Where do we start?
How ‘bout right here where we are?
You’ve been carryin’ this weight around,
Walk in the door and lay it down.
What comes next?
We don’t know, we’re not there yet.
But I bet it’s gonna shine
Brighter than all we left behind.
January 1, 2027
Emily stands in the entryway, watching as Kelley moves about her condo. Careful, like she doesn’t belong. Hesitant, like it all feels unfamiliar.
Even though it’s Emily, it’s not. There are plants, but not as many. Artwork, but it’s sparse, not as bright, it’s missing the eclectic vibe she always had. The place is almost cold and clinical, definitely not anything that could be called homey. Other than an old, worn photograph of Emily and Lindsey stuck haphazardly on the fridge with a take-out Chinese food magnet, and a pair of Emily’s running shoes by the door, there’s nothing personal that would distinguish it from someone’s vacation home that spends most of the year rented out on Airbnb. It’s grown up. It’s sophisticated. It’s a place befitting a World Champion. But it’s not her.
The warmth that always defined Emily is gone, and it’s been replaced by something that’s more like what society would expect of a woman her age.
Emily at Waffle House was the Emily she spent years loving. Her eyes were full of hope and that smile, when it finally came, it lit up her whole face, and it was easy for Kelley to convince herself that her ex-wife had somehow come out of all of this unscathed. With that knowledge, it was even possible for Kelley to convince herself that maybe there was a chance for them, because if Emily wasn’t broken, well… Kelley could pretend like she wasn’t, couldn’t she? But Kelley also sat with bated breath as Emily chewed on huge bites of her waffle, knife and fork still in hand like had been told thousands of times not to do, waiting for that laugh. That laugh she would give her own heart for just to hear one more time. It never came.
If that wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t because Kelley made the mistake of coming back here with her, the subtleness of how Emily’s decorated her space proves she’s not the same person. And all that serves to do is remind Kelley that this is her fault. There’s no ignoring the wound when it’s surrounding her, bare walls closing in to remind her. She steps up to one of the large windows, staring out at Atlanta, trying to breathe. The skyline of her city has changed, but it’s still familiar enough. Just like Emily. New skyscrapers, razed factories… more freckles, deeper lines. But Atlanta’s not home anymore and neither is the woman whose every feature she committed to memory so long ago.
Emily’s hand on the small of her back startles her, causing her to jump away like she’s been burned.
“I’m sorry!” Emily pulls back in shock, as Kelley stares at her, eyes wide and terrified. “Kell, I-” Emily hesitates, reaching out like she wants to touch Kelley’s shoulder, but she stops herself. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Kelley lies, and as she rubs her face to try to hide the lie, Emily backs away from her until she’s sitting on the sofa. “I’m just not ready…” Another lie. It’s not that she’s not ready; it’s that she found a clarity she wasn’t searching for when she went out trying to spot Emily last night. She can’t do this. She’s not going to hang around and bear witness to all the ways she destroyed the beautiful spirit that was Emily. Her wife. The love of her live. The purest soul she’s ever met.
Because she can’t. If God does exist, he sure didn’t make her strong enough for that, too.
Emily pats the cushion next to her. “Ok. I’m sorry. Will you just come sit with me?” Kelley shakes her head. “I won’t touch you, Kell. J- j-ju- just come sit down.”
Kelley stays put. “I’m really proud of you, Em,” she starts in a shaky voice. “I’ve wanted to tell you so many times. I wanted to call you when you won another gold, but…” she trails off, unsure of how much Emily knows of Lindsey stepping in.
“But Lindsey told you to stay away from me,” Emily finishes for her. Kelley nods. “I’m sorry. I didn’t tell her to do that.”
“Someone had to tell me to stop calling, right?” Kelley says with a sad smile as she turns to look back out the window. Make her stop is more like it, though. “Anyway, all of this, the car, the condo, the sponsorships, the medals, you deserve it all. You’ve had an incredible career. I’ve watched every minute of it.”
“Because you had to,” Emily mumbles, embarrassed, and Kelley doesn’t get it, because she earned every bit of this.
“No,” Kelley shakes her head sadly. “I mean, yeah, I had to study you like I have to study every player, but I never missed a game you played. I wanted to see you do well.” Even after their relationship dissolved, Kelley was never able to shake the nerves she felt when Emily stepped out onto the pitch, the same nerves she felt when Emily played in the first Olympics without her. She was never good at watching. It hurt so bad to see her every time the camera panned to her on the field, but the pain couldn’t stop her heart from swelling with pride. Even when Emily was playing her own team, she always wanted her ex-wife to do well. She doesn’t know if Emily realizes that, that her love for the younger woman never died, never even began to fizzle out and always trumped her own competitive spirit when nothing or no one else could. She doesn’t know if Emily would believe it anyway. But it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t as simple as Emily wants it to be. This isn’t as simple as whether or not she is still in love. “All I ever wanted was for you to be great, Em, and you were better than great. Are better than great. You earned all of your success, and I just need you to know that I’m proud of you.”
