“Heathcliff has no notion of these things. He has not, has he? He does not know what being in love is!’
‘I see no reason that he should not know, as well as you, and if you are his choice, he’ll be the most unfortunate creature that ever was born!”
I’d been sneaking alcohol for years, but the first time Julia drank was at a party I invited her to, the Christmas before we both turned nineteen. She was too smart to let anyone know it, but the first touch of that glass, that first click and buzz in her brain, must have made her feel the way I felt seeing her there, her blonde hair red in the lights from the bar.
We had a dress code for university, and we went to church on weekends, so I never saw Julia in anything tight or low cut, and even the outfit she wore that night would have been unremarkable on me.
She was flawless. Unbearably ripe and luscious, pure and lovely. Her body burst out where her modest personality hid. She swelled and bloomed and rose to the top of the room and we were floating, bobbing through the air.
When I touched her, months later, she was so full, so firm. I didn’t want to betray my inexperience by expressing my awe. So I hurried down, skirted her flat stomach, found the neat little curls.
She was wet, and gasped, and clung to me, and I had my mouth open in shock, and the sense to keep my face buried.
“If I were in heaven, I should be extremely miserable. I dreamt once that I was there. Heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other.”
The group of us at the bar played “Never ever have I ever.” We had to drink if we’d ever masturbated. Of course, I didn’t drink.
A long arm reaching for a glass caught my eye and I looked up.
“That’ll be me.”
Her voice was deeper than usual, she sounded almost jaded. The ice clinked in her drink as I stared at her.
When she stood up and smiled and put her hands in her back pockets I leapt out of my seat, and we left the bar together. The night was cool and deep blue.
“Have you really, Julia?”
Her legs were longer than mine, so sometimes I had to jog to keep up. She laughed, hitched her rucksack up on her shoulders.
“I just said that to sound cool. I’ve not done it.”
Relief flooded over me. I ran all the way home.
I had a boyfriend.
I let him touch me where I wouldn’t touch myself, except to put in my tampon, wincing and squirming at the dry cotton.
My boyfriend would finish and I’d be still excited. On a cliffhanger after his blockbuster climax. I was restless.
Julia played keyboard in the orchestra, and one day I stayed late after lectures and she taught me a harmony. I sat spellbound as she sang against the rhythm of her own hands, her voice lifted among the chords, like a dolphin leaping out of the sea.
At home I practiced singing to myself, and when I finally got the descant, I pictured her sitting down at the piano with those long, quick fingers, pictured her smiling. Pictured myself like the water, streaming off her dolphin back, liquid gold in the sunlight.
I pictured her waiting for me.
“I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if Heathcliff had not been brought so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.”
As part of a summer activity programme, Julia and I signed up to several hiking challenges, with students from other universities, and one mutual friend, Lauren.
We were all due to climb a mountain at sunrise. The leaders had given us a pep talk at base camp, and sent us to bed early.
We were sharing with Lauren, and there were bunk beds lining the walls of the room. Lauren had the bunk above Julia. I took the other bottom bunk. Julia and I lay with our heads almost together, our bodies miles apart. Julia wore real pyjamas, long and cotton. I had too-small shiny polyester pyjamas, with white piping and turquoise buttons.
When I thought Lauren was asleep, I trailed my fingers across the varnished pine bars around Julia’s bed. I lingered softly at first, then scratched my nails against it, my heart thudding. Julia seized my hand like a cat swiping a scuttling mouse. I laughed at the suddenness, filled with glee.
When she let go I dragged my fingers through her golden hair, pawed at her duvet. I was at full stretch, painfully half over the edge of my bed, taut like a wire. She sat up and reached over to feel the hair splayed across my pillow. She toyed with the ends, a safe twelve inches away from my scalp. Her touch thrilled through me, as though every capillary had suddenly grabbed its neighbour and held on tight.
In the grateful dark, I undid the top button, then the second, then — did I dare — the third on my nightshirt. I scooted back up the bed and leant my head into her palms, stretching towards her until her fingers were at my throat, and she traced my pulse with sweaty hands, her voice breaking from whispers into giggles. I arched my back and at last she brushed my nipple. She retreated, shyly, then skimmed under my shirt once more.
Lauren cut in sharply from the top bunk that we had to go to sleep. I froze in terror. Julia retreated into her own bed like a salted snail. We had an uneasy night.
Next morning I couldn’t keep my hands off Julia, in the half light I found her headlamp for her, picked up her walking sticks, pulled strands of hair off her coat.
Last week I found one of those butter-coloured strands on my dress, and wondered. Then I realised it was one of my own, greying hairs. Ten years have passed, and she’s straight now, living with the boyfriend I introduced her to, nine and a half years ago.
