Here’s the first rule that everyone tells you: don’t fall in love with your straight best friend. The second rule is probably not to say dumbass shit around her, either, stuff like all the pussy you’ve gotten—which isn’t even that much, Jesus—because she’ll get that look on her face. You know the one. That split second, that pause, that discomfort that says she knows. Of course she knows. You used to be good at hiding what you feel. Somewhere along the way, you stopped being good at it.
And the thing about these rules is—they’re simple. Basic. First grade stuff. Don’t kiss someone who doesn’t want to fuck you or anyone like you. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t do that to them. And yet—somehow—it’s a rule you keep breaking. Over and over again, like smashing a water glass against the wall and watching it reform itself in your hand so you can throw it over and over, the smash, clatter, whisk of the pieces pulling back into place.
There’s a magic to it, you think. And a misery, too. What a modern fucking tragedy, right? All that high school bullshit you never had to deal with because you never lived in one place long enough to fall in love with any straight girls: here it is now, wrapped up for you in a bow, handed to you on a platter, here. Welcome to prison, Washington. Enjoy your fucking stay. All those nights you stayed up so late and couldn’t sleep because your skin crawled, your fucking skin, the hair on the back of your arms, and you hated yourself so much, every piece of you, the parts everyone saw and all the stuff inside that you bit down on, choked on; you hated every goddamn piece of it, all these broken fucked up bits of you that made you like this, that made you wrong, that made you fall in love with the wrong people and want the wrong people and lie awake at night dreaming about the wrong people, because they were girls, and there’s camps for that sort of thing, you know? Programs to make you straight. They don’t work but who cares, because you’ve always been good at lying to yourself, and some days you’re almost able to lie about this, too.
Sometimes, you think: better? Or worse?
He puts his arms around you, presses the gun against the small of your back. You’re crying. You can’t breathe or see or think or feel anything but the weight of the metal in your hands, the hatred burning inside you like poison, like arsenic, like cyanide all the way down, down, down into the deepest parts of you: this suffering, unwithering desperation. Your father pulls you close to his chest and he’s warm and strong and he loves you and you can’t fucking imagine why—you with this gun in your hand, you with this hatred in your heart, like bitter cough syrup on your tongue, gumming your mouth shut even as you try to sob and the sound breaks out of you against your will, an intruder within your own body. You are shaking, and the gun is going to slip out of your hands and onto the floor and everyone will see it and they’ll know you’re fucked up just like they say you are, just like you’re beginning to think you are, and all you can do is cry like a little kid as the girl you love looks at you, her lips open. Fear and heartbreak written across her pretty face, her beautiful face, her lovely in-love face that will never be in love with you again because you’re the sort of girl who is tired of desperation and she is just getting her first taste of it. You wonder if it’s bitter all the way down, if it poisons her insides the way it poisons yours, if she’s tired of the self-loathing yet or if she still thinks she can overcome it through force of will.
Everyone knows that you love her. Everyone knows that you fucked her, that you want to put your mouth on hers, that leaving her is going to rip you up inside and that no one is going to stop the internal bleeding. Better to just let you bleed out, purple-blue-black bruises under your skin, until you wake up one morning and the pain is gone, just like that, and only comes back when see her at night behind your eyelids. You’re going thousands of miles away and you’re never coming back here and you’re never ever going to fucking see her again.
Good, you think. I don’t love you, but you do.
They send you to prison for selling pot. Six years. Imagine how many they’d have given you if they knew about the gun. If they knew about the way your daddy cried when he got you home afterwards—what was home, then—and the look on your momma’s face, blank, unexposed. Like she knew. Like she knew, even then, that you were raw.
You’ve never lived in a single place for six years. The longest time in one spot had been three years and an almost half. Litchfield is a prison and the worst place you’ve ever had to live, but it’s a fixed point. Life goes on here. Around you, pulling you with it, but you’re a rock in a stream while the water flows past. You’re standing still. You’re taking the time to stop, and breathe, and feel the cold touch of the water lapping against the shore, and it’s not a relief, exactly, because it’s fucking federal prison, but it’s something. It’s solid. It’s stationary. It’s not uprooting your life every few months or years because your dad got reassigned. It’s not having to start over again and again and again until you don’t even know who you are anymore, but you have the introductions memorized. Poussey Washington. Don’t get fucking cute with it, either. Accent á droite, bitch.
