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At some point Emma was talking to a couple of her guy friends, laughing and messing up her hair, like she does. I was sitting on the kitchen table, trying not to look lonely and bouncing my feet to the pulse of the music. A boy came over and we started to talk. I’m pretty sure his name was Daniel, or Darin or something. I was glad to have someone to talk to; he didn’t even seem that drunk, and smiled at me. He asked me where I went to school, and if I was having a good time. He had blonde hair and a ring in his bottom lip.
Before I knew it, Em was right there, grabbing my wrist. She had a glass of vodka in her hand that looked in danger of spilling.
“Lellie…come here. I want you to meet this guy…who’s this?”
“Uh…my new friend. Are you okay Em?” She laughed.
“Come here.” We walked away from the Daniel/Darin kid. “Cass, this is Lelle. Lelle…” She was smiling beautifully, but a little hunched over that glass of vodka. I nodded and smiled at Cass, who was steadying Emma with his hand. “Lelle’s my best friend from volleyball… we’re awesome. Tell Cass that we’re awesome.”
“We’re pretty great,” I said. “How much have you had to drink, Em?” She shrugged and walked away, surprisingly steadily. She walked into the bedroom and I followed her, sitting with her when she slumped onto the bed. We sat there for a moment in silence; she stared into her glass.
“I’m so depressed, Lellie…” she said after a while. “I’m just messed up.” She shook her head and finished her vodka, and dropped the glass on the carpet.
“What is it, Em? Do you want to tell me about it?” She crawled further onto the bed, and collapsed onto a pillow. Her pretty hair fanned over the blankets and her face. She breathed out.
“It’s a really sad story. It still makes me hurt.” She shook her hair out of her face. “Well, it wasn’t even that long ago, but I think it’ll hurt for a long time, Lellie.” I lied down next to her, and tried to be soft about it. Someone laughed from the other room.
“I’m sorry, Em.” She didn’t respond for a while, and because I couldn’t see her eyes, I thought she’d fallen asleep. She’d had a lot to drink. But then she said,
“You know what a yellow light means, Lelle?” I was confused for a moment; I didn’t know what she wanted me to say.
“Well…I guess it tells you to slow down.”
“No…it’s more than that.” She turned and looked at me, her eyes had a kind of spark about them. “Think about it… there could be just red and green lights, and people would have to slow down at red and speed up at green. Right?” I shrugged. “But it wouldn’t work… not at all. Yellow lights are there because with two things, two extremes, you know… you can’t account for everything that comes between them. You can’t account for the people who keep going who are supposed to stop, or the people who stop who are supposed to keep going… so you need a yellow light.”
I laughed a little. “I guess you’re right. That’s why you’ve got to be careful at intersections.” But she was very serious.
“Some people can never make a decision then, and some people try to always make that decision… sometimes the decision isn’t yours to make…and when you try and make it, well, it’s bad. Do you get what I’m trying to say?” I probably looked bewildered. “It’s different every time, Lelle. The red and green lights…they’re like everything else…”
“You need yellow ones?”
“Yeah…you can’t have just one or the other. It’s never black or white. There’s going to be a gray, that spectrum in between. Nothing’s for sure, Lellie. Not at all. What do you call it, ambiguity. Especially with things that matter the most.” I was startled to see tears in her eyes, and I put my hand on hers, which she grasped. She blinked into her tears, and tried a smile. “I told you about Shawn, right? My teacher.” I nodded. “We got coffee the other day. We’ve been emailing back and forth, and I told him I wanted to talk to him, I would like to talk to him, about a story I’m writing. A stupid story…” She laughed, “but mostly I just wanted to see him. He encouraged me, Lelle. Like, in his emails, he would first say at the end, just Mr. Ringler. Then, he went to his initials, he would say, With care, or Sincerely, S.R. Like he almost wanted me to call him Shawn, you know?” She sighed heavily. “His last email, the one that really got me…it said, Love, Shawn. Can you believe that? I swear to God. It still makes my heart beat fast.” She laughed again. “He is so great, Lelle. I really love him…it’s really a better love than anything else I’ve ever felt. And I’ve had a lot of boyfriends… well, a few… he is nice, and very smart, and polite to me. Sometimes he tells me that he likes what I’ve done with my hair…I know it sounds weird, for a teacher! But mostly he compliments my writing. I’m a good writer, Lelle…I love writing for him. Sometimes I write things about my deepest thoughts just so that he can know more about me…maybe like me more. And he loves it. Sometimes we talk for hours, just in his office, about my essays. I just keep those conversations going on as long as I can…really…until he has to go.” She smiled so sadly, my heart felt like it was breaking. “I would see him, in the halls, every day in class, and my stomach would turn over, I’d get hot inside. He’s not really handsome, or anything, but it’s his sort of like, aura, just the way he is. It makes me die!” She laughed, and messed with her hair. “So we went for coffee…and at first I felt so awkward, so nervous to be sort of alone with him. But then we went over my story, kind of used it as something to talk about, you know…and it was great. He told me he liked it, he gave me some advice…but honestly Lelle, I didn’t take most of it in at all. I was just staring at his face, at him, just feeling so happy to be with him for a while. Even over the summer, I’ve just been missing seeing him every day! He has a wonderful smile…it makes me fall in love every time.”
