I don’t love him. I never have done and never will. But there is something comforting about having Tyler beside me as we sit on the rooftops, huddled together to beat the cold. Here, we are hidden from reality and able to express who we really are. Even if it is for the last time. Tyler moves his fingers to caress the black stripe on my wrist, bold and brash against the pale of my skin. It marks me as different. It lets people know that I like men, not women. And it tells people that I should be considered a freak.
“I could come with you,” Tyler says for the fifth time tonight.
“I know you could. Or, alternatively, you could stay here, be safe. How about that? Look, no one knows about you and me. You’d be OK. Me? Everyone knows what I am. What I…I can’t take it any longer-”
“Maybe I don’t want to stay here,” Tyler retorts stubbornly “You don’t have to do this on your own, Maddie.”
“Tyler, I want a new start in life. How can I have a fresh start with you there? Being with you is dangerous. And if we’re not careful, it will get us killed.”
Tyler looks away from me huffily.
“Go on. Say it,” I challenge him. I know he is holding back something. He meets my eye, lip curled.
“I think you’re a coward. Running away from your problems. I thought you were stronger than that.”
“I have the sense to be scared,” I retort “You should be glad I’m leaving. You’ll never be safe while I’m around.”
“I…I don’t care,” Tyler whispers. My heart skips a beat. His face softens a little “You’re the only person I have left,” he admits quietly “How can I force myself to like men? How can I fit in when everyone hates what I really am?”
I close my eyes. I hate how this goodbye is going. I touch his arm gently, then his face. I try not to notice the tears beneath my fingers.
“You’ll figure it out,” I tell him, only half believing it. His face crumples, like paper being discarded in a waste bin, and I pull him into a hug, gripping his shoulders hard. He smells the way he always does, of home baking and men’s cologne. It brings tears to my eyes, knowing it’s a smell I’ll miss when I leave. I’ll miss Tyler. I’ll miss the way he makes me laugh when I’m feeling down. I’ll miss his cooking, his homemade lasagne and fresh apple pies. I’ll miss having a friend who knows me, understands me. The only person who can understand a Stripe is a fellow one. I grip him a little harder, knowing it’ll be lonely without him. It’ll be lonely full stop. I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to go.
He pulls away and I think the goodbye is over, before his lips come crashing down on mine. The kiss is desperate, longing. I kiss back, knowing it isn’t full of love, but lust. It’s our last chance to kiss someone and feel something real. His lips are soft, his arms warm. If you don’t leave now you never will. I wriggle away, lips still tingling. Tyler blinks, seemingly bewildered that the kiss has ended. I nod. I’m saying goodbye. Tyler clutches the back of my neck.
“Don’t go,” he pleads. I ignore him and stand, turning my back on him. I don’t know what else to do. It hurts too much to turn back. I’m glad he can’t see the tears on my face as I head for the emergency stairs that will take me back to my flat. I have to be the strong one. For both of us.
“Don’t forget me,” I hear him whisper. I refuse to look back, concentrating on the sound of my metallic footsteps on the stairs. Anything to take my mind off everything.
I’ve composed myself by the time I get back to my flat and turn the key in the stiff lock. I don’t want the landlady to see me cry. The room that has been home for two years is stripped bare. Not that there was much there to start with. I have a small rucksack that carries all my possessions. A change of clothing, a photograph of Tyler and I, a knife, a map of the country, the little money I have. Nothing else.
I won’t miss the room. I’ve grown to despise the sludge coloured walls, the threadbare carpet and the single light bulb that swings above the bed. The landlady told me to throw out the mattress and the chair cushions. She said I’d contaminated them, and she didn’t want to touch them herself. I remember how I struggled down the stairs yesterday with that mattress. No one offered to help when they saw the stripe on my wrist.
I walk over to the window and look out at the city. I’ve lived in this city all my life and never quite belonged. Especially now. Now that people know my secret. I’m different, and everyone knows it. I wonder what it will feel like to make friends, to belong somewhere. I don’t even know where I’m going yet. But anywhere is better than here.
