Milo P. Ono
Rosa refuses to be still. She stretches her arms high above her head, stacks her palms, glues her biceps to her ears, and dives. She is a dolphin and the couch is her ocean. She dives deep under the water, thrusts herself upward until she bursts out of it, jump-spins high in the air, syncing her movement to the rhythm of the other dolphins, and does it again. Dive, thrust, burst, jump, spin, dive, thrust—
“Stop,” says a distorted voice from above the surface.
—jump, spin, dive—
She freezes; her mother is clutching her wrists.
“You nearly hit Mommy in the face.” Her mother’s voice is clear now that Rosa is out of the water. She lets her maneuver her arms to her sides. “Would you like it if someone hit you in the face?” A stern tilt of the head. “No, you wouldn’t.”
They stare at each other. Rosa’s mother holds her with her hands. Rosa holds her mother with her eyes. Together, they are a tense stationary body, emanating heat into the already hot TV room.
Rosa breaks out of her mother’s grasp and finds her voice. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I swear I didn’t mean to.” She waits for the sincerity of her apology to sink in before she asks, “We can still watch diving, right?”
Rosa smiles big. Her mother sighs. “Of course, baby. But you have to sit still for me, now. The whole time, okay?”
Falling back into routine, her mother leans back on the couch, and gives her feet to Rosa one at a time so she can take off her shoes. Her father does the same. After she has arranged their shoes neatly under the coffee table, her parents tuck their feet into the couch.
“Rosie, why don’t you get everyone some lemonade.”
She exits the kitchen carrying three cold juice boxes, arranged in a delicate triangle. Condensation coats Rosa’s hands, but the boxes do not slip. Even if they fell to the ground and spilled everywhere, she wouldn’t mind. Her feet move slowly down the hallway, but her mind is racing. Her mind is halfway across the globe at the Olympics, working to tune out the crowd.
Rosa takes a big breath, letting the chlorine-choked air fill her nose. She bounces on the diving board, feels it scratch against the soles of her feet. She jumps. As she soars, she hears nothing but the air whooshing past her ears. After what seems like hours of falling—no, flying—her eyes close and her fingers slice down into the water like a hot knife.
Back in the TV room, Rosa sets down the lemonades and wriggles in between her parents on the couch. They stare at the TV in silence, watching sprinters’ legs blur together.
When diving finally comes on, Rosa’s arms itch to stretch above her head along with the divers on TV, but she doesn’t want her mother to get mad again. As promised, she remains completely still with her hands in her lap. Then she begins her breathing routine. When the diver jumps, she breathes in and holds it until the sharp smell of chlorine comes into focus. Feel the air rush past your ears. Feel gravity pull you down. Hold your breath. Hit the water. Hold it, hold it. Break the surface—triumphant—and release.
Karen and Rosa roll snowballs in the front yard, passing the time until Karen’s mother comes home from work.
As usual, she pulls up around six, rolls down the window, and honks twice.
The girls rush to the car. It doesn’t matter that it’s February. Frozen yogurt tastes good in every season.
On the highway, Rosa scrutinizes other cars, waiting for the opportunity to shout at the top of her lungs. The rules of Car Game are simple. If a car drives too fast or too slow, or if someone “cuts off” Karen’s mother, one of them has to call out, “JACK” and the other two have to respond “ASS” in perfect unison. They burst out laughing every time.
For Rosa, Karen’s mother’s car is a haven. It’s the only place where yelling can be good, where no one gets hurt and no one gets mad, where catharsis comes without consequence.
At home, Rosa’s father is the only one allowed to yell. Every few days, when she forgets to hang up her coat after school or her mother leaves out a dirty coffee cup, he starts walking around in circles, shaking his gun-shaped hands, pointing his finger and shouting continuously, seemingly without taking a breath. Then, once he’s run out of things to yell about, he stomps out of the room and slams the bedroom door. When it’s really bad, he stomps all the way out of the house, revs the car, and speeds out of the driveway.
Rosa and her mother listen to the sounds of him leaving. After a few minutes of quiet, her mother reaches for her hand to hold or strokes her hair until their heartbeats slow enough to fall asleep.
The next morning, he, inevitably and predictably, comes in with his head bowed and says, “I’m so, so sorry.” And he means it every time.
Karen and Rosa wake up to excruciating wailing. They rush downstairs to find Karen’s mother wide-eyed, pointing at the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard. Karen runs across the room and wraps her arms around her mother, but she doesn’t hug her back. She doesn’t turn her head, or drop her arm, or blink, even; she just wobbles back and forth under her daughter’s weight.
Rosa stands back, trying to avoid getting in the way of family matters. With her eyes, she follows the invisible line from the tip of Karen’s mother’s finger to the door and discovers the source of her distress: a cream-colored softball-size mass of fur. It’s Karen’s beloved hamster Jojo, curled up on the pavement as if asleep, his pink nose squished against the glass.
