Ellis and Anders (again)

I wanted to stay there with him.

I wanted to sit there on that porch with him, watching the sun rise over the farm and how it came to life the second the light touched it. I wanted to hold his hand and trace circles over the back of it, memorize every inch of the fingers that had brought me so much love and pain over the last ten years. I wanted to snuggle in close to him, and feel his heartbeat under my ear, and think about all the times we hadn’t gotten to do that – because he’d walked away, or I’d walked away, or we’d been too stubborn to act on our feelings.

“Ellis?”

Anders Housden had a way of bringing me back to the present – to the place where I was supposed to be, versus where I wanted to be.

He stared at me, his green eyes inquisitive and concerned as we sat next to each other on the porch of the big house at the end of Willow Lane. It was where we’d first kissed, where we first realized that we even wanted to travel down that path together – one where I was completely his, and he was all mine. The paint was chipping on the porch, the first step creaked when we stepped on it. The screen door hung off its hinge. This place was falling apart, much like we had – like we were doing right in this very minute, all over again, our dreams too big for our hearts, for each other.

“I wanted to marry you so bad,” I finally said to him, after making him sit in silence, wondering where my mind was. “I wanted to be Ellis Housden, and I wanted you to come home to me every night, and I wanted to live out my days in this house with you and our kids and dogs and cats.”

“It’s still a possibility,” he told me. “You and me. There’s a reason we haven’t found anyone else yet, Ellie. There’s a reason we’re here.”

I considered his words, what he was saying to me and the way he said the words to me. I considered what he meant by the words – if he meant it was a possibility now or if it was a possibility down the road, if I was supposed to remain alone until he was ready to be with me, or until I was ready to be with him. Neither scenario made much sense for either of us, nor did either scenario make sense in light of all the things we’d fleshed out this weekend.

And yet they made perfect sense, which was a testament to the pull Anders had on me, how wrapped up in him I was.

Was.

Before I’d chased my dreams, before he’d chased his dreams. Before we’d ended up here, at the house at the end of Willow Lane, where we’d said good-bye six years earlier.

“Do you remember our last conversation?” I asked him, leaning back on my hands and staring out at the sunrise. “The last things we said to each other that day?”

I knew he did. If he didn’t, he was either lying, or we didn’t mean as much to each other as I originally thought.

“I remember thinking it was all a lie,” he admitted then, leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together. “I remember thinking that the only reason we were having the conversation was because we both wanted out. I needed to get away from my dad, and you needed to get away from…”

“Everything,” I finished for him. He turned to look at me, pursed his lips, and then directed his attention back to the scene before us. Birds started chirping above our heads, a nest of robins chattering away while we revisited our last encounter in this house – before we’d come here to feel and hurt and maybe, finally, let go.

“It kept us apart for too long,” he told me.

“Did it?” I asked. “Or did it finally allow us to be who we were meant to be?” I sighed. “Anders, you did so much when you left this place. You landed a modeling contract. You finally found a girl without trust issues and daddy issues and all the other issues that kept us from being happy. You landed a movie role. You did everything you wanted to do.”

“And you?” He turned his head again, his eyes full of concern and hurt and a bit of hesitation, as if he didn’t want to even ask. “Did you do everything you wanted to do?”

I thought back on the last six years – college and grad school and my PhD and my book and the movie that came from the book and the professorship and the tenure – and I nodded. “I did. I got everything I ever wanted the second I landed in Nashville. I got everything the day I started my first class, and every day since has been a dream.” I paused. “And I wished I could have shared it with you, but you didn’t want to be there any more than I wanted to be in New York.”

“You don’t know that,” he told me, finally turning around, away from the sunrise and the chirping birds to meet my eyes. “You don’t know that I didn’t want to be in Nashville.”

“I did,” I replied. “I knew it from the dwindling texts and letters and phone calls, Anders. I knew it from the pictures of you with your new girlfriend. I knew it from the smile on your face whenever you were on TV. I knew if I asked you to come to Nasvhille you would have done it, and you would have been miserable, and you would resent me, and we would break up.”

My words hung in the air between us. Miserable. Resent. Break up. They stung, but I knew they were true, that we wouldn’t have been able to weather it.

And it was better we realized it now. That was why we’d come here, after all, to acknowledge that this was broken beyond repair – to feel, to hurt, to get over it. There was no coming back from our years apart, there was too much of a gap now between his world and mine.

“If you would have asked me, I would have come,” he told me.

“And if you would have asked me, I would have come,” I said to him. “But I think the reason you didn’t was because you knew it, too, Anders. I would have been miserable, and you would have been miserable. I needed to be at Vanderbilt as much as you needed to be at NYU.”

And now we’d become those people – the ones who forged new identities at school, the ones who stopped calling their old friends, who stopped coming home because they knew their new identities didn’t mesh with their old lives.

He shoved his fingers through my hair then, and I looked at him, at his sad eyes and the way his mouth turned down at the corners just slightly. He wouldn’t cry, but he was upset. I knew him too well, I realized then, as he bit his lip and looked into my eyes. I knew every part of him still, six years and a lifetime later. He was still the quarterback who wanted to be his own person and I was still the loner foster kid who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. Those identities had allowed us to forge a connection long ago.

But our new identities – the actor and model playboy and the tenured college professor turned author – were there, too. And those worlds didn’t allow for a connection. They didn’t allow us to love each other the way we had all those years ago.

And we realized in that moment that that was what we’d come to find out.

“If I could change it all right now I would,” I told him.

“Me, too,” he responded, smiling sadly at me. “I’d forget it all right now for you.”

But he couldn’t. I couldn’t.

We couldn’t.

“Maybe we were meant for each other in another lifetime,” I told him. “One where you went to Arizona State and I enrolled at the community college and we worked at the school or your dad’s accounting firm.”

He nodded in response. “Maybe we’re still together in that alternate lifetime. Maybe right now Ellis and Anders in the alternate universe are having a conversation about their fifteen animals and three kids.”

I nodded, smiling sadly at him. I didn’t believe in those things, but Anders always did.

Maybe that was what made me love him so much – his belief in the impossible.

And maybe that was what made him love me so much – my belief in facts and figures and concrete evidence.

And maybe those things were what made this so difficult. Walking away from any old friend is hard enough, but walking away from someone who was once the love of your life?

It’s a tragedy.

I sat there for a second more before finally pushing myself up off the ground and dusting off my jeans. He sat there on the porch, watching my movements. I missed his touch already, felt cold where his fingers had been just moments before. I wondered if he missed the contact as much as I did.

And then I dismissed the thought, because I wasn’t supposed to care. I couldn’t. Our worlds didn’t allow for it.

And after this weekend, our worlds would never allow us to feel like this again.

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Ellis and Anders

Crisp autumn leaves fall to the ground as I turn onto the long, winding driveway. In the distance I see a house looming dark against the bright blue sky. If not for the leaves and the fierce winds, I’d swear it was another summer day, that I was coming here as I used to, to spend time under the willow tree with the boy who lived in the room with the best view in the house.

But it wasn’t. And I wasn’t. And we weren’t.

“Are you almost here?” I ask, passing by the old willow tree. The trunk rotting out, its branches wind-whipped and its leaves scattered on the ground. My heart breaks at the sight, at the lack of care it’s received.

But that’s really not my problem.

The person on the other end of the phone sighs. “I’m stuck in traffic. About thirty minutes away if I can get through it. I promise I’ll be there soon.”

His voice sounds tired and worn out. I can imagine him raking a hand through his long, dark hair as he says the words. I can see him worrying the corner of his mouth. I can feel him next to me, anxious to see what this house looks like now.

If only he could see.

The house at the end of Willow Lane has seen better days. Its paint is fading and chipped, its screen door hanging from the hinges. If the tree looks dead, the house looks… whatever could be worse than death.

“I’ll text you when I get there.” 

The voice on the other end of the line, the pain it brings me… that’s worse than death. Even now, six years and countless conversations later, I feel my heart break when he speaks. I want so badly to reach out to him, but I can’t — because he’s not here, of course, but also because he’s not mine.

He never really was, though.

“I’ll talk to you later,” I say, ending the call and parking my car. I step out of my car and fold my wrap tightly around me, bracing myself against the wind. I grab my bags from the backseat and make my way to the front door, finding the key under the welcome mat. Some things never change, I realize as I unlock the door. Some things will always be the same as they always were — like the key under the mat, and the ficus plant just inside the front door, and the shiny banisters.

But some things change.

Like the lights that no longer turn on, and the blinds that have collected dust over the years, and the chalkboard that used to sit on the kitchen counter — the one that used to hold messages for me, and messages for him. It’s gone, though I can at least hazard a guess as to where it went.

I drop my bags by the staircase and look around. Part of me wants to wait for him here, to explore this place together. But there’s a larger part of me that wants to take this trip down memory lane on my own — for my sanity, and my heart, and the voice in my head that’s been screaming about how bad of an idea this was in the first place. I round the staircase and take the steps two at a time, like I used to do when I came here and just wanted to get to the room at the end of the hall.

The house has seen better days, but it’s not completely dilapidated. The master bedroom is just as immaculate as it was the last time I was here. The skylight providing natural light to the room. The bed is gone, replaced by a desk and a set of weights. I try to remember every detail from the last time I was here, but my memory is only good for a limited number of things — like the significance of this room.

