Notes and Disclaimers: The following story and characters are the copyright of E. Friedman, 2003.
This is an original story inspired by about 17 different things and no…it is *not* in any way autobiographical. If you enjoy it though, I’d love to know. You can email me at email@example.com to chat about it.
Worldshaking Fanfic is a major supporter of Yuricon, a celebration of lesbians in Japanese animation and comics.
WSF also supports The Fanfic Revolution, because Fanfic does not have to suck.
A Good, Long Talk
The first day I saw her, I was running late to class. She was sitting in an aisle of the girl’s locker room, hunched over, her face practically pressed to her knees. I didn’t mean to startle her, but I came running around the corner and almost tripped over her before I realized she was even there.
“Hey,” I said, trying to keep the surprise and accusation out of my voice. “Are you okay?”
She never lifted her head as she answered, and the thickness of her voice belied the words. “I’m fine.”
I stood there for a second, because I really had no idea what to do. It was getting on and I wasn’t getting any less late for class. But she really didn’t look fine – she looked like she was crying.
“Did you get hurt?” I remembered what it was like, being in school. It was always horrible for me – I was uncoordinated and miserable in gym. Every day was a torture. The other kids were merciless, they targeted me as weak and sought me out every chance they could. It was a rare week I didn’t come home bruised or cut.
The girl raised her head. Her eyes were red-rimmed, as I suspected, but her cheeks were dry. I was surprised, because I expected…you know…a nerdy kid. Glasses, gangly limbs, zits, that kind of thing. But this girl was cute – really cute. Her eyes were light brown and her hair was black as the proverbial raven – without the tears, she’d have been a real looker. So it took me aback when she said,
“I want to die.”
“What?” I snapped, more than a little meanly. I mean, here was this kid who was obviously suffering – she didn’t need me to add to it. So I quickly softened my tone and stepped closer. “Hey now…I won’t say it can’t be that bad, ‘cause I know it can be. But maybe if you talk about it…”
“No.” She spoke with a determined finality, as if she’d been over it all a thousand times. “It won’t help. Nothing will help me.”
I pressed my lips together. As a teacher, you learn to look for signs of depression or other illnesses that affect kids. This sounded like a classic case of depression to me. I took a deep breath.
“You’re one of the seniors, right? Haight – that’s your name, isn’t it?”
“What’s your first name?”
She hesitated, but she’d obviously been well trained at some point in the past. “Meryl.”
“Look Meryl, I’m just a gym teacher and I don’t know from much, but this doesn’t sound right. If I tell you that it’ll pass, you won’t believe me anyway. If I try to send you for professional help, you won’t go. So what’s it going to be? I send you to the nurse’s office and she gives you aspirin and sends you home and you come back tomorrow and still have to deal with whatever’s making you feel like this – or I send you to the Principal’s Office with a note for your parents and they drag you to some shrink who hasn’t been 16 in half a century. Or,” and I took a really deep breath. “You suck it up and come to class. Then you drop by my office after school and we talk…I mean really talk, because this crap about wanting to die is just that. So – is it disease, attitude or escape? It’s up to you.”
She was staring at me with her mouth open. I guessed I’d stepped over the line again – I do that sometimes, running my mouth off inappropriately. Okay, I do it a lot.
“So?” I repeated gently. Something in that word made her shake herself and she sat up straight, her jaw set.
“Let’s go to class and if it’s okay,” her eyes filled with tears that she dashed away brutally, “I’d like to talk later.”
“Okay.” I said, patting her shoulder and standing. “Class it is.”
I apologized to the class, who had been milling about wondering where I was. Haight joined her team and the games began – volleyball today. I watched her closely throughout the class – back to expecting the usual ungainliness, the unpopularity. I mean, wouldn’t you? But she was a good, if not stellar, athlete. She wasn’t the best, but there were plenty worse than her. And she seemed to have friends – people joked with her, congratulated her on good shots…it rang totally wrong. Where was the social discomfort, the normal signs of withdrawal and loneliness? I couldn’t put my finger on it.
That afternoon, I requested a look at her file. Again I was stumped. Her grades were good; she was a member of the French Club and on the swim team. I wasn’t coaching the team that year, but Jimmy was – he and I had become good friends and we sometimes went out for a drink together, so I decided to pump him at lunch. He was useless.
“Meryl? Sure, yeah – she’s a good enough kid. Strong butterfly, good on relays – always good for an extra crucial point at a meet. The other kids seem to like her.”
“So you haven’t seen any bullying? Any ostracism?”
He looked surprised. “No, but…” he frowned, honestly upset at the idea. “But I’m not in the locker room with the girls.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. He was right – it could have been something that was only happening in the locker room – all that dressing and undressing in front of other girls always made me ill, too. There was always an undercurrent of menace that made everyone edgy.
