Stepping out of the cab feels like hammering the last nail into my coffin. Every nerve, every muscle in my body tells me to turn around, to go home, consequences be damned. For a brief moment, I consider it, but then Ella’s disappointed face appears in my mind, and all thoughts of flight dissolve. Fight it is.
I take a deep, shuddering breath. Ella’s fingertips gently lace around mine and I squeeze her hand tightly, my gaze landing on the auditorium.
Next to me, Ella turns toward me with an anxious smile. “Come on. It’ll be fun.” Then she kisses my cheek and takes off running toward the front doors, pulling me with her. I all but trip behind her all the way up the front path. My girlfriend doesn’t stop at the doors, pushing them open while somehow maintaining her sunny momentum. We stop abruptly inside the front doors and stare, hand in hand, at our new surroundings.
My stomach somersaults as I look out over the sea of faces and slowly begin to recognize my former classmates, translating their twenty-something-year-old faces into teenage ones. By the stage, Matthew Connors. My grade nine crush before… well, before. Near the front, Linda Presley. From what I recall, little more than a bully in lipstick. She was Ella’s friend, though. Close to the back, Anna Winters. We played together in the first grade.
A million more faces flutter through my mind, some nearly forgotten. Suddenly, my legs feel very heavy, my knees like bendy straws. My palms moisten and my head spins. I feel nauseous, frozen in time, the imprint of a former life burning in my chest. Suppressed images of white tiled hallways, baby blue lockers, and chipped brown desks. I hated that building, but in the decade I’ve been gone it never struck me how much until now. A battle rages between the memory of misery and my dying resolve.
My head flicks toward Ella, the angel that she is. Her concerned blue eyes pull me back to the present, chasing away remnants of the past. Time starts to move again and I start to feel my toes.
“We can leave if you want.”
The compassion in her eyes fills me with guilt, and I almost feel relieved by the sensation of something besides dread. I see it in Ella’s eyes that she would leave if I said the word, even after all that endless, circular time trying to convince me to come. I can’t say no now. I’d hate myself for igniting that small spark of disappointment in her eyes.
“I’m fine,” I lie, trying and failing for a smile. I can get through this.
Ella watches me with those same eyes, trying to see through my nonchalance. For her, it’s easier than sketching one of her perfect circles.
“Just let me give you this, okay?”
She still hesitates for a moment or two, concern lacing her features. Then she nods. “Love you, Lacey.”
“Love you too,” I say, smiling for real this time, and plant a small kiss on her lips. Ella grins and leads me away from the doors, still clutching my hand.
We approach a group of girls nearby, one of which is Linda Presley. Ella’s old gang. “Hey, guys!”
All four women turn toward us, opening their circle. I strain to remember their names. Linda, Priscilla, Janie, and… Olivia. All wear dresses in bright shades and bold patterns, and together they create a collage of colours.
“Oh my goodness, Ella?!” gasps Janie Henderson, quickly embracing her old friend.
My girlfriend doesn’t see what I do, her view obstructed by Janie’s hair. Linda nudges Priscilla across from me, looking disgusted and nodding with failed subtlety towards Ella’s hand in mine. I swallow hard and squeeze her hand, though I don’t remember deciding to. Janie pulls away, and it’s not long before she notices too, and the girls’ joyful demeanor is overtaken by judgement.
Ella sees it too, immediately noticing the transition. We share a look, hers saturated with consternation. I suspected this would happen, but she refused to believe it for her own peace of mind. The Landen community wasn’t known for its diversity or inclusion.
“So... how are you guys?” Ella asks somewhat awkwardly.
The girls seem to snap out of it, sharing looks, trying to find something to say. “We’re… good,” says Priscilla.
“I got married last year,” Linda cuts in.
“Oh, that’s great! Congratulations! Can I see the ring?” Ella says, happy to find something to talk about.
Linda holds out her hand, displaying a large square diamond on her hand. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” sighs Ella, smiling politely.
“Yeah,” Linda replies simply.
For the first time, I notice Olivia Porter off to the side, looking shy and a little white, but surprisingly not scandalized.
“So, Ella, who’s your... friend?” Janie asks, supremely failing to mimic Ella’s courteous expression.
