1: it's hard to find someone with that kind of intensity
Serena sips from the plastic cup in her hand. Grimaces. The punch is vile, but it’s alcohol. She knocks it back and it burns her throat. Tonight is the night. Tonight she tells her best friend she has feelings for her. No more lying to herself. No more hiding from the truth.
She is love. With Berenice Wolfe – of all people.
Berenice Wolfe, her best friend since she smiled a shy, lopsided smile and asked if she would like to be lab partners in Mrs Lockwood’s biology class. (They ended up being the only pair not to screw up the experiment set and win the prize of a milky bar.)
Berenice Wolfe, who was captain of both the netball and rounders team at St Winifred’s school for girls, but on that dreadful rainy morning in first period P.E. dropped the rounder’s ball despite the fact she could catch it in her sleep so Serena could complete the circuit.
Berenice Wolfe, who beat her at every sport except tennis at which Serena, in her own triumphant words, kicked her ass.
Berenice Wolfe, who when Serena dumped her first proper boyfriend, spotty Edward – because she saw him snogging Linda behind the bike sheds – flexed an arm and offered jokingly to beat him up for making Serena cry, before sharing her pudding with Serena and telling her that she was far too good for him. I know, Serena wiped back a tear, her last one, that’s why I chucked him. That’s my girl, Bernie smiled.
Berenice Wolfe, who let Serena make her up that one time, let her paint her lips scarlet and curl her lashes until they were thick with mascara. It’s the only way we’ll get in, Serena convinced her, even more made up than Bernie and clad in a tiny silver dress and even more sparkly hoop earrings.
(Bernie swallowed thickly when she saw just how much skin the dress revealed, her eyes drawn to Serena’s necklace, which in turn drew her eyes lower to a cleavage Bernie had now given all hope would appear on her lanky frame. It was the last time she would look at Serena so unabashedly, without guilt or shame. It was a time when Bernie didn’t fully register why her eyes lingered on her best friend’s curves. Or why the smile of the pretty new barista in the local coffee shop made her heart flutter. Or why Bernie always jumped at the chance to help the maths teacher, Miss McGowan – with soft brunette hair, soft caramel eyes and an even softer Irish lilt – hand the textbooks out.)
Berenice Wolfe, whose arm Serena clutched so tight she nearly cut off the circulation as she wobbled in high-heeled boots (black, not silver this time) she hadn’t quite mastered. When they were safely sat in the back of the darkened cinema, Bernie helped her unzip them. (No one batted an eye at the two fifteen years old sneaking into an X-rated horror movie.)
Berenice Wolfe, who was too busy trying to stifle bouts of honking laughter to feel an ounce of fear as Serena continually shrieked and spent most of the film with her head buried in the crook of her arm (and in the more scarier parts, pressed against Bernie’s neck, eyes shut tight).
Berenice Wolfe, who turned up on Serena’s doorstep shaking and struggling to hold back tears as blood dripped down her forehead from a nasty gash. She was too stubborn to go to hospital – that damnable stiff British upper lip of hers – but she let Serena sit her down in a chair and clean up the cut. Doctors truly do make the worst patients, Serena concurred as Bernie fidgeted and grumbled. Steady on, Bernie reminded her, I don’t even know if any university will have me yet.
Pftt. Serena rolled her eyes. They’d be stupid not to.
(I told you so, Serena sing-songed a couple of months later when they both got accepted onto their medicine courses. All that worrying for nothing, Doctor Wolfe.)
Serena’s voice was low and serious as they stood in the garden. As Bernie lit a cigarette, Serena could see that the tremble hadn’t quite vanished from her hands. So, Serena levelled, who do I need to kill? I assume you didn’t fall in the shower.
Bernie shook her head. Mumbled that she didn’t catch their faces. Too busy trying to dodge half a brick – unsuccessfully. Some girls from the year below, probably.
Fucking cowards, Serena swiped Bernie’s cigarette. Took a drag. Passed it back. Fucking juveniles.
Did they say anything?
Again, Bernie shook her head. They didn’t say a word, but they did scrawl a word on the brick in red paint. (Not that she told Serena that.)
Did it happen outside school? Did Bernie want to report it?
What good would that do? Bernie shrugged.
It wasn’t fucking right. It isn’t fucking right. Serena paced the patio. Threw up her arms. Some people are gay. Get the fuck over it!
Bernie nearly dropped her cigarette.
Serena’s hand flew to her mouth. Oh God, Bernie I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean to –
Tell all your neighbours?
I – I –
How long have you known?
A while. Serena looked down at the ground. Since we were sixteen and I found that porn mag underneath your bed creased at the picture of a rather well-endowed woman.
