i. saw your face, heard your name
Eleven years old, uncertain and alone in a new town, a new state; that's what Coley is the first time she meets Sonya.
It's sweltering outside and she's melting a little under the California sun, but Coley stays bundled in the sweater she wore year-round back home. It's a little musty from being stuffed in that cardboard moving box. But the scent of woodsmoke still clings to it, and even her mother's careful washing and folding can't smooth out the snags in the wool from tussling with the dogs in the woods. She can't bear to fold it up and put it in the closet with the rest of her winter gear. That would mean she couldn't grab it right away if she needs to, and that means that she might not be going home soon—might not be going home at all.
This is home now, her mother said yesterday, when Coley nearly pitched a fit after stepping from the air-conditioned safety of the airport into the blazing heat of a California summer. Her voice was firm, but the rest of her was frayed and unhappy. Get used to it.
She didn't sound any more excited about it than Coley is.
But here they are anyway, in a little neighborhood in a little town, tucked away in a cul-de-sac bracketed by palm trees, swaying slightly in a breeze that Coley can't feel all the way down on the ground. The roads roll out wide and flat, a looping network of blistering asphalt. Coley's too anxious to stand still, kicked out of the house while her mother unpacks, so she wanders through the neighborhood, staying on the sidewalk, darting between slivers of shade provided by the palm trees as if that will make her want to die of heatstroke any less.
The streets are named after unfamiliar plants. Coley lives on Manzanita Circle; her mother showed her pictures of the shrubs and their deep red bark, their snarled limbs mimicking the way Coley feels right now—all twisted up inside. She reads the street signs as she walks, mouthing the words. Yucca Drive, Ocotillo Street, Juniper Street. Finally, on Agave Lane she takes a break, hunkering down on her heels in the shade and wiping her hair off her sweaty forehead. She wonders idly what an agave even is.
Across the street, a party's happening in a flat-roofed house with a perfectly manicured garden. There's splashing and laughter—it sounds like kids her age. Coley aches to be laughing with them.
Then the front door swings open, and a girl steps out.
She's Coley's age, pretty, dark-haired with sun-kissed skin, wearing a swimsuit and a thoughtful expression. When she sees Coley, she jumps. She shades her eyes with her hand, then waves.
"Hi!" she calls out.
Coley rises from her crouch and waves back awkwardly. Suddenly, she feels absurd in her bulky sweater, aware of the sheen of sweat on her face, her pixie-sized frame in comparison with the girl's height and long legs.
The girl tilts her head. "What are you wearing?"
"A sweater," says Coley, and swallows. To the girl's credit, she doesn't make a face or ask her why. "Um, hi. I'm Coley. I'm new here."
"I figured," the girl says. "I don't recognize you and I know everyone."
The girl smiles and it is radiant as a sunrise. Coley feels dizzy, like she's had the wind knocked out of her.
"My name's Sonya," the girl adds. "Want to come swim?"
Maybe California won't be so bad, after all.
ii. scared to let your guard down
Boys come and go, but friendship is forever.
Coley gives her that slogan on a keychain, the summer between eighth and ninth grade. It's in highlighter yellow text on a neon green background, and is probably the ugliest accessory Sonya's ever seen. But Coley gave it to her, so she doesn't care; she squeezes it tightly in her hand and flings her arms around her friend, whispering thank you in her ear. She hooks it on her key ring, where she keeps her house key, and later her car keys, and doesn't think about it for a long time.
Kind of ironic, honestly. Sonya dates boys; she flirts with them, toys with them, gossips about them with Coley, but she never commits, never says I love you. Those words she reserves for her best friend. Girls do that, right? Girls tell their friends how much they love them all the time. Sure. Girls daydream about spending their life with their best friend all the time. Girls blow off their boyfriends to watch the CW and eat greasy popcorn with their best friend all the time. Girls kiss boys and pretend it's their best friend all the time. Right?
A few years later, long after Coley gave it to her, the bright green keychain catches her eye again. She picks it up, letting the keys jangle, and reads it. Boys come and go, but friendship is forever.
And then it dawns on Sonya.
It's always been Coley. Coley in the drowsy afternoons, Coley wreathed in smoke, delicately balancing a joint between her fingers (nail polish chipped, her hand fine-boned and long-fingered). Coley trying not to squirm when Sonya dusts blush along her cheeks, flushing her own shade of red when Sonya adds the final touch: pink lips gloss, slick and wet. ("How do I look?" Coley asks, shy, and Sonya says, "Kissable," then laughs like it's a joke.) Coley looking grumpy at 7:30 in the school hallway, slumped against her locker with her legs sticking out into the hallway, too stubborn to move, finally relenting when Sonya flops down next to her and loops an arm over her shoulder. Coley at night, pacing the streets downtown with Sonya and the girls, walking in the shadows while the others dart between oases of streetlamp lights. She's always been more comfortable there, content to stay on the fringes while Sonya takes center stage, supporting her when she needs it. Sonya sometimes reminding her to take her share of the spotlight; they just fit together like that.
Coley watching her dance with hungry eyes; Coley not knowing how badly Sonya wants to be consumed.
It's always been Coley.
Even after she realizes the truth, she doesn't say anything; there's too much to lose if she's wrong. Coley's her best friend, her soulmate, and if Sonya ruined what they had, it would be like she was being ripped apart. Sonya never takes risks, anyway; that's something Coley does.
So she's silent about it. Doesn't even breathe a word of it to Coley. Doesn't mention how she's started to notice other girls, the way her eyes skip over their bodies, focusing on their clavicles, the curve of their waists, the fullness of their breasts.
