Find My Way Home

Chapter Four

Nina waited a long time in the bed, listening to the silence in the bathroom, before getting up and knocking lightly on the door. "Vanessa?"

No answer. A slight shifting sound.

"Vanessa, are you okay? You've been in there for an hour. Everything all right?"

"I'm fine," came Vanessa's voice, after a minute's pause. "I was just… um, in the tub."

"Oh, I – sorry." Nina bit her lip, cleared away the mental image. "I just didn't hear the water running," she said. "My bad."

"No –" The bathroom door swung open and there was Vanessa, looking rueful. Dry and rueful. "I wasn't taking a bath."

"You were… in the tub, not taking a bath?"

"Yup." She crossed the room, plopped down in the computer chair. "Forget it. I'm never going to get to sleep tonight."

"Vanessa, just take the bed. I don't care, seriously. I'll take the floor."

"You've never been able to sleep on the floor. Your back gets all cramped up."

"Yeah, well, you can't sleep on the floor either. You kick and squirm and then you start cursing and then you get mad and demand the bed."

Vanessa sighed and leaned her head back on the chair. "I guess that's why we always shared the bed when we had sleepovers."

"I guess."

A long silence.

"Vanessa, I can't deal with this," Nina said suddenly.

Vanessa kept her eyes trained on the ceiling. "Can't deal with what?"

"You know what. Can we just… talk about it?"

Vanessa scowled. "What's there to say?"

"Good question. Well, you could start by apologizing for last Christmas. That would be one way to go."

"I –" Vanessa struggled against an angry, reflexive retort. "Fine," she said at last. "I'm sorry. I should have let you stay."

Nina sat down on the bed, leaned on her knees. "So why didn't you?"

"I… don't know." Vanessa studied a little crack that was forming near the overhead light. "Does it matter? I said I was sorry."

"I think it matters."

No reply. Nina began playing church-and-steeple with her fingers, mulling things over.

"Look," she said after a few minutes. "I want to tell you a little about the QSA. Okay?"

"Whatever," Vanessa said.

"Thanks for the enthusiasm." Nina sighed. "You know, I didn't join until like halfway through fall semester. At the beginning of the year, I was totally just – not thinking about what happened between us last year. Even though it was…" She blew a strand of hair off her forehead. "…a big deal," she finished. "A big deal for me. But then you just sort of dropped off the face of the earth and I didn't know what to do and I worked really, really hard to tell myself it didn't matter. I kept thinking, you know, all girls probably mess around with their friends. It doesn't make me gay or anything. I don't have to be any of this. Then I met this guy at Stanford and we got into something kind of heavy –"

"Really?" Vanessa said, startled into looking at Nina.

Nina smiled wryly. "You thought I was a lesbian."

"Ummm… excuse me, Ms. I'm-an-Officer-in-the-Gay-Club, is this a trick question?"

"They call it 'queer' for a reason –"

"A reason other than trying to make straight people uncomfortable?"

"Yes. 'Queer' encompasses a whole lot of things. It just means… not heterosexual. No, not even that. Not heteronormative."

"What in the hell are you talking about?"

"Doesn't matter." Nina smiled a little. "The point is, there are a million ways of being queer. I'm attracted to guys and girls. I guess you'd call me bi."

"I'd call you that? Why, what would you call you?"

"Queer." Nina smiled. "But the label doesn't matter. Look, I worked really hard at pretending I was not interested in girls. If I was into James, obviously I was straight, right? But then he dumped me. And then Briana happened."

"Briana?" Absurdly, Vanessa felt herself stiffening, jealous.

"Yup." Nina let the word pop, a meaningful sound. "I met her in a study group for my Spanish lit class –"

"I thought no one spoke Spanish at Stanford."

Nina laughed. "Yeah, that was one of the stupidest things I ever said. No one spoke Spanish in my freshman dorm. If I'd looked for two seconds I'd have figured out that about a quarter of the student body is Latino. I'm in the Latino students' group now too. So's Bri."

