Entirely Perfect in (Almost) Every Way

This story was highly commended in the 2021 Feast Festival Short Story Competition in the emerging writers category. Feast is Adelaide’s largest annual queer arts and culture festival.

Persephone James could not, with any amount of her logical reasoning, determine why she felt lonely. Her loneliness was weighted like a ball chained to the space between her breasts, tugging at her skin until it pulled away, creating hollow space around her heart. Her mind was always foggy with the same spiralling thought. Why was she lonely?

‘You alright, Seph?’ Angel passed the smouldering post-coital joint to her. Persephone placed the warm paper delicately to her lips and dragged deep. She turned her head to exhale a stream of cloudy white smoke through the open window and into the empty, purpling sky, then rolled over to face her bedmate. She adjusted the covers so there was no resistance when she entangled her legs with Angel’s and gently placed the joint between his lips.

She had started seeing Angel six month ago, after a chance encounter at a gig featuring one of their mutual friends. Their only mutual friend, as far as Persephone could tell. And he wasn’t even really a mutual friend, but a friend of a friend. Persephone didn’t care, she just wanted to get drunk and flirt with strangers, so she tagged along and ended the night in Angel’s bed, pleased with the idle pillow talk and the way he wrapped his arm around her in his sleep. But most importantly how little he seemed to even think about the fact that she was transgender.

Now the two of them were a week out from a trip to the Philippines for Persephone to meet Angel’s siblings and remaining lola. It felt to Persephone that their love had bloomed like the timelapse of a hybrid tea rose sprouting and erupting in a cluster of flushed pink petals. Beautifully, but all at once.

‘Do you ever feel like you’re not keeping up with your own life?’ Persephone said as she snuggled into the hollow of Angel’s smooth neck. ‘Like you’re supposed to have grown up more than you have by now, and everything is leaving you behind?’

Angel huffed a laugh as he put the joint out in the handmade ashtray on the bedside cabinet. In one motion he folded his firm arms around Persephone and placed a soft kiss against her temple.

‘Can’t that wait until tomorrow?’ he asked playfully, laying a comforting hand on her waist. ‘You don’t think you’ve grown up?’

Persephone didn’t respond, instead pressing a hand to Angel’s chest to feel the warmth, the realness, of his body beneath her fingertips. She sighed and kissed Angel’s neck.

‘I’m just high,’ she murmured into his collarbone. ‘You wanna sleep?’

Once morning arrived, Persephone and Angel made love again, then showered together. They lamented about the water they wasted kissing and debating the political economy in Shrek. Persephone made coffee while Angel slid thick, golden slices of French toast onto plates. As Persephone was spooning dark granules into two mismatching mugs, Angel slipped his arms around her waist from behind, pressing his body against her spine.

‘Baby, have you been okay?’ he asked, burying his face into the soft skin of her neck.

Persephone’s chest tightened, but she turned her head to meet Angel’s dark, hooded eyes, a smile on her face.

‘Why do you ask?’ she said after craning her neck for a kiss.

Angel shrugged, gently squeezing Persephone’s stomach before hurriedly returning to the toast sizzling on the hot pan.

‘You’ve just seemed sort of off lately, I guess.’

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ she replied simply as she poured boiling water into the mugs, watching as the hot liquid turned from bright and clear to deep and black. She stirred the coffee in thoughtful silence. She had been feeling sort of off, but she hadn’t thought she had been acting any differently. And really, she wasn’t lying when she said nothing’s wrong. She had stable hours at her job at the bookstore a mere ten minute walk from home, she was finding time to learn to play the keyboard, and her love life was anything but lacking. Sure, she didn’t need many fingers to count her close friends, but she just put that down to getting older.

After the couple breakfasted, Angel walked Persephone to the bus stop, kissed her goodbye, and left to walk the rest of the way to his lecture on computer science.

‘Say hi to Sami for me, yeah?’ he said as Persephone’s bus pulled up to the curb. ‘I love you.’ Persephone blew a kiss through the bus window as it carried her away.

