Let's Make Love Bloom
I don’t know how long I stood there while we just stared at each other; I was far too busy absorbed in my own surprise to keep track of time. In that moment I was reliving that hard middle school day, a crying girl before me whom I could do nothing to comfort. Except the June before me was an adult, and I was still a child; her tears had long since dried, but I felt fresh ones streaking down my face.
“Do you… want to sit down?” June asked, finally breaking the silence and forcing me back to the present.
“Okay,” was all I managed to squeak out as I slid into the opposite seat. We sat in silence for a while, the both of us trying to process this bizarre turn of events. Though she was quite gorgeous in her white and blue dress, which was a perfect match for her eyes, I found it hard to look at her, much less meet her piercing azure gaze. Whenever I tried to look into her eyes, I felt like I was being judged all over again. Consciously, I tried to tell myself that I was being silly, that it happened so long ago that I shouldn’t let it bother me, but no amount of self-assurance was ever going to work. The guilt I felt because of what I’d done to her and Nina never left me; all it had ever done was sink beneath the surface with time. And now that it had resurfaced, I might well have become a living husk of a woman for my lack of ability to deal with any of that right then.
But I had to try, right? I had to start somewhere.
“I-I’m surprised you recognized me,” I said. And I was. Not only had it been years, but I was no longer the image of the perfect little pretty girl. Not to mention, we’d only ever spoken to each other the one time. I guess I’d hoped that it’d been so long that she would’ve been able to move on and forget about me, but obviously that wasn’t the case. Looks like my luck streak had finally run out.
“I never forgot your face,” she said. Her voice was cold, having lost the cheerful and polite tone it had over the phone, and I didn’t know if it was possible for my heart to sink any lower but right then it felt like it was trying.
My mind was going blank. This situation wasn’t just awkward but painful, and if I didn’t do something the both of us were going to end up hurting even more. But what the hell could I do to heal old wounds? Wounds that seemed to resist being closed, wounds that loved to open themselves whenever they damn well please? I’d thought I’d already done everything I could to close them, but clearly not. What else was there left to do?
All that came to mind was Masashi. What had he said before all this? Just be honest? But that had been advice for calming my nerves, and we were well beyond nervousness now.
But what other option was there? None that I could see.
God dammit. Oh, I hate this.
Let’s do it.
I closed my eyes, took a deep, and gathered what little resolve I could. Upon the exhale, I opened my eyes again and focused my gaze on her as best as I could manage.
“Listen,” I said, trying not to think about how her face seemed devoid of any emotion. “I… I never stopped feeling guilty about what happened. I don’t want to make excuses or—”
“Shut up.” Those words hit like an arrow to the throat, and I didn’t even think about disobeying. I looked back at her again, and though her expression hadn’t changed, I could see her lip quivering, a single tear escaping from her blinking eyes.
“One question,” she said. “Why?”
“Why’d you rat us out?” Rat out? I’d never do something so mean. But then, she didn’t know that, did she? Just be honest.
“I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. I was just asking my mom, the one person I trusted the most, about something I didn’t understand, something I didn’t even know about myself, not even considering that she would do something like that. And then she did, and…” I just shook my head and slumped my shoulders. I couldn’t bear to look her in the eye anymore. My vision went cloudy as tears started to escape without restraint, and it took every ounce of effort I could muster to not start sobbing out loud. It didn’t matter what I said. I was always the rat to her, and nothing I could say would undo the damage I did or make things better. This was the worst.
Ahead of me, though I could hardly see, much less look, June got out of her seat. All I heard was the shuffling of her scooting out of the booth and standing. She was leaving. That hurt, but I understood. Honestly, it was probably better for the both of us. It might’ve been too late for any reconciliation, but at least we didn’t have to bother each other anymore.
And then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Wiping my eyes as clear as I could, I looked up to find that June had extended her hand and was beckoning me to take it. It was hard to tell, but her expression had softened, her drooped brows telling me that she was more tired than anything.
“Come on,” June said, jerking her head backward, indicating some back area of the restaurant. “This place has a bar.” Seemed like the wrong time to mention I was only twenty.
