Raven Leilani selected “Leo Season” as the runner-up for the 2021 Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction.
Clementine ate a strawberry popsicle on the stoop. Everything was different. The night before, she had spoken to Jan for the first time in almost one year.
Jan and Clementine had been together three years when Jan moved from the Bay to Boston for law school. Clementine left Oakland one year later to get her MFA in Houston. So they broke up because of distance, but that’s not all. The last few months of their relationship, Clementine swung wildly between resentment and obsession. She had not felt certain of the future, for herself or her relationship, and it made her deeply anxious. Some weeks she’d cling to Jan. Other times, she became resentful and pontificated hideous admissions in an effort to push Jan away and prove herself unlovable.
Clementine felt competitive towards people who existed in Jan’s daily life and even towards Jan herself, whom Clementine, in smaller moments, believed was preventing her from living life fully in Houston.
About an hour into their conversation last night, Clementine realized the impetus behind the call was for Jan to break the news that she was dating Sarah, Jan’s best friend from law school, a girl whom Clementine had met and learned to like over the dozen or so times she’d visited Jan in Boston. Sarah and Jan were not only dating, but lived together. Jan said they planned to move to New York City in the fall.
Jan and Clementine both wept during the conversation, Clementine more, although it was her performative indifference and general awfulness that catalyzed their break-up in the first place. The next day, Jan texted an apology for blindsiding her and Clementine asked to speak again to “clear some stuff up.”
Next to the carcass of a popsicle, Clementine’s phone buzzed. It was Noah. She had been sleeping with him for a few months now, but they weren’t exclusive. Noah was a skinny drummer who also regularly slept with his ex-girlfriend. Clementine slept with other people too, but never consistently. In the past six months she’d had more one-night stands than the rest of her life combined.
Clementine wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to say to Jan. Just that she wanted to hear her voice again, and also force Jan to acknowledge her at least once more before Jan and Sarah disappeared forever into the rosy baths of new love.
That evening, they spoke again for an hour. Jan assured Clementine that she’d always love her, although they were no longer in love. Clementine was reluctant to end the call, though Jan implied her desire to hang up several times. Finally, in a flash of objectivity, Clementine became so humiliated by the lopsided power dynamic that she abruptly pressed “end” without saying goodbye.
She waited to see if Jan would call back. She didn’t, and to soothe herself, Clementine opened the internet to search flights from Houston to New York. Although she had cried a lot during the conversation, scrolling now through Google Flights, Clementine felt better. She knew it was because Jan’s attention was momentarily focused on her, not Sarah, and processing their conversation.
A few hours later, Clementine started feeling awful again. She felt that she would vomit, thinking of Sarah comforting Jan, so she walked to the bathroom and knelt by the toilet. She didn’t throw up, even though the sick feeling stayed knotted into Clementine’s belly and throat. A dull ache hummed behind her eyeballs.
After a while, Clementine moved to the living room and lay on the floor until the cat Tippy came and nuzzled her toes. She began to cry. Clementine felt very pathetic and wished she could channel that sense of pathetic-ness into something creative, like writing a short story or lesson-planning for the week.
Over the summer, she taught middle-schoolers creative writing. It was an easy gig that simultaneously bored and exhausted her. To class, her students wore shoes that cost more than Clementine’s entire salary.
Her phone buzzed. Come to Oats, her friend Sean wrote. There’s a bunch of us here.
I can’t, typed Clementine. I’m depressed.
Literally so is everyone, he texted back. Just come. So she put on a bra, clasped sandal straps around her ankles, and made her way to the bar. Sean, Luis, Devonte and Laura were drinking negronis and eating gyoza. Sean and Devonte were gay Black men. Luis was Latinx and non-binary. Laura was a straight white cis woman. She was self-conscious about that, and tried to group herself with Clementine, who was also white, but queer. Or had been, at least.
“What’s wrong with your face?” Luis asked Clementine. Clementine’s eyes were very puffy. She reached her hands to her face and pushed on the swollen lids. They felt inflated and hurt to touch. She told them about Jan. For a few minutes they were all sympathetic. In an effort to make her feel better, they said things that made her feel worse, like that Clementine was hotter than Sarah and that Jan was dating Sarah because it was convenient.
“You should fuck someone tonight,” said Sean. “Distract yourself.”