I hear the loud rap on the door and know it’s time to go. I swing my rucksack onto my back, taking my keys out my pocket to hand to the landlady. I open the door to her and she looks at me in disgust, nose wrinkled as though heterosexuality has a bad smell. I smile at her, though I have no cause to. I notice she’s wearing gloves. She doesn’t want to touch me I realise. I hand the keys to her, and she takes them delicately, taking a tissue out of her pocket to wrap them in. I don’t doubt she’ll douse them in antiseptic later. I grow tired of smiling at her, and give her a farewell nod.
“I’d offer to shake your hand, but…” I nod down at her gloves. She scowls. I raise my eyebrow and head for the stairs. She’s not worth it.
“I’ll miss you,” I call sarcastically over my shoulder. She doesn’t reply, and I feel a tinge of satisfaction and daring. She could probably get me arrested for that, if she tried. She could accuse me of verbal abuse, and me being a Stripe would tilt the case in her favour. A lot. But I would be long gone by the time she got around to it.
I have some unfinished business with this city, though. Just for a night, I want to be a part of it. The sky is darkening, and the parties are only just beginning. It’s Saturday. The drinks are cheap and the bars are full, people spilling out into the streets. I don’t care much for the music that fills my ears. It’s abrasive and loud, and the lyrics only apply to homosexual couples. But I always used to watch from my flat window on a Saturday night, bone tired from a day at work in a Stripe café, and wish I could be a part of it. I liked the idea of being invisible in the crowds, bodies moving together as everyone danced, cigarette smoke drifting around my head in soft spirals. I’m determined to experience this side of the city, the side of the city where tacky neon lights are what make it all so perfect, and no one cares who you are after they’ve had a few drinks. Still, as I make my way to the nearest bar, I slip a wristband over my stripe. People aren’t yet drunk enough to take the passing of a Stripe lightly.
I hide my backpack behind a bin in the alleyway. There’s nothing worth stealing in it, anyway. Tucking a few pounds into my jeans pocket, I edge my way through the crowds into a bar, ordering a beer from the barmaid. She eyes my wristband up suspiciously, but says nothing. She clearly isn’t fooled, but she keeps quiet, and I am grateful for that. I want to feel normal, if only for a little while. The bitter liquid touches my lips and I smile to myself.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see a girl smiling at me. She has short hair and a button nose. She smells of something floral. I try to look for positives in her. But no matter how I try, I feel no attraction to her.
“Hey,” she purrs softly “Will you dance with me? You look kinda lonely over here.”
I hesitate, before forcing a smile “Sure. Why not?”
I can think of a hundred reasons why not. I’m not ready for this, I realise. Pull yourself together. You need to get used to this. You’re going to fit in. You will fit in.
She takes my hand and drags me to my feet, my drink still in hand as we move over to the dance floor. I try not to spill it on anyone. Warm, sweaty bodies pack close together and I feel exposed, almost as though I’m trapped and naked in this mass. This isn’t what I expected. This isn’t how it’s meant to feel I think.
I have no doubt things will turn nasty if this girl finds out I am a Stripe. She leans close to me now, and I force another smile. The girl tells me her name is Callie, whispering the name in my ear as though it is a secret. She tells me she thinks Madeline is a beautiful name. Our bodies brush together as we begin to move with the music, my eardrums thudding and my heart pounding in fear. I finish my drink all too quickly, my head a little fuzzy as I try to keep a step away from Callie at all times. But I know she is getting closer, her hips swaying in a way I long to find attractive, but can’t. I just can’t force myself to have interest in her.
I should leave.
Her hands find the back of my neck, pulling me closer so I can feel her hot breath on my face. If she was Tyler, I know my heart would be beating faster now, and for the right reasons. Not in fear. I try not to back away in fear of our close proximity, but it’s hard. She trails a finger up my thigh, before coiling it through the belt loop in my jeans, pulling me close. Her lips trail my jawline and I feel as though my lungs are being crushed.
“Let’s get out of here,” she whispers, nipping my ear with her teeth. “I know somewhere much better.”
She drags me out the building, my hands sweating even as the cool air hits my face. I try to break from her grip, but she’s stronger than me, more insistent. We waltz through the streets past people enjoying the night, intoxicated and wild. To my horror, Callie takes me to a block of flats close to my own, and we ride in an elevator to a high floor. The elevator is cramped. I feel sick, knowing it’s my only escape route. It’s OK I tell myself she doesn’t want your hand in marriage. Just this one night, she wants to be with you. That’s all. Maybe this will help.
