It's been a year since that first seminar of Ethics for the Social Sciences.
It's also been a year since Mandy met Delilah.
The introductory lecture (full of crucial information about the university and the grad program and the course expectations) had gone on for way too long for Mandy to keep pretending to pay attention. Really, she knew all this already. She was fresh out of undergrad at the U of M, and she was bored to tears.
There was a noise at the back of the hall, and the five hundred new Masters' students all looked up, craning their necks to see who was interrupting the boredom. It was a girl, smiling sheepishly and blushing. When she noticed everyone staring, she whispered, "Sorry," loudly enough that it managed to carry throughout the room.
Dr Reese looked annoyed but continued speaking, and Mandy officially abandoned any attempts at listening in favor of looking at the girl. She didn't think she was being obvious, except the girl looked up, grinned when she saw Mandy, and slipped into her row.
"Hey," she whispered, sliding into the seat next to Mandy and fiddling with the fold-out table. "Hey, um, sorry."
"Do you have a pen?" the girl asked.
Nodding, Mandy rooted through her bag, which had already turned into a minor version of the Bermuda triangle, and emerged victoriously holding a pink marker.
"Sorry," she whispered, "I haven't moved my entire pen collection into my bag yet."
The girl grinned again. "I think mine's at the bottom of one of the boxes in my room, but I'm not sure which one. I'm Delilah, by the way."
"Mandy." They listened to Dr Reese as he went into his why-we-are-all-here speech, delivered in a flat deadpan and devoid of any inspirational intonation, and Mandy sighed. Really, his jokes weren't getting any funnier the longer they sat there.
Delilah shook her head, looking as skeptical about this whole thing as Mandy felt. "So did he say anything crucial while I wasn't, you know, here?"
Mandy snorted and pointed at her notes. They said, in order, U of M=cares about students and this course is an example of how (HAH), Objectivity is complicated, and Ethics are important when doing research.
Delilah nodded. "Sleeping in was a better idea, is that what you're saying?"
They shared a smile, and Mandy—well, later she would say she felt her heart skip a beat, but really, it was more like a stutter. A tiny one, but a stutter nonetheless. Delilah's hair was sticking out in several directions, like she'd fallen out of bed and walked out the front door, and the skirt she was wearing had at least two paint stains on it. But when she smiled, Jesus. It made Mandy think of stupid metaphors, which wasn't her bag at all (her sister was the English major, dammit). There was nothing in Mandy's books of political theory to prepare her for shit like this.
When the lecture was done, "at long fucking last," as Mandy put it, leaning back in her seat and trying to get rid of the crick in her back, Delilah declared that obviously they deserved coffee for sitting through all of that.
"A lot of coffee," Mandy said, nodding in agreement, and so they wandered over to the Student Union.
"It is, of course, an evil megacorporation," Delilah said thoughtfully while they were in line for Starbucks, "but, you know, it's just so good."
Mandy nodded, scanning the menu even though she knew what she was getting. It was hot and sticky in Minneapolis; summer hadn't gotten the memo that it was time to give way to fall, so she'd been subsisting on a lot of iced coffee throughout the move into her new apartment and the bureaucracy of enrolllment.
She listened as Delilah ordered something very complicated and started laughing.
"Couldn't you just tell them to give you everything they've got in a cup?"
"It's not my fault if you're satisfied with the most boring thing they have on the menu—seriously, a plain iced coffee?"
"At least it won't kill my teeth like your, uh, mocha-frappa-choco-venti-something will," Mandy said triumphantly and Delilah laughed.
"You wait and see, I'm gonna make you taste it and you'll never want anything else."
"I," Mandy said, fiddling with her straw in a very dignified manner, thank you very much, "am an adult, and I drink adult coffee."
Rolling her eyes, Delilah grabbed Mandy's arm with her free hand. "Come on grandma, let's find some shade."
