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Coming of Age Romance Gay

I’m at the swimming pool today, sitting over the edge with my feet dangling in the water. I sit and I look down into the chlorine at the red and blue stripes on the bright white tile, and I think about lines. How I forgot to draw them. 

Love is lined. There’s a line between the friends I love and the lovers I can’t live without. The line between ‘getting coffee’ and ‘getting coffee’. A hug versus the arms that keep me warm for the long winter nights. It’s like walking around the rim of a slippery pool. How close to the edge can we can get before falling in? 

Carmen was a girl I knew once, back in the darkness of summer nights. She overfills the pools, somehow, turns young toes wrinkled and old. 

Every girl holds a color dear to her heart; yellow like summer daffodils, pink like premature sunburns. Maybe that’s why Carmen adores black so much--there’s no black in the summertime. Her eyes are darker than the night, darker than the lead of chewed-up pencils. At first, her eyes were so dark that I thought she was blind. 

I fasten my goggles to my face, suctioning the tears into my head. It was her darkness, I think, that stopped me from seeing. It’s hard not to fall in when you don’t know where the tile ends and the water begins. 

With a sharp inhale, I flop into the water.

. . .

I first met Carmen at a summer intensive. The secret society of writers. (The title of the program was counterintuitive, though; anyone from the public could join us at any time. I think my professor has a soft spot for the Dead Poet Society.) Every week, the core group would meet in a different coffee shop in Los Angeles and write a different piece. I am a Creative Writing Ph.D. student, and I told my professor that I’d help her run her program. 

Carmen worked at one of the coffee shops as a barista, of all things. Beyond the haunting conundrum of her inky eyes, her punk fashion made her the antithesis of the cafe she worked in. I remember thinking that she looked like a figurine, the first time I saw her. So pale her alabaster skin gleamed in the artificial light. I don’t quite remember how I convinced her to sit in with us on her break, only that my heart fluttered when she told me yes.

We wrote poetry that week. A take on a nursery rhyme was the prompt. I molded my words like stiff clay, my mind wandering to the girl pushed up next to me (the eight of us that week were crammed at a four-person table), her black jeans bouncing against me. She scribbles in a black-bound journal, crosses out, writes more--I hadn’t known that she was an artist too. At the time, I didn’t know that she was more than what I saw. At the time, all I knew was that she was beautiful, and I couldn’t stop staring at her.

Then I asked for volunteers, and she is the first to raise her hand. Carmen didn’t (and still doesn’t) wait for permission, just stands with the rough-bound book in her hands. And she begins:


Twinkle, twinkle I’m not a star,

but you, my love, that’s all you are

Twinkle twinkle, no day goes by

when you're not etched into my mind,

But twinkle on, my shining star

Cause without me, you’ll go so far. 


Once the crowd dispersed for the week, I asked her to dinner. That time, I noticed her dimples when she said yes.


. . .

I guess it's better this way, to go our different directions. Better to stop when it just doesn’t work out anymore. Better late than never. 

Except there is black, sometimes, in the summertime. For our last trip together, I took her on a road trip to Sequoia National Park. We climbed the mountaintops in my near-retired Honda, Carmen’s eyes closed in a lulling sleep. When she’s dreaming, her face melts against the window. Besides her nails--which she paints each month with cheap, Dollar Tree polish--there's nothing black in her facade.

We’d only been together two years. How was that possible?

She stutters awake as I park on the dirt road next to our cabin. This will be our home for the next two days. Carmen helps me put our things into the small bedroom and our groceries in the kitchen. When we finish, she surveys our work with those eyes like pits in her head.

“What do we do now?” she asks, looking up at me.

I smile. “We explore.” 

. . .

One dinner piled on to the next date and the next movie and the next-

Suddenly you’re moved in together, an apartment with two bedrooms because there’s no better time to move in together like the present, and

better late than never to share a room with the girl whose eyes burn holes in your neck, whose art weakens you at the knees and softens your core like butter. Because

love makes you stupid like that sometimes. 

It makes you blind and impulsive and stupid. 

Suddenly this girl that was nothing is your everything. You share a bed with her, just like you share everything else in your new life together.

And maybe not everything is clear. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, working for now as a barista to get by. Maybe something else will come now that the acting thing didn’t work out. After so many dates, so many shared breaths, maybe I can convince her to pick up a pen and write a screenplay, more poetry, anything. Maybe I can show her the star that she is. And maybe-

maybe…


maybe this girl can be my everything, forever. 

… 

At night, Sequoia’s skies gleam bright with stars. 

