Fish Girls

by Meghan Callahan

It’s a Wednesday night and we’re all in the living room except for Natalie, who is making popcorn over at the microwave. The TV broke last week because of a power surge or something, and the landlord has promised that maintenance is sending someone to repair it, but they’ve been promising to send someone to fix the back burner of the stove since September so we aren’t expecting much. Instead of watching TV, I’m painting Shawna’s nails, while she makes flashcards for her bio test one-handed. It’s the last big test before spring break.

“What color is this again?” she asks as I use my thumbnail to clean up the edge of her pinky.

“Siren Song,” I say. It’s a deep purple, almost black, with just the hint of a shimmer. My mom sent it in a care package for Valentine’s Day last month.

Natalie has lived with us for almost two years now, since we were freshmen in college, but Shawna has been my best friend as long as I can remember. I’ve known Shawna since we were little kids in water wings, before our bodies became a problem. We met playing mermaids in the neighborhood pool. Shawna would never buy nail polish for herself, but I know she likes it when friends do things for her like this—apply her eyeshadow, do her nails. When we were little mermaids I’d use a kitchen fork to comb her long blonde hair, going green at the ends from too much chlorine, and her closed eyes would follow the sunlight like a flower. Shawna likes knowing she is loved.

“Who the hell names these nail polish colors?” Shawna scoffs.

Before I can answer, my phone starts vibrating. I see who is calling but I answer anyway, because it’s always worse if I don’t. “Hey.”

“Annie. Where are you?” Preston’s best trait is how predictable he is. I know exactly what to expect from him, and so I know he’s already drinking. His voice is just a little too loud.

“I’m at home with the roommates,” I say. “Remember, I told you I was staying in to study tonight?”

He doesn’t remember. He never remembers. There was a time, I’m sure, when I thought this was no big deal, but now I don’t remember that time, either. “No, you’re supposed to be out with me.”

“You know I want to be,” I lie. I do this often enough that I’m good at it—I can convince him that I mean it maybe seventy percent of the time. Sometimes I even convince myself.

Natalie walks in and lies on the couch, balancing the bowl of popcorn on her stomach and listening in on my phone conversation. Shawna is still pretending to make flashcards, acting like she’s not also listening, but she’s already colored in the vacuole and just keeps shading the same spot light blue over and over.

“We want to book the spring break trip this week. We talked about it in chapter,” Preston says. There’s the sound of a guy laughing nearby—it might be Harrison, but it could be Mike or Jimmy or any of the other Zeta Alphas. It’s amazing how much boys sound alike when they’ve been drinking.

“Yeah,” I say. “I know. I’m just waiting for my mom to tell me I can go, and then I’ll be able to tell you.”

“Jesus, Annie, it’s just South Padre, it’s not even out of the country! I’ve been telling you for weeks—” Preston starts to lecture, but Shawna holds out her hand, gesturing for the phone. I hand it to her before Preston can get into his groove, the list of all the ways I’ve fucked up lately. I’ve been with Preston for almost a year and he knows by now not to mess with me in front of Shawna, or at least not where she can hear it.

“Yeah, Preston. Put Harrison on. No. No. Put Harrison on!” Shawna rolls her eyes at me. Then she’s talking to Harrison. “Hey baby. Yeah. No, we’re studying. Hey can you get Preston to relax? Annie’s been asking…no, you know how her parents are. Yeah.”

I can only hear one side of the conversation, but Harrison and Shawna have been dating for a few months, and I know the type of responses he gives—brief but earnest, more than half in love with her. Harrison is studying history and he plays lacrosse, but he only pledged this year, and Preston is his fraternity “big”—that’s how he and Shawna met. A few times a week he’ll come over, and he and Shawna will spend some time in her bedroom with the door closed. Even though she’s pretty good about having quiet sex—not like Natalie—I still know what Shawna is doing, and it’s sort of weird to sit around in the next room pretending not to know. So I hide in the library with Natalie, or walk around wearing earbuds and pretending that my music can block out all the noises I’m imagining. Then Harrison does homework at our kitchen table while Shawna naps or writes papers or lab reports; she likes to work alone, or at least not with the guys she’s seeing. Sometimes I even make Harrison an omelet or something, if we’re both hungry. He seems like a decent guy, but then, so does Preston.