"So – what? Are you and her together or something?"

"No. We never were, really."

"What's 'really'?"

Nina shot a keen look at Vanessa. "It means we hooked up twice. And the first time I got really overwhelmed and teary, because – I don't know. Ugh, that was embarrassing. Because of everything. Everything I had been trying not to deal with. I don't know why she went out with me again. I thought I acted more like a normal human being that time, but I wound up dumping all over her, trying to process stuff. I was kind of excited, you know, to be finally talking everything through, but I guess she wasn't looking to be my personal therapist, because in the morning she was gone."

"Ouch," Vanessa said, trying to pretend she had never done that to anyone.

Nina shook her head. "We're cool now. I mean, yeah, it stung, but she wasn't wrong. She'd left me a note. It said I needed to join the QSA, get my shit straight –" Nina laughed suddenly. "Not like that, you know what I mean. Anyway, the last thing she told me was to 'get over whoever it is you're not over yet.'" Nina let the conversation slide to a stop.

"James?" Vanessa said, lamely.

Nina shot her a look. "No."

"Oh."

Nina could see Vanessa waiting for her to go on, say something to break the awkward silence that was building. Nope. Your turn, V. She folded her fingers together again and waited.

"I don't know what you want me to say," Vanessa said eventually.

Seriously? "I don't want you to say any particular thing. I just want to not be the only one having this conversation."

"I don't know what you're talking about. You said you wanted to talk about your 'queer' group. So talk. I'm not the one in the group."

"Why not?"

"Why not? Dammit! Because – because I'm not!"

"Not what? Queer?"

"God, what is it with you and that word? No, I'm not queer."

"Stop lying!" Vanessa shot up in her chair, astonished at the anger in Nina's voice and face. "Why am I always the one putting it out on the line, Vanessa? I'm the one who has to make the first move with you, I'm the one who has to track you down when you're ignoring everyone who ever knew you, I'm the one who has to make the big speech about coming to terms with who you are. Can't you ever just meet me halfway? Can you at least not pretend we never went to bed together? Because we were both there."

"I –" Vanessa flushed. "Why does that have to make me… anything? You said it yourself, who cares about labels?"

"I'm not talking about labels right now, I'm talking about being honest. I need you to –" Nina stopped for a second, fought to keep her voice from pitching up. "I need you to not lie about this."

"Why? Seems like you have it all figured out. You're doing fine, with your labels and your girlfriends and your group and –"

"My group that I can't go back to, and I don't know how to – oh, God." And now Nina couldn't stop the tears from falling. Before she knew it, as if by reflex, Vanessa had crossed the room to sit by Nina. She tried to put a hand on Nina's shoulder. At once, Nina threw her off.

"I don't know what I'm going to do if I can't go back to Stanford, V," Nina said, face in her hands, words muffled. "I was finally beginning to find my place there. And it's the only place where people really know me right now. I need that."

"You mean… where people know you're bi."

"Yeah." After a minute, Nina raised her face to Vanessa's. "You're the only one who knows here, and you keep trying to pretend it never happened. I want you with me in this so much, Vanessa." Her face hardened a little, and she looked away. "But I guess you'd have to deal with your own stuff to do that, and maybe I shouldn't hold my breath."

The strawberry smell off Nina's hair was mixed with the smell of the rain, still. Sitting next to Nina, smelling her hair like that, Vanessa was finding this conversation increasingly difficult to carry on on a rational basis.

"Oh, fuck."

Nina looked up, startled. "What?"

Vanessa made a small, frustrated noise. "Maybe I'm not as brave as you, Nina, okay? Because I don't know how to deal with any of this. It doesn't make any sense to me. I can't even think about it without wanting to fly into a million pieces." Her voice broke a little, and she looked down at the floor. "It scares me. I know that's stupid," she added.