Mandy has loved Delilah ever since that first seminar and the coffee that followed it. Or, well, that's not quite right—she knew she wanted Delilah when she watched her lick whipped cream off her nose, but she didn't figure out about the love part until a week later, when Delilah was sitting on her bed and calmly eviscerating Pawlenty's latest legislative disaster.
When Delilah smiled in the middle of a tirade, smiled because she'd noticed Mandy's new crazy-patterned rug (circles and planets and stripes, oh my), that's when Mandy knew. She smiled right back and didn't say anything about it. What was she supposed to say?
In fact, Mandy has never told Delilah. Instead, she's sat through late-night conversations about the latest asshole Delilah has decided is worthy of her attention; she's listened and given advice and been the best friend a girl could ever ask for.
Mandy is a wonderful friend.
Being in love with the most oblivious girl on the planet does not make grad school any easier. Mandy makes fun of herself sometimes, in long emails to her sister, saying things like, "I feel like I'm finally catching up on that pining I was supposed to do when I was fourteen. I'm practically Juliet over here, or maybe Romeo—oh that I were a glove upon that hand that I might touch that cheek, or something. (I can't believe I even know that quote, it's all your fault.) I've almost perfected my longing glances and weepy nighttime journal entries."
Linda's replies tend to be along the lines of, "Get over yourself, idiot," or, when she's in a helpful mood, "You should have sex with someone else. Flush all that pining out of your hair." She's started to call Mandy "Bella Swaaaaan" on the phone, which Mandy growls at but tolerates.
Mandy doesn't have sex with anyone else. She tries, actually, because she's sort of good at the whole flirting-while-drunk thing, looking up through her lashes and smiling like the whole world depends on Evelyn The Drunk Philosophy TA taking her home, but Mandy never takes it beyond the dark corner of the pub, leaves it at slow kisses and touches that fail to actually skirt the edge of public indecency laws at all. It's not that she doesn't want to have sex, it's just that she keeps seeing Delilah's face beneath her.
God, how dumb.
But she does get Delilah, sometimes. She gets Delilah drunk and crying, wiping away snot on her sleeve and trying to explain that no, he really does love her, he's just tired/unhappy/depressed/dealing with his Tragic Past/take your pick (Mandy's running out of ways to respond to that one).
She gets Delilah deliriously happy over Saturday breakfast, walking in with hickeys climbing her throat and moving like the world is soft and new. That one's maybe harder to take than sad Delilah.
She gets Delilah awake, aware, passionate about the latest cause that fell into her inbox (or was championed by Mr This Month) and Mandy never loves Delilah more than then, because there is no one smarter or more empathetic when she's really there, really in the moment. Delilah forgets to put on makeup, those days, forgets to brush her hair and walk in the right way and Mandy always just wants when she sees her, itching to touch and hold.
This is such a day. Delilah is talking, filling Mandy's tiny apartment with her voice, her vision, not even stopping to brush her bangs out of her eyes or finish eating her lunch. Suddenly, Mandy can't help herself: she reaches out and tucks Delilah's hair behind her ear.
Delilah stops talking, and whatever she sees in Mandy's face makes her take a sharp breath and shake her head faintly. "Don't look at me like that."
Mandy can feel herself blushing. "Like what?"
"Like I'm—oh, I don't know." Delilah turns her face away.
"Sorry," says Mandy, tugging at her shirt. "Sorry, you were saying?"
"Just that it seems like we're really going to make something happen with this demonstration," Delilah says, but doesn't look at Mandy, doesn't sound nearly as excited as she had five minutes ago. "In fact, I, I should go, there's a planning meeting."
"You said it was at four," Mandy protests and Delilah's still not looking at her, still has something scared in her eyes.
"No, yeah, but I need to stop by work first. They let me use the copy machines there for the fliers."
"Ah, the evil corporation has a heart," Mandy tries. "Did you tell them it was for an anti-racist protest?"
Delilah shakes her head, manages a smile. "I said it was for my part-time volunteering with the elderly gig."
"Much more appropriate," Mandy nods, determinedly maintaining the lighthearted tone. Something inside her is shattering, softly and sweetly, at the way Delilah seems to have stepped half a world away without actually moving.
