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LGBTQ+ Coming of Age Romance

This story contains sensitive content

[TW: abuse, substance abuse, mental health]


Stella was a careless dancer.


The girls in 517 all described her as this because when she danced, which was often, she would close her eyes and move around the apartment with a broom or a hairbrush or a bottle of wine and forget that they had far less space in their home than that in a dance studio. The victims of Stella's dancing included Malia's desk lamp, three of Andi's potted plants, and (although only once) a TV remote that went flying out of the fifth story window.


Stella had kissed Amber for the first time during one of these fits of dance; she had spun into her room, a tornado of sorts, and stopped short at the foot of her bed.


"Amber," she had grinned because Stella was a girl who grinned.


When she kissed her that time, it caught Amber so off guard that she didn't come to dinner or use the communal bathroom at the end of the hallway for a week. She hid behind her shower curtain when Stella was home, she listened closely for the click of the front door when she was not.


The only one of her roommates she had told was Malia because she had known Malia the longest. They had grown up with each other, lived together the first semester, before they met Andi and before Bella had transferred. She'd known Malia as Max and before she had felt like a real girl, she had played chess in the bed of Max's father's pickup truck and wiped blood off Max's knees.


When she had told her, the corners of the apartment felt dirtier than usual and the lights dimmer. The door to the linen closet was open and the hands on the analog clock above the microwave were stuck at 7:00 o’clock (It’s right twice a day, you know, Stella would say and then she would pick at her nails as if the passage of time, or lack thereof, didn't bother her).


"I kinda always thought you were into her," Malia had responded.


Amber hadn’t particularly liked that Malia had said that; she always thought Malia understood how her mind worked more than anyone else because they grew up drinking from the same juice boxes and playing with the same Polly Pocket dolls.


Amber had said nothing but, from there on out, paid more attention to how she interacted with Stella and how it was different from the other girls. She was nicer to Stella, sure, but that was mostly because she worried no one else would be. On top of that, she never pushed Stella to talk about her life outside 517, which all the other girls had habits of doing. There was a fear in it, really; a fear of falling into Stella’s chaotic orbit. A fear of getting sucked into the instability of her existence. Did she want to hold her hand and do other girl things? In a way, yes, Malia wasn’t wrong about that one. She liked to think that Stella could tell this and that’s why she had kissed her, that Stella could tell she was intensely intrigued by her but didn’t know how to even begin going about picking her apart. But Stella wasn’t that kind of person. Stella moved too fast to allow anybody to get inside her world.


Amber was a hitchhiker, thumb out, waiting on the side of the I-95, Stella was a reckless driver who couldn’t help but pass her by.


For that reason, she knew Malia wasn’t the first person to think of it or even to mention it. Bella had made a comment about Amber wanting to have Stella’s babies once after she had cleaned up one of her messes in the living room and James, Bella’s boy who lived with the girls on and off when he was in between places or jobs, had nodded in agreement.


“How long have they been going out?” Amber heard him ask Bella as she took the trash out later than night.


“I don’t think they’re going out,” Bella had responded, “Stella doesn’t ‘go out’ with people. She gets high and sleeps and that’s just about it.”


She was right, too, and it freaked Amber out. It was because of that that she couldn’t even begin to entertain the idea that Stella kissing her was anything more than a part of her dance.


During the months in between the first and second time it happened, she would wonder relatively often what would have happened if Malia had been the one home or if Andi's door had been unlocked. She contemplated alternate realities, she tore the walls of the apartment to pieces and then put them back together again in different patterns. There were sometimes patterns where Stella left absolutely zero needles in the kitchen garbage, others where Amber was still living at home and, in those, the apartment wallpaper would somehow melt into that of her parents' guest bedroom.


During the months in which Stella was in rehab, Amber would begin to wonder how much of Stella could have been saved if she had kissed her back that first time or not at all.


But it was largely during the months that were in neither of these times that Amber would wonder the most. She would wonder where Stella would go at night, wonder how she'd ended up in Chicago to begin with, wonder who she went to to tell her things would all end up okay in the end. Stella had never been the type to share things and Amber had never been the type to pry, although she often wished she was, and so she was left to wonder all on her own.


Andi slept in the room across the hallway from Amber, though, and she was the type to pry.