Shawna confirms that Harrison is planning on coming over later and then she hangs up the phone, sliding it carefully back to me across the rug. “Idiots. They’re out at Champs again.”

The boys told us they’d stay at their house tonight so they wouldn’t have to drive after drinking, but none of us are that surprised that they left. Preston doesn’t listen to me, and Harrison pretty much does what Preston does. “They shouldn’t drive if they’re fucked up.”

Shawna holds out her other hand, starts blowing on the fingernails of her left to get them to dry faster. “We can call them a ride or something. I think they owe me, like, fifty bucks at this point.”

“Why don’t we just break up with them?” I say this like I’m joking. “They’re such assholes.” Of course I don’t mean it, not any time that I say it, no matter how often I say it. I don’t. When I got a boyfriend, other guys mostly left me alone and this is reason enough to stay with Preston. Before him every weekend was another party in another bar, another frat house, another apartment, hot and sweaty and crowded too close, with Shawna and Natalie attached to different boys and me alone, trying not to be noticed. Now that I belong to a guy, he’s the only one I have to worry about touching me.

Natalie doesn’t even look up from whatever she’s doing on her phone. But it’s hard to lie to yourself when it doesn’t even fool your best friend, and Shawna’s looking at me like she always does, like she knows me better than I know myself.

“Annie,” Shawna says.

This running joke, the one where I suggest leaving Preston and then act like I was kidding, like it isn’t actually something I want, is one of the things on the list of Stuff We Never Talk About. Before she can say anything else I interrupt her with the first thing I think of to say. “My mom says I can go on spring break with you guys.”

“What? That’s awesome—” Natalie starts to gush.

Before she can get excited, I stop her. “But I can’t actually go. Not to the beach, anyway.”

Shawna’s other hand is done, and she starts blowing on it now as I screw the nail polish shut. “What do you mean you can’t go to the beach?”

“I can’t swim.”

“Shut up, yes you can. I’ve seen you swim.”

I don’t want to have this conversation, but I don’t see a way out that isn’t talking about Preston, which isn’t a way out at all but a way into talking about what happened with Mr. Fischer in middle school, and then that becomes a conversation about why being in a hotel room with a bed and Preston cannot happen. So I tell her the easiest truth. “I’ll be on my period.”

“So? We’ll pack some tampons.”

“That won’t help,” I say. “I can’t use them.”

Shawna looks at me. I’m not joking, and she can tell, but she doesn’t understand. It’s unusual for Shawna to be surprised by anything about me. I try to will her to understand with just my mind, so I won’t have to say anything else, but of course that doesn’t work.

“What do you mean you can’t use them?” Natalie asks.

“My—I’ve tried. It hurts.”

“I mean yeah it can be uncomfortable if you do it wrong, but it shouldn’t hurt. Are you saying you’ve never used a tampon?” Natalie offers the steaming popcorn bag to me. I take a handful.

“Open,” I say to Shawna, who opens her mouth obediently like a baby bird. I drop a few pieces of popcorn in. Natalie rolls her eyes at the sight, but I know how much Shawna loves popcorn and I also know how upset she’ll be if she messes up her nails. When we were ten and got our first pedicure, Shawna cried when her brother ruined it by running over her toes with his bike. She didn’t even care about losing the toenail as much.

Natalie is great, really great, but she doesn’t know me the way Shawna does, doesn’t have our history. She’s easier to fool.  I look at Shawna’s mouth so I don’t have to look at her eyes. “I’m saying I can’t use a tampon. It hurts too much. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“Okay,” Natalie says around a mouthful of popcorn, “that’s probably because you’ve never had sex.”

