Remember that time we were studying outside - I went to get a drink, and when I came back you’d put a tiny bunch of buttercups on my notes? You threw a twig at me after I called you a giant nerd. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I kept the twig - it’s sticking out the drawer of my desk. I thought it would make me laugh, but I keep finding myself staring at it like a sap instead. I think you’re rubbing off on me.
Anyway, this was just supposed to be a note to remind you to please water my flowers, and eat something other than pizza while I’m gone. Remember what I said about vegetables? I’m leaving this in the drawer with the take out menus since I know you’d never come across it if I put it up on the fridge.
I’ll be back after Mom’s birthday. Wish you were coming to celebrate with us, I’m sure Mom misses you. But don’t stress too much about your French exam - you’re amazing and you’ll ace it (you said baguette pretty nicely last night).
The first thing Lexa finds after the accident are the right words to tell people: short words that give enough information to avoid the questions, but abstract enough to avoid the shock and the sympathy.
‘My girlfriend was in a car accident. She didn’t make it.’ Lexa has said it so many times that she feels untethered from its meaning, like she’s lost all hope of ever understanding the reality of it. People expect things of grief. If her reactions don’t fit into their dictionary definition, their concern and discomfort become exhausting. That’s her role now, to help people in her life feel comfortable around her - and apparently, that involves not saying things like, ‘My girlfriend was decapitated by a flatbed truck. Her head was in the backseat of her car, and there are pictures all over the internet because people are sick fucks, and I can’t breathe anymore’.
She’s on her way back to her hotel from a meeting with the florist; a spray of purple and white for the coffin that she thinks everyone will like. There’s an obscene number of small, pointless, awful decisions to be made when somebody dies. Closing bank accounts, providing proof of death, organising funerals, and the distraught family of her girlfriend are too -- ex girlfriend? Dead girlfriend. My girlfriend was in a car accident.
She can’t even bring herself to think her name.
Lexa stops, rests a hand on the brick wall and shudders. Her hair has slipped from the confines of her hat, but she lets it lie in the wind, loose and covering her face from the people passing her. It feels disrespectful, to keep calling her nothing but ‘her girlfriend’. Like their relationship was all she ever was. Kostia, she thinks, purposefully. The name bites into unwelcome memories, but it’s a clean sort of pain that’s different to the all-over ache since it happened. She fingers the packet of cigarettes in the pocket of her coat - the green pea coat she wore on their first date because someone had once said it brought out her eyes and that seemed like something the girl with the easy smile in her class would like. There are other things of Kostia’s still in her apartment, but the cigarettes - the ones she used to mock her beautiful, environmentally conscious, otherwise health freak of a girlfriend about - she ran back to pick them up from her windowsill when Lincoln called, thinking dumbly that she would want them when she woke up.
She should go back to the hotel and try to sleep. She didn’t manage to get much last night, and the family don’t need her again until tomorrow’s meeting with the funeral director. Kostia’s brother is not an effusive kind of guy, but this morning Lincoln hugged her roughly and told her he didn’t know what they’d do without her. He looked over his shoulder at his mother, but Indra didn’t look up, steadily packing Kostia’s life into old cardboard boxes, things like ‘baby clothes’ and ‘kids’ paintings’ scrawled on the side from previous moves.
She should try to get to sleep, but the crap TV she was looking forward to using to mute her brain doesn’t seem like enough now.
She looks up at the street sign on the building across the road, squinting at it and hesitating, before turning and starting in another direction, fingers twisting the butt of a cigarette she’ll never smoke.
I left some waffles for you; they’re on the plate under tin foil. Also, reminder: it’s your turn to make dinner tonight.
I’m going to be at the MFA, text if you need me.
Sometimes, Clarke wonders if anyone at the museum recognizes her. She has a routine - jog, shower, an attempt at a healthy breakfast, inevitable compromise for hash browns - before she settles down. The ticket people change every so often, but weekend staff is limited, and Clarke has been in frequently enough to know the rounds: there is an older gentleman who rarely asks for her pass, a younger one who tends to be too chatty. One boy who looks about high school age likes to smile at Clarke in a way that’s shy but also a little daring. Clarke makes a note to determine if he does this to all the girls who pass by.