I broke up with my boyfriend, after the bunk bed incident. He didn’t understand why.
I told him we’d be graduating soon anyway, and what was the point of it all really, and as his face crumpled I felt surprised.
Couldn’t he tell that I was dizzy in love with someone? I was so happy, so on fire, so every waking moment I was fizzing, and sometimes I ran to her place, or raced on my bike, just as soon as she wanted me I was there, greeting her housemates breathlessly and rushing upstairs.
Walking in to Julia’s room was like the first glimpse of the ocean after a long, hot drive. Her white curtains billowed in the warm spring breeze, and when you lay next to her on her single bed, you felt like the two of you were huddling on a beach, in the shade of a coconut tree.
One night we went out with some other girls, and when I went to the toilet she followed me in, and kissed and gasped and pressed our bodies together, until someone hammered on the door and we straightened our clothes, took a final look at each other, and sloped out into the bar.
My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary … And that, not because he’s handsome, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
The second part of the programme was a walk in Camino de Santiago.
Julia had period pains during the whole trip, and I was never more than ten feet from her. At night I held her emptying body against mine in our sleeping bags, held her arms as she wrestled the cramping. Embarrassed, she’d made me promise not to tell the leaders what was wrong, so I didn’t, and we struggled on.
The whole group was playing a murder game, where the trip organisers had pulled names out of a hat, and secretly delegated each of us an assassin, a murder weapon, a time and place of death. Julia and I, and about half the camp, remained “alive.” I’d despatched my victim with a book in the shower block. Julia’s victim had taken a swift fork on the football pitch.
A group of boys used to sit in Billy’s tent, writing and rewriting the list of victims and assassins, deducting their own by process of elimination, each strategising to be the last man standing.
One light summer evening I left Julia to her troubled sleep in our tent, and ventured out. I heard the boys discussing their plan, and poked my head through their tent flap. They greeted me coldly, folding the paper away.
My heart sank. Even the boys weren’t happy to see me. I’d offended several of the girls with my eagerness to share a tent with Julia. The other girls were in a group with Lauren, who must by now have told them about the night in the bunk beds.
If they hadn’t already guessed from my hovering around Julia, my constant touching to support and stroke and feel her.
When we were together, I was proudly possessive. But now, on my own, I began to realise the awful consequences of my public affection.
“As soon as you become Mrs. Linton, he loses friend, and love, and all! Have you considered how you’ll bear the separation, and how he’ll bear to be quite deserted in the world? Because, Miss Catherine—’
‘He quite deserted! we separated!’ she exclaimed, with an accent of indignation. ‘Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo! Not as long as I live: for no mortal creature.”
That bright evening I realised I had no friends in camp, and I didn’t know what Lauren might tell our friends when we got back to England, and I’d left my boyfriend, and maybe I would never have any friends, or a boyfriend, ever again, and I’d have to walk quickly through the corridors with my arms crossed over my stomach and my eyes down and still be taunted, still be whispered about.
I stood at the entrance to the boys’ tent, and saw their averted faces, and a lump started forming in my throat, but then Billy looked up at me.
“Who was your victim?”
I told him.
I told him hers, too.
“I can tell you who your assassin is, if you like.”
I picked my way over to Billy and sat down beside him. He wouldn’t let me see the paper.
“OK, tell me.”
“You have to do me a favour first.”
“Kill Julia for me. With a knitting needle, at breakfast.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s my victim. If you promise, then I’ll tell you your assassin.”
“I can’t kill Julia.”
He broke into a grin, and I was suddenly horrorstruck — what did he know — what did he assume? But all he said was:
“You’re a good sport. We like you.”
I felt the blood rushing through my body, and grinned back at him. Though I stayed arguing playfully for a long time, we both knew what I was going to do.
It had been days since anyone but the leaders and Julia had spoken to me in more than monosyllables. It was dark when I got back to our tent and curled up around Julia.
“Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff. Oh, that’s not what I intend — that’s not what I mean! I shouldn’t be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! He’ll be as much to me as he has ever been.”
I wanted to wake her to tell her that they’d like us again, that I could worship her and caress her and we’d be safe. We’d be safe in the disguise of me not caring about her. The others would never think we could be best friends, or even lovers, if I was so quick to betray her.
I woke up the next morning and she was still sleeping, like an angel carved out of sandstone, and all I could see was the curve of her skull and her blonde eyebrows and eyelashes, the soft down on her heart-shaped face, the gentle tip of her chin.
When she stirred and opened her eyes I was giddy, like I was throwing her surprise party, like I had a secret birthday cake in the next room, like I had a diamond ring in my pocket. She zipped up her hoodie and threaded her long legs into tight jeans, and we queued up for omelette together.
I poked her with the knitting needle, in her bicep, and she turned around.
