Kissing! Me! A boy! You’re mad, you’re all bloody mad!
Right after the argument Jess had thrown herself across her bed, and since then night had fallen, dinner had passed, and she’d got a crick in her neck. Beckham smiled down at her. She threw a sock at him. It landed on her face. “They’ll never let me play football again,” she muttered, hoarse, for the hundredth time.
I was at the bus stop today, but with Juliette, my friend, who is a girl. Jess batted the sock to the floor. And we weren’t kissing!
It wasn’t untrue, really. It hadn’t been kissing. They’d been falling over laughing at the bus stop and it’d been just a peck on the lips, just friendly, just a brush of Jules’ lip-gloss and a shriek of “Jesminder!” and more laughter.
“Just a friendly kiss,” Jess told Beckham. She touched her lips. They curved warm against her fingers, smiling at the memory. Jess’s face grew hot.
She didn’t see Jules for ages and the warm memory sunk from her lips to her stomach like lead, weighing her down as she got on the bus to Hamburg. “Jess!” screamed Jules, flinging her arms around her, and Jules felt the warmth between them like a rubber band and pulled back, flustered.
Jules plunked back down, suddenly cautious. She jiggled her trainer on the bus floor. “Hey.”
Jess sat, bag clenched on her lap. “Hey.”
The engine roared and the radio started. The rubber band seemed to thrum in the air between them. The team shrieked and laughed and sang along to Enrique Iglesias, You can run you can hide but you can’t escape my love.
Joe put his hand on Jess’s shoulder. She started, breath catching. “Jess,” he said, and his face was so close. “Don’t look so down. Have fun, don’t worry about your parents.”
She tried to smile. He smiled back and squeezed her shoulder, and the touch lingered and radiated along her skin as he lurched to the back of the bus.
Jules punched her arm. “Joe’s so fit.”
“Yes!” said Jess. She laughed and turned back to Jules.
Their faces were two inches apart. Jules drew back at once. The rubber band thrummed. Terraced houses flashed past.
Jules nudged Jess. “Here’s a laugh,” she said. “You know how my mum looked when I told her you were a footballer? I think she thinks we’re lesbians. Isn’t that hysterical?”
The rubber band broke. Jess laughed so hard she doubled over.
“Ever since I put up my Mia Hamm poster! Every time she meets one of my friends! She thinks football training is slang for rampant lesbian shagging session, I swear!”
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Jess gasped between giggles. Jules pounded her back. Jess giggled and giggled, throat raw from laughing, gasping and clutching her aching stomach as her laughter subsided. She gulped from her water bottle.
Jules leaned over, making her eyes wide and wild. “Lesbians,” she hissed, and Jess spit out her water and collapsed shrieking against the back of the seat.
Late October, Santa Clara. Pouring rain. Twenty seconds left in their last game; score 2-2. Jess’s cleats sunk in the mud as she pounded, parallel to Jules, toward the goal.
Jules ducked the center back and skidded on the mud. “Open!” Jess screamed as Jules fell, and Jules, mid-fall, kicked the ball to Jess. It spun on the slick grass. The sweeper charged.
But Jess beat her and slammed it toward the goal.
The ball soared, rising, raindrops shattering as it arched in the gray sky – and fell, and brushed the goalie’s fingers, and strained against the sodden net.
3-2. Santa Clara.
Jess screamed, fists thrust high. Jules screamed too, arms wide as she ran to Jess and hugged her, muddy cheek slipping against Jess’s and then their mouths brushed. “Jess! Jess!” Jules screamed, lips vibrating against Jess’s cheek, and they spun and spun and jumped and hugged.
And the rest of the team was hugging them too, all sweat-sticky rain-slick arms and legs and screaming. They lifted Jess in the air, and Jess grabbed Jules’ hand and they hoisted her up too, and Jess and Jules looked at each other and laughed and screamed until their throats were raw.
