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Scared That It's Just Gonna Hurt

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It’s the first time in weeks Mariah allows herself to break her own rule, one she’d set for herself after a particularly painful night had left her curled up in the fetal position, an empty bottle of wine next to the bed. She didn’t let herself get that way often, she hated feeling vulnerable and would rather pretend she didn’t have any emotions than actually feel them, but when she’s home alone and scrolling through pictures, there’s no pretending.

Which is why when she finds herself cross-legged on the couch on a Friday night, laptop open in her lap, she has to remind herself that clicking on that profile on Instagram would be breaking the very promise she had made to herself a few weeks back. Exactly why she has to keep repeating it like a mantra in her head, you promised, you promised, you promised, and why when she clicks on it anyway, the familiar pain rushes in, like it hadn’t ever left.

Tessa and Noah wearing matching jerseys at a baseball game, riding piggyback on the beach, having dinner in their apartment. Each picture she sees is like a knife slicing deeper and deeper into her heart, but she can’t stop or look away. The desire to see Tessa outweighs the pain of seeing them together. Kisses, dopey smiles, touching, so much touching. She shouldn’t be doing this.

There’s a picture of them drunk at a party, Tessa leaning on him doubled over in laughter. One of Noah kissing her at a coffee shop. Another of her playing guitar while he looks on adoringly. Before long Mariah reaches the first picture Tessa and Noah ever posted together. Tessa’s eyes are squeezed shut, a smile spread across her face as Noah kisses her cheek. It hurts just as much as all the others did, but something in Mariah eases, knowing it’s over.

She focuses on her breathing, somewhere along the way she realizes she’d stopped.

Maybe it would be different if anyone else had ever made her stomach do somersaults, her heartbeat pick up its pace this way, her body feel so warm. But no one has, certainly never like this.

The pain of knowing it’s completely one sided, knowing Tessa sees her as a friend, that she practically said as much that night in San Francisco, and that that’s all she’ll ever be to her; it’s unbearable.

Mariah closes the laptop and closes her eyes, but the ache in her chest only grows stronger. She puts her focus onto diverting her thoughts and prays for a distraction, anything to bring some relief, but her mind is clouded, the stabbing in her chest so noticeable that even when she manages to think of something else, it isn’t for long. Her thoughts always snap back to Tessa, to how she’ll never know what it’s like to kiss her goodnight and wake up next to her in the morning or come home after work and see her curled up on the couch.

But it doesn’t stop her from wanting anyway.

Mariah eventually loses the battle to hold it together, finally lets her body react to the grief she tries so hard to ignore. She hugs at her legs with one hand, harshly rubbing at her chest where her heart is over and over with the other as if maybe it were possible to wipe the pain away.

 Maybe one day this won’t hurt anymore, but here, now, there’s no escape. So, she lets herself cry, lets herself feel the hurt of being unloved, and makes more promises for the future, ones she knows full well she won’t be able to keep.

_______________

Mariah wakes up to her alarm the next morning, eyes puffy, weak and tired from having slept no more than a few hours. She doesn’t move from the ball she’s curled into until the shrill beeping of the alarm becomes too irritating to ignore.

She thinks how tempting it would be to cancel today’s plans; not because she’s sleepy or doesn’t want to go, but because she really, really does. Too much. But instead, with great effort, she heaves herself out of bed, brushes her teeth, makes up her face and shimmies into jeans and a light pink sweater.

It’d been over three weeks since Mariah and Tessa had last seen each other; another one of Mariah’s last-ditch efforts at some sort of separation. But by Tessa’s fourth, “Hang out with me!” text, she was finally worn down, and they made plans for a day together.

They would meet up at Crimson Lights for coffee, head to the theater to watch some movie they’d undoubtedly make snarky comments through, and end at the salon to have their nails done.

Mariah hates that she’s excited, that she can feel a warm buzz lingering underneath her skin as if she hadn’t just cried herself to sleep hours before. She realizes the insanity, can feel the divergence of her emotions between now and last night, but it’s entirely out of her control. It really always has been.

She hears the ding of her phone and picks it up to see Tessa’s name.

               Wanna meet in fifteen?

               Can’t wait to drink a gallon of coffee

               And see you of course… but mostly the coffee

Mariah smiles and responds.

               Fifteen’s perfect. I’d hate to keep you from your true love

She pulls her boots on and sets out on a hunt for her keys. She could’ve sworn she’d put them on the counter last night. But this wouldn’t be the first time she’d lost them. Probably wouldn’t be the hundredth.

               Wise call. It’s dangerous at the very least

               I promise to have your disgusting pumpkin spice thing waiting. Extra whipped cream

               It’s a miracle we’re still friends

Friends. The word manages to comfort and hurt her simultaneously.

She finds her keys in the crevice of the couch cushions and goes to meet her friend.