I nodded and finished my coffee. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer, Jimmy and come watch the next meet.”
“Dar – what’s the deal? Why are you asking about Meryl?” He looked genuinely concerned, but I didn’t want to bother him before I knew anything.
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.” I gave him a reassuring smile and headed back to my office to do some paperwork for the girls’ gymnastics team.
Before I knew it, the day was over. I watched the clock and my office door for an hour, but there was no sign of the girl. At some point, I thought I heard something so I got up to see whether it was her, but by the time I opened my door all I heard were footsteps.
The next day, there was no sign of the trauma of the day before. Meryl was in class on time (so was I for a change – this class was after my – hahah – “free” period, which I had to spend watching over the study hall on the other side of the school) and class was pretty normal. After a while I just stopped watching Meryl, because she looked fine. And I basically thought that was that. Except I couldn’t let it go. No one says, “I want to die,” on a lark. Something made that kid miserable and I talked to her like I gave a rat’s ass…so now I had to give one.
There was a swim meet that night, so I changed my plans and got there early. My boyfriend at the time was a tad put out, but I explained the situation and he was very understanding. Damn straight, if he were the kind of guy to get all possessive, I’d have given him the heave a long time ago. I was a teacher and that meant I was responsible for these kids – whether he (or I, sometimes,) liked it or not.
I walked into the locker room, ostensibly to cheer everyone on. They all seemed pretty self-absorbed and Meryl just nodded at me, like most of the others. She seemed okay, but then, so did I every horrible day of school. I never went home crying, but inside I was raw and bloody from the experiences I’d had. I considered it to be some kind of cosmic penance that I ended up as a gym teacher – the one thing I hated most in school. Oddly, I absolutely loved teaching it. It had been a long trip from there to here, but I was here and having a lot of fun now.
Anyway, I walked out with the girls and sat on the bench, cheering and echoing Jimmy’s coaching comments, since I was a kind of coach. It was basically a nice time – the team looked good, the kids seemed really supportive of each other. It was during the 500 meters that I finally found what I was looking for. The girl who swam the 500 was tall and very strong looking. I had no idea what her name was since I’d never had her in my class. Somewhere I remembered something about a transfer student or something, and thought that might be her. She had incredible shoulders – I reflexively touched my own arms in comparison and found them lacking. I made a face and glanced away, trying not to laugh at my own folly, when I saw it. I was looking into Meryl’s face and there wasn’t a doubt about what I saw.
I must have been staring, because after a beat or two she turned and caught my eye. She flushed, scowled and turned away from me. I didn’t do or say anything; I just watched the rest of the meet, congratulated the girls on their victory and walked out to the parking lot. I was about to get into my car when she caught up with me.
“Now you know.” The voice was so bitter, so hopeless, that at first I had no idea who it belonged to. I spun around and was shocked to find Meryl facing me down. Her hands were clenched by her sides. “I suppose you’re going to want to tell my parents, or the authorities or something.”
I stared at her for a second trying to control my mouth, but the smile happened on its own. “The authorities?” I asked incredulously. “Are you kidding? What kind of movies have you been watching?” I was about to say something else smart, but I saw the tears spring up again and felt really bad about my big mouth.
“Do you guys go out after a win? We could go and get a ice cream or something.”
“After a big meet? Are you kidding?” It was her turn to make fun of me and I smiled to show it was okay.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a bad idea.” I thought for a second. “How about a soda, then?”
She looked over her shoulder at the others, then back at me. “Yeah, okay.”
“So,” I said at last. The hamburger had been adequate, but the fries were brilliant and we wolfed them down as we talked. Or as we didn’t talk, mostly.
“So.” Meryl wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“You wanna talk about it? You never came to my office yesterday.”
“Yes I did,” she protested feebly. “But I couldn’t come in.”
I sat back and took a long sip of my birch beer soda. “Why not?”
She didn’t say anything, just stared down at her hands, which lay clasped on the table.
“You were really afraid I’d tell someone?” I asked. “What kind of person do you think I am?”
“A teacher!” she snapped. “You’re just like parents – always telling us what’s right and wrong for us, what’s healthy and normal and not normal…” her shoulders shook and she slumped forward. “Not normal,” she repeated.
Honestly, my heart broke for the girl, it really did. What the hell was I even doing, trying to help her through this? I didn’t know anything at all. So I just did what I always did, I spoke my mind.
“God, Meryl, I’m sorry. You’re right. This must suck for you. I can’t begin to know what it feels like – except in the general “high school sucks so bad I want to die” way we all pretty much go through.”
Her shoulders were still shaking and her eyes had turned that angry red I had seen the other day. “But I do want to die. I don’t want to feel this way.” She looked up at me, her eyes full of despair. “Ms. Torn…I really do want to die.”
