The rose falls. It pirouettes and spins through the frosty morning air like some tiny dancer cloaked in pink. Julia watches it touch the grass and settle there, almost peacefully, as if gravity is only a suggestion. She holds the rest of the bouquet closer to her chest.
She wonders if this quiet graveyard should scare her, with its headstones carved from gray reaching up from the ground. Perhaps she shouldn’t be noticing the wildflowers dotting the faded green. Jade would have picked them, she thinks, and she remembers her wife skipping through a meadow with sunlight haloing her body, and then she tries not to remember anything else.
Julia can’t quite bring herself to look at the words cut into the gravestone, although she knows what most of them say. Jade Cao. Daughter, friend, wife. She can’t recall the epitaph they chose. A side effect of her dulling brain. Her face has folded with time, and the wind stirs her graying hair. They had grown old together, just like they always said they would.
In her hands, the weight of the bouquet tugs itself toward the ground, aching to return to its roots. She unravels the wrapping and pulls out a single stem of hyacinth. Its sapphire blossoms hang low and heavy.
Silently, Julia lays it at the base of the gravestone. Just as she put this collection together, thoughts and memories swirling in her mind, she will take it apart.
She’d met Jade fifty-something years ago when they were teenagers, wild and impulsive and yearning for more. Julia can’t call to mind the color of Jade’s sweater that day, or the precise shade of the field around their school. She can only see the endless blue of their Montana sky, arching over their heads, a church roof, a call to adventure.
I think I’m in love, Julia had said absentmindedly to the friend she’d believed was walking next to her, her mind occupied with some silly blond-haired boy. Then she’d turned and realized otherwise.
The breeze swept Jade’s dark hair around her face. A daisy was woven into her braid. Really? With who? she’d asked, her voice touched with the shadows of a different first language.
Nobody, Julia said, and she hadn’t been able to get anything else out.
The other girl looked curiously at Julia. I’m new here. My name’s Jade.
Hi, Julia had answered, and she wished that she could erase the embarrassment coloring her cheeks.
They’d strolled in silence to their next class, then turned down two different pathways. See you later? Jade asked brightly, and they did, again and again and again.
She laughs now, thinking about it. The sound seems to disappear as soon as it leaves her mouth, here in this lonely graveyard. Julia can’t help but marvel at the way Jade coaxes a smile so easily to her time-worn face, even beyond this world, from wherever she is now.
Julia’s hand finds more flowers from her bouquet -- a cluster of yellow pansies, winking at her in the sunrise’s light. She rests them beside the hyacinth.
With Jade by her side, middle school had flown by. Suddenly she had someone to eat with at lunch and whisper secrets to like the two of them were the most important people in the world. There was some kind of golden joy that swelled in Julia’s chest whenever Jade got near, knowing she had an acquaintance, a companion, a friend.
And so they’d grown closer and closer, through the drama of sixth grade and the stress of seventh, through eighth grade and on to culmination. Julia tossed her cap in the air and watched it collide with Jade’s ten feet up, eternally lit by that blue Montana sky. Then, finally, to the warmth of summer, and the metronomic drumbeat of the sun from above.
One balmy August evening, as the two of them had sat dipping their feet into a woodland pond and the fireflies flickered around their heads like fairies, Jade had woven a flower crown. Julia watched her fingers dance through the egg-yellow wildflowers and said something along the lines of, Do you believe in destiny?
The answer was slow and hesitant. Maybe, Jade said, then nestled the crown on top of Julia’s short brown hair. But then again, maybe not.
Well, that clears things up, Julia said.
Jade had shrugged. I think I believe in hope more.
Are they really that different?
It seemed as if Jade took a moment to think, then she said, Why are we talking about this?
The crickets chirped as Julia kicked her feet through the rippling water. I don’t know, she had said after a second. We’re growing up now. Maybe we should take things more seriously.
Jade pushed Julia into the pond.
The water was a cold shock against her skin, and she came up gasping. Why- what-
It almost looked like Jade wanted to smile, but when she saw the distress on Julia’s face, all enjoyment disappeared from her expression. With a graceful splash, Jade slid in. The pond only reached up to her waist, so Julia felt gingerly for the bottom of the pond with her feet and stood up too.
I’m sorry, Jade confessed. You looked worried, and I thought I should help, or something. Are you okay?
Julia grinned and splashed water in her face, and Jade giggled and splashed some back until the air sang with droplets and sparkled with refracted light. Finally, after a particularly large mouthful of water, Jade relented and clambered out. Julia followed. They huddled together on the bank, clothes dripping and cooling.
You thought pushing me into a pond would help? she asked.
