"Half Closet" by Emma Deimling
Eliza found her secrets in an old cardboard box in the attic closet of her childhood home with a note written in her hand on the lid, reading: ‘For a rainy day.’
She couldn’t quite remember when she had hidden away the scraps of paper ink-stained with splotchy half-thoughts and erased half-desires she would never dare say out loud. Maybe it had been when she had first refused to realize who she really was, or maybe it had been when she first let herself be who she really was.
Eliza shut the closet door behind her and knelt before the box, slipping her fingers over the water-stained edges. Silence pressed in around her, muffled with faintly remembered confessions and depressed admonishments. Being inside a closet again felt like wearing something that no longer fit right—a little too big, a little too tight. “Why?” she whispered. But the box gave up none of her discarded secrets.
She shouldn’t have been in the class in the first place. She wasn’t in the major (which was a requirement) and she wasn’t in the concentration (which was also a requirement). But months after registration, a friend had informed her that—impossibly—there was a seat left in the advanced art course. She waited a week before emailing the professor, working up the nerve to be turned down for something she didn’t know before that week she desperately wanted. Somehow, thirty minutes later, she was in. It felt to her that the world was playing a sick joke on her, still felt so when she walked into the classroom on the first day. One look at Phoebe Miller and she knew her gut feeling was right. The world was playing a joke, and it was all on her. Phoebe was beautiful in all the ways Eliza wasn’t; short-cropped hair ruffled, ripped jeans stained with marker, skin glistening like gold in the sunlight sifting through the blinds behind her. Eliza knew she needed to stop staring before someone noticed, before she herself noticed. And yet, she didn’t.
Through the whole class, Eliza watched as Phoebe remained scrunched up in the back corner of the classroom, not once glancing up from her computer. The only movement the girl made was to doodle with a pink sharpie on her jeans—a looping swirl that somehow by the end of class metamorphosized itself into a rose. It was only when the rest of the class began to leave that Eliza realized she hadn’t heard a single word the professor had said, her heart too loud in realizing what it wanted.
Eliza’s first date was with a boy her mother had tricked into believing he needed a library card, and the only way he could get one was with Eliza’s help. “It’s not a real date,” her mother had insisted when Eliza had objected. “But he is a nice boy. A very nice boy.”
So Eliza, after securing said nice boy with a library card, found herself on a supposedly fake date. The nice boy didn’t seem at all aware that this was in fact anything but a real date as they sat facing one another in a corner of the children’s book section. Eliza gave up trying to get a word in five minutes in. He never stopped talking. First, he had started out as a little awkward and sort of cute, but after an hour of said nice boy first deprecating her own mother, then explaining in detail how much he hated Mexican food, and finally onto politics where he was a firm believer that women should not have equal pay—Eliza had never been so horrified in her life. “So,” the nice boy had chirped, “wanna go get some Mexican food?”
Later, when she had exploded to her mother about said nice boy’s manners and opinions, her mother had waved it all away. “He was just nervous. That’s all. You should give him a second chance.”
But Eliza hadn’t given him a second chance.
All she could think about whenever she recalled her first and only fake date, was how she had just sat there and stared. All she could think about was how she had repeated the same three words over and over in her mind. I like girls.
When Eliza was a teenager, she started catching herself glancing at other girls out of the corner of her eye. Everyone told her it was because she wanted to look like them, to be as pretty as them. And for years, she believed it. But she found herself always getting confused wanting to look like so many different girls, some that it wasn’t even possible to look like (how could she, the girl who in sixth grade was nicknamed “albino” ever look like Lupita Nyong’o?). It would take years for her to finally realize that she didn’t want to look like them. She wanted them to look at her.
Eliza hadn’t intended to attempt to come out to her mother sitting in her car at a Sheetz gas station as they waited for the tank to fill up. They had been discussing the clubs she might join, the people she had yet to meet but desperately wanted to.
“I’m thinking of joining the Pride club,” Eliza said offhandedly.
Her mother snorted. “But you’re not gay, Eliza.”
She was about to respond like she always had with yes, I know—but the words caught in her throat. Caught and caught and wouldn’t come out.
“Eliza, you’re not gay,” her mother said a little too firmly.
She closed her eyes as the wrong words spilled from her lips. “I think I’m bi. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s okay. Eliza.”
Hesitantly, she reopened her eyes as her mother continued. “It’s okay. I love you no matter what.”
Something inside her began to unknot. Maybe things were going to be okay. Maybe she hadn’t made an awful mess of everything like she always did.
“Is this because of that playwriting class?”
The knot tightened once again in her chest, the prison wall she had carefully put up around herself snapping back into place. The playwriting class she took her freshman year of college was an experience she would forever cherish—a ragtag group of college students who were a whirlwind of different sexualities. “No, Mom. It’s not because of the playwriting class. I just—I don’t know.”