Today, though, Clarke rushes through the ticket gate, pass held up hiding half of her smile. It’s rare that she has more than an hour to spare in her indulgence and no prior engagements threatening to disrupt. She thinks of the place she wants to settle into, warm with sunlight and the occasional wanderer, and her strides grow long and light. They falter when Clarke reaches her destination and finds it occupied.
When she was six, Clarke’s father brought her to the MFA and held her hand as they walked through exhibit after exhibit after exhibit. Abby had, at first, insisted that their daughter was too young to have the patience for what Jake had planned, but Jake had just laughed, pressed a kiss to his wife’s forehead and hoisted Clarke onto his hip, asking if his little girl was ready. Clarke had smiled wide - gap toothed, as the photo on the front steps will attest to - and promised her father she was.
They reached the Monet around mid-afternoon, Clarke’s eyes drooping from the satisfaction of macaroni and cheese for lunch and long hours exploring what seemed like an endless building. Jake had tugged her to a stop and knelt down, smiling indulgently as Clarke tried to blink herself awake. Later, Clarke would only remember the way her father’s face had lit up as he talked about the roll of the boat beneath his feet, the smell of open water and the heat of the sunlight reflecting onto his face. She vaguely recalls her mother describing sitting on the porch of a little coastal house but can’t quite remember what else she had said. Every time Clarke sees this painting, she only thinks of her father, of his smile and the warmth of his hand around hers as they both imagine a clear summer breeze billowing from the canvas.
The girl sitting in front of the painting now doesn’t seem to smell the sea or the sting of fresh grass. Her focus is instead on the cigarette packet she turns around slowly in her lap. Clarke settles onto the other end of the bench, pulling out her sketchbook and considering the wild curls of the girl’s hair, the way the light catches and disappears in them. Her pencil touches paper and she’s about to let her hand run when she catches the heaviness in the girl’s posture.
Clarke is feeling indulgent today, lifted by the floral scents the painting invokes in her and the prospect of an easy weekend. She can’t bring her pencil to bear the weight the girl seems to be sitting under. Instead, she finds an elderly couple leisurely strolling through the exhibit and begins scratching out the lines of their lazy Saturday morning. When the girl stands, Clarke is in the midst of sketching the way the couple’s hands are linked and pays no mind to the girl leaving.
I finally had time to call my college counsellor this morning. She told me I should try writing to you. I thought it was stupid, but she’s been good about helping me organize extensions on my class assignments, and I can’t sleep.
Funeral arrangements are going okay. You would like what we’re doing, I hope. I was supposed to make a speech, but I have nothing to say that will make your mom or Lincoln feel any better.
I stopped by to see that painting today - your stupid house by the sea that you wanted to take a trip to find, even though it is unlikely to exist anymore. Maybe we should have taken that summer for ourselves and tried anyway.
Maybe I should have said yes more. Maybe I should have said something all those times you were looking more at me than the road. Maybe you should have been paying more fucking attention.
This was about as stupid an idea as I thought it would be.
[Image of Monet’s Fisherman’s Cottage on the Cliffs at Varengeville.]
Date: Mon Oct 13, 2014 @ 5:48 AM
From: Abigail Griffin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Clarke Griffin <email@example.com>
Sorry I missed your call yesterday, surgery ran long. I’m dropping by Callie’s sometime next week, maybe Tuesday afternoon. Do you have time for dinner? Stay warm.
I love you.
Dr. Abigail Griffin
Department of Medicine
A cancelled lecture one afternoon gives Clarke an unexpected few hours free, and she hesitates for only a moment before shooting a quick text to Raven, telling her she might be home late for dinner.
By the time she reaches the museum entrance, Clarke’s cheeks are a chilled pink and she spends a few minutes just inside the doors breathing on stiff fingers, mittens sticking out of her coat pocket. The old man at the ticket gate grins and waves her in. “The exhibits are a lot nicer than by the door, come on in before you freeze!”
