The Girl On The Bus
I’ve been taking the same bus to school every day for almost four years now. That makes it almost four years that I’ve been watching her, without ever saying a word or even making eye contact. I didn’t even know her name.
She always get on two stops after mine, her schoolbag slung over one shoulder and her sports bag hanging off the other. She sits near the front, so I stay near the back, where I can watch her without her noticing.
She’s tall and athletic, with a warm smile and soft grey eyes. Her hair is only just long enough to cover her eyes until she brushes it away, a deep chocolate brown, perfectly straight. I always wonder if she straightens it or if it’s that way naturally.
I see her around the school campus occasionally, always surrounded by friends. She’s always smiling and laughing, and everyone seems to worship her. I know that she’s the captain of the girl’s tennis and hockey teams, because they’re embroidered on her blazer.
Every time I see her, I want to talk to her, but I never do. I have no idea what I’d say to her, or why she’d be remotely interested in anything I had to say to begin with. She’s beautiful and popular, while I’m just ordinary and insignificant.
I didn’t really mind, though. Knowing I’d get to see her on the bus in the morning was half of what got me up to go to school. I was happy with the way things were, and that was enough for me.
Nothing ever stays the same, though, no matter how much we want it to.
On my first day of my second last year of high school, I was prepared. She was a year above me, which meant it was her last year. That meant it was the last year I’d get to see her on the bus. It was kind of a bittersweet feeling.
I got on the bus, just like usual. I took my regular seat towards the back, and waited for the stop where she would get on. Everything was just like normal until we reached her stop, and she stepped onto the bus.
More than one head turned to stare at her as she made her way down the aisle in the centre of the bus. The muttering and murmuring started shortly after. The look on her face made it obvious how aware she was of it, but she was clearly trying her best not to let it get to her.
Of course, I was staring at her too, but I’d been doing it long enough to know not to make it obvious. Even so, it was harder than usual to keep myself from letting my eyes bore into her like everyone else’s were.
Why was she wearing a boy’s uniform? Was there something about her I hadn’t realised? Surely she wasn’t actually…
No, even under the boy’s uniform, her physique made it obvious. There was no way that she was a boy. Not unless she was that kind of boy, but somehow that just didn’t seem right. Not that it was my place to decide that, but I couldn’t help but feel like-
“Mind if I sit here?” she asked, startling me. I’d been so lost in my own thoughts, I hadn’t even noticed that she’d walked all the way to the back of the bus.
I could feel my face turning red. What was happening? She never sat this far back, and definitely never sat near me. She didn’t even know who I was.
Glancing down at the rest of the bus, I suddenly realised why. Bags filled what would normally be empty seats, and glaring faces guarded the rest. She didn’t have anywhere else to sit.
“S-sure,” I said, shuffling over to make room for her.
“Thanks,” she said, sitting down elegantly beside me, squeezing her bags under the seat. “Oh, I’m Phoebe, by the way.”
“Isla,” I mumbled, too nervous to make eye contact.
We sat in silence for the rest of the bus trip, me staring out the window and her flicking through the pages of a new textbook. It was hard not to notice the dozens of pairs of eyes on us, and I could feel my face getting hotter and hotter.
When we finally got to school, the rest of the passengers surged off the bus, seemingly more eager than usual to get out and get to school. Was it because of Phoebe…?
We were the last two to get off, since she waited for everyone else to go past before she got up out of her seat. Her bags were pretty bulky, so it seemed normal enough. Before we got off, though, she grabbed my shoulder gently.
“Hey. Um, thanks for letting me sit with you. I’m, uh, sorry if it caused you any problems. Oh, and thanks for not saying anything about the, you know. Uniform.”
“Um, about the uniform,” I said, almost too softly to be heard. I know she did hear though, because I saw her tense up when I said it.
“I-it looks good on you,” I said, my face feeling hotter than the rest of the bus ride put together.
It really did look good on her. She was the kind of pretty where the masculine clothing only brought out the femininity in her more.
She smiled brightly at me, gripping the straps of her bags tightly. Then she bounded off the bus, disappearing into the sea of students arriving for the first day back at school.
* * *
I didn’t see Phoebe again that week, not even on the bus. I certainly heard about her a lot, though. Rumours spread like wildfire in high schools, and there were more than a few unpleasant ones going around about her.
The second week back, I was having lunch in my usual spot – a secluded patch of grass on the far edge of the school grounds – when I noticed her, still wearing a boy’s uniform. She was all alone, sitting with her back against a tree, arms folded against her knees.
She looked so lonely, I couldn’t help but to feel the urge to go over to her. Would she appreciate that, though? Maybe she wanted to be alone. You didn’t come to somewhere this far out for the people, after all.
I decided to try talking to her. After all, if she didn’t want to talk to me, she could easily just say so. I didn’t think that would bother me too much.