There had been one night when the five girls had all been drunk and Andi had pushed her index finger up against Stella's forehead.

"What's even going on back there," she had asked, eyes searching Stella's pupils as if there was something to find. "When are we actually going to get to meet you?”


Amber had felt increasingly awkward in that moment, she wanted both to tell Andi to leave her alone and to know for herself. She wanted to know everything, she wanted all the silver marbles of information and she wanted to decipher their individual meanings. And so she had said nothing.


It was Malia who had swatted Andi's hand away from Stella's forehead, it was Bella who had said they all knew Stella very well (Bella was the best liar, Bella wanted to be on Broadway). It was Stella who got up and left, wordless.


This was before Stella had kissed Amber even once, before any of them had known each other for that long, with the exception of her and Malia. Stella had moved in probably only four months earlier and the girls had learned early on that she had a relatively quick way of going through life. She skated in and out of the apartment, (for the first few weeks Malia didn’t even know she had moved in). She had a boyfriend at the time, a guy named Cole who would sleep on the couch pretty often and leave his translucent purple vitamin water in the top of the fridge. Cole was lax, Cole had his Playboy magazines delivered to 517 and Stella would flip through them while sitting on the kitchen counter and smoking cigarettes, her fingers dancing across the images. The two of them floated around one another, they exchanged electrons and fucked each other’s auras. From the outside, there was a level of order to the whole thing; Cole and Stella made quite a bit of sense to the other girls because of the way time seemed to work in opposite ways for the both of them and, back then, Stella had been slightly happier and slightly more sober so nobody was tempted to mess with their dynamic. Not that she would’ve listened to anybody’s input, anyway. Stella was not a listener.


They broke up when he moved to California to be a singer. He’d offered to bring Stella along but she had mentioned afterwards while wasted to the girls that she was terrified of planes and joked that her dealer was in Chicago so she wasn’t going anywhere. 


Only Bella had laughed.


So when she left that night nobody followed her out because it wasn’t particularly uncommon of her anyway. She had always disappeared like that, sometimes to Cole’s house, sometimes to that dealer she joked about so often.


Amber had felt bad for her, in a way. She had already taken a liking to Stella during her first few months in 517, though she didn’t know her too well. She had a sweet way of looking at her, cherry choke smile and black licorice eyes, and, even though she used copious amounts of paper towels and ran up the water bill and left utensils in the sink, Amber didn’t particularly mind having her around. She was just a girl to her; her socks never matched, she always smelled vaguely of coffee, and her fingers seemed to always be looking for things to do.


One of the best things about Stella, though, was the way she kept her drugs clean; the girls never found her cocaine in the bathroom or heroine anywhere but in her dresser drawers. Bella smoked, too, but she didn’t do any hard drugs and it was the hard drugs that made Amber nervous. None of them had the money to post bail for Stella out of jail if the cops were to catch her and, last time she checked, Stella didn’t have any family who would have her back either. So she was thankful that (for whatever reason) Stella kept tabs on all her substances.


When Stella kissed Amber for the second time, only the two of them had been home and Stella had cooked for her beforehand. She set the table, she made probably the best ravioli Amber had ever eaten. She told her not to tell the other girls she made her dinner, though, because she didn't like cooking for large groups (Stella would tell her later on that she hard time understand why anyone would want to be around her if she couldn't offer something of value so if the other girls expected nothing from her then maybe she could, for once, be left alone. Amber asked, then, why she had cooked for her. I never really wanted you to leave me alone, was Stella's response, Being around you doesn't feel like work).


Amber did her best not to let it get to her head, not to let it make her feel special.


She told Amber a story about how she went to culinary school for nothing and how now all she had was useless knowledge about the temperatures at which one might bake a souffle and how to make complicated meals nobody wants. Amber asked if she wanted to be a chef somewhere, Stella said that that ship sailed when she first tried heroine. She told her about her sister who lived in Maine, about her mother in Colorado. She said her father wasn’t shit. She, cautiously, let Amber listen to her talk for hours.


Amber thought, at that moment, that if the other girls could never come home it wouldn't be terrible.


“Why’d you never ask about me before?” Stella had said after she kissed her the third time and washed the dishes.


