After we agreed to a divorce, Ray and I continued to live together for weeks until she found her own place in town. Our apartment was a narrow one-bedroom barely bigger than a studio, with no room for a decent couch or a fold-out, so she and I continued to share the bed. At night, in those quiet hours between when we said goodnight and succumbed to sleep, I listened to her breathe and wondered how we ever made the mistake of believing we should be lovers rather than friends. One night, I confessed, “I always had a crush on Joyelle,” laying this information delicately beside her, like a blouse hung to dry on the back of a chair. Her head shifted on the pillow, just enough for her to trace my outline in the dark if she wanted.
“I knew that.” She turned again to the ceiling. “You didn’t hide it well.”
“Half of the joy of a crush is it being an open secret. Attempting to hide a blush. Knowing your friends can see through you. I wanted people to know,” I said, slipping momentarily into that old infatuated skin, indulging in the flush of my cheeks, the tingle of my lips, the sweetest ache in my tender chest. How many hours had I spent in high school surrendering to exactly this sensation? “I used to fantasize about what it would be like to press my lips right between her shoulder blades.” I lifted both hands, as if to frame the precise spot where the skin rippled with strength. “You know, because of all those tennis tournaments.”
Ray restrained herself from laughing. “She was like a foot taller than you.”
“That was part of the appeal! Didn’t you ever want someone who was so unlike you?”
“All the time,” she said, rolling onto her side, her back to me, though neither of us slept for hours. I pressed my hand into hers, remembering the night in senior year of high school when she dressed up as the lead singer of her favorite band for a Halloween party hosted by her neighbor, a theatre kid who attended a performing arts private school and didn’t know anyone from our class—how simultaneously delighted and petrified Ray was as she got dressed, donning a red wig, tucking for the first time. When Ray whipped her head around and lip-synced, “Come on, baby, be my bad boyfriend,” I was lounging on a bean bag chair, masquerading as a leather-clad bass player: aloof, indifferent, goateed. All night, I postured, practicing my guitar solos, encouraging Ray to sing, not realizing until we snuck back into her room and collapsed in a heap that this would be the night.
“You know how I told you I untucked because I had to use the bathroom? Well, that wasn’t the whole story,” she said, recounting how her neighbor, the budding thespian dressed as Elphaba from Wicked, waited on the other side of the bathroom door while Ray was untucking, then slid in when Ray opened the door and shut them inside together. “His cloak swept over the floor in an arc when he got down on his knees. He clearly knew what he was doing. I had to hide the green smears on my thighs from you the next morning.”
I hummed at the thought of a witch buried that deeply between my legs, willfully ignoring the fact that I was not the first person to feel Ray’s palm curve to the back of their head. Instead, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted to have sex in a theatre. Something about that velvet curtain.”
Ray understood this. “For me, it’s aquariums. Being surrounded by all that water.”
“And sea creatures,” I said, thinking of a turtle touching its flipper to the glass to say hello. What joy was in store for Ray when she at last fulfilled her dream. Every night after, we shared all our most carefully guarded fantasies, inventing lovers and alter egos that were braver, sweeter, and more limber than our true selves. In one of my alternate lives, I managed to charm a French pastry chef into setting aside her whisk, unbuttoning her jacket, and allowing me to pipe a line of bourbon whipped cream from her navel to her lips. In another, I accidentally got locked in a bookstore with a man on only our third or fourth date, and we spent hours reading our favorite poems to each other with a single flickering booklight before making love on one of the display tables.
“That’s risky. You might end up fucking on a picture of the pope.”
“I’ll take that chance,” I laughed, because that was the future that lay in store for us: taking every chance for happiness, allowing ourselves to be pressed between two female bodybuilders or ravished underneath a giant redwood by a humble forest guide who knew exactly how to maneuver our bodies so we lay cradled by the ancient roots. We would plant gardens full of summer squash, beefsteak tomatoes, and nasturtiums. We would sip whiskey by the fire while working on an idyllic puzzle of ice skaters gliding through winter. We would do all these things and many more, and we would never feel betrayed or regret our wasted years, because now we were free, freer than we had ever been. This was our parting gift to each other.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Lightspeed, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and co-organizes the Fight for Our Lives performance series.