_______________

Mariah gets to Crimson Lights and spots Tessa on the patio settling into a table in the corner. She doesn’t look any different, her dark hair drapes her face like it always has, she’s wearing the same deep red blazer Mariah’s seen her in a thousand times before, but all the same, Mariah’s heartbeat picks up and she’s struck again by just how beautiful Tessa is.

Tessa hears Mariah before she sees her, too busy shuffling her coat off onto the back of her chair.

“Mariah, you made it,” she says and jumps up to pull her into a hug. “I’ve missed your face.”

There’s no space between them. One of Tessa’s hands is in between Mariah’s shoulder blades, the other rests on the back of her head, fingers entangled in Mariah’s hair. The warmth of the hug automatically spreads all the way to Mariah’s stomach. She sinks into it, instinctively craving the closeness, but terrified of what that means. Trying to hold onto some shred of control, she fights through the feeling; her eyes open, her face sagging.

“It’s been way too long, hasn’t it?” Tessa sighs.

Mariah’s acutely aware of how much their bodies are touching, the sweet, floral smell of Tessa’s hair, the butterflies in her stomach. Aware of the way Tessa’s just barely rocking from side to side while her fingers curl even deeper into her hair.

Mariah realizes she hasn’t responded, realizes they’ve been hugging an abnormally long time, that she almost didn’t notice that at all. The lack of control makes her panic and she untangles herself, her face snapping back into a smile before Tessa can see. Back to pretending.

“It’s only been three weeks,” she laughs and sits down across the table, arms folded over her chest.

“You really can’t expect me to be okay with not hearing from you for three weeks.” Tessa tilts her head. “You know you’re my only friend,” she jokes, then pauses as if to weigh her words. “Why has it been three weeks?”

Tessa’s jaw is tight like she’s almost scared of the answer.

Mariah knows she could say that it’s because every time she talks to her, she wants her more. Because she loves her and it hurts. Because the thought of her and Noah together makes her want to crawl into a hole and stay there. She could say all of it.

“Oh, no reason, I’ve just been busy.”

Tessa’s eyes linger on Mariah, searching her face, and Mariah knows she doesn’t buy it. They talk all the time, respond to each other’s messages right away, but these past few weeks were quieter. Tessa’s messages were left on read; her calls went unanswered.

“Work stuff, y’know? Didn’t feel like bothering you,” she says, in an attempt to convince her.

She sees a flash of hurt in Tessa’s face, knows it hasn’t worked, before it disappears. Mariah worries Tessa thinks she’s getting bored of her. If only she knew.

If Mariah didn’t care so much about protecting her own heart, she knows she’d blurt everything out right then and there, only so she’d never have to see that pain in Tessa’s eyes again.

It would make things so much easier too if Tessa knew everything. Maybe she’d feel uncomfortable and force some distance between them. Or tell her she only loves Noah and only ever will. Something to finally put Mariah out of her misery. But Mariah also knows she wouldn’t be able to handle it, so she stays silent. Stares back.

Tessa clears her throat, bringing Mariah back to the moment. “I’m just glad we’re here now.”

“I am too,” Mariah responds and means it.

There’s another moment of pause, the silence lingering while neither knows what to say next. Tessa breaks it eventually, her voice going back up to its normal octave, all trace of seriousness lost.

“Well, Miss Copeland, it looks like someone hasn’t touched her disgusting excuse for a drink. Are you finally seeing the light?”

They both visibly relax at the change in conversation.

Mariah gasps and shoots her a glare. “How dare you imply my loyalty is that fragile. I’ll have you know I was just waiting to drink it to be polite.”

Tessa smiles widely back at her, then twists her face and holds up her hands in mock surrender.

As if to prove herself, Mariah grabs the mug and takes a sip. It’s sweeter than normal, a sickly kind of sweet that Mariah’s not used to, and her face exposes her distaste before she’s able to mask it.

Tessa bursts out laughing.

“What just happened?” she gets out, and Mariah can’t help but smile too.

“Nothing, nothing. It’s totally normal, super delicious,” she lies and her own laughter gives her away. Not wanting to give Tessa the satisfaction of winning though, she drinks from the mug again, making sure not to let her face betray her this time.

Tessa laughs again at Mariah’s not-so-subtle ploy, and her eyes drop to her mouth.

Mariah’s heart skips, and without thinking, her eyes drop down too in response.

 “There’s a little bit of…” Tessa motions at the corner of her mouth, acting as a mirror.

Mariah snaps her eyes back up, her cheeks reddening. Of course. She wipes away the tiny smudge of whipped cream stuck to her upper lip and fights the embarrassment that washes over her. The stupidity that for a split second she really imagined…

She wonders how Tessa can immediately sense her thoughts about a stupid coffee but remain so oblivious to these feelings that have consumed her mind for the better part of a year. For a brief moment Mariah is inexplicably angry and frustrated with the girl sitting across from her, but she knows she’s really just mad at herself.

_______________

“That might’ve been the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” Tessa says as they walk the two blocks from the theater to the nail salon. “I half expected it to turn around at some point, but no, it managed to somehow just get shittier.”

