This is an intersection with tonithegreat. You can read her piece here. The pieces may be read in any order. Thank you!
Kai was the one that believed in magic, not me.
At the garret -- what he called the tiny attic studio he rented, across the alley from my similarly-terrible studio apartment -- he researched spells and how to cast them, starting with a curse on our shared landlord. That the spells didn’t work and the landlord remained firmly uncursed didn’t matter. He believed, and I didn’t.
I asked him once why he did, and he shrugged.
“It’s something to believe in,” he said, and I thought I understood.
Kai didn’t have much to believe in. He’d left home at eighteen, choosing to move out instead of staying with his mom and terrible stepfather, to pursue his art in peace, away from their abuse. He told me the whole story once, pouring it all out, from beginning to end.
When I told him I was sorry, he said only, “So it goes.”
I knew his story, inside and out. He didn’t know mine.
He never asked me where I was from, what it was that had caused me to wash up here, in the city no one was from but everyone was drawn to.
“Everyone has a story,” he said once, as we leaned out the one window of his apartment that wasn’t painted shut. He had a window box with miniature roses growing in it, and I had to stop myself from stroking their petals. I was a little drunk off box wine, and Kai was right there with me. “But not everyone wants to tell it, and that’s okay, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, relieved. “I know what you mean.”
He punched me lightly in the arm. “Someday you’ll tell me your story, Gerta.”
It wasn’t my real name, not even close, but he said it was a reference to something, some German poet. I wrote poetry, and performed it at local open mic nights. Kai knew this, and he supported me in it, because he was my friend and he was an artist too, a painter. My poems were jagged little pieces of myself, all rough edges and sharp lines, not very good, skirting the truth -- my truth -- but never touching it.
"Um," I said, because I still wasn’t ready, unsure of how to string the pieces together into a story. I brushed a fingertip over the roses. "I don't…"
“It’s cool,” he said.
I met Kai in the spring. Spring gave way to summer, and summer to fall. Somewhere in there I became dimly aware that he had feelings for me.
He wasn't the first. I wasn't good-looking, not really, but I had blonde hair long enough to sit on, and guys that had tried to get with me in high school had always commented on my "sweet smile", as though it was something I did to flirt with men.
I didn't expect Kai to become one of them. I thought he saw me, more than just the exterior. I thought he knew what I couldn’t let myself say out loud: It’s not you, you’re a great guy...it’s that you are a guy.
He didn't tell me directly. He hinted at it -- how I spent so much time with him anyway, maybe I should just move in, save us both on rent. Asking me to stay for dinner, to split a beer, to lean out the window with him and talk about love and poetry and art, the paintings he did and the things I wrote, what both of us needed to really become great.
“Truth,” he said. “You have to be honest with yourself, and the rest will fall into place.”
I nodded like I agreed, and didn’t tell him what I was afraid to say.
I walked a fine line and I knew it.
He told me a week after Halloween. The weather had turned cold and damp. The city had become gloomy, the clouds threatening snow, but never quite giving in. We were at his place, eating the discount candy that he’d managed to snag after the holiday.
“Gerta…” he said. “I need to tell you something.”
I straightened a little in my seat. There was something to his voice that told me what to expect, an edge that hadn’t been there before, as though he’d spent some time reasoning over whether or not to say anything and had decided on “yes”. It was familiar to me -- he wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last…
He barreled on. “You know how I feel, don’t you?”
“Let me take you to dinner,” he pressed. “I’ve got a little bit of money left from my birthday, we can actually do something nice, and then…”
He looked up to me, his blue eyes round in surprise. “Why not?”
I sighed. “Just no, okay?”
“Can you tell me why? What is it that you don’t like?”
I wanted to tell him -- I did.
“I’m going,” I said, after a long silence. “I’ll see you later.”
I thought about calling him, walking back and saying, look, it’s not you...but I couldn’t.
I loved him, but not in the way he wanted, and I wasn’t ready to say why.
He texted me once, just once: until you live your truth, your poetry will never be what you want it to be.