There’s a finality to it, Kelley’s choice of the word need that Emily seems to pick up on. It makes her a little more desperate when she asks this time. “Kell, please come sit down with me.”
“Will you take me home please?” That, ignoring the desperation in Emily’s voice, takes a strength Kelley didn’t know she still had in her.
“I can get Erin to pick me up after work if you don’t want to. I know it’s far.”
“If I say it’s too far, you’ll stay longer?” Emily’s voice breaks.
“Em…” Kelley finally makes her way to the sofa, but leaves a sizable gap between them. It feels necessary, even if she does see the pain on Emily’s face when she makes that choice. “I’m sorry. I was wrong to think this could work. I just got all caught up in everything this morning and-”
“You came looking for me. Don’t tell me now that you didn’t mean it,” Emily interrupts.
“I did mean it. I meant everything I did. I meant everything I said. I will love you until the day I die. But,” Kelley looks up at the ceiling to stop the tears. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to do this.” She can’t say the words she means - I don’t think I’m strong enough to see all the ways I broke you, and there’s not much of a point anyway. Emily would just argue like she always argued… except for that one time she didn’t.
“We don’t have to do anything. We can just be, baby.”
Kelley doesn’t know what to do with this familiarity that aches so bad. She’s waited so long to hear Emily call her that again, to hear that soft voice, always a little bit hoarse because Emily sometimes seemed to only have one volume and that volume was a recipe for what is probably permanent vocal cord strain now. That sweet, sweet name that always made Kelley melt. That’s all it ever took to calm her in her most fiery and scariest moments, could make her believe that everything would be ok because that name meant Emily loved her.
What she’d give to go back to that lie, before the world ripped off the blindfold and showed her that love was never going to be enough. She remembers the first time Emily called her that: “It’s ok, baby, just play something for me.” It meant more to her than the first time Emily told her she was in love with her, because Kelley always had a little bit of suspicion that Emily did love her. She remembers the last time she heard it, one of the many voicemails Emily left when she was trying so desperately to get back home to her from Portland: “I’m coming, baby. Just hang on. Everything’s gonna be ok. I’ll be there soon.” And then nothing was ok.
She feels like she’s on the verge of a panic attack. All the talk earlier about just going back to the way things were - of skipping dating, of love and another proposal, of being in the same city as each other and moving in together, of kids - swirl around in her mind. Now it feels like all that was was the ridiculous daydreaming you do as a child that’s for fun, whispering with a friend about this perfect life you’re going to build for yourself. Except perfect doesn’t exist and this isn’t fun anymore. It’s too much.
She looks up to see Emily’s cheeks redden, this fear that she shouldn’t have called Kelley by a pet name filling her and the space between them, but it’s not enough to stop her. “You kissed me back this morning. I felt every bit of you in that kiss. I know you want this as much as I do.”
Emily’s voice helps her refocus, the tunnel vision slowly dissipating and Emily’s face, beautiful and broken, comes back into focus. Wanting something and it being right are two different things. Maybe they’re still not mature enough to know the difference. Maybe kissing her was a mistake. Maybe all of this was a mistake. “I don’t know how to just be. I don’t even know where we’d start.”
“Why do you tell me how you’ve been, what you’ve been doing?”
“I don’t really think small talk is the way to go, Em.” But Emily’s looking at her so expectantly that she feels like she has to try, even if she doesn’t put a lot of effort into it. “I’m coaching. I’m good at it. Laura and I work really well together, but I hope one day I’ll get to be a head coach. I hike a lot, when I have free time. It clears my head,” she lies again. It doesn’t clear her head at all, but there’s something about being out in nature that makes Kelley feel closer to her, the beauty of it making her think, even for a moment, that she doesn’t have to suffer because their daughter’s spirit surrounds her in those hills. She looks for those brief respites anywhere she can get them now that she can’t use alcohol to hide from her life. “I’ve fostered some cats. They’re easier to leave for a couple of days than a dog is. I still like pizza. And peanut butter cups. I don’t really know what you want to know. This is dumb.”
“How are you though?”
What kind of question is that? What’s she supposed to say to it? “Fine.”
“Kell…” It’s so unlike her, or what Emily remembers of her, to be closed off. She did that. She made Kelley put all these walls around her heart.
“I try not to cry, and most days, I do a good job. I listen to your Spotify playlists when I need to cry. According to my watch, I never get a good night’s sleep, but I think it’s bullshit because sometimes, it says I only slept for an hour and a half. I learned a long time ago, it doesn’t matter if I sleep for three hours or twelve, I feel the same kind of tired when I wake up, so there’s no point to staying in bed for too long. I forget to eat sometimes. Other times, I remember, but there’s not much point in getting up and making something. I do my job. I do it well. As long as I’m not failing there, I really can’t ask for more. Is that what you wanted to hear?” She leaves it at that. There are more details she could go into because that’s just the surface. Her life is way worse, but she’s not going to burden Emily’s already heavy heart with it, not going to give her one more reason to blame herself for something that wasn’t her fault. “So like I said, I’m fine. ‘Bout how you are doing, I’d expect,” Kelley continues, because she knows now, “you just hide it better. So we… I don’t hate you… but… we’d be a mess together again.” Two sad, broken people can’t heal each other any better than two angry, broken people can. When she looks up at Emily, she sees the tears about to spill over and it takes all of the self-control she’s learned over the years to not reach up and try to comfort her.
