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the infinity of ghosts

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Lily catches Emily with this look on her face often; perhaps Emily thinks Lily is not looking, but then she is, more often than not. Emily may be halfway between a pint of ice cream, or somewhere toward the tail-end of a fading cigarette, but the look is always the same – that of a girl who’s not really there – and Lily does not really like admitting this to herself most days, how there are times when Emily feels so far away.

They don’t discuss much of Naomi after Christmas; Emily just likes saying everything’s been sorted, though Lily hardly buys it, remembers that day Emily flew in and how the eyes under her sunglasses looked positively cried out.

But each and every time Lily tries anything with Naomi’s name, Emily ends the conversation; Lily tries pushing, once or twice, but off the look Emily gets on her face – something Lily can’t quite place, it’s somewhere between pain and disappointment and Lily can’t bear to have Emily looking like that for long – Lily changes the subject herself to something more pleasant, like the present state of things or something equally current, like who’s dating who, or what Lily’s plans are for dinner.

On most days, that does it for Emily, and the smile’s back on as instantly as it disappeared; but then, there are other days, when Emily’s a bit more difficult, and she stays quiet and keeps to herself for days. On those days, Lily reminds herself how she’s not in love, or at least not yet, if only to keep this heartbreak at bay; but then she also remembers how close she is to falling, and instead she feels afraid.

*

Emily’s over, often, may it be for course work or some group project or a paper Lily knows Emily can pull off better if there’s no one around to distract her. Still, Emily comes, and Lily opens her doors for her, stays up until Emily finishes whatever it is she has to or until Emily crawls sleepily into Lily’s bed, whichever comes first.

Whichever comes first – often, Emily abandons whatever she’s writing to tackle Lily into her bed, in such moments of distraction, and they motion for each other’s glasses before anything else they do breaks them. Lily loves how Emily laughs – she sounds like a *girl*, so much that it makes Lily giggle, a little. On those days, when Emily is playful and laughing, Lily can’t help but think, maybe what Emily’s been saying is true all along – maybe past is past, and maybe this can begin, now.

In the mornings after, Lily wakes to smell of stale cigarettes, sweat and Emily’s shampoo. Underneath her, the bed’s rough where the sheet’s been pulled askew and when she stands, she finds it hardly clinging onto the bed, amidst all that tossing and turning.

When Lily looks over her desk, it is littered with Emily’s still-open books, and piles of papers full of her hurried, haphazard writing. Somewhere along a margin, Lily spots where Emily wrote their names together, bound by a hollow heart; it all looks too cute and juvenile and it’s 9 a.m. but Lily can’t help smiling.

When Lily shifts her eyes to the bed, Emily’s bare leg is sticking out from underneath the comforter; the sight makes Lily’s mouth go dry, for a moment. When Emily shifts, her other bare leg comes to view, and Lily can’t decide whether to thank her or hate her for wanting to sleep in her knickers.

Emily’s skin is so pale, despite the sunlight that streams into the room through the window, and Lily’s really unable to stop herself from staring, not when Emily’s like this – so open and unguarded, and not at all like the Emily who seems to like putting up walls when she’s awake and thinking.

Not that Lily blames her – she hardly knows where Emily’s coming from, and clearly, it should take time before Emily lets her in further than she already has. Some days, Lily thinks about how frustrated she is, that Emily should keep her at this distance after everything and all this time, but most days, Lily just thinks about Naomi – about how fucking lucky she is – was – to have had Emily first; to have had Emily before all this.

*

On the day Lily falls in love with Emily, they are out on a picnic; it’s a Sunday after exams, and rather early in the morning. Emily’s drinking juice from a bottle with one hand and smoking with the other; she’s got her sunglasses on and her gaze fixed on some far corner of this park just outside uni close to where Lily lives, and Lily can’t help but stare at the sight Emily’s making amidst all this sunshine.

“What’s on your mind, Em?” Lily asks, amidst the lump in her throat, drinking coffee from her thermos. Despite the caffeine, Lily’s heart stills as it waits for Emily to say something.

