Kelley quickly learned that the whole "finding yourself" phase of college was, despite the overwhelming cliche, painfully accurate.
There were a lot of things she figured out. For instance, she hated chemistry despite its inevitable important to her degree. She equally hated tequila, but if she swallowed enough of it she forgot about chemistry, and that was a plus. She loved her friends, who brought coffee to her work study job and ate lunch with her on the quad and kicked around a soccer ball in their shared apartment, who were always down for movie nights and Popeye's runs and random road trips to the beach. And she missed Hope, in a strange way, missing something that she'd never had, never known, but always longed for.
The distance wasn't really the issue, because being further apart really didn't matter when they had never actually been together in the first place. But it was something about the distance of their future, which used to have a deadline and now floated amorphously, a possibility never discussed, never questioned. Kelley figured that she'd meet Hope after college, once she had a degree and was a "real-world adult" — she was slightly embarrassed that she used to think she'd magically be an adult at the age of 18, ready to move in with Hope and start their lives together — but every time she heard Jerramy's voice in the background of their phone calls, she just wasn't sure.
Which is maybe why she decided to drink too much on that night in November.
It was sophomore year, and Tobin's best friend from back home and decided to spend her fall break — she was a poly sci major at Cal — at their apartment at Stanford.
She didn't arrive until their group was already three shots deep into their pregame, Kelley clutching her "mixed drink" — a handful of shots of Jack with a splash of coke — and attempting to dance with Sydney, who was actually coordinated enough to bust out a few moves before dissolving into laughter. Alex walked in, all long legs and tan skin, rolling some name-brand suitcase behind her and running her hand through hair that had definitely been through keratin treatment recently, and she had the I-look-this-good-because-daddy's-money-paid-for-it vibe that got Kelley a little weak in the knees.
"Guys, this is Alex," Tobin shouted over the music, throwing an arm around her shoulders and dangling off the smaller girl. Kelley had to smirk for a second at how diametrically different the pair looked, and as she smirked Alex met her eyes, smile mirroring hers as she leaned into Tobin. And Kelley was a glorious idiot when she saw something she wanted, and God did she suddenly, incurably want Alex.
She had always been the type to get what she want, not because she was spoiled but because she was horribly, aggressively tenacious in pursuing what she desired. Grades, awards, positions on student councils and soccer teams — it was all the same. Kelley wasn't the type to cloak what she wanted behind layers of indifference; no, she knew what she wanted and she took it, to hell with what came in the way.
Looking across the room, drink cold against her palm, she wanted Alex more than anything else. So she didn't break eye contact, instead shooting a quick wink at the girl and watching her mouth curl into a smirk, her chin rising slightly, as if she recognized a challenge when she saw one.
That was how, one hour later, Kelley's hand brushed confidently against the curve of Alex's back as they lined up for their second game of beer pong. She was unsteady on her feet because she had, kindly, offered to drink for Alex who was, of course, a terrible shot. Kelley liked to think she was excellent at beer pong, but she was honestly mediocre at best, most of her reputation involving the game revolving upon a few lucky games from freshman year in which she took down teams of frat boys in less than five rounds.
But she wasn't going to tell Alex that.
"Will you please, for the love of God, hold your weight this time?" she asked softly, leaning into Alex's side to deliver the dig, her breath soft on the taller girl's throat. Alex glared down at her in response, biting her lip as she dunked her ball into a cup of water and shook it dry.
"You've got it," she said in response, her voice equally low, and Kelley grinned openly as Alex turned all the way to face her, holding the ball out. "Blow on it. For luck."
Kelley blew on the ball, and Alex turned and sank her first shot of the night. She glanced back at Kelley, raising her eyebrows, and earned a wink in response and a slap on the ass, playful only if they hadn't looked back at each other appraisingly, tearing their eyes away only after a few seconds.
And that was how, as the party was being cleaned up, Kelley and Alex remained downstairs, alone with a mess of red Solo cups and a half-dried puddle that looked suspiciously like beer. It was purposeful on both of their parts, and Kelley knew that, knew that she didn't really need to hide her motives as she picked up the last of the cups and stacked them on the table to be washed the next morning.
"Not too bad for a Stanford party," Alex said as she stood from where she'd been fishing cups out from under the couch, and she looked straight at Kelley, the challenge clear. Kelley took a step closer, hands on her hips.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" She took another step closer as Alex straightened all the way up, enough that they were sharing the same space. "Because if so, that's adorable."
"I'm just saying, we know which of our institutions knows how to throw a better party," Alex smirked. "And it's sure as hell not going to be Nerd Nation."
"Take that back.
"Take it back."
Kelley took the final step, her knee in between Alex's legs as she pushed her back into the wall, both hands finding her waist, lips parted by only half an inch of air.
"Take it back," she muttered dangerously, and when Alex began to shape an argument she kissed it right off her lips. Kelley pressed her back further, earning a low moan, and her hands slipped under Alex's shirt, fingernails scraping against the soft skin of her ribcage before Alex even had time to kiss back. It didn't take much persuasion to get the shirt off, or to pin Alex to the nearest couch, or to tongue fuck her sloppily with one palm clamped against her mouth to keep the noise level at a minimum, and the next hour was spent stretched out in some type of heated haze.