"Oh, God." And suddenly Nina had wrapped an arm around her, was pulling her close. Vanessa leaned against her, fighting for her composure. "It isn't stupid. You don't think I was scared? I was terrified. I mean, you want to talk stupid, picture me trying to hook up with this gorgeous girl at Stanford and breaking down into tears right in the middle of everything."

"I… don't really think I want to picture that," Vanessa said.

"Oh. That wasn't what I… um… oops," Nina said, and after a beat, they both laughed. "Okay, so scratch that. But seriously, it is scary. That's why I'm freaking out at not being able to go back to school. I mean, I'm loving my classes now, I'm loving the campus, it's everything I wanted it to be before I went, but the QSA… it's my community. And it's so important. I could never sift through this all on my own. I need people who get me. I need a community."

Vanessa closed her eyes, fighting with all her will not to cry. My community. I need a community. How had she managed to cut the concept of "community" so completely out of her life?

"I've been so alone," she said at last, and promptly burst into tears.

"Oh, no. Vanessa, please don't," Nina said, and pulled Vanessa into a hug so tight it made her own muscles ache. "You don't have to be. You don't have to be alone," she repeated. "I'm here. You're not alone, okay?"

"I'm sorry," Vanessa choked out. "I'm so sorry for everything."

"Shh. It's okay. We'll figure it out, all right?"

"Just don't leave."

"I'm not. Don't you leave either."

"It's my apartment."

"That's not what I mean."

"Oh…" Don't shut me out again, Nina had meant. Don't leave all of this behind.

After awhile they found that they were lying on the bed, fully clothed, nestled in together. Both of them had left their tears behind at some point. They were quiet, both lost in thought.

"Nina," Vanessa said eventually.

Nina propped herself up on her elbows. "Yeah?"

Vanessa watched her fingers tracing a small pattern on Nina's wrist, a little invisible bracelet. "I… don't think I'm bi. Sexual," she added, unnecessarily.

Nina tensed a little. "Okay… I don't know which direction you're taking this in, but if you're trying to backtrack over -"

"No – no, I'm not saying I'm straight. Okay? That's not what I'm saying."

"Wow… Okay."

Again, Nina had to watch Vanessa waiting for her to fill in the blank. She shook her head just a little. This is definitely one you've got to do on your own, V.

"But whatever," Vanessa said in the end, and Nina exhaled: shit. So close. "I just don't… I've been thinking about it and I don't think guys… are… they're not… like you," she finished, incoherently.

The smile broke over Nina's face before she could stop it. "Should I be flattered?"

Vanessa meant to make some sort of snarky response, but somehow she couldn't quite find one. Instead, she found herself pulling Nina in and kissing her. Hard.

The kiss went on a long time, but no one's clothes came off. There was no rush this time. They had the rest of their lives to figure it all out.

"Nina," Vanessa whispered, pulling her mouth away from Nina's at last. She rested her lips on Nina's shoulder, feeling the warmth of her skin.

"Mmm."

"I… don't think I really want to join a group or something like that."

Nina glanced down at her. "I didn't say you had to."

"But you probably will, right? If you can't go back to Stanford." Nina closed her eyes. "I mean you probably can, your dad's being ridiculous," Vanessa added hurriedly. "I know your parents, they'll come around. Your mom's probably talking your dad out of it already. But even while you're here. Aren't you going to want to find one of those groups here? Find a community?"

"Maybe. But community's where you make it. Washington Heights is my community. It always has been. I know who I am there. But being queer… well. Maybe a community can begin with two people, and you can build as you go." Nina pulled Vanessa's head down to rest on her shoulder. "I know who I am here with you, too."

Vanessa burrowed a little deeper into Nina's shoulder. "Welcome home, Nina."

Nina planted a small kiss on Vanessa's temple. "You, too, V. Welcome home."

They fell asleep that way, Vanessa's body curved softly around Nina's.