Akshara Taraniganty / Jennifer Lee
Amara has made a permanent home in Sage’s mind, regardless of whether she’s away from her or in front of her, like she is now, head resting on her hand, facing intently ahead. Sage drums her pencil against her desk. Tap-tap tap tap. Sage learned of Morse code two years ago in cryptology camp, and she now knows it like the back of her hand—she tells her parents I’m gay at the dinner table and ew when her math teacher goes off-topic during a lecture and oh my god every time she sees Amara walk into class. In her head—the thoughts she creates to cope—Amara knows it too, taps back tbh and stop and ily to Sage. She lets the three words roll over in her head, and she taps them to herself, right palm against her left, facing her teacher but really looking at Amara.
They’re dismissed in ten minutes, so she kills the time by thinking to Friday, two days from now, thinking something has to happen when it’s just the two of them, thinking of how easy it would be to close a stupid little gap and roll around stupidly on their bed and her heart swells–stupidly, stupidly. She taps Amara’s shoulder when class ends, like she always does, wishes she could squeeze Amara’s hand instead, like she always does.
“Did you get any of that?” she asks Amara, knowing that she’ll say yes.
“It wasn’t bad,” Amara replies. “Right?”
Sage is hyper-aware of her eyebrow when she raises it. “It was pretty bad.”
“Maybe listen next time,” Amara says, going for the joke. The Sage is dumb joke that she enforces, that her friends enforce, that she’s spun into a blanket, a level of comfort instead of the real truth, all the time.
“I swear, I’m listening,” she says. “Can you help me or something? I’m free tonight.” It’s true, she’s free tonight, but it’s an excuse to talk to her. It always is.
“I’m busy,” Amara says. “I can just help you on Friday.”
“Friday’s supposed to be fun,” Sage says.
“Oh my god,” Amara replies. Sage hopes Amara can touch her now, like a friendly nudge or a light shove or anything, but Amara does nothing but roll her eyes, eyes that Sage has memorized, drawn over and over in her little notebook. “I’ll see if tomorrow works, okay?”
“Thank you,” Sage says. “I’ll reach out.” Amara doesn’t say anything back, just grins and walks to her next class, and for the next ten minutes, the interaction is on loop. Sage doesn’t need tutoring and she won’t remind Amara tomorrow, but the idea of something makes her heart float, at least a little.
It’s a ninety-minute period without Amara in it, so it becomes an hour and a half of reformulating so that Amara’s in the class, next to her, not the boy she thought she liked in sixth grade, the boy who doesn’t even hide the gum he chews, the boy who wears his marching band jacket and signals to one of his friends for the entirety of class. She found Amara two years ago in freshman language arts—seat partners to fast friends to aquaintances to friends to closer. Now, the closer, is where she’s built her home—one that would fall apart if anything happens. Sage has spent the last two months trying to convince herself that nothing’s going to happen, nothing’s going to fall apart, knowing that if anything were to happen, there was no coming back.
Amara’s not Sage’s best friend, but she’s a friend, one who she can hang out with but only when plans are made, one that knows her grades and test scores but nothing about the swirl of emotions that ____ around in her mind on the daily. One of the five people she talks to regularly, but also someone who only tangentially knows her other friends.
Truthfully, Amara is the only thing Sage hides. A secret. A world inside of her.
She’s the background music for the rest of the day—sometimes, in moments, she takes the forefront. At times like these, Sage rests her face on her hands and lets herself get whisked away, into worlds where Amara leads her into alleys and kisses her until she’s lost for words. Other times, she’s an undercurrent, a hum while Sage finishes her homework or makes dinner or talks to others.
Amara does text her back about times—she’s always busy, always unavailable, so it’s not a surprise when she can’t make time for Sage. Sage has learned not to feel terrible about it; she committed to disappointment the day she started pining. She convinces herself that she would’ve canceled on Amara either way—that the only thing she wanted was an idea. It doesn’t work.
Save for a five-minute exchange in the halls the next day—Amara asks Sage if the lesson makes more sense; Sage blushes a little—the two don’t see each other for most of Thursday. They text for a few minutes afterward, as friends do—Sage tells Amara about Marching Band Boy and Amara laughs about the time she dated a band kid—and everything feels normal. Sage has never dated anyone, and Amara has, twice, and Sage wonders if that’s why she likes Amara. The idea that men like her and she likes them back, the idea that Amara is in some way unreachable.
Friday feels like a release when it happens—Amara waits for Sage outside her sixth period, and they start on the route to the nearest coffee shop. It’s an afternoon filled with banter and conversation that steps and hops from one topic to another, conversation that’s easy. Before, Sage has overthought every word she says to her crushes, but with Amara, she says what she thinks—she doesn’t filter anything except, ironically, the elephant in the room.
“Remember when we used to grapevine?” Amara’s telling her. “It wasn’t even, like, graceful. Like, out of every dance step—”
“What?” Sage says. “It’s so fun. No one cares how you look when it’s so, like, objectively fun to do.”
“It’s not fun,” Amara says.
“It literally is,” Sage says, attempting a grapevine. But on crooked concrete, with a fifteen-pound backpack, it’s easier said than done. Sage attempts to steady herself, so the eventual fall isn’t all that terrible. She hears Amara hold in a laugh, coming up behind her. She laughs too. She can’t help it—it’s funny.
