Ezra and Willa had been dating for three months when he suggested they go to a screening of Derek Jarman’s Blue.
“I’ve never seen it,” Willa said.
“It’s fun,” he said.
He was a straight trans guy at the only MFA program in town. His mother was French and his father was Algerian. He was fluent in three languages and hated everyone in his program. They were all terrible sculptors. He wasn’t great at texting but he was more reliable than anyone else she’d ever dated so she dreamt of domesticity. She wanted to be a housewife, someone who watered the plants and went to pilates on a Tuesday morning.
After graduating college Willa stayed put and got a job. The town was known for its exceptional churches. Willa’s main focus of study had been religious architecture, which charmed him. He made things and she studied them.
The art cinema was a few blocks away from the lake, he wanted to take her there. She assented. He bought her a maple creemee and he licked his black raspberry with his thick tongue. They waited on the dock as the sun began to set.
“You’ve never had one?”
“Well, maybe once,” she said. “During Freshman orientation.”
“It’s different just being here for an MFA. You’ve been here too long,” Ezra said.
“I probably have.”
Two lesbians were strumming acoustic guitars further down the dock. A few couples sat in the swings as an older couple in fleece zip-ups walked by smiling under their glasses. The kid at the ice cream stand was still staring at Ezra.
“She thinks you’re cute,” Willa said, pointing back to the stand.
Ezra smiled and bit into her ice cream without asking. She smiled at him. When they were together she felt solid but sometimes he would drift away, lost in the ether of some sculpture. Or, maybe, some other girl. Someone with a proper vagina or a method actress from the theater department who wore lacy white dresses and had natural Double Ds. In her head this girl’s name was Annie. But Annie was just a phantom. The real Ezra was there, right in front of her, licking the last of her creemee.
While he was humming, Willa made a joke about not actually liking dogs.
“I can’t believe you don’t like dogs… like some asshole,” he said.
It took her a while to work out why what Ezra said hurt. It wasn’t like she was secretly a dog-lover. She would never describe herself as a dog person. She loved her childhood dog simply because it was her childhood dog. Cats were better but she still found that part of what she liked about them was that they were aloof. They took their time.
In a feat of determined optimism, Willa snapped a photo of the two of them. If she’d been less thrown she would have made him ask a passerby to take one too. Looking back on the photo she would remember the swarm of feelings, the dappled light on the lake, the terror, and something like rest.
The movie started, a procession of Derek Jarman’s “slow blue love of delphinium days.”
Willa thought of all the blues she knew too. The time her ex Jo cut a section of Bluets out and gave it to her at the airport, the time the same ex told Willa she listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue whenever she missed her, the azure water when she visited Maine, the pale periwinkle sweater her grandma wore, the sapphire birthstone necklace her mother had given her, her fourth birthday Blue’s Clues cake, the indescribable blue hue of Cinderella’s dress, Miles Davis in the bathtub with a glass of wine, the last time she had sex with a cis man and he cried, overripe blueberries, Truvada, the estrogen pills she took before switching to injectables, the color of the light when that man touched her, the time her father showed her Neptune through the telescope at his job.
Then the obvious: the Van Gogh sky, Leonard’s raincoat, her childhood watercolor set.
They got to his apartment around midnight. He hung up their coats and walked the length of the living room to fix drinks. The room no longer looked strange or exotic. It was full of life, his life, books half-read and carelessly left next to half-full tea cups and chipped ceramics. The glow of blue light spilled out of his room. It was the same color as Ryan's room. Willa had only recently remembered Ryan’s name. The man who touched her. She wanted to tell him then and ask for him to turn off the light, but he asked her a question instead.
“What did you think of the movie?”
“I loved it,” she said, “but I had a hard time concentrating.”
“I felt that way the first time I saw it too.”
“How many times have you seen it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe four. Derek Jarman’s probably my favorite director,” Ezra said.