“I thought he was Perry,” Karen’s mother reasons with herself. “I thought he was Perry so I let him out. Scratching at the door means he wants to go out. Perry’s always scratching when he’s gotta pee. I thought he was scratching. I could hear him scratching. It was so loud.” She goes on telling herself what happened again and again, as if she can make it make sense.
Tentatively, Rosa walks up to Karen, who is still attached to her mother, and whispers, “Who’s Perry?”
“Our old bulldog,” Karen says, “He died when I was like five.”
Suddenly, her soft kid-voice is replaced by something much larger. “Hamsters aren’t supposed to go outside, Mom,” she says, yanking fistfulls of her mother’s shirt back and forth. “You promised you would remember who Jojo is. That was Jojo, and you killed him! Why can’t you just remember!”
Once Karen has stilled, Rosa reaches out and rubs her arm gently. “It’s okay. We’ll take care of Jojo tomorrow. Right now, your mom needs to sleep. It’s gonna be okay.”
Slowly, Karen releases her grip on her mother and shepherds her to her bedroom. Rosa follows them up the stairs at a distance, then crawls into Karen’s bed to wait, her eyes fixed on the dark space of the hallway.
As soon as Karen has shut the door, she’s bawling. She switches on her TV, throws the remote across the room, and shoves herself under the covers.
On the screen, Marlin and Nemo embrace in reunion. Rosa reaches for Karen’s hand, and Karen squeezes her back. With her other hand, Rosa runs her fingers through Karen’s hair, like her mother always did for her. Rosa knows what to do in hard situations because her mother taught her.
Neither girl says it, but they both know Karen’s mother is in the other room, dying.
Karen is still shaking, so Rosa makes her routine loud enough for Karen to hear. She sets a steady pace with slow, deep, audible breaths, and waits patiently for Karen’s breath to match hers. With each breath, they inch toward sleep, together, in each other’s arms, in unison.
Waiting for the manager to come in, Rosa shifts anxiously on the plastic-covered chair. Once he’s sat in the chair opposite her, she catches him eyeing her thighs before looking back at her resume. She pulls down her skirt, then holds her hands in her lap.
“Alright,” he says, drawing out the all. “Have you ever worked at a movie theater before?”
“I haven’t, but—”
“No. Alright, next question. What’s your favorite movie?”
“Spiderman. The original.”
He chuckles and sets her resume on the desk.
“I bet you wanna know why there’s plastic on all the chairs, don’t ya?” he says with a smirk. Rosa nods. “It’s to protect the furniture from all the popcorn grease, of course!”
More laughing. Behind her smile, Rosa grinds her teeth.
“You know not to let people bring in their own food and drink? Nothing that isn’t from the snack counter.”
“Alright, then I’ll see you tomorrow at nine. Congratulations, you’ve got the job!”
“Thank you.” As Rosa stands up, he reaches out for a handshake. She accepts his hand and thanks him again, this time adding a “so much.” With her hand still locked in his, he says, “But no skirts allowed at work, alright? Too distracting.”
Alone in the lounge, Rosa cries. The stiff, college-supplied couch offers her no comfort; it does nothing more than hold her up, and the harsh overhead light reminds her of nights spent with Karen in the hospital. She gets up, flips off the light switch, and throws the door. But it refuses to slam.
Her night—the date—replays itself in her head. She doesn’t think she’ll ever forget his face, though she has already forgotten his name.
He picked her up five minutes early. The car was green and textured, like a dollar bill. He had bought her a rose, because yes, her name is Rosa, but also because he was a gentleman. He actually said that. “Don’t believe what they say, Rosa, chivalry isn’t dead. My dad raised me to be a gentleman.” He held the door for her, covered the bill, and carried her leftovers.
Back at his apartment, he fucked her on the kitchen floor.
Rosa remembers the shock of the cold tile on her bare back, how every thrust pinched the skin around her shoulder blades. She remembers trying and failing to find something to grab onto—his shoulders, his hair, his ears, even—but he was moving too fast.
She remembers his red face, his closed eyes, his swinging hair that tickled her face. But what was his name?
Rosa presses her thighs together until they ache. She stays there, sitting in the lounge until morning, drifting in and out of sleep.
5:06 PM. The plane lands at O’Hare with a jolt, and, suddenly, Rosa is in Syd’s domain. Illinois must be a magical place, a place where the girl you love does things like pay $6 to use a parking space for 15 minutes so she can meet you in the airport lobby wearing slouchy overalls and a dizzying smile, a place where she picks you up—backpack and all—like you weigh nothing and swings you around in front of everybody. That’s how the dream begins.
