast, Dani opening the window and closing her eyes as the breeze cools her face, Dani putting the American version of The Office on the TV and laughing out loud at every dumb joke, which makes Jamie laugh in turn, even though she doesn’t really think it’s that funny. If this was a simple crush on an objectively beautiful friend, she could handle that just fine, but the heart of the problem is that it’s much more than that.
“Here you go,” Dani says, setting a plate of Jamie’s dinner leftovers in front of her.
Jamie sits up, and Dani hands her a fork. “You know I can get things for myself, right? Nothing’s wrong with my legs.”
“Will you just let me be nice to you?” she says. It’s playful, no real bite to it.
“If you insist.”
Dani takes her own plate and sits on the other end of the couch. “You know what this reminds me of?”
“When I used to get those migraines, you remember that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jamie says through a mouthful of paella. “They got really bad for a while, there, didn’t they. D’you still get them like that?”
“Not as often. I mean, I take medication for it now, so it hasn’t been that bad in, like, a while.”
There had been a brief stretch, a few weeks long in March, when Dani had started having these awful migraines multiple times a week, headaches that would come on without warning and last almost the entire day once they started. At the time Jamie had wondered if they were maybe stress-induced; she’d heard that that could happen, and it was getting close to exam season, after all. But Dani, being Dani, hadn’t listened to her gentle suggestions to not spend so much time studying, or to cut back her hours at the Wingraves’ a bit.
“You were always so sweet to me when it happened,” Dani continues. “You’d come over and make me food and stuff. Clean my apartment so I could nap. You remember you even put blackout curtains in my room?”
“Well, yeah, the light always made it worse,” Jamie says.
“Yeah.” She smiles, her eyes distant. “So just, you know, think of this as me paying you back for all of that.”
“Jesus, I hope you’re kidding. You know you don’t owe me anything.”
Dani’s wearing that odd thoughtful expression again, the one she had yesterday at the shop and then again outside the club. “Well, no. I guess what I mean is, I don’t want to just have taken from you without, like, giving back. You know?”
“I’ve never thought of it like that,” Jamie says. She really hasn’t. No part of her friendship with Dani has ever been transactional for her.
All morning, Owen’s question from yesterday has been echoing in her mind. Do you think you would call it love? , and then her taking the coward’s way out of it, dancing around the prospect of having to answer, either to him or to herself. She’d said something snarky and shrugged it off. How long has that been her first instinct? To scoff in the face of anything serious, to build those walls higher?
Dani is spooning enormous bites of seafood paella into her mouth, sitting cross-legged next to Jamie, and staring at the TV with a serious, wide-eyed expression that seems out of place considering they’re still watching The Office. She doesn’t like the mussels in the paella, so every time she encounters one she picks it out and hands it to Jamie to eat.
“You’re lucky I like these,” Jamie says, picking the meat out of a mussel and licking her fingers after she puts it in her mouth. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use me as your garbage disposal.”
“Please, you eat literally anything.”
Jamie laughs. “I work a very physical job, alright. My body needs fuel.”
After lunch, Dani goes to the corner store to get them ice cream. She’s only gone for about fifteen minutes, but the whole time Jamie misses her like a part of her body has been taken from her, and she wonders how she did this for five years, and how she’ll do it again after this trip ends, and the thought is about to send her spiralling into a quiet panic, but then Dani comes through the door with two plastic cups clutched in one hand, saying, “I was gonna get us pints, but there’s a gelato place just a couple blocks down!”
She hands Jamie her gelato — stracciatella, her favorite, she doesn’t know when she told Dani or how she remembered — and they eat using the flat wooden spoons that came stuffed in the cups, sitting in folding chairs out on the balcony. Dani scrapes out all the ice cream she can and then throws the spoon away entirely, using her tongue to lick the cup clean. Jamie has to avert her eyes.
Against all her better instincts, she keeps looking at her phone, checking the time. Counting down, mentally, the hours that they have left together. She has Owen’s location on Find My Friends, and could easily just look at it to see when the group will be back, but that feels like a level of insanity she’s not ready to admit to yet.
When she looks up from her phone, Dani has her head leaned against the back of the chair, her hair pulled into a messy ponytail, her eyes closed, face turned up toward the sky. A faint smile plays at the corners of her mouth. Jamie gets up, finds her camera, and returns, all quietly enough that Dani doesn’t seem to notice (or if she does, she doesn’t care enough to move from her position). It’s only when Jamie lifts the camera and takes a picture, the shutter snapping loudly, that Dani opens one eye and looks at her.
“Hi there,” Dani says.
“Ah,” Jamie says, suddenly embarrassed at being caught. “I keep forgetting these things make noise.”
“If you’d just use your phone like a normal person…”
“That feels a million times creepier, though. Taking a secret candid with this?” she says, holding up the camera. “That’s cool. Taking a secret photo of someone on your phone is just being a fucking weirdo.”
“Not if it’s you, taking a picture of me,” Dani says, as if this is obvious. She returns to her repose. The jut of her chin exposes the full column of her neck and makes her profile look delicate, as though it was carved by an intentional hand. Jamie pauses for a second to admire her, until Dani makes an impatient motion with her hand and says, “Go ahead.”
She does, then. She closes one eye, holds the viewfinder up to the other, adjusts the shot until Dani is in frame the way she wants. Takes a picture. Zooms in a little bit, takes another. Gets up out of her chair and takes another. It all feels a bit voyeuristic and forbidden, even though Dani has full knowledge of what she’s doing. There’s an inherent sensuality to watching her like this, and it makes Jamie’s skin prickle with heat. Then Dani opens her eyes and tilts her head toward her, her eyes half-lidded and serious, the blue paling in direct light. For a second she looks like an entirely different person, no longer the anxious college girl Jamie met at Owen’s bakery all those years ago, but a new, self-possessed woman.
Finally Dani breaks whatever character she was playing and smiles the same goofy wide grin as always, the one that shows her teeth and makes her eyes crinkle. Jamie snaps one more picture, this one with no regard paid to the aesthetic of it, just a moment in time she wants to capture.
“What are you gonna do with all of those?” Dani asks once Jamie has put the camera down.
“Develop ‘em, probably.”
“After that part, smartass.”
Jamie laughs. “I’ll send them all to you, don’t worry.”
“No,” Dani says, looking down at the little glass table on which their empty ice-cream cups sit, ringed by puddles of condensation. “Keep them.”
Dani shrugs, glances up at Jamie through her eyelashes. “I want you to have them.”
After they go their separate ways again, Jamie thinks. After Dani goes back to America with Eddie and Jamie’s left in her sad little London flat with her memories and now, she supposes, some photos. At least they’ll be good photos. They can join the other scattered souvenirs of Dani she still has: a knit cap she forgot there once, the birthday cards she’s mailed Jamie over the years. It’ll have to be enough. There’s a lot of that sort of detritus still there, actually, because she’s a sentimental fuck who can’t bring herself to throw anything away. The most embarrassing of them all is a little pressed moonflower that she’d framed a while back, intending to send it to Dani as a gift. But she’d gotten too in her head about it — first of all there was no telling if Dani would even remember that conversation, and it was probably very weird to be sending pressed flowers to a friend, and this was during a period when they weren’t talking much, so a gift arriving out of nowhere would appear random and out of place, and anyway the frame was glass and could get all banged up in the mail — and had never ended up sending it. It’s still sitting in her room, tucked away at the back of a bookshelf.
The sun continues to rise higher and hotter in the sky as the afternoon plods on. Dani ushers them inside after a while, saying she’ll get sunburned if they’re out there any longer, and they put the ceiling fan on its highest setting and sit on the couch underneath it. It cools the sweat on Jamie’s skin and ruffles her hair. If she were alone she’d probably lie back and doze off, but she doesn’t want to miss any of this day, so she goes to the kitchen to make tea instead.
“Stop doing things,” Dani calls after her. “You’re supposed to be injured. Resting.”
“I could literally have broken all my limbs,” Jamie says, “and I still wouldn’t let you make tea for me.”
Dani laughs. “That’s mean.”
Jamie has to stand on her toes to get to the cabinet where the tea bags are. She has her back to Dani as she boils the water on the stove, and when she turns around, Dani is watching her from the couch, her arms folded over the seat back. Feeling brave, she ventures, “Why d’you keep looking at me like that?’
“Like, you know. That.”
Dani pulls her bottom lip between her teeth. “I don’t know, I guess I’m just realizing how much I’m gonna miss you. Again.”
She could deflect with a joke or some lighthearted smug remark, but instead she says, “Yeah. Weird to think we went so long without this.”
“After this, can we make sure we don’t go another five years not seeing each other?”
Jamie stirs a pinch of sugar into her tea. “Yearly visits,” she says, pointing at Dani with her spoon.
“Twice a year.”
It sounds like a game they’re playing, joking around, so Jamie grins and says, “Sure.”
“Once a month. Once a week.”
“Whatever you want.”
She brings her tea over to the couch and reclines the way she was before, her back against the armrest and her legs spread out. Dani has moved closer, though, so now Jamie’s feet land in her lap. “Oh, gross,” Dani says lightly.
“I wanna lie down,” she says, trying to sound indignant. “Not my fault you’re in my way.”
Dani looks at her for a moment and then, with a tip of her head, says, “Turn around, lie the other way.”
“What?” She tries to take a sip of her tea but it’s still too hot, so she ends up scalding her tongue on it.
“C’mon,” Dani says, tapping Jamie’s calves. She turns around and slides over so that the back of her head is against the armrest on Dani’s side, putting her shoulders in Dani’s lap. Their bodies are very close now, Jamie’s arm lying against Dani’s stomach, their faces only a foot or two apart. Actually it hurts her neck a little to sit like this, would be much easier to just let her head slide into Dani’s lap, but she maintains her position. The tea now sits forgotten on the other end table. She’ll have to let it cool off for a while before she can drink it, anyway.
Dani smiles a lazy, saccharine smile down at her, and with one finger starts to trace Jamie’s curls, wrapping them up and then letting them go so they corkscrew back out with a bounce. Jamie lets her eyes flutter shut.
“Still can’t believe you tried to beat up a guy for me,” she says.
“You know,” Jamie says, “with hindsight and sobriety on my side, I’ve really gotta agree with your initial assessment that it was fucking stupid.”
“Yeah, no, for sure,” Dani says, nodding, and Jamie laughs. “For sure, very stupid. But also, weirdly kind of flattering.”
“Oh, don’t say that, you’ll just encourage me to do more stupid things in the future.”
“Please don’t punch anybody else on my behalf.”
“Can’t make any promises there, Poppins.” She grins. “Sorry. Just kidding. I really won’t.”
They lapse into comfortable silence. Dani continues doing that thing with Jamie’s hair, running her fingers through it with gentle pressure, now with both her hands. It’s relaxing enough that it could probably put Jamie to sleep if she let it. A small sound of contentment escapes her.
Dani giggles. “What was that?”
“Feels nice,” she mumbles.
When Jamie opens her eyes again, after a few more quiet minutes, Dani has a strange, absent look on her face, not quite the nervous, darting-eyes look that she gets when she’s about to say something she isn’t sure about, but something a little bit removed from that.
“Something on your mind?” Jamie says.
Dani lets her hand drift to trace the edges of Jamie’s bruise. Quietly she says, “I think you’re my best friend.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, tongue-tied now for no reason. “I mean, yeah, as in — me too, you’re mine too.”
“I don’t know if I should be saying that.” She returns her attention to Jamie’s hair, this time running her knuckles idly over her scalp. “I don’t know if it’s supposed to be Eddie or something. If it’s wrong that it’s you.”
Are they finally talking about it? The lines? “Why would it be wrong?”
Dani doesn’t answer, just keeps doing that thing with her knuckles, a slow, meditative motion. Jamie reaches up and circles her wrist gently with one hand, rubs a finger against the base of Dani’s thumb. Then a little lower, tracing the blue vein that runs down from her palm. Her hands are so delicate, the bones and tendons standing sharp against her smooth skin.
“Can you feel my pulse?” Dani says, a forced lightness coloring her voice.
Jamie presses a little more firmly at her wrist and then nods. “Is it always going this fast?” She raises her eyebrows, tries to make it into a joke, says, “‘Cause if so, you should probably see a doctor about that.”
“No,” Dani says. “It’s not normally this fast.”
After the kiss, there had been a stretch of time during which Jamie felt insane, truly, properly insane. She considered telling Dani what she’d done, opening up a conversation about it, insisting that she should maybe spend less time ranting to Jamie about her boyfriend and more time actually talking to said boyfriend, but ultimately all she ended up doing was distancing herself with minimal explanation, a behavior that probably appeared bizarre and hurtful to Dani. She even made a Tinder in the week following the incident, which she spent only thirty minutes compulsively swiping through before deleting the app, self-righteously disgusted with herself for both judging women off a single picture and for the way her mind compared them all to Dani, and found each one lacking.
When Dani texted her the day after that night — a single Hey! at 5 o’clock sharp, right after Dani’s classes ended — Jamie caved immediately and invited her over as usual. Their routine that evening was the same as always: Dani’s smile when Jamie opened the door, her slinging her backpack onto the couch, her long-winded recounting of her day. But it felt wrong, lifeless and wooden, like they were just going through the motions of it. It was as though the kiss had torn away a plaster to reveal the wound underneath opened anew, the amorphous pain Jamie had been feeling around Dani sharpening into something awfully clear, and now she couldn’t go back to the way it was before, when she didn’t have to look at any of it too closely. That night she did her best to keep a careful distance between them, pressing herself against the wall, pretending to fall asleep too quickly for Dani to have the chance to reach for her.
In the morning, Jamie lay flat on her back and stared up at the ceiling, watching the growing lines of sunlight that came in through the closed window-blinds. She could tell, without needing to look, when Dani woke up.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Jamie said, after they’d lain there in the quiet for a while, “that we maybe shouldn’t do this anymore.”
She’d expected Dani to ask what she meant, or why. Express confusion at first and then argue with her in that sweetly stubborn way she had. But Dani just said, “Oh.”
“Spending the night together so much, I mean,” Jamie said.
“Yeah, I figured.”
“Ah. Right.” There was a lump in her throat that made it difficult to swallow or talk any further. She cleared her throat, but it didn’t go away, so all she could do was hope that Dani wouldn’t hear it. “Well, uh. Just feel like we should, y’know. Stop.”
“Okay,” Dani said. Her voice was still sleep-foggy, so it was hard to tell if she sounded any different than normal. “That’s, yeah, that makes sense, I guess.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean —”
“No, no, yeah, I get it.”
“It’s just that I…”
“It’s cool, you don’t have to explain.” She kicked the blanket off herself and climbed off the bed, said, “I’m running a little late for class,” and that was the end of it.
It was stupid that Dani’s indifference hurt. It was stupid for Jamie to have hoped that she’d push back a bit. She’d stayed up late into the night unable to stop planning out this conversation in her head, coming up with varied diplomatic responses to anything Dani might say, unspooling every possible thread, and in reality Dani had accepted it without protest or even any indication that she was surprised. Which was fine. Normal. A relief, really, so why did she feel so fucking awful?
Dani let herself out of the flat, and Jamie sat on her cold empty sheets with her knees pulled up to her chest, biting hard at the insides of her cheeks to give herself something to focus on that wasn’t the lump in her throat, the hot prick of tears behind her eyes. It felt like the end of something, but she couldn’t say what.
At some point Dani got it in her head that it would be a good idea to bake cookies (the ingredients for which they already have thanks to Owen), so now Jamie stands next to her in the kitchen, cutting a slab of butter into small, meltable pieces. It’s one o’clock. They have probably an hour and a half, maybe two hours left. Time has never moved so fast, and all Jamie can do is sit and watch it go by, all the while trying to preserve as much of Dani as she can in her memory.
“Done,” she says, pushing the bowl of butter away.
Dani inspects her work. “Alright. How would you rate your measuring abilities?”
“At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’d say they’re fair to good.”
“Hmm. Well, we need something a little better than fair, here.” She makes a deeply serious face and hoists a bag of flour. “Can I trust you with this?”
Jamie laughs and takes the flour from her. “Have a little faith, Poppins.”
They work in diligent silence, punctuated only by Dani giving Jamie instructions, the whir of the hand mixer, the beeping of the oven when it’s preheated. Before they arrange the dough on the baking sheet, Dani pinches off a little bit of it and offers it to Jamie, who eats it straight from her fingers and then tries desperately not to wonder whether Dani let her hand linger by her lips for too long.
“Delicious,” Jamie says. “You’re a genius.”
“Eh, we’ll have to let Owen be the judge of that. But thank you.” She smiles, offers Jamie another piece of dough. This time Jamie definitely isn’t imagining the way her thumb ghosts over Jamie’s bottom lip for the briefest second, with just enough pressure to drag it slightly downward, before she moves away.
For a moment Jamie is too stunned and too focused on searching Dani’s face for a sign that this was intentional to register that there’s cookie dough in her mouth. Somehow she manages to chew, swallow, stammer out, “Worth the salmonella.”
“You want more?” Dani says.
Dani doesn’t laugh, just takes another pinch of dough between her fingers. Jamie lets her mouth fall open, lets Dani put it on her tongue. The whole time she holds Dani’s gaze, which is heavy and unwavering, fixed on her mouth. She lets her fingers linger again, this time right where Jamie’s lips part.
Then Dani blinks, makes a surprised sound in her throat, and whatever spell she was under breaks. “We should probably get these in the oven,” she says, looking away. The tips of her ears are red.
In ten minutes’ time, the flat is saturated with good baking smells, and Dani is becoming more and more visibly restless. She keeps drumming her fingers against the countertop, crossing and then uncrossing her arms, casting her eyes all around the room — everywhere except directly at Jamie — like she’s looking for something else to keep them occupied. It occurs to Jamie that maybe being in this close proximity to her for so long has made Dani uncomfortable somehow, and she tries to retrace the afternoon in her mind and catalogue her own behavior, whether she’s done anything to make Dani feel weird — but no, she thinks, any and all weirdness has been initiated by Dani herself.
“Eddie’s running out of days to propose,” Dani says abruptly. She lets out an uneasy laugh. “I mean, if he’s gonna do it on this trip.”
“We still have a couple days,” Jamie says. “Or maybe he’s saving it for London.”
