We had not known that sex between women was possible until we found Yvie's mother's hope chest, and within it, her pulps. They were buried at the very bottom underneath a layer of embroidered towels and table linen; four slim volumes folded into the dust jacket of Anne of Green Gables. At first, I didn't understand what we held. The pages were coffee-stained, the binding coming apart, the cover art clumsy even though the colors were deep and rich. All the women were drawn with identical faces and elongated limbs. The titles were vague — Strange Streets, Three Women, Another Way to Go — and the taglines riddled with errors even Yvie could recognize: the story of twisted passions that dared not speak its name!
We smuggled them back to Yvie's bedroom and sat cross-legged on the bed, her flipping through each one in turn, me picking first at my stockings and then at her wallpaper, imported from Paris and patterned with cherry blossoms. The strips curled as they came off like fruit skins. I couldn't see Yvie's expression, just her swollen brows, arching high on her forehead above the pages. We'd tried plucking them, then painting them back in when they seemed too thin. The results were uneven and startled looking.
Abruptly, Yvie straightened up. "Listen to this. She kissed her mouth, and fell with her onto the bed, and they were not parted that night."
I waited for more, but there wasn't any. "So?"
Yvie rolled her eyes and flipped a page ahead. "Hands moved over her belly and down into that secret place, and she became a lick of flame." This time, I understood.
We devoured as much of the books as we could that afternoon, tucking them under her mattress when her mother came to check in on us with a plate of crackers or squat glasses of lemonade. Yvie demanded I read aloud, and I found myself stuttering through a sex scene,
unable to utter the words "breast" or "core" in more than a whisper. In contrast, she read with a low confidence, occasionally stuttering on a hard k or th. It was evening when we finished Strange Streets, the light outside tinged orange and stinking from the metalworks factory three blocks away, the air full of voices and the repetitive thunk of kickballs hitting brick. The man on the stoop next door was listening to a radio broadcast about POWs in Korea, but after a few moments he switched it for a deep-voiced crooner. Yvie snapped the book shut with both hands. "What a downer." This was a word I had taught her, and she pronounced it carefully. "I can see why Mama likes these."
"What do you mean?"
She rolled her eyes and flung out her legs, the heels of her oxfords landing heavy in my lap. I prodded at the leather but didn't push her off. "It is like her radio shows. I come into the kitchen in the morning and find her crying over some nanny and detective running away to the Alps together. She loves the— what's the word? The love that doesn't work out?"
"That's it. The tragic romance, she loves it." She shifted position so she could flop back on the mattress, her head hanging off the end, her hands folded dainty over her stomach. I closed my fingers around her ankle in case she started to slip. "Do you think she has ever done it?"
She lifted her head slightly and waggled her crooked brows. Her positioning was so odd, chin folded deep into her neck like a turtle's, that I almost laughed before her meaning caught up to me. "Of course not!"
"She's married! To your dad," as if there could be any confusion. Yvie gave me a look I'd faced before, one that said I was unworthy of the energy it would take to insult me. Her eyes narrowed almost to slits and her mouth sat half-open with her tongue pressed between her teeth. I kept sputtering. "Wouldn't you know if she was — like that?"
She flopped back down and blew out a breath through her mouth. "I don't know, Myr-yam," reducing my name, as always, to just two syllables, no matter how many times I corrected her. "She must have them for a reason. And for her to hide them."
"What makes you think they're hers? Maybe your dad reads them." I knew this was ridiculous, though, considering where we'd found them. And Yvie's father didn't seem the type to read romance novels, however depraved. He was the most impressive man I'd ever seen, masculine, with dark wavy hair and broad shoulders like a football player. When we'd been little I'd harbored secret fantasies about how I'd steal him away in ten or fifteen years, when I was beautiful and a woman. He wouldn't be so old then. At most, he'd have a distinguished gray streak in his moustache.
"Papa doesn't read. And he's never around. They have to be Mama's, and why does she read them?" She rolled to grab Another Way to Go, brandishing the cover at me. Two women in their lingerie lounged on an empty bed frame, their legs tangled and their lips pursed in a permanent kiss.