Amara helps her up, both her hands in Sage’s, so Sage freezes herself in time, putting all her weight onto Amara, holding her hands for a brief second after she’s up. She dusts off her jeans, her mind still in that moment. For a second, they had stood, two girls and four hands, facing each other, supporting each other, seeing each other. She raises both eyebrows at Amara, and they laugh.
“Are you okay?” Amara asks. Considerate. As usual.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sage says. Better. “Jeans are slightly ruined, though.”
“Just put them in the wash,” Amara says, and the conversation picks up from where it was, like nothing had happened, like they weren’t just holding hands thirty seconds ago, like for a minute, an onlooker might have thought they were dating. Like for a minute, in Sage’s mind, they could’ve been.
Two hours later, they’re at Sage’s house, looking for something to watch. Amara leans over her shoulder to look at her screen. “I don’t know why you guys can’t play it on your actual TV,” she says, leaning back on the sofa a little. “Casting is so much work.”
“I’d argue it’s easier,” Sage says, and Amara shakes her head. Her hair brushes against Sage’s cheek. Her left hand aches to stroke Amara’s hair back, a little. Her brain gives it a hard veto.
“No way,” Amara says. “I bet it’s that you want to watch things at twice the speed—”
“So,” Sage interrupts, “what are we watching?”
They come to a decision, and half an hour later, they’re sprawled against one another. Amara’s staring at the TV, and Sage is leaning against her, mind wandering.
Earlier, the two of them had gotten drinks and shared them, sipping out of each other’s straws, and Sage had looked into Amara’s blue-gray eyes and the way her voice got distant after she tried Sage’s drink, the way she needed a second sip and then a third — Sage let her. Amara had debated leaving, but Sage, through some stroke of luck, convinced her to come over for dinner.
Amara’s head is resting on Sage’s shoulder, and Sage regrets it while not regretting it while wishing she never felt anything in the first place while wishing that Amara could feel something back. If she shifts her body, even slightly, Amara could fall off. If she does anything that could change this friendship, this delicate, perfect thing, she risks losing it all.
It’s fear, Sage thinks, fear that it’s not enough, she’s not enough, that Amara’s too bright, in an orbit above her. That the thing she wants most is something she can’t get, and the only reason is herself. Her mind thrashes, over and over, and she finds herself gulping back tears.
“Are you okay?” Amara asks. It’s genuine concern in her voice, not the tired disapproval like her mother or the oversaturated performativity whenever her other friends notice. It’s the confusion and sincerity that Sage knows, Sage has learned to detect. Moments like these from Amara are few and far between; so Sage fights her internal battle again, figuring out how much to say and when to say it. She could keep the image she’s curating, brush it off and suggest playing a game or listening to music, ask Amara what she wants to eat, suggest making dinner—anything to keep Amara here for as long as possible. That’s the safe option.
But Amara has asked if she’s okay, and Sage isn’t. And as much as Sage wants to talk about it, she also wants to stay safe.
“Not really,” Sage says. “It’s fine. I’ll live.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Amara offers.
Yes, a thousand times yes. “No, it’s alright.”
“Are you sure?”
Sage can’t hold it in anymore, so she lets herself break. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever going to like me back,” she says. “It feels like all of this, is, you know, my fault.”
“It’s not,” Amara says, and she props up her face with her arms, turning to face Sage. “You’re—better than that.”
Sage’s mind rollercoasters around for a while. The worst part of her—the one who’s sick of it all—wants to ask Amara if that was true why aren’t we kissing right now, but the part Amara sees, the part she has to play right now, has to say thanks. So Sage fights her internal battle again, and for a while, she decides to let herself lose.
It’s so easy for you.
You barely tolerate me.
You know I love you.
“I wish it was easy like that, you know?”
I never want to let you go.
I’m scared I’m going to mess this up.
I just want to hold you, for once, and know it’s all okay.
“Easy like what?”
“This sounds stupid—”
“It’s not.” Amara says it with no hesitation, a sureness that Sage doesn’t think she deserves.
“Thanks.” I love you. “I’ve had this in my head for so long that it’s hard to stop,” she says. “I don’t like telling people about it. It feels like it’s on me. That there’s something wrong with me.” She swallows, chastising herself for crying. “And I hate saying it like this, but you’ve never had a problem with it, and most of my friends don’t, so there’s the fact that I feel alone.” She pauses. “I don’t like what I see when I look in the mirror.”
She’s put the bait on the line and thrown it out—she wishes she hadn’t. She wishes she could pull it back up, but she lets it go. She’s too late.
“Oh,” Amara says. She looks like she wishes she could say more, but there’s nothing she can do—she can’t.
“It’s fine,” Sage says. “You don’t have to say anything.”
“No,” Amara says. “I want to say something.” Sage looks at her, waits. This is uncharted territory—it could either go perfectly or horribly.
When Amara gathers her thoughts, Sage realizes that the in-betweens exist. Amara says sorry, says she wishes she could do more, says she’ll always be there if Sage wants to talk. Sage doesn’t believe her.
Amara breathes in and continues. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I hope things get better for you. You deserve it.”
That’s more than she wants. She’s never going to think so. But she sets it aside, for this once.
Amara puts her hand around Sage’s shoulder. “Do you want to finish the movie?” Sage nods.
So they sit there, two girls leaning on each other, with a new understanding of each other. Two girls with more unsaid than said. In another world, they may be girlfriends. In another world, they’re fully platonic. But in this world, it’s another in-between.
So Sage holds everything back and copes.