I immediately hate this conversation more than I already do. “Not everything is about sex, Nat.”

“She’s right though,” says Shawna, gently. “It’s probably just your hymen. Like, usually that kind of tears on its own, but it’s not weird to still have one if you haven’t had sex.” Shawna took a Women’s Health and Sexuality class last semester, and she’s great at science. Her parents are also normal, instead of super strict Catholics like mine, and actually talked to her about stuff like this.

“I’m sure Preston would be happy to help you with that,” Natalie says. I know she’s teasing—I know it, she’s not a cruel person—but it makes a place behind my sternum hurt anyways.

“I know,” I say. “He’s mentioned it.”

What I mean but do not say: Preston never stops mentioning it. I mean he tells me he loves me but he says he’s not sure if I love him back because I don’t trust him with this. I mean that he says there’s lots of other girls on campus who would want to have sex with him, not that he wants them, he only wants me, but there are those other girls out there and couldn’t I just do it, just try it. I mean that Preston says I’d like it, he’d make it good, but he said that about the other things we do together too and I don’t always like those, I don’t like his hands hard in my hair as I’m on my knees, trying to breathe through my nose, the bitter taste of him on my tongue. I mean that I don’t think Preston is a bad guy, not really, but he’s not a good guy either and he’s worse when he drinks.

I mean all these things, but I don’t know the right way to say any of this to the girls so instead I don’t say anything.

“Annie, if you can’t even use a tampon, sex is going to hurt you a lot,” Natalie says.

“I know,” I say.

“Not saying you have to have sex!” Shawna adds quickly. She knows how my family is, knows Preston is the first guy who ever kissed me. She knows almost all of my secrets, and she’s giving me this way out in front of Natalie, so that maybe she’ll let it go. “I just mean like, someday.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but what am I supposed to do? Just like, force the tampon?”

“No!” Natalie sounds appalled. “God no. But why don’t you go to the health center? It’s free, and I bet they’d be able to tell you what’s going on.”

The health center on campus has two nurses and one very old doctor. It’s mostly for students with the flu who need things like cough drops and Flonase, and the doctor is a guy. “I’m not going to ask Dr. Marty to look at my vagina.”

“What about one of the nurses then?” Natalie suggests. “They’re both women—one of them helped me last month when I was sick.”

“No strangers,” I say. “I can’t.”

“But they are like, medical people, it’s not like—” she starts.

“No strangers,” I say, and my voice must do something funny because then Shawna is touching my arm. I don’t want to look at her, but she does the thing where she sort of ducks her head down to wherever my eyes are until I can’t help it.

“Annie,” she says quietly. I’m peripherally aware that Natalie is looking at Shawna over my head, trying to understand what happened to upset me, but Shawna waves her off and squeezes my arm so I have to focus on her. “It’s okay. No strangers. We hear you.” When I don’t say anything, she runs her hand from my wrist to my elbow gently a few times, so that my skin goes warm under her hand. “Okay?”

“Okay,” I say. Because this is one of the biggest topics on the list of Stuff We Don’t Talk About. We never, ever talk about sixth grade.

There’s no good way back into conversation like that, so we sit there with each other pretending not to think about the thing that we’re thinking about and Natalie pretends not to be totally confused about what just happened.

“That sucks though,” Natalie says softly, after a while. “That you won’t be able to swim, I mean.”

Then Shawna says, “What about me? What if I look and see if I can figure out why it hurts?”

“What?”

“If there’s something visual, I’ll be able to tell you, and then we can figure out the tampon thing.” Shawna says this like it’s a totally normal idea, but since she wants to be a doctor someday I guess to her it kind of is.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m not a stranger,” Shawna says, “and I really, really want you to come with us on spring break. Without you it’ll just be us and Harrison and you know he’s…not that big into words.”