Sucking smoke between your teeth with the newest group of kids you fuck around with. You know some of their names. You’re better with faces. One of them asks, holding the joint in his right hand, angled: “What if, like, your parents named you Dick or something. Would you still have been a lesbian or what?”
“Fuck you,” you say. “Who the hell names their daughter Dick?”
“I know a guy named Dick,” some other guy says. He takes the joint and sucks a drag from it. “He’s a fucking homo.”
“See?” The first guy slaps his leg. “What did I tell you.”
You drag your hands down your face. “You’re fucking idiots,” you say, “and that’s not my name.”
Everyone at Litchfield calls you Washington most of the time, and it doesn’t matter. Well. Almost everyone. There’s no reason that small detail should matter to you—and yet, somehow, it does. It does.
Taystee loves you; course she loves you. You love her, and she loves you back, and she just won’t admit it to herself. That’s what you tell yourself when you lie awake and think about the twisting in your stomach, the way you notice all the motions of her hands, her eyes, because you’re a cosmic joke and the whole universe is laughing. That’s what you tell yourself. And you know it’s not true. You’ve seen it in her face—saw it the first time you leaned in and kissed her without thinking about it, so overwhelmed by the closeness and laughter and proximity of her hands and the look on her face, like she couldn’t stop looking at you, couldn’t stop smiling, and you thought: I did that. You did that and you took it away just as fast when you leaned in and put your mouth on hers because you didn’t learn your lesson, still haven’t. Her mouth is soft because she’s surprised and she’s not moving because she’s too busy not smiling anymore and falling dead quiet and you’re tearing yourself to pieces inside, ripped up paper shredded like those dumb snowflakes you used to make and hang on your bedroom door when you lived in a place that didn’t have a proper winter. Like that would make you feel better, this fake paper shit. Like this is a good idea, this terrible thing that you’ve done, because she’s never going to forgive you and she doesn’t love you and you knew that, of course you knew, you knew.
“P,” she says, shellshocked, and you pull away and feel your heart in your mouth but you still know how to lie—you’ve always known how to lie.
“Hey,” you say, quick, swift, “we’re friends, T, I’m sorry, shit, you know I’m not like that,” and she smiles back at you, hesitant, and you punch her on the shoulder—“Just wanted to see the look on your face if I did it, fucking priceless”—and she widens her eyes in outrage and pushes you, and you let her, because you still haven’t learned your lesson.
The second time you kiss her, you have no idea what to say. Sorry for mouth-mauling you. Again. Sorry I can’t stop looking at the shape of your mouth and the line of your mouth and the red of your mouth. I know. I know. I lied.
She doesn’t know what to say either. Just looks at you. She looks sad. Not mad at you even though she should be, has every right to be, when you kiss her without consent, think about her like this. She’s not disgusted, either, afraid, repulsed—
That makes one of us, you think, and smile, big and brave and as strong as you can, because what else, at this point, is there for you to do.
“I don’t—P,” she says, a little helplessly; “I’m sorry, I’m not—I don’t, not you,” and you get it, you do; it’s not a fucking mystery or anything. Sometimes you fall in love with your best friend and it sucks. Welcome to the fucking party, Washington. Strap yourself in for the ride.
She stays up with you the whole night after you find out your momma died. Her arms around you while you cry huge, silent, body-wracking sobs that drain the breath from you, the energy, the hatred and quiet dissolution you carry behind your ribs. She holds you and strokes your hair and tells you everything is going to be all right, and you believe her. The last time you saw your momma she was sitting across from you in the visitation room, a thousand miles away. She looked at you like she didn’t know you, but she loved you. That was brave of her, you think; that was brave, indeed, and you cry yourself to sleep in Taystee’s arms and she stays by your side all through the night-tide, until the morning comes.
You wake up before the morning guards come in and start getting everyone up. Taystee is asleep, breathing even, quiet. Her eyes closed and so close to yours. In this quiet moment, you don’t feel anything. You don’t feel grief. You don’t feel fear, or pain, or that burning deep-seated hatred. You just watch her face, study the curve of her cheekbones, and it warms you all through to your bones. Right now, in this moment, you don’t have to be anyone. You don’t have to think about everything that’s going to go wrong. You can just lie here and close your eyes and nothing will touch you like this. You can live in this moment forever.
