The silence was worse than anything. So I broke it, with the words that had been burning a hole through my brain the last hour:
“I hate you.”
I have a healthy fear of the power in a kiss, and of perfect moments. I don’t think it’s the right perspective: probably, a kiss should be just a kiss, and you move on. Otherwise, you drive yourself straight to crazy, throwing all significance at every deliberate touch. How is that fair to anyone? And you never want to find yourself at a perfect moment. After perfect, what can any other moment be? The dance always ends.*
Still more crushing quiet.
“I mean it. I hate you. I do.” A car horn, from the city street outside, the only piece of night audible through the hotel window pane. “I hate her too.”
“No, you don’t.”
The bell rang. Justin and I lithely dodged whatever last admonishments Ms. Sharpe had to fling at us as we exited her classroom, and once safely in the hall we could no longer suppress our anticipation.
“Tomorrow?” He turned to me as we continued down the quickly-filling hallway, bringing with it the garbled chatter of the entire high school. Really, he was asking me, “Are you ready?” and I only had one response for him.
“Bah!” He jumped at my nonsense exclamation, but I continued, “Bah ba-da-da-da Bah Bah ba-da-da-da,” I clapped along to my own tune, and he made a noise halfway between a snort of laughter and a groan, which only spurred me forward: “Start spreadin’ the newwwwws…” I must say, it was a spot-on Sinatra. Justin’s was less so, as he decided to join me.
“We’re leavin’ tomorrowwwwww…” It was somehow more right that his revised lyrics matched his lack of melody. We began to dance as we made way toward our lockers, loud and proud, singing our discord to the annoyance of the uninitiated.
“We’re gonna beeeee a part of it,” jazz hands! “New York! New Yo–”
“Wow, you nerds plan to do that the whole way there?” Only one voice in the world could pause my performance. I turned quickly to find her — too quick, I nearly tripped over myself — and failed like always to restrain my smile. Justin, still in possession of his vocal chords, feigned offense.
“Shouldn’t call names, Allie-cat.” He made a show of looking hurt.
“Nope. Uh uh, no way. Al-li-son. How many times are we going through this?” She shook her head, and through the enveloping cloud of her perfume (lavender?) I could see she had mustered up a bit of genuine annoyance now. I quickly reclaimed use of my voice before a real argument could break.
“You know that’s why he keeps doing it, right?” I smiled at her, she contorted her face at Justin, so I turned back to him. “Right, Thump?” I punctuated my sentence by flicking his arm, and he took the cue to snap back to reality.
“Alright, alright,” he put his hands up, “I promise I’ll never say it again. Until I forget.” His sly wink was disarming enough, and Allison rolled her eyes with a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.
“You know, Justin, you say that every time, one of these days I won’t believe you.” The two went on with some banter like that, but I had just turned to open my locker, and, upon seeing my Future Business Leaders magnet holding onto a calendar printout of the Empire State Building, mentally dived into the deep end of reverie. In one day, the team would be in New York City, New York. In one week, Allison would be my girlfriend. And somewhere, sometime, in that fantastic city, I would turn to her and say the words that had been burning a hole through my brain since middle school:
“What’s that, Clark?” Locker, hallway, students, perfume; she, again, wrenched me from my thoughts.
“Nothing! I, uh… who’s hungry?” The answer was all three of us, so we went out for french fries, Allison complaining the whole way how she now had that stupid song stuck in her head.
I stood at the window, but I wasn’t seeing anything, not the room, not my reflection in the glass, certainly not the city beyond.
“Why don’t I hate her?” Silence. I again elected to fill the quiet with my own anger. “This is your fault!”
“Sure. Doesn’t change a thing.”
New York City, park bench, skyline towering above us, two small dogs barking behind us, cold ice cream sliding down our throats, teriyaki wafting from a corner restaurant; this moment was good, but not perfect. Plus, I was to present in just under an hour, and I needed to focus.
“Clark, hey. You’re best on the team. You’ll be fine.” Allison could sense my nerves. I looked at her, at this smart, funny, gorgeous battering ram beating upon my shambled defenses, and the words nearly slipped out, of their own volition.
“Allison, I…” At that moment I had to literally bite down before my tongue betrayed me further. I took half a second for composure, then disgracefully dismounted. “…Thanks.” I couldn’t just tell her, not now. This was too important. I wouldn’t squander the chance as an afterthought of casual conversation. This needed to be a moment we could write down in a journal, a moment to preserve, to tell our grandkids as they sit in rapture around our thrice-reupholstered wingbacked chair, their eyes wide in wonder, eager ears listening to conclusive evidence of true love, destiny, and happily ever after. This was not that moment.
