Photography by Zoë Collins (She/Her)
Julia’s headlights lit up the road in front of her, darkness curling around the light’s edge and lurking behind every corner. Music was flooding through her crackling speakers, its rhythm syncing with the loud pound of her heart and the nervous breaths of her lungs. She didn’t quite know where she was going, and the girl who had been her navigator was now nestled into the passenger seat. Feet on the dash, head laying back with eyes closed, Mae loosely held a small roll of paper in her hand, every other minute pressing it against her plush lips and letting its smoke collect at the ceiling of the car.
“Mae,” Julia spoke into the humid air, “should I be worried that I still have no idea where we’re going?”
Mae tilted her head in Julia’s direction, a small smile on her face, “Don’t worry baby, you’ll know when to stop. Besides, it’d be good for you to get lost every once in a while. Just relax.” As she spoke, Mae slipped her free hand onto Julia’s thigh, making her fidget.
“I’m trusting you, Mae.”
“I’m very trustworthy,” she murmured as she laid her head back. She looked at her collection of smoke hanging in the air for a moment, then using the hand that wasn’t now squeezing Julia’s thigh, pulled back the sunroof cover.
“We’re almost there,” she whispered as her eyes fell shut.
Five minutes fell into fifteen as the road began to curve and change, Mae’s hand never leaving her leg, Julia’s heart never leaving her throat. Trust. It had been a while since she had been able to trust someone as easily as this. Mae had worked hard to earn it; she deserved it, and part of Julia still wondered what had forced her to work so hard to obtain it. Her mind fell back to the last seven months of her life, and of Mae’s uncanny ability to understand Julia on a level no one else had.
At first, Julia had resisted, but slowly late night meetings at 7-Eleven turned into daily texts and dorm room visits; early morning trips to see sunrises and brunch dates; movie drive-ins and make out sessions. She couldn’t believe she had been able to live the way she had before it all. Before she’d collected the dozens of plants in her room, cleaning the city air she hated to breathe. Before she could rely on the sound of rain pounding on rooftops and Mae’s voice to ease her mind to sleep. She hadn’t realized it at the moment, but thinking back she could pinpoint the exact moment when Mae had won her over for good.
They had been dating for four months when Julia decided to tell her mom about Mae. She would never be able to forget her mother’s hateful words that followed, driven by fury, burning their way through her ears into her brain and dripping down to sear her heart.
‘So what, you think you love a woman? You leave my house and decide to fuck women? It’s filthy Juliana, you’re being filthy. You think your love is real? Only a proper man can whip you into shape, don’t you dare speak of this again. You hear me? No daughter of mine is going to be a filthy dike. You perverted girl.’
Julia had felt her body go numb when her mom hung up the phone, a horrible disabling fear that made her blood buzz and shake. She began to curl into herself, her throat constricting in an attempt to suffocate the panic in her chest. The world had become blurry around the edges when she heard the poppy ringtone Mae had set for herself going off in her hand, still wrapped around her phone in a vice grip. It took all the strength she had to answer her call.
‘Babe, how did it go? How are you?” The sound of Mae’s voice loosened Julias throat and she choked on her first tears. She could only say,
“I need you.”
Julia heard a harsh breath before she let the phone clatter to the floor, then began to sob. It was a soul wrenching feat, overtaking her body with shakes that ripped at her muscles, burning her lungs as frustrated screams escaped her throat into the open air. Years of resentment and fear and self loathing showed themselves in those moments when she was alone, her mind soaking in the words of her mother like gospel and convincing herself they held an irrefutable truth.
Then, not even five minutes later, Mae burst through her apartment door, a horribly desperate look in her eyes, color in her cheeks, and a plastic bag in her hand. She saw Julia curled inside of herself, quivering in her bed and was by her side in an instant. Her hands gently pulled Julia into a sitting position and began to uncurl the tight fists of her hands.
“Sweetie, Jules, come here, look at me. Open your eyes baby, it’s ok, you can look at me.” She spoke softly, using one hand to hold Jules own and the other to wipe away the stains of tears on her cheek. “Please look at me.”
She did, and immediately Julia knew that every word her mother had spewed at her was festering, disgusting garbage. Mae was on her knees in front of her, with thin strands of hair plastered on her forehead from sweat and taking panting breaths. Her hands were soft, holding Julia’s own, and cool compared to the burn of her cheek. But it was the look on her face, the soft concern in her eyes and the wrinkle in her brow that had let Julia know just how real her love was.
