Nearly every picture on Joy’s Instagram feed is of Joy herself. No nature shots, no artwork or gut-wrenching poetry, no landscapes. Just Joy, posed. Joy, widemouthed. She is beautiful—one long leg kicking up in celebration as she tosses her graduation cap high into the air. Her short curly hair flies around her face and sticks to her glossed lips in a selfie she took standing at the Chelsea edge of the Hudson, squinting into the sun as it set over New Jersey.
Sometimes her friends make appearances. There’s the white girl with the bleached bob and glasses, the scrawny Mexican boy with dark circles and a visible nicotine addiction, the tall girl with a film camera, the tall girl with bangs. But always center stage is Joy.
Conceited, Sage assures herself. Egotistical. She flops down on her bed and leans her phone against the screen of her laptop, where she has Joy’s Spotify open. (Top artists: Mitski, The Cure, Fiona Apple. Top song: “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star. Jesus.) Gloomy synth seeps from the speakers and into the hazy air of Sage’s claustrophobic bedroom. It reverberates against the pothos and peace lily on her windowsill and the crystal collection atop her dresser, breaks through a curl of smoke rising from her jasmine incense.
It’s not the kind of music she normally listens to. Sage prefers classic rock and the bouncy seventies stuff that would be a perfect soundtrack for doing shrooms. Cruel joke, then, that Woodstock is in fact Joy’s hometown. Sage, meanwhile, spent her whole life in the fucking suburbs of Chicago, too far out to convincingly lie about being from Chicago. Basically, she’s just from Illinois. But half of Joy’s Twitter feed, now that it’s the immediate post-holidays, is nonstop whining about how “boring” and “hypocritical” her hometown is. Sage glowers. Joy is too elitist to properly appreciate what she has. But despite the ringing in her ears, this electronic whining is the sound of Joy’s nascent heartbreak, and Sage is taking a perverse pleasure in knowing that these songs are indirectly about her.
thalia, the playlist is titled. Bold to construct a public four-hour breakup playlist and then name it after your ex-lover. Sage has to give her that. But Joy is a fan of boldness, as suggested by the few things that Thalia has told Sage about her. Supporting evidence floods her Instagram feed: the puffy lime green dress she wore to the MoMA, the ruffled pink crop top she paired with gleaming patent leather pants for a Rico Nasty concert. Her skin is brown, which means, as Sage notes with jealousy, that every color looks good on her. If Sage tried to wear that dress, she’d look like an overexposed polaroid, and not in a mysteriously ethereal way.
Joy’s got flaws, of course. Thalia has said that she’s overly emotional, exaggerates, and name-drops often. Her nose is a little too big and hooks outward like a hawk’s beak. Her chest is almost totally flat. She’s prone to acne on her forehead. But she doesn’t even try to hide it; she doesn’t wear foundation. Sage touches her own cheek, and her fingers come away dusty with setting powder. God.
Sage and Joy have never met, but at this point Sage feels as though they have. She’s spent the past four months glued to Joy’s social media. Facebook gave her a timeline of Joy’s life and work (she works at a nonprofit that teaches underprivileged kids how to read, or do math, or something). Instagram gave her Joy’s image, and Twitter gave her Joy’s voice: dry, earnest, extremely online. Like, she never stops posting. Sage can just tell she thinks she’s hilarious. Only someone with a truly inflated sense of superiority would feel the need to comment on every single trending topic in a biting quote tweet and post Spotify links to sad songs hourly. Nobody fucking cares! Sage thinks as she adds one of Joy’s recent song recommendations to her queue.
She drags herself out of bed. She’s supposed to meet Thalia for drinks tonight, and she hasn’t even started getting ready. She sends Thalia a quick text with her ETA and starts braiding her hair up into a loose crown. She watches Joy’s Instagram story as she does. A photo of her lunch (Thai takeout). A photo of the sunset over the city, taken through the window of the L train. A photo of one of her friends sitting across from her at a restaurant, brandishing a half-empty martini glass. Sage weaves her hair together faster, faster.
The wide banner of a new message pops up over Joy’s end-of-the-night selfie. Thalia.
cool see u soon
Sage huffs. Would it kill her to use a pet name? Or an emoji?
Things were supposed to be easy now. They are easy now, Sage reminds herself. Joy is out of the picture. Sage finally has Thalia all to herself. She won.
Sage grabs her coat and closes her bedroom door behind her.
Thalia sits at a table close to the bar, looking at her phone. She doesn’t notice the door open, doesn’t realize Sage has arrived until she’s standing right in front of her.
“Hey babe,” Sage announces, and Thalia jumps slightly.
“Oh, hey.” She rises and pulls Sage into a hug. “Sorry, I was just reading this wild book review. You know Lila Simmons?”
Sage says she doesn’t.
“She’s this internet personality, I guess. I don’t know, I’m not super online. But apparently, she wrote this book of poetry, and it’s absolutely awful.” Thalia’s face is lit up with barely restrained, mischievous glee. “Just total entitled white girl Americana, favoring provocation over substance. And this review rips her apart.”
Sage knows it does. She read it on the bus ride over. She suspects that she and Thalia both found it the same way: Joy had retweeted it a few hours ago, followed by a short burst of her own opinions on the whole debacle. They mostly matched Thalia’s.
“Ugh, that’s why I don’t usually read reviews. They’re just so mean-spirited so much of the time, don’t you think?” Sage settles into the chair across from Thalia and crosses her legs. “Poetry especially is basically, like, giving the world a piece of your heart. It takes so much courage to be that vulnerable, and it’s like people don’t even recognize that.”
A defensive smile plays on Thalia’s lips. “Well, sure, but like… she wrote an entire poem about posting on Twitter and crying. And another about how hard it is to be a white girl from the suburbs.”
Sage bristles. “It’s harder than you’d think,” she says. “I would know.”
Thalia’s brow furrows. She opens her mouth, but Sage can see her change direction in real time. “Well, anyway,” she says, and rolls her head around her neck with a little sigh. “That’s what I was reading.” She turns her phone over. “I’m gonna get a drink. Do you want anything?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
Thalia nods and gets up without a word. Sage studies her as she leans against the bar and absently taps out a tuneless rhythm on the dark wood with her knuckles. Her hair coats her back in a solid black sheet, blending into her bomber jacket. Black denim strains around her wide hips and thighs. She has the kind of body that needs to jump to put pants on.
Sage met Thalia when the latter was a fresh hire at Northside Records, the vinyl store in downtown Philly where Sage had recently been promoted to manager. Sage had worked at Northside since graduating from Bryn Mawr earlier that May. She knew she wasn’t going back to Illinois, but all she had was a history degree and no real plan. So, she found a cheap apartment in Kensington and applied to every music store, bookstore, and coffee shop in Philadelphia. Northside wasn’t her first choice, but it was the first to say yes, and paid $15 an hour. So that was that.
When Thalia walked into Northside for her first day, Sage took one look at her—solid, guarded, hotter than hell—and decided she was going to make that woman her girlfriend.
Thalia was real. She was two years older than Sage, but those two years may as well have been a decade by the way she moved and smirked like she owned the space she occupied. On her breaks, she stood out front and chainsmoked while reading autobiographies. Her music taste was unpredictable but impeccable. Sage always handed her the store’s aux cord without protest. When an asshole customer started berating Sage for not knowing where the “nu-ska” was, Thalia let loose a creative and rather violent stream of swears until the man bolted. Sage barely lasted a month before asking her out.
“Here.” Thalia sets down two large glasses filled with black beer, so hard they clink and slosh pale froth on the table. Sage picks one up and takes a large gulp. She nearly gags on the bitter foam, but manages to choke it down. Thalia doesn’t seem to notice her discomfort. She doesn’t seem to notice much of anything at all, actually. Her eyes are glazed.
Thalia nods slowly. “Sorry. I just... I haven’t been here in a while.”
Sage doesn’t understand what that means. She takes another sip of her beer. God, it’s awful. She is by and large a beer drinker, but whatever this is, it’s too dark for her.
Thalia raises an eyebrow. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah!” Sage lies brightly.
Thalia gives her a smile, and Sage wonders how unobservant she must be to not realize that Sage may in fact vomit if she has to drink any more of this stuff. But she’s happy. That’s what matters.
As the night unspools, Thalia comes back into focus. She’s still muted, but she laughs along with Sage’s jokes and summarizes some less controversial articles she’s read lately. Thalia is always reading articles. Sage knows that if there were some kind of job that solely entailed reading articles, Thalia would be all over it. Instead, she remains stagnant, grasping for a purpose. Sage hopes she finds one, but mildly. She personally doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with a small life. All she’d ever wanted was to make it out of Illinois, and she’d done it. Beyond that, her ambition stagnated, but unlike most people she’d met in her life, she was content with that. If she could spend the rest of her days working at Northside or jobs like it, making rent, making love, and consuming media in her free time, she would. Maybe she will. And if she can convince Thalia to be realistic, she won’t have to do it alone anymore.
After about an hour, Thalia asks, “Wanna get out of here?”
Sage doesn’t know if she’ll ever get used to the vibration that runs down her spine when Thalia looks at her low through her eyelashes, heavy with desire. The air around them feels fuzzy and warm. Maybe it’s the beer Sage managed to finish somehow. She leans over the table and presses her lips against Thalia’s. She tastes like alcohol, with a hint of coffee.
But almost immediately, Thalia pulls away.
“Let’s save that for later, huh?” she murmurs.
Sage is unable to hide the hurt on her face. Thalia, to her credit, looks a little embarrassed. “You know I’m not super into PDA,” she says slowly.
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“So…” Thalia tilts her head in the direction of the door. “Should we get going?”
“I gotta go to the bathroom first.”
In the women’s room, Sage scrolls through Joy’s Instagram again, blinking back tears. She knows most people wouldn’t believe her if she said it, but to some degree she finds the practice calming, almost meditative. Joy isn’t like Thalia, whose sparse feed taunts Sage with the threatening white space of unshared moments, but she isn’t hopelessly addicted either. She’s active on stories but doles out feed content sparingly, a new post every two to three weeks. Down, down, down Sage goes. She views Joy’s profile so frequently that she’s practically memorized the lower bowels of the grid: the photos, their jokey location tags, their comments section filled with adulation. There, the birthday post for Joy’s mother. There, the group photo at Joy’s best friend’s wedding. She mouths their captions to herself and feels her heart rate slow.
She swipes on a photo she’s passed many times before, but instead of down, it goes sideways, and she’s looking at a new photo of the very bar she was just sitting beside, the same pink neon sign hanging behind it. She wonders how she’s never noticed the photo before. Of course, before Thalia brought her here tonight, it didn’t mean anything. The only reason she now feels the sting of acid rising in her throat is the unwelcome reminder that everything she does with Thalia, Joy has done first.
She returns to Thalia.
“Hey,” she says, “I think I might just go home, actually. I started feeling kinda sick in the bathroom.” Not a lie.
“Oh.” Thalia’s brow furrows. “You sure? Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, it’s good. I think I just need to sleep it off, especially since we’re opening tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Thalia pauses. “See you tomorrow, then.”
The minute Sage gets home, she rolls a spliff and opens all her windows.
Late January, unrelenting, coils into the stuffy room. Sage leans on the sill and presses her face to the cold. Her cheeks go numb, her head goes light. Pete Seeger trickles through her laptop speakers and almost fades before it reaches her.
Sage smokes the whole thing to ash. Then she closes the windows, grabs her phone, and flops backwards onto her bed. The drugs loosen her grip on her thoughts. Her mind swims. She imagines she is Thalia, sitting in that very chair where Sage found her earlier. She imagines Joy coming through that same front door to meet her, snowflakes caught in her curls. Joy heaving herself into the chair across from Thalia, spacy, exhausted, but the spark inside her fluttering back to life as she is plied with questions about her favorite books, the latest hot take setting Twitter aflame, and, of course, alcohol. Soon they’re talking in hushed tones about the review of Lila Simmons’ book, bending their heads close together as they giggle and brutalize. And all through the night, a charge runs through the air between them, electricity that slips beneath their skin and sets their blood simmering. Except unlike Sage, Joy knows to hold back. Wants to, in fact. Joy understands that it’s all about this secret feeling shared between the two of them, hidden in plain sight. The other bodies in the room couldn’t pick up on it. The subtlety, the privacy was the very thing that made their connection magical. No, special. Joy understands that. Joy understood that. Why couldn’t Sage?
Sage unlocks her phone. Joy smiles up at her in blue light. The coil that wound itself up so tightly inside her from the moment Thalia broke their kiss finally springs.
“Bitch,” Sage mutters.
She rolls onto her side and swan-dives into Joy’s direct messages, emboldened by righteous indignation and marijuana. As her words fill the screen, she can feel the long-held tension seeping out of her. Her cheeks ache, and she realizes she’s smiling. She hits send without proofreading.
hey joy !! i just want to say that i hope theres no hard feelings. thalia speaks highly of u and im grateful u guys were able to have a conversation about this. i also thought u would want to know that she rly is happy and since I know we both care abt her i think we can both agree thats the important thing
Is it cruel? Maybe. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Sage can still feel her lips go cold as Thalia refuses her. Joy isn’t the only one who’s lost something.
She stares at her message. No, it’s just cruel.
“Fuck,” Sage whispers, her eyes burning with tears. She presses on the message until the “Unsend” button appears, and she wipes it all away before Joy can read it.
She’s losing control. She’s psyching herself out. Everything is fine. She tosses her phone to the side and closes her eyes. Thalia wants to be with her. Joy is in New York. Everything is fine.
Sage jolts awake to the blare of her alarm. It’s eight in the morning, but her room is darker than usual. Steely clouds insulate the sky. Didn’t Thalia say something yesterday about snow? Sage blinks. Her eyes are dry, she can feel them clicking. She has somehow ended up lying horizontally at the foot of her bed. Next to her knee, her laptop sits calmly with a black screen. Dead. Her cheek rests in a damp, half-absorbed puddle of drool. Blearily she gropes around for her phone. Her tongue feels like sand.
Sage brushes her teeth with one hand and scrolls through Joy’s Twitter with the other.
best part about living in nyc is u can openly cry on the subway and absolutely nobody will give a shit
told my bagel guy that i just got dumped and he gave me a free coffee :’)
it should be illegal to make women go to work when theyre heartbroken
Sage props her phone up on her dresser and pulls on a sweater, flannel, and skinny jeans while watching Joy’s Instagram story. A video of her cat curling around her ankles, the rumble of its purrs mixing with her strange, breathy giggles. A photo of a snowy Central Park with a Bon Iver song overlaid. A photo of her manicured hand holding a covered coffee cup that Sage knows from Joy’s tweets contains a matcha latte. The thumbnail is chipped on the upper left corner.
On the bus ride to work, Sage gazes out the window while the mournful melodies of Joy’s mega-heartbreak-playlist resonate in her headphones. Some songs sound like they could have been gifts from Thalia. When it comes to emotions, Thalia prefers to let the words of others do the talking. Her playlists are works of art, curated and ordered with surgical precision. Sage would be astounded if she hadn’t made Joy at least one, though if she had it’s since been wiped from her Spotify profile. Thalia had probably given her books too. At least, Sage knows Joy used to give Thalia books. They’re all over her bedroom. They’re tucked into the stacks scattered haphazardly across the floor, they stand at attention on her bookshelf, they lay on her nightstand and hide in every tote bag and backpack. The first time Sage visited Thalia’s apartment, she picked one up at random, a memoir or something, and casually flipped through it. There, just past the author’s dedication, was an inscription in tiny print.
Thalia! I hope this can kill some of your cynicism. I like to see you hopeful. xo Joy
Then the date. Two weeks prior.
Sage slammed the book shut and stared at it for a long moment. In their two months of seeing each other almost every day, Thalia had never mentioned anyone else, much less someone who meaningfully inscribed a book to her and signed off with xo. Ex fucking Oh. I like to see you hopeful. What the fuck.
She dropped to her knees before the piles of books and started flipping through as many as she could. Thalia had gone to use the bathroom. Without her absence, Sage probably wouldn’t have been so bold. Out of the ten books she was able to get through before she heard the doorknob turn, Joy had inscribed at least six.
“What’re you up to down there?” Thalia asked, her voice syrupy.
Sage stared at her. “Who’s Joy?”
It could have unraveled then. A weaker woman would have been brought to tears as Thalia sighed, climbed onto her bed, and explained who Joy was to her. A friend, a lover, a force. A two-year flare that irregularly ebbed and flowed but that neither would ever quite let go out.
“She’s just so passionate, and she works harder than anyone I know,” Thalia said. She shrugged, looking down at the bedspread with a tiny smile. “She makes me want to be better.”
Sage bit her lip. “Then why–”
“She lives in New York. She visits when she can, but I only really see her for a day or two every couple of weeks.”
The silence was suffocating as Sage considered her next move. Back then, she wasn’t worried about Joy in any real sense. That they were still undefined after two years meant that there was an opening. Sure, she’d seen the spark in Thalia’s eyes when she spoke about Joy, but Sage was the one in her bedroom right now. So, she knitted her brows together, frowned at the floor, and stayed quiet. If the silence stretched for long enough, Thalia would be compelled out of sheer discomfort to wipe away Sage’s disappointment, unaware that it was a performance.
Sure enough, she gave in. “I’m not a very monogamous person,” Thalia said slowly. “I never have been, but especially not right now. My life’s too…unsteady. I’m still trying to figure out my career, my whole life really.” She scooted to the edge of her bed and nudged Sage’s shoulder with her foot. “But I really enjoy your company, and I’d like to keep seeing you. So, if you’re okay with that…”
Sage felt a stone of hope come loose and start rattling around inside her. She had no intention of remaining in this arrangement for very long, but she knew with a little patience she could make Thalia hers in the end.
She rose from the floor and sat on the bed next to Thalia, so close their thighs touched. “Of course,” she murmured, and leaned in.
The bus screeches to a stop, pulling Sage out of her reverie. She dismounts and breathes in the crisp January air. She checks her phone. 8:45 a.m. There’s enough time to grab drinks from the café on the corner.
The lights are already on and the door unlocked when she arrives at work. Sage saunters into the store and sets a steaming cup and a paper bag down on the checkout counter in front of her girlfriend. “A croissant and drip coffee, black. No sugar.”
Thalia gives her a thin smile. She’s wearing a black turtleneck and has her hair up in a bun. “Thanks. Um, can we talk—”
“About last night? I told you, I was just feeling sick. Probably drank too much. But I’m all good now.” Sage laughs and comes around to the other side of the counter. She plops down on the second stool and squeezes Thalia’s shoulder. “You look like a sexy Steve Jobs.”
“That’s an oxymoron.” Thalia stares at the coffee like it’s committed a crime. “But I wasn’t… It’s not about…” She pauses and takes a breath.
Sage purses her lips. “Everything okay, baby?”
Thalia’s eyes are shut tight. “Are you stalking Joy?”
Sage’s blood crystallizes.
“She texted me this morning. She says you’ve been watching her stories? Liking her tweets? Sending and unsending direct messages?” Thalia finally turns to face her. Sage has never seen her look like this, so pained. “It was already hard enough for her when I ended things. You don’t need to make it harder.”
“She’s jealous,” Sage blurts before she can stop to think. The excuse isn’t elegant, but it’s believable given the circumstances. “She just wants to drive a wedge between us.”
Thalia shakes her head, just once. “No, she’s not like that.”
Sage feels her muscles tense. She needs to calm down. She needs to regain control of the situation. “Heartbreak can make people do crazy things,” she says evenly.
“Are you stalking her or not?” Thalia’s voice is steely, her eyes hard. She’s never spoken to Sage this way, never looked at her like this. Sage’s lower lip trembles. It’s not a performance.
“Why don’t you believe me?” she asks.
Thalia wraps her fingers around her coffee cup. She doesn’t answer.
“Wow.” Sage stands up and walks into the center of the store, between the New Wave and the Disco. “Wow. Fuck.”
“Sage, don’t.” Thalia rises too, for just a second, but sits back down almost immediately. “Look, I did what you asked,” she says, and she sounds so tired. “I’m with you. I am. Just forget I said anything.” She smiles. Halfway, with teeth. The way she smiles when she doesn’t mean it.
“You did what I asked,” Sage repeats quietly.
Thalia doesn’t seem to hear her. She takes a sip of her coffee and stares out the front window. The sidewalk is empty, the sky demoralizingly grey. Across the street, the indie movie theater’s faintly glowing marquee announces the new Wes Anderson movie. A month ago, days before Thalia broke it off with Joy, it had announced a documentary about female homesteaders in Alaska. The sky had looked like this, only darker. Sage and Thalia had just closed Northside together and were walking to the bus stop.
Sage knocked her shoulder against Thalia’s. “So, you coming over later?”
“Mm, I can’t. Joy’s in town for the weekend.”
Sage raised her eyebrows and stared at the sidewalk. “Ah.”
They joined the group of commuters underneath the glass overhang. The air around them was thick with the white vapor of other people’s breath. Thalia shoved her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket and peered down the street, looking for the bus. Sage checked her phone. She and Thalia took different lines, and hers was coming first. Two minutes. Enough time to start a conversation, but not enough to finish it.
“Well,” Sage continued. “I actually have been meaning to talk to you about that.”
Thalia didn’t take her eyes away from the street. “Uh huh?”
“I mean, it’s been a while. And…”
She trailed off and stayed silent until Thalia finally turned to face her. “Yeah?”
“I want to be monogamous.”
Thalia blinked. “Oh.” And then, after a pause, “Really?”
“Yes really.” Sage laughed. “So, what do you think?”
“Um.” Thalia pressed her lips together in a tight line. “Can I think about it?”
“Sure.” Sage smiled wryly. “But, you know, we’re basically girlfriends already. You stayed over, like, half the nights this week. We might as well make it official. Besides, you barely ever see Joy. It doesn’t really seem like it’s going anywhere.”
Thalia tilted her head to the side slightly. Her eyes shone.
“I guess,” she said slowly. “Yeah, I guess.”
And in that moment, Sage knew she’d won.
“But yeah, anyway,” she said brightly. “Just think about it, and then we can talk. Maybe Monday? After she leaves?”
Sage’s bus pulled up with a hiss. “You should talk to her, too. Just to, like, give her a heads up.” She planted a quick, hard kiss on Thalia’s lips. “See you,” she called over her shoulder, grinning, and boarded the bus.
On Sunday afternoon, as she was watering her plants, Sage got a text.
ok, lets give it a try.
Immediately, Sage opened Twitter. Her hands shook as she typed in Joy’s handle and clicked on her profile. A single new Tweet, posted five hours ago.
y’all ever been dumped at ten in the morning? like what am i even supposed to do for the rest of the day?
Sage locked her phone and held it tightly to her chest. Her body felt light as air.
That night, Thalia came over and did something completely unusual: she let Sage fuck her. And to this day Sage still isn’t sure, but she thinks maybe—while she was hovering above her body for the first time, flexing the tips of her fingers in, out—Thalia had cried.
Back in Northside, Sage walks up to the checkout counter, grabs the croissant meant for Thalia, and tears out a buttery bite. Flakes of pastry spray down upon her checkered flannel. Thalia raises her eyebrows but says nothing.
An aggressive silence ensues. Sage stomps around the store being as redundant as possible. She mops and sweeps the entire floor twice. Thalia ignores her with an infuriating indifference. That is, until Sage begins to pointedly reorganize all the bins Thalia had reorganized yesterday. Thalia watches her shuffle the vinyls around for a solid two minutes, then calmly pulls her latest read from her tote bag and glues her eyes to the page. Sage recognizes the cover immediately. Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, a memoir about a lesbian affair. One of Joy’s gifts.
By the time lunch rolls around, Sage just gets up and fucking leaves. She makes a big show of putting on her hat and windbreaker. She slings her bag over her arm with more torque than necessary. Who’s going to stop her? Certainly not Thalia, who seems all too relieved to watch her go.
She buys a banana nut muffin from the café on the corner and eats it standing up on the sidewalk, scrolling through Instagram. She opens Joy’s profile. There’s a new photo.
Joy stands on the front steps of what looks like an apartment building, the brick façade still covered in twinkling Christmas lights. She’s wearing black stilettos and a strapless dress of ruched black velvet. Her hair is straightened and held back in a tiny ponytail, with two strands framing her face. One hand on her hip, she stares into the camera with an almost angry intensity. She’s wearing lush false eyelashes. The caption: best u ever had. With the period and everything. Sage’s ears start ringing.
She zooms in on the photo. On the brick outer wall, to the left of Joy, she can just make out a name and number on a metal plaque. The Lincoln, 56-30. Surely Joy wouldn’t have been so stupid as to do a photoshoot outside her own apartment building and post it publicly on the internet. Would she?
Just then, the photo on her screen vanishes, and she is returned to her main feed. Sage frowns. She clicks on the search bar, types in Joy’s username.
No Results Found for “joytotheworld”
Sage exits the app and opens Facebook. Joy Jackson, she types into the search bar. A hundred Joy Jacksons fill the page, but while the first result used to be a familiar face with a single mutual friend, Sage now sees nothing but strangers.
Heart pounding, Sage opens Twitter. She types in Joy’s handle. Instead of her profile photo, all that appears is a blank results field with one link: “Go to @sparkingj0y.”
@sparkingj0y blocked you
You are blocked from following @sparkingj0y and viewing @sparkingj0y’s Tweets.
Sage shivers and pulls her windbreaker tighter around her. The wind blows fiercely down the avenues. She can’t feel her cheeks.
Google Maps says she only has a few more blocks to go. She grits her teeth and puts her head down, walking into the gale. It’s 5 p.m. and pitch black. That’s January for you.
Ten minutes later, she’s staring up at The Lincoln, 56-30 125th St, Harlem, New York, 10027.
It’s a nice building. Bright red brick. A few feet of garden running like a moat around the building, enclosed by a raised stone curb. Its holiday lights are spectacular.
Sage knows it’s entirely possible, and probably likely, that Joy was just posing in front of a random apartment building on a night out. But she still sat on a bus for over two hours crossing multiple state lines and took the subway all the way uptown, compelled by a force unlike anything she’s ever felt before. She needs to see Joy. She can’t explain why. She just needs to look at her. She needs to see her breathing, fleshy, alive.
Sage pulls open the front door and steps into the small anteroom that holds the buzzer panel for the building. The resident list is encased in glass on the wall. She scans for Joy’s name.
JACKSON, J. 1C.
Blood roars in Sage’s ears. She lightly touches the buzzer for apartment 1C with her index finger, but she can’t push down. Something within her won’t allow it.
She stands there, frozen with her finger on the buzzer, for what feels like years. In her head, scenes of Thalia play in a deranged slideshow. Thalia stroking her down the length of her body on their first night together, whispering jokes and blossoming when Sage laughed. You’re the first and last white girl I’ll ever sleep with. Thalia purposely choosing the most ridiculous records to play on the tester turntable right before a customer entered in hopes of driving them out, grinning at Sage with a mischievous glint in her eye. Think they can stand Death Grips with boosted bass? Thalia biting her neck in the movie theater. Thalia kissing the bone behind her ear as they cooked dinner together in Sage’s kitchen. Thalia magnetic. Thalia smoldering. Thalia hers.
Sage jerks her finger away from the buzzer as if she’s been burned. What is she even doing here? She needs to go home. There’s still time to save this.
Sage leaves the anteroom and is hit with the full force of winter again. It steals her breath in one gasp. She feels lightheaded. She makes her way down the front steps, tightly clutching the railing. Just as she’s about to pass the corner of the building, a light flicks on in the first-floor window directly to her right.
Sage stops walking.
Joy is settling in a chair with a book in her hand, knees folded up beneath her. She is barefaced and raw. Small dots of pink acne medication pepper her forehead. Black curls frizz and fray around her cheeks. Everything backlit by soft, golden lampglow. The window has blinds, but surprisingly they haven’t been pulled down. The tableau feels posed. A pretty picture, just for Sage. So she stands there in the ice and watches. Joy reads, coughs, scratches her head. She doesn’t look out the window. Sage doesn’t look away.
Finally, when Sage has lost all feeling in her fingers, Joy rises from her chair and stretches. Her arms pull back, her shoulder blades pop out like wings. Sage wants to slip inside her. She wants to slice a seam along Joy’s spine and wrap her skin around her like a prayer. Maybe when she returns to Philadelphia in this glistening armor, Thalia will begin to crack.
She closes her eyes. Tears leak.
In all six months of seeing her nearly every single day, Thalia has swept Sage away time and time again. But there has never been a time when Sage put her arms around Thalia and felt her body melt. There has never been a time when Thalia has given herself up to Sage. Not like she did with Joy.
Thalia shared enough that Sage could understand this. Sometimes what she left out said more than what she didn’t. There was the night that Thalia’s father had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital, a thousand miles away. Thalia didn’t have to say that Joy was there when she got the call, seconds away from orgasm, breathing into Thalia’s red mouth. Joy didn’t think twice, clamped her legs shut, kissed Thalia’s forehead and neck and shoulders as her body shook with the force of her sobs.
There was the day Thalia ended things at Sage’s request. The ironic beauty of the morning, the brilliant sun setting Joy’s face aflame as she ripped into Thalia in her kitchen. That’s not fucking fair. It’s not fair of you to tell me, now, when you’re choosing someone else, that I should be proud of myself for making you fall this hard. I never viewed your love as some kind of challenge to win. That’s not what this, or you, have ever been to me. Tears pouring down Thalia’s cheeks, her knuckles going white as she gripped the edge of the kitchen counter.
Joy is at the window now. She stares into the darkness for just a second too long. Her eyes are huge, black. Sage wants them to suck her in. She stares directly back and refuses to look away. She’s spent half a year absorbing Joy, devouring her, trying to become and love her at the same time, and now she understands that this is the moment. If Sage can fall in love with Joy too, right now, it will be proof that Joy is just the kind of person who the world can’t help falling in love with. It will mean that Sage is not lacking. But her eyes skate right across Joy’s gaze. Despite her beauty, despite her candor, despite, despite, despite, Joy does not move her.
Sage lets out a small, shuddering gasp. Her legs weaken. It hurts, oh god, it breaks her heart.
Joy must not see her. Of course she doesn’t. The street is too dark, the apartment too full of light. All Joy can probably see in the window is her own reflection. She raises one of her hands slowly and presses it flat against the glass. She closes her eyes. Is she thinking about Thalia’s soft, thick voice that cracks easily and runs words together and always sounds like she’s a little sick? Is she thinking about Thalia’s rough hands pressing into her flesh, careful but firm, determined to mark at all costs?
Snowflakes land in Sage’s hair. Her body feels so heavy. This woman has taken everything from her and she doesn’t even know it. She walks around her little life in her massive city and isn’t aware of, cannot even comprehend the ruin that her mere breathing elicits two states away. As long as Joy wanders here, open, ready, waiting, Sage will spend her life keeping score. She will catalog every little difference between herself and the woman behind the glass and punish herself for every failure to embody this too-perfect stranger.
Sage slips her phone out of her pocket and selects Thalia’s name in her texts. There are no new messages from her—another small apocalypse. Her teardrops land on the screen and distort the light into pixelated rainbows. She aches for herself, for how hard she tried.
Sage sobs and it comes out a sigh. She turns firmly away from what she will never be and walks slowly through the swirling snow to the subway.
Behind her, Joy closes the blinds.