“In the Same Place” – Personal Essay by Caitlin Hernandez

*Aromatica Poetica is extremely pleased to present a personal essay about the tastes and smells and feels of young love by Caitlin Hernandez. It’s the last in our Blind Writers Project series sponsored by Awesome Foundation Disability*

In a way, it all started with that trip to Safeway, to the chocolate pie mix you saw on sale. My birthday was over a month away, but you insisted on buying the easy-to-make dessert for me. “An early birthday present,” you called it.

You commented, as we made the pie, that the mix looked much more chocolatey in the picture than it did in real life. You laughed when I grabbed supplementary Oreos and chocolate pudding from my room, but you stood back as I dumped both into the concoction.

We chatted while I stirred and you pre-heated the oven. Mid-conversation, you put your hand over mine, reminding me without words to scrape the edges of the bowl. It made me smile, knowing you were watching me.

The pie turned out perfect: thick, smooth filling and crunchy Oreo crumbs wrapped in a flaky, chocolatey crust. When I took the first bite and swooned with joy, you giggled, then briefly, uncharacteristically cupped my cheek. “You’re so adorable,” you said.

We stayed up late to watch a Broadway performance of Rent you’d bought on DVD. For the first time, you didn’t keep at least three feet of space between us as we lay together in my bed. You cuddled close to me, describing the movie, and even though you didn’t touch my cheek again, I could still feel your fingers on my skin, still smell your nail polish and hand lotion.

We talked for hours as dawn’s light, something I didn’t know I’d be able to see, crept in around my curtains. We discussed everything except how we felt about each other.

That was the first night we spent together, lying side by side beneath my sheets, inside arms overlapping. I lay on my stomach, listening to your sleeping breaths and trying to ignore my heart, which was hammering with hope. Gently, I brushed your long, thick curls away from your face, wondering if, someday, we’d talk about that last thing—our feelings.

You had an early class that morning, and after you’d left, I stayed in bed, my head resting where yours had lain. As I breathed in the scent of your face-wash and makeup, my unspoken feelings tightened my chest.

I felt guilty, dishonest, for not telling you I was beginning to fall for you. You’d be kind, I knew. You wouldn’t be angry or disgusted. I suspected you wouldn’t even be surprised. But I knew you wouldn’t feel the same way I did.

Still in pajamas, I padded into the kitchen for Cheerios. Once box, bowl, and spoon were arranged on the table, I went to the fridge for milk. Nestled amid the mess of containers and packages, my fingers found a Saran-wrapped bowl—our leftover chocolate pie.

Sitting alone at the table, silky-sweet chocolate on my tongue and crumbling cookie pieces between my teeth, I remembered your hand on my cheek and longed, desperately, for it to mean something.

*

The night after our first kiss, I got sick—some cold/fever hybrid. I should have seen it as a bad omen, but when you ran to the store for supplies, then came back to my room and stayed, I didn’t. I couldn’t.

You bought the Campbell’s chicken soup I’d loved as a kid—the kind with noodles shaped like stars instead of letters.

“I can just microwave it,” I protested, when you headed for the kitchen.

“Ew! No! It only tastes good when you make it on the stove.”

You cracked my window for fresh air, then propped me up with blankets and pillows before handing me my soup.

“You don’t have to stay,” I insisted. “I’m fine.”

“I’ll keep you company.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“I want to.”

You finished homework while I coughed, sneezed, and alternately sipped my soup and the pulpless orange juice you urged me to drink.

Years later, during graduate school, I made myself a bowl of that same soup—in the microwave, because you weren’t there to cook it, and I’d always been afraid of the stove. The chicken and noodles were rubbery, chewy. You’d been right—microwaving was far from ideal—but the stars on my tongue were still stars, and the broth, warm and salty like tears, brought me back to you.

*

I bought a bottle of the coconut shampoo you used—half because I liked the scent myself, half because you were spending the night so often by that point that it seemed like a hospitable gesture.