“I hated you. For the longest time, I hated you,” June said, staring into her half-drained mug of fizzy yellow beer. She had led me to the two middle seats of the empty bar, a polished mahogany counter that looked as if it had seen zero use, and ordered pints for both her and myself. While she chugged her drink I took a few careful sips, hardly tasting any flavor through my anxiety. “And I hate that I can’t keep hating you. Maybe I’m mad at myself now for misdirecting my anger, but… no, you know what? Some of it’s still on you. You know this whole time, I thought it was you who’d told the principal. All you told me was that it was your fault, what was I supposed to make of that?”
“I don’t really remember what I said.” As I spoke, I was staring at my drink, watching all the little bubbles float to the surface in streams and pop. “All I remember is that I tried to apologize and that you looked like you were about to burst out crying.”
“I did put way too much effort into holding myself back, it’s true.” Throwing back the glass, June downed the rest of her drink in less than ten seconds, a feat which for all I knew may have been inhuman. My lack of alcohol access up until this point should have had me fascinated, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood for experimenting with my alcohol tolerance. “I was brought up to be the sweetest, politest girl, and I was damn good at it. Still am, if I do say so myself. Right now, though, I couldn’t give less of a shit.” She flagged down the bartender for a refill then turned to face me.
“So,” she said. “Mom, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, taking another sip to avoid looking at her too much.
“What’s the story there? I think you owe me that much.”
“Okay.” I took a sip, and then the idea of facing her didn’t seem so bad. She wasn’t so cold anymore, and it was easy to feel relaxed. Oh, my alcohol tolerance must be really low.
I took another sip, larger this time.
“Basically, Catholic family,” I said, suddenly comfortable with unloading on her. “I thought it was all fine and dandy for a while. Until, you know, you. So, the pastor at our church went on a whole homophobic sermon and I was very confused, because I knew about you and Nina and I thought you were fine, so I asked Mamá about it and she just dodged my questions and goes off and calls the school, and I swear to God if I’d known she was going to do that I would never have talked to her but why wouldn’t I have talked to her? She’s my mom and I trusted and loved her and still love her despite everything, but anyway yeah that happens, and then I spend years feeling guilty, and then high school starts and I meet this one girl who’s just incredible, and it’s like holy crap, turns out I’m gay! Who would’ve guessed!” At that, June snorted and clanked her glass with mine.
“And from there,” I went on, “life’s just been one big anxious mess. Like I’m living two lives, where at home I’ve got to wear this Catholic mask and pretend to be the perfect little daughter, and that still infects me when I’m off at school, trying to be open and honest and more myself but still afraid to do that because what if they find out? I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen and… I’m just scared, alright? I’m scared.” I looked back at my glass after finishing my little rant and found that I had already downed half of it without realizing. Conscious of the fact that if I kept going I could lose all semblance of self-control (assuming I still had any), I pushed the glass anyway from me.
“Damn, girl,” June said, taking another swing from her second glass.
“I… I’m sorry for unloading all that on you. I just need you to know that I never meant for any of that to happen and if I could take it back I would.”
“Hey, you know what? I think you’ve apologized enough. It took me a minute to think it through, but I’ve realized that if you really were this cruel homophobic girl that I’d built you up as in my head, you wouldn’t be trying to go on blind dates with girls, right? That’d be like, counterproductive, right?” She took another swing, and her eyes went wide. “Unless that is your agenda! You’re not gonna try to drag me off to church to save my soul, are you?”
“Oh, hell no!” I said, raising my voice louder than I ever had. “Burn the church, for all I care!”
“Whoa, calm down there! Maybe don’t do arson.” But June was smiling, and so, somehow, was I. “But yeah, I get you.”
“Anyway, you said you hated me?”
“I did, yeah. And when I saw your face, all that came right back up, and girl, let me tell you it’s a damn miracle I didn’t jump down your throat. But now? I mean, I know the truth now. You’re just a scared, closeted girl. I’ve been there, I get it. I ain’t gonna hold that against you. And I mean… I was angry for so long, I don’t think that’s something I can easily let go of. I think I still am angry, and maybe I still am directing some of it at you, but I’ll try not to. After all, you’re not an enemy, you’re a comrade. So, cheers to being gay.” She held up her mug for a toast, and, completely abandoning any caution about my probable limits, I reciprocated the toast and took another swing.
