It took longer for Keith to go to sleep than it had the night before. He stayed so close to me, rarely letting me move more than a step away from him without closing the gap between us with his own stride. More often than not, one of his hands would rest on some part of my body, as though to pull me back if he felt I was straying too far away.
It was frightening to me, how he seemed to sense without me saying a word that I did intend to leave him, later on in the night. Did he really know, somehow, or was he just touchier and more possessive of me than usual tonight? Was it true, as he had told me more than once before, that he knew me so well he could guess my thoughts and actions before I went through with them? Had something in my face, my voice, my body language, given me away, betraying me before I could even do anything he would see as betrayal against him?
What if a part of me really didn't even want to leave Keith tonight? What if a small, scared part of me was looking for ways to be caught, because that part of me still believed Keith was right, and everything I wanted to do with Jolene, everything I felt for her, was wrong? Could he sense something conflicted in me that would hold me back, keep me tied to him?
I wanted to blurt out all my fears, all the anxieties and dread filling up all my thoughts until I felt almost paralyzed with them. But years of pushing them down, putting myself and all I really wanted aside, meant that I could get through, somehow, even if I wasn't sure how I managed at all. So the evening passed, and eventually, to my own relief, Keith passed out on the couch, snoring loudly. It had taken a couple of hand jobs and more than a few beers to make it happen, but it happened, all the same.
It was later than the night before when I finally was able to retreat to the bathroom, brushing my teeth quickly and washing my face and hands. I didn't want to touch Jolene with anything that Keith had touched first. I had never changed into pajamas for the night, so when I made my way into my bedroom, I was still wearing the long, baggy skirt and long sleeved cotton t-shirt that I had worn throughout the day. I ran my hands through my hair nervously, freeing it out of its braid just before I took a second post it note and attached it to the window. Peering out through the clear pane, I squinted, hoping to see Jolene standing somewhere near, waiting for me. My heart thudded in my chest, steady but hard, and it felt like it had moved up higher than it was supposed to be, almost enough to choke up my throat. What if she had given up on me and left?
But it wasn't more than a few minutes later until I heard the soft rustle of leaves, the faint cracking of a broken stick, and then Jolene emerged, lifting a hand to greet me in a casual wave. She stayed a distance back from the window, her head tilted up to see me as she smiled, rocking back playfully on her heels. She was wearing a fresh shirt but the same worn jeans, and for the first time I wondered how she managed to clothe herself, how she kept herself somewhat clean. Did she switch a couple of shirts back and forth, washing them in laundromats or public bodies of water? Did she steal when she needed new things, or look for cheap bargains? Did she wash up in public restrooms, or did she sometimes have enough money to rent a motel room and use their bathroom?
But none of that was important, none of it really mattered, not when Jolene was there now, not when she had waited for me, just like she had promised. I smiled back at her, feeling the anxiety drain out of me so fully that my body felt light with its vanishing weight. I waved back, then pushed open the bedroom window.
"I was wondering if we've have our time together tonight," Jolene commented once the window was open, and I glowed at the way she had said the words. Our time…like coming to see me was something special to her, something private between us. Something…well, something ours.
"Daddy stayed up longer," I said, my words coming out breathless, like I had just ran across a large field or lifted something much heavier than just a window. "I had to wait. Sorry for making you wait too."
"Oh, you're worth the wait, any time," Jolene told me, and I ducked my head to hide my smile getting even bigger. No one but my father had ever said anything like that to me before. No one had ever been patient enough to do things on my own time.
"I got a job today," Jolene told me, nonchalant in her tone. "Some little café. Looks like they're breaking every health code in the book, and the food sucks, but money is money, and I got tips for the day to get me by. Plus I'll always have food, even if I'm not sure that's such a good thing in that place, if I haven't made it with my own hands."
I smiled, breathing out my congratulations to her, but Jolene looked at me funny, her brow knitting up.
"What's the matter, Zelda? Don't you want to come out tonight?"
"What?" I blinked, genuinely startled by the question. "Yes, of course I do, yes!"
I saw Jolene's shoulders relax then, her mouth curving up into a relieved smile. I hadn't realized until then that she was starting to look nervous too.
"Well, come on, then. What are you waiting for?"
She reached a hand up to me, taking hold of my forearms, and helped me out through the window, staying close to steady me as I awkwardly slipped through. Once my feet were secure on the ground, she took a step back, but kept her hands on my elbows, looking at me closely.
"Are you sure you're okay, Zelda? Is it something with your father?"
I didn't know how she could tell, just from a look. Was she like I had feared at times my father was, able to read me so easily in a glance? And if she could, what did that mean for me, what did that say about her place in my life?
"Yeah," I told her softly, reluctant. I didn't want any thoughts of Keith to spoil our time together. I didn't want to have to talk about him at all, but if Jolene asked, if she wanted to know, then I couldn't have said no to her.
