July in the Early Evening

This piece was submitted by a member of the LGBTQ+ community at American University as part of the Rival American’s Pride Week. Their views do not necessarily represent that of The Rival American or its staff.


By Jen Stoughton

There’s something to sunsets seen from a rooftop. They’re somehow redder, bruise-like, more summery than those seen from street level. There’s a breathless quality to them, too, like they suck the air from the top of the atmosphere and spread specks of stars in its place. The air below is softer, cloudy with everyone’s breath pushed up against each other’s and muffled as if under a blanket. Up here it’s still, and clear, and aching.

I’ve been up here with Joan a couple of times, and I’ve come to understand how addicting the tall twilight air can be. And how dangerous. Not for the reasons my mama warns me I shouldn’t be up there, like I’ll catch my wintry death or my nice new skirt will get soiled. It’s because the air is so aching-clear and still that it holds an edge, high-altitude sharp. If you move the wrong way, you can cut yourself open. The sky itself holds you still in its fist.

Still like Joan. Restless Joan Harris, caffeine in human form Joan Harris, physically-couldn’t-sit-still-if-her-life-depended-on-it Joan Harris, sitting there at the edge of the roof with her feet dangling into the thick light below. The wind toys at her short hair, but otherwise she seems frozen in time. Joan stares at the sun, maybe going blind. I stare at Joan, maybe going blind.

I feel like I should look away. We came up here—well, Joan grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me up, more like—because Joan read somewhere that summer solstice sunsets are the most breathtaking of all, and she decided we needed the best view in the city to appreciate it properly. I should stop looking at Joan and determine for myself if it’s any true. I should look at the sky.

City skies aren’t beautiful. They’re half blocked by steel and concrete, half clogged with smoke and life and dirt. I don’t see what all the birds are so fussed about. Sometimes I wonder if the sky has actually been scraped up by the buildings—even on clear blue days there’s something broken about it, scarred.

Breaks and scars aren’t beautiful. I’ve been to museums; I took art history; I’ve seen the way the paint blends smoothly into itself, seen the gold and the green of nature and how the softness of people is lovingly rendered. I’ve seen the marble statues, chipped at until sharp edges run together like satin, or silk, or skin. Those are artworks—masterpieces because they’re flat, and calm, and quiet. Especially the women; they’re all serene, almost asleep. Mama always told me that good girls kept their hands folded, ankles crossed, mouths shut. Even though Venus was completely nude, looking at her made me think of that. Eyes down, lips sealed. Pretty.

My art teacher loved the Romantic paintings, where the people looked just as noble and perfect as the landscapes behind them. She went on and on about how much passion they showed, how much life and movement each image held. All I saw was their silence.

If Joan weren’t Joan, she’d look a little like some of those paintings now. With the sky behind her fading into all sorts of colors and her head outlined by the setting sun, she could almost be any of those nobly perfect heroes frozen in her moment of triumph. Like she’s pressed up against glass between one breath and the next, heart beating into canvas. Beautiful.

But breaks and scars aren’t beautiful.

Joan’s got scars like the night’s got constellations. The sun’s moved a bit, so now I can make out the one by her ear, the one slashing through her eyebrow. My eyes want to trace where I know others lay—sluggishly crawling across a hipbone, darting across broad shoulders, ripping into her knee—but at the same time, my eyes don’t really want to leave her face. It’s always been easy for me to rest my gaze there. Maybe I’ll start wearing grooves with my stares, I think. Maybe I already have. Maybe I’ll get to leave a mark on Joan Harris.

But marks and blemishes aren’t beautiful. But Joan is anyway. Joan’s sunset-beautiful, breathless and sharp and bruise-purple-red. She takes peace and quiet between her teeth and cracks them like sunflower seeds, spitting them off the roof with a crooked grin. She lets her trousered legs splay open and her cackle echo in her wide-open mouth. She’s wild, is what she is, and joyous with it. She’s—

She’s looking at me, now, while I’m still looking at her. A breeze picks at her hair again but the space between us stands still.

“Whatcha doin’ over there?” she calls to me, almost casual, nearly hoarse. Who knows how long we’ve been sitting here in the silence she’s just broken.

“Painting you with my eyes,” I reply without thinking. I can’t think around her, sometimes. “With words.”

And the sun sets again in Joan’s eyes just then, flares gold. “Do I make a pretty picture?” Pretty dumb, that’s for sure is the teasing reply on the tip of my tongue, the one I’d give on the ground, but I swallow it.

“You’re too much to be a picture,” is what comes out, true and all the more painful for it. “You can’t be captured in just two dimensions.”

“That sounds like a confession,” Joan says in warning. I know we’re on the edge of this. This this that’s dangerous and difficult and only has a slim chance of leaving either of us happy. But the rooftop air is sharp in my lungs and the light is fading and Joan is beautiful.

“Maybe it is,” I say.

Joan’s got a scar that cuts through her bottom lip. It tastes like a promise.

Jen is a freshman film major at AU, and her life goal is to bring happy lesbian content to the mainstream, one story at a time.