Leigh sits with her head propped against the sill of the airplane window as the plane races the sun towards the horizon. Clouds drift below her like foam in a stream. Sometimes the pillowy ribbons brush the window like a foggy morning against her face. The blues of the atmosphere gradually turn sherbet orange and pink. Leigh has only seen the sky, the earth from this height once before when she was a child on a trip to visit her grandmother. It’s not as frightening as she remembered.
An entire country is nestled between the two coasts. Thousands of miles condensed into six hours. Six hours to decide how to tell Alice. Every time Leigh looks at her watch, she knows she has the same amount of time to talk herself out of saying anything at all. These are new feelings, but urgent. Every instinct in her body tells Leigh to act.
It’s summer break. Sort of. Leigh teaches summer quarter as well. This is one of the two free weeks she has between classes. Everyone back east was surprised Leigh was going to Portland, or anywhere for that matter, and on her own no less. “I want to see someplace new,” she told them. None of them know about Alice. Leigh only has a few friends from high school. Some of them, like Alice, moved away but kept in touch. The few that are still in town never paid much attention to Alice back then.
Leigh wonders if Alice is still as quiet as she was in high school. But Alice wasn’t really quiet around Leigh. Of the two, Alice has been more introverted but their friendship was always filled with conversation and laughter. It wasn’t quiet at all.
It had been the last semester of high school. Alice jogged around the neighborhood and thought mostly of nothing. It was like breakfast—not always interesting but required. The ritual started in middle school when she first joined the track team and they had morning practices. Her eyes would be heavy, her mind foggy, but it was the only way she knew to wake herself up. The weekends weren’t for having fun and celebrating; not yet. She had spent her weekend holed up at Leigh’s house studying for midterms. On top of trying to master calculus equations and passages from Chaucer, Alice privately weighed her university options. She wasn’t ready to tell Leigh. There was nothing to share yet.
A stack of acceptances sat on her dresser. Only one school was near Arlington, but the rest were on the other side of the country; Washington, Oregon, California. Leigh already decided on Georgetown, on the liberal arts path to higher academia. Alice always admired Leigh’s awareness of herself—she knew exactly who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. Alice felt more or less indifferent to many things in life.
They sat at a cafeteria table before their first class. Their study hangover wore on them, struggling to stay awake before the bell. Alice laid her head against Leigh’s shoulder. Alice’s temple felt like a plasma globe—the electricity gathered at a single point when someone touched the surface. It lasted only a moment. Leigh jumped up with a smile and kissed her boyfriend on the lips.
Leigh always had someone, girls and boys alike. Alice watched her move through high school with an ease that felt mythical. Coming out stories were shared more openly but familial reactions were binary. Peers were either celebrated or shunned. There was no just being. Leigh was the exception—she didn’t come out, she just was.
Alice gathered her study materials and headed to the classroom even though she had ten minutes before her first midterm.
The sun beat down on the track. Alice adjusted her running spandex that displayed an already stark tan line. The crowd was small and quiet—mostly family that came out for the Saturday morning meets. Hands were at the starting line, feet in the starting blocks. Alice settled in, looked at her hands and then at the path in front of her. There were runners to either side of her but she did not see them.
She pushed against the blocks, then into the ground. Her arms and legs propelled her forward, away from where she started. The crowd was white noise, but there’s a hum of someone new. Alice pushed again. She couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. There was no one in front of her; just the finish line. She felt the finish line the moment she crossed it. She could hear the crowd again. Alice slowed her pace but kept moving until Leigh came into view. The new hum. Alice wondered whether there was causation or correlation between Leigh’s presence and Alice’s rare first place win.
Leigh looks out the window. The ground is the color of heather and lavender. On the horizon, the purple earth kisses cotton candy whisps. She can taste them. The sun is strides ahead of them, but two thirds of the way through the flight, there is still no darkness. Leigh sips her wine. It tastes watered down and red but of no particular grape. She rolls the second sip around in her mouth. Can you tell someone you love them after you’ve been friends for over two decades? If you haven’t been the most reliable friend? Leigh imagines if Alice flew from Portland to DC to say the same. Relief is the first feeling; a list of things Leigh wouldn’t have to worry about. Alice was in town a few months ago and said nothing. Leigh knows that the scenario, though appealing, is implausible.
It feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago. When they parted after drinks, Leigh felt a pull in her chest, a longing that was new or maybe long left unattended. They cheered to Alice’s visit and from the moment their glasses clinked, the world was unsettling. Like she left the house but couldn’t remember if she had left the stove on. She could either keep moving forward and trust that everything was as it should be or put her schedule on hold, just to be sure.
