As soon as she hears the doorbell, nerves hit Claire’s stomach at full throttle. She trots down the stairs and through the living room in her bare feet. Somehow, in the hours since they spoke to each other this morning when they arranged to meet here at the house, Claire has become increasingly tremulous about this impending afternoon visit. But she doesn’t really know why. She’s talked to Mia plenty since their dinner. Mia kept her promise and called Claire whenever she felt the slightest inclination. And now it’s Friday and she’s here, ringing the doorbell finally.
Maybe the nerves are about Mia coming to her house. It’s not ideal, that’s for sure, but there wasn’t really any other option. They can’t go to Mia’s. Her mother is on holidays. And there seems to be a mutual, silent agreement they don’t want to meet somewhere public. Today they need some sort of privacy, space to find their place with each other properly.
They only have a couple of hours, too, as Mia had to go to a promised but forgotten lunch with her mother before coming, and Claire’s parents could be home any time from five onward. And Claire has to work later, too.
She draws in a deep, steadying breath and yanks open the front door. Hot summer air floods in, and Mia’s standing there in cutoff shorts and a tank top, fanning herself. She looks sweaty and uncomfortable, her hair bunched messily at the back of her head.
Mia smiles wide as she walks in. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Claire replies quietly. She moves aside and lets Mia into the relative cool of the house.
Mia swipes her face with her forearm. “Sorry, I’m a sweaty mess. The air con in Dad’s car seems to be broken. Either that or I just broke it. Still want to kiss me?” she teases, eyes twinkling.
A shy nod is all Claire can manage, and she wonders where all her confidence—cockiness even—from the other day has gone. And she wonders where Mia found hers.
“Good.” Mia leans in and drops a light kiss on Claire’s lips.
Claire watches her as she wanders into the living room and feels strangely exposed with Mia in her house all of a sudden. And against her better judgement too. This is the part of her life she could live without Mia seeing for a while longer, this boring, suburban version of Claire, who lives in beige-washed blandness in Nowhereland, Melbourne. It already bears little connection to the person she wants to be or to the way she wants to present herself.
But Mia doesn’t say anything. In fact, she barely seems to notice the living room as she crosses the sea of neutral carpet. She stops briefly to glance at a photograph, and then, like an insect attracted to light, she walks straight over to the glass doors that look out into the back garden. Claire watches as she folds her arms and gazes out to the backyard. Yes, it definitely feels odd to have Mia here in her house.
As though Mia has somehow heard her anxious thoughts, she turns around and smiles at Claire. “Now that’s an advantage to growing up in the suburbs. Room for a pool.”
Claire plays with her earring and stares across the room, still somewhat paralysed. “True, I guess.”
Mia turns and considers her. She reaches back and lifts some hair that has strayed down onto her neck and wraps it into the knot of her hair. Then she tips her head to one side. “Are you okay?”
Claire nods and folds her arms across her chest. She stares at the beige carpet and rubs at the pile with her foot. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Let’s go outside,” Mia suggests as if maybe she can tell that the house might be playing some part in stifling Claire’s ability to act normal. She slides open the door.
Claire follows her onto the small terrace. It’s hot and windless outside, but most of the garden is in shade. The afternoon sun has already fallen behind the tall trees that line the fence. They stand side by side and both contemplate the backyard. Claire hasn’t been out here in ages, not even to swim. She recalls how her father talked about removing the pool the last time she was out here with him. It’s a round, above ground thing, built in the partial shade of a stand of tall birches, a planting decision her father bemoaned every time he had to clean the leaves out of it.
Mia shades her eyes. “In fact, another great thing about living out here, a backyard in general. Our apartment is pretty big, but we don’t even have a balcony.”
“Yeah, but you got to grow up downtown,” Claire counters. “Close to everything.”
Mia shakes her head. “Right now, nothing you can say will convince me that it was better. Not when I am this hot and I’m standing here looking at your big beautiful backyard with its swimming pool.”
“In fact, Claire?” She takes Claire’s hand in hers and shakes it.
“I think I have to get in your pool.”
“Is that so?” Claire squeezes her hand.
“I am so hot and so cranky right now I don’t think I can actually focus on anything, even you, until I have been in that body of cold water.”