Mariah smiles and nods. “By the third unnecessary explosion, I realized we were not the intended audience.”

“Was anyone the intended audience?”

“Good point.”

“Listening to your constant scoffs almost made it worthwhile, though. I’m really glad you decided to come with me. I tried to drag Noah but he wasn’t having it.”

Mariah folds her arms over her chest as if to protect her heart. “Oh, I see, so I was your second choice?” She’d intended for it to come out as a joke, but it ends up sounding far too vulnerable. She cringes.

Tessa stops in her tracks and turns her body so she’s facing Mariah head on.

“No.” She says it firmly so Mariah will believe it. And she almost does.

After a beat Tessa continues, her voice slightly lower. “You weren’t responding to me.”

Mariah looks at her, really looks, and knows she’s being sincere. But she’s not ready to talk about it again; about why she’s been ghosting her, so she diverts the topic.

“It’s a good thing I was here to spare him then,” she says, “I don’t think Noah would’ve been nearly as patient as we were.”

Tessa forces a smile. “Yeah, I think he might have left five minutes in.”

“If we had any dignity, we would have too.”

“Good thing we don’t.”

“Exactly.”

_______________

They check in with the woman at the front desk and go to the shelf of polishes to pick a color.

Mariah picks out a light pink, not too far from the color of her nailbed already and Tessa choses a deep blue verging on black. They smile to each other over their differing taste.

“Did I tell you?” Mariah practically yells. They’ve settled into their seats by now and are waiting for the manicurist to set up. “Summer came out as bi.”

Mariah knows she didn’t tell her. She’d wanted to call her the minute she’d heard the news, but that was two weeks ago, back when she was trying to pretend Tessa didn’t exist, so she’d resisted.

“No, you hadn’t. That’s amazing!”

“It really is. She’s still with Kyle, so it wasn’t like she came out because of a new relationship or anything; she just needed people to know.”

Summer had shared the news on Facebook and Mariah was surprised by how strong the sense of happiness she’d felt for Summer was. Still mostly overwhelming irritation, of course. Summer always managed to get under Mariah’s skin and always will, but happiness and excitement filled in any cracks.

Also, Mariah thinks, a bit of jealousy. But she would never admit to it. She knows one day she’ll be able to tell people she’s gay. Or, at least, intentionally tell people.

There’d been that one night at a house party when Kyle had gotten a little flirty and had asked Mariah if there was anyone there that she wanted to hook up with. And Mariah, having had one too many margaritas and having been far too turned on by Tessa’s short dress and dancing all night, let her name slip out of her mouth without hesitation. After the initial shock and teasing from Kyle, he’d been kind enough to listen in the days after when she shared how guilty and confused she felt.

Mariah’s happy he knows, but hates that he’s the only one, that it’s still a secret for the most part. She hopes maybe she’ll be allowed to borrow some of Summer’s courage someday.

The manicurist, all set up now, gestures for them to start soaking their nails.

“Well, good for her, that’s not easy,” Tessa smiles, dipping her hands in. “Although, we both already pretty much knew, didn’t we? I mean, I have been informed about that time you kissed her. And from reliable sources, it sounded like she wasn’t too upset about it,” Tessa teases, raising an eyebrow. “That maybe neither of you were.”

Mariah’s face goes red without her permission, but she laughs anyway, moves her gaze to the bowls in front of them, to their soaking fingers. “Oh, please. You know it wasn’t like that at al- “

Something catches Mariah’s eye and she immediately stops, her heart sinking instantly.

Tessa’s hand. Her left hand. Her ring finger. How hadn’t she seen it before?

Mariah’s frozen. She feels her heart pounding, can hear it in her ears. If looking at the pictures felt like a knife in her heart, this feels like a shredder.

She doesn’t want to think, she wishes she could shut down for a moment, breathe. Why can’t she fucking breathe?

Tessa’s brow furrows, wonders what made Mariah suddenly go so pale and follows her staring eyes down to her finger. She looks at it in surprise as if she didn’t remember a ring was resting there, and instinctively covers it with her other hand.

She looks at Mariah apologetically, almost pityingly, injuring Mariah even further.

Mariah focuses on her breathing, in and out. She feels blind and stupid, so stupid. She’s scared that every one of her emotions is flashing across her face without her permission so she tries to salvage it, to cover it up.

“Wow,” she manages to breathe out. “Congratulations.” Her voice is shaking like she could cry at any second.

“Thanks,” Tessa says quietly.

“I didn’t know he was going to ask you,” Mariah says trying to smile. Her mouth trembles, ends up jumping between a smile and a frown, never fully landing on one.

“I didn’t either,” she says, just as quiet as before. She’s not looking Mariah in the eyes now. “It was a surprise.”

“Mhm.” Mariah can’t think of what to say, can’t really think of much at all. It’s overwhelming, the pain most of all. She hadn’t known it could get worse.

The urge to run away, to get out of there, is strong and she’s standing up from her chair before she even knows she’s doing it.