Alex spent the next night in her bed. And the next. And the next.
It became a pastime. Alex went back to Cal, but Stanford's fall break was only two weeks later and Kelley found herself tangled up in the taller girl's sheets, both hands fisted in her hair as she bit her lip hard enough to bleed, attempting to keep quiet as her legs shook uncontrollably. It wasn't like she was unused to sex — she was successful enough with a series of flings throughout college, and there'd been her high school boyfriend — but Alex was fire, she was rough and ragged at the edges, she left Kelley more hungry than she'd been before they started.
The drive from Cal to Stanford was, in short, a bitch. It was two hours in San Francisco traffic which wasn't, Alex always pointed out, as bad as Los Angeles traffic. But it was still a bitch. Even so, they found time once a month for a weekend together, spent mostly in bed or at parties or tangled up and hungover in bed.
"You guys are cute," Tobin had commented once over lunch, and Kelley had rolled her eyes, shooting her friend a pointed look.
"We aren't anything," she muttered. "Except for having sex. That we are. We're doing that a lot."
"Right, if you two aren't a couple I don't know what is," Tobin shot back, and Kelley raised her gaze immediately to look at her friend, eyes wide and glittering with a mix of excitement and glee.
"Oh, you want to talk about couples?" Kelley leaned onto one elbow, a murderous smile filling her face. "Because there's a certain someone I wouldn't mind talking very loudly about right now. In fact, why—"
"Shut up and I'll let you live," Tobin growled, her eyes searching the restaurant quickly for Christen, who had left for the bathroom. They glared at one another for a second before dropping the conversation hastily.
And sure, some of those weekends were beginning to include trips to movie theatres or local restaurants, and yes Kelley did buy them James Bay tickets because Alex was the only person who would agree to go, and yes they did text almost every hour of every day. But she knew what friends with benefits looked like and she knew, beyond a doubt, that they were just that — friends. Who went down on each other. A lot. Nothing more.
Which was why, of course, it came as a surprise when Alex gasped out three words as Kelley pressed a kiss to her throat, hands dipping low under her sweatpants on an April morning after they'd tried — and failed — to make French toast in the kitchen. (they failed because Kelley pushed Alex up against the counter and kissed her for so long that the butter in the pan burned)
"What?" Kelley backed up, stricken, watching Alex as her face fell, then recomposed itself.
"I— I mean," Alex's eyes scanned around the room, seemingly anywhere but at Kelley. "We've been doing this for months, I figured eventually—"
"I'd what, eventually I'd fall in love with you?" Kelley saw Alex flinch at the words, and she tried to soften her voice. "Look, Alex, you're one of my best friends but I can't do this kind of thing—"
"What kind of thing?" Alex cut her off, voice rough with anger. "Date me? Love me? We were doing so fucking well, how can you act like we weren't going somewhere?"
"Because I can't go anywhere like that," she murmured. "I have someone already."
"You have... oh." The sound of her breath leaving her lungs was pathetic, and Kelley should have known to brace herself for the tears, but she wasn't prepared for watching Alex crumple. Even worse was the way she attempted to save face, to keep herself together, even as she covered her face with one hand. "So we're not..."
"No." Kelley cocked her head. "Why would you think we were?"
"We just seemed to fit." Alex shrugged. "I don't know."
"But we didn't have the writing," Kelley said, eyes tracing Alex's face, confusion thick in her voice. "I don't, Alex, I don't get why you would think—"
"I never tried writing." There was an air of dejection in the way Alex slumped against the counter. "My parents told me to wait."
There wasn't anything for Kelley to say, even though there were questions pummeling her with every second that passed. She nodded, gently, and kept her eyes down as Alex said she should probably go. She didn't fight it when she left, just handed her jacket and asked her to let her know when she got home safely. Kelley spent the night on the couch, staring blankly at the TV until Tobin came home. There wasn't much to explain, but she did so anyways, and Tobin wrapped herself around her, arms tight and gentle, whispering apologies until the guilt began to seep away.
It was two days later that Hope called.
Kelley was flat on her back in bed, which helped muffle the impact, the brutality of the words.
"Jerramy asked me to marry him."
Part of her became obsessed, in that instant, in the way that Hope phrased this. Not "Jerramy proposed." No. "Jerramy asked me to marry him." It seemed so heavy, so concrete. As if her mind was already made up.
"Okay." She wasn't going to give up any ground, wasn't going to allow Hope to win this one in the slightest. She couldn't breathe, besides, couldn't get out more than one syllable, because her rib cage was constricting every movement, every breath that she took in.
"Kelley—" Hope's voice trailed off and Kelley didn't know what to say. How did she fight for a soulmate, for someone who she had been created to love, for someone she wasn't supposed to live without? She didn't have the words for this argument, for this fight, because they weren't supposed to exist in the first place.
"Do what you think is best, Hope," Kelley murmured. "You know I'll always be here, no matter what."
And she hung up. Her screen read "1:06." A minute and six seconds devoted to perhaps the most important phone call of her life. A minute and six seconds to cut loose her future.
