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The first time I tried to deepen our kisses, she pulled back uncertainly. Not uncertain about herself or what she wanted – unlike me, she never second-guessed herself – but uncertain about whether she was about to lose me.
“I don’t do that. Sex. Or anything like that.”
I blinked, gave her space, tried but failed to understand all of layers of what was happening. So I answered the question she was asking.
“That’s okay,” I said honestly after a moment’s thought. “Sex … doesn’t require two people,” I pointed out, quirking my mouth up at the side.
But her gaze had remained somber, her eyes giant wells of vulnerability, and my heart had broken a little.
“I just want you,” I said, and after staring at me for a moment in disbelief, Shakisha had hugged me tightly, as if I were a raft in the sea instead of someone equally shipwrecked by the oppression of the world.
I remember the fierceness of that hug, of how my lungs had constricted as if the pressure of her life had been passed on to me for one moment, as I stand outside of her office building, the brilliant green leaves of spring tugging up out of the ground and unfurling from the branches, the dazzle of the sun glinting directly into my eyes.
“Sorry,” I bumble as someone has to step around me and my sprouting backpack because I don’t even notice them until they’re there, but they just smile and say something dismissive, and my eyes swing back to the building looming in front of me.
I grip my crutches harder than I need to, take a breath, and walk up to the front door.
I pluck at my clothing as I wait for the elevator inside, adjusting what I’ve already adjusted, and pat down my short, freshly washed hair. I’m wearing the red-plaid shirt Shakisha gave me for my last birthday, a pewter dragon necklace at my throat, and my favourite pair of old jeans. It’s me, but … I feel shabby all of the sudden, as I climb into an elevator with a woman dressed to the nines, black miniskirt and stockings and business suit. Not queer, I note, and probably not disabled, the way she tries to avoid looking at my crutches, embarrassed. Her skin is a light, ambiguous brown though, as if some Shakisha is hidden in her past like a gemstone lost in ore, and I think of a beautiful brown face, think of a thousand smiles and tens of thousands of conversations leading to today.
I know what it feels like to be on the spot – no one can use crutches for spina bifida or grow up in poverty and not know that – but as the elevator counts up the floors to hers, I have trouble breathing, as if I’m climbing Everest instead.
“Who was he?” I dared ask, pointing to the photo on the shelf in her room as our relationship had been beginning, knowing, somehow, that it told a sad story. She had been smiling like a child at a carnival in the image, their faces pressed side by side, brown to cream like the patchwork of life.
“Oh, he’s…” and she had shrugged, and put the photo face down.
But didn’t remove it.
“Dead?” I offered quietly.
But she had just shaken her head. She had taken a step away from me, and then turned back. Later, I would realize that that moment – turning back to me – had changed everything.
“He was my fiancé,” she answered, and something about how she had held herself defiantly just then in that dress of flowery blue made me think, strong. “He left me,” she explained honestly, and then her dark brown eyes had strayed to the face-down photograph. “He was sleeping with other people.
“Because I’m an ace – asexual,” she had added later, and that day, I had told her clearly and firmly that that had nothing to do with it.
Ace, I thought now, was a word that had layered for me like a reflection in a room full of mirrors. It meant scoring the highest. The One. The prize in a deck of cards.
The elevator stops and the woman walks out. My eyes catch on her high heels – silver and purple. With the black skirt and white blouse, she’s basically an ace flag.
The doors close again and the ground shifts beneath my feet like an aftershock from everything that’s changed in the past two years.
“I wish I had your spunk,” Shakisha reflected once, while she’d been taking a break with me, sitting on a park bench and watching everyone run about and sweat in the summer sun. “You always seem so … tough. Like you just barrel forward like a rhino while I sit and be sad when things happen.”
I don’t know how I would have responded if she hadn’t compared me to a rhino, but that day I had only said, straight-faced, “Rhinos need friends too,” and she had laughed, the sweetest sound in my world.
The elevator door opens with a ding and I walk down a carpeted hallway lined with cubicles, thinking of how un-spunky I feel just then, and thinking, too, that maybe another day would have been better. Another place. Work, really? I can imagine someone saying, but I know that Shakisha loves her job, loves the ragtag bunch of people she works with. I know how hard it was for her to find that, about the jobs she left for racism and sexism and all the other -isms that follow us both like assassins or a personal swarm of mosquitoes, depending on the day.
And maybe that’s why I chose here, today, at the end of a work week. Because I want to give her that same thing: a refuge from a world that has spat us both out at different times. A home away from the storms.
If I could give her that, I think, I would have everything I want.
I’m a mess already, a mess when I see her rise from her desk and call my name in surprise, her smile flashing like a firefly in the night. I think I’m already crying, but I’m focussing on remembering my lines, remembering how I tried and failed and still tried to put this into words. Ignoring the eyes swimming around us, the murmurs, the lights. Trying not to focus on the widening of her dark eyes, the hope, the wonder there, so that I don’t forget how to speak.
I say whatever it was I wrote and memorized, and when a whole half-second of silence follows it, I anxiously pat the pocket on my shirt. “I have a ring,” I babble, “and flowers,” I say, remembering the assorted bouquet sprouting from my backpack like a planter.
I speak because the silence in my head rages like a waterfall, races like my heart, roars like the winds of a canyon as I stand on that precipice and bare myself before the person I love the most.
And then she presses her hands to my cheeks, her umber face solid while the rest of the world spins and whirls like shattered colours through a kaleidoscope, and says – giddily, disbelievingly, laughingly—
FRANCES KOZIAR is an archaeologist, anthropologist, and social justice advocate. She has publications of prose and poetry in 15+ literary magazines, and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. Most recently her fiction has appeared in The Passed Note, Dragon Poet Review, and Scarlet Leaf Review. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.