It might not have been the smartest move, Jade admitted. But you’re smiling now, aren’t you?
Something had indeed been tugging at the line of Julia’s mouth. Yeah, I guess I am.
In the graveyard, the wind picks up. Julia lets its ghostly melody fill the space inside her skull. As the morning lengthens, she feels the sun beginning to soak into her old bones. She finds a sprig of bright violet iris from her bouquet and lays it with the other flowers.
The first two years of high school, Julia had made plans. Elaborate ones. To pass all her classes, to get into her dream college, to find a job and settle down with a husband and have a family. (She wasn’t so sure about the last two though. They were what her parents had always wanted for her, so she supposed she wanted them too.)
Julia recalls a particular afternoon in the library during sophomore year, poring over her textbooks and nearly swaying with exhaustion, Jade cheerfully folding a paper airplane in the seat across from her. Aren’t you tired? she’d asked Julia.
No, Julia answered, then yawned.
Jade set down her airplane. You need to take a break. Have some fun!
Can’t… I need to pass this test tomorrow. Is e equal to 2.6 or 2.7? I’ve been trying to remember but it keeps… Julia let her head slide onto the table.
Jade patted Julia’s hand and swept away into the aisles of books. Even the brief contact set off fireworks against her skin, like red and green and purple exploding against the night. Dimly, she wished Jade would come back and hold her hand again, maybe for a little longer. For hours, months, lifetimes.
And all of a sudden, Julia was wide awake.
With a loud clatter and then a whispered apology, Jade appeared back at the table. She put down a math textbook next to Julia’s scribbled notes. Maybe this might help?
I think I might be in love with you, Julia thought. I think I’m in love and I don’t really want to be.
Thanks, she said out loud, and Jade smiled.
Her eyes are getting foggy. Julia swipes at them with her sleeve, not sure if it’s her weakening vision or gathering tears. She supposes it might be both.
Once again, she fumbles for a flower and comes up with a quartet of apple blossoms, pure and pink. She lets them tumble to the graveside.
She doesn’t remember the name of the floppy-haired boy who asked her out to the dance during junior year. Julia had been running herself ragged with schoolwork for months, and dark bags painted the spaces under her eyes, but he (Thomas? Theo? Something with a T) hadn’t seemed to mind that much.
It’s easy, though, to think of her mounting feelings. The giddy joy whenever Jade drew near, the spiraling butterflies in her stomach when their conversations dipped into deeper topics. During the school year, they sat together by their pond and struggled through essays and equations. During the summer, Julia snuck away from her parents whenever she could and spent her days with Jade, always by her side, basking in the only smile that could light her up brighter than the sun.
Julia went to the dance with the boy.
They waltzed, and they talked. Julia held his hand and he put his arms around her waist. There were no fireworks.
She excused herself to go to the bathroom when the moon began to peek out of the dusk. She found Jade in there, perched in front of the mirror, carefully doing up her hair in an elaborate bun. A pale pink pin shimmered against her ebony hair.
She turned to Julia, and her eyes were wet. I didn’t like him, she said. The boy I came with. I tried and I tried to feel something, but there’s nothing there, I swear.
Cautiously, as if she were approaching a panicked bird, Julia went to her. I know. It’s happening to me too.
Jade seemed to struggle with her words for a second, which surprised Julia. Even though English was her second language, phrases seemed to fall out of her mouth as naturally as breathing. But here she was now, soundless.
There was a drum inside Julia’s chest, beating faster, harder with every breath.
It’s just… Jade took a deep breath. There’s someone else. And I don’t think that person is who people want me to be with.
I know the feeling.
Their hands met, and then their lips.
The drum in Julia’s chest swelled into an orchestra, a symphony.
The plastic of the bouquet crinkles as Julia turns it over and over in her hands. The world feels like it’s narrowed to her, the grave, and the flowers. She sifts through her memories and discovers a brilliant red carnation within the bunch. When she puts it down on the grass, her hand is shaking. She still hasn’t read the epitaph.
High school graduation had been a solemn affair. Julia wore flowing, dark robes and a cap like the ones in the films. Everyone else did too.
After working up the nerves to approach her parents over the summer, she'd told them about her relationship. With a girl.
They hadn't taken it well.
Julia fled to Jade's house in the middle of the night. She showed up on their doorstep with tears running down her face like a rainstorm. My parents think we're unnatural, she said, and Jade's face seemed to crumple.
She knew the people Jade lived with wouldn't care about her staying the night. They never really cared about Jade at all. After the death of her friend's parents and her relocation to their small Montana town, it seemed as if nobody did. The first time Julia realized that, she felt her heart physically ache.