“You have to get a different colored light,” she said, changing the subject.
“Well, those too. But the blue light.”
“Red’s the best wavelength for your eyes but I like blue. I don’t know, maybe it’s too obvious.”
“Oh,” Willa said.
“Why do you think he loved blue? It’s something so simple…”
“Blue is simple?”
“Just like such an obvious choice,” he went on. “Everyone loves blue. Kind of a cursed color in pop culture.”
“Maybe that’s why he chose it. I think that blue never loses its power, even when it feels kitsch. Like Bluets.”
“Lol,” he said the letters out loud as if texting.
“My ex cut one of the sections out once and gave it to me.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Obviously a girl,” Willa said.
“I didn’t know you had a lesbian era too.”
“Once or twice.”
“Do you remember the section?”
She fumbled in the back closets of her mind for the piece of paper she’d crumbled up and stuffed in her bright yellow desk.
“No. There was something about an androgynous stranger or something. I don’t know it was kind of poetic and kind of horny.”
“Did she break your heart?”
That wasn’t something she could let him get away with. She climbed onto his lap, straddling him in her cheap black cotton dress.
“You wish,” she said, her face hovering close to his, drawing circles near his lips.
She bucked against him until he forced her face down to his, holding her in place before slapping her ass.
Ezra lifted her and carried her to the room full of blue light. He’d just started going to the gym but he didn’t need to. His arms were like cedar trees, holding her like a sparrow.
Even though she’d been raised a strict atheist, she ended up reading a lot of the Bible during college. For class she read about the building of the Tabernacle, but she’d come across Song of Songs and been enchanted by the dusty euphemisms for desire. Like a high schooler trying to write in code to a lover but not having the words. Her breasts were hardly the twin fawns of a gazelle but Ezra hunted her anyway.
His nails were scraping her back until he fumbled with her bra. He unclasped it as he took her right nipple with his tongue, biting hard before looking up and smiling at her. Every morning after a night with Ezra she woke up with a hickey near her belly button.
By the time his fingers were inside her she was gasping his name. She clung to his back with her breasts pressed against his tattooed chest.
He wanted her to cum on his dick. For many couples this was metaphorical or a riddle of anatomy. For Willa it was an ontological puzzle.
Willa started Googling Derek Jarman and watching his other movies on her laptop late at night. Huddled at the top of her bed with her feet propped on top of pillows, she watched men dancing in white robes on a cerulean stew. Tilda Swinton’s long face erupted in volcanic anger before two men fucked behind a blown-out cottage. Strangely watching men fuck did not make her think of her own time engaging in the same activity. She felt divorced from her gayboy era.
An hour later, at three in the morning, she was looking at pictures of Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. With John Donne in raised wooden text on the side wall, she felt it was a religious structure. She took notes before realizing she only had a few hours before she had to go to work at the worst coffeeshop in town. The one all the hungover students went to. Willa sighed and fell down, looking over at her phone, wishing she could text Ezra about her insomnia. Not yet, she told herself, getting up to make coffee, eat a banana, and admit defeat.
Thistles spread across the hiking path, peering out over pebbles like sentinels. Slowly other plants would reach over the sea of rocks, once there was more green to latch onto. As a child Willa used to run along similar paths, imagining wood nymphs and goblins chasing her. Now she was walking next to a boy. Scarier, more thrilling. Every few paces his hand would brush hers, but they were not holding hands yet. She didn’t push it. He’d taken a few days to text her back, setting her off like a live wire. She wanted to walk closer to him but he kept walking a little faster, as if he was trying to get away.
Ezra started staring at a tree.
“There’s an owl sleeping up there,” he said. She noted how flat his voice suddenly sounded.
“Beautiful,” she said, trying to get closer to him. They stood and looked at the sleeping pile of gray feathers. The owl’s eyes weren’t visible. Willa waited for him to say more but he didn’t. Instead he spoke in non-sequiturs.
