by Ishan Dylan
March 16th, 2018.
You think about what you once told Emma: People with the same first initials shouldn’t date. Imagine the wedding invite: E&E. Does that sound like God’s plan to you?
Now you’re sitting cross-legged on her dorm room floor playing video games. You’re supposed to be pregaming for Stephanie’s party, but then it came up that neither of you know any of Stephanie’s other friends. Emma has never been big on meeting new people.
Emma howls as her kart gets hit with a green shell and veers off into the abyss. You laugh at her and—oh fuck—your kart follows suit. You lose your hard-fought third place. The blush from the Bacardi is starting to flirt with Emma’s ears.
The two of you have been spending a lot more time together since she broke up with Eric.
You look up. Emma must have scooted across the grungy carpet because she’s right there. Her hands grip your legs. Her face hovers a foot away from yours.
“Drink up, loser.” You pour her a shot.
“We both lost,” she objects.
“You lost first.”
Her eyes light up. “Wait. Shut up. Jenny. You need to listen to me right now.”
You can’t think straight. You look away—why?
You look back. Emma’s eyes are misty-serious. “I’m in the sweet spot, Jenny. I have to say it before this kicks in.” She brandishes the shot glass.
“Fine. I’m listening.”
“Can you make a promise, Jenny?”
Ah. Emma has arrived at the stage of drunkenness when heartfelt promises get made. Why do people ask things like, Can you make a promise? Or worse, Can you do me a favor? How are you supposed to answer without knowing what it is? But it’s Emma, so …
“Of course, dummy.”
“I need you to be my crush patrol, Jenny.”
“Remember when I started dating Eric? He liked soccer, so I watched FIFA. I only started wearing ponytails after he said Ariana Grande looked hot. I was playing Halo, Jenny. Halo.”
“Wow. If only someone had warned you.”
“Hey! You can’t bully me until I’m done being vulnerable.”
That’s true. That’s the rule.
“Just promise … if I start pulling that shit with a new guy, you’ll call me out. Seriously. Break into my house and slap me out of it. I give you permission.” Then Emma falls quiet.
Good luck getting a word out of her in that state. It’ll just scurry back down the hidey-hole in her brain where it came from. You need to wait it out. Emma sways and stares into the middle distance of the dorm room. A siren wails outside.
“I mean …” she mumbles, “if it even is a guy. Next time.”
“What are you saying?”
“Maybe I’m tired of guys’ bullshit, you know? Maybe I want to date a girl.”
You swallow the stone in your throat. “Totally. Totally. What are boyfriends even good for? Opening doors? Opening … jars?” You shrug. “I could do that shit.”
You’d be good at it, too. You’d be better than Eric.
Emma stares at you again.
The next morning, you wake up to a wall of text messages from Emma. Last night was a mistake, she says—a mistake you don’t even get to remember in full. You’re my best friend ever, but I’m totally, 100% straight.
You aren’t mad. You’re mortified. You’re just glad that she isn’t mad at you.
* * *
August 21st, 2021.
You’re in the passenger seat, driving to Harrisburg International with your father. He can’t seem to pick a speed, caught between every dad’s intrinsic need to get to the terminal three hours early and his desire to savor the last father-daughter car ride that he’ll get before you disappear off to grad school at the University of Oregon.
You’re listening to “Red” by Taylor Swift, from your “compromise playlist.” She first earned a spot there by landing smack between his country taste and your pop music, but now he knows the words better than you.
In your hands is a yellow envelope with Emma written on it. Right now, she’s on an Amtrak train to NYU, holding your letter. You traded them when you said goodbye, trying to stay a tangible part of one another’s lives for just a few extra days.
“I’m gonna miss you so much.”
“We’ll call all the time. Every week.”
“I’m still gonna miss you.”
You’re going to miss her so much.
* * *
August 23rd, 2021.
Your new apartment smells like a hotel lobby. Emma’s letter is the only thing pinned up on your ten-dollar corkboard. You call her every week.
* * *
September 27th, 2021.
Dirty laundry piles on the floor. Textbooks splay on the dinner table. Your apartment smells like coffee and basil and … well, dirty laundry. You look up. The brick of a results section that you’ve been rereading for the last hour is burned into your corneas. Three missed calls from Emma.
