Denise waddles down the hallway to her creative writing class like a brown Mrs. Pac-Man, struggling to balance her purse and bulky computer bag on each arm. She settles for the embarrassment that arises as her cleavage bounces flagrantly underneath her cardigan and doesn’t stop running until she reaches her destination.
“Cancelled?” Denise pants while reading the laminated sign on the door. “Gotta be fucking kidding me.” She flops down on the wooden bench across the hall, letting the straps of her bags wilt along with her spirit. She sped from the dealership to avoid being late for the third consecutive class and enforcing the stereotype surrounding Black people’s inability to be punctual. Denise’s phone vibrates from her skirt pocket; she pouts at the text from her boss instead of something from Deborah. They haven’t spoken all day, and she’s embarrassed by how much it bothers her as a thirty-two-year-old.
A redhead white woman wearing yoga pants and a Seattle Seahawks hoodie, rushes past Denise. She watches as her younger classmate similarly wilts, and they make eye contact. “Ugh. Of course, right?” Lacey says.
Denise shrugs. They rarely speak to each other. “Dr. Ellison should’ve emailed us.”
“Yeah, no shit. I’m paying someone to watch my son.” Lacey takes off her Michael Kors backpack and stands near Denise. She texts with one hand and uses the other to comb a portion of flowing mane to the opposite side of her head, which exposes the pretty sprinkle of freckles on her neck.
Denise wipes sweat from her hairline. She worries that her bun looks like a damp, nappy mess in comparison. “Extra day for the workshop, at least.”
“Don’t want it,” Lacey says. “But yours was fun. Your Father’s Day piece is amazing.”
Denise wiggles her thighs and taps her feet. “Oh? I thought it was too long.”
“Nope. I didn’t mind the length. You’re a really good writer, Denise.”
Denise laughs, tapping her feet at a faster pace. “You think so? Wow, thank you. I can’t wait to read yours.”
Lacey sticks out her tongue in apparent disgust. “It’s shitty, but it’s my only completed story. My son Liam has been in my face like every second lately. I’ve had no time to start a new piece.”
“I get that. How old?”
“Almost three,” Lacey says. “He’s got a nasty cold right now. Made it tough finding a sitter.” Lacey groans while pinching the bridge of her nose. The flash of desperation is something all single mothers feel, regardless of brand or hair texture. “Anyway. How about you? Got a kid?”
Denise hesitates. Writing about her life is much easier than talking about it. “A daughter. She’s almost sixteen.”
Lacey’s eyes widen, then immediately narrow. Denise knows she’s trying to do the math in her head without blatantly asking for her age. “Oh. That’s. Cool.” Lacey half-smiles, making it clear they’re better off as strangers. “Well,” she adds, putting on her backpack, “I should head home. It was nice talking to you.”
“Sure thing,” Denise mumbles. The severity of people’s reactions weakens as she ages. Yet, the reality of her situation harshens as her daughter grows up. As a result, Denise sometimes feels like nothing more than a glorified babysitter to Alyssa. Still, her guilt won’t stop her from ordering pizza and taking an early sleeping pill. She considers texting Alyssa but instead scrolls through her contact list. Denise bites the inside of her cheek, wanting to share her Father’s Day story with the only person who would fully appreciate it. “Fuck you,” Denise whispers. She adjusts her bags and walks away while erasing the moment of vulnerability.
Denise chooses the narrow backroads home from campus that is surrounded by evergreens. The cracked, vast sky has a salmon hue during the drive. By the time Denise pulls into the parking lot of her apartment complex, it’s shifted to navy blue. A beat-up Jeep Wrangler occupies her assigned space and forces her to park elsewhere. She figures the rudeness is courtesy of her daughter’s boyfriend and marches over to the Jeep for a closer inspection.