“I’m worried my program director doesn’t like my sculptures,” he said.
“Why do you think that?”
He clammed up again. A few minutes later, he rambled about a corny trans masc tattoo artist with a T4T tattoo. “He doesn’t even date other trans people. He dates straight cis women.”
“Oh,” Willa sputtered.
After a half-mile she could tell they were dancing around something.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Did I do something?”
They walked for a while in silence. The roller-coaster stomach drop, the scratching of dogs, acid in her eyes. Then she was on the verge of tears, the silent kind. She knew when she was being dumped, the feeling of eels in the brain.
“I’m working on this sculpture about masculinity. I’m trying to evoke Hegelian dialectics without coming across as a douche.”
She tried to make a noise of assent that did not give away her tears.
He moved on to another subject just as quickly, though the light in his voice had dimmed. Maybe he was just bad at communicating. But when she dropped Ezra off at home, he gave her a hug that made her feel like he did know, after all, what he was giving up. That he was, indeed, giving her up.
Willa crunched the spring snow under her feet. She’d spent the last week and a half pacing her apartment and watching old sitcom reruns. Ezra had not responded to any of the memes she sent him or liked any of her thirst traps. Still she felt a feral pull. She tried to tell herself it was just her period, she was probably late for her shot again.
Wet with sliding feelings, she wondered whether or not Ezra would text her back. They fell in and out of each other’s beds. Rehearsing wounds while loosening mothballs from the closet. Just last week they made joy out of Cheez-it towers. Could two traumatized trans people really love each other? If so, please text. Please let us exchange trauma in a way that isn’t toxic and doesn’t hurt, she prayed to no one in particular.
Everything looked harsh in the winter afternoon. She didn’t see many animals out besides a stray chipmunk every five minutes or so. A few premature sprouts were shriveling up under a large birch tree with initials carved into it.
She walked past a quiet grove of birch trees. A woodpecker was working in the distance. It annoyed her. Thinking was easier under the guise of slow slick silence. It was why she drove out to the woods a few times a week. Willa parked her shitty green car and walked for an hour or two. She wondered if any other hikers would stare at the car, littered with empty Monster cans and reeking of cigarette smoke. If they did she hoped they saw something they liked.
Ezra was a good guy. She knew that. But sometimes she wished she could pretend—just for a little while—that he wasn’t. That he was a villain and her feelings about him could have teeth. Instead they felt like dissolving flares. He just wasn’t into her, not like she was into him. She was still confusing love for affection.
For most of her life she only dated cis men, hooking up with them in parking lots and cursing them under her breath as they steamrolled her with their beer breath. She couldn’t remember why it used to attract her so much. The last guy she fucked before she met Ezra lived a few towns over. He let her in his apartment, they chain smoked, drank some whiskey, and made out against his sink. He told her he wanted to role-play being her dad. She went for it even though it made her feel fragile and he started sobbing as she got dressed.
She usually hiked the loop. But when she felt blue she liked to see if anything was blooming away from the main drag. It would’ve been nice to see some flora. Winter left her feeling so morose. If it was a good day, a hike gave her one hour of brightness before she submerged herself back under the blankets.
A year after transitioning, Willa started having sex with anyone who wanted to. She dyed her hair stringy neon pink and dated another trans girl named Jo. That was all before Ryan. Before the dead dog. Before the cis man who cried.
She had not remembered the part of love when the other holds something back. When suddenly there were demons to quell by listening to angry women turned up to the maximum volume, stomping through the woods. The few times she had held someone in love, they looked at her like something rare and precious in an aquarium. Too fragile, too valuable, someone who would make a good mother for someone else’s children. The trick was no one wanted her children. Not her infertile, unbreedable, unbearable waist. They found her a monster, a waif, a half-formed fury.
A burly man in a lumberjack coat walked by and she flinched. Alone again. She decided she would stop waiting for him to text her. He was a figment of a past projection.
