If You Let Me

Anne Valente


You are sky-drenched, sweat-soaked, your jeans pulled to the buckling of your knees. Through the backseat window, the Missouri sky pools dark above, a stain cast wide beyond the slicked vinyl of a parked car among cornfields. His hand snaked through your legs, your body all rattle. Behind your eyes, stars— colored explosions like roman candles held to the dusk of a Midwestern summer, and here in the backseat, the same humidity of vinyl and sweat, your hair plastered hot against your forehead. Bridged synapses that for fleeting seconds link you to the fabric of your own biology, the cosmos, every time you come. Tonight, his hand inside you, your eyes still closed, there is only desert, saguaros, stretches of sand like nothing you’ve ever seen, but also like the rolling hills of your homeland, a Mississippi flood, sand and plain converged and collapsed. You drag your hand across your face, your eyes shut, a convulsion born of heat. A convulsion you’ve known by other hands and by the searching of your own within your sheets, by your fingers bending beneath the waistband of your pajamas like daffodils toward light. 


You open your eyes. He pulls his hand away. He curls his head into your neck, his breath condensation. The saguaros have faded. The western light, evaporated to the stillness of Midwestern stars. There is nothing: no synapses, no shimmering starlight, no summer heat. There is only the flat sky beyond the rear window, the sun sliced to the edge of the earth. There is the palpitation of your blood in the absence of heat, a low thrum. 

Your heart screams: I want, I want, I want.


People tell you that you are good. 

That you will go places. Your grades and your brains. Your honors classes, your extracurriculars, your many-voiced talents will take you to places away from the black-holed gravity of the Midwest.

Inside, you are howling.

You are splitting apart: part wolf, only a semblance of girl. At night, you curl against the pane of your bedroom window, your breath a ghost against its glass. You feel the dull metronome of your heart, a quiet ticking. A word beyond speech awaits your tongue, a want submerged inside a trail of boys, their cars, the unremarkable weight of their hands. 

But your heart still skips: when your mother lays her hand absently across your hair. When the wind picks up and the trees bend, a flood of summer rain rolling in that you watch from the safety of your porch. Cotton sheets. The radio’s drone. The silence inside a car when you drive alone. The sliver of light beneath your door, your parents still up, still watching the nightly news, a hum you hope you will always hear as you fall asleep.

In biology: the slick of shark skin beneath your fingers before dissection.

In English: the lilt of James Joyce on Ms. Denali’s voice.

In debate, after school: never. Not once.

Not until the door blows open, a Tuesday afternoon, not until Dorian Ellis walks into the room.

Dorian Ellis: all gangle and shyness, her hands clasped behind her back. 

Dorian Ellis: in braids, a pleated skirt, socks pulled to the knock of her knees.

Dorian Ellis: a beauty your eyes capture like light, seismic as storms drawn to the grounding of land.


Mr. Jacobs has assigned desegregation this fall, the gravity around which the debate team will orbit. He has split you into teams, one for and one against, assigned without choice. Most of you are probably for desegregation, he has said, not against. It is what you’ve always experienced. 

Desegregation: a word you know, a word you grew up knowing. An informal word every member of the debate team knows, a term of your shared lexicon as students within the schools of St. Louis County. The proper term: The St. Louis Student Transfer Program. A program that began in 1983, well before you entered school. A program that since you started kindergarten has shaped the shared experience of your classrooms, has brought students to the country from the city for everyone involved to benefit. 

How you gave this no thought in kindergarten, how you simply thought everyone lived nearby. Then, in third grade, a new friend: Aisha Fields, the first day of class. How she was paired with you and how you were to welcome her, to show her around. How you liked her so much, your head buzzing, a new friend and school year and classroom. How you invited her to your house after school and how she shook her head no, how she said her bus ride was too far, how her mother had a car but would never pick her up way out here.

Way out where, you wanted to ask. You couldn’t imagine another where but here.

And Dorian Ellis: a girl Mr. Jacobs makes clear to the classroom has come from somewhere else.

You look around. At your peers on the debate team. Most of their faces as pale and peach-skinned as yours. Mr. Jacobs motions Dorian into the room, announces her name, tells you all she will be joining the team. She meets no one’s gaze, her glance cast downward, her hands still clutched behind her skirt. But she takes a seat and you notice her eyes, their flash a lightning, your marrow the grounding. And before Mr. Jacobs finds the breath to say it, you already know: Dorian Ellis will be assigned to argue for desegregation, and you, against it. That her entrance is a fulcrum: a before, an after. Her beauty a razor, a knife that will gut you.