* * *
October 4th, 2021.
You start meeting people in your classes. You don’t even want to think about how hard this would have been last semester, over Zoom. Nobody gets you like Emma does. You confine your existential crises to the shower. Is this all that adulthood is? Nice to meet you and what’s your major and oh, Pennsylvania, I have a cousin there!
Peter from Woody Plants 500 invites you to a group study session at what he describes as the only good coffee shop in Eugene. You drink coffee and talk for hours. They don’t talk about their feelings or anything, not like you and Emma do. But they give solid tips for propagating plants, and the best hikes near campus. Hey, if we take one car to the trailhead, gas won’t be nearly so bad!
You feel guilty when you don’t call Emma. But then, inexplicably, you feel guilty when you do.
* * *
October 17th, 2021.
You and your friends have a group chat.
Nicole sends new playlists every week. You used to make fun of forestry majors for all listening to the same music, but now you’ve been indoctrinated. Kacey Musgraves plays in your living room. You and your friends sit there and argue about the relative fuckability of oak species. Something isn’t right, but you don’t know what it is. All you know is that Quercus ilex is the most fuckable oak.
You still haven’t called Emma. You’ll catch her next weekend. Brandon’s going to Lassen on Saturday, and he’s the only one with a car.
* * *
February 11th, 2022.
In the hospital. Mirror shards in your fist. Nicole is on the phone using her emergency voice, that perfect cadence of a fighter pilot who needs to be clearly understood even as they spiral in and out of terror.
Your eyes are red and puffy. You let the doctor assume the tears started after your hand was cut up.
“I was just horsing around in the bathroom. I was being stupid.”
Thankfully, no jokes about seven years of bad luck.
* * *
July 8th, 2022.
You pick up your prescription at the pharmacy back in Pennsylvania.
Your father has taken down most of the photos that you hate, but you let him keep the one of you and him at Lake Michigan. You’re seven, brandishing a tiny sunfish at the end of your line and smiling maniacally.
Your name is now Liam.
Two months later, Emma comes out as a lesbian on Instagram. You try not to take it personally.
* * *
September 17th, 2022.
Your friends swore you’d love this new club. An arm pulls on your sleeve. Between the pulse of colored lights, all you see is polo shirt and beard hair.
“Hey, beautiful. What’s your name?”
“Fuck off, I’m a guy.”
“Uh, yeah. I can see that.”
His friends are staring at you. Everyone is staring at you.
“What, you got a problem with another dude hitting on you?”
“What—? No! No, I mean …”
You’re stuck going back to the same dive bars from then on. Your friends don’t complain.
* * *
September 30th, 2022.
You’re in the Philosophy 203 class that you took to balance out your fall schedule, and you’re riding high atop the Dunning-Kruger curve when Ms. Freeman says something that makes you look up from your doodling.
“Theseus’ Ship. Who can tell me what Theseus’ Ship is?”
No answers. You can tell that Brandon knows from the way that his head perks up, but he doesn’t raise his hand. What’s the reward for being right—getting to talk in front of all your peers at 8 a.m.?
“Theseus’ Ship is a metaphysical thought experiment.” Ms. Freeman taps the words Unit 1 on the blackboard. “Metaphysics, people! Do this for me—imagine that Theseus has a boat. Theseus travels for many years. Over time, parts of the boat break off and need to be replaced. Now let’s imagine that, by the time he returns to Athens, every single piece of his boat has been replaced at least once. So, my question for you is—did Theseus return on the same boat that he left on?”
No answers again.
“Liam? What do you think?”
You aren’t expecting that. Your mouth is suddenly dry, but you stammer something out. “I mean … aren’t they just different definitions? Like, any ship he owns is his ship. So, it’s still Theseus’ ship, even if it’s not the same one. Right …?”
Not your best showing, but Ms. Freeman smiles and finds a way to work your response into her next point. Everyone scribbles in their notes.
You bury your head in your notebook until the redness in your cheeks goes down.
* * *
November 3rd, 2022.