Clarke huffs a soft laugh into her scarf as she slips past.
Usually on days where Clarke has only a half hour to spare, she’ll find a more popular exhibit to sit in, using the increased flow of people for a better pick of muses. With her schedule clear for hours yet, Clarke lets her feet take her to the quiet corner where the Monet hangs. She’s mildly surprised to find she recognizes the only other person in the exhibit.
The girl is wearing a too-large red jacket, still buttoned shut against a chill that doesn’t reach into the well-heated gallery. Her hair is loose and the thick curls are draped over one shoulder as she sits with her head tilted back, staring at the painting. Clarke follows the delicate lilt of her nose and lips, eyelashes long in profile. Distantly, she hears the sound of other people slowly entering the exhibit, but neither she nor the girl move and it’s almost an unconscious motion to pull out her sketchbook, to let the pencil hit paper and begin to carve out the lines of this girl.
Clarke doesn’t realize she has an audience until she’s just finishing the curve of the girl’s back and a voice calls over her shoulder:
“Wow, that is amazing. It looks just like her!”
Clarke startles, badly. She barely catches hold of her jittering pencil, swings around with wide eyes to face the man grinning behind her. When she looks back, the girl has turned to face them both, a pinched look on her face.
“I - ” Clarke starts. Her sketchbook rests open on her lap, the drawing clear for the girl to see. Clarke watches as the pinched look shifts to a flush and she swallows thickly. “I didn’t mean to - ”
The girl stares at the drawing for a moment longer before she meets Clarke’s embarrassed gaze, and the anger Clarke finds there makes her lean back in surprise. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Clarke flounders. She’s used to self-conscious smiles, curious questions, maybe a raised eyebrow, but she’s never been confronted with such direct anger before.
“Do you make it a habit to draw people without their permission?”
The man who had originally interrupted Clarke has started backing away, sheepish and eager to disappear. Clarke watches him go, wonders if he will get a verbal lashing too, but the girl pays him no mind and Clarke clutches at her sketchbook, unsure of how to proceed. For long moments, they stare at each other, Clarke flushed with embarrassment, the girl wire tight with anger. Finally, the girl breaks the silence.
“Give me the drawing.”
Clarke blinks. “What?”
“The drawing,” the girl repeats, gestures with a fist at the sketchbook Clarke instinctively pulls closer and covers with widespread hands, “Hand it over.”
“Why would you - ” Clarke shakes her head, tries again, “No. I mean, I’m sorry, but no.”
“No?” The girl is leaning forward now, eyes bright and harsh. The derisive note in her voice cuts at the space between them and Clarke resists the urge to shift away, an anger of her own starting to build. “I guess you’re fine with the concept of taking something that isn’t yours, then.”
Before Clarke can think to react, the girl has clawed the sketchbook from her lap and is crunching the edge of the page in angry fingers, paper starting to rip. Clarke’s own anger bursts at the sound, the shock and affront of someone having so little regard for her work and her belongings. She’s about to bite out something she thinks she’ll regret later when the girl suddenly stops, stares at the sketchbook in her hand and the way the page is hanging from the spine.
“Are you done?” Clarke asks after tense moments have passed. She wants to say more, wants to pry the girl’s fingers open until she releases the sketchbook, but something in the girl’s posture keeps her silent and she waits. When the girl finally looks at her, Clarke feels her tension seep away as though it was never there.
“Here,” the girl says. Clarke takes the sketchbook that the girl holds out, thrown by the sudden grief and self-loathing that weighs her voice down. “I wasn’t - ”
The girl never finishes. Clarke watches as she shifts in her coat, stands up and strides out of the room without looking back.
The page is still intact, but the book no longer closes properly because of the wrinkles. Clarke thinks it an accurate representation of what she feels.
Your funeral is tomorrow, and today I almost attacked someone in a museum.
I would kill for one more pacifist, hippy lecture from you.
Fuck, I can’t do this.
The funeral is--
Lexa would like to never have to think about anything ever again.
