The room stilled and every eye was upon the woman before them.
"I remember," she said again, fingers brushing nervously through her mousy brown hair before trailing back down to push her glasses up on her nose. "When I was a teenager, I fell in love. I know; it's a common story. Everyone falls in love about then, but I didn't think I ever would. You see, I was in love with the idea of being in love, but I never found that one. You know. The one that makes your toes curl just by looking at you.
"Well, no," she prevaricated. "I found plenty who did that to me, but I was too shy, too scared, and too young to say a thing, or even do more than try to stuff the feeling down.
"It took someone special to see beneath it all, to see through my masks, and recognize that the person she saw felt the same way.
"Her name was Amanda."
She waited a few frantic heartbeats for the fear to pass, but it didn't. In a room full of people who all loved and supported and cherished her, it was still hard to admit something like that. Too many years of fearing for her life if she admitted where her heart was.
"I know everyone makes judgments on others based on their names. When I first heard her name, before I met her, I assumed that a girl named Amanda Richards would be white like me. It's been a preppy name for so long, or maybe it's just that girl I went to grade school with who was named Amanda. I don't know.
"My Amanda walked into the science room when we were both sixteen, and she sat down right next to me, and I tried not to be surprised when I heard her name. My Amanda had hair like midnight and skin like chocolate and lips like the softest of pillows when they caressed my skin. I was so surprised when I ran my fingers through her hair and I swear I was petting the softest, fuzziest kitten ever born. She was soft and gentle with me, like none of the boys I'd tried to date before because I felt like I had to or I wouldn't be normal.
"Let me tell you. Screw normal. That stuff is bullshit."
She gave a weak smile out at everyone, but the humor was lost on them all. One lady, a friend of hers, was sobbing into a tissue in the back. Maybe a funeral wasn't the right place to say that.
"Sorry. This is hard for me, too, you know. Anyway, I felt weird about being in love with a black girl, and she felt weird about it too. We got past the race part eventually, but it took a lot of talking, and I never could bring myself to admit how scared I was that she'd see all the white things I did or loved or how I was raised by conservatives and she'd call me a bigot and I wouldn't be able to argue with her enough because sometimes I just think the wrong things. Sometimes I assume things she never would, just because I'm white and she wasn't.
"But, she didn't care. I cared, but she didn't. She was more worried about dating another girl, and I wish I'd worried more about that.
"I kissed her in front of the whole school, when we were seventeen. We finally came out, despite her protests. We fought, and then we finally did it, and I felt great. Guys could stop asking me out, and they could stop looking at my girl as if they wanted a piece of what was mine, without even knowing how much that hurt me.
"We walked hand in hand at school, and teachers were worried, but in the end they didn't say a word. Some secretly glared, while others secretly cheered, but they stayed out of it.
"And that's how she died."
She took a deep breath. It was an old hurt, but it still ached at times like this. It would never be easy to talk about. But, she refused to cry.
"I think most of you heard about it, from somewhere or another. It was all over the news, and anyone who didn't know we were lesbians in town found out then. Her funeral was picketed. I had to have a police escort to her funeral, and her own mother slapped me in front of God and everyone and told me I'd killed their daughter. Her father was a bit more civil, saying that anyone their daughter loved must be a worthy person, and he apologized for his wife and said I was welcome there, but I left anyway and bit back my tears.
"See, I thought Amanda's mother was right.
"We were both attacked. Both raped. But, because she was the black chick, they wanted to make an example. I walked to the funeral with a broken arm and bruises in more places than I care to remember, but she died. And I didn't.
"And somehow, my life went on. I thought I'd hear her call out, 'Jessica!' and I'd turn around and see nobody there, or see somebody else, and I stopped looking eventually.
"Yeah. I fell in love again. I never forgot Amanda, but Gwen understood. When Gwen's hair wasn't as soft as Amanda's and I cried into her shoulder, she understood, and she fought for me. She fought for Amanda. We went to rallies and protests and parades. She told my story, because I couldn't. She was strong for me when I couldn't be."
Someone else walked in, and Jessica waited impatiently for her to find a seat. "Well, the story of me and Gwen isn't as interesting. She was more in love with a movement, in the end, than she was with me. She was in love with my story and a cause she could stand behind. She was more outraged by Amanda's death than I was, and it got to be a little embarrassing, and she wouldn't even kiss me unless it was in public.
"Straight or gay, I know most of you have gone on to the bar scene after a while. I hated to drink, because the guys that killed Amanda were drunk and they smelled like it, and the smell always made me feel dirty after that. But, I didn't know how to find someone else, and I was scared to death to look for a girl where it wasn't obvious we were all the same. I'd be mortified if I hit on a straight girl, and devastated if I fell for one.
"That's how I found Theresa, here."
Jessica took a deep breath and half-turned around to put a hand on the box behind her.
"Rees was one after a bunch of failed attempts. She was just as uncomfortable with it all as I was. She looked just as out of place in that bar as I did my first time there. For a second, I was scared it was because she was straight and there with friends, or had stumbled in on accident and just realized where she was.
"She was magic to me, though," Jessica said, facing everyone gathered again. "I noticed her from the first moment she walked into my regular haunt, and when I saw her come back the next week I wanted to jump up and down like a little girl on Christmas. Rees had long hair back then, and I begged her to let me play with it, and that's how we started talking. She dated a few other girls there before I got up the courage, but I knew she was my One. My Only. My happily-ever-after.
"And she still is."
Jessica sobbed a little, but still no tears fell. A couple of guys toward the front where whispering, and one of them shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable.
"Don't be like that, Mike and Don. Why can't you two be too gay to be all macho? Why do you have to ruin our day like this? Why--"
A minister walked to the podium and looked around the room. It seemed like he cleared his throat simply out of habit, because everyone was already looking at him directly, expectantly.
"But, I'm not done yet," Jessica pleaded. "You--"
"It seems we are all here, now. Thank you for coming to this memorial service, for Theresa Polklavaski and Jessica Rhyme. It looks like they have touched many people in their lives, as well as by their deaths."
"But, I wasn't done yet," Jessica said again.
The funeral went on. People continued to filter in as the service continued, and press were asked to stay outside. Gwen was there in a smart suit and a new trophy girl, protesting the protestors instead of going inside. Amanda's father was there, in the front row. A boy Jessica had dated in high school got up and told everyone about his first crush, and how he had found the courage to find the girl of his dreams no matter the obstacles because Jessica had had to overcome so much more in the name of love. Many girls they'd both dated from the club, or somewhere else, came forward to share how sad this was.
"But, I wasn't done."
"When I heard what happened to Rees and Jess, I felt embarrassed to be a human being. I mean, I was angry and I was sad, and I hated the ones who did this, but they were just human beings. And there are more human beings like that out there, and if that's what humans can do, then I don't want to be one."
"After what happened to Jess in high school, I guess I just thought that was it. She'd had her trial by fire. I didn't think this would happen again. But, she'd come home from the club, beat to hell, black eyes and broken teeth, and she'd just grin and say it was a small price to pay to fall in love."
"Even though they kept to themselves, they wouldn't keep themselves to themselves. They said that if any straight couple could hold hands, well, so could they. If any straight couple could kiss, or get married, or anything else, so could they. And, you'd think that the world would be getting safer for people like them. People like so many of you. But as love grows and encompasses more and more of the world, hate has to strike back. Fear has to strike back. And, I know many of you because of churches you went to and turned on you when you were young won't appreciate this, but Satan has to strike back. Evil has to strike back, in whatever form it can."
"I wasn't done."