“I- I’m sorry. I just realized- I – I forgot something in the car, I’m just gonna – I’ll just…,” her back’s turned before she finishes the sentence. It’s a poor excuse, and Mariah knows it.

It occurs to her that leaving suddenly like this will likely only spark questions in Tessa’s mind, if she doesn’t already know what’s going on. But Mariah doesn’t care, can’t even try to, she just knows she can’t be here.

Tessa’s issuing apologies to the manicurist as she gets up to follow, but Mariah doesn’t wait for her, is already halfway out the door.

Unable to remember which way they’d come from, her legs pick a direction for her. Behind her are the sound of hurried footsteps moving at a jogging pace. Mariah doesn’t slow down from her speed-walk, and she’s grateful that when the footsteps catch up with her, they aren’t accompanied with a voice.

Her subconscious must have remembered the right path because it isn’t long before they’ve reached the theater parking lot and Tessa’s car. She stops outside of it; Tessa does the same.

If Tessa did somehow believe the fumbled excuse of why Mariah had to leave, it’s ruined now; Mariah’s left nothing in the car, and now that Tessa’s followed her, it’s clear to her too.

Mariah just wants to go home, can’t stand it anymore, thinks maybe she’ll call a Lyft instead of willingly sitting next to the person causing her so much pain. But doing that could give her away entirely, and Tessa might figure it out. Part of Mariah wants that, craves it. The other part is completely terrified of being that vulnerable, of losing her most of all. The fear wins.

“Can you take me home?” Mariah asks weakly, giving up on her excuse entirely.

“Sure, Mariah.” Tessa nods, though Mariah can’t see it. Her eyes are on their feet.

Mariah walks to the passenger side and gets in as Tessa sits in the driver’s seat.

The silence in the car is deafening and Mariah wishes, internally begs Tessa to put the keys in the ignition and just go. But Tessa makes no sign of moving, does just the opposite. The keys are in her hands, her body slightly tilted toward Mariah, watching, as Mariah looks in her lap, looks anywhere else. They sit like this for a while.

Eventually there’s a soft sigh, one final pause before Tessa speaks.

“He asked me last Saturday.” Her voice moves slowly and gently. “On the rooftop. We’d gone for dinner in the restaurant and then up to the bar for drinks. The whole place was decorated with flowers and candles and all of a sudden he got down on one knee, and you know… how could I say no?”

Mariah still doesn’t look at Tessa.

“So, I said yes, and I wanted to tell you, I really did, but you weren’t responding to me, and- I don’t know.” She rubs at her neck. “I don’t know, I’m just - I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

As if that’s why she’s upset.

“And, I mean, if you’re hurt because you’re worried this means we won’t hang out as much, I promise it doesn’t. You’re my best friend and nothing will change that.”

Mariah would laugh if she had the energy.

“He, you know, he’s so sweet, your brother. He really loves me, and…” she tapers out.

The silence drags on again.

“Mariah.” Another pause. “Please. Say something.” Her voice cracks a little in the middle. It isn’t until now that Mariah can hear the desperation in Tessa’s voice.

Mariah knows she’s crying now, can feel it on her cheeks, wouldn’t even begin to know how to stop it. She’s hanging by a thread, ready to fall apart at any moment, but somewhere deep inside, she manages to drag out enough composure to avoid it. It’s from that same place that she drags out something else. Another lie.

“It’s just that I’m so happy for you two,” she chokes out, hopes it explains the tears she has to keep wiping away. But Mariah thinks Tessa would have to be dumb to believe that’s all it was. She can’t even force a smile. Can only look at Tessa’s face long enough to see that it’s crumpled too.

Even Mariah knows she isn’t remotely convincing with her words, but she keeps going as if to try.

“You make a great couple,” she says, her chin wobbling, matching her shaky voice. She wills them both to stop. “He’s really lucky to have you.” That part is true.

There’s more silence. They’ve gotten good at that. Tessa reaches for Mariah’s hands.

“What’s going on? Why are you really upset?” Tessa asks. The question is so direct and, in her surprise, Mariah’s eyes are drawn back up to Tessa’s face.

This time she keeps looking. She takes a moment to trace her with her eyes, to admire her, like she’s done so many times when Tessa isn’t looking. She’s so beautiful, even when her face is pained. The curve of her jaw, the intensity of her eyes, the curl of her eyelashes, the sharpness of her cheekbones. She looks at her lips next, lips covered in red, lips she’s kissed once before. She remembers how soft they are, how much she wants to feel them again.

Tessa notices where Mariah’s staring, and her eyes immediately drop down to Mariah’s lips too. They stay there.

A mixture of excitement and sadness swells in Mariah’s stomach. There’s no whipped cream to blame Tessa’s gaze on this time.

Mariah almost leans in to kiss her, wants to feel her lips again, to taste her tongue and get lost in the heat of it all. It would be so easy to let the temptation take over. So easy that she almost doesn’t stop herself. Her gaze moves up to Tessa’s eyes, still staring.