Lexa’s check out time is ten, but her flight back to California isn’t until late that evening. The heavy rain starts to fall almost as soon as she settles on the park bench, and she fumbles to open an umbrella before her backpack soaks through.
She knows there are plenty of places indoors, plenty of other museums in Boston even, but none of the others help her feel as close to Kostia and she needs to, now, before she has to get on the plane and leave her here.
When she steps into the building, she looks at the security guard with a half-guilty flick of her eyes, almost expecting him to stop her and escort her back out. She passes unhindered, her tight grip on her purse relaxing as she makes her way over to the gift shop. The postcards are only a couple of dollars, and she thumbs through them until she finds the one she wants, paying for the small, tangible memory she can carry back to California with her.
The two extra days she took to rest in her hotel room - ordering take-out and flipping through channels with an unread textbook in front of her - did nothing to help the exhaustion, heavy and thick against her thoughts. She still has too many blank hours ahead of her, and she makes her way to the museum’s restaurant for the largest hit of caffeine she can find.
Her stomach jolts when she sees a familiar blonde standing in line ahead of her. She hesitates until the girl starts to order; then, she steps out of line and pushes towards her, taking some bills out of her wallet and pressing them down on the counter.
“Let me get that.”
She tries to gauge how her apology is being taken, but she can’t quite look at the girl as she says it, and she ends up just staring the barista down like she dares her to refuse, nudging her money at her until she takes it. “And a large black coffee,” she adds, because she may as well take the opportunity to cut in line while she has it.
The person she - well, sort of semi-attacked the other day - is looking at her warily when she turns from getting her change, her eyebrows raised in obvious question. “Can I help you?” she asks slowly.
Lexa bites back a wince and shrugs, the apology fitting uncomfortably on her. “I shouldn’t have - before.” The girl’s face softens; her coffee comes before Lexa’s, but she doesn't move towards the only available table until Lexa's drink is in her hands and she's turning to leave.
"You bought me a coffee," the girl stops her, gesturing towards the seats. "I can share a table."
Lexa hesitates, but her bag is heavy and it's not like she can take her coffee into the exhibit with her.
"Unless you're planning on damaging any more of my property?"
Lexa shakes her head, burning her tongue on a quick sip from her coffee as the girl smiles and turns like that’s the end of the subject. She follows the girl to the table, dropping her bag to the floor.
The introduction comes before she can take out her phone to pretend to be too busy for conversation. Clarke’s protective grip around the sketchbook held on her lap is the only thing that gets her to reply, with grudging politeness, "Lexa."
Her coffee is too hot to drink quickly, and Clarke is watching her with an unsettling intensity, like she's waiting for a further apology. Lexa just hunches over, blowing gently and letting the steam drifting upwards warm her face.
"So you really like Monet?" Clarke tries.
Clarke squints at her like she's deranged, nodding down at the print peeking out from the top of the paper gift bag still clutched in Lexa's hand. Lexa clears her throat.
"He's okay." She shifts as Clarke laughs quietly, and leans over to hide the postcard in between the covers of a textbook for the midterm she'd missed five days ago. When she sits back up, she shrugs around the sharp edge of her explanation. "Someone I knew liked that painting."
"Me too," Clarke says, after a pause. Lexa makes a noise of acknowledgement. It's supposed to be the opposite of a question, but Clarke seems to take it as one anyway. "My dad."
There's something wistful in her voice that has Lexa looking up at her properly for the first time. Her face is open, and there's an inward sadness shifting across it that echoes the ache Lexa feels.
They watch each other in a long, heavy moment of shared something, and Lexa reaches for anything to break it. She may have made a spur of the moment decision to buy the girl a coffee, but she didn’t think she’d actually have to make conversation. “Are you studying art?”
“No,” Clarke says, and there’s a gentle sort of mocking in the way she imitates the clipped cadence of Lexa’s words, softened by her smile. “Developmental and human biology. You?”
“Politics and international relations,” Lexa says, and Clarke’s smile grows, but she doesn’t put into words what she finds amusing about it. That in itself is probably more diplomatic than Lexa would have been. Clarke takes a sip of her coffee, studies Lexa over the rim.