"Have you seen what she's wearing?" she says if anyone notices where she's looking. "That blouse is—"
Tacky, gorgeous, slutty, pretty. Anything to ward off suspicion.
Coley is always exquisite. Sonya's honest about that.
iii. crossing all the lines
"You know, Coley," Shelby says, very seriously and more than a little drunkenly, setting down her beer with a clink, "It's totally okay if you're gay."
Coley, taking a big swig from her rum and coke, nearly chokes on it. She coughs. Mario, grabbing another beer from the cooler next to her, helpfully pounds her on the back.
"I know," she says.
"It's not a big deal anymore," Shelby insists. Coley's face is hot; she's hyper-aware of Sonya's eyes on her, of Sonya saying nothing, not even laughing like the others. "It's, like, the 21st century, no one's going to care."
They're talking about the winter formal, still six months away but apparently weighing heavily on everyone's minds. Who's going with who, who's wearing what, who's going to get their hearts broken and who's going to lose their v-card that night. Coley's not going with anyone. She's actually been zoning out since Sonya broke the news that she was going with that asshole Trenton.
"I'm not gay," she says, and something inside her twists a little. "I just don't like anyone at our school. Everyone's so immature."
Sonya looks away, drinks deep from her brown bottle.
"Ohh," Shelby says, her expression clearing. "I get it. You like college guys!"
"Aiming high!" Mario crows. Trenton snorts; Sonya, with his arm slung around her shoulders, crushed tight against his body, only raises her eyes at Coley.
"Guess so," Coley says lightly. "But thanks for the permission, anyway."
"Then who are you going to go with?" Trenton asks, a little pointedly.
"Us!" Sonya interjects. She smiles at Trenton, then gives Coley a sideways glance, her lips curled like she's sharing a secret. "It'll be fun. And you'll get to go with the two prettiest girls in school," she adds to Trenton.
For once, Trenton and Coley actually agree on something; neither of them are happy about this at all.
"Look, that's not a good idea," he says in an undertone, and Sonya breaks eye contact with Coley to frown at him.
"I've gotta go," Coley murmurs, and stands up so quickly she totters a little. The booze is affecting her more than she thought.
She manages to make it down the hallway, and steps onto the back patio, sliding the door shut on their hissed argument and Mario saying plaintively, "Can we talk about something else?"
It's bright, humid, and hot, the sun glancing off the water of the pool, reflecting light in slow rhythm. Almost immediately, she feels sick. But it's not just the heat and alcohol making her feel that way.
It's totally okay if you're gay.
Coley drops to the hot pavement, scooching to the side of the pool and dipping her feet in the cool water.
I'm not gay, she said.
She shuts her eyes. Thinks about boys, the flat planes of their bodies, the harsh angles of their jawline. Kissing one—her hands on his broad shoulders, bouncing up on tiptoe to reach his mouth, feeling his stubble against her lips. It makes her shudder inside, but not the kind of butterflies other girls talk about; it's more like the prospect of eating raw eggs. Kissing boys makes her want to gag.
Girls are different. Kissing a girl would mean holding her by the waist, maybe sliding one hand down the soft swell of her hip, running the other one up her back to tangle in her long hair. Holding her body close, tipping her head back, kissing along the smooth skin of her neck to the graceful line of her collarbone, stroking her breasts through the thin layer of her shirt—
She thinks about girls in the locker room, the way her locker is plastered with posters of half-naked pop stars, about Sonya—about Sonya—
"Oh," Coley breathes, and opens her eyes. The light in the pool flickers and blinds, and the pavement is getting too hot to sit on, but she doesn't care. Something inside her has slotted into place, something filling her with heat and queasy wonder.
I'm not gay, Coley said.
She thinks she was lying.
iv. girls like girls like boys do
Sonya kisses back.
Coley's knuckles ache and her head is spinning. She's nauseated and shaky and tearing up, her lip is split and bleeding, but none of this matters because Sonya kisses back.
v. everything that we'd ever need
"Oh my god," Sonya says, stunned.
Coley grins at her and spreads her arms, spinning in a circle. Her deep blue skirt flares out like ocean waves, the white crinoline beneath it sparkling like ice.
"You like it?" she asks, but it's not much of a question. Of course Sonya likes it. Sonya's eyeing her like she wants to tear it off Coley's body, although Coley doesn't know if she's more interested in Coley naked or the dress itself.
"It's gorgeous," Sonya tells her. She steps forward, hooking her fingers in Coley's necklace and tugging her close. "You're gorgeous."
Coley wraps her arms around her waist, and ducks her head to hide her blush.
"So are you," she says. Part of her arm is resting on bare skin; Coley leans forward a bit to look, tugging Sonya's hair to the side. "Oh, wow. Did you lose the back to this dress?"
"Don't tell me you don't like it," Sonya laughs, and shivers when Coley runs her fingers down her spine.
"I like it," Coley says softly. "I like you."
Sonya's eyes glow, bright in the low light of her bedroom. She cups Coley's cheek, kisses the tender spot where her jaw meets her neck.
"You're going to smear your lipstick," Coley whispers.
Sonya shrugs. "I don't care."
"We're going to be late."
Sonya kisses her on the lips. "I don't care."
Fifteen minutes later, Coley's phone buzzes.
Where r u? We're gonna be late!!!
"Shelby wants us," she says breathily, and Sonya laughs.
"Guess we'd better fix our lipstick," she says. "We can't be late for the dance. You only get one winter formal in senior year, you know."
"I know," Coley says, and takes her girlfriend's hand. "Let's go."