Finley and Sebastian

Finley Rhodes sat silently at the water tower, her feet dangling over the edge as she stared down at the tiny town. It was all hers — from the vine-covered church to the new park. Once upon a time it had been his town, too.

But once upon a time she had also been his.

“You okay?”

Her friend Amelia’s voice rang out, jarring her from her thoughts. She was suddenly back at the top of the tower, no longer holding his hand as they jumped off the bridge at the edge of town, promising to always be this crazy and in love. She was sitting with her best friend. He wasn’t there.

“I’m fine,” she muttered, but she wasn’t fine. She felt the way her heart clenched as she said the words, reminding her of the dull ache that for the briefest of moments had been dormant. She rubbed her chest, sure that if she did it enough times her heart would settle. It wouldn’t be broken anymore. She just needed to remind it to keep beating.

But that was a difficult feat.

“How are you really?” Amelia asked.

Finley looked up at her friend — Amelia stood in the shadows, but she knew her friend was decked head to toe in designer brand names that most people couldn’t afford to even think about, much less buy. Her friend stepped forward, her Tori Burch flats the most noticeable because of their golden hue.

“Really, I’m fine,” Finley finally said. “Can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t be. Life is grand.”

Her voice — monotone and dull — even gave her away. She rubbed her chest again where she was sure her heart was located. It still beat, but she wasn’t sure how that was possible.

Not when the very life had been sucked out of her just eight hours before.

“We’ve been friends since before we could spell the word,” Amelia said, her perfectly manicured nails glistening under the bright light of the moon. She stretched her arm over Finley’s shoulders, hugging her friend close. “How are you, really?”

Finley didn’t know how to answer her friend without completely breaking down, sure that the slightest inkling of feelings would send her over the edge. She needed to keep herself composed, to not think about why her heart had ceased to beat wildly against her chest. She rubbed her chest again, a small shiny object catching her eye as she looked down at her chest, where she supposed her heart was lying inside, waiting to beat again.

“Do you know I met Sebastian on this tower?” Finley said, finding something she could talk about. Her memories of him hadn’t faded in the slightest. She remembered the first time she spotted him at the water tower, smirking down at her as she made her way from church to the corner store.

“The view from up here is fantastic.”

Seven words, and he’d hooked her. She found herself climbing the tower as well, breathless when she finally reached the top. But the view had been worth it — and so had her company.

“He was standing up here like he owned the place,” Finley continued. “Like he was king.”

“He kind of was,” Amelia told her.

Finley could only nod in agreement. Sebastian Graham was king of the town, the guy every other guy in town wanted to be friends with, and the guy every girl wanted to be with.

And he’d chosen her.

“He took me here the night we broke up the first time,” Finley told Amelia. Amelia felt her friend stiffen beneath her arm and instead clasped her friend’s hand tightly. Finley didn’t cry, though. “He said it was better if we just… went back to how things were. Stop driving each other crazy, stop thinking this was going to be some grand love story. He was about… six months too late though.” Finley laughed bitterly, but still she didn’t cry.

“Yeah, Fin, but he didn’t date anyone after you,” Amelia said. “He stayed here, just waiting for you to come back.”

Finley nodded in agreement. Sebastian had told her once, nearly two years after their break-up, when she was dating someone new, that he had been waiting for her. She’d yelled at him, told him she hated him, flat out screamed in his face that he was the worst person ever. Twenty days later, though, she’d ended her relationship with someone new.

But she didn’t come home.

“Do you know I saw him a few months ago?” Finley said. She finally felt her heart flutter, and she had to stop and look down at the necklace she was wearing again.

“It suits you.”

“In New York?” Amelia asked.

Finley nodded in response. “It was like, the most cliche thing in the entire world. He actually came into the studio, looking for one of my paintings that he didn’t realize was one of my paintings.”

Amelia could only laugh, knowing too well that if there were something that could bring Finley and Sebastian together again, it would be the universe, and it would be in the most obvious way.

A tear pricked at the corner of her eye and Finley hesitated. You can do this, a small voice inside her head reminded her. She could do this. She could relive that night. She could have relived that night a million more times and never tire of it.

“He was as dumbfounded as I was. Of all the gin joints, you know?” She peeked at Amelia in her peripheral, who could only nod in response.

“He laughed, you know,” Finley continued. “He looked me and burst into that loud, boisterous laugh of his. My agent actually had to walk out of her office to see what was going on. She thought someone was dying.” She paused. “No, it was just Sebastian, and that laugh of his that got us in trouble in high school.”

Six months she had been with him, toward the end of their senior year. But it had been long enough for him to engrave his fingerprints all over her — from her heart to her mind to places no other man had touched since him. His voice was one that would constantly haunt her — in her dreams and when she was awake. On more than one occasion she swore she’d heard him, but had just been her imagination playing tricks on her. For the briefest of moments she swore he’d been a mirage that day in the studio, until he’d laughed.