Denise discovers her angular daughter rubbing up against a Black girl pressed against the driver’s side door. Both moan and shake as they kiss like they’re alone in a bedroom. Denise recognizes the lanky girl with purple box braids as Georgia, the daughter of a co-worker in the same grade as Alyssa. Her hand alternates between rubbing Alyssa’s short, natural curls and groping her backside over her jeans. Alyssa continuously pushes into the girl who’s wearing the same Seahawks hoodie as Lacey. Denise watches in paralyzation as the girls display their affection, and she feels like a bewildered child. Stop it now someone inside of her commands. It repeats until the phrase is a growl.
Denise slams her fist against the Jeep’s hood. “What the fuck is going on here?”
The teenagers yelp and jerk as if they’d been hit too. Alyssa detaches herself from Georgia right as Georgia pushes her away.
“Mom!” Alyssa smooths down her shirt. “What are you doing here?”
“Me?” Denise asks in a raised voice. “Hell nah, Alyssa. What are you doing here?”
“I-I. Mom. I can explain.”
“Damn right you are.”
“We, um. We were just saying goodbye.”
“Saying goodbye?” Denise stomps her foot. “I’ve never seen you say goodbye to Preston like this! Is he here?” Alyssa stumbles backward at hearing her boyfriend’s name. She opens and closes her mouth, seeming small and unsure. It makes Denise feel less like a babysitter and more like a bad mother.
“Wait – this isn’t her fault, Ms. Hill!” Georgia says. She gazes sadly at Alyssa and shuffles closer to her, shyly taking her hand. “You don’t know what’s up with us.”
The simple gesture is tender and genuine; the warmth it brings to Denise is too much, which triggers her panic. She yanks Alyssa away from Georgia by the elbow. “I want you to go to your room right now, Alyssa!”
Georgia reaches for Alyssa. “No, don’t take her away!”
“Mom – hold on! Listen to her!”
“Sh-shut up and do as I say,” Denise commands. “And you, Georgia, get the fuck out of my spot and drive your ass home. I don’t want you anywhere near my daughter ever again.”
“Stop it!” Alyssa says, wedging between them. “You can’t fucking say this to her!”
Alyssa’s surprising resolve rattles Denise. The growl from earlier is now clearly her mother’s voice. She isn’t in her body as she grabs Alyssa by the shoulders and shoves her against the Jeep, making her daughter yelp once more. “Talk to me like that again, Alyssa, and you’ll regret it,” Denise warns. “I said get your ass into your goddamn room right now!” Alyssa stands frozen, her brown eyes nearly sparkling with tears. The confusion in her expression is something Denise has felt a million times. Alyssa has never looked more like her. The disturbing reflection puts a leash on her mania.
Alyssa shimmies out of Denise’s hold. She looks at Georgia, sniffling. “I’m sorry.” She then runs towards the apartment building, practically flying up the two flights of the exterior staircase. Denise watches, mesmerized. She can’t remember the last time her daughter cried, and the self-hatred festers as she turns her attention to Georgia, who’s lightly blubbering.
“Why are you still here?”
“Because I can’t leave yet. I gotta know that you won’t tell my dad.”
“Are you for real?” Denise says. “I should call him right now.”
“But – please. You don’t understand.” Georgia fidgets, sighing heavily. “Ms. Hill, Daddy doesn’t know about me, okay? I don’t want him finding out like this. I want to be the one to tell him.”
The layers of hostility shed from Denise as Georgia’s words shake her bones. She feels brittle in the presence of someone half her age. “You stay out of Alyssa’s life,” Denise says, far too faintly, “and I’ll stay out of yours.”
Georgia’s body deflates. “But, Ms. Hill. That’s not fair.”
“Neither is confusing my daughter. So, stay away. I mean it.”
Georgia keeps her head down as she follows orders. Denise remains stern until Georgia is off the property, crouches, and is sure the neighbors are peeping through their windows. Denise knows she needs to run to Alyssa; however, her muscles seize, and the static of panic begins tingling her fingertips and toes. She works at deep breathing, but she can’t control the sensation of suffocation that will eventually swell into a panic attack. Finally, Denise staggers to her car, texting Deborah all the while, and collapses into the driver’s seat.
Before driving away from Alyssa, Denise peeks up at the building, painfully aware she’s making the wrong decision.
