“Oh my god,” said Jules’s new roommate, Kendra. She clapped her hands together, face lit-up with delight. “Say it again!”
“Santa Clara,” said Jules, beginning to feel a bit self-conscious. Kendra had been here only an hour, and it was the third time she’d asked Jules to say Santa Clara.
Kendra turned to her friend – small, dark-haired, Mindy? Mandy? had shown up at seven in the morning with Kendra, having already moved in all her stuff apparently – and squealed, “Did you hear that? Saunter Clawrer.”
Jules gave them both a slightly desperate smile. She was not really one for being polite when someone was being an arse, but she wanted to at least start the year on good terms with her roommate. She’d hoped she and Jess would be assigned roommates, but someone in the byzantine bureaucracy of campus housing had decreed otherwise. Jess was with another girl on the football team, a six-foot tall amazon of a right-back from “Redding, not too far from Mt. Shasta,” which Jules didn’t understand at all, but sounded delightful.
But Jules was with Kendra who, until this morning, had been nothing more than a name on a form and an empty bed in the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, Jules and Jess and the team there nearly two months early for practice and the start of the season. They’d had three games, gone two and one, before the school year had even officially started.
Then, a week earlier, Kendra had become a name on a neon-pink star as the RA decorated the hallway for the rush of incoming students, and Jules had had to grapple with the fact college would be more than long practices and games and her and Jess tucked together on Jules’s twin bed, watching movies, muscles aching and half-delirious with joy. And then this morning Kendra had become a loud, sunny voice, accompanied by a plump housewife of her mother, and a broad-shouldered, going slightly to seed ex-Navy officer of a father.
“When are your parents coming back?” asked Jules lightly, trying to turn the conversation away from her accent.
Kendra’s parents had left soon after arriving, in a flurry of hugs, off to Target to pick up a few things while Kendra started setting up. So far, beyond interrogating Jules, she had managed to tape a heart-shaped collage of high-school friends to the wall above her bed. It was the kind of saccharine gesture that Jules found repulsive, but it reminded her of something her mum might do and that made her briefly and terribly homesick.
“Probably soon, but Target’s probably a total madhouse right now, everyone moving in, I know I should have bought everything before I left, but I wanted to see how big the room was first, how the lighting was, how was I supposed to know if I’d need any lamps? What do you call that in England?”
“What?” said Jules.
“A lamp! What do you call lamps in England? I know some of your words are different!”
“A lamp,” Jules said, staring at Kendra blankly. “What else would I call it?”
“Oooh,” Kendra cried. “A lahmp."
“Is that supposed to be Jules’s accent?” Jess poked her head into the room, a vision, a miracle, an angel. “It doesn’t sound like her at all.”
Kendra’s mouth bobbed open like a goldfish, and Jules hid her smile behind her hand. Jess caught her eye, smile wicked and gleaming, and it was all Jules could do to not double over in laughter.
“I thought it was good!” said Kendra’s friend defensively.
Jess sniffed, and her eyes landed appraisingly on Kendra’s heart collage. She smirked and looked at Jules. “You ready?”
“Yes!” said Jules gratefully. She jumped off her bed and toed into her trainers. She’d been waiting for Jess for an hour, at least, the two of them had a morning ritual of going to the gym.
“This is Jess,” she said vaguely to Kendra and her friend. “She’s on the team with me. See you later!”
She grabbed Jess’s arm and dragged her out into the hallway, stomach cramping with the laughter she was holding in. Once they were safely out of hearing, she caught Jess again and pressed her forehead into Jess’s shoulder, shaking with laughter.
“Oh my god,” she laughed. “Kendra’s face when you told her off. I nearly died. They were going to make me start reciting bloody Shakespeare next I reckon. Four years of that is going to get annoying.”
They’d only just gotten their teammates to stop repeating everything they said in high, weirdly lilting voices.
“Poor Jules,” said Jess teasingly, tugging at her hair. “Lucky I rescued you.”
“You didn’t rescue me! You were late!” cried Jules, straightening up but keeping her arms around Jess.
To her surprise, Jess blushed.
“Sorry about that, actually. Joe was feeling, er – ”
“Amorous?” suggested Jules dryly, and Jess flushed even darker. Jules laughed – cackled, really – and tugged Jess past the security desk at the front of their dorm and out into the September sunshine.
“Something like that,” said Jess airily, doing only the most rudimentary of stretching before breaking into a run.
Jules snorted and followed, keeping up easily. She wouldn’t press it. Jess got embarrassed about Joe sometimes. Both, Jules thought, because she was still getting used to the thrill of having a boyfriend and because she was worried she’d upset Jules.
But Jules wasn’t upset about it, not anymore. She had been worried that there would be some lingering resentment, that she was, perhaps, a fundamentally petty person. But this many months and miles from Joe, she only really thought about Joe when his and Jess’ early morning phone call made Jess late for something, or their nightly phone call meant she had to end the evening early.
They jogged all the way to the gym, the day spooling out golden and hazy ahead of them. Everything about Santa Clara was new. The campus was studded with palm trees, the buildings large and Spanish, set on gemlike green lawns. And there was so much space between everything; America a gleaming sprawl, opulent and expansive, the smell of eucalyptus and the morning fog rolling in from the bay, broad, sunny accents and people who smiled and made too much eye contact, Jess the only thing that felt like home.
Jules loved it.
Jules took five classes her first semester, none of them deeply interesting: Intermediate French, a baffling course on American civics, a natural science course that felt vaguely remedial, and two classes with Jess. One was a basic English composition class and the other something called Culture and Ideas, a two-part seminar required of everyone and which aimed to introduce freshmen students to the "great ideals of the western canon," which meant a lot of sitting around in a stuffy, windowless classroom, talking about things. Jess and Jules mostly wrote each other notes on the margins of their journals, sometimes giggling inappropriately at a stick figure cartoon while one of their classmates droned on about “but what, like, does it mean to be free?”
This is what it means, thought Jules, later that night. She and Jess had staggered out from a frat party, too many people and the floors sticky and damp, but the beer free for pretty freshmen girls, and the music a deep throb Jules felt in her bones. Outside, the air felt cool on her bare arms, and Jess, laughing, kicked off her heels and raced across the lawn. Jules stood swaying for a moment, smiling broadly, head a pleasant, numb swirl.
“Jules!” cried Jess, standing at the edge of the lawn, hands cupped around her mouth. “Are you coming or what?”
“I’m coming!” Jules yelled back, laughing, and she leaned down and pried her heels off. The grass was wet, the blades poking up between her toes. It felt good, to be out of her hated high heels, feet connected with the earth.
“Jules!” yelled Jess again, loud and ringing and merry. “I’m waiting!”
Jules ran and she felt like she was flying, towards where Jess waited for her, arms outstretched, gleaming slightly from sweat and the wan, artificial light of night. Then, when Jules was halfway to her, Jess laughed and started running again, away from Jules and down the street.
“Too slow, Paxton!” she called over her shoulder, black hair and bright laughter streaming out behind her.
Jules chased her, but she wasn’t going to catch her, she knew. Jess could always outpace her. But Jules didn’t really want to catch her either. She felt like they could run forever like this, Jess always a few yards ahead. The streets were full of students, out for a Friday night, but they seemed empty; it was just her and Jess, dreamlike and sweet, flitting from streetlamp to streetlamp, the world a dull, uninteresting stream around them.
Neither of them saw much playing time their first season, and Jess spent a lot of time grumbling about how she didn’t move halfway across the world to not play football, and Jules grinned and elbowed her.
“No, you moved halfway across the world to get away from your parents.”
Jess laughed and shoved at her, and they spent the rest of the game jostling each other until the second string keeper got so fed up, she sent them to opposite sides of the bench. That was the way most of the season passed, grabbing playing time only when the more experienced players were injured.
Jules could wait though. She had three more years.
When they went home for Christmas, Jules didn’t see Jess for three days, both of them caught up in a whirlwind of family and old friends. And Jules, at least, catching up on sleep.
On the fourth day, Jules pleaded off from a second straight day of Christmas shopping, and ran the entire way to Jess’s house, through the now frost-covered park they met in.
“She’s not here,” said Tony, when he answered the door.
Jules looked at him curiously.
“Then what are you doing here?”
He gave her an odd look. “Visiting the Bhamras.”
Jules was suddenly reminded that he had been Jess’s friend for much longer than she had. She liked Tony; he seemed a decent enough bloke, and Jess clearly thought the world of him. But Jules always felt a bit awkward around him, a bit proprietary, like they were both skirting around the issue that they both wanted to be Jess’s best friend.
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
Tony shrugged. “She went out with Joe. She’s supposed to be back before it gets dark.”
Jules felt another, sharper stab of jealousy at the mention of Joe. It made sense they were out together; Joe and Jess never got to see each other, but Jules had gotten used to a world where she was the only person with claims on Jess’s time.
“Well, I’ll swing by tomorrow then,” said Jules, sounding a bit clipped to her own ears.
“Sure,” said Tony, still looking at her oddly. “Good seeing you, Jules.”
Jules nodded and left, wandering home at a much slower place than she’d taken to get to Jess’s. She felt strange and tense, and she wanted desperately to see Jess, even if she had nothing more important to say to her than the dozens of weird, hilarious, humiliating things her mum had said and done in the past four days.
It was just, Jules decided, walking slowly through the park, that she wasn’t used to going so long without seeing Jess. She was out of the habit was all.
Three things happened that spring: one of the seniors on their team was the first pick in the WUSA draft, the Women’s World Cup was moved to the US, and Jules picked a major.
The whole business of picking a major bemused Jules. She’d known she wanted to play football professionally from the moment she found out the US had a woman’s league. So it didn’t matter what she studied. And no amount of nay-saying from any number of adult figures could convince her otherwise – the league is so unstable, there’s not a lot of money in it, so many people want to play professionally but so few do, what if you get injured?
College was a means to an end – a way to get trained and have a team – a real team, a professional team – find her. And now, with one of their teammates drafted, her future had never felt closer. She knew Jess felt the same way, but Jess, at least, had decided on a major.
“Biology,” she told Jules with a roll of her eyes. “I did all right in the A-levels in it, didn’t I? And my parents have been bothering me about picking something practical. And now they think I’m pre-med.”