Amelia sat with her friend, listening to all the things Finley said aloud, and the things she left unspoken. Their hands sat clasped between them. Amelia was certain her dress was getting dirty, but for the moment she didn’t care. Finley needed her now more than ever.

“It was truly the best day,” Finley finally said, and Amelia perked up, focusing her attention on her friend. Finley rubbed at her chest again, unsure if the fluttering she’d felt earlier had been a figment of her imagination. It still hurt. But it was still beating, determined to continue fighting even when she didn’t want to.

“What did you do?” Amelia asked, equal parts trying not to pry while also wondering what could possibly have happened to make her friend so distraught at this moment.

A tear spilled down her cheek and Finley knew that this story would be her undoing. And yet it was the one she wanted most to tell. Everyone knew how she met Sebastian, when he’d called to her from atop the water tower. Everyone knew how she’d fallen in love with him in spite of her better judgment warning her not to get mixed up with the playboy extraordinaire. Everyone knew how she’d run from their town to get away from him and the promise he’d made to wait for her.

But no one knew this story — the last time they were truly happy. The last time she saw him alive.

“Everything,” Finley said, and she felt the lump rise to her throat. It hadn’t been there moments before, popping up to surprise her as she told her saddest story.

“We got frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity,” she said, remembering how Sebastian had been so hesitant to even try it, then ended up drinking the whole thing.

“This is delicious. You don’t mind if I drink it?”

She didn’t mind.

“We went to the roof of my apartment building and danced,” she said, remembering how she’d taken him by the hand and dragged him to the edge of the building nearest night club that blasted music until the wee morning hours.

“I don’t dance.”

But he’d danced with her anyway, laughing with her and twirling her around their small dance space.

“And we got tattoos,” she muttered, feeling her voice crack under the pressure of all the memories that had suddenly flooded her.

Amelia raised an eyebrow at her friend, feeling not for the first time as though she were somehow intruding. She had to remind herself, though, that Sebastian was not there. It was just Amelia and Finley. Sebastian’s absence, though, was everywhere.

Finley raised the sleeve of her up to her wrist, revealing the initials S.G.

“Sure you’re not going to regret this?”

She could never regret him. “He got my initials on his wrist,” she explained to Amelia, but the fair-haired girl needed no explanation from her friend. Some things didn’t need an explanation. Over the years, she’d learned that Sebastian and Finley were one of those things.

“We went to the very top of the Empire State Building.” Finley felt her heart lurch at the memory, reminding her that it was still there. It ached so much to remember how she felt standing at the top of the tall building, looking out at the city. She rubbed her chest, willing the pain away.

“The view from up here is fantastic.”

She reminded him of what he’d said the first time he saw her, and he laughed out loud, his voice carrying out all around them.

It all came crashing down on her then, all of the memories of that night, and she heard a bone-chilling cry, felt it envelope her as she sat at the top of the water tower with her best friend. Amelia pulled her friend in close and held her as tightly as possible. She’d read once that compression sometimes worked on animals when they were anxious; perhaps it could help the dark-haired girl sitting next to her in a shirt that was much too big for her and jeans that looked like they hadn’t been washed in a week. Amelia had seen Finley in clothes like this before, but her attire paired with her cries told Amelia that this was different. Long gone was the southern belle who paraded around in pearls and her nicest dresses. This new girl, with paint-splattered pants and the sweatshirt of the boy she loved had taken her place.

Finley composed herself long enough to catch a breath, and her heart ached again. She rubbed her chest, looking down again at the necklace as the moon caught it and made it shine under its light.

“He got this out of one of those lame claw games,” Finley said, looking down at the cheaply made necklace that she hadn’t had the heart to take off since he gave it to her.

“It suits you.”

His words still rang in her head. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself not to cry as she closed out this story — the saddest story she’d ever told.

“He gave me the necklace,” Finley said, composing herself, trying to catch her breath. “And before I knew what was happening, it was time for him to go. The sun was coming up. We’d stayed awake all night in the city that never sleeps, doing things I never thought I’d do with anyone, never even imagined I would have the chance of doing with him.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

He’d said the words so easily, with a smile that lit up his freckled face and made his blue eyes dance. He’d looked every bit the red-haired boy she met one January night at the top of the water tower.

“I’ll see you soon.”

But he didn’t.

She hadn’t been expecting a phone call from her best friend. She and Amelia had a standing Tuesday phone date where they chatted and filled one another in on their lives. Every month Amelia would come to New York City, knowing too well how Finley felt about coming back to their town. But on a Thursday morning, Amelia had received the worst possible news, and knew better than to let anyone else tell her best friend what had happened to the boy she loved.