“But…why?” I felt it was the deserving question. The kind of thing you have the right to ask when you have wasted years chasing an impossibility that, until now, seemed within reach.
“That’s an easy one. You waited. She moved on.” At this I was angry again. This wasn’t her fault. It was his.
“I hate him.”
“No, you don’t.”
“What, so I’m only allowed to hate you?” More silence, but it was answer enough.
Allison waved for my attention from across the street, pointing with her other hand at a nearby street vendor cart. I drew a deep breath of relief (gasoline, cigarettes, food, garbage, sort of an everything-on-asphalt kind of smell), relief well-earned in my opinion after the flawless speech I just delivered, which quickly worked itself into full elation at the sight of her excited figure bobbing in anticipation of an authentic NYC hot dog. I hurried to join.
“The full New York experience, huh?” I was still smiling — from my presentation, from the city, from Allison — as I caught up to her and Justin. The latter apparently had not yet seen me, because he turned at the sound of my voice with half his dog already stuffed in his mouth. His face lifted in greeting, then quickly turned sour.
“You know,” he chewed with one side of his mouth and squeezed his words out through the other, “this is kind of a crappy hot dog.” As he rammed another bite in I covered my face to stifle a laugh.
“Uh, Thump?” I spoke through my fingers. He raised an eyebrow, unsure what my tone meant. Still suppressing laughter, joined by fits of giggling from Allison, I simply pointed over his shoulder. He turned, slowly enough for me to see the recognition wash over his face a split-second before he came fully square with the vendor himself. The man looked thoroughly unamused, hands on hips, with an unblinking expression framed by a furrowed brow and stubble-laiden frown. Justin seemed to be in some form of shock, speechless and paralyzed. Finally, after a full ten second stare-down (at which Allison and I were nearly in tears, still trying to hold back our impending roars of laughter) and in a gesture I’m positive he thought was apology enough — or maybe he was afraid the man would ask for his food back — Justin raised his right hand and stuffed the rest of his hot dog into his mouth, a feat I would have thought impossible without him unhinging his jaw first.
“I just don’t understand how this could happen.” I punched at the pillow for the hundredth time.
“Sure, you do.”
It had to be tonight. Our tiny teenage troupe made way back to the hotel, energetic and awe-struck from having just witnessed a lady named Idina Menzel blow the roof off of some broadway theater I was apparently supposed to know more about, in some new musical called Wicked I was apparently supposed to have been more excited about. I was quickly schooled. We stood in ovation at least three times throughout the performance, and back at the hotel we were all still gushing over our favorite moments, favorite songs, and that ending, wow. If I couldn’t find the courage tonight, I never would. Justin and I changed into our swim trunks, eager to join the rest of the team at the hotel pool. I took some extra time in the bathroom, wanted to make sure I looked as good as possible. Justin was not having it.
“This is how I die! Starved to death, waiting for you to put on your makeup.” He was nearly yelling, so I could hear him through the bathroom door. I was deciding whether to wear a shirt or not, and chose to ignore him, though I couldn’t help but chuckle. I heard a thud, which told me he had dismounted from the bed.
“Nope, can’t do it!” His voice got even louder as he approached the bathroom. “I would very much like to go swimming before the world ends, which might just happen before you get away from that mirror. So I’m going downstairs, and you, sir, can get ready for your closeup alone. Good day.” He finished his monologue with a flourish, dramatically throwing open the bathroom door just to freeze, hand outstretched toward the floor as if he’d just thrown his last wit at my feet. We stood a few seconds of silence, cut by both our stifled snorts as we tried to keep our faces straight. Finally, and with a purposefully visible eye-roll, I gave him what he was looking for.
“Ok, fine, I’ll catch up lat–”
“I said good day!” And he made a show of slamming the door, but was foiled by its pneumatic arm, and this broke my resolve entirely. My own giggling fits were matched by Justin’s fading laughter down the hallway, as the door gently closed with a hiss and click.
“So that’s it, then? That’s the best you can come up with? I hate you, this is all your fault, and there’s nothing we can do about it?” I was shaking, a storm of emotions raging through me, anger like lightning, flashing, ever most prominent.
“What else are you looking for?”