The couple next to her link their hands together. She wants to feel her hands around Alice’s petite and slender fingers. She wants to look in her eyes with longing and desire; to play out this romance novel scene that’s unfolding in her mind. Leigh has hardly been anywhere and yet she knows that she would travel with Alice anywhere, destination irrelevant.
Relationships are comfortable. Leigh has more or less been in one since high school. It’s been over a year, though, since she’s shared her bed with anyone. At bars, she sits alone with a full drink and essays that need grading. People catch her eye; she can feel other eyes get caught on her. If they make eye contact she gives them a tight-lipped smile and resumes her grading.
In the breaks of the clouds, rivers wind through canyons, mountains plateau, ridges disburse into plains. Leigh imagines walking through the tall grasses, being dwarfed by the golden stalks. She imagines the way the land might have looked before it was stolen and subdivided into neat, insidious plots. Leigh traces the arbitrary divisions with her eyes and wonders what crops they yield. The moon lights the empty on her tray table. The sun no longer paints the sky. Ahead of them, the sky looks a pale blue. The clouds below are earl grey, the color someone might choose to adorn their minimalist living space.
Alice touched down in DC. The humidity hadn’t infiltrated the city just yet. Alice was always the visitor, not the visited. During undergrad, she had studied abroad in New Zealand, spent her weekends exploring Southeast Asia. Alice invited Leigh to join her during a school break, but Leigh stayed in Arlington, reading about other peoples’ experiences.
They had agreed to meet for drinks. It had been a while since they’d seen each other; longer since they’d drank together. Undergrad, maybe. Alice always felt uncomfortable drinking around Leigh, worried that her feelings would bubble up like an unexpected burp and ruin the mood or worse yet their friendship. There had been times before when Alice had intended to share her feelings with Leigh, when her mind was her own and she could quickly calculate the mood and dynamics of the situations, which was hard to do if she wasn’t sober. she’d say something that would alter their friendship. Alice hoped she was past that phase.
Leigh had a stack of papers in front of her and a red pen in her hand. Spring semester midterms, she assumed. Alice remembered how Leigh always went to the bar with a book. It seemed work had taken the place of leisure. In the sun, a couple grey hairs peeked through Leigh’s black hair. Alice was happy to know she wasn’t dying bits of herself away.
Alice caught Leigh’s attention. Leigh pushed everything to the side and gave Alice a hug. They had shared many hugs in their friendship but this one felt warmer, unguarded. Leigh flagged down the server for drinks. She asked Alice if champagne was okay.
“Is there a special occasion?” Alice asked.
“You’re in town,” Leigh said. Her smile was bright and optimistic despite the pile of essays that would now taunt Alice too.
“Well maybe we can have a bottle when you finally come to visit me in Portland.”
They held up their glasses and toasted Alice’s visit. The lips of the glasses touched for so long, it felt like a kiss, soft and intimate. Alice blushed and took a bubbly sip.
City lights twinkle between the breaks in the clouds until they enter a thick, grey mass in the darkness. Leigh learns that she does not like landings. She knows it is rare for anything to go wrong on a flight, landing or otherwise, but she doesn’t care for the turbulence. The idea that if the angles are off, if the landing gear doesn’t work, if there is another plane on the runway when it isn’t supposed to be, that that could be her end. Too many variables. Leigh closes her eyes, rests her palms on her knees, anchors her feet flat on the floor. This does nothing for her safety. She wonders what flying rituals other passengers have.
Leigh collects a set of borrowed keys from the car rental desk. It’s been awhile since she drove anywhere. She has a car but most often it sits in the underground garage of her building, the gasoline slowly going stale.
The world is at eye level. The car points towards Alice’s residence. Leigh thinks to call her but is unsure what she would say. When she sees a liquor store, she stops and picks up a bottle of prosecco. The stocked champagne is expensive. Leigh wants to be thoughtful but also thinks about other things she’d rather treat Alice to while she’s in town.
Alice’s house is small and tucked away. Leigh wonders what it looks like in the daytime, in the rain, what universities are nearby. She knocks on the door. Ringing the bell somehow feels cold and impersonal.
Alice is in a pair of joggers and an Oregon t-shirt. “You finally make the trip out but couldn’t call,” she says with a quiet laugh.
Leigh pulls out the bottle. “I figured the visit calls for a celebration.”
Alice steps to the side and beckons Leigh into the house.
ALLI PARRETT is a queer prose writer with a Masters in Creative Writing from University of Glasgow. Her work is featured in Allium Magazine, Farside Review, Passengers Journal, The Bookends Review, and others. She lives in Seattle with her partner and dog.