GRAHAM DIES A HERO

The headline had been enough to make her sick, his death being exploited by the gossip mill who ran the local newspaper. But as ill as it made her, it was also true. Sebastian had always been the knight in shining armor. His father owned everything in their town, ran the local government (had been mayor for the last decade), and had made his own fair share of enemies. And one of those enemies had started a fire in the vine-covered church where Sebastian’s grandfather preached, and Sebastian was determined to get everyone out — his own welfare be damned.

Finley and Amelia both directed their attention to the church, vines still covering its south wall where the flames hadn’t touched it. Caution tape had joined the vines in wrapping around the church. Finley felt fresh tears spill down her cheeks as she stared at the lone cross at the entrance to the church. The white cross paled against the charred black front door of the church, much the same way Sebastian used to stand out in a crowd to her.

“I don’t know what to do now,” Finley said.

It was the first time she’d said the words aloud. Her mother and father had peppered her with questions, hovering the second she’d come back to town. Amelia had hovered as well, but knew better than to pester her friend. Their friendship had lasted as long as they’d been alive, it felt like, and Amelia understood Finley’s need for solitude.

Until she didn’t need that solitude anymore, as she sat at the water tower, looking out over the town that had once been theirs.

“You don’t need to know,” Amelia said. “Don’t pressure yourself to get your life in order right this second. It’s not the time.”

Finley could only nod. Amelia knew her better than most, she could acknowledge that fact. The only person who knew her better than Amelia was long gone, a memory now, but one that she knew she’d carry with her long after she left town again, never to return.

She grasped tightly to the necklace Sebastian had given her. She closed her eyes and leaned into her best friend, who in turn wrapped an arm around her. She clung tightly to one memory that she hadn’t shared with her friend, one that she’d wanted to keep as hers alone — hers and Sebastian’s.

As they’d stood at the train station waiting for his train to come in, Sebastian had laced his fingers through hers. They stood in a comfortable silence, both finally feeling the effects of an all-nighter crashing down on them. Sebastian yawned, and in turn Finley had as well. She smiled as she thought of the way they tried to cover their fatigue.

“Get home. I can catch my train back on my own.”

But she stayed until it came, holding tightly to his hand, wondering why she’d run from her hometown, from the man standing next to her, when all he’d ever wanted to do was love her.

And before she knew what she was doing, she’d kissed him, feeling her defenses falling down around her, pooling at her feet. She clung to his shoulders as he kissed her back, feelings she’d long buried coming alive again as they stood in the train station.

It was over before it began, his lips leaving hers first. She felt the absence the instant it happened, the very second he’d pulled away. He’d smiled, though, and kissed her quickly once more before boarding his train.

“I’ll see you soon.”

He’d said it with such confidence, such happiness that she felt herself getting caught up in it, too, even as he was walking away from her, creating a distance she desperately wanted to bridge. Even then, he still loved her, still waited. A love that powerful could surely survive a thing like death.

She was sure of it.

“What are you thinking about?” Amelia asked her, breaking her from her reverie.

Finley could only shrug. Her thoughts were focused solely on seeing Sebastian again, on how much their love could take. She pursed her lips as the sun climbed a little higher, and looped her arm through Amelia’s.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

Amelia nodded, pushing herself up and following her friend to the ladder-like steps that led to the ground. Finley stopped a moment, taking off her necklace as she neared the steps. She hooked the necklace to the first rung.

“He should get to see the sunrise, too,” she explained.

Amelia accepted her friend’s explanation, following her down the steps to the ground.

At the top of the water tower, the necklace sparkled in the sun, almost dancing beneath its light.

ten.

Dear Mom,

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.

I don’t say this to be morbid (no need to call the suicide hotline).  Rather, I say this in a reflective sort of way.  To the unsaved masses, death is such a permanent sort of thing.  You’re gone.  You’re done.  You might get to come back as a ghost who haunts your friends and pulls some pranks or, if you’re in a Hallmark movie, you get to set your exboyfriend up with the girl of his dreams.  But outside of that bubble, you don’t get to see your loved ones again.  That’s the end of the story — death is permanent to those who have no hope.

And, for a long time, I was one of those.  I admit it freely, and openly.  I thought for the longest time that you were just gone.  I  wouldn’t get to hear your voice again or see your face.  That night in April 2007 was the end of it all.  It was the end of your story.

Oh, me of little faith.

I wrestled a lot with God over the last decade.  It’s so weird saying that, isn’t it?  I haven’t seen you in a decade.  When I was little, ten years seemed like such a long time.  Even back then, when you first left us, it seemed like a long time.  Like forever, really.  Another lifetime entirely.  Like that song — you know, the one I listen to every year.  In the song, it’s four years, but no matter the span of time it will always feel like another world… a lifetime ago.

But I’m getting sidetracked.  You know how easily that happens to me.  My thoughts are scattered.  I have so many of them, so many things I want to say and feelings I want to communicate.  It’s easy to lose track of them all — especially lately, when it seems like I’m happy one minute and sad the next.  I think that’s a side effect of your absence, though — one that rears its ugly head around this time every year.  And it’s been ten years of feeling like this.

