By Jessica Juhrend
You lie when people ask how you knew you were gay.
You flash your bonafide lesbian badge by mentioning Agent Dana Scully, and pray that the burning in your cheeks isn’t visible across your skin. You’re flushed because you are an inept liar. But also because her face is a white bear or a pink elephant, and every time you see it you are seven years old.
The blonde pageant princess is on the cover of a National Enquirer in the check out aisle at Save-A-Lot. You fall out of step with your mother to study her delicate features.
You understand the word “pretty” as you stare at Jonbenet Ramsey’s perfect face.
This isn’t the first time you’ve seen her. It is June of 1997, and her murder six months earlier sparked a media storm more intense than the Ohio winter that killed the gayfeather flowers in your backyard.
You ask your mother who she is.
You know who she is.
But something is happening to you as run your fingers over the glossy pageant photo. Something closely cosmic; you are aware of the warmth of your blood, and you feel as if it belongs outside of your skin. You want to share this sensation, this moment, with someone, and your mother is your constant companion.
That’s Jonbenet Ramsey, she answers uneasily, she was killed. I don’t think you want to know more.
Usually, you’d take her word for it, because you tend to fixate on details of deaths until you are too frightened to sleep in your own bed. Jonbenet doesn’t invoke fear in you, but your mother’s haunted expression does. What you are feeling is messed up, you think, and you are going to stop feeling it.
Too beautiful for this earth, you whisper into the darkness of your room that night, having already failed to push Jonbenet out of your mind. At some point, you must have heard someone else utter that phrase, but it feels new and poetic on your seven year old tongue.
You begin to read all of the news articles about the case, scouring the newspaper and feeling accomplished when your fingers are covered in ink, evidence of the hard work you’re willing to do for her.
You wait for your mom or dad at the checkout line while they shop, reading the National Enquirer and Star, gladly sacrificing toys and candy for her.
You fill in the details you don’t find in print:
Aurora was her favorite Disney princess, because she was blonde, just like her.
Jonbenet smelled like a mix of cherries and vanilla. She was temperamental, but kind, and she would always apologize if she hurt your feelings.
And if you had known her, you would have saved her.
You swim in creeks, and climb tall rocks, and catch snakes with your bare hands. Jonbenet would’ve thought you were too much of a tomboy to be friends with at first. But you’d have won her over, because you like pink and have a pet bird that can talk.
Pretty bird, the cockatiel says, as you duck under your bed, imagining yourself pulling Jonbenet with you. You hide there, hand protectively clasped over her mouth, until the assailant: her mother, father, or an intruder dressed as Santa Claus, moves into the next room. Sometimes you fight her brother, jealous of all the attention she received, off of her shaking form, locking him in a closet before calling the police.
Before bed, you take your father’s decorative crystals into the bathroom, where you hold a seance in the pitch black. You try to make contact with Jonbenet, but she never responds.
You wonder if she can see you, looking down from a pedestal shaped cloud in heaven.
You wonder if she thinks you are weird. You push that thought away and grasp a crystal, praying to any higher power to bring her back to life.
You fall asleep with the crystal in your fist.
There is a girl in your neighborhood, a year younger than you—just like Jonbenet—who reminds you of a Black Eyed Susan: yellow hair and dark brown eyes.
In the near-year you’ve lived in Ohio, you’ve spent more time with the boys who live next door, but now your insides have shifted and you find yourself craving the companionship of other girls.
Amanda is a rough in the diamond, glimmering and flinty. She spends much of your time together with her arms folded and her head dramatically turned away from you, prompted by your suggestion of a different game or snack.
You should find it annoying, but you are charmed by everything she does, even throwing a hot pink Barbie mini van at your head.
You catch it and hold it to your chest, telling her she can’t have it back until she apologizes.
It is after dark, and the stars coax you onto your back on the grass.
Amanda stomps her foot–she is the only person you’ve ever seen actually do that–but eventually drags herself towards you, mumbling an apology and pressing her shoulder against yours.
Something is wrong, you think, because your body is made of Venus, glowing with heat from the contact.
You wonder if Jonbenet would be jealous.
Amanda has a bruise on her chin.
You can see it in the daylight, and it makes you sick to see her skin marred like that.
My dad, she explains, grabbed my chin really hard because I lied about cleaning my room.
You grasp her hands in yours, telling her that you need to know if he did anything else. No, she shakes her head emphatically, and he is going to bring me a Barbie Super Talking Answering Machine Telephone after work today.
He shouldn’t have hurt you, you say.
I know, she answers, but you also get to spend the night tonight!
Well, that is monumental.
None of the kids on your block are allowed in each others’ houses. It is a neighborhood quirk that only your family thinks is strange.
Amanda’s house is bigger on the inside than you thought it would be. It is old, like yours, with blue carpet and bright white walls.
