The Talk

“I don’t like talking about sexual desire,” Claire says to Elsie. Claire’s blonde hair flashes in the light from the window.

They’re in Elsie’s bedroom. It is still the bedroom of a child. There’s a single bed and too much pink.

“Maybe I’m frigid,” Claire says. She throws herself across the bed dramatically, as if someone were filming the interaction. “Do you think I’m frigid?”

“Probably not,” Elsie says. She is staring at her hands. The cuticles are growing up and over her nail and she picks at them, trying not to make herself bleed but not really caring if she does. Nail polish flakes off in little flurries.

“Probably not?”

“Well, do you have sexual desire and are uncomfortable speaking about it? Or do you have sexual desire and are uncomfortable having it? Or…” Elsie pauses to bite at her finger. “Or do you not have sexual desire?”

Claire is silent. Her cheeks are the same pink as the duvet. Elsie can’t be sure what that means.

“Or we don’t have to talk about it,” Elsie says.


When Elsie and Claire were children, they spent almost all their time in this room. It’s comforting to Claire, how little it’s changed. As soon as she left for college her mother turned her bedroom into a crafts room and now when she comes home she sleeps on the pullout couch in the basement. There’s a persistent mold scent down there that Claire feels may be lingering in her hair.

It’s been hours and they haven’t really spoken of anything. Not of any real importance. They have both painted their nails—Claire a purple so dark that it’s almost black, Elsie a pink so close to her skin color it just makes her look like she’s glowing—and showed each other various articles in various magazines that resemble articles they have already read in different issues of the same magazine. This is how the concept of sexual desire comes up.

Most of the magazines speak of sex and desire in a fairly transactional way, i.e. if you do this, he will want that. But Elsie reads out loud to Claire from a piece of erotic fiction featured in the back of one of the magazines. Claire listens and can feel a blush moving through her entire body. She knows her mother would rip the magazine from Elsie’s glowing fingertips if she could hear.

Elsie reads the piece with a kind of theatricality that she reserves for when she’s alone with Claire. Claire wonders if this is how she is at college—Claire feels suddenly very small and alone knowing she’ll never know what her best friend is like when she’s not there. Like there’s a whole other Elsie she could never have access to.

The woman narrating the story excerpt seems very sure of what she wants and how she wants it and she demands it from her partner. Claire can’t imagine doing that. When Elsie is done reading it, she keeps flipping through the magazine and Claire finds herself blurting out something she’s often thought, but never said out loud.


“No,” says Claire. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s that I don’t have an answer.”

Elsie stays silent for a long moment. Her voice is careful when she responds, “How can you not have an answer?”

Claire studies the wall behind Elsie where a corkboard is tacked up, faded and sad-looking and with forgotten tickets and snapshots and postcards with reproductions of fine art she bought when her parents took her into the city. Elsie never went in much for anything too pop, too mainstream. But it never seemed affected, the way it could with some other girls. Elsie just always seemed actually better than everyone else, somehow. Claire is in every photo that’s thumbtacked there, gathering dust on the curved edges.

“I just don’t,” Claire sighs.


When Elsie had decided to go to a different college than Claire, she had been worried. She wasn’t sure who she had been more deeply worried for—her or Claire. They had met on the kindergarten playground. Elsie had yelled at a boy—Kyle, maybe?—for pulling on Claire’s white-blonde pigtail. Elsie had chosen to sleep next to Claire at nap time. Elsie didn’t sleep that day. She watched the room, making sure no one was trying to pull Claire’s hair again.

But Claire was going to a huge state school—the only one her mother would even let her apply to—and Elsie knew she would be miserable there. When it came down to it, she didn’t even apply. It was one of the only lies Elsie had ever told Claire (lies she could count on one hand, though some were much bigger than others,) when she told Claire she had been rejected. I think I messed up the application, said Elsie. Claire had cried. Elsie had too, just later.

Elsie likes college, mostly. She’s made a few friends and the people are all so excited to be there. Sometimes she feels like a fraud. She simultaneously feels too stupid and too smart and too overwhelmed and too bored. She’d always done well in school and so her college is a good one. Not Ivy League or anything, but a very respectable liberal arts school. Her classes can be challenging and her classmates are intelligent. But she’s not…filled with a boundless energy from being there like everyone else seems to be. Like they’re finally free.

Elsie didn’t know how hard it would be, not seeing Claire every day. They texted every day, in the beginning. They FaceTimed at least once a week, often more. Less and less as the year wore on and their lives kept happening without each other. When Elsie is honest with herself, she knows she was probably more worried about Claire then she was about herself in September. And when Elsie is really honest with herself, she can recognize that this was a mistake.


Claire has had sex three times.

The first time was after senior prom. She felt stupid for doing such an incredibly cliched thing, but she also didn’t want to go to college a virgin. Her date and kind-of boyfriend, Adam Collier, was bumbling but kind. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. She thought she had maybe felt a stirring of something like desire, but wasn’t sure. Claire broke up with Adam before they had another chance.

The second time was during freshman orientation at her university. She got drunk with some people from her dorm and she ended up having uncomfortable, unprotected sex with some guy on her floor who then wouldn’t leave her alone for weeks. She had to buy Plan B the next day for the first time and the woman at the free clinic downtown had looked at her like she was trash and made her repeat what she was asking for three times, louder each time. Claire knew every single person in the room, which was crowded, was looking at her. The boy stopped leaving notes on the whiteboard outside her dorm room eventually.

The third time was different but also somehow the same to Claire.

Claire rushed a sorority. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be in a sorority and was worried about hazing, but after high school, college felt like an empty horizon of free time so she rushed. The girls were much nicer than she had expected and she got in. The night of the pledging ceremony she got pleasantly drunk off some kind of jungle juice made in a frat house’s bathtub. She found a band-aid floating in it, but drank it anyway. She flirted with a boy. And then it was the next morning.