This is where you spilled the nail polish on the floor before prom.

I see the spot of red still on the floor, near where the bench at the foot of the bed used to be. It’s been at least eight years since that incident, but the mark is still there, a reminder that my memories from here are real.

Or as real as they could be.

I walk to the window and look down on the patio, the red bricks cracked and covered in leaves and branches. The twinkle lights are still up, though I doubt they still work.

That’s where you danced with him under the moonlight.

I recalled the memory with clarity, surprising given the gaps in my memory as to the placement of the bed, or the picnic table we had to maneuver around when we danced.

I turn around and make my way down the hall, spying the bathroom. The light in there still works. I have a sneaking suspicion someone’s been taking care of parts of this house — the parts that matter, perhaps. 

This is where you told him you loved him.

I braced myself against the memory, pulling my wool wrap tighter around my frame. For someone who’d spent most of her adolescence too afraid to feel, I’d certainly fallen in love with him quickly. My friends posited that we were destined, that he was the one I was supposed to fall in love with. I had my doubts.

Especially now.

I turn off the light in the bathroom and continue my trek down the grand hallway, recalling with clarity the times I spent here, all the memories I’d made in this house.

Like the time I cartwheeled from one end of the hall to the other, or the time we slid down the banister to the first floor — I recall the flour fight we had in the kitchen when we tried to make pancakes one day, but can’t remember where the fridge was back then, since it moved so much. I smile at some memories and frown at others, and try to remember more specifically others still. It thrills me and troubles me, the things I can still see in my mind’s eye, and the things I’ve built a wall up to over the years.

I make my way to the bedroom with the best view and see the door is ajar. When I push it open all the way, I seem to remember every single thing from my time in this place.

Our first kiss.

Our first fight.

Sneaking out the window and running down to the pond beyond the back gate.

Sneaking in the window and spending the night.

Our last conversation.

The last memory sticks out like a sore thumb even without the visual reminder. Nothing about this room has changed. I remember sitting on the bed, looking out the window, and realizing that I was nothing but a distraction. I wasn’t going anywhere in life, and he had everything ahead of him. He wanted so badly to keep me, to make our little love story work, but we were destined for disaster if I stayed.

And so I left. And I never looked back.

Until one November day, when he reached out — via email, of course, ever the stickler for formality — and asked how I’d been, and I told him I was fine. And then the following day, when he asked me to elaborate, and I tried to stick to all the surface things going on in my life. And then an hour later when he told me he knew I was holding something back, and I still resisted.

And then the following week when, after six days of silence, he made the offer: come back to the house at the end of Willow Lane, to remember, to reminisce, to talk, to listen, and to hurt — to finally feel, he said — and I accepted instantly, not thinking about what this meeting would mean.

I leaned against the doorjamb an additional few seconds, musing over the memories we’d made here, and what brought me here now, before finally turning on my heel.

And nearly having a heart attack.

“Ellis.”

His voice was just as I remembered, smooth and rough and musical — and pained, so pained. I hoped I wasn’t the cause.

Of course you were, that voice screams at me. This was a bad idea.

I can’t disagree. But I also can’t move. Or speak, apparently. I clear my throat. “Anders,” I say, my voice sounding breathy and weak and all the things it was when he was the center of my universe. I force a smile. 

“Good to see you,” he tells me.

He gives me his signature grin, running a hand through his long, dark hair, and chews on the corner of his lip. The voice in my head continues to scream about how bad of an idea this is, but I drown her out, focusing on him, on what we’re here to do.

To talk. To remember. To listen. To hurt.

And maybe, just maybe to let go.

I smile back. “You, too, Anders. You, too.”

Finley & Seb

“Finley Rhodes, as I live and breathe.”

Finley jumped, startled by the deep timbre of his voice, unsure if she’d heard a ghost or if, in fact, the one person she never wanted to see again had shown up at her art studio.

“Sebastian?” She asked, though she knew very well it was him. The voice, the hair, the smile, the rough hands, the jeans — oh, the jeans…

He didn’t outright respond to her, but the laugh he gave her was answer enough. It was the loud and boisterous sound she’d grown accustomed to over the years — first from afar, when Sebastian had no idea who she was and dated his way through the girls’ volleyball team, then up close, when he’d called to her from atop the water tower and told her how he’d liked the view.

The view was her. He liked her. The thought still thrilled her, caused her to smile involuntarily — like now, when he was standing in front of her and laughing and staring at her in awe and curiosity.

A look to which she’d grown accustomed, a look that she found comforting even now, five years out from their relationship.

“Sebastian Graham,” she said, smiling at him warmly. No matter what had happened between the two of them, he was still Seb and she was still Fin. Their paths had crossed by happenstance when they were seventeen, when life was simple, and they’d never quite disentangled from each other.

“I came here because I saw this painting at Nora’s,” he said, referring to a restaurant in town (their town, she corrected internally) to whom she’d sold a few of her paintings. “The waitress couldn’t remember the name of the artist but gave me the card for your gallery.”

He then produced a small business card, one of her very own, from the pocket of his jeans. She stepped closer and chuckled because, sure enough, it was one of the first ones she printed — without her name. So Seb truly didn’t know it was her business, her paintings, that he’d admired enough to trek to New York and track her down.

“I see that,” she replied, her voice cracking as it always did around this boy — truly, now this man — because he had a tendency to make her weak-kneed and starry-eyed and caused her mouth to dry up like the Sahara Desert in the middle of a heat wave.

“So it’s you?” He asked. “It’s you whose work I’ve been admiring?” He didn’t wait for an answer before smiling that boyish smile he always did, and laughing loudly again, that boisterous, loud laugh of his that got them in trouble when they were in high school and sneaking around — out of the house, out of class, out of school entirely.

Finley spotted her agent, Lexie, poking her head out of her office in the back, clearly disturbed, but also curious as to who was causing such a commotion in the art gallery at ten in the morning. Finley just shrugged in response, but could see the question in Lexie’s eyes, and she knew she’d be spilling it all later. Better grab wine, she reminded herself. And food. Their gab-fests were nothing without a little red wine and a lot of potato chips.

“So what can I do for you?” She asked Seb, seeing the curiosity and awe in his eyes again and wishing, not for the first time, that she could crawl inside his head and listen to his thoughts. He was still an enigma to her, a mystery, one that she could spend hours getting lost in — and did just that when they were younger and she was enamored with him and caught up in his intrigue and mystique.

“Well, I wanted to buy a painting actually,” he told her. Sebastian, for all his masculinity, was very much caught off guard by this turn of events. He’d simply liked the painting when he saw it at Nora’s, and figured a weekend in the city wouldn’t hurt. His girlfriend, Ruth, had taken off. He couldn’t blame her. He was a mess, and the cause for his anguish was standing not five feet in front of him, not doing a thing but waiting for an answer to her question. “My dad sold me the winter cabin, and I’m redecorating.”

He left out the part where Ruth had been helping him redecorate when she’d finally left, having decided she didn’t need his constant mood swings anymore. To be fair, she’d been listing all the reasons why the bear-skin rug should go; and the bear-skin rug was most definitely staying, thanks in no small part to the weekend Sebastian and Finley had spent tangled up in each other on it, forgetting the world outside or the fact that they had an expiration date that was looming over them.

The day Finley left for New York wasn’t unexpected, but that didn’t make it any less painful to let her go. Sebastian realized, though, as they stood in her studio, that it had been the best decision for her. Their small town had nothing for her, nothing to contribute to her dream of painting and opening a gallery of her own. Nonetheless, that had been the end of them, and neither of them had looked back.

Except for when they did.

“Redecorating the cabin?” Finley asked. “Out with the old and in with the new?”

“Pretty much,” Sebastian said.

“Hope you’re at least keeping a few things,” Finley told him, making her way to a corner in the back of the gallery. “That bear-skin rug has a lot of memories.” She gestured for him to follow.

Seb could only chuckle at that point, knowing that she was remembering that weekend with as much clarity as he had over the years. She’d told her parents she was staying at a friend’s house. He’d told his parents absolutely nothing, because they were too busy to care what he was doing.

Finley stopped in front of a wall of paintings, all of which she’d produced during her first year of art school. The one she’d sold to Nora’s had been a gift, but the owner, Bree Lynn, had refused, and she’d received a check the following week.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“This one,” Sebastian said, pointing to an identical painting to the one in Nora’s. It would look good on the wall in the great room, the room where he’d entertain friends and family, the occasional female companion, who would undoubtedly ask about the artist, at which point he would trip over his words and wonder how in the hell he’d turned into a teenage girl.

Truthfully, though, that was the effect Finley had on him. She had spent most of their relationship talking, willing him to open up more and wishing he’d let her in. He’d spent most of their relationship wishing that he could be more open with her, but realizing there was something holding him back. Fear, his mind whispered. You were afraid.

“I’ll get this wrapped up for you,” Finley told him, breaking him from his thoughts. She made a move to walk away but he stopped her, placing his hand on her wrist, the place he always reached for when he needed her.

“Do you want to get out of here?” He asked, unsure where this courage had come from — certainly not from him. He was scared shitless when it came to Finley Rhodes, unsure of himself, not quite clear on who he was. Away from her, he survived on his looks and false bravado; with her, though, he was a mess. He was both terrified and in awe of her.

