The sky is pink at six o’clock. Lily lives in pastel like the insides of ripe strawberries, but Sophie only sees the color of bloody, murky water and the fact that her mom isn’t coming home tonight, like she ever did when she was alive. And maybe it’s messed up, maybe they’re both messed up.
“Sophie’s got childhood trauma.”
“Sophie buries her emotions, so she doesn’t have to deal with the aftermath.”
“Sophie needs to stop running from her problems.”
That’s what the therapists said, over and over again until Dad stopped paying for sessions. Sophie’s messed up, and everyone knows it, everyone but Lily. Sweet, little Lily who isn’t afraid to breathe in cigarette smoke if it means five more minutes of conversation with her. Lily who holds her hand out back behind the art classroom and sits beside her during basketball games. Even though her friends gossip, Lily stands her ground. And Sophie will never be good enough for her.
“Lily’s gifted, but she needs to apply herself.”
“Lily is a genius, there’s nothing I can teach that she doesn’t already know.”
“Lily doesn’t try, but she doesn’t need to.”
That’s what all of her teachers said until she graduated. Lily’s a genius, and everybody hates it, everybody but Sophie. Beautiful, bold Sophie who doesn’t care if she rattles off facts about the Crimean War because she likes to hear the sound of her voice. Sophie who doesn’t care that she likes to cut class and drown her sorrows in Starbursts. Even though Sophie shouldn’t be near her, she doesn’t care. And Lily will never stop trying to be better for Sophie.
It’s Friday when they meet. The 20th of December, the final day before break. Sophie is wearing her dark hair in loose curls, complaining to one of her friends on the phone about her horrible art professor who doesn’t understand her vision. Her black jeans hang low on hips and compliment the oversized white tank top she’s wearing perfectly. Lily has pencils shoved into her high bun because the bobby pins wouldn’t hold. Her silky pink blouse hugs her skinny figure, tucked into a white skirt with a fluffy cardigan hanging off one arm. It’s Fate when they bump into each other.
“I’m sorry, really sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” Lily is always the first to apologize, whether it’s her fault or not.
Sophie has been cold and flippant since she was five, “You’re fine, kid.”
“Actually, I think we’re like the same age,” Lily corrects because she hates talking to strangers but enjoys correcting people more.
“I call everyone kid, don’t take it personally,” Sophie shrugs because she hates talking to people but likes the leggy blonde in front of her, enough that she hangs up on her friend to give the girl her full attention.
“Alright, then. Have a nice day.”
They both think that will be the final time they see each other, but Fate is a pushy woman and she always gets what she wants. Which is why, two weeks later once winter break has come to end, the library is nearly empty, bar two girls. It’s the prime time for studying, before the due date yet prior to when it can be called cramming. Lily does her best work at nine o’clock, and she knows the librarian on the graveyard shift. They played bingo together once. Sophie doesn’t remember she has work until nine o’clock, and she knows the librarian on the graveyard shift. They smoke on the steps sometimes.
“Watch where you’re going, Blondie,” Sophie chuckles, watching Lily almost trip on her own stack of books, “don’t wanna fall and bust open that head full of knowledge.”
She straightens her skirt and sits down, “Thanks. I know you. You’re the girl from the sidewalk. I almost ran into you.”
“Yeah, if we keep doing this, we might as well be on a first name basis. Sophie.”
“Lily. What are you studying?”
“Ah, no clue,” the newly named Sophie turns her book upside down and squints at it for the sake of a joke.
“Maybe I could help.”
“Why did you call me that?” Lily has always been a tad self conscious, peering down at her sewing needle legs that bend together at the knee.
“Well,” she begins to drawl, which is Lily’s thing, mind her, “if I can’t call you kid, and Blondie doesn’t sound right, I’m trying whatever works. I’ll tell you when something sticks.”
She clears her throat, “So, art history, is it?”
“That’s what the title of the class is.”
“Yeah, I checked this book out freshman year.”
“You’re a sophomore.”
“Junior,” Lily clarifies.