It was only thirty minutes of transit from Angel’s apartment in the city centre out to Persephone’s home in the inner western suburbs. Thirty minutes was plenty of time to ruminate, with increasing anxiety, over Angel’s unexpected concern for Persephone’s wellbeing. She drummed her fingertips on the unopened paperback in her lap as she gazed through the window. She saw only the universe of her racing thoughts, all circling back to the same question: Why am I so lonely?

The last time she had been to therapy was a little longer than Persephone was comfortable admitting to herself, but not so long ago that she couldn’t remember and employ the routines and strategies she had learned to use when dealing with one of her depressive episodes. So far, they had kept Persephone from spiralling into a vortex of mental illness, but now it just felt like she was teetering on the edge of a cliff. A cliff being struck by lightning, with a pit of hungry crocodiles at the bottom. Ultimately, Persephone didn’t know if she could identify these confused feelings enough to work the price of seeing a therapist into her monthly budget.

Persephone kicked off her flats at the front door, the weight of perceived public scrutiny falling from her shoulders.

‘Here’s my honey!’ a voice greeted her moments before Sami himself appeared, the light of his desktop monitor and backlit keyboard glowing from the living room behind him.

Despite the tension still taking up space in her body, a smile broke across Persephone’s face at the sight of Sami, her heart a little lighter. She folded herself into his tall, lean figure, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face into his chest. She loved that he had this effect on her even after four years. To her, he was home.

The two had met in Persephone’s second year of university. Sami had asked to sit next to her in the Sociology workshop they shared together. They had been friendly, stopping to chat when they bumped into one another in the food court on campus, but it was only two years later that she realised Sami had been into her. After little communication—apart from the occasional laughing or heart-eyes emoji sent in response to an Instagram story—the two crossed paths again when Sami turned up to an author event at Persephone’s workplace. They organised to catch up for coffee on her break, and the rest became history. If Persephone compared her romance with Angel to a blooming rose, she and Sami were a sturdy oak tree, growing larger and greener each year. Occasionally the leaves would fall and leave everything exposed, but each season passed, roots firmer in the ground and branches reaching closer to the heavens.

‘How’s Angel?’ Sami asked, dropping kisses onto the crown of Persephone’s head. ‘Hope you guys had a good night. You saw one of those Avengers movies, right?’

‘Mm-hm.’ Persephone kept her face muffled into Sami’s chest.

‘You’re so cute,’ he laughed, pulling her arms away so he could slip the handbag from her shoulder and place it on the hall table beside them. ‘You want some coffee?’

‘I had some with Angel, who says hi.’ Persephone allowed Sami to lead her to the kitchen, where he had clearly been in the midst of concocting a marvel. Pans and cutting boards laden with all manner of colourful foods covered the kitchen counter from end to end. Bones and vegetable scraps had been piled high, spices left colourful fingerprints streaked across every surface, a large pot bubbled on the stove.

‘I just turned down the maqluba and decided to play some games when you came in,’ Sami was telling Persephone as he peered into the pot. She smiled tenderly at the crease that formed between his eyebrows as he focused on the steaming rice dish. Sami had been cooking a lot more regularly, in an attempt to introduce more of his upbringing into everyday Western living. He did not, Persephone noted, usually cook this much so early in the day. The realisation hit her like a lightning bolt, sending her tumbling into crocodile-infested waters.

‘Your parents are coming for lunch,’ she said dumbly, heart picking up speed. Sami laughed.

‘Yeah, did you forget?’

Persephone turned her gaze to him, eyes enormous with terror. Sami’s lightheartedness immediately gave way to gentle concern. He stepped around the mess of food and unwashed dishes to wrap his arms around Persephone’s rigid form.

‘Seph, it’s alright. Are you okay? You’ve seemed a bit preoccupied lately, it’s okay that you forgot.’

