Brenda isn’t going to be satisfied until I’m kicked off the force. She expects me to be thrilled to go to the same fag bars that I end up patrolling when I work the night rotation. Club Park Avenue? Is she kidding? What the hell do we have in common with a bunch of skinny guys dressed up like Madonna? I thought she’d mellow out as we got older and left high school behind. She’ s got her business now washing dogs and she’s been doing real good. She’s gonna open a second shop next month. We should be staying home, saving money, working as many hours as we can while we can. But suddenly she’s all about how we need to be “out”. How it’s important to go to gay places and be seen so people don’t think it’s all drag queens and girls with crew cuts. She read some books and now she’s all you’re only as sick as your secret. Give me a fucking break.
What Brenda doesn’t want to hear is that no matter what books she’s read or what she thinks about us, I’m not gay. And while she can call herself dyke this and lezzie that (lezzie? Who the hell would call themselves that voluntarily?) that’s not me. I don’t want women. I just want her. Since the first day of ninth grade, it’s been Brenda.
I remember that first week, watching her in Western Civ, her textbook covered with paper from a brown bag, her name drawn in bubble letters at the bottom. Some jerk named Troy pushed up the edge of her skirt with a pencil and when she caught him she just smirked and told him that she hadn’t believed the rumors about his pencil dick until then and sat down next to me. And she kept sitting next to me, every day.
I knew she was smart because, while I filled my notebook with lyrics from the Houses of the Holy album and ideas for basketball offense formations, she wrote down every single word the teacher said. When we got our first tests back, our grades were dyslexic images of each other — 96% for her and 69% for me.
“Sarah,” she said, her pin-straight hair falling over her shoulders as she leaned in to speak softly, “I can help you.” Something inside my gut cracked like a knuckle. I can help you.
My grades never got much better but we started hanging out almost every day after that and then, like teenage girls start to do, we started spending the night at each other’s house. She liked my house better, with the MTV and central air conditioning. But I always wanted to be at her place where there was no younger sister hanging around trying to turn our couple into a trio. Brenda’s tiny house felt comfortable, real. I liked her parents, who sat and smoked Kents at the dinner table in the hallway connecting the kitchen and living room. Her mother was a caretaker for a rich old woman with a house at St. Marks and sometimes we’d drive over with her and spend the day at the beach while she worked. In the water, we’d thrash around. I’d use the excuse to wrap my arms around Brenda, trying to satisfy the inexplicable urge I had to put my skin on hers.
I hated every dumbass she dated. We’d lie on the bunk beds in my room and I’d listen to her talk about each one, grinding my teeth, grateful for the darkness.
We went through freshman and sophomore year without me dating a single guy and she never gave me a hard time about it. Up until I was suspended from sports because of my grades, I was busy all the time anyway. Practice before school. Practice after school. I made Varsity softball at fourteen and started hanging out with the senior girls. Seniors could leave campus and some of them were old enough to buy beer.
Towards the end of the season sophomore year, I spent the night at Brenda’s. She’d been busy that month with a junior who drove a beat up Dodge Dart and we’d been spending less time together. I was so happy to be with her that night but she seemed tired. In her twin bed, we lounged side by side, in t-shirts and underwear, trying to lie still enough that the heat could rise off our skin. I tried to fill the silence with stories about driving on the team bus to games in Ocala and Panama City but Brenda just got quieter and quieter. When I looked over, the side of her face was stained with tracks of tears.
“Hey,” I said. “Are you sick?”
She shook her head and I sat up next to her, helpless, wondering if I should get her mom. She stayed still, sweat and tears on her tanned skin. It was only May and already the house was a furnace.
Finally, she said, “Do you like them better then me?”
I almost made a joke of it, something about them smelling better than her after a game, but it happened again — that breaking in my guts — and I had to tell the truth.
“I don’t like anybody better than you.”
She reached up and pulled me down to her so that even though I was the one leaning in for the kiss, she was the one controlling it. In the darkness that night I swear I heard her whisper it again. I can help you.
Carmela Starace is a teacher and attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is currently finishing her MFA at the University of New Mexico, which has a kick-ass program.