Finley hesitated only a second, thinking over the consequences of such an action. Could she take the day off? What would that mean? Why was he asking her to go somewhere? Where had he been? How had he been? What did all of this mean?

And then she decided for once to not think through her options, to examine how she felt about this. She decided to just do it.

“Let’s go,” she said. “My coat’s in my office. I’ll meet you out front in a few.”

Seb could only nod, hoping not to convey how confused he was by her answer. The Finley he knew would never have just taken off with him.

But maybe she’d changed. The thought chilled him, wondering why she’d changed, when she’d changed.

But he didn’t have long to think.

“Ready?” Finley asked, hanging a right out of the building to meet up with him. She was covered head-to-toe in paint-splattered clothing, and yet she still looked as radiant as she did the first time he saw her at the top of the water tow.

The view from up here is great.

“Ready,” Sebastian said, taking her hand in his, like it was something he did everyday. He didn’t care, though. Today was apparently a day of courage for both of them, it seemed, Finley ditching her tendency to overthink and Sebastian finally embracing his feelings.

Finley, for her part, was calm on the outside. She was a wreck inside, though, unsure if she’d made a mistake. Thinking was her forte. It was what she did. She made lists, she pro’d and con’d everything until she came to the best conclusion. This, though, was unfamiliar territory. Sebastian had wrecked her heart years ago, and now here he was, holding her hand and walking with her down a crowded city street. What had she been thinking?

The answer was out of her grasp, in part because he was so close. All thinking went out the window when it came to this man, it seemed — like the night she climbed the water tower to take in the view, breathless but proud of herself for making such a gutsy move. Sebastian’s presence made it all the more worth it to climb to the top of the water tower — even though, as she’d realized as soon as she got up there, the view was her.

You’re even prettier up close.

“Where to?” Seb asked, unsure of his surroundings. He hadn’t exactly thought this through. That was to be expected, though. He rarely, if ever, thought things through. When they were together, Finley was the responsible one. He’d been floundering without her.

But she was here now.

“How about we go to Serendipity?” She asked. “We could get frozen hot chocolate. Have you ever had it?”

Sebastian shook his head. “Doesn’t frozen hot chocolate kind of defeat the purpose?”

Finley grinned at him. “You’re in for a treat, Seb.”

His heart warmed, hearing her call him by his old nickname. “I trust you, Fin.”

She smiled as they walked along, turning corners at the last minute before coming up on the small venue. It was one of her favorite haunts — her and the millions of other people who visited New York. She’d come here many a night her first year of school, when she missed Sebastian and didn’t know how to cope. One of the waitresses had befriended her, and she’d lived on those frozen hot chocolates until her heart had finally somewhat healed.

But with Sebastian, it was never truly over, and her heart was never really healed.

They sat at a table in the back, huddled together as people bustled in and out. “Two frozen hot chocolates,” Finley ordered when the waitress approached. Sebastian kept Finley’s hands in his as they sat at the table, and she was taken back immediately to the days when it was just them against the world. They belonged to each other, really. Sebastian was hers and she was his. But they weren’t built to last.

“There was never a happy ending for us,” she muttered as they sipped on their frozen hot chocolates.

Sebastian froze at the words. No matter how true they were, hearing them come from her mouth was a shock. He nodded sadly, unsure of what to say — if there was anything he could say, really. “Yeah,” he finally said. “I know.”

Finley bit her lip, her thoughts still reeling as she remembered all the fights they had that first year. They weren’t even together at the time and they still fought. When she came home that summer, they resolved to never speak again. Up until the last hour, they’d kept that promise.

But he was always in her head. And her heart.

“This is really good,” he told her. “I didn’t even know what to expect, but it was nothing like this.”

Finley laughed. “This is why I had to deal with the freshman fifteen. These and the burgers from Shake Shack.” She paused, looking down at her drink. “Do you want mine? I’m too full to finish.”

Sebastian had already finished his drink, and gladly welcomed Finley’s. “This is delicious. You don’t mind if I drink yours, too?”

“Have at it,” she said.

They stayed at Serendipity for an hour or so more, but never again mentioned their failed relationship.

“Where to now?” Sebastian asked. He was clinging tightly to Finley’s hand, and she was on top of the world, soaring, just with his touch.

She thought for a second before an idea came to mind. “Do you want to come over to my place? I have something to show you.”

He’d never agreed to anything faster.

Finley’s apartment was only a few blocks away, but they took a cab anyway, knowing it would be faster than the two of them, heavy with frozen hot chocolate and memories of how she and Sebastian used to be.

They took the stairs to her apartment two at a time. By the time they reached her place they were breathless, but they were once again relaxed. Finley had taken the time to really think over this situation, and Sebastian had stopped thinking about it so much. Once back in their respective roles, they found themselves in a companionable silence, filled with the happier memories of their time together.

“This is the she-wolf den,” Finley announced as she unlocked the door. It was a tinier space, but she didn’t need much outside of a place to sleep and a place to paint. She’d converted her second bedroom into a studio of sorts when she first moved in.

“She-wolf den?” Sebastian asked, amused. “You’ve got a great view, I’ll admit.”

Finley smiled. “The view from the roof is much better.”

“Is this the part where you lure me to the roof so you can throw me off as payback for how shitty I was to you?” Seb joked.

Finley rolled her eyes. “Please. If I were going to kill you I would have slipped some arsenic into your hot chocolate.”

Sebastian laughed his loud laugh again, and Finley’s heart warmed not for the first time that day. She grabbed her iPod from its charging station and gestured toward the door. “You haven’t seen New York City until you see the view from the roof.”

Seb could only follow her — happily so, he thought to himself — out the door and up the steps to the roof. Finley placed her iPod on the dock and turned it on, before joining Sebastian on the edge of the roof facing the city. They could truly see everything from there. It was a sight that warmed Finley’s heart even on the coldest days.

Even when she felt her heart breaking a little as she stood next to the man who still held it in both of his hands.

“Having fun so far?” Finley asked.

Sebastian could only nod. He wanted to say something meaningful, but all of his thoughts were mush around this girl, and the fear that once gripped him so tightly he’d lost her was back in full force. He couldn’t open up to her even now, and it killed him.

“It’s crazy,” he finally said. “This morning I was just coming to buy a painting, and now I’m standing here on the roof with you.”

Finley smiled. “This morning I was just taking inventory, and now I’m standing here on the roof with you.”

They stood in a companionable silence as they watched the city unfold before them. It was just past noon, just in time for the tourists to take over. Finley could spot the outsiders easily, with their backpacks and baseball caps and maps in hand. She’d been that unfamiliar with this place once, but now it was home.

A welcome feeling.

A song came on then that they both knew, and the duo looked at each other with knowing eyes.

“The song we lost our virginity to,” Sebastian said, his voice light.

I lost my virginity,” Finley amended. “I’m still not convinced you even had one to begin with.”

Seb could only laugh yet again, and Finley found herself transported back to the first time she heard him laugh. It was so loud, and yet everyone around her acted as though it was a normal thing, for someone to laugh so loud they made the walls vibrate. She held her hand out to Sebastian, gesturing to the square in the middle of the roof that was adorned with flowers.

“I don’t dance,” he told her honestly, but he still took her hand.

“You will,” she responded, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“This song is so stupid,” he muttered as they swayed in the middle of the square.

“And yet, we had sex to it,” Finley replied.

“To be fair, we both had fantasies of doing it to this song,” Seb reminded her. “You were the one who said it was cliche to play Nine Inch Nails.”

“And you were the one who said Boyz II Men was overplayed,” she retorted.

“So Disney it was,” Sebastian said with a chuckle.

“Not just any Disney, though,” Finley said. “Mulan.”

Sebastian tightened his grip on Finley’s waist. “And now every time I hear this song I get aroused.”

“Some day I’ll make a man out of you,” Finley whispered, gripping Sebastian’s forearms just as tightly as he gripped her.

The song ended just as quickly as it began. Finley had forgotten she’d even had it on her iPod, but of course it would play when she was with Sebastian. This was a day of happy accidents, and the song was no exception.

“Can we go to the Empire State Building?” Seb asked. “I’ve always wanted to go.”

“Of course,” Finley told him. “Let’s do it. I’ll grab my things.”

And that was the end of the discussion. Sebastian had surprised himself by even asking, and yet the ask was so off the cuff he really wasn’t. He wanted to go to the Empire State Building, sure, but it was such an out-of-towner thing to do. He was certain Finley wouldn’t go for it.

But Finley hadn’t been to the Empire State Building in ages, and it seemed fitting that they go. The site of many a doomed love story, the Empire State Building stood tall against the backdrop of the city, and the tourists flocked to it. But still, the view was fantastic, and if there was one doomed love story playing out in New York City on this day, it was Finley and Sebastian’s.

They took another cab to the Empire State Building, holding hands the entire time. Sebastian couldn’t find a reason not to hold Finley’s hand, and though Finley knew this day would ultimately break her heart, she was certain she didn’t want to be holding anyone else’s hand right now.

They paid their fee once they got there, and took the elevator to the very top. In Seb’s opinion, the view from Finley’s apartment was way better than the view from here. But that had little to do with the actual sights and more to do with the girl he was holding. He couldn’t hold her here, and it terrified him that that made him upset.