Nichols fucks you because of course Nichols fucks you; soon as she hears you mention all the pussy you’ve gotten (you stupid, fucking idiot) she shows up with that wry twist to her mouth, leans in too close and says a lot of dumb shit and for some reason, you just let her keep saying it.
You sneak into the chapel with her and your heart is pounding, which is—it’s fucking stupid, right? It is. You feel sweaty and too big for your skin and unlovable and not as turned on as you should be, not even really turned on at all. Nichols starts pulling off your clothes and she knows what she’s doing, focused, but she keeps making jokes too, and you can barely hear what she’s saying but she makes you laugh and it catches you by surprise, stops in your throat, and she looks at you like she knows, which—fuck her. Fuck her.
That’s the idea, though, isn’t it.
She slips her hand down your pants. “Huh,” she says. “You know, you don’t seem all that interested there, kiddo.”
“Don’t call me fucking kiddo,” you say, vehemently, and kiss the corner of her mouth and pull your underwear down, your old unsexy prison underwear, and slide her fingers into you when she doesn’t respond.
“All right then,” Nichols says, and she brushes her thumb over your clit, and you spasm, just a little, can’t help yourself, and her smile goes wicked and broad. “Good girl,” she says, and you don’t have the energy to argue, all the fight going out of you the way it always does in the end, leaving you empty and hollow and tired, tired, tired.
“You always talk this much?” you mutter, and she looks at you with hooded eyes, still smiling, and crooks her fingers inside you before moving down your body to put her mouth on you, the slide of her tongue and the movement of her fingers. You close your eyes and arch your back, reaching up to grasp at the pulpit, thinking, what a fucking terrible idea, and not being able to feel too angry about it at all.
“You’re dry as a fucking desert,” Nichols says after a few minutes. “Jesus, am I doing something wrong?”
“Shut the fuck up,” you say, and then, because you want to hurt her, because it’s the only ammunition you have: “Aren’t you in love with Morello?”
“Is that what you think?” She quickens her movements, fucking you harder. Sliding her thumb over your clit over and over again. Your legs keep shaking; they’ve always done that, it’s always been embarrassing, and you can’t help yourself. “Aren’t you in love with Jefferson?”
You twist, breathless. Goddammit. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure,” Nichols says. She’s good at this; makes you feel like your whole body is singing, just with one of her hands, the slightest of movements as she strokes that spot inside of you and keeps sliding her thumb around your clit. “Can we not talk about the straight girls we’re in love with while I’m fucking you? It’s killing the mood for me a little.”
“What mood,” you ask, but your breath is coming in gasps now, and Nichols grins like she’s fucking won, like she’s come back from battle with her enemy dragged in the dirt behind her, and you think, fuck it, whatever, you win, take it, and you come all over her hand, your body shaking like a goddamn hurricane, leaving pieces of you strewn all over the coastline, pieces that can’t be brought back together and made whole.
Nichols wipes her hands on her pants and watches you tremble through the last of your orgasm. The look on her face is undecipherable. “Well, thanks for that,” she says, “really, it was nice,” and she starts to get up, but before she gets anywhere you grab her by the wrist and drag her down.
“No,” you say, and start pulling down her pants, and she just watches you, one eyebrow raised; “we’re not done here,” and you spread her thighs with your hands and tongue her clit, the hot slide of your tongue between her labia. She’s wet, slick, more turned on than you thought she’d be.
She grabs the back of your head with her hand, holds you in place, the rigid grip of her fingers, and she comes before you even put your fingers inside her.
Afterwards, you both get dressed, slowly. “You ever fuck her?” Nichols asks, because she is an asshole, and so are you.
“She doesn’t want to fuck me,” you say. Nichols doesn’t say anything else. You remember hearing about all the times she and Morello fucked in the bathroom, right in front of everyone. You think: better or worse?