But that spring, Jules took a class on Roman religion. It wasn’t revelatory or life-changing. She knew what a life-changing moment felt like – the first time she played football, the time she convinced Joe to start a women’s team, the first time she saw Jess play, like a sudden flame flickering up between the trees. She didn’t think she was the kind of person to find revelation in the classroom. But she liked the professor and she liked the class and the TA for her section, a green-haired first-year grad student with a nose-ring, had a beautiful, ironic smile that made Jules feel like her stomach had turned to water.
“Your midterm was great,” said Darcy, which was the TA’s name, when Jules met her to talk about the final. Jules never went to office hours; neither did Jess, and she knew Jess would laugh at her if she knew where Jules was now. “I really liked some of your ideas about gender and religion. Have you thought about expanding on those?”
“Really?” said Jules, entire body going hot. “I mean, maybe?”
She drifted away from the meeting feeling like she was spun from starlight, and she spent the whole week before finals cramped in a library cubicle, writing the best paper she could.
“It’s still good,” said Jess, laughing, when Jules made her read the second draft. “Just like last time.”
“Yeah,” said Jules, stressed. “But do you think the conclusion holds up? It’s a bit too pompous, innit?”
“It’s fine! I like it. Very weighty,” said Jess soothingly. She cocked her head and gave Jules the fish-eye. “But what’s this about? You’re never this stressed about class.”
Jules blushed. “Nothing! I just, you know, I’m thinking of majoring in it.”
“In Roman religion?” said Jess skeptically.
“In history!” said Jules. She grabbed the draft away from Jess. “But I have to know I can hack it first.”
It was as good a reason as any to pick a major.
But Jules wasn’t really someone to lie to herself. That night, she sat on her bed and evaluated the evidence.
She fell back on the end with a groan. She liked girls. She definitely liked girls.
Sophomore year, their patience paid off. Most of the old guard had graduated, leaving her and Jess behind as first picks up top. They were regulars on the team, and they moved out of the dorms and in together, into a cramped apartment with warped wooden floors and an oven that ran too hot.
They spent the first half of the season terrorizing back lines across the country. Jess, slight but brilliant, ended up moving backwards on the field, tucking slightly inwards, an inverted winger for the women’s game. Jules would never have the stature of someone like Birgit Prinz, but she was fairly tall and still quick, a poacher by nature, and she and Jess worked in easy harmony. Jess sending floating ball after gliding cross for Jules to smash in, or Jules drawing two or three defenders after her and giving Jess the space to rocket through and beat the keeper. They were brilliant. They were invincible. They were going to be called up by England, play professionally, and be wreathed in laurels and glory.
Then, three days before the start of the World Cup, the US women’s professional league dissolved.
“Dissolved?” said Jules, when she heard the news. “You mean, like ended? Forever?”
“It collapsed,” said their coach. The entire team was quiet, ash-faced. “Finances were in awful shape.”
“Where are all the players going then?” asked Jess. “They don’t have jobs anymore.”
“Depends. If they’re good, there are teams in Europe that will take them.”
There was a long, drawn out silence. Jess was squeezing Jules’s hand hard enough to hurt, and Jules was squeezing just as hard back.
“This would never happen to a men’s league,” said Jules tightly.
“Oh, please,” said one of the freshmen, tossing her long hair. “Not everything’s about sexism. Men’s leagues have collapsed in the US before, too. Americans just don’t care about soccer.”
Jess turned to her coldly.
“Then why are you here?”
“Well,” said their coach hastily, before things got tenser. “It’s a bit of bad news, good news. I know what will cheer you girls up. I’ve gotten the team tickets for the World Cup final.”
They rode the bus to Carson, in southern California, down the I-5. It was a long, dust-choked ride, small, dismal towns sliding by the windows. They packed their lunches, but stopped for dinner some place where none of the buildings rose above a story and Jules saw the horizon stretched taut as sheet in every direction, ending in the hazy bumps of mountains to the west and east.
Jules had felt displaced for weeks, since she’d heard the news about the league collapsing, and it had felt like her future had been yanked out from under her. Here, in the weird, flat, twilight of the Central Valley, the sense of dislocation only heightened. She had come thousands of miles to a foreign country to bet on a dream that no longer existed.
Jess came to stand by her.
“Not hungry?” she asked.
Jules shook her head. “I am. Sorry, just out of it.”
“It’s been a long ride,” said Jess sympathetically. She leaned against Jess, shoulders pressing together, and Jules could smell the familiar, floral scent of Jess’s shampoo.
“Do you ever think we made a mistake?” she asked in an undertone.
Jess was quiet.
“Well, we’re going to see the World Cup,” she pointed out after a pause. “So it hasn’t been all bad. And we’ve still got a couple years, right? Who knows what’ll happen. Joe might even actually get the Harriers to go pro by then.”
Jules smiled, feeling immensely grateful to have Jess there, someone who could practically read her mind.
“You think so? Joe’s a bit of a wanker. Might take him longer than that.”
Jess laughed, but she looked a little troubled suddenly, like she didn’t quite believe what she had said.
Jules bumped their shoulders together.
“Hey,” she said. “You know I couldn’t do this without you.”
Jess’s smile reappeared, proud and a little wicked.
“Damn right you couldn’t. You need me to make you look good.”
Jules laughed, and tugged on Jess’s arm. “Come on. We should get something to eat before the bus leaves without us.”
Jules had never been to a game – let alone a women’s game – with this many people. The stadium was packed, and it wasn’t even the US playing in the final. Their team was seated high up in the stands, cheapest of the cheap seats. The players on the field looked almost like pixels. But otherwise, it was perfect, Jess by her side, and the whole team yelling abuse at the refs for whatever reasons they could think of, switching sides at random, because nobody really cared if Sweden or Germany won.
It was a bright autumn day, still warm, and Jules knew, watching the game, that it was going to be her one day. No matter what. And she was going to have Jess with her.
She felt better, on the ride back. There was still women’s footie in the world, and there were still people who cared about it, thousands of people even. She and Jess could make it. She and Jess kept reliving the best moments of the game – Germany bounding back after the half, scraping out a second goal in extra time to win the game. Which Jules found disappointing – she always liked it when a game went to penalties (unless it was England, of course), but Jess disagreed, and they got into a long, happy argument about whether a win really counted if it went to penalty kicks.
Then Rachel Bode, the team captain and a stout defender from Seattle, loomed in front of them.
“You Brits are inseparable,” she scolded, though her expression said she was half-teasing. “Learn about one of your other teammates for a change.”
“We can’t help it that we’re the most interesting people here,” said Jules with a cheeky grin, her arm slung over Jess.
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Back of the bus, Paxton. You’ve got so many opinions about penalty kicks, go give Tamara some advice on how to stop one.”
Tamara was the freshman goalkeeper. She was very tall and very shy, and her confidence was shaky at times. She quailed every time Jules and Jess took turns practicing their free kicks and penalties on her.
“Not sure how much advice I can give while on a bus. Not like we can practice.”
“Paxton,” said Rachel, a warning note in her voice.
Jules sighed, untangling herself from Jess, and trudged dutifully to the back of the bus. Jules understood where Rachel was coming from. A good team needed good chemistry, and she and Jess really were inseparable. But she would still much rather have been sitting next to Jess, arguing and counting the number of cows they passed, than trying to lure out Tamara of her shell.
Jess seemed to feel the same way. She kept leaning out of her seat and into the aisle, looking backwards in an attempt to catch Jules’s eye. When she succeeded, they immediately threw dramatic, matching pouts and both burst into laughter.
“You two are crazy,” said Tamara, under her breath.
“We are,” agreed Jules. “That’s what makes us so good.”
And they were damn good. They made it all the way to the College Cup semifinal, having crashed out the year before in the quarters, Jules and Jess watching in agony on the sidelines.
And then, in the semifinals, Jules went down from a nasty tackle, ankle twisting beneath her and giving out with a crunch, and Jess got sent off for a retribution foul. And that was how they both ended up on the sidelines, watching their team lose, for the second year in a row.
One day, late in the spring semester, Jules came back from class and found Jess cooking. Which was extremely rare. She and Jules never made anything more complicated than a salad or eggs or beans on toast if they could help it. Once, they’d made a decent pasta, but it was much easier to order in or go to the student dining commons than puzzle through a recipe.
“Oh my god,” said Jules, kicking off her shoes and wandering into the kitchen. “What are you cooking? It smells amazing.”
“Aloo gobi,” said Jess. She smiled wryly, looking up at Jules as she leaned against the entry way to the kitchen. “It’s the one thing my mum actually managed to teach me to make.”
“What’s the special occasion?” asked Jules.
Jess shrugged and went back to pushing cauliflower around in the pan. Jules watched her. Jess was in shorts – boxers, really, she and Jules were getting increasingly lax about wearing proper clothing around the apartment when it was just the two of them – and her legs were long and brown and slim, the calves rounded with muscle. The scar on her thigh was just visible, and looking at the edge of it made a warm, pleasant feeling spread through Jules’s stomach. It wasn’t that she liked the scar, but Jess still felt self-conscious about it, wearing long jeans even in summer if they weren’t on the field. But she was comfortable enough around Jules not to care, and it always made Jules feel like she’d crossed some threshold, among the elite of Jess’s heart.
She walked over to Jess and placed her hand on Jess’s waist and looked over her shoulder. Jess leaned back against her instinctively, a warm, long press along Jules’s front, the kind of pose that would maybe make people think the wrong thing. That, Jules realized, was beginning to maybe make her think the wrong thing.
She thought about moving away, but then Jess said, in a tight hurt voice, “Joe and I broke up,” and Jules froze.
“Oh,” she said, mind going blank for a moment. “Is that why you’re cooking?”
Jess laughed wetly. “I guess. Just feeling a bit homesick, you know?”
“Right,” said Jules, though she wasn’t quite sure how that connected to Jess and Joe breaking up.
Jess kept talking, her voice taking on the accent it took when she talked about her family.
“I kind of want to call my mum, you know? Like, this is when you’re supposed to call your mum, when you break up with your boyfriend. But. I know she’ll just say I never should have been dating in the first place. That when she was my age, she was already pregnant with Pinky.”
“Right,” said Jules, feeling a bit helpless. It wasn’t like she had much in the way of advice to offer either. She squeezed Jess’s waist tightly. “Have you thought about calling Pinky?”
“Maybe,” said Jess. She turned the heat low on the stove, and turned suddenly, pressing her face into Jules’s shoulder. She started to cry.
“Oh,” said Jules. “Hey.” She patted Jess’s back awkwardly. “It’ll be okay.”