Joe called her late that night. “I saw you on TV,” he said.
Jess flopped across the bed. Her shower-wet hair snaked across her cheek. She flipped it out of the way. “Yeah?”
“Just a clip. You were beautiful out there.”
She smiled. The crickets thrummed in the hot night. “My free kicks are the stuff of legend.”
“Those are beautiful too,” he agreed.
She rolled to look at his photo on her nightstand. She touched a finger to one cheekbone; imagined his warm skin under her hand. Her tank top seemed too tight. She remembered the taste of his breath when they kissed at the airport. She touched her lips. They smiled.
“Where are you?” she said.
She closed her eyes, rolled her face in her pillow, tried to imagine him next to her. Her pillowcase smelled like the coconut shampoo Jules had lent her. She breathed and felt the heat build in her stomach.
She could hear Joe breathing softly on the other end of the line. Half their telephone calls these days were pause.
They’d always talked mostly about football.
She opened her eyes. The bright red numbers on her digital clock flipped to one o’clock. “Joe,” she said. “I’ve got to go. It’s late…”
“Right,” he said, “I wanted to talk so much – I forgot the time.” His voice blossomed in her stomach like a hot red poppy. She curled up, phone jammed to her ear. Joe. I wish you were here.
“I’ll call you some other time?” Joe said, more businesslike.
She pushed her wet hair from her face. She imagined his fingers in her hair. “I’m busy this week,” she said. “Practice, and my first big exam, and Jules and I…” Her voice dropped off. She remembered Jules’s nails against her scalp, the victory kiss.
Another long pause. He sighed. “You’ll call me?”
The hot night had already raised a light sweat on her arms. “Right,” she said.
They hung up. Jess let the phone slip from her hand to the floor. She clicked off her desk lamp and lay spread-eagled on her teal bedspread, wet hair fanned about her like a black lily, till the crickets and the smell of Jules’ shampoo lulled her asleep in the hot night.
The rest of the football (should she call it soccer?) team went home for Thanksgiving. Jess and Jules slid into a booth in the only open restaurant in walking distance, a Denny’s across from a pawnshop with a red neon sign that flashed a bloody glow on their sticky menus.
Jules got pie. Jess picked at her waffles and watched Jules eat.
“You’ll be sick,” said Jess. Her own stomach ached.
Jules wrinkled her nose and stuffed half a slice of pecan pie in her mouth. She thrust her fork into the air to summon the waitress – “A slice of key lime, please!”
The waitress bobbed her head. The neon light flashed on her plastic stick-on bindi.
“I want to try them all,” said Jules. She clanged her fork against Jess’s. “Eat. You’ve barely touched it.” Jess turned away. “Jess,” said Jules, “what’s wrong?”
Jess stabbed her waffles. “I broke up with Joe.”
“Jess! And you didn’t tell me?”
Jess twitched a limp strawberry off her waffle. It plopped on the tabletop.
“Did you think I’d be a jealous bitch about it again? Jess! You bloody twit. Joe’s all very well, but he’s across an ocean and I could have any boy I want on the Santa Clara hockey team!”
Jess giggled. Tears started in her eyes. One rolled down her cheek, and she scraped her napkin across her face.
She dropped the napkin. “You know what the worst part is?” she said. “My parents love him. He’s playing cricket with my dad and my mum calls me up and says, ‘Beti, that Joe of yours loves dal. You make such good dal, beti!’”
Jules scraped up her pie crumbs and licked her fork, and said, “Why’d you break up then? They were the only reason you weren’t dating properly.”
Jess drew her fork through the whipped cream on her plate, making careful parallel tracks. “He is across an ocean,” she said. “And four years is a long time. And…” Jules’ eyes were brown and kind and bigger than the whole room. Jess rubbed the back of her neck. And when you look at me like that, I forget he exists sometimes. “And you might leave over some hockey players for me.”
“Ah, you can have the lot of them,” said Jules. “They’re all prats.”