“We’re the same people, deep down. It’s just you and me. Nothing’s changed,” Emily sniffles.
Kelley turns again to the ceiling, trying to keep her own tears from falling. She’s changed. She’ll never be the same. It’s sweet that Emily thinks she can look past that, can tell herself she’s ok and is willing to give her another chance. “You’re not the same. You don’t shine like you used to. I took your light away.”
“It’s still there, Kell. I just need you to help me make it burn bright again. We were great together. We weren’t a mess. But we can be better this time.”
Kelley laughs, this sad, wistful laugh. “How do you propose we even get back to fine?” Better seems so impossibly far it’s out of reach.
Emily’s fingertips crawl across the cushion until they’re so close enough to Kelley’s hand that a piece of paper would hardly fit between them, and Kelley can feel the warmth of her hand. “What if we just let go of everything? All the pain, all the hate, all the anger, every bad memory.”
“I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget her.”
“I don’t mean forget. I mean put it all in a box and put that box under the bed. Somewhere safe. Somewhere you can always find it if you need it. It’ll be there if you need to feel, to remember, just somewhere you don’t have to see it everyday.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know,” Emily says honestly. “We try to be happy? We just let whatever happens happen? I really don’t know. All I know is your lips are the only thing that have made me feel alive since…” Emily lets her fingertips fall over Kelley’s hand. It’s cold and small, and she wants to cover it completely with her own, but doesn’t want to smother her. “How about one step at a time?”
Well at least Emily still has her ability to hope; Kelley’s relieved to know she didn’t ruin everything that was good about her. But the unknown all but seals it for Kelley. She can’t do uncertainty. She’s glad Emily’s strong, has faith, or whatever it is that she has, but she doesn’t. “Will you take me home, please?”
This time, Emily doesn’t argue with her. Doesn’t try to convince her to stay. Just brushes her fingers across the back of Kelley’s knuckles a few times, stands, and helps her up. They’re silent the thirty minute drive back to Peachtree City. There’s nothing to say, really, the way their morning devolved so quickly seeming to portend what would have happened if they really had decided to jump in headfirst and try again.
When they pull into the driveway at Kelley’s parents’ home, Emily asks if she can walk Kelley to the door. Kelley has neither the heart nor the desire to tell her no. Emily catches her hand right before it settles on the doorknob, pulling Kelley back and forcing the older woman to look at her. For a moment, they stare at each other, slipping back into silence, and Kelley swears she can see Emily’s heart breaking all across her face all over again. Better now than later, she keeps repeating to herself. You’re not strong enough, for this. You can’t know what you did to her or you won’t be able to function. And that’s what it comes down to, really. If it were as easy as herself, she would take a risk, let herself swallow down the punishment of what she did through the pain of watching Emily navigate the world as a different person, but it’s not about just her anymore; she has a team to coach, and that means she has to be able to get out of bed every morning. She’s never wished she had a purpose less than she does in this moment.
Emily rubs Kelley’s arms as she shivers against the cold, and it reminds Kelley that she’s wearing her UVA sweatshirt. She starts to take it off, but Emily stops her. “When you left, probably the hardest thing, besides how empty and cold the place was without you, was knowing you left this. It felt like it was your way of telling me there was never going to be another chance for us. I don’t want it. I want to think of you in it. I want to believe that we still have a chance, even if you don’t think so. I’m not giving up on loving you. In our hearts, we’re still the same people. We still love each other. And maybe you don’t think so, but I think it’s all that matters. So I’m not giving up.” She doesn’t give Kelley time to formulate a response, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek and then jogging down the slick porch steps.
Kelley feels like she doesn’t even know herself anymore. She thought all she wanted was another chance, and now her chance is walking away all over again because it turns out she’s too fragile to risk her heart. All these years she could have become more resilient were just wasted. She wants so bad to call after her, but her voice catches in her throat. As she turns to go inside, her mom is already coming out onto the porch. When she sees Emily about to leave, Karen calls her name, and Kelley watches the blonde bun pop back out of her car. “Momma, what are you doing?”
Karen wraps her robe tighter around herself and starts down the steps. “She was my daughter, too, Kelley. I love her. And I haven’t gotten to talk to her in years. So maybe you can let her go, without telling her that you love her too, but I’m going to go tell her that I do, and miss her, too. Sometimes, that’s all people need to know.”
Leave it to Karen to eavesdrop. Always. “Momma, I did tell her, but it’s not enough. Stop-” but Karen doesn’t pay her any more mind than Emily does when she has her eyes set on something. Kelley watches for a few minutes, her mom and her ex-wife talking, hugging, until she can’t bear to watch that anymore either and she chooses to go inside so she doesn’t have to look at what should have been.