She looked up as I approached, probably alerted by the sound of my footsteps. A second later, recognition flared up on her face.
“Isla,” she said, a serene smile resting on her lips. Sh-she remembered my name? Dammit, I could feel myself turning red already.
“You found my lunch spot,” I said, trying to sound casual. “It’s a great place to get away from people.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t think anyone would be here. I’ll, um, I’ll find somewhere else to eat my lunch.” She sounded flustered. Was she worried about the same thing that I was?
“No, you should stay!” I insisted. “It’s nice to have someone else to share it with. I-if you don’t mind eating with me, that is.”
“That would be nice,” she said, and I felt a surge of relief flow through me.
Just like on the bus, we sat in silence, but at least this time nobody was staring at us, or talking about us. Occasionally I would look over at her, but she was just staring off into the nature reserve our school backed onto.
“I haven’t seen you on the bus lately,” I said, a little hesitantly. “Did you get your licence or something?”
“Not for another three months,” she said with a heavy sigh. “My mum’s been dropping me off. It’s… easier.”
I nodded to show my understanding, but it just seemed bring her down even more. I didn’t really know what else I could do. There was one thing I wanted to know, though.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Might as well,” she said. “Everyone else is.”
“Are you a guy? Or, maybe, do you want to be?”
“Eh? No, it’s nothing like that. Trust me, I’m a girl, inside and out. I just… I dunno, I don’t really like feminine clothing. I really can’t stand dresses or skirts.”
For some reason, that was a huge relief to hear. I wasn’t sure how I’d have felt if she’d told me she was a boy. That’s probably selfish of me, but it was honest. Being a girl was part of why I liked her.
“Well, I think it suits you,” I told her. “I don’t see why anything else really matters.”
“I wish more people saw it your way. I spent my entire summer arguing with the school to get permission, and now everyone just thinks I’m a weirdo, or worse.”
“At least you’ve only got one more year. I mean, a year is a long time, but hey, it’s gotta end eventually,” I said, the best effort I could make at being encouraging. What else was I supposed to say?
We spent the rest of lunch in silence, but it was an easier silence than before. She seemed just a little happier than she had before.
* * *
The next morning, two stops after mine, Phoebe got on the bus. She scanned the bus, saw me, and made her way immediately over to me.
“Welcome back,” I said as she squeezed her bags in under the chair.
“Thanks,” she said, sitting down beside me. “It’s really inconvenient for my mum to drop me off every morning, so…”
I smiled at her. She smiled back, then pulled out another textbook to start flicking through.
A couple of older boys got on at the next stop. I recognised them from Phoebe’s year level. When they saw us, they rolled their eyes, and sat just a little further in front of us.
“Great, the dyke is back,” I heard one of them mutter.
“Looks like she’s got herself a little dyke girlfriend,” the other one said, just loudly enough for us to hear.
“I’m sorry,” Phoebe said, hanging her head. Her eyes were glistening. Was she crying? Stupid boys…
“No skin off my nose,” I told her. “Sticks and stones, right? Don’t let them get to you.”
“But if they start spreading rumours about you…”
“They probably don’t even know who I am,” I said. “Besides, I don’t really care what people say about me. So don’t worry about me, okay?”
She looked up at me, her eyes sparkling with half-formed tears. It was seriously difficult to resist the urge to kiss her right then and there. That wouldn’t have done either of us any favours, though. Plus I didn’t even know if she was attracted to me. Actually, I didn’t even know if she was gay.
“How can you not care what people say? Doesn’t it get to you? I…”
“I know who I am,” I said, shrugging. “And I’m okay with that person.” She laughed gently, smiling at me.
“You don’t sound like a high school girl,” she said.
“I’m an old soul,” I told her, and she laughed again.
The rest of the bus trip was thankfully uneventful. We chatted idly about school and classes, sharing stories about teachers we’d both had. When we arrived at school, we were the last two to get off again, but this time, she stayed with me, walking me all the way to my locker.
Just as she was leaving, the two guys from the bus showed up, cornering us both. I noticed Phoebe stand defensively in front of me, like she was protecting me.
“What do you want?” she said aggressively.
“We’re not here to talk to you,” one of them said. “We just want to chat with your lezzie girlfriend.”
I tensed up. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, but I really didn’t want to have to deal with it in front of her. Not when I knew she felt guilty about it already.
It was just a couple of guys. The worst they would do would be to try and hit on me, to try and ‘fix’ me, or because I was some kind of a challenge. There would be some lewd comments as they tried to own my sexuality, try to make it something for them, because they needed it to be that way. I didn’t care. There wasn’t anything they could do or say to hurt me.
Phoebe stepped more in front of me, blocking me from both of the guys. Unlike before, she seemed composed, confident, even powerful.
“Piss off,” she said. “She’s not gay, and she’s not my girlfriend. Say what you want about me, but you say one word about her and I swear I will cut off your balls and feed them to your dog.”