You used to be terrible about interrupting Emma on the phone. Now you’ve learned to talk less and listen more. She calls you for the first time in weeks to tell you about her new girlfriend: Melody. She and Melody went to a real fashion show together. Melody taught her how to make biscotti. Melody drives a 1969 Camaro.
“Wow!” You pause. “Actually, I don’t know why I said wow. I just assumed that’s impressive.”
“It is impressive.”
“Then … wow!”
Later, you go on Wikipedia during class and look up some of the terms that you remember her saying.
Maybe Emma is like Theseus’ Ship. Bits and pieces of her—her likes, her dislikes, her hobbies—are being eroded and replaced.
You’re walking on the quad at night. Your hand plays along the outline of a Swiss Army knife in your pocket. You relive the phone call. None of it sits right. You start to remember a conversation on a dorm room floor, but you shake your head.
People change. Who are you to say that it’s the fault of some girl?
Her best friend. That’s who. The only person who knows every nanometer of her being, who would notice a single molecule out of place.
You pull headphones over your ears and walk faster.
* * *
November 20th, 2024.
Professor Anderson says something that makes you stop taking notes.
“We can think of all organisms as constantly renewing systems,” she explains. “Within seven years, every cell in a human body will be replaced. Isn’t that amazing?”
* * *
September 5th, 2025.
You do not want to wake up one morning and realize that there is not a part of you left that Emma has touched.
You call her in New York.
“This is so exciting!”
Emma throws her arms around you. She’s wearing a fur-lined hood to protect her from the Manhattan winter. It tickles your nose.
Soon, she’ll be starting at the law firm in Boston.
“Oh my god, you look so different. Liam—your voice!”
The Emma you remember would react this dramatically to a new haircut. That doesn’t make it any less of a compliment.
You duck into Witch’s Brews, a nerdy board-game café. Emma picked it out for the two of you. You still love tabletop games.
The famous Melody is saving a booth. She beams and greets you with a hug, which you aren’t used to. You stand rigid while her embrace surrounds you. Melody has laid out a game of Scrabble, which isn’t what you had in mind when Emma said game night.
You find out that Melody doesn’t play D&D. She prefers real improv.
“Oh my gosh, have you been to the PIT?”
In undergrad, Emma’s boyfriends would greet you like they were walking into a job interview. They understood the importance of the best friend test. But Melody sails through introductions with immaculate confidence. She squeezes Emma’s hand and tells a story about both of them in the first person. We did this; we did that. She pauses to explain the inside jokes.
You’re in the middle of a high school anecdote. You catch Emma glancing at Melody—watching her girlfriend react to you—hoping that you make a good impression on her.
You forget the punchline. You order a whiskey sour. On the rocks.
Emma takes the conversational wheel. We just redecorated the office. She leans across the booth to show you pictures on her phone. The idea for the floating cabinets came from a television program.
“Since when do you watch those shows?”
“Oh, Melody got me hooked! It’s our Friday night tradition.”
Another rotting board, pried out and replaced. Friday night used to be for rum and Mario Kart.
You’re standing at the 50th Street subway entrance when Emma asks you what you think of Melody.
You smile warmly and pull her into a hug. “I’m glad you found someone who makes you so happy,” you tell her. “I’m proud of you.”
You aren’t a liar.
You don’t say that you would never date Melody. If your girlfriend made you watch HGTV more than one Friday in a row, you would set yourself on fire.
Emma beams as you wave from the train window. She’d swiped her MetroCard just to say goodbye.
You stare into the dark of a subway tunnel, feeling guilty. It’s pointless, but you can’t help it. Why so unfair to Melody? Of course, you wouldn’t date her. You like lumberjanes, and indie musicians, and Winona Ryder in Stranger Things.
What matters is that Emma likes Melody.
You and Emma used to fight over all the same boys.
* * *
February 7th, 2026.
You’re gripping the edge of a marble cutting board. Williams Sonoma, like everything else in Melody’s kitchen. Your heart is pounding. “You have to be fucking kidding me.”
“Is swearing really necessary, Liam?”
Jesus Christ. When did New England turn Emma into a Puritan?
You’re clutching two pieces of printer paper. Two tickets to Massive Magnet Freakout. You and Emma swore that you’d see them live when school calmed down. Then March 2020 came, and their fifteen minutes in the mainstream didn’t last until the venues opened back up.