“Out of curiosity,” June asked, “did you… and I’m guessing probably not, but just to make sure, did you know it was me?”
“I didn’t realize June was a nickname,” I said, shaking my head. “All I knew was that my blind date was named Juniper, and that she had a familiar voice, and I was too nervous about the prospect of my first date with a girl to put two and two together.”
“Yeah, that tracks.” June chuckled as she regarded her now-empty second glass and appeared to be considering ordering a third, throwing the occasional glance toward the barkeep. Then, probably thinking better of it, she pushed the glass away. Peering down into my own empty glass, I followed suit. I trusted that she knew her own limits and could only hope that I hadn’t blown past mine. Though I was hoping against hope. It being my first time with any significant amount of alcohol in my system, I couldn’t tell you exactly how I was feeling, but things certainly felt off. Warm, pleasant, even comfortable, definitely strange. But at least my vision hadn’t gone all wobbly, so I took that as a sign that I was probably doing alright.
“Well, I have to say,” I said, having lost a good many of my inhibitions, “keeping in mind that I haven’t been on dates before so I don’t have a point of comparison, as far as first dates go, I can’t imagine them getting any weirder than this one.”
“Oh, you have no idea,” June said with a sigh. “Christ, don’t even get me started.” And then I remembered.
“Oh right! Over the phone, you said that the last one you went on was pretty bad, right?” Curiosity propelled me, along with my loose inhibitions. “So in terms of ranking, how would you say this first date compares to your last one?”
“You really want to know?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Well, that’s a tough one, but I’d say…” She puckered the corners of her lips as she mulled it over. “I guess this one wasn’t as bad. Just barely. I mean, at least here I’m getting some closure on an old wound. That one was just…” She trailed off and started rubbing her temples. Clearly, the memory was headache inducing.
“Damn. If this was a step up, what happened with the last one?”
“Oh, God. It was insane. It…” She shook her head and she bit her lower lips. “Well, to put it simply, my own family tried to set me up with a guy. And lied to me about it.”
“Jesus.” I could only blink in surprise. “Do you… do you want to talk about it?”
“God, it had to have been what, three, four months ago? Something like that. I’d just moved into my new apartment ahead of school starting back up, and my sister, Olivia, called me up like ‘hey, I just found someone I think you’d get along with, want me to set up a date?’ And I was like ‘hell yeah, thanks,’ because of course I was. I’d been out to my family for close to two years at that point, though Mom knew since middle school, because of course the principal had to go and call her up after your mom went and outed me to him. But she was cool about it. I asked her to not tell anyone and she agreed, and thank God for that. Knowing what I know now, who knows what trouble that would’ve stirred? But yeah, she let me come out in my own time and that was two years ago, but before then Dad and Olivia were oblivious. Her especially.
“In high school, Olivia was the super-popular cheerleader girl. She was the type that could have a bunch of guys and girls at her beck and call if she wanted, but usually she put on airs of being this polite, upstanding girl, just like me. Raised under the same roof, after all. But with that popularity, well, basically she had no trouble snatching up whatever guy she wanted whenever she wanted. At first I thought she was doing it because she actually wanted to find someone who she liked, but at some point, I’m pretty sure she just started doing it to show off. Every two or three months she’d always have a new guy in her arms, and every time, she always made sure to introduce him to me. Like ‘hey girl, check out my new hunk’ or ‘stud’ or something cringey like that. And then she’d say stuff like ‘when are you going to get a guy of your own, we could like totally go out on double dates and stuff, it’d be so much fun!’ Yeah, that didn’t feel good.
“I wanted to be a good sister to her. I thought I was, in all the ways that mattered. Always there for her, a shoulder to cry on when she needed. Helping her do her hair, pick out dresses for dates. Or just doing school stuff and hanging out on our own. Couldn’t even begin to tell you the hours we wasted playing house with these cute little dolls she learned how to stitch. You know, I thought we were best friends. It was just that one thing I could never do, that one thing I was too scared to do, and I guess I never realized how much it meant to her, upset her. I don’t know why she wanted us to share that part of our lives together, but no matter how much I explained that I wasn’t ready, she never backed down. Not until she learned the truth.