Shit. Bernie’s cheeks flushed red.
But I’d, well, guessed before that. I’m sorry I never told you but I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable by putting you on the spot. Make you talk about thing you weren’t ready to. Serena groaned. And now I’ve done just that.
Clearly, you’re not the only one who knows. Bernie pointed to her head. Anyone with an ear has heard the rumours.
People spread rumours about any girl who has short hair and just happens to be good at sports.
Oh, I don’t know what I’m complaining about then.
Bernie, I didn’t mean that. I know they’re more than rumours. More than words. I know they’re intended to threaten and degrade and I can’t imagine how it feels to suffer them, or to keep such a secret but Bernie . . . Serena stepped forward and clasped Bernie’s hands. I want you to know you never have to hide who you are from me.
I wanted to tell you so much. Bernie feels tears threatening to spill once more. Blinks them back. I did. I just . . . got scared. I didn’t want to ruin our friendship.
Why would you?
Bernie shrugged. Or, at least, I didn’t want things to change between us.
They won’t. You like women, Bernie. And you probably have all your life, longer than I’ve known you, but I’m your best friend. Simple as. ‘Fraid you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.
Serena remembers the conversation as she goes to fetch herself another cup of punch. Her last one, she promises herself. She needs to be able to think straight – even if she hasn’t been able to do that for a good while now. Especially around one Bernice Wolfe.
How many times has she encouraged Bernie to be herself around Serena? Told her that she never needs to worry or hide around her. And Serena’s the one who’s been doing exactly that – repressing a part of her. Thinking, telling herself over and over that she can’t like women when she likes men. When she enjoys flirting with them. Dating them. Sleeping with them.
She could imagine herself living with a man when she’s older. Could imagine herself marrying a man and imagine herself being happy. Until she couldn’t. Until she realised, one night at a party, that she was in love with her best friend. They were playing spin the bottle with the six other girls in their dorm room when the bottle landed on Alice K. and she was dared by Sarah to kiss someone. When Alice chose Bernie, leant over and pressed a lingering kiss to the corner of her mouth, Serena’s gut twisted painfully.
She thought it was anger, at first. A feeling of protection for her high school best friend. The girls in their dorm were clever girls. Serena was Head Girl and Alice was her deputy. Serena found the girl a bit timid, but it was an endearing kind of shyness and what she lacked in words she more than made up in brains. Serena had always liked the girl.
However, in that moment she hated her. With every ounce of her being. How dare she put Bernie in a situation like that! She could have chosen anyone, but no, even though Alice very likely suspected what Serena knew of Bernie, she still kissed her. Without any thought for how Bernie might feel or that everyone was watching.
After what seemed like an eternity, Alice drew back from Bernie. Smiling. Serena curled her fist in her lap, feeling her gut twist tighter. Serena studied Bernie’s face throughout the entire thing. Bernie would act cool, she knew. Smile nervously, but nobly play along. Serena searched for the tiny, tell-tale signs she knew to spot on Bernie’s face. The tightness of her lips at the corners or the line of tension in her neck that meant that something wasn’t right. That she was uncomfortable or embarrassed or upset in any way.
What she didn’t expect was to see a smile quirking Bernie’s lips, small but unmistakable and one directed at Alice. Serena felt as if she’d been punched in the stomach. She didn’t feel angry or protective. She felt jealous.
Jealous of her best friend smiling like that at another girl instead of Serena. For the rest of the night, Serena tied herself in knots with thoughts of Bernie and Alice. Wondering if anything was going on between them. Wondering that if there wasn’t if Bernie wanted there to be?
Serena found out that the latter was right and the former soon fulfilled.
Bernie dated Alice for four months. Four months of agony for Serena. She’d made sure that Bernie knew she could tell her anything – and of course, Serena was the only one Bernie could tell about Alice. Serena listened as Bernie fretted over what to wear for a date with Alice. Helped her calm her nerves before playing a netball match – not because it was the final tournament, but because Alice would be watching. Serena was there for Bernie – with a shoulder to cry on and a milky bar – when her and Alice had their tiff because Bernie ‘never emotionally opened up’. Even though every atom of Serena’s body was screaming break up with her, if someone couldn’t respect your boundaries, then . . . Serena had a whole speech carefully worked out, but she said none of it.
She knew Bernie still liked Alice. And apparently, the ball was in Alice’s court, not Bernie’s when it came to dumping the other. It was Bernie who needed to apologise and she did. She made up with Alice the next day. Serena deserved an Academy Award for her show of happiness at the news. How she managed to refrain from punching the air in joy when Bernie told her that her and Alice had broken up halfway through the Autumn semester remained a mystery.