This isn’t exactly true. Harrison says a lot of words, mostly “fuck” and “yes” and “fuck yes, Shawna.” Sometimes he thanks me when I feed him. My relationship with Harrison is weird, in that I think I know way more about him than Shawna does because I actually talk to him. It isn’t that Shawna doesn’t like him—she likes him well enough to sleep with him, but I’m pretty sure that’s where it ends for her. It’s not like with Natalie, who hooks up and hates having strings attached; Shawna hooks up with one guy for a while and moves on. But I’m the one who talks to Harrison, who makes omelets and saves one in a Tupperware for Shawna when she wakes up. She gets hungry after sex; I know because she’s been like that since her first time at sixteen, when she biked all the way to my house just to eat our cereal so her mom wouldn’t be suspicious. The guy Shawna was with before Harrison was Jerry, and he told Shawna this was weird, that I was obsessed with her, that there was something wrong with me. She threw him out of our dorm without his pants. I think there probably is something wrong with me, but Shawna won’t let me or anyone else say so.

“You don’t have to say yes,” Shawna says. “It’s up to you. I won’t do anything you don’t want me to do, I promise.”

Stuff We Don’t Talk About: why Shawna makes this promise to me so often. Why I need to hear it. She just knows, so she does, and I do.

“It’ll be weird,” I say.

“Who is going to find out?” Natalie asks, handing the popcorn bag to me for another bite. “We’re not going to tell anyone. And we already know how weird you are.”

Shawna doesn’t have to say anything. She stretches out her legs so her weak knee creaks a little, sore from field hockey practice. I can see where she got hit in the calf by a stick, the place where the bruise is already starting to bloom underneath her freckles.

“All right,” I say, “if it’s not too weird.” Shawna stands up and I follow her to our bathroom. Behind us, Natalie says something about checking spring break flights, seeing which airlines are cheapest. Then Shawna closes the bathroom door and it’s just the two of us under the fluorescent light. It’s flickering a little at one end. I’ve been meaning to tell maintenance about that, but I keep putting it off.

“Annie?” Shawna’s hand is on my arm. I look at it so I don’t have to look at her face. She’s already started chewing away the nail polish I just put on her—Siren Song chipping off towards her cuticles. “We don’t have to do this, you know. It’s not that big of a deal.”

But I know Shawna better than I know anyone, and I can tell when she’s lying to me. “It’s a big deal,” I say. “Let’s just do it, and then I’ll know.”

Shawna walks over and grabs one of her towels—nicer than mine, fluffy purple—from the rack, and then steps into the bathtub. She moves the body wash and shaving cream we have on the back section of the tub behind her, so that one end is clear.  Through the foggy plastic, I can see her laying the towel out at her feet, doubling it up. With it doubled up like that, I probably won’t even feel how cold the porcelain is. This makes my hands go a little shaky, so I slip off my shoes and my jeans before I can start thinking about it.

“This is just an excuse to see me without my pants on, isn’t it?” I ask. It’s a bad joke, but Shawna laughs anyway.

“Someone has to get you out of those jeans. Preston is going to be so jealous that it’s me,” she says.

I know Shawna is joking. I know Shawna can’t know about the ways Preston is pressuring me if I don’t tell her, but I can’t make myself say the words even when we’re alone like this. “Yeah,” I say, like it doesn’t make me nauseous, like I don’t remember Preston’s hands, Preston asking why, why, why, until I don’t have any more words to tell him, and the reasons don’t make sense anyway, why logic and his promises of love aren’t enough.

I lean down to take off my socks and Shawna stops me.

“Wait, leave those on. I don’t want your feet to get cold.”

They are pink and fluffy and ridiculous, something else my mom sent in a care package. Wearing them makes me feel like I’m seven years old. I pull down the hem of my t-shirt as though it’ll cover my Spiderman panties, bought in a six-pack for ten bucks at Walmart. They are 100 percent cotton and not sexy at all, and I feel so stupid suddenly that I can’t stand it. I change my mind and take off the socks quickly.