“You don’t seem that cranky. But by all means, if that’s how you feel, Mia, then you should get in the pool.” She lets go of her hand and pushes her away.
That’s all the invitation Mia needs. She marches over, climbs up the short ladder and down the other side, and lowers herself into the water without even flinching.
Claire watches her stand frozen for a moment, arms outstretched before she dives under. She steps off the terrace and walks around to the shaded stretch of lawn under the birches. Leaning on the rim of the pool, she watches Mia kick out under the surface and reaches over and trails her fingers in the cool water.
Mia finally rises above the surface, pushes her hair out of her face, and smiles part bashfully, part triumphantly at Claire.
Mia bites her lip, grins again, and ducks straight back under the water without an answer. Claire turns away, flops down on the shaded grass, throws her arm over her face, and listens to the splashes as Mia continues to swim. She smiles. She doesn’t know quite why, but she feels much better now that Mia has made herself right at home.
Finally, she hears Mia climb out and footsteps pad across the grass, but then she hears nothing. She lifts her arm from her face and looks around for her. Mia is a few feet away, holding out the bottom of her top and wringing it out onto the grass.
“Come here,” Claire demands.
“I’ll drip all over you.”
Claire holds out her hand. “I don’t care.”
Mia comes over, takes her hand, and stands over her. She smiles as drops of water plunge from her hair and clothes and onto Claire. “I told you.”
Claire smiles. It’s actually hot enough that the water feels good. “And I told you I don’t care. Come here.” She says it more sternly this time, squeezing Mia’s fingers.
Obedient, Mia complies. She steps over Claire and drops down so her knees are on either side of Claire’s legs.
Claire reaches up and traces her finger along Mia’s collarbone. She loves that spot, so angular and fine. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Mia leans in closer. “And I’m glad I’m here.”
“Good.” Claire blinks and wipes her face where a drop of water has landed.
Mia quickly sits back and shakes her hair out behind her. “Sorry.”
“Never mind.” Claire, impatient now, grabs Mia’s tank top and tugs her toward her. “Come here.”
This time Mia more than complies. She leans right over Claire in a press of wet fabric and dripping hair against her skin. Claire flinches slightly and Mia laughs. “Not sorry,” she teases.
But Claire really doesn’t care because that’s when Mia kisses her, first chastely, in a languorous meeting of lips, but it slowly becomes fiercer, and it’s all she can focus on. Mia catches Claire’s bottom lip gently between her teeth, and then she slowly drops down to kisses her neck and chases the chilly splashes of water with trails of hot breath on her skin.
Claire inhales in a sudden, involuntary gasp, and reaches up and pulls Mia’s torso right down against her. One arm winds around Mia’s neck, the other pushes up the wet tank top and glides her hand across the water-cooled skin of her slender lower back. She urges Mia’s face up over hers again, pulls her down, and slides her tongue into her mouth.
The part of her that’s still capable of rational thought tells herself that doing this right here in the backyard, when she has no idea when and if anyone will be home, is probably not one of the soundest decisions she’s ever made. But the other part of her, the part that has waited this long to be able to do this with Mia, to touch her again, the part with zero self-discipline, is incapable of bringing this to an end.
But it doesn’t matter, because Mia does just that. She sits up, her expression suddenly disarmingly sober.
“What?” There is an instant, encore flicker of nerves in Claire’s belly.
“I’m sorry.” Mia holds a hand up in the air between them, brows furrowed. “I just…I want to tell you something…to talk to you, first.”
“Um, okay.” Claire wishes the plunging, ominous feeling would leave her stomach.
Mia climbs off her, lies on her back on the grass next to her, and tucks an arm under her head as if she needs some distance to say whatever it is she thinks she needs to say. Just when Claire starts to think this is going to be something bad, Mia reaches over, takes her hand, and pulls it over toward her on the grass. She weaves her fingers through Claire’s.
And Claire can breathe again.
“First, I am really sorry that I didn’t answer your calls or messages after the lake.” Mia turns her head slightly toward her as she speaks. “That was not great.”
Claire doesn’t answer. She can’t because she can’t say it’s okay. Because it wasn’t. And Mia already knows it wasn’t. Instead, she chews her lip, nods, and waits nervously for Mia to go on. She knows she needs to let Mia finally tell her about whatever it is that has been happening with her this last week or two.
