I knew I loved Melissa in the second grade because she was always so serious, her gray eyes locked on whatever she was looking at like it was the only thing in the world. One day, her eyes locked on me, and I knew she wasn’t ever going to let me go. I didn’t want her to. Me and Melissa, we were always going to be something.
I knew I loved Melissa in the eighth grade when we were in her room, the door sealed shut from her mom and dad and my mom and dad and all our brothers and their mess. After school, we lay on her bed on our stomachs, everything about us flat. The music was loud; her mother yelled at us through the door but her mother never came in so we never turned it down. We talked under the music and let our shoulders touch, creating this perfect place where our bodies met. The quieter we got and the more we cut ourselves open for each other, baring our secret selves, the warmer that place between us grew until it made our skin soft and eventually that place burned. It was nothing but it was everything. We’d pull away and face each other and our lips would quiver but we were too scared to do anything and finally, when it was too much to see each other so plainly she would say, real quiet like, “You better go,” and just when I got up to leave she’d grab my hand and say, “You better stay.”
Everyone in Winesburg always said I was the pretty one, the girl who could go to some impossible place like New York City and make something of her smile. Melissa was as pretty as me but no one could see it because they didn’t want to really look at her. She wore her hair on the top of her head most of the time, and would probably get buried in a pair of jeans if she had her way. She didn’t feel the need to show off for anyone. I’m the only person who has ever seen the best parts of her, like she was saving those best parts for me.
I knew I loved Melissa in the ninth grade when I dated Tom Pederson. He chewed tobacco, chewed so much his jaw always hurt. He liked it when I let him put his head in my lap and I would rub my fingers over his jawbone in slow, steady circles while he sighed. When he kissed me, he tasted like mint and grit. After our dates, I’d go to Melissa’s. She’d be real cold to me for the first while, snapping, being mean. She’d sit on the edge of her bed, every part of her stiff, one angry line of body and bone. I’d sit next to her and wait her anger out. Eventually, she’d say, “You stink like him.” I needed to tell her, “I want to stink like you,” but we didn’t have the right words, not for her to explain why she was mad, or for me to explain why I liked that she was mad.
Melissa wasn’t like me. She was never going to let some dirty Winesburg boy touch her or walk her to class or take her to the drive-in or any of that. All she ever wanted was me and for us to be our own family. She didn’t think it was possible, not for us, not in our town. Sometimes, when we lay in her bed, she’d pull my hand onto her stomach and she’d sigh and talk about babies and she’d sound so lonesome. I’d wish I could fill her empty places.
She didn’t understand we were exactly the same. When I went out with a boy, it didn’t mean anything. I don’t even know why I did it.