My best friend and her girlfriend pretend to clear dishes from the patio table but don’t return from the kitchen. This means they’re making out in my bed. Yes, I have feelings about that. If you have a spare weekend and a psychology degree, I’ll tell you all of them.
Kinz and I have been friends since eighth grade and I made it all the way through ninth before recognizing my profound crush on her. Timing and courage aligned during junior year, last winter, but Camden got there first. Camden who we didn’t even know was into girls.
Kinz has told her parents she’s queer plenty of times. Her father refuses to believe her and if he did—if she tried to bring Camden home in a making-out way—they’d ban Camden from the house. And ground Kinz forever. They can’t do girlfriend stuff at Camden’s house either, because she’s not out. That leaves Kinz’s car, but she’d begged me for the comfort of a real bed and I’d agreed that as long as they stayed on top of my comforter, they could make out a little.
I had not realized this would leave my bed scented with a combination of girls I liked who I was not dating. There aren’t enough swear words to express that degree of shitcrappery.
This is not how I intended to begin my beautifully quiet summer. I’d planned to have a spiritual quest in the fortunate absence of parents, especially my mom.
I knock on my bedroom door and say, “Kinz? Get decent.”
“I am,” she insists.
I crack the door open and slip through without peeking at the bed. I don’t want to see if either of them had to hastily throw their shirt on. I will not think about that any more than I already am. I grab the bag looped over the back of my desk chair and the meditation book I’d found in my box of religious and spiritual treasures.
“Going for a walk,” I say, my back to the bed.
“You sure?” Kinz asks. She knows I’m not the walking type.
“Yeah, have fun. But not too much fun, okay?”
Camden’s laugh propels me out of the room—because of its clear surprise and joy—and then out of my house.
As soon as I leave my front yard, I’m under the cover of trees. This neighborhood has so much greenery. We used to live a couple of miles north, within walking distance of Kinz. Three years ago, the tech company where my parents work got acquired by a bigger company and they made a bunch of money. We moved from that suburb of Minneapolis to one south with expensive houses bordering big lakes. I still go to the same school, but now my house is a lot bigger than Kinz’s and that’s not even counting the outdoor kitchen. I can’t walk over to see her anymore. I could borrow Dad’s trusty Toyota and drive, but not this summer because my brother has dibs and my folks don’t want me driving by myself while they’re out of the country. Like I’d get in an accident when I’m a much safer driver than Kinz. Not that I’d tell them that.
Two blocks from my house, a hiking trail intersects the sidewalk. The official paved trail winds through the trees for a half mile and then around a small lake, but there’s a spot a hundred paces from the sidewalk where a dirt footpath leads into the trees and down to the river. I duck onto that cooler, shaded path. It’s almost nine, but the sun hasn’t set fully so under the trees is dusky without being dark.
The stream that made the ravine behind my house feeds into this river, making it wide and deep enough that it’s tricky to cross in the middle. Over the years, people have rolled large stones into the water. It’s possible to hop across if you have longish legs and good balance.
The space under the trees grows darker from the density of branches and trunks. Past the stones, I sit in a flat area, carpeted with old, dry leaves, beside the river. Of course now it’s too dark to see the pages of the book and figure out how this meditation thing works.
I shine my phone’s flashlight on the cover. Below the title, The Posture of Meditation, there’s a statue of an Asian guy with his legs crossed and his hands together elegantly. His facial expression is serene or slightly annoyed or puzzled and dealing with it, I can’t decide. I want to be able to be puzzled and annoyed without freaking out. I open the book and turn to the first page.
“Oh!” a girl’s voice says from across the river. “Is that really you?”
Squinting into the darkness, I see a person kneeling by the far bank. Maybe my height. Slender if those are her shoulders. I can’t tell much from the few syllables I’ve heard, but I feel that she’s probably my age, maybe from my school.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Who are you looking for?”
She leans forward, hands on the river sand, as if she could crawl across the water to me. Then she stands up and asks, “Emma?”