Where does all the sadness we cannot hold go when no one else can hold it for us? Willa wrote in her journal. She was thinking about Ezra and what she would do if he tried to come back in her life. The self-disciplined thing to do would be to not let him back in the door. She sat in her room surrounded by posters for indie bands and felt a buzzing numbness. Her computer lit the room accusing her of empty nest syndrome.
The next day she lost her small hazelnut leather book, leaving it behind at the coffeeshop while she was trying to do research for her first commissioned article. A small leftist magazine in Brooklyn had put out a call for weird essays and she’d pitched one on the architecture of the Prospect Cottage as a religious site.
Ezra showed up at her door the day after she finished her article. He was holding a pack of Cosmic Brownies, a bottle of Merlot, and pizza bagels.
This was not what she had expected. She had not expected to go from sullen silence to junk food. She took the peace offerings and set them on the counter before coming back to meet him on the stoop. They sat outside in their jackets because she was drawing a boundary. A very thin one.
“You won’t let me inside?”
“Just sit for a second.”
They sat in silence as she waited for a confession.
“I wrote about Derek Jarman,” Willa said. “About Prospect Cottage.”
“Can I read it?”
“It’s not, like, a personal essay or anything. It’s about architecture. And theology and how buildings that aren’t churches can be sacred sites—like how he painted poems on the side.”
“It sounds great,” he said before trying to scoot closer to her. She didn’t move so he stopped scooting. “I don’t know much about the Cottage to be honest.”
“I read some of his diaries—around the time he was diagnosed with AIDS.”
“I’ve read some of those,” he said. “Willa. I know I’m not the most touchy-feely person but I feel like I should explain a little bit about what’s been going on.”
“Okay,” she said, looking down at her fingers.
“My mom’s been on my ass. She’s calling me all the time. She’s pretty mentally ill and pretty Catholic. Not very pro-trans anyway but we try.”
“I get that,” she said.
“And I am really worried about my program. I need it to go well if I ever wanna sell a stupid sculpture or something. But I know I talk about Hegel a lot.”
She laughed. A middle-aged woman in a yellow polka dot sweater passed by with her poodle.
“Poodles are ridiculous,” she said without thinking.
“Right, well you hate dogs.”
It was that moment that it clicked, the punchline to the dead dog story.
“Well I got raped and had to bury my dog the next day so now I hate dogs.”
Willa didn’t fully realize what she’d said until it was too late. She told Ezra that she didn’t know her rapist’s name for a while, until she came across him on Grindr again a few weeks later.
When Willa called her best friend a half-hour after it happened, the friend told her it wasn’t rape. The campus hotline wanted her to file a report. Initially they told her it probably didn’t count as rape but as she started describing what happened in detail, they decided the only reasonable next step was to figure out how to achieve justice.
“He was an environmental science student,” Willa said. “A total stranger. His name was Ryan, I think. Sometimes I worry I’m not remembering his name right. And then, not even a week later, I had to bury my childhood dog when I just wanted someone to hold me.”
“I think it’s fair you hate dogs then,” Ezra said as they stood in front of her door.
Sighing, she let him inside.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
“How what is supposed to be?”
“Dating,” she said. “Love.”
He opened the Merlot and started preheating the oven as if he expected to curl up on her lap and stay a while.
“Continue,” he said. “Please.”
“Don’t mock me.”
“I’m not,” he said before opening a Cosmic Brownie and extending one half to her as he started munching the other. He sat on her stained apricot couch buried in blankets and patted a seat next to her. “Stop pacing.”
She sat down.
“This is the trans girl partner tax.”
He smiled. “I’m your partner?”
He poured her a glass of wine and held it out by the stem. Willa took a long swallow, slaking her thirst. “I can’t do some back and forth thing.”
“I got scared.”
They sat quietly.
“I’m not the kind of girl who can just wander around. I’ve had enough men try to have my body without wanting me in public.”