Claire woke up in the frat house’s basement, by herself, without her underwear. There was blood on the insides of her thighs. She found a bathroom and cleaned herself up. It hurt. Then she went back to the free clinic and the women at the desk this time was much nicer and if people were looking at her it was because of her smeared makeup and dirty white dress. The woman asked her if she wanted to talk and she said no. The only person she wanted to talk to was Elsie.

But when she went dial Elsie’s number, she found she couldn’t. She still hasn’t told anyone. She doesn’t know if she ever will.


When Elsie was sixteen, she persuaded Claire to pack a bag and run off with her for a week. There’s a kind of power Elsie feels sometimes when she asks something of Claire. She tries not to think about that.

It took them two days to get to the tip of Cape Cod, mostly because they kept stopping the car at every gas station for Claire to pee and every road side attraction for Elsie to take a picture of Claire in front of the world’s largest fill-in-the-blank. Claire had never seen the ocean before and Elsie was happy she was the one driving, because she was convinced that Claire would have driven them straight into the water. Elsie liked watching Claire watch the ocean. Her mouth would drop open like a child every time they crossed a bridge or the freeway opened up to show them the sea.

They ate a lot of fried seafood and ice cream. They swam in water so cold their lips went numb. They both got lobster-red sunburns and slept in one bed in a run-down motel where they kept the window open so they could hear the crashing of the waves. They got a homeless man to buy them beer one night and they got gleefully drunk and ran around the beach in their pajama shorts and hoodies, singing songs they both loved. They kissed, once, that night, fumbling and intoxicated, in a strange, twisting moment that doesn’t feel like it really happened. As time has gone on, Elsie has half-convinced herself she imagined it.

There’s only one photograph of the two of them from that trip. An older lady insisted Elsie get in the picture, but Elsie’s face is just a blur as she turns toward Claire. When Elsie looks at the picture, she can hear Claire laughing as Elsie’s hair tickles both their necks. Elsie’s hair was longer then. She has the picture pinned up in her dorm room.

Claire’s mother grounded her for six months when they got home, but Claire always told Elsie it was worth it. Elsie agrees.


Elsie had sex for the first time when she was 14. Claire is the only person that knows this, besides the 16-year-old Elsie met at Camp Shalom and slept with at the end of the summer. He hadn’t come back the next year. Elsie had expected to be heartbroken, but she had actually been relieved. He was a boring e-mail correspondent. He started every missive with: How are you? I’m doing well.

Elsie didn’t have sex again until freshman year of college. She thinks it’s weird that simply by losing her virginity she’s seemingly considered somewhat sexually experienced. The memory of losing her virginity is as hazy as some of her childhood memories. It takes Elsie longer and longer to even remember the boy’s last name. Gelson. There is no memory of desire or pleasure. Only pine needles against her back and hot breath in her ear.

Sex, she has found, is different when words like desire and pleasure become real. She had learned them as abstractions, once upon a time, but now they are full bodied, embodied, part of her own body the way hunger is. Elsie feels that she discovered this all by accident.

Elsie’s roommate is a girl named Ava. Ava has long, dark hair and skin as soft as anything Elsie has ever touched in her entire life. Ava writes poetry and her fingers are slender. Ava can raise one eyebrow and has a crooked tooth. Ava has shown Elsie pleasure Elsie didn’t know was possible. The kind of pleasure that makes her understand why every book she’s ever read seems to really be about sex and death.

Their second week of school, Elsie walked in on Ava masturbating. Elsie couldn’t see anything, Ava’s hands were under the blankets of her bed, but Elsie still backed up slowly and closed the door. She counted to thirty outside the door and reentered the room. Ava was sitting on her bed, reading, but she looked up at Elsie when she came in. In the middle of the night that night, Elsie found herself leaving her dorm bed and slipping in next to Ava on the identical slim, single cot across the room. The next morning they didn’t talk about it. But Ava appeared in Elsie’s bed the next night. And the night after.

Elsie doesn’t know if she’s gay or bisexual or pansexual or…there’s a lot of ways, college has shown her, to define yourself. For now, Elsie feels content with Ava’s mouth on her mouth, her body against her body, her eyes locked on Elsie’s eyes, even if they pretend like nothing’s happening the rest of the time. She likes the dead weight of Ava as she sleeps and the way Ava’s long hair tangles into a sheet of darkness around them. Like kelp on a Cape Cod dune. Ava is different from Claire in every conceivable way, but sometimes Claire is who Elsie thinks of when she comes.

Elsie doesn’t know what she is yet so she’s not sure what to say to Claire. She isn’t sure how to talk to Claire about this at all. She isn’t sure she can.


“Claire,” says Elsie. Claire looks up at the person she’s closest to in the world. Her cheeks are still pink. Elsie thinks the blush makes Claire look like a ripe peach, but she doesn’t say that. Instead she says, “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

Claire pauses and Elsie can feel a tightness in her chest. The room feels small, all of a sudden, claustrophobic and too pink and childlike. Her head swims in the pink, she feels like she’s drowning. Claire smiles, she makes herself smile. “Of course I do,” she says. Claire thinks about adding, You too, but it stalls out in her mouth. Elsie knows that. Elsie isn’t the one that needs to be told.

The light is fading. Elsie turns on the lamp on her bedside table. Claire turns another page in another magazine. Soon it will be night.


Devon BohmDevon Bohm’s work has been featured in publications such as Labrys, Necessary Fiction, Hole in the Head Review, Horse Egg Literary, The Graveyard Zine, and Sixfold. Her first book, Careful Cartography, was released in 2021 by Cornerstone Press. Follow her on Instagram @devonpoem or @devonbohm, or visit her website to learn more.