By: Liaa Kumar
“Oh my god, can you imagine?” she said, her voice full and bright, the words tumbling out in a passionate jumble. She holds her arms up against the night sky, beaming, eyes searching the stars as if she expects them to answer. She turns to me then, her eyes twinkling in the late evening light and I catch my breath. “A new adventure every single day, Mark. Now that’s the way to live.” she continues.
The warm night air hangs thick around us, and I step towards her, wrapping my arms around her torso and tucking my chin into her shoulder. And as we stand there, on the bluff, looking over the city lights twinkling softly below us, and the stars blanketing the sky above, as the smell of her strawberry shampoo tickles my nose, I could almost see the rest of our life unfolding in front of us.
I could imagine it, trudging through the Amazon jungle, swimming in the crystal blue seas of the Caribbean, backpacking through the foothills of the Himalayas and walking through the streets of Rome. I could see her dancing in Madrid, a stunning red dress swishing around her thighs, her arms thrown in the air, her hair a wonderful mess as she twirled with wild abandon. She sighs contentedly in my arms, and I smile into the crook of her neck, as the wonders and mysteries of the world swim around us.
“I’m gonna miss you,” she said suddenly and sadly, as if the thought had sneaked up on her and pricked her heart; I felt my arms stiffen around her. School was ending soon, and we were both leaving the state for college. We hadn’t talked about it much, but I know she’s the kind of person that would want a fresh start. “Yeah,” I say, caught off guard. A beat passes before I think to add, “I’ll miss you too.” I always thought we would be the kind of couple that would part ways amiably, the kind that would lay their first love story in front of their kids fondly. The kind that would break up and go on to the rest of their lives, but the voice is tangled up and the words come out strangled and strained at the edges.
I’ve thought about it, breaking it off, giving us both a headstart on the heartbreak. But everytime she looks at me, that familiar twinkle in her eye, I feel myself sinking a little deeper. I wouldn’t say I’m in love, I don’t think I’ll know if I was really in love with her until I say goodbye. That’s the thing about falling in love for the first time, you’re not entirely sure what it feels like yet. So you can’t really tell until it’s already over. But she twists gently and plants a kiss against my cheek before turning back around and leaning her head against me, and I think, for a split second of clarity, that maybe this is love.
We stood there a few more minutes, or maybe an hour, my arms wrapped tightly around her, and the entire world glittering just for us.
Eventually we started making our way to the car, stepping down the rocky path carefully in companionable silence. We emerged from the trail into an empty parking lot, sparse pools of light spilling into the dark, huddled around the scattered street lamps. I started towards the car when she tugged my arm backwards. She stood at the mouth of the trail, the trees and shadows swarming around her edges and she looked at me, her eyes somber, a rueful smile pricking the corners of her lips. She tugs my arm again, until I step towards her. The shadows fall around our shoulders, the moonlight falling across the planes of her face. Her eyes are serious as she look at me, and I resist the urge to run my fingers through my hair self consciously. Her lips are turned down slightly at the edges and I focus on them instead. They part slightly and she takes a deep breath, “I’m going to be a little selfish now,” she says.
She steps a little closer and wraps her arms around my shoulders, her head is tilted up towards me, and I curl my own hands around her back. She rests her forehead against mine, and pauses a moment before saying, “I don’t want this to end.” The words fall softly into the pocket of space between our lips, and I can’t tell if she means this night or us. The words stirs the hope tentatively flickering in my heart. “Not yet,” she finishes, closing her eyes and the space between us. She leans up to kiss me, and as she curls her hand around my neck I can feel her saying goodbye.
The hope morphs into desperation and it swarms me all at once, envelopes me in a cloud of agitated confusion and longing and I pull her closer, my hands tightening around her hips and my lips searching hers for an answer. Her fingers are running through my hair and splayed against my heart and I try to show her that I’m not ready either. That I’m starting to think I might never be.
When we finally come up for air, she pulls back slowly. She’s smiling but it’s wilted and a little bitter, she traces a finger over my lips, and sighs. It shudders through the air between us. She pulls out of my arms, that are still wrapped loosely around her and knits her fingers through mine and steps towards the parking lot. For a moment my feet feel rooted in the ground, I don’t want to take this little pocket of time into the sharp gaze of the floodlights.
Our linked arms go taut between us and she turns to look at me, waits patiently until I force myself to place my leaden feet in front of each other. We meander towards the car, as much as one can meander across a flat, empty, asphalt lot. And there’s a rising sense of dread as we get to the car. The car looms in front of us and as we get closer, ever so slowly, our fingers come apart. And there’s a moment, just before we lose touch completely that we both hold on just a second longer, before our fingers begrudgingly let go.
The drive to her house is quiet, music plays softly on the radio but we don’t talk. The silence is worn in and comfortable, and we slip into it the same way you slip into your favorite sweatshirt, or a warm bath. Her hands are knotted in her lap and she sighs every so often, but she never says anything. The car rolls to a stop at an intersection and I risk a glance at her, I catch her mid yawn and a surge of affection rushes through me. I want to reach out and curl a piece of her hair around my finger, tug on it playfully, but then the light turns green and she turns towards the window.