Denise walks toward the rear parking lot of the urgent care center and shivers in the moist, colder air. The various light poles lead her to the employee spaces in the left corner, where only a white Kia Optima has someone leaning against it. Her heart skips a beat as she takes in the Chinese woman in blue scrubs smoking a cigarette, and despite the night, she smiles. “Deborah!” Denise calls.
Deborah looks Denise’s way. “Oh – hi!” She waves, and Denise does all she can not to sprint. She’s known Deborah Chen for seven months since meeting while Deborah shopped for a new car at the dealership. Denise never expected their light conversations at her administration desk and run-ins at the dealership’s cafe would grow into exchanging numbers and spending time together away from work. It took her far too long to realize what was happening with the registered nurse, but she has no intention of stopping it.
Deborah smiles as Denise approaches the car and flicks ash into a puddle. The smog of menthol causes Denise to grimace. “Gimmie a break,” Deborah mutters while taking a long drag, her dark honey eyes glowing behind the crackling embers. “I vaped all yesterday. This is my first cigarette since this morning. I haven’t been able to smoke or text at all.”
Denise casually waves off Deborah, pretending the day-long insecurities were never there. “It didn’t bother me. I know you’re busy.”
Deborah blows the smoke away from Denise and gestures to the short brick fence outlining the property. “Two seconds to finish this, okay?”
Denise hesitates but gambles with the second-hand smoke. She sits next to Deborah’s car while Deborah pulls on her cigarette like it’s an inhaler. “Bad day?” she asks.
Deborah flings nothing but filter into the puddle. “Definitely. It’s been hectic, and I got written up.” She scowls and pops a mint into her mouth. “I had to educate some old white asshole who kept going on about Vietnam while I was checking his blood pressure. He complained to the front desk afterward like a nutsack.”
“Sounds about right. What’d you say?”
“The obvious,” Deborah says with a dry laugh. She breaks the mint between her teeth. “I went off about being Chinese while also being just as American as he is. I know I fucked up and crossed the line doing that. I should’ve been professional and nice, but I didn’t want to be.”
“We shouldn’t have to,” Denise says. “Not all the time.” Deborah joins her on the brick. They share a solemn look – the one only minorities can exchange. “Well, I don’t blame you.”
“My supervisor sure does. I dunno. My sister is always on me, but I had an opportunity to shut down a racist. It was worth it.” Deborah pulls the elastic band from her shoulder-length black hair to reassemble her ponytail. Denise peacefully marvels at the sight and wonders how someone can look sexy and curvy in medical attire. How a woman two years younger is somehow her hero. Deborah catches Denise’s stare as she finishes.
Deborah grins, licking her lips. “Don’t be. I missed you today, too.” Deborah glances at Denise’s mouth. Denise closes her eyes as if the code is in her DNA, but a few employees emerge from the side exit door and cut off her ease. “It’s fine,” Deborah says. “My boss hates my attitude. Not me munching on women.”
Denise surprises herself with laughter. She relaxes upon feeling Deborah’s full mouth and warm hand cup her cheek. They sigh together, and Denise happily accepts the taste of wintergreen with a hint of menthol. She’s only recently begun to experience Deborah’s diligent tongue and sturdy fingers to their fullest potential. The inauguration was on Deborah’s couch with Return of the Jedi playing in the background. Denise shouted the first time she came. The second orgasm ended in strained laughter as neither she nor Deborah could hold on past Luke being thrown into the Sarlacc pit. They now cling to each other whenever their nights or days off align, like eager girls who don’t want to hide their affection.
The abrupt, startling image of Alyssa and Georgia against the Jeep bursts Denise’s protective bubble of denial. She hasn’t forgotten why she is there – what makes her a profound hypocrite. Denise breaks off the kiss. “Wait. Deb.”
Denise scoots away, wanting to put up a barrier, but she doesn’t deserve refuge. She didn’t offer any to her daughter. “I. Think everything’s wrong. I really fucked up tonight. With Alyssa.”
Deborah sits upright. “Is she all right? Where is she?”
