Photo by Maddie McEwen (She/They)
Content warning: homophobia, suicide
“Because I’ve been rained on before, I want to hold out an umbrella for other people.”
I guess this is the story of people holding umbrellas for each other.
It’s all very cliche. As a writer, I hate cliches. Yet here I am, stuck under the awning of the science building, gazing up at the dreary gray sky, moody like any other high school student when they are rained on. Wow, what a wonderful start to my afternoon. I didn’t bring an umbrella because, of course, the weather app told me it was not going to rain today. I love it when technology fails me.
I’d rather freeze here than trudge home in this ugly downpour, however. I don’t want to show up at home drenched like a soggy chicken, as my mother likes to say.
Rain is mesmerizing when I’m not getting wet because of it. I sit down on the one little creaky wooden bench under the awning and gaze at the sliver of gray sky I’m granted from this particular angle, thinking about maybe penning a poem about the couple of purple jacaranda flowers that have ended up on the wet concrete thanks to the sudden rain.
There’s something tragic about flowers feeling that it is the right time to bloom, giving their bright colors to the scenery, but then being unsympathetically forced to the ground to wither and die just because of a bout of unexpected weather.
Unfortunately, before I can let my thoughts wander even further, a soft voice sounds behind me.
“Hi, um… I know we live on the same street, would you like to walk home together?”
I whip my head around and crash into the gaze of one of the most hated people at our school.
She’s hated, but I don’t necessarily hate her myself. I guess I’m just neutral towards her.
As for the reason she’s hated, well, it’s a long story that I do not know entirely. For now, though, I make no mention of any of that as she turns her gaze away from me and looks up at the sky, which is still pouring rain down on the earth quite steadily.
“The rain might stop, or it might not. The wind is picking up, too. I’d think you want to go home? I live on the same street as you, so it’s convenient, anyways.”
I reel from the information from a moment before asking, “We live on the same street?” I suppose I might have seen her at the entrance to our neighborhood, but…
“Yeah, we do,” she says softly to me. “You live on the corner of our street, and I live near the dead end. I go home early most days and don’t like going out, so it’s normal for you to not know.”
“I see,” I say, not sure of what to think or reply.
If I go, I would have to interact with her. I admit that I have my reservations. But she is right about the rain; I could be stuck here all day. Oh and I also do hate cold weather. So, deep down, it should be an easy choice, although I find it hard to say yes immediately.
She seems to understand. “My bad if I made you feel uncomfortable.” She pivots, ready to go.
“Wait, sorry!” I finally get my voice to work. “Sorry, I was just…”
“Weirded out by me?”
I stutter, “No, no… I- I- guess I was… er, just… surprised?”
She grins. “I just see an opportunity to be able to give back to my favorite writer in the school magazine.”
“Someone who reads the school magazine? What a rare kind you are,” I say, suppressing a smile as I gather my stuff and slinging my backpack over one shoulder. “And, to that question… umm, since you offered, I suppose I’ll take you up on that. I do want to get home.”
“Well, as a writer myself, I do like to read the school magazine to see how my writing compares,” she says as she hits the button on the umbrella that makes it open with a woosh. The umbrella opens up into a rainbow of colors, a stark contrast against the bland gray sky.
I walk over to her, surprised that I am slightly taller than her even though she has on these cool black boots, complete with silver buckles. We step out into the rain, my right shoulder nearly brushing her left. The patter of raindrops on the umbrella fills the pauses in our conversation.
“That’s cool, you write too?” I ask, squaring my shoulders, looking straight ahead, and trying to walk a little bit behind her so as to give her some semblance of personal space when we are both under the protection of her umbrella.
“Yeah,” she says softly, “I’m sure that you might find this a little strange, but I write to cope.”
Despite writing for so many years, I am still bad with spoken words, to the point where I cannot even comfort someone. I have to scrape up the words and order them around for a while in my brain before I dare to say them aloud.