Ten years.  Forever.

For a time, I questioned God’s providence.  His sovereignty over the situation.  I wondered what good it did me to serve Him when all it got me was heartache, when He’d taken you from me.  But of course, that did me no good either.  Who am I to question Him?  Who am I to second-guess the same God who saved me when I was little, and you prayed in spite of the odds that were stacked against me — and, later on, the same God you clung to when you knew that the end was near?

The short answer is… I’m no one.  In this grand scheme of things, this life that I have been given, this universe that I inhabit, I am no one.  I am a speck.  You were a speck, too.  Not to me, of course.  To me, you were the center of the universe.  You were mom, the healer of boo-boos and the ever-knowledgeable boy whisperer.  But in this grand universe, you were a speck.

A speck that God needed more than I did.

I suppose that’s why I’m writing this, mom.  Not to reminisce — though I’ve done that on more than one occasion lately, remembering you with Christa and Betty and MomMom, and talking to Artie about you — but to let you know that I know.  I know you’re not gone. I know you’re still alive.  You’re just not alive here.  I may never know why He needed you more than I did, but I know that He had His reasons.  And I know that those reasons, mysterious as they may be, are okay.

Because I’m okay.

I say this about once a year (the 15th of every April, to be precise) but this year, I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it’s been ten years, or maybe it’s just finally true, but I’m okay.  I miss you more than I could ever fully articulate.  My heart aches knowing that you won’t be there on my wedding day, and won’t be around to meet your grandbabies, whenever I get around to having them… but in that heartache, I’m okay.  Not because of my new workout regimen or the fact that I stopped drinking (though I suppose that did help things), but because I finally realized that holding onto my heartache was what was making me not okay.  God told me one day that I just needed to give it to him… so that’s what I did.  And ever since then, I’ve been… okay.

Even when I’m at my lowest, when I’m crying my eyes out and I feel like the tears will never cease, I know I’m going to be okay.  Because my heartache is with Him.  And you are with Him.  And you don’t hurt anymore.  You aren’t waking up in the middle of the night wondering when it will finally all be over, or scooting closer to me so that you can warm your feet, or wondering where you are because you’ve forgotten again.  You’re okay (for lack of a better word), and you have been for ten years now.

So… I guess that’s really the point of this letter.  This last letter, I think — because I can talk to you any time I want, really, and though I love a good letter as much as the next person, I think you’re a little busy up there.  The point is that I’m okay.  And the reason I’m okay is because you’re okay.  And the reason you’re okay is because you didn’t really die.  Yes, you left your earthly body — the one that was riddled with cancer and aches and scars — but you, the fiercest, bravest woman I ever knew, you’re still you.  You’re alive.  You’re just not alive here.  And there’s a hope in that, a peace that I have in knowing that I’m going to get to see you again one day.

It hasn’t been easy getting here — as I’m sure you know — but this road that I’ve traveled… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  You’ve sent me songs over the years that have helped me to cope in losing you.  You’ve sent me people who have loved me so fiercely that it almost felt like you were still here with me.  You’ve whispered in my ear, and shown up in my dreams when I needed you most.  And I thank God every day that He let me see you when I needed you most.  But I finally got to the point that I was meant to get to all along.  I finally came to terms with what happened to you, and stopped questioning it.

Because I think the thing I was supposed to learn from this was not that you died, not that you suffered, not that you had cancer.  I think what I was supposed to learn was that when life and God hand you lemons, you make the best damn lemonade you can.  You have a luau for Valentine’s Day.  You climb on the back of your brother’s motorcycle and flip off the camera.  You tell your niece’s annoying friend that she’s really annoying.

You love your daughter with everything you have and tell her that everything’s going to be okay.  And though it may take some time, she believes you.  Because the beauty of life is not in how many friends we have or how much money we make.  It’s not in our earthly accomplishments.

It’s in how we live, and how we continue to live even after we leave this earth.  And I have no doubt that that’s exactly what you’re doing today, ten years after you had to leave me.  Ten years after you had to tell us good-bye.  Ten years after you took your last breath here.

You lived.  You didn’t get to do it here, with me and MomMom and Honey and Artie.  But you lived, in a new body without scars and pain and cancer.  And that, more than anything, is the best lesson I could have learned over these last ten years.

I suppose I’ll let you go now.  I’m sure you’ve got some more pink dolphins and pink moons to send us.  I’m sure you’ve got your hands full with all sorts of activities, with Easter this weekend.  I imagine Easter in Heaven is another affair entirely.  But I just had to let you know, mama, that I get it now.  I understand it — I mean, I don’t… but I do.  As much as I can.  And I’m okay.  And you’re okay.  You didn’t leave us forever.  The door didn’t shut on your story.  It opened.  You didn’t die.

You lived.