I flushed deeper. "That doesn't mean anything! D'you suppose she's running around with an English detective too? Or an heiress? Or a Hollywood-dressmaker-turned-spy?" My mother also enjoyed radio dramas.
Yvie frowned, dropping the book back to the bed. "I hadn't thought of that."
I expected her to go on, but she was silent, staring at the ceiling with a slight twist to her mouth. Her braid lay across her neck, the ginger tuft at the end like an open hand. I pushed her legs to the side and slid to the end of the bed, crossing my legs beneath me. Catching her braid, I twirled it in my fingers. She quirked a smile at me, then said, " Maybe we should try it."
She gave me another of those looks. The blood rushed to my face so fast the skin tingled, and I dropped her hair. "You— we—" Yvie said nothing, though she did sit up, turning around and pulling her knees into her chest. "Right now?"
Yvie shrugged. "We could take a bath first." This wasn't an abnormal suggestion. We'd often shared the bath on mornings after I slept over, and there was more than enough room in the
rust-stained brass tub for the both of us. I shook my head hurriedly, and Yvie sighed. "Well, I'm taking a bath. I feel sweaty. You can go, or you can stay, if you're not so chickey."
"Chicken," I corrected automatically.
"Chicken, yes." She popped to her feet, pushing down her skirt with both hands. "Don't be so chicken, Myr-yam."
While she ran the bath, I fled downstairs to the kitchen, making some excuse about being hungry. Her mother waved to me cheerfully from the living room. She was folding laundry, a stack of white and baby blue dress shirts growing in her lap, her hair pinned to the nape of her neck with a clip in the shape of a monarch butterfly. She was always sweet to me, though her English was shakier even than Yvie's. It was hard for her to manage even trips to the supermarket and PTA meetings, with Yvie's father in Bordeaux for half the year. I nearly swallowed my tongue before I remembered to wave back.
I tripped back up the stairs with a peach in each hand. Yvie was already undressed, reclined in the steaming water that was just beginning to trickle over her knees. Her eyes were closed, her hair still knotted in its braid. It had been a while since I had stayed over, months since I had seen her naked, and I was startled at how familiar her body was. She was as flat and scrawny and freckled as she'd always been. I'd worn a bra for a year now, though Yvie had beaten me to getting what her mother obliquely referred to as her fraises — more than one afternoon I'd come over to find her lying in the fetal position on her bed, whimpering with her arms curled around her stomach. Those days, her mother brought us lemon tea and I read from the books on her nightstand for hours, even the French ones. Tu ne's pas galant pour notre invitée, papa. My pronunciation was awful, my inflection probably worse, but it always seemed to cheer her up.
Yvie opened her eyes. Catching sight of me in the doorway, she made an irritated little blowing noise in her nose and waved me in. "Come, stop standing there like— like a— what's the word, for a groom?"
I handed her a peach and then quickly retreated, bracing one hand on the windowsill. "Like with horses?"
"No, no, in the hotel, the groom with the little hat and chin strap?"
"That's it." She ate her peach in such large mouthfuls that she could barely chew, bits of pulp and juice sticking to her chin. I ate half of mine before setting it aside. It wasn't as sweet as I wanted; more like cantaloupe, my mother's favorite fruit, than like the jellied peach candies you could buy at the supermarket. It was hot and damp in the bathroom, and I opened the window to stick my head out. The voices outside had quieted, but we could still hear the trains rumbling. The sun had nearly set. My mother would be angry with me — I wasn't supposed to walk around at night, though our apartment complex was practically across the street.
I helped Yvie undo the tie in her hair, though she did the rest herself, pouring cupfuls of water over her back and foaming the soap between her hands without looking at me. When she was finished I held the towel out for her, turning my head politely away but letting her brace one hand on my shoulder as she dried her feet. We walked back to her bedroom in silence. My throat felt unnaturally tight, but I didn't dare try to breathe deeply with Yvie at my back.
