By Noa Livernois
She’s just standing there, refusing to meet your eyes, clutching your still beating heart in her hands. Or she might as well be, considering what’s written on the piece of paper she’s actually holding. Gripping it so hard that her fingernails have torn right through it. You’d rather it were a pulpy mass of muscle and blood scooped from your chest after all; it would be less frightening. She might even enjoy the opportunity to look at it up close. She has always been fascinated by your heart and its peculiarities. You have a heart murmur, a small defect that doesn’t really affect your life at all, just changes the sound of your heartbeat. She says it sounds like the ocean, has spent hours lying with her head on your chest, listening to the tide come in. You wonder what it would sound like in her hands.
But it is, undeniably, just a single piece of paper that she’s holding, not a heart or a metaphor. Her bright green nail polish stands out so sharply against it, only a few days old but already chipped. You were the one to paint the nails on her left hand — she always has trouble holding the brush in her right, hates how sloppy it ends up looking. So you cupped her hand in yours, held it more gently than you held your baby brother the day he was born, and applied the nail polish with the precision of a surgeon.
You are in love with her. You wonder if you will ever get to hold her hand again. And the silence breaks.
“What the hell is this?” she chokes out, barely more than a whisper. You flinch as though it was shouted, and you say nothing. You know exactly what it is, what her finding it means. It’s a poem, born from a class prompt to write a letter to your past self. You decided to write to yourself on the day you realized you were gay, the same day you realized no one could ever find out. The night you cried yourself to sleep, a lifetime of lying and hiding stretched out before you like an endless sea. You were ten years old. And now, eight years later, you are still a skeleton in the closet of your own making, gathering dust.
It isn’t even a good poem, cliché and quickly written, but it’s the only one of them she has ever read. Your poems are the only place you can be honest, so you’ve kept them from her meticulously, written under a pen name to keep closed the closet door. You’ve been published in several different magazines, and she has no idea, this girl who has been given every other part of you. You were so careful, going as far as sleeping with your notebook under your mattress to keep her from seeing it. But you ripped out this one page and put it in your dorm room desk drawer, waiting to throw it out in the communal bathroom trash where it could not be traced back to you. And she went looking for a pencil. And it all went to hell.
“Hannah?” She looks up from the page for the first time, and betrayal is etched into every line of her face. Even the laugh lines you put there yourself, like Michelangelo slowly chipping away at the marble to reveal David, perfect and holy. In all the years you have known her, she has never once looked at you like this.
“It’s … it’s not what it looks like. It was just a writing exercise for a class. We were supposed to write from someone else’s point of view instead of our own. It’s fake. Please, it’s fake.” But your voice is an earthquake, and it sounds false even to you.
“No more lies,” she says through newly gritted teeth. “You owe me that, at least.”
You are in love with her — your first. You have never been in love with anyone else. And most days you would be willing to bet your life on the fact that she is in love with you too. If there is an ocean in your chest like she says then she is a siren, drawing you in again and again, inescapable. Beautiful. She is always pulling you closer; grabbing your hand when you’re walking too slow, wrapping her arm around your shoulders and cradling you against her chest, lying your head in her lap and carding her fingers through your hair. Her laugh is intoxicating, her smile addictive; you would do anything to make it appear on her face, even at your own expense.
She knows more about you than anyone else ever has, and she is kind to you. The summer before you went away to college together you lived in her home, your own too much of a warzone. She made you breakfast every morning, knew exactly how you liked your coffee. Her parents called you their second daughter, and pictures of the two of you hung on every wall.
Falling in love with her was not something you did on purpose, it just happened. Every time you slept in her bed you both started off on different sides with a wall of air between you, but you always woke up completely tangled up in each other. Falling in love with her felt just like that.
“It’s not right, Hannah. You have to know that.” The floor slides slowly out from underneath you, the room turning on its side. Without meaning to you find yourself sitting in front of your bed, looking up at her. She’s not done.
“People are going to think I’m gay now! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” She doesn’t give you any time to respond.
“Oh god, I let you sleep in my bed. And you knew the whole time, and you didn’t tell me. How could you take advantage of me like that?” Something vital inside of you splinters. She stops, furrows her blonde brow, continues.
“We can fix this. This isn’t you, Hannah, you’re just confused. What if we both pretend this never happened? You go back to being straight and everything will be fine and we can still be friends.” She pauses, looks to you for an answer. But you cannot remember how to speak, cannot even get off the floor.
“I’ll give you some time to think about it. I need to go.” She drops the piece of paper on her way out the door, crumpled into a ball in the midst of her anger. Damaged irreparably. You stay on the floor for hours, not even noticing the sun setting outside your window. It feels like minutes. It feels like years. It feels like a wave breaking against the cliffside of your sternum again and again, until a bruise begins to blossom from the inside out.
It was your heart in her hands after all.