I stared out at the sunset across the open field, the orange ball of fire making its descent beneath the horizon. I used to love watching the sunset as a kid, sitting on the back porch with Marnie and Darcy until the sky grew dark.
“Reminds me of when we were kids.”
I nodded at my companion as he said the words. He wrapped an arm around my shoulder like he did when we were kids, when I was new at the house and scared of my new siblings, when I was a scared little kid who didn’t know what was going on in my life.
Tyson was always there.
“Marnie used to tell me that was her favorite picture in the entire world,” I said to him, resting my head on his broad shoulder.
Tyson was always good at the comforting part.
“So are you going to say it, or am I?”
I looked to him then, and saw the questions in his eyes. He wanted to know everything, my entire life story, or at least what I’d been doing since I left. Namely, he wanted to know about the man I’d brought along with me.
I got lost somewhere between my first year out of Marnie’s and my first year in college. He was my English Lit professor, and then my mentor, and as the days turned into weeks turned into months, he became my boyfriend – or something like that.
He didn’t like labels, and told me as much the first time he kissed me outside of the ballet. I was drawn to him instantly, though – to his worldliness and his salt and pepper hair and his positively crystal clear blue eyes. He took me on a new kind of journey, one away from my tortured past and into a new future.
And when I announced that I was going home for Marnie’s funeral, he was there at the airport with me, arranging for a TA to take over his class for the next two weeks while I booked our seats and made sure he had a window seat near the front because he hated being at the back of the plane.
I understood him – all of his little ticks and nuances, and he… well, he got me.
At least, what I would show him.
“It’s complicated,” I said to Tyson, watching as he and Darcy attempted to set up a net for night volleyball. She would get tangled in the strings, and I could see the vein in his forehead pop out, his telltale sign of being frustrated. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, and though my friend was no fool, she did tend to be a little too ditzy. He was losing his patience.
I knew everything about him, and we had more or less moved in together, but we were still a strictly “no labels” couple, two peas in separate pods, individuals who happened to spend time with one another on more than one night a week.
“Asher,” I called out, standing up from my seat on the back porch. He looked to me, pleading for me to come help him with his eyes.
“I got this, Ellis!” Darcy called out. “We just can’t find the… oh! There’s the stake!”
My friend tied one string to the stake, and placed it in the ground. Asher rolled his eyes, unnoticeable to everyone but me.
“He’s a little impatient, isn’t he?”
Or so I thought.
“He’s just a perfectionist,” I said, taking a seat next to Tyson. “Our place is immaculate. He even has his books organized by the Dewey Decimal System.”
“Sounds like a drag.”
My breath caught in my throat upon hearing the familiar voice. He jumped off the porch from the top step and ran out to help Asher and Darcy, not giving me a second look. He took the net from Asher, and pointed to the box of spotlights. Asher picked up the box, seemingly relieved at being taken off net duty. I watched him, his dress shirt perfectly pressed and buttoned. He was out of place in his Italian leather shoes and designer jeans, but he took it all in stride.
“He’s not wrong,” Tyson told me.
I shrugged, watching him place the spotlights at different corners of the makeshift court we’d put together. “You don’t know him like I know him.”
Tyson waited, allowing me to continue speaking, knowing I had more to say.
“He put me back together,” I explained. “After leaving home, and Anders, and the book… he made it all make sense again. He made me make sense again.”
“He doesn’t even call you his girlfriend,” Tyson stated matter-of-factly. “He says you’re his companion.”
“I am,” I said.
We were silent, watching Anders and Darcy set up the net, and Asher place the spotlights on the ground. He winked at me as he placed the last one, before reporting to Anders for his next task.
“He’s old enough to be your dad,” Tyson pointed out.
“He’s mature,” I countered.
“He hates us.”
“He’s just impatient.”
“Is he wearing Italian leather?”
“He likes nice things.”
“He doesn’t even call you his girlfriend,” Tyson said again, his tone of voice changing, fighting me.
I opened my mouth to respond, to come up with a retort, but there was none. I had nothing.
He didn’t even call me his girlfriend.
“What happened to you, Ellis?” Tyson asked me.
I ran a hand through my hair – my perfectly groomed hair with my perfectly manicured fingernails – and blew out a breath. There was no answer I could give him that wouldn’t hurt, no words I could offer that would make him understand. All I could give him was the truth.
So I did.
“After Anders left it felt like I couldn’t breathe,” I said. “Asher… he put me back together.”
“He doesn’t call me his girlfriend,” I interjected. “And I realize how problematic that is. It hurts sometimes. I live with the man and he refuses to call me his girlfriend. I’m his companion, like I’m supposed to tend to his every need or something.”
I watched as Anders found the volleyball and hit it over the net to Asher. He returned it easily, and Darcy jumped in and hit it back. He returned it.
He was outnumbered, and he was even handling that with ease.
I knew the answer. I didn’t want to tell him, but I had to.
“He happened,” I said, my eyes on Anders as he hit the ball back over the net to Asher. He jumped, his shirt rising to show a sliver of skin. I felt the heat rising to my face, felt my heart rate increase.
Five years later, and he still got to me.
“He broke my heart into a million pieces, Tyson. And I didn’t think I’d ever breathe again, and then one day I did, and it was because of Asher. Maybe he doesn’t call me his girlfriend. Maybe he needs everything to be perfect and cleans the apartment every day because he can’t stand dirt, but he pieced me back together, and sometimes loving someone means putting up with the parts of them you can’t stand.”
I stared out at the field, at Asher and Anders and Darcy as they played, hoping to have put an end to the conversation. I heard Tyson clear his throat beside me, finally silenced.
Only he wasn’t.
“And he’s said he loves you?”
And finally, I didn’t have an answer.