Something in these words snapped a feeling in Persephone’s chest. A sort of desperation rose to her throat, clouding her vision as she shrugged Sami’s hold from her.

‘Why does everyone think there’s something wrong with me?’ The words gushed over her tongue like sour bile. She instantly regretted being so harsh when Sami was treating her so tenderly, but more words quickly, uncontrollably, followed.

‘I’m fine! There’s literally nothing wrong in my whole life. Everything is entirely perfect in every way, so why does everyone expect me to just fall apart?’

Sami gaped in hurt surprise.

‘Honey, I don’t know what happened,’ he said gently after a moment, holding his open palms out, an offering for her to place her own hands in his. Persephone crossed her arms over her chest. ‘It seemed like you’ve been dealing with something on your own, but I wanted to wait for you to talk to me about it.’

He placed a hand delicately on her shoulder. That was all it took for her to crumble, leaning forward so Sami could step into her and wrap her in his arms. She didn’t cry, but she felt an immense pressure in her chest like a dam ready to spill over.

‘Shall I call mama and reschedule?’ he asked as he rubbed circles on Persephone’s back.

Persephone lay in the middle of the enclosed backyard, exhaling a cloud of smoke into the deepening sky above her. The hollowness in her chest made her feel light, as though she were weightlessly drifting into the endless expanse of the universe into which she gazed, barely tethered to the earth against her back.

She clenched her jaw, regretting her explosion at Sami’s expense. He had been nothing but perfect and she had repaid him by vomiting her darkness all over him. The knot in her stomach twisted again as she thought about how much effort he had put into preparing this much food for his family, only for her to screw everything up. Sami had organised to take the maqluba to his parents’ place and spend the evening with them, leaving Persephone with a hundred ‘I love you’s’ and some time to herself. She awkwardly apologised for her outburst, but Sami merely kissed her and promised that when she was ready to talk, he would be there to listen.

Perhaps she didn’t think she deserved so much love and kindness. Both Sami and Angel had stepped into her life and filled her heart with more affection than she had received in her entire life. She didn’t know who she was without the two of them.

Something unfurled at her core. A thread coming loose, prepared to unravel the scratchy woollen interior of Persephone’s gut. That was it, she realised. That’s why she was lonely. She didn’t know who she was as an individual. She lived for the love of others, but hadn’t learned to step into the life meant for her. Both her partners knew her well enough to recognise when she was out of sorts, but even they didn’t realise she had been completely disconnected from herself. The question she posed to Angel the previous night came back to her, sharper than before.

Do you ever feel like you’re not keeping up with your own life?

Persephone grimaced, lifted the joint to her lips again. Now she had no choice but to update her budget for therapy. She rose and brushed the dirt from her backside, intending to eat some of the tabbouleh Sami had left for her, when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass sliding door. She was reminded how, in her adolescence, she would have given anything to be the woman she was now. With a passionate energy, she had once done everything in her power to align the person everybody saw with the person she knew lived within. Almost a decade since she began her transition into womanhood, she had passed more milestones than she could count. She had achieved what she had spent her youth looking forward to, but once again she found herself unsure if the person within her matched the person on the outside.

Persephone pulled in a final, deep drag of her joint, and imagined all her self-doubt being expelled in the smoke she breathed out. She looked up at the indigo expanse above her once more. She would not rediscover herself in one evening, but she could enjoy her lover’s cooking while she read a novel and held space for herself. Growing up could wait until tomorrow.

Published by Leigh Briar

Leigh Briar lives and writes on Kaurna land. Her current Honours thesis in creative writing explores the evolving representation of transgender narratives in YA fiction. In 2021 her short story 'Entirely Perfect in (Almost) Every Way' was highly commended in the Feast Festival Short Story Competition. ‘Last Call’, a collaborative short story anthology produced by the Flinders creative writing class of 2021 and featuring Leigh’s story ‘Dreams in the Deep’ is due to be published late 2022 by Glimmer Press.

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