After school, you stand at the curb of the parking lot. Empty spaces, school long over, a scattering of leaves across pavement. You wait until a boy pulls up, not the same boy, one of many boys among boys. He throws open the passenger door and you slide your backpack to the floor of the car and across the parking lot you see Dorian Ellis emerge from school. She climbs into the cavern of a waiting bus that seems empty with the exception of a few other students, their faces small moons through the fogged windows. As the boy’s car pulls away, his hand slides up your jeans and along the inside of your thigh. Behind you, Dorian’s bus leaves the curb and follows until the boy turns left, out of the parking lot and away from school. You watch in the side mirror as the bus turns right, toward the highway and the city, away and out of view.

Inside the hum of the car’s engine you imagine the glare of Dorian’s knees, exposed skin between skirt and pulled sock. Her bus hurtling toward the city, its engine a separate thrum that matches your own heart’s beating: away from a car shuttling toward your house, your parents still at work, a house where the boy will hasten your unlocking of the front door, where he will push you up the stairs, where he will remove your clothing before you’ve reached the second floor. 

You starfish yourself upon the bedspread in your room, blinds slatted shut, a slivered light that cuts his face in lines as he hovers above you. His breath is heavy. His breath could break bones. But your hand is a lantern that guides him. You steer him into you and feel your body expand in light. He pushes and pushes and your body hums and vibrates and glows, a light you feel splitting you apart from the inside, your body merely shafts of broken sun. 

He slumps into you, his face buried in the blankets of your bed. You watch the ceiling beyond him and see only mountains, snow-capped peaks, a sun setting behind them. A creek bed, a brook, the weight of gravity pulling water in rivulets down a rockface. Your body burns a campfire and trills crickets, the scent of charred wood. You are way out west, you are elevated, you are somewhere else entirely until he pushes himself onto his elbows, until he meets your eyes and the mountains and smoke vanish. 

He tells you this was good. He leaves the room. You hear water running in the bathroom down the hall and you think this was something, anything but good, your body filled but wanting.

At night, after homework, your parents’ television humming quietly beyond your room, you pull yourself into your sheets. Their coolness, a balm upon your body. You picture Dorian: her face. This girl you don’t know, whom you’ve never heard speak, her beauty splitting in fractals behind your eyes. You imagine her face and your hands stretch like tendrils down your skin. Across your breastbone. Down your stomach. Over the plain of your pelvis. Beyond. 


At lunch, you scan the cafeteria. You pull a sandwich from your bag. You skim a crowd of faces, a blending of city and county but nothing more than blandness, an absence of Technicolor, the lack of Dorian Ellis in stark relief. The cafeteria is a sea of sameness, what you’ve always known. No flash of heat, no light.

But then you see her: outside, beyond the wide windows of the cafeteria. Alone on a bench in the school’s courtyard, eating soup from a cardboard cup. You pack up your lunch. You slip outside, where autumn wind scatters leaves across brick. You approach her bench, an imposition, your presence at once seeming overlarge to you and unwelcome. But she squints up at you, September sun falling soft upon her face. 

You’re on the debate team, she says. 

Can I sit? you ask. She nods and you lower yourself next to her. She eat her soup and you think of the bench, how its slats touch her clothing and your clothing. 

Where did you come from? you ask. Immediately, you regret it. As if she were alien, another planet, as if you are from separate cities entirely. 

But she just looks at you. South City, she says. I went to Roosevelt High. 

A school you’ve never heard of, never seen, a part of town you’ve only visited to eat Ted Drewes, St. Louis’s famous frozen custard, before retreating back to the county. You don’t know what to say to her. I want to be friends. You watch a colony of ants build a hill at the base of the bench. She finishes her soup and you sit in silence and the sun cracks the sky into splinters of light. She finally stands, hoists her bag. I’ll see you in debate, she says. She walks away, back inside, and your blood beats back a crescendo inside of you, a rising wave. 


After school, you work your debate. A team of you and three others scrawling points on a whiteboard. The cons of desegregation, you’ve collectively determined: expense to the city, cost of transportation, drain from the schools within city limits. Early bussing, long commutes. Tired students without energy for homework, for sports, for after-school activities and extracurriculars.