But Tessa doesn’t love her, she remembers, she’s engaged to Noah, and the sudden wave of sadness these thoughts bring with them snaps her back to reality. With the sharp reminder, she untangles their hands, adjusts her body so that she’s no longer angled toward Tessa, and looks straight forward.

“Nothing. You were right. It’s that I wish you had told me sooner.” Lying quickly becoming the only way of protecting herself.

Out of her peripheral, she can see Tessa linger, staring, deciding whether to believe the words, before quickly wiping at her own face and moving to start the car.

The ride back is nearly silent.

When the car finally stops in front of the ranch, Mariah can’t be quick enough to open the car door. Before she’s left it, though, she hears the softest voice speaking behind her.

“Mariah…”

She freezes with her hand on the handle, takes a deep breath, lets the voice continue.

“I’m really sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Mariah wonders if Tessa really believed this lie, or if she just hadn’t wanted to hear the truth underneath. It probably doesn’t matter.

“That’s okay,” Mariah says, turning back to look at her. “Maybe if I’d responded to your calls you would have.”

They smile meekly at each other and Mariah takes that as a cue that it’s okay to leave. She can hear the car idling in the driveway up until she closes the front door behind her.

At least she’s not the only one in denial.

_______________

There’s a half empty bottle of wine on the counter when the doorbell rings and a sufficiently buzzed Mariah laying horizontal on the couch. She groans at the noise and for being forced to move from the spot she’s made for herself on the couch, but she eventually gives in, heaving her body into a crunch so that she’s sitting upright before standing up to open the door. It’s Kyle, and her annoyance falls away immediately. She wraps her arms around his neck and leans into his shoulder.

“I told you you shouldn’t come.” The strength of her hug directly contradicts her words, however. She’d needed him. Though it’s not like she’s surprised by his showing up explicitly against her orders; he never listens to her.

Kyle had called an hour earlier to see if she wanted to hang out, and in just a second could tell something was off. Mariah thought she’d sounded upbeat, at least she’d really tried to, not wanting to cry over the phone. She refused to admit something was wrong despite his many questions; she just wanted to wallow in her heartbreak alone, eat a little, and drink a lot. But Kyle could see through her bullshit by now, and judging by the way he showed up at her house despite her constant protests, he clearly wasn’t going to let her off the hook.

“Okay, so now that I’m here, am I gonna have to pry it out of you, or will you just cut the shit and tell me what’s wrong?” he asks when the hug ends. He’s holding onto her shoulders now, looking at her pointedly.

“Fine, Kyle,” she gives in. “You’re relentless.”

“That’s my middle name.”

She hates how much he challenges her. But he’s also the only one who ever forces her to confront her emotions head on, and for that she’s grateful. She sure as hell doesn’t do it on her own.

So, she looks him head on, and confronts them.

“Tessa and Noah are getting married.”

Saying the words out loud makes them real and she tries to not let the pain in her stomach spread through the rest of her body. She fails.

Kyle keeps his face emotionless, lets her continue.

“She told me today, and-“ Mariah sighs. “I mean, you know how hard I’ve been working to try to get over her. She’s with my brother, my brother. And I can’t do that to him. If he knew about that kiss in San Francisco, how it felt, how I felt, any of it, he’d never forgive me. And then, there’s the part where I’m so in love with her and she feels nothing for me.”

Kyle’s about to speak but she cuts him off, the words flowing freely now. Surely the buzz of the wine.

“And I know you keep saying you think she’s interested but she’s not, Kyle, she just isn’t. If there was ever any doubt for you that she only wants Noah, she said yes to him, there’s your proof. And you should see the ring, I’m sure she’ll show you. It’s beautiful.”

Her breath is shaky now, her voice faltering. “She seems happy, she seems really happy with him.”

Kyle sees a lull in her soliloquy and fills it.

“But you’re not. Happy.” It’s not a question.

“No,” she says it like she’s embarrassed.

“That’s so okay, Mariah. You’re allowed to be unhappy about it.”

“I know, but shouldn’t I be?” she asks. “Happy?”

Kyle looks at her like she has three heads, so she tries to explain.

“I just mean, I should just be happy that she’s happy - that they both are. Am I really so selfish that I need her to be with me for that to be enough?”

He’s shaking his head before she’s even finished the sentence.

“That’s bullshit, Mariah. Anybody that says ‘Oh, I’m just glad she’s happy, that’s enough for me to be happy,’” he says the line in a mocking tone, “they’re just lying to themselves to get over it. It fucking hurts, and you’re allowed to be fucking hurt.”

She nods, wipes away a tear that managed to escape, and moves from the entryway where they’ve been standing to the kitchen to fill her glass.

“And I need you to realize you’re the least selfish person I know,” he adds.

“You’re always so nice to lie to me,” she jokes and grabs a beer from the fridge, popping the cap off before handing it to him. He accepts it with a thanks and hops on the kitchen stool.

“If only I were lying,” he responds. Mariah stands across from him, leans her torso against the island.