“UC Berkeley,” Lexa says, her fingers relaxing against the warmth of her cup.
“I’m at MIT,” Clarke says, answering the question Lexa hasn’t asked.
She hums in response, and a nice sort of quiet settles over their table, a lull that Lexa can breathe in. It's the most normal conversation she’s had since the accident, so when Clarke breaks the silence again by asking “What are you doing out here?” she thinks for a moment before going with:
“Visiting family.” It doesn’t feel like a lie. She's spent the last two years living with Indra and Lincoln during term breaks, Christmases around their dining table and long summers on their patio. Their house was more of a home than her parents’ ever was.
Clarke seems to take her at her word, because she interrupts her thoughts to ask, "So you're from Boston originally?"
"No," Lexa says, noticing Clarke's fingers tapping awkwardly on the cardboard of her takeaway cup and realising that she’s waiting for her to expand. After a few seconds of contemplation, she adds, “Chicago.”
Clarke lets out a huff, like she’s giving up on trying to push her into conversation, and Lexa is torn between relief and an urgent desire to continue talking about something that isn’t funeral arrangements and how she’s coping.
She lets herself relax into the lapsed conversation instead; something about sitting across from someone in silent company lets her thoughts settle from the frantic marathon they’ve been running. A wave of solid exhaustion hits her, and she thinks that tonight, finally, she might be able to sleep.
Lexa finishes the last of her coffee and stands; she still has to get to dinner with Indra and Lincoln, but she has a few hours left to sit in the galleries before she has to leave. She swings her backpack over her shoulder, and Clarke stands with her.
“I’m going -” Lexa says, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the Monet exhibit.
Clarke nods, but her head is tilted in confusion. “I have to get back home.” Her words are stilted with awkwardness, and Lexa realizes that perhaps the silence wasn’t quite as comfortable for Clarke as it had been for her.
The exit is the same way as the gallery, and as they walk together, Lexa grips her backpack so tight that the weight of it cuts into her palm.
The guard at the ticket gate gives Clarke a cheerful wave of recognition. Lexa wants to say something - some further apology, or at least a goodbye - but the unease has dropped from Clarke’s face as she she smiles and nods at the ticket collector, and Lexa ducks into the gallery instead of having to deal with the discomfort.
Clarke probably deserved some sort of… if not apology, at least acknowledgement. But it’s too late, now.
She’s almost past the gift shop when a heaped display catches her eye.
last seen today at 5:12 PM
and then the dumbass just dropped the wrench
on his foot it was GREAT 2:10 PM
Remember that girl I told you about? 4:31 PM
The one at the MFA? 4:31 PM
you mean the one who tried to assault you? 4:37 PM
She didn’t try to assault me. 4:37 PM
i think your sketchbook and i beg to differ 4:39 PM
but sure 4:39 PM
did she come at you again 4:40 PM
i can be at the mfa in like ten if you need 4:40 PM
No, Raven, chill, I’m fine. 4:44 PM
She just bought me coffee. 4:45 PM
To be honest, I’m still really confused about it. 4:45 PM
?????? 4:46 PM
I know. She cut in line and paid for my coffee. 4:47 PM
Didn’t even give me a chance to say no. 4:47 PM
that bitch 4:47 PM
Focus, Raven. 4:48 PM
I’m still trying to figure out what she wanted.