“Wow, Em.” I said. She smiled.
“So afterwards, I told him I’d walked there, and he offered to drive me home, ‘cause I’d walked like five blocks. It was nice of him, and I was happy. Oh man, Lelle. When we got to my house, he stopped, you know, to let me out. I didn’t get out right away, and he said Emma, I was glad to see you again. I told him I was glad to see him too, and that maybe we could do this again when I worked on my story more. He smiled at me again, like he always does, but it was sad, Lelle. It might be my imagination, but he seemed like wistful, you know? And he reached out, he put his hand on the side of my face, like this, inside my hair. Can you believe that? I was so tense! I thought I was going to have a heart attack: my heart felt like it was going to explode. I really wanted him to kiss me then, I know it’s crazy! But he didn’t. Oh, his hand… he just said, really quiet, smiling, in that sad way…he said, take care, Emma, and took his hand away.
“I got out of his car- I almost fell out, I was shaking so badly. He drove away without looking back, and I didn’t know what to think at all. I felt just left there…but given so much hope, I guess. It felt like I was burned on my face, where he touched me.” A tear dropped onto her nose, and she wiped it away with her hand that still held mine. She was still smiling. “That night…last night…he sent me another email. He told me that…um,” she took a deep breath, and laughed shakily, “he told me that he and his wife are moving to Boston. He didn’t say why…he didn’t mention the time we’d spent together or anything. The thing that really killed me was he ended it, he said Sincerely, Mr. R., and not Shawn. He didn’t say Love. It was a really short email. He did say I’m sorry, though…and somehow I took it to mean more, you know…” She was crying heavier now. “I’m so stupid, Lelle. It makes me think that everything, all the times I’ve thought he could’ve loved me too…that that was all my imagination. I let it get out of control, you know…” I didn’t know what to say right away. I squeezed her hand.
“Em… it’s okay. Some things don’t work out, and I know it feels awful…but it’s a good thing that you went after it, even a little.” She nodded and wiped away more tears. “I think you’ll be fine, after a while. Give it some time.”
“You know, Lelle…loving him made me think about love a lot.”
“Yeah?” She looked away over my shoulder, like she was ordering her thoughts. Her eyelashes were slicked with tears.
“Elsie loves girls…or she has loved girls, and when you think about it, it would take courage, a lot of courage, wouldn’t it. It’s not right, you know? People get uncomfortable with it. She probably never wanted to be gay… she probably never wanted to be in love with a girl. Who wants to be gay, right?” I nodded. “So I’m thinking that her love, which is unexpected, and unwanted, I guess, is more strong, more real.” She paused, frowning a little. “Maybe a kid who’s in middle school or something, a girl, she’s told that she should be in love with boys. Movies and people around her, I mean, that’s all she knows. And so she might like a boy…but that would just be because of all her influences. But when she falls in love with another girl…that’s weird, that’s something bizarre. She won’t want it, but she has to face it, somehow. That’s when you can really know the love is true…there’s nothing structured about it. If she keeps loving the girl, it just shows how much she’s willing to reject society…what everyone else thinks…her friends, her family…and how strong her love is, how real, Lelle. That’s how I felt with Mr. Ringler. At first I was so freaked out by it, it made me feel scared and nervous. But I knew that it was uninfluenced, like really pure, you know? God…I really love him.” She was silent for a while, not crying anymore, but holding my hand tight. I was breathing faster. “At the yellow light…my yellow light…I feel like I made the wrong decision. The love was really something beautiful, but it hurts so bad, Lelle. I felt like I went somewhere I shouldn’t have.”
“Em…” I said, “whatever happens, with you and Mr. Ringler… you’re lucky. You’re really lucky, to have loved like that.” She squeezed my hand as she looked at the ceiling, and my chest hurt.
“It kills me, Lellie…”
I woke up feeling dizzy, and like I would die if I didn’t get some water. The light around me was this pure blue, and made me feel a little better. As I walked in the direction of Jenny’s kitchen, I stumbled over several people, huddled on the floor, who swore at me.
I opened every cupboard before I found the glassware, and drank four glasses of water before I thought about anything else. My mouth tasted funny…I had ended up kissing the Darin guy. His metal piercing had felt strange in my mouth… he had eventually left to go throw up… and so had Emma. She’d thrown up, earlier, on her shirt, and her hair! Oh, her hair, that had made me feel awful… I’d tried to clean it, clean her off… almost carried her, I’d dragged her into the bathroom… where she cried and threw up more, into the toilet. Had I left her there? She’d been so innocent then, a child… I’d felt like her only friend in the world. I’d tried to clean that beautiful hair, and she was not Emma then, not her own Emma… not mine either, though I’d pretended…
I walked through the apartment, feeling like I’d just found a delicate way of moving, around boys and girls, hair and arms and feet, all tangled in each other, dirty but young and sweet…
She wasn’t there.