They talk the entire drive to Winnetka, as if it’s been months instead of weeks since they last saw each other. Rosa takes little notice of scenery or traffic or anything but Syd’s profile, so, even after an hour of driving, she is surprised to hear the rattle of the driveway gate opening.
“I present to you…the Mansion,” Syd says in a British accent.
Rosa is relieved that even in the Mansion, she and Syd can still do what they normally do. They eat (frozen pizza), they drink (the wine Syd’s parents left in the fridge), and they do dishes together.
“I thought the whole reason for my visit was to meet your parents,” Rosa blurts out, holding up a kitchen towel embroidered with little oranges, waiting for Syd to finish washing their plates, so she can dry them.
“Well, yeah. But the real reason I invited you was because I wanted to see you. I’ve missed you.” With soapy hands, Syd pushes a lock of Rosa’s hair behind her ear. “A lot.”
Blushing, Rosa wipes the tickly bubbles off her ear with the towel. “I’ve missed you too.”
“And you’re still gonna meet them, okay? They get back in town tomorrow. Tonight, though, it’s just you and me.”
The Mansion contains three chandeliers, eight queen beds, at least twenty vases, and a dozen couches ranging in size, texture, and color. Rosa selects the big brown one in the basement because it seems the least likely to stain. It smells like real leather.
She wipes her sweaty palms on her dress, gets naked, and arranges herself on the couch the way she thinks Anne Hathaway would, with her head propped up by her elbow, resting on an arm of the couch.
When Syd comes downstairs, she smiles, giving Rosa permission to smile also. Syd relaxes against the doorframe, as if there’s a fifty percent chance she’ll stay and a fifty percent chance she’ll go back upstairs, leaving Rosa alone.
Then—thank God—she pounces and begins kissing her way down Rosa’s neck.
Even though there’s a party raging around her, Rosa feels safe in Freddy’s apartment, curled up on their filthy old armchair. Its lumps usually bother her, but tonight even they feel soft. She listens to Freddy and their partner yell at each other over the noise, trying to have a normal conversation. As usual, Freddy is complaining about work. She makes out a few phrases here and there: “TEN-HOUR-DAYS,” “FUCK JOHNNY WILLEMSON,” “TEST WHAT WE SELL.”
Then Syd skips into the room, seemingly in slow motion. She looks directly at Rosa and ruffles Freddy’s hair. She pulls out a joint, brandishing it between her fingers—a signal that it’s time to go out onto the balcony. Freddy holds the joint for her so she can give Rosa a piggy-back.
Rosa rests her head on Syd’s shoulder, taking in the salty smell of her hair and says, “Your hair smells like the beach,” but Syd is laughing too hard to hear.
As soon as she’s awake, Rosa downs the bottle of water she had left on her bedside table the night before and rolls over to check if Syd is still asleep. She isn’t there.
What happened last night? Obviously, Rosa made it home, but what about Syd? Had she been so drunk that she forgot to get Syd home safe? Or maybe Syd just decided to stay over at Freddy’s? But what if she is currently sleeping next to some stranger? Rosa’s heart drops. What if she OD’ed and Rosa hadn’t been there to take her to the hospital this time?
A retching sound echoes throughout the apartment. Syd.
Rosa sighs, ambles into the kitchen to get the supplies—two more bottles of water, fruit punch Gatorade, clean towels—and makes her way to the bathroom.
Rosa sits on the edge of the couch, bouncing her legs, waiting for Syd to come home from her graveyard shift. She goes over her day in her head, again and again, planning out how she’ll tell Syd the good news.
The interview was extravagant. In the waiting room, there were five different kinds of tea, hazelnut-flavored coffee, Belgian chocolates, and a peculiar bowl filled with freeze-dried fruit. Rosa didn’t know whether the fruit was another snack for hungry clients or simply decoration. Just as she was about to place a shriveled chunk of pineapple on her tongue, the receptionist called her name. Then, a legal assistant approached her and led her down a door-lined hallway. The assistant was easily 5’10’’ but wore pumps anyway. Her heels ticked like a metronome as she walked across the tiled floor.
Two funeral suits interrogated Rosa for two hours. It was the longest and most rigorous interview she had ever done. On the drive home, her tongue was so dry from speaking that it stuck to the roof of her mouth every time she swallowed. She hadn’t thought to bring her water bottle. Maybe she should have made herself some of that Cherry Rosehip Tea for the road.
After 40 minutes of waiting for Syd, Rosa reheats what is left of her morning coffee in the microwave, and sits back down on the couch, mug in hand. It was the first couch she and Syd bought together.
Rosa closes her eyes, imagining Syd’s reaction when she tells her she got the job.
Maybe she’ll lean against the doorframe—where she always seems to be—with her hand cupped around her ear and yell, “What?” pretending not to have heard her. Maybe she’ll throw her bag on the ground, pick Rosa up, and spin her around. Maybe she’ll kiss Rosa like she used to.