Denise bites the inside of her cheek, tapping her foot. “At home,” she says. “I went straight there after leaving campus. I didn’t see the point in texting Alyssa about coming home early.” She stops as her heart pangs. “But I should’ve done something. Because I. I found her in the parking lot, Deborah. She was all over another girl.”
“Holy shit.” Deborah slaps her hands to her cheeks like Macaulay Culkin. If Denise wasn’t so aggressively attentive to Deborah’s mouth, then she might’ve missed her brief grin. “I mean. Wow, Denise. So, um. Has Alyssa ever said…?”
“Of course not,” Denise says. “She barely talks about Preston. That goofy boy tells me more about his life than she does.”
“Shit. Again.” Deborah pulls out a cigarette from her breast pocket. She rolls it between her fingers then places it back. “Well, what did Alyssa say? I’m assuming the other girl took off?”
Panic flares throughout Denise while she mulls over her mistakes. She and Deborah don’t have a label, but she’s still afraid of losing it. “Actually, the other girl stood up to me,” Denise says. “And I didn’t give Alyssa a chance to say anything. I. Screamed at her and practically cussed her out. Then just sent her to her room.”
Deborah cringes. “Ouch. Poor girl. You must’ve been pissed. That doesn’t sound like you.”
“Didn’t feel like me either.”
“But that’s just parent stuff, I think,” Deborah says. “My mom was the same way with my sister Kim, and they mostly got over it. I didn’t dream of sneaking a girl over, of course.”
“But that’s what it was about. Them being together,” Denise says. “So, I might’ve. I threatened the girls. I told them to stay away from each other.”
Deborah’s jaw unhinges; her casualness disappears. “Wait – what? Are you serious?”
Denise recoils. “It was an accident.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I. Don’t know. But stop looking at me like that.”
“Then how the hell else should I look, Denise?”
“I fucking panicked, okay?” Denise blurts. “I was lost and. My mom just showed up. The way she was when catching me even smiling at another girl. She would. I-I didn’t hurt Alyssa like that, but. I scared the shit out of her the exact same way.”
Deborah’s outrage cools. Her eyes wander over Denise’s body as if she knows there were once belt welts to hide. “I’m so sorry, Denise. Your mom hurt you?”
“It was all we had together after my dad passed away,” Denise says. She digs her nails into her forearms. “She’d tell me I was the reason he’d never come home again.”
“No – fuck her. Fuck family.” Deborah makes a frustrated noise and takes Denise’s hand. “I got lucky with my parents. Or, they at least love me and want me to be happy. But most of my relatives erased me. My grandmother spat in my face the last time she saw me, and my dad told me to let it be.” Deborah lets go of Denise’s hand. She shakes her head, frowning. “So, you’re not entirely out, are you?”
The question turns to putrid slosh in Denise’s stomach. She bites the inside of her cheek until she’s pierced a hole. “You’re the first person I’ve told in a long time.”
“Jesus, Denise.” Deborah sighs and gets up. She leans against the trunk of her car. “You shouldn’t have led me on. We’re in completely different places.”
“I know who I am, Deborah,” Denise says. “Do you need me to be loud, too?”
“No, I need you to be honest,” Deborah says. “Because I guess I’ve assumed the wrong thing since we started having sex. I haven’t hidden you from my friends or sister, and I don’t play games. I’ve already been someone else’s mistake. Her fiancé caught us.”
“Deborah, that’s not my life,” Denise says. “Alyssa’s dad was my chem lab partner senior year, and I only dated him so my mom would leave me alone. That’s the truth. Karl is my mistake.”
“Karl? You never talk about him.”
“Nothing to say,” Denise says, shrugging. “We were nearing graduation, and he’d already moved on to some white girl when I found out I was pregnant. My mom turned into a werewolf, but I could tell she was relieved. She wanted to keep it a secret and have me get an abortion. But. I don’t know what happened. I guess I didn’t want to give her another piece of my life. I was dumb and lonely and ready for a new family. It’s like I fell in love with Alyssa while deciding if I wanted to be a mom or not.”