I felt my heard thud painfully against my ribs. Dammit, why did she have to say that?
“Jeez, calm your tits, ya psycho. It’s just a bit of fun.”
The two of them strutted off, laughing about something or other. Phoebe turned back to face me, her face falling as soon as she saw mine. I could feel my own tears, hot against my cheeks.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” she said, rummaging around in her pocket for a tissue. “I really didn’t want this to happen. Here.” She held out her hand, offering me a handkerchief.
“Piss off,” I snapped.
I knew feeling angry was irrational, but I couldn’t help it. I brushed her hand away, glaring at her before running away, my eyes stinging and my chest aching. Phoebe just stood there, looking confused and hurt.
* * *
Luckily for me, that was Friday, and I didn’t have to see her again until Monday. I spent the weekend at home, mostly sulking in the dark and telling myself I was an idiot for letting something so simple upset me.
After a while, I started to feel a little guilty. I knew she didn’t understand why I was upset, and that she would just end up blaming those idiot boys and herself, and feeling bad about it. Rationally, I knew I should just talk to her about it, but I really didn’t want to.
No, it would be better to just talk to her about it. I made up my mind to talk to her as soon as I could. I was sure she would understand if I could just explain things calmly.
Monday morning, I watched her get onto the bus, like usual. Instead of sitting next to me, she found a vacant seat and sat there, without so much as making eye contact with me. Was she mad at me now?
I tried to talk to her before she got off the bus, but she managed to slip out with everyone else before I could get to her. It definitely felt like she was avoiding me, but why?
She wasn’t anywhere to be found at lunch time, at least not in any of the places I could think of to look for her. The bell rang without me even having touched my lunch, and it felt like I’d been defeated.
I felt fuzzy and lightheaded for the rest of the day, unable to think about anything except Phoebe. When the school day finally ended, I trudged up the hill to the front gate of the school, too tired to finish my homework in the library like I usually did.
Even though I still hadn’t eaten anything, I wasn’t feeling hungry. My stomach was churning, and I was pretty sure if I did try to eat anything I would just end up throwing it up anyway.
My head was spinning as I reached the top of the hill, and I could barely keep my balance. I staggered forward, carried by the weight of my schoolbag, right onto the road and into oncoming traffic.
A horn blared as I stumbled forward, but something grabbed me from behind and pulled me back out of harm’s way. I thought I was going to fall over, but something was supporting me, someone’s arms around my back, but the sun was behind them, and I couldn’t see who it was.
“Crap, Isla, you look terrible,” a familiar voice said. Phoebe?
“I’m okay,” I said, squinting against the harsh sunlight. “Just need a little water.”
A second later, I felt a water bottle pressed against my lips. I forced myself to drink, and little by little, the haziness cleared, just a bit.
I realised that a crowd had gathered around us, staring and whispering amongst themselves. It probably was an unusual sight. Phoebe was kneeling beside me, supporting my back with her knee and one arm, the other arm holding a water bottle up to my lips.
My stomach growled, and Phoebe glared at me.
“Did you not eat your lunch today? Is that why you’re like this?”
“Sorry,” I said, smiling meekly at her. “I was too busy looking for you, and I forgot to eat.”
It could have just been my imagination, but it look as though her face turned just the slightest shade of red. She immediately turned away, and began searching through my bag until she pulled out my lunch.
“Eat,” she instructed, handing me my sandwich. “And don’t get up until you’ve finished it.”
Not having much choice, I ate my lunch, lying back against her arm and leg. It almost felt like she was embracing me. I tried not to think about that too much, realising she’d probably notice if my heart rate suddenly went up.
“Much better,” she said when I’d finished, helping me to my feet. “God, you scared the living daylight out of me.”
She held my arm to support me as she guided me down a dirt path, leading into the nature reserve beside our school. We found an isolated bench under a shady tree, and sat down there together.
Neither of us said anything. She was probably as nervous as I was, but I was the one who really needed to talk.
“Sorry about running off on you on Friday,” I said, staring at my feet.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “Those guys-
“I don’t care about them,” I said quickly. “That sort of stuff happens all the time. I told you, I’m used to it. It’s fine.”
“Used to it…? But then, why were you…?”
“Because of you,” I said, biting my lip. This was going to be the hard part, but I needed to get it out. “It’s because of what you said.”
Phoebe looked confused, her hand tightening on the strap of her schoolbag.
“What I said? But, I-“
“You don’t get to tell people I’m not gay,” I snapped. “The way you said it, it’s like you were ashamed of it. Who cares if they think I’m gay? It’s not a bad thing to be gay!”
“Wait, you- you’re gay?”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m gay or not,” I said, evading the question. I wasn’t entirely ready to have that conversation with her yet. “The point is, you don’t get to tell people what I am, and… and…”
I couldn’t help myself. I was crying again. I’d let my guard down, and because of that, I’d been hurt.