Emily turns her head, removing her sunglasses. “Hazard a guess, Lils?” she asks back, smiling.

“Em,” Lily just says, shaking her head and laughing. She looks up at the sky as she lights up a fag. “Okay then,” she says as she blows smoke to the side. “Friday’s exam?”

Emily makes a face. “Ugh, don’t even remind me,” she just says, her nose crinkling a little, and it only makes Lily laugh harder. Emily shifts slightly, crushing her fag against a patch of grass. “Seriously Lils,” she’s saying, “You’re shit at guessing.”

Suddenly Emily’s so close, and before Lily knows it, Emily’s leaning in and kissing her, and it’s not like Lily’s about to complain, so she closes her eyes in kind. The kiss is soft, as girl kisses are wont to be, but unusually so; like Emily’s taking her time and Lily holds her breath throughout.

At parting, Lily just says, “A kiss like that, I might as well fall in love.” Mostly she means it in jest, but there’s a whole lot more of truth there than she is comfortable with. She shifts her eyes from Emily’s, down onto her mouth, and she catches Emily just as her tongue darts out and licks at her bottom lip, teasingly. The sight makes Lily bite down on her lip hard, if only to remind herself where they actually are.

“Like you haven’t already?” Emily asks, so bold it actually takes Lily by surprise; Lily knows for a fact how Emily’s not used to being at this level of confidence, judging by just how deep she blushes. After all, Emily’s just this shy girl who barely talks in class unless spoken to, but around her, Emily’s just different, and Lily is infinitely glad, that at least she sees Emily in ways others don’t.

“Scary stuff, love,” Lily says, growing more serious. Emily rests her juice bottle against the tree behind them, toys with the hem of Lily’s blouse instead. Emily likes to have something to do with her hands when she’s nervous, Lily’s observed all too often, and she lets her. “Really, Emily,” asks Lily, breathing in, “Are you ready for this?”

Emily’s fingers pause for a bit, and Lily looks up at Emily’s face; Emily’s worrying her lip as she nods, “Yeah,” she’s saying, and she’s blinking in what seems to Lily as the faint hint of tears. When Lily reaches out with an open palm against Emily’s cheek, Emily burrows into it all too glad and warm and the skin between is moist.

Lily says, “We don’t have to rush.”

Emily turns her head, kisses the center of Lily’s palm. “We don’t have to wait,” she answers, and Lily’s heart does this ridiculous somersault, for which her chest feels horribly small.

*

By the end of the month, Emily moves in – or, at the very least, does something very close to this concept, because Emily does keep her dorm room for the sake of appearances. But mostly, it’s Lily’s place that Emily heads to after everything, and for the most part, Lily thinks it’s enough, that she has Emily like this.

After a while, they fall into unfamiliar but expected domesticity; on days when their last classes don’t end simultaneously, whoever gets off first buys dinner for two – on Mondays it’s Emily, while on Thursdays it’s Lily, and the rest of the week they walk from class together and have dinner somewhere before heading home.

At night, Lily tries to help Emily fight off sleep in the face of course work, though mostly the effort ends with Emily tumbling into bed with her, though not for sleep at all.

“I am definitely going to miss my deadlines,” Emily says, after. “Clearly, you have to help me out a bit with the self-control, as apparently I have very little of it going for me.” Lily smirks; she’s lying on her stomach beside Emily, and in the dark she can see how Emily’s skin is glowing in the aftermath. Lily’s thinking about pausing the moment – she and Emily like this, Emily’s fingers running all over her spine, so light that it makes Lily’s eyes flutter close.

On nights like this, Lily almost believes Emily’s here to stay, and for a while, Lily forgets about Naomi and marvels about this strange turn of events instead.

Lily says nothing, turns around to lie on her back, and Emily stops for a while, if only to resume stroking the available skin of Lily’s stomach, and Lily can’t help but sigh. There are things about Emily that make Lily say the strangest things, like a completely unguarded, “I’m so in love with you,” that’s too honest and naked and it leaves Lily feeling so raw.