“Oh, Jesus. I didn’t even think about London as a possibility.” Dani looks up at the ceiling, closes her eyes, lets out a long breath. She looks so nervous, almost scared, that Jamie reaches out and covers her jittering hand with her own. Her fingers are freezing, the way they always have been. She used to like pressing them against Jamie’s cheeks without warning, laughing when she’d yelp at how cold they were.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” Jamie says carefully, and really she shouldn’t, her conversation with Eddie was undoubtedly meant to remain between them, but that — plus the tightness in her chest when she thinks about it, about Dani anxiously awaiting a proposal, wanting a life with Eddie — means nothing to Jamie, when compared with the possibility of assuaging Dani’s nerves even a little. “But...he’s definitely planning on doing it on this trip.” At Dani’s questioning look, she continues, “He told me so himself. Told all of us, actually, so no chance of him backing out of it now, right?”
Dani does not look relieved. “What?”
“Well — you don’t have to worry about it, is all I’m saying. Like, it’s going to happen.”
“What did he say, exactly?”
“Just that he was planning on doing it,” she says. She should probably leave it there, but Dani has an inscrutable expression on her face — disappointment, anger, worry, Jamie can’t tell — that propels her to keep talking. “Showed us the ring. It’s nice. Asked me, uh. My opinion on what you’d want for a proposal. That sort of stuff.”
“Wow. Your opinion, huh?” Dani turns a bottle of vanilla essence in her hands, picking absently at the label on it. “What did you tell him?”
“Oh, I dunno. Just told him to keep it simple, nothing extravagant. Figured that’s what you’d prefer,” Jamie says. Dani huffs out a humorless laugh through her nose. “What? Is that...not accurate?”
“No, no, it is,” she says, with an acidic bite that sounds out of place in Dani’s voice. “I just think it’s funny that he didn’t already know that.”
“Well. Yeah. I s’pose.”
“I shouldn’t be annoyed about it,” Dani mutters. “But I am.”
She looks outside for a respite from Dani’s charged silence. The windows around the flat are nearly white with afternoon sunlight. Across the street someone is draping their laundry over a drying rack on their balcony.
“It’s not my place,” she says, “but it’s — he is trying, at least, isn’t he? The fact that he’s asking in the first place, that’s a good sign?”
“Yeah.” Dani glances up. “It’s not your place.”
Jamie shrugs. “Just trying to help.”
Dani presses her lips together, so tight that her mouth becomes a thin flat line. “Sorry,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry, I’m stressed out for no reason and I’m — taking it out on you, I guess.”
“‘S’alright. I can handle it.” She offers Dani a bracing smile. “You know me.”
The oven beeps once to let them know the timer for the cookies has run out. Jamie crouches to fish a pair of oven mitts out of the bottom drawer. When she stands back up, a mitt on either hand, Dani has inched a little closer to her. Too close to not be intentional. She’s looking at her with her eyes gone wide and watchful, worrying her lower lip between her teeth again.
“You asked me to tell you something I want.” Jamie just looks at her, confused. Dani says, impatiently, “Yesterday. And I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Ah. Have you got something in mind, then?”
“I want to go back to the way we were before,” Dani says. The words come out in somewhat of a jumble, falling over themselves in her haste to get them out. “Well, I guess not exactly the same, considering we” — nervous chuckle — “live in different countries. But the rest of it, I want. Talking to you on the phone all the time and being able to text you everything I’m thinking whenever I want and just, I don’t know, not missing you so much. I don’t know when we stopped being that for each other, or why, but I — I don’t like it. And I want to go back.”
Dani finishes her speech with a little nod and leans back slightly onto her heels, fixing Jamie with an expectant self-satisfied look. Jamie can’t help but smile at her. She looks so nervous, still.
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “Yeah, of course we can go back. Dunno why things changed in the first place.”
Jamie nods. “Told you I’d give you whatever you wanted, didn’t I?” It sounds odd even as she says it, the words and her tone mismatched with her meaning, too honest even as she’s trying to sound lighthearted.
“You did, yeah.”
It seems like this should be the end of it, but Dani is still giving her that look, the one that says she’s working up to something else, the one that has Jamie anchored in place, transfixed. On one hand she’s tired of so many of their conversations containing all these hidden layers; on the other, there’s something intoxicating about trying to figure it out.
“Anything else?” she says. Her voice comes out low and hushed.
“I just…” Dani says. She takes another step forward. One more and the tips of their toes would touch. “I like — how I feel when I’m around you. The way you make me feel. I want to go back to feeling like that.”
Jamie can feel her heart hammering hard against her ribs. “How do I make you feel?”
Another slight shuffle forward. Dani wrings her hands together, glances down at them. “It’ll sound dumb.”
“Say it anyway.”
“Brave,” Dani says, her voice breaking into a whisper. “You make me feel brave.”
“You don’t need me for that,” Jamie says, continuing to talk, stupidly, even as Dani puts one hand on the non-bruised side of her face and rubs at her cheekbone with her thumb, pulling her forward until their foreheads are tipped together. “You’re brave enough just by yourself, you —” and then Dani cuts her off by kissing her.
It’s impossibly gentle but still it seems to steal all the breath from Jamie’s lungs, leaving her gasping and empty and wanting. Dani’s mouth is soft against her own, and still tastes of the sugar-butter mixture she kept sneaking bites of from that stage of their cookie prep. It’s nothing at all like their kiss five years ago: hungry, blind, unthinking. This one is Dani at her most careful, her most intentional, her fingertips skating delicately along Jamie’s jaw, her mouth moving slow and warm against Jamie’s.
Of course it doesn’t last long enough — it could never last long enough for Jamie — and soon Dani is pulling away to rest their foreheads together again. She still has her eyes closed. Jamie can feel her breathing, shaky and shallow.
“Oh, God,” Dani says.
When she opens her eyes she has a look of intense concentration about her, like she’s trying to work out a maths problem in her head but instead of maths it’s something in Jamie’s face that she’s trying to decipher. There’s something profoundly miserable and exhausted there too, and it makes Jamie ache for her.
“Hey,” she tries, “are you — Dani, what’s going on?”
With both hands she grips Jamie’s collar, pulls her in again slowly, until their noses touch. “Tell me to stop,” she says, all quiet and pleading, “or I’m gonna — I’m gonna do it again. Stop me.”
“I can’t,” Jamie whispers, and then Dani’s tugging harder at her collar until she’s kissing her again, and her mouth falls automatically open against Dani’s at the first gentle press of her tongue. Dani puts one hand against her other cheek, slides it up to grip her hair, and in the process presses a little too hard against the bruise by Jamie’s eye. Jamie tries not to let it show, afraid any movement will make Dani stop what she’s doing, but she can’t help but hiss slightly at the pain.
“Sorry,” Dani whispers against her lips.
It makes her feel dizzy and weak, the amount of power Dani has over her. There’s a distinct divide in Jamie’s mind between what she should do, what she wants to do — push Dani away, ask her what this means, if anything, remind her she’s almost engaged, stop this before it goes any further and haunts her the way their previous kiss has — and what she knows she will actually do, which is whatever Dani wants, and then Jamie will bear the aftermath by herself as she always has. It leaves her paralyzed, in equal parts by the fear of this moment being over and the fear of this moment continuing. She could stop, could force Dani to acknowledge what she's done, what she keeps doing again and again, but if she does that, Dani will run. If she forces Dani to make this real then she'll lose even this meager hint of it.
So she tangles her fingers in Dani’s ponytail and pulls her closer still, drinks in the small maddening noise Dani makes in response, the way her hand drifts down to Jamie’s lower back, grasping at her shirt. It should feel like a relief, she thinks, shouldn’t it? It should be a triumph, that whatever Dani wants, this is apparently a part of it, but instead she just feels dread and guilt piling heavy in her stomach until she’s drowning in it, in the knowledge that she’s falling again back toward that same void, but Dani is still kissing her and kissing her and kissing her and despite herself it feels so good it’s painful, like candy so sweet it makes your teeth ache, and Jamie thinks she can allow herself this one moment, this one day.
The oven timer beeps at them again and it’s only then that Dani breaks away, slowly at first and then too fast, staggering back a couple steps until her back hits the opposing countertop. Her face is flushed, stunned. A couple locks of hair have come free from her ponytail and now hang loose around her face. She touches her lips with an expression of stricken disbelief.
“Shit,” Dani says.
Jamie clears her throat and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, trying to look less affected by the wide-eyed, terrified look on Dani’s face. “The oven — we should — the biscuits’ll burn.”
“Yeah, you said that, thanks.”
Jamie pulls the baking tray out and sets it on the stovetop to cool. It’s a miracle she doesn’t drop the thing or send the cookies flying everywhere, considering how hard her hands are shaking. She’s very aware now of Dani’s body too far away from hers, hovering out of reach as she takes off the oven mitts and sets them on the countertop. Dani has her arms pinned stiffly by her sides but her fingers flex intermittently, like she keeps having to stop herself from reaching out.
They should really be talking about it. Jamie doesn’t know the script for this sort of situation, when one’s straight best friend with a boyfriend of ten-plus years kisses you for the second time in your life, but Dani is probably waiting for her to handle it with her usual bracing practicality, and return them to normal. Finally she says, “Right. Okay,” but it comes out sounding strangled. She stops herself and returns her attention to the countertop.
Dani seems to not have heard her. “I have a confession,” she says, which strikes Jamie as a terrifying way to start a conversation. Her voice wavers.
“Okay,” Jamie says warily.
“I’ve…I know that I’ve done this before. With you. To you. I’ve — I remember doing it.”
“That...that time at my apartment. After Katie’s party, I...I know that I, um.” She looks at the floor. “Kissed you. When I was — I was really drunk, like, really drunk, but, um, not too drunk to remember.”
On the edge of it, Jamie isn’t exactly surprised by this. “What? Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“I don’t — I don’t know. I guess I was embarrassed, maybe? I mean, I kind of jumped at you out of nowhere, I didn’t even try to...ask you if it was okay, and I...definitely shouldn’t have done it, I don’t even know why I did it, and you — you know, you pushed me away, so —”
“Yeah,” Jamie says quietly, “because you were so fucked up you could barely walk straight, and you had a damn boyfriend at the time, which, can I point out, hasn’t changed.”
“Okay, don’t do that,” Dani says. “Please. Don’t — don’t shut down like that again.”
“Jesus,” she says, laughing helplessly. She’s not exactly angry, but this sensation, her distinct lack of control over the situation, sets her on edge like nothing else. “What am I supposed to do, then? Seriously, what do you expect me to say to you right now?”
“You don’t have to say anything,” Dani says. She starts running her hands through her hair, grasping great handfuls of it, pacing the length of the kitchen. “I’m sorry. It’s me, I’m — there’s just so much going through my head all the time, and I can’t untangle any of it for long enough to think straight.”
Jamie nods. She’s still staring straight down at the countertop, which, she notices now, has an ugly marbled pattern to it that makes it look perpetually dirty. She doesn’t even realize she’s tearing up — fucking again? That’ll be the second time this week, she thinks — until the pattern starts to blur and swim in her vision.
“I need,” she starts. Her voice catches. It takes a moment before she trusts herself to speak again. “I need a smoke. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
As she’s swinging open the door to the balcony she hears Dani say, “Wait, Jamie —”, but she closes the door before she can hear the rest.
It takes her more than a few minutes. She smokes one cigarette and lights another and a third one after that, which she then rethinks and stubs out almost immediately; she really should make another attempt to quit smoking. The sun burns her eyes, the whole sky is too blue and bright, and the heat is making her break into an itchy sweat at her collar.
She’d almost been okay, is the thing. Time and distance are imperfect salves, but they had been working, or on the road to working, anyway, and now Dani has knocked all of it over again and left Jamie to rebuild from the wreckage, and if Jamie is honest, thinking about it makes her angry, genuinely angry in a way she’s never let herself be about the situation. The whole thing would be much simpler — not easier, necessarily, but simpler — if she could write it off as an indecisive straight girl toying with her feelings for the hell of it, but it’s Dani, who, in Jamie’s five years of knowing her, has never shown herself to be even remotely capable of any sort of cruelty. The knowledge doesn’t help her reach any sort of conclusion.
After a suitable amount of self-indulgent brooding time has passed, Jamie braces herself for the inevitable conversation that they’ll have to squeeze in before the others get back. Dani will want to talk about it, in that clumsy, too-open way she has of talking about difficult things. Dani will want to face this head-on the way they didn’t in London, and Jamie can do that. She’s ready.
But by the time she goes back inside, there’s the sound of keys rattling in the front door, and then Eddie, Hannah, and Owen are spilling into the flat, and Dani is hopping off of one of the barstools to greet them like nothing ever happened. Just like that, the moment has been erased.
For the whole rest of the evening, every time Dani meets Jamie’s eyes her heart does a stupid shameful little flip, which gets even worse when Dani smiles tentatively at her. After dinner they sit around the living room drinking and playing cards, but Jamie is too distracted to be any good, and keeps losing spectacularly to Owen and Hannah. At one point Eddie tries to pull Dani into his lap, but she pushes him away with a polite grimace, and Jamie hates the blind spasm of hope the sight gives her. The night is warm and full of laughter and wine and conversation, but Jamie has never felt so small or alone.
She goes for another late-night run once everyone has gone to sleep. It doesn’t really help. When she comes back, Dani is sitting on the edge of her bed, chewing on a thumbnail.
“Christ,” Jamie says, in as even a voice as she can muster. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” Dani says. “Actually, I...I wanted to apologize. For this afternoon.”
“Nothing to apologize for.”
She avoids Dani’s eyes and goes instead to her dresser, pulling out her pajamas and a towel, and then pulls the blinds closed.
Dani sighs. “Jamie…”
“It was a mistake, I get it.” This is the script she’d decided on using while she was out; it allows Dani the chance to brush the whole thing off unscathed. “It happens. Don’t have to make a big deal out of it if you don’t want to.”
“That’s what I’m trying to say.” Dani gets up and stands right in front of Jamie. “I mean, do you...you feel it too, right? It’s not just me?” She pushes the dresser drawer closed so that Jamie has nowhere else to look but directly at her. “I mean if it is just me then that’s fine, obviously, but I — I just need to know.”
She could say no, but she thinks the time for holding her cards close has probably passed, considering she’s now cried in front of Dani about a million times.
“Jamie,” Dani says. Despite herself, it’s exhilarating to hear Dani breathe her name like that. “Say something, please, this whole thing is making me feel insane.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, no, it’s not just you.”
It doesn’t feel like much of a confession. It feels like letting all the air out of a balloon and watching it deflate.
In someone else’s story, this might be the part where Dani surges forward to kiss her with renewed vigor, announce that she’s leaving Eddie and moving to England, and make some weeping, syrupy declaration of love, but even in her wildest, most self-indulgent daydreams, Jamie has never imagined it ever being that simple. Instead Dani just gives her a sad smile and says, “Okay,” in a way that sounds final and resigned. When she leaves Jamie’s room she looks back once, briefly, before closing the door.
The next day involves a trip to Toledo, which is only a half-hour-long journey from Madrid. On the train Jamie leans her forehead against the window and watches the countryside go by in a blur: flat white houses speckled among all the green, standing stark against the cloudless sky. The horizon seems to stretch on forever. Secretly Jamie has always wanted to live somewhere like this. Away from the busy clamor of the city, somewhere she can tend to her own garden and read out on the porch and watch the sunrise over tea. A simple, warm life.
She only looks away from the view when she feels skin against her bare legs (the shorts she’s wearing today only reach the middle of her thighs) and sees Dani, who is sitting across from her with Eddie’s sleeping form slouched onto her shoulder, resting her shin against Jamie’s. Even this, the subtlest of touches, sends goosebumps up and down her legs. She spends the rest of the ride unable to concentrate on anything else but this, Dani’s skin, ankle bone sharp and solid against her foot, the nervous way she avoids Jamie’s eyes.
This is wrong. Jamie may not be a shining beacon of moral consistency, but she’s principled enough to feel sick with guilt about the whole thing. She wonders what Owen and Hannah, sitting on the bench next to them with no idea about any of it, would think of her if they knew what’s been on her mind. How she’s been hoping, in some dark buried part of her, that today they’ll have another moment alone, and that Dani will do it again.
Toledo, when they arrive, looks like it’s been lifted straight from the Middle Ages and pasted wholesale into modernity. It’s all red-tiled roofs and worn brick, cobblestone streets winding endlessly up the hill on which the city sits. Jamie takes out her camera and snaps a couple shots as soon as they exit the train station.
At brunch, Owen flips through the tourism pamphlets he picked up. “They’ve got a torture museum!” he says, a little too brightly.
Jamie pauses, a knife covered in tomato jam suspended in her hand. “The fuck?”
“You know, like, medieval torture devices.”
“Like...fuckin’ — thumbscrews and shit?”
“I’m sure they’ve got some of those.”
Dani shudders. “I’m not sure that’s gonna be my cup of tea.”
Jamie thinks watching Dani lick jam slowly off the end of her spoon should probably count as some form of medieval torture. She returns her attention to her own toast.
“We’ve got to go to this cathedral, for sure,” Hannah says, peering over Owen’s shoulder at another pamphlet. “But I’m willing to compromise on other things. I don’t want to have to split up again. I can’t handle being left alone with these two” — she levels a teasing glare at Eddie and Owen — “for another day.”
“What, were they not on their best behavior yesterday?” Dani says. She nudges Eddie with her shoulder, and he laughs.
“It’s just like being around a couple of excited puppies, is all,” Hannah says. “All they wanted to do was run about on the pitch and make me take pictures of them.”
“Oh, come on. You like me,” Owen says. Hannah rolls her eyes at him.
Eddie, leaning forward and putting his elbows on the table, says, “Jamie, you feeling any better today?”
She has to avoid his eyes, stares instead at his watch, its scratched glass face. He’s been a little quieter than normal this morning, but it’s possible Jamie’s perception of him is colored by paranoia. She doesn’t know how it’s possible for people to conduct lengthy, years-long affairs; even a day of this secrecy has her feeling like she’s losing her mind, and she doesn’t even have any personal investment in Eddie’s feelings whatsoever. It makes her think about those men you hear about who have whole secret families, entire lives mired in betrayal. Or women like her mother, even. It’s always baffled her, how a person can stomach having to maintain that level of deception every day. Now she’s become one of those people.
“Oh, yeah. Much better,” she manages, finally. “Really all I needed was a day to lay around, I think.”
