She looks up from the cobblestone path. “Sorry?”
He clears his throat. “Snow’s melting.”
Somehow, he persists. “I guess that means spring’s coming."
“Yeah,” is the only thing she can say, because it’s not a surprise to her. She has a calendar hanging in her college dorm, all colors and bookmarks and bright highlights leaping off the pages. It’s covered in space photography. She’s always wanted to cup the galaxy in her hands.
He chews his lip for a moment. “Do you-” he starts, and then he trails off. She basks in the silence.
Although it’s not silence, really. She sees the moist remains of the white that fell last week, the slush that seems to intrigue her date beyond human understanding. She also hears the songbirds chirping their sweet serenades in the swaying trees, tastes the dizzy perfume floating from the flowers lining the park path. A hundred feet away, children clamber over the playground, yelling and laughing in high pitched voices.
“It looks weird without the snow,” she hears him say. “After having winter for so long.”
She struggles to think of a response, feeling duller than her seventh grade math teacher. Her brain moves slower around this man.
This isn’t going to work.
“I feel bad about this, but I really don’t think we’re, you know, compatible.” She dips her head to watch the path move under her feet as they walk through the park, their tempos never quite in sync.
“Um, what?” He looks bemused. It’s always been easy for her to read emotions. They play out on people’s faces like words on pages. It’s usually never a challenge to speak either, words springing to her tongue, quick and playful and kind.
Trying to romance someone is a different story.
If only she could identify this ache inside her, like a flower trying to blossom with its petals frosted shut. She feels brittle. Bitter. She wants someone to bloom for.
She checks the time on her phone. “Sorry again, but I have to go anyway,” she says crisply and breaks her path to stride across the grass, feeling the remnants of winter crunch under her boots.
* * *
Her hands weave through someone else’s hair like diving seagulls, tangled up in long silky strands. Her face is pressed tight to someone else’s mouth. This touch is brilliantly intimate, searching for the hidden crevices of the body, born to be held under these strobing lights.
She tries to feel it, that spark that flames to life right next to her heart. She’s heard her friends rhapsodize about it, read books that romanticize it, but she searches deep inside her and feels frustratingly cold. No fireworks. No lust.
She pulls away, her gaze trailing over the other woman. In this shadowy nightclub, people are faceless, and they shift from strangers to lovers in the blink of an eye. All she can see of this person is a neon violet outline and a chiseled body, two gold bracelets flashing in the dark. She’s never seen her before, and she doubts she’ll ever see her again.
This room is so crowded it feels stifling. People pack it from wall to wall, vibrating with the booming music. She’s not sure why she let her friends drag her here. Across the room, she sees them taking shots, and she sighs. They actually look like they're having fun.
“Heather,” the other woman whines, leaning in closer. She can’t help but flinch.
“I’m sorry, I’m not who you’re looking for.” When can I leave this place? The nearest door is nearly invisible behind a hot, sweaty mass of dancers. The music crescendos to a roar, and she shrinks into herself. The soft fabric of her sweater is an anchor, a reminder of curling up in blankets as a child and waiting for her happily ever after.
“What are you talking about, Heather?” The acrid scent of alcohol slurs the woman’s words. “I like you, you know that.”
She stands up, swaying on her feet slightly as the lights flash dizzyingly through all the colors of the rainbow. The beginnings of a headache scratch at the insides of her skull. “Listen, I’m not Heather, and I really should be going.”
“Thought you were into it,” the other woman mumbles, slumping against the bar.
“I’m sorry,” she repeats, not knowing what she’s apologizing for. “I tried, and I don’t think I like women this way. Romantically.”
“Yeah, yeah, I figured.” She sees a surprisingly-steady wink glint through the dim room. “If you’re not into me, you wouldn’t be into any other woman.”
“Ha,” she forces out, her tone wavering. For a moment, she wonders if she should crane her neck for another kiss, to reach deeper for that volcanic sensation she’s read so much about. Maybe this woman could be it. Maybe she could be Heather, just for one night, under these wordless lights.
Through the rippling crowd and clumsy hands clawing for something more, she shoulders her way to the exit. She has astronomy homework to do.