That is my first name. I haven’t used it in a few years and most of my teachers call me Synclair, but she could’ve heard one use it.
She asks, “Emma Synclair?” so she must go to my school. Someone I haven’t heard speak often? A girl in one of my classes maybe or a friend of a friend.
“Stay there,” she says and moves to the rocks in the river. She’s between my average height and Kinz’s tallness with long, straight, dark hair. She’s wearing a sleeveless shirt and loose pants, barefoot. The search engine in my brain is throwing all kinds of errors because she resembles no one I know. And I would remember a girl like this.
She dances across the rocks and strides down the bank to crouch in front of me. Her fingers find the edge of my phone and turn it so the light shines on her face: very black hair and eyebrows stark against warm, pale skin, a long nose, beautiful cheekbones, all-around beautiful. How could I have missed her at school? Except…she tosses her hair out of her face and smiles at me. One dark brown eye, one blue. I’ve only ever known one person with heterochromia; she’s the reason I know the word.
“Avery!” I lunge forward and hug her. Her arms close around me just as hard. This body is so much bigger than I remember, but she still smells of deep sandalwood, soft rose, and bright jasmine—especially her hair, which is significantly longer than six years ago.
I let go and slide back out of the hug. She might not even like hugs now. But she’s grinning.
“Are you real?” I ask her.
Her laugh is a richer version of the bell-like laugh I remember from when we were eleven and best friends. From second through fifth grade, we’d lived three blocks apart. At first we’d played at each other’s houses every day out of convenience, but in fourth grade when everyone was acquiring more friends, we stayed best friends.
I’d cried so much when she and her mom suddenly moved out of state before sixth grade. Her mom hadn’t left any information about where they went. My parents helped me search for her online but we didn’t find her and eventually my mom said we should stop. I’d written letters to her for a while, imagining that someday I’d have a place to send them. I still had them on a flash drive in the box with my action figures and dolls.
Back when we were little, Avery had been a twiggy kid with a mop of black hair that her mom kept short because Avery tended to get things stuck in it. Now her hair falls to mid-boob and she has boobs! (Which I am absolutely not looking at under her thin shirt.) This is superbly not the Avery I remember from fifth grade; my lungs have forgotten their main job and are busy squeezing my heart.
“I’m real,” she insists. “Here for the summer. Staying at my grandparents’. Wow.” She touches the shaved side of my head that I can flop my hair over or not as I want. “I like this.” Her fingers brush the frame of my nerdy-hip square glasses with rounded edges. “And these.”
“You grew up,” I say.
“Working on it. You too. I might not have recognized you except for your smile.”
I must’ve been smiling at the meditation guy on the book cover. My smile is dorky and lopsided, especially when it’s big. It’s off-center; the first two-thirds of my smile happen only on the right side of my face.
“Where did you go?” I ask. “You disappeared. You didn’t write me or anything. I looked for you.”
“Oh. Yeah.” She sits back on her heels and watches the river flowing by us, her mouth twisting with a scowl. “We had to hide from my dad for a while.”
I scoot forward, crunching old leaves, and hug her again. She holds onto me. I remember being scared of her dad and I didn’t even have to live with him.
She pulls out of the hug and tucks her hair behind one ear, twists her fingers together. “He moved,” she says. “Now I can visit my grandparents. I’m staying with them for the summer.”
“They live around here?”
“North a ways. You didn’t used to live here either. I went by your old house, just to see. I wasn’t sure.” She stops and watches the water again. “I was afraid you’d be mad at me. That you’d think I ditched you.”
“I’m not mad,” I say. I am extremely not mad. “This is all kinds of amazing.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“All my really good friends love to cook and they took over my house since I’ve got the best kitchen. Plus my brother has friends over so it’s super loud. I figured I’d hide in the woods and learn to meditate,” I tell her, not having the presence of mind to come up with anything cool.
“And because it’s the solstice,” Avery says.
“Summer solstice? Isn’t that why you picked tonight?”
“No, it just seemed like a good time.”