“We were having a family dinner and I’d talked with Mom about it beforehand, and she was comforting and reassuring, said I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to and that she was there for me, but I felt it was time. Maybe I only had the courage because I was about to head off to the dorms, so even if they reacted poorly, I was about to be away from them anyway. Feel kind of bad about that. But anyway yeah, I came out over dinner, and Dad, the old doofus, he just laughs it off. Think he said something like ‘about time you came out with it.’ And Mom never told him, so I don’t know how he knew, but after feeling embarrassed at first, he helped me laugh it off, get comfortable being open.
“But then there was Olivia. She just kept quiet. I don’t know, she might’ve said something like ‘that’s nice,’ but yeah, she was just quiet. And we didn’t talk much after school started up. Only really saw her at a handful of family get-togethers after that, and at those she put on all her usual pep, and we were back to being good sisters like nothing had happened, and I thought that was the end of it. But looking back on it, well, I guess I was just being naïve. She was too polite to say anything back at the dinner, but now I figure she must have been shocked.
“So she calls me up and says she can set me up with a date, and I trust her because why wouldn’t I? I thought wow, she’s still looking out for me, she does accept me after all. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I didn’t even realize how intentionally vague she was being with her wording. She never said that it was a guy or anything, she just said someone. Deliberate manipulation is what it was.
“So she tells me where to be and when, and I show up in my Sunday best, getting there maybe ten minutes early because I was just too excited to wait.
“And then some guy walks up to my table, introduces himself, and says he’s my date.
“I… I froze for a bit. Had to be a mistake, right? But he assured me that yes, it was him, Olivia had set up us, even showed me a picture of the two of them hanging out. And I wanted to run away right then and there. I didn’t know this man and didn’t want to, and moreover how could she do this to me? But I couldn’t just do that, right? That’d be rude, and we were a polite family. So I figured I’d stay just long enough to turn him down politely and be on my merry way.
“But no, things couldn’t be that easy, could they? No, this asshole had to turn out to be some creep. I tried to tell him that there had been a misunderstanding, that I wasn’t looking to date men, but he wasn’t having any of it. He insisted that I stay, insisted that he’d ‘change my mind,’ which, ew, gross. And then to top it all off, he tried to get… touchy-feely. And it was at that exact point that I thought ‘screw this, screw politeness, I need to get the hell out of here.’ So I bitch-slapped him and ran home.
“But even that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the screaming match I had with Olivia afterwards. I called her up as soon as I got back home, asked her what the hell that was about, and I might have been crying, but I was upset, okay? And you know what she said to me? ‘Oh, don’t be such a drama queen. I’m just trying to help you get over this weird phase of yours.’ Can you believe that? She called it a phase. God help me, I’d get another drink if I didn’t think I’d crash my car on the way home.
“So we kept yelling at each other, and after it became clear that wasn’t getting us anywhere I hung up on her, blocked her number, and I haven’t heard from her since.
“Was I ever really a sister to her? Was what we had real? Or was I just some sort of doll, where the minute she thought she saw a tear she had to take it to the toy shop to get it repaired. But it wasn’t a tear. It was just one stripe, that’s all. One stripe that didn’t quite look like the rest. I’m not your doll, Oliva. I’m not your doll.”
By the time June finished talking, she was fully crying. She was leaning over the counter, forehead buried in an open palm, as tears ran down her cheeks. Her eyes had puffed up red, and her makeup had gone runny. And I was at a loss. There I had been worried about what sort of betrayal might be waiting for me in the future, and here June had already gone through something just like that.
“I’m so sorry,” was all I could say, and I reached out and rubbed her shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said, letting her head lean over and graze the back of hand. With a sniffle and a shake of the head, she sat herself up straight, reached into her purse, pulled out a handkerchief, and started wiping her face dry. “I’m a mess, aren’t I?”
“Aren’t we all?” I said, shrugging.
“Yeah,” she said, and I couldn’t tell whether the noise she let out was a chuckle or a sob. Maybe it was both. “Yeah, I guess we are.”