I love you so, so much.  I’ll see you again.

 

Ashley

 

say you won’t let go

When you looked over your shoulder

For a moment I forget that I’m older

She dances when she thinks I’m not looking.  It’s like there’s a beat in her head that no one else can hear.  I watch her smile to herself, her hair cascading over her shoulders even as she throws her hands up in the air, shaking her head.  Her dark hair is everywhere, a shock against her pale skin.

But she doesn’t care.

I think back to that first morning when we met.  I thought she was just an angry kid.  I still consider her a kid, still think of her as something of a china doll — breakable and frail.  I have to remind myself of what she’s been through — remind myself that she’s been through hell, and withstood her fair share of adversaries.  She’s not a doll.  She’s a woman.  She’s a true force.

She’s a hurricane.

“Whatcha thinking?”

I look up at her.  She smirks and shakes her hips, throwing her head back and giggling.  She holds her hands out to me, and I take them.

I would follow her anywhere.

The thought occurs to me then that I really have followed her anywhere.  I have gone to the ends of the earth for this girl — this woman.  I have uprooted my entire existence to follow her.  And she has done the same for me.  We’ve sacrificed so much — more than we surely thought we ever would sacrifice for another person.

But it was those sacrifices that brought us closer to one another.  It was those sacrifices that brought us here.  It’s been two years.  Surely at this point no one is looking for us anymore.  If they are, they’d never find us.  We’ve been kept safely hidden, away from the rest of the world.

Just how we always wanted it.

I’m so in love with you

And I hope you know

Darling your love is more than worth its weight in gold

I turn the music down and slow our rhythm.  “Do you remember the day we met?”  I ask the question already knowing what she’ll say, how she’ll react.

She blushes and bites her lip, running a hand nervously through her hair.  “It was the best morning of my life,” she says.  “You were so mad.”

“You were so obnoxious,” I tell her.

She shrugs, lacing our fingers together as we stand in the kitchen of our two bedroom apartment.  She meets my eyes and smiles, her cheeks still stained pink.

“I was trying to come off mature,” she admits.  “I kind of had a thing for you even then.”

“You barely knew me,” I say.  I say this every time we talk about that first time we met, now five years beyond us.  And every time she says the same thing.

“I knew I loved you then,” she says with a toss of her hair.  She reaches over and turns the music back up, taking my hands and whisking me across the floor.  I follow her lead, as always, and breathe her in when she pulls me close.  She still smells of coconut and honey, a combination of her shampoo and her lotion.  She reminds me of a warm summer’s day.

She reminds me of forever.

“There was a point to my question,” I tell her as the song plays out.  She pauses the next song and stares at me expectantly.  She always looks at me as if I hold the answers to every single one of her questions.  It both excites me and scares me.  I’m so scared of disappointing her, of making her leave.

But I know she’d never leave.  And neither will I.

I’m gonna love you ’til

My lungs give out

“I loved you then, too,” I tell her, shoving my hands in my pocket.  I feel the velvet under my fingertips and take a deep breath.  It’s now or never, Jude

I’ve been prepping myself for days, wondering just when I’d have the nerve to ask her.  It made the most sense to do it today — on the anniversary of the day we met.  I wouldn’t kiss her for another four months, and even then, it would take two months after that for her to wear me down.  From there, it would be hell trying to make it work.

We’d walked through hell together.  And here we were, finally, on the other side.

“And I know… I know I say a lot of the wrong things,” I continue.  “I do the wrong things sometimes, too—“

“Jude, it’s not about what you do,” she tells me, interrupting me as she always does.  “It’s about how you make me feel.  You… you understand me.  All of my quirks and my oddities.  You don’t care.  You—“

“Love you so very much, Shiloh,” I say, taking her left hand in mine.  “And if you could stop interrupting me for ten minutes, I would like to ask you to spend the rest of your life with me.”

I show her the box, and she grabs it out of my hands to open it.  Her eyes widen and she smiles.  “Will you put it on?”  She asks me, holding out her hand.  She places the velvet box back in my hand, her brown eyes sparkling.  I see her hands are shaking, but it’s not nerves.

“Can I take this as a yes?”  I ask her, sliding the ring onto her finger.

She wraps her arms around me, hugging me close to her.  “You can take this as a hell yes, Fischer.”

I don’t have a response, a retort, a quip to throw back at her.  She’s just agreed to be mine forever.  Even in my wildest dreams, I never thought it would be possible.

“You know you’re never getting rid of me now, right?”  She asks me as she tangles her fingers in my hair.  I tighten my grip on her and chuckle.  I feel her chest rumble against mine as she giggles, and I lean back to meet her eyes.

“Good,” I say.  “Because I have no intention of doing that… ever.”

‘Cause now it’s just you and me ’til we’re gray and old

Just say you won’t let go

devin

I think about him a lot.