“You accidentally picked the summer solstice to learn to meditate? Good instincts. I can teach you, the basics at least,” she says. “There’s a solstice bonfire. Do you want to come see it? We don’t have to dance or anything, we can stay at the edge, but I should let my cousin know where I am.”
“Yes,” I say before most of the words have registered. I bought in at “do you want,” because no way can I let seventeen-year-old Avery vanish into the woods now that I’ve found her. Or she’s found me.
I have a lot of questions, like: how is there a solstice bonfire in my boring neighborhood and why don’t I know about it? But that can wait.
“Oh good, come on!”
I drop my phone and the book into my bag and loop it over my shoulder. Avery takes my hand as if a day hasn’t passed since the last time we hung out and draws me up the bank to the rocks. With my hand in hers, I cross well enough. My foot slips once and my toes get wet. She’s barefoot, her long toes curling over the edges of the rocks. She’s gotten so much longer as she grew up, not only her toes but her feet and legs and waist and fingers and neck. And that hair! Pure black and loose, shifting and shimmering in the fading glow of the sky.
On her side of the river, her sandals sit next to a pile of loose dirt. She slips her feet into them, points at the dirt and says, “Planting my prayers.”
She flashes a grin at me, pulls me down a path I’ve never used before as she says, “You have no idea what I’m talking about do you? I thought your parents sent you to get some religious education.”
“Yeah, to churches and temples, I don’t remember anyone planting prayers.”
“Wicca? Paganism? Witchcraft?”
“Seen it on TV.”
“That’ll do,” she says. “It’s so good to see you. I can’t believe you were just there. I saw the flash of light and looked up and you had that smile. I thought I’d made you up.”
“I’m not completely sure you didn’t,” I say. This fast walk along the narrow dark path feels too dreamlike and she still has my hand. How long can I hold her hand before it becomes deeply weird?
She laughs and we scramble down a slope of dirt to exit the trees at the edge of one of the bigger lakes in my neighborhood. We stand at the crescent tip of a beach. At its widest point, maybe a hundred feet away, a bonfire burns orange-red. Low drumbeats play and a half-dozen people dance while another dozen sit around the fire talking. This is my neighborhood?
“You don’t have to meet them,” Avery says. “Wait here and I’ll tell my cousin and get us something to drink.”
“I don’t drink alcohol,” I tell her.
“I wasn’t offering,” she says, grins at me, kicks off her sandals and runs down the beach.
The seating options are sand or dirt. I choose sand and put my bag next to Avery’s sandals. She returns with two bottles of water and a small bag of pretzels.
“Are they symbolic?” I ask. “We’re going to bury our pretzels later to signify puzzles in our lives?”
“That’s a great idea.”
I open a water and take a sip, collect a small handful of pretzels and watch tiny waves lick the lakeshore. Avery sits next to me, so close the tiny hairs on her arm might be touching the tiny hairs on mine. Mine are standing up, for sure, raised toward that possible contact. There’s enough light to see the crisscross lines on her dark pants and the swirls on her loose V-neck shirt.
“Cool shirt,” I say. “And pants.”
“They’re pajama bottoms. Summer weight. Super light. Better than shorts for running through the woods and stuff.”
“There’s stuff? What stuff?” I ask chuckling, then add, “You always did love pajamas. Weren’t there some weekends you never changed out of them?”
“I tried, but Dad wouldn’t let me,” she says. “You used to have the best Lego collection of anyone. Do you still?”
“No, I gave them away a few years ago. I have some action figures and dolls but I don’t really set up scenes for them the way we used to with the Legos.”
“You sound like you want to,” she says. “We’re not too old, you know.”
I laugh because as the youngest of three kids, I’m never considered too old for anything. Maybe I should set up a scene with my awesome Jesus action figure and my Prince of Egypt dolls. Of course then my brother would take a photo and send it to our parents, so maybe not.
“You know how to meditate?” I ask her. “Since when?”