“Well, glad to have you back,” Eddie says. The sunlight glints off of his glasses as he nods at her, and makes his eyes look spectral and otherworldly.
Last night after Dani left her room, Jamie sat on her bed, right on top of all the covers even though her feet were cold, and tried to squeeze something decisive out of her brain. She failed at that, and settled, eventually, for at least acknowledging to herself how deeply she’d fallen into this. She thought it as a complete sentence: you love her. Then she forced herself to repeat it in the hope that it would desensitize her somewhat, so that maybe someday she might stop feeling like she’s been struck by lightning every time Dani so much as glances in her direction. You love her, you’re in love with her.
It has, however, backfired on her enormously, because now she can’t stop thinking it.
And Dani keeps looking at her. All morning she’s been stealing glances at her when she thinks Jamie’s attention is elsewhere. There’s something almost obscene about it, the hungry way Dani’s eyes keep tracing her face, her neck, her hands, her body. Her gaze is slow, intentional, and lingers in spots like the little sliver of Jamie's stomach exposed above her jeans, and the dip where her collarbones meet. Jamie doesn’t know how Eddie can’t see it.
She does her best to avoid Dani over the course of the morning. Mostly this is because she doesn’t trust her own ability to control herself, especially with Dani looking more beautiful and soft and real than ever in a t-shirt that drapes loosely over her frame, tucked into skinny jeans, her hair falling in waves over her shoulders. Her mouth has a subtle lip-glossed sheen to it. In the honey-warm light of the morning sun, she seems to glow.
They walk the streets of Toledo for some time after brunch, not necessarily with any goal in particular but just to take in the weather and the whole anachronistic charm of the place. The buildings are all crammed clumsily into one another, like too many teeth in an overcrowded mouth, which also means there are lots of little alleys and alcoves scattered around the streets, perfect nooks in which to disappear for a moment. When the rest of their friends are busy looking through the window display of a tourist shop, Dani takes Jamie’s hand and pulls her around the corner into one of these alcoves.
Jamie leans against the cold stone of the wall and crosses her arms. It must look like a protective gesture of some sort, because Dani gives her a sad smile and says, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna try to kiss you.”
“Good to know,” Jamie says in a hard voice, and then, “Not that I’d — mind if you did.” She regrets it as soon as the words leave her mouth, how pathetic it makes her sound, how weak.
“No, it’s...I shouldn’t, I won’t,” she says, but she’s still holding Jamie’s hand, and she’s standing so close that she might as well be pressing Jamie into the wall herself. “I don’t even know what I...I just needed to be alone with you for a second, I guess.”
The alcove isn’t exactly private, but the crowd of people walking past them is so dense that nobody would really care to pay attention to them specifically, and anyway it always feels like they’re the only two people in the world when they’re together. Dani is staring unabashedly at her mouth, and Jamie knows it would only take the slightest sign of assent from her to spur Dani into doing it; she’s always been the brave one between them. Jamie loves that about her even now. A finger hooked into the belt loop of Dani’s jeans, or a hand on her waist, is all it would take.
“We’ve gotta get a handle on this,” Jamie says, to keep herself from doing something stupid. “I know nothing’s going to be solved in a single conversation, and I don’t want to make things any harder on you than they already are, but I need — some sort of consensus. Some idea of what you’re thinking. And, like. Some ground rules.”
“Okay,” Dani says quietly. “Okay, yeah, that makes sense.”
“First of all.” She lowers her voice. “You’ve got to stop looking at me like that.”
“I dunno, like you want to fucking —” devour me, Jamie thinks. “Just, the way you were looking at me yesterday. Right before you, you know.”
“Oh,” Dani says. “Sorry.” Then she smiles, small and hesitant. “But...do you really have to look so good all the time?”
It’s so very Dani, how clearly nervous she is and the way she bulldozes forward and says exactly what she means anyway. Despite herself, Jamie laughs, and Dani’s smile grows until she’s laughing too, and then they’re giggling at each other, both hushed and breathless in a guilty sort of delight.
“Jesus,” Jamie says. “Well, that’s definitely not gonna help.” She’s never had any issues when it comes to confidence — women find her attractive, obviously, and she doesn’t think much about it beyond that — but something about Dani seeing her this way makes her feel all young and vulnerable and self-conscious again. She’d tried on three different t-shirts that morning, feeling very much like a stupid lovestruck teenager, standing in front of her mirror and trying to determine the precise roll of sleeve that would best flatter her arms.
There’s more that she had been planning to say, but anything further would take that smile off of Dani’s face, and it’s become so rare to hear Dani laugh like that now, weightless and easy like they’re beholden to nothing beyond this minute. So Jamie doesn’t say anything else. Eventually the moment will end on its own; there’s no reason to rush things to their natural conclusion.
They’re at some museum — Jamie hasn’t really been keeping track — when Dani manages to drift away from Eddie, who is engrossed in reading all the little info cards by the exhibits (he’s a lot more interested in medieval torture devices than art, apparently), to come hover by Jamie’s side.
“Poppins,” Jamie says, without looking at her.
“Jamie,” Dani says. “Wish I had a nickname for you.”
“Can make one up, if you like.”
“Mm. I’ll give it some thought.” She makes a thoughtful face. “James?”
“No. God. It’s bad enough Owen thinks it’s hysterical to call me that. Don’t need you encouraging him.”
“Jim,” Dani says decisively.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re funny?” She waits for Dani to raise her eyebrows and smile before saying, “‘Cause, if so, they were wrong,” laughing and dodging Dani’s attempt to swat at her with the museum guidebook.
They stroll through the museum at a leisurely pace, lagging behind the rest of the group. Their hands hang limp by their sides. It would be so easy for them to touch, and Jamie has to curl her fingers into her palm to keep from reaching out. She digs her nails into her skin so hard it hurts. They keep almost colliding as they walk, even though there’s more than enough room in the hallway for them to walk freely.
“Are you…” Jamie says, when the silence between them starts to grow heavy. “Like. Doing alright?”
Dani makes a sound that was probably supposed to be a laugh but comes out just sounding tired. “No.”
“Yeah.” Jamie allows herself a grim smile. “Me either. D’you wanna, you know, talk about it some more?”
“God, Jamie, I don’t...I don’t know.” She casts a furtive look around the museum. No one is paying any attention to them; no one has any reason to. “Is there somewhere we can go for a sec?”
It turns out there is: a dusty, cramped stairwell that they discover after trying several random doors scattered around the halls of the building. There are no windows; it’s lit only by a few bare lightbulbs that cast an eerie yellow glow over the place. The door leading into the stairwell closes with a heavy slam and then they’re alone in the dim light.
Dani lowers her voice to a hushed, urgent whisper. “I’m going crazy trying not to touch you.”
They sit next to each other on the steps, a safe distance apart. Jamie rests her elbows on her knees and knits her fingers together. “Don’t recall you having any qualms about touching me before.” It’s sort of a cruel thing to say, and it violates their unspoken agreement of not acknowledging that anything they did in London was at all weird or meaningful or intense in a distinctly non-friendly way, but there’s a small ugly part of her that finds some satisfaction in seeing Dani’s look of surprised hurt.
“I guess that’s fair,” Dani says quietly.
There’s a lot that Jamie has been intending to say. Something along the lines of: you need to get it straight in your head what you want, and we need to stop this, whatever this is, and also I’m so in love with you that every time you look at me I feel like I’m being eviscerated with an ice cream scoop. But Dani looks so plainly miserable — sitting with her shoulders hunched up and forward, her knees pressed together, her head bent forward, like she’s trying to make herself as small as possible — that Jamie can’t bring herself to enact the stern boundaries that she’d been planning to.
Jamie slides over so that their shoulders are flush. “Hey,” she says, ducking her head to try to catch Dani’s eye. “It’s gonna be okay, alright? Whatever’s going on, it’ll be okay.”
“It’s not so big that we can’t figure it out,” she says, unsure if she believes that herself. “Can promise you that much.”
Navigating this new dynamic between them is strange. They’ve told each other just enough to make things different and unsettled, but the foundation is still essentially the same. They can make stupid jokes and laugh together and have weird confusing sleepovers and get wine-drunk with the rest of their friends, and at the same time they can daydream about kissing each other senseless and buzz electric-hot with their desire to touch, and these two aspects of their friendship (can they still call it that? Jamie isn’t sure) will just have to exist in tandem from now on.
“Can I ask you something?” Jamie says.
“Are you gonna tell Eddie? About what happened?”
The hidden question, obviously, is are you going to stay with him, but Jamie can’t bring herself to voice it. It’s too honest of a hope to express, and besides it isn’t fair to Dani to demand that.
“I…” Dani looks away, which is how Jamie knows the answer isn’t going to be one she wants to hear. “I have to. Right? But I don’t even know what to say.”
“Really you just have to state the facts.”
“It’s not that simple,” Dani says. “He’s gonna ask why we did it. Why — why I did it.”
“So you tell him why you did it, then.”
Dani opens her mouth, looks like she’s about to say something, when her phone vibrates in her pocket. “Hannah,” she says. “Wondering where we are.”
“We should get back,” Jamie says. “We should —”, but then Dani leans her temple against Jamie’s shoulder, and the warm weight of her body, the top of her hair tickling Jamie’s neck, keeps her there a little longer.
At one of the many shops they get sidetracked by, Jamie, Eddie, and Owen discover a small room containing a selection of true-to-size swords for sale. “Shit, I want one so bad,” Jamie says, picking one up and testing its weight. “You think there’s any way to explain this to airport security?”
Eddie laughs. “I mean, you can fly with guns in a checked bag, can’t you?” He picks up a sword almost Jamie’s height and holds it out at arm’s length, striking a ridiculous pose. “This should be no different.”
“You Americans and your fucking weapons.”
“It’s for personal protection, alright,” Eddie says. “What am I gonna do if I’m attacked by a bear and I don’t have a giant sword to fight it off?”
She nods. “Fair point.”
“Jamie,” Owen says, brandishing his own choice of sword. “Sir Jamie. Get on your knees so I can knight you.”
From the doorway, Dani says, laughing, “You guys are so dumb.”
“Babe. How pissed would you be if I bought this?” Eddie asks.
“Um, extremely,” she says. “Me and Hannah are gonna go across the street, there’s a little jewelry place we wanna check out. Jamie, you want to join?”
They make eye contact across the cramped room, and Jamie feels her stomach drop just from that brief second when their gazes connect. “Nah, you guys go ahead,” she says.
After Dani and Hannah leave the store, Eddie watches them walk across the street with a distant expression, his brows coming together in a thoughtful frown. For one terrifying moment Jamie wonders if he has some inkling of what’s been going on.
“Do you guys feel like she’s been kind of acting weird?” he says.
“No,” Jamie says immediately, impelled by the irritation that prickles her when she hears his tone.
“Hm.” He puts the sword down and sits down on the floor by the rack. The position makes him look like a very tall child. “Maybe I’m just reading too much into things. It just feels like we’ve been really, like, off lately.”
He shrugs. “Just off. Weird. For a long time, not just on this trip. Not to get way too personal, but sometimes it’s like — she’s so different, now. I guess I’m different, too, I mean, we’re getting older, that’s expected. But. Yeah, I don’t know. Something’s shifting.”
Jamie, who is the last person to ever come to for advice regarding long-term relationships, looks helplessly at Owen, busy putting his sword carefully back into its sheath. It makes a shivery squealing sound as it falls in.
“Well,” Owen says, “part of that is just the nature of things, isn’t it? You’ve been together for, what, over a decade?”
“Yeah, so of course it’s gonna be different after a while. If it didn’t change it’d just be stagnant.”
“Hm.” Eddie nods to himself. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m hoping maybe once we’re engaged it’ll, like, bring back some of what we used to have, you know?”
“Well,” Jamie says. “Dunno if that’s the, uh, best foundation for a marriage —”
Owen cuts her off with a discreet eyebrow raise. Eddie doesn’t seem to have heard her, though. He just fiddles with his watch and looks vaguely dejected, slouching against the sword rack, his glasses sliding slightly down his nose.
Later they grab mid-afternoon drinks at, of all things, an Irish-style pub that they find on one of the main streets. Jamie limits herself to a single light beer to avoid any further drunken mishaps; the bruise on her cheek hasn’t quite faded yet, after all.
In the bar bathroom, she leans against the countertop while Dani reapplies her lip-gloss. She’s really only in there at Dani’s behest. “I gotta be honest,” Dani says. “I only asked you to come with me because I felt like I’d miss you too much if you didn’t.”
Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Are you drunk already?”
“Just clingy, then.”
In the mirror she sees Dani smile at her, briefly, before falling back into that puckered sad look she’s been wearing all day. She caps her lip-gloss and then lets her hands rest on the countertop, staring at her reflection for too long to be passed off as inspecting her appearance. Finally she says, quietly, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”
“What? No. Why?”
“I’m acting like one.” She fiddles with the tap, turns it on and lets the water run over her hands, turns it off. “I’m hurting Eddie. He doesn’t know that yet, I guess, but still. And I’m — I’m hurting you, too, aren’t I?”
Jamie swirls her bottle absently, watching the beer slosh around through the brown glass, so that she doesn’t have to answer right away. Through the shitty overhead speakers, a strings-heavy EDM song starts to play.
“Jamie?” Dani says.
She drains the last of her drink. “Just a bit.”
“You can be honest.”
Jamie laughs, a single mirthless breath. “Okay. Yeah. Yeah, you are.”
Dani nods. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I know that sounds sort of empty, but I really am.” She slides her hand slowly across the countertop until it rests right next to Jamie’s arm. Then she shuffles closer, closer, closer still, angles her body so that she faces Jamie instead of the mirror now. She traces her fingers loosely down Jamie’s arm until she gets to her hand, and then she runs her thumb over Jamie’s knuckles, the ones that are still a little busted up from her fight.
“Careful,” Jamie says, although Dani’s touch is so feather-light that she can barely feel it. She’s transfixed, watching Dani’s gaze map her body, her face.
As if she hadn’t heard Jamie at all, Dani whispers, “You’re so beautiful,” her eyes mournful, intent. “I’ve always thought that about you, you know?”
“That so?” It’s an attempt to sound flirty and casual, but her voice shakes, which ruins it.
“Definitely didn’t know that,” Jamie says. “Should’ve said something sooner.”
“There’s a lot of things I should’ve said sooner, huh?”
Jamie shrugs, tries to make it look casual, like her whole body isn’t a single exposed nerve, thrumming wild and alive at Dani’s touch. “No time like the present.”
Dani is still drifting dangerously closer. It strikes Jamie that, by now, this look on Dani’s face has become familiar, a thought that is both exhilarating and nausea-inducing. Of all things she’d hoped for herself, becoming accustomed to Dani’s eyes half-lidded and flitting down to her mouth was not one of them. If only she could have a lobotomy performed specifically on the section of her brain that contains her conscience, she thinks, she could just enjoy this without feeling sick about it, the way she would if everything wasn’t so fucked up and upside-down.
“If I kiss you right now,” Dani says, looking down at their hands, “I won’t have any excuses for it. I can’t blame it on being drunk, or getting caught up in a moment, or anything else. It’ll be me making a conscious choice. To do that to — to Eddie. I won’t be able to justify it, later.” She lowers her voice. “But I want to. So bad. God, Jamie, I just want to be close to you. I’ve never felt like this about anyone.”
“Neither have I,” Jamie tells her, which is the most honest thing she’s said to Dani so far.
It’s the whole beating bloody heart of it, isn’t it? There are no other Dani Claytons in the world. She’s always thought the idea of a soulmate (or true love, The One, etc.) was bullshit, and she still does, but until Dani, she hadn’t realized all the ways that love could grow toward a kind of perfection without having to be some pre-ordained, fate/destiny/what-have-you tripe. It’s true: she’s never felt this way about anyone. She could probably find it again someday if she tried, someone who she deems worthy of hearing her story; she’s not so naive that she really thinks this is her only shot at love. But knowing that doesn’t change the fact that Dani, with all her specific experiences and little idiosyncrasies and the way she and Jamie have been relating to each other for over five years, is inimitable.
Dani puts both her hands on either side of Jamie’s face, but instead of kissing her she just tucks a couple stray locks of hair behind Jamie’s ears, slowly, her fingers trembling. The gesture makes something inside Jamie break cleanly apart, drains away a final reserve of self-control she had, and this time it’s her who tips forward to brush Dani’s lips with her own, not quite a kiss, even, only the gentle pressure of their skin meeting until it builds into something hungrier. Dani makes a sound like relief, and when Jamie puts one hand on her shoulder to bring her closer, she thinks she can feel the tension in them easing.
Dani leans her forehead against Jamie’s, and her eyes remain closed but Jamie can feel her brows pulling together, and she knows exactly what face Dani is making. “God, I want this so bad,” Dani says. She slumps loosely into Jamie, drifting from her mouth to kiss clumsily at her jaw, her ear, her neck, and even if this is all they get to have, Jamie thinks she could sustain herself on the memory of this one moment forever, this feeling like they’re in this thing together, like it’s not just Jamie falling too far and failing to catch herself.
They’re too distracted to notice the sound of the bathroom door swinging open behind them. Jamie only registers that someone else has walked in on them when she hears a sharp intake of breath followed by — Hannah’s voice, fuck fuck fuck — a stammered, “Oh,” and then they break apart so rapidly that Dani stumbles into the automatic hand-dryer, activating its sensor.
The dryer whirs noisily in the background as Hannah shifts her weight from one foot to another, looking back and forth between the two of them. It’s jarring to see Hannah so profoundly at a loss for words. “Sorry,” she says, “I, ah…I didn’t know — didn’t mean to — ”
Jamie clears her throat and stuffs her hands into her pockets, as deep as she can, like maybe she could disappear into her clothes if she tried hard enough. It’s what she wishes she could do, if only to avoid having to look Hannah in the eye and take in the shocked, reproachful-but-trying-not-to-be look on her face. Dani is still standing frozen by the hand-dryer.
“Should probably be, ah...getting back to the table,” Jamie says, staring resolutely at Hannah’s shoes.
“Right,” Hannah says. “Right, of course.”
She glances at Dani, tips her head to indicate the exit. Dani doesn’t seem to want to move, so Jamie eventually takes her hand and tries to make it look as platonic as possible to Hannah, although that’s probably futile by this point, especially with the way Dani curls her fingers tight around Jamie’s grip. Her hand is shaking.
