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9:39 PM: Hey, when you get on, I'd like to talk to you eventually.
Two-fifteen in the afternoon—I was painting on a hard linoleum floor with ashy knees over swollen feet. My limbs ached, but the deadline for the commission I was working on approached in less than 24 hours, so I sat in the sunlit part of the room and tried to make the best of it. Frustration gathered in the lines of my forehead. I had gotten an unusual message the night before but was unable to reply to it because I had been busy working on the same painting. I had stressed out over it until the early hours because I knew that there was something wrong. At that particular time he should have been getting out of school, so anxiety held my hand tightly.
Why worry, though? The day before he had sent that message, we had gotten exceptionally close. The last thing I want to find out is that he thought that it was a mistake.
An obnoxious blooping noise bounced out of the speakers as he appeared online. I initiated the conversation, saying hello and entertaining his small talk. I eventually worked up the courage to ask what he needed to talk to me about, and he said it was to RSVP for a party that I was hosting at the end of the week.
Liar. I mentioned that the RSVP seemed like an addendum.
"It was. Ugh, I hate saying anything semi important on the Internet."
I offered to see him in person, but he refused me the trouble.
"Yeah, I don't really wanna say this, but I feel like I need to. Here's the thing: I'd like to keep seeing you through the summer, but I don't think I want to once you start college. This semester I'm actually going to end up getting a few B's which I know isn't your fault, but I know next year is gonna be even more difficult, and I really can't be too distracted."
My paintbrush clattered on the plate and rolled to the edge. Through my sinking stomach all I could muster was, “I understand.” It was sickening because I did understand, I did
. Yet I found that I possessed no way to argue against any of his points on my behalf.
But he wanted to stay together for the summer, still wanted to remain friends. Frankly, I can’t imagine that
, I thought, and there’s so much I could say, but none of it would come out right with words
. I eventually set my fingers to the keyboard again. “I just wish we were in person because I'm not very well-versed, and I always say less online, it seems. Because right now I don't feel like doing it this way.”
I promised to meet in him an hour and a half at the coffee shop. All the working cars were gone out of my driveway, so I was left with a bike as my transportation. It takes half an hour to get to the coffee shop, but I planned to leave immediately with nothing better to do. I ran upstairs and told my younger sister that I was leaving—neglected to tell her why—and borrowed five dollars from her. I promised to pay her back on top of the thirty dollars I already owed. Just one more commission would have helped me from being broke out of my mind, but until I finished it, I was reduced to being indebted to my 14-year-old sister. I grabbed a messenger bag, stuffed a notebook, pen, and book into it, and took off on my bike.
I didn’t cry, wouldn't let myself. There are 6.8 billion people on planet Earth; statistics suggested that he wasn't the one. Simple as that.
To avoid the unusually busy traffic, I took a turn on what looked like a plausible neighborhood shortcut. It seemed to work, until the fresh-paved road choked at a hard-line stop and the gravel road began. Half-built houses came into view, and every possible outlet butted itself into grass rather than the road I needed to get to. I looped several times around the development, and finally found the only way out: the way I came in.
How . . . handy
. Fifteen minutes lost in that neighborhood. Fifteen less minutes to think. Fifteen less minutes to burn before he approached me.
I finally got to the coffee shop and propped my bike up on the side by the window. If someone stole my bike in small town Alaska, more power to them. They would gain social deviant status faster than I could bat an eyelash at the advent of my missing bike.
I ordered a hot chocolate at the front counter. They asked me my name, and I replied, “Sarah.” Last time I was Dakota. The time before that, Stevie. I was never myself there. Just . . . not
Conveniently, all the window seats were taken, and being unable to care less about the bike, I took a seat right in front of the door of the shop. There was a subliminal hope that my bike would mysteriously disappear because there'd be a lesser athletic burden on my life that way. Situated and content in the potential fate of the bike, I dug into my bag and propped open a book. I connected so much with the main character sometimes—saying the wrong things at the wrong time, rapid anger, good intentions behind a bad action—that it made me sad that the book eventually had to end.
That’s me. Or at least who I was supposed to be. I went up to the counter, grabbed Sarah’s cup—my
cup—and took my seat again, continued reading. I couldn’t focus on what I was going to say to him, so I read and I read and I read.
His body moved into the corner of my view and timidly lowered itself into the seat across from me. I weakly smiled and put my book at the edge of the table. Obvious and angry, the title read I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU
in black, capitalized font. How charming I can be sometimes.
We talked for twenty minutes about nothing. Nothing
. We talked like nothing happened. The only difference was that I stared into his endless mirror-like eyes a little more often and a few more awkward silences scattered themselves about the place. I raised my hot chocolate to my face, and my hand began to shake wildly. I slammed it down on the table in front of me, knowing he was watching me. I think you think I’m affected.
“Are you . . . okay?”
“Yeah, I uh. My hands. They just shake sometimes. I’m sure you’ve . . . noticed.”
I tried to pick the cup up again, but its contents just sloshed around. I was so frustrated. There were all these people around the shop, the lights were low, cars were stopping outside, the coffee machine was hissing, and here I was, unable to drink out of a cup. The world was spinning by, doing its noisy, messy thing as usual, but I was stalled out on a simple task, left behind to figure everything out all over again.
I figured out a way to drink it with my left hand. He talked to me about my book, read the back of it, asked questions. Another pause wedged itself in between us.
He sighed distantly and cast his eyes to the side. “Do you want to go outside for a walk?”