“The view from up here is fantastic,” he told her.

Finley giggled, and Seb shot her a quizzical look. She looked up at him. “Do you not remember what you said the first time you saw me? At the top of the water tower?”

The view from up here is great.

The words floated through Sebastian’s mind and he smiled, recalling now how he’d called out to her from there, how he’d invited her up to check out the sights. How breathless she was when she finally made it up, and how breathless he was when she finally made it up.

“You really were much prettier than I imagined,” he admitted.

Finley smiled at him, then snuggled herself under his arm. The wind from the observation deck wasn’t bad, but she nonetheless felt a chill, perhaps in no small part thanks to the man standing next to her.

“This day,” she mused. “I never thought I’d see you here.”

“I never thought I’d see you… ever,” Sebastian told her honestly. “We were pretty done the last time we talked.”

“We still are,” she said.

They still were. The reality came crashing down on both of them at the same time. Sebastian tried his hardest to not think about it, to live in this moment with his girl — and she was, for all intents and purposes, still very much his girl — but it was no use. What would happen when he left New York? What would happen if Finley ever came home? Where did they go from here?

“I’m supposed to be the introspective one,” Finley reminded him. “What’s got you in your head?”

“This day,” Seb said to her. “This day has been great, and I never thought I’d see you again, and I don’t know what happens to us when I leave. And I realize that is the girliest shit I’ve ever said to another person, but it’s true. I’ve got you back in my life, Fin, but what happens after today?”

Finley could only nod in response. She’d had some of those same thoughts throughout the day as well, but they were only fleeting, hypothetical. Now, though, it seemed they were even more relevant. The day would soon be winding down, their time gallivanting in the city would come to an end. And where would that leave them?

“My train leaves at eight tonight,” Sebastian told her, reading her thoughts, and knowing she was just as panicked as he was. They hadn’t seen each other since the summer after her first year of college. This chance meeting had rocked them both, and yet they both knew that it had happened for a reason.

“Let’s just see what happens,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about a label for us right now. Let’s just spend some time getting to know each other again. It’s been awhile.”

Finley let her mind settle a bit, let his words seep into her bones. He was right. It was only two now. They had time. They had time to do anything, really, like…

“Do you trust me?” She asked.

“I think we’ve already established that,” Seb told her. A smiled tugged at the corners of his mouth, and she couldn’t help but smile along with him.

“I have an idea of where we can go next,” she said, holding her hand out to him again. He took it readily following her to the elevator and taking it all the way down. They laced their fingers together as they made their way back outside, down the sidewalk. They stopped for lunch at Shake Shack, though Seb was only too happy to order a soda instead of a milkshake. From there, he followed Finley to a small strip of shops, one of which had the words TATTOO written above it in glowing lights.

“Seriously?” He asked. “We almost got them after prom and you chickened out.”

“I’m feeling a little braver now,” she admitted to him, tugging him along with her as she made her way into the tattoo parlor. “Still the same thing?” She asked him. “Initials?”

Seb hesitated for a second, awed yet again by this girl, the girl he’d fallen irrevocably in love with when he was seventeen. “Sure you’re not going to regret this?”

She shook her head. “I could never regret you.”

And it was the truth. For Finley, Seb was the end of her love story. He had been for the last five years, even if they hadn’t spoken to or seen each other for four of them. Finley loved him, and she was sure he loved her too.

And whatever happened until he left would happen, she realized. Perhaps they’d talk again after he left; perhaps this would be it. If this was going to the end of their story, then it was going to be a good one.

“Initials it is,” he said, breaking her from her thoughts.

The tattoo artist just stared at them with a bored expression as they talked fonts and whether they were doing middle initials. Ultimately, they opted to not do middle initials, but were sold on typewriter font.

It hurt, but not as badly as she anticipated. Finley held Sebastian’s hand as the needle dug into her wrist. It wasn’t excruciating, but she nonetheless enjoyed the feel of his hand in hers. When Sebastian’s turn came, he still held her hand, but he didn’t flinch, in part Finley guessed because he’d already been through this, judging by the cross she spotted on his left arm. Seb’s  grandfather had been a minister. She could only guess he got that to honor him.

The duo headed to Washington Square Park after that, spending their last few hours together with their feet in the fountain. They held hands, talked about everything under the sun (he finally told her about Ruth, and she finally admitted that there had been no one else since him) and shared even more laughs. Being together was what they both needed, though neither of them were willing to admit that. Sebastian because he was too proud, and Finley because she was too scared. Nonetheless, Finley found herself losing track of time, and she was sad when the time came to head to the gallery to get Seb’s painting, then on to the train station. Sebastian held her hand the entire cab ride to the station, but neither of them made a move to do anything more intimate than that. It was too much, too soon. They could both agree on that.

“This is me,” he said, gesturing to the platform. Finley could only nod, feeling the lump rising in her throat as they stood in the middle of the massive train station. She felt lonely already, felt Seb’s absence even though he was standing right in front of her. This relationship of theirs had been difficult, to say the least. And yet it had been worth every fight, every tear. For all the pain they’d caused each other, Finley knew they’d also brought each other love — something that had been sorely lacking in each of their lives.

But Finley also knew it was too much to ask Sebastian to move to New York, and she knew she was never going back to their town. Their town held too many memories, too much pain, and there was nothing there for her. So she did the one thing that she knew neither of them were brave enough to do.

She kissed him.

Seb was taken aback initially, unsure what was happening, why it was happening, but he quickly caught on and kissed her back. This is goodbye, he thought to himself. He held her tightly, knowing this was the last time he would do so. He loved her, and he knew she loved him, but he also knew any relationship between the two of them was doomed. She wasn’t moving back home, and he couldn’t move to the city, what with all he had going on. The stars were yet again not aligned in their favor.

And damn, did that hurt.

“There really never was a happy ending for us,” he muttered to her as he pressed his forehead against hers.

Finley could only nod, recalling the words she’d said earlier. The truth hurt so much, and yet it needed to be said. They would only hurt each other in the end, and neither of them wanted that. And then she did the one thing she swore long ago she would never do again.

“I love you,” she told him, shocking her system but warming her heart.

See, you can be brave. She nodded, acknowledging the silent voice inside her head and her heart. This would hurt, but she would be brave.

“I love you, too, Fin,” Sebastian replied. “Always will.”

“Always have,” she added, smiling at him.

Seb could do nothing more than kiss her one more time before making his way to the train. He stopped just before boarding and turned around, and Finley felt seventeen again, felt the thrill of the first time he called out to her. The memories and feelings rushed over and through her. She clung to them, clung to this memory, of the boy she loved so dearly but couldn’t have as he boarded a train and left her — this time probably for good.

“I’ll see you soon,” he mouthed to her, and she could only nod.

Finley smiled at him and nodded before turning on her heel and making her way out of the train station, far, far away from the boy who had shaken her world up nearly five years ago, and continued to do so each day since. Even when he knew the odds were stacked against them, he was willing to believe that perhaps their time would come. He was willing to tell her he’d see her again. He was willing to hope. So she would be willing to hope, too.

Because what was love without hope?

Coming Home

“What in the world… when did you get a dog?”

Piper kneels down in front of Anakin, my labradoodle, and scratches the back of his neck. He leans in to her, ducking his head in appreciation. This is his weakness: strangers who offer him affection and treat him like the little prince he is.

“Anakin,” I tell her, and she shoots me a curious look. “Because he’s so light and dark.”

My explanation sends my friend into a fit of giggles, though it’s absolutely true. My dog is light in color and dark in behavior – ruining my good towels one moment and fetching my mail the next. He’s my companion, though, and for that I am eternally grateful. He loves me without reason…

A welcome change from the last man I loved.

“I can’t believe you really did it,” Piper tells me. “You actually walked away from him. I mean, changed your number and everything.” She pauses. “Thanks for that, by the way. I tried to call and was notified by an automated response that your number was disconnected.”

I shrug. “I had to make a clean break, Pipe. Goodness knows I wasn’t going to be able to make it out any other way.”

She nods, settling on the floor with Anakin’s head on her lap. “I think he’s still scheming to get you back.”

“He can try,” I tell her, taking a seat across from her on the floor. “But it’s not going to happen.”

“It’s really over?” She asks me.

I nod, folding my knees against my chest. “It’s really over.”

Anakin sighs and rolls over on his side, his head still perched on Piper’s lap. I look out my window to the small village I call home.

Italy has been everything I never knew I needed. Living in a quiet town, away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities like Rome, allowing myself time to heal from all the things Jake and I went through — separately and together. I needed a new start, and this place fit the bill. No one knows me here but the lady at the market and the boy she sends to delivers my groceries. My anonymity is a saving grace from a world that still plasters my pictures on the front of magazines because of my connections.

Connections like the girl sitting in front of me who’s been my best friend since before we understood the significance of the term.

“Does he know you’re here?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No. No one but Hadley knows I’m here.”

“You didn’t tell Charli?” I ask.

She looks to me with an expression that tells me I already know the answer to that question. “And have her husband try to extort the information from her? I know better.”

I nod, processing the information. “Good. That’s good.”