Carmen and I lie, interlocked together, on the hood of the Honda, staring up. Her head sits underneath my chin, and she smells like dirt and pine. We found a river earlier to swim in. I’d never seen Carmen laugh so much before, the water climbing into her gaping mouth.

“It’s so pretty,” she whispers.

I plant a kiss into her hair. “You are, too.”

“Ellie?”

“Hmm?”

“Remember how I sent my script out last week?”

I couldn’t forget. We’d shared chicken parm on the floor of the apartment to celebrate. 

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I heard back.”

What? “From…”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

Her lips press tightly together. “Yes.”

“And?”

Her mouth quirks to one side. “One hundred thousand dollars.”

One hundred thousand…

You’re joking.”

She shakes her head into my jacket, laughing. I smell the river on her, tangled into her black hair. 

I squeeze her tight in my arms, planting kisses on her cheeks, her nose, her closed eyelids.

I was one month away from earning my Creative Writing Ph.D., completely unsure of what I wanted to do. Carmen had just sold her first screenplay. And she had gotten one hundred thousand dollars. 

"I'm so proud of you," I whisper, cradling her in my arms. "So, so proud."

The stars smile down on Carmen. She soaks them in with those endless eyes. 

. . .


I lie awake sometimes, in the dark night. Blinds squeezed shut, in the apartment we used to share, sucked dry of anything but the looming nighttime, reminding me. Forcing me--I don’t like it when it’s forced--to think of her. 

Her, Carmen, there. She’s on the corner of our bed, waiting to speak. I was telling her that night about stars, I think. The pollution that covers stars, and what a damn shame it is that they’re hidden all the time, submerged…

“We need to talk.” 

That phrase shut me up so fast. 

“This isn’t working out.”

The light pollution drowns out the dark, the stars…

“We’re in different places in our lives right now.”

They’re gone unless you do everything you can to find them.

“We’re just different, we need different things.”

The stars don’t exist without you, Carmen. Not without black. Not without the dark.

“And it’s better late than never, you know.”

I’m laying there, stunned. 

She waits there, eyes sullen, waiting for a response. 

Finally, I say: “What does that mean?”

“What?” Carmen’s black eyes bore into me.

My heart shudders. “W-what do you mean, better late than never? Like our breakup was just a matter of time?”

“Ellie…”

“No,” I stutter. “No, because…because what about this? ‘Cause, this is the first time I’ve heard about things being not right. Jesus, Carmen, it’s been two and a half years! We were looking at leases on houses last week. We were planning our trip to France. And you--you--”

Those inky eyes cry clear tears. “It hasn’t been right for so long.” Carmen pleads softly. “You know that.”

Now, in the night, I clutch the comforter closer to my collarbone, tears stinging my eyes. Had it? Had it not been right for all so very long? Sure, she was working on the next screenplay, and I was searching for a job, any job, but…

I think about the joy we shared on the roof of the Honda, the stars like fairy lights above her. I’d waited for her; was she not going to wait for me?

I still sleep on the right side of the bed. The left side is too cold. 

. . .

I went on my first trip by myself the other week. Without Carmen. Packed up the Honda with a single duffel bag and minimal rations and drove out to the sea. 

That night, the ocean's roaring keep me up. I stare at the ceiling of the tent, too large for just one person. The waves seem to shush me, like a grandmother who’s just had about enough of my whining. After a while, I shimmy my way through the flap, walking the distance out to the pier overlooking the sea. 

There are no stars out tonight, overpowered instead by the full hanging moon. The sky gleams an iridescent blue, so heavy with that great silver light. Of course, tonight my mind wanders to her; there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t. 

I don’t know where Carmen went after she packed up and left. I’m not the caretaker of her life anymore, reminding her of appointments with the dentist or payments to the landlord. I bet her teeth are rotting now. I bet she’s showering without warm water. 

I bet she already found someone else. I nudge the thought, but it doesn’t budge. It speaks again.

 I bet she fell in love again. Someone who is her equal. 

(Twinkle, twinkle, I’m no star…)

Better late than never. The beacon of the moon shines over glistening tears. 

(but you, my love, that’s all you are)

Better I found out that the love of my life didn’t feel the same way.

(Twinkle twinkle, no day goes by)

Was it really bad all this time? 

(when you're not etched into my mind,)

It’s better now, I think. Better that I stopped trying to love her before she stole my heart away. 

(But twinkle on, my shining star)

I cry softly on the pier, whispering those damn words over and over again like a mantra. Better late than never. I hiccup with the salt against my lips. Better late than never. Better…

(Cause without me, you’ll go so far.)

December 24, 2021 04:33

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