Mia tightens her grip on Claire’s hand slightly. “I didn’t really explain it to you the other night. But I really don’t know why I didn’t call you. Because I really, really like you, and I think I probably really, really liked you from the moment I first met you even if I didn’t realise it at first.” She turns to look at Claire, her lips pressed together, her expression timid. “Well, maybe that’s exactly why I reacted like I did to everything. Because I really like you.”
Claire stares right back at her. “Oh, so you do.” She’s snarky, unable to help herself despite the tide of warmth that surges through her at these words. “Sometimes you don’t act like it.”
“Of course I like you.” Mia rolls over onto her side, rests her cheek on her upper arm, and stares at Claire. “You’re incredible.” She is wide-eyed and emphatic as she speaks. “You’re feisty and sweet and brutally honest, sometimes all at the same time. And you’re so smart and beautiful, and you make me laugh, and you have—”
“Okay, okay!” Claire grumbles. She turns over on the grass and hides her face against Mia’s arm, mostly to hide how ridiculously, incredibly good this flood of declarations is making her feel. Wow, when Mia finally decides to let someone know something, she really likes her to know.
“And I’m sorry I’ve been so weird,” Mia whispers. Then she’s silent for a moment. “I guess I just wasn’t completely sure I was allowed to like you, and…well…like you as much as I do. Claire?”
Claire, wrought shy still, keeps her face pressed against Mia’s arm. “Mm?”
“I didn’t mean it at all, that night, that I thought you were trashy or not worth it or anything even remotely close to that. I just didn’t think you and I, in the way I wanted you and I to be, was an option. At the time, I thought that we were just supposed to be friends, and that the drunken kissing thing was just that, drunken kissing, for you, and that you just wanted to know why it was happening. So I pretended it was the same for me. But really, kissing you when I was drunk was the only time I was brave enough to do anything about it.” She’s quiet for a moment. “I don’t know. When I’m scared about something, sometimes the only way I know how to do anything is to just barrel in. But I don’t always have the courage to follow through.” She reaches out and plays with Claire’s hair for a minute, clearly gathering her thoughts. “And I wasn’t sure if you were seeing that guy from the party, but I didn’t want to ask about it either in case it was obvious why I was asking.”
“I wasn’t,” Claire mumbles and turns to meet Mia’s gaze.
“And I guess…I really didn’t think you would seriously like a girl or someone like me. And besides,” Mia smiles weakly, “Robbie kept telling me, after I had that crush on that girl at work, not to fall for any more straight girls.”
“Someone like you?” Claire lifts her head, frowning, and pinches Mia’s arm. “You’re an idiot.”
Mia releases a great big sigh.
“And don’t listen to Robbie. He’s an idiot too.”
“Well, clearly I didn’t.” Mia grins. “Because then, you know that night at the lake? I was washing the dishes, and I was thinking about the night before, in the pantry, and that day and about us and how I should tell you how I feel about you—how I should have just told you the night before when you asked me what was happening with us. And the more I thought about it, I just got this feeling that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that the reason you were upset at me was because you might be into me, too, even just a little, and that you could like me too. I mean, you did kiss me back.”
Claire smiles a bashful smile. “You noticed.”
Mia smiles back. “I noticed. Eventually.”
“So, in summary, you were kind of stupid and brave.”
Mia raises a quizzical eyebrow.
“Brave enough to kiss me out of the blue but too stupid to register that I was kissing you back?”
Mia exhales a rueful sigh chased by a tiny acknowledging smile. “I guess.”
“Stupid in the nicest possible way, of course.”
Mia smiles and stares up at the trees above them. “So then I just thought, ‘Stuff it. I’m going to go find Claire, and I’m going to talk to her and see what happens.’” She bites her lip and takes in a deep breath. “But then instead of talking, I kissed you again. Because apparently that’s the only way I know how to communicate. I didn’t really think much beyond that, in case you didn’t realise.” She turns and looks at Claire. “But that was pretty much the bravest thing I’ve ever done.”
“And look, it worked out pretty well for you.”