“Have I hidden you away in a tower?” He brushed her hair to the side. “No, I get that. I’m flighty. I know it. But I like to be able to come and go. But I also like spending time with you. I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
“Okay,” Willa said, trailing off and trying to find a train of thought. There was nothing ironic about it, he was giving pure sentimentality. She wasn’t done with her little speech. “I think I sometimes hate when people feel owed my body, because I hate my body.”
“They’re bastards,” Ezra said. He let it hang a beat in the silence.
A loud car passed by outside. Kids were yelling.
“Trans girls don’t get to be girlfriends. We’re mistresses, statistics, experiments, but not a lot of girlfriends.”
Wanting to scream “I’m sorry” and being angry are not that different. She felt the hot tears on her face, ready for him to walk out the door.
“Let’s do it.”
After she smiled, he was all over her. On the couch, in the bed, in the shower. She was thinking about the men fucking in Derek Jarman’s garden, pleasure in the middle of a nightmare. Phrases like trauma bonding fell out of her mind and she let herself pulse. No one could fuck her back into being, but she did realize she was painted all over his chest. His tattooed knuckles opened her mouth wide as she stared at them in the bathroom mirror.
When they were tired enough to eat the pizza bagels, Ezra started talking about his religious upbringing.
“I used to say I was a Satanist in high school. I didn’t know what it meant obviously. I can’t say I do now, but I thought it was funny. I told people to listen to records backwards and shit. My mom got really freaked out and made me go to therapy.”
“Fun,” Willa said.
Ezra smiled and squeezed her hand.
“How is your gourmet meal, honeybee?”
She almost laughed at the name after the sex, her belly was covered in bite marks. And here she was, a tiny insect, something small enough to fit in a hand but strong enough to sting.
“Amazing,” she said, leaning into him on the couch as he flipped through the local channels her antenna picked up. Two women were teaching a gardening class on the public access channel.
“What’s your favorite flower?”
“Delphiniums,” she said without thinking.
Some terrible word like happiness was displayed on the drug store sliding door. Willa had started getting motion sickness during the long drives Ezra took her on to visit National Parks and haunted churches. She decided to get some Dramamine. The CVS at the edge of town was only a few blocks from her apartment but she was hardly ever there anymore. Ezra lived on the opposite end of town and didn’t have roommates so they went to his house more often than not.
She was going to meet him after she got meds so they could drive to a river an hour away that he wanted to hike around. Her phone chimed as she was looking at off-brand lipstick, considering sliding one into her pocket.
get some road snacks
mb like orange gatorade
orange gatorade??? u psycho, she texted back.
u love it
Willa paused in front of the fridge. She stopped for a second, realizing how long it had been since she thought about Ryan. A few days, maybe. Nothing crazy. But enough to feel like a blessing instead of a curse.
Stories about redemption are disturbing. The nonbeliever who receives divine revelation, the AIDS patient who is cured by herbal remedies and positive thinking. How much of love is snake oil and how much is placebo? How much of God is a feeling? A very blue, deep indigo feeling. It wasn’t a feeling she felt often. Even studying religious architecture, she felt more breathing in the cool air of the refrigerated grocery aisle than the damp air of a countryside church.
The Orange Gatorade was behind a million other fluorescent colors, so she dug for it and grabbed herself a Blue Monster. Trans boys and their beverages, she thought. Ezra told her she was obsessed with categories. She waded through the snacks and found a family-sized box of Cheez-Its.
Back through the sliding glass doors that promised joy and discounts. She started the walk across town to Ezra’s, palming the Dramamine and beverages in her tote bag. The Cheez-Its jangled, drawing more attention to her than she would’ve liked. But maybe no one was looking while she was on her little field trip to her boyfriend’s.
Pulling out the Gatorade she snapped a picture of the bottle between her fingers and sent it to Ezra.
you have so many pretty rings on
He sent a horny devil emoji and she smiled under the pale morning sky.