She realized she didn’t know why Jess and Joe had broken up. She hadn’t even known they were having trouble, though, on reflection, Jess had seemed more tense than usual, which Jules had just attributed to midterms and lingering ill temper over the Cup final. She and Jess talked about everything, except for Joe. Any time they did, it had felt like a tight band was constricting around Jules’s chest.
She held Jess a little tighter, not saying anything. She felt terrible for Jess, sad because she was sad, but there was a part of her, small and selfish and terrible, that felt relief.
The phone rang, sparing Jules from spending too much time considering what a terrible person she was.
“It’s probably my mum!” said Jess, distressed. She was no longer crying, but her eyes were bright and wet. She shoved at Jules. “Answer it and tell her I’m out!”
“Okay!” said Jules. She ran for the phone, catching it on the third ring, and answered with a only slightly frazzled, “Hello?”
“Juliette, is that you?” said Mrs. Bhamra, genuine fondness in her voice. It still surprised Jules that Jess’s parents liked her, that she, at some point, had moved from interloping bad influence to friend of the family.
“Yes, er. How are you, Mrs. Bhamra?”
She looked at Jess where she was still standing in the kitchen. Jess’s eyes were wide and intent.
“I’m not here,” she mouthed.
“I’m well. Thank you, Juliette. Is Jesmindar around?”
“Er.” Jules glanced at Jess. “She’s out, actually. She went to get groceries.”
“She’s cooking?” said Mrs. Bhamra, sounding surprised. “What is she cooking?”
“Er. Aloo gobi, I think? She said she needed spices.”
“Hmmph, well make sure she doesn’t burn it! That girl is always wandering away from the stove. Too distractible,” said Mrs. Bhamra, but Jules could tell she was pleased Jess was cooking.
“I’ll be sure to tell her. You have a good day, Mrs. Bhamra.”
She hung up the phone and looked at Jess, who was still watching her.
“You’re going to have to tell her sometime,” she said gently, touching Jess’s shoulder.
Jess pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes.
“I know,” she said. “But not right now. Can we just eat?”
Jules took her hands and moved them, then kissed Jess on the forehead.
“Of course. Whatever you want.”
True to her word, Mrs. Bhamra called again a couple hours later. Jules and Jess had been sitting quietly on the couch, knees pressed against each other, and watching a movie on the grainy, old television they’d bought from their apartment’s former tenants.
“I can tell her you’re asleep,” said Jules immediately.
Jess shook her head, face set and stubborn. “No. I can do it. I should do it.”
She got up, taking the phone with her into the kitchen.
Jules muted the movie, something old in black and white that she had only been paying half-attention to anyway. She listened to Jess greet her mum and answer some questions about the aloo gobi.
“It was really good!” yelled Jules, hanging over the side of the couch. “Tell Jess to make it again!”
Jess laughed, sticking her head back into the living room to roll her eyes at Jules. Jules blew her a kiss.
“Yeah, Mum,” said Jess. “No, Mum. No, I know Mum. Mum, listen.”
And then Jess took a deep breath and launched into a rapid fire of Punjabi. She disappeared back into the kitchen. Jess always switched to Punjabi when she was talking to her parents about something sensitive, which, around Jules, mainly meant Joe. She listened to Jess for another moment, the few words of English she caught not really enough to give context. It was hard to tell if it was an argument, but Jules could hear the emotion thick in Jess’s voice. She got up and walked to her bedroom, shutting the door behind her to give Jess privacy.
She lay on the bed, closing her eyes. She knew she should call Joe, check up on him. They were friends, after all, and had been friends for longer than either of them had known Jess. But something had shifted, imperceptibly but totally, and Jules, regardless of what had happened, was now completely on Jess’s side, and mainly thankful she would no longer have to vie with Joe for Jess’s attention.
There was a very long pause and Jules realized the call was over. There was a knock on her door.
“Can I come in?” asked Jess softly.
Jules sat up quickly.
“Yeah,” she called. “Of course.”
Jess came in, looking a little lost, like a small child after a nightmare.
“My bloody parents,” she said dully, climbing onto the bed next to Jules. She rested her head on Jules’s shoulder. Jules squeezed her side, made a hmm noise to indicate she’s listening.
“They flip out over me playing footie under a male coach. And then they flip out when I tell them I’m dating Joe. But now they love him – oh he’s so good at cricket! Jesmindar! If you’re not going to date a Sikh, at least you were dating a white boy who could bowl!”
Jules laced their fingers together. “They really in a strop because you two broke up?”
Jess sighed, and turned her head so that her nose pressed into Jules’s shoulder.
“I don’t know. I think they’re worried if I don’t marry Joe, I’m never going to marry anyone. But mum’s also already told me her cousin’s cousin’s nephew lives in San Francisco, and he’s a doctor.”
“At least you’ve dated someone. I think my mum’d almost prefer I was a lesbian at this point. She’s convinced she’s going to die without grandchildren.”
She felt weird as she said it, like she was being dishonest. She thought about how sometimes just being near Jess made her heart feel like a trapped bird inside her chest.
Jess laughed softly.
“You’ll find someone. Not your fault there’s no one good enough for you. Boys are prats anyway.”
“Boys are prats,” agreed Jules solemnly. She kissed the side of Jess’s head. “Do you want to sleep here tonight?”
Jess nodded, looking relieved, like she'd been waiting for Jules to ask. They shared beds sometimes, mainly when they were traveling for games and there wasn’t enough in the budget for everyone to get their own bed.
Jules stayed awake for a very long time, and by the sound of her breathing, Jess did, too.
Realizing she had feelings for Jess had been like realizing she was gay. Suddenly, a bright light was cast on the past, explaining feelings and actions she had been unable or unwilling to allow herself to examine. And she realized, too, almost despairingly, that she was really, really gone for Jess.
She thought maybe she should do some research. Figure out what it really meant, to like girls. But it wasn’t like liking boys. There was no way to tell if a girl was into other girls, and even if Jules could crack the code, she had no idea what you were supposed to do afterwards. Did you invite them on a date? There were a few girls on her team she suspected might also be gay, but it never felt appropriate to bring it up. And as much as she liked her teammates, she wasn’t sure it would be a good idea to put the moves on them anyway.
It wasn’t like with boys, who were always around, and pretty much always willing to take you out for dinner or make out with you. And Jules had done plenty of that, especially after her first year – to really, really make sure she wasn’t into boys at all. And she wasn’t. Making out with boys had been nice enough, but mostly left her feeling a bit sticky and annoyed. There wasn’t anything like the weird, bubbling weightlessness that spilled through her sometimes when she looked at Jess.
She was worried it would make things weird for them, both on the field and off. But it didn’t. If anything, they were better than they ever had been before. They were unstoppable. And Jules would have to be mad to muck up their chemistry with an ill-timed confession.
But she should have known better than to think she could keep a secret that big from Jess.
“Something’s going on,” said Jess one morning, early into the season. They were both flushed from a run, and Jules was only half-paying attention, busy scrounging up something for breakfast.
“What is?” said Jules, checking their bread carefully for mold.
“I don’t know. But something’s going on with you.”
Jules looked up at her, startled.
“What do you mean something’s going on with me?”
Jess was studying her, as if maybe Jules were manifesting physical signs of something.
“You’ve been acting really strangely,” said Jess. “All summer, and even now still.”
Jules scowled, trying to brush off Jess’s words. But her stomach clenched tightly in a knot. She wasn’t hungry any more.
“Are you psychic now? Cuz that will probably end up being quite helpful on the pitch.”
“I know you well enough to know when something’s off,” she said stiffly.
Jules turned to look at her, feeling queasy.
“Do you really want to know?” she asked.
“Of course I do.
Jules watched her face.
“I, I fancy someone.”
Jess’s eyes narrowed. “Well, why didn’t you say anything?”
She sounded put out, and her shoulders had hunched, the way they did when she was very irritated.
“Because I don’t think they feel the same way.” Jules’s ears were burning. She went back to looking at the bread; anything was better than meeting Jess’s scrutiny head on.
Suddenly, Jess was right by her side, very, very near.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Somebody’d have to be mad not to fancy you.”
Jules frowned and put the bread down. She looked directly at Jess. There was no way she was going to keep this secret from Jess long. Jess was stubborn, and Jules was a terrible liar.
“I fancy you,” she said bluntly.
Jess’s mouth dropped open.
“You fancy me,” she repeated, sounding dazed.
“Yes,” said Jules. It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t anything like how she pictured it, when she let herself picture it. Jess was looking at her with an expression she’d never seen before. “I think I’m,” she made a face, “a lesbian.”
“You think you’re a lesbian because you fancy me?”
“Well. You, and other girls. Yeah. But mainly you.”
There was a long, painful silence. Jules couldn’t look at Jess. Her stomach was starting to hurt.
“I think, maybe, I might fancy you too.”
Jules looked at her; Jess was looking back, cheeks red, but brow furrowed and jaw set.
“Really?” said Jules.
“Yeah,” said Jess, turning redder. “Really. I don’t know if I’m – I mean, I really liked Joe. But. I really like you too. So I don’t know what I am, but – ”
Jules kissed her, and mostly missed. Jess laughed, grabbing at her waist.
“That was terrible,” she said.
“Sorry,” said Jules, laughing, too. “We should try again.”
“I agree,” said Jess, nosing at Jules gently. Jules flushed, not used to this kind of touching, and Jess slid her hand up Jules back, let it rest gently in her hair.
Jules bit her lip and touched Jess’s waist gently. She was used to touching Jess. She touched her all the time, an action so simple and natural, that, even as hyper-alert of Jess as she had become, they could sometimes wind up half in the other’s lap without Jules noticing.
But this was different. This was touching with intent. Jules felt flushed everywhere. She was acutely aware of the individual strands of hair escaping Jess’s hairband and framing her face, of the warmth of her body against Jules’s hand. But she also felt like she was spinning, like Jess and the room and everything in it kept sliding in and out of focus.
Jess kissed her. Properly. And when they finally pulled away, Jules was breathless.
“Wow,” she said. “Did you learn that from Joe?”
Jess shrieked and pounded her shoulder.
“Oh my god! Jules!”
Jules, laughing, caught her wrists and pulled her close, kissing the corner of her mouth.
“That was really simple,” she said, a little wondrously, her arms around Jess. “I don’t know why I was so worried.”
Jess shrugged, and leaned up to kiss Jules again. “I can see how I’d be intimidating.”