But she didn't ask. Instead she pushed her lips together tightly, a hard look coming into her eyes just for a few moments, and she shook her head, putting a finger gently against my lips.
"Let's not talk about him," she said gently. "He doesn't matter out here. Leave him behind, just for tonight, and focus on us."
That was all I wanted, all I had hoped for, and so I followed her all too willingly, letting her slip her arm into mine and lead me away once more, back into the clearing that somehow already seemed our own.
Shrugging the weathered backpack off of her shoulders, Jolene used it as a pillow of sorts as she leaned back onto it, patting the joining crook of her shoulder and arm as a resting place for my head. I lay down slowly, careful not to put too much weight on her, and for a few moments we were both silent, listening to the noises of the night around us. When Jolene broke the silence, her words were soft and careful, barely enough to stir sound into the air.
"I want you to be honest with me, Zelda, and I won't be angry, no matter what you say. Did I scare you, the other night? Was it too much for you, or too fast? Because if you're not ready- for anything, ever- then I don't want to push you. I want you to feel safe with me."
It had never occurred to me that Jolene could have doubts, that Jolene could be scared, too. What did she have to worry about, with her beauty and her bravery? How could she doubt that I would want her, that anyone would? How could she not see that she was the only thing in this world that made me start to hope?
"No, no," I said quickly, the words rushed but intent. I hoped she could hear the sincerity I was feeling, the desire for her to believe me. "No, I wasn't scared, Jolene, I swear. I was…I was surprised. I never…nothing ever felt like this for me before."
She watched me, seeming to turn my words over in her mind. "How was it that you felt?"
I thought about it, searching for words to label what seemed too big to really describe. I knew what I said would not be really accurate, not all the way, but I tried to help her understand.
"I felt…excited," I said softly, a flush coming over my cheeks. It was almost embarrassing, putting words out there to tell her how I felt. It seemed too much, almost a shame against me, but I fought my instinct to retreat from the words and kept talking. "I felt good. I wanted…I wanted more."
I paused, my heart quickening its beats, and my next words came out fast, almost pushed together. "I felt safe. I felt like you could see me, really see."
Jolene's eyes looked soft, and something about how she held her body relaxed. She reached a hand out to smooth back my hair, letting it linger against my cheek.
"I just wanted to be sure we were on the same page," she said quietly. "I wanted…I want you to know that I care about you, Zelda. Whether you were into it or not, if you wanted anything more or not, I still cared, and I wouldn't hold anything against you. Not you."
She kept her hand there, cool and gentle against my heated face. She seemed to be waiting for me to respond, but I could only think of one thing to say. I knew even before I'd finished saying it that it was kind of a dumb question, but I still felt like I had to ask.
"So…you're gay, then? Or, um, a lesbian?"
But she didn't seem offended, or like she thought I was stupid for asking. She just raised an eyebrow, giving a chuckle, like I'd told her some kind of joke. I guess maybe she did think I was a little slow, or at least pretty naïve. Maybe she was right about that.
"I don't really do labels, Zelda. I don't believe in putting people into boxes, especially myself. I'm Jolene Murphy, not lesbian or gay or bisexual or straight. You know? And you're Zelda Lester, at least with me, but you could be Zelda any time you wanted, if you would let yourself."
She paused, waiting for me to meet her eyes. I thought I could understand what she was saying, and I liked the idea behind of it, even if I didn't think I could say the same about me. What would it be like, to be Jolene's Zelda instead of Keith's Danielle, and sometimes his Melissa too? What would it be like to be me all on my own, not belonging to anyone and not having to fit up with anyone's idea of how I should be? It sounded scary and incredible all at once, hard for me to even imagine.
"I don't give myself labels, but I know that I like you," Jolene went on. "I know that I think you're sweet and beautiful, and stronger than you give yourself credit for. That's all that matters to me, not some invented word to slap on you that only matters to people who don't matter. Do you think the same things of me?"
"Yes," I said quickly, and it was true, so very true. I did think she was sweet and beautiful and strong, and so much more. Every good thing you could say about someone, I thought was true of Jolene. What I didn't understand was how someone who was all these things could really see the same in someone like me.
"Did you like me touching you, kissing you?" Jolene persisted, and again I nodded, telling her yes. "Then that's what's really important," she concluded. "That should matter so much more than a word."
It made sense, the way she saw things. Words held so much power, could bring so much hurt and confusion and shame. It was the words Keith had put to me all my life that held me down even more than any of the ways he had touched. It was his words that kept me feeling helpless and trapped, unable to think it could even be possible for my life to be better or different or more.
