Not About Love, Ch 4: This

Wow, that all sounds very dramatic, doesn’t it? It’s not like that, really–I’ve been in relationships. I’ve been head-over-heels crazy for girls before. But I think of the kind of love I want to feel with someone, the kind that gets you home at night and up in the morning, the kind that wants to make eggs and toast and wake her up with a kiss, the kind that’s still love when it’s boring and that keeps a person around for the sad and happy and everything in-between…

_

The orange light from a setting sun spills across my dashboard. Its warmth flickers in and out, in and out as I drive past a wall of trees lining this back country highway. Window rolled down, I breathe in the farm air and sing the last few lines of the song blasting through the car speakers. The next song begins to play, slow, strumming, some acoustic guitar number I haven’t listened to since high school. Just before I reach for the skip button, Siri interrupts to tell me I have a text from Justin.

“ETA?” The robotic female voice reads.

“Four minutes, tops.” I enunciate the words, slowly, and confirm them as she reads the message back before sending. And then I smile. I can’t help it; it’s been a year since I’ve seen my best friend.

I met Justin in the sixth grade, and soon forgot the trauma of moving schools. Our friendship was improbable on paper. Our paths diverged early, starting with my frequent growth spurts and his disdain for all my extracurricular time spent on basketball courts.

“I just don’t get it, Clark,” he’d remind me before leaving me at the locker room entrance. “What’s so exciting about watching a ball go up and down a court?”

“You play tennis, you moron.”

“See, that’s why you need to come debate with us!” And so I made him come to one game, if I had to hear another word about the Debate Team. And he did, and he hated it, but I never cared because that’s not what made us great. When I came to school with an idea to make my phone meow like a cat whenever it got a text, he was already two steps ahead of me with the perfect place to hide it to drive our teacher insane.

That’s how it always was with Justin. The first time we met was a twenty-second whirlwind of a bad idea, as I convinced him that two people could easily fit on one bicycle, if he could keep his balance sitting on the handlebars.

“We’ll be fine, I’ve done this before.” I hadn’t. And I think he knew I hadn’t, but there was an adventurous hunger in his eye that swallowed up his trepidation. I made a show of holding the bike steady, and he turned and hopped up onto the bar. I pushed off, and began to pedal hard. The empty road to my house was about five blocks, downhill. I lived just past halfway down, but the end of the road was marked by a sharp, square cement curb. We caught the slope and accelerated. I craned my neck around the body in front of me, and panic struck. The road came at us too rapidly. All that five blocks of distance disappeared. I tried to ease the brakes into a gradual deceleration. We weren’t slowing fast enough. I saw my house fly by in periphery. I squeezed tighter on the lever, as much as I dared while still keeping my friend in his seat. The curb ahead kept coming, a ten foot wall for all its impending doom. I closed my eyes, squeezed the brakes even harder, then–

“Let’s never do that again, yeah?” I opened one eye, then the other; Justin had dismounted, safely on my front walk. I peered down at the front tire, less than an inch away from certain death. I looked up, raised my eyes to his, and we both laughed the mirth of survivors, of men who had seen their twelve years of life pass before them, and emerged in triumph.

In the seventh grade, Justin attempted to fulfill an arts credit by joining me in the choir, a choice he never made the mistake of repeating. On the first day of class he wanted out so fast, he was through the door and nearly up a flight of stairs before he realized I wasn’t following. He paused on the steps and turned to find me.

“Where are you going? Intro to Astronomy is in three-twenty-five.” He continued up the last two steps, backward, motioning with his class schedule clutched in hand.

I responded slowly, equally confused. “We… don’t have Astronomy?” The statement became a question halfway through, and we stood for a beat, staring at each other from the ends of the staircase. He dashed back down the steps and seized my schedule.

“What do you mean we don’t–History of Sherlock Holmes? I said Astronomy! Why did you switch?” He looked betrayed.

“No,” I folded my arms. “You said, ‘there’s only one interesting one’ and I agreed!” I raised my eyebrows to match his incredulous face. To this day we argue about who made the correct choice. Regardless, the class schedules were set, so we parted ways, our prides bruised more than our friendship.

A few hallways later, I walked into a small classroom. The west-facing windows beamed sunlight through the blinds, making bright columns from the floating dust. More than half the desks were still empty, so I chose my seat away from the other students. I felt abandoned by Justin and I wanted to sulk. Class wouldn’t begin for another five minutes, though, and I stopped pouting in two. So I began to fidget, twisting around in my seat to inspect my fellow classmates. The scene was typical. At the front of the room sat a few shy kids ready with fresh notebooks. Near the middle, closer to me, two girls were speaking in low tones and giggling. Behind me, at the back, a greasy haired boy had his hoodie pulled up, and when I looked at him he stared back without speaking or moving. I quickly turned away to face the door, curious to see who would be next. And that’s when she walked in.