Vee takes everything from you. It’s not hard to do. The only one who matters to you in this shithole is Taystee, and everyone, apparently, knows it. All Vee has to do is what she does best—charm these kids, these vulnerable fucking prisoners with their whole lives ahead of them, who just want to matter, to mean something in this place that means nothing, and she tells them everything wrong with you. She probably doesn’t even have to be explicit about it. You can see her talking to Taystee when you close your eyes at night. You stay away from that girl, she’s saying. She’s sick, she just wants to fuck you, she doesn’t care about you, not like me, baby girl. She’s a viper with poison fangs and you wonder why the hell her game didn’t work on you. It’s worked on everyone else; everyone fears her, but everyone loves her. You only fear. It’s not about you, you don’t think. If she wanted your love, she could have gotten it. You’re not that special. You’re not unique, you’re not different from Cindy or Janae or Taystee or anyone here, not in that way; if she’d wanted your loyalty, she’d have it, and that scares the shit out of you. But she doesn’t want it. She doesn’t want you anywhere near her. She doesn’t want you near Taystee. And, because you fear her, you tell yourself to just let her go.
It’s simple, right—you’ve done it before. You’ve got great tits, I’ll remember that about you. Cut up the pieces of everything you feel, organize it into neat little rows, examine them like a dead man on the autopsy table. Yes, how interesting. Yes, look here, at the malignant tumor that killed you. Now sweep it off the table into the garbage bucket next to you. Put the lid on it. Easy as that. Visualization and all that psychotherapy bullshit. Visualize yourself not being in love anymore. Visualize it hard enough and it will just stop, like cutting out the part of you that’s bad, that’s sick, and sweeping it into the garbage and watching it fall, bloodied and terrible, grotesque. Goodbye, you think, insensibly, without reason; goodbye. You don’t feel it anymore. You don’t feel anything. This is what you’re good at, in the end: shutting down the parts of you that hurt, and letting your whole brain go numb.
And drinking, and fucking yourself over, and doing something dangerous. You’re good at those things, too.
The guards find Vee dead on the side of the road. Someone rammed her with their car. You wish you could find them and shake their hand. Thanks for your service to mankind, you’d say. You deserve a fucking medal.
Taystee is quiet when the inmates get the news. A little solemn. You’ve never seen her solemn before. Vee still knows things about Taystee that you have never known, and Vee is dead. Vee is still here like a ghost clinging to the bunk where she used to sleep, and sometimes when you turn a corner in the hallway, you think she’s there. Watching you. Wearing the orange prison clothes she wore when she first spoke to you, when she first plunged the knife into you and started to twist. She’s dead but it still feels like she’s here. She’s dead, but she’s not gone.
“She was like my mom, you know?” Taystee says. She’s staring at the window. It’s raining and you’re watching the streaks of rain on the glass make shadows on Taystee’s face. “She—God, I fucking hate her, I hate her so fucking much but she saved my stupid life.”
“She would have ruined it, too,” you say. “If she had to.” And she always had to, in the end.
Taystee shakes her head. “You know what’s fucked up? Even that doesn’t change the fact that I—that—” She trails off.
“You cared about her,” you say. You can’t make yourself say the word ‘love.’
“Fuck her,” Taystee says. “I don’t care about her. I hate her.”
“Okay,” you say, “okay, T, okay,” and you put your arms around her when she turns to you and crumples, starts to cry, and buries her face against your shoulder, her whole body trembling. You hold her close and outside it rains and inside you are hollow. You never wanted this, you never wanted her to be unhappy, you don’t want to comfort her and trick her into loving you; you want to feel no guilt for the way you put your arms around her and you can’t. The guilt is there. The doubts you have about yourself, the ones that linger, and you close your eyes and Taystee slowly stops crying, punches you on the shoulder. “Don’t you fucking tell anyone about this,” she says, wiping her eyes, and, really. Who would you ever tell.
Taystee loves you, but you’re projecting. You keep twisting up the small details, stuff that should be irrelevant and, in the larger scheme of things, is. But not to you. She pushes the sleeve of your shirt back with her fingertips, slide of skin on skin. She smiles at you and the crescendo of it fills up your whole heart. She tickles you until you can’t breathe, mocks you mercilessly with a smile on her face, puts her arm around you at movie night, but it’s not because she wants to kiss you. Taystee loves you because she’s your friend.