All his life he had given me the very labels that Jolene rejected. He had told me that I was foolish and silly, that I couldn't take care of myself, that I needed him to be able to get by. He told me that I wasn't strong enough to protect myself, that without him, I would be nothing. He told me that I was my mother, all over again, and he made me feel that without him there to watch over me, I couldn't do anything else but relive my mother's life, right down to its terrible end. He put on me everything he needed me to be, but he never asked me who I was to myself.
For the first time, someone was telling me different, seeing me as something and someone other than the dead woman's daughter or the sheriff's girl. For the first time, I was being seen for me, being asked to decide for myself who that was.
She was right. Jolene was right, and when I smiled back at her, breathing out a soft "yes," Jolene's eyes seemed brighter than the moon and stars. Turning my face towards hers, she leaned in, her lips meeting mine. Soft at first, barely more than brushing my skin, but then she deepened the kiss, her jaw muscles working with the intensity and feeling behind it. I kissed her back, some part of me amazed at how right and automatic it seemed, that with this, I didn't freeze up, didn't let myself fall back somewhere in my mind so I could tune out and let the other person lead. It wasn't like the times with Keith, it wasn't like the one rushed experiment with a boy in the gym in the eleventh grade, where I wanted to get it over with as soon as it began. With Jolene, I wanted more and more, faster and harder, every part of her near and becoming part of me. With Jolene, I didn't want the night to ever end.
She used a hand to press me carefully on my back, handling me so gently, as if she thought her fingertips could hurt me with too quick of a touch. As I leaned back on one elbow, half propped up, the other arm loose around her waist, Jolene covered her body with mine, lying leg to leg and chest to chest against me, her body nearly the same length as my own. I would guess from looking at her that she was maybe ten or fifteen pounds heavier than me, mostly in the hips and boobs, but somehow she felt lighter than I would have thought, and my breathing, fast as it was, didn't feel scary or choked. She kept kissing me, my lips, my face, my neck, and as one of her hands stroked over my side, I let myself slip my hand just an inch beneath hers, touching the bare skin of her back.
Her hand roamed over my stomach, making me giggle, ticklish and kind of giddy, and then she cupped my left breast, meeting my eyes to silently ask my permission. I breathed out, giving her a smile that probably looked as dopey and intoxicated as I felt, and the next thing I knew she was rubbing me, outside, then inside my bra. I felt my hips buck up without me really meaning to, a soft cry coming from my throat, and as Jolene's hand drifted down, I almost didn't realize how close it had come to the waistband of my pants.
When her fingers stroked my hipbone, tracing its curved line, and then began to trail down to follow its length, towards my crotch, my throat choked, and the muscles of my body tensed up. I didn't say anything, and I didn't push her hand away, exactly, but I did wrap my fingers around her wrist, weakly trying to stop her from going any further. It wasn't fear of her, or even her touch, that frightened me, but rather what she would think, how she would react, if her fingers came in contact with what she had not yet seen, what she would think if she discovered what she had no way to guess on her own.
Jolene stopped immediately, her hand retreating from my hip and coming to rest lightly on my stomach instead, not the bare skin, beneath my shirt, but overtop its material. She looked at me questioningly, her expression serious.
"If you don't want to go any further, we can stop," she said softly, understanding in her tone. "I won't ever push you past where you're comfortable, Zelda. I want you to feel happy, I want you to feel safe with me. I would never want to scare you or pressure you. It's okay."
I didn't want her to think that, that she had scared me, or done something wrong. It wasn't her fault, and it wasn't right to let her think that. But if I explained to her what was really going on, then what would she think of me? How could I let her see what had always been so private, a secret even my father never acknowledged?
"I'm not scared of you," I whispered, hearing the shame in my own voice. I couldn't meet her eyes; it terrified me, to think of what Jolene might see in them, to know that she was already so close to the last thing hidden of my life. "It isn't that. It's just…"
I couldn't finish the sentence. No words could have been right or enough. Jolene waited, and when I didn't try to go on, she reached out again for my chin, lifting it up to make me face her. I kept my eyes closed, but she held on, and I knew she wouldn't let go until I looked up at her. As I opened my eyes, I felt my breath come out in a shudder, and two tears spilled out before I could force them back.
"Just what, Zelda?" she asked gently, letting the tears wet her fingers without wiping them away. "I'm listening."
My answer came out small and crushed, sounding to me like it belonged to a child as young and frightened as I felt myself.
"Just…if I tell you…if you see…you won't want me anymore. You'll just…you'll want to walk away from me. And I wouldn't blame you. I would walk away from me too."
Jolene didn't release my face from her grasp, but I heard her taking in slow, measured breaths, as though she were giving herself time to calm down, or think over what she would say. When she let go of me, it was only for as long as it took for her to take my hand instead.
"There isn't anything I could see on your body that would make me say that," she said quietly. "But it sounds like whatever you are ashamed of, and afraid of me seeing, is important and needs to be made known. Not for me, but for you."