“You’re going to be ok, Jules. I’m here. I’m not leaving you, ok? I’m right here for you baby.” She pressed their foreheads together, continuing to look Julia in the eyes until there was no panic left, breathing with her until the air didn’t hurt anymore, holding her until she could stand on her own. Only then did she retreat just an inch to reach back to the plastic bag that had been in her hand when she first arrived. From it, she pulled out a large carton of ice cream. Coffee-chip rocky road. Her favorite flavor. In disbelief, Julia managed a smile.
“How did you know I loved that stuff?” She questioned, her voice wavering and weak.
Mae shrugged and used her other hand to grab two spoons out of the bag, “Just a hunch.” she said with a wink, “It suits you.”
Julia felt a pang in her chest, a good one this time, and kissed her.
“You suit me.”
Mae beamed. That night they had eaten ice cream until the shackles Julia’s mom had trapped her in for years were undone by Mae’s hands as they played with her hair; finally melted down by the sweet words of comfort whispered in her ears. Mae had been there for her until she had fallen into a restful sleep in her arms. Everything had been different after that. It became easier to live with herself, and with Julia’s walls finally demolished, she could give Mae the same love and trust she had given Julia from the beginning.
Now, with Mae’s hand tracing along the fabric of her jeans, it was all too easy to let go. She’d let Mae guide her to the ends of the earth if need be.
In the next moment, Julia was dragged out of her thoughts by the world seemingly bursting open around her. Dark roads enclosed by blurry foliage dissolved into an open field, covered in pale flowers lit by the shocking power of moonlight. Julia gasped, and stopped the car just as the curving dirt road came to an end. Mae pulled her feet off the dash with a satisfied grin on her face.
“I told you you’d know when to stop.”
Julia sat stunned at the wheel, staring out at the glowing field when Mae reached up and fully opened the sunroof. Julia jumped as cold, crisp air flowed into the car, and the collection of smoke flushed out the opening like the puff of a sputtering volcano. Mae then eagerly hoisted herself up through the large sunroof, sitting so her legs dangled in. She held down a hand,
“Well, are you gonna join me?”
Julia gave a playful smile and grabbed her hand, pushing herself up to sit across from her. There was barely room to fit the both of them, but the wind was whipping harshly through the hidden little valley, and both of them appreciated the warmth of the other.
Julia took a deep breath, smelling nothing but the perfume of flowers and the trees upwind.
“This place is amazing,” she puffed, looking around her.
Mae laughed, “Look up,” she said and tipped Julia’s chin upward with a finger.
Julia gasped once again and put a hand to her chest. Above her, it was as if the entire universe itself was spread out over the sky. The high elevation and thin air made the stars look like polished jewels, brighter than she had seen them in years, with faint swirls of blue and purple decorating the sky around them. She didn’t know stars like this existed here. All this time she had been in the middle of a city where light pollution and smog had gotten her out of the habit of looking up at the night sky. Mae knew that more than anything, Julia missed the stars from her childhood, the Milky Way she used to chart in her mind when she was a kid.
Julia pulled her eyes away from the beautiful display above her to look at Mae, who was gazing upward with a calm expression on her face.
She spoke before Julia did. “You know, I used to think space was scary.”
Julia felt her head tilt slightly. “Why?”
“It’s so big. The thought of it being never ending, literally infinity. As a kid, it was daunting. I thought it was going to swallow me up one day. I was scared to think how big our world was, and how tiny I was compared to it.”
Julia pressed her hands back behind her, “And now? Does it still get you existential?”
Mae shook her head, “No.”
She looked back at Julia then, her hair moving softly in the breeze, “Because in spite of infinity, in the face of the vastness of it all, I found you. We found us. And we’re here, right now, and we’re real, and nothing that this universe could throw at me could take me away from you.”
Julia stood, heart pounding at Mae’s words, as she felt her eyes fill with tears, expelled by a single blink.
“Mae,” Julia whispered as Mae grabbed her waist and pulled them closer together so Mae could kiss away her tears.
“When did you turn into a poet?” Julia poked as she slipped her hands under Maes faded t-shirt.
Mae shook her head, that smile back on her face, “When you made me one.”
They laughed together under the stars then, and Julia had never felt so light in her entire life. Yes, she knew her love was real. And so did the stars who witnessed it.