I reached out to take her hands in mine. I wanted to slide in next to her and hold her, let her cry on my shoulder, but heaven forefend that we teachers show a little compassion. Regulations said I should have sent her to the school counselor the next day. But the school counselor was a dried-up miserable excuse for a person, who had a degree in everything but dealing with kids and their emotions.
“I won’t say ‘I know,’” I promised, “but I really hope you don’t die. I think you’re a pretty nice person and it seems, from my lofty perspective, a little excessive to die over a little bit of unrequited love.”
Meryl swallowed hard and pulled her hands away. She hunched into herself as she whispered. “It’s not unrequited.”
“That’s great!” I said, smiling. “Why, that’s terrific!” I felt a weight lift off my shoulders – I was really afraid that she was suffering needlessly for want of someone to talk to. “I mean – then you definitely shouldn’t want to die!”
Meryl stared at me, with that open-mouthed gape she had used the other day. I was getting a replay of all the same faces over again.
“It’s…what?” she looked puzzled.
“Is it love, or lust?” I asked snuggling in for a piece of inappropriate gossip. “Oh, heck, at your age, you probably don’t know the difference…wait,” I noticed her face wasn’t looking any happier. “Are you two getting flack from teammates?”
She shrugged. “A little, but nothing we can’t handle. Karen’s really good, I’m pretty good and we can hold our own.”
I was puzzled again. “So, what’s the problem? Is it that you’re afraid the whole school will find out and make your lives a living hell?” Her cheeks pinked at that.
“Well, yeah,” she said, a little defensively. “Wouldn’t you be? And, god, I don’t even know if I’m….” She bit down on her lips, afraid to even say what she was thinking.
“Gay?” I said the word for her this time.
“Yeah,” she hunched into herself again.
I shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“Yes,” she countered. “Of course it does.”
I pinned her with my eyes. “Why? Tell me *why* it matters.”
She mumbled something and looked away. I kept my eyes on her face.
“Because!” she sputtered. “Because you grow up, you fall in love, you get married, have kids and die – that’s what you do.”
“I didn’t.” I said quietly. “I grew up, I have no intention of getting married and I don’t want kids. I agree that I’ll have to die eventually, though.”
“But you fell in love. With a guy.”
I shrugged again. “This time. Who knows next time? I say again, does it matter?”
She was staring at me now – really staring. I could see the thoughts wheeling through her head. Was I straight, or bi, or what? I laughed.
“Relax, Meryl, I’m straight as far as I know – it’s just that as far as I know is as far as I know, you know?”
She laughed at the twisted wording. “Yeah, I guess.”
“You’re doing things in the right order, at least.” I smiled. “You’ve fallen in love first. I’ve seen a lot of kids go through this place and do it all wrong – they get pregnant, thinking it’s love, then have a child, then look for a husband, and they’re still gonna die. It’s all twisted up.”
“Yeah,” she agreed reluctantly.
“So,” I pressed, “do you really want to *die* or do you just not want to feel so miserable? They’re not really the same thing, you know.”
She stared down at her hands for a long time, obviously thinking over the question. I was really beginning to like this kid. She wasn’t impetuous, like I am – she took her time and considered before she spoke.
She sighed about three times. “I guess…I guess I just don’t want to feel so scared and miserable,” she admitted. And the admission seemed to make her feel better. Maybe the thought that she was suicidal had frightened her, too.
We sat in silence for a while and drank our sodas. I did have something I wanted to say, though, something important. And she wasn’t going to like it.
“I gotta say this Meryl, because I’m the older, worldly authority figure here…don’t think this is forever. Right now…right now it’s everything to you. But tomorrow the pressure might break you, or Karen, or both of you. And there’s college and….” I sighed. “And life sucks sometimes and there’s no way around it.”
“Thanks,” she smiled bitterly at me. “That makes me feel a lot better.”
“Anytime,” I waved my hand at her. “I’m always here to dispense unwanted advice that you won’t or can’t use.”
She made a face. “Is love supposed to hurt?”
“I have no idea if it’s *supposed* to” I admitted, “but I know it hurts worse than anything else in the entire world. It even makes death harder and more painful, just because you loved a person.” Here I spoke from experience, but she didn’t need to know that. My first boyfriend had been beautiful and talented and we were really starting to talk about one day, maybe, getting married, when he was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly. I could feel my throat tighten at the memory.
“But…?” she searched my face for the words that would erase the last comment, or at least ease the rawness of it.
“But nothing. It hurts. It hurts so much that people fall in love everyday, fallible humans that we are.”
“I think I’m in love,” she spoke carefully. “But what if it’s lust?”