I wished my hair could smell like yours, could waft our closeness into my lungs when we sat together among others and I had to pretend we were nothing more than friends. Yours wasn’t the first scent I’d tried and failed to make my own. But no one can copy pheromones, capture the redolence of scalp, or skin, or the love that makes scents special in the first place.

I loved to lie behind you, both of us still warm from the shower, inhaling the sweet, clean, coconut aroma of your still-damp hair. The closer my fingers drew to your scalp, the curlier your hair became. Silent and still in sleep, you felt fragile and delicate under my hands in a way you never did when you were awake. I always felt protective in those moments—fiercely, almost alarmingly protective. For different reasons, you and I were both vulnerable, but I already loved you so much that your happiness and safety mattered more to me than my own.

I breathed in that rich, creamy coconut, promising the universe that it could do whatever it wanted to me, as long as no one and nothing ever, ever hurt you, as long as the curly hair I so loved to touch could shield that brilliant mind beneath and the tender heart below.

*

We loved each other in silence. That was what you wanted, what you required. But that mandate left me alone with my uncertainty, and you alone with the task of helping me heal.

I don’t know how you knew what to do. Neither of us had ever loved another girl … and though you’d taken care of many people, in many ways, you’d never helped anyone the way you were trying to help me. But when I thought about it, I realized that all humans take care of each other primarily by instinct.

Once, long before we kissed, you and I were at the mall with friends when we ran across a little girl who’d gotten lost. She was frightened, crying, unable to answer the questions security guards were asking her. While the rest of us hung back, reluctant to get involved, you bent to her level, talked softly to her, offered your hand. And she took it. You always had a way of calmly, quietly comforting.

Your every touch was slow, each inch forward a thoughtful, cautious question. You felt, or saw, or somehow sensed every flinch I tried to suppress, every fear I tried to hide, every memory I tried to erase but never could.

You drew the story out of me as though it was a splinter—quickly, without unnecessary prodding or preamble, but carefully, so the extraction wouldn’t hurt any more than it needed to. You cried for me, and when I curled into you, you held me close.

“Are you okay?” you asked. “Your heart’s pounding.”

I nodded against your shoulder. You weren’t pulling away—weren’t scoffing or judging or disbelieving—and that made me okay.

I didn’t need you to fix anything; I just needed you to understand. I could feel your understanding in your hands framing my ribs, your arms around my back, your lips on my cheek.

It was because you were so attentive—so patient and aware—that I sometimes cried. My skin, in those raw places, remained threadbare, over-sensitive. You brought pleasure, but my body, bones brittle, muscles tense and tight, was braced for pain. I couldn’t adjust. The love in your touch felt like warm water on ice-cold fingers: vital and cathartic, but too much, too good. And so I cried, sometimes.

Unlike most others, you never became uncomfortable in the face of my tears, never tried to stop them. You seemed to know, intuitively, that they were long overdue. The first time I cried, you simply hugged me, held me, trailed your fingers through my long hair. Once the storm passed, you kissed the crown of my head, climbed out of my bed, and crossed to my mini-fridge. The tart, citrus tang of Capri Sun lemonade melded with the tears still lingering at the back of my throat.

After I’d drunk the juice, I lay back across the comforter, knees folded against my chest. You climbed back onto the bed and sat beside me, cross-legged. When you caressed my head, my face, my body uncurled and I came back to you. Your love—your wordless assurance—tasted like the lemony coolness you’d brought to my parched tongue and clenched throat.

*

Late one night, as we walked to my place, a light Spring rain began misting our cheeks and hair. Instantly, the air became a rainbow of fragrances: wet cement, dew-drenched leaves, rain-spattered redwood trees, your activated shampoo and perfume.

We were walking in companionable silence, tired and comfortable enough in our togetherness not to bother speaking. As we crossed the bridge, arm-in-arm, the tip of my cane clattered noisily over the breaks between its planks. The cane made so much noise that I almost missed the other sound, but I was so attuned to you that I didn’t—couldn’t—miss a thing.

You were crying.

I said your name, stopped walking. “What’s the matter?”

You didn’t answer … just leaned against the bridge’s railing and sighed: a tremulous, world-weary sigh, more despairing than upset, more helpless than unhappy … or so I thought. Hoped.