Her mother, Tonya, makes frozen chicken nuggets for dinner. This is a real treat for you, as your dad prides himself on cooking meals from scratch. You reach across the table to wipe some ketchup off of Amanda’s chin, which is definitely not an excuse to touch her. Your thumb rests over the purpling on the other side of her face.
You slide between the well worn, pink cotton sheets on her tiny bed. You retell her tales from Goosebumps novels, with silly voices and humor of your own creation, delighting in her giggles and the way she whispers your name when she is scared.
The sleepover ends, as all sleepovers do for you, with you staring at the ceiling as your companion sleeps soundly.
You wonder if Jonbenet had sleepovers like this, in her perfect, pink, princess bedroom. You think about the bruise on Mandy’s face. All the times you imagined saving Jonbenet, you think, and you aren’t doing anything to save Amanda.
Red flags are usually only painted red when it is too late, but this one is bright and flying high in front of you.
You swing your legs over the side of the bed and pad out into the hallway, following the light towards the kitchen. Your plan is simple: save Amanda. The details evade you, but that’s okay.
Amanda’s mom is sitting on a kitchen stool, eating fluffy, pink Betty Crocker frosting from a can.
She sees you and asks what you are still doing up.
You tell her you cannot sleep, and that you were hoping some water might help.
She fills a glass with lukewarm water from the tap and and you sit next to her. You casually mention the bruise on Amanda’s chin, playing dumb about its origins.
Her mom tells you that Amanda got it running up the stairs. She tripped at the top, catching her chin on the edge, but luckily not breaking any teeth.
No, you say, forgetting your tactic of ignorance from seconds ago, her dad hurt her.
Tonya’s eyes widen. She is silent for a moment, watching you hawkishly with Amanda’s brown eyes.
Amanda told you that? Her voice is still and quiet.
I didn’t know, she says.
I’m worried he is going to hurt her again, you say, trying not to sound scared.
But you are afraid of everything, even the air inside you, because you know you are in a moment that you shouldn’t be.
I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again, her mom says, I’ll take care of it. Everything is going to be fine.
She looks resigned and fatigued.
You don’t finish your water before crawling back into bed next to Amanda. You drift off to sleep, warm and relieved that she is going to be okay.
When you wake up the next day, Amanda isn’t beside you, and the air feels like afternoon.
You check each room, calling out for Amanda and Tonya, but no one answers.
It is 12:30 and the house is empty.
You don’t know what to make of it.
You stay for another hour, but there is still no sign of anyone. So you repack your overnight bag and walk back to your house.
Your dad makes fresh lemonade, and you drink it out on the porch, watching for their return.
They don’t come home.
Mandy, standing outside of the screened door on your porch the next day, is the first sign of them.
We can’t be friends anymore, she says.
You’re painted in watercolor, and her words threaten to wash you away.
Her face is scrunched in disgust.
My mom says so. And I don’t want to anyway. You’re, like, in love with me or something.
Love. You realize that love is that burning connection to the earth and stars that has taken up residence in between your skin and bones.
But it isn’t a good thing.
Not when, at best you fall in love with another girl, and at worst you fall in love with a dead girl.
And, Amanda isn’t done talking, I did fall down the stairs, okay? It was just a story, and I didn’t think you’d ever tell my mom.
You shut the sliding glass door with a slam, and run upstairs, grabbing a crystal and throwing yourself on your bed.
Through tears of sorrow and frustration, you pray to the nondescript higher powers, asking to run away from Canton, with its grey skies and grey people, and begging to burn for boys and not girls.
Your parents sit you down a few days later, trying to gently break the news that you will be moving to California, clearly expecting the meltdown that word of your last move invoked.
But you are elated.
You spend your last few weeks in Ohio with the boys next door, who don’t seem to realize that they received an early introduction to being ignored by a friend in favor of a girl.
The morning of the big move, you climb into the rental van upfront next to your father. As he pulls out of the driveway, the boys come running out of their garage, jogging behind you and waving.
You don’t urge your dad to stop, because you’ve said a million goodbyes to them, but then Amanda appears in the distance, running towards the truck.
Please, you can tell your father is irritated, but he stops driving.
You hop out and meet Amanda around back.
My dad left.
You can’t tell whether she thinks this is good or bad, so you give a neutral nod in response.
You don’t know if you think it is good or bad, either, because you don’t know the truth about the bruise, or the events that followed.
But you do know that the crystal didn’t grant your second request, because Amanda has her hand on your wrist, and your blood, marrow, and everything in between is smoldering.
Bye, is all you say.
Bye, is all she says.
You get in the truck, and this time you don’t look back, as you drive away.
So, yes, you knew you were gay when you first laid eyes on Agent Dana Scully.
About the Author
Jessica Juhrend is a writer and high school English teacher currently living in New York City. She has an MFA in dramatic writing from Adelphi University, and her plays have received readings and productions in New York, Los Angeles, Indiana, Kentucky, and South Dakota. You can find her on instagram @jessicajuhrend.