She shrugs one shoulder and her arm brushes mine. “Mom got into Buddhism after we moved. More than the Wicca she’d been into. I stayed with Wicca and added Buddhist meditation techniques. Why’d you pick meditation?”
“My brain is kind of a jerk most of the time. And I feel like…I lost something and it’s out there waiting for me. Remember when you gave me that statue and my mom freaked out and made me give it back?”
“The triple goddess, Hecate. I still have her,” Avery says softly.
“I took her with me when we left, because I knew I was going to miss you so much. She’s on my altar at home. I used to ask her to watch over you, to make sure you were having fun.”
“I missed you too,” I whisper.
She leans her shoulder into mine.
“When did you stop asking Hecate to watch out for me?” I ask.
“I had a dream about you,” she says and is quiet for an awkwardly long time. I assume she’s figuring out how to tell me the dream, but instead she says, “And I realized you were okay. You’d make other friends.”
“Eventually,” I tell her. “How about you?”
She shrugs. “Why meditation instead of a church, temple or mosque, or rituals?”
“Meditation I can do by myself. I don’t know any Muslims or Wiccans, until now. My life is too weird for a church or temple and I’d have to find a gay-affirming one.” I stop and hold my breath, realizing I outed myself.
“Oh,” Avery says and we sit in silence for an excruciatingly long time, maybe even a minute.
“You can’t be Wiccan and not cool with gay people, can you?” I finally ask.
She takes a long breath and says, “Emma, you were my first crush. I date girls.”
“Whoa! Shizzle sticks, what?”
Laughing, catching her breath, she sips from her water bottle and settles back next to me in that almost-touching way. “I came out to myself two years ago. And when I looked back I could see how smitten with you I was. I followed you around everywhere.”
“I thought you didn’t have anything better to do.”
“No, you were the coolest nerd. You made up the best games and make-believe. I cried so much when we moved away.”
“Me too,” I admit, feeling like we’re a thousand years old. As if we’re vampires sitting around talking about that time we were human in centuries past. “Also everyone calls me Synclair now.”
“My friend Kinzey and I decided when we started high school that it’d be cool to go by our last names and it stuck. And I don’t know if I feel like an Emma.”
“Synclair,” she says my name slowly, drawn out, soft. “Are you ready for me to teach you to meditate?”
“You can sit in a chair or on the ground and just cross your legs. There’s also full or half lotus, or this cool Burmese way.”
Avery crawls across the sand until she’s in front of me. She sits with her heels pulled in toward her crotch. My knees don’t approve of that, so I sit cross-legged.
“Put your hands on your thighs wherever it’s comfortable,” she says. “You’ll adjust them in a bit. And imagine somebody’s pulling up on a string that’s attached to the back of your head, so the back of your neck is long but your chin is down a smidge.”
I try to do all of this while watching Avery do it, which means watching Avery and contemplating what color the moonlight makes her hair because “black” is not enough words to describe what I’m seeing.
She tells me, “Now pay attention to your spine. Imagine there’s a channel that’s the width of a bubble tea straw running up the inside of your spine from the bottom of your pelvis to the back of your head. Move around however you need to and make sure that the channel is open, not pinched or closed anywhere. That’ll show you how to sit. If you only focus on how your legs are or where your hands are, you can end up with the channel all smooshed and you want it open.”
I nod but she has her eyes closed, so I say, “Okay.”
“Imagine there’s a balloon in your lower belly and feel it get bigger when you inhale and deflate when you exhale.”
As I try this, I wonder what color the balloon is and what Avery has been doing the last six years and if she dated anyone. How did she know to come out to herself? Was there a girl? Or did she crush out on some actress? When did she realize I was her first crush? And, omg, what does that even mean?
I remember playing with her almost every day after school, even when other girls were getting into boys and people started practice dating each other—as if it was a big deal to say you were dating some boy in fifth grade. We had both ignored that foolishness. I’d assumed that was because we were both smart—hadn’t figured it would mean we were also quite thoroughly lesbian. Though she could be bi or queer or another identity. “Dating girls” includes a lot of identities and she hadn’t specified. I want to ask but I’m supposed to be meditating.