“Were you thinking about majoring in art?”
“God no, I want to make a living someday. I mean, I’m sorry.”
Lily is always the first to apologize, but Sophie doesn’t seem hurt at all. Her blonde hair covers reddening cheeks, and she’s thankful for the privacy it gives her.
“Stop saying sorry.”
“It’s stupid. People won’t take you seriously if you apologize for everything all the time.”
“Oh, I never thought of it like that.”
Lily rarely admits she’s wrong. She’ll apologize until the cows come home, a phrase her mother used to say, but she will never admit fault, especially when facts are involved.
“So, art history.”
“Well, the chapter you’re on is all about Rembrandt, which is fun.”
“Well, he’s Dutch, has four names-“
“Didn’t he cheat on his wife?” Sophie interrupts, fingers itching for a cigarette to cool her nerves, even though she threw her last pack out yesterday and needs more.
“Well,” Lily pauses, “a lot of artists did.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
“Appreciate the art, don’t idolize the artist,” she recites simply, something she read on tumblr once.
“Okay, so, what do I need to know for the test?”
“You tell me, how does your professor format them?”
With mindless chatter woven in, Lily is in her element. With Sophie, she has a prime opportunity to flaunt her skills and go on about Dutch innovators in the seventeenth century. Sophie can’t seem to care because Lily smells like vanilla and spearmint, and she knows she’s going to scape by with a C on that test tomorrow.
“Girls,” a wispy voice calls out, “it’s time to close up. Almost midnight.”
“I should probably get back to my dorm.”
Even though all Sophie wants is to hold the girl beside her and never let go, she nods and returns her books to their shelves or her bag. They part ways. Both decide if they see each other again, it’s Fate, and if they don’t, it’s just water off a duck’s back.
They’re both lying. They’re both determined to find the other if it means roaming campus until dark or switching majors. Well, maybe not that far, but they need to see each other. Fate is a pushy woman, and for once, they weren’t going to fight her.
Lily finds Sophie outside the art room by pure coincidence because it’s not as if she purposefully strolled a quarter mile out of the way to see Sophie. For that matter, Sophie did not stay at the classroom for twenty extra minutes in the hopes of seeing the blonde. Yes, it was purely coincidence.
“Hey, Lily,” Sophie tugs on her backpack straps.
“Oh, hi, I didn’t know you’d be here,” she’s a horrible liar, but it’s cold outside, so reddening cheeks make sense.
“Yeah, art’s right there.”
“I’m coming back from biology,” she tries to make conversation.
Sophie holds back a chuckle at the awkward girl, “What’d you learn?”
“Nothing I didn’t already know.”
It’s a set answer programmed in Lily’s brain from when teachers, parents, and friends would tell her there was nothing they could teach her. For some reason, Sophie is confused. Lily was expecting happiness or pride. Instead, she found something akin to anger.
“You know, it’s people like you who make the world a horrible place for people like me.” Every word thudded into Lily’s head like an avalanche. “With your textbooks and your ’I’ll-help-you’s. You won’t, really. ’Cause you’ll find a new pet project and move on. And I’ll still be collecting C’s on term papers, okay? So nobody needs you to tell them how amazing you are at everything.”
Lily has never really had friends, not even close, so she latches onto any and all affection thrown at her. That’s probably a bad thing, but every therapist she’s had has been so awestruck by her knowledge of the subject, that they don’t even acknowledge her mental state. She’s always thought being smart was a gift, memorizing everything when others only got the Cliff’s Notes, but she never thought about those people on the other side.
Maybe that was the one time Sophie wanted somebody to apologize, but she’d never admit it.
“It’s okay, college just sucks sometimes. My professor is some jerk who doesn’t know classic from modern, just his style. I hate people like that, ones who think there’s only one way to live.”
Sophie felt horrible for snapping, and she felt worse that she made Lily apologize. Maybe that was the one time Sophie would let herself pour the content of her mind out to another person. Really, it wasn’t because she proceeded to wait twenty minutes for Lily every afternoon and pour the content of her mind to her thrice more before the weekend.