It stung, but it felt deserved.
The cold deepened, the days grew shorter, and I still didn’t hear from Kai. I trudged home from work, my hands shoved into the pockets of my worn coat, and looked up at his apartment each time. I knew he was avoiding me. He shut his curtains and didn’t return any of my calls. The miniature roses he’d grown in the window box were dead, killed by the cold. I wondered how it was that we could have gone from being such close friends to strangers in the space of a single conversation.
The night it snowed, I woke up from a nightmare, freezing. I dreamed that I’d seen Kai. He had a woman over. I’d seen her, in the soft glow of the light. She was pale, dressed all in white, with long hair of white-blue that hung down her back. She turned to face the window, and I saw her face. Even across the alley, through the plastic that fuzzed my view, I could tell she was beautiful.
She kissed him, once, twice -- I wanted to turn my head away, knowing that I was seeing a private moment, but I couldn’t move.
He smiled, after that last kiss, and said something. She smiled back and nodded, there was a whirl of snowflakes in the apartment, and the two of them -- disappeared.
I shrugged off the dream, grabbed another blanket, and went back to bed.
When I woke again, it was to the rattle of my phone on the nightstand. I had two dozen text messages, all about the same thing: has anyone heard from Kai?
I sat heavily on the edge of the bed and stared at my phone in my hand. I haven’t, I started to type, but -- I lived across the street, surely I could just check.
I pulled on my coat and jammed my sneakers onto my feet. This will be quick, I reassured myself. He probably just forgot to charge his phone or something, so his alarm didn’t go off. It’s fine, really. I’ll wake him up and we can go back to not talking…
I walked across the street, shuffling through the snow, up the stairs and to Kai’s apartment.
The front door was wide open, as was the window, and the studio was full of snow, far more than was on the ground outside, drifts of it, covering the sofa and the bed, burying the small stove.
Atop one of the drifts was a single red rose, untouched by the cold.
I stared at the snow, and I remembered my dream. I reached out to touch the rose, to acknowledge the strangeness of the situation in which I found myself, and I felt something shift.
When I turned to leave, to go back down the stairs, they weren’t there anymore. Kai’s apartment had vanished, too, and I was left standing on a snowy plain, blank white before and behind me.
I’d left my phone at home. I had nothing on me but the clothes I wore and the key to my apartment.
In a way, it felt natural -- that I'd end up stranded, whisked into something I didn't understand, through no fault of my own. I should have been worried, but all I felt was a strange sense of calm. This is as bad as it gets.
Kai would have known what to do. He was the one that believed in magic, was open to experiences that couldn’t be explained by science or logic. He’d read all the fantasy stories. I’d listened to him, when he talked about them, his fascination with other worlds, but I’d never believed them. Stories were stories, and life was life, and it was better that my life didn’t look like a story, with a neat beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t want to write it, and I doubted anyone would want to read it.
A rough noise behind me made me start. I turned and looked for the source, all too aware of what might come next.
A crow, its feathers puffed, hopped from foot to foot in the snow.
“Do you look for the boy?” it asked. It cawed at me, then repeated itself: “Do you look for the boy?”
“You have wandered out of your own life and into the story,” the crow continued, ignoring me. “The boy has been taken by the Snow Queen. You must find him. If your love is deep enough…”
“I don’t love him -- not in the way he wants me to.”
“...you will be able to find him and melt his frozen heart.” It cawed again, then puffed itself one last time. “Find him and save him. Find him.”
I stuffed my hands into my armpits to keep them warm. “How can I find him when I don’t know where I am?”
“Find him in the Lapland,” said the crow. “Find him and melt his frozen heart.”
Before I could ask anything else, it flew away.
I wandered through the snow for what felt like hours. The landscape was unchanging. My footprints were covered by wind and blowing snow as soon as I made them, and I might as well have been walking in circles, for all that I could find anything in that frozen wasteland.
I didn’t see the crow again.
The sky began to darken, the sun setting rapidly. I had no idea what time it was, where I would find shelter, if I would. Nothing felt real. You have wandered out of your own life and into the story, said the crow, as if I should have known this, or suspected it myself.