Later, she is abruptly furious, because she can't help but think, Don't you know I'd be better for you?, and throw her textbook at the wall, because otherwise she's going to start breaking china and she owns exactly three mugs, five glasses, and six mismatched plates. Old Mr Henderson only thumps once in response; he must be in a good mood today.
Mandy doesn't want to go to class the next morning, doesn't want to sit there while Delilah walks past her.
But Delilah doesn't, she sits down where she always sits. There's a distance there now, though: whereas before she would have curled into Mandy's side and laughed and stolen her pen, now she just asks to borrow one, please, and asks about Mandy's evening.
"I thought you were coming to the demonstration," Delilah says and Mandy wants to laugh, because had she really expected that Mandy would show up half an hour after accidentally revealing her embarrassing crush to chant in unison with the other hundred-or-so angry activists?
"I had homework," she says instead, "essays to work on, and other things to do."
"Right, yeah. I always forget you're taking more classes than the rest of us."
"Gotta get done, you know how it goes," says Mandy, eyes on the professor who just entered the room. Not Seymour, this is a tall woman (a lot taller than Mandy's five feet) who surveys the classroom with an imperious stare.
She briefly announces that Dr Seymour has had to call in sick, and continues portentously, "Today we're discussing the goal of social science, namely, to explain social phenomena, related to what we discussed last time, which is that the generality and parsimony of theories should be given primacy over their accuracy," and Mandy can't help it, she starts giggling. Muffled into her arm, but still, giggling, which sets Delilah off too, and the woman quirks an eyebrow at them before starting her lecture.
But they part ways afterwards, instead of going for their customary lunch. Instead, Mandy claims laundry and walks back to her apartment alone. Part of her wants to go with Delilah, have lunch like always, make fun of the inanity of the lecture and make up ways their version of objective social science would fail if applied. But she also doesn't think she could sit opposite Delilah without giving herself away in every smile or helplessly starting the conversation she wants least to start: let's talk about love, baby, no, wait, let's fucking not.
So she goes home and she eats tortilla chips while doing laundry, brushing crumbs off of her t-shirt and loading the washing machine, trying very hard not to think. It almost works; she has to sort out the loads, has to find her bras so they don't break the washing machine (again), goes and finds salsa when the chips get too dry on their own, but then she gets to the three concert shirts she owns and has to sit down for a minute.
They go to shows together, is the thing. They do a lot together, of course, but Mandy didn't really go to concerts before she met Delilah, and so now she's thinking about sweating in a crowd, arms up and clapping, sneaking looks at Delilah who has her eyes closed while she dances.
This is so fucking stupid. You'd think a year was enough time to recognize the impossibility of a crush and move the fuck on.
Obviously it's not.
Two weeks go by and Mandy aches at the distance she's put between them. They still talk in class (Mandy's pretty sure going cold turkey and not talking to Delilah at all would kill her—or something less melodramatic, but she doesn't want to be in any more pain than she already is) but Delilah doesn't drag her anywhere, they don't have lunch or breakfast or dinner and Mandy doesn't call her when she's feeling insecure. They have coffee once, on a Thursday, and stick to discussing movies:
"Have you seen Lilja Forever?" (Delilah's latest Cause is trafficking.)
Mandy nods. "I showed it to you, remember?"
"Right, right." There's a silence. "I'm glad you did, it's an important movie."
"Yeah, it is." Mandy tries to think of an excuse for leaving and fails.
Delilah bites her lip. "So, um, we're having a thing, a showing, do you want to—"
"I've seen it, remember?" Ow, that came out a little sharp.
Inhaling sharply, Delilah raises an eyebrow at her. "There'll be a panel, it'll be good."
"I—maybe. If I'm done with the paper."
"I'll take what I can get."
You always do. "I'll try to make it, I promise."
She doesn't go.
Delilah gets mad at her but won't say anything; instead she's now inviting Mandy to every demonstration she's involved in, because "If you don't care about anything but school you might as well not be in school." It's like she's forgotten already, or like she's trying to make Mandy act normal. Mandy can't.