It was the distance, Bernie explained. What with Bernie at university in the south of England and Alice all the way up in Edinburgh. It was hard to keep in contact. Their relationship was still in the early days and it couldn’t bear the strain. Serena saw her best friend through her first heartbreak and vowed that something like that would never come between their friendship. Serena wouldn’t let them fall out of contact or drift apart. Their universities were just over an hour apart – a pain in the ass when the trains played up – but Serena was determined that their friendship wouldn’t fall apart.
Despite her vow, it is Serena who has been distant recently and inch by inch she has been unconsciously pushing Bernie away. A month ago, Robbie, a boy in her halls, had asked her out on a date. He seemed nice, clean and well-groomed at least – compared to the standard set by other students – and Serena liked him. She hadn’t had a boyfriend, hadn’t dated in over a year. For most of it she’d pined after her best friend. And it had gone nowhere.
Serena wasn’t brave enough try and make it go somewhere.
She knew just because Bernie was gay didn’t mean she fancied every woman on earth – contrary to what some straight girls might think – and she’d never shown any inclination of that kind towards Serena. Maybe Serena was fooling herself in hoping that something might happen. Maybe there were better friends. She still hadn’t got her hand around the whole ‘Serena Campbell – straight or lesbian or bisexual?’ thing yet. She wouldn’t let herself use Bernie to certify that. She had to process those thoughts by herself.
And Robbie asking her out threw all those thoughts into disarray. Could she go out with him knowing she was in love with Bernie? Was she in love with Bernie? Properly? Wholly? To the extent that she would turn down one tiny but potentially fun date? She wasn’t Bernie’s girlfriend. Wasn’t tied to her in anyway and yet Serena felt a strange sense of loyalty. Felt she might betray it if she accepted Robbie’s offer. Felt she might betray herself if she accepted Robbie's offer.
But why? She was attracted to him. She was attracted to men. And God, wasn’t she overthinking this? For all she knew, Bernie could have just been asked out by a girl and accepted. It was stupid to think like that Serena knew. It was stupid to pine after something that might never happen too. So, Serena went on the date with Robbie. Ate good wine food. Drank good wine. Had a good time. And at the end of the night when he kissed her, that was good too. Just good.
It didn’t light any spark inside her.
And she didn’t arrange another date with him. Only gave him a ‘maybe’ when he asked if they could do this again. He gave her his number but she didn’t call him.
And the reason wasn’t because she didn’t like men. She did, but she also liked women and one in particular. And it was time she did something about it. She would set a date, and on that date, she would tell Bernie. Bernie had invited her to stop the weekend at her University halls. Her friend was throwing a house party three weeks Saturday and she wondered if Serena would like to go with her.
Serena agreed. Spent the next days in a nervous tizzy. Either barely able to pronounce two words when Bernie called at their usual weekly time or full of nonsense that rambled off her tongue before she could stop it. When Bernie greeted her off the train this morning, her words were neither short or full in supply. The nerves had made her jittery, and her tone brusque. She had even snapped at Bernie a few times. Silly, little bursts of annoyance that she quickly apologised for, but did nothing to ease the tension between them. Bernie had asked if anything was wrong. Anything serious. Serena had brushed her off and seen Bernie try to hide the fallen look on her face. Great, now she thinks that I don’t trust her. Now she thinks I’m lying to her. Well, aren’t you? A tiny, unwelcome voice in Serena’s head piped up.
It was time she told the truth. And tonight was the night.
Serena pours herself another drink. Searches for Bernie in the crowd. Sees her stood next to a lad, clearly hammered and waving a bottle of vodka in Bernie’s direction. Yelling loudly.
Serena storms over. “What did you just say?”
“I said,” the lad slurred, “that she’s only a dyke ‘cause no one with a cock will –“
“Sorry,” Serena cuts in, feeling the eyes of every person in the room now on her, “you seem to be under the impression that I wanted you to answer.”
“It’s my right of free speech, babe, don’t like it, don’t –“
“How can I put this in terms your narrow-minded, infantile brain will comprehend? Ah, yes. Fuck off.”
Serena chucks her drink over Daniel. “It tastes like cheap shit anyway.” Serena crumples up her plastic cup. Tosses it on the floor, before hooking an arm round an open-mouthed Bernie and leading them out the house.
Serena marches on, practically dragging Bernie down the steps. Only when they reach the pavement does a stunned Bernie break out her stupor.
“What? You wanna go back inside?”
“No, of course not. I – what you just did . . . no one’s ever done something like that for me before.”
“Now they have.”
“But . . . why?”
