&Emma By Marlena Chertock

Marcy was wearing a short floral dress, flower petals grazing her knees as she walked. They wandered to the DuPont Circle fountain and she plopped down by the water, propped her feet on the ledge. Clouds were gathering, but Marcy threw her head back and inhaled. Her cheeks turned pinker as she did.

Emma lightly placed her hand on Marcy’s. She didn’t open her eyes.

Eventually, she said, “Give me a penny.”

Emma fished in her deep red purse but didn’t find any pennies. She pressed a quarter from 2004 into Marcy’s palm. She smiled, brought the quarter to her lips, then tossed it into the water, along with Emma’s breath. She got up and headed to the bookstore.

Phantogram was playing loudly in one section, while The Kooks were struggling to be heard in another. Emma pulled a children’s book off the shelf and read to Marcy, cross-legged on the floor. “The end. You know, they purposefully don’t have chairs so we don’t sit and read.”

Marcy just shrugged and said, “It’s a bookstore. People gotta’ browse.” She started reading the back of a Bradbury paperback.

After an hour and a half, they left with four books between them, a Bradbury, a Chabon, a Lahiri, and an Eric Carle.

Outside, the wind grabbed Marcy’s orange curls and threw them into her face. She didn’t seem to mind, and crossed the street with Emma’s hand in hers. Two blocks north, they shared a pot of honey jasmine tea. They found a spot to sit crammed up the narrow staircase in a corner of the room. They cupped the ceramic mugs to warm their fingers.

It was lunch hour for the workers of D.C., but they weren’t working. They took a day off from job searching to come into the city together. They watched couples walk beneath them, holding hands.

“Do you think we’ll ever be that? Meeting up during our lunch break?” Marcy asked, her eyes shining.

“If we ever end up employed … close together, no less.”

“Come on, Emma, have faith,” she said.

The job search was devouring their souls. Last month, Emma had applied to 32 jobs. She scoured Craigslist, Indeed, Glassdoor, and more. When they were applying together one day on the blue carpet in Emma’s room, she asked, “Why is no one hiring me? Should I check off that I’m Asian? Or do they want me to be white?”

“They don’t do that anymore,” Marcy said, backspacing the majority of her cover letter.

“Shouldn’t they?”

Marcy typed another sentence, then deleted it. “It’s probably because we’re women,” she said.

“Don’t they want women? I mean, for their numbers, or whatever.”

“I want women,” Marcy said, glancing at Emma. They abandoned their laptops and fucked on Emma’s bed the rest of the afternoon.

# # #

Two years ago, before they started dating, Emma pulled her phone off her nightside table in her single on campus. The glare was so bright she squinted in the darkened room.

“Lunch tomorrow?” asked a text from Marcy.

Emma’s heart fell like a drop tower at a state fair. “Yeah, see you then,” she typed back.

She wasn’t proud of it, but she went onto Marcy’s Facebook page, browsed her photos. After several minutes, she found her fingers had crept inside her underwear. She pulled them off and gave into the desire that inevitably washes over people at 1 in the morning. She held up her phone in one hand with a photo of Marcy smiling widely with a flower crown nestled in her curls, and with her other, she slid in and out until she was her own babbling brook. She kept her moans muffled, because right outside her door were three other girls. She came, her moan turning into a cough to mask it. Once her breath became normal, she turned on her side and fell asleep.

Marcy had brought Tony along to lunch. As Emma walked over to the table with her tray of pasta, she saw him quickly place his hand on the small of her back then remove it.

“Hey, Em,” Marcy said as she sat down.


Marcy introduced Tony, explaining how they had History together. Emma scoffed at the word choice. Tony grinned and asked if she was going to the High School Prom II dance.

Emma tried to avoid dancing. She had no sense of rhythm, no clue when to lift her hands in the air, twirl, or pull a guy close. She was so bad at grinding, once a guy at a club appeared behind her, gripped her waist for a few seconds as she concentrated on swishing her ass back and forth, and then left as soon as he’d shown up. She hadn’t given him a free boner on the dance floor, she thought, so he’d ghosted. Meanwhile, Marcy seemed to be a cross between a ballerina, hip-hop, Beyoncé backup dancer. Once, she’d danced on a column so well, Emma was sure the wall would come alive.

“Um …” Emma said.

“Oh, come with! I’m going with Tony,” Marcy said, smiling.

At the dance, they played strictly 90s and early 00s tunes. Everyone laughed and tried grinding to Backstreet Boys and sang loudly to Spice Girls.

Emma tried again, and failed again, to dance with a few guys. After an hour, a girl from her art history lecture danced with her to “Remix to Ignition.” Camie put her hand on Emma’s shoulder. She lowered it all night.

Emma kept glancing at Marcy and Tony, so Camie dragged her to the center of campus where a hundred-year oak tree stretched its enormous limbs over them. She inched closer while she talked tree types. Emma noticed a brown birthmark below her right eye. Camie kissed Emma straight on, her tongue tinted with jungle juice.

Then, she was wrapping her legs around the oak and climbing it effortlessly. She sat on a branch six feet up, dangling her feet. Emma’s stomach was a washing machine set to spin. She grabbed the lowest branch and tried to pull herself up. When she managed to get her feet close to her hands, she lost balance and leapt off the trunk.

“Let your arms do the climbing,” Camie said, giggling.

So Emma held onto the low branch again and flipped upside down, dangling with her knees on the branch like it was a monkey bar. She pulled herself up. When she reached Camie’s perch, she leaned back on the trunk. “I’m going to fall.”

“No, you won’t,” Camie assured her, dragging her fingertips across Emma’s dress, then up her thigh. Camie’s dress was lifted to her hips so she could straddle the branch better. Her black lace underwear was showing. She smiled and slid her fingers under Emma’s cotton underwear. She kissed Emma for thirty minutes, then they climbed down and Emma walked Camie to her dorm across campus. They said goodnight, and Emma wandered back to the oak tree. She leaned on its rough bark for a while. When she finally headed back to her dorm, it was 3 a.m.

# # #

Five years later, Marcy and Emma live in apartments thousands of miles apart. Emma in New York, Marcy in Portland. Marcy got back with Tony and he asked her to move with him once he was offered a job.

Emma works in strategic communications and edits a literary magazine called Wolf Howl at night. She got tea with Camie last week, but things weren’t as electric as the night of the dance, with jungle juice in their veins.

Emma tries to get to bed before 11 p.m., but never makes it. Once she’s under the covers, the lights turned off, she pictures Marcy and moans herself to sleep.

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