I put a cautious hand on your shoulder. I wanted to hug you, kiss you, make you feel better. More than that, I wanted to talk to you, listen to you. I needed to know what you were thinking. But though we were alone, we were never really alone. People were always watching me, watching us. Even as I thought this, a set of footsteps approached, and you straightened, shrank away from my hand, pulled everything back inside … the way, in the end, you always did.

*

There were golden days—many of them. I remember driving to your place after your graduation, the sweet summer breeze floating through your lowered windows. Sitting in the passenger seat, I held your hand in my lap, our fingers grazing my thigh, and savored the pride I felt in you, the joy I felt with you.

Later that afternoon, lying across your bed, chest to chest, one of your hands absently sweeping back my long, loose hair, I held still, tasting your lip gloss on my tongue, feeling first you, then the sunshine, kissing my bare skin.

We spent most of that summer together, swimming over and under and around each other like dolphins, kissing underwater, the taste of chlorine mingling with the taste of your lips. You taught me to use my first iPhone while we sipped Starbucks Java Chips in your car, with its candy-scented air freshener.

On our last night together, you cooked spaghetti for yourself, noodles with pesto, butter, and parmesan cheese for me. You added a dash of olive oil to my first bite to see if I’d like it, and when I did, you added some to my bowl.

You’d given all your furniture away—all of it to young, single mothers, because you knew what it was like not to have enough—so we picnicked on a blanket in the middle of your living-room, bowls on our laps. You knew I hated when my foods touched, so you handed me a slice of homemade garlic bread swaddled in a napkin.

That summer was poignant: a glimpse of a forever I knew we’d never have, a future I could dream but never keep, a life I longed for and you did not.

When we separated, everything reminded me of you: smelling rain, clean sheets, coconut, chlorine; tasting chicken-noodle soup, sugary lemonade, Java Chips, pesto pasta; feeling the chill that prickled my skin, which couldn’t quite seem to hold me together without your touch acting as stitching.

*

A year after your graduation, you returned for mine. After pictures and hugs with our friends, you and I escaped to my room—the room that had once been ours—so I could finish packing. You were the only person who knew my systems—my fastidious ways of organizing my belongings—well enough to help me pack. But even in our T-shirts and shorts, it was too hot to move.

“You don’t have to,” I said, as I had so many times about so many things.

And as you always had, you insisted, “I want to.”

When the last bag was packed, we flopped onto my stripped mattress. I couldn’t help noticing how careful you were not to touch me, how careful you’d been all day.

We shared the last water bottle in my mini-fridge. I gulped too quickly and got a brain-freeze; you laughed, dabbing spilled water off my chin. The casual contact melted the boundary you’d built between us and, in spite of the muggy air, I scooted close enough to you to rest my head on your shoulder.

“Promise me we’ll stay friends.” I reached out, searching for your hand, and you let me find it.

“We will,” you said. “But after this, we’ll never be in the same place again.”

“We’ll visit. We’ll still see each other.” But as my words echoed in the emptied room, I wondered what kind of place you meant.

Did you mean we’d never live in the same city again, never share classes and friends and favorite restaurants? Or did you mean the place we’d stumbled into the previous year: that precious, precarious place where friendship, love, care, and concern bled together until the edges blurred, then coalesced, then vanished completely?

“Can I kiss you?” I asked. “One more time?”

Your hand, when it rose to cup my cheek, smelled the way it always had: like nail polish and your favorite Bath and Body Works lotion. Carried Away, it was called. Maybe that was appropriate. In a way, we—both of us—had gotten carried away. But I wouldn’t have taken back even a second. Not for anything.

I still held your free hand, and when we kissed, I memorized you, us, who we’d been together, our last shared breath.

—About the Author—

Caitlin Hernandez is a two-time Lambda Literary fellow whose young-adult novels-in-progress have earned her mentorships with Writing In The Margins and We Need Diverse Books. A totally blind elementary-school teacher, she aims to write books which accurately represent and portray disability and queerness.