“Is it so bad that he just wants to make sure you’re okay?” She asks me after what seems like hours of silence.

Is it? I ask myself that question at least three times a day. He’s tried to contact me to no avail. My number has changed, and the only four people with my location have been sworn to secrecy.

“Jake has never been about the just,” I say. Piper looks at me in curiosity, but I can only shake my head. “He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m okay. He doesn’t want to just make sure I’m settling in.” I take a deep breath, willing myself not to cry over this – over him – for the millionth time. “He wants to know where I am so he can make another grand gesture, fly halfway across the world and beg me to come back to him, ask me to marry him to show how serious he is. And then I go back to him, and he’ll cheat on me again, and I’m left wondering what I did wrong.”

Piper takes a moment to process this information, patting Anakin’s head as he eyes me with bored interest. He’s heard me say these exact words before – to Charli and her husband, Ben, Jake’s brother, when they’ve asked me for my location just so Jake could know I was fine. If the dog could talk he’d probably be able to recite my soliloquy at this point.

“The problem has never been about me,” I mutter, and Piper looks at me sadly. But I can only shake my head again, shaking the sadness away. “Jake… he wants to make sure I’m okay, but he also wants me back. And once he gets me back, he thinks he can do whatever and I’ll be okay with it because I love him. Which I still do, by the way.”

It’s been seven months since I left and I still feel him in my bones. I’ll probably always love him, will always feel like he’s a part of me, but I have to love me more. I have to decide that my wellbeing is more important than his desires. Too long I put him first, made him the center of my universe. And now… now it’s my turn to be the center of the universe.

“He was never going to stop,” I tell Piper, who continues to listen to me, allowing me this moment to let my emotions out – emotions I’ve left buried since the first time Jake broke my heart. “He was always going to be that guy. He either can’t or won’t change. But I can. I can finally say that I’m done with feeling this way. I can walk away, stop doing this to myself.”

Piper nods, her sad eyes welling with tears as she continues to pet the dog. Anakin stares at me with tired eyes, clearly accustomed to my outbursts. He’s heard this song and dance before, and he’ll hear it again.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize things had gotten bad again,” Piper tells me. “I thought things were fine.”

I shrug. “Jake and I were always good at faking it, putting on a show. For a long time we both believed everything was fine. But I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t. He was always going to hurt me until I stopped letting him.”

“Do you regret leaving Ian?” She asks me.

I shake my head, not even hesitating. “He wasn’t the one for me, either.”

And it’s true. He was perfect, really, but our relationship was always about being safe. I didn’t want safe – not when Jake was always lurking in the shadows. Ian didn’t want safe, either – no matter how much he claimed he did. Our relationship was one of convenience. We both knew the clock was going to run out on it.

The doorbell rings and I buzz up the boy who delivers my groceries. He looks between Piper and me when he arrives before resigning himself to the fact that my life is a mystery, taking his tip with him as he walks out the door. Piper shoots me an amused look but says nothing. We fall into one of our token companionable silences. Neither of us needs to speak. I’ve said everything I need to say and she has asked everything she needs to ask.

The sun is sitting pretty up in the sky, flooding through the window to my living room floor. The top floor is such a me thing to do – no matter how much I loathed living in the penthouse when I was younger, now it brings me peace, tranquility, a tall tower away from the rest of the world. I stare out the window at the little town. I can’t stay here forever, I know that. I’ve thought of leaving, but I’m not on a schedule to get back. I’ll go back when I’m ready. Even my mother believes this is the right step for me, staying here until I’m finally at peace.

And yet that’s a timeline I’m not sure even exists. I think again on my relationship with Jake, and how even now I can feel him so deep in my soul I don’t think I’ll ever get him out. I wasn’t one for soulmates when I was younger, but Jake changed all of that for me. He threw all my perfectly laid plans out the window when he came into my life.

And he did the same thing the day he ruined it all.

I squeeze my eyes shut once, twice, three times and try to calm my breathing, but Piper notices and is by my side in an instant, Anakin trotting along behind her to flank my other shoulder. “God, I loved him,” I whisper through my tears. I focus on the fact that I used past-tense to describe those feelings when, in fact, they are still very real. “I love him still,” I amend, but even that doesn’t calm my anxiety-ridden soul. My heart is tattered, my mind is a minefield, and it’s all because of him.

“Why did he have to do it again, Piper? Why?” I ask, feeling the sobs overtake me. My body shakes as I cry for what seems like the millionth time over this man. This man who doesn’t care, who probably never cared.

My friend has no answers, though. She would have to crawl inside his mind, a feat I was never able to accomplish in the twelve years we spent together. He kept himself hidden away from me, from our relationship, never quite able or willing to let me in.

“I don’t know,” she tells me, her voice as weak and shaky as mine. She rubs my back soothingly, and I lean into her, the way I always did when we were little and she’d comfort me when my parents were fighting and my thoughts were too loud. I take a few deep, calming breaths and try to center myself – a meditation trick I picked up on a weekend getaway with my mom in India. I find my center and focus on it, allowing peaceful thoughts into my mind. I feel peace incrementally, seeping into my bones as I curl up next to my dog and my best friend, both of whom are wrapped around me.

“Maybe I won’t ever know why Jake strayed,” I say to Piper. “Maybe I’m not supposed to. Maybe… maybe this was a lesson I had to learn.”

“Maybe,” Piper murmurs against my hair. She releases me, perhaps feeling my calm within her own bones now, too. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do: be calm, not only for myself but for my friends as well. Maybe this calm is supposed to make us all better. I know Piper could use some calm, with her wedding fast approaching and deadlines closing in on her at the label. I felt her stress the moment she walked through my door. She didn’t need a runaway best friend, but she dropped everything to come and find me.

“Maybe also… it’s just a thing,” she offers. “You had to learn eventually that he wouldn’t change, but he also had to learn that he couldn’t continue his behavior. He lost the best thing that ever happened to him – believe me, he knows that – and now he’s learned that you aren’t coming back.”

And she’s right. My heart knows that I won’t come back to him and his toxic love.

But my heart also knows that I do have to go back home. I can’t stay hidden away forever.

“So let me guess…” I begin, smirking at my friend. “You’re here to see if I’ll be back in time for the wedding.”

Piper shoves me playfully, then toys with the ring on her finger. She’s much older now than the first time she was married, to a man who swept her off her feet. She needed him at the time, she says. And now she needs Jeremiah, the man who cautiously swooped in and showed her that love could be calm and good and stay in one place – that love does not mean always being caught up in the moment.

A lesson I learned the hard way.

“You can’t stay away forever,” she tells me. “Might as well come back for the wedding.”

I know she’s right. I know wholeheartedly that staying away means Jake finally managed to break me, that he’s taken the city I love – my city – away from me, and that he’s won. I can’t let that happen for a number of reasons, chief of which is the fact that I’m not broken – at least, not as broken as I used to be.

Not as broken as he thinks I am.

“I’m not giving this place up,” I tell her. “I may need to come back here after the wedding.”

She shrugs. “Maybe we’ll all need to come back here after the wedding. You, me, Hadley, Charli, Harper. Maybe we’ll all need a breather.”

“I’m certain your husband will have an issue with that,” I remind her.

She smirks at me. “He gets it. You all come first in my life. You’re my village.”

I smile at my friend, knowing she’s telling me the same thing: that my home is the city, but my home is also her, and our friends, and my stepsister. My home is not just a place, but a state of mind, with my favorite humans by my side. Jake could show up unexpectedly anywhere in the city, which makes me nervous; but he’ll never have my best girlfriends. Because they have always had my back, even when the city didn’t.

“I’ll have to pack,” I mutter to her, and I feel her calm even more, hear her release a heavy breath in relief. “And Anakin can’t stay here. He’s coming back with us.”

“Of course he’s coming along,” she tells me. “He hasn’t met the rest of the group yet.”

I roll my eyes as I move to stand to my feet. Anakin eyes me cautiously, awaiting my next move. The last time I packed in front of him, he jumped in my suitcase and whined until he realized he was coming along. I anticipate the same reaction from him this time as well.

But he’ll be by my side. So will my friends. So will my city, to an extent – because it is also Jake’s city. He can have his parts, and I’ll have mine.

Like my village – my family, my friends, my dog. He can’t have those. They’re mine.

And I’ve got a lot more to fight for than he does.

The Final Goodbye

I hear the cab pull up outside of the apartment and brace myself. I shouldn’t be so nervous, and yet I am. I’m terrified. I’m leaving everything I’ve ever known, a life that’s been filled with love and sadness and anger and optimism and happiness.
A life that’s broken my heart too many times to count.
“You don’t have to do this,” he says to me.
I shoulder my bag, pursing my lips as I make my way to the door. This man has been by my side for twelve years now. Truly, I grew up in this relationship with him, fought with and for him and drove myself crazy for his love. I’ve walked away so many times, come back so many times, and he’s done the same – promising me each time was the last time.

But it never is.
“I do,” I finally say as I reach the door. My hand turns the knob. I hear the same creak I’ve heard since I moved in here one late summer day after ending my marriage to another man – a man who was, for all intents and purposes, perfect on paper. But he wasn’t the one for me.

And neither is the man in front of me, I’m realizing.