Deborah nods and tucks the cigarette behind her ear after playing with it. “That’s a lot, Denise. Is that why you moved out here?”
“My dad’s sister lives in Seattle,” Denise says. “I left Mom when Alyssa turned one, then reached out to Karl and told him about our daughter. He came out here after cussing me out for two months, but. We both knew he had no intention of living close to us or seeing Alyssa regularly. Karl mostly sends her cards and money. He comes by every so often when he’s visiting his brother in Portland or on random birthdays. He’s taking her to Cancún when she graduates.”
Deborah snorts, rolling her eyes. “Cancún? As a present? Sounds like a white thing.”
“He doesn’t know Alyssa. He’s engaged to some white woman, too. Maybe it was her idea.” Denise hugs her stomach. “I promised Alyssa that I’d never leave and would always be her mom after his first visit. But. That’s exactly what I did tonight. I walked away and left her all alone.”
Denise’s phone buzzes from her cardigan pocket and shatters the moment. She hastily pulls it out and sees a text from Alyssa asking for her whereabouts. As if she felt her mother hurting for her. “Alyssa?” Deborah asks.
Denise springs to her feet. “How do I talk to her? It’s different with you. This whole night is different.”
Deborah smiles a little. “Um. I’m not sure. She’s reaching out, though, right? You’re her mom, and she loves you. So, be yourself. Talk to Alyssa like this and listen to her. That’s what I wanted.”
“Yeah. So did I.” Denise stands in between Deborah’s legs and circles her waist. Denise wets her mouth while snaking underneath the nurse’s scrubs just enough to knead her fingertips into Deborah’s lower back, heating her soft skin. Deborah moans and leans into the massage. “I’m sorry, Deb,” Denise says. “I want us to be okay. I want you to trust me. I just. Want you. I care about you so much, and what we have means a lot to me. It’s becoming a big part of my life. Please, will you let me prove it to you?”
Deborah’s brow furrows, but she rubs Denise’s upper arms and kisses her hard. The roughness and graze of Deborah’s tongue across the roof of her mouth force frees a whimper. Denise suddenly can’t imagine not kissing and tasting Deborah, talking to her, feeding her cat, or finding solace with her in parking lots near light poles. Deborah nips Denise’s bottom lip as she parts. “Call me later, okay?” she says.
“Absolutely. What if it’s late?”
“Works for me. I’m going to smoke at least five cigarettes in the meantime.”
Denise takes a deep breath and bites the inside of her shredded cheek as she walks into her apartment decorated in blues and browns. Every light seems to be turned on, and she finds her daughter squirming on the living room floor. Alyssa looks up, gasping, and wobbles over to Denise. “Mom!” Alyssa wheezes. “You’re finally back. Please, I know you’re angry, but you have to tell me if Georgia’s dad knows. She’s hiding out at the mall.”
Denise tenderly grips Alyssa’s shoulders. She surveys her daughter’s anguish which hurts more than any self-harm Denise could inflict. Her fears instantly crumble. “It’s okay, Alyssa,” Denise assures. “I didn’t talk to him. That’s not why I left.”
Alyssa scrubs her clogged, sniffling. “But it’s been forever.”
“I promise I didn’t tell her dad. Text Georgia.”
“Okay – thank you.” Alyssa wastes no time messaging as she continues shaking. A primal urge to save her daughter overwhelms Denise, and memory is birthed from the sensation. The smell and taste of bacon sandwiches her father cooked on Saturday mornings materializes. She hears the Blue Jays that chirped from outside the bathroom window as her mother kindly combed her hair for the day, and all she felt was love from both parents. Along with growing, enjoyable confusion brought on by pretty girls.
Denise swallows a jagged knot, mourning her family’s innocence. “Have you eaten, Alyssa?”
Alyssa stops texting. “Um. Not since I got home.”
“I’ll make something then. Come with me?”
“Sure. I guess.” Alyssa follows Denise into the kitchen and sits at their wooden table. Denise searches the cabinets until penne marinara and garlic toast spike her interest. She preheats the oven then places a large pot of water atop the stove.
