They used to have the news on in the background on the tiny TV that went squiggly whenever you moved, while they leaned against each other on Ani's perpetually non-present roommate's bed, sometimes pretending to do their homework and sometimes not even bothering, giggling quietly as a stray strand of hair tickled someone's skin, safe and confident in the knowledge that the door was locked and no one could see; and they had the news on in the background because Meg had begun following professional football, and because it muffled the noises of the idiot downstairs and his badly-tuned guitar. But then one night someone found the mutilated body of a sixteen-year-old kid somewhere in Atlanta with a pink triangle spray-painted on his chest, and they'd stopped watching the news and kept their distance in public for a while.
But eventually one after the other they managed to pretend to forget about it, and went back to sitting suspiciously closely on the couch in the lounge, sharing homemade poutine, laughing about jokes that no one else understood. Still there were, there had to be, taboos that only happened behind that locked door. Things were different here.
They weren't ashamed of it, not per se. Meg had never cared a whit, had always said it didn't matter what people thought and she was willing to brave the world, but Ani knew better. Ani, Anandamayi Kaur Sidhu daughter of Jambhala and Chamunda, Ani with her light brown skin and expressive dark eyes that Meg found so intriguing, Ani who knew she would probably never be a member of parliament no matter how well-spoken she was and where she stood on popular issues, knew better. There were things some people just didn't want to see, and there was a difference between cowardice and prudence.
Back home they would have been stared at, probably; snickered at, maybe. But here, in America, things were different. That's just the way it was. And so they didn't hold hands in the shopping mall no matter how much they wanted to.
You could never tell who was safe and who wasn't. It was too complicated to try. So they didn't talk about it at all, with anyone. Ani tore up a diary page every day, covered in delicate spidery handwriting, sometimes eloquence that would surprise Tennyson, sometimes excoriations that would embarrass Wilde. Meg would make prank calls, say "I'm in love with a girl" and hang up. Or scratch the words in French on the door of the washroom stall. It was silly, but Ani didn't laugh, because she understood.
They had to keep it a secret on campus at least; Georgia South claimed acceptance for all, but when you got down to gritty reality, it was still Georgia South, and next to Meg's graffiti it still said "God hates fags." And some things, like a full musical scholarship, or a life free of death threats, were more important for the moment than pride.
This was never the way that Ani had wanted to live. Secret love sounded romantic in theory, but became less so when you realized it was ten parts secret to one part love, and you spent so much time covering up the strongest feeling you'd ever felt that so often you were too tired to feel it at all. There were times she could have just said 'screw it' and laid it all out for the world to see, times when she wanted so, so desperately to casually drop "my girlfriend" into a conversation, or tell funny stories about Meg's interesting birthmark. But she didn't, not since the time they'd been fighting and Meg had gone off and got drunk by herself and come out to a room full of Georgia bar-goers and returned with bruises.
Some people surely knew; Meg's next-door neighbour who tried not to sit near them, the baritone in the pink shirts who chatted with Ani in the cafeteria line, the professor who smiled knowingly whenever he saw them together. But things were different in America. The two had friends, but none close, and while Ani threw herself into student union politics and Meg practised until her fingers were sore, sometimes they locked eyes across a crowded room like that first day aeons ago in a concert hall in Vancouver and wished as one that they were back there.
Sometimes it felt like nothing was worth this.
They had survived so far. Two and a half years in for both of them, which, as Meg said wryly, almost made a master's degree to share. And they still stayed up late on Saturdays to watch Da Vinci's Inquest reruns, just to see the Telus phone booths and the British Columbia licence plates. But it was more than just a symbol, it meant home, a place where they kissed in public just because they could, and it felt so freeing. Meg sometimes wondered why they even bothered with this, here, but then she looked into Ani's eyes and knew.
Some things were worth anything.
They never did know who discovered them, but suddenly one day they were the talk of campus. People they didn't know would shake their hands and congratulate them; people they did know would avoid their eyes in the hall.
When Meg got a call from the police department that muggy, rainy day in March, she was in tears before he'd even said Ani's name.
She was alive, but barely. Found in an alley near her usual jogging route. They never did find the criminals; they'd had hoods on, and the DNA didn't match any on file.
When the baby was born, Meg wasn't there. Ani had made her promise. Georgia South didn't think the birth of her girlfriend's child was a big enough occasion to reschedule a midterm, and Ani didn't want her to throw away three and a half years' worth of work. Ani had already dropped out with her seven credits towards a political science degree; her grades had only gone downhill, even with therapy, and she wanted to raise her daughter herself.
Oh well, she'd shrugged once. It doesn't really matter. There are lots of qualified candidates. I'm better behind the scenes anyway.
Meg finished her bachelor's and wanted to come home to Ani, but they both knew she needed to get a master's if she wanted to be anything in the music world. She was accepted to SFU, and wanted to get married first, but Ani said no. She didn't want her to be tied down.
Meg adopted the little girl, but she was three before they ever got a chance to see one another for longer than a few weeks at a time.
And the absences got longer and longer until it was once a year, once every two years. Every time Meg walked in, Ani tried to smile and be excited, tried to kiss her with the desire-soaked abandon they'd felt once so many years ago, but sometimes she couldn't manage it and Meg understood and they fell asleep curled into opposite sides of the bed.
No one was really very surprised when they broke up. It was a quiet affair, sad but passionless. They kissed one last time, gently, and Meg left, and then Ani cried, really cried, for the first time since Georgia South.
The next time they saw each other was on Ani's fiftieth birthday. Her twenty-nine-year-old had planned the surprise wonderfully, with her flair for the dramatic anything but repressed, and in her rummaging through her mum's old address books had come upon a name that she had nearly forgotten.
They locked eyes at the party, and Meg, after all these years, still felt a little short of breath.
She found her way through the well-wishers and smiled sadly at the woman she'd always known she would marry.
And she reached out and laced her fingers through Ani's, and Ani didn't pull away.
For a second, her heart beat faster, her breath grew short, as if they were young again and still full of the heady excitement of new love, of passion that never ran short. For a second, she seriously considered kissing her. For a second, it almost all seemed possible again.
And then Ani's daughter passed into her peripheral vision, and her temporary amnesia dashed itself on the harsh, unrelenting cement wall of reality.
They couldn't, they wouldn't, it simply would not happen. Because it hurt too much, because it asked too much, because Ani still winced at her caresses.
Because things were different in America.