On the walk home, Clementine texted Noah. You up? she wrote. Yeah. How u doin? he replied. Clementine stood with her key in the door, biting her lip and staring at the screen. She wrote then deleted then rewrote, In bed. Want you inside of me.
She went inside and filled up her water bottle. After a few minutes, Noah replied. That’s tempting. I’m behind on work tho. Raincheck?
Clementine lay down on the living room floor. She closed and re-opened her phone. She decided to play Tinder and Her for twenty minutes, then move to her bed and get a good night’s sleep. Instead, she lay on the wooden floor for hours, staring at the bright screen and checking Sarah and Jan’s Venmo interactions.
They shared groceries, Clementine noticed. They shopped at Trader Joe’s.
Clementine had always suspected Sarah was in love with Jan. It was obvious. But when she brought it up to Jan during 1L, Jan was so surprised by the suggestion that Clementine dropped the subject. Besides, Clementine decided, she trusted Jan’s commitment to morality. Her loyalty to Clementine and their relationship.
When Jan told her about Sarah, Clementine had immediately felt a perverse sense of validation. But when she said, “I always knew,” Jan said, “Did you?” in a way that suddenly made Clementine second-guess herself and think that maybe she was retroactively seeking some sort of explanation. That she had not, in fact, ever suspected Sarah’s love for Jan up until this very moment.
It helped when she texted Laura later and Laura replied, So sorry. I know you always thought that about Sarah.
Clementine was backstalking Sarah’s Instagram. She found the first photo Sarah took of Jan from law school orientation. Before they started dating, Jan and Sarah frequently posted photos of each other with captions like bff-versary. These days, their captions were simpler, like a single emoji or funny geotag.
When they were together, Clementine and Jan often talked about the performative aspects of social media. They agreed that posting frequent pictures of your romantic partner was obnoxious and gauche. But scrolling now through Sarah’s feed, Clementine wondered if Jan secretly did appreciate the gesture, and if she had wished Clementine posted more photos of them when they were dating.
In the two years Clementine visited Boston, she had gotten to know Sarah. She considered her a genuine friend in some ways, had asked her opinion on things like what to wear to Jan’s brother’s wedding.
In some ways, Clementine reflected, they were similar. Both she and Sarah were self-deprecating, and enjoyed pop culture, although they understood the concept was frivolous and embarrassing. They both considered it important that people like them.
But Sarah was very earnest about her relationships. She was extremely active on social media and had at least three finsta accounts. People always knew if she was on Whole30 or when one of her grandparents or childhood pets had died. She wrote long and sincere captions about important people in her life. She never tried to be cool. Of course, she struggled with depression and other common ailments like disordered eating. But she was incredibly optimistic. Her general disposition was shiny and bright. She always saw the best in people, and was enthusiastic about even mundane events, in an effort to make things fun and inclusive.
Clementine was moody and selfish, and sulked when things did not go her way. She grew up consumed by a desire to be hip. This ensured her popularity in middle and high school, but as an adult, made her decidedly less cool than people who’d never tried. She was open about things other people weren’t, like sex and how much money she made and struggles with mental health. But she was extremely concerned with people’s perceptions of her. She felt nervous to be associated with anyone — family members, friends, romantic interests — in case they did anything that embarrassed her, or were disliked by people she wanted to like her, even if she actually loved the people those strangers disliked more than she wanted the approval of said strangers.
Another difference, Clementine thought, between the two of them was that Sarah enjoyed doing things, like going to concerts and outdoor plays. Clementine was lazy, especially when she was with Jan, whom she felt comfortable around and enjoyed cuddling in bed with more than rock climbing or picnicking with large groups of people. They had enjoyed hiking though, and went on multiple camping trips together. But then Clementine saw on Instagram that Jan took Sarah to Yosemite, where they had camped a few years prior with Jan’s family, and Clementine realized Jan did not think of camping as “their thing,” but rather an activity they both enjoyed doing and would continue doing even now that they were apart.
Clementine’s throat thickened; she had to open her mouth to inhale. She was surprised by the physicality of the pain, how sadness could manifest in very bodily ways.
Clementine made coffee with a French Press. She felt ill and buzzed from caffeine. Her pupils were black and huge.