Hope didn't call back. Kelley got drunk.
It was a Tuesday night, so it was a little sad, just her and Tobin and Christen and Sydney sprawled out on the floor with two bottles of wine and a handle of vodka, pouring glasses of orange juice to cut the bitterness of the liquor. Kelley's anger became white hot with every drink, and everyone else seemed to understand that the trick wasn't to dampen this flame but to fan it, to let her blaze out every bit of resentment she was feeling.
"You know, Alex had never even written to hers," Kelley spat out, her hand gripped tight around the neck of one wine bottle. She threw her head back and killed the rest of the drink, wiping red liquid away from her lips.
"Written to her what?" Sydney's eyes were glassy as she stumbled to her feet, retreating to the kitchen and returning with a half-full 30-rack of beer.
"Her soulmate, idiot." Kelley grabbed a beer, cracked it open, and drank. "Didn't even write."
"I haven't, either." Tobin tipped her own beer to her lips, shrugging, and Christen nodded in agreement. "My parents and I, we don't really believe in it. We think God will bring us to our soulmate no matter what."
"That's stupid." Kelley's voice was sharp, her eyes narrowed. "You should write. That way you can know if they're shit or not to begin with."
"I don't see how that would help—" Christen began, but a single look from Sydney warned her away from arguing too hard. Kelley had almost finished her beer already, and the look in her eye had gone past dangerous awhile ago. She stood, stumbling slightly, and left the room, leaving her friends to glance at one another, wordlessly wondering if they had pissed Kelley off enough to make her turn in for the night. But seconds later, she returned with a Sharpie in hand.
"Write." Kelley stood over Tobin, the pen held out, and her friend looked up at her, eyes wide and fearful. "What are you scared of?"
"Look, Kelley we don't do this kind of thing." She didn't push the Sharpie away, but she didn't take it either. "I know it's not a big deal for you, but we don't do this."
"Right." The tone of Kelley's voice became even more barbed as a smile spread across her face. "Just like you don't drink, or do drugs, or swear, or sleep with pretty girls—"
"Alright." Tobin cut her off, glancing sideways for a moment, then reaching up to take the pen. "You've got a point."
The air in the room felt overly warm as Kelley sat back down, watching as Tobin uncapped the Sharpie. Sydney sat up, chin rested on her palm as if she was watching a particularly interesting movie. Christen's eyes bore a hole into the floor, fingers picking at the skin of one cuticle, and if Kelley had been even the slightest bit sober one look at her would've forced her to stop Tobin immediately.
But she was drunk and angry and every detail in the room was blurry. So she said nothing.
Tobin stared at her hand for a second, then wrote one word — "sup" — on her palm. She grinned up at Kelley, tossing the pen back at her head.
"Happy?" she asked, and then laughed, a little too loud. "Can you imagine how confused they'll be?"
Sydney joined the laughter, and soon even Kelley was cracking up.
"Like dude, it took you— what? Twenty years to say hi?" Sydney rolled over on her side, poking at Tobin with one toe. "How long's it gonna take you to get to first base?"
"Tobin—" Christen's voice was soft and drowned out by Kelley, who was loudly teasing Tobin.
"I'd be like, 'Dude, now?'" She mimed squinting down at her palm, then burst out laughing. "I got my life together and now this rando from Stanford is gonna try to woo me?"
"I woo well," Tobin said defensively, and Sydney laughed, shoving her over.
"Tobin." Their laughter died as Christen stood, her voice high and panicky. "I need to talk to you."
"Wha— Chris, we're in the middle of a drinking session." Tobin tugged at her ankle. "Sit down, talk here, it's comfy."
"Please, come outside, just talk to me for a second," Christen pleaded, but when she saw that Tobin was firmly anchored to the ground, she sighed, growling out a low "fine" as she dropped into a crouch and shoved her right hand in front of Tobin's eyes. "Now will you talk?"
Even Kelley glimpsed the flash of ink on Christen's hand, the scrawling "s" and the jagged "p." Tobin's eyes widened for a moment, her head whipping to look up at Christen. A second later she was scrambling to her feet, nodding and muttering to herself — "Outside. Talk. Yeah." — as she dragged Christen out of the room by one wrist. Kelley watched them go slowly, a sick sense of dreading filling the depth of her stomach.
"I'm going to bed." Sydney didn't stop her, and Kelley took the stairs to her room in twos. For a moment, she looked at her phone, scrolling through her contacts. She stopped at Alex first, pausing — she could call, she could apologize, they could figure things out. But she cared enough that she didn't want to do that. Not now, not like this, with the whole room spinning and nausea just a heartbeat away.
She stopped at Hope's name next, the name she checked for every time her phone buzzed, the most used contact on her phone. She could call Hope, too. It would hurt Hope less to hear Kelley's voice drunk. She might not even pick up, just feel guilty when she saw the missed call the next morning. Maybe now she could plead, she could beg, she could fight.
Instead, she swiped left and pressed 'delete.'
It was just a symbol, she knew, because she pretty much had Hope's number memorized by now. But the symbol was important, and she did it because in some ways, she knew tonight was the beginning of something new for both of them.
It was time to move on.