“What were you like as a kid?” asked Jules, one November morning when the fog and cold had conspired to almost make a real winter. It wasn’t long before the College Cup and they were aching from a tense game the night before, both of them nursing minor, nagging injuries. And it had seemed a perfect idea to blow off their morning classes and lie in bed together, watching the gray, flat sky through the window of Jess’s room.
Jess was lying between Jules and the wall, half-curled, and wearing nothing but an oversized hoodie over a pair of boxers and thick pair of socks. Her thick hair was in a messy braid that Jules kept playing with. She was beautiful, face scrunched from sleep and creased slightly from the pillow, and Jules felt alight with private joy. This was hers and no one else’s.
Jules thought it might feel strange to slide so quickly into this kind of intimacy with Jess, but it really wasn’t. It was just an added dimension, one that felt necessary almost as soon as they’d begun it. From the beginning of their friendship, they had been closer than normal friends, falling immediately into a relationship that made every other feel pale in comparison. At least, that was how it had been for Jules. Even her anger at Jess over her and Joe had been more a feeling betrayal than a feeling of thwarted romance. Jess should have known better because Jess knew her.
She had, in recent weeks, become ravenous for any and all knowledge about Jess, to exist inside her life completely. To know every childhood dream and hurt and want, to know every thought. It was a bone deep, insatiable, obsessive hunger made all the stranger by the fact she'd wanted - and never been denied - these things for years. But the intimacy of their friendship seemed insubstantial now by comparison. Even the painful longing from before felt shallow compared what it felt like to have her feelings reciprocated, magnified. She half-wanted to become Jess, and every thought Jules had inevitably turned back to her.
“I don’t know,” said Jess, wrinkling her nose. “Like I am now, I guess. Really into sport. Liked boys better than girls.”
Jules raised her eyebrows and slid her hand under Jess’s hoodie, pinching the hot skin above her rib.
“I rather think you like girls more than boys now,” she said over Jess’s yelp.
Jess pummeled her with her fist and Jules shrieked and shoved Jess’s face into the bed, and then they were wrestling, and then kissing, and after that, the morning got away from them entirely.
Their quarterfinal match against Stanford was a hard, ugly affair. It had rained the night before, and the field they played on was practically a bog. It was a chippy match, a flurry of yellow cards on both sides, and their coach at half-time yelling at them to keep cool, no one was sitting out any fucking games this year. No one looked at Jess.
They went back out for the second half, breath misting out in front of them and Jess scored within the first ninety seconds, a blazing streak down Stanford's left flank and scoring with a beautiful, arcing volley that just passed the keeper's fingers.
It was the only goal of the game.
The semifinal match against NC State was easier, practically a romp. Neither Jules nor Jess scored, but they each assisted on a goal each in the first twenty minutes. They both were subbed at half-time with the game at 3-0 to rest their legs for what was then the inevitable final. The final score was 4-1.
They were finally going to play in a final.
Jules scored twice in the first half. Once off a slick assist from Jess, a needle of a ball threaded between two defenders’ legs, and the second time in the scrum from a corner. The keeper lost control of the ball, and Jules pounced, losing her defender and slotting the ball in with a simple touch, a proper poacher’s goal.
And then, in the second half, it all fell apart. Maryland came back as a hard defensive shell, but swapped their strikers for wingers. Santa Clara got burned twice on the counter attack – the same fucking stupid mistakes they’d been making all seasons, which was what Jules yelled after Maryland’s second goal.
She and Jess got nowhere the rest of the game; there were too many bodies in Maryland’s half, and they each had what seemed like two markers on them at one time.
The game went to penalties.
Jules took the first kick. The world seemed to fall away, her mind settling into a cool, focused point, and she slotted the ball neatly into the far right corner, Maryland’s keeper diving to the left.
She didn’t mind taking penalties, kind of liked it in fact, its aspect of a duel.
It was watching other people take them that made her want to throw up. And she spent the rest of the kicks squeezing Jess’s arm hard enough she was sure she’d leave bruises. Until it was Jess’s turn.
Jess was their last penalty taker. Maryland had missed their last one, their gawky central defender sending the ball high over the crossbar, which meant, if Jess made the kick, they won. And if she missed, it went to a second round.
Jess walked up to the ball. The Maryland keeper stretched in goal, trying to make herself look big.
Then, with perfect composure, face set serenely, Jess sent the ball hurtling into the back of the net, high and hard and impossible to stop.
Jules screamed, pure exhilaration bursting through her, and led the charge to Jess, her whole being a beam of light. Jess turned and met her, face brilliant with joy, arms high in the air. Jules tackled her and they fell to the ground, graceless and triumphant.
“You did it! You bloody did it!” Jules shouted into Jess’s ear. She kissed her cheek, wet and open-mouthed, and Jess laughed wildly.
Half the team fell on them, and the air flew from Jules’s lungs, but she was still laughing, gasping and aching, trapped with Jess beneath the press of their cheering teammates, smelling wet grass and churned dirt and sweat. She had never felt so happy, nor so invincible.
“It was just a matter of all the pieces falling together at the right time,” Jess told a reporter afterwards, aware she was speaking in clichés but too heady off triumph to be more thoughtful.
“More a coronation than a competition then?”
“You could say that, but I don’t think that’s how it went. We fought every moment. But, and I don’t want to say we were arrogant – I don’t think we were. But we went on the field every match knowing we could win. And that’s what we did.”
The reporter nodded, jotting down something in her notebook. And Jules took the opportunity to wave at Jess, who was across the field, looking like she was on laughing gas and talking to their coach. Jules was getting impatient; she’d been bombarded by the small gaggle of reporters almost as soon as the team had untangled itself from its dog pile. She wanted to get back to Jess and the team, to celebrating. But there were two more journalists and then a reporter from the local news, and it was another quarter-hour before Jules was free.
“You were very popular,” said Jess, when Jules was finally able to bound over to her. She felt like she was about to keel over, exhausted and delirious.
“Right? Bloody mad house. Wish they would have picked someone else to call.”
Jess rolled her eyes and hugged her. She had a permanent, huge grin plastered to her face.
“Well, not all of us look like Natalie Portman.”
Jules laughed and hugged Jess tightly.
“Sweet of you. Now come on. I’m sick of this field – we’ve got to celebrate!”
She felt drunk the whole of Christmas break, the pleasant, sweet side of drunk, when the world was slanted just slightly and everything felt warmer and brighter. She and Jess flitted in and out of each others' houses, greeting each other parents’ cheerfully, and then snuck into their rooms to make out like teenagers in their beds, or at least, what Jules figured it was like for teenagers to make out – furtive and giggling.
“Though I do think you could stand to take Becks down,” said Jules decisively one afternoon, the snow casting patterned, drifting shadows on the floor and wall. “It’s a bit creepy having him watch, don’t you think?”
“Becks is fine,” scoffed Jess. “He’s just a poster. Sides, I’m sure he’s seen worse.”
“It’s not really his innocence I’m interested in preserving.”
Jess laughed and looked up at her Beckham poster fondly.
“I don’t know if I could take him down. It would feel like a betrayal.”
“That’s a bit dramatic.”
“No way man. Becks is the reason I survived being sixteen.”
Jules eyed the Beckham poster skeptically. “How is that? You didn’t, you know, rub it out to him?”
“Juliette!” shrieked Jess, whacking her in the shoulder. “You’re terrible!”
Jules cackled, grabbing Jess’s wrists and kissing her.
“Seriously,” she said. “What’s so great about Becks?”
Jess huffed and looked at the ceiling.
“I used to talk to him,” she said, scowling. “When I was sad or confused or I needed advice about something. I talked to him a lot about wanting to play footie and whether my parents would let me.”
Jess saw the expression on Jules’s face and frowned.
“I told you it was dumb,” she said defensively.
“No, oh my god, Jess. Are you serious? That’s – ” Jules waved her hands, unable to express the sharp, sweet, painful feeling expanding in her chest. Somehow, Jess’s confession was the cutest and saddest and most beautiful thing she had ever heard. She was aware, on some level, her brain was stuck in permanent hyperbole when it came to Jess, that this was part and parcel of being in a relationship. But she was equally sure no one had ever been as precious as Jess at sixteen, talking earnestly to a poster of David Beckham on her wall.
“What?” said Jess, brow furrowed. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You’re just lovely,” said Jules, heart aching. “The loveliest,” and she kissed Jess before Jess could argue.
The first half of spring semester passed happily and easily, both of them in a sweet, semi-permanent haze. They spent most of spring break in bed, getting out only to pay for food they ordered. Outside, the weather was turning warmer, and it made Jules think of summer – her and Jess in England again. It would only be another couple months before the end of the school year.
“Just imagine when my mum finds out,” laughed Jules, one morning at the very tail end of spring break. They had been talking about the summer ahead. “I don’t know if she’ll be shocked or smug – say she knew all along.”
Jess frowned, propping herself up on her elbows. Her hair was a messy halo.
“You’re going to tell your mum?” she asked.
Jules paused. She hadn’t actually thought about it that much. She still hadn’t told her parents she was gay. It didn’t seem worth the angst if there wasn’t also someone to introduce them to with which to soften the blow. Though, with every passing phone call and visit home that she wasn’t dating “anyone, no, really, Mum, I’d tell you if I were,” she was beginning to suspect her mum might have reverted to her earlier – and ironically correct – suspicions that Jules was a lesbian.
She hadn’t minded not telling her parents at Christmas. Everything had felt new and almost delicate then. She had relished the secrecy of it, the sense of her and Jess being co-conspirators that brought her right back to the earliest days of their friendship. But she had a hard time imagining keeping the secret from her parents over the summer. Even if she didn’t say anything, she was pretty sure they would eventually notice what was going on.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to someday, won’t I? And my parents love you, so I don’t see what the big deal would be.”
“Right,” said Jess neutrally. “My parents love you too, but… I don’t know if they ever really got over Joe, you know?”
“Your parents adore Joe,” protested Jules. “They were upset when you two broke up, remember?”
“Yeah, after I’d been dating him almost two years! Now it’s all, oh remember that phase you went through? Joe, such a lovely boy, but not really marriage material? They know a lovely banker; Jess should meet him next time she’s home!”
Jess rolled her eyes dramatically and then gave Jules a pleading look.
“Just give me some time to work on them, yeah?”
Jules looked back at her uneasily.
“Sure,” she said, a little confused. “Whatever you need Jess.”