“Writing is a good coping mechanism,” I settle on. “I do it too.” Writing is my escape from the unfriendly place I have to call home. I suppose you write to escape the harm you face at school.
I take in a deep breath, letting the smell of fresh-cut grass in the rain invade my senses to clear my mind; I don’t want to think about the annoying things in my life right now.
“You wouldn’t know what I write on a regular basis.” She laughs and I hear the self-mocking sound at the back of her throat. “I would never publish it. Which is why I look up to you and your writing so much, Jade.”
I start a little at the use of my name. “Thanks… Lila,” I muster her name up from the depths of my memory, memories of the rumors, of the whispers, of the malice from fellow classmates. She only smiles in response, falling silent.
I take the chance of the silence between us to sneak glances at her as she is looking ahead. To be honest, her features are nice to look at. Sharp cheekbones and angles yet with a smile that radiates gentleness. She looks like a regular high school student, a senior, just like all of us. However, I see the tension in her expression. Eyes like black night with gleams of stars, although I can tell that the stars are dim, covered with clouds of distress.
She clears her throat after my third glance, though, and she turns and looks at me directly in the eye. “You really could just ask any questions you have, you know. I’d consider myself to be a pretty open book.”
“It’s fine, but I really find it difficult when people are right beside me and don’t ask me what they want to know.”
“I’m curious as to why you would think that your writing is inherently inferior to mine. I think that all writing is equal.”
“The difference between my writing and yours, despite them being both coping mechanisms as you claim, is that your writing has the ability to heal people. Mine are works of self pity and harm for others.”
Her eyes have taken on something cold and sharp, and it cuts through me as much as the wind and rain is ripping through my non-waterproof clothes, leaving me with a trembling heart inside and chattering teeth on the outside. I mash my teeth together in an effort not to show it.
We’re still walking, a pair of boots and a pair of sneakers both stepping on the wet sidewalks, little squeaks of rubber on the slippery cement and pattering droplets of water everywhere. These sounds of rain, accompanied by the murmur of the coffee shops we pass, drown out the lazy traffic beside us by on this longest walk home.
I usually love walking back home on this street because I think that it is one of the best streets in town to observe life; and maybe I am a little biased towards it because some of my best short stories were written in the little quaint cafes on this street.
The bustle of this street is not enough to fill up the silence that has started to stretch again, however. Still, I let the emptiness hang for a while before I have to break it: “Self pity for being a lesbian?”
I hold my breath after that comes out of my mouth — almost like a punishment for myself for bringing up the thing that is sure to make her retract her kindness.
Instead, she glances up at the colors the inside of her umbrella provides us, sighs, and asks, “Would you want a cup of warm coffee? Let’s find a place; I’ll pay.”
After a bit of back and forth, I point at my favorite cafe on the street, as when she had mentioned it, I did crave a lavender frappuccino just a little bit. She blinks, perhaps in surprise, before nodding her approval and follows me, still tilting the umbrella over my head and only pulling her arm back to close the umbrella at the doorstep. The little bell to the cafe tinkles with our arrival as I pull open the door.
“Oh, Jade!” The cashier lady, also the owner of the cafe, exclaims my name. “And dear Lila, come, that rain must be horrid.”
“Mrs. Fran, you know Lila too?” I ask in surprise as I heave my backpack over a tall sit-in counter.
“Of course, Jade, when your nose isn’t too into that computer screen of yours it would do for you to look up and observe some of the people here. Lila sometimes works here.”
“You work here?” I turn and ask in surprise.
She raises an eyebrow at me. “You are really observant when you want to be and really not when you don’t put your mind to it, aren’t you?”
“I’m exaggerating. I work in the back most of the time since a lot of people from school come here, and I don’t need to give Mrs. Fran trouble working in the front.”
“Lila,” Mrs. Fran tuts, “you are always a help, never a trouble, honey.”
Lila shrugs, and instead asks me, “What would you like?”
“Uh, just a lavender frappuccino, please.”
