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Start Over, Oh Darling

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"I can't breathe in here," Maria whispers, curled up on her bed in the arid apartment. It's been almost a year and things are better, but sometimes the darkness still creep in on them both. Right now it's the heat and the house and the shadows haunting it.

So they go swimming. They go on the beach in Coney Island, at the fair end of the silent fairs and shops.  They slip out in the early morning before work, when no one is around, wearing their swimsuits under their coats and piling their swings in the shadow of a rock.

Maria marches out into the grey water, head high, and Anita follows, biting her lip as the cold splashes against her shins. It's nothing like the seas around Puerto Rico, and she's okay with that. She doesn't want to think of home right now.

"It's lovely, isn't it?" Maria says in Spanish, sinking to her knees. The water splashes around her chest, reaching for her neck with silvery fingers. "So bracing."

"It is that," Anita mutters, although she has to admit that a part of her likes it, too. Her nerves tingle and twist at the frigid water, buzzing with life. She cups some in her hands and carefully splashes on her face, biting her lip as some of it drips onto her suit, her breath.

Maria starts splashing through the water, hair flowing around her head like seaweed, humming to herself as she goes. Her skin glitters with droplets--a precious jewel, Bernardo had said, a lifetime ago. And she is: infuriating, mystifying, and sometimes terrifying, but so precious.

The circles under her eyes are not quite as dark they have been, Anita thinks. And Anita herself didn't have to use that much powder covering up her own face in the mirror this morning. They're both sleeping better, at least right now. And it's certainly better than it was the first few days.

Oh, the first few days were cruel. Anita could barely draw breath enough for a sob, the pain was so bad. Maria would scream and weep, or pace her room muttering to herself, or cycle through funeral preparations with her face as cold and dull as a mannequins.

Someone had told Maria about what Anita had said before to the Jets, the lie she'd told. She'd been so angry, screaming and lunging and wailing horrible things through her tears. It had taken half of the Sharks to hold her down, drag her into her room, keep her from ripping her bed and herself and Anita's face and the whole damn world to shreds.

Anita had gone in there, later, and knelt by Maria's bed, begging forgiveness. Trying to explain how the boys had almost done, how they'd tried to violate her with their homegrown arrogance so soon after stealing the one she loved most, how hurt she'd been. How she'd refused to let Maria go to people like themnot ever.

How she'd thought Tony would just drink his sorrows away and then forget all about her, and how she knew how foolish she had been almost immediately afterwards, how cruel, to try to steal some else's happiness like that.

At first, Maria had told her to "Get out. Go to hell." She hadn't really seemed to process what Anita was saying, the full impact of it, just stared blankly at nothing.

And Anita had started to feel herself start to shatter, to disappear into the depths of her head where she would never have to live or think again. It had taken all of her strength to hold on just a little, and she wasn't sure how long that would last. She staggered through work, because she still had to work, feeling lost and empty.

But then, slowly but surely, Maria had emerged. She avoided speaking to Anita at first, until one day she asked her to pass her some spice, and then another day she asked her how work had gone. And another day she said, "I'm sorry about what happened," and Anita didn't need to a sk what she meant.

Anita wondered if one of the reasons for the change was that Maria overheard Anita's screaming fights with the Sharks about bailing out Chico. She'd said, They'd kill him if he's free, the streets will drown in blood. It didn't bring Bernardo back, what he did, all he did was hurt Maria more.She'd fought to keep Chico locked up, and she'd won.

Chico stayed in prison, and Maria slowly started to talk to Anna again. To follow her to work, to make dinner with her, even to reach for her own attention if she noticed Anita had been silent for so long. They crept their way towards forgiveness, towards peace, because they had both lost so much and couldn't afford to 

But there were dark stretches too, of course, relapses out of nowhere. At one point Maria started pressing her fingertips to the edge of razors so that pinpricks of blood erupted on her fingers, over and over again. Then Anita noticed, and she had to push Maria out of the kitchen, keep an eye on the sharp things near her at all times.

You're not going to leave me, she'd hiss, blocking Maria's way when she tried to slip to the kitchen at night. I won't let you. She made Anita stick to folding and arrange clothes at the store, counting money, talking to customers, anything to the keep her away from the sharp objects.

They got in fights about it, but if Maria fought Anita she could fight the world. She reminded Maria of that over and over again, and slowly it started to stick. She hasn't harmed herself for a while, and Anita keeps track.

Keeping Marai alive was comforting, in its own dark way, gave her something to do. A task to keep her busy when the world seemed meaningless, the way her mother would always throw herself into cooking when the family faced money troubles.

Besides, Maria is Bernardo's family, one of the last things Anita has left of him. She cannot help, but treasure that, treasure her with a hunger that surprises her sometimes.

Now Maria splashes and wriggles through the water, ducking in and out of sight. She hasn't tried to hurt herself in a whiles ut the scars still flash on her fingers, cruel reminders of what they've lost.

Anita follows, letting the grey swallow her up. She watches Maria tilt her head back to face the pearly white clouds, eyes closed, drifting on her back. Her chest rises and falls, steady as the movement of the ways, and the sight makes Anita feel good.

It's one of the things she relies on in these days, Maria's breathing. Like the confident blur of her needle in her hands, like fresh money in her pocket and good food on the table, like a bit of laughter shared with old friends, like her connection with her God, like the simple peace of tending to her hair. Things like that--like Maria--keep her going.