She paused again, then said a controlled edge to her voice, "Does he hit you, Zelda? Or hurt you in some other way that leaves marks behind? Because whatever he's done, that isn't your fault or your shame to cover up, and it wouldn't make me turn from you."
But it was. Out of everything, this was the one thing I could not somehow blame on Keith, the one deed that rested on me alone.
I bit down on the inside of my cheeks, gathering courage only when I tasted the faint saltiness of blood.
"It isn't him," I made myself tell her, the words coming out dry and spare. "It's me."
My hands shook as I touched the waistband of my pants, missing at first being able to take the zipper into my hands and pull down. Unbuttoning was even more difficult, and I thought about standing up, walking away without letting her see. But instead I slid the pants down to my thighs, just enough for her to see what was hidden beneath the worn material of my jeans.
I heard Jolene suck in her breath, but I didn't dare look at her face. I was still shaking. I couldn't stand to let myself see the horror and disgust I knew would be standing in her eyes. How could there be anything else, when she was looking at the ugliness of scars created by my own hand?
It had been something I discovered, almost by accident, one day, back a few years before. My razor had nicked my ankle pretty deeply when I was shaving, and I had been startled by the brightness of my own blood, by the strange, almost comforting sting of my opened skin. I had started to experiment then, letting the razor slip a little bit more often, the nicks growing longer and deeper, and before long, I had stopped even trying to tell myself it was accidental.
There were scars on my body now, some years old, some as new as a few days before, varying in length and color and stage of healing. Most of them were where I was showing Jolene now, on my hips and thighs, but there were some on my upper arms and ankles, and even one on the underside of my breast. It was nothing I had ever spoken of, or imagined that I ever would, at least not after the first few weeks had passed.
It had happened late at night, or sometimes early in the morning, once I could break away, on the nights Keith hurt me most inside. I would retreat to the bathroom, my heart pounding, knowing how little time I might have before he would break through the unlocked door and find me, razor clutched in my blood stained hand. Sometimes I even daydreamed that he would do it, that the questions would finally come. There would be screaming and drama and concern for me, maybe even tears, and maybe, just maybe, seeing what I was doing, the kind of distress that was behind my crazy actions, would be enough to make Keith change. Maybe he would finally realize how much he was hurting me, enough to make me actually go through with doing things that hurt myself even more.
But he never did come in on me, and even though I know he must have seen the marks, he never asked. I don't think he wanted to know how they came to be. Maybe he didn't care. Maybe my body didn't matter to him at all, not when it was my mother's he had so strongly in his mind.
Instead his eyes and even his hands would pass right over the raised marks, and he would ignore them. Somehow it made me feel both invisible and all too exposed to him at the same time, but now, with Jolene, I felt nothing but bare to her. I shivered, tears pressing hard against my eyes, and when she didn't speak immediately, I had to say something, anything, to try to make her understand.
"I…it felt better, for a little while. It felt like what I needed. I just…I thought maybe it would keep him away, maybe he would think it was too ugly…but he never did."
I swallowed again, my voice dropping low and shaking almost as much as my hands. "Do you…do you think it's ugly?"
I hated the question even as I spoke it out loud, but I had to hear her confirm what I knew must be true. How could she stand to look at me now, let alone want to touch me again? I was crazy, I was a freak, too much for anyone to want or like. I was too much, and not enough, all at once, and I waited for her to murmur her excuses and back away. I waited for her to leave me, scared off at last. The only person I had ever wanted near, finally understanding that I was too damaged for anyone to touch.
But instead, Jolene took a step forward, closing in the space between us. Her eyes on mine, soft, open, but intent, she reached out slowly, her fingertip coming to rest lightly against the start of the longest mark on my thigh. Still watching my face, she began to caress the rough texture of my skin, tracing the length of first one scar, then another. With light, gentle fingers, she touched each of the scars exposed, her movements showing no hesitation or disgust.
She was still there, still close, showing no signs of wanting to go. She was still there, still looking at me with something like understanding, something that looked like mercy…something that looked close to a love I could not remember ever seeing or experiencing before.
And she was touching me. She was touching my scars like they were normal, even like they were precious, a part of me that didn't take away from my worth. Like I was precious…like I had worth.
A harsh noise tore out of my throat, seeming to come from deep down inside. Tears started to pour, hot enough to burn my cheeks, but Jolene just kept stroking her hand over my scars, not bothered, not afraid. She even pressed a kiss to her fingers, then touched the each again, leaving the remnants of her lips as though it were soothing balm.
"You are more than this," she said softly, just audible over my sobs. "You are more than his twisted perception of who you should be and who you are to him. You are more than a target of rage and pain and shame. You are more, Zelda. You are so much more."