“Listen, Hannah, it —” Jamie tries as they’re leaving. “It wasn’t — it’s not, ah...what it...looks like..?”
“Later,” Hannah says without looking at her. “We’ll talk.”
Outside the bathroom, in the hallway leading out to the rest of the bar, Dani presses herself against the wall and closes her eyes. She’s breathing fast, her chest rising and falling too rapid and shallow, her nostrils flaring.
“Jesus,” she says in a high voice. “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
Jamie presses one hand flat above her sternum and says, in a low voice, “Breathe. It’s okay, look at me, try to breathe with me,” murmuring a steady stream of reassurance even as panic is rising in her own throat, hot and sharp like bile. They stay like that for what feels like a long time, but Hannah hasn’t come out of the bathroom yet, so it must only be a few seconds, a minute, maybe.
Once Dani’s breathing has returned to normal, she says, “Do you think she’s gonna say something?”
“What, to Eddie?”
“Or — or Owen, or — anyone.”
Maybe it’s Dani’s tone, or the blankly terrified look on her face, but something cold shifts into place and stings Jamie with the sudden chill of understanding. Dani isn’t going to tell Eddie. Dani isn’t going to take any steps to make this anything more than what it is. Jamie’s been relegated to the category of a dirty secret, and that’s where she’ll stay, and it isn’t that she believes she’s entitled to anything more than that, but — it hurts, nonetheless.
She removes her hand from Dani’s chest and steps away. Dani’s gaze follows her back.
“What?” Dani says.
Jamie shakes her head. She tries to laugh, but it comes out sounding sharp and acidic. “For fuck’s sake. This is absurd. This is —” She almost says crazy, but stops herself short. Dani has a long and storied history with the word. “We can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep doing this.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that —” She closes her eyes, makes a frustrated noise at the ceiling. It’s too big of a conversation for right now, or ever, but apparently they’re having it. “Look, there’s a lot I want to say to you, but I don’t know if I can get it all out without — hurting you, or making you feel like you have to do something you don’t really want to do.” Dani frowns, and Jamie tries not to let it stop her from saying the rest of what she needs to say. “So...so I think I might just try to, y’know, take some space for a bit. From — you. And all this. Like, so that we can both figure out what we want, and all that. ”
Dani doesn’t look any less crestfallen. “Did I do something wrong?” A pause. Jamie stares blankly at her, because what kind of question is that. “Sorry. That was a dumb thing to say.”
“It’s not about that,” Jamie says. “It’s not about who did what wrong, it’s —”
“I get it.”
“It’s not that I don’t want —”
“I get it, Jamie, it’s okay,” Dani says, offering Jamie a tired smile like that’s supposed to make her feel any better. She can’t help but feel like they’re right where they were five years ago.
Between afternoon drinks and dinnertime, they check off the rest of the sightseeing items on their list and then meander aimlessly, taking copious pictures of each other. Jamie will probably be sunburned tomorrow, but it’ll be worth it. Dani, for her part, keeps her distance after their bar conversation, and Hannah only aims one furtive, concerned glance in Jamie’s direction before continuing to act like nothing happened. In between her conversations with Owen and Hannah, Jamie pulls out her phone and taps out a brief text to that girl who’d slipped her her number at work. It seems like the sort of thing a healthy person would do.
you still up for that drink? she types. Then she deletes it. It sounds too brusque, doesn’t it? But anything longer would be weird, so she retypes the same message. The girl might not even have her number saved, though, so she adds, this is jamie btw. Before she can rethink it any further, she hits send. She doesn’t even remember what the girl looks like, or even her name, because she literally saved her fucking contact as “Girl From Work”, like a twat. She thinks maybe she had brown hair.
“What’re you up to?” Owen says, when he notices her squinting at her phone. She pockets it quickly, as if she has anything to hide.
“What does it look like,” Jamie says. “Texting. A girl,” she adds, unnecessarily.
He raises his eyebrows. “Ooh. Anybody special?” He sounds genuinely excited about it, which Jamie hates.
She scoffs. “No,” she says, so he drops the subject.
For dinner, they find a place with outdoor seating and an extensive drink menu. It’s late in the evening but the sun’s still out, although it’s cooled down considerably. The air is breezy, summer-mild, and the drink Jamie orders — some concoction involving elderberry and vodka — is bright and sparkling on her tongue. They get a giant bowl of olives as an appetizer and Jamie makes a game out of seeing how many olives she can throw into Owen’s mouth. She only stops after accidentally overshooting and hitting the old man at the next table in the back of his head, which sends all of them into fits of silent, shaking laughter.
After dinner they climb the steep streets until they reach a high point that allows them to look over the rest of the city. There’s a high stone wall bordering the pavement. The top of it is wide enough to accommodate a person, so Jamie climbs up onto it and lets her feet dangle off the edge.
“Please be careful,” Dani says from behind her. It’s the first thing she’s said directly to Jamie since their bathroom conversation.
Jamie swallows the lurch in her stomach and pats the spot next to her. “Come on up, the view’s beautiful. As long as you don’t look down.”
“Hmph. The view’s good enough for me back here, thank you.”
“Ah, live a little, Poppins.”
“I am living. By doing my best to make sure I actually stay that way, and not hopping up onto — hundred-foot drop-offs and risking death just to look cool.”
“Bit dramatic, don’t you think?” Jamie says. “Promise I’ll catch you if you fall off. Try me.”
“You are not that strong,” Dani grumbles, but she joins Jamie anyway, sitting carefully cross-legged on the wall next to her, much closer to the street than the empty air beyond them.
The rest of their friends have wandered off elsewhere. “Where’s Eddie?” Jamie asks.
Dani sighs. “I think he went to get ice cream with Hannah and Owen.”
“Seems like you two are never actually together,” she says, without thinking. Briefly she wonders if she’s overstepped again, but Dani doesn’t seem to be offended.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Has it always been like that?”
“I mean...I don’t know, when you’re with a person for long enough you kind of start to get bored of them, right? I feel like that’s kind of where we’re both at right now. Like, you know, we have fun, but being around each other is just — it’s fine. It’s just the way things are after a while.”
“What?” Jamie chances a look at her. “No, that’s not what it’s supposed to be like. Is it?”
Dani scoffs. “Well, what is it supposed to be like, then?”
She shakes her head and pulls her lighter out of her pocket, flicking it open and shut absently. “Dunno.”
“No, go ahead. Say what you were gonna say.”
“I was just going to say I wouldn’t think it’s unrealistic to want a partner that I actually want to, like, spend time with,” she says carefully, taking care to keep any trace of an edge out of her tone, “but maybe I’m just naive.”
“Hm,” Dani says. “Honestly, sometimes I think me and Eddie never really transitioned out of being friends to being — what we are now.” She looks to Jamie, who nods at her to keep going. “I mean, we — obviously we, like, are together, we do all the couple things we’re supposed to, but.” She examines her thumbnail and then chews at the edge of it. “It never started to feel...real. For me.”
Jamie, unsure what to make of this, just says, “Oh.”
“Wow,” Dani says, exhaling a shaky laugh. “I’ve never told anyone that before. I’ve never said that out loud. Is that bad?”
She shrugs. “How does it feel?”
“Good. Awful.” She presses her lips together. “Scary.”
Jamie covers Dani’s hand, lying loose on the stone, with her own. She rubs her thumb steadily over her palm. There’s no deeper intent to the gesture, nothing remotely sexual or romantic about it. More than anything it’s a way to say I’m here without actually having to speak the words out loud.
“I can tell you want to say something,” Dani says after a while.
“Well. Yeah. Was trying not to ruin the moment, though.”
Dani smiles. “It’s fine.”
“Okay,” Jamie says. She takes in a deep breath and then releases it slowly through her mouth, letting it puff out her cheeks. “I wanted to ask. D’you — feel the same way about me as you do him?” At this, Dani raises her eyebrows and looks away, so Jamie starts backpedaling. Too much, she thinks, way too much. She didn’t realize, until she said it out loud, how much the question reveals about her hopes, how vulnerable it leaves her. “Or, no, not the same, but similarly? At all? Or — you know what, never mind, actually, you don’t have to answer that. Stupid question.”
Dani stares off at the horizon. "Jamie, I..."
Behind them, children shriek and laugh, and tourists make small-talk in Spanish and French and a host of other languages Jamie can’t identify, and birds soar overhead and swoop down to steal people’s food. If she peers over the edge of the wall she can see all the people walking on the street below, too, made small by the distance. Dani still hasn’t said anything. Her face is pinched, eyes fixed on the sky.
Jamie nods. "Cool,” she says, despite the fact that Dani knows her more than well enough to recognize that it is not cool. “I’ll, uh. Take that as a no, then. That’s alright."
"No, no,” Dani says, quickly. “I'm trying to find the words. It's different. The way I feel about you, it's...it's not like anything I've ever felt, for anyone else. Including Eddie. I don't have any points of reference for it." She looks at their joined hands. “I’ve told you a little bit about me and Eddie, right? How we met?”
“A bit, yeah.” A long time ago she’d told Jamie the bare bones of it: next-door neighbors, elementary school friends, a smooth elision into dating. She remembers most of the salient details, but she nods at Dani to continue anyway.
“Well. It was right after my dad died,” Dani says. “Which, I know I’ve already talked enough about all that, but — when I met Eddie, it was like...I don’t know, being around his family was so different from what I’d gotten used to, with just my mom. They seemed like they actually liked me, for one thing,” she says through a wet laugh. “So that was nice. Especially his mom, she’s always been…so, so sweet to me. To, like, an unbelievable degree. Definitely way nicer to me than my own mom. Not that that’s a high bar.” She sniffs. “I still remember she bought me my freaking prom dress, isn’t that insane?”
“Wow,” Jamie says. “Yeah.”
“And, you know, we have fun together. We’re comfortable together. He loves me, I love — I love him. That should be enough, right?”
She looks to Jamie like she’s actually expecting an answer. Jamie doesn’t have one. Eventually, she settles on saying, “It’s enough if you think it’s enough. And, y’know, if it’s not enough, then that’s just...how you feel.”
“The thing is, I don’t know how to separate all of that other stuff from how I feel about him now. Our whole history together. I...I haven’t really had very many people in my life that, like — ” She pauses, blinks rapidly before continuing. “Love me.”
“Dani,” Jamie says, softly. “That’s not true.”
“It’s a little bit true.”
“Lots of people love you.” And then, edging a little too close to the truth, she says, “Bloody hard to get to know you and not love you.”
“Well, what if — sometimes I feel like nobody even really knows me,” she says. “I'm sorry, I know that sounds really teenagery, but it's true. It’s like...I've let myself be carved out by what people think of me, and I've never thought to push back on any of it. Until pretty recently. Actually..." She smiles and looks down. "Until I met you, I guess. But now it's like...I've locked myself into a life I don't even know if I want. It doesn't even feel like it's my life, it just feels like a life I've been dropped into. And it's too late." Her voice catches, and she pauses, sniffs.
"How is it too late?"
She fixes Jamie with a resigned look. "I mean, I’m twenty-seven.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Jamie says. “Jesus, you’re only twenty-seven.”
Dani shakes her head. “What's so stupid is, every year I keep telling myself, now I'm too old, it's finally too late, and then I look back and I think, what the hell was I doing then? Why didn't I do something? I mean, what kind of person lives that way, right?" She sniffs. "I'm a coward, that's what I am. I'm too fucking scared to change anything."
She wants to reach out and put both her arms around Dani, coax out the rest of whatever she has to say until she’s fully unburdened, pick up all of those pieces and put them back together, but she’s also old enough now to know that there’s no easy fix for this, so instead she rests her head on Dani’s shoulder and squeezes her hand tighter. They sit like that, watching clouds float lazily by over their heads, until the rest of their group comes back.
Hannah finds Jamie in her room later that night, once they’ve gotten back to Madrid. Jamie is laying face-down on her bed with her boots still on.
“Are you alright?” Hannah says, swirling a glass of red wine. “Is this a bad time?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Jamie says. She rolls over to face Hannah, groaning for no reason in particular. Hannah sits gingerly on the edge of the bed and waits for Jamie to say something else. “So, uh. Yeah. About today.”
“Yes?” Hannah says. Somehow she manages to convey a sort of disapproval that isn’t condescending. It simply is. “I suppose my first question is, well, how...long..?”
“Not long,” she says hurriedly. “I’m not totally morally bankrupt, Christ.”
Hannah holds up her hands in a placating gesture. “I wasn’t implying anything.”
“Just yesterday, she — uh, she kissed me.” Jamie fidgets with the chain of her necklace. “Well, actually, she did it once before, forever ago, back in London. But she was really drunk then, that one doesn’t count for anything,” she says when Hannah raises her eyebrows. “But, uh, yeah. Since yesterday, things have been...weird. To say the least.”
“I can imagine,” Hannah says. She looks benignly puzzled. “So — I don’t want to pry, but does this change anything for her and Eddie? Or for you?”
“No,” Jamie says. “I don’t think it changes anything for her.”
She’s doing her best not to sound bitter, or look at all angry or disappointed, but it must show pretty clearly on her face, because Hannah says, “Oh, Jamie,” in a too-understanding voice that makes Jamie want to cry. She pinches the bridge of her nose and offers Hannah a bracing smile.
“‘S a bit of a mess,” she says.
“But,” she says, “I told her we have to stop. And figure something out.”
“Well, that’s a good start.” Hannah narrows her eyes. “What is it that you want out of this, exactly?”
“Oh, God, Hannah, I really don’t have a fucking clue,” she says, putting her face in her hands. “No, that’s not true. I do, which makes it worse. I want —” She cuts herself off with a groan
Gently, Hannah says, “You can say it, you know? Even if you think it’s utterly beyond the realm of possibility, you can still allow yourself to say it, at least.”
“Fuck,” she says into her hands. “Owen said literally that same thing to me the other day, funnily enough.”
Hannah laughs mid-sip of wine. “Smart man. What did you say?”
“Didn’t say anything.”
“Are you going to say anything now?”
For a moment the only sound in the room is the ambient hum of the ceiling fan and the occasional honking of cars from outside. Jamie thinks: there is nothing to be gained from admitting, even privately, even just to Hannah, what she wants. It won’t change the outcome. It won’t motivate her to fight for what she wants or whatever other romantic-comedy-esque notions she might hold about what should happen next; there’s nothing to fight for.
“Okay,” she says. “Okay, yeah, I can say it. I want — I want her.”
“I want — but, like, I’ve been wanting that for a long time, and I’d managed to be okay with what I already have, and now, one fucking week with her and I’m like a goddamn teenager again! Can’t think about anything else, I can barely sleep, can barely eat, I’m — Jesus, I’m fully losing my mind and I don’t know what to do.” She looks helplessly at Hannah, who is regarding her with something a little too close to pity for Jamie’s liking. “There’s nothing I can do. Is there?”
“No,” Hannah says. “I suppose there isn’t. But — you know, you don’t always have to be the strong one, Jamie.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I see you,” Hannah says, “trying to be there for her, as — the rock, the shoulder to cry on, whatever you want to call it, and that’s all well and good, but —”
“Just trying to be a good friend,” Jamie says.
“Right. Of course. But still, it must be hard for you.” Hannah takes a sip of her wine. “Isn’t it?”
Yes. “Appreciate the concern,” she says, “but I can take care of myself in that regard.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so.” She gets off the bed, then, and starts the process of unlacing her boots, taking off her earrings, pulling out her makeup wipes. Tomorrow’s their last day here, so she needs to pack, too, but she can do that tomorrow. It won’t take long, just to throw her clothes into her duffel bag, but she itches for something to do with her hands. “God, please don’t tell Owen I said all that.”
“Because he’s been warning me about not falling in love with her since we met,” she says, and then realizes that she’s just spoken the word love out loud, to Hannah, about Dani, she’s used the phrase falling in love with her, so to cover it up she adds, “And I can’t handle him knowing he was right. You know him, he’ll be fucking insufferable about it.”
“Right,” Hannah says, laughing, “of course.”
Hannah stays for a little while longer, talking about things other than Dani and serving as a welcome distraction to Jamie as she putters around the room getting ready for bed. She doesn’t say anything more on the matter, or express any further concern, but Jamie can tell she’s worried about her. She wouldn’t stay with her for so long otherwise.
After Hannah leaves, Jamie checks her phone again to find that Girl From Work has texted back an affirmative to the prospect of getting drinks, a smiley face added at the end of the message. Jamie doesn’t reply. She goes to bed feeling ill.
Probably 2 chapters left after this. As always come chat with me on tumblr @ glutaminase etc etc
Happy Valentine's day! 1 more chapter after this, unless it becomes unreasonably long lol, and then an epilogue.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The final day of a vacation (not that Jamie’s taken a great number of them in her life, but still) is always sort of sad and slow, the finality of it all saturating the air around them and making everyone sluggish, as if not doing anything will make the day last longer. They wake up late, eat a breakfast and then a lunch cobbled together from all the food still remaining in the Airbnb — a hodgepodge of scrambled eggs, pasta, cookies, ham sandwiches — and spend much of the day slouching around the flat, looking bored. The day limps onward.
“Maybe we could see a movie,” Eddie says at one point, sprawled out on the couch. He looks up showtimes on his phone. “Oh, never mind, everything’s in Spanish.”
Dinner that night is appropriately extravagant. Owen scrounges up the last of the groceries they’d bought and somehow manages to turn all the disparate ingredients into an actual meal. Across the table from Jamie, Dani looks pale. Her lips are pressed together and drawn tight. At first glance it looks almost like she’s about to pucker up, as if for a kiss, but Jamie’s only seen this look on her face before when she’s about to cry.
Their flight the next day leaves in the late afternoon. On the plane she ends up in a window seat next to Dani, and Eddie takes the aisle seat in their row of three. They’d probably bought their tickets that way; she can’t remember, but it seems like the sort of thing they would have done, back in January when they were making their plans for this trip over their old Whatsapp group chat. She envies Past Jamie for her naivete.
Planes make Jamie nervous, and of course, Dani would know that, even though they’ve never flown together before. Of course Dani would reserve a piece of chewing gum to give her at take-off to help keep her ears from popping; of course Dani would reach for her hand under the scratchy blanket during Jamie’s least favorite part of the flight (the interminably long climb to cruising altitude); of course Dani would treat this like it was normal, like Jamie isn’t being a complete baby about the whole thing.