That morning, she’d drafted an almost 3,000-word email to Jan. She hoped it explained her regrets and love in a way that sounded unique and not cliché. She hoped it made Jan realize she was still in love with Clementine, that her relationship with Sarah was unfulfilling and meaningless.
Clementine sat at her kitchen table, thumbing through a book of Kenneth Koch poetry and trying to find words combined beautifully enough to alter her emotional state. Sean was drinking seltzer and rolling a joint on the living room couch.
“Grindr daddy wants to meet us for drinks,” he said. “He’ll pay.”
Clementine nodded before the words settled through her skull. “Oh. Wait, what? Not me. I don’t want to.”
“We need to get out of the house,” said Sean.
“It’s too hot. I can’t.” Clementine was reading the poem “To Marina” and hadn’t realized she’d begun to cry. She wiped away the watersalt. Sean moved from the couch to the kitchen table.
He kissed her forehead and held up the joint. “It’s the weekend. We should try.”
Sean’s Grindr date bought them gin and tonics. Before Clementine could tell him no, another drink appeared, sweaty with water beads, the lip of the glass wedged between a thick slice of neon lime. This happened three more times and Clementine became very drunk. In the Lyft to a gay club, Sean and Grindr Daddy made out in the backseat. The driver politely ignored all three of them.
Clementine considered the next time her and Jan would speak.
She could either send Jan a congratulations text for completing the bar exam or wait for Jan to send her a birthday text. On the phone, Clementine had asked when Jan was taking the test. Jan told her two weeks and then quickly added, I probably won’t have time to talk before then.
Clementine had been horrified to realize Jan thought she’d been asking if they could speak again before the bar. Maybe she shouldn’t text her congratulations, Clementine thought, in case it made her seem even more desperate.
The club swirled around her. Besides a bachelorette party, Clementine was the only woman there. She went to the bathroom with Sean and did a few bumps of cocaine off a stranger’s keys. Her head felt heavy, like wet paper.
Out of habit, she opened her phone and took a selfie of her and Sean in the bathroom mirror. Later, Clementine would look at the photo and in the upper corner, notice a couple having sex in the bathroom stall, door half-open, a pair of buttocks milk-bright against the wall.
Clementine was still consumed by thoughts of Jan and Sarah. But she’d memorized their entire internet relationship, and she was exhausted. That morning, Jan’s brother had commented, “Love you cuties,” underneath a graduation photo of the couple. On Venmo, Jan paid Sarah for brunch plus three blue heart emojis and a mermaid.
Knots squeezed so tightly inside Clementine’s chest, she had to leave her students in the classroom and jog to the bathroom to sob. After class, she deleted Instagram from her phone. She went for a run, but it was too hot and her knee hurt, so she stopped after two miles. She undressed in front of the mirror, face bloated and red, and grabbed at the fat along her hips. She was tan in a way that illuminated the stretchmarks on her thighs and breasts. Against darker flesh, they stood out like glow worms.
Clementine thought about Jan and Sarah in bed together, Jan caressing Sarah and taking off her shirt and bra.
Her mouth watered. She vomited into the kitchen sink.
Afterwards, she felt slightly better, like the ejaculation of bile had loosened some of her organ knots. Clementine thought how ordinary this pain was, how almost every person in the world had, at some point in time, felt split-open and sick from lost or unrequited love. It was almost unbelievable, that everyone should go through these feelings and still exist in the world, perform normal activities like setting alarms and poaching eggs and riding the public bus to school.
In bed Clementine started to touch herself. She’d been masturbating a lot, usually to thoughts of Jan or gay male porn or both. Almost every time she came, she wept. This time after climaxing, Clementine walked back to the kitchen, made toast and spread blackberry preserve across the top. The clots of blackberries were dark purple, but the liquid from the fruit was a much lighter shade of red. It reminded Clementine of the first days of her period.
After she finished eating, Clementine walked back to her bedroom, where she smoked weed and read Orlando by Virginia Woolf. She gave up after realizing she’d read the same page for twenty minutes. Then she opened her laptop and watched Netflix for hours, until her alarm went off and signaled it was dawn.
Noah knocked on the door.
“Hey,” he said, and dropped his messenger bag on the couch. Clementine was grateful to feel a small ripple through her pelvis. It comforted her to know that sex with someone else could excite or distract her, even if she was objectively uninterested in them as a human.
