AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Star and the Ocean underwent structural revisions in September 2016. This particular chapter can now be found as the new chapters 27 and 28. I highly encourage you to read from these new chapters instead!
Content warning: This chapter includes implied, non-explicit reference to emotional abuse and physical coercion.
Chapter Fourteen – I’m just tired
The memory of their ill-fated tryst was still fresh in Em’s mind. Just like on that morning, she could tell May was working up the courage to tell her something difficult.
“May, you don’t have to-”
May waved her off. “I want to.”
It was sort of true. She didn’t want to have this conversation at all, but she did want to be honest with Em.
Em wasn’t buying it, but she nodded anyway.
May took a deep breath and began.
“There used to be this guy in town named Kane. He was cool and talented and charming. Girls were crazy about him. Everyone thought he was so great.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t?” Em asked.
“Not even a little bit. But he could play a bunch of instruments and normally played accompaniment for productions at the theater. A handful of years ago he was doing the music for a show I was dancing in and, I don’t know, I guess he homed in on me for some reason. He tried to get me to sleep with him. He was… Really pushy about it.”
“Ugh!” Em was visibly disgusted. “He was one of those guys.”
“Hm,” May replied vaguely, the look on her face distant. “He was also one of those guys who did not take rejection well.”
Em went stiff beside her. May didn’t look at her and Em didn’t speak.
“He was so mad,” May continued, her voice quiet. “He told me I had a lot of nerve, saying no to someone like him. That someone like me – basically a mainlainder – should have been grateful for the attention.”
“What a fucking dick,” Em growled. “Did he not know you’re gay?”
May laughed. The sound was hollow. “That was part of the problem. No one knew.”
She glanced at Em in time to see comprehension wash over her.
“Oh,” Em muttered.
May sighed. “Well, one person knew. She was my sister’s friend in school, but we were the same age so after Ora graduated we became good friends. She’s one who convinced me to join the theater; she was a dancer too.”
Em remembered the photo on the wall backstage, the one of May smiling beside the girl with the dark features.
“What was her name?”
May didn’t answer right away. Staring off vacantly, her right thumb tucked beneath her palm and flicked at the ring on her middle finger. It was a nervous tick Em had observed on more than one occasion.
“Mila,” May said at last. She spoke the name like a word in an unfamiliar language. It had been a very long time since she had said it out loud.
“We were best friends. We spent all our time together. I don’t even remember saying anything to her about how I felt, we just kept growing closer until we were… Together, I guess.”
“You guess?” Em asked, struggling to keep her voice neutral. She wondered if there was anyone out there who didn’t find it uncomfortable to talk about past lovers with someone they were interested in.
“It was a secret,” May admitted with a cringe. “Her family was very traditional and…” she frowned deeply, leaving her thought unfinished.
“We used to stay late at the theater after rehearsals so we could… Be together.” She continued, her voice growing shaky. “We’d offer to clean up or tell the others we were going to keep practicing.”
May pulled her hand back, leaving Em grasping after her. Breathing heavily, she covered her eyes, giving herself a moment of privacy while she worked up the courage to keep going.
“One night, we thought we were alone,” May’s words came faster now. She brought her trembling hands down to her lap. She wouldn’t look up. “We didn’t realize Kane had stayed. He was… he was watching us. We didn’t know.”
Her voice cracked and Em reached out, wrapping her arm around May’s stiff shoulders.
“There’s a camera backstage, by that wall with the pictures,” May’s voice was so small now. “We use it to help with blocking or to goof around, but…”
Em gasped. “He didn’t.”
May nodded and started to cry. The tears came fast, streaming down her face faster than she could wipe them away.
“One picture,” she sobbed. “He said he was going to show it to everyone. Mila panicked. She was so scared of what would happen if her family found out about her, about us.”
“What do you mean ‘she panicked’, May?” Em asked, unease creeping over her.
May inhaled a shuddering breath.
“She asked me – she begged me to give him what he wanted. Anything to fix it and make the picture go away.”
The implication took Em’s breath away.
“Did you?” She hated herself for asking the moment the words left her lips. May covered her mouth tightly and stared blindly ahead, fresh tears snaking their way down her face.
“I didn’t think twice,” she admitted from behind her fingers.
“Oh, May,” Em whispered. “You loved her, didn’t you?”