The objective is integration, says Vikram Sen, and yet students are still isolated due to these constraints. They’ll feel displaced. They’ll socialize with those who share their world.

Olivia Davis writes Vikram’s comment in shorthand upon the whiteboard. Both are in National Honor Society, an organization you’ve shared with them since sophomore year, along with Key Club and Students for Social Change and debate. Vikram is poised to claim valedictorian, a known conclusion among your honors-course peers ever since you entered high school together. Vikram’s words: a shared world. What has bound you to one another in the suburbs. You glance at Dorian Ellis across the room, hunched over a desk with her team, and though she is far away, farther than a neighborhood that you’ve never seen out in the city, she is closer at once than these peers whose lives have overlapped yours, peers who for their organizations and shared classrooms and parental friendships on PTA have never seen the inside of your home, have never once seen you cry.

I agree, says Dennis Russell. Social cohesion depends on shared culture, shared community. Even though desegregation pulls students from the same city, what do we really know about city schools? And what do city schools know about county schools? 

Olivia takes more notes. You watch the wrinkled ridge of Dennis’s forehead and wonder what any of you knows about anyone, whether Dennis wears boxers or briefs or whether he eats cereal or toast for breakfast, whether he’s had sex and if he knows about every boy you’ve ever known, more boys than you’ve committed to memory by name. 

We’re assuming nothing is universal, you say, though as you speak you’re not sure what even this means. Not homework, you say. School dances. Aren’t some things universal?

Your teammates stare at you, piercing gazes that make you only whisper, Counterargument, after all. Olivia nods and takes more notes. You look around the room, a futility, what can any of you really argue about desegregation from a single side, until your gaze lands on Dorian and she meets your eyes and doesn’t look away. You avert your eyes, unsure of your permissions, unsure as upon the bench, a violation of her space.


After debate, you sit on the risers above an empty playing field, football practice long over. The descending autumn pulls the sun toward the earth more quickly, a pink sunset that spreads across the horizon, a coming cool that whips the wind across your shoulders. There are no boys. Just your father, late picking you up. You pull your jacket around your body and close your eyes and there is only the drone of cicadas, the end of summer. 

Can I sit? you hear a voice ask. You open your eyes and Dorian walks the risers toward you. She is asking, this time. You straighten yourself into a welcoming posture. 

Her feet clang upon the rafters. She sits beside you. She pulls a Parliament from her pocket. Want one? she asks, sliding the cigarette between her lips. You don’t smoke but you nod yes, yes and yes and yes, your heart thrumming. She flicks a flame that gutters in the dusk-darkened wind and you lean in close without thinking, you shelter her mouth with your palms, you are so close that you’re sure you have breached some code but she leans back, the cigarette lit, pulls smoke into her lungs and whispers thanks. She hands you the lighter. You light your own. You take a drag and slump back and you both watch the sun set in silence, a hue marbled beyond the field and the neighborhood trees in the distance.

This is nice, Dorian whispers. Nice to see some trees and some sun.

There aren’t trees where you live? you ask. Dorian laughs, expels smoke. 

Of course there are trees where I live. The sky’s just wider way out here. 

Way out where, you could ask. You could ask it again. But the silence is nice, as nice as the trees, and in your shared silence the city is lost. There is only country, a school surrounded by rolling hills and cornfields and stop signs, a school stretched to the very limits of the city, its urban lights obscured at night by an expanse of stars. 

You glance at Dorian, smoke billowing in ribbons from her lips. You watch her mouth. Another country. Not city nor county. A country you cannot name. 

You could come over, you blurt. But she shakes her head, stubs out her cigarette. 

I called a cab tonight, she says. It’s on its way. But she meets your eyes. She tells you maybe another time and you don’t know what to say. Her gaze has matched yours; she hasn’t shut you down entirely. So you say, I thought you took the bus? and she laughs again, says she takes the bus only when enough students can fill it.

Cabs are covered by the program too, she says, when I’m the last person at school to leave. She looks at you. Don’t worry, she says, it’s really not that exotic. 

And when she gets up, when she climbs into the cab once it comes, when you wait for your father five more minutes before his Buick rolls into the parking lot, your cheeks are still burning, your face still angry-hot despite the sunk sun, the cool breeze. The descended darkness obscures your face, but not the lingering shame of having asked a stupid question, of knowing you have violated her at last. 