I slapped my hand smartly on the table. “Now *here* I can be of help! Rule number one – at six months, if you’re having problems, break it off. Period. Every freakin’ lesbian I’ve ever met keeps the miserable corpse of a dead relationship around far longer than necessary. Please, do all your friends a favor and just break up already!” I laughed at my own wisdom, until I noticed her face was pale.
She held her soda like it was the only thing she could believe in. “A lesbian? Is that what I am?” her voice was a whisper again and I realized that I had crossed that line again. This may have been the first time she’d ever said the word out loud.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But you may be.” I almost added, “if you’re sitting around undressing your teammates and thinking about doing things with your female teachers, it’s a good sign,” but I managed to keep my mouth shut. I’d mean it as a joke, but the poor girl was looking very fragile at the moment.
“What if,” her mouth moved, but no words came out for a moment. “What if I am a lesbian?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted again. “I’ve never been one. But I imagine that it’s exactly like being straight, except for the part where people you don’t know judge you instantly and find you lacking.”
She glowered at that. “What’s with that? Don’t those people have anything better to do?”
“Sadly, no.” I glowered with her. The thought that some asshole might ever try and insult this kid just because she was in love with another woman made me want to hit something. “But I’ll say this – whatever you are, just be honest. With yourself, with others, whatever. Because the more honest you are, the less they can hold over you.” I believed that, I really did, and it sounded like it.
“So,” she mulled over her next question. “You’re saying that I should come out to everyone?”
“I’m saying that you should be who you are all the time. And fuck ‘em if they…oh, heh, sorry. I shouldn’t talk like that.”
She smiled, amused at my faux pas. “No, it’s okay. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke, yeah I know.” We smiled at each other conspiratorially, having shared a bit of inappropriately vulgar language.
“Now I have a question, and I want you to be honest – not just give me some panicky or smart-ass answer. How’s your relationship with your parents?”
She smiled crookedly. “Pretty much like everyone’s at my age. I don’t tell them enough and they ask all the wrong questions. But what you mean is, if I did come out, would they throw me out? I don’t know – I mean, I don’t think so, but I guess people have been surprised before now.”
I nodded sadly. “Too true.”
“I don’t want to hide, I think. And Karen – we’ve kind of talked about it, and she’s pretty sure of herself, that she’s gay and all,” her voice dropped on the word “gay,” speaking it softly. “But I just don’t know. I’ve had a boyfriend or two and I liked, you know, being with them, but when I’m with her, it’s like…” the sentence petered out.
I looked down at the table, then back at the girl. “I have a dear friend, an old schoolmate, who’s gay. She had no idea at all that she was. She went out with guys all through school. Kissed ‘em, even had sex eventually…and all the while she was being quietly grossed out by the whole thing. She didn’t even realize it, because she’d only had guys to compare other guys to. One night in college, another girl kissed her and it was like – bam! – the whole universe shifted and she wasn’t grossed out at all. The thing is, even then, she didn’t realize she was a lesbian. Not until she’d met another woman, then another. On her third girlfriend,” I grinned at Meryl, “she *finally* admitted that she might be bisexual. Well, a few years later, she met the woman’s she’s with now and that put the cork in that. But it took her the better part of twenty-five years to work it all out. It’s just not that cut-and-dried.”
“No,” she said after a long time, “I guess not.” The she looked at me funny and asked, “You didn’t just make that up, did you? You know, just to make me feel better?”
“No, I did not,” I insisted. “I’ll give you my friend’s name and number if you want – maybe you’ll want someone to talk to, I don’t know.” I shrugged off the watery smile of thanks she gave me.
“Well, look,” I said, as I gestured for the bill. “It’s not like you have to work it all out right now. And you’re lucky – you’ve got someone to talk to, who will support you when you’re down, etc, etc.” I thanked the waitress and took out my wallet. “And who knows, if your coming out does go badly, at least you’ll have someone who will let you cry on their shoulder.” We left the booth and walked to the front to pay. “But,” I continued, “I’m betting that’ll be fine. You’re a strong person Meryl – and cute, if I do say so myself. I think you’ll be fine.”
She seemed to be deep in thought as we drove back to the school. I let her out by her car and waited for her to get in and get the thing turned on. And that was pretty much that.
The next day she was in school, and the day after, and when I made it to another swim meet (the team made the Regionals and I thought Jimmy would like the support) when Karen came in first, Meryl was right there to give her a hug and a kiss of congratulations, so I figured it was okay, pretty much.
Anyway, the point of all this was this, I know, it’s been a long story, but here, take a look at this. It’s a postcard from Meryl. I got it in the mail today. The girl in the picture isn’t Karen, but they look awfully happy together, so like I said, I guess that’s that. And you always say I’m a busybody. Hah, shows what you know.