“I won’t get cold,” I say. “I’ll be fine.” And then I step into the bathtub.

Shawna backs up towards the spout, letting the shower curtain fall shut behind me. The rest of the bathroom looks like it has been smeared out, unfocused through the cloudy plastic. I sit down on the towel.

“Okay,” Shawna pulls out her phone, taps a few things, and then the flashlight is on and right in my eyes. I close them until she angles it down to the tub and sits down in front of me, so her ankles are touching mine. “So, what I was thinking is you can just move down your underwear a little, I’ll shine the light and look, see if I can figure anything out, and then we’ll be done.”

“If you tell anyone about this, I will kill you,” I say.

“Shut up, it’s fine—when have I ever told anyone any of your secrets?”

“Derek Johnson, fifth grade.”

The light flickers on and blinds me for a second until Shawna moves it away. “I tell you every single time—I did not tell him that you liked him, I told him that he should dance with you.”

“It’s the same thing.”

“It was the sock hop, Annie. You’re going to have to let it go someday. Now let me look.”

“This is weird.” I feel like I’ve said this about sixty times. Shawna lifts up my foot by the ankle, rests it on the side of the tub so I’m sort of splayed open, but she leaves her hand there. Her fingers are warm. She’s doing a really great job of looking at my face, instead of my Spiderman underwear.

“It’s not that weird. We’ve done a lot weirder things than this. This is just science.”

“You know when you stay stuff like that, it just sounds like a porno, right?”

Shawna sits back on her heels a little and laughs at me. “You’ve never even seen a porno.”

“I might have seen one!” I say.

Shawna looks at me.

“I do have the internet,” I say.

Shawna looks at me.

“It’s just—I don’t—” I’m running out of words here. I wish for the right words to say this is no big deal, it’s just a joke. I want to be able to say this means nothing without it being a lie.

“Annie.” She lowers her phone so the light is shining on the bottom of the bathtub, and looks at me, serious this time. “We really don’t have to do this.”

This is the conversation I’ve been trying not to have for this entire conversation. I bite my lip. “Shut up, I know that. I want to do it. How else am I going to go to the beach with you guys?”

“I’ll sit outside the water with you and we’ll make sandcastles.”

“Shawna, we’re not five years old, for God’s sake—I’m fine, just, just look and get it over with, okay?”

“You could go see a doctor.”

I don’t want to hear this, not again, so I start to climb out of the tub.

She touches my ankles again quickly. “Sorry! Sorry. Don’t go. No doctors. I’ll look. Okay?”

I look at her until I know she’s telling the truth. “Okay.” I lay back down. I can see a water stain on the ceiling above us, so I close my eyes.

Shawna’s hand moves up my leg and I try really hard not to tense. I try so hard that I go tense all over, and she stops at my hip, her fingers barely touching the elastic. These are stupid panties. I hate the word panties. Only kids get their underwear at Walmart. I look stupid. I want—

“Still with me?” Shawna asks, so I nod. “The minute you say stop, I’ll stop. I promise you.”

I nod again. My eyes hurt. I’m glad they aren’t open because I’m scared they’d get wet. Shawna takes my underwear off, and she talks to me the entire time. “Okay, totally cool—I’m right here, just going to move these a little bit—little bit more—Annie, relax your legs for me for a second, okay, just a second—”

I try. It’s cold.

“You’re doing so good.”

“Stop,” I say, and her hands are off me right away. “Wait, that’s not—I don’t mean stop this, I mean—I’m not, I’m not doing good, I’m—”

Shawna grabs my hand from the side of the tub, laces our fingers together, and this surprises me enough that I open my eyes. “Shut up. You are. You’re doing great.” Shawna’s eyeliner is wearing away at the edges where she rubs her eyes when she’s tired, smearing down just a little so that she looks bruised. Her eyes are so blue. “Now hold on to my hand, I’ll look and we’ll be done. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say. This time I keep my eyes open.