She does go to a couple of them, stands at the back and claps when there are pauses between speakers, and she leaves once she's been there long enough for Delilah to see her. It's not like they go to these things together, anymore, or like they leave together.
Once, she forgets to leave before Delilah is speaking, and then when she starts, Mandy can't move. She's shivering, even though there are a lot of people here, even though it's warm for late fall. She's shivering and she wants to cry, kind of, despite the fact that Delilah is being as inspiring as she ever was, but Mandy just feels so alone, with fifty people standing between her and the stage. Before, she would have been right up there; before, she would have known the speech as well as Delilah knows it, mouthing along with every line.
We would be so good, she thinks, We would be so good, but you have to choose me, and you won't.
Mandy tells herself it's better this way, because at least now she doesn't have to catalogue the marks on Delilah's neck or answer panicky phone calls about stage fright, or figure out if Delilah's okay if she hasn't called in a day or two. It's a lot easier to focus on school, really, and Mandy talks a little more to the people in her actual program now. Enough to get invited to a party or two, even. It's getting better, she's getting better.
Mandy gropes for her phone in the dark, fuck, so fucking noisy, why the hell would I set an alarm for five AM? But she's left blinking dumbly at the screen, where Delilah's name is flashing. What the fuck.
"Hey," she croaks.
There's no answer at first, but Mandy can hear Delilah's fast, fast, too-fast breathing. Shit. She struggles into a seated position.
"Hey, D, hey, what's going on?" She can hear Delilah try to answer, but she's shaking or something, her voice is all over the place and Mandy has no idea what she's saying.
"Shh," she says instead. "Shh, don't worry. Just breathe for me, right, just breathe for a second." When she can hear Delilah slow down, she says, "That's it, yeah. Wanna try again?"
"I'm in Burnsville," Delilah says, and then, of course, of fucking course, she says, "I can't stay here. Henry's—I can't fucking stay here."
"What did he do?" Mandy says, and she's calm, she swears, even if she can feel her jaw clenching.
"He's a fucking asshole," says Delilah, which is shorthand for, "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Aren't they all," Mandy says, trying for flippant and not making it there.
"Anyway, can you come get me? We went home to his place, in his car, obviously, and I'm just—"
Mandy closes her eyes and thunks her head against the wall once, and opens them again, looking at the mirror on her bedroom wall. You're a sucker, she mouths at herself, and then tells Delilah she'll be there in half an hour, because of course, of course Mandy's going.
It's a silent ride back to the apartment. Delilah's moving weirdly, like one of her arms is hurting, and Mandy only just stops herself from turning the car and going back to break down the goddamn door of that fuckwit's apartment. She won't ask, not until they get back. These conversations, she's had them before, and you can't really have them in a car.
She wants access to first aid supplies while they talk, for one.
But once they're back, Mandy asks, "What happened tonight?"
"I'm obviously not built for relationships," Delilah says, which doesn't actually answer the question at all.
"You're fine," Mandy says. "He's the idiot."
"Won't there be a case for statistically significant results soon?" Delilah sounds like she's about halfway between laughing and crying.
"You just like neediness," Mandy says gently, instead of the half a dozen other things she kind of wants to say right now.
Delilah snorts, but it's not a happy sound, and she's starting to shake again, the way she was shaking when she got in the car.. "Right. That's why this shit happens. Fuck Mandy, I can't do this anymore—"
"Don't," says Mandy, pulling her down, in, close, touching Delilah carefully so she won't accidentally hurt her. She's pretty sure Delilah will tell her eventually.
And she does, pushes Mandy away after fifteen minutes of holding, says, "He hit me," sharply and precisely, pulling her shirt down to show off a spectacular bruise on her shoulder. "He grabbed me and shook me and then he hit me and then I left."
Mandy closes her eyes and opens them again. "Don't go back, Delilah, please, please don't go back." She can hear the way her voice is cracking, falling apart, but she has no idea how to stop it.
