“It’s a best friend sweater,” Mary said, and oh if that didn’t pull hard at Ruth’s heart.
“There’s a mistake in it. On purpose, I mean. It’s for luck. Because if you give a sweater to someone you love without a mistake, it dooms the rom— ah, the relationship. The— friendship.”
There was a fragile look in Mary’s dark eyes, fluttering eyelashes so fair they were nearly invisible. Someone you love, Ruth thought. But Mary meant as friends, or as honorary sisters, maybe. Not as lovers.
They’d never kissed, never held hands. Once they’d curled up together on the couch, and Ruth remembered exactly where Mary’s body had molded into hers. They were best friends. Friends. And the worst part was, Ruth feared Mary would never see them as anything else. Because Mary was— well, she was the loveliest person Ruth knew. Short and slender, with golden hair and pale skin dotted by so many freckles that they blended together in places.
But Mary hated her freckles. She hated being skinny. She didn’t like how wispy her hair was, escaping attempts to style it, clinging to her skin in pretty golden strands. She was so beautiful and every time Ruth tried to tell her, Mary just flushed red beneath her freckles and looked away.
Mary had heard many voices, cruel and catty, making remarks about her stick-figure and how she dressed in clothes she’d made herself with sewing needle or crochet hook. Ruth had seen Mary take a pile of scrap yarn and produce a pair of multi-colored socks, like some artist, and no, they weren’t to fashion at all, but they looked just right on her tiny feet.
Ruth was talked about quite differently. For whatever reason, Ruth had been given an attractive figure: tall, with long legs and well-filled-out curves, black hair, pale, unmarked skin— when Ruth was in her teens, being told she looked like a goddess made her blush and bat her eyelashes. Now she barely heard it. The only person whose opinion mattered was Mary. And Mary would not speak of such things.
Right now, Ruth’s heart was beating hard in her chest, like it thought it was trapped behind her ribs and wanted out. Mary was there, holding this white sweater that had taken her months of work and Ruth knew it would fit exactly right, and—
Ruth had made a plan. It was a very stupid plan, born of fantasy and desperation, and she had not really thought she’d ever go through with it. But maybe she’d never get a better chance than this.
“I need some advice,” Ruth said, in a remarkably steady voice.
“On what?” Mary was looking at her intently, her nimble fingers coming up to adjust a cuff as Ruth put her arms through the sweater sleeves. It instantly felt ten degrees warmer in the chilly room, and the fabric was so soft it felt like a caress.
“On romance,” Ruth said.
Mary’s eyes widened. “Why on earth would you want my advice on— on that?”
Ruth dated. A lot. There were plenty of boys wanting to take her out, wanting to take her to bed, and she did enjoy that, or at least, she had for a while. But then a couple of months ago she and Mary had gone to the beach with a group of friends, and for once Mary had been convinced to take her shirt off and swim in her bra. That was when Ruth realized that Mary’s freckles did not stop at her collarbone, but danced down across her chest and onto her breasts, lower even, speckling brown across her stomach, over bony hips.
It was an image that would not leave Ruth’s mind. She began to have these strangely vivid thoughts about Mary on the beach, in just her bra and panties, with the fabric wet. And then the fantasy-Mary would reach around and unclip her bra, and—
Well. It didn’t take much of that before Ruth started realizing a few things. “Who else can I turn to?” she asked. “You’re my best friend. Got the sweater to prove it.”
Mary’s fingers were skating over Ruth’s chest now, turning the sweater to lie flat. It had buttons running up the front, and Ruth realized that they were tiny honeybees. “Are these to remind me of you?” Ruth asked. To Mary’s confused expression she said, “Because of your hair. The color of honey. Like I always said.”
“I— it’s just blonde,” Mary said, making it sound like a question.
“It’s beautiful. Exact same color they put on all the china dolls in the shop downtown.”
Mary’s eyes were as wide as Ruth had ever seen them. “I can’t give you advice on romance,” Mary said in a faint voice. “You know I’ve never—”
“But you like girls, yeah?”
There was silence. And then Mary seemed to suddenly realize that she still had her hands on Ruth’s collar, and she jerked them back.
“I mean— you never were interested in boys,” Ruth said. “And so I— I just always thought— I mean, it’s fine if you do—”
“Why are you asking?” Mary’s chest was rising and falling in harsh breaths beneath the pink blouse she wore, tucked into her skirt on her tiny waist.
“Because I found a girl I like.”
“I mean, I like her. I really like her. As more than a friend. So much I’d—”
Mary’s face had gone as white as the sweater, making her face look like a delicate bird’s egg, dusted with brown spots. She took a shaky step back, and Ruth reached out to grasp her arms above the elbow, steadying her. Mary went tense in her grip, but she didn’t pull away.
“I’m sorry,” Ruth said. “Forgive me. And forget all this, I don’t know what I was—”
“You’re in love?” Mary asked. Her voice was as small as the rest of her. “I mean— if you are, then, as your best friend, I want— you should tell me. I should know if you— you should be able to tell me.”
“She’s wonderful,” Ruth said, gazing down at her. Mary was still very pale and the tip of her nose was turning red as if she was about to start crying. Ruth felt an almost painful jolt of hope, followed immediately by an equally painful stab of anxiety. “Talented. Lovely. Most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh,” Mary said heavily. She looked down now, at her feet. She was wearing pink socks that she’d clearly made herself.
“I haven’t told her,” Ruth said. “I’m too scared. I don’t know how she feels, and I’m afraid to lose her friendship.”
“There can’t be anybody who doesn’t love you,” Mary said, quite easily, as if it was simply a fact that everyone knew. “You’re kind, and funny, and sweet. And you look—” Mary was gazing at her now. “You’re the kind of girl people dream about.”
Ruth had heard that before. Never had it made her feel so unsteady, the idea of Mary dreaming of her. “So you think I should tell her.”
“I— yes. You deserve to be happy.”
Ruth nodded. Their eyes were locked together still, Ruth’s hands hadn’t left Mary’s arms. “All right,” she said. “But if this all goes to hell, remember it was your idea.”
“Wh—” The rest of Mary’s sentence was lost against Ruth’s lips. It was a gentle thing, this kiss, a soft press of mouths together. Ruth pulled back quickly, scared of already having kissed too much, or else maybe too little.
Mary was staring at her, and then abruptly her dark eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, god,” Ruth said, letting go of Mary’s arms. “I’m sorry—”
“Don’t, don’t,” Mary whispered. “I don’t— it’s just a sweater, you don’t need to—” She blinked and the first tears spilled over onto her cheeks.
Ruth couldn’t help it, she reached out and put a hand on Mary’s cheek, the skin so soft against her fingers. But Mary just looked up at her like she thought Ruth was going to break her somehow. “Ruth, you can’t tease about this, you don’t know how much I— You didn’t mean me. It’s not me.”
“You don’t know how much I’ve wanted—” Ruth brought up her other hand to Mary’s cheek, and then they were kissing again, and Ruth was trying to say something with it and she wasn’t sure what it was.
But Mary was trembling and warm against her and Ruth had to put her arms around her and pull her close. And that was— oh. To have Mary’s smaller form enfolded in her arms, her pink-socked feet up against Ruth’s shoes—
Mary was not used to kissing, that was clear. “So lovely,” Ruth told her, whispering against her mouth. “You’re so lovely.” Because Ruth wasn’t used to this either, not kissing like this, where her whole mind whirled with it, her hands shaking, her heart not so much beating but stopping and starting over and over again. Ruth was sure of it now. “It’s only ever been you.”