The conversation left Jules feeling off-kilter. She was worried about coming out to her parents, but mainly because she knew her mother would be a mix of horrified and smug. Which wasn't the best reaction in the world, but she knew at least they wouldn't kick her out or disown her. And she figured Jess's parents wouldn't either. She liked the Bhamras, when it got down to it. Jess, she thought, sometimes gave her parents far too little credit.
She was still turning the conversation over in her mind when she got a call a few days later.
“Hello?” she said, half-expecting a telemarketer or someone from class asking for notes.
"Is this Juliette Paxton?" said a matronly voice.
"I go by Jules, actually. Who am I speaking to?"
"Jules," said the voice warmly. "This is Hope Powell, I'm with – "
"You're the coach," said Jules. She felt like she was dreaming. “For England.”
"My reputation precedes me," said Powell. "Good. Jules, I'm calling because we have a friendly coming up, and I'd like to have you there."
Jules went blank with shock. She was quiet for a very long moment.
"Jules? Paxton? Are you still there?"
Jules nearly dropped the phone. "Yes! Still here. Sorry. You want me to play for England?"
Powell laughed. "Maybe. It's just a friendly, mind, and you'll have to prove yourself at practice. But we're trying out new blood, and I've heard some very impressive things about you. So will I see you there?"
"Yes!" said Jules, and winced. She'd practically shouted it. More calmly, she said. "Yes. It's an honor. Honestly. Thank you."
Powell laughed again. "Glad to hear it. You'll get another call in a few days, to sort out the logistics."
"Yes," said Jules, still with the same, dreamlike, ebullient feeling. "Thank you."
She hung up the phone, head spinning. Jess looked in from her bedroom.
“Who was that?” And then, at the look on Jules’s face, “Are you all right?” She left her room and started walking towards Jules. “Is everything okay?”
"That was Hope Powell," said Jules, staring at her. "She wants me to play for England."
Jess went very still.
"God, I've got to call my dad. He's going to cry, I bet," said Jules. Suddenly, a great wave of giddiness fell over, and she laughed. "Jess! I've been called up! Can you believe it? Me! I'm going to play for England."
Jess gave her a very thin smile.
"Yeah, that's amazing. You deserve it."
The team held a party for her, a boozy, raucous affair at Tamara and her roommate’s place, with a banner and a misshapen homemade cake that had “Congrats Jules!” written on it in girly pink frosting.
It was mainly just the team at the party, but dozens of other guests kept slipping in and out. And everyone had a clap on the back and a shot for Jules. She lost track of Jess early, tugged as she was between a throng of well-wishers.
It wasn’t until almost midnight that she managed to escape for a moment. She walked out onto the balcony to catch her breath. The world kept lurching, and she was starting to feel a little nauseated from all the shots. She stumbled, and someone caught her arm as she reached and missed for the railing.
“Christ – how much have you had to drink, Paxton?” said Jess’s voice very near her ear.
“Jess!” cried Jules happily. She shifted and swung her arms around the other girl, letting her weight rest on Jess. “Been looking for you!”
“Sorry,” said Jess. She half-propped Jules against the railing. Jules beamed at her. “Just not really in a celebratory mood, I guess.”
“But it’s my party!” said Jules, throwing her arms out. She nearly toppled over and laughed hysterically. Jess caught her again, eyes wide and panicky.
“I know it’s your party,” mumbled Jess, once Jules was straightened and secure again. Her face wobbled, “Just wish it was my party, too.”
Jules stared at Jess, feeling hurt.
“Aren’t you happy for me?” she whined.
Jess’s mouth tightened, and she looked, for a weird, dizzy moment, a lot like her mother.
“Of course I’m happy for you,” she said peevishly. She shoved her hands in her pockets. “But you don’t think I should have gotten called up, too?”
Jules waved her hand dismissively.
“They probably just called me up because I’ve been playing longer than you!”
“Right,” said Jess coolly. “I’m sure that’s why they called you up.”
“I’ve got the most goals of anyone in our division,” said Jules, bristling. She felt a lot more sober and a lot angrier than she had a moment before.
“And who’s given you the assist on most of those goals?”
“You don’t deserve this more than me, if that’s what you’re saying,” said Jules, and what she meant was, Jess wasn’t a better player than her.
Jess glared at her. “And you don’t deserve it more than me,” she said. “Only I’ve got to be twice as good for anyone to notice me, yeah?”
Jules stared at her; she was beginning to realize Jess was talking about something completely different from pure talent.
“Isn’t that right?” said Jess, after a long moment, like she was still expecting Jules to answer.
Jules put down her drink. She wanted to step closer to Jess, but the tension between them felt dangerous, hot and tightly-strung.
“I noticed you,” she said.
The argument left Jules rattled for days. She and Jess barely spoke, both of them treading around each other carefully. Jules knew they needed to actually talk about it – whatever it was. But then the friendly was only a couple days away, and she had to clear everything with her professors and pack and call her parents a half dozen times to figure out if they would have much time to see each other, and then it was the day she was flying out and the taxi was outside.
“Well,” said Jess, looking at Jules’s bag. “Have fun. Let me know how it goes.”
“Right,” said Jules. She was staring at Jess. “I’ll talk to you in a few then.”
“Right,” said Jess. “Taxi’s waiting.”
Jules picked up her bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. She wanted to kiss Jess; she felt like she should. But Jess just glanced at her and, with an awkward shrug, went into her room.
The funniest part of it was, in the end, Jules only played five minutes of the game, right at the very end. And in the whole five minutes, she touched the ball twice. So much for her grand debut.
“It’s all about just adjusting to the bigger stage,” one of the older players told her confidingly in the locker room. “And you looked good, honestly. You’ve got a good eye for finding space.”
“Thanks,” said Jules, but she still felt a little bit hollow from it all, still a little bit like this had all been a mistake that everyone had been too polite to point out. At least she had been able to see her parents.
“I’m sorry I was such a cow,” said Jess, leaning in the doorway of Jules’s room. She looked like she hadn’t been sleeping.
Jules glanced at her. It was the first time they’d spoken since Jules had left for the airport. She’d wanted to call Jess the whole time she’d been in England. She still wanted to tell her everything, the whole experience bubbling madly up in her. But things still felt wrong, like there was a bruise on their relationship.
“It’s fine,” said Jules carefully. She was tired, and her head hurt. She worried in the back of her mind that she might be coming down with something. “I would have been jealous, too.”
Jess gave her an odd look. “I wasn’t jealous.”
“No?” said Jules, scoffing before she could think to stop. “What the bloody hell was that then?”
Jess’s face went dangerously still.
“You’re always the one getting the attention,” she said.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” said Jules, scowling. Her head was starting to hurt worse, a dull and persistent pounding at her temples. This felt like the argument back at the party, only they were both sober now, but she had the same sense of skirting on the edge of something she didn’t understand.
“How many reporters talked to you?” demanded Jess. “When we won the Cup?”
“How the hell should I remember? They were bloody annoying!”
“You know how many talked to me?” said Jess heatedly. “None. They all talked to you, and a couple talked to Tamara.”
“Well if you wanted to talk to one of them, you should have come over. It’s not like I bloody wanted to talk to all of them. Besides, I bagged two bloody goals that game! I was the only bloody person on our team who scored!”
Jess’s eyes went hard and dark.
“God,” she said, standing up. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“Get what?” yelled Jules, but Jess was already walking away, and she didn’t turn around. “What don’t I bloody get?”
She heard the door to their apartment slam close, and she sat on her bed heavily, head in her hands.
She wanted to cry.
Jess didn’t apologize, and neither did Jules, though she felt vaguely aware that she should. They both carried on, more or less, as if nothing had happened, but the truce felt uneasy. And Jess’s words reared up at odd times. Jules could feel herself pulling back a bit, and she hated herself for it.
Finals came like a bad storm after the doldrums, and Jules banged into their apartment one day itching with tension. She wasn’t even particularly irritated with Jess; Jess was just there, an easy target and a source of general tension herself.
“Have you thought about telling your parents?” she asked, sitting down across from Jess at the table. She kicked her feet up so they sat on the chair next to Jess and leaned back, smirking at Jess as she did so.
Jess looked up from the chemistry textbook she was studying. She narrowed her eyes.
“Tell them about what?”
Jules raised her eyebrows. She knew she was picking a fight, that there was a better time and way to approach this. But she was tired of them padding around each other like the other might explode, and the semester was over in three days, and she didn’t want to spend it wondering whether or not Jess would admit to being her girlfriend.
“About us dating.”
Jess frowned. “Can we talk about this later?”
“I’d like to talk about it now.”
“I’m busy now.”
“It’s a simple yes or no answer.”
“Fine,” said Jess, eyebrows snapping down hard. “No.”
“No you haven’t thought about it or no you’re not going to tell them?”
“No, I’m not going to tell them!” Jess’s voice rose.
Jules smirked at her more. She felt ugly and mean, perversely pleased at Jess's response, like she'd caught someone in a lie.
“Why not?” she demanded.
Jess slammed her textbook shut. “Are you trying to be a bitch? Is this fun for you?”
Jules gave her a cool look.
“We’ve got to talk about it sometime. I think we both know how good you are at keeping secrets from your parents.”
Jess turned a blotchy, unpleasant shade, and she stood up, hands white-knuckled as she gripped the table.
“They’re not ready,” said Jess.
“Not ready?” said Jules incredulously. “Well how are you going to make them ready? Just going to casually warm them up to the idea you’re dating a girl?”
“Please! My parents aren’t like your mum! They don’t just jump to weird ideas like that!”
“Ideas like what?” said Jules, and it didn’t feel funny anymore. There was an edge to Jess’s voice, like that, like what were they doing was something shameful.
“You know what I mean,” said Jess tightly.
“No, I don’t. What do you mean? Is this just a phase? Something not really worth mentioning to your parents?"
“Of course that’s not what I bloody meant!” snapped Jess. “Stop putting words in my mouth!”
“Then say what you bloody mean! God, we haven’t told bloody anyone that we’re dating, Jess. How the hell am I supposed to take it?”
“You don’t understand!” shouted Jess. “You never bloody understand! Do you know how much I’ve asked from my parents? Playing football? Going to the states? Dating Joe? This would kill them!”
“You always do this!” yelled Jules, something small and hard snapping inside her. The argument felt suddenly terrible and inevitable, an unleashing of the last couple months of tension. “You hide behind your culture as an excuse! You use it as a reason to not do things! It’s not just hard for you, Jess!”