After dinner, after television, long after your parents’ bedroom light has extinguished, you lie awake in your sheets and watch the pocked surface of the ceiling. The first time you kissed another person, someone other than your mother or father, your body flooded with heat and light. Seventh grade. A New Year’s Eve party. The basement of your best friend’s house. When the ball dropped on the television a boy leaned toward you, his breath the scent of red licorice, and his mouth grazed yours and his tongue skirted your lips and your body was a tunnel, a fire in a hole. When he pulled away from you, your face blazed even though the room was dark beyond the glow of television. Yo felt shame, that others might see, that your want would expose you and ignite the room. You felt the same later that year the first time a boy touched your breasts, then your breastbone and then your stomach, his hand sliding into your jeans. 

You walked gingerly to your locker at school. You thought everyone knew. That desire radiated visible beneath your skin, that want was translucent. At dinner with your parents you ate only peas and later you curled yourself into your bedroom window, the moon full and high. You watched its light and felt your blood pulled by the shifting of its shape and knew that despite what you’d been told, that boys talked, your desire could take any shape it wanted. 

What you learned: how to guide a boy’s hands. 

How to guide his mouth, then the entirety of his body. 

How to walk through school halls without so much as a shudder. 

You learned that your classes and your grades and your activities made you imperceptible, that the good flushed the want from the flamed surface of your skin. You learned that desire made you invisible, that it let you walk through walls. That invisible as it was, it wore itself out: so ravenous that every taste grew bitter, bland, numb. 

You crawl from your sheets to the window. You squint into the sky. There is no moon, no path, the sky long clouded past the fading of sunset. You peer to the east, a darkened horizon where the city must lie, and there is a churning in your chest, a pound beyond the pull of tides. 


Mr. Jacobs steers the team toward practice. A mock debate even though you haven’t practiced, haven’t even scrawled notes beyond the weak chickenscratches Olivia jotted down. But Mr. Jacobs is earnest. He wants you thinking on your feet. He sets up a podium and chairs at the front of the classroom and lowers the lights.

You know the process: affirmative position, followed by cross-examination of the negative position before reversing these roles. Four on each team: lead debater, cross-examiner, responder, rebutter. You are the cross-examiner. You pray that you will not be cross-examining Dorian, that she has assumed another role paired incongruously with yours. As moderator, Mr. Jacobs takes his seat and asks that you begin.

You wait to see who on the other team will stand. But only Candace Eldridge takes the stage, the lead debater for the affirmative, the person yo will be cross-examining. She clears her throat. Her eyes scan an invisible audience behind Mr. Jacobs. She previews her team’s main points and then delves into them, a six-minute detail: that the desegregation program provides educational opportunities, social interaction, a cultural exchange, improved quality of life. That it equalizes city barriers, that it levels inequalities of funding. As Candace speaks you take notes, prepared to cross-examine, but your gaze drifts from the podium to Dorian sitting with her team, whether her face reveals what she thinks of Candace’s words. Whether they ring true. Whether they pierce beneath the surface of analysis. But Dorian’s face is blank, her eyes locked upon Candace and the podium. You turn back to your notepad, to the scribbling of your pen. When Candace stops speaking, you rise and prepare to cross-examine. 

According to Candace, desegregation levels inequalities, you say. But what of the city schools left behind? What of the students who aren’t part of the program? How much of a leveling can the program really be if it only affects a small percentage of students?

Candace responds. You hear nothing she says. You hear only the pound of your pulse in your ears. You glance behind Candace to where Dorian sits. She is not looking away. She is not a blank slate. She watches you, her eyes skirting your face, her glance reading your expression though you imagine it blanketing your abdomen and breasts, spanning the entire length of your body until you forget your words. 


In the girls’ bathroom you lean across the sink, press your forehead against the mirror. You close your eyes. You absorb the mirror’s coolness. You hear past the door the sounds of people leaving, your teammates filtering from the classroom and down the hallway and out into the parking lot, toward the departure of their cars. You wait it out. You stall until the hallway beyond the door is only silence, until you’re certain Dorian has left the building and climbed into her bus. You splash your face with water and lever out a paper towel. 

When you pull it away from your face, Dorian is standing before you. 

Oh, she says, I thought everyone was gone. 

I did too, you say. You are at a loss for any other words. 

She checks her face in the mirror. She pulls a stick of lip gloss from her pocket. God, I thought that practice would never end, she says. Her voice nonchalant, a featherweight. 

Did you miss your bus? you ask.

I’ll call a cab later, she says. She looks at you in the mirror. Want to go for a walk?

