“So,” Gervassi started, like he had gotten accustomed to doing every morning, “How did you sleep?”
“Like a shot duck.” Afra was just waking up. She still hadn’t gotten used to the early mornings school required. Luckily, her morning usually started with a call from Gervassi, and that was always a delightful way to wake up. It was almost better than the sunset. “And you?” She wished they were in the same room again. She wished that with all her sleep trodden heart. “How did you sleep?”
“Um, well, my roommate had a mini party and his guests are apparently really into tuna casserole and, well, bike horns.” He didn’t elaborate. Afra could piece things together herself. “They were a loud group and I didn’t get a lot of sleep.” Gervassi yawned to punctuate his sentence.
“Oh, your bed wasn’t comfortable enough to sleep through that riveting excitement?”
Gervassi, in his apartment, smiled. He ate another bite of his cereal and rested his chin in his hands, folded like a classic Little Lord Fauntelroy. His hair was orange and he wore a silver bracelet around his wrist, but other than that he looked the same as when Afra had met him on the bus to their hiking trip. Afra enjoyed watching him, even from afar. Was it safe to say she had become enthralled by this person? Yes, it was. Gervassi thought likewise, and told her this often.
“No, I’d much rather sleep in a box.”
“Me too.” Afra wanted to run her hands through his hair. She liked it so much she couldn’t help wanting it all to herself; her hands were drawn to Gervassi even through the phone screen. “I miss you.”
She was sitting on the bleachers above her school’s gymnasium and her best friend, Muzical, was bringing her a breakfast burrito. Afra always managed to catch Gervassi in the mornings before he headed off to work and she scuttled off to her daily regimen of classes.
Gervassi unfolded his hands and pressed a palm against the screen of his phone. He knew it was silly, he knew his roommate was laughing at him, and he knew he would have been easily cast in a Hallmark film any day now, but he missed Afra too. “We need our boxes ASAP.” A pan of tuna dropped to the floor from the kitchen. “I miss you too. And I miss Tim Gunn, even though I’ve never met him.”
“Tim Gunn is your number one fan. Actually, Muzical is probably your number one fan.”
Afra shook her head, “No, I’m not a fan. I don’t follow your every step. I don’t worship the ground you walk on. I don’t blindly support whatever you do. I walk beside you.” She laughed. “At least, I try to! It is hard when you’re in Florida, though.”
“Hey, yeah, I was actually thinking of that, and I think I found a way we can head out of our respective towns for a while and meet up for a bit. Maybe a week. I’d hope for longer, but I don’t know your school schedule.”
“We have about two weeks off in a month.”
“That works.” Gervassi knew Afra couldn’t see, but he was shaking his cereal bowl for good luck. He wanted to take Afra to see his friends at their cabin in Colorado for a while. He wanted her to bring her friends. He wanted their worlds, at least a part of them, to collide. “I have some money saved up for a group trip that was planned awhile ago with some old classmates of mine in Colorado if you’d like to come with us? There’s no service in the mountains.”
“And you can’t sleep or eat without talking to me everyday?”
Gervassi couldn’t eat most of the time anyway, but he didn’t tell Afra he wasn’t doing so well. He wanted to be a healthier eater, he honestly did, but old habits die hard, and this one was particularly stubborn to kill. “That’s right. I want you to meet my friends.”
“Oh, there’s other people involved?” Afra stuck out her tongue. “Yuck. I don’t like other people. I like you, and I like Tim Gunn, and I like Muzical and that’s it.”
“No, that’s a lie. You liked the tutu lady.”
“You liked the tutu lady!”
“Hanna was a very nice woman, yes.”
“Hmm.” Afra looked up and saw Muzical walking her way with burritos in each hand. “Hanna was a very attractive ballet dancer with candy in her purse.”
“I did not accept those caramels, though, did I? And I didn’t use her phone or buy a tutu. That was all before we were even dating.”
Afra only had a few more minutes on her morning before her classes started. “You know you loved me from the minute I accosted you on that bus, Liberace.”
“I do know that, and I do love you.” After weeks and weeks of saying this, Gervassi was more familiar with the feel of those words against his teeth; I do love you, than most other words in the English language. “So could you come with me to Colorado? To that cabin? There would be other girls.” He didn’t mention he had “dated” one of them for over two years from grades seven to nine because honestly, what even counted in those grades?
What he had done with Eleanor couldn’t even be considered that. Kissing Afra? An art form all of its own. Talking to Eleanor was placid and Afra was the sunset. The soft tap of rain could never compare to the roaring silence of a sunset, and that was why Gervassi knew he loved Afra, never Eleanor.
“I guess I could try to, but my parents almost already killed me after my last get away. It’s not like in the movies and books where the high schoolers can constantly be wherever the heck they feel like being.”
“What if Muz went with you?” Gervassi knew Muzical was on her way up the bleachers by the loud stomping and sound of bells that followed the girl wherever she went. She wore these giant, perpetually ringing earrings that made it impossible to miss her.
“What if Muz did what?” She sat down beside Afra, handed her a burrito, and took the phone with both hands. “What do you need?”
“How do you feel about Colorado?”
Two weeks later, Afra and Muzical stepped out of Muzical’s car and stared up at the cabin in front of them. It was made of logs and looked immensely sturdy. Afra didn’t care about the cabin, though, she wanted to see Gervassi and his cute teeth and she wanted to crawl into the nearest refrigerator box