“I have to do this for me,” I continue. “I have to leave, Jake, because if I don’t you’re just going to do it again and again and again. And my heart can’t take it anymore.”
“I said I was sorry, Simo—”
He stops when he sees my eyes – hardened and cold and sad eyes that he’s looked into for the last twelve years off and on. He’s seen them when they’re happy, and when they’re devastated. And I’m guessing now, he’s seeing them determined and resolute for the first time.
Because it’s time for me to go. I’ve overstayed my welcome in this relationship by eleven years, promised myself that each time was the last time. But it’s never been the last time, and I’ve continued to come back, to allow him to hurt me.
What’s the saying, though? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a thousand times, and apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.

“You’ve given me everything,” Jake says. “You gave me happiness, and light, and it scares the hell out of me sometimes how wrapped up in you I am. So I got scared, and now…”
“And now it’s over, Jake,” I reply. “Because you’ve given me no reason to stay in this relationship.”
“I love you,” he tells me.
“I’m sure you do, in your own way,” I respond. “But at this point, I’ve got a million reasons to leave, and that’s enough for me.”
“What if we—”
I hold up my hand, knowing where he’s going with this, knowing that he’s got a solution for this like going away together or getting married. But the truth is, he would have married me a long time ago if he really wanted. But he didn’t, and now it’s too late.
“Take care of yourself, okay?” I tell him, kissing his cheek quickly. “My mom and stepdad will be by to get my things.” All I have on me is the bag on my shoulder. It should last me long enough until my mom ships my other things to me – wherever I am.
His jaw ticks, and I know he’s trying to keep himself in check. Crying has never been this man’s forte. Showing any sort of emotion, really, is a hard line for him. But I see it. He knows this is it. I’m off to wherever the winds take me, letting a map guide me as I make my way through the world – alone, certainly, but I’m good company, and my heart needs a rest from all of this.
The sun shines outside as I make my way to the cab, ticket in hand. My heart is in a million pieces, and my head isn’t sure where it’s at, really. I’m so blinded by my love for him, and yet I know that love is what led me to this very moment.
“Good-bye, Simi.” His words echo into the early morning. No one on our street is awake but the two of us. I kind of prefer it that way. Our neighbors have been privy to entirely too many arguments, peeking through their curtains as I’ve walked out time and time again. They don’t need to see the moment that I walk out for good. It’s not for them. It’s for me.

For us.
I open the door to my cab, turning once more to see him. He’s just as beautiful as the day we met, all lean muscle and crystal clear blue eyes, and freckles that no one else can see but me. I know him, truly, inside and out – and vice versa.
“Bye,” I tell him, my voice barely above a whisper. But he heard me. He always does – when I’ve left with every intention of staying away he’s heard me, and when I’ve come crawling back he’s heard me. This time, though, he hears the permanence.
I close the car door, leaning back against my seat. “JFK,” I tell the driver. He nods, and the car speeds away into the early New York morning. I don’t know how I’ll get over this, but I know I will. Leaving is killing me, but I can’t stop now. I have to get out of here. It’s breaking my heart to leave, but the same can be said of my relationship with Jake.
And at least this way, I have a say in how my heart gets broken.

16 Years

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When my daughter slams the door to our brownstone, I instantly know what — who — has angered her. I’d like to say it’s solely because she is my daughter, and that’s certainly part of it. I’ve watched her grow from a feisty toddler with fiery red hair and a lisp to a quirky and passionate young woman who feels everything a little too much. In truth, these are the things she and I have in common as well. I recall being her age, feeling things more deeply than my friends — the death of a celebrity, the lyrics to a song, the ending to a good book — and wondering why these things had to end, why they couldn’t go on for all eternity. I could recall the pure bliss I felt at the beginning of summer, the excitement I felt when fall came around, the giddiness of the spring when the robins started chirping, and the sadness as the daylights grew shorter and the nights stretched on.

I could recall even more clearly the person who held me close as those nights stretched on — the boy who felt those things right along with me, matched my passion with his own and made me feel less alone in a world that didn’t feel enough.

My girl has already flopped herself on her bed when I come into the room. She holds her pillow tightly to her chest. Her tears are seeping into the fabric, leaving dark tracks on light pink. She flashes her hazel eyes to me and looks away quickly. “I’m fine,” she mutters, turning her other cheek to the pillow, refusing to look my way.

I take a seat beside her on the bed, stroking her hair gently. She sobs with such fervor a part of me wants to tell her to calm down, but I know better. Experience has taught me that my daughter does not take kindly to those kinds of suggestions.

“You want to talk about it, baby girl?” I ask softly.

She heaves a sigh, refusing to meet my eyes. She’s so much like her namesake, her godmother, my best friend in the entire world. She’s stubborn and bratty and dramatic.

But she is also like her mother. She needs to talk to make sense of what is happening inside of her head. She needs to get it out, because if she doesn’t, then she’ll be like her father and let it fester until she has a meltdown over something insignificant — like a paper cut or a burnt piece of toast. I stifle the giggle at the memory of my first fight with her father, when he sliced his finger on an envelope and proceeded to yell at me for not giving him a letter opener, only to finally admit his reason for being so angry.

I shudder as the memory comes back in full, and thank my stars that my daughter is still looking in the other direction. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and watch as she props herself up on an elbow, leaning far over to her nightstand to turn on her radio. I hold my breath, waiting to see what she chooses to soothe her. That alone will give me an answer — or at least confirm my suspicions — of what has her so riled up. When Tom Petty’s voice fills the room, I release a breath I didn’t even realize I was holding.

I was right. I’d like to say it’s solely because I know my girl, but it’s also because there’s something else she and I share outside of our noses and tendency to feel things too deeply. Heartache recognizes heartache.

And misery loves company.

“He said he thinks it’s best if we just keep things low-key until after winter formal,” she says on a heavy sigh. “He does this every year.”

She doesn’t necessarily need to tell me these things. I know what’s going on in my daughter’s life. I’ve watched for the past two years as she’s thrown herself at this one boy, fallen so head over heels in love with him that she’s forgotten which way is up. Then I’ve watched him toss her aside, walk away from her, completely eviscerate her heart and her mind by saying that he needs time. Once he’s had his time, he calls — he always calls — and explains that he needs her. And she comes running.

She always comes running.

I inhale, bracing myself. “Baby, you have to stop letting him—”

“What do you even know about it, mom?” She whips her head in my direction, her eyes on fire and her cheeks red. Her anger is palpable, even as Tom Petty plays on — a voice she and I usually find soothing. “Do you even know what it’s like? To love someone so much it hurts? So much it kills you?”

Any other parent would scoff. My parents did at one point. My mother didn’t believe me when I said the words, when I tried to explain to her that he was in my bones, that losing him was like losing a part of my soul.

But I know better than to scoff, to roll my eyes, to tell my girl that she’s being dramatic. Maybe she is just being dramatic, but isn’t that the point of being a teenager? To fall deeply in love once or twice or three times? Or to love one person with so much of your being that you don’t know where you end and where they begin? I can’t fault her for feeling, not when I have had those exact feelings, have shed the same tears, bled out for someone else because I cared more about them than I did myself.

Which is why I know that now is the time to have this conversation with her. She’s barely seventeen years old, her entire world has been perfect up to this point. Her father and I have laughed and danced in the kitchen and given her something to aspire to.

But her father is not the only man who holds my heart — something he has had to come to grips with throughout the course of our relationship. He’s not done it willingly, and at times I’ve watched him war with himself, with his emotions and his head and his heart, but he always comes back to me. I love him for a billion reasons, and I love him even more for coming back to me time and again.

He saved me.

“Do you know your daddy is only the second boy I ever kissed?” I ask her. I brace myself for her reaction, but she says nothing. Her eyes are inquisitive like her father’s. Her frown line across her forehead is so much like his. She’s the best and worst parts of both of us, and I am so honored to be her mother.

“You’re, like…” she pauses, chewing her top lip, just like her dad when he’s confused. “You’re beautiful, mom. How is that even possible?”

I huff out a laugh. “Oh, Darcy, baby… looks have nothing to do with it.” I pause. Feelings hit me all at once, the same ones he used to make me feel when he walked away, when he told me he needed time to think or room to breathe. My heart squeezes instinctively, the way it used to when he was near, across a crowded room staring at me, setting my world on fire.

Darcy twists and sits up, the way her godmother used to, and huddles next to me, our knees touching. She laces her fingers through mine, and I take an inventory of us both. She’s so tiny and delicate, so full of emotions and fire. I’m calmer now, though the song playing now has sparked something within me — the way he used to, when he knew I was nearby. I take a deep breathe and study my girl’s black nail polish and the scar on her index finger from the time she tried to bake Christmas cookies and burnt it on the stove. Even the way she scars is long-lasting, a testament to the fact that she is a unique, old soul, full of so much hurt and heart that any person who meets her is instantly affected, caught in her storm.

“Mom?” She says it tentatively. She knows me so well, understands my feelings and emotions in a way that only three other people have ever understood me. She’s my daughter, of course, and we understand the intricacies of our relationship. But she is also my best friend, much like her godmother. She is me, and I am her. “You don’t have to talk about it,” she tells me, her voice soft and understanding, the way I knew it would sound when she saw the mess I became even at the memory of the boy who stole a piece of my soul and never gave it back.

