CNF 1: Quarantine

“There is fiction in the space between 

The lines on your page of memories 

Write it down but it doesn’t mean 

You’re not just telling stories”

 – Tracy Chapman, Telling Stories

I sat cross-legged on the carpet at the foot of my bed, fiddling with the dials on the box radio which rested on a shelf below my window. I settled on the local NPR station for background noise and company as I drew zines and journaled, a wool blanket draped around my shoulders.

It was the box radio that informed me when the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in my country, state, and town, and it was the box radio I listened to religiously when everything shut down. In my isolation and refusal to pay for Wifi in my studio apartment, the retro receiver was my stylish and practical solution for connecting to the outside world, its comforting buzz reminiscent of my childhood home.

As reality warped into something more staggering than my brain could handle, I offered my journal little more than a feeble shrug. “I don’t know what to think at all…” I wrote. “I’ve been pretty emotionally numb lately… I need a friend.

Banal as my approximation was, I suppose it hinted at certain truths. I was restless and bewildered, and more than anything, I was lonely. 

I texted Ash. 

Having spent what felt like practically every waking moment together in the months leading up to the pandemic, we were as good as being in each other’s bubble. 

We had been working together at a local waterfront scratch kitchen, pulling 9+ hour days as tourist season turned to fall turned to winter turned to spring. By the time the seemingly endless, grumpy, I’m-catching-a-ferry-to-Martha’s-Vineyard-in-ten-minutes-why-isn’t-my-well-done-strip-steak-ready-yet crowd dwindled, and the lovely local science nerds and contractors came back out of the woodwork, Ash and I had bonded over the chaotic times we shared.

We both had arms covered in burn marks and bags under our eyes. We both shuffled into the local coffee shop every morning, caffeinating our souls and attempting to befriend the baristas. We both ended our nights together at the bar, venting about work (why is X coworker so mean?? Also we should get paid more) and talking about life (do you ever just feel really, really depressed?)

In divergence from the morose, we’d talk about cooking and craft projects, and sometimes we’d even talk about love, though only in so many words. Ash told me about the women she had been in love with, and I’d listen like an astute wing woman, trying to figure out if I should confide in Ash that I thought I might be queer too. 

I couldn’t bring myself to do it though. I wasn’t ready, wasn’t there yet.

My lack of confidence in myself felt so lame in comparison to her self-assuredness. Maybe I was just confused?

Having never been in a queer relationship, or really any relationship at all for that matter outside of a single quasi romantic fling, my queerness felt purely theoretical. Besides, I couldn’t give words to my truth at the time— that gender has nothing whatsoever to do with my romantic attraction toward a person. 

The most I could muster was a sincere platonic “I love you,” and only after Ash said it first. Somewhere deep under the surface, I think I knew I was developing an honest to goodness crush on her, but I never let myself call it that. The feelings came in waves, and I mostly ignored and diverted them. The prospect of facing my emotions–and possibly ruining the beautiful friendship we were building– was unthinkable. It was a giant NO in my brain before I’d even let myself consciously entertain the thought. Additionally, I was still working though my emotions and confusion re: single quasi romantic fling, was dead tired from work all the time, was drinking too much, and was having a hell of a time processing even the simplest of things.

Ash and I were in the same boat on that front. We were both adjusting to new chapters in our lives, and to life and work on the cape. 

Though I had grown up spending my summers with family here, they were now dispersed across the country, and the coastal landscape was painted new for me by the trials and tribulations that came with independence and post college adulthood. From a kitchen fire to a flooded bathroom to a carbon monoxide emergency, the year had been one of mounting chaos.

As disasters upon milestones upon “firsts” sped by and accumulated faster than I could make sense of them, Ash was introducing me to podcasts like The Moth and making me laugh with dark and dirty humor. 

Hey Ash, how’s it hanging?

Long! And a little to the left!

She’d run her fingers through the orange swoosh atop her boyish undercut and smirk because she knew she was funny. I found myself drawn to her confident, filterless, don’t-fuck-with-me butch exterior. I was in awe of the tenderness I was finding beneath it. 

