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Maria

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The café has a hard bite to the air instead of the soft, rich scent it should—burnt espresso, sweat, and hopelessness. And you’re already there, relaxed, perched at a high top.

“Let’s meet for coffee,” you said, bright and harmless, and then a secondary clause plunged a knife into my navel. That additional phrase that you just had to include. “I really want to talk.” Suddenly I’m aware of the slight kink in my hair, the fade of my black shirt.

You ask me how I am and I’m mute. Pleasantries. Never once was I good at them. “I’m great, how are you?” “Not too bad, you?” “Please don’t think less of me, but I’m lost and you seem great and can I throw up now?” None fit with how I actually am, but you’re sitting there, sipping from your cappuccino, and I have to answer.

“Things are good,” I deflect.

“Good.” A small line of foam has caught on your upper lip and my hands sweat, damp and clammy. I remember a similar moment in a similar café with two different people where one—me— would have smiled coyly and reached over to the other—you—and wiped the stain away with a thumb, a kiss. But today it is your thumb that scrubs the foam away and I’m left rubbing the sweat from my palms into my jeans.

The talk begins, nothing and everything, in a matter of minutes. You had an article published on your graduate work, got a promotion, adopted a dog. A magazine wants to feature my stories in a series, I’m finally going to finish that novel, and take a celebratory trip to Iceland.

“Iceland? Really?”

I told you I wanted something big, “and... we are curious about Iceland.”

BOOM. My heart hammers in my throat around the word we. I’ve done it. You and I are no longer in this weird bubble of memory any longer. Now there is someone else here too, her. We. BOOM.

You can feel it too, I can see it there in the quick succession of blinking behind your glasses. Onetwothree. And you’re smiling again, but you’ve brought reinforcements into the bubble too.

“Well, that’s great.” You say this in a sudden haze, like you know you are supposed to say this. “We haven’t gotten the chance to travel much, what with the move and the baby. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. We are pregnant.”

Oh. You actually did it. You both went to the doctor’s, had everything checked—levels and whatever—and had a baby mixed up under a microscope and planted in her womb to flower and blossom like an apple tree. In less than a year, presto chango, you’re a parent. Fucking hell, I haven’t said anything in such a long time.

“Congratulations,” I say.

“Gemma,” you say, but it sounds like I’m underwater and I can’t quite hear you right. Gemma? “It’s a girl. We plan to name her Gemma.”

I never wanted to get married, have kids. There was a moment or two when I dreamt of white wedding dresses, a swelling stomach, and baby clothes, mostly because, well shit, I’m a female so I must want all of those things. It’s what I’m genetically composed to want. But a lot of that changes when you grow up and realize that weddings are hell encased in babies breath and tulle, pregnancy is terrifying, and it is a much bigger process to get pregnant when you realize you only want to sleep with girls.

I had caved. I told you, more than half seriously that someday we could have a baby. I would carry a child, but we didn’t have to get married. Because for some reason creating another human being seemed so much more feasible than legally binding myself to someone else for the rest of my life. Baby. No wedding. Deal.

You’re worried I’ll fight you on this. Be hurt. Maybe even cry a little. But I won’t even give it to you.

“She will be lovely.”

You’re surprised again and I can’t help but feel like that is a victory. My blood turns to ice. Because I don’t want this to be wins or losses. There is no scoreboard, so why can I see you marking tallies in your head?

My coffee is cold and you ask what we will do in Iceland, the grand adventure. I’m not sure why I say what I say. Why I don’t say exactly what you’re expecting (sightsee, drink, maybe take a dip in one of those blue lagoons.) Maybe it is because of your casual bomb drop of the baby, or old habits, or maybe because I can’t let you win, but still, I hear myself say:

“I’m going to ask her to marry me there.” Your mouth is a perfect circle of dismay and I suddenly know. I know that while I could never have married you, even if you had asked, even though I hadn’t seen it in myself until that moment, I know. This is it. My chance to jump again, truly jump again. I can’t picture a day in my life without her in it. I look to your mouth and it is only the memory of feeling, of wanting that I have, only the memory of pain. This day, this conversation is just the faint shadow of what once was—a coffee stain left in an old much, the sickly yellowness of a bruise that no longer hurts, but you push at it anyway justtomakesure. Now, I am sure. This is only the memory of the feeling before, not the physicality, the actuality of it.

It is her. Always her. And I would do everything in the world with her, not in spite of you, not because of you. But because she and I have had the gift, to breathe the same air, to exist in the same place, and to walk our broken and bruised bones into the embrace of the other and to dare to call it love.
The longer I sit here I know that while it was once a curse for a time to exist in the same place as you, it is no longer. Because you brought me to her. Not in the old blue-grass country song way, where I had to be broken by you to find her. No. Not it in the least. Rather, it goes more like this. I gave you the power to break me, beat me, tear my flesh from my bones, and I gave it willingly, without consideration. I gave you that power and you used it thoroughly. And it wasn’t until after that I realized I could take that power back. I rebuilt myself layer by layer until I thought I could only possibly be made of mortar and stone. Until I believed I was unbreakable, unshatterable. Until I thought I couldn’t be loved. That I thought was healing. Until her.

She reveled in my blackness, my stone parts. She doesn’t love me in spite of my sharp, shattered parts, but because of them and that’s the bravest thing I’ve ever known. We are becoming better versions of our whole, broken selves—gossamer stitched into our skin, stars in our eyes, the moon lighting the way for our dancing feet. And I can finally understand why people say meeting someone new is like a breath of fresh air because for all my years I’ve been holding my breath and somehow she reached into my chest, gently cradled my lungs, told me it was okay to let the air in again. And I did and the air smelled of orchids and her hair and that small patch of heaven between her breasts, at the curve of her neck.

“Marriage. You’re sure?” You say this because you need to make absolutely sure that you are no longer speaking with the girl you once promised the world. You need to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you can move on, live out all of your dreams with the absolute knowledge that the girl you’ve toyed with is also the one that you’ve lost. So that you no longer have to carry the guilt that you hurt someone.

For a moment, this somehow makes you look smaller, fragile. And it makes me a touch sad for you. Because in some ways, I still am that girl that you promised the world. Pieces of that girl still linger here in the confines of my skin and blood simply because that is who I am. She is a shadow of me. She is not lost forever, nor do I want her to be, but I can see why you do.

So I give this to you, this one last offering to release us both. Not because I feel that I owe you something, but because sometimes we all need to bear witness to bravery so we can see that it is possible to keep going, keep breathing. So we can then find the courage to wake up and do the same. I give a piece of this bravery to you and take the rest with me.

“Sure as coffee stains,” I say before I leave. “Sure as I am of breathing.”

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