“I have to talk about it, baby girl,” I tell her with a sad smile. I give her hand a reassuring squeeze. “You have to know you’re not the only one to bleed for a boy who plays on your heartstrings.”

She studies me even more intently at that, looking for the slightest hint of what I may mean. She doesn’t know, though, because I’ve never told her. The only people who know about this story are the ones who lived it — me, of course, and her father, her godmother, and the boy who started it all.

The boy who stole pieces of me, and took the ones I offered to him willingly, hoarding them and guarding them from me, refusing to give them back.

“Once upon a time I thought a boy held the answers to all of my questions,” I tell her. “I was… well, I was actually fourteen at the time, so a little younger than you.” I wet my lips. I can feel my throat trying to dry and close up, the words trying to stay bottled up within me, fearing their escape. She needs to know, my heart whispers. She needs to know so she can let go.

“What happened?” She asks.

A million memories flash through my mind at her question — memories I’ve kept buried for so long. I recall them instantly, with clarity, in this moment. I recall them the way I would recall the words to my favorite song, right down to the bridge and the way the track skips on the CD I keep in my bedroom closet. It all comes back to me as if it happened yesterday, and not…

“Sixteen years ago, I thought a boy held the answer to all of my questions,” I answer her. I feel a tear slip down my cheek and swipe it away quickly. “I was in love with a boy who didn’t love me back, and it nearly killed me. I nearly let him kill me.”

“This story doesn’t have a happy ending, does it?” She asks me. “At least, not for you and whoever it is you’re talking about.”

I stare outside her window at the city, contemplating all the roads that brought me here, all the unconventional life events that ordered my steps and my path. Would I do it all again, if it brought me here, to this moment with my daughter and the steady voice of Tom Petty fueling me?

Damn straight.

I shake my head, another tear falling down my cheek. I raise the bottom of my left pants’ leg, to the answer to her question, to the best way I can explain what I am about to tell her.

Veni vidi amavi, it reads. We came, we saw, we loved. My best friend has an identical one on her left ankle.

And so does the boy who broke my heart.

“It doesn’t,” I finally answer her, smiling sadly as I stare at the words on my ankle. “But there was never a happy ending for us.”

Ian. Axel. Artisan.

Ian

My phone rings at half past two. Her name flashes on my screen and my heart nearly bursts right out of my chest. “Hello?” I say, trying act like I didn’t just drop everything I was doing to talk to her.

“Well, it’s storming,” she announces by way of greeting.

She’s not wrong. Right on schedule, Hurricane Josefina is here. Rain is coming down in buckets outside my window. The lights flicker, bringing me back to the present — to the girl on the phone. The girl I can’t say no to.

“Yeah,” I tell her. “I think we might lose power.”

She sighs. “Yeah.” She pauses for a beat. “So, I know our therapist—”

Your therapist,” I say. “I’m not paying that woman two grand a week to shrink my brain.”

I can almost see her roll her eyes when she groans. “Dr. Foster,” she amends, her voice raising slightly. “She says we shouldn’t see each other.”

“But…” I say, trying to drag it out of her — whatever it is this request is.

“But…” She blows out a breath. In my mind’s eye I can see her running a hand through her hair. I’m astonished at how much I know about this girl in spite of her unwillingness to open up to me. “I don’t really want to be alone right now,” she finally says, as if it causes her physical pain to admit to wanting to see me. My heart lurches as it always does when it comes to this girl and her feelings — or lack thereof — for me.

That doesn’t stop me from leaping into action instinctively, though. She needs me, and for whatever reason, I can’t say no to her. I grab my keys from my dresser and make my way out of the apartment and up the stairs to her place, taking them two at a time until I reach the top floor. She lets me in before I even knock, almost as if she, too, can sense me before I arrive. The thought warms my heart as she flashes me a grateful smile.

“Quick trip?” She asks, raising an eyebrow at me.

I smirk. “It should be abundantly clear by now that I can’t say no to you.”

And that’s all it takes. Her happy grin is gone, replaced by some melancholy emotion I can’t place coupled with a smile that doesn’t meet her eyes. She sinks down to the floor, her gaze already averted there the second the words leave my mouth. I follow her lead, taking a seat on the floor next to her, resting my back against her couch. She keeps a safe distance between us, making sure not to be close enough to touch me or for me to touch her.

“I don’t want to be awful to you,” she tells me. “Please just… remember that.”

“Then don’t be,” I respond. “Don’t be awful to me if you don’t want to be.”

The solution seems simple. But this is Artisan Miller, the girl with a closet full of skeletons and a heart that’s still in pieces from the last guy she let in.

Her breaths steal me away from my thoughts. They come heavily, and I look to see she has a tear slipping down her cheek. “Every time you say shit like that, though, it just kills me,” she manages to say. She takes another deep breath and a deep gulp, trying to suppress her emotions. “I hate that you can’t say no to me, that you want me so much. I hate that I can’t do the same for you.”

I wonder for about the thousandth time what it is that he did to her, this man she only refers to as Axel — this person who seems to have stolen all of her light. She’s never told me, and I’ve never pushed, but I wonder if perhaps I should.

“Why can’t you? What did he do to you?” I finally ask. It’s not a push — more of a gentle nudge — but it’s a start, I hope. It’s something to hopefully make her want to open up to me.

The emotions that cross her face let me know that this question is one she’s heard often. That my exasperation has been mirrored in others — perhaps even other men — an endless loop of questions and frustration and sadness.

She’s silent. It’s an unexpected response. She stares out the window at the rain, at the dark sky, at our silent city. She draws her knees to her chest and bites her lip — it’s a coping mechanism of hers, I’ve come to realize. She shuts herself off from the world, doesn’t allow the world to see her pain or her tears or the devastation that’s ever-present in her soul. I watch her with sadness and aching. I long to comfort her, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to go about doing that. Rather than push her, I avert my gaze to the window as well.

“What’s your favorite song?” She asks me, breaking the silence that has descended upon us. I can’t tell how long we were silent for, but it seems as though the storm has worsened. The rain continues to pour, and is now coupled with thunder and lightning. I wonder why she stayed put, why she opted to ride out the storm. It’s not like I hadn’t done the same thing, but I’d been in New York long enough to know which storms required my evacuation, and which ones were safe enough to stay for. She was new to the city, though, had never faced nature’s wrath like this.

A small part of me wonders if she stayed because I did, too.

Her eyes are still on me, awaiting my answer. I take a second to think before answering. “Fields of Gold by Sting.”

She giggles and, though I know she’s laughing at me, the sound nonetheless warms my heart. “Sting?” She asks me. “Seriously?”

I roll my eyes, turning toward her. She’s inching ever so slowly to me, too, and I think she might be finally letting her walls down, if only marginally. “Well, okay, music snob, what’s your favorite song?”

She hesitates, and I fear for a second that I may have ruined the moment, but quickly recovers, moving closer to me. Our hands touch, and I hear her take an audible breath in, bracing herself for whatever it is she feels when her skin meets mine. I can see she’s thinking, weighing her options. Will it be fight or flight? Run? Hide? I can’t say for certain, and her eyes, as usual, hold no answers for me.

She stands, and I fear for a second she has chosen to run, but she leans over to her coffee table to grab her phone instead, and sits back down next to me. She opens up the music app and presses the screen a few times before turning up the volume as familiar chords being to play. “This one,” she says, before leaning back on her hands and closing her eyes. She lets the music envelop her, lets me absorb it, lets the words fill up this nearly empty apartment — her choosing, she says, but I think it’s got everything to do with him.

It’s an older song, one I’d heard a few years ago at a club when the band invited me to hear it. It’s not bad at all — I quite like it — but it’s not something I pegged as her taste. “This?” I ask her, a sly grin creeping up on my face. “And you judge me for Sting?”

She smiles sadly, and I know that this, too, has everything to do with him — Axel. He is everywhere when it comes to her. All the things I hate — and even the things I love — about this girl have been shaped by him. It’s honestly not surprising to me at all that this song is tied to him. Everything else about her is.

We grow silent again, and the song starts to play again. I move to pause it, but her hand stops mine, and I see her brace herself yet again, fighting against her feelings as she touches my hand. I look to her, and see she’s finally studying me for once, gauging my mood based on this confession. I try to put on a brave face, but I know I’m failing miserably. I offer her a sad smile, which seems to pacify her, and we fall back into a companionable silence as the song plays for a third, fourth, and fifth time. We are silent even when the power finally, predictably goes out, lighting candles throughout her apartment as the song plays for a sixth and seventh time, the beat of the song now lost behind the words.

“Do you want to dance?” She finally asks me when we sit back down on the floor, her apartment only illuminated by candles now that the sun has set. I look up, a question in my eyes now. Dancing at a time like this? I should be surprised, really, but nothing about this girl has surprised me since the moment I met her, really. She shrugs in response to my silent question. “I’m told it’s good for your soul.”

I stare at her for only half a second more before pulling myself up and offering my hand out to her. I see her hesitate to accept it, but she takes my hand and braces herself yet again, fighting her feelings again. She’s going to have a lot more overload to deal with, I realize, as I pull her close to me and slide my hand around her waist. She blows out a loud breath, steadying herself, then places her hand on my shoulder and her other in my free hand. Her eyes are lighter now, perhaps free of whatever guilt she initially felt about touching me, but I still see a hint of hesitation.