“They’re in Boston for one night. We have to go!”
“I would, Liam, if you hadn’t just sprung it on me! How was I supposed to know not to make other plans?”
Her tone sends you back to middle school—to teachers who assumed that you couldn’t be thinking logically just because they didn’t follow your logic.
“It was supposed to be a nice surprise! Who plans a date night for the middle of a friend’s visit, anyway?”
“It isn’t a date night. It’s the Boston Fashion Showcase, and it only happens once a year. You can come if you don’t want to be left out!”
“This isn’t about being left out. It’s about Massive Magnet Freakout!”
“Liam, I’ve had these plans for a month.”
“So what? We made these plans six years ago! Don’t tell me Melody won’t understand. Besides, she’s the one who cares about the show. Why can’t she just take her work friends?”
“I’ve been looking forward to this!” Emma gives a curt exhale that makes you feel years younger than her. “I’m sorry, Liam, but—actually, no. I’m not going to apologize for your mistakes. You just … can’t be my number-one priority this time. Okay?”
Your chest tightens. “Right. No, of course. This time. I get it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
You don’t know how to fight with Emma. You stammer, and it makes you sound petty and unprepared. It isn’t fair. Why would you be rewarded for preparing arguments against your best friend? What kind of maniac does that?
“Don’t act like this is a one-off thing, Emma! You’re always busy with her events, her friends, her cabinets and TV shows and cars and … when was the last time you did something just for you?”
Emma doesn’t say anything.
“I’m invoking the pact. You need to break up with her.”
“What pact? What are you talking about?”
“The crush patrol. Your dorm room. 2018.”
“2018 …? Liam, we were teenagers.”
“I’m only saying this because you wanted me to!”
“And what about 2026 Emma? Not 2018 Emma. I’m happy, okay? Doing things with Melody makes me happy. So yes, she’s my priority. And that’s normal. That’s what normal people do when they date someone.”
Normal. Middle school again.
“I won’t apologize for growing up, Liam. You’re allowed to have feelings about who you fooled around with in college. But we can’t all spend our twenties chasing the high of a one-night stand!”
You didn’t know that Emma shoots to kill when she gets defensive. You’ve never actually fought with her before.
Her face falls. Maybe she didn’t know that either.
“Why the fuck would I, of all people, want to date a … a lesbian?” Not your most verbose response, but it gets the point across. You hate how your voice cracks when you cry. It makes you sound like a teenager again.
“Liam, I didn’t say that. Liam, wait …”
Her voice falters as you turn to leave. The door slams behind you.
You ugly cry in the back of a taxi. You don’t care what the driver thinks. Actually, you do care. But there’s nothing you can do. You’re furious.
Her accusation doesn’t come close to the truth.
You’ve been broken up with before. You’ve even been cheated on before. None of it felt like this.
Being pulled out of your best friend’s life one piece at a time and replaced with shiny fresh new wood. Scraped off like used-up skin cells. Apoptosis.
You lie on the floor of a hotel room, re-reading a letter on yellow cardstock, and wonder when the person behind those words stopped existing.
* * *
March 23rd, 2026.
You take a seasonal position in the Forest Service, manning an old fire lookout at Sequoia National Forest. You spend three months reading paperbacks and watching the conifers. No smoke here.
You come back with stacks of handwritten poetry, zero epiphanies, and a taste for discount beer. You tell your friends the experience was “meditative.”
* * *
December 24th, 2026.
Christmas Eve in Pennsylvania.
You’re standing on the front porch of your parents’ house in a red sweater. Your mother gasps when she opens the door.
“Oh my—Liam! You’re so tall, honey!”
You tell her that you’re still five-foot-five, the same as when you finished puberty the first time.
She gives you an I don’t think so look. “You look taller. It’s because you finally stopped slouching—see, what I always said about the slouching? And so handsome!”
“Thank those endocrinology wizards at Jefferson.”
“No, no, honey. It’s all in my genes.”
* * *
December 24th, 2026. 4:28 p.m.
You’re sitting on the kitchen counter. That’s where the sous-chef sits. You hand your mother cubed butternut squash, bouillon, and pureed pumpkin.