Her mother’s lips twisted. “How do you not know—?”
“I guess when I have a girlfriend, you’ll know,” she cut in, the rest of her words dying on her lips.
They didn’t speak of it again until the next morning. Eliza had woken up with the taste of decay in her mouth as if her little secret had finally worked its way onto the tip of her tongue and decided to rot.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” her mother began as she stirred an overly large pot of vegetable soup. “And I think you just need to meet some nice boys. “
Eliza flinched as she rifled through the refrigerator. “Just forget it. Forget I even said anything. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I didn’t change your mind, did I?” her mother asked, setting the spatula down. Eliza shut the fridge. No, Mom, she thought. Telling me I need to meet some nice boys couldn’t possibly change my sexuality.
“No, Mom,” she said instead, “you didn’t. Just forget about it.”
And her mother had.
But Eliza hadn’t. From then on, she was certain for the first time in her life. She wasn’t in the closet anymore. Not exactly in, not exactly out. But it didn’t matter. In her mind, she had faced the truth, even if that truth was only half out.
The first time Phoebe had spoken to Eliza had been eight weeks into the semester. She had pulled Eliza to the side after class, and Eliza thought she was going to faint from the two of them being so close. Her heart was fluttering against her ribcage like a bird attempting to burst through her chest and fly away.
“Do you have a problem with me?” Phoebe asked.
Eliza startled. “What?”
“You’re always staring at me,” she persisted, her hands fisting at her sides. “What? Does the way I dress, the way look bother you?”
Eliza knew all at once that there was such a thing as dying of humiliation. “What? No—”
“Look,” Phoebe said, drawing in a harsh breath. “You seem like a nice girl, but a bit of advice. Just because you like guys doesn’t make you more normal than me. Being different isn’t a bad thing.”
A choked laugh bubbled to Eliza’s lips. Phoebe’s mouth twisted. “You’re right,” she said before Phoebe could turn away. “I do like guys. And girls.” She squeezed her eyes shut. In that moment, she was so afraid—afraid of how Phoebe would look at her, afraid of what the world would be like. Afraid of herself most of all. She forced herself to continue. “I’m sorry I’ve been staring at you, but it’s just you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. It’s like you’re the sun and I’m Icarus with melted wings waiting to finally stop falling for you. I’m sorry.” She staggered backward without looking up. “I should go.”
Phoebe touched her lightly on the shoulder, and Eliza froze. “Wait,” she called. “Just hold up for a second. Will you—will you go out with me?”
Eliza’s eyelids flew open. “What? Now?”
Phoebe grinned and it was like the world had caught on fire with her delight. “Yeah.”
“Why?” she whispered, afraid once again that this was all some kind of trick.
Phoebe rolled her eyes. “Because the only reason I noticed you staring at me was because I was staring at you first.”
The coffee shop was closed.
Eliza clutched the locked doors, her fingers whitening and trembling under the glow of the streetlights. She kept her eyes fixed down, sure Phoebe would say something like “another time” and then let the sentence trail off so there was no chance of the two of them finding their way back to one another. But Phoebe didn’t say that. Instead, she tugged gently at Eliza’s arm and said, “come on,” with a half-concealed grin.
They went to McDonald’s, but, of course, the inside was closed. Sometimes, Eliza wondered if karma was a bitch or was just too bored of picking on other people to fuck with anyone but Eliza. Phoebe only shrugged. “Come on,” she said again, this time entwining her hands with Eliza’s. They walked through the drive-thru and ordered two coffees—one black and one as sweet as inhumanly possible.
They reclined like gods on the edge of the parking lot, fingers barely touching, eyes straying to each other’s and the sky. Smog veiled the skyline, a blurry film Eliza couldn’t blink away. The night tasted like stars—crisp and sharp. She sucked in a breath as the butterflies in her stomach threatened to quiver themselves to death. Eliza felt like It was as if she were a kid again, feet in the water, waiting for the lifeguard to finally blow the whistle. “So,” she said just as Phoebe said, “bored?”
Eliza made a choking sound, swallowing past the taste of clotted fear and burnt coffee in the back of her throat. “No. I just—I’m just not very good at talking.”
Phoebe huffed, balancing her empty coffee cup on the edge of the curb. “Bullshit. I already know your one of those who likes to talk.”
Eliza startled, setting her own coffee cup down with a pathetic thunk. “And I already know your one of those who likes to scoff.”
Eliza tensed but Phoebe just frowned and nodded grimly. “Touché.” Soft streetlights dampened the darkness around them, and Eliza could just make out the smile hiding in the corner of Phoebe’s lips. She realized she had never touched a smile before. Now, she desperately wanted to. Groaning, Phoebe unfolded backward onto the pavement, her t-shirt slipping over the ridge of her hipbone. Eliza burned, tucking into herself to hide the blush blooming and wilting on her cheeks.