Far off on the horizon I could see a dark dot. I walked toward it, if for no other reason than it was something that wasn’t snow. As I approached, it became larger and larger, until I could see a roof and four walls -- a hut of some kind. Smoke rose gently from the chimney.
I ran the last few feet to the door, knocked on it with my frozen hands.
My mother opened the door.
“You!” she said. “What are you doing here, dressed like that? Come in.”
My heart stopped. “Mom?”
She shook her head. “Is that what I look like to you?”
“Child, I am no one’s mother.”
I walked inside.
The woman who was not my mother sat me at her table and made me coffee, fussed over my thin sneakers and lack of gloves. “Now. Explain yourself.”
“I’m here for a friend. He -- I…” I explained about the snow, the woman in the apartment, Kai, the crow -- everything spilling out in a jumbled mess. Somehow it turned into the story of how I’d left home: coming out to my parents and their firm refusal to listen to me, to believe what I had to say. “This is all my fault.”
Her face softened. “These things happen.” She offered me a scone, butter and jam. “So it goes.”
“That’s what Kai always says.”
“So,” she said. “You wandered out of your own life and into the story.”
“I guess.” I stared down into my empty mug. “Now how do I get back out?”
“You finish the story,” she prompted. “You rescue the prince. You live happily-ever-after.”
I made a face. “I don’t want to marry him.”
“No.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “Happily-ever-after may mean, simply, acknowledging who you are and what you want -- living your own truth and being loved and accepted for it. Writing better poetry. Yes?”
I blinked back tears. “Um...yeah.”
“So. You rescue him. You tell him the truth. And then…?”
“Happily ever after?”
“Or something close to it.” She peered at me. “The Snow Queen -- she’s not wicked. Your story, I think, has uncomfortable parallels with hers. This is cyclic; it repeats generation after generation. You are not the first and you will not be the last, but you can win back your Kai, just as every other girl has done.”
“Melt his frozen heart,” I said. I laughed a little, my voice shaky. “Or so the crow said.”
“With the truth,” said the woman. “The same as every other girl, except that your truth is a little different. You rescue him, and you both live your truths, and if you don’t love him the way that he wants to be loved -- well. You are both young. His heart will recover, and you will recover too, I think.”
She stood from the table, walked across the kitchen to a small chest next to the door. She lifted the lid and rummaged around in it. “Ah.” She pulled out a pair of boots, then walked back across the kitchen and handed them to me. “For your story.”
“Seven-league boots,” she said, smiling. “You are in a fairytale, after all.”
I smiled despite myself.
The woman in the hut never gave me her name. She helped me lace the boots, told me their word of command, then pushed me out the door and into the snow.
“When I find Kai -- what will I -- how do I get us home?”
“The story will end,” said the woman, “and you’ll find yourself back where you started.”
She smiled again, said the command word for the boots, and gave me a push. “Go north!” she shouted, in the instant before I stumbled forward.
There was a faint noise of wind, and the snowy landscape zipped around me.
I lost count of how many steps I took before I came to the Snow Queen’s palace. The woman in the hut had not told me what to expect, only that I would recognize it when I saw it.
It was made of ice, the deep blue ice of winter’s heart.
There were no guards, only the starkness of the landscape to keep others out -- or in.
I pulled the boots off my feet and slumped them over my arm, then walked to the front door.
I felt foolish, walking through the door as though I was an expected guest, but in a way, I suppose, I was -- expected, thanks to the cycle of the story.
Inside the palace was a single, enormous room. The floor inside was made of ice, and sitting at a table of ice and metal in the middle of the room was Kai, looking just as I’d seen him the night before, his lips quirked in a dreamy half-smile, as if thinking of the Queen and just what it was she had promised him.
He looked over to me and blinked. “Gerta? What are you doing here?”