I go on a date, or I have a disastrous experience with a member of the opposite sex, or I hear my friends talking about how in love they are with their significant other, and my mind wanders.

It was around this time last year that Devin and I started talking again.  I’m not naïve enough to think I was the only girl on his mind, nor am I foolish enough to think that his intentions were completely honorable.  This is not a means to speak ill of him.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Devin and I had one of those relationships where we didn’t know what we wanted from one another, but we knew we wanted to be together – and talk to other people in case this fell through (which it always, always, always did).

But I think about him… all the time.  I think about where we’d be if he were still here, what we’d be doing if I hadn’t been so stubborn that day and just gone to see him like I wanted.  I was proud, though, and I knew in my heart of hearts that if I went to see him, I’d fall all over again.  He would be it for me, which wasn’t a bad idea; but I wasn’t ready to be someone’s forever.

But my goodness do I wish sometimes that he could have been mine.  I wish that it were his lips on mine again, and not someone else’s.  I wish it were him texting me a ‘sweet dreams’ or ‘good morning dear.’  I wish I could snuggle up with him and watch some obscure movie on Netflix and talk to him about my newest book idea.  My heart aches with this desire, this wish that will never come to fruition.

There’s a song that says “I never thought we’d have a last kiss.”  I listen to it a lot these days, thinking about how completely and utterly topsy-turvy my life has been since June, since I found out he was gone.  I never thought it would be the end of us.  I really thought that eventually we’d settle down, or at least make peace and stop messing with one another’s heads.  But I certainly never thought the last time was the last time, that I wouldn’t be able to call him one day, or kiss him again.

But alas, here I am, sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee and a tear-stained face, thinking about that day, about our conversation, and all the things we did and said.  How he kissed me, and I listened to Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down” on the way home and didn’t stop smiling for the next few weeks.  I’m thinking about how a few weeks after that we fought, and how a few months after that… he was gone.  I’m thinking about how all these events happened so slowly, and yet how it all seems like a whirlwind since I got the text from my friend that he was gone, how she eased me into it – asking about work and my book, and then, finally, reluctantly, telling me that the boy I loved was gone.

I know that he’s not going to magically appear and ask me to write my name on his “Hello, my name is…” tattoo on his chest.  I know he’s gone, and eventually I’m going to have to move on with my life and stop using him as my excuse for not getting back out there.  No one is ever going to measure up to him; but I can’t measure people to him for the rest of my life.  He wouldn’t want that (or maybe he would want me to just pine for him the rest of my life – it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility or the Devin I knew).  No one will ever measure up, because he was Devin and he was a force of nature all on his own.  I still remember how he kissed me on my 28th birthday as we stood under a big light in the parking lot of a bar in Martinsburg.  I remember how he asked me to go out after, and how I continually rebuffed him, and then one day decided it would be fun to edit my book while he watched a movie.  And I remember that that was the last time I kissed him, sitting in his room with my laptop in my lap, having just played him the song that inspired my book.

Maybe one day I’ll stop comparing the men in my life to him.  I’ll stop thinking about how he would have kissed me differently, or held my hand, or told me something else.  I’ll stop wondering what he would have said in a given situation.  Maybe one day I’ll get past this (though in the interest of full disclosure I am not confident in this statement).

But in the interim, maybe I’ll just sit here and contemplate the words to that song, and how completely appropriate they are for the boy I wish could be mine.

Ellis and Asher

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.”

“But he—“

“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.

“What happened?”

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.

it’s not easy breaking your heart

“It certainly wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”

The room was small, and it smelled awful – like a campfire, so smoky.  I coughed, trying to clear my lungs and my nose of the smell, but it was no use.  I would smell like burnt wood for days.

I stared out the window at the town that was once ours – all lit up with twinkle lights for the yearly end of summer festival.  We were Anders and Ellis, two of Marnie’s worst cases.  We were madly in love, so blissed out on one another that the world outside didn’t exist.  We thought we were invincible, thought nothing could touch us.

“We were just two dumb kids.”

No one ever thought we’d make it out of this town alive, and now here we were: standing in an old dusty room in the back of the old church finally talking about what broke us, what made us no longer invincible, what finally touched us.

I stared at the boy I once loved, now a man who I still loved more than words could describe.  So much had changed about him – his once lanky frame now muscled and bulky – and yet so much hadn’t changed – his black hair still pulled back from his face, his corkscrew curls looking more like dreads because they were so thick.  He was still Anders.  He was still that boy, but he’d grown.  And I was still Ellis.

But I’d grown too.

He sat down on the floor, stretching his legs in front of him.  “We’re going to be here awhile,” he said to me, patting the space next to him.

I stared at the door that had shut and locked behind us and sighed.  I folded my arms over my chest.  “I’d rather stand.”

“Still the same Ellis.”

“Still the same Anders.”