Ignorance is one thing. I can deal with people not understanding me, or hating me, or being disgusted or frightened. I’ve been dealing with it ever since I realised what I am. When it’s from someone you care about, someone you actually want to be around, to be close to, that’s when it gets hard. That’s when I can’t deal with it.
“You’re always eating lunch alone,” she said, her voice soft and gentle. “I never see you with friends. You don’t care about what people say about you… because they’ve already said it all, right? I’m… I’m so sorry.”
“I told you not to worry about me, didn’t I?”
We shared another extended silence, neither of us looking at each other. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Like it or not, I’d more or less just come out to her. If she wasn’t comfortable with me anymore…
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Probably wouldn’t be the last, either. It would suck, but I’d get over it. Eventually.
“I guess us outcasts need to stick together,” she said eventually. “I’m sorry about how I acted before. And I promise not to underestimate you again. You’re a lot tougher than you look.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded. She smiled magnanimously.
“Well, you look kind of delicate,” she said.
“Like a princess!” she hastily clarified. “I meant it as a compliment. Trust me, I’d kill for your looks.”
I found myself blushing profusely, and trying my hardest not to show her. I turned my head away as quickly as I could.
“Is that why you led me out here, where nobody can see?” I said accusingly. She just laughed.
* * *
After that, Phoebe and I spent a lot of time together. Every morning on the bus, we sat together, chatting about the day ahead. We ate lunch together, did homework together, took the bus home together.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask her to go shopping with me. It wasn’t exactly a date, but I still thought that it would be fun. Okay, so maybe I was thinking of ways I could turn it into more than just shopping, but mostly I was just happy to spend time with her.
I spent the better part of two hours just picking an outfit, my bedroom floor strewn with clothes that hadn’t made the cut. I spent twice as long as usual doing my makeup, and ran to catch the bus that would take me to the shopping centre.
As it happened, I was half an hour early. Still better than being late, as far as I was concerned. I decided to treat myself to a cold drink while I waited for her, and wandered into a café that I knew was good.
To my surprise, Phoebe was already there, sitting alone at a table, staring blankly out the window. Had she arrived even earlier than me?
Well, it would be silly not to go sit with her, right? We did have plans, after all. I made my way over to her table, and sat down opposite her, causing her to jump in surprise.
“Isla! Looks like you got here early too, heh…”
“Not as early as you, apparently,” I said, smirking. I couldn’t help but feel good about her early arrival. That had to mean something, right?
“I, uh, got my times mixed up,” she said, blushing a little. Dammit, she was too cute. Totally unfair.
We sat and chatted for a bit before getting up to start our shopping spree. I didn’t really get a good look at her outfit until she stood up.
She was wearing tight fitted jeans, knee-high boots, a tight t-shirt and a very feminine blazer. It was so perfectly her I just wanted to take a picture and roll around with it. Or, you know, something less weird.
We spent the next few hours wandering from store to store, trying things on that caught our fancy, but neither of us spent any money. I already knew that Phoebe was too busy to have a job, and I was just too lazy for one. Even without buying anything though, it was a lot of fun.
It occurred to me that outside of school, Phoebe didn’t stand out at all. Well, she stood out as a tall, beautiful woman, but nothing more. Nothing about the way she dressed made people uncomfortable or had them asking questions.
Of course, without wearing my sexuality on my sleeve, nobody knew anything about me, either. The two of us could just walk around without anyone noticing or caring. It felt surprisingly relaxing, and I didn’t want the day to end.
We passed a formalwear store, and I couldn’t help but to peek in. I was curious, after all. Suddenly, an idea occurred to me.
“Hey Phoebe, your year’s formal is being held early this year, right?”
“It’s about a month and a half off now,” she said, glancing at the store. “They brought it forward so that we can all focus on exams at the end of the year.”
The idea continued to form. I saw an opportunity, and I had to pounce on it.
“W-were you planning on going?” I asked, trying to sound only vaguely interested.
“Well, I wasn’t planning on it,” Phoebe said, looking away. That was perfect! If she wasn’t planning on going, there wasn’t anyone she would be going with. If I could convince her to go for my sake…
“Oh, really? How come?”
“I thought finding someone to go with would be a pain,” she said, and I felt my heart soar. This was almost too easy! Until, “But then someone actually did ask me, so I think I am going to go with him. Oh, his name is Rex. I think you’d probably like him.”
My heart sank. She was already going? With a boy? Of course, I should have expected as much. She was incredibly attractive, so of course someone would ask her, and why wouldn’t she say yes?
We’d deliberately avoided the topic of her sexual orientation. She didn’t seem to want to talk about it, which should have been a pretty clear sign. She already knew that I was gay, so it was pretty unlikely she’d want to hide it if she was too, not from me. Honestly it was pretty unlikely that she would have turned out to be gay, but I really wanted her to be, so I did my best to ignore the statistics.