I threw my empty cup away and followed him outside. He grabbed my bike by its crooked handlebars and started walking. We went past the farm, past the prison, past the school, past the cemetery. We turned into the park and propped the bike against a picnic table. I sat on top of it, and he set himself a foot or two away from me.
I stared out into the distance and hoped that the grey sky didn't crack in half for a shower. The cemetery was busy for a Tuesday. There was a guy bumbling along on a riding lawn mower, spinning around the crosses and tombstones in what looked like a dance with the dead. A yellow work vehicle chugged into view, dumping piles of dirt in the corner of the cemetery. Was it digging six feet or something else?
He looked at me. “So . . . ”
“Is there anything you want to say?” he said, quieter now. “You just seem . . . I don’t know.”
My mouth stretched across my face as my eyebrows knitted together. All my words stumbled out of line and order. Everything I wanted to say seemed so wrong.
“It just seems that—like, if we just keep going, it’s all in vain. Keep going from this day like nothing happened, but when—when the day
comes, treat it as no surprise.” I paused and realized what I had just said. “But it’s all fake,” I whispered. “Just fooling ourselves.”
He murmured a solemn agreement. “What should we do?”
“I’m in no place to make a decision. This is solely about you. Your choices. It’s your life. Don’t worry about me. Either way, it’s going to hurt.”
“But it’s about you, too.”
“No. No it’s not.”
He exhaled heavily with a shiver and shook his head. “I really don’t know what to do. You’ve never done anything to make me think that I didn’t like you. I mean—I just don’t know what to do. It’s so hard.”
“In life,” I said while wringing my aching fingers, “there are a lot of priorities. And you have to sort through them yourself. Decide.”
“You’re not helping.”
He shivered again and asked if we could walk. I agreed, knowing that it was warmer in other places, especially if we were moving. We left my bike and bag near the picnic table, and he lead me down a forest trail. I loped behind him with my head down and followed carefully in his footsteps. I didn't know what to do, what to say.
I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and drop my heart on the ground between us. I wanted to tell him that we had to keep trying, had to hold on, because if he thought this was hard, he had another thing coming for him.
I remembered when I first met him. We were lost with free food coupons clenched in our sweaty hands. I ordered pizza and he ordered "the same." I always wanted
someone to order "the same," and he was the first person who did. He, a stranger with a kind smile and quiet demeanor, was the first person who did.
I remembered the first time I walked home with him from school. We talked and told stories. I met his parents. I said hello to his dog. I envied everything he had. His family smiled. His dog heeled. He wished me luck for a community event I was attending. I thought about him the whole treacherous time I was there, carelessly growing staler with each moment under the icy fluorescent lights and the stench of sanitary spray.
I remembered the day I realized I liked him. We were performing for the inauguration of the new school district superintendent. He drank soda in between sets, breaking every rule of musicians. On my break, I sat at a round table and watched him perform the entire time. I talked about him almost the entire time with a male friend to my left. Yet still it remained that people thought I was dating my friend instead of the one I wanted.
I remembered our first date. It was right there in the coffee shop that we had just left. He called me pretty. I had never thought of myself that way before. He ordered "the same." I went home and thought about him as the nighttime rain spattered itself over my bedroom window and waterfalled through the gutters. The way he made me feel kept me warm in the cool weather. It numbed my sternum and kept me awake in my bed.
I remembered our first kiss. It was shy and it was awkward. It wasn't everything the movies said it would be. But it was everything we needed it to be. We were vulnerable and we threw away the safety of knowledge and dignity. There were newer things to discover: the scent of his neck as he neared me, the strength of his arms as he held me, the taste of his lips when he kissed me. What fun is discovering love if you know exactly what it feels like already? There’s no sense of adventure, no time to fail, no chance at vulnerability and adventure with that person you care about the most.
But where did this adventure take me? To the coffee shop to bring everything to full circle? Brought me to where it all started to begin a proper end? To the cemetery to watch the difference between a physical death and an emotional death? To the trail to let him show me my fate?
All of the above.
He took my to a still, swampy lake and sat down on a hoary old footbridge. I sat by him, closer now and stared out into the green, thick water. I fought every urge in my body to touch him. All I had was words. We weren't defined by our physicality. There was only one way to comfort his troubled mind:
"If you should know one thing, it's this: I'm not angry at you. It's . . . okay, whatever you decide."
Peter once approached Jesus and asked, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" and Jesus replied not up to seven times, "but up to seventy times seven." It pained me to say that it's okay. It's okay to throw away everything we've built together.
It hurt me to say that.
It hurt Peter to be martyred.
I felt his warm hand wrap around mine and squeeze it. It was at that moment in the murky woods by the mossy pond that I knew it hurt him too. I knew that he didn't want to hurt me. I laid my head on his shoulder and stayed by his side, whatever the future outcome.
I promised my sister that I would go to her choir concert that night. He walked me there in the still-greying light, clutching my bike by the handlebars. Having been busy with our own problem, we arrived at the concert fifteen minutes late. He walked inside with me, though he didn't have to. All the seats were taken in the blackened audience, so we sat on the floor against a wall. An army of middle schoolers under a glaring light opened their mouths in unison. Grease
"It turned colder / that's where it ends / so I told her we'd still be friends . . ."
His fingers tangled with mine again. Oh, irony.
When it finished, I followed him outside of the building and looked into his eyes, unafraid now of what he had to say. On tiptoe, I whispered into his ear, "Are we okay?"
He drew me into his arms and whispered, "Yeah. We're okay."
I kissed his neck and turned to watch him walk away into the night, not once feeling alone.