He rolled his eyes at me and directed his attention to the scene outside.  The town was deserted, and neither of us had the presence of mind to bring our phones with us to the room that held the sparklers for the Firefly Ceremony.  We really weren’t getting out of here.  I could have relented and been nice to him.

But I really was still the same Ellis.

“It wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”

“You said that already,” I told him.

“I thought it needed to be said again,” he responded, his voice low and husky, that same timbre that used to sing me to sleep when we were on opposite ends of the continent, exploring our respective dreams – dreams that we’d eventually achieved.

Dreams that eventually broke us.

“We were two dumb kids.”

“You said that already,” he told me, his voice mocking, issuing a challenge.

“I thought it needed to be said again,” I told him, arching an eyebrow at him.

He smirked.  I smirked.  He looked at me.  I looked at him.  It was a game of ‘blink’ and I was going to win.

He blinked.

I won.

He shook his head.  “You could look for the sparklers while you’re up there.”

“You could have looked for the sparklers before you sat down.”

“Are you going to try and clap back at me every time I speak?”

“Are you going to try and tell me what I should be doing?”  I asked.  “You lost that right a long time ago.”

“I thought I apologized for that,” he said, running his hand over the back of his neck, refusing to look me in the eye.

“You said it wasn’t easy breaking my heart, Anders,” I told him. “That’s not an apology.  It’s an explanation.”

“What do you want me to say, Ellis?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing.” A pause.  “I’m going to look for the sparklers.”

I stepped over him, making my way to the filing cabinet in the corner.  I had no idea what purpose it served, since it had no drawers.  There was a box at the bottom, and I squatted down to look inside.  It was filled with boxes of sparklers.

“That was fast,” I said.

“Find them?”

He was so close, his voice enveloping me.  I stopped, frozen in place.  He was right behind me, but he was all over me.  He was suddenly in everything again, the same way he was in high school, when I was just a girl madly in love with a boy who was just as broken as me.

“Ye—“ I cleared my throat.  “Yeah,” I said.  I took a deep breath and stood slowly.  I turned, holding out the box of sparklers to him.  “Right here.”

“Right,” he said, studying me.  His eyes bore into me, that same icy blue that I could get lost in.  He took the box from me and looked away, ending whatever moment we’d been having.  He walked away from me and I took a deep breath, hoping to rid myself of whatever feelings I was having, but all I got was smoky burnt wood.

I preferred the smell of him.

“I’m sorry.”

I looked at him, his back to me as he stared out at the town, the bright light of the moon drenching him in white.

I leaned against the wall.  “For?”

He turned, and that was the first time I saw it – regret, or hurt, or some combination of the two.  It was a new look on him, the boy with the stiff upper lip and the man with the Cheshire cat grin.  He looked down, inhaling a shaky breath.

I pushed myself off the wall and tentatively took a step towards him.  He looked up.  “Elle?”

“What are you sorry for?” I asked again.

He hesitated, looking between me and the door behind me, still locked, still taunting us, making us share this cramped, suffocating space.  I cast a glance behind me at the door, then looked at him again.  He took a step forward, and so did I.  I took a step forward, and so did he.  It was a dance of sorts, but neither of us knew the steps.

“What are you sorry for?”

“Everything,” he said then, and he closed the distance between us and melded his lips to mine.

So many memories flashed through my head.  I saw us kissing for the first time in this very spot when we were just fourteen – two scared kids who didn’t know the first thing about love.  I saw us sitting on the bench outside of the church holding hands and talking about the future.  I saw us saying good-bye at the airport, all tears and blotched faces, promising we’d love each other forever.

And I saw him saying good-bye to me, late one night on a sidewalk in New York City, telling me that our lives were too different, and that he couldn’t love me the way I needed to be loved.

I pushed him away, taking several deep breaths.  All I could smell was the smoke from the charred wall from the fire that I’d started when I was twelve and my mom left home again, left me wondering if anyone would ever love me enough not to leave me.  It had been over a decade and they still hadn’t replaced that wall, likely wanting it to serve as a bitter reminder for me that I was a screwed up person with a screwed up life.

“I can’t,” I finally said, my heart thumping in my ears.  I closed my eyes, tried to silence it, tried to calm myself down, but it was no use.

“I’m so—“

“Hey!”

We jumped apart then as Darcy threw the door to the room open.  “You guys like, disappeared, and…” She stopped, looking between us.  “What happened?”

I froze again, unsure what to say, how to explain what really happened here, in this room that held so much of my own story.  Did I tell her?  She was my best friend, she knew about my story with Anders.  She knew everything about us.

Which told me she wouldn’t react well if I told her what had happened just two minutes before she’d opened the door.

“We came in here to look for sparklers,” Anders said, his voice booming, so loud that I flinched.  “Forgot our phones out there, the door got stuck so we’ve been waiting for someone to realize we were gone.”

“Oh, we noticed,” Tyson said as he poked his head inside the room.