“Thanks,” Jamie mutters through gritted teeth. The seatbelt light goes off with a soft ding.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Wish they’d still let you smoke on planes,” she says, reclining her seat. They’re playing this game again, it seems, pretending everything’s normal. “Was born in the wrong generation.”
“Yeah, crazy how they don’t let you start accidental inflight fires anymore,” Dani says, although she’s smiling, which takes all the bite out of her sarcasm.
At some point Jamie dozes off, and wakes up with her head pillowed on Dani’s shoulder. “Oh, shit,” she mumbles, adjusting so she can lean against the window instead. “Sorry. You should’ve said something.”
Dani has a book open on the tray-table, and is scratching notes on a small legal pad in her lap. She shakes her head. A curtain of hair is covering her mouth, but Jamie can make out a faint smile on her face anyway.
“What’re you working on?” Jamie asks.
“Curriculum development stuff,” Dani says, without taking her eyes off the page. “It’s pretty boring.”
Jamie watches her out of the corner of her eye until she can no longer bear it, and then she fishes a book out of the bottom of her own carry-on, a worn copy of Bright Lights, Big City that she’s been trying to get through for ages. When the drink cart comes around she orders a Coke, no liquor even though she could probably go for some; she makes a valiant effort to focus on her book, before ultimately giving up and resting her forehead against the window to watch the cloud layer below.
It’s evening in London when they land. They go to Owen and Hannah’s flat for tea; it’s as small as London rent demands, one bedroom, but it’s warm and welcoming, always full of good food smells and flickering candles and tasteful decor courtesy of Hannah’s interior design sense.
“I love it,” Dani says, once she’s been given the brief tour. “It’s like the vibe of Owen’s old place just transferred completely into this one.”
“Yeah. It’s the me of it all,” Owen says. In the kitchen he ties on an apron and puts on a kettle.
“Oh my God, you’ve been cooking for us all week,” Hannah says. “Let someone else take over for once. You poor, sweet man.”
Owen beams at her. “Are you volunteering?”
“Mmm.” She picks a piece of lint off his collar, pecks him once on the cheek. “I can contribute, if you’d like.”
“Anything you have to offer, I will gladly accept.”
Jamie nicks a biscuit from the open tin on the counter, drops herself onto their sofa, and kicks her feet up on the coffee table. “Stop being so publicly in love,” she tells them.
Hannah, smiling, sighs at her. “Jamie, darling, I’m begging you to take your shoes off before you go putting your feet on my furniture.”
Over tea they discuss their plans for the next day, the one day in London that Dani had wanted. They consider trying to do all the usual cliche tourist things the city has to offer, mostly for Eddie’s benefit, but Dani vetoes the idea, saying she’d rather keep it simple, use the day just to spend some time with them all. Owen offers to make one last dinner for them, to commemorate their last night there.
Eddie, Jamie notes, has just one day left to propose, if his intention is still to do it before they return to America.
Jamie’s flat, when she finally returns to it, seems smaller and colder than it was before she left it. She’s always preferred living by herself, but for once there’s something gnawing at her, something that seems to be missing now that she’s standing alone in her living room. Her plants are watered and alive, because she’d left a key with a coworker — Tim, a scrawny young slip of a man who Jamie actually quite likes, though she’s never told him as much — solely for the purpose of checking in on them. The thought of another person traipsing around her space had grated on her, but it was worse to imagine returning to a flat full of dead things, so she’d managed to grit her teeth and deal with it. They all seem to be doing well. She’ll have to bring Tim something nice when she goes back into work. Maybe she’ll give him the little Madrid magnet she bought on a whim at the airport.
She’d left the place somewhat messy before she left — she’d overslept, woken up to Owen calling her, hadn’t had time to do anything other than shower and toss all her things in her bag — which she sorely regrets now, exhausted but unable to collapse on her couch due to all the junk covering it.
Her fridge is nearly empty save for a case of beer, some week-old deli meat, expired milk, and the little packages of baby carrots she has with her lunch, so she gives up on cooking anything real and makes cup noodles for dinner instead. If Dani were here she’d say something like, How have you not gotten scurvy yet?, so Jamie scavenges a bag of frozen peas from the back of her freezer, which she thaws and tosses in with her noodles. She eats straight from the plastic cup. It’ll do. She should probably try to start eating more like a twenty-seven-year-old, less like a kid with empty cabinets and missing parents, but she’s been telling herself that for years now. It seems like a problem for another day.
After her “dinner”, she starts unpacking and cleaning, unable to put it off any longer. She’s putting away some books when she finds it: the old pressed moonflower frame that she’d never sent Dani, tucked into a dark, cobwebby corner on the bottom shelf. She withdraws it carefully, wary of any possible cracked glass (or spiders), but it seems to be in fine shape save for some dust.
She wipes the surface clean using a tea-towel. Then she sets it back on the shelf, face-down.
Maybe she’s being a bit dramatic about the whole thing, but it feels like a chapter of her life is coming to a close, and it’s only now, standing in her flat with remnants of Dani somehow still all around her, that she can see how she’s been running from this conclusion for years, all the while chasing hopeless little bright spots when they’ve come to her, phone calls and text conversations and memories that she didn’t let herself look at too closely. It’s been holding her back. It’s been keeping her in a state of suspended animation, either living in the past or for some shining idea of the future, and it’s kept her from moving on and moving forward the way she should.
Her phone buzzes, startling her out of her reverie. It’s Dani. She hesitates for only a second before swiping to accept the call.
“Poppins,” she says. Then, spurred by some sort of bizarre deep-seated propensity for self-destruction, she says, “You miss me already?”, and immediately thinks Shit, no, no, way too much.
“Am I that obvious?”
“A bit, yeah.” She puts the phone on speaker and starts folding a load of laundry that she left piled in the basket over vacation. “What’s up?”
“Just wanted to say hi,” Dani says. “Are you busy?”
“Uh,” she says, to buy herself time to gather any reserves of restraint she has left. Apparently there are none. “No, no, I’ve just been unpacking. Can always get back to it later, though.”
“Oh, well, I don’t want to distract you or anything. I was just bored.”
“Distract me,” Jamie says. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay.” Even through the muffle of her shitty phone speaker, Jamie can hear the smile in Dani’s voice. “Okay, so, I wanted to ask — it’s a pretty nice night, you know. Like, it’s warm out, you can see the stars.”
“It’s London,” Jamie says. “You can never see the stars.”
Dani laughs. “Okay, yeah, I lied about that part. The sky’s really clear, though.”
“Mm-hm.” She picks up another ancient, faded t-shirt from the laundry pile and holds it at arm's length to examine it. Maybe it’s time to invest in some new clothes. She just doesn’t see the point, though, when all she does is get them covered in soil and fertilizer anyway. “Did you call me up just to talk about the weather?”
Another laugh. Quieter this time. It’s going to be difficult trying to detach herself and move on if Dani keeps reminding Jamie how good it feels to make her laugh. “No, no, I didn’t.”
“Right,” Jamie says, and now she’s smiling, too.
“I was wondering if you — now that I’m actually saying it, it’s dumb that I had to spend so much time building up to this. I just wanted to know if you wanted to go on a walk with me.”
“Yeah,” Dani says brightly.
“Just, like. Around?”
“Will Eddie be joining us?”
“He’s already asleep.”
She looks at her clock. “It’s eight.”
“Yeah, he said he was tired from the — whatever, that doesn’t matter. Are you free?”
It only takes Jamie a couple seconds of faux-hesitation to agree. She meets Dani at her hotel and they walk together to a nearby pedestrian bridge. They stand side-by-side, looking out at the Thames, their hands resting close — not enough to touch, but enough for Jamie to feel some degree of warm from Dani’s skin — on the metal railing. The Thames is flat and dark, glittering at either shore with reflected light, and Dani and Jamie stand in silence before it for some time, listening to snatches of conversation from other passers-by, and the low gentle wash of the river’s flow.
"I wish I could memorize all of this," Dani says. “I keep thinking if I just take it in for long enough, I’ll be able to keep it. Preserve it.”
Jamie nods. "Reckon it might be more effective to just take a picture."
Dani rolls her eyes at her. "It's just — I don't know how to explain it, but it's nice to remember that there are lives outside my own. You know?”
She does know. It’s the feeling she gets when she’s on the train watching the small personal dramas of other passengers play out around her, or the rows and rows of windows on her apartment building, each glowing square a fully-formed life taking place just past the glass. It’s stupidly sentimental, but Jamie can’t deny that there’s something meaningful to it. It makes life feel less lonely.
“Like, when I'm back home,” Dani continues, “it's like I get this tunnel vision where it feels like what I'm living is the only thing. The only option. Being here, there’s so many people, and they’re all so different from me, it's like I can...step out of that for a bit."
"Yeah. I get that."
"I really thought I was gonna get out," Dani says. "In high school, I thought I'd — I really thought I could do it. Get out of my hometown, I mean. I've told you about it, right, it's the kind of place where you're born there, you grow up there, you marry your high school sweetheart and you have your white picket fence and your two-point-five kids and you grow old there and you die there. And I thought I'd be able to escape all that." She draws in a breath and lets it out slowly. The locks of hair framing her face flutter with each exhale. "And then I didn't. It’s like — quicksand. You know how they say the more you struggle, the harder it is to escape?"
“Escaping isn’t always what you expect it to be,” Jamie says. “Doesn’t necessarily fix anything.”
Dani glances at her. “Is that a general statement, or was that actually your experience of it?”
“I mean, I didn’t quite escape either, did I? Strictly geographically speaking. This is where I’ve always been.”
“Tomato, tomahto,” Dani says. “I think running away counts. Changing your life just because you want to.”
Jamie shrugs. “Well, then, I dunno. I suppose it served me well enough, personally, but, like — at the risk of sounding pretentious —”
“When have you ever been afraid of sounding pretentious?” Dani says, through a smile. “You love your little monologues and your metaphors.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Jamie says, fighting back a smile herself. “As I was saying. You can run all you want from your circumstances, but it took me a while to figure out if it’s yourself you’re trying to run from, escaping your — your surroundings, or environment, or whatever, that won’t do shit to help.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” Dani sniffs and shakes her head. “God. I hate getting older.”
“Tell me about it,” Jamie says. “Now when I get out of bed every morning there’s, like, a fucking symphony of my bones popping and cracking and shit.”
It ekes a half-hearted laugh out of Dani, at least. “I meant more, like, the part where you look at your life and you have to realize it’s not what you thought it was gonna be.”
“Mm,” she says. “I get it.” There’s nothing else she can say.
Dani rests her head on Jamie’s shoulder, then, and she must feel Jamie stiffen and tense up on instinct, because she says, “Oh. Sorry,” and withdraws. It leaves Jamie feeling cold.
Jamie runs a hand over her face. “No, no, don’t apologize, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to — ” and then she stops, because she can’t pinpoint exactly what she’s apologizing for or what she’s saying she didn’t mean to do; there’s too many things to say, and besides, in her mind they all sound like some variation of I’m sorry I fell in love with you, I didn’t mean to.
“I’m not trying to be — weird,” Dani says, after a beat of awkward silence, “or anything, but — you don’t want me to touch you at all anymore?”
“No,” she says, too quickly. “I mean, yes. Or. No.”
She stares down at the river, leans her elbows on the railing so her upper body hangs slightly over the edge. “I just need to, like, recalibrate. Mentally.”
“Sorry, it’s — this is just a bit hard for me. Like I said. It’s gonna take some time to figure out how to act normal around you again.”
“Well, I don’t want you to have to act like anything around me.” Dani frowns. “I want you to act like you.”
“Christ,” Jamie says. The surface of the river looks black and unyielding right beneath her, not expansive and glittering and beautiful the way it is further toward the horizon. From this angle it just looks deep and endless. “You keep saying these things, Dani, and it’s like — you don’t mean for it to hurt, I know you don’t, but, like. It does.”
“I’m sorry,” Dani says. They keep apologizing to each other. It’s stupid. It’s not enough but somehow it’s the thing they keep coming back to, these cyclical, futile apologies.
Minutes pass. The ambient sounds around them seem louder and more insistent than they normally are: cars honking nearby, the whispering of the wind, the occasional warbling of a pigeon. Overhead, the sky, which was so clear just an hour ago, starts to stir and fill with clouds, dark grey smears across the night. Jamie fishes a packet of cigarettes out of her jacket and lights one. She misses the days when smoking used to actually feel like something, when she could make out the subtle sharp sensation it would give her. That’s part of getting older too, she supposes.
“Should probably get back soon,” Jamie says. “‘S getting late.”
Dani nods, but her gaze stays fixed over the river, distant. “Tomorrow’s my last day.”
“Ah, shit, don’t remind me.”
“It’ll be better for you, though, won’t it? If I’m not here?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie says, the most honest answer she can think of. “I really don’t know what’ll be better for me. I’m bad at making healthy choices for myself, you know.” She holds up her cigarette. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Will it be better for you? To, uh.” She puts her free hand in her pocket, rocks back on her heels. “Not — be around me.”
Dani looks at her and the light from the streetlamps lining the bridge plays across her face, dipping parts of it in shadow, parts of it in an overly saturated amber glow. She’s so beautiful in the near-dark, so real and warm and close, and Jamie is almost too distracted by it to hear her when she says, “No,” her voice quiet but steady.
Jamie looks away and takes a drag of her cigarette, watching the smoke curl out and up, her heartbeat stuttering.
By the time they start their walk back, the sky is properly covered in clouds, rumbling faintly. The hotel where Dani and Eddie are staying is walking distance from Jamie’s flat. She wonders if Dani planned it that way on purpose.
There’s a crack of thunder, a flash cutting through the cloud layer, and then it starts raining hard all at once, as if the sky decided to open up entirely and dump everything out in a single deluge. It’s coming down in sheets. They duck under a shop awning for shelter as soon as they can, but somehow they’re already soaked from just a few minutes out in the downpour.
“Shit,” Jamie says. She leans against the brick facade of the store. “Jesus fuck. Shit.”
Dani eyes her warily. “Are you alright?”
“No!” she says, without really meaning to, but once she starts talking it’s impossible to let the rest of it out, and then everything is spilling out all at once, and she’s yelling because the storm is so loud, and Dani looks stricken and scared in front of her, and she hates it but she can’t stop it all from coming out anyway. “No! I’m not fucking alright! I feel like I’m losing my mind, like, properly going insane, and you’re leaving and I don’t want you to and I definitely don’t want you to marry him, but obviously I can’t say that, and I’m —” She looks down at the muddy puddle slowly soaking into her trainers. “To be honest, Dani, I’m angry, and I don’t really know who I’m angry at, but I don’t want to be. I don’t want to feel any of this anymore, I hate fucking feeling like this, but I don’t — I can’t —”
“Jamie,” Dani says. She’s sick of people saying her name like that, like she’s some sort of wounded animal.
Her eyes burn now so she blinks a few times and clenches her jaw hard enough that it hurts her teeth, but it doesn’t work, so she squeezes her eyes shut and tilts her face skyward and hopes Dani can’t tell she’s about to cry; that doesn’t work either, because the next thing she feels is Dani’s arms around her, a hand cupping the back of her head. It hits her all at once, furiously, and then she’s nearly doubling over into Dani with the sheer force of it. Dani doesn’t say anything further; she just presses Jamie’s face gently into her shoulder and lets her cry into the already-soaked cotton of her t-shirt. It’s not dramatic — Jamie’s never been one for sobbing or shaking or otherwise overt displays — but there are definitely tears and she definitely can’t do anything to staunch them, which she knows because she keeps trying. Jamie’s own arms remain wrapped tight around herself, so it isn’t a mutual embrace, just Dani holding her until she can breathe again.
When she’s finally done, she opens her mouth, starts to say I’m sorry, but Dani interrupts her with, “If you try to apologize to me right now I’m gonna lose it.”
Jamie chokes out a wet laugh. “Bit of a role reversal here,” she says. “You’re usually the one crying on me.”
“Oh, come on,” Dani says, “I don’t actually cry that much. Objectively, you cry way more than me. We’ve established this.”
“Maybe, but I do my best to restrict it to when I’m alone.” She sniffs. “And I just realized my fucking cigarettes have got all wet.”
Dani laughs. “I’ll buy you more. Promise.”
“Least you can do,” Jamie grumbles.
She stands there for a little longer, her face wet against the skin of Dani’s neck, and she’s warm even though the rain has made the night cool down significantly. Afterwards they walk back to the hotel, slowly now that they’re already soaked and it won’t make a difference, their hands clasped loosely together. When they get there, Dani offers to call Jamie an Uber back to her flat, but she chooses to walk home in the storm instead.
For hours and hours that night, she lays awake in bed. She finally falls asleep at some point before dawn; after a couple fitful hours, she wakes up to the sunrise staining the sky pink. She gives up on falling back asleep, has her morning tea and cigarette with the windows open, and then, in a last-minute attempt to get her head straight, sits at her desk with her old tattered journal and a pen.
Jamie ends up falling asleep again at her desk several hours later. She wakes up to a Venmo notification (from Dani, subject: dry cigs, with a cigarette emoji); a Whatsapp group message from Owen inviting everybody to one last dinner at their place; and a text from that girl whose name she doesn’t know, which she deletes after sending a brief, polite apology. Fucking a stranger was never going to fix anything.
After breakfast, she texts Dani and asks her to come over if she has a free moment. Dani replies almost immediately in the affirmative, and gives her a time about an hour from now, so Jamie sets about cleaning the rest of her apartment.
She has a plan, sort of. A little speech, a little gesture, not for the purpose of — romance, or seduction, or anything, but because she needs to give them both a conclusion. Last night she wrote it all out, pulled it all straight from the heart, read it over about a million times before she finally got sick of her own words and had to stop; it’s good enough, she thinks. It’s honest.
She pulls the pressed moonflower from its spot on the shelf and cleans off the glass one more time, for good measure. The frame is a plain light wood, which she probably could have made nicer by painting, if she had the materials or the artistic ability, but it’s too late for that now. She paces the meager length of her apartment, thinking and overthinking, and has almost talked herself out of it by the time Dani knocks on her door.
Sometimes when Jamie looks at her it seems to knock the whole world off its axis, making everything go all giddy and spinning, kaleidoscopic. She's never been able to decide if she likes the sensation, if she'd rather lean in to the disorientation and the sheer potency of it, or avoid it in favor of keeping her footing on solid ground. It’s the sensation she has now, looking at Dani standing on her doorstep.