“I’m just moving the light, Annie, okay?” Shawna tells me. “Five seconds. Four. Three…”

I shiver, all the way up my arm, until Shawna squeezes my hand.

“And—okay, done, we’re done.”

But when she tries to let me go I squeeze her hand, hold on to her fingers. I breathe in and out and I look at her. Shawna is kneeling in between my legs like she’s praying, and when I still don’t move she puts down her phone.

“There’s nothing, is there,” I say, because it’s not really a question.

“Annie,” Shawna says my name so softly I can pretend I don’t hear her.

“I’m not going to the doctor.” I tell her this like she’s trying to drag me there by my hair. “I’m not.”

“There could be something I can’t see,” says Shawna. “Or they could help you relax— maybe there’s medication or something, I don’t know—”

“I know you want to go to the beach,” I say, “but I can’t. You’re not listening to me. I can’t, I’ve tried telling you, I’ve said no, but you aren’t listening to me. I don’t want to. I can’t.”

“Annie,” Shawna says, trying to calm me down.

I can tell my voice is getting louder and louder but I can’t seem to stop the words as they come pouring out. “I can’t, I don’t want to, don’t make me. Stop asking. Please. Stop.”

“Annie,” Shawna says again, urgently, but I can’t hear her.

“Please stop,” I say. “Please.”

Then Shawna’s arms are around me, she’s rubbing my back with her warm hands. She smells like ginger and green tea, the same perfume she’s used since seventh grade when we went to Bath & Body Works together and she’s saying my name and she’s holding me, and when she looks at me it’s with the same eyes she’s had all of our lives, the eyes that see me.

“Preston wants to have sex,” I say, without knowing I’m going to say it.

Shawna doesn’t let me go. She holds me. “I know,” she says, because she knows everything. “It’s okay, Annie, I’m here. It’s okay.”

When my breathing steadies out a little, when I’m not shaking, she leans back. “No one is going to touch you without you saying it is okay,” Shawna says, and it’s such a lie that I laugh right in her face even though I can’t let go of her hand.

“That’s not true,” I say.

“I will never touch you without you saying it is okay.” Shawna looks me in the eye. “You can trust me on that, Annie. That’s not a lie.”

And she’s right. This is a promise that Shawna can make, that only Shawna can make because she’s the one who stops when I say stop, even if that’s not exactly what I mean, because she’s the one who found me in the gym locker room in September when we were just twelve and she’s the one who saw what Mr. Fisher was doing while I was just trying to change out of my gym clothes and how scared I was and she’s the one who said stop to him because I couldn’t say it, she’s the one who said you get the hell away from her because I couldn’t even move, she’s the one who always comes between me and the world.   

“It doesn’t have to always be like it was,” Shawna says. “It doesn’t always hurt, or—it’s something you’re allowed to want, too. It doesn’t have to be scary, if it’s someone you want.”

When we first met, Shawna and I pretended we were fish from the waist down, girls without being girls, half-animal. I think about this, and about Shawna now, kneeling between my legs. I think about what it means to be close to her.

“You can touch me if you want to,” I say. It sounds like my voice is coming from somewhere else, like someone else is speaking, even though it’s the truest thing I’ve ever said. “Here. Like that, if you want.”

Her hand doesn’t even flinch in mine and I love her for that. She looks at me steadily until I can’t look back any longer.

“Do you want me to?” she asks.

I don’t know. I look at Shawna and I don’t know how to answer. “I just—I remember, and it was so—” We’ve never talked about this, because I’ve never talked about this, and I don’t know how to say what I’m trying to say, how to explain. I think of the sound of splashing, the scent of chlorine so strong it burns the eyes, concrete rough under bare feet. I think of freezing and waiting for Mr. Fisher to go away, back to his office or the gym or anywhere but the locker rooms, like maybe it could all just go away if he left, and if I don’t move at all he can’t see me, he can’t hurt me, if I don’t move at all the boys will leave me alone and go away.