Rather than address the Axel-sized elephant in the room, I glide us across the floor in time to the rhythm of the song. She follows, a giggle escaping past her lips. She seems surprised by this reaction, but quickly recovers. I smirk, giving her a twirl. She giggles again, and this time it seems more natural — like she’s replacing those pieces of herself that were broken with new ones to make her whole again.

I twirl her once more before she disentangles herself from me, then throws both hands into the air and tosses her head back, her long hair fanning over her shoulders. She shakes her hips, bumping mine with one of hers. I chuckle, letting her take the lead now. When I shake my hips in time with hers, a hearty laugh escapes from her and she doesn’t hesitate, allowing happiness to sink into her bones and her skin and her soul. I smile in spite of myself as I watch this scarred, damaged, beautiful girl lose herself in the moment with me, finally letting the weight of Axel lift from off her chest.

She places both hands on my hips as the song winds down, and I see her begin to sober and fear that I’m losing her again. She shakes her head, as if reading my mind and the silent  question I was asking yet again, and laces my fingers with hers.

“I have to tell you a story.”

*******

Axl

“What song is this?”

I’m sprawled across her bed, pillow under my chin as I stare out the window as the rain falls. Just another stormy day in Emerton, another night chockfull of nightmares, and another afternoon in Artisan’s tiny house right along the river, trying to convince myself that there’s something in this world worth living for.

I wish I were brave enough to live.

“It’s something by OneRepublic,” she tells me. “My stepsister sent it to me.”

I nod absentmindedly. I’ve met Simone on only a handful of occasions, but if there’s someone who knows music, it’s her. I know that much. I close my eyes, listening to the words, letting them wash over me. I needed to hear these words. Artisan knew that.

She knows everything. She makes it all better.

I peek out from under my eyelid and see her sitting in her desk chair watching me. She never hovers, never smothers me. She just waits, ready if I need her. I always do.

I always will.

“Care to join me?” I ask, rolling over and stretching an arm out to her.

She hesitates for only a second before standing to make her way over to me. She snuggles in close to me, her hand landing on my chest, tapping out the beat of the song beneath her tiny, fragile fingers. This girl has seen so much hell, and I’ve gone and dragged her into mine, but she never questions it, never leaves. She’s much stronger than me. I should let her go, but the thought of doing that sickens me.

“I like it,” I tell her. “The song. Can we play it again?”

She nods, turning over to put it on repeat, then placing her music player on her windowsill. The loss of contact with her makes my throat constrict, but she’s back in an instant, and I recover so quickly I wonder why I was anxious in the first place.

“It’s kind of like us,” I murmur, and she shoots me a questioning gaze. “Like what we have.”

She offers me a small, tentative smile. “You think so?” I nod in response. “Well, maybe this can be our song,” she suggests.

I chuckle. “I think that’s a great idea. There’s just one problem.” I frown, and her eyes are on me quickly, her body reacting to what she thinks may be a panic attack or a flashback. God, do I love this girl and how attuned she is to me, how ready she is to fight my battles and face my demons.

“What’s the problem?” She asks me as she sits up.

I move off of her bed and kneel in front of her, lacing our fingers together. “We have to actually dance together for it to be our song.” I see relief wash over her and she smiles gratefully at me. “Them’s the rules, Miller. Besides, it’s good for your soul.” I smirk. “So, may I have this dance?”

I hold my hand out to her, and she takes it readily. “I thought you’d never ask, Mr. Fletcher.”

I wrap an arm around her waist and her hands come up to my shoulders before lacing at the base of my neck. She drags her fingernails against the nape of my neck and sways along to the song with me, neither of us caring that we aren’t moving along with the rhythm of the song. It’s a perfect moment — made even more perfect by the girl in my arms, this strong and courageous woman who loves me so much that she wakes up at midnight to check on me; who has tried every type of therapy to try and calm my anxiety; who finds music to soothe me; who slow dances with me in the middle of her bedroom and holds on tight to me because she needs me as much as I need her.

The girl who makes me want to live.

I am shocked to my core by the words, and my fingers flex against her waist. She hugs me tighter, either because she thinks I need it (I do) or because she wants to hold to me as tightly as I hold on to her. Like a life raft.

Like my own personal life raft.

“Artisan,” I finally choke out as the song plays again. She looks up at me, her eyes never judging me or pitying me, but offering me hope, and a safe haven in my own personal storms.

“Yeah?” Her voice is fire and ice all at once. It makes me want to keep going, but also makes me want to stop — right here and right now — and just lie with her.

I grab her hand and drag her outside, in the middle of the rain storm, and twirl her once, twice, and a third time. She giggles, and the sound warms my heart. This girl who has given so much for me, who has faced my battles head-on, still laughs because of me. I’ve caused her pain, but I’ve also given her happiness.

“What is it, Axel?” She asks me, the rain washing over us, washing away all of my old fears and replacing them with hope, chasing away my darkness and replacing it with light.

I hesitate for a second. My throat constricts for a half-second, the demons trying to overtake me, to make me second-guess this. But I won’t let them. Not with this girl and her light. Not today.

Not ever again.

“You…” I blow out a breath. She waits. She always waits, lets me set the pace. God, I hope she knows how much I love her; how thankful I am that she found me, that she saved me. “You make me want to live,” I finally say, and I swear I can hear her gasp over the rain.

She wraps her arms around me and holds me tight, a form of therapy we’d learned together. It’s just a hug, but it holds so much promise, so much relief. I can feel the relief pulsing through her veins. This wall we’ve breached did not come easily. This battle was hard-won. But this girl, and that song, and the moments with her have all been worth it.

She makes me want to live again.

“You saved me,” I tell her, breathing against her hair, taking in the open air and the scent of the rain and this girl — lavender and honey and rain, my new favorite scent. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “I love you, Arty. I do. I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”

The words pour out of me like a prayer, and she just accepts them, letting me talk, letting me tell her what she’s done — what flip she’s switched. I never want to live a day without her. I never want her to live a day without me. I don’t want to hurt her. I can’t hurt her. Not after what she’s done for me.

She silences me with a kiss as the rain starts to lighten up. I can hear the song still playing from the windowsill, and I smile against her lips. This girl has brought me so much, has taken on so much for me. I’ll never be able to repay her, to thank her enough. So I’ll do the one thing I know I’m capable of doing.

I’ll live for her.

*******

Artisan

“And then what happened?”

Ian is seated across from me on the floor again, his back against the couch. The glass door to my patio is against my back, cool against the heat I feel from revealing this part of my story to another human — to a man who just wants to love me and be loved in return. It’s a small request, really, but in light of what has happened to me it seems so grand a gesture. How do I explain to him what happened? How do I reveal this darkest part of me — this part of me that will forever and always be shaped by Axel Fletcher?

I purse my lips, looking down at the floor. The song is playing again for perhaps the thousandth time, ripping my heart to shreds again, reminding me of how broken and defeated I am, how Axel’s demons are still haunting me even in his absence.

Ian’s kind eyes are still on me, perhaps waiting for me to tell him some sordid story of how Axel broke my heart and left me. In a way, it’s true. He did leave me. He did break my heart. But it’s also so much more than that.

I couldn’t save him.

“Artisan?” Ian asks.

I look up at him and shrug, bracing myself to say the words I’d only said to three other people — one of whom was my therapist, who swore that none of it was my fault. That never took the guilt away, though — it didn’t take away the pain of having to remember what happened to Axel.

What happened to me.

“Axel killed himself four days later,” I finally say, and I can feel a weight simultaneously being lifted off my chest and also landing hard on my heart, reminding me again of how I failed him, how he broke me, and how in turn I was now failing and breaking Ian.

He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes tell me to go on. I’m not sure what else to say, how to explain this to him any further, but I recall once upon a time a story I told Simone when she asked me why I couldn’t love, why I couldn’t be in a relationship again, why I couldn’t open my heart to someone else.

“You know how when you’re little and your mom says if you just try this one thing she’ll never make you eat it again?” I ask. His eyes are unsure of where I’m going with this, but he stays silent, allowing me to continue. “I mean… broccoli, spinach, lima beans. It could be anything. She says if you try it, you never have to try it again.” He nods in understanding. I shrug and release a shaky breath, willing myself not to cry, and internally cursing myself as the tears fall to spite me. “I tried a relationship once. I loved someone so much it hurt.”

“And?” Ian asks, though I think he already knows the answer.

“And…” I sigh, closing my eyes and opening them, steadying myself even though I’m seated. This is what Axel still does to me, the hold that the memories of our time together still have. “And I don’t want to do it again,” I finally say.

Ian studies me for a few minutes more as the song plays yet again, gutting me, taunting me with the memories from my favorite and last memory with Axel. What did he feel in his final moments? Relief? Sadness? I couldn’t say. I would never know. I failed him, and he broke me. It was an even trade, really — except to the man sitting across from me.

The man who stands to his feet as the song plays again.

The man who kneels in front of me and places a kiss on my cheek where a batch of fresh tears have fallen.

The man who stands again, casting one longing, lonely glance in my direction, before walking out the door to my apartment and six floors down to his own.

The man who understands that Josefina isn’t the only hurricane in New York right now.