He stood and tried to come to me, but his feet were frozen to the floor. I saw the look on his face change from peace to panic in an instant. “Gerta? Shit, what…”
I scrabbled across the ice to him, telling the story as I went. I tried to explain as best I could, everything at once -- what I’d seen, his apartment, the crow, the woman in the hut, the Snow Queen and how we’d found ourselves in her story.
“It’s cyclic,” I said. “We just...fit the pattern. And now I’m here to melt your frozen heart.”
Kai shrugged. “My heart isn’t frozen.”
“I don’t think she knows that, or cares. I think…you’re the one that believes in magic, aren’t you?”
“That was all talk.” He looked down at his feet. “You don’t think I did this, do you?”
“I don’t think either of us did.” I finished sliding across the ice to him. “Hang on, and I’ll melt your feet free.”
“Melt my frozen feet, instead of my frozen heart,” he said. “Well. Everything else we’ve done is sideways, why not that?”
I touched the ice around his feet. It remained stubbornly unmelted. “I guess.”
“Why did you really come?” he said quietly. “Why this? Why now?”
“Because I love you, you doofus,” I snapped. “Not in the way you want to be loved, maybe, but -- isn’t that enough? We’re not even twenty. Isn’t it enough to know that you have a good friend, someone who will stick with you through thick and thin and tell you when you’re full of shit?”
“You love me like a brother,” he said. He made a face. “Because you think I’m ugly, or too pushy, or...because my paintings are bad.”
“My poetry is bad,” I said, exasperated. “But it’s not that -- Kai, I’m gay.”
He blinked at me. “Oh.” His left foot popped free, suddenly. “Oh. So you…”
“My parents...it was either stay home and pretend to be something I'm not, or move out. I had a little bit of money saved, so I went to therapy long enough to pretend to be cured, and once I graduated high school, I moved out. That’s the story -- well, most of it.” I steeled myself, willed myself not to cry. “My first roommate when I moved here was weird about it, and a lot of my friends have been weird about it, too, once they find out -- usually after asking me out and finding out I’m not interested. I thought...”
A few tears slid down my cheeks, despite myself. They hissed as they hit the ice, and left little divots.
“You thought I’d be shitty, too.” Kai wiggled his right foot experimentally, and it popped free as well. “And so…”
“I’m not really out to anyone. It’s a case-by-case basis. But I’m tired of hiding, and...well…”
He sighed. “I can’t be your partner, but I can be your friend. I can support you and I can make sure that no one else is shitty to you when I’m around. Is that enough?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Is that enough for you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It is.”
We hugged, and the landscape shifted, changed, until we were back in Kai’s apartment. Gone were the boots, and the snow. On the couch was the same rose I’d found before, its petals wilted slightly from the cold.
“Well,” said Kai. “That’s...something.”
Kai called everyone and let them know he was all right. That night, I came over, and we made chicken soup and talked in the kitchen about our art, what ideas we had.
We didn’t talk about what had happened. I don’t think either of us was ready to. I never asked Kai for his side of the story, just how he'd been taken. I wanted to, but it was as if he didn't remember. He knew I'd come out to him, but his memory of the night, of just what had been said and where, was different, and I didn't want to stir up old feelings.
Winter faded into spring. The city turned from gray snow to mud, then finally to green. Open mic nights started again. I recited poetry and sold chapbooks, with illustrations by Kai. With his help, I started going to LGBTQ-themed nights, and through those I made more friends who accepted me with no questions asked.
Kai has a girlfriend now, Jenny. They met during his solo show.
I’m seeing someone now too, casually. I met her at an open mic night. My poetry, she said, spoke to her. Over the last few months, I’d managed to go from writing lines that were stiff and stilted to writing things that felt natural. There was a starkness to the lines, and a kind of beauty, too -- something that hadn’t been there before.
“You’re living your truth,” Kai said. I supposed I was.
It isn’t happily-ever-after, the way the stories tell it, but it’s close enough.
This is an intersection with tonithegreat. We both wanted to do a take on the Snow Queen, and this is what came out of me.
Learning to live your own truth, to be in a place where it is safe to come out, where you can live your life fully and express that through your art, is vital.
Thank you for reading.