You hate this: the hum and whir of your heart, the way it stops and starts. Turn it off. Hang your jacket on the hook on the wall. Whirr-clunk. Whirr-clunk. You stop and start. The pathetic hunger of your heart.
You’ll get over it. With time, distance. So not right away. Maybe not until you leave this place, walk out into the world free again. You wonder whether the end of your sentences will coincide. Whether you and Taystee will both walk free with each other. What will happen, afterwards. When there’s nothing left to force you together—not the segregated bunks, not the tedious monotony of prison life, not the desperate scramble for friendship that keeps you alive in this place. When that’s gone, what will be left? When that’s gone, all that will be left is each other. And you’re not sure, now, if that’s enough.
Taystee’s right when she says that you don’t understand her life, her past, the experiences she had growing up: alone with no family, just another cog in a broken system. Some of her friends have been shot to death. And not in war like your daddy’s friends—not in that huge untouchable faraway terrifying concept, warfare, motions of nations—Taystee’s friends got shot in the face by cops, right in the streets where their family and friends lived, where they grew up, where they thought, maybe, someday, and someday never came.
What space do you have in her life, really? Outside of this—outside of Litchfield—there’s no reason she would ever need you.
You’re lying in your bed with your feet up over the divide, just looking up at the ceiling, waiting for dinner, when Taystee sits down next to you, looks you right in the face, and kisses you on the mouth.
You don’t move. Your entire body feels like an ice cube. Like your edges are slipping away from you, melting off, pooling at the floor by what used to be your feet, and it’s so fucking cold. If you move you’ll leave pieces of you behind. You can’t close your eyes but you can barely look at her. She’s kissing you hard, and fiercely, and your heart burns inside your chest and scorches the backs of your ribs.
She pulls away. She looks determined and focused and terrible and lovely. You don’t move. You don’t even think you breathe.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” she asks.
“Fair’s fair, right?” Taystee smiles at you. “Maybe I just wanted to see how you liked being kissed outta nowhere for once. Since it’s always the other way around.”
There’s a choice to make here. You can brush it off. Brush it off, brush everything off, let it slide off you and never make contact with your skin, repelled as if by a magnetic field, warping the path of atoms and metals. Crack a joke, let Taystee know you’re willing to back off—you are, of course you are, you never want to be someone who makes her uncomfortable, someone who wants what she can’t give, but you are exactly that person, and right now, somehow, without reason, it is too difficult to lie.
You can brush it off. Or you can grab it by the wrist, pull it in close, whisper a truth in its ear. You can fight it with all that you’ve got.
You swallow. Your throat is dry, the words hard to form. “I liked it.”
Taystee’s smile is impossible to read, but something in it changes, just slightly, and so does the light in her eyes. “I know,” she says, and you have no idea what to do with your hands.
“What are you gonna do?” you ask here, against yourself. “When you get out again.”
The smile slides off her face. She leans back against the wall, pulls her feet up onto the bed. “No fucking idea,” she says. “Guess not go looking for Vee this time.”
“Guess not,” you say.
“What about you?” Her gaze holds you suspended, a bug caught on a pin.
You shrug. Your mouth is still warm and numb at the edges from kissing her. From when she kissed you. “Dunno. Whatever you wanna do.”
“Well, fuck,” Taystee says. “That’s what I was gonna say. We gotta get our shit together, P.”
You can barely look at her. “You weren’t gonna say that.”
“You read minds now?” Her eyes flash. “Don’t you ever fucking tell me what I want. About anything.”
You open your mouth, close it again. Shut your eyes. “I won’t,” you say. She knocks her shoulder against yours. The both of you go to dinner. You wander through the halls like a sleepwalker. She takes you by the arm, leads you through it.
You don’t know if she loves you or not. She told you not to tell her what she wants, and so you stop. You don’t know if she loves you. You don’t know anymore, either, if she doesn’t.
She keeps kissing you. In the empty hallways when there’s no one to see you. In the bathroom after you finish brushing your teeth and are about to go to bed. Before breakfast, before anyone else wakes up and you’re still rubbing the sleep out of your eyes. Quick, brief, chaste kisses. Nothing as rough as the first one, as searching. Just the brush of her mouth on yours. She catches you by surprise every single time. You’re never expecting anything from her, and so you don’t notice when she starts to give you everything.