“Hi,” Dani says.
Jamie smiles, tight, close-lipped. “Come on in.”
“God, it’s been so long,” she says as she steps through the small hallway, taking in what’s changed and what hasn’t. She regards Jamie’s plants with the same look of wonder as always. “Are there a lot of new ones here or did I just forget what all you used to have?”
“Nah. I’ve changed up the assortment quite a bit.”
Dani peers out the window to look at the little box garden there. “I still think you should start naming them.”
“Mm. Still no.” She fidgets with a button on her shirt and then puts her hands in her pockets to stop herself. “Can I get you anything? Cup of tea?”
“I’m okay, thank you.”
“Right. So, uh, full disclosure. There’s a reason I invited you over. Wasn’t just so you could gawk at my new plants.”
She takes a seat on the couch and motions for Dani to join her. The frame sits face-down on the coffee table between them; Jamie picks it up, turns it the other way, and gives it to Dani, who accepts it gingerly, with an unreadable look on her face.
“This is something I actually meant to give you a long time ago,” she says, trying to gauge Dani’s reaction. “Dunno if you still remember. It’s a —”
“A moonflower,” Dani says quietly. “Yeah. Yeah, of course I remember. This is beautiful, I — thank you.”
“They still make me think of you,” Jamie says. “Every year I grow them, I think of you.”
“Yeah.” She draws in a breath. “There’s a lot I’ve been meaning to say to you, for a really long time. It’s taken me fucking forever to get to this point, to get it all in order and work up the nerve to say it, but I — I’ve been thinking, and I think I just need to...get it all out, while you’re still here. So just, you know, let me ramble on for a bit, yeah? I promise I’ll get to a point eventually.”
“That’s ominous,” Dani says, looking nervous. “But okay.”
“Okay. Uh.” With Dani sitting in front of her, cross-legged and unassuming, her throat feels suddenly dry. She’s nervous in a way she hasn’t been in years. “Before I met you, my life was fine. But — that was all it was. Just fine. You know I fucked up a lot when I was younger, and then I managed to get away from most of that, built a life that was somewhat normal, had a job, and a place to live, and an Owen” — Dani laughs — “and it was fine, right? It was good.”
Dani leans forward expectantly.
“But then I met you,” she says, and this is the part where she has to look down at her hands to be able to keep going, “and it was like a part of the world opened up to me that I’d never even known existed. Or, I guess, a world I knew existed, but never really thought was for me. People like me, who have — y’know, pasts, and all sorts of broken bits, and — well, you’ve heard the whole sob story, I won’t bore you with it again.”
“I remember it all,” Dani says. “I’m sorry, I know I said I’d let you ramble, but I have to say that much. That I remember. It meant a lot to me that you’d even told me at all.”
“Ah,” Jamie says. “‘Course I did.”
“That’s all. Go ahead.”
“Well. The point is it takes a fuck load of effort to really get to know a person, and that applies all the more for someone like me, and honestly I used to think it wasn’t worth it. Not for other people, and definitely not for me. And then I met you, and it was like — you showed me all the ways I was wrong about the world, and about myself, and I — I think I’m better for it, I really do.”
Dani is watching her with a nearly unbearable intensity, a light in her eyes that Jamie doesn’t think she’s ever seen there before. “Even after — well, you know. Everything?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “Even still. Took me a little while to come around to that conclusion, but I believe it.” She clears her throat. “All of that is a really, really roundabout way of saying: this week has been weird and hard and awful, and I’ve said a lot of things over the course of it, but I don’t think I’ve told you, yet, that no matter what, I’m just really —” Here the lump in her throat becomes too sharp and painful to speak past, so she has to take a minute to look elsewhere, breathe in, until she can talk again. “I’m so — fucking grateful to know you, Dani. To have had you in my life.” To love you, she thinks but doesn’t say. She’d been considering it, earlier this morning, but ultimately had decided against it. “So, uh. Thank you, I suppose, is what I’m trying to say.”
“Jamie,” Dani whispers. “Please tell me this isn’t a goodbye.”
“It’s not, it’s not.”
“Then why does it sound like one?”
“It isn’t, not really,” she tells her hands. “But that’s sort of related to the second thing I wanted to say to you, which is that I can’t — I can’t keep doing whatever this is anymore, this back-and-forth thing, where I have to keep guessing at what you’re feeling and — and just deal with the fallout alone when it hurts me, I — what I feel for you is way too strong for me to be okay doing this. I want us to be in each others’ lives, I know that much, but first I need some time to figure out what that looks like for me. Okay?”
Dani nods, mute.
“There’s one more thing.” Now she finally forces herself to look Dani in the eyes, because she needs her to hear this bit more than any of the others. “Dani, please, please, if you don’t want to marry him, don’t do it.”
“I’m not — Jamie, I — it’s not that simple.”
“Look, I’m not going to try to convince you what you want, that’s yours to figure out, but — whatever it is, you deserve to have it. A life you’re excited about, and that you feel like is your own. I don’t know why you think you’re not capable of that, or that you don’t deserve it, but you do.”
As soon as she’s gotten it all out, she feels immediately hollowed out, a vacuum, somehow exhausted even though all she did was monologue a little. There is no sense of closure when Dani stands, silently, and gives her a long, trembling hug; there’s no moment of revelation after Dani leaves and Jamie watches her go, closing the door after her. She’s just tired and sad. She misses Dani already.
It’s another rainy evening. Jamie arrives at Owen and Hannah’s place a little before six. She’s dressed nice for once, and has a bottle of wine in hand, something red and old. Owen buzzes her into the building and she spends the elevator ride up wiping the sweat off her palms. Her body and mind are operating at a disconnect; physically she seems to be nervous, but her mind is a cold numb blank. It’s like she’s cauterized a wound, and now is left with just the burned-up scar tissue. When Owen opens the door for her, his warm, kind smile only makes her feel worse.
“Where are the other two?” she says, walking into the apartment and looking, immediately, for Dani.
“Not here yet,” Owen says. He takes the wine from her and puts it in the kitchen. “For once in your life, you’re early.”
Jamie laughs. “Piss off.” She takes a seat at the table. Owen sits next to her, and then Hannah joins him. “Alright. You two have got to stop looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” Owen says, innocently.
“Like I’m in need of a forced intervention.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Are you?”
“Are you sure?”
She pounds the table to punctuate it, making the place settings rattle in unison, and then she realizes how absurd the whole thing is, how incontrovertibly not fine she sounds, and has to fight off a smile. Then Owen starts laughing, and Jamie can’t help but laugh too, and Hannah smiles and rolls her eyes at them both. For a fraction of a second everything feels slightly lighter.
Eddie and Dani arrive shortly after. Dinner is weirdly tense, although Owen and Hannah put in a valiant effort to make less so. Watching them, Jamie wonders what she did to deserve friends like this, whose lives are defined by such easy love and joy.
Even Eddie seems to be able to sense that something’s amiss. He keeps making nervous jokes, looking at Dani to see if she laughs at them, chuckling awkwardly to himself when she doesn’t. Jamie doesn’t eat much. She drinks, forgoing the wine in favor of gin and tonic water, and she stares down the pockets on Eddie’s jacket, like if she tries hard enough she’ll be able to tell if there’s a ring box stuffed in there somewhere. She watches Dani out of the corner of her eye, wishing she could kiss the frown off her face, tamping down the thought whenever it arises.
How does Eddie not see it? Does he just not want to see it? Is it a willful ignorance, taking for granted that they’ve both proceeded organically along the same path for so long, or does he know what he’s trapping her into, the magnitude of the gravity he’s exerting on her, and doing it anyway?
“So,” Owen says, once he’s finally stopped putzing around the kitchen and taken a seat with the rest of them, “what did you two get up to today? Did you get Dani to give you a tour?” He aims a smile in Dani’s direction. She gives him a weak one in return.
“Oh, yeah. She showed me around her old campus, where she used to live, all that good stuff. Jamie,” he says, leaning toward her, “we walked past your apartment at one point!”
“Did you?” Jamie says.
“Yeah, we would’ve stopped to say hi but we were running late to lunch.”
“Shame,” she says to Dani, who fidgets with her earring and avoids her eyes.
After dinner, Owen opens a bottle of champagne — “A commemoration of our reunion,” he says, nodding toward Dani — and goes into the kitchen to pour it. He comes back carrying a tray of tall slim flutes.
“Cheers,” Jamie tells him, accepting one. Owen hands out the rest, and they lean over the coffee table to clink their glasses together.
“What are we toasting?” Dani says.
“Us!” Eddie says brightly. Dani glances at him, her expression unchanging.
“Life,” Owen says instead. “L’chaim.”
They drink, and that’s when Jamie sees it: a ring at the bottom of Dani’s glass, the gold of the band sort of hard to make out amid all the bubbles rising to the surface. She glances at Owen and Hannah, who are focusing pointedly on their own glasses; then Eddie, who is watching Dani; then Dani, who raises the glass to drink from it and stops, staring down the column of it.
Jamie can’t have been watching Dani for very long, but by the time she pulls her gaze away from her — cold resigned terror frozen on her face, like she knew this was coming but had still let herself hope it wasn’t — Eddie is on one knee beside her, waiting for her to look his way. Jamie tries to catch Hannah or Owen’s eyes, but they continue to look studiously away. It feels like the moment stretches on forever, like some sort of nightmarish tableau vivant, everyone sitting still in their own disparate feelings, none of which match.
Finally Dani turns away from her glass. “Eddie,” she says, looking down at him.
“Danielle,” he says. He still hasn’t seemed to have picked up on what is obviously not utter glee from Dani, which Jamie thinks is the only response that would warrant continuing with a proposal. “Okay, I had a speech prepared but I’m — kinda nervous, so there’s gonna be a little improv involved.”
“Eddie,” she says again, “I don’t —”
“Listen, just listen for a sec,” he says, and now it seems like his unshakeable oblivious faith might start to give way to the doubt that he’d expressed a few days ago, about the state of their relationship. He wipes some sweat from his forehead with the back of his head and resettles on his knee, taking Dani’s hand. “You’ve — been my best friend for —”
“Wait, wait, stop,” she says. “Just, just hang on a minute.”
He stops. Leans toward her. “What — wait for what?” he says in a lower voice, as if they aren’t all crowded together in a room too small to disguise what he’s saying.
“I don’t —” She looks up, then, straight at Jamie. Jamie isn’t sure what exactly she needs from her in this moment — suddenly this all seems so much bigger than just them, it’s a moment of reckoning, the whole rest of Dani’s life hanging on it — so she just nods over the lip of her glass, hoping it gets across everything she wants it to: I’m with you, I’m here. “Can we — talk about it?”
“It’s a pretty simple question, Danielle,” he mutters, “I don’t see what there is to talk about,” and there’s something in his voice now that she’s never seen before, or never thought to look for: he’s scared, too.
Again Dani casts her eyes around the room. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, then I — oh, God, Eddie, I — I can’t.”
Eddie doesn’t say anything.
“Oh, dear,” Hannah says, very quietly.
Owen half-stands out of his chair. “I think I might, uh,” he says, “get an early start on the washing-up —”
Hannah interrupts him by grabbing his arm, says, “Don’t you dare,” and then, to Dani, “Do you two want a...moment alone...?”
“No,” Dani whispers. “No, that’s okay.”
“I don’t get it,” Eddie says. He’s still on his knee. Jamie wants to tell him to get up, save at least some of his dignity; it’s so obviously over. “I mean, I don’t know where this is coming from, any of it, I don’t — ”
“Yes, you do,” Dani says. She gives him a pleading look. “You do, you have to.”
“I guess I — well, it’s been good, though, hasn’t it? I mean, we’ve been good.”
“It hasn’t been working for a long time. You know that.”
“Yeah, but — I know it’s been hard, but everybody has rough patches, right?” Dani shakes her head, but Eddie forges on ahead. “We can fix it.”
He shakes his head and blinks at the ground.
“Eddie,” she says again, her voice breaking into a whisper.
“So, like, what is this, then?” He’s talking mostly to the ground now. “I mean, are you — breaking up with me right now, or — ?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know,” she repeats, in rapid succession so that the words start to blur together. She stands up shakily. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Eddie, I don’t know anything, I don’t — I need a minute, I need — some air, or a minute by myself, or —” As she talks she backs toward the front door bit-by-bit, gradually, until her back is to it and her hand is scrambling for the doorknob. “I’m gonna —”
“Dani,” Jamie says, alarmed, breaking out of her spell of horrified secondhand embarrassment for long enough to rise and approach her.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Dani says, in a high, wavering voice that suggests she’s far from okay. “I’m fine, I’m just gonna — step out for a second, I just need —” Finally she gets the door open, and then she backs out into the hallway, the door slamming shut after her, the sound like the shattering of glass amid their stunned silence.
Eddie stares after her. His glasses slide down his nose, and when he runs his hands through his hair, messing it up, he looks like a little boy, lost and confused. Nobody really seems to know what to say.
“Are you gonna go after her?” Jamie says.
“What?” Eddie says.
“Uh.” She puts down her champagne glass. “Y’know, to make sure she’s alright. Hasn’t, like, run off into the night or something. Someone should probably — go find her.”
“Yeah,” he says. He blinks down at his feet, at the champagne glass Dani has left abandoned on the table. “Yeah, well, it’s not gonna be me.”
He regards Jamie with a hard, searching look, and for a moment she almost thinks she senses suspicion in it, like maybe he isn’t as oblivious as she thought he was, maybe he’s picked up on something — but then he just deflates, his shoulders sagging and going loose, and he doesn’t look angry, only defeated. Jamie only spends a second taking it in, and then she’s out the door, too.
Alexa play Champagne Problems
This is the last actual chapter; the next chapter after this will be an epilogue. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Jamie stumbles out into the hallway she has a brief frisson of deja vu, unbidden. The ingredients of the scene are familiar: Owen’s flat, stairwell, Dani’s breathless panic, Jamie trying to steel herself to offer whatever Dani needs. She wonders if this will always be the fundamental structure of their relationship, Dani running away, Jamie following after her. She doesn’t want it to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.
But Dani’s been trying, too. Jamie can see it.
She finds her on the second floor landing, sitting in a corner with her knees pulled to her chest, her head down. Jamie knocks on the wall next to her, and Dani looks up. Her eyes are red, her face blotchy, hair falling loose out of her ponytail. She’s trembling, but her breathing seems to be steadying somewhat.
“D’you want some company?” Jamie says. She approaches slowly. Dani watches her and says nothing, which Jamie takes as a yes. She sits down next to Dani, close enough that she can reach out for her if she wants, far enough away that she doesn’t have to. The floor somehow smells like both dust and carpet cleaner. “That was, uh. Really something.”
“I know I shouldn’t be asking this,” Dani says in a small voice, “and it’s okay if you say no, but, um, can you — do you think you could just — hold me for a little bit?”
Jamie doesn’t need to think about it. She extends an arm out and immediately Dani curls into it, tucking herself into Jamie’s side, lacing their fingers together. The thin cotton of Dani’s blouse is damp with sweat at her back, and Jamie can feel Dani exhaling shaky and warm against her collar where she has her face nestled. She puts her other arm around her too, squeezes tight, like she could hold Dani together by sheer force of will. They sit like that for what feels like a long time, Dani trembling in her grip, her teeth chattering slightly even though it isn’t cold. At one point a man climbs up the stairs and gives them a lengthy querying look; Jamie says, “Can I fucking help you, mate?”, and he doubles his pace up the rest of the steps while Dani giggles into her shoulder.
After a while, Dani sniffs, straightens slightly, and whispers, “I can’t believe I did that.”
“I can.” Through the corner of her eyes she sees Dani turn her head to look at her. “Seriously. I know this isn’t totally a moment of victory, but — that was really fucking brave.”
“Yeah, well,” Dani says, returning her attention to her knees, “I’m about ten years too late.”
Jamie shrugs. “You know what they say. Better late than married.”
“Do they say that?” Dani says, smiling faintly when Jamie nods. She sighs. “So...now what?”
“Dunno. Reckon that’s up to you.”
“I don’t wanna go back in there.”
As gently as she can, Jamie says, “You’re going to have to talk to him at some point.”
“I know,” Dani says. “I know. And — I know this is selfish, but when I go back to America, my whole life is gonna implode, and I just — I want to put it off a little longer. I mean, his family is expecting him to come back with a fiancee, and we’re — I’m going to have to explain why we’re — why I broke up with him.” She turns to Jamie, the beginnings of panic creeping back into her eyes. “I told him that, right? I mean, I was clear that I couldn’t do any of it anymore?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. She frowns, trying to think back to it. “Or, at least, I’m pretty sure you did. Actually — uh.”
“Think the intent came across, though.”
“Jesus Christ,” Dani says. “I honestly don’t even remember. It was like an out of body experience. The second I saw that ring — I don’t know, I completely blanked.”
“Could see it in your face,” Jamie says. “I honestly didn’t know if you were even gonna say anything. Was a bit scared you were about to pass out.”
“I just wish I would’ve said something before. I mean, the fact that I let him go this long believing that we were on the same page, I — it’s shitty, isn’t it?”
As much as Jamie wants to absolve her of culpability, she can’t do that without lying. So instead she says, “S’not that simple.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
Jamie laughs. She really isn’t very subtle when it comes to Dani. “Can I ask — when did you stop being on the same page, with him?”
For a long, heavy moment, Dani is silent. She pinches the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes. Jamie doesn’t know if she’s ever seen her wear a look of such abject exhaustion. It’s almost frightening; it inspires, in Jamie, a desire to fix, to caretake, neither of which is what Dani needs right now.
She thinks maybe Dani is about to say something, but then there are footsteps coming from above, heavy despite being muffled by the carpet, and then moments later Eddie is standing on the landing, looking just as taken off-guard by the sight of them as Jamie feels. His shirt is untucked, his sweater rumpled. His forehead shines with sweat.
“Danielle,” he says. “Uh. Sorry, I didn’t think you’d still be here.” His eyes slide to Jamie, but he doesn’t acknowledge her beyond that.
“Yeah. I guess I didn’t make it very far,” Dani says. “Are you leaving — ?”
He adjusts his glasses. “Actually, I was looking for you.”