Sitting on the floor of Jade's small bedroom, Julia let her story come flowing out. Jade nodded from time to time and held her hand gingerly. Finally, when Julia fell silent, the other girl seemed to have a plan.
I’ll run away with you, said Jade simply. If you want me to.
A few months later, armed with money from their jobs at the town supermarket and food snuck from Julia’s house, they stole away to the city.
Julia’s hand shudders and flowers come cascading out over the grave. Yellow honeysuckle, red tulips, white jasmine. Their sweet perfume fills the air.
The next few decades, the longest period of Julia’s life and the one that went by the fastest, were spent among buildings and people and the hubbub of the city. She studied at the college and earned a degree and rose to the position of history professor, teaching alongside Jade in the foreign language department. She married Jade in the forest with a part-time priest and five or six guests (none of them family). They felt their bodies begin to fade as middle-age crept in, always hand in hand.
One day, Julia received a call from home. Her father was sick. Her mother, two years ago, had already gone.
Julia steadies her hands, plucks a begonia from her dwindling bouquet, and puts it by the grave.
She’d closed off from Jade like a door slamming shut. Somewhere inside her, now that she was losing her parents, she wished she could have had more time with them. She could have tried harder.
Leaving a short note for Jade, she left and returned to home.
Somewhere inside of her, she’d been… angry, almost, at her wife. She’d replayed that rainy night over and over in her head - Jade’s comforting smile, I’ll run away with you - and saw it in a different lens. Maybe if she hadn’t rushed Julia, her thoughts chorused, she could have been better with her family. Maybe things could have been better.
She found her father short of breath and his voice weak as a whisper of the breeze. But through his breathless coughs, he spoke.
I love you, he had gasped. You’ve grown into a fine lady. But you should have married a man.
The well of words in her throat dried up. I love you too, Father, she managed.
No, he said forcefully, then coughed. Confront your mistakes.
Julia thought of Jade again, as if it wasn’t what she’d been doing for hours. She thought of her hasty declaration and their trip to a city that she didn’t truly love.
But she also thought of the fireworks against her skin whenever they touched. The mornings they spent together and the stolen glances when the light brushed Jade in pink and gold. All the whispered I love you’s, nothing but truthful, still blooming inside her.
This is who I am, Father, she said. Love all of me, or nothing at all.
His eyes narrowed, then closed. Alright, he said feebly. I love you. Julia.
She had sat by him, watching the doctors at his bedside, until the breath left his lungs.
Julia could tell Jade was angry when she got back to the city. There had been all the standard check-ins, the Are you okay and the I’m so sorry. But then there was: You left eight words for me to explain your trip. Explain again.
She exhaled. She’d been waiting for this. I was mad at you, she said. Because I missed home, and it felt like you made me leave. But when I saw my father, I realized… it was pointless, almost. To be thinking so much about what happened in the past. And I still got to him, in the end.
Jade’s eyes went round. I’m so sorry, she said, then again. I didn’t know you felt like that.
It’s okay, Julia said. Maybe it was a mistake. But we have time to fix it.
When she looks at what’s left of her bouquet, she only sees one flower left: a wild rose, small and delicate. Julia puts it with the very first flower she dropped. Side by side, the two look similar: pale pink coloration, white edging the sides. Their stems almost look like they’re intertwined.
After Julia grew tired of working at the university and Jade’s aging bones couldn’t get her through the day without aching anymore, they retired and returned to their old home. The house they bought was located by the woods. There was a pond a few minutes’ walk away.
Jade planted a garden in the front yard. In the spring, it was a riot of color, an explosion to rival the brightest firework show. She said she loved the feel of the soil in her hands. On some days, Julia joined her, and they brushed rainbows into the earth, fanned them to life.
Years passed. The flowers bloomed and wilted, bloomed and wilted again.
On the morning of their 70th Valentine’s Day together, Julia woke up. Jade didn’t.
Her hands are empty now. All the flowers Julia picked from their garden have been tossed to the gravestone and the memory of the person she loved.
A few days before Jade passed in her sleep, Julia had walked in on her reading a tattered leather-bound book. What’s that? she’d asked curiously. A romance novel? Yet another love story?
Jade tipped the book so Julia could see “DIARY” emblazoned on the cover. It’s not just a love story, she said, and Julia remembers her response, finally reads the epitaph off the gravestone.
“It’s our story.”
Julia fishes a packet of seeds out of her pocket and sprinkles them over the grass. She will come back next week and the flowers will have sprouted, like fireworks, like stardust. In her mind, she can already see the colors.