I hated myself for letting things get this far. Why had I let myself get so invested in someone I didn’t even have a reasonable chance of being liked by? Why was I so stupid?
“Isla? Are you okay?”
I looked up at her, concern all over her perfect face. I didn’t even want to imagine how I looked.
“Actually, I don’t feel so good,” I told her, and I wasn’t technically lying. I did feel nauseous and my entire body ached from tension. “I think maybe I might be done for today.”
Yeah, real subtle, Isla. Like she’s not going to put those pieces together.
I could feel my legs shaking, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand much longer. There was a seat nearby, and Phoebe led me over to it, sitting me down and pressing her hand against my forehead.
“You do feel pretty warm,” she said. “Have you been feeling like this all day? You really shouldn’t have pushed yourself, you know.”
I gritted my teeth. Yeah, I knew. I had been pushing myself; ignoring the obvious signs, letting myself get deeper and deeper into this ridiculous fantasy. All I’d had to do was ask her, and this could have been over weeks ago.
“I’m fine,” I said, pushing her hand away. “I think I’m just gonna go home. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Are you gonna be okay to get home by yourself?” she asked, obviously worried. Don’t waste your pity on me, I thought bitterly.
“I’ll be fine,” I said coldly.
She didn’t say anything else as I struggled to get to my feet, and turned my back on her. Slowly, my footsteps uneven, I made my way back to the bus stop, forcing myself not to look back. I just wanted that to be the last time I saw her.
* * *
I didn’t go to school the next day. I claimed illness, and in a way, it was true. I was a wreck; hardly sleeping or eating, barely able to concentrate, my hands trembled whenever I tried to do anything.
Actually, I didn’t go to school again until Thursday. I wasn’t feeling a whole lot better by then, but at least it felt like I could stand without falling over.
I hadn’t heard from Phoebe the whole time I was home, so it was no surprise when she chose to sit somewhere else on the bus. She didn’t even look at me.
It’s for the best, I told myself, doing my best not to look at her either. At least it was finally over. It hurt, but I’d be able to move on once the pain went away.
Despite thinking that, I couldn’t help myself. I followed her when she got off the bus, wondering if she’d go spend time with Rex, her new boyfriend. I shouldn’t have cared, but I did, and there was nothing I could do about that. I had to know.
So I followed her, and she did meet up with a guy. They smiled when they saw each other, and hugged when they got close. So that was Rex, huh?
He was a little bit taller than she was, with bright blue eyes, dark brown hair and a smattering of freckles across his face. He was thin and wiry, and seemed to have a generally cheerful demeanour. In other words, he was nothing like me. Gender aside, I wasn’t even close to her type if that’s what she liked.
I left before they spotted me, but my mind was occupied with thoughts of Rex. Something about him seemed off, something in the way he looked at Phoebe. I told myself to just let it go, but I’ve never been good at listening to myself. Something was up with him, and I was determined to find out what. A plan began to formulate.
The next day, after school, I waited by the front gate. It didn’t take long for Rex to show up, a carefree look on his face. I followed him to his bus stop, and when the bus came, I boarded it behind him, taking a seat that would let me watch him without him noticing. I was an old hand at that.
He got off the bus when it reached a shopping centre, a different one to the place Phoebe and I had spent Sunday together. This one was smaller, and a little dirtier.
I followed him to the food court, still not sure what I was expecting to find. A drug deal? Another girlfriend? A gang meeting? Something that would prove to Phoebe he was no good for her.
“Wait, what am I doing?” I muttered to myself, shaking my head. What was this going to achieve?
What did I really think was going to happen? That I would prove to Phoebe that there was something wrong with Rex, and she would suddenly confess her love for me? All I would manage to do would be to hurt her. It wouldn’t change a thing about our relationship or how she felt about me.
Not to mention, I really didn’t have any reason to suspect Rex of anything. I had a bad feeling about him? What a load of garbage. I just didn’t like seeing him with the girl I’d had a crush on for four years.
I was just about to give up and go home when I saw the person he was waiting for. It was another boy from our school, I could tell form his uniform. He must have been in Phoebe and Rex’s year level, but I didn’t recognise him at all.
Why had they come here separately? They’d both clearly come from the same place, why not just take the bus together? It was almost like they were meeting in secret…
Rex’s eyes lit up when the other guy showed up, and they embraced one another gleefully. Then, to my astonishment, they kissed.
Immediately, I realised what I’d felt when I saw him hugging Phoebe. It was the same expression I had when I interacted with a guy; complete sexual disinterest. Phoebe’s boyfriend was gay.
Did she know? Was he just leading her on, pretending to be straight because he was in high school? Suddenly, there was a fire in my belly, and I knew I had to confront him.
Neither of them noticed me approach them until I cleared my throat, loudly. They jumped apart, both of them blushing profusely, and both looking more than a little worried.
“Are you Rex?” I demanded, sounding a lot tougher than I usually felt.
“Y-yeah,” he said, looking around to see if anyone else had caught them in the act. “Um, who-“
“Please don’t tell anyone!” the other boy blurted out, his soft brown eyes pleading with me. I ignored him.
“You’re with Phoebe,” I accused Rex.
“With…? No, I’m not. Is this because I invited her to the formal?” He sounded so sincere, not at all what I was expecting.
“Why did you invite her?” I asked. “Does she know you’re gay?”
“I felt bad for her,” he said. “She wasn’t going to go, which is such a shame, because she’s so pretty, and a really good person. So I asked her to go with me, because I couldn’t invite the person I really want to be with.”
“So what, you just figured she’d be the next best thing?”
“What? No! We have a few classes together, and we were talking about the formal. She asked me if I was going with my boyfriend, and I nearly had a heart attack. When I told her that was impossible, she suggested asking a girl who wouldn’t care if I spent the night with someone else, so I asked her, and she said yes.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting. She was just helping out a friend? A gay friend, at that. Had I overreacted? It still didn’t mean anything, but…
“I’ve been trying to do the same thing,” Rex’s boyfriend said, wrapping his arm around Rex’s. “I think Rex found the only beard in our year level, though.” Both of them laughed at that.
“You’re Isla, aren’t you?” Rex asked, surprising me.
“You know who I am?”
“Phoebe talks about you all the time,” Rex said, beaming. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Oh, this is my boyfriend, Adam.”
Phoebe… talked about me? I could feel my face turning red, and I felt overcome with the need to know what it was that she said about me.
“H-hey,” I said, suddenly embarrassed.
“Can I ask you something?” Rex asked, leaning in closer as if somebody might overhear us. “I won’t tell, I promise. Are you in love with Phoebe?”
The question hit me like a tonne of bricks. In love? Where did that come from? I mean, I obviously had a crush on her, but…
“D-did Phoebe tell you that?” I asked, my face burning up. I wasn’t sure if I felt more embarrassed or angry. What right did she have to make that assumption? Or worse, to tell a complete stranger? Rex laughed.
“God no,” he said. “But the way she talks about you, it seems like that’s what’s going on. I asked her about it, but she says that if you were interested in her, you’d have asked her out by now. I told her to just ask you out, but she said that it’s impossible.”
My head was spinning. Nothing was the way that I thought it was. Had I been wrong about everything? What was I supposed to do?
“Oh my God, I just had the perfect idea,” Rex said suddenly. He leaned over and whispered in Adam’s ear, and Adam’s eyes lit up and he nodded excitedly. “How would you like to come to our formal?”
“Will you come with me to the formal?” Adam asked, looking a little nervous.
“We won’t say a word to Phoebe,” Rex promised me. “It’ll be a complete surprise. Ah, it’ll be so romantic!”
Despite everything, I could feel myself letting hope slip back into my heart. I couldn’t help but think that maybe there was still a chance. Maybe I’d given up just a little too soon.
Of course, if I was wrong, if Rex and Adam were wrong, I’d just be setting myself up for an even more painful rejection. I wasn’t sure I could go through that again so soon. It would probably be safer to just forget about her, and let myself move on.
Thoughts of Phoebe rushed through my head. The beautiful girl I’d watched for years. The gentle girl who looked after me when I was alone. The fierce girl who didn’t hesitate to defend me, even when she probably should have.
The girl who left such a painful hole in my heart when we parted ways. Yes, it would definitely be safer not to think about her anymore, not to love her anymore. If only human hearts were that easy to control.
“I-I’ll go,” I said. “But if this blows up in my face…”
“If it blows up in your face, at least you won’t have to cry alone,” Rex said. “But it’s not going to blow up, so don’t worry about it! Right now, we need to get you a dress.”
* * *
The time between that day and the formal passed by like some kind of dream. Phoebe and I continued to ignore one another, but every so often I would catch her watching me, a funny sort of expression on her face.
There were so many times that I wanted to approach her, to just tell her everything. I wanted to rush up to her and spill my guts, to hold her hand and look her in the eye and tell her that I wanted to be with her. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t work up the nerve.
Then the day of the formal finally arrived, and I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep the night before. Adam came to pick me up, and my parents were so thrilled I was going out with a boy they practically pushed me out the door.
“You nervous?” he asked me as we were driving to the venue.
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“I was,” he said, a little bashfully.
“With Rex, you mean?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We weren’t even friends at first. He works at a bookstore, and I didn’t even realise it was him until he was packing my very gay selection of books into a bag for me. I nearly died, but he didn’t say anything about it.
“The next day, he invited me to eat lunch with him and his friends, and I thought they were all going to beat the living daylight out of me, so I didn’t go. He came to find me later, and apologised for making me uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to think, but he kept being nice to me, and he didn’t tell anyone. Eventually I worked up the nerve, waited until he got off work, and asked him out. He kissed me right then and there, and it was probably the happiest moment of my life.”
“Wow. That’s quite a story,” I said.
“Ah, sorry. There aren’t a lot of people I can share it with, but it still makes me really happy, so I just kind of blurted it out.”
We drove in silence for a while, neither of us really knowing what to say. It wasn’t necessarily awkward, just a little strange. Adam seemed happy, though.
“Thanks for coming with me,” he said, smiling cheerfully at me whilst keeping his eyes on the road ahead.
“Aren’t you the one doing me a favour?”
“I guess it’s win-win,” he said happily.
“What’s it like?” I asked. “Being closeted, I mean. Isn’t it hard?”
“It’s… weird,” he said. “It’s like, I really, really want to just stand up and shout to everybody that I love Rex, but I’m also completely terrified of anybody ever finding out. My family don’t even know, and they keep asking me about girls. I hate not being able to tell them, but at the same time, it’s kind of nice, because I know that what Rex and I have is for us, and we don’t have to share it with anybody else, you know? Maybe that’s weird.”
He laughed, but I understood what he was saying. I’d never even thought about coming out, I’d just always been open about it. Considering how that had turned out for me, maybe hiding that side of me would have been easier, but I couldn’t stand the idea of keeping that a secret like there was something wrong with it.
We arrived at the venue and walked through the front doors arm in arm. Nobody really paid much attention to us, which I was very grateful for. None of them really knew me, and I guess Adam wasn’t popular enough to warrant a whole lot of extra attention.
I caught sight of Phoebe and Rex on the other side of the room, and felt myself actually get a little weak in the knees. I hadn’t expected to be quite so nervous. Luckily Adam was ready, and helped support my weight.
Phoebe looked even more amazing than I’d expected. She was wearing a black suit with a white shirt and no tie, her hair an elegant mess and her makeup looking like something out of a photo shoot. She had a carefree expression on her face, despite the way people around her were looking at her.
“You ready?” Adam asked, leaning down a bit to whisper in my ear.
“As I’m ever gonna be,” I whispered back.
The two of us made our way across the room, hidden by the crowd until we were right on top of them. Rex saw us first, beaming like the sun when he did. Phoebe’s reaction wasn’t quite so enthusiastic.
When she saw me, her eyes grew wide, and she pulled back a bit, a pained expression on her face. No, that expression wasn’t pain. It was fear.
“Wh-what is she doing here?” she said, trembling slightly.
I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. The look on her face, the tone of her voice… I was the last person she’d wanted to see tonight.
My eyes began to water, and I could feel the warm tears rolling down my cheeks. I really had done it again. How could I have let myself be so stupid? Why was it so easy to hurt me?
We stood there staring at one another for what felt like the longest time. Rex and Adam didn’t say anything, just watched us, looking confused and a little guilty.
I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t bare her eyes boring into me, full of fear and anger and hurt. My mind went blank, and all I could do was turn away, and run.
* * *
The breeze out on the balcony was cold almost to the point of being painful, but I didn’t care. Anything was better than being inside, surrounded by so many people it made my head hurt. Anything was better than being around her.
“There you are,” an unwelcome voice said from behind me. Her voice.
“Not a lot of places to hide in a ballroom,” I said, wiping the tears from my face without turning around to face her.
“I guess I was kind of a dick back there, huh?”
Yes, you were, I wanted to say. I wanted to turn around and scream at her until I was blue in the face, but that wouldn’t have been fair. It wasn’t her fault. It was all me.
“No, you were just surprised,” I said, turning around to face her. “And who could blame you? I’m practically stalking you.”
“Surprised is definitely one of the words that come to mind. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Being an idiot,” I said, averting my eyes.
“So you really did come here for me, then,” she said, causing me to turn a bright shade of red.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I just got a little carried away.” I wasn’t thinking, that was the problem. It was more than a little carried away, too.
Phoebe walked over to the edge of the balcony, resting her hands on the rail. She looked up at the moon, just like I’d been doing a few minutes earlier.
“Why me?” she asked.
“I mean, you’re so pretty. You could have any girl you wanted. Why are you wasting time with me?”
“Wasting…” the words hit me like a truck without breaks. My hand squeezed the balcony rail behind me as my chest struggled to breath through the dagger that it felt like had gotten stuck there.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just really admire you. You’re beautiful, and cool, and brave, and…”
“You really think that?” she asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
“You think I’d make this much of an ass of myself for someone I didn’t think that about?”
“Wow,” she said.
I felt sick. My head was aching, my stomach was cramped and my legs felt like lead. All I wanted to do was to go home, crawl into bed and not come out for days. I couldn’t just leave things like this, though.
“Anyway, I’m sorry,” I said, forcing myself to breathe normally.
“About surprising me? No, I’m glad you’re here. I was just-“
“I don’t mean that,” I said, interrupting her. I couldn’t stand to listen to her pretending that everything was okay.
“I…” I took a deep breath. “I don’t think I can be your friend anymore. It’s too hard, feeling this way about you, and knowing there’s no chance we can be together.”
“Oh,” she said, looking down at her feet. Then she looked back up at me, a confused expression on her face. “Wait, what do you mean there’s no chance?”
“You told Rex it would be impossible for you to be with me,” I told her. Well, I’d said this much. Might as well rip the bandaid all the way off. “Because you’re straight, right?”
She nodded slowly, like she was processing everything I’d said.
“Straight… yeah, I guess I am. I’ve never really thought about women that way.”
“I figured,” I said, my shoulders slumping a little. “I should have just asked you, but I think I already knew the answer. I just didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to keep playing out my fantasy for as long as I could.”
That was it, then. I’d said everything I needed to say, and now so had she. I could feel the tears bubbling up again, and I turned away so she wouldn’t see.
“That’s not why I said it would be impossible, though,” she said softly.
“To be honest… ever since I found out that you’re a lesbian, I have thought about us…. you know, together. I-I do think about you in that way.”
What? What was this feeling rushing through me? It was like a wave of heat, and all of a sudden, all of my nerves were on fire. I turned back to face her.
“What? Then, why?”
“Like you said, I’m straight,” she said. “Or at least, I think I am. Maybe I’m not. But you… you know who you are. And I just, I couldn’t use you in that way, just to found out if I’m…”
“I’m sorry. I feel so selfish, telling you all of this now. I just wanted to explain, before you said goodbye.”
I forced myself to breathe slowly, to try and slow down the chaos that was raging inside my head. I was slowly starting to feel like maybe I understood the feelings that we both had.
“So that’s really the way you feel?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. It was completely inappropriate, and I could tell from her face she didn’t understand at all, but all of a sudden, everything just seemed so different.
“Why are you sorry? Doesn’t that sound perfect to you?”
“Perfect?” she asked. “How?”
“How? Phoebe, I’m attracted to you, and I like spending time with you. I don’t want to marry you. I don’t even know if I’d like dating you. I just want to try it, because I want to like it. So in a way, we’re really in the same boat here.”
“But if I don’t… if I’m not…”
“Who cares about ‘if’? What if you fall in love with me, but I realise you’re actually no good to date? What’s the point of letting ‘if’ stop you from going after something you want?”
There it was again. That reckless hope that had managed to get me this far. That eager hope that made it so easy for me to get hurt, but just as easy for me to move past that pain, and just try again.
“You really feel that way?”
“Of course I do,” I told her, reaching out to her. Her hand was resting on the rail, and I rested mine gently on top of it. The moment when our skin touched felt almost electric.
Her back was to the rail, and I was standing in front of her, leaning in slightly. Our chests were close together, both visibly rising and falling as we struggled to control our breathing. Her face was redder than I’d ever seen it.
“Th-then, can I… um…” she tried to talk, but for once, her nerves got the better of her. It was a cute side of her that I hadn’t seen before.
I couldn’t help myself. I leaned in just a little further, standing on my toes to bring my lips up to hers, and kissed her.
I wasn’t prepared for how soft her lips felt, or the feeling of her warm breath on my face. My heart was pounding in my chest as I pulled away, scared that our first kiss might also be our last.
“Ah… that was…”
“It’s okay if you didn’t like it,” I said softly, lying to myself as much as her. “I-“
I felt her hand on the back of my head, pulling my in closer, and our lips connected once again. Our chests pressed up against each other, and I wrapped my hands around her waist, keeping her close to me. Her hands linked behind my neck, her touch gentle but urgent.
Then she pulled away, pushing me back since her back was already up against the rail. There was a worried, frantic look in her eyes. I tried to fight the sinking feeling in my stomach.
“That was a bad idea,” she declared, trying to control her breathing.
“Y-yeah, I kind of figured,” I said. “Um, don’t worry about me. You should go enjoy your formal.“
“Eh? What are you talking about?”
“I told you, it’s okay for you not to like it,” I said, trying to hold back the tears.
Phoebe took a step into me, her hand resting on my shoulder. Gently, she turned me around, towards the glass doors that led back into the ballroom. Several pairs of eyes were watching us curiously.
“I meant, we shouldn’t be doing that where everybody can see,” she whispered softly in my ear. “So let’s go somewhere they can’t, because I definitely liked that.”
I felt her hand wrap around mine, squeezing as our fingers closed together. Hand in hand, we walked back into the ballroom, ignoring everybody else.
We didn’t stay. The two of us kept walking right out the front door, not caring where we went next, as long as we could go there together.