You think of the parking lot: another boy, another car waiting for you at the curb. Another afternoon in an empty home with the waning sun and the dampness of sheets, only a brief sating and an explosion and then nothing. You nod. Lead the way, she says, sweeping her arms toward the bathroom door, and you take her behind the school and across a field, the mowed landscape and schoolyard becoming forest. 

You stand together at the edge of a treeline. A slanting sun, cicadas. A path that will lead you through the woods to a precipice overlooking the county. You step into the woods and Dorian follows you, lighting a cigarette. You walk in silence broken only by the crunch of her feet, the intermittent exhalation of smoke. You close your eyes as you walk and every sound is music, a meditation. 

You reach a clearing. A small summit, a view of the entire county and beyond it the city, a distant expanse of steel and streets. You sit on a large rock, the sun flatlined and sinking into the horizon. Dorian sits beside you, stubs out her cigarette in the dirt, and you watch the sky and its clouds and how the sun lines everything in silver. 

This is lovely, she says. 

I’m sorry we’re debating what we are, you say without thinking. 

Dorian looks at you. Why would it bother me more than anyone else?

Because it affects you more, you whisper. You don’t want to look at her, but you say it anyway: None of us knows what we’re talking about. 

Dorian leans back. Her breath halts. 

And what makes you think I do? she finally says.

You want to stop asking stupid questions. Stop imagining her life as something other, apart from your own, so different and foreign and not because she lives where she lives but for another reason, a reason that climbs like a flame up your throat.

What do you think of all those reasons? you ask instead. What do you think of what Candace said? 

It’s a good opportunity, Dorian says. It’s what my mother wants for me, so I’ll go to a good college. 

You watch the sunset. You watch so you won’t have to notice it, that she is not a mouthpiece, that she is only who she is. That you have replaced a desire with questions like every other afternoon, each with a different boy. That your hesitation is not on account of difference but of lack, a lack and a need and your inability to name it.

Then what you do you want? you ask. A flame searing your tongue.

Dorian looks across the county. Her eyes scan the trees and the streets and the buildings in the sun-hazed distance. I want a lot of things, she whispers. I could steamroll this city with my want. 

Her words enough to kill you. Before you think you lean in, you rest your hand upon her hand and she turns to you and lets her mouth graze yours just long enough that you could swallow yourself in hunger, you could suffocate in the scent of cigarette lingering on her tongue, a scent that even as you taste it you know will destroy you, a taste of smoke and wanting and the sun sinking toward its own annihilation.

She pulls away. My mother is expecting me, she says. I should go, she whispers and gets up. She travels back into the woods and away from the clearing, away from a horizon line that devours the sun and leaves you in darkness.


At lunch, you scan the cafeteria and the courtyard beyond it. There is no Dorian, no cardboard cup, no bench tethering the distance between you. You pull your sandwich from your lunch bag, no appetite to eat, but you take bites anyway, only the motions, only the performance of habitual hunger. 

After school in debate, you step into the room quietly, more than sure that she’ll be missing. But she is there, at a table with her team. You look away before her gaze burns clear through your skin, before you forget your lines, your arguments, before you render yourself exposed. You take your positions. Mr. Jacobs seats himself before you, his elbows a line across his desk. You are practicing, still, your arguments growing more honed and refined. You will do research, you will test your positions. Even now, as you take your seat, you are certain that in the end you will only know less.

Affirmative, please, Mr. Jacobs says, and you expect Candace to step behind the podium. But Dorian rises instead and situates herself in front of the room. She clears her throat. Her knees you can see, bare and blazing beneath the hem of her skirt. You close your eyes. You hear her voice begin the opening remarks of an argument, the benefits and boons of a program you will crush. 

One of the greatest benefits, you hear her say, is the wealth of educationa opportunities. You hear her list statistics. Comparative numbers. Graduation rates, attrition rates. You keep your eyes closed and you don’t take notes. You know when her six minutes are through only by the silence permeating the room.

When you open your eyes Dorian is watching. You stand and take the podium beside her and prepare for cross-examination. 

Educational opportunities, you begin. It’s easy for us to imagine such benefits at this school. But what educational opportunities exist for those in the city? What do your graduation and attrition rates mean from the other side?