"Why would I go back?" Delilah says. "Why would I go back to that?"
"You always do," says Mandy. "You always go back to them no matter how much they—"
Delilah's shaking her head. "No, I won't, I won't. And that's not fucking fair, where the hell do you get off saying that to me—"
And Mandy can't breathe, because no, she's not being fair and she knows it, and she's so selfish, how is she this selfish?
"You only have to say," Mandy manages. "You only have to say and you could have—you could."
"What do you mean?"
"I—you could have me. I wouldn't hurt you." There.
"You want to replace them, is that it?" Delilah's voice is soft and dangerous. "They always tell me they won't hurt me, too."
Mandy shakes her head, knows she's crying now, unable to help it. "I don't, I just—all I ever fucking want is for you to be happy," she finally says, bites off, hands still helplessly reaching for Delilah who has gone so pale.
"What about you?" she says, and Mandy shakes her head again.
"What do you mean?"
"What about you, what do you want?"
Didn't she already say that, didn't she—"I want you. I want you." One hand reaching just a little further, touching Delilah's shoulder so lightly.
Delilah doesn't flinch. "Tell me how it's different."
"Yes, from them. Tell me."
Mandy has no idea where to start. She wants to say "I won't fucking hit you," but Delilah knows that, she knows Mandy.
"I—" and there's nothing to say but the truth. "I'm just going to be right here, where I've always been. We'll go to breakfast like we do, we'll argue over assignments like we do, only, maybe, you'd get to come home to me, too, come home to me and I'd kiss you and touch you and, I don't know. I love you, I don't know how many ways I can say that."
Biting her lip, Delilah hesitates. "Like now, you mean, it'd be like now."
"If you want. I won't tell you what to do, Delilah, not ever."
"But what about you?"
Mandy looks at her helplessly. "Why do you keep asking me that?"
"Well, say we fight, and I want to do something and you think it's stupid, what are you going to tell me?"
There's no answer to that question that won't hurt. "I'll—we'll fight, we will. But I'll yell, that's what I'll do, and you'll yell back, and we can—" Mandy stops speaking when Delilah touches her cheek, so lightly.
"You're crying," she says.
"No shit," Mandy says, and laughs, half-choking. "We're having a difficult conversation here, in case you hadn't noticed."
"It's not so bad," Delilah says wonderingly, and touches Mandy's cheek again. "I'm not sure I can be what you need me to be, not right now."
Mandy shies away from her touch and nods. "Right, yeah," while she's trying to keep it together long enough to go hide in her bedroom, maybe.
"No, you don't get it," Delilah says. "I want, we could, but I'm going to suck, I have no idea how to do this right, like, so, we should wait, just a little, maybe?"
And that's—Mandy looks at her, really looks at her, and Delilah is smiling, like she does when she's decided something is important, something is worth seven hours in the cold outside a corporation that won't listen no matter how long you stand there, or, no, that's not quite right, there's a little bit of Saturday mornings in the smile, too. Just a little.
"We can wait," she says, but she can't help but shiver at the hope, and she promises herself she won't push, won't, not ever.
Then Delilah's smile turns impish and she steps in a little closer, sliding her hand over Mandy's shoulder. "We could try it out, maybe," she says, and yeah, okay, that's a kiss. Mandy tries to keep her eyes open because she wants to see Delilah kissing her, but she can't; they flutter shut. And she doesn't mean to curl her hands around Delilah's hips, but she doesn't know how to keep herself from touching, now that she's sort of allowed.
Delilah bites at her lower lip and backs away, a little. "I said try it out," and Mandy would apologize, except Delilah doesn't sound angry, she sounds breathless, and Mandy wants, she wants so much.
"We can wait," she says, instead of kissing Delilah again.
Delilah takes a second to answer, but then she nods. "We should," she says, decisively this time. "Not—not like forever or anything."
"No," Mandy agrees, and now she's laughing, because she'd forgotten what it felt like to be this happy. "Not forever."