“Is Georgia home?”
“She’s driving now.”
Denise finishes prepping and then sits beside Alyssa, whose face is dry and ashen from tears and snot. She’s lost on where to begin, but she decides it doesn’t matter. “Do you invite them over on my school nights?”
Alyssa tenses. “Only Georgia. I swear. I. Already get to see Preston all the time.” She glances at her phone, and Denise observes her strain. Neither of them attaches to people easily or is naturally social. She wonders how long her daughter has performed the balancing act.
Denise taps her foot against her chair. “You can talk to me. I’m here.”
“But I don’t know what to say.” Alyssa hugs her stomach, peering into her lap, and the doppelganger gives Denise chills. “It’s just so hard, Mom,” she whispers. “I love being with Preston, but. When Georgia and I met at that party your job threw, we clicked in a way we’ve never felt before. And that feeling hasn’t gone away. It’s so intense now. Can. Can you get that?”
“Yes, I can understand,” Denise quickly answers. She clenches her jaw as a question bites her. It’s one her mother never asked plainly. She can’t be sure if Deborah’s mother has either, but Denise won’t continue the generational silence. “Alyssa, are you dating Georgia, too?”
Alyssa flinches like she’s been caught again – her identity ransacked. However, Denise remains patient as the invader and gives her space to recover. “Don’t blame her. Or Preston,” Alyssa eventually says. “I’m just a really bad person. I don’t deserve either of them.”
“Whoa – hold on. No.” Denise rubs Alyssa’s knee, shaking her head. “You’re not a bad person at all, Alyssa.”
“I’m cheating on Preston.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple.”
Alyssa brushes her away. “But you were so angry, Mom. I’ve never seen you that way before. And it’s the first time you’ve ever.” She puffs out a gust of air as if she might cry; her transparency is breathtaking. “I’m so sorry, Mom. For what I’m doing. Do you hate me now?”
Denise chokes on her breath. She slaps a hand to her heart as if it’s been punched. She’s immediately fourteen again, bruised and bent over the bathtub while asking her mother the same question. Denise desperately holds Alyssa’s close, hauling her to her feet. “No, baby girl,” she affirms, kissing Alyssa’s temple. “I could never, ever hate you. I’m the one who messed up.” She rocks her daughter. “You’re the best kind of person, Alyssa, and I am so sorry for how I acted. For treating Georgia like shit and pushing you. I swear I’ll never hurt you again. I love you more than anything with every ounce of my soul. Please, know that.”
Alyssa tightens the hug. “I love you, too, Mommy. I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t know how.” They fall pleasantly silent while sharing the needed embrace that they rarely experience. Denise becomes filled with purpose. At last, she knows what to do. If all it takes for Alyssa to feel safe and loved is honesty, Denise will give it to her.
Denise detaches from her daughter, dabbing her eyes. “Hey, I wanna show you someone,” she says. She pulls her phone from her cardigan pocket and swipes through photos with a tremor. A perfect picture of Deborah’s wide smile gives her courage. “Here.”
Alyssa scrubs her face dry, examining the picture, and Denise can feel every single prickly second of her daughter’s scan of Deborah’s face. “Who’s this?”
Denise clutches her phone, firming her posture. She refuses to run – won’t hide anymore from Alyssa or Karl. “This is Deborah Chen,” she says. “I met her at the dealership, too. She’s simply amazing and. And I’ve been seeing her for a while. We’re dating.”
Alyssa’s eyes enlarge to chocolate factories. She loudly gasps, reeling back. Alyssa rapidly searches her face, and Denise confidently holds her gaze. She offers the phone, which her daughter snatches away for a better look. The two women in Denise’s life finally meet, and Alyssa’s expression beautifully eases. “You’re dating a woman?” she asks, and there’s a hint of a smile that would make Deborah proud.
Denise nods and laughs, but she’s not ashamed or scared of her emotion. She only feels love for and from her daughter. “I’m gay, Alyssa.” The lone voice she hears is her own. Free and strong enough.