“I just wish there was a switch, y’know. To turn it off. I think about her constantly and it never goes away.” She sighs, swirls the glass on the counter watching as the wine moves in slow arcs, coating the sides briefly in red. “And you’d think her being in love with someone else and not wanting me back would help me get over it faster but it doesn’t. The hope doesn’t go away.”

“Listen, I know you tell yourself this so that you can live in your denial or whatever, but I’ve seen the way she looks at you. And it’s not like a friend does.”

“I’ve told you before-“

“Yeah, yeah. ‘there’s no way, ‘you’re imagining it’, blah, blah, blah,“ he says, using his fingers to make air quotes.

“But Mariah. That kiss, the one in San Fran, that wasn’t one sided and you know it.”

She thinks of that night. The way her body had shivered when Tessa zipped up her dress. She remembers fingers tracing lightly against her neck as they had helped to brush her hair to the side. How in that moment she couldn’t deny all the butterflies in her stomach anymore, the urge to look at Tessa, to touch her. The way that terrified her completely; not because she had a boyfriend, but because that boy, no boy, had ever made her feel that nervous, that good. She thinks of the heat that coursed through her when Tessa placed a hand on her shoulder. The need to lean in once she’d turned around and their eyes had locked; no longer a choice, her desire taking control. She remembers the way her heart pounded when Tessa’s eyes dropped to her lips, then how it stopped when Tessa’s head dipped down the last little distance to meet her.

And then finally the softness, the warmth of Tessa’s lips against her own, moving, kissing her back. Her heart could’ve exploded. It was slow, Tessa letting Mariah lead, letting her take control. Mariah willingly setting the pace, slowly, gently, before escalating the kiss. Slipping her tongue in the next moment and feeling Tessa’s tongue right back, shooting electricity down her spine. The kiss didn’t even last a minute, but it was deep, intense, real. It could’ve been an hour. Gentle, greedy hands on cheeks, on necks, on hips, in hair.

And hadn’t it been Mariah who, when her brain unclouded for a moment, had pulled away? Who had apologized and insisted it was a mistake before Tessa could. Before Tessa confirmed her fear and said she’d gotten carried away. But the hope had lingered in Mariah, nonetheless. The ghost of Tessa’s lips moving in tandem with hers would replay in her mind for weeks. Over time, as Tessa and Noah’s relationship grew stronger and Mariah’s relationship with Devon fizzled out, the hope slowly started to fade with it until there was only a sliver left. Somehow, though, Mariah’s feelings only intensified.

But today… She almost doesn’t let herself be reminded of it, is afraid to let any more hope ease its way back in, but the memory flashes in her mind regardless. She thinks of the seconds where Tessa’s eyes had been on her mouth. Just like they had been in San Francisco.

Mariah takes a big gulp of wine and wills herself to forget it again. It was nothing. It meant nothing. Move on.

“See?” Kyle asks, rightly interpreting the silence as confirmation. “She feels something, or at least, she did,” he adds. “And that doesn’t mean anything will come of it necessarily, but this was never just one-sided.”

Mariah still has her doubts, but in her desperation to not feel stupid, foolish, entirely alone in the strength of it all, she clings to his words like a lifeline. Maybe she hadn’t always been alone. Maybe somewhere along the way, what she’d felt was reciprocated, even if in a miniscule fraction of the intensity.

"I really think you should tell her.”

Mariah sighs. He’s said it before, but she hadn’t wanted to listen.

“I know it’s scary, and I know there’s no guarantee of anything, but you can’t just keep it bottled up forever. You’re hurting yourself. And maybe it could change everything, you never know.”

Mariah knows he’s right, but doesn’t say it. Wouldn’t want him to get a big head. So instead she tilts her glass back, finishing off the last bit of wine.

 “And on that note,” Kyle says, “I think you deserve a real drink at a bar.”

Mariah won’t argue. Her buzz is strong, but not strong enough for the heartbreak. The idea of staying in all night seemed nice at first, but she thinks hard liquor and a complete distraction are the only things that might come close to helping.

“Okay, I’m in. But only if you promise we don’t talk about her anymore tonight.”

“Deal,” he says smiling, and holds his beer up to cheers her. She clinks it with her empty glass and smiles back.

“Well then,” she says, setting the glass down, “I’ll go get ready, you call the Lyft.”

“On it,” he says pulling out his phone.

She walks up the stairs to her room, sits on the bed for a moment to collect herself before moving to her vanity to get ready. She looks into the mirror. Her eyes are red and bloodshot, her face pale, the makeup from the morning mostly gone except for some smudged eyeliner left behind, the sweatpants she’d immediately changed into when she’d gotten home look ragged and sloppy.

“Christ,” she mutters to herself and looks for a makeup wipe to start from scratch.

“On second thought,” she yells down the stairs, “give me a fifteen-minute head start.”

_______________

“I heard Summer’s bisexual,” Mariah shouts loudly over the pounding music.