“Why?” Serena asks. “Because, one he was a jerk. Because, two, you Berenice Griselda Wolfe are the most fantastic and fearless woman I know. Because . . . “
Serena finishes her sentence by pressing her lips to Bernie’s, brief but firm. When she draws back, she sees that Bernie’s face has clouded over. Her eyes are fixed on the ground.
“Have I done something wrong?”
“No, yes. I mean, what you did in there meant a lot to me. It took guts. But . . .” Bernie swallows. “I suppose, well . . . it isn’t fair Serena. I know you’re . . . open-minded, so much more than those cave-men inside and I love that about you, but I don’t want to be, I dunno, some way in which you can show that off. A way for you to protest.”
“What?” Serena is too confused to register the hurt Bernie’s assumption will later strike in her. Instead, she follows Bernie’s line of sight and turns to the house behind her. A dozen or so faces are pressed up against the window, peering at her. Serena glowers at them - her most perfect fuck off expression – and is glad to see some of the faces sink away.
“I had no idea.” Serena turns back to Bernie. “You think I’m using you? Showing off?"
“That wasn’t the best wording, but . . . yes.”
Serena can hardly believe what she is hearing. Her cheeks flush pink. How can Bernie think she would do that? She stalks down the street. No longer able to look at Bernie.
“Serena,” Bernie calls, running after her. “Serena.”
Halfway down the street Serena’s fuse snaps. She whips back around to Bernie. “You think our friendship was what, just a political statement on my behalf? Oh, look at my lesbian friend.” Serena punches a fist into the air. “Justice for gays.”
“Serena, I didn’t mean to –“
“Offend me? Really?” Serena forces herself to take a breath. Since they’re on the topic of the LGBT community. Now or never, she thinks. Now or never. “Okay, listen up Bernie. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume you’re in shock. That you really have never noticed the way I look at you. I didn’t kiss you for them. I kissed you for me.”
Serena steps forward and captures Bernie’s lips once more – fiercer this time. Trying to convey her very vested interest in this activity. Bernie melts into the embrace, arms circling round Serena’s waist, hands snaking up to tangle through her hair.
When they break apart, Bernie’s voice is breathless, small and a tad sheepish. “You’re . . . you’re . . . “
“A bit more than open-minded?” Serena supplies. “Yes, I am. And no, I’m not just curious. I don’t see you as some experiment if that’s what you’re wondering. I have thought a great deal about this you know.”
“Me too,” Bernie admits.
“No, you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have.”
This time it is Serena’s turn to stand open-mouthed.
“I have. I do notice the way you look at me. I just thought . . . you were my best friend and a dyed in the wool heterosexual. I didn’t dare hope – “ Serena’s eyebrows nearly jump to her hairline as Bernie continues, stuttering. “And I didn’t want to . . . “
“Let me guess,” Serena chimes in. “Ruin our friendship.”
Serena smiles. “Want to get out of here?”
“Before Daniel comes out the house and throws a brick at us?”
Serena lifts a hand to Bernie’s forehead. Runs a finger over the scar there.
“Sorry,” Bernie says. “Bad sense of humour.”
“Come on,” Serena drops her hand and walks on. Bernie falls into step beside her.
“Daniel,” Serena asks, “was that his name? The lad?”
“You know, what you did . . .” Bernie stumbles over her words. “It was really hot.”
Serena can’t help but grin at that. “I wished now I had used a fist instead of a paper cup.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” Bernie grasps one of Serena’s hands, the skin of the knuckles intact. “You have beautiful hands.”
Serena bursts out in laughter.
“What?” Bernie asks.
“You’re such a lesbian.”
“Hang on. You just snogged me twice. I think that places you higher on the Sapphic scale right now.”
“There’s a scale?”
“Oh, my God, next time you’re over here I’m taking you to the gay district.”
“Your city’s rubbish. Let’s go to mine instead.”
“I may have . . . had a look. Yes.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Bernie acts mock-annoyed.
“I was confused,” Serena protests. “And now I’m not. Anyway, what do you say?”
“You and me in a room full of hot women. I’m game.”
Serena elbows her in the stomach. “Oi.”
“You were included in the hot women.”
“But, seriously, want to come over to mine next weekend?”
“I’d like that,” Bernie smiles. “I’d more than like that.”
I more than like you, Bernie wants to say but she doesn’t. She doesn’t need to for Serena to know. Because she hasn’t let go of Serena’s hand since she picked it up. She has interlocked their fingers. And that's how they stay, as they walk back to Bernie’s room, holding hands under the cover of darkness. They see not another soul on their way back. Don’t break apart once.
Not when they reach Bernie’s room. Not when they tumble into bed together.
Not when they fall asleep after, wrapped in each other’s arms – the taste of cheap punch on Serena’s tongue replaced entirely by the taste of Bernie.