I think about Preston kissing me in his car until I’m breathless but then it shifts and I can’t breathe. He isn’t stopping, and I want to tell him to stop but I’m scared if I say it out loud he still won’t and then it will be something even uglier than what it is, so I don’t say anything and he doesn’t stop even though I’m not moving, he doesn’t stop even though I’m frozen like a dead fish or a dead girl or a thing that was never alive at all, just an object beneath him, I’m freezing and he doesn’t stop.

I think about Shawna just a few moments before, when I froze under her hands and she took them off of me, Shawna, who has never needed words to understand how I feel, Shawna who holds me and doesn’t make her arms into a cage. I think about Shawna’s blonde hair fanning out in a swimming pool when we were small enough to believe in mermaids. I think about the sounds Shawna makes when her door is closed with Harrison behind it, the way she sounds like she’s in pain but she isn’t, I know she’s not. I think of that small same noise she makes when she rolls over in sleep on the couch when she nods off studying, the sound that says yes, that says I’m here.

I think about what it would mean to be touched and decide it.

“Yes,” I say. “I want you to touch me.”

Shawna looks at me the whole time, at my face, at my eyes. She leans forward slowly, just the top of her body, until her forehead is touching mine. Up close I can see every freckle on her nose and when she breathes out I feel it on my mouth. One of her hands is moving up my leg, but the other is still holding mine, tight, like I could get lost without her holding on to me. I think maybe I could.

“I’m right here, Annie,” she says. “It’s just me.”

And even though I know it’s her—I would know her anywhere, even with my eyes closed—even though I know it’s her, the words help and I breathe and then she’s touching me.

It’s not exactly sexual, because the only thing sex makes me think of is one person taking something from another, and this isn’t like that. It’s also not sexy, not in the way I understand sexy to be, because that is buckets full of ice and champagne and rose petals, it is violin concertos and senior prom. Sexy means fake, means pretend. This is the realest thing we’ve ever done, the two of us.  Her fingers are warm and so gentle it’s like not being touched at all, but it’s better than that, less lonely. It’s just me and Shawna in a bathtub in a room that belongs to both of us. She touches me and I don’t freeze because I asked for this, and it feels good, I want to tell her so but I can never talk when I need to the most, but Shawna’s whispering “I know, I know,” to me, so maybe I don’t have to, it’s so good like this, I didn’t know it could be like this with another person, that it could be like this at all, and I chose it and her hand is in my hand and her mouth is on my mouth and it’s not kissing, it isn’t, it’s something else.

“One week until spring break!” Preston’s voice, too loud and drunk, comes from our living room and we both freeze against each other, stop everything, even breathing. “We brought tequila—where are the girls?”

“I don’t know, in the bathroom or something,” Natalie says, like it’s not a big deal.

“Shawna?” Now it’s Harrison’s voice through the door. He doesn’t sound like Preston, just buzzed, maybe a little tired.

When Shawna answers her voice is so calm. “Yeah?”

“Everything okay in there?” I hear him set his hand against the door, not like he’s knocking, but like he wants us to know he’s there. Outside the door there is Harrison and Preston and Natalie and the rest of the dorm, East Quad, the campus, Ohio, South Padre, the world, all of it waiting, everyone waiting for us.

I breathe against Shawna’s mouth and I wait for her to answer like she’s waiting for me to answer. We breathe each other’s air like it will answer for us, and we stay quiet for a long, long time.

Meghan Callahan is a Denver native and an alumni of The Ohio State University MFA program. She currently lives in Los Angeles and works in film and TV. Her writing has appeared in LitMag Online, Day One, and the podcasts Serial Killers and Haunted Places from the Parcast network. Find her on Twitter @meghanc303.