by Michelle Hsu
In the first photo, she was sitting in tall grass, hair blown wild by the wind, face turned up towards the endless blue sky. The caption read “lovin’ that country sun” — an obvious sign that she must have moved here from the city.
Sun in the country meant crackling brush fires and dead crops, humid afternoons so hot they could suck the life right out of you, leave you crisper than a husk of corn in the middle of summer. Despite my cynicism over her faux country-chic photos, I was entranced. There was something shameless in the way she sat in the sunset of the golden prairie, like a goddess of the plains. A stark black tattoo stamped brazenly across the pale flesh of her forearm in a clear and definitive equal sign. On anyone else it would have looked tacky, but she made it work. It was easy to see that she was the type of person who’d never had to care about being disowned by her family.
I swiped right.
There were only two other lesbians in the entirety of Shawston, and they were older than me and dating each other. They had plans to move out of Shawston by the end of the year. The rest were couples looking for a shiny new toy to play with — someone they could easily use and discard, after they no longer found it convenient. I wasn’t quite that desperate yet.
We met in the evening, at a coffee shop owned by my father’s brother’s friend. In a town like Shawston, the coffee beans were driven 53 miles to us from the nearest airport and stored in a damp shed behind the shop for months, before being re-brewed so often that the coffee was just flavored hot water. Some considered it cheap, but in Shawston it was just being frugal.
She was the one to suggest the coffee shop, ecstatic that she’d discovered somewhere so quaint, so full of “good vibes,” a phrase which I didn’t fully understand. Perhaps it was because the shop was cramped and rustic, lazily decorated with antique knick knacks from the general dollar store, trinkets that wore dust like a new coat. I didn’t think it was worth mentioning that Uncle Jonah, the one who owned the place, found his boyfriend on the side of the road twenty-some-odd years ago, his body beaten into pulp. For the entirety of my life, I’d never heard Uncle Jonah speak more than a word or two at a time, his shoulders hunched protectively forward in the shape of a permanent parenthesis. Terror, and immense sadness. His coffee shop, one out of two in Shawston, had been going out of business for the last decade.
I made sure to sit across the table from her instead of in a booth, just out of reach of hand-holding distance, a weak cup of Shawston’s Best Coffee simmering in front of me. In person, she was smaller than she looked in her photos, five foot nothing, her hair a silky shade of blonde. Straight teeth and smooth skin. She laughed easily and without modesty. I felt self conscious simply being there with her, though none of the gazes sent in our direction were ever focused on me. In my faded flannel and chicken-shit stained jeans, I was a peasant next to a princess. But she smiled at me, not through me, and I’d never felt so hot before, not even hoeing at the peak of a windless summer afternoon.
She knocked her sandaled foot against my sneaker underneath the table.
“Bisou,” she said, leaning in so she could press her lips to my cheek, “that’s the way the French do it.” I flinched away from her, heart thundering a terrified beat. There were eyes and ears everywhere in the town. But she smirked, like she knew she was getting under my skin. Like she liked that she had that effect on me. Brought her cup of creamy coffee to her lips and pursed them to blow the steam into my face. Enjoy how it made me uncomfortable.
“Don’t do that,” I said quietly. My stomach tightened when the smile slide off her face and into the lukewarm cup of coffee in her hands.
She didn’t understand yet, what Shawston was. What Shawston meant for those who didn’t pray over their dinner, for those that didn’t kiss who they were supposed to kiss, for those that didn’t want to play by the rules that men said were the rules of God.
Uncle Jonah watched us, quietly, from the cash register. A knowing look. Something in his clouded old eyes that made my chest ache.
Was it all worth it? I wanted to ask. Did your love make all the difference, in the end?
Uncle Jonah caught me staring at him. Gave me a nod, that just as easily could have been a sigh. Something like the edge of a painful and quiet smile turning the corners of his lips up.
I looked back at her. She was staring at me, a look of curiosity.
“You know the owner?”
“Small town,” I said. “Everyone knows everyone.”
She hummed. “But everyone doesn’t know me.”
I nodded. Understood what she was trying to say. That, because she was leaving again in three months, no one would know. No one would ever have to know.
We left the coffee shop and walked side by side on the pavement, close, hands brushing, but never holding. It was enough, to have the imprint of her lips burning against my cheek.
Originally from Illinois, Michelle Hsu is a female first generation queer Asian American. She is passionate about diversity in entertainment and media, and writes in film/TV as well as short fiction.