The entire sixth grade had been crammed into two buses. Buried under coats and scarves meant to protect us from the November chill, we grew warm and sweaty in our sardine-packed rows. I loosened my scarf and pulled at my collar, but I would have to remove one of my many layers to feel any relief.
I had sat next to Allison, my best friend, in hopes of spending the ride talking with her. But she was only interested in -the very uninteresting- Zach. I couldn’t understand why she seemed to like his company over mine, or why it made me so jealous. When I saw her talking to him, and I saw the way she looked at him, something heavy grew in my chest. It burned like hot coals. When I saw that Zach never saw Allison with that same, horribly beautiful look, it burned hotter. Although Zach and I couldn't have known at the time, Allison was head over heels for him.
So instead I spent the ride leaning across the aisle to talk to Raye, who sat on the other side. The bus was as loud as it was crowded and I had to raise my voice and strain my ears to talk to Raye, but it was worth it. Raye was weird in the best way, constantly jumping from one obsession to the next, and diving in completely. It made for a few very interesting but one-sided conversations. The topic never really mattered to me though, I just liked having someone to talk to.
The bus pulled into the parking lot and wrapped around to the front of the ice rink and children poured out like air escaping a long yellow balloon. We burst into the lobby as the chaperones tried to shepherd us into order.
After waiting in line to receive my skates, I fumbled with the laces to form two uneven knots. I wobbled over to the ice, tripping over the steel blades on the smooth gray cement. I steadied myself against the wall as I stepped into the rink. I gripped it tightly through my thin gloves in order to avoid falling onto the hard ice.
Allison was right in front of me, struggling just as much as I was. Together we slowly gained more confidence and we were soon able to move smoothly up to a few feet from the wall.
We had little to say to one another. I ran out of topics quickly. Her mind seemed occupied with someone else. I felt like I had lost her and it made me mad that I couldn’t say anything to try and steal her back from the clouds her head hung in. All of our years of friendship had been boiled down to a single, cutting silence. The air between us seemed a hundred times colder. I skated away from her without another word.
Raye was far away from me, almost a half rink away. With my limited skating experience I thought such a trek was impossible. But I caught up, because falling would have been better than staying where I was. As soon as I caught up to Raye I forgot about Allison and her unspoken betrayal. Across the rink from me, Allison seemed miles away.
Skating with confidence, it was like Raye forgot to be scared of being a first-time skater. I still stumbled but Raye stopped me from losing control by holding my hand. We talked and laughed as we lapped the rink.
It was Raye's idea to stop in the center. The ice there was hard and unbroken, but split softly for us as we cut through it with our blades. We stood there and watched our peers revolve around us, as if we were the center of a minuscule solar system.
If Raye said anything, I didn't hear it. The only thing I thought about was how warm my hand felt. My tiny gloved hand had been sheltered from the cold by Raye’s intertwined fingers. But the warmth in my hand was more than just body heat. It spread to my cheeks and they grew warm too, but my dark skin kept the secret of my invisible blushing. Despite the deep chill of the air, all of me felt completely warm and comfortable. My heart pounded. I think this what love feels like, I thought to myself, I think I'm in love with Raye.
"Rachel?" I asked, forgetting to use her nickname.
"Yes?" She said.
"How did you know that you liked your ex-boyfriend?" I asked, hoping that my intentions weren't obvious.
"I don't know," She said casually, "He was nice and I liked him, and I thought at the time that was enough, but it wasn’t." The way she said it told me what I had wanted to know. She had liked him, but she didn’t like him.
That must have been what I was feeling. I had confused friendship and love. Isn't this what having a best friend feels like? I asked myself. It's never felt like this before, the voice within me argued.
I had heard about girls who loved girls, in the way that boys were supposed to, before and I knew what they were called. I knew that while being gay wasn't wrong, it wasn't something that I could be. The gay people on tv are always just a friend of some main character. Is that who I'm supposed to be, unimportant and half-mentioned? Do I not get to be the main character of my own story? Am I doomed to hide in the background forever, just because of this feeling? Why me? The last question rang in my ears, over and over again.
On the bus back I sat next to Raye again, and I watched Allison sit with Zach. I wanted to talk to Rachel again. I wanted to feel that warm feeling again. I wanted to not know what that feeling was called. But I did know, and I couldn't forget.