“It really, really did. But then, I don’t know, I was so nervous and so freaked about it, I still just kept doubting it for some reason, doubting that this was something you would think is real too. And all the next day I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t get too excited, Mia, because this could just be some fun, holiday fling thing.’ And then the next night, your birthday night, I really, really wanted to talk to you about it, but I was too scared to.” She smiles sadly. “See? I told you, no courage for follow through.”
Claire takes her hand again and squeezes Mia’s fingers gently. She frowns. She would never have imagined Mia to be this unassured, this lacking in confidence. “For future reference, Mia, I don’t know much about how you lesbians roll, but I think it is pretty safe to say if a girl makes out with you and then she cries when you say you are only doing it because you are drunk, she likes you a bit more than a fling.”
Mia laughs. “Yeah, I figured that out eventually too.”
“What? Like, two days ago?”
Mia nods, smiling, but then her expression shifts slowly back to serious. “I was so convinced that even when you messaged me after we got back, I would tell myself, ‘Oh, it’s just Claire being nice, trying to make things normal again so we can still be friends.’”
Claire tugs at her hand. “But why didn’t you ever just ask me? I wish you’d answered my calls, talked to me, instead of deciding all this weird insecure stuff in your head. Based largely on nothing.”
“I don’t know.” Mia chews thoughtfully on her lip for a minute. “Too scared of the answer?” she finally suggests.
Claire sighs and looks at her. Stupid, beautiful, doubting Mia.
Mia rolls over onto her stomach and runs her fingers through the manicured, green grass. “I guess it was all so unexpected, and I thought maybe you were just—oh, I don’t know…” She draws in a deep breath and releases it slowly. “I’d always thought you were just into guys, and you’re so beautiful, and you could date anyone. Even up at the cottage I just couldn’t help feeling like any minute you were going to turn around and be like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I guess I thought it was better just to be your friend than to lose you completely by pushing for something you might not be into in the same way.”
Before she can stop herself, Claire sits up in the grass and punches Mia in the arm.
Mia winces and rubs her bicep. “Ouch. What?”
“Well, aside from being kind of pissed at the fact you think I am going to descend into some crazy gay panic, I really don’t get why you think that at all?”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Mia shakes her head fiercely and rolls over. “That’s the thing. I know it’s unfair because it’s not actually about you or about anything you have done or said. It’s just about me being weird, mostly because this is all new, and maybe because the one other time I really liked a girl, she was straight, and because maybe that has made me totally insecure. No.” She sighs. “I don’t even know if it’s that. I can’t really explain it.” She shakes her head again and presses her lips together, clearly on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles.
Claire pulls her knees to her chest, wraps her arm around her legs, and stares down at Mia, contemplating what she’s telling her. Basically, she’s been freaking out. And part of it is that she’s been freaking out because she thinks Claire’s going to freak out. Which is really just Mia freaking out. And so she’s gathered up every single insecurity she could possibly have about them, about herself, and about Claire, and she’s stewed on them. And now she’s throwing them at her one by one.
But Claire is going to hold her ground, damn it. Because now, in a sudden, needed gift of clarity, she finally gets it. Mia has been so petrified that Claire doesn’t feel the same way that she tried to protect her heart at all costs even if it means talking herself out of something she wants.
It’s this realisation that stops Claire from being angry. Yes, what Mia is saying about her freak-out potential is kind of presumptuous and even a little insulting, but it’s not about what she thinks of Claire. It’s about everything she can possibly imagine that might go wrong, that could go wrong. All that’s really in their way is a random bundle of doubts that Claire needs to find some way to assuage. Because it looks as if Mia had no luck doing it on her own.
And now Mia lies there with tears in her eyes, looking like a sad, lost stray on the grass next to her. And if there’s one thing Claire can’t be angry at, it’s that, because it turns out she’s a sucker for a Mia-shaped stray.
Even though the fact amazes her, Claire knows she can handle what’s being thrown at her because now she finally knows for sure Mia’s in this as deep as she is. Because that’s all Claire has ever needed to know.
She’s trying to figure out how she can reassure her when Mia says, “And you know, maybe it’s actually me having the gay panic.”
Claire watches her chew her lip and stare into the air just beyond Claire.
“It’s just…with this, it all feels so real now or something,” she whispers and turns to Claire with a timid, vulnerable expression.