When I was drowning in a puddle of my own anxiety and self consciousness, Ash took notice. She’d give me her time, pulling me out of my shell and somehow managing to get me up onto a stage to sing karaoke. 

Pleeeaaasssee? She’d beg with faux mournful puppy dog eyes that I couldn’t possibly say no to. 

Ash introduced me to the world of drag kings and dancing from which she came. Leading up to the pandemic, we had actually talked about taking a trip to Denver so that I could see drag in her scene for the first time. 

We never did though, and then Covid reached us. We went from playing pool in a bar one night to being out of work and locked up in our respective houses the next. 

At this point, Ash’s lease was ending, and with indefinite unemployment looming, airports seeming sketchy as hell, and affordable housing in our area being in short supply to say the least, my brain reached in desperation for the only solution I could think of. 

Well it’s not much, I texted.. but if you don’t mind sharing a tiny ass bed in a tiny ass studio apartment, you’re more than welcome to stay with me.

It felt remarkably normal when she showed up at my apartment later that day and fully moved in. We had already crashed at each other’s places before, after staying up way too late ranting about who knows what, and we had already been up in each other’s personal space due to us spending every day working side by side on the line at the restaurant. In these early pandemic weeks, rules of normalcy didn’t feel particularly relevant anyway. Our new normal inside my studio felt pedestrian compared to the daily broadcasts and the empty shelves at the post apocalyptic grocery stores in the world outside our door. 

No longer working crazy shifts at the restaurant, we had the time for relaxed home kitchen projects instead. We pickled tomatoes and garlic. We fermented cabbage and hot peppers. We huddled over my narrow wooden chefs block and cut ravioli from sheets of fresh pasta. The smell of white bean chili burbling on my tiny stove filled my tiny space with home-y warmth. The kitchen was small but workable. Cookbooks and jars of legumes lined the countertops, and I had made the space my own by coiling fairy lights between the tea canisters and coffee makers lining the serving hatch between kitchen and dining space/bedroom.

During the day we’d sit on bar stools and craft at the slender white table protruding out from the other side of the serving hatch. Sometimes our legs would brush and she’d jurk away blurting sorry! and I’d say it’s fine! As if me saying it’s fine we’re the equivalent of saying please, don’t feel like you have to move away. 

We’d sit on the carpet and watch throwbacks like Cadet Kelly. I’d later wonder if this introduction to the queer canon missing from my childhood was something Ash did on purpose, did it mean something? 

See, Ash had been “out” since forever– confidently so. I was still shamefully in the closet for many reasons, one of which was a combination of denial and self doubt. 

Despite this, when we laughed about the time a co-worker mistakenly thought we were dating, my heart would swell and I’d let myself feel oddly flattered without ever letting myself think too hard about why. Similarly, I’d sometimes look over at Ash and think: oh shit, I think I… like you? Nope I probably just think that because I’m drunk. Gosh you’re cute. Even when I wasn’t drunk I would play my feelings off as confusion. It made the atmosphere all the more strained and strange. 

Some days, we barely talked at all. On others, we couldn’t stop laughing. Sometimes it was peacefully quiet and other times it was painfully so. The news floating out from the radio was mostly terrifying but in our little bubble we were making things work. We were trying, anyway. 

In the evenings we’d drink too much and talk about nothing. When Ash went outside to smoke a cigarette or a joint, I’d sit beside her on the deck. She’d tell me about her first kiss and say that she thinks everyone is gay and I’d open my mouth to say something really important but nothing would come out.

Every night we would fall asleep with our backs facing one another and every morning we’d wake up with our noses inches apart. We never talked about it, not once. 

I remember looking up at the sunshine yellow walls which Ash called browning avocado green and coming out to myself for real in a rush of helplessness. I couldn’t push the feelings away anymore, yet I still didnt know how to be honest with the person closest to me. How did we get here?

My lease would end soon and we would both be forced to figure out our next moves. Together? Where? Weeks felt like years. 

Things were bound to fall cataclysmically apart, we just didn’t know it yet. 

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