“What do you think will happen when we can no longer see the stars?” Phoebe asked, gazing up at the blank sky. “Do you think all the wishes will dry up?”
Eliza ignored her body screaming at her to lay down next to Phoebe. Instead, she toed Phoebe’s cup until it toppled and made a sad half-circle on the pavement. “Scientists say we’re made of stardust. So when the stars disappear, I guess we’ll become our own wishes.”
“And what happens when two stars collide? What then?”
Eliza shrugged, eyeing a discarded cigarette a little too close to Phoebe’s shoulder for her liking. “Depends. If it happens slowly then the two stars will merge together into one greater star.”
“And when it happens fast?”
Eliza stared at her hands, ignoring the stars glaring down at the two of them from behind the pollution. “They create a black hole.”
Phoebe raised an eyebrow, her lips twitching as if smothering a laugh or a groan. “Sounds about right. So, would you rather become one big star or tear the universe apart?”
Eliza swallowed and let herself slip down next to Phoebe. Shards of glass prodded at the back of her skull like a warning, like a dare. Phoebe tilted her head sideways so that their faces were a breath apart and grinned. Eliza forgot what it meant to breathe, what it meant to live, what anything meant beyond that smile. More than anything at that moment Eliza wanted to be a sky full of stars only Phoebe could find the constellations in. I’d tear apart the universe just to see you smile again, she thought.
Eliza didn’t know what gay meant until she was eight. When she had first heard the term, she had asked her mother what it meant. “It means to be happy,” her mother had said with a half-concealed grimace. Twelve years later, holding Phoebe’s hand in hers, Eliza thought her mother might have been right: to be who you were was to be happy.
“Why do you insist on always looking at me like that?” Phoebe asked, three months after their somehow successful first date.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to disappear.”
They were sitting on a park bench behind the mini-golf park next Phoebe’s apartment, watching three children rankle each other over who got to putt first.
Eliza swallowed her sip of orange crush too quickly.
Phoebe quirked an eyebrow. “I’m not God you know.”
Eliza gave her a look. “The truth?” she murmured, nudging her shoulder against Phoebe’s.
Phoebe rested her head on Eliza’s shoulder. “If you want. You could always lie and tell me I am God.”
Eliza laughed and for a while, they sat like that, comfortable silence settling in the soft twilight. Around them, autumn leaves burnished gold in the sunset, a world in flames giving way to the charcoal and smoky fog of night. The children were barking at one another again, this time over whose neon pink ball was whose.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be normal,” Eliza said finally, “to act like everyone else, to look like everyone else. But I never could, no matter how hard I tried. I would always wear the wrong shirt with the wrong shoes, say the wrong thing that would give away all my differences.”
Phoebe raised her head, her eyes soft and warm and alive.
“But you,” Eliza continued, twining her fingers with Phoebe’s, “you flaunt your differences, show them off like the beautiful oddities that they are. And for that, I worship you.”
Phoebe bent over and kissed their entwined hands.
It was trivial—the reason why they fought for the first and only time. So trivial, Eliza couldn’t even remember what it was exactly—something about socks not in laundry baskets and eating out of Nutella tubs with spoons. They were studying in the university library, their voices hushed and scraped with irritation. Finally, Eliza had stood, claiming she needed a coffee refill.
When she returned, Phoebe was gone.
That night she had clutched her phone to her, waiting for Phoebe to call, waiting to work up the courage to call her. Instead, her mother had called. Her parents were cleaning out the house, she had informed Eliza. And if she wanted to make sure her whole life wasn’t tossed in a pile for Goodwill, she should come home. Now.
And so she was here, back at her parents’ home in a literal closet holding her secrets packaged away in a cardboard box in her hands. Alone.
Eliza realized then that it didn’t really matter when she had hidden away her secrets—her one secret bundled up inside a knot of unsolved emotions. Maybe she had done it yesterday. Maybe she had done it years before, before she even knew what it meant to be happy, what it meant to be herself. In the end, it didn’t matter when or why. It just was: a stifled way to love dumped in a cardboard box.
“Eliza,” her mother called from the kitchen. “There’s a friend here to see you!”
A friend. Her heart fumbled in her chest. A friend. A friend. A friend. Could it be Phoebe, or was it just another boy her mother had tricked into getting a library card just so he could take her on a fake date?
She stood, brushing dust off her knees, and left the box on the floor. She didn’t need to open it to know what was inside. And anyway, it wasn’t raining.
Eliza stepped out of the closet.
Emma Deimling is currently studying English, Creative Writing, and The Classics at Ohio State University and works as a writing tutor in the university’s writing center. Her work has been published in The Ekphrastic Review (July 2019), The Voices Project (August 2020), New American Legends, Dark Lane Anthology (2021), and Teen Ink Magazine (March, May 2019)