Kyle’s standing directly next to her in the bar, so her volume isn’t really necessary, but after all the drinks back at the ranch and the shots of tequila they both had when they first got to the bar, control over things like volume went out the window a while back.

“Yeah, she told me,” he shouts back, one hand on Mariah’s shoulder hoping for a bit of stability from all the swaying he’s doing. As if she would be able to provide any; she’s even less steady than him at the moment. “Actually, she told me like two months ago. That she likes dudes and ladies.” He tries to lower his voice a little, but it still comes out as a shout. “She said she’s hooked up with girls before!”

Mariah’s eyes light up as if it’s the greatest news she’s ever heard.

“Oh my god, I’m so, so, sososo happy for her!” She slurs. “She’s like, so bisexual! Super-duper bisexual!”

“I know,” he responds. “I love her soooo much.”

“You know I’ve kissed her before, right?” Mariah’s far enough gone she isn’t even thinking about her words before she says them, can’t remember he was there for the kiss in the first place.

“Yes, I remember! You didn’t even know you were gay then. But it makes sense now.”

“Her lips are really, really soft Kyle. Like super soft.”

Kyle nods enthusiastically.

“Girls have such soft lips,” she says. “Tessa has soft lips too, you know. Maybe it’s her chapstick.” Her face gets serious and her eyes wide. “I should call and ask what chapstick she uses.”

“You should! And you should tell me what she says. I want soft lips too,“ he says, taking another sip of his rum and coke.

If they weren’t so drunk, Mariah knows she definitely wouldn’t call Tessa over something so trivial as chapstick and Kyle would never egg her on about it. He’d tell her it’s an excuse to hear Tessa’s voice, and she’d concede and think better of it.

However, they’re both wasted now, and despite the rule she’d given Kyle, Tessa’s name had already been brought up three times before, tonight. Neither of them are thinking clearly.

“I’m jus’ gonna go to the bathroom,” she says. “Are you okay on your own?”

“Yeah, this is a bop,” he says and starts dancing by himself.

She doubles over in laughter. “You’re an idiot. I love you,” she says affectionately, the drunk sentiments in full force now.

She stumbles through the crowd of people, pushes the door of the bathroom open. There are a few women in there already, one washing her hands, another in one of the stalls. Mariah barely notices them. She takes her phone out of her purse to call Tessa.

After all the times she’s called Tessa, sometimes from other people’s phones, Mariah knows Tessa’s number by heart; she doesn’t even have to scroll through the contacts. She does manage to mistype a few numbers in her dizziness though, so she’s several attempts in before the ringing starts.

Tessa picks up after the third ring, a slight bit of panic in her voice mixed with the hoarseness of sleep.

“Mariah? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Really, really good! So good. I have a really important question for you.”

She doesn’t notice the pause on the other end.

“….Okay?”

“What kind of chapstick do you use?”

A slow release of air followed by a stifled laugh echoes through the phone. Mariah grins wide at the sound. She could hear that sound forever and it would never lose its honey-like quality.

“Hold on,” Tessa whispers, still laughing softly. Mariah hears shuffling on the other end and a door close. She must have been in bed. With Noah. Her chest clenches. Smile falters. Stop. Don’t picture them in bed together.

There’s a sliding sound and finally a little huff. Mariah’s not sure exactly Tessa’s position, but in her mind she’s sitting on the bathroom floor, her back against the door.

“Alright. So, my chapstick?” she asks, her voice a normal level now.

“Mhm.”

“Well, I’m a Burt’s Bees girl myself. The peppermint kind mostly. I’ve heard the menthol in it actually dries your lips out a bit, but I love the tingly feeling it leaves behind, so it’s worth it.”

It explains why Mariah sometimes gets a whiff of candy canes when Tessa’s near.

“Burt’s Bees! Okay, I’ll tell Kyle.”

“Mariah, what the hell,” she laughs, a bit louder this time. “It’s three a.m. When I saw you were calling, I assumed you were dying. Why do you need to know my chapstick brand right now? And why does Kyle want to know?”

“Nope, not dying. Kyle and I were jus’ talking about how soft your lips are,” she slurs. She’s aware sober Mariah would never have said this out loud, but the tequila is making her confident, unfazed, more honest with Tessa than she has been in months.

“You and Kyle were wha-“

“Your lips are so soft Tessa, you need to know. So smooth.” Tessa doesn’t say anything right away so she continues on. “Like kissing a cloud. Summer’s lips too. Girls’ lips are so nice. Way better than any guys’. Devon’s were always rough as hell, I don’t think he ever even looked at a lip balm.”

“You are so drunk,” Tessa says, humor in her voice.

“I am, I’m so drunk,” Mariah admits. “But am I wrong?”

There’s silence. There’s been a lot of that recently.

“No, you’re not wrong,” Tessa says, slowly.

“I mean, not that you’ve had a lot of experience. I’m pretty sure I’ve kissed more girl than you have. But my lips must be softer than Noah’s, right?”