Anita has lost track fo the number of times they've sobbed out on each other's shoulders. She knows the taste of Maria's tears better than her own.

She awkwardly splashes through the water to Maria's side, watching her vanish under the waves and reemerge a heartbeat later, pearly white teeth flashing. Her skin shines copper-bright in the reflections of the water and she lets out a soft "Brrr!" of excitement. Anita laughs, can't help herself.

This is a good day. A day when neither of them woke up screaming, the way they so often do. A day when the ghosts trail in their wake instead of clutching at their shoulders, digging filthy nails into their skin. She wants to savor it for as long as she can.

Maria's hand runs her way up Anita's leg and she jumps, staggering backward with a yelp. Maria laughs, reaching to receive Anita's hand. "it's no fun if you don't go under," she spouts.

Anita bites her lip and lowers herself down, going a little deeper. She's keenly aware of how close Maria is to her now, how much skin is exposed.

She thinks of that first night Maria staggered to her bed, red-eyed and trembling, desperate not to be alone. At first Anita had only gone along to keep her happy, to help her feel real in a. way that didn't involved sharp edges in flesh. And yet she found her own comfort in the press of Maria's body to hers, the steady pulse of her chest.

A few times she woke up crying, worn down under the weight of being a caretaker, of working so hard and struggling to so much, of Bernardo's ghost and her parents' graves and the shadow of white hands running over their body. And Maria had held her, comforted her, whispered soothing words in her ear, taken care of Anita the way she took care of Maria in their waking ours.

All they ever do is hold each other, but there are days when it almost feels like something more. Days when it feels...different, the way it is now, splashing to keep up with Maria as the water rocks them both.

Different as in wrong, a voice hisses in her head. Wrong to Bernardo's memory. Wrong to your God.

But another voice whispers, Are you sure about that? It's the same sort of voice that had encouraged her to tend Maria's insane obsession with Tony, something she regrets with every fiber of her being. But it's also the voice that encouraged her to let Maria and Bernardo into her life in the first place, and as much as the choice has hurt sometimes she's never regretted it.

She doesn't know what to think of that voice, about Maria. She just knows that the past doesn't hurt as much here, with her, among the stinging salt and rippling waves that are in the end just another kind of bed.

Anita needs Maria, she knows that. There are few girls in this city who share the same triple loss: of an island, a lover, a special piece of innocence. Maria lost hers when her brother died, and Anita hers when those white boys crushed her dreams with their greedy fingers and almost did the unthinkable.

But here they are, still standing. And at least part of that has had to do with the newfound ability to fill each other's gaps.

Maria turns her head to look at her, water dripping down her face. "What a beautiful day," She looks up at Anita and smiles, a real smile, on her face.

"A good day," Anita agrees, and they both know she doesn't just mean the weather.

And then, then a wave splashes against Maria's face and she staggers backward with a splash. The brightness is gone so quickly, shadows rushing in, because the ghosts never really are far behind.

"Maria!" Anita's at her side in an instant, and before she knows it she's scooping Maria up, cradling to her chest like a bride. An impossible feat on land, but here the water buoys them up, and they're close enough to shore that she can ground herself in the sand.

"Don't scare me like that!" she chides, clutching her close trembling hands. She's rattling Maria, on purpose or not she can't tell. "You frightened me senseless, crazy girl!"

"It's all right," Maria's saying, even though there's a bit of fear in her own voice, perhaps picking up on Anita's. "It's all right! Anita, I'm fine."

"Fine? You're fine--You didn't look fine! I thought you, you were like them, you--" She's gasping, panting, air rasping in her lungs.

"Anita!" Maria cries, and suddenly their foreheads are pressed together. "Come back to me, please." She's breathing, heavy and deep. "Come back, Anita."

And slowly, carefully, Anita does. Her upper body pushes up against Maria's and her legs sway, buffeting by the water. Maria wraps ana ram round her waist, steadying her.

When Anita finally lifts her head, it takes a few seconds for to realize how very close to her face Maria is. She stiffens, turning red. "I..."

She pulls away, or maybe that's what she should do, but for some reason her lips move forward. And Maria's face is closer than it should be, and their lips touch....

It's like they're suddenly in the middle of the sea, far from land, and they've suddenly caught themselves off from everything they've ever known. And at the same time they've found themselves washing up on a new shore long after they'd lost all hope of finding solid ground again.

Anita pulls away first, gut twisting. The first thing that comes to her mind is at once nonsensical and makes perfect sense, emerging in a soft rasp: "The boys..." The boys, that's how she and Maria always talk about them. Beautiful martyrs hanging over their heads, shadows tracking their every move.

But Maria cocks her head, eyes thoughtful in a way they'd never be regarding Tony or Bernardo six months ago. "They're dead," she says thoughtfully. "And it hurts..." She looks away, not daring to finish the sentence.

"But we're alive," Anita finishes, and immediately wants to take it back. Only why should she? They are. They've survived, and they did it by clinging to each instead of following apart.

"Yes," Maria says, staring up at her. "We are." And neither of them are quite sure, right now, what to do about that.

But they know they don't want to go to shore yet. So they bob there together, waves fluttering around as the rising suns washes the grey depths in sparkles. They breath, in time with the waves, and that steady pulse of movement from themselves and the water and each other reminds them that the story is not over yet.