Emily pauses in mid-stroke; opens her hand and lays her palm, flat and warm, on the space just below Lily’s breasts, and certainly, Lily thinks, certainly she can tell now, how Lily is not breathing at all. In the dark, Emily’s eyes are bright as she says, “I’ve never felt anything quite like this before.”

Of course, Lily kisses her, softly; it’s the most logical response, really, and Lily tries to pretend it’s what she wanted to hear.

Later, when Emily’s sleeping and Lily’s arm is wrapped around her from behind, Lily thinks about this, why Emily’s holding back, but then she understands too well how Emily’s not really in a position to meet Lily’s expectations right now, and when Lily realizes how she’s just agreed to compromise, it dawns on her, how in too deep she is, how it’s too late in the game to pull out now; she cries, but only quietly.

*

Sometimes, Lily wishes there’s a completely objective arbiter around – someone to tell them that they’re going too fast, someone to tell them this isn’t the wisest thing to do, someone to point out whatever it is that they’re doing wrong. But for the most part, really, it’s all her and Emily, and a lot of times Lily feels like they’re only floating aimlessly, with only each other as guides.

Certainly, there should be times when this setup is enough; it should actually be fucking romantic, Lily reminds herself, this whole it’s only you and me thing, but then at some point, someone like her needs something like an anchor, and Lily knows neither of them can be a good one.

*

Sometimes, Emily feels too close but absent just the same, like when she’s staring at her cell phone a second too long while in the middle of finishing a paper that she’s writing right on Lily’s bed.

There are times when all Lily wants to do is ask her if they’re still in touch, she and Naomi, because how else can a person have this grip on another person, right? But for the sake of avoiding argument and just being academically productive, Lily holds her tongue, and indeed, there are moments when Lily starts wondering where her old self has gone, the one that usually stands her ground and does not give in.

On the night Lily breaks, she asks, “You’re still keeping your room, yeah?”

“Mm-hmm,” Emily nods, and then, “Why’d you ask?”

Lily bites her lip. It’s not that she does not want to be with her; just that there are days when it actually hurts to be around her and her myriad of ghosts. Lily wishes she’s brave enough to say it out loud, but instead she launches into this complicated lie about needing time and space for the sake of education, and though she can tell how Emily’s slightly hurt anyway, she just says, “It will be quick; let’s take the month off, yeah?”

Emily takes her books but leaves her laptop. “This way I’ll always have an excuse to come back,” she says, and Lily touches the tip of Emily’s nose playfully. “Don’t get too comfortable without me.”

Lily says, “I won’t,” and she knows that for a fact, dreading the first night she’ll have to spend alone after a long time.

*

The first few days, it does not work at all; Emily tries and finds all the right excuses and Lily is all too smitten to deny her.

“Take your fucking laptop, Em,” Lily says, heaving, sometime after the second time they fuck on the third night the attempt fails.

Emily lazily nips at the space behind Lily’s ear. She says, “Okay,” in that way that she’s said okay before without actually meaning it. She trails a hand past Lily’s stomach, down the inside of her thighs, and Lily sighs despite herself.

They fail repeatedly, and rather willingly; Lily feels like they’re having an affair, and is slightly bothered that Emily seems rather more into it now, than when they were together in this room. Maybe, Lily hesitantly considers, it’s breaking a certain sort of boredom that has started creeping in, though Lily also finds herself wondering often if this actually does it for Emily, when Lily pushes her away like this and Emily has to fight her way back in.

After nights like this, Emily wakes early to head out to her own room to prep for the day. Lily pretends she’s not fully awake by then, just yet; watching only quietly as Emily goes about in the darkness of the room at dawn, navigating blindly with the ease of familiarity, and the whole thing – the way her silhouette avoids a corner of a table here, the way her shadow’s comfortably perched on a chair there – it grabs at Lily’s chest painfully, because clearly, if there’s someone else who should belong here, it is Emily, and it just strikes Lily as frightening, how much she wants this to work.