Jess laughed again, her fork clenched in her fist. Another tear slipped from her eye.
“Aw, Jess…” Jules took Jess’s face in her hands and kissed each of Jess’s cheeks, then looked in Jess’s eyes. “Don’t take it so hard. If it’s meant to be he’ll still be there in four years.”
Jess nodded, wrapping her hands around Jules’ wrists. Jules’ hands shifted, cradling Jess’s jaw. The air hummed. Jules’ pupils ate her irises, and Jess could see herself in Jules’ eyes.
Jess looked down. Jules sat back. Their hands tangled loosely in the middle of the table.
“Do you want the check?” the waitress asked, her American accent crisp. Jess drew her hands away from Jules’ and clasped them in her lap. Jess. There is not a world-wide Punjabi network spying on your virtue.
She might be Bengali anyway.
After they left Denny’s Jules brushed the back of her hand against Jess’s. Jess glanced at her and Jules grinned her cat-like smile. “I’ll give you a month to recover,” she said.
Jess stretched her hand to brush against Jules’. “And then?”
Jules’ nose crinkled. “I’ll set you up.” She hooked her pinky through Jess’s, and squeezed, her wicked grin blossoming. “With a hockey player.”
Jess called Tony when she got back to her dorm. “Hey? You remember when you told me you really like Beckham?”
“Just a minute,” he said. Pots crashed in the background, Tony’s mother sang scratchily along to Ka Ho Naa Ho, and then a door shut and there was silence. “What?” he said.
“Turns out I fancy Posh.”
A long pause. Jess imagined him sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, long legs stretched before him. “Jess. But you had all those Beckham posters.”
“Well. I fancy him too.”
“Good job for me they’re married?” she said.
Tony laughed at the weak joke. She pictured him running his fingers through his hair. She knew him so well, he was a friend of the family, she liked him and it would be so much easier, sometimes, if they were engaged. If he wasn’t gay. If you could control who you fell in love with.
“It’s Jules, isn’t it?” he said.
Jess closed her eyes. Cool air drifted through her window. Still too warm for November. “Yeah,” she said.
They stuck around Santa Clara for the Christmas hols. They went to San Francisco and raced through Alcatraz, and giggled out escape plans as the bus home whipped past streetlights fuzzy in the heavy fog.
The bus driver looked glad to be shut of them when they tumbled off. They collapsed laughing on the bench in the bus shelter.
“Human cannonball,” Jules insisted. “I’d fly right out of Alcatraz. The guards would never suspect!”
“Because it’s mad,” said Jess, “completely mad! Where would you get the gunpowder?”
“As if two hundred helium balloons are better! What if the seagulls peck them, Jess?”
Jess caught her eye. Jules grinned, her crinkled-nose mischievous cat-grin, and Jess raised her hands and Jules caught them and they both leaned in to kiss.
Their noses bumped. They startled back, laughed, and Jules titled her head and Jess plunged and this time, this time, they kissed at the bus stop and it was no mere brush of lips.
Jules’ eyes sparkled, bright and disorienting as the pictures turning through a kaleidoscope, and Jess felt a silly grin tugging at her lips.
Jules leaped up, dragging Jess to her feet, and they spun in circles under the streetlamp and Jules kissed her again. Jess shrieked. Jules grabbed her hand, and they dashed shrieking across campus through the heavy wet fog.
They slammed through the front door to the dorm and doubled over, gasping for breath.
Jules’ Mum and Dad stood by the front desk.
Jess and Jules dropped hands.
Mrs. Paxton gave a nervous laugh. “The mountain came to Muhammed,” she said. “We’ve never been to the States, lovey, so we thought we’d come see you. Is there anywhere to eat?”
“There’s a great Indian place,” said Jules, a wicked light in her eyes. “We’ve got a standing date there every Wednesday night.”
Mrs. Paxton’s throat bobbed as she swallowed.
