“Teri.” That name, more than any other, is not normally hard to speak. Justine’s connection to Teri is deep and full of history. Justine does not like people, and she doesn’t often speak to them or let them into their lives. Teri is an exception, but this utterance is different. Behind it, days of thoughts and implications have stacked up, waiting to be freed.
Justine’s eyes don’t leave her phone. There’s a show streaming on the television, but neither of them are paying much attention to it. It’s just a serial sitcom, something that provides background noise and comfort while they peruse the internet before bed.
“I wanted to ask you something.” Well, there it is. Justine could probably still back away, or come up with a false question to replace the one that’s really in her heart, but she doesn’t want to, even though her anxiety tells her that she should.
“What’s up?” Teri sets her phone down, blacking the screen. She tilts her head. She looks worried, but only a little bit. Her legs are curled beneath her, clad in the soft sweats she wears to bed. She has her hood pulled up over her head, hiding her short hair, because the two of them keep the apartment heat low even in the winter.
“Well…” Here Justine falters, but only for a moment. She takes a breath. “I wanted to know if… if you thought of us as…”
Teri freezes. Her toes are inches from Justine’s: they are curled up on opposite sides of the couch, almost touching. Justine’s blanket is more of a barrier between them than the space. Justine pushes the words out.
“I wondered if you ever think of us as girlfriends.” Justine bites her lip, as though she can catch the words and bring them back. She flushes, embarrassed, though she’s pretty sure Teri can’t tell, in the dim light.
Teri doesn’t answer right away. She reaches for the remote, deliberately, and pauses the show. The new silence feels heavy and deep. It feels like Teri is buying time to craft an answer, which, to Justine, can’t mean anything good.
Teri stares, for what seems like forever, at the black television screen. “I don’t know.”
“Oh,” Justine says. In a way, the answer is a relief. It’s noncommittal, which means it’s not a flat no. Or yes. Justine isn’t sure which she would prefer, because she doesn’t know how to answer her own question. She had hoped Teri would know.
Justine had feared she would ask that. “I don’t know, either,” she says. “Honestly, I’d just sort of hoped you would have an answer ready.”
“I feel like that’s not the kind of question you can ask without having your own answer prepared,” Teri says.
“Maybe, yeah.” Justine picks at the edge of her blanket, wishing she had never brought this up. “I’ve just… I’ve been thinking about it for a while, now, and I didn’t know the answer. I feel like you always have answers to things. You’re the smart one, you know?”
Teri laughs, just a little bit, but it’s enough to make Justine feel a bit lighter. “Just because I know what to do sometimes doesn’t mean I always know the answer.”
“I know,” Justine says. “But I still hoped.”
“You could have just not brought it up,” Teri says. “Then maybe we wouldn’t have to think about an answer.”
Justine winces. “I guess.”
“I didn’t mean that to sound like a reprimand!” Teri says quickly. She reaches out with one hand, grasping Justine’s knee. “I’m so sorry. That came out wrong.”
“What did you mean, then?” Justine attempts to keep the bitter tinge from her voice, but she knows immediately that she has failed.
Teri knows her, though, and takes it well. “I only meant that maybe it’s not a question we really need to answer.”
“I don’t like not knowing the answer to things, though,” Justine said.
Teri’s hand hasn’t left Justine’s knee. They’re very comfortable with touching each other. As far as they’ve ever discussed, they’re just friends. Roommates. Justine feels like there might be something more, though, something that they haven’t begun to explore fully. She feels happy with Teri, and she knows Teri feels happy with her. They eat meals together, and go to movies together. Neither of them have dated anyone else in over a year. There’s something between them that might be more than friendship.
Teri continues. “I guess what I’m saying is that maybe it’s not something we need to consciously decide. People make a big deal out of relationships, and the labels that define them, but maybe that’s not necessary for us. Maybe we can just accept whatever we have and keep moving forward with it.”
Teri shrugs, withdrawing her hand, but the way her eyes are fixed on Justine’s makes her feel closer than physical touch. “Sure. You make me happy. I don’t want to move backward.”
Justine thinks about saying more. She realizes her mouth is hanging open slightly, so she closes it, the result of which is that she says nothing. They end the conversation there, and though Justine’s question wasn’t resolved, technically, she feels more at peace than she did before, and that’s all she truly sought.