Dorian responds and your pulse floods your ears. That you’ve said it: the other side. That there is a versus and that there are sides, that you have no clue which one either of you occupies. You ask more questions. Just words. Words to fill a span of minutes, only three, the length of a lifetime. You take your seat, your hairline glistening beneath the heat of fluorescent lighting. Dorian sits and Candace rises to the podium and you don’t look behind her, at the other team, at Dorian’s gaze that you can feel upon you.

When the debate is over, each argument and rebuttal, you grab your bag and hasten from the room. You descend down the hall and wait in the bathroom until you hear everyone leave the building, including Dorian. You sit on a shut toilet, the stall door closed. There is no one waiting for you. There are only calls you could make, if you wanted an empty bedroom and slatted sun and fleeting starlight. But there is nothing to want, nothing in this world but a lack of absence and the taste of smoke. 

You sit in the stall. In silence, you wait out the time it takes to call a cab, to step inside of it, to close the doors and fade east into the city. You listen with intention. You sing your heart to sleep. But when you pull your bag onto your shoulder and you at last open the stall door, Dorian is standing there before you. No sound, not of doors opening, not the rise and fall of her lungs matching yours across the closed stall. 

You can only look at her. Your bag drops to the floor. 

I’m sorry, you say. Even still, you can’t help but say this. 

But kiss me again is all she says. 

Only if you let me, you hear yourself say. A want that even here will burn you down to name it. But she doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch. She stands in front of you, blocking the stall.

You reach toward her. You hold your hand to hers. And on her skin there is lightning, a strike that moves through your fingers and floods your skin and spiders down through the flooring of the bathroom and deep into the earth. And then she is against you, her mouth to yours, she is pushing you against the stall’s walls or you are pulling and your hands are a force, a wave breaking across the country and into the city from the heart of the sea to the central plains. Your hands move over her body. You travel the length of her arms, down her sides. Her hands skim your breastbone and slide beneath your shirt, your bra, over your stomach to the unbuckling of your jeans. Her hands are a hymn. Her body a song singing back the ocean wave of yours. Her fingers travel downward, her mouth against your mouth, and then her tongue and your neck and her hands and your body, filled. 

You open your eyes. Behind them: nothing. No saguaros or mountains, no sky glittering with faint light. No cicadas or campfire or lingering scent of smoke, nothing but Dorian’s eyes wide open before yours, the cool metal of the stall on your exposed skin. Only a stillness that voices the clear beating of your heart, a word it can name, the meaning of good.


When you enter the cafeteria the next day, she is gone. 

She is not on the bench. She is not holding a cardboard cup. She is not in the hallways or the bathrooms or in her debate room seat after school. No one says anything. As if she never occupied a place on the team. She is not there the next day or the next. She is not there on the day you conduct the official debate with your team, no more practice and no more research and still she is gone. You recite your arguments and review your points and wonder what it was that you ever learned. You listen to Olivia Davis at the podium, pencil in hand, using Dorian as an example: As we have seen, the desegregation program can uproot those who for various reasons can’t complete it.

You imagine more than Olivia’s pencil breaking.

You scan the telephone book, you scour city maps, you locate Roosevelt High. You find a number that you believe to be hers and each time you think of calling, you stop yourself over and over again. You fear who will answer and what they will know, if you are the reason for Dorian’s leaving. You imagine her mother, a woman she only alluded to in passing, a woman wanting more for her daughter than the charade of the county, a place where girls know nothing but sex and violation.

You avoid the bathroom stall, the light too harsh. You think of approaching Mr. Jacobs after class, of asking after Dorian again and again.

You leave the debate team the following spring. 

After only a brief rash of more boys, a suctioned wanting without latch, you lose your will. You lose your own charade. You never bring home another boy again. 

You borrow your parents’ car sometimes and you drive through the open fields of Missouri alone at night. You turn up the stereo and park the car and sit on the hood, identifying constellations. Sometimes your gaze travels to the east and to the city’s lights. You imagine taking the wheel toward their glow. You imagine her life, the same as yours. The same but different in ways you can’t imagine. A life you picture even through a lasting ache, a life annihilating every last obstacle with the weight of its want. 

Sometimes you lean back and unfurl yourself upon the car, a metal hood matched in coolness to the aluminum of a stall. Sometimes you close your eyes. Sometimes you hear your heartbeat. Sometimes you let yourself. Through the silence, a hush so quiet it hurts, the sound of your heart naming itself permission. 



ANNE VALENTE is the author of the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and the forthcoming debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016). Her fiction appears in One Story, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and Quarterly West, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post.