May’s whole body wracked with a heavy sob. She only managed a small nod before covering her face and losing herself to another round of tears. Em pulled her closer and let her cry.
“I thought it would just be the one time,” she wept. “But he wouldn’t give me the picture. He just kept saying ‘next time, maybe next time’ and like an idiot I believed him. I just kept going back because I didn’t know what else to do. Meanwhile he was telling everyone we were sleeping together. Before I knew it, there were rumors I was sleeping with everyone. I was so humiliated.”
May paused to try and collect herself, pulling in one shaky breath after another.
“Everything fell apart. The rumors spread and no one wanted to believe me when I said they weren’t true. People started treating me like I was some kind of filthy animal. My family was a mess over it and Mila… She cut me out of her life, like this had nothing to do with her.”
May looked at Em, eyes wet and red. “Do you know what Kane said to me?” she asked in a small voice.
Em shook her head.
“He said I was getting what I deserved.” She looked down in shame. “And that being with him would ‘fix’ me.”
A rage unlike anything Em had ever known radiated from somewhere deep and dark inside. She pulled her arm away for fear that May could feel it pulsing through her.
“I was alone,” May’s voice was hardly a whisper now. “Eventually it felt like I had nothing left to lose. I didn’t think it could get any worse, so I told him I was done.”
May looked Em straight in the eyes and smiled sadly. “But I was wrong. If I thought things were bad before, it was nothing compared to what happened next.”
“He released the picture.” Em stated it like a fact instead of asking because inside, she knew. May nodded in a way that moved her whole body, rocking back and forth.
“It was horrible,” May said. “People turned on my parents, saying they never should have taken me in. That I was corrupting people because that’s just what mainlanders do. Mila’s family was so ashamed. They completely cut ties with her. She ran away, some say to the north shore. Some people wanted my family to send me away too, but mama and papa held their ground. They were embarrassed but they stood by me anyway. I was the one who decided to build the treehouse and live away from town.”
“And what happened to the asshole?” Em asked through gritted teeth.
May wiped at her tears with the back of her hand and laughed bitterly. “He left for some other island, chasing his music career. Everything worked out just fine for him in the end.”
Em wrapped her arms around May once more. “May, I am so, so sorry.”
For a moment they were quiet. The waves, the wind and May’s quivering breath were the only sounds.
“I’ve been so scared about you finding out,” May whispered into Em’s neck where she had nuzzled in close. “For the past four years I’ve been on my best behaviour, trying to make people forget. I didn’t want you to lose respect for me the way they did.”
Em turned and pushed May back just enough so she could look her in eye when she spoke.
“Don’t do that to yourself, May. These were terrible things that happened to you; that were done to you. But they aren’t who you are. I know we haven’t known each other long, but I hope you at least know me well enough by now to know I wouldn’t hold something like this against you. I think you’re awesome.”
Out from beneath May’s sadness and hurt bubbled a genuine laugh.
“Well, that’s a relief,” she smiled, giving her eyes another wipe. “I just wish I felt the same way.”
“What do you mean?” Em asked sadly as she reached out to tuck the unruly waves of May’s hair back behind her ear. May leaned into the touch.
“I’ve just spent so much time hating myself over all of this,” she admitted. “There was a period of time where I couldn’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror. That’s why I cut my hair – I wanted to get as far away from myself as possible.”
May blinked. She had spent years living with the ramifications of what happened – blaming herself and obediently trying to win back the favor of the people around her – she hadn’t even paused to wonder what it might be like to find herself on the other side of that darkness.
Was this it?
She reflected on the last few weeks; precious time in which she felt more like herself than she had in ages. May recalled the release Em’s arrival had brought into her life and in the back of her mind, a small voice echoed.
You want the same thing…
“Now, I’m just tired,” she said. The truth spilled out, no longer content to be kept secret. “I’m tired of being sorry for everything and I’m tired of hiding who I am all the time. I just want my life back.” She squinted, thinking over what she had just said. “No, I don’t even want that. I want my own life, one where I don’t have to feel bad about having mainlanders for parents or for liking girls, I just…”
She almost said it. I want to live my life with someone who understands me.
But she held on to that part. I think that’s enough confession for one day, she thought.
In her silence, Em smiled brightly.
“Well, Maybe,” Em said, leaning forward to plant a soft kiss on May’s forehead. “Let’s get started.”
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