I decided to wear the shirt. I always decided to wear the shirt. I always hesitated first, because maybe this time I wouldn’t want to be the one guy swimming in a t-shirt, but in the end I’d look at my bone-skinny body and decide it was best covered. So I pulled my shirt back on, but then, of course, I had to re-do my hair. I didn’t really mind, though: I knew the extra few minutes would be worth it, worth getting my look just so, worth the moment I was about to make happen. I steeled myself and left the room, down the hallway, into the elevator, down to the lobby, and now following the signs and arrows toward the thickening smell of chlorine, checking my posture about five different times, whenever I passed a reflection. I rounded the last corner, opened the glass door and stepped onto the tiled pool area. The water was filled with people, friends and teammates, and a few other unfortunate hotel guests being actively overrun by the swarm of teenagers. I paused for a moment, and looked around. Allison wasn’t here. I called to the closest person I knew, then called louder so as to be heard over the constant reverberations of thirty-odd teenage voices.
“Hey, Mike, have you seen Allison?” Michael had just climbed out of the pool, and was halfway to his towel before realizing I had asked him.
“Uh, yeah, she and Justin went outside.” He pointed toward the glass door on the other side, which lead to another, smaller pool and hot tub.
“Perfect, thanks!” I smiled at him and nearly considered jumping in the water so as to cut a direct line to the door, but thought better of it and walked briskly around the edge. Perfect, I thought, as though hearing the echo of my own words, easy enough to get Justin to leave, and then It’ll be me and her, and the city lights, and… I lost my train of thought as soon as I reached the door. The fogged glass was now dripping with its own condensation, as though it were raining inside, and through the watery lens I could see two blurry figures, sitting at the edge of the hot tub, leaning in toward each other, feet touching, hands touching, arms pressed against each other, and lips. I raised my hand and wiped the glass clear, though I didn’t need to. The image of my two best friends, locked in a kiss — warm summer air surrounding, city lights reflected on the water, a perfect kiss, my perfect kiss — was unmistakable.
“He’ll be back, soon. I don’t know if I can face him.”
“Clark?” Justin opened the door, poked his head around, and only after seeing me walked the rest of the way in, his face an odd mix of crooked smile and pressed brow, relief and concern. “Hey what happened tonight? We didn’t see you. Allie and I got worried.” If ever I was to hit him, to throw him down, to scream at him, to wrench the knife from my own back and thrust it at him with all conviction, this was it. But when I saw his face, his eyes, saw the innocence behind them, the innocence with which I knew he had proceeded tonight — he meant me no harm, he didn’t know, he couldn’t know, and that was only my fault — in that second I made a decision.
“Ah, shoot, yeah, well I was headed down when, uh, Mr. Erickson caught up to me, you know how that goes, anyway he’s making me polish my speech for the finals tomorrow.” I was impressed at my own steady voice, and grateful at the apparent lack of emotional evidence in my face, because Justin immediately went from concern to commiseration.
“Ugh, you’re kidding,” he flopped down onto the mattress, “one of these days somebody needs to tell that guy where to stick it.” I forced a laugh.
“You gonna be the one?” My voice broke slightly, as I regarded with chagrin my habitual need to joke back with him.
“Not a chance.” He turned to me. “Wait, so who were you talking to, before I walked in?” I felt a rush of panic. How much did he hear? I decided for the truth.
“Just… myself.” The answer satisfied. He closed his eyes and rolled away from me, amused.
“Yeah, that sounds like you. Anyway, you’re gonna kill it tomorrow. No doubt.” And then he smiled. With clenched fists I couldn’t help but replay, on loop, the scene I knew was projecting across both our minds right now. I couldn’t take another second of this. With a final ounce of self-control I didn’t know I possessed, I walked around the bed and toward the door, and spoke quietly (otherwise I would have screamed).
“I’m out for a walk, gonna rehearse the speech a bit. Don’t wait up.” I opened the door with what I felt was a normal amount of force.
“Cool, don’t get murdered.” I could hear his words starting to slur, he was about to fall asleep. With a deep breath I proceed through the doorway. Almost clear. “Oh, and Clark?” I paused. My muscles tightened. “Remind me tomorrow, I’ve got news. Big stuff.” My vision blurred with the furious tears that were miraculously held back until now, and I rushed into the hallway, hoping he wouldn’t notice my lack of response.
“So what now?” I walked slowly through the hotel halls, unable to go outside — Mr. Erickson’s rules — but unwilling to go back to my room.
“Now, you move on.”