There was an ugly, tense pause.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Jules, taking a deep breath and trying to calm down. “I wasn’t – I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“But you did mean it,” said Jess, her expression gone flat.
Jules clenched her jaw. “Some of it, yeah.”
“Well, I guess it’s good I know then,” said Jess, still with the same dangerous, flat stillness.
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I don’t know what you meant,” said Jess. “I’m not a bloody mind reader, Jules.”
Jules frowned and looked away.
“Maybe we should take a break,” she said, the thought breaking through her before she had much time to consider it, impulsive and angry. “For the summer.”
“Take a break?” said Jess.
“For the summer,” repeated Jules, warming to the idea a bit. She and Jess had spent almost every day in each other’s company. It was no wonder they were getting on each other’s nerves some. “Get some time to, I don’t know, clear our heads.”
“If you’re going to break up with me, don’t be a coward about it,” said Jess. She looked like she’d been struck.
“I’m not!” squawked Jules. “Breaking up with you! I just think – ”
“Fine,” snapped Jess, talking over her. “Then I’m breaking up with you.”
“You’re not,” Jules swallowed hard, throat suddenly very thick. “You’re.”
She swallowed again. Jess was giving her a hard, cold look. She picked up her textbook, holding it tight against her chest like a shield.
“I’m breaking up with you,” she said.
She turned and left, leaving Jules gaping in their kitchen. That night, Jess packed up her stuff and left to stay at a teammate’s. Jules let her without saying a word. She felt stunned and angry and hurt by turns. She thought she would know what to say by the time their flight came, but their flight came, and Jess wasn’t on it, and Jules realized with a sinking heart that Jess must have changed her flight for a different time.
They really had broken up.
The summer was hot and miserable, a nasty, broiling affair that matched Jules's mood. She got into three screaming matches with her mother and even slammed the door in her father's face once, shouting, "You always take her side!"
Joe was the one who suggested they get drinks and catch up, and Jules took him up on the offer, relieved to get out of the house. It had been nine days since she and Jess had broken up, and each day somehow managed to make her feel worse. She was still too angry and too proud to go talk to her, but she hated not seeing her, too, and she felt shell-shocked by the suddenness of their dissolution.
“What’s the matter with you, Paxton?” he asked, almost immediately after they got their drinks.
Jules scowled at him. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded. “That’s no way to greet an old friend.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Don’t get all huffy with me. I know when you’re in a strop.”
Jules sipped her beer.
“Even if you’re right, why would I tell you?”
Joe flashed her a charming grin, the kind that used to make her a feel a little lightheaded and girlish. It didn’t have any effect now, beyond a surge of sudden fondness. She had missed Joe the past few years more than she realized.
“Because we’re mates, aren’t we, Jules?”
She laughed. “I suppose we are, but only because I have no taste.”
“Can’t help that. You’re English.”
She laughed again. “Tell that to my American friends. I might as well be the queen to them.”
“You should be offended by that, you should. She’s got worse taste than you.”
Jules rolled her eyes, but she was smiling, a real smile, for the first time in days.
“There’s that smile,” said Joe, looking just as fond of her as she was of him. “So are you going to tell me what’s got you in a mood or not then?”
She hesitated, smile fading. She hadn’t talked to anyone about it. She wasn’t sure if it would make her feel better, but then, anything had to feel better than the constant, bruiselike feeling she carried with her.
“I’m going through a break up, actually. It’s a bit of a mess.”
Joe raised his eyebrows and he let out a low whistle.
“I didn’t even know you were dating someone. Who’s the lucky – well, the unlucky bloke as the case may be.”
She turned red and realized that she couldn’t really talk to Joe about it, even though he, of anyone in the world, would be best suited to giving advice on how to get over Jess Bhamra. But it wouldn’t be right to tell him about Jess and her.
She cleared her throat.
“Not a bloke, actually. Which is why you didn’t know.”
“What was that, Paxton?”
“I’m gay,” she said, spitting it out more vehemently than she intended.
She had never told anyone besides Jess. She thought some of their teammates might know or suspect. But she had never actually said the words out loud. She sat there for a moment, stock-still with horror at herself.
“Well,” said Joe, after the pause, the startled look dropping from his face. “Well. Was it me? Did I turn you from all other men?”
“Oh my god! Joe!”
She thumped him hard on the shoulder, and he laughed, clasping his hands protectively his beer.
“Honest question, Jules!”
“Honestly, you’re the worst,” she said, but she was laughing. “Maybe you turned me off men because of how bloody awful you are.”
He laughed again. “Sweet as ever, Paxton,” and then he winked. “So are you going to tell me about her then?”
The laughter fell out of her and she frowned, and at the look on her face, Joe frowned too.
“Hey,” he said gently. “You don’t have to. It takes time, getting over someone.”
“I don’t even think I want to get over her,” said Jules softly. She rubbed at her face. “I think I might be in love.”
Joe squeezed her shoulder and didn’t say anything. She had always appreciated that about Joe. He knew when being quiet was necessary.
Jules took a deep breath and settled herself, then a long drink of beer.
“Anyway,” she said decisively, moving past the thought of Jess and how bloody awful she feltt. “I think I’m going to tell my parents. They deserve to know, right?”
She hadn’t really thought about it before that moment. But it made sense. It was part of why she and Jess had broken up after all. She’d be a hypocrite not to.
Joe gave her a somber look. “That’s very brave of you.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Jules, with more confidence than she really felt. She raised an arch brow. “Not everyone’s parents are as awful as your da.”
Joe snorted. “Tactful as always, too, I see. But you’ve my support, if you so desire it.”
She smiled, suddenly sad at how much their friendship had suffered in the last few years. “Thanks, it means a lot to me actually.”
Joe nodded and then, without much grace but with much gratitude on Jules’s part, he changed the subject to football. They whiled away the next couple hours pleasantly, and when it was finally time to go, Jules paused, a strange thought occurring to her.
“Can I ask you something?” she said, interrupting Joe’s rant on the many failures of youth development in Ireland.
“Aye,” he said, blinking at her a bit owlishly. “I’ll allow it.”
“Why did you and Jess break up?”
Joe looked surprised. “She never told you?”
“I never asked.”
He gave her an odd look.
“Honestly, we never saw each other, and when we did talk, she only ever wanted to talk about you.”
She set her parents down after dinner the next day, brave from talking to Joe and figuring she might as well as get it over with.
“I’ve got something important to tell you,” she said, businesslike. Her parents looked back at her politely.
“Mum, Dad.” She took a deep breath, looking past them at a family picture on the wall, when she was seven and gap-toothed. She paused for too long, because her mother leaned forward and squeezed her knee, looking concerned.
“What is it, lovey?”
Jules startled and looked at her mother.
“I’m a lesbian.”
There was a very still half-second. Her mum gaped at her, and then, she burst into tears.
“She didn’t mean it, Jules,” said her dad comfortingly, twenty minutes later. He’d hurried her mum to their room, and then come back to Jules. He hugged her awkwardly, patting her back.
“Of course she meant it!” said Jules, fighting herself to keep from crying. “It’s not like she can fake crying like that!”
“I mean,” he said. “She didn’t mean it like she was sad that you’re, well, you know. She just.”
“She what? She’s always been like that! She’s never been happy with me!”
He frowned heavily and took her hand.
“Juliette, love, your mum loves you, she does. I just think, you know, parents, well, at least good parents, they want their kids to be happy. And your mum, like I said, she loves you. She wants you to be happy. And I think she worries, you know, that with this and the footie, you’re going after things that are hard to get. You’re setting yourself up to be unhappy.”
“Do you think that?” asked Jules, feeling and sounding very small. “That I’m setting myself up to be unhappy?”
Her father hesitated, and then he squeezed her hand.
“Love, anyone who pursues what they want as passionately as you do is always going to risk some unhappiness. But you’d never be happy if you settled for anything less either.”
That night, there was a knock on her door at two in the morning. Jules was still wide awake, staring at the posters of her childhood room, all women athletes, and really had she been that blind?
“Juliette,” hissed her mother through the door in a stage-voice whisper. “Are you awake?”
Jules seriously considered saying no, but there was a plaintive note to her mother’s voice that denied the impulse.
“Yes,” she called grudgingly. “What is it?”
The door opened and her mother slipped in. She was carrying a tin of Jules’ favorite biscuits. She settled on the bed next to her and ran her hand through Jules’ hair, like when Jules had been a kid and home sick from school.
“Oh, Juliette,” tutted her mother. Jules made a face and sat up.
“What do you want?” she asked, sounding sullen even to her own ears.
Jules’ mother opened the tin of biscuits and handed them to her. Jules took them with a frown.
“I’m not hungry. And I have a headache.”
“Oh, pumpkin, I know you’re in a snit with me, but you love those biscuits.”
Jules frowned harder, and her mother sighed and ran her hands through Jules’ hair again. Jules half-expected her to make a comment on the length. She had never gotten over Jules chopping most of it off when she turned fourteen.
“I do love you,” said her mother, looking at her. “And I am sorry. I was awful this morning. I’m so proud of you, duckling. I’m so lucky to have such a brave little girl. I just worry. I’m your mother. I’m always going to worry about you.”
This time, it was Jules who burst into tears.
“Oh, duckling!” cried her mum, looking a bit frantic. She dropped the tin and threw her arms around Jules, hugging her close to her chest. “I didn’t mean to make you cry!”
“It’s not you,” said Jules, into her mum’s shoulder. It was an ugly, hard, painful cry, the way a little kid cried, and she felt like a little kid again, in her childhood bed with her mum holding her.
“It’s just been, it’s been a really long year,” she managed between gulps of air.
“I know lovey,” said her mum, rocking her. “Shhh, I know.”
She burrowed into her mum as much as she could. She wanted to tell her about Jess, the way everything had suddenly and terribly gone out of control. But it hadn’t gone well last time her mum thought she and Jess had broken up; Jules didn’t think it would go any better this time when it was true. An ache spread in her chest. Her parents loved her, and she wasn’t keeping as many secrets from them, but she was still keeping one, and she wondered if it was always going to be like this, having to keep things back not because her parents wouldn’t understand, but because they couldn’t.
Two days after she came out to her parents, the Bhamras summoned her. Jess, Jules knew, was on holiday in Scotland with Tony for a few days. So Jules agreed to meet her parents, knowing she wouldn’t see Jess.