Claire blinks. A wave of tenderness courses through Claire. She hadn’t really considered how their relationship might throw Mia. Of course she’s freaking out. Because for Mia this consolidates something bigger, and it’s life changing in some major ways. It’s a stepping off into a new sense of self. And Claire has to admit it makes her feel a bit melty to comprehend the possibility that Mia’s feelings for her are strong enough that they’ve thrown her into a spin.
She takes hold of Mia’s hand again. “Basically you’re just having a giant freak out?” She smiles at her.
“Yeah, I guess.” She looks at Claire, frowning. “And maybe I’m just a bit overwhelmed by all this?”
Claire blinks, and her stomach drops a little. “Too overwhelmed?”
Mia shakes her head. “No. Suitably overwhelmed. But definitely overwhelmed.”
Claire lets go of her knees and shuffles closer to Mia, contemplating all of this. Then she climbs over her and sits astride Mia’s legs. “Mia, I’m going to tell you this.” She places her hands on Mia’s stomach. “Even if you are an insecure asshole, and you think I’m trashy and—”
“Claire.” Mia grabs her hands and holds them tight. She glares at her.
“What?” Claire counters with a grin. “Don’t interrupt.”
Mia grasps her hands harder and yanks at her arms, frowning. “I do not think you are trashy,” she says, completely serious, her brown eyes fiercer than Claire has ever seen them. “I have never thought you were trashy. Ever.”
“Okay, whatever.” Claire shrugs, but is secretly pleased by her ferocity. “But you do seem to think I’m some straight girl who’s going to turn around and freak out about being with a chick. And you’ve decided this without even talking to me about it because you are an insecure asshole who refused to return my calls for nearly a week.”
Mia tries to interject, but Claire gives her back some of her own treatment from the other night and covers her mouth with her hand. “But you’re actually very lucky you’re saying this to me because being an insecure asshole is something I do very well. So even if you are kind of making me angry with these random unfounded accusations, I can also sympathise. In fact, it’s mildly entertaining seeing it thrown back at me. And I also get it. But you should also know, if we are going to do this, you cannot continue to be this high maintenance, Mia. Because I’m the high maintenance one in my relationships.” She grins. “That’s my thing. So pull yourself together, okay?”
She can feel the movement of Mia’s cheeks as she smiles under her hand.
“Also, you know, for one, what does it matter who I have been into in the past? I am into you now. Right now.” She grabs Mia’s arm with her free hand and shakes it. “Secondly, why would I not want to be with you? Have you met you? You’re kind of a babe. An awesomely geeky babe, but a babe.” She takes her hand off Mia’s mouth, which, once freed, shapes itself into a wider smile. “So,” Claire whispers as she leans closer, staring down fixedly into her dark-brown eyes, “listen to me. I am not going to back out. I am here. So please, please, please stop freaking out, okay?”
Mia’s face dissolves into a tender smile. “I’ll stop. I promise.” She pulls Claire down by the sleeve of her T-shirt.
Claire obeys and folds herself into Mia’s arms.
Mia’s hands slide over her back and pull her into a tight embrace. “I promise,” she whispers in Claire’s ear. “And I’m so sorry.”
“Okay, shut up now. You’re sorry. I get it.”
Mia laughs and squeezes her tighter.
Claire is held captive by a rush of feelings, an intense welling of attraction. How can Mia not get it? That it’s not even a question that Claire wants to be with her? She lifts her head and runs a finger lightly over the skin above Mia’s eyebrow, tracing its arc. “You really are amazing,” she tells her.
Mia’s dark-brown eyes shine as Claire presses her lips against hers. Claire lifts her head again, gazes at Mia, and checks for any more doubt or anxiety. But it’s not there. Mia’s smile is a blend of relief, happiness, and something else directed right at her that makes Claire feel almost unbearably happy. She has no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life, but she knows she wants Mia and that Mia wants her, and that’s good enough for now.
Claire lowers her head and kisses Mia again. It starts slowly, but within moments they’re back where they left off, before Mia brought things to a swift halt with her confession and apology, back in that hot, wanting space, hungrily laying claim over each other.
But this time it’s Claire who stops it as she reluctantly lifts her wrist and checks her watch. She presses her face into Mia’s neck and sighs loudly. “Crap.”