Her bedroom window was still cracked, and I moved to close it, but Yvie stopped me with a hand on my arm. We stared at each other. She stood in the center of her floor, still wrapped in her towel, fidgeting in place. It was strange to see her nervous.
"I should go home," I said at last. My voice was too high, chirpy and uncertain in the quiet. "It's almost suppertime."
Yvie gave me a sharp look. Her eyebrows had washed away, and there was a bare patch in the center of the left, like someone had taken a paring knife and neatly cleaved off a bit of her skin. She hadn't combed her hair after drying it, and it stood out from her neck in a frizz. "You want to go?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it. Yvie's eyes narrowed. I gave a helpless little shrug. She mumbled something under her breath, then flung the towel aside and tackled me to the bed. I think she meant it as more of a firm but suggestive push, but we landed hard, with our knees knocking and her elbow in my stomach. "Oof," I said. She tried to cover a laugh but couldn't quite manage it, her breath huffing over my ear.
Lying there, it was apparent that neither of us knew what to do next. We both kept very still. Our arms were tangled messily, and the rough lace bordering of my blouse was itching Yvie's skin — I could tell, since she kept frowning, her nose snuffling up like a rabbit's. Her eyes were closed. She was still a little wet, and I could feel the quilt getting soggy beneath us, my blouse starting to cling to my back. Neither of us spoke.
Several seconds passed, maybe half a minute. Yvie finally cracked an eyelid. "I expected to feel something."
"Like what?" I was whispering; she wasn't.
"I'm not sure. Tingling, maybe. Like they wrote." She jerked her shoulder in a motion I understood was meant to indicate the books, though in actuality she was pointing towards the ceiling. "Or a flushing. To get all hot and nervous."
"You told me to keep the window open."
"Are you being stupid on purpose?"
"No, I just— I don't know what you mean. Why are we even doing this?"
Her hand tightened on my shirt, fingers hooking themselves in the buttons. "You said you weren't a chicken."
"I'm not." I tilted my head to try to get a better look at her. It was hard to make out her expression this close, but I thought she was staring at my chin. I had a freckle just to the left of my mouth that I was self-conscious about, and I twisted my lips to try to hide it. She smacked me in the shoulder. "Ow!"
"Big baby." We both glared at each other, then giggled. She pressed the whole of her face against my neck, one thumb working over the third button down my shirt, right over where the two pads of my bra connected. Down into that secret place, I thought, and then I did flush. Yvie's breath smelled like peaches and lemonade.
Another handful of seconds passed. It was fully dark out now, the air through the window a brownish black, occasionally interrupted by gray streams of smoke passing in front of the streetlamps. Yvie's warmth and weight on top of me was starting to make me sleepy. "I should really go home," I said, my voice still soft. Yvie didn't answer, and I gave her a little shake. "I mean it. My mom will come looking for me if I don't."
Yvie still didn't answer, even when I shook her again. I would have thought she was asleep if not for the quick, even pace of her breathing. "Yvie, come on." Her eyes remained closed, and I let out a sigh. "You're such a brat." Her lips twitched, just a little.
Drawing my feet up onto the bed, I put my hand on Yvie's waist to try to roll her to the side. Instantly her arms hooked around my neck, and she clung to me like a starfish. "Oh, for—" I lifted my hips for leverage, turning as I moved with a grunt. Yvie let out a surprised laugh, and somewhere above our heads a book fell to the floor with a crash of pages. It almost, but not quite, covered the soft click of the door opening. Yvie's eyes were suddenly looking into mine, wide and dark and shiny.
We both lifted our heads. Yvie's mother stood in the doorway, one hand on the knob, the other supporting a woven basket of folded clothing. Her eyes, too, were wide and stunned, her cheeks as pink as the flowers on Yvie's wallpaper. The room filled with silence. Then Yvie's mother swung the door closed again, the last thing I saw being her arm folding itself back across her chest, as though she were covering herself, as if we'd caught her at something.
is a trans male writer, student, and closet idealist currently living in Tampa, Florida, and grew up in Maryland. His work has previously appeared in Five 2 One and Hoot Review. He can be found on Twitter @emoryarusso.