Here we were again: Marnie’s kids.  The ones who’d made it, made something of ourselves.  The silence was deafening – her absence again falling over us like a heavy blanket.  I was suffocating.

“We should get out of here,” I finally said.  I pointed to the box under the window sill.  “Sparklers are there.  They’re too heavy.  I can’t carry them.”

“I’ll get them,” Anders said, his voice dismissive, detached again.  I recognized it from the night he walked away.

“Let’s go Ellis,” Darcy said, holding her hand out to me.  I took it willingly and followed her, grabbing my phone off of the pew at the front as we made our way outside.  The town was still lit up, all twinkly and calm – a stark contrast to the room I’d just been in.

“Hey.”

Darcy and I stopped outside of the church as Anders and Tyson caught up to us.  “I need to talk to Ellis.”

Darcy looked between the two of us, presumably looking for approval from me.  I shrugged, but secretly hoped she’d stay.

“Alright, Tyson, let’s give these two a minute.”  Darcy looped her arm through Tyson’s and dragged him to the gazebo where people were finally gathering.  I watched them twirl around in the middle of the street, still the same two carefree souls I’d met on a cold April day when Marnie took me in.

I felt my heart lurch at the thought of her, at the thought of that day, when I first met Anders, too, and how much had changed in the ten years since.

“I’m sorry.”

I bristled at the words, finally looking up at Anders.  “What are you sorry for, Anders?  And don’t give me that ‘everything’ nonsense again.  Tell me, specifically, what you are apologizing for.”

He stared out at the gazebo, at our adopted siblings still dancing in the middle of the street, at the town as they gathered underneath the twinkle lights, at the big bright moon above us.  I looked out at all of it with him, waiting for his response, sure he’d write me off again, try and get a pass with a vague answer.

He took a deep breath, and I waited.  I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

“For not loving you,” he said, finally.  “For not telling you sooner that I didn’t love you.”

His words, when he finally spoke them, cut me to the core, made me wish I’d never asked him to explain.  They cut me so deep that I could feel them in my soul, right in my heart, slashing it to pieces the same way he did that night.

“For breaking your heart.”

And I felt my heart break all over again.

honoring the fallen

What have I given,
Bold sailor on the sea,
In earth or heaven,
That you should die for me?

What can I give,
O soldier, leal and brave,
Long as I live,
To pay the life you gave?

What tithe or part
Can I return to thee,
O stricken heart,
That thou shouldst break for me?

The wind of Death
For you has slain life’s flowers,
It withereth
(God grant) all weeds in ours.

F.W. Bourdillon

 

I have not always understood the true purpose of Memorial Day.  That is not to say that I take for granted the purpose of this holiday; rather, I was one who wished people a “Happy Memorial Day” and thanked veterans for their service.  And that is not to say that I am not thankful; rather, I was missing the point – Memorial Day is for the fallen, those who we must remember, those whose memory we must keep alive, even though they are not.

And yet my mind still goes to the living – those soldiers who came home from war alive.  I’ve always heard that war changes you, and I do not take those words lightly.  I’ve met countless veterans over the years whose families say that the way they are now is not the way they’ve always been.  I’ve met veterans themselves who have said that the wars they fought changed them on the outside and the inside.

I wholly agree that Memorial Day is for the fallen, and do not wish to debate this.  But I would also submit to you that perhaps Memorial Day is also for the living who did not come back in one piece.  Perhaps they left an arm or a leg on foreign soil; or perhaps they left a happy and carefree person, and have come back unsure, scared, and feeling alone.  No matter the change, there is a piece of that person that was left on the battlefield.  There is a piece of that person missing, a piece of that person has died.

I will spend this day reflecting as I always have – honoring the fallen, thanking them silently for their sacrifice, and bearing a sadness I cannot describe that it is only one day a year we have set aside to do this.  I will reflect on poems as that one above, thankful for the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their life so that I can sit here and write this.

And yet a part of me will also mourn those who are still living, those who have lost pieces of themselves – physical and mental pieces – to wars that they fought on my behalf.  I will silently thank those brave souls as well for doing what I could never do.  I will silently mourn the losses they have suffered.  Because Memorial Day is for the fallen, and yet the fallen are not all deceased.

The fallen is the veteran who can’t go to a fireworks show because the sound is too much for him to bear.  The fallen is the veteran who lost an arm because they encountered a roadside bomb.  The fallen is the veteran who shoots straight up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and tears, because the nightmares are just so real.  The fallen is the (more than) 22 veterans a day who end their lives because they no longer see hope in their situations.

I will remember all of our nation’s fallen, and continue to be grateful for the sacrifices they made.  I will reflect on the love these men and women had for their country – a love so great they were willing to die.  This holiday, for me, will always be about honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice; but this year, I will also remember those who have made various other sacrifices, lost parts of themselves, and have been completely and utterly changed by the wars they fought.

With a heavy, and grateful, heart.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.