“How’s it going?” she asks, the sound of laughter in her voice. How badly have I been fidgeting?
“I’m thinking. Aren’t I supposed to stop thinking?”
“That’s probably not going to happen anytime in the next few years. I’ve been meditating most days for two years and I still think all sorts of things.”
“Like what?” I ask.
She opens her eyes. Her blue eye, the left one, is in shadow, deep sapphire. Her brown eye is a lustrous black pearl. “When did you come out?” she asks.
“A couple years ago, but it wasn’t a surprise really. My…” I stop before I can say “best friend,” because it seems mean to say that to my former best friend. “A really good friend came out and I was super envious for a few months. I realized that I wanted to be a lesbian too because I already did like girls so, wish granted, I was one. How about you?”
“I kissed a girl at a party,” Avery says and I’m instantly jealous. “She was joking around but I wasn’t. Then when I thought about it, I’ve always had a girl friend who I wished was a girlfriend. Do you?” She pauses, brushes her hair out of her face. “Have a girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment, I mean, not for a while, I mean, no.”
Meditation is clearly not working. I am not calmer than I was when we sat down with our knees almost touching.
I ask, “So I’m supposed to imagine this balloon and sit for a while and that’s it?”
“That’s the first step,” she says.
“And you don’t tell me the next one until I’ve mastered this like some Karate Kid business?”
She laughs. “No, silly. I can tell you, it won’t make the kind of sense that it will after you practice for a while. And there are so many ways to meditate. You should read your book and try other ways and see what works best for you.”
“But this is what you do?”
“Yes, I sit and feel the inner channel and let my body relax around it and breathe low in my belly. Mom and I first learned in the Hindu context, with Shiva and Shakti creating the world, and the kundalini energy inside our bodies echoing their love for each other. The kundalini is that energy you feel in the bubble tea straw. But you can have different divine beings who make the world and aren’t gendered as a woman and a man. I mean, our gods switch gender all the time—and they’re divine, they’re beyond that. So I can have two women if I want. It’s a way to put a relatable story on a reality we can’t define.”
“So God is a woman in your version?” I ask. “Or two women?”
“Yes.” She’s beaming now and sitting still, her body upright and loose, head balanced, eyes level with mine. I see the rise and fall of her chest in the V exposed by her shirt; it’s moving a lot slower than mine. She says, “In my creation story, there are two goddesses Inanna and Gaia. Out of her eternal love for Inanna, Gaia makes the whole universe for them to play in. Gaia is the universe. But it can be hard for Inanna to fully connect with Gaia because there’s so much stuff going on in the universe. When I sit to meditate, I feel the energy of Gaia under me and Inanna above me. Their energies can meet inside of me.”
“That’s…kind of hot,” I say.
“Makes it easier to want to meditate,” she tells me, eyes shining. “Try it?”
I close my eyes but I don’t know what Gaia looks like or Inanna. Gaia is Greek and if I were guessing, based on knowing Avery, Inanna’s from somewhere in the Middle East. Now I’m wondering which one of them would be me and which one Avery and how we’d make a universe together—and I am certain that I am not meditating one iota.
“Where’s Inanna from?” I ask, opening my eyes.
“Sumer,” she says and tells me a story about a goddess who travels into the underworld and then escapes. I’m not so much listening as watching her lips.
Not quite meditating—except then I am. My eyes unfocus and my attention goes to the night around us, the distant drumming and laughter, the crackling of the fire and subaudible licks of the waves on the shore, the air warming my skin as my skin also warms the air. Energy moves within me. Rising? Perhaps. Moving, certainly, with my breath in and out and in again.
The love Avery describes between the two goddesses is there, holding me. As if a hand is reaching up from deep in the earth with me seated in the palm, energy rising through me, the fingers curled up, loose, outside of my body. Another hand reaches down from the sky, touching the fingertips of the hand cradling me.
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