* * *
This is a man she could fall in love with.
A student at the city university, like her. Studying for a medical degree. Decently good-looking, with raven hair and a golden hour smile that seems to pull jealous gazes from the other couples in this coffee shop. His hands weave through the air in animated gestures as he talks, though to her, his words are background noise. She’s still lost in her thoughts.
Yeah, I can see it. They might walk to graduation together and hold hands in between their seats. They might get married under the night sky, might have a kid or two and raise them in one of those bland suburban homes. Drive them to soccer practice and band rehearsals until their vision is too weak to drive anymore. And then…
And then what? They grow up? They grow old? She dies in her sleep with no stars in her eyes, with no petals fluttering in her stomach?
She hadn't meant for this to happen, not after that nightclub. But he'd asked her out, and again a week later, then twice more - and now, a month later, they're here. Be careful, her friend had teased. Time doesn't work normally when you're in love.
I'm not in love yet, she'd almost responded. Almost. Instead she'd frozen like a deer in headlights and the conversation moved on.
All of a sudden, she realizes he’s stopped talking. She looks up from stirring her straw in her cup, mouth ajar, heart paralyzed for a reason she doesn’t know how to voice.
Her date intertwines their fingers with the dexterity of a pianist. Gently, feather light, his other hand floats to cup her cheek. And his face is so close to hers, and she can smell mint on his breath. Did I brush my teeth before this? she wonders, then wonders why her brain is racing this fast, a hundred, a million miles per hour down some forgotten highway.
“Can I kiss you?” he murmurs, expression wide open.
She thinks she nods.
And then his mouth is on hers, his eyes are shut, and she kisses him like she has before. Judging from the way he gravitates toward her like the moon to Earth, she’s doing it correctly.
She waits expectantly for the flower to burst to life in her rib cage, a garden, a meadow wild and free. She will bloom, she will open these petals and love him the way she has always wanted to love someone. She waits, she hopes, she wills something into being as their mouths interlock and their kiss becomes an enigma, a cipher.
Then the silence sinks into her like an anchor, and she is brought back to her life.
There is no garden in her heart. No explosion of life as they stay locked together. She remembers the child she was, believing in the grand romance that awaited in her epilogue, and she thinks bitterly, Impossible. Out of reach.
He is warm. He feels so distant.
She pulls away, gasping for air. “I can’t.”
Confusion shadows his face, and it hurts her to know that she did this, she broke his heart. She never meant to.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Her voice is desperate and wobbly, thin as a thread. “But- I just- there’s nothing there and I’ve tried so hard to feel it, so many times, and you seem wonderful but I don’t like you that way, there’s something wrong with me-”
The gravity between them shatters.
“Hey,” he says quietly, apparently trying to be reassuring. She yanks her sleeve across her face, wishing the tears would evaporate.
“It’s okay,” he promises her.
“It’s not okay,” she whispers jaggedly. “I’ve been trying so hard, but I’ve always been alone, and… I just want to love someone.”
“What exactly do you mean by love?”
“You know!” She hears herself as if from very far away. “Romantic stuff.”
“I mean…” He shrugs and stands up, apparently uninterested now that he sees her lack of attraction. “Who said love has to be romantic?”
They leave the coffee shop in silence, hands decidedly not touching.
* * *
The restaurant is lit with the laughter of her friends. She watches them giggle and clink their wine glasses together, falling over each other and against the table. A tidal wave of affection sings in her mind.
"How's your boyfriend?" Isabel practically yells at her.
"He's not my boyfriend," she answers. "I broke up with him yesterday. He just wasn't right, I guess."
"Disappointing," Krishna says. The glass in his hand wobbles dangerously as he sets it on the table. "That guy was hot."
“You should really slow down,” she advises her friends. “I’ve known Isabel for fifteen years and Krishna for six, and I have never seen either of you hold your alcohol.”
On the other side of the table, Isabel takes another gulp of her wine.
“I,” says Krishna drunkenly, tapping his girlfriend on the nose, “love you. So much.”
“Aww,” Isabel coos at him with a puppy-eyed gaze, then stretches her hand out to the third wheel in the group. Her. “But I love you more.”