Alarm bells go off in her head. Stop, Mariah. What the hell are you doing?

“What makes you think you’ve kissed more girls than I have?”

It wasn’t what Mariah was expecting to hear at all. Through the haziness, her heart beats faster.

“Have you?” She asks astonished. “How many girls have you kissed?”

“Mmm, give me a second.”

She has to think about it.

“I wanna say six?” Tessa says after a moment.

“You wanna say? You’re not sure?” Mariah wasn’t prepared for this.

Why had Tessa kissed so many girls? Were they innocent kisses that didn’t mean anything? Were they real? Both? Mariah wishes she were a bit more sober so she could think a bit clearer.

“I mean, I’ve kissed some people at parties when I was drunk, I might’ve missed someone.”

“Wow, Tessa’s kissed six girls,” she says it out loud, but mostly to herself.

“Yeah.”

Mariah lets it sink in for a minute. Tessa interjects into the silence.

“Also… the answer to your question… it’s yes.”

Mariah has no clue what Tessa’s talking about now. She hasn’t been able to keep a train of thought; already forgot what questions she’s asked.

“Huh?”

“You asked if your lips are softer than Noah’s... they are.” Tessa nearly whispers it. Mariah’s not even confident she heard it correctly. Her heart fills. It fills until her head reminds her that it changes nothing. Tessa’s still engaged. Still in love with her brother.

The sane part of her brain tells her to hang up, say goodnight, finally move on. But the sane part of her brain is weak at the moment. The honest, drunk part keeps winning and it won’t shut up. Kyle’s suggestion to tell Tessa is on a loop in her mind.

Mariah has a vague sense she’ll regret all of this in the morning, but right now, her filter’s down and she wants to say it all, needs to tell the truth.

“Tessa. I need to tell you something.”

She can practically hear Tessa brace herself, hold her breath.

“I really like you. Like, I really, really, really like you. I think you’re so beautiful, and you make me happy. I love how loyal you are and strong-willed and tough as hell and kind. I love how talented you are and how you make me feel. And I know I shouldn’t say this cause I’m drunk but whatever, fuck it, really.

“Maybe you already knew, you must’ve already known. You’d have to be blind not to know. And I know you’re with him, and I know you love him, and that you chose him and you’ll never love me, but it hurts, it hurts so fucking much, Tessa, and I need you to know. I just need you to-” She’s crying now, doesn’t know when it started. “I need you to know I love you.”

She can hear shallow breathing on the other end, a tell that Tessa crying too. Neither talks for a while.

“I know,” Tessa says.

Mariah waits for more, waits for what feels like a minute, but nothing comes. That’s all she says. Two words never managed to hurt Mariah so much. Two empty words.

“Okay,” Mariah says finally. She breathes in, the air catches in her throat. She’s feels so unbearably stupid. Tessa had known and never acknowledged it. Tessa had known and has absolutely nothing to say. Mariah wishes she could dig that hole now and stay there, thinks there’s nothing else that could compare to this pain.

“Okay,” she says again this time her voice much firmer, resigned. Tessa’s response sobering her up quick.

She’s about to hang up, figures there’s nothing more to say. Tessa knows and doesn’t care and nothing’s changed. Except maybe their friendship is gone now, too. Mariah wonders how good of a friendship it was to begin with if there were all these secrets between them.

But before she hangs up, Tessa responds.

“I’ve known for a while. Ever since our kiss.” She stops, Mariah waits. Finally, Tessa speaks again. “I really, really like you too,” she whispers.

A warmth spreads through Mariah’s body.

“You do?” she asks, her heart pounding in her ears.

All the hope Mariah’s suppressed, all the love she refused to let herself feel, all the happiness and warmth that were buried under the surface, it all comes rushing over her now. It’s all there, she feels consumed by it, by complete and utter happiness and hope. She isn’t crazy. Tessa has feelings for her and she isn’t alone.

“But I can’t, Mariah. I love Noah, I do. And I can’t do that to him, I can’t break his heart like that.”

It’s like whiplash. Numbness. Mariah feels numb.

“Please, you have to understand,” she cries, begs Mariah to get it.

The tragic part is, Mariah does.

“Maybe if things were different…” Tessa drifts off.

Mariah’s mind is still foggy from the alcohol. Her filter’s still gone too, but there aren’t any words to spill out anymore.

They listen to the other cry for a moment, feeling connected in this way despite being so very, very far apart.

“I need time, Tessa. I ne– “she swallows a sob and takes a breath. “I need to get over you,” she says, her heart breaking again. The finality of it.

“I know.” Those damned two words. “Take as much time as you need.”

Mariah nods her head, forgets Tessa can’t see.

“But Mariah.” She says. “Please don’t stay away too long. I need you.”

Mariah’s heart is in shattered pieces laid out on the bathroom floor. She thinks Tessa’s selfish, cruel to say she needs her after what just happened, but she knows it’s true. It’s true for her too.

“Okay,” she chokes out, and hangs up.