“Do you think maybe we could talk?” He glances again at Jamie. “Like, um. In private?”
Jamie looks over at Dani, who nods and tells her, “It’s okay. I’ll be alright.” Jamie isn’t sure she believes that, but she takes her word for it anyway. She gets up and offers Eddie a bracing, awkward smile on her way past him. He makes a feeble attempt to return it.
By the time she’s on her way back down the stairs from Owen and Hannah’s — after grabbing her jacket, briefly discussing the horror of what just transpired, and promising to call them to discuss it further later in the week — Eddie and Dani are gone from the landing.
Later that night Jamie is sitting in the dark on her couch, picking halfheartedly at some tiramisu Owen had given her, eating it in small bites straight from the plastic container, when Dani calls her. She almost knocks a plant off the coffee table in her haste to get to her phone.
“Mm?” Jamie says through a mouthful of tiramisu. She has Peep Show on in the background, but she hasn’t really been watching.
“I talked to Eddie.”
She sits up straight, at that, and puts down the container. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” Dani says. Her voice is still high and shaky, but it doesn’t sound like she’s crying, which is good. “Well, no. But nothing new is wrong.”
“Mm. That’s a start, at least, right?”
“I guess so.”
“How did he take it?”
“About as well as you might imagine,” she says. Jamie can hear her breathing through the speaker. She can picture what Dani might look like right now, with the phone pressed to her ear, her knuckles white around it. “But I...Jamie, I don’t really — I don’t know what to do now.”
“First things first,” Jamie says, “d’you have a place to stay for the night?”
“I, um. Technically, yes, Eddie’s not gonna kick me out of the hotel or anything, but — I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep with him there, you know, right next to me all night, and he keeps looking at me like — well, the way I deserve, probably, so I’m —”
“Come over here, then.” She doesn’t hesitate at all, surprising even herself with how readily she voices the offer.
The relief in Dani’s voice is palpable when she says, “Really?”
“Really. I’ll call a cab, come pick you up. Have you got all your things ready? For your flight?”
“Yeah,” Dani says. “Yeah, I’m all packed and everything.”
“Okay.” She’s already grabbing her keys, rushing out of her flat. “Be there in a bit.”
On the cab ride back to Jamie’s flat, Dani is quiet. She looks shell-shocked, dazed, and spends the drive staring blankly at the back of the front seat. Jamie wonders if the conversation with Eddie went that badly, or if it’s just everything finally setting in, the fact that in less than twelve hours Dani will be on her way back to her old life, and she’ll have to go about navigating all the changes she’s put in place this evening.
It isn’t until they arrive at Jamie’s flat that she sees what Dani’s silence was keeping at bay. Jamie locks the front door, puts her keys on the hook, shrugs off her jacket, turns to Dani with a casual, “I’ve got tiramisu if you’re hungry,” and it takes her a moment to notice that Dani is crying again. But it’s different this time than it was in the stairwell, it isn’t a subdued, pretty cry; it looks much more raw, an animal hurt clawing its way out. All of a sudden Dani is gasping out stuttering, uneven breaths, steadying herself with one hand on the console table behind her, and Jamie wants to fix it but really all she can do is swear in surprise and say, “Come here,” and put both her arms around Dani, let her sob into her neck. The sound is loud and terrible. She fits one hand around the back of Dani’s head, cradling it, and whispers soothing nonsense into her ear, things that aren’t really true but sound good in the moment — it’s okay, shh, you’re okay, it’s gonna be alright — and rubs slow circles into her back with her other hand. Dani keeps making abortive attempts to talk but can’t seem to get a sentence out. Jamie aches for her, and finds herself having to blink back tears herself occasionally, swallowing hard past the sharp lump in her throat.
When the worst of it seems to have abated, Jamie says, “D’you want me to set you up in my room? Can make you a cup of tea, if you like. Maybe put on a movie.”
In a tear-worn voice, her face still on Jamie's shoulder, Dani says, “Okay. I’m sorry.”
Dani changes into pajamas — athletic shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the school where she works — and they huddle close on the bed.
“You’re always taking care of me,” Dani says when Jamie hands her a steaming cup of tea. “Don’t you ever get tired of it?”
“Never could,” Jamie says, settling in besides her, “never will.”
They still fit together the way they used to, Dani’s legs slung over Jamie’s lap, an arm wrapped loosely around her waist. It’s familiar, but this time the familiarity isn’t twisted and sad, the way it felt when Dani kissed her in the kitchen. Instead it’s just warm, even though nothing has been fixed yet. It’s like coming home.
She wants to ask how it went with Eddie. What they talked about. If it really is over. But they’ve achieved a fragile peace, and she can’t bring herself to shatter it. In the end she doesn’t have to; it’s Dani who speaks first, saying, “I told him everything.”
Jamie stiffens. “Like — everything, everything?”
“Mm. Probably for the best.”
“Yeah. That’s what I keep trying to tell myself.”
“What’d he say?”
Dani sighs. “He wasn’t even mad, really, which is the worst part. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been mad. He looked like — I don’t know, it seemed like he knew it was coming, but he just looked so — sad,” Dani says.
“Shit, Dani, I’m sorry,” Jamie says.
“It was — I mean, I still care about him, I want him to be happy, you know, just not with me,” Dani says. “So — yeah. It was hard. And he didn’t...try to convince me to stay or anything, he just sort of folded as soon as we started talking. He, uh. Well, he was really confused. Didn’t get it. I was hoping he would, but I guess not.” She lets out a small, sad laugh, then, and says, “Called me selfish, which. I can’t argue with that one, can I?”
“What? That’s not true,” Jamie says. Dani gives her an inquisitive look. “No, seriously, fuck him.” Her voice rises and she has to make an effort to lower it. “Jesus. That’s — I mean, he has no idea what you —”
“I shouldn’t have stayed with him this long,” Dani says, “and I shouldn’t have started anything with you before I got everything figured out on my end. You said it yourself, and you were right.” She sounds blank and rehearsed, like she’s reading from a script.
“Okay, well, there’s a lot more to it than that, and if he couldn’t even fucking tell that you weren’t — that you were —”
“Jamie,” Dani says, reproachfully. “Come on.”
She huffs and tries to will herself to calm down. Anger isn’t what Dani needs right now. “Sorry. Just think he could make the slightest effort to try to understand.”
“Do you understand?”
She doesn’t. She just knows that Dani is floundering, and has been for a while, but she really hasn’t been able to make sense of the why of it all. “No,” she admits. “But I’m willing to try. And listen.”
“Okay,” Dani says. “Well, speaking of. I was thinking about what you asked me earlier.”
“You asked when me and Eddie stopped being on the same page,” Dani says. “And I — I was thinking, and trying to remember, and — I honestly don’t know if we ever were.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I don’t know,” she says, slower, each word precise and intentional, “if I ever felt the way about him that he feels about me.” She holds Jamie’s gaze. “Like. Ever.”
It takes a moment for this to click into place and make sense. “Oh.”
“I think I...I didn’t...I mean, he’s the only person I’ve ever been with,” she says. “For a long time, especially when I was younger, I didn’t even really know how it was supposed to feel. I mean, I knew it wasn’t — really right. We were best friends, and then we were friends who kissed sometimes, and, like, went to prom together, and then we were friends who lived in the same apartment and slept together, and the whole time I just kept waiting for it to sink in. For me to start feeling it all the way. I never did, though, and I guess at some point I stopped expecting it to ever be any different.” She closes her eyes again. “I knew it wasn’t what people talk about when they talk about, you know, attraction, or — love, or whatever. I definitely knew I didn’t feel what he felt, that much I could always tell, but I — it’s weird, looking back on it, ‘cause it should be so obvious, right, that it wasn’t right for me? But...I don’t know. I kind of just assumed that I was broken or something.” She lets out an embarrassed laugh. The sound makes something in Jamie’s heart seize painfully. “That I’d never get to have that feeling myself, and I should learn to be okay with that.”
Jamie starts running her fingers through Dani’s hair, tracing patterns into her head, the way she likes when she’s tired but can’t quite fall asleep. “What changed, then?”
“I…” She lifts her head off Jamie’s shoulder, now, and looks her straight in the eyes. “I met you.”
She doesn’t know why it keeps surprising her when Dani says things like this, but it does. Probably she’s still in a little bit of disbelief about the kiss itself, even though it’s been days. She can’t find it in herself to assume what Dani means by I met you — I met you, and it changed things? I met you, and I felt...what, exactly? — but Dani is still staring at her with an expression that’s growing more and more nervous by the second, and Jamie has to say something, so eventually she settles on, “Ah.”
Dani raises her eyebrows.
“That, uh — that changed something for you, did it?” Jamie continues. She clears her throat and looks away. “Me — I mean, meeting — me?”
“Oh my God, I shouldn’t have told you that,” Dani says. “You’re never gonna let that go, are you?”
“I mean, you should probably elaborate,” Jamie says, laughing as Dani rolls her eyes at her, “before my ego takes it and runs with it.”
“Okay, well,” Dani says. “I don’t know, you were so different. From anybody else I’ve ever known. The very first time I met you, there was this, like — it felt like you saw me. Like, really saw me. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “No, yeah, I get it. I...I felt that way too.”
Suddenly flustered, Jamie looks away. “I did, yeah. Always felt that way about you.”
Dani wraps both hands around Jamie’s upper arm and presses herself even closer into her side. On the screen in front of them, whatever sitcom they’ve put on starts to autoplay to the next episode. All Jamie can focus on is the slow rhythm of Dani’s breathing and the feeling of her palms, now warm from the tea, against her skin. She has to leave for the airport at around six in the morning; Jamie only has hours left to take her in, to write this moment in memory. They haven’t discussed what any of this means for them — if there will ever even be a them — and this isn’t the time to bring it up, she knows. She knows not to hold Dani too tightly, not to ask for so much that she might nudge her, however inadvertently, into another cage.
“Is that part of why you said no?” Jamie asks.
“It’s a lot of it,” Dani says. “What you said to me at your apartment, Jamie — I’m so sorry, for all of it, I didn’t — I know it’s not an excuse, but I was so scared, and I never really let myself even hope that you felt the same way, before, and I didn’t mean to hurt you but I kept doing it anyway —”
“Hey,” Jamie says gently. “It’s okay, alright? It happened, it’s over.” She lays one light kiss on the top of Dani’s head. Dani’s responding hum vibrates into her shoulder.
They sit through another episode in comfortable silence. When the end credits are rolling, the autoplay countdown once again popping up on screen, Dani whispers, “How did you know you were gay?”
Of all the things she’s been waiting for Dani to say, this was not among them. “Uh.”
“Asking for a friend,” she adds with a weak laugh.
She thinks about it. She can’t remember a time when she thought she wasn’t; there were never any early school-aged boyfriends, never any attempts to convince herself she was or wasn’t a certain way. None of that is helpful, though, so she says, “I mean, it’s different for everyone.”
“But how was it for you?”
“I think...I think I sort of always knew. I don’t remember there being a big moment of realization, to be honest.”
“But it isn’t always that way,” she says, because Dani sounds almost disappointed. Then, hesitantly: “Why? Do you think you — ?”
“I don’t know,” Dani says. “Which is so dumb. It’s the twenty-first century, who makes it all the way through their twenties not knowing, right?”
“I’m sure lots of people.”
“If I think about it, I...I know it wasn’t right with Eddie. And I know I’ve never felt what I feel with you about anybody else. But then there’s all this other stuff that I know I’ve felt, and it doesn’t seem like it matters anymore, but am I supposed to take it into account anyway? Like, does it matter what I’ve felt about other — about — girls — women —”
“Take your time,” Jamie says, faintly amused.
Dani huffs. “Well — does any of that matter if I know the only person I want to be with is you?”
This seems to stun Dani, for having said it, as much as it does Jamie. A moment of silence passes between them during which the opening theme song of the show begins to play. They’re fucking watching The Office again, she realizes.
“Is that,” Jamie says finally, mouth dry, “really how you feel?”
“I, um.” Dani frowns, nods, seemingly to herself. “You know what, yeah. Yeah, it is.”
“Okay,” Jamie says, with a preternatural calm considering what’s just been said.
“I want that too.” With her hand on Dani’s jaw she turns her head gently to face her, so she can look at her eyes when she says it. “You know I do, right? You know that’s — how I feel?”
“Not really. I didn’t — I wasn’t gonna assume anything.”
For some reason they’re both whispering even though it’s just the two of them in the room. No one can hear them, or would care to listen, but the moment still feels secret. Or, not secret in the way that it’s something meant to be hidden, but — private. For them alone.
“Right, well,” Jamie says. “I’m telling you now that it is. We don’t have to talk about it right now, you’ve just been through — a fuck load of shit, and I don’t want to — rush you into anything else, or — ”
Dani tips her head up and forward and then kisses Jamie once. It’s chaste and brief and it still sparks something electric and burning in Jamie’s chest. “Is that okay?” Dani says against her lips.
Again she kisses Jamie. Now her mouth opens slightly but it has the same slow, soft quality to it, the same gentleness. “Still okay?”
“Always okay,” Jamie says, low and rough, letting Dani wrap one arm around her shoulders to pull her closer and kiss her again. Dani’s eyelashes are still wet, tear-tracks still warm along her cheeks, and she tastes a little like salt.
It doesn’t have the desperate urgency that it did before, all the previous times Dani had kissed her. They have time, now. They’ve laid everything — or almost everything, anyway — out in front of them, and what’s left is to find a way forward, but it doesn’t seem so daunting a task anymore. It feels like they’re finally on even ground.
“I want this,” Dani says, pulling away. Her eyes are dark and heavy. “I want — more than this, I want you, I want — your hands on me, I wanna feel you — touching me — ”
“Christ, Dani,” Jamie says. She should probably protest. She should be the voice of reason. You’ve just been through a lot, it’s late, it’s too much too soon, but Dani is so warm and soft next to her, and the cotton of her sleep shirt is — really very thin —
“I’m not asking for anything,” Dani adds, interrupting Jamie’s train of thought and saving her, mercifully, from having to be the one to stop them. “Not right now, at least. I know it’s not a good idea tonight, but I…” She smiles, her face burning with a pink flush. “I still wanted to tell you.”
Jamie groans, laughing. “Right. Well. I’ll be thinking about it for approximately the rest of my life, so thanks.”
“Hopefully you won’t have to wait that long. Before you, um. Have more to think about than just that.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Wow. Okay then,” she says, as Dani bites her lip and tries to pretend she isn’t fighting back a grin.
Not everything has been resolved. Most of what stood between them remains the same, all the barriers both concrete and amorphous still standing, but there’s possibility, too, hanging delicate and real in the silence between them. The night is quiet and still, devoid of even the usual street sounds that are normally filtering in through Jamie’s window, and it’s so late, and Jamie’s so tired that it’s making her mind go fuzzy, staticky.
“So,” she manages to say through the haze. “What next?”
“Great question,” Jamie says. “S’a good position to be in, isn’t it? Getting to decide what comes next?”
Dani nods. “I, uh...I have a lot of things I need to fix, when I get back. I’m gonna have to — well, move out of my apartment. Tell his family. Tell my mom, not that she’ll care.” She purses her lips. “I think...I think I wanna move. Go somewhere else. I don’t know where yet, but I don’t think I want to live in that town anymore if I don’t have to.”
“Good plan,” Jamie says. She doesn’t expect anything, for herself, in this plan. She won’t ask about it unless Dani brings it up first.
“And I want to...figure this out.” Dani looks up at her. “Between us. I don’t want to let it go again, whatever that takes. Even if it’s — hard. Even if it takes a lot of work.” She watches Jamie carefully; all Jamie can do in response is smile, nod, feeling effervescent, bubbling like a fizzy drink, and Dani asks, “Is that what you want too?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. It comes out as a whisper. Dani nestles her head back into the crook of Jamie’s neck, drops a kiss there, wraps her arms around Jamie’s waist with her hands fisted in the fabric of her shirt. They fall asleep like that.
At the airport Dani checks in at a kiosk and prints off her boarding pass, tucking it into her passport. Eddie is already at the gate, even though it’s an hour and a half before their flight starts boarding. Their seats are next to each other, which is unfortunate, but it was too late to change the booking. “It’ll be awful and weird,” Dani had said on the cab ride over, “but I think I need to start learning how to lean into the weirdness head-on. Instead of running from it.”
Jamie sets down the bag she carried in for her. “You sure you’ll be alright?”
“I think so.”
“Haven’t forgotten anything?”
“Got your, uh — toothbrush, charger, wallet?”
“Yes, Jamie, I have everything. Well, almost everything,” Dani says. She steps in closer and gives her a suspicious look. “Are you stalling?”
“No,” she lies.
“Hm.” Dani sways even closer, a light, unburdened smile playing across her face. “Okay, sure. I believe you.’
Jamie takes both her hands in her own. “You’ll, uh. You’ll call, right? Often?”
“As often as you want,” she says, eyes flitting from Jamie’s eyes to her mouth and then back up again, wearing a look of obvious glee at being the one in this position, now, the one being asked things of, instead of the one doing the asking. “Don’t worry, okay? I’m not gonna, like, forget about you just ‘cause I’ll be back home.”
She frowns. “Wasn’t worried.”
“Yeah, you are. I can see it.” Dani puts one hand against Jamie’s cheek, rubbing her thumb across her cheekbone, and Jamie leans almost involuntarily into the touch. “I thought I was supposed to be the planner. The worrier.”
Jamie allows a faint laugh. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m not — not worried, exactly, it’s just.” She squints past Dani so she doesn’t have to look straight at her, squinting instead at the windows lining the far end of the terminal, the glaring white light burning her eyes. “This all feels like a dream. For so long it’s just been all in my head and now that it’s real I can hardly believe it. Feels too good to be true.” Honesty, she reminds herself. Only honesty, going forward. “And — there’s a lot we have to figure out, going forward, if we want to make this real. Either way one of us is gonna have to make a lot of changes, and if I’m honest, I’m a little scared that you’re gonna realize that and decide that it’s not — worth it.”
“Jamie,” Dani says. She’s using that lightly chiding tone that she’s always taken when Jamie’s being bullheaded. Somehow it always works to make her less so. “Look, I — I’m scared too. Okay? I mean, this feels unreal to me, too.” She glances down. “You know, last night I kept waking up, and every time I did, I had to reach over to you to make sure you were still there. Part of me was scared you wouldn’t be. Which is dumb, but that’s —”
“I did the same thing this morning,” Jamie says through a nervous laugh. “First thing I did when I woke up. Didn’t even think about it, just turned to you as soon as I opened my eyes.”