She gapes at her for a moment, hearing those words twirl and dance around in her brain. She’s always daydreamed about hearing them said to her by someone other than her family - maybe during a romantic date night, or tangled up in bed in honey morning sun.
Despite her better wishes, she feels irritation churn in her stomach after hearing Isabel, very drunk and in this dimly lit restaurant. This is not the fairytale she wanted, with a handsome and charming man, without anyone else.
“It was supposed to be my first,” she says out loud. The alcohol is kicking in.
Krishna furrows his brows at her. “First what?”
“My first,” she shoots back, but she’s not sure how to finish because now that’s the question hanging over them all. Her first romance? First love? First soul-baring declaration?
“I’m your first friend,” Isabel observes keenly, then freezes. “Bathroom,” she chokes out, then stands up and rushes to the back of this painfully fancy restaurant.
Krishna makes a move toward his girlfriend, then sinks back into his chair, looking dizzy. She groans, rolls her eyes, and follows Isabel.
She bursts into the women’s bathroom and finds her friend with her head on the edge of the toilet. For ten minutes, she sits there, watching Isabel moan about how she regrets drinking so much, and holding her hair back when her skin turns pale.
She hears those three words again, echoing through her skull over and over. This is not what she always dreamed of having, she’ll admit that.
But this is her best friend. The one that stood by her when she broke her arm falling out of her new car, the one that she stood by when she got dumped for the first time. Through thick and through thin, right here to pulling her hair back as she throws up into the (very fancy) toilet. It’s not a thought, but an epiphany that she can feel in her chest, bright and gold.
This is precious. This is what she has.
Now, the phrase sinks into her and leaves an imprint on her soul, luminous, lighting up her corners.
It may not be romance, but this is love.
Isabel lifts her head slowly, clearly under the effects of alcohol, but the same dogged shine she’s always had still sparkles in her eyes. “You have to say it back, Dahlia,” she whispers affectionately.
She helps Isabel to her feet and feels her friend lean against her shoulder. Warmth spreads through her body and softens her voice, blurring the edges. The world feels a little more bearable.
“Love you too.”
* * *
It’s only been two weeks since she was last here, but this park feels so very different.
Fragile cherry blossoms spiral down from the trees, tiny and pink and speckling the path. Dahlia kneels and scoops one up, admiring its flawed perfection in the morning light.
Behind her, her friends walk along the path with their footsteps in sync. Krishna is pointing at the squirrels chasing each other through the grass, words flowing freely from his mouth. Isabel has a mixture of exasperation and fondness on her face. Their hands are intertwined snugly in a puzzle only they solve. Love has etched itself into their eyes.
Strangely enough, seeing them together doesn’t make her feel lonely.
Isabel catches up to Dahlia. “So,” she says breathlessly. “How's school going?”
The answer comes naturally. “Amazing,” she blurts out. “Astronomy is amazing.”
She’s always loved space, from fiery supernovas to the stardust that runs through her veins. She is built from the remnants of giants, her eyes are tinted with otherworldly colors, and this world is something that can never quite be replicated.
Dahlia talks about the stars. Her friends listen.
The three of them make their way through the town park for a few minutes after Dahlia falls silent, soaking in the sunrays. All of the snow has receded by now, leaving tiny flowers to pop up from the grass. The playground is populated with children playing games, the sky stirred with a breeze in constant motion. Fallen petals cover the ground in an ethereal carpet. The promise of the end of winter hangs heavy in the air. If this park was colorful last time, today it is a rainbow, dizzying, dazzling.
“Hey, Dahlia, check that calendar of yours for me when you get back to your dorm,” Krishna says suddenly. “Tomorrow’s the first day of spring, isn’t it?”
She looks at the two of them, holding on to each other like they plan to never let go. Something inside her stretches its wings. Life surrounds her, in the form of her friends, but also in the towering trees, the gentle flowers, the days she’s seen and the days she will see.
There is love folded into this earth, tucked into crevices and flickering moments.
Dahlia closes her eyes, breathes in the scent of new leaves. A smile unfurls on her face. “There’s no need to wait,” she answers. “Spring’s already here.”