Sorry–Allison never walked, anywhere. She bounded. She floated. She fluttered into the room, into any room she ever entered, and cast magic upon it like she had popped straight from the pages of a storybook. This, day one, she glided through the doors, armed with a nervous, infectious smile. Her lips spread wide, and her teeth had a natural sort of rhythmic symmetry met in the two front middle, which weren’t large enough to be buck, just distinct enough to be cute and approachable. Oh, that smile. I swooned for that smile. Her hair was blond, but not flawless blond, not the obnoxious gold of some self-obsessed Regina. It was a textured color, an earthy blond with shades of wheat and corn, a natural compliment to her lightly freckled face. The rest of her was slender, and springy, and the perfect way for anyone to look.

She took the seat next to mine, then turned her smile on me and said, “Hello!” like I was the first and only person she wanted to see that day. And that’s how she greeted me every day after. And every day I had no other goal in mind than to see that smile, and hear the high, loose laugh that often came with it.

If you, for some contrived reason, asked me, “what’s it like to fall in love?” I’d give you Dickinson, or Keats. It would be much easier to use their words than try to explain that I learned at thirteen years old what they wrote for the ages. I didn’t even know who they were, back then, but I knew what it was to fall in love. I knew, because it was this. It was finding excuses to talk every day. It was walking next to each other before and after class, waiting until the last possible second before parting ways. It was feeling my heart race just knowing I was about to see her. It was weeks, months of school that I remember nothing of except her.

“So, who’s the girl?” Justin’s voice snapped me out of a daydream I was enjoying, in which Allison and I were apartment searching in Manhattan. My dopey smile betrayed me.

“What girl?” I was unconvincing, but Justin was never one to pry.

“Have it your way,” he shrugged, but then pulled a blue flyer from his pocket. “Of course, whoever it is, maybe you want to ask her to the dance? Eh?” He moved his eyebrows up and down a few times, and jabbed my rib cage. Any other time, I would have hit him back. But now I was looking intently at the flyer, at the word “dance” in huge letters, at the date three weeks from then.

Justin had already changed mental tracks. “So, my house tonight? I think I know how to beat Bowser.”

“Yeah yeah, I’ll be there,” I nodded toward him but kept my eyes on the little blue paper. My thoughts were back to Allison, but this time we were holding each other, swaying, alone, in low light, to slow music. This paper, in my hands–this was my chance.

The song fades out, just as I pull up to Justin’s apartment. I step out of the car and take another deep breath of country air. He’s standing outside his door, two floors up, waving at me, cast orange in the setting sunlight. A year ago I watched him get married. Still hard to believe. I walk up the two flights of stairs and through the open door.

The entryway is empty so I call around the corner toward the small kitchen area, where the smell of pasta and an excited voice beckon me to enter. Justin and I meet at the junction with smiles and a firm hug. The ceiling is low and I have to duck under its hanging pieces. I sit at a linoleum countertop on a wooden stool.

“So who’s the girl?” Justin flashes a sly smile over a steaming pot.

“Hm? Oh,” I realize I must have had a dopey look on my face. “No girl, just… remembering the good old days, ya know?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I do know. Seems like forever ago now.” That it does. I close my eyes and enjoy the smell of alfredo sauce.

“So, Thump, where’s that wife of yours?” I use his high school nickname.

“Said she’s on her way. Had to stay late.” He sounds a bit dejected. I open my eyes, turn to him, inquiring. He tells me with some frustration about the demands of her new promotion.

I lighten the tension with a mock-disapproving cluck. “Married one year and she’s already choosing work over you.” I shake my head, an exaggerated movement, he laughs and splashes some dishwater at me.

“Big words from ‘ever a bachelor’ over here!” He emphasizes the words by skewing up his face, his usual impression of me. Before I can deliver my biting retort, the front door opens. Justin’s face brightens. “Well now, maybe you can talk to her for me!” He sticks his wooden spatula back into the pasta and walks over to greet his wife with a kiss. She drops her bag by the door and throws her arms around him.

“Talk to me about what?” She lifts from the embrace, and with a start sees me as I stand up from my seat. “Oh, Clark! I didn’t know you’d be here so early!” I offer a goofy smile and raise my hands as though I don’t know what I’m doing here either. We both laugh, and she prances over to give me a hug and a small peck on the cheek. I put my hands on her shoulders and hold her at arm’s length, to assess how much I’ve missed in the last year. Oh, that smile. She hasn’t changed a bit.

“It’s good to see you too, Allison.”

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