Over the speakers, a monotonous voice reminds passengers not to leave their baggage unattended. The screen behind Dani changes so that it’s displaying arrivals now instead of departures. It seems incongruent that this mundane of a place should be the setting for something that feels so big.
“You’re right,” Jamie says. “We’ll figure it out. Take it one day at a time.”
“One day at a time,” Dani repeats, and then she pulls Jamie in by the collar of her flannel to kiss her breathless, pressing what feels like a promise into her open mouth, breaking away far too soon for Jamie’s liking, not that it could ever really be long enough anyway. “Will you — wait for me?”
“‘Course.” She holds up her pinky finger and Dani curls her own around it. Jamie drops one last, firm kiss onto their joined hands and says, clearing her throat like she isn’t about to get all choked up again, “Better get a move on. Don’t want to be late.”
She stands in the terminal and watches as Danni rolls her carry-on toward security, fishes around in her purse for her ID, makes polite small-talk with the officer at the security checkpoint, standing alone among the line of other travellers. She really does look lighter, Jamie thinks, even though there are still all those old anxieties that make themselves evident in the way Dani holds herself. Even despite those. She looks different. Jamie wills her to turn around one last time, and she does, sending a little wave and that bright, unhindered smile back in her direction before she disappears around the corner.
The two months following Dani’s departure are at once the best and most difficult few months of Jamie’s life. She’d gotten used to boring, had grown to like boring, and now every day she wakes up and reads a long paragraph of a text from Dani detailing what all had transpired back in Iowa while Jamie was asleep — often these include minor details like what Dani had for dinner or the weather that night, but Jamie drinks them all in regardless of their importance. Sometimes they’re long and rambling, like the one Jamie receives the day Dani and Eddie have to tell his family about their break-up; other times they’re brief and make Jamie laugh, like the time Dani texted her Almost hit a deer on the highway today I hate it here!!!!!
Jamie reads these messages in bed and then types her own good morning text back, and then they talk back and forth all day, calling each other when they’re both done with work, and it feels good, sharing this much of herself with someone. It feels natural again, the way it had been right after Dani left London the first time.
She thinks maybe she’s changed, too, on a deeper level than just from this development in her romantic life. It’s like she’s waking up from a lifetime of cruising through each day, getting by for the sake of getting by, and gaining a newfound ability to ask for things: of life, of herself. She runs more, and smokes less; she makes an effort to see Owen and Hannah as often as she probably should; she puts in overtime at work, saves up money and squirrels it away in her flower-shop fund; she makes an honest attempt at learning to cook; she misses Dani like burning. Only now it’s a good kind of ache, the lead-up to something wonderful, whenever it comes.
One day, almost exactly two months after Dani left, Jamie’s at her stove trying to fry an egg when there’s a knock at the door. She tries not to be irritated, but it’s hard; the egg had been well on its way, she thinks, or at least according to the How To Fry An Egg article she has pulled up on her phone. She takes a spatula and flips it, then clicks the stove knob down to low; she’ll just look through the peephole, see who it is, ignore them, and get back to it
Jamie looks through the peephole. The sight that greets her, she thinks, can’t be accurate.
When she opens the door she doesn’t immediately respond the way she maybe should. Her brain needs a moment to recalibrate to the sight: Dani, all made-up in a nice blouse and a pair of jeans, chunky gold hoop earrings, clutching a plastic-wrapped bouquet of roses in one hand. She has a nervous smile plastered on her face but she’s also very pale, and looks sort of like she might pass out, which is how Jamie feels too.
“Hi,” Dani says.
“Dani,” Jamie says. “What —”
“I was just in the area,” she says, with a self-satisfied little shrug at her own joke. “Thought I’d stop by.”
“I don’t understand.”
"I, um — I had some things I needed to say to you. That I thought would be better in person." She holds up the bouquet. "Also, I brought you these. I would've gotten you a moonflower, but, you know. Notoriously hard to grow."
Jamie can already feel a stupid disbelieving smile spreading across her face. For a moment they just stand there grinning at each other, like a couple of loons, until Jamie comes to her senses somewhat and says, “D’you, uh — want to come inside?” Dani steps over the threshold, just far enough inside that Jamie can close the door behind her. “Meant more like, do you want to have a seat, but this works too.”
“Sorry, sorry, it’s just — I’m really nervous and if I wait another second I think I might chicken out, so I wanna just — rip off the Band-Aid. If that’s okay.”
Christ, Jamie loves her. “Sure. Yeah.” Then she remembers the egg, or smells it, actually, and says, “Oh, fuck, hang on a sec,” which, the egg is far past over-hard already and she’d wanted it over-easy, but she groans and scrapes it into a little plate anyway. “Sorry.”
Dani hovers uneasily away from the kitchen. “Trying to learn to cook?”
“Trying being the operative word, here.”
“I keep telling you I could teach you,” Dani says. “Or just, you know, cook for you.”
“You gonna mail me eggs from America?”
Dani laughs, but it’s hollow. Or, not hollow exactly, but full of something else, something under the surface of it. “Um. Well, actually, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Yeah?” Jamie says, still distracted by her egg. The texture is all weird. Or maybe she’s not distracted by the egg so much as she’s trying to distract herself from how nervous she is too, all of a sudden, even though she isn’t the one who’s just randomly shown up thousands of miles away from her home.
“Yeah,” Dani says. She takes a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking, and I — okay, Jamie, can you — figure out the egg later?”
She pushes the plate away a little too fast, and it knocks against the opposing wall. “Sorry. ’M listening.”
“Okay. So, um. The thing is, I.” Dani laughs that odd abrupt laugh again. “I think I love you.”
Jamie doesn’t think she heard that right. She can’t have. She cocks her head toward Dani, as if that might help her process it better. Her lips are forming the outlines of words but not actually producing sound. Finally she manages to say, hoarsely, “What?”
“Actually,” Dani continues, “no, that’s not — I told myself I would stop hedging like that, so here goes. I don’t just think it, I, I know it. I love you. I’m in love with you. And — no, wait,” she says, when Jamie opens her mouth, “you don’t have to say it back, I don’t expect you to. I mean, I guess I’m hoping you will eventually, but — that’s not why I’m saying it.”
“Okay,” Jamie whispers. She thinks she might be about to cry. She’s not sure. Maybe this is what people talk about when they talk about having out-of-body experiences.
“I’m saying it because...I know this is really kind of crazy, I know that. I just, I’m sick of picking the not-crazy option, you know? I’m sick of playing it safe and I’m sick of — of not doing exactly what I want whenever I want, and I’m done doing the smart thing, or the comfortable thing, or the easy thing. I want this. You. You, Jamie, and I don’t want to wait another six months or another year or however long we’re gonna take to tell each other what we really want. I can’t wait any longer. I don’t wanna have to be apart from you any longer than I already have.” Dani’s wringing her hands together. Jamie wants to reach out and hold them, but she can’t risk interrupting. “So — so this is me, just, telling you exactly what I want. Okay? I want to be here, with you, and I want to — build a life together. If that’s something you want, too.”
Jamie stares at her.
“Please say something,” Dani whispers.
“God,” she manages to say. “Jesus, fuck, Dani, that’s — of course that’s something I want.”
“Oh, good,” Dani says, sounding genuinely relieved, like it was ever in question. “For a second I thought — I mean, you were being so quiet.”
“Yeah, ‘cause I’m trying not to fucking cry,” she says. She swipes the back of her hand across her eyes. It comes away slightly wet. Dammit. “Gone soft, you know. In my old age.”
“You’ve always been soft.”
Dani approaches her slowly, does a hesitant shuffle across Jamie’s kitchen floor, and then Jamie closes the distance between them and kisses her the way she’s always wanted to, the way she’s had too many guilty dreams about: slow and gentle enough to savor it. One hand holding Dani’s jaw and the other at the back of her neck, firm without being demanding. Not fevered, not burning too bright to sustain for long. Steady warmth and want.
“Fuck,” Jamie breathes.
Dani deepens the kiss immediately, so fast it would be funny in any other situation — she’s done this with the last few as well, actually, let her mouth fall open at the slightest parting of Jamie’s lips, and it’s so very Dani; of course she’d kiss all insistent and petulant like this, of course she’d jump into it so unabashedly after a lifetime of denying herself. It’s fine with Jamie, really, especially now that Dani is swaying further into her, grasping at her hair and her hips, letting out a quiet barely-there moan into her mouth. Jamie laughs, then, dizzy and disbelieving, because this can’t be real. Dani pulls away but keeps her forehead pressed to Jamie’s.
“What?” Dani says, breathless.
“Nothing.” She kisses Dani again but it’s brief because she can’t keep from smiling long enough to kiss her properly. “Nothing. S’perfect.”
Dani slides one hand into the back pocket of Jamie’s jeans, uses it to keep her close, and backs up until her back is pressed against the lip of the countertop. “Yeah?” she says. Whatever bold new version of Dani this is, Jamie wants her to remain in her life forever.
“Yeah,” Jamie says, and the next kiss is mutual, made clumsy with haste, their noses bumping briefly before they readjust. Dani lifts herself onto the countertop, takes Jamie’s hand (which has been hovering over her waist, in an attempt to be decent and chivalrous), and moves it underneath the fabric of her shirt, so that she can feel Dani’s skin hot under her palm. For a moment she hesitates. “You sure? This is — you don’t mind?”
“I told you before,” Dani says, her voice low, “I wanna feel your hands on me. I wanna feel — you. All of you.” She pulls her in for another kiss. Jamie presses her palm to her chest and pushes her back gently.
“Wait, wait,” Jamie gasps.
“You don’t — want — ?”
“No, that’s not it, not at all. You have no idea how badly I — want you.” Dani seems to take this as encouragement to slide one of her hands to Jamie’s waistband, a question implied in her gaze. Jamie lets her head drop to Dani’s shoulder and laughs, more to herself than anything else. “It’s just, I’ve, uh, I’ve thought about this, and I wanted — well, I wanted it to be a certain way, for you. Like. I wanted to do it right, properly. I wasn’t exactly planning on, y’know, ravishing you on my kitchen counter.”
“Oh.” Dani pauses. “So you were planning on it being a certain way, huh?” she says, her voice a teasing lilt now.
“Maybe,” Jamie mumbles.
“What were you planning, exactly?”
“I dunno. Just. Wanted it to be — romantic. The way you deserve.”
Dani raises her eyebrows. “How gentlemanly of you.”
“Yeah, well, you know me.”
“But you know I don’t need to be, like, wined and dined or whatever, right?”
“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.” She trails her fingertips down Dani’s face, tracing the outline of her lips with one thumb.
“I just want you,” Dani says, “I don’t care about anything else,” and then she turns her head to suck two of Jamie’s fingers into her mouth, looks up at her through her eyelashes, and Jamie thinks she might die, quite literally die, right there in the kitchen.
She manages to stammer, “Can I at least convince you to take this to my room,” and Dani nods, so that’s where they go. Normally she likes to think of herself as somewhat suave when it comes to women, but Dani has a way of turning her into a pile of exposed nerves; her mouth is dry, her heart pounding. Dani takes her hand and pulls her backwards onto her bed. Jamie topples unceremoniously on top of her with an involuntary oof that makes her laugh.
“You’re pushy when you want to be, aren’t you,” Jamie huffs, not really a question and definitely not a complaint.
Dani grins against her and angles her head upward so that Jamie can kiss down her jaw, along the column of her throat, down her neck. She keeps glancing at Dani’s face to make sure that she’s still into this; some part of her still believes she might change her mind the further into this they go. Dani notices and says, breathlessly, “You don’t have to keep checking on me.”
“Sorry. Just, uh — making sure you’re alright,” Jamie says. She kisses down Dani’s sternum. Her heart is beating so fast, blood thrumming hard in her veins.“You’ll tell me if you want me to stop?”
“You’re sweet.” She combs her fingers through Jamie’s hair. “But I’m not gonna want you to stop.”
Jamie decides to take her word for it.
Afterwards they lay halfway on top of each other and talk idly, as if this is just another regular day. The sunlight coming through the window has made the sheets warm and their skin sticky with sweat.
“Question,” Jamie says. She has her face pressed to Dani’s chest; she can hear her heart beating.
“Unlikely to have an answer.”
“D’you plan on, like...staying here, then? Or — just, we got, you know, distracted before you had a chance to actually tell me if there was a plan.”
“Oh,” Dani says. “Um, yeah, I’d...I’d like to stay here? In...London, I mean, not here here” — she indicates the flat as a whole — “if...if that’s something you’re okay with, of course.”
Jamie drops a kiss on Dani’s collarbone. “Well. One of us is gonna have to jump across the pond either way, if we want to do this, right?”
“Probably easier this way than to do it the other way ‘round. Considering you lot and the fucking iron gates you’ve got around your country.”
Dani laughs. “The healthcare’s a plus here, too.”
“Knew it,” Jamie says. “You only want me for the NHS.”
“Mm-hm. You caught me.”
“So you’re — here for good, then?” she asks cautiously. She’s trying to work up the ability to settle into this, trust that it’s really real. “How does that work?”
“I mean, there’s gonna be all the usual red tape and hoops to jump through.” Dani lets out a self-effacing exhale of a laugh. “I literally bought a one-way ticket. I’m staying in a hotel. I did not put a ton of thought into coming here beyond, like, Googled research and some phone calls to Owen and Hannah —”
“Owen and Hannah knew about this?!”
“Which, just so you know, it’s not a now-or-never kind of commitment. I’m not here to spring it on you, like, surprise, I’m moving to London forever whether you like it or not!”
“I would like it,” Jamie says. When Dani laughs she can feel it vibrate through her ribs. “Would like that a lot.”
“Well, I don’t have to decide for another, like, six months, so put a pin in that.” She runs one hand through Jamie’s hair, loosens it from its messy bun. “The point is we can still take it slow. We can still take it — what’s that thing you keep saying?”
“One day at a time,” Jamie says.
“One day at a time. And — I know this is still pretty risky and insane of me, but I’m tired of living any other way.” She smiles down at Jamie and tangles their fingers together.
They stay there in bed until the sun starts to dip below the horizon. Jamie gets up, a sheet wrapped around her shoulders, and nudges the window slightly open so that the evening breeze can cool their skin. For once it’s not too cloudy to see the sunset. Jamie lies with her back pressed to Dani’s front and watches the sun paint the sky pink, the color so saturated and deep it makes the whole thing take on an unreal, preternatural quality. The roses Dani brought sit on a vase by the windowsill, completing the picture.
“I’m proud of you,” Jamie says, breaking up a long but comfortable silence, “you know that?”
There’s a pause. “I’m proud of me too, actually,” Dani says, a thoughtful look on her face. “I feel, like — different. I mean, five years ago I for sure didn’t have it in me to do this. Or one year ago, even. Two months ago.” She wrinkles her nose. “Okay, wow. When I put it that way it’s just depressing.”
“Stop that,” Jamie says. “You always had it in you. Just needed a little push, is all.”
Dani hums and pulls Jamie tighter into herself. It’s strange to be in so familiar a scene — in her bed, in Dani’s arms — and have it now be uncomplicated and sweet. There’s a feeling it brings her that she keeps trying to put her finger on, something that rises through her whole being and makes her ache with warmth, with hope, except this time she doesn’t have to stop herself from trusting that Dani feels it too. She suspects, but can’t be sure yet, that what she’s feeling is peace.
“I have a confession,” Dani says. “When I was coming over here, and planning out my whole little speech, I did not actually intend to lead into it with the big, crazy I love you moment.”
Jamie cranes her neck around so she can get a good look at Dani. “Really? Hm.” She turns back around. “Personally I thought that was a great way to begin it.”
“Are you — is that sarcasm?”
“Okay. Well, no, I actually —” She laughs. “I wanted to be all cute, I was gonna be like, Would you wanna get a drink with me sometime? And you’d say” — here she makes her voice raspier and does a terrible impression of what Jamie guesses is supposed to be her accent — “ What? And I’d be all, I’m asking you out the right way, and then you’d swoon.”
“A real Casanova in your fantasies, are you?”
“Uh-huh,” Dani says. “But then I saw you in your little apron with your hair all messy and I could smell the flowers in your apartment and you just, you looked so pretty, and...I don’t know, it just sort of all came out.”
“Could certainly do with you calling me pretty more often.”
Jamie doesn’t know if it’s the evening air or the post-sex haze fogging up her brain or just everything, the whole insane whirl of what’s just transpired, but something has her feeling bold, honest, drunk with it.
“So, I, uh. I have a confession of my own, actually,” she says. She fixes her gaze resolutely on the horizon. In the window glass she can see their reflections, Dani’s slight smile. “That day I asked you to come over, you remember that? Same day Eddie proposed?” She waits for Dani to nod. “Well, I...told you a lot about how I felt, I remember, but I also — I almost — told you I loved you.”
She waits for Dani to say something, but Dani only keeps scrutinizing her face.
“And I still — I dunno why I didn’t say this earlier, I should’ve, but I still — I still do. Love you, I mean, I still love you.” She clears her throat. “Have for a long time.”
Dani tips her head back so she can kiss her once, then pulls away to whisper, “I love you,” against her mouth; she kisses her again, and then says it again, and again, and again. Finally she pulls back and says, “Wait. How long?”
“Uh.” Jamie considers it. “Can’t say. Too embarrassing.”
“Okay, we’re well past embarrassment, come on. Please?” she says, a high teasing whine.
“I suppose a few — a few years,” she says in a low voice. “Yeah. That’s. About accurate.”
“Jamie,” Dani says, sounding a little too delighted and smug for Jamie’s taste. “Well. That just means we have a lot of years of missed love to make up for.”
Jamie shifts in Dani’s arms, turns around to face her, pulls her in for a long, languid kiss. She wonders how long it will take to stop having to remind herself that they aren’t in a hurry, that they aren’t hiding anything from each other anymore. “And how do you propose we start making up for it?”
Dani smiles. “I have some ideas.”
Please suspend your disbelief about the logistical realities of an intercontinental move :)
Chapter 8: Epilogue
For the epilogue, here's 9.5k words of pure self-indulgence, featuring a Dani POV and a time-skip.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.