“Oh, this is my girlfriend - ” The girls twitch. “Lacey. Lacey Parker. She went to Landen with us, remember?” Ella gestures toward me and searches for recognition in the faces of her old friends. Four years, I went to school with these insolent girls. Fourteen years with Janie. Yet, though they nod, their eyes stay blank. I feel a small wave of disappointment emanate from my girlfriend, and my heart aches for her and her devastating disenchantment. Only the distraction of her sadness keeps me from falling into my own demons of the past.
“Should we get some drinks?” I say, providing Ella with any easy save and a call back to Earth.
Her eyes light up every so slightly, clearly glad to have me with her. “Sure. See you guys.”
We walk across the room towards the tables at the back of the auditorium, stopping to talk with several Landen High graduates on the way. More or less, every conversation goes the same, and it chips away at my heart every time. Not only for myself but for Ella, who always had such strong respect and admiration for her peers.
I take strong notice that not once does she let go of my hand. Even with every sideways glance, every whisper behind a hand that follows us, she doesn’t ever try to let go. Her message is clear. She is not embarrassed, and she is not ashamed. I love her even more for it.
After however many groups of darting eyes it takes, Ella does her best to relieve the tension. “It’s okay. You can ask about it. We don’t mind,” she says, but no one listens. They just smile and nod. My girlfriend does most of the talking because no one seems to remember me. It works out better that way. She’s always been the social one of us.
Comforting Ella takes my mind off my own issues with being here. My priority shifts to her and my own emotions take a back seat. After a while, I don’t even feel nauseous anymore.
It’s been a little over an hour of having the same conversation a million times before I lean into Ella’s hair and whisper, “We should go.” Surprisingly, my desire to forget this night has nothing to do with me.
My girlfriend’s eyes dart around the auditorium, a mix of anger, disappointment, and sadness filling them. But there’s something else too, a flicker of determination that I nearly miss.
“Yeah. Just give me a second.”
Before I know what’s happening, Ella’s pulling me along again, this time across the auditorium towards the stage. “Ella? What are you doing?” I ask, suddenly nervous. “Ella?!”
But she only has eyes for the stage as she pulls me up the stairs, still not letting go of my hand, and steps in front of the mic.
“Hello? Can I have a moment of your time?” Her voice echoes across the room and my palms begin to sweat again. What is she doing? A hundred faces turn at once, identical looks of confusion and trepidation creasing their features, and all sound of conversation dissipates, though whispers linger.
“There’s something I’d like to say.” Ella turns to look me in the eye before she speaks again. She finds strength in my eyes, and I find reassurance in hers.
“You should know that my girlfriend and I have not appreciated being stared at and whispered about all evening. The looks we have been receiving have been incredibly rude and judgemental, and it didn’t slip past either of us.” A small, proud smile pulls at my lips. I have no doubt her words are cutting her apart and bringing her to life all at once. Her voice could cut glass. “Every single one of you owes us just as much respect as you would give anyone else in this room. It is unjustifiable and unbelievably old fashioned to disrespect Lacey and I the way we’ve been disrespected all night. That’s not okay. It’s 2019. Wake up and go to hell.”
Once again, I’m being pulled along the stairs, hand in hand with Ella. This time, shocked and indignant faces follow in our wake, and I imagine an explosion behind us. But no one tries to stop us, and we reach the brick-covered path outside, barely managing to stand with laughter.
“I’ve never been more satisfied in my life…” Ella chokes through euphoria.
“The looks… on their faces…”
It takes over five minutes for us to calm down enough to call a cab, and even then my giggles probably make the company think I’m drunk. Only after we’ve called, and are waiting delightedly outside to be picked up, does Olivia, the quiet girl from the first group we met, approach us.
“I - um,” she starts, looking nervous. “I think it’s really brave what you did there.”
“Thanks,” says Ella, a look of pride on her face.
“I - I haven’t been able to come out publicly yet… and that was really empowering. So… thanks,” she stutters.
I watch my girlfriend nod proudly, and Olivia offers us a small but genuine smile as she walks away.
“You know, I’m glad you convinced me to come to this stupid thing. I would’ve hated to miss that,” I say.
“You wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without you.”
What a gorgeous night.