“We’re worried about Jess,” said Mrs. Bhamra, as soon as Jules had sat down and been poured tea. “She has been in such a state!” Her eyes narrowed at Jules like she was expecting the secret to Jess’ distress to flash across Jules’ forehead in neat font. Jules was kind of worried it might. “What is going on with her?”
“Er. I’m not really – we haven’t really talked since we got back,” said Jules as neutrally as possible.
Mrs. Bhamra sniffed and then leaned forward, her eyes dark with the same predatory intensity Jess got on the field.
“Is there a boy involved?” she demanded, in a low, terrible voice. Mr. Bhamra, seated next to her, looked sorrowful and concerned.
“No!” cried Jules. “There’s no boy.” She laughed, a little hysterically. “But, honestly, Jess and I aren’t speaking right now. So I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to help you.”
Jess’ parents exchanged a look, and then Mrs. Bhamra clucked her tongue. She sat back, shaking her head.
“Well, that explains it then. Why are you two fighting? It’s silly for friends to fight! Are you sure it isn’t about a boy?”
Jules flushed deeply and hastily took a deep swallow of tea to keep from answering immediately.
“I don’t think it’s my place to tell you if Jess hasn’t said,” she said tentatively. She loved Jess’ family, but they also unnerved her a bit. She wasn’t used to large, loud families who always knew each others' business. All she had was an uncle in Manchester, and she hadn’t seen him since she was fifteen.
Jess’ mother sighed loudly. “Ah, I understand. My mother didn’t speak to her sister for almost ten years over some silly fight. These things happen. Time will resolve them.”
It took a moment for Jules to realize Mrs. Bhamra was calling her and Jess sisters; it made her feel warm inside, and it made her feel worse. It meant Mrs. Bhamra accepted her as part of the family, but Jess had a sister. And Pinky and Jess’s relationship was nothing like Jules and Jess’. It struck Jules just then how far the distance was between what she and Jess were – or had been – and what everyone wanted them to be.
The rest of the summer passed slowly, mainly her and Joe drinking and not talking. But Jules knew the fall would be worse. She had been made captain and she knew it would be another black mark against her in Jess’s eyes, another sign of her favored treatment.
“Going for two in a row,” said the coach, looking between Jules and Jess. He’d called them back for a tête-à-tête after their first practice. “Gotta leave a legacy. Isn’t that right, ladies?”
Jules snuck a glance at Jess, but Jess didn’t look at her. It was the first time Jules had seen her since their break up. They had even taken different flights again.
The captain’s armband felt strange and too-heavy on her arm. She was highly aware of its presence, and, once during that practice, thought she caught Jess glaring at it.
“Yes, sir,” she said, once it became apparent Jess wasn’t going to say anything.
She had a strange, heavy feeling in her stomach after that practice. It wasn’t just Jess, but the weight of being a senior as well. The freshman girls on the team seemed very small, and she had a hard time believing she’d ever seemed so skinny and rough-hewn, brimming with energy and over-confidence.
Two years had passed as well since the US’s women’s league had dissolved, and nothing had taken its place. The future spread out ahead of her, uncertain and blank, made even worse by the loss of Jess.
For the first time in what felt like a very long time, Jules had no idea what she was doing.
She knew she was going to have to talk to Jess before the season started. They had broken the lease of their apartment, and both moved in with different teammates, a situation that had everyone tense, though no one had outright approached Jules about it yet. But things would come to a head, either between her and Jess or between them and the team, and she needed to do what she could to resolve things before the season started in earnest.
But Jess was doing a great job avoiding her. Though, to be fair, Jules wasn’t working too hard to find her. She had never really been heartbroken before. She recalled with a wince how she had acted after Jess and Joe started dating, the way her voice went frost as she said, “You really hurt me, Jess,” but that had been nothing like this. She had almost enjoyed it then, sulking and righteous over being the wronged party. She felt now like a piece of her was missing, and she felt worse, felt shitty, over how cliché the sentiment was. But it felt hard enough getting out of bed and going to practice, having to be around Jess and not talk to her, without actually having to talk to her, too.
She finally cornered Jess the before their first game. The team had gone out for dinner, as was tradition, and Jules had said Jess’s name in what she thought of as her Joe voice, the voice she used when she needed authority. Jess, with obvious reluctance, hung back.
“Look,” she said, walking beside Jess. The rest of the team had taken the cue and had given them a lot of space. “We play terribly when we’re mad at each other. So we should just be professional. Just make sure to put the team first, yeah?”
There was a crackling silence, and Jules risked a glance at Jess. Jess looked furious, her eyes flashing with emotion. It was enough to make Jess take a step back.
“Right,” said Jess, mouth warping in a sneer. She looked Jules full in the face. “No hard feelings. You still need me to make you look good on the field, innit, Paxton?
“I really think you’re being unprofessional about this,” said Jules, and she winced again at how high her voice went. She sounded like she did when she was a teenager and talking to her mother, that high, defensive whine.
Jess laughed. “Go fuck yourself,” she said, and she brushed past Jules roughly and walked quickly to join the rest of the team, leaving Jules to dawdle on the sidewalk behind her.
They lost that first game.
They lost the game after that as well, going winless in their first five and only managing to grind two ties by virtue of Tamara’s acrobatics in goal.
The sixth they won mostly through luck, and the seventh because even the force of Jess’s anger and Jules’s despair wasn’t enough to keep their talent from shining through occasionally. Not that either of them, Jules thought, was consciously trying to sabotage the other. But their flow was off. She was no longer subconsciously aware of Jess’s every movement on the field, of where exactly she needed to be for Jess to send her the perfect ball. But they scraped together a small series of wins, not enough to really give them breathing room, but enough to make it seem like the season would maybe not be a bust after all.
And still she and Jess didn’t talk.
But an opportunity came up early in October. There was another friendly for England and, this time, when Jules got called up, so did Jess.
Two weeks after the call, they were in Heathrow, sitting next to each other but not speaking, much as they had in the San Francisco airport, much as they had on the whole godawful flight to England.
Jules was sick of it.
“I thought you played really well,” she said. The friendly had been the day before, a scrappy, joyless affair that had ended in a tie. And despite the golden opportunity to at least start fucking talking to Jess again, neither of them had attempted to bridge the gap. Jules knew that was coloring her perception of the event, but it was hard even to concentrate on her dream – on achieving her dream of playing for England, twice now even! – when she couldn’t even get Jess to talk to her. Without Jess, she didn’t feel like a proper person.
Jess stared straight ahead. “I played for ninety seconds.”
“Yeah,” said Jules, “but it was a really bloody good ninety seconds.”
Jess glanced at her, and Jules mouth twitched up in a half-smile. Jess burst into laughter, happy and loud.
“Fuck you!” she said, shoving at Jules with her shoulder. “You only played fifteen minutes.”
“Three times as long as my debut,” said Jules, tension flooding from her body. “At this rate, I’ll be playing a full game by the time the next World Cup rolls around.”
Jess laughed more. “So what? I’m going to be waiting for 2011 then?”
“Oh, at the least. If not 2015. We can’t have England getting too good too quickly, can we? Definitely wouldn’t want to do better than the men.”
Jess hid her smile behind her hand. She was beautiful, thought Jules, the dull ache that had taken up residence in her chest flaring sharply.
“Well I’m glad I have you to keep me looking on the bright side,” said Jess tartly, sliding her a smile, and for a sweet moment, things felt normal between them.
Then Jess’s eyes cut away and she yawned dramatically, the illusion of normalcy passing as quickly as a cloud.
“I think I might try to sleep a bit before the flight,” she said.
Jules nodded, feeling immensely and terribly sad.
“Course. I’ll wake you when it’s time to board.”
They didn’t talk on the flight beyond a few muttered pleasantries, but by the time they landed, Jules felt like something subtle but important had shifted between them. She caught Jess watching her as she pulled her carry on down from the luggage rack, and then again as they waited for a taxi. She blushed both times and Jess blushed, too, and it seemed like, even if they weren’t quite speaking or friends, the anger had died in both of them.
It was a hard fought season. They never hit full-stride it seemed like; they certainly lacked the effortlessness of the season before. But the team was gritty and experienced, and Jules and Jess found a rhythm, pushed past the lingering tension and hurt, and played liked professionals. They got into the College Cup by the breadth of a single goal. And this year, no one was expecting them to sweep the tournament.
So that was, of course, exactly what they did.
There was an edge to the celebration the night they won that hadn’t been there the year before, as if the bad spirits of the season had to be banished. It had been, ironically, a much cleaner win than the year before, a goal on either side of the half and no answer from the opposition, none of the dramatics of extra time or penalties. But still Jules felt much more tired than she had the year before.
They were all crammed in one of the motel rooms, and she knew it would be hell if they were caught, considering half the team was lowerclassmen. But she was far past the point of caring, knees tucked to her chest as she sat against the headboard and a beer clasped in her hands. Jess was standing by the closet, laughing as she talked to one of the sophomores. Her hair had been pulled out of its braid and hung around her face, and Jules was watching the light bounce off her waves.
Jess looked up once and caught Jules looking, and Jules blushed and busied herself with her beer. She let a few moments pass and then got up and left the room quietly.
The night outside was cold. They had gone back east for the game, and it was much more a proper autumn there than in California. Jules liked the cold though; it was bracing, and it was a proper temperature for being moody. There had been something ridiculous, she felt, about being heartsick among palm trees and beautiful weather.
She finished her beer in the parking lot, looking at the moon, and then she went to her room – on the opposite end of the hall from the party and thank God she couldn’t hear them. It wasn't long before she was asleep.
“Jules,” hissed Jess. “Wake up. Jules.”
Jules groaned and wriggled deeper into her blanket. Her head was spinning.
"What is it?" she mumbled, rolling onto her side. Jess was standing above her, both her hands on Jules's side.
"That was our last game!" said Jess. Her eyes were wide, and looked oddly greenish, reflecting the light of the alarm clock. Jules stole a glance at it – almost five in the morning, and groaned again.
"Wasn't our last game ever," she pointed out.
Jess collapsed on the bed next to her.
"Last game at university," she said, words slurring slightly. She was very close, and Jules could feel Jess's breath ghosting over her cheek. "Maybe our last game together."
"No way. We're both going to get called up for England again, yeah?"
Jess smiled. "Hope so.”
“What are you doing here anyway?” asked Jules, pressing her forearm to her eyes. Her heart had picked up a hard rhythm, and she wanted to lean into Jess, old habit and the desire for warmth, for Jess. But Jess was drunk, very drunk it seemed, and she would no doubt regret coming into Jules’s bed when the morning came.