I thought she was trying to apologize but she never
really said anything? 4:49 PM
And while I’m at it, I should try to figure out why I had
the great idea to force her to sit with me so we could
have a very awkward attempt at a conversation. 4:51 PM
i always did say you were too nice for your own
good but no 4:54 PM
who listens to me ever really 4:54 PM
She probably still hates me for the drawing. 4:54 PM
probable 4:55 PM
you are terrible at drawing 4:55 PM
I think she said a grand total of ten words during our
'conversation’. 4:56 PM
girl the first time we met i think i said fuck off
princess and look where we are now 4:56 PM
maybe she’s just terrible at small talk 4:56 PM
lord knows not everyone’s like you 4:56 PM
clarke? 5:06 PM
dude are you actually having a meltdown about
this??? 5:13 PM
No, I’m just not comfortable letting it go without
trying to understand, I guess? 5:13 PM
Does that make sense? 5:13 PM
as much as anything you say does 5:13 PM
look we can talk more about this when you
get home if you want 5:14 PM
i’ll get some hot chocolate going 5:14 PM
but seriously i don’t want you worrying about
some crazy girl who tried to have a coffee date
with you after assaulting you 5:14 PM
bitch can eat my fist for all i care 5:14 PM
For the last time, she didn’t assault me. 5:15 PM
And it wasn’t a date. 5:15 PM
regardless 5:16 PM
girl doesn’t deserve any more of your time 5:16 PM
i saw how upset you were when you came home
the first time 5:16 PM
I don’t think she’s that bad, though. 5:17 PM
I mean, in the very few words she actually said
I felt like we had some things in common? 5:17 PM
And there are worse ways to spend an afternoon. 5:17 PM
babe you see the good in everyone 5:19 PM
one day it’s going to get you hurt 5:19 PM
and i will hold you while you cry 5:19 PM
but i will also say i told you so 5:19 PM
Thanks for that, I guess. 5:20 PM
love you too xx 5:22 PM
Lexa's apartment smells of Kostia's dying flowers. She tips the murky liquid down the sink, filling the vase from the tap and putting it back in her hallway near the window. Carefully, she tilts it towards the curtains until the most decomposed parts are hidden.
Her fingers catch on the paper gift bag as she’s rummaging for her phone. The corner of the postcard is bent, damaged by the chaos of the rest of her belongings, and Lexa straightens it with a thumb before placing it on the fridge. As she shifts a magnet over the top of the scene, she sees Clarke’s face as she denied liking Monet, the way she stared at her like she was sitting opposite someone unstable. It probably wasn't that far from the truth. Hopefully she made up for it. The return address she’d slipped amongst the packaging should give Clarke a way to reject her apology if she wishes, and getting her gift back unwanted and unopened is probably the least she deserves.
Lexa sighs, giving up on unpacking for now. The time difference means that despite leaving at nine, it’s only just past eleven now. It feels like those six hours on the plane really did disappear - she watched the same movie three times, but she still doesn’t know the lead character’s name.
She lies down in her side of the bed, her hand tucked under Kostia’s pillow, wishing for the weight of her head there, wishing that time could disappear like it did on that flight always so she could skip the hours until she doesn’t have to be here, crying over dead flowers and a handful of linen.
Dear Indra, I am safely back in California. Thank you for the dinner. I have some things of Kos' that I
Back in California. I hope everything is
Sun 19 Oct 2.29 pm
Lexa, Berkeley sent out a newsletter about your school-mate’s
unfortunate accident, and I see from my credit card statements
that you have been enjoying yourself in Boston. I hope you are
not taking too much time from your studies. We pay a lot of
money for your education. Please don’t disappoint us, or we
will have to re-negotiate your schooling arrangements.
Today 1.41 am
I have obtained the necessary extensions. My GPA will not be affected.
Clarke doesn’t think about Lexa again until she’s half finished putting away laundry and spots her sketchbook lying on her bed, hidden by a sweater and anatomy class notes. She pulls the book out, flips to the page with Lexa’s fingerprints pressed into the edges. The memory of Lexa’s face flushed with anger is a sharp contrast to the lines Clarke traces on the page. She thinks of the way Lexa had burst open for just those few moments and the heaviness around her that had dropped away before she had caved back into herself again. The brief fire of her lingers in Clarke’s mind.
If it wasn’t hopeless - the geographical distance between Boston and California is probably less than the distance Lexa seemed to hold herself from the world - Clarke would try to understand if Lexa was the fire, or the heaviness that seemed to hold her down. As it is, Clarke takes one last look at the fine lines of Lexa’s cheekbones and the smudges that trail down from her eyes before tucking the sketchbook away.
[Sketch of Lexa that Clarke drew at the MFA]