She looked down at the needle, then into my laughing eyes, hers wide and blue.
She was searching my face for confirmation, denial, an explanation, but I was just looking at her the way I always look at her; blissfully happy, and ravenous. She left the queue and walked quickly out of the canteen.
The people around me started coming in to focus. Billy was sat strategically, just in front of where I was standing.
When I looked up he nodded at me, and went back to his porridge.
That was it, that was all I was going to get for breaking trust with this fragile, precious Julia. My Julia.
I couldn’t get her alone all morning, and when we moved to the next camp she sat next to Lauren on the bus. When we got into our tent that evening, I tried my winning smile, a gentle punch on the arm.
She asked me why I had done it. I gave a lighthearted explanation, said that Billy wanted me to help him, and maybe I could win the game, and she and I could share the prize.
Julia rolled over, and we lay silently, listening to the shimmering cicadas.
“If all else perished, and Heathcliff remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.”
The next day sitting at the lunch table, Julia handed me a wooden mallet. I looked at it, and felt its cold splinters, against my suddenly sweaty skin.
“I don’t believe it.”
I really didn’t believe it. I beamed into Julia’s face, expecting her to have been kidding. She was impassive. My assassin snapped impatiently from the next table.
Back in England, Julia’s parents drove her away from the airport. Their retreating car was a sealed pod, impenetrable and streamlined. I thought about a coconut rolling from its tree into the ocean, bobbing over the waves until it settled on another shore to build a new palm. I knew there would be boys waiting for her. I actually had someone in mind.
I introduced Julia to Graham from my course, he was rich and good looking, and they seemed to hit it off right away. I picked up with her ex-boyfriend. He had a bad attitude. I was pretty sure I could fix that.
He and I made out the following week right in the middle of a party, against the doorframe which led to the main thoroughfare. He whistled when he felt my excitement. He was always too cool to get excited himself.
Over his shoulder I saw Julia pull Graham into the living room, and close the door.
“What do you think they’re doing?”
“Julia and Graham.”
“What do you think they’re doing? They’re getting off.”
And he pressed me into the doorjamb again to shouts of “Get a room!”
I realised, when I came up for air, that it was very late, and I had promised to go to a midnight book release with Julia. I tapped gingerly on the door of the living room.
“You want to go to the bookstore?”
She snorted, her new boyfriend laughed in disbelief.
“I’m busy, thanks.”
The next morning, hungover and shy, I went into the cafe where she worked. She was all in black, with her hair up, and glasses on, making cappuccino.
“You want me to buy you a copy and bring it in?”
I was stuttering.
“I have to work. I can get it later.”
She stacked mugs while I drooped by the till.
“What happened last night?”
“Oh, you know.”
“Oh. Did Graham like it?”
“You could say that.”
“I mean, did he …”
She raised one eyebrow.
I blushed scarlet. She turned her back to me, wiping the counters. But I had something else to ask. I fingered the cutlery in the pot. I rotated the spoons, so they were nesting into each other, clattering as my hands shook.
“Have you ever… You know. Had something nice happen. For you?”
“Not yet,” she said, “but he’s really good.”
“Me neither” I said, “I’ll let you know.”
“He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.'”
Before we got back to uni in the autumn I told our mutual friends that I thought Lauren was a lesbian, just to forestall any stories she might like to tell about bunk beds.
Lauren would later follow Julia into a toilet stall, at my twentieth birthday party, and press her up against the door and kiss her, and Julia would cry about her boyfriend and run her own head into the brick facade of the bar, and I’d restrain her between my legs, both arms enveloping her, the way I had in the tents in Spain, and I thought maybe it felt good because I was keeping her pretty face safe for Graham, and he’d be so grateful, but mostly I couldn’t bear it when the moment passed and she was safe to be alone again and we untangled ourselves.
When I told her that it had happened for me, that I’d finally, silently, wondrously, had an orgasm, she said “yeah me too.”
I never believed her.
She’s still with Graham. I asked her about that party once. We were sat in the smoking area outside a nightclub, although neither of us smoke.
“Oh, he was too drunk for anything.”
“Oh, I thought…”
I was bright red in the dark.
“I thought you were really good at handjobs, and uh, you made him come, at the party.”
“Oh god, no. I said that cos you were making out with my ex.”
The earth span in space, we graduated, got jobs. Last year Julia and Graham walked me home from another party, both pushing their bikes. They were Artemis and Apollo, a golden chariot apiece.
I was drunk and it was dark and I said out loud that I was bisexual because of her, that she must be too, that I’d never gotten over her, that she was the acropolis, the highest sacred point, that she was flawless.
Julia laughed, and turned apologetically to her boyfriend.
I heard it coming before she said it.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
edited by Heather.