Your mother looks up from the stock. She doesn’t say anything. She just scans you from your REI boots up to your oversized flannel and your curly almost-mullet.
“What …?” you say defensively, like you’re thirteen and walking out of a department store changing room.
“Nothing. I just … I remember when you came down the stairs wrapped in that ratty old pink boa and said you were going to be a pop singer when you grew up. You’re just … so different, Liam.”
Your heart sinks a little.
“I’m just so proud of you.” She frowns. “Pass me the … the thingy. You know, the thing.”
You hand her the immersion blender. “Thanks, Mom.”
“No, thank you.”
You’re in the living room with your father, drinking one of his weird microbrew IPAs that taste like a pine tree. Pinus banksiana. You’re swapping stories that are finally fair game now that you’re old enough to hear them. The statute of limitations is up for most of your teenage misadventures.
He’s laughing about how your prom date (Ethan Buckley, you remind him) had looked ready to piss himself on the doorstep.
Then you ask him a question. “Dad, do you ever … miss having a daughter?”
Your father wrinkles his brow for a long time.
“No,” he replies, “what do you mean?”
“You were just … so bummed about boxing those old photos.” You point to the mantle. “Sometimes I wonder … I guess I feel a little bad, even if I shouldn’t.”
Your father looks confused. For some reason, though, you feel like you’re the one who’s out of the loop.
“Because … they were photos of you, Liam.”
* * *
December 24th, 2026. 9:52 p.m.
Washing your hands in the guest bathroom, you try not to make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. You sigh.
You’ve been a fucking idiot.
* * *
December 24th, 2026. 10:06 p.m.
“I’m running out to take care of something. I’ll be back before midnight.”
You slide into the driver’s seat and pull out your phone. You know it’s a long shot.
At my parents’ place for Xmas. You in town?
Emma doesn’t reply. The word Read appears beneath your message in tiny print.
You send her a second text.
I’ll be at the park in 15.
When you pull into the parking lot of St. Mary’s Presbyterian Church, your truck is the only vehicle there. Your heart only sinks for a second. Emma’s parents still live walking-distance from the church.
You find her sitting at the bottom of the metal slide. Emma looks up as your boots crunch in the wood chips. She wears a white sweater with the word JOY written in golden loopy font across the front.
“Hey. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Liam.”
You sit cross-legged on the ground. “Where’s Melody?”
“I told her I wanted to do the holidays with my parents this year. We … usually do hers.” Emma kicks her feet. “You were right. But we’re working on it.”
Emma cocks her head. “I said you were right, Liam.”
“No. I wasn’t. You never needed to break up over it.”
“But … you wanted us to.” She raises an eyebrow.
“I was being selfish.” You sigh. “Back in undergrad, you just dated this parade of guys who weren’t right for you.”
“Because they were guys.”
“Exactly. They never stood a chance. I’m your best friend.”
Emma snorts. “Pretty self-absorbed to assume it was because you wanted to screw me, wasn’t it.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. You are smoking. Like, for real. If you ever come back to the hetero side …”
“Absolutely not. Never.”
“Fair enough. Things aren’t going great over here.”
Emma unscrews a bottle of mulled wine and offers it. It tastes like artificial oranges. The words come so easy now. You only needed to find them first.
“So, you’re like a total lumberjack now, huh?”
You gesture at her sweater. “So, you’re like a total craft YouTuber, huh?”
“Shut up. My stepmom bought me this. It’s a show of good faith.” Emma takes a swig of wine. “I’m a public defender now.”
“I thought you were working at that firm with Melody?”
“Oh, it sucked. I quit. I thought you were working with starflowers?”
“I was. But … turns out, chainsaws are way more fun than tweezers.”
Emma talks about things that you don’t understand, but you understand her. It’s the same laugh, the same habit of leaning forward and grabbing your arms when she’s approaching the climax of a story because she needs to physically seize your attention. You pass the bottle of mulled wine. You forget the promise to your parents. The clock slips past midnight.
* * *
December 25th, 2026. 12 a.m.
Ishan Dylan is a conservation biologist and fiction writer from the Chesapeake region. Read more at ishandylan.com.