But then, as Emily looks over her shoulder one last time before opening the door, barely aware that Lily’s actually looking back with half-closed eyes, Lily thinks about this, Emily always having to leave and come back, leave and come back, and this time, Lily does not know if she still has what it takes to understand some more.

*

Lily comes upon them by accident; one day she opens Emily’s laptop meaning to find an old music file and she finds the unit on standby. When it starts, there are windows open, and Emily’s e-mail pops up as one. Lily does not mean to, really, but then a portion of the screen is filled with a long queue of unsent messages to Naomi, and there’s little she can do to stop her eyes from moving. Naturally, she sits and stays a while, trying to process everything against the steady heaviness building in her chest – there is one dated before Christmas, but only one; most of them have been written in the current year.

The most recent one’s dated from the just a few nights before; Lily visibly flinches at the thought that all this while, Emily’s still thinking about her. To Emily’s credit, she actually writes about life with Lily in her latest note, which is open in another smaller window; describes it as something that steadies her, something that keeps her upright.

The moment Lily passes the first “but” she immediately stops reading. No sense finding out more, and really, her heart is already at its heaviest.

*

When she catches Emily the morning after, Lily puts up her best front and tries to move on, tries to tell herself how it’s petty of her to take this against Emily; besides, the bottom line is that she shouldn’t have read any of it, in the first place. Emily smiles at Lily as she slides into the seat beside her; she’s looking pretty fit and well rested, and Lily holds her breath, a little, as Emily threads her fingers into Lily’s, wordlessly.

Looking at where their fingers touch, Lily asks herself, what is this messy place of feeling? How does one go from a moment of severe heartache to this place of clean slates so quickly? What’s with this ready willingness to overlook, to sweep under proverbial rugs? When she looks over at Emily, she only shrugs, as if hearing the questions out loud, and Lily shivers, a little.

*

“You’ve been quiet, these days,” Emily says. They’re out smoking on the steps, in between classes, and Lily’s looking the other way; these days Lily already knows when not to catch Emily thinking about Naomi.

“You never really told me about what happened over Christmas,” Lily just says, finally. It’s three months in the making, but maybe the distance is better, now.

“I told you,” Emily begins, and Lily hears how her voice shakes ever so slightly. “It’s over. She’s seeing someone else. It’s as good as sorted, really.”

Lily draws on her fag for a long silent moment. She does understand how she seems to have propelled this conversation to a place where nothing Emily says will be any less painful. “That’s not good enough,” she says, biting her lip at her choice of words. It’s the most honest she’s been, and it kind of stings, this honesty.

“What do you want me to say?” Emily says, in a tone completely unfamiliar. Are they fighting? Lily asks herself. She stubs out her cigarette and lights a new one in quick succession. “Where is this coming from, Lils?”

“I want to know,” Lily says, exhaling smoke to the side; her fingers shake, slightly. “Just, give me something to work with, yeah? I want to understand.”

“What, Lily,” Emily asks, sighing herself. Her brows are still knit, and she’s looking so unbearably vulnerable that Lily has to look away if she wants to keep this up. “What is there left to understand? This is everything there is.”

“Is it?” asks Lily. And then, “She’s doesn’t even have to fucking be here, but she’s fucking everywhere, Emily. You get this look, you know? And after a while of negotiating with myself, I’ve come to terms with the fact that, yes, it does kind of hurt. I’ve never even seen an absence this visible, so just. Please.”

There’s a long wordless gap before Emily says, “Lily,” brushing the back of her hand against the side of Lily’s leg. “I’m sorry.”

“After all this while, Emily?” Lily says; she’s staring at their sneakers against the concrete steps, and Emily’s staring at her so heavily that Lily feels it without having to look. And then, “Is that all you have to say?” Emily just pulls her hand away from Lily’s leg, saying softly, “Yeah.”

“You could have warned me, you know,” Lily says, a long while after.