It’s Saturday, and Lily can’t breathe, anxiety has her wrapped so tightly. There’s a test on Tuesday on material which she swears she knows back and forth, but she’s never had to study for something in her life, so who really knows?
It’s Saturday, and Sophie can’t breathe, self deprecation has her wrapped so tightly. There’s a portrait on her desk which she swears isn’t a certain blonde, but she’s never painted somebody she’s loved before, so who really knows?
It’s Saturday, and Lily needs to find Sophie. It’s Saturday, and Sophie swears she won’t live to see Sunday if she doesn’t find Lily. Which is why, at around twelve o’clock, Sophie is mentally yelling at herself for not asking the pretty girl for her number.
She racks her brain for the places Lily told her she likes. It’s a small list consisting of the library, a campus coffee shop, and a little ice cream place down by her dorm. First, she checks the library, but the parking lot is empty, and so is the building. Then, Sophie inspects the coffee shop yet receives the same result. Finally, the ice cream shop is her last destination.
It’s a tiny place, really, no bigger than a trailer with some picnic tables out front. Lily loves it, Sophie remembers her gushing about it on one of their walks. The overhanging piece of fabric that may or may not be part of an umbrella is held up by a rusted bar, and the material has faded to dull pink in the afternoon sun.
Everything screams Lily in Sophie’s mind. The thin pathway up reminds Sophie of Lily’s waist, and maybe that should be the first signal that she’s close to falling in love. It’s not because Sophie has never been in love. She gave up on affection or longing stares when Cinderella got her prince but was trapped in storybook pages. Sophie realized then that fairytale romances do not belong in reality.
Lily knows three things are infinite in life: human stupidity, the universe, and chocolate ice cream. She’s not sure about the second one. Chocolate was created to drown your feelings in, no matter how good or bad you feel, and Lily is ready to test that theory. Sometimes, one doesn’t need to have a reason for feeling a certain way. Lily doesn’t need reasons for ordering three scoops of chocolate and wanting to forget about school and life and Sophie Nelson.
Everything screams Sophie, in Lily’s mind. The sky is dark, the color of Sophie’s hair. She’s pretty sure the song playing on the old radio is something that Sophie would probably listen to. The only worker is the exact opposite of Sophie. He’s ogling her like a vanilla sundae and no amount of chocolate can make her feel better about that. She’d be crying into her cone if her mascara wouldn’t run.
Lily has always been perceptive yet oblivious, so it’s not exactly a surprise when she doesn’t see the object of her attention standing at the counter. Sophie has always been fearless yet scared, so it’s not exactly a surprise when she decides to stall for time by ordering a milkshake. She doesn’t get what she wanted because the blonde is too enveloped in her own sorrows to notice her. Collecting every drop of courage, Sophie swings her leg over the bench across from Lily.
“Hi,” the blonde murmurs, fragile like a dandelion seed, and if Sophie wasn’t a foot away, the word would’ve been lost in the wind.
A beat passes before Sophie’s courage runs out, so she can only go, “You too.”
Lily looks up, surprised and amused.
“I’m sorry, I meant…hello,” she corrects, directing her gaze at the strawberry milkshake she didn’t even want.
Lily has social anxiety, and Sophie has never seen such a beautiful girl before. That’s why they don’t speak to each other for a while. Lily keeps licking her cone quietly until the cashier, still wearing a bright pink apron, walks over to their table.
“Hey, how’s it going?” He starts what is sure to be a train wreck in Sophie’s completely unbiased opinion.
Lily forgets that she’s there for a second and forgets she knows English because she hates when strangers talk to her, but she manages to squeak out, “I’m fine, you?”
“Well, I’d be better if I had a date tonight,” he prompts in what he thinks is a suave pickup line.
Sophie wants to kick his stupid smirking face in, but she settles on scowling and hoping Lily can handle herself. She can’t.
“I’m sorry, really, I’m flattered, but I have plans.”