“Mrs. Fran, one lavender frap and a cinnamon roll, please. Just take it off my salary.”
I just sit there, my hands folded across the counter as I watch Lila and Mrs. Fran exchange a couple of words that I can’t hear over the sound of other customers and the heating unit whirring in the corner. Then Lila comes holding a cinnamon roll wrapped in napkins and my drink.
“Here you go,” she says, handing the cup over.
“Thanks,” I say, but I don’t take a sip immediately because I get the feeling that she is going to say something quite important.
“As for your question before, you would be absolutely correct.”
I grip the cup in my hands, unsure of what to say. I feel like I’ve had that type of feeling too many times in this interaction, but it’s not because I dislike her. It’s just that… I don’t know. I know too little about her to judge her, to say a thing. I know nothing about who she is or what happened. So, silence is my best option.
She takes a bite out of the cinnamon roll in her hands before she asks, tentatively, “Would you mind, if I… like… vented to you?”
“…Sure?” I know my voice raised in pitch towards the end of that word, “But… shouldn’t you be, like, wary of that? What if I used this information to hurt you more?”
“It’s very long and very complicated…” Lila trails off, “You probably heard it in some capacity. As for what you do with that information… Well, I’ve been hurt enough times in the past year. I don’t think you can hurt me any more significantly.” Long shadows from the cafe lights fall upon her face, her bangs obscuring her eyes.
She swallows slowly. “I guess I’m just going in with a blind trust that, as an author, you understand the magnitude that secrets hold in some interactions. Do you still want to hear it?”
I don’t hesitate: “Yeah, I want to… be able to support someone who has been gentle to me.”
“Let’s switch seats, then,” she says, gathering all of her things and picking up her wet umbrella on the ground by the fingertips, “There’s a little booth in the back where few people can see. I don’t want any mean people at our school to see that you are with me.”
“Alright,” I murmur as I hop off my seat and gather my things to follow her.
Now, I am the listener, and she is the storyteller.
“Well, the whole school knows I am a lesbian, so I don’t think that I need to explain what that is. But anyways, it started when a guy that I knew for maybe a year told me that he liked me.
“This is, like, freshman year of high school, by the way. I was so inexperienced with what ‘liking someone’ meant, and because I just simply didn’t care for him, I rejected him publicly when he asked me out to a dance.”
Her expression never changes.
“He didn’t quit, though, and it just happened again and again. Maybe he thought that with each dance he asked me to over time, he would be impressing me with his determination.”
Her shoulders shift as she makes a faint shrugging gesture before she continues.
“Well, he didn’t, and because a lot of the times he did it really publicly, it brought me a lot of difficulty because people would ask, ‘Why don’t you agree? He clearly likes you.’ And I wouldn’t have an answer for them other than, ‘I really just don’t care for him. He tries to ask me out and yet I don’t have regular conversations with him despite sharing classes with him. We don’t have the same interests.’
“And then some things happened at the beginning of last year where I stumbled across the realization that I was different, and that I might not like guys at all. So I found a chance and told him that, and he seemed to have accepted it. So that was that. Or at least, I thought that it had finished.
“But then, right near the end of junior year, a guy… a guy that I was very good friends with… he told me that he liked me. I suppose I should say that my relationship with him wasn’t built on the healthiest terms because on both sides it seemed like we were using each other for therapy, and that’s never great. But he knew that I was questioning if I was a lesbian, and I knew about his familial issues so… yeah. I can’t blame him for any feelings because we did talk about the topic of relationships a lot and maybe somewhere along the way he started thinking that we could be an item.
“I told him, despite my reservations, that I would think about it. I would think about being his girlfriend. I just wasn’t sure who I, myself, actually was. After all, I was questioning a very crucial part of myself, and I had just come out of a three-year-long streak of rejecting the same person and was convinced that anything I did regarding a relationship wouldn’t be built on rational reasoning. So I asked him to give me time to think about it.