“You didn’t seem to want to talk.”


“No?”


“Well you've always been pretty defensive with Andi and all them.”


“I guess so,” Stella had responded, “But Andi only asks because she wants to get in my head, and Malia only wants me to stop smoking in the bathroom.”


Amber chose not to mention that she did, in fact, want this too. Not for herself, of course, as Malia may have. Amber simply believed that Stella would, at the very least, probably be healthier sober.


“Do you not want that?” she asked instead.


“To quit?” Stella had asked back and Amber nodded. “Yeah… yeah, I want that… kinda,” and then she stopped, “But, then again, no I don’t. I don’t really know who I would be sober, you know? I’m not sure she’s any fun.” 


Amber didn’t know what to say back to this so she said nothing at all and let Stella eventually change the subject to the way Cole used to put out his cigarettes on her back. Stella showed Amber all her scars.


“Is that why you stayed with us? Cause he hurt you?”


“Nah, I stayed ‘cause I’m scared of planes. Didn’t I tell you that?”


“Not of him?”


“Not of him.”


Amber would learn, eventually, that it wasn’t people who scared Stella, but the noise and the expectations and the idea of completely losing herself (though Amber suspected that she had already done so). It was everything else in the world.


Stella didn’t get sober after those times she kissed Amber. In fact, nothing really changed in 517 at all. The days continued to cycle past and it was only every now and then that Amber and Stella would find themselves alone in the apartment and where Stella would again talk, would let Amber into her world and help her figure out how to understand her. Amber did not tell Malia about these days, though, they felt like they might break if they were shown too much.


She let these moments happen partially because she slowly grew to enjoy Stella's company more and more but also because they seemed to be the only time in her life when she would slow down. She would watch Stella’s finger relax on her knees, observe the way her pulse didn’t jump as aggressively as it usually did.


After the eighteenth time Stella kissed Amber she told her it was nice that she never pushed her to get any better.


“I’m pretty sure I’m good enough as is, you know. And, like, it’s nice for my brain to know you agree.”


Amber did not mention that she did very much wish Stella could get better because if Stella got better than maybe they could really be together and they would spend less money on paper towels and more time in the sun and falling in love would seem less out of the question. She did not tell Stella that maybe if she got better then they could exist outside of 517, that maybe the wallpaper would sit still for a while.


She instead just whispered to her that everything would be okay in the end.


But when Stella went to rehab, it was Amber who begged her to. It was Amber who had driven her the two hours there after she threw up in the living room and sat with her in the car telling her that if she just got better than everything could be okay and it was Stella who had said that she told her everything was already going to be okay, who called Amber a liar.


You... Stella had said standing outside the car...what happened to being good enough as I am? Stella's hands had been shaking in the sleeves of her jacket, eyes darting on and off Amber’s face. She looked at her, then, as if she might become someone completely different if she took her attention off her for too long. The irony of this was that Amber had worried the same thing about Stella all along.


When Stella came back home, she didn’t dance anymore.


There were no needles in the kitchen garbage, there were far more quiet nights where nobody came in or out of 517 at 3:00am. She made Amber breakfast every morning, she fixed the analog clock, she swept the apartment in an orderly fashion, her eyes softer and mouth no longer soda flavored. It felt simple, it felt peaceful. The other girls would comment on this as well, they would tell Stella how much better she was doing and Stella would smile but not up to her eyes. Stella and Amber would visit museums, they would watch movies in parks. 


The sixty-second time Stella kissed Amber was the last.


“I always saw you,” Stella had told her, “I thought you saw me too. I thought we saw each other.”


Amber didn’t know what to say to this.


Amber only watched as Stella’s hands grasped at the air in between them, trying to find the versions of themselves that they had been before.


December 15, 2023 22:12

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1 comment

AnneMarie Miles
16:30 Dec 22, 2023

The human experience is extremely potent in this story. It is so convoluted and messy, and that is exactly how you describe Stella and Amber's relationship. It's really interesting that Stella's personality seems to be the most vibrant when she is using. Her mystery and ability to dance freely is evidence of this, and it is what attracts so many people to her. They want to figure her out, to get to know her better, but she's got a guard up. It seems Amber is the only one she's willing to put those guards down for, but that seems to change af...

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