Rosa wakes with a gasp. She is still on the couch. The apartment is empty. She knows. Syd didn’t come home last night, and Rosa knows what that means.
She finds her phone in between the cushions and calls Freddy. They admit that Syd texted them in the early morning saying that she’d fucked up and slept with someone.
“Of course I didn’t text her back or anything. I wouldn’t do that to you,” says Freddy.
“Who?” Rosa’s voice is barely audible.
“Who was it?”
“Some douche named Nathan. Nate, maybe? I saw them flirting like last week, but Syd’s always flirting with everybody. I didn’t think she’d go this far.”
After a beat, Freddy sighs vigorously. “Get dressed. I’m coming to get you. She’s the one who cheated. I’m on your side, and we’re gonna get you through this, okay?
“Be there in ten.”
Rosa watches tears stream down the window like rain.
“You could try screaming if you want,” Freddy says, “It always works for me.”
“I don’t think that would—”
“Oh, come on!” they say, reaching over to roll her window down.
She screams into the hot air. “I’ll leave you, Syd. Watch me! I have a job offer that pays three times as much as your fucking temp gig. I can take care of myself!”
She never loved her. She never loved her. She never loved her. “I never loved you!” she yells at a Syd who isn’t there.
Rosa sits on a park bench with her legs crossed, the bench’s red paint flaking off at the edges. She stares blankly, seemingly through the ice-crusted playground equipment remembering games she used to play there with Karen. Her favorite was when they imagined the ground was lava.
She sits still, wishing Karen were here, letting the snow stick wherever it lands: on her hat, on her sweater, or on her bare hands where it melts and disappears as if it had never been there in the first place. She imagines passersby mistaking her for a statue.
A mother flies by with a stroller, not noticing Rosa, on her way to the swings. She scoops up the toddler, who looks like a marshmallow in his white coat, and then begins to push the swing rhythmically.
Rosa decides to call her mother.
“Hi, baby. You’re father and I are at dinner right now. Can I call you back tomorrow?” Rosa remains silent. Snow falls into her sleeve and disappears. “Rosie?” her mother insists.
“Syd cheated on me,” she says.
She knows her mother is currently shooting a look at her father across the table, trying to tell him what happened without words. She knows he is shrugging and rolling his eyes.
Silverware clangs in the background. A toddler screams.
“I told you, baby. I told you she was bad news. Girls dating girls will never work. Two girls together means too many emotions for one relationship to handle. Are you listening to me, Rosie?” Her voice blends into the restaurant clatter. “She cheated on you with a man, didn’t she. I tried to tell you this kind of thing would—”
Rosa hangs up.
Rosa’s body is bent over on itself, like the laundry she’s folding. Her back begs her to adjust her position on the couch—to relax—but she can’t, not until she’s home.
When Syd opens the door, Rosa puts down the jeans she was re-folding and feigns a smile. Syd sets her things down in a heap by the door and walks over to peck Rosa on the forehead.
“Hey, did you remember that Liam and Carol are coming over tonight?”
Rosa did not remember, but Syd has already turned her back. She shouts from the hallway. “I’m gonna check how much wine we have left.”
Rosa rotates so she can reach the remote, and clicks on the TV. The screen is staticky at first, before settling into the familiar blue home screen. She grips the remote tightly, cycling mindlessly through the channels, waiting for the twinges of back pain to recede.
Who knows how many times she’s pushed the up-arrow before her thumb slips lifelessly off the remote. She looks up, sees a chef slicing into a steaming hot meatloaf, and hears him emphasize how good the meat smells by wrinkling his nose exaggeratedly. The camera zooms in on the fully dressed plate of food, which he presents to the audience. The credits roll over his face as he picks up a fork and begins to eat, chewing and moaning. “Incredible!” he says.
Rosa keeps her eyes on the screen but tunes out the chef’s voice and the noises Syd’s making in the kitchen. Breathe in the chlorine, hold it, remember the smell. She wills herself to dive into the couch, to feel the warmth of the ocean spreading over her skin.
Once underwater, Rosa looks up and sees Syd and her parents peering down at her from the shore. They are wearing winter coats and boots and gloves. She is the only one wearing nothing. She is the only one holding her breath.
Snowflakes drift onto their hair and clothes. They do not melt. But when they fall on the surface of the water, they disappear—turn into it. And it grows.
Through the blue screen above, Rosa watches the ghost-white image of her wife and her parents shrink and shrink until she has sunk far below the shadows of the water.
Milo P. Ono is a queer and trans library devotee from Salt Lake City, UT. Their writing, which traverses the perilous and wondrous intersections of identity, empathy, and imagination, can also be read in The Citron Review.
Photo Credit: Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash