• Evening is just starting to settle in as my best friend Alex and I make our way from the parking lot of the lake and down the grassy slope to the old wooden dock below. Leftover storm clouds hover in the sky above us, with the sun shining through the cracks and breaks between them. A few birds are calling to one another as they get ready to settle in for the night, save for one excited owl who calls out in that great big hoot of his. Since the wind isn't very strong, the water ripples softly across the murky, glassy surface of the lake to rock the wooden structure above it in gentle laps. In the distance, cars pass by one the gravel road with a their distinctive crunching noise on their way to some unknown destination.

    Alex and I walk side by side without speaking; no words are really needed. We've known each other for years, ever since we were little kids. She's always been somewhere in my life for as long as I can remember, usually in the near-forgotten shadows of memory. While we grew up in the same area, she is older than me and it didn't take her long to flee to Waterloo, and then several years ago it was on to England to pursue a new life for herself as a tattoo artist. It was while she was applying for her visa that she had to come back to the States for 3 months, so she decided to turn it into a visit for family and friends, and I couldn't wait; I'd missed my friend dearly.

    Now here we are. We talk about a lot of things, things that I don't really remember, and at some point I clamber up onto the old wooden railing around the dock to use it as my seat. The clouds begin to disperse and they turn the world around us dazzling shades of gold. It reflects off of things brilliantly; the tiny waves on the lake, the trees surrounding us, our hair. I look over at Alex to see it streaking through her dark hair and plucking out the blonde bits with its own highlights of the brightest, purest gold I've ever seen. I remember being in awe of the sheer intensity of it, and of the way it seemed to magically intensify the whole world around us. It was almost as though we were the only two people alive in that special world it was creating, like we were the only ones in existence that night.

    "You know why we're really out here," she says, staring at the golden lake water, "don't you?"

    I bite my lip and stare down into the bluish-green, murky depths below, not wanting to meet her gaze or answer her question, because I am confused, unsure of what she is really asking. I can sense that there is a deeper meaning to her question, and so I don't think that answering, "Because we wanted to talk?" would be the answer to her question.

    With hollow thunks I can hear her pacing the other end of the small dock, maybe twenty feet across and eight feet wide. I can hear her growl in frustration, and then suddenly I hear her stop, but I don't turn around, even now.

    "You can't say that there's nothing between us, I've seen it in you as much as myself," she says with growing frustration. "The question is not if there's something there, but what we're going to do about it."

    At this I look up, feeling full of surprise and doubt. I know exactly what she means by there being "something between us", but I thought we were just going to avoid mentioning it. I mean, it's not really all that acceptable to be gay, let alone with an older woman, is it? Especially when you've spent most of your life playing the role of a "normal", straight girl, and everyone expects you to find someone within a year or two of your own age. She's not "old" by any means, but old enough that she went to high school with one of my older brothers, not me. Besides, she's headed back to England in another month, so why would she want to breech the subject now?

    "No," I say, "I can't say that there's nothing there, but it's not right, how can we act on it? An you're going home soon, what then?"

    A breeze plays across the tree tops and the surface of the lake, blowing a strand of her beautiful hair softly against her pale cheek. Alex looks up from the dock at me and I turn away, afraid to see what I might find in her eyes. What if I've disappointed her? What if this night is going to ruin our friendship? What will I do without her? I need her friendship more than anything; she's my best friend.

    "Allie, look at me," she says, and I can her the pleading note in her voice.

    Reluctantly I turn to look at her, clinging to my seat in a death grip, and I'm surprised to see a look in her eyes that I have never seen on her face before, but a look that is neither disappointment nor anger, as I would have expected. It's a look of pain, a look that I'm not used to seeing in her eyes because in all the years I've known her, I've never seen her let it show; Alex and I were taught that showing emotional pain as a weakness, so we both work to try to keep others from seeing it in any way, shape, or form. I realise now that she's letting me see the raw emotions that she keeps locked away from everyone else, that I'm getting to see a side of her that I feel I shouldn't. I'm not really sure what to make of it, but a tendril of excitement threads its way through my muddled, confusing thoughts.

    Feeling somewhat scared and a little anxious, I drop my gaze to the dock again and dig my nails into the dock railing before saying, "What, Alex?"

    "Do you really think that this is wrong? Does it feel wrong to you?"

    I can feel the anxious pain behind her words, perhaps mixed with a tinge of desperation to make me see what I know she is trying so hard to say. It comes as a bit of a shock to me that this would matter this much to her, as we've only really gotten to really know one another since her brief return to the States. So why would I mean this much to anyone, let alone her? She could have pretty much anyone she wanted, so why me?

    I bite my lip and scrape my nails through the rotten, almost powdery surface of the wooden rail and kick my foot against one of the supports in frustration. How am I supposed to know which way to go, how am I supposed to know what to do? Isn't she supposed to be the one with all the answers? After all, she's the older one. Isn't she the one who's supposed to know just what to do at times like these?

    That's when I realise that she does know, and she's trying to find a way to tell me, but I'm not listening. Fear shoots through me, fear at the unacceptability of it in our small, homophobic town, fear of where this road might lead me, and maybe even a fear of myself; how could I not know that there was this side to me that she is leading out, even now as I sit here contemplating what very well may be one of the biggest decisions of my life.

    Once again I gouge the rail, digging my nails as far below the surface as I possibly can. I ignore the pain as shards and splinters of wood work their way up beneath my nails and into the tender flesh beneath them as I carve out nonsense shapes and patterns into their surface. I'm not sure what to do, or where to go, nor am I sure of just what I should say to her. I know what I want to say, and I know what she wants me to say, but how can I? I'm too afraid.

    "Allie, look at me!" she says again, now firmer, but this time I can't do it, I can't look back up at her and meet her gaze.

    I can hear her walking towards me on the dock, but still I can't force myself to turn around. I stare into the murky depths below me, and jump as a large fish leaps into the air and falls back into the lake with a sudden splash. Night is definitely falling now, and the last boat is being hauled from the water at the other end, which I can just make out in the dim light left to us by the falling sun. I can't tell if Alex is mad at me, or if I've hurt her, or if maybe I've just ruined our friendship, but I am too scared to turn around and see.

    It is now that I can sense her behind me, and the back of my neck prickles uncomfortably at her nearness; I don't know what to expect from her.

    "Stop that," I hear her say softly as she reaches out from behind me and lifts my hands from the railing.
    There are bits of wood and shreds of moss poking out from under my nails, but I'm too numbed to really notice or even care about them. All I can do is wonder what will happen next in this seemingly bizarre twist of events, where this crazy, wonderful evening has yet to take us.

    "Allie, stop that!" she says again as I try to return to picking at the dock. "It's okay, okay? I'm not going to let anyone hurt you, you're safe with me, you know that, right?"

    I manage to nod my head, feeling like crying but refusing to give into such a display of weakness, especially in front of Alex.

    "I know you're feeling torn two ways," she says to me gently, "but I also know that you have to be feeling pulled more one way than another. Which is it going to be? Are you going to let your fear win out again, or are you going to take a chance and go with me? I know that I'm really no good for you, but I love you, and I can't help it."

    I can feel her resting her forehead on that spot between my shoulder blades, but strangely enough I don't mind the unexpected contact.

    Yet, her little speech leaves me shocked and surprised, off balance.

    'She loves me?' I remember thinking. 'How can she love me? She's been gone for so long, how would she know? And how does she know me well enough to know exactly how I'm feeling? But...I'm glad she does. Could it be okay?'

    Without warning, I feel Alex put her arms around me and pull me close to her, so that I'm leaning up against her. I grab for the railing, feeling like I'm about to fall, and I can hear her laugh. I realise then just how infrequently it is that I get to hear that sound, and just how beautiful it really is, like her. I can feel a shaky smile tugging at the corners of my lips, but I try not to let her see it.

    Still slightly irritated by the suddenness of her actions but more in desperate need of a hug, I twist around, clutching her shoulder for balance, and lay my head on her shoulder in defeat.

    "But what is everyone going to say? What about you, you know no one's going to like it?" I ask her, concerned. Strangely enough, I am more concerned for her than myself.

    I lift my head in time to see her smile and say, "So what about everyone else? They don't have to live our lives, and they don't understand us. Don't worry about them."

    Silence reigns between us for a time as I sit in what is perhaps the most enjoyable defeat I've ever experienced. There's nothing forced between us, no words shared, but I feel like I know just how she's feeling for the moment. The birds are nearly settled in for the night now, and there's only an occasional call from the treetops around us. The last boat is long gone, and it appears that no one feels like going night fishing tonight because no other boats are lowered into the darkened waters. The only sound is the waters of the lake lapping against the shore and the dock, and of Alex's breathing as her chest rises and falls beneath my head.

    "Alex?" I finally ask, albeit tentatively.

    "Yeah? she says, a look of concern flashing briefly across her face as though she's afraid I might have changed my mind, as if I even could have had I been foolish enough to want to.

    "I'm scared," I admit reluctantly, "What's going to happen to us now?"

    Fear wells up in me again, and while I do my best to fight it from spilling into my expression, but I know that I have failed when I see the look in her golden-hazel eyes.

    "It's okay," she says, pulling me closer against her and holding me tighter in what may or may not have been an unconscious reaction. "I'm here, and I'm not going to let anyone hurt you, okay? You just have to trust me, and you have to believe me when I say it's going to be okay, because it will. Times are changing, and people are, too."

    "But what about when you go back to England in a month and I'm left all alone here? I can't go back with you," I say in frustration and a little fear. "Who's going to protect me then?"

    She simply says, "You will. I'll teach you how before I go, I promise. But until then, let's just enjoy the time we have together."

    We spent the rest of that evening on the dock, me in her arms, sometimes her in mine, talking and watching the stars some out one by one. We watched the beavers swimming across the surface of the lake, and chased fireflies in the parking lot until it was very early the next morning, and we both had to go back, me to my mother's house and her to her family's house where she was staying for her visit. We drove back to town with one of my hands on the steering wheel, the other enveloped in hers, talking about our plans for the next several days and working out a time that we could meet up later that day. Thus our days passed, some more blissfully than others, and I had never been happier in my life, never felt that free or that alive. Life seemed perfect, or at least closer to perfect than I ever would have dreamed it could.

    As do all good things, though, her time in the States came to an end, and I had the hardest time saying goodbye to her that I had ever had with anyone. It was obvious that she very firmly had my heart, and also that she had touched my life in a way I would never forget. She opened up my mind, my heart, and thus changed me forever. We agreed to continue to try to make things work with her in England and me here, and so far it has. It's not always easy, as England's time is six hours ahead of ours, and we tend to have a lot of misunderstandings and we fight a lot because of them, but at the end of the day, she's still mine and I'm still hers. Maybe in a few years I can move to England to be with her and start over as she did, but for now it's just nightly talks for me that are more like morning talks for her and we've got to be content with that.

    We'll see where things go all in due time, but whatever happens, I'm glad that she had the courage to challenge not only me, but also the morals I thought I had, because now I know that those morals weren't really mine at all, I had only thought they were. After all, if she hadn't put my life on the collision course to her own, I never would have found myself that summer and learned to accept myself for who I am. For that, and for her, I am thankful. I have finally found myself.