“I’m starving. Do you have food?” Noah walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Clementine followed him, wrapped her arms around his waist and kissed the back of his neck. Images of Jan moved under her eyelids. Noah untangled himself. “Let’s eat first,” he said.
“I already ate,” said Clementine.
“Okay.” He pulled a beer and almond milk from the fridge. “Is there cereal?”
Clementine took a box of granola from the pantry. She retrieved a bowl from the cupboard and poured in some granola. “Almond milk is gross,” said Noah. He took a spoon from the drawer and leaned against the stove to eat. “Are you lactose-intolerant?”
“No,” said Clementine. “You know I’m not.”
He finished the cereal, then opened the can of beer, took a long swig and burped. “I found the funniest YouTube channel today. Want to see?”
They lay in bed and watched unfunny videos of a man eating canned food from World War II and gagging up the remnants around his backyard. After a few videos, Clementine exited the tab.
“What time is it?” asked Noah.
“Late,” she said.
“Come here,” he told her. They kissed. Noah pushed his tongue between her teeth and removed her bra. He began to touch her. Clementine moaned theatrically. “You’re so wet,” he said.
Clementine couldn’t decide if sex with Noah was actually fun, or if it was just something she felt she should do, as a way to ascertain if she missed Jan or if her despair stemmed purely from territorial jealousy.
After they finished, they lay naked and entwined. Noah was always very nice after sex. He’d spoon her and trace the freckles on her back and say things like, You’re beautiful and, Want me to get you water?
Now it was almost midnight. Clementine opened her laptop to watch an episode before they slept. The letter to Jan glowed across the screen. “What’s that?” asked Noah.
Clementine closed the computer. “Nothing.”
“Oh, a secret,” he smiled, and opened his phone.
“It’s just,” Clementine sat up in bed, letting the sheet fall to her waist and exposing her breasts. The moonlight pushed through the window curtains and washed the room in pale green. “I found out my ex is dating someone else. I always assumed we’d get back together. And now we won’t.”
Silence settled over the room like a net. Clementine regretted her honesty. But then Noah put his phone away and said, “That sucks. I’m sorry. Does he know you want him back?”
Clementine corrected him reflexively, without considering the implications. She had enjoyed, been amused, that Noah thought she was straight. It was easier. She’d found early on that while straight men relished supporting theoretic queer relationships, in practice, it was difficult for them to exhibit attraction towards people who at times voluntarily eschewed cock.
“Her name is Jan,” said Clementine. “I dated a woman for four years.”
“Oh,” Noah said with an air of faux-casualness. “I didn’t know.” He felt on the floor for his boxers and pulled them on. Clementine crossed her arms over her chest.
“How do you feel?” she said.
“Feel? Fine.” Noah blinked. “You never mentioned you were into girls.”
“You never asked.”
“I mean, it’s cool. I hooked up with that guy in school.”
They had talked once about how, when Noah was in college, he’d had a fling with a boy on his floor. But they’d never had penetrative sex. The way he explained it, the boy gave Noah a few blow jobs before Noah started dating his girlfriend. Clementine was the first person he’d told.
“So do you like, prefer girls?”
“Like, over dudes. Do you prefer girls?”
“Could you be more transparent?”
Noah laughed. The tension burst, and Clementine laughed too. She moved into his chest and tucked her chin along his collarbone. After a few moments she said, “Are you less attracted to me now?”
Noah played with her hair. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I mean, it’s odd imagining you with anyone else. I don’t want to sound not woke or whatever. But I can’t really picture you with a girl. You seem so into it, when we have sex.”
“I am into it,” said Clementine.
“Right,” he said. “Yeah.” Then, “Maybe it hurts my ego a little bit, or makes me feel insecure, to imagine you with women.”
There was a pause. Finally Noah said, “I honestly don’t know. Probably that thing you always talk about. Toxic masculinity or whatever.”
“Hm.” Clementine blinked. She felt her eyelashes brush against his chest. “Should I try to get her back?”
“Do you want her back?” Noah asked. He was twirling a lock of her hair around his index finger and every so often, pulled hard enough to create sensation.
Clementine frowned. “I don’t know.”
“I guess figure that part out first,” he said.
Clementine smirked. “Thank you. Very helpful.”