“I have to leave for work soon. And Mum and Dad could be home any minute too.”
Mia runs her hand along the back of Claire’s neck, under her hair. “Crap,” she echoes.
“Mmm,” Claire moans into her neck. “Why can’t we just have some time?”
“I know.” Mia draws her arms around her and kisses the side of her head.
“I need to move out.”
Mia chuckles. “I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but right now I really want you to as well.”
Claire kisses Mia again and climbs off her.
Mia sits up. “I should go. Let you get ready for work.”
Mia pouts right back. “I know. We’ll figure it out.” She reaches out and strokes Claire’s face. “We’ll find a minute.”
“Promise?” Claire grumbles.
“Promise. Or we’ll run away or something equally dramatic.”
They walk slowly back to the house together, out of the heat and back into the cool, still living room. At the front door, they stop and turn to each other. Mia slips her arms around Claire’s waist. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Claire replies, just a touch sulkily. She wishes again that they had more time to wallow in this newfound security of finding themselves finally, out loud, on the same page.
Mia doesn’t move to leave, though. Instead, she pulls her in closer and rests her forehead against Claire’s. Breathing in slowly, Claire runs her hand up into Mia’s drying hair, aware that the minutes she should be spending getting ready for work are trickling away. But she doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to move just yet. Instead, they stand in the doorway, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, and stare at each other, wallowing in this first precious moment of mutual certainty.
Mia smiles and takes a deep breath. “So, you and me? Does this mean we’re…”
Or what Claire stupidly thought was certainty.
“Oh, Mia.” She throws her head back, rolls her eyes, and laughs. After all that, she has to ask?
“What?” Mia laughs, bashful, clearly completely aware why Claire is rolling her eyes.
Claire pushes out a weary, purposefully melodramatic sigh. “Clearly you need this spelled out for you, what we’re doing here, right?”
Mia nods, looking shy but maybe a bit mischievous too.
“I don’t want to put a label on it or anything,” Claire tells her, faux casual. “But in my head, from here we’re, like, an item.”
“An item?” Mia laughs and raises an eyebrow. “How quaint.”
Claire gives her a superior look. “Well, call it whatever you want, Mia. But considering you seem to be kind of lagging in catching on to this whole dating a lady department or even the whole knowing if she likes you thing, I’m going to explain what that actually means, okay?”
Mia nods, obedient, her eyes twinkling.
“For starters, this thing we have going, whatever it’s called, is going to involve hanging out a lot. A lot. Can you handle that, Mia?”
Mia pulls Claire a little closer to her. “I think so.”
“There’ll also be lots of making out, feeling each other up, getting naked.” Claire kisses her lightly and continues, “Then there’ll probably be some serious debate at some point over who gets to be the little spoon if we ever get to, you know, actually sleep in the same bed together again. By the way, it’s me, just so we’re clear, okay?”
“Um, okay.” Mia chuckles.
“You’re taller. It simply makes logistical sense.”
Mia rolls her eyes. “Okay, Claire.”
“Also, I’m probably going to tease you a lot about what a hot geek you are, pick on your nerdy ways. I’ll also get jealous of your friends and sulk when you don’t pay me enough attention, that kind of thing. And you,” Claire steps back and takes both Mia’s hands in hers, “are probably going to be really nice to me even though I’m a pain, because you are, like, ridiculously lovely. And you’ll probably also make me feel bad about being a pain by being generally awesome. Like, for example,” she runs her hands along Mia’s arms, “if you ever bring me flowers, you’d never bring me roses because you’re the type of person who will remember that I told you that one time that I hate roses. You remember that, don’t you, Mia?”
Mia laughs. “I remember.”
Claire raises her hands and gives her a look as if to say “see?” She goes on. “But you’ll also pick on me plenty in that nice but smart-ass way you do, so that I’ll know you’re completely aware that I’m a jerk, but also that you can’t help liking me.”
Mia nods. “Sounds about right.”
“So, in summary, I guess, whatever all that means to you, we’re doing that, okay?” Claire folds an arm around Mia’s neck and kisses her fiercely. “You up for it?”
Mia tips her head back and laughs. “Strangely, yes.”