BY: Chelsea Catherine
It’s hard to feel positive in negative twenty-degree weather. In negative twenty-degree weather, car engines freeze. Batteries freeze. Wind kicks up off the ledges of buildings, swirling like hurricane eyes over snow-encrusted cars and stoplights caked with ice. People hunch in the streets with scarves over their faces, eyes watering in the wind.
My boss walks to and from the state house in this weather, along the streets in the state capital of Vermont surrounded by mountains and rivers, a quaint, colonial-feeling town that’s made of brick and Victorian-style buildings. She wears heeled boots that rise to just below her knees and a paisley dress that ties around her waist. A sunflower-colored peacoat. Just like the spikes of color in her dark hair. She doesn’t take the coat off at our office until thirty minutes after arriving—until the small heater under her desk has finally warmed her body. Then she stands and walks past my desk, and the sound of her tights rubbing together fills the room. I force myself not to look up as she passes the first time, but on the second round, I watch the stretch of the green paisley around muscle and fat.
Near the water cooler, she turns. “So, what’s going on?”
I glance away, my cheeks heating. “I’m just—”
“What are you working on?”
I swallow. My heart beats heavy in my chest like it always does when she catches me off guard. Sometimes I lisp when I try to reply. I always say words wrong. Talking on the phone in front of her is an effort. “The Op-Ed you gave me.”
“Oh, good.” She doesn’t look like she’s caught me staring; she doesn’t look mad. She never looks mad. She’s calm, sometimes forceful. Sometimes she’ll smirk in my direction, looking at me from over her shoulder. You’re cute, she said once when I managed to crack a joke. I like you.
She turns again, heading for her office, and I tell myself not to stare. It’s creepy. I’ve read that less than 4 percent of the population is LGBT. My boss is statistically straight, just like every other girl I meet. And I know from experience that although I might be cute, there’s nothing that would make her interested in me for real.
My hairdresser and I have known each other for twenty years. She paints my hair with bleach, setting tin foil along the strands, then twirls me in the chair so she can do the other side. It’s dark out, even though it’s barely five o’clock. Snow rests along the parking lot in a hardened shell, charcoal colored from dirt and tire tread.
I sit rigid-backed, blind with my glasses resting on the countertop before us. My hairdresser, while crunching tin foil around another lock, asks loudly, “So, like, what women do you find attractive in movies and stuff?”
I hesitate, glancing at the blur of a man sitting across from me, then the stylist who runs shears across his brown hair. I’ve never met either of them; I don’t know their politics or their beliefs. “I don’t know,” I lie, playing with a ring on my finger. A scar crosses my knuckle just below it, a gift from a boy I wanted to be friends with in middle school. He and I played violent games—with quarters, bottle caps, safety pins—always trying to one-up each other. I wanted his swagger. I followed him around, mimicking his posture, his walk, the way he talked to others. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
“For real?” my hairdresser asks.
Salma Hayek is my number one Hollywood crush, followed by Paget Brewster and Yara Martinez. I’ll watch any movie Kajol is in, and I’ve suffered through all seasons of American Horror Story for Sarah Paulson. Pretty much any middle-aged actress with dark hair, a gun, and an attitude will catch my eye. I don’t hesitate to fall for famous people. They’re safe. There’s no rejection in loving them; they’re untouchable anyway.
“That’s so weird,” my hairdresser says. “That you haven’t thought about it.”
I smile. People have been asking me questions like this for three years now, since I came out. At first, I jumped at the opportunity to finally discuss the people I wanted to discuss, to be open about things. But now when people ask, I smile and change the subject. I’m not even good at being gay. What could I tell them?
I’m sixteen when I travel to Peru with a group of students from the high school where my mother teaches. I’m friends with most of them—we play basketball together in the spring and summer, driving for hours to compete in tournaments and sharing milkshakes on random pit stops.
We fly in to Lima and travel to Aguas Calientes, the base of Macchu Pichu, by train. Mountains rise like daggers on all sides of us. The winding Urubamba River bends between us. The town rises sharp in four- and five-story wooden buildings, narrow and crooked. Railroad tracks run through the cobblestone streets. The hot springs is not far, and in certain moments, the smell of it carries on the wind.
One afternoon, we paddle along the river in rafts, then stop at a pebbly beach after the rapids. Everyone strips down to bathing suits except me. The sun shines, but I’m still cold. I sit on the edge of the water, dabbling my toes in it. From behind me a shriek echoes.
I turn to find my closest friend playing near the edge of the water with one of the boys. She is eighteen, confident in the way high school seniors are. She wears a small bikini that barely covers her body. I glance over at her, watching her fling water in the air.
A jolt of heat splashes through my body. I turn away. Look back. Turn away again, chalking the rush up to jealousy. When she saunters over to me, I look away, stuffing the feeling down as far as I can.
“Hey,” she says. “You look sad.”
“I’m just cold.”
I force a smile. Something inside me wants to say more, but my words are stuck in the back of my throat. She is the type of woman I’ll cry over later in life—sure, steady, but vulnerable in moments. Out of my reach. “I’m sure.”
I pick up a pebble, smooth and lavender colored with tan and white layers, and roll it between my fingers. I turn, wanting to gift her the small rock, but she’s already moving forward again, back to the water and the boy, the splash of the Urubamba River against the shore.
After work, I head home to a mid-sized one-bedroom apartment in the capital of Vermont. The roads rise and fall with the hills, crusted with frozen snow and licked by salt. My apartment rests in the corner of an renovated old barn. Large, long windows spill light onto the carpets. Wind whistles through the cracks.
This is how most of my days look: work, home, write, work out, write. Drink. The bottles stack up under my sink, brown and tan glass. Eventually, I get tired of writing and log in to Facebook. I’m three beers in, more than I’d normally drink. My fingers cruise across the keyboard. A friend got a new car, a friend got a promotion, another friend is getting married.
Finally, I wander to the profile of a woman I loved when I lived in the Florida Keys. I scroll through her feed briefly—she’s posted about a bunch of boring things I don’t care about. Nothing new. No pictures. I scroll up. She hasn’t changed her main picture. It’s still the same one she’s always had, a little blurred, grainy, but still that blonde hair, that stupid five-year-old smile, like she’s smiling for a school picture. It hurts to look at her. It hurts to think about.
I still can’t accept that I left the Keys and it didn’t matter to her. It’s hard for me to accept that I fucked up so badly with her, that when I left we were fighting. That we will never get the chance to say a proper goodbye. I still ache for her sometimes at night, or occasionally when I’m at the bar. Sometimes I think maybe if I hadn’t been such an awful drunk, maybe I would still be down there. Maybe if I didn’t love her so badly, we’d still be slumming it at the beach on Big Pine Key, chasing crabs and stingrays in the water.
After a while, I click out of her profile and finish my beer. The apartment building is quiet save for the wind. I fall asleep to the tinkle of sleet against the windowpane.
I decide life needs to be more than YouTube workouts in my living room, so that weekend I force myself to a drag show at a bar downtown. I sit with my back to the door, cold wind gusting in every time someone opens it. I buy IPAs and wave at the queens I know as they line up at the bar for drinks. The place is packed; all the seats are filled. At least ten to fifteen people stand behind me. They hover, their voices filling the space. The smell of wet wool and beer inundates. I try to ignore the feeling of panic and shame rising in my chest and sip my IPA.
From across the bar, I spot a woman with dark hair. She’s a bit older than the general crowd here and dressed in a svelte black winter coat. I sit there, just watching. For a second, I imagine her looking over at me, maybe catching my eye and asking me what I’m drinking. Maybe buying me a drink.
I wonder what she does for work. She looks like an accountant, someone held tightly together, easily unmade. These are the woman I like the best, but I’ve learned it’s better not to try with them.
I’ve learned a lot as time has passed.
When I first came out, I would’ve gone over and talked to her. When I first came out, I would’ve done just about anything for a woman’s attention. My sudden grasp on my sexuality made me feel invincible, and the invincibility lasted for about a year and a half, until my failures started stacking up, and I began wondering if I’d never figure out how to be with someone.
The woman across the bar finally gets her drink—it looks like a margarita. Then she disappears into the crowd.
There’s no window near my desk at work, so sometimes I linger at the water cooler, soaking up warmth from the rays of light that spill in through the glass. Beyond the office, the Winooski River bleeds through a thick layer of snow and ice. Most of the river is covered and frozen, except for a small branch close to the bank. A bridge rises over it, grayed from salt. The sun reflecting off the fresh powder is blinding—unbearable, almost.
So much of my life seems unbearable. The cold, the weather, the job—I mail bills and make website updates, format Excel spreadsheets and fill out member applications. I watch the clock. I’ve had this heaviness on me since the last girl I dated broke up with me, this feeling of being buried.
“Ugh,” my boss yells from her office. I turn. From where I am, I can see where she sits at her desk, the office door open, a black shirt clinging to the waist of her jeans. She looks good in jeans, but not as good as she looks in dresses. They suction to her waist, her chest. How she looks in dresses is what makes me forget how to speak, what makes me knock things over when I’m close to her. “Is it time for a drink yet?”
I smirk. Reflexively, I take a sip from my water bottle. Sometimes I’m so fond of her that I think maybe something is wrong with me. Like when she hunched over her desk one Friday, about to cry, worried about budgets and finances, and I felt this well of wanting, both for her and to make everything better. It surfaces in me now, watching the curl of her hair over her shoulder.
“Is that water in there?” She eyes me from over her shoulder, grinning. “Or something else?”
A smile threatens. “This is my good bottle,” I manage. “But if you see me with the green one . . .”
She lets loose a laugh, round and full, and the sound of it settles somewhere in my stomach. Warmth spreads through my body. I turn around, heading back to my desk with a smile. It’s always been like this for me—so easy to feel so much from one moment, so simple to feel pleasure through one interaction. But it’s been a long time since that’s happened with any regularity.
Now, I wake up in the morning excited for work. Not for the tasks and demands or the warmth of the office, but for the hope it gives me that happiness still exists, even if just in pockets and corners, small pieces I can flesh out and hold in my hands briefly before watching them fade away.
Chelsea Catherine is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her short story collection “ISABEL” was a finalist for the 2018 Katherine Ann Porter prize. Her novella, “Blindsided” won the Clay Reynolds novella competition and will be published in September of 2018.