They laughed again. Noah sighed. “I’m not good with these things. I never know what I want. Usually by the time I figure it out, it’s too late, or I only know for sure because the opportunity has gone, and so it finally feels safe admitting how I feel.”
“Huh,” said Clementine. “Yes.”
Noah tugged her hair. “Can we turn the fan on?”
They fell asleep. When she woke the next morning, he’d already left for work.
Stopping at Wok & Roll. Want anything? Noah texted her.
Chicken and broccoli, wrote Clementine. Brown rice plz.
They’d been hanging out more frequently, having sleepovers every other night or so. Last weekend, Noah got very drunk and told her that he loved her. Clementine did not respond, nor did she bring it up the next morning. She assumed that he was blackout and indeed, he asked her later whether they’d had sex the night before. They had tried, but he couldn’t stay hard.
After he asked that, Clementine was glad they had not had sex, even though Noah likely wouldn’t have felt weird about it if they did.
Her summer gig was ending. Soon Clementine would start teaching English at a private high school in Houston. She worried about starting a full-time job again, gaining weight, and never completing her collection of short stories, which she hadn’t worked on since she found out about Sarah and Jan.
The email to Jan still lived in Clementine’s draft folder. Every few days, she considered sending it. But then she’d become indecisive and wonder if potentially exploding both of their lives was worthwhile.
“Who texted you?” asked Luis. They were having drinks at Oats. “Noah,” Clementine said. Luis rolled their eyes. Luis was her most difficult friend. But she enjoyed their company because of their grating honesty. “I’m a triple Leo,” they’d say coolly. “Get over it.”
At Oats, they gossiped about their queer kickball team, Luis’s wisdom teeth surgery, and the waning relevancies of Camille Paglia and Andy Cohen. Luis asked if she’d spoken to Jan recently. “Only a text after the bar exam and on my birthday,” said Clementine. “I thought we’d talk on the phone, but.” She sipped a Bloody Mary.
“I guess she’s moving to New York soon.” Luis looked at her. Clementine could not make eye-contact and so instead looked at her hands. “I’m stuck.”
“Well,” Luis took a long sip of their old-fashioned. “Do you love her or the idea of having her? You haven’t seen each other in over a year. No offense. If you weren’t dating such a fuckboy, would you be pining for her?”
“I don’t know.” Clementine removed her sunglasses and folded them in her lap. “I know the intensity of these feelings will pass. I don’t believe in one soulmate. But if the world is ending, why not fight for this?” She swallowed. “Then I think if Jan is happy, I don’t want to ruin that for her. Maybe I’m being totally selfish. And Sarah –”
“No. Fuck Sarah. It’s Leo season, bitch. She’s not a factor here.” Luis finished their drink and reached for Clementine’s. “Here’s what I think about the email. Jan’s her own person. She can make an educated choice about whether she wants to try again. What you need to know is if she says yes, will you want to try?” Luis looked hard at Clementine. “The second you press send, what you want will change. What comes after you’ve said what you wanted to say?”
Clementine pressed her palms against her face. A phone vibrated. Noah was calling her; he was outside of her apartment with dinner. Briefly, Clementine imagined it was Jan, steaming containers pressed against her chest, scowling at her phone, face brightening as Clementine appeared around the corner.
Clementine blinked hard. “I have to go.” She kissed Luis’s cheek. “Venmo me for drinks.”
“Whore,” Luis said happily. “Text me tomorrow.”
It was almost dawn. Noah snored loudly next to Clementine. In pale green darkness, Clementine opened her phone. Sarah had posted an Instagram story of Jan. They were packing for New York. In the video, Jan was laughing and wearing a backwards hat. She looked tan.
Before Clementine could think, she opened her email, dredged the message from her drafts and clicked send. Her heart raced terrifically. “Holy shit,” she said aloud.
She’d read somewhere that most people who jump off bridges regret their choice the second they become airborne. In this moment, Clementine could not tell if she was jumping to safety or into an abyss. Only either way, she felt very much alive.
She closed her laptop. She watched the sunrise.
Whatever happened, she had done something. She had not moped or lingered passively on what if’s and regrets. She had, in some way, moved her own life forward.
Wasn’t that the point?
LEAH YACKNIN-DAWSON is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA. She recently earned her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was the recipient of the Fania Kruger Fellowship. Leah’s work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Hobart Pulp, Number:INC, and more.