Kisses the corner of your mouth. Kisses your forehead. Kisses the back of your hand and laughs when you start to blush. You don’t want to question it—don’t dare look it in the eyes, just wish you could take this and be happy with it and want nothing else for the rest of your useless fucking life, but you’re not made that way. You’re just not. If she’s working out some sort of repressed sexual shit on you, well; you don’t want to be left behind when she figures it out and decides, in the end, that she doesn’t want you. You don’t think you can survive a heartbreak like that for a second time. Not in here. Not like this. Not with her.
She kisses you and you react, grab her face with her hands, hold her back when she tries to pull away, to stand, to leave you again. “Don’t,” you say, and thank God no one is around, thank God for this tiny moment of privacy in prison, this place where nothing is sacred or secret, this place where everyone except you knows how you feel.
“You can’t just keep doing this to me,” you say. “Not if you don’t mean it.”
“I mean it,” Taystee says, too flippantly, too—something, just not enough, why is it never enough for you—
“I’m in love with you,” you say. It’s the first time you’ve ever said it. “It’s not a fucking joke for me, T. This isn’t—this is my life, okay, my real feelings and shit, you can’t just—play me like this, like it doesn’t mean anything, because it does—it means so much to me—”
“I’m not playing you,” she says, and you shut the hell up. “When Vee—when I didn’t have you anymore, then, that was—the loneliest I’ve ever been in my fucking life, and that’s—” She shakes her head. “I’ve spent a long damn time being lonely.”
“I know,” you say, creakingly.
“No, you don’t,” she bites back, and that’s fair. That’s true. “I think about being here and I think about you,” Taystee says. “I think about leaving here and I think about you. I don’t know what that means.”
“I think about you and I think about the rest of my life,” you say, because. Well.
That, you think, scares her. Maybe. Just a little. “I won’t kiss you again,” she says. “Not if I don’t mean it.”
“Okay,” you tell her. Even knowing you did the right thing, this moment still hurts. In ways you least expect it, like hidden shards of broken glass on the floor.
She doesn’t kiss you for the next three weeks.
Good, you think. It’s over.
Whirr. Clunk. The pathetic hunger of your gnawing heart.
You’re lying on her bed, half-asleep. There’s a peacefulness to the grinding inside your chest. You’re safe here, where it’s quiet, where there’s shelter from all the shit going on outside. Taystee is reading something, you don’t even know what. The quiet flipping of pages. You’re gonna fall asleep soon and wake up when one of the guards starts yelling, probably, about who-knows-what, or if Taystee shifts and the thin mattress moves beneath the two of you.
You can hear her breathing. She keeps taking these long breaths, like she’s deliberating, like she’s thinking about something. Flips the page. Quiet. Deep breath in. You’re not counting but you’re making sure they’re there.
Finally: “Shit,” she says, and rolls over, drops the book on the floor in the process, and leans down into you, kisses you, soundly, hard.
You have no restraint left, no defenses, no trenches with barbed wire lining the front. You reach up your hands and put them in her hair and you kiss her back and you hope, when she lets go, that you don’t see anything terrible in her eyes. You kiss her and keep kissing her and then she pulls away, slowly, and looks down at you, warm brown eyes.
“The fuck does she know about me,” she’s saying, vehemently; “the fuck does she know about anything.”
“Taystee?” you ask, because you don’t know what to say, if you should say anything, but you can’t keep your damn mouth shut.
“I wanna kiss you,” she says. She looks bewildered, and angry, and determined. Determined, above all. “I have no fucking idea what that means, and I’m sorry. That’s not fair. But you’re my best friend.”
“I am,” you say. Your throat is closing up, painful, but there’s something terrible and dangerous spreading its wings behind your ribs; something, you think, that might even be hope.
Neither of you know what you’re doing. You’re in prison, for fuck’s sake. But you have each other. And that’s not nothing. That’s more than you’ve ever had before. That’s more, you think, than maybe you deserve. You love her. You love her.
“You are,” Taystee says again. “And I’m….” She drifts off. Looks at you, a little helplessly.
“Mine,” you say, and you watch the way her smile goes gentle at the edges. Like maybe just looking at you is enough for her, in this moment. Maybe even, you think, for forever.