Emily just says, “That there are things that stay with us,” her voice heavy with the feeling of an end. And then, “I should have known better, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Lily says, turning her head to kiss her, but mostly as punctuation. “Yes, you should have.”

*

Emily moves out, of course, though mostly this only entails the retrieval of her laptop and little else, like random books and folders. There’s nothing much apart from that, and Lily’s actually surprised, how at the end of everything, Emily does turn out to be less involved in this than Lily initially imagined.

Lily’s standing near the doorway as she watches Emily go around the room, filling a small backpack with her stuff; to be completely honest, Lily expected this to be more massive, actually, so when Emily’s done in roughly half an hour, Lily nearly tears up, what with this strange sort of disappointment that unexpectedly grips her heart.

When Emily pauses for a long while, Lily asks, “Are you done?” Lily’s looking away; she has to.

Emily just says, “Yeah,” slinging the backpack onto one shoulder as she takes a few steps forward.

What now, Lily asks herself. How to be proper in the midst of this. Certainly, she hasn’t had too many people moving in and then moving out. About five steps later, Emily closes in on Lily, laying her forehead on her shoulder and pinning her against the wall. Emily sighs, her breath warm against Lily’s neck; despite herself, Lily’s arms come up and close in around Emily, and after a while, Lily starts feeling it, a bit too vivid to be without ache, how awfully young her heart still is and how prone it is to breaking.

“I’m sorry,” Emily says again, pushing herself off Lily after a while.

“Don’t be,” Lily replies, taking one last survey of Emily’s face, thinking about how she’s not likely to see her in this way ever again – still startlingly beautiful against this backdrop of heartbreak. “I knew right from the start what I was in for.” And then, “You were at your loveliest, you know? All that notwithstanding.”

When Emily kisses her after, it’s one long and soft goodbye, and Lily feels, for the first time, how there’s actually no one else.

*

When summer rolls around, Lily cleans her room; she puts Third Eye Blind on infinite loop as she goes about tossing things she’s already done with into boxes – books, notes, photocopies of readings, handouts from reports that were hardly informative, print-outs of PowerPoint slides. She finds something of Emily’s, every now and then – an old cleaning cloth she once used for her glasses, scratches of old exercises, pages torn from her notebooks. Lily puts them on the table instead, tells herself she’ll deal with them later, when she’s done.

Later in the day, she finds herself with three boxes sitting by the doorway. She lights a fag while staring at the late afternoon sun come in through the window, leaning against the table where Emily’s things are still sitting in piles; she picks one up – it’s a page from her notebook, and Lily can only guess which class this was once useful for. Lily puts the tip of her lit fag lightly upon one corner, watches how far such a small flicker can lick and burn from there; expectedly, not too far, and she crumples it up before tossing it into the trash bin.

After a while, she decides to just put all of Emily’s things, summarily, into the latest, least filled box; all of a sudden, she’s lost interest in sifting through them. The day has been long.

Lying in bed after dinner that night, she thinks about Emily, about the many secrets about Naomi that she kept to herself until the very end. Somewhere, Lily has come to terms with the fact that until she knows, for certain, what it was that she had to measure up to, in the beginning, and subsequently fell short of, in the end – this affair with Emily will never be fully settled, but then again, there are things you can’t rush, and Lily has to make peace with that, as well.

*

Lily still wakes, some nights, to the ghostly feeling of hands and hair; sometimes, with her hand outstretched over the empty part of the bed, Lily finds herself still thinking about how Emily looked like, once upon a time, when she was still there, turned away, curled into herself and sleeping.

Lily thinks, maybe people leave ghosts of themselves, everywhere; remembers Emily as she says, There are things that stay with us. Lily wonders how heavy this can be, in the long run, carrying this sort of haunting throughout, but then with every day that passes, she finds herself coming closer and closer to this certain new found understanding, of how there are actually girls like Emily and her. How they really mean no harm. How they really have little choice on the matter anyway.

One day, Lily tells herself, one day, none of this will matter; or at least, not this much. The thought leaves Lily feeling oddly hopeful. #