“Hey y’all.” The sudden intrusion of a new voice dragged us out of our own little world. Behind the counter in front of us, the barkeep had walked up and was waving her hand, trying to get our attention. “We’re closing soon, so we’re gonna need you two to clear out.”
“Right, sorry,” I said as I got to my feet, June following suit. “We’ll get going.” After fumbling to get our wallets out, we paid our tabs and hurried on outside.
It was storming. That was funny—the forecast had said clear skies all day. But then, it wasn’t daytime anymore, was it? But then again, they hadn’t said anything about a nighttime storm, either. Whatever the case, I was very confused and very tipsy.
“Will you be okay getting home?” I asked while we took cover under the entrance’s awning. The area under the awning was actually quite spacious, meant to be used as a waiting area for when the restaurant was busier and customers had to wait for a table to free up. I got the sense that the area would rarely see such a use.
“I’ll be fine, thanks,” June said. “You?”
“Just texted my ride,” I said, holding up my phone. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Alright, cool. I’ll hang out until they get here.” It seemed to me like the night was over, but though June was putting on those old airs of just being polite, she looked like she had something she still wanted to say. That was just fine by me, as I had something I was curious to ask about.
“Am I right in assuming that a second date is off the table?” With how much of a source of anxiety we had been in each other’s lives, I couldn’t imagine otherwise.
“You know what?” June smiled. Maybe this was what she had wanted to talk about. “I think you’re wrong about that. I don’t know, I guess I’m feeling sort of a kinship vibe here. And, I’ll say it, you’re hot.”
I gasped as soon as she said that, and my heart fluttered like it hadn’t since I first met Esmé all those years ago. I wasn’t sure I would ever feel that feeling again, but hot damn, hearing those words sure did make all the heartache feel worth it.
And I think I understood what she meant by “kinship vibe,” too. She had to live with the knowledge that a member of her own family had rejected her very being, and I had to live with the guillotine over my head that might drop in the near future of my own family dealing out that same rejection. Maybe that wasn’t the healthiest thing in the world to bond over, but right then, it made me so happy that I didn’t care.
“S-so then…” I stammered.
“Yeah, let’s do it again, why not? I think it’s worth a shot. Don’t know if it’ll lead anywhere, but we’ll see. And maybe next time we’ll actually eat some food instead of just getting wasted.”
“You know, now that you mention it, I am starving.” My hunger had been driven out of my mind thanks to everything that had happened, but since things had calmed down, I couldn’t help but realize: damn, I need to eat.
“If you want, we could keep this going,” June suggested. “Find somewhere that hasn’t closed yet.” That did, in fact, sound like an excellent idea, but before I could give it serious thought, the Sanada family car pulled up ahead of us, Masashi at the wheel. He waved at us, and I waved back.
“I’d love to,” I said. “But my ride’s here, and I can’t be out too late. You know, family and all.”
“Oh yeah, no, that’s fine, I get it. I’ll call you later, figure out what’s next, okay?”
“And one last thing.” That last thing happened faster than I could comprehend. In what seemed like one motion, June whipped out her phone, got beside me, held out the phone in front of us, and snapped a selfie as she kissed me on the cheek. I was frozen stiff in shock as she pulled away; while trying to process the sudden (and sweet) display of affection, she fiddled with her phone and in moments had it uploaded on Instagram. She showed me the post: with it, she had written to mark the occasion, hope it’s the first of many!
“Oh wow,” I said. June just smiled as she pulled away.
“Then, I’ll see you around,” she said with a little wave. “Bye.”
“Bye.” And she disappeared into the rain as she hurried off to find her car.
Still in a state of shock (and quite tipsy), I stumbled over to Masashi’s car, threw open the passenger seat door, and all but fell in. My man had to reach over to pull the door shut as I fumbled with my seatbelt.
“I’m guessing it went well?” he said.
“You could say that.”
As we drove away, my phone buzzed. June had sent me a copy of the picture. Grinning like the big gay idiot I was, I immediately set the picture as my phone background. It was a good thing she’d taken the picture so fast—she’d managed to catch me while I’d been smiling.
I was too caught up in the unexpected but much-needed joy to realize how bad an idea that picture had been.