Lily has never said no to a date before. In fact, before that moment, she had never been asked on one. She expected it to go well. She was wrong.
He scoffs, “You have something better to do?”
“She does,” Sophie interjects, class or grace forgotten because she will not let Lily be steam rolled over by some punk who can’t take no for an answer, “and long story short, it has nothing to do with you.”
He’s back to glaring at the register while Sophie tells Lily, “Come on, I’ll take you back.”
It’s simple, but Sophie can’t manage to say anything back. After all, it was the right thing to do. People like that boy deserve to be put in their place sometimes.
“You shouldn’t be treated like that. Ever,” Sophie wants to go about the brilliance of her eyes and the wonderful skirt she’s wearing that fits so perfectly, but she hesitates and doesn’t.
You’re perfect, she wants to add. A flawless creation manufactured by God or the universe. Five foot eleven inches of beauty, she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to Sophie. A shy smile and drawled out words like she’s sounding everything out even though she’s contemplated her words twenty times over before her mouth moves.
Most people express their feelings in words, but she communicates through acrylic paints and messy sketches. Sophie knows her desk will be littered with full pages of doodles. Lily’s brown doe eyes will fill up entire pages by themselves because Sophie will spend eternity to get them right. Overpriced parchment will be inked in measurements for canvases and prices of colors that will do the gorgeous creation named Lily justice. It’s psychotic in a way, Sophie thinks, the meticulous perfectionist in her that requires at least ten copies of a nose before transferring it to a canvas. It’s scary how much effort she will put into drawing Lily. It’s stalker-like in way the amount of time Sophie will spend recalling Lily from the left and right in order to finalize the piece.
Lily is different. She will stay up late until three o’clock in the morning until she has a notebook filled with poetry and details about Sophie’s shoulders. She’ll trace the columns of Excel spreadsheets like Sophie’s collarbones and pretend when delirium sets in, it’s Sophie hugging her goodnight. And it’s insane, Lily knows, to pine after someone so. She’s only human, though.
It’s a smooth walk home on the pockmarked sidewalks overgrown with weeds and dandelions. Sometimes, Lily’s eyes meet the crest of Sophie’s clavicle, and she wants to label every bone in her body. She doesn’t. Sometimes, Sophie’s eyes meet Lily’s soft blouse, and she wants to buy the exact shade of yellow and paint her walls. She doesn’t.
Upon arrival to Lily’s dorm, the blonde scrawls on an empty slip of paper ten digits for Sophie.
“Do you want to go to the library tonight?” She broaches the subject like she’s poking a dead snake with a long stick, carefully and a tad afraid of a response.
Sophie isn’t timid, but around Lily, she’s practically scared of her own shadow, “That would be okay.”
It’s almost silly that Sophie paces the pavement outside her dorm before venturing inside. It’s almost silly that Lily braids her hair nineteen and a half times before letting it hang down. It’s almost silly that come five thirty, Sophie is already pulling cigarettes out of a nearly empty pack to quell her anxiety. A shiny minty blue bicycle turns into the lot beside the library, the rider being Lily.
Lily is so astonished, she places the worn book down on the cracked bench, “Jane Austen did not spend her life writing so you could call her novels lame.”
“Love is lame,” Sophie tosses her head like a finicky horse, and Lily tries not to smile.
“So you don’t believe in love?”
“Why should I?”
“Because the world needs something to believe in.”
“No, love is…imperfect. It’s sad and stupid and fleeting. You love something, and at the end of the day, it’s gone.”
“Well, why do people fall in love?”
“Because of situation, circumstance, and endorphins.”
“No, that’s the scientific answer. Why do people fall in love?” Her pink lips form the words perfectly, in Sophie’s opinion, a model for phonics everywhere.
For once, Sophie’s mind doesn’t leap to think of a comeback, and Lily doesn’t wait for one. She just stares at her reflection in the other girl’s pupils. Slowly, their lips meet, molding together in the crisp January air. They’re both awkward like baby deer trying to cross the street for the first time, yet in their own special way, it’s perfect.