I think I love you. Maybe. Is that something people say to each other? I look over at her, curled up in her seat, arms tucked underneath her head, she’s fast asleep. I turn back to the road and drum my fingers on the steering wheel as my mind turns, I wonder if there’ll be a moment of clarity when I will look at her and just know, intuitively in my bones. I look at her again, her breathing is even and she looks fast asleep. I swallow, the radio is still playing and the sound of the car on the road hums pleasantly in the background.
“I love you,” I whisper, slipping the admission in between the other two sounds. The words feel easy, and they flow so naturally I can’t help but say them again. “I love you,” I whisper, a little incredulously and shake my head, a smile tugging at the edges of my lips. I drum my fingers against the steering wheel and a small giddy laugh slips through my mouth. I clamp my lips together but its too late, she shifts and slowly lifts her head.
“Hey, we’re almost there.” She nods absently and rubs a hand down her face. She pulls her legs up and folds them against the seat. She reaches for the hand resting on my lap and threads her fingers through it. “What was so funny?”, she asks. I feel the heat flush my face and hope she can’t see it in the dark, I clear my throat, “Uh, nothing. Really,” I say glancing at her, “I was just thinking about how we’re all gonna be gone in about a month. And how everything’s gonna change after that. And it’ll never be the same” I trail off as I talk. I didn’t mean to say that. Silence hangs in the air between us again, this time thick and uncomfortable.
She turns to look at me. She opens her mouth to say something, but instead draws our entwined hands towards her and plants a kiss on the back of my palm. We are silent for the rest of the ride, both of us staring thoughtfully at the dark road in front of us, loosely linked by our threadbare hands.
I pull up to her house slowly, and turn off the car. A hush descends over the car and I brush my thumb over her hand absentmindedly as I try to form the words I need to say. But just as I open my mouth, she turns to me and says, “Good night.” She says it with that same sad smile from before, the one that tugs her lips down at the edges, the one that makes me want to tuck her head underneath my chin. She closes her hand around the door handle but she waits. I open my mouth to speak, and she looks at me, watching as my mouth opens and closes before I finally form my mouth around the words, “Good night.”
She bites her lips and nods, disappointment flickers in her eyes. I’m frozen in my seat, a hapless passenger in the midst of a car crash. She opens the door and a plane of broken shards of glass scrape against my skin. I watch her climb out, I watch the moonlight pool into a halo on the crown of her head and drip onto her skin. She closes the door gently and I feel The End barreling towards me.
A sigh collapses within my body, I can’t watch her walk away. I turn the ignition, when suddenly there’s a knock at my window. She’s standing there, nervously chewing on her lips and motions for me to roll down the window. When the glass is down she leans in. “Hey. I, um, I have something to tell you.”
“Yeah?” I say. Her face is cast in shadow but that can’t hide the blush curling up her neck and onto her cheeks. “I…,” she begins, the word landing like a cinder block between us. She swallows softly and tries again, “I…,” this time the words die, sparking electricity in the air. She smiles at me ruefully, as the wind whispers through the air, brushing her hair softly. “I know,” I say. “Me too.” She sighs and smiles, shades of happy and sad coloring her face as she slowly pushes away from the window.
I watch her walk across the lawn, up towards the porch and squares of light rippling across its wooden planks. Is it love, I wonder, if you can’t say it out loud? She’s climbing up the stairs of the porch when I roll down the window, “Hey,” I call out. She turns and looks at me, squinting her eyes to make me out in the shadows of the car.
“I love you”.
The words boom through the night air, echoing against the concrete pavement and driveway, ricocheting between the stars.
[She smiles and laughs, the noise gracefully spiraling into the air, her teeth glinting in the faint light, “I know,” she calls back. A pause and then, “I have something to tell you,” she says.
“Yup,” she takes a deep breath, “but it can wait ’till tomorrow.” She smiles and lets the words hang in the air as she turns and walks inside. I shake my head, smiling and turn the ignition.
The road hums beneath me pleasantly as I think to myself, tomorrow. Tomorrow and a month left, it feels like time is trickling through my fingers. But for tonight, I can be happy with having tomorrow.]
[She smiles and laughs, the noise gracefully spiraling into the air, her teeth glinting in the faint light, “I know,” she calls back. She pauses a moment, opens her mouth before shrugging and smiling ruefully. She taps a finger against her thigh, “I’ll see you around.” She says finally, letting the words hang in the air as she turns and walks inside. I watch her go, disappear behind the oak door, flinch as it thuds decisively against its frame. “Yeah,” I say quietly, “See you around.” I roll up my window, and the word echoes pitifully around me.
I stay there, even after she’s gone, trying to balance on this knife’s edge of time for as long as possible before everything is slightly changed and inexplicably different than before.
I turn the ignition and sigh. Trying to fight the anxious premonition that time is trickling through my fingers. I relax into the rumble of the engine as it comes to life, and then the pleasant humming of the road beneath me, I turn the radio up and let the music fill up the empty spaces in the car slowly, as I drive away.]