She unlocks her flat and invites me in. It is a small flat, with only three rooms, I note, and Callie doesn’t seem interested in the kitchen area or bathroom. We head straight into her bedroom, a double bed centring the room and anti-Stripe posters littered across the grubby walls. Hate the Heteros a slogan reads. Removing her jacket and lighting a cigarette, Callie throws herself on the bed and kicks off her shoes. She pats the space beside her, cigarette dangling from her lips.
“Sit with me,” she orders. I perch on the edge nervously, glancing at the window hopefully. I can feel Callie’s eyes moving over my body slowly. Looking at me the way Tyler did. I don’t want this.
“So. I haven’t seen you around the clubs before. Are you new to the city?” she asks, biting her red bottom lip. I gulp.
“No. I just…I’m not really a party person,” I struggle to say. I am very aware, too aware that I am in the company of a woman. Maybe she just wants to be friends I try and convince myself. No, wait. Her arm snakes up to touch my back, her fingers sliding under my t-shirt and tracing the skin just above my jeans. Or not. I try to breathe easy, but I feel trapped now.
“You should go out more,” she hints, “Where do you work?”
“I’m just a waitress,” I say truthfully. She doesn’t need to know my job is in a Stripe café. I swallow “I mean, it’s not exactly a career…”
“It’s nice,” she cuts in. She’s not really interested “I work for the ASM.”
I freeze. The ASM stands for the Anti-Stripes Movement. They’re technically illegal extremists, but the government doesn’t stop them doing whatever they want. I’ve known plenty of people from school to have some sort of involvement with them, but never to actually work for them. I’ve heard terrible stories about them, that they torture and kill heterosexuals simply for looking at someone the wrong way. They’re sort of a bit of a myth in this city, but I know in other places they have a larger presence. I shift uncomfortably, adjusting myself to be able to make a quick getaway.
“I’ve never met anyone from the ASM before,” I manage to stutter.
“Well now you have!” She laughs “I hope you support our cause. It’s us against them, isn’t it? Yet some people are reluctant to join up,” she says. She stands to pour me some whiskey, handing me the glass. I cradle it in my hands, back still turned to her. I am glad for my wristband now.
“It’s a good cause,” I say quietly. I gulp the liquid down quickly, not caring that the foul liquid scorches my throat.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Callie murmurs. Suddenly, she is in front of me, smiling at me as though I am her prey. Perching herself on my lap, she presses her heavy lips against mine, her tongue quickly begging for entry. I squirm away, breathing heavily in fear. Callie laughs at me.
“What? You never kissed anyone before?” she asks, moving in for another kiss. She stops just before her lips meet mine. My heart is thudding in my chest. She knows. God help me, she knows. Her eyes fall on my wrist. Silence. I hold my breath as she slowly reaches to touch the wristband.
“Or perhaps,” she mutters, ripping the band off to reveal my stripe “I’m not your type after all.” Her eyes flare with anger, and her hands reach for my throat. I gasp for air as she clutches at my neck, nails digging in, snarling at me.
“You’re a Stripe! A filthy little Stripe!” she cries, spittle hitting my face. She’s monstrous now, eyes wide, nostrils flared in fury. I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. With the strength I still possess, I strike her face with my fist. Caught by surprise, she tumbles off my knee onto the floor, my neck free from her grip. Thinking fast, I run for the window, throwing it open. Meanwhile, in the corner of my eye I see Callie reach into her drawer for a pistol. She shoots wildly, missing me by inches and shattering her window as I climb on to a small ledge outside. With no time to think, I grab a drainpipe that runs along the side of the building and edge along it, trying not to think what will happen if I fall. It’s almost exhilarating, this fear.
There is a balcony two stories below. I manage to drop myself onto it just as another shot fires. I land hard on my side, pain shooting through my arm as I scramble to my feet. The glass door to the inside of the building is open and I slip inside, averting my eyes from a pair of women passionately kissing in the room I broke into. They are so wrapped up they don’t notice me slip through their home and get into the lift. I punch the button for the ground floor and lean against the door, panting in relief. But when the doors reopen, I run until I can run no more, grabbing my bag from its hiding spot then allowing my feet to carry me through the city. To somewhere new and into a new life.