“You left the party,” said Jess, sounding vaguely put-out. “And I wanted to talk to you.”
“Talk to me about what?”
“Well, Tamara said we could maybe get on the roof. Do you want to try to get on the roof?"
"Jess," whined Jules, but she was already sitting up and groping for her sweater. "It's five in the morning."
"Best time for it," said Jess.
Jules smiled at her fondly. Jess was strange when she was drunk, maudlin and reckless by turns. This was the most they had talked in ages.
"No, it's the best time for sleeping. I swear."
Jess laughed and stood up, tugging her out of bed, and Jules almost went sprawling on the floor.
“Come on,” she said impatiently. “Come on.”
“I’m coming!” said Jules. She found her trackies and slipped them on, keenly aware of Jess watching her. She blushed, tugging on her sweater and nodded at Jess. “Shall we then?”
Jess nodded authoritatively and grabbed her, tugging her out of the room and into the night.
They weren't able to get on the roof, but by the time they realized that, Jules was wide awake. So they went for a walk. They weren't that far from the stadium where they had played, where they had finally won. It wasn't even a spoken decision; they both immediately turned in that direction. It made hope spark in Jules’s chest – maybe she and Jess weren’t so far from each other after all, something of their instinctive and automatic connection remained.
The sky was bluing by the time they made it to the pitch, and it made their skin glow oddly – Jules especially opalescent in the luminous pre-dawn.
"Look like a fairy," said Jess, sitting on the pitch. Her hair was shining, and Jules kneeled down in front of her and touched it.
Jess grinned at her and tipped forward, and Jules thought for a breathless second that Jess was going to kiss her. But Jess paused, inches away from Jules, her breath warm on Jules’s face and smelling like cheap beer. It should have been gross, but it mostly just made Jules feel hollow inside. She missed Jess breathing beer on her face.
“Are we going to be all right?” Jules asked.
Jess looked like she’d suddenly sobered up.
“I hope so,” she said, quietly like she was telling Jules a secret.
Jules nodded, something catching in her throat. The whole long, aching year fell over her then, and she started to cry.
“Oh, Jules. Jules, don’t cry,” said Jess. She put her arms around Jules’s shoulders and kissed the side of her face.
“I’m sorry,” said Jules. She hated crying, and she never did it, and now she had cried twice in recent memory. “It’s just been a bloody long year.”
“I know,” said Jess. She squeezed Jules’s hands, and added miserably, “I never meant to make you sad.”
Jules looked at her. She wasn’t sure she believed that entirely, but she believed Jules meant it now.
“I know,” she said, equally miserable. “But I fucked up, too. I think I fucked up first.”
Jess shook her head, but didn’t saying anything. And Jules stood up.
“We should get going,” she said, feeling wobbly all over. Every time she thought she had her feelings for Jess under control, they came flaring up again. “You need to get some sleep.”
Jess sat next to her on the bus to the airport later that morning. She was disheveled looking, with dark bags under her eyes and her mud stains on the knees of her trousers, the same trousers she’d worn last night during their walk. Jules eyed her cautiously, not sure how much Jess remembered.
“I was thinking,” said Jess carefully, after an awkward moment. She scratched some dried mud off her knee.
Jess gave her a sidelong glance.
“We’re not going to see each other as much now that the season’s over.”
Jules nodded. She’d had the same thought, and it had made her want to cry and then throw up, which was how she had felt most of the past six months, so she supposed there was no reason now should be no different.
“Right, well, like I said, I was thinking, and I also thought, we could be friends.”
“Friends?” said Jules blankly.
Jess smiled timidly.
“If it’s all right with you.”
Jules smiled hugely, happiness surging through her, happier than she had been last night when they won.
“Yeah, of course, more than all right.”
Being friends with Jess like this was a new experience. They had never needed to schedule time to see each other; their friendship was built into the schedule of practices, full of impromptu outings, and at the beginning of their friendship, they had fallen into each others' lives easily, no need to do more than a phone call or make an offhand comment after practice for them to go gliding off somewhere.
So now it was the occasional coffee date, or a jog, or a visit to the gym, carefully controlled and spaced with lots of time apart. It wasn’t terrible – she was seeing Jess, and they were on, more or less, good if overly polite terms. But it felt stiff, and it was terrible when she thought about how things had been before.
It meant also that Jess was one of the last people to hear Jules’s good news, when she should have been the first.
“I’ve been signed,” she told Jess, one morning when they’d agreed to meet for a run.
“Signed?” said Jess, immediately snapping out of the stretch she’d gone into. “Like to a team? As in professionally?”
“Yes!” said Jules. She was still flushed with giddiness, this news enough to shock even her out of her ill humor. “In Sweden – in Gothenburg. Can you believe it?”
Jess shrieked, hands flying to cover her mouth. She bounded forward, hugging Jules tightly. Jules, without thinking, hugged her back.
“Jules! Are you serious? That’s fantastic!”
Jules beamed at her. “It’s so exciting! I still can’t believe it.”
“I can,” said Jess, voice genuine, but her smile faltered, and she pulled out of the hug.
“Have you heard from anyone?” asked Jules, though, by the look on Jess’s face, she knew the answer. Neither of them had been talking about the future, but she knew it weighed on both of them. They were getting enough questions from everyone else as it was.
“Not yet,” said Jess, shrugging. “But we’ll see. I mean, I’ve heard from a couple teams, but. Nothing’s firmed up yet.”
“Something’s going to happen,” she said earnestly. “You’re amazing. Anyone who can’t see that is an idiot.”
“You don’t need to try to make me feel better,” said Jess. She smiled, though it looked a bit forced to Jules. “Really. I’m happy for you.”
“I mean it though. You are amazing. You’re the best player in the bloody division. From the first moment I saw you, I knew you were special.”
Jess flushed and looked away.
“Thanks,” she said. “I know you mean that.”
Jules looked at her for a long time, and it occurred to her then that, after graduation, months might pass without her seeing Jess. Even at the height of their cold war, she had least hadn’t gone more than the month and a half between end of term and start of season without seeing Jess. It seemed an impossible fact, that she could get used to seeing Jess only rarely.
“I do,” she said, touching Jess’s hair. “More than anything.”
“Juliette, someone to see you!”
Jules put down her book and left her room. It was three days after Christmas, and she’d spent her holidays so far mainly trying to figure out how she was going to move to Sweden after graduation. Her mother had alternated between squealing over how much closer Sweden was and crying that her little girl still wasn’t going to be in England. Her dad had just maintained a state of quiet, blissful pride, and Jules half-wondered if she had unlocked some secret offspring achievement.
She had been mostly a hermit overall though, going out for a couple runs with Jess and drinks with Joe twice. And she figured it must be one of them at the door.
Sure enough, Jess was standing at the foot of the stairs, looking like she was vibrating.
“Are you all right?” Jules asked, pausing midway down the staircase.
“Yes,” said Jess. She launched herself above the stairs, grabbing Jules’s arm and pulling her back into the room. She shut the door behind them and whirled on her.
“I just got a call,” she said, staring at the space beyond Jules’s head. “A team in Germany wants me to play for them. Professionally. Like. They’re going to pay me and everything.”
“Jess, that’s amazing!”
Jess laughed, high and strange. “It is. Isn’t it? This is my dream! But,” she laughed again and tugged at her braid, eyes fixed on Jules. “What am I going to do without you?”
“What do you mean? You’re going to be amazing. That’s what you’re going to do.”
“No – I know,” said Jess, still with the same fixed look, like she was seeing Jules for the first time. “I know I’m going to play. But. We’re not going to be with each other anymore.”
“Oh.” Jules looked at her. “Is that – we haven’t –”
“In general,” said Jess hastily. “I couldn’t have done any of it, if it weren’t for you.” She gave Jules a soft look. “You’re the only person I know who fights as hard as I do. Made me realize I could do it, and that I didn’t have to go it alone.”
Jules shook her head. She was blushing.
“You fight harder than me. You don’t need me.”
“I do,” said Jess. She looked on the verge of tears. “It’s ridiculous how much I – how much I bloody miss you Jules!”
“I’ve been right here,” said Jules quietly, but she thought she knew what Jess meant. Being around each other was nothing like being with each other. At times, she thought it would have been easier if she weren't around Jess at all.
“I know,” said Jess, she looked away, biting her lip. And then she looked back at Jules and inhaled deeply. She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, like she was daring Jules to challenge her.
“This is dumb,” she said, eyes wide. “I’m trying to say, I’m in love with you. I’m bloody sick of not saying it.”
Jules took a sharp breath, feeling like she’d been hit by a wave, dragged down and thrashed against the sand, all sense of space and direction momentarily gone.
The world righted, and Jess was still standing there, challenging and stubborn as always.
“I love you, too,” she managed to say, the truth of it a knifepoint against her ribs.
Jess smiled tremulously.
“Okay,” she said, small and pleased. “Good that’s cleared up.”
“Jesus,” laughed Jules, a little bit hysterically. “Yeah.”
Jess laughed too, with the same slightly hysterical edge.
“Jules,” she said, eyes bright at the corners with tears. “We did it. We’re going to play professional football.”
“Christ. We are. And not too far apart either,” said Jules, stepping closer. She looked at Jess searchingly. Her heart and head were reeling. “Sweden and Germany. Not really.”
Jess touched her side and looked up at her.
“And the seasons are at different times. Maybe you’ll get picked up by a German team when the Swedish season ends.”
Jules nodded, and smiled down at her. Jess was luminous.
“Anything’s possible. Think we’ve proven that.”
And she meant it. There was a sharp, reckless feeling opening in her chest, the kind she got when she’d burned a defender on a run and was going one on one with the keeper. A sense of possibility locking down to one, bright, inevitable point, a feeling that was heady and dangerous and free.
“So if anything’s possible, Paxton, what’s next on our list?” Jess smiled, sharp and brilliant and vulnerable beneath, and they were even closer than they’d been a second before.
Jules touched Jess’s shoulders and kissed her tentatively. Jess kissed back, hands curling around Jules’s wrist. They swayed together, a year of emotion and longing pouring into each other. Jules wanted to stay like that forever, Jess’s face cupped in her hands, and their future golden, but still distant.
“Next?” she said, pulling away only slightly. She looked at Jess, and she knew that anything worth loving was also worth the pain.
“We’re going to win the World Cup next.”