Jules grabbed her mother’s hand and Jess’s too. “Jess! Let’s go!”
Mr. and Mrs. Paxton sat on one side of the table, Jess and Jules on the other. Mr. Paxton stirred the dal with a spoon like it was oatmeal Mrs. Paxton tilted the paneer up with her fork, examining it like she thought pill bugs might scuttle out from beneath as if it were a rock.
Jules ripped chunks of meat off a tandoori drumstick with her teeth. She licked grease off her lips and grinned.
Mrs. Paxton shredded a piece of naan. Her eyes flickered from her daughter to Jess and back again.
Jules started to giggle. Jess sucked in the corners of her lips, biting, but giggles burbled forth nonetheless.
“What’s so funny?” Mr. Paxton asked, inspecting a tandoori chicken wing.
“Nothing,” they said in unison, and snorted more giggles.
Mrs. Paxton folded a whole piece of naan into her mouth. Her eyes bulged huge and glassy and blue, like marbles, and under her anxious gaze they laughed so hard they nearly slid under the table.
Jess nearly dived in to kiss Jules again, but she suspected that when she was less giddy she would regret it.
“Will Aiko Uno please pick up the red courtesy phone?” murmured the intercom, overlapped by “And Flight 6622 for London Heathrow is open for boarding. Will all passengers please – ”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked Tony.
“I can’t believe you forgot the tickets,” a man hissed at his wife.
Jess pressed the phone close to her ear. “No.”
“Then don’t,” Tony said.
“I don’t want to lie to them all summer again.” Jess rubbed her sweaty hand against her trakkies. “I don’t want to do that to Jules.”
“Jess!” called Jules. “We’ll miss the plane!”
“I’ve got to go,” Jess said. She closed the phone and let Jules take her hand and drag her onto the plane.
They sat in the back and when the plane landed they had to wait ages for the rest of the passengers to file out. Jess crunched on the stale airline pretzels, cheeks bulging like a chipmunks because she couldn’t swallow.
Jules grabbed a pretzel and tossed it into the air, trying to catch it in her mouth. “Jess,” she said, and thwacked Jess’s shoulder.
Jess swallowed. The pretzel lump scraped her throat on the way down. “If this doesn’t work out – ” she said.
“We’ll hitchhike to Paris, steal a Citroen, and earn our keep doing football tricks on street corners,” Jules said. “Just like we planned!”
Jess didn’t laugh.
“Or live with my Auntie Miriam in the Cotswolds,” Jules said. She flung herself in the seat next to Jess. “Jess,” she said. “We don’t have to tell them.”
“No, we do,” Jess said.
“All right.” Jules swung their bags from the overhead compartment and took Jess’s hand. The rows and rows of seats slipped past, and the jet bridge seemed impossibly short. Their sweaty hands slipped and fell loose as they walked off the plane.
“It will be fine,” said Jess, reaching for Jules’ hand.
Jules slung her arm around Jess’s shoulder. “It’ll be brilliant.”
They exited the jet bridge. Jess saw her father’s red turban first, bobbing above the heads of a clot of businessmen, and then her parents broke through the crush: her father’s beam half-hidden in his beard, her mother holding a Tupperware of samosas and wiping furtively at her eyes.
“Juliette!” cried Jules’ mother.
Jules tightened her grip on Jess’s shoulder. “Jess,” she said.
Jess couldn’t force words through her dry throat, so she looked at Jules and nodded. Jules threw her arms around Jess’s neck and jumped, wrapping her legs around Jess’s waist and kissing her as Jess stumbled to keep her balance.
Jules planted kisses all over Jess’s face. “Hold still,” she gasped, but Jess stumbled and tangled in her holdall strap and they fell on the hard gray carpet, Jess on top of Jules.
“You broke my arse,” complained Jules.
“Oh hush up,” said Jess. She rolled back on her heels and grabbed Jules’ hands, and they stood to face the future together.