“I really wish, looking back, that I just listened to my instincts and my reservations and just said ‘no’ in the beginning.
“As the summer between junior and senior year started counting down I was more and more sure I was queer, so I decided to write him a really heartfelt rejection over text and just asked for us to continue on as friends.
“He… didn’t take it very well. He accused me of leading him on and just being a bad person overall.”
Her fingers curl into fists, and her knuckles start turning white with the tension before she suddenly relaxes. I continue staring at the table for a little while longer, though, before I shift my gaze back to her eyes. She takes it as her cue to continue.
“That hurt, obviously, and I cut off our friendship. Except… I forgot about the fact that he was still classmates with the guy that had previously chased me for three years. And it seems like, from my perspective, that they started to get together and vent their frustrations towards me… and started rumors.”
“Rumors that I said I was lesbian but tried to lead both of them on, rumors that I was a bad person… and you know our school. People believed it.”
“So, I’m precisely the bad apple, tarnishing the queer community. Dare I say, I feel like even fewer people would want to be who they are in a school environment where I am the prime example of how that could go wrong.”
I finish the last sip of my drink.
From our secluded booth, I look at the glass window, trying to see the rain situation outside. However, as it is quite dark, I mostly see our reflection and the warm lights in the cafe instead of what I actually want to see. The only thing that I see outside is, yet again, another trampled jacaranda flower lying on the concrete. A flower cannot stand up to the rain that long, much like a person cannot stand up to the weight of such accusations that long.
I realize, lips curling into a soft, tired smile, that she is so terribly like me. Different and seemingly only accepted in this cozy little cafe. Outside, there’s howling wind and rain, threatening to batter us like those jacarandas on the ground, much like the unfriendly school and familial environments.
I must say, I feel like I’ve been much luckier than her. At home, there are unfriendly moments, yes, but I can just lock myself in my room and ignore it.
But she has to deal with the unfriendliness, the malice, the entire school directs towards her. How does she… breathe? I would suffocate under that.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” I hear myself say when I turn my head back and seek out her dark eyes. “I believe you, Lila.”
“Thank you.” She smiles though it doesn’t touch her eyes. “At the beginning of senior year, when it was really bad… I really wanted to end it all. In a bout of anger, I found myself on a bridge over the interstate in the pouring rain.”
“But then a passing pedestrian walked over and talked me off the ledge and walked me to the nearest cafe to get a warm drink.”
The dim lights above our booth reflect off of her face, the window, and the table, and for a moment, in the window’s reflection, I don’t see us. Instead, I see Lila sitting in a cafe with an unknown but kind stranger, trying to hold it together while they talked.
“They asked me what had happened, and I didn’t tell them.”
I shift my gaze back to her eyes, and hold eye contact.
“They seemed to understand, and instead asked me if I liked playing any games.” She sighs, though smiling, one finger tapping the table constantly.
“I stated a title, to which they reminded me that there was a sequel game coming out later, and that I should try to continue till then. Then, they gave me their umbrella, and just left.” Her hand lightly brushes the umbrella handle propped up next to our table.
I shiver though I’m not sure if it’s from the wind that has blown inside the cafe from the open door, or if it’s because of an overwhelming feeling of warmth permeating into my bones.
“But I just went home that day, and then went to school the next day, and the next, and I’m here now, I suppose.”
She walks me home after we finally drag ourselves out of the warmth of the cafe.
I ask for her number, which she gives with no hesitation.
My stuffy house closes its jaws around me as I enter, unfriendly and judgemental, but I breathe easier comforted by the fact that I can text her. Maybe ask her to read my unpublished short stories. I kick off my shoes as I reach the carpeted stairs and head up to my room. The first thing I do after flicking on the lights is to dig my own umbrella out from my closet and throw it into my backpack.
Who knows? Maybe I will be able to hold my umbrella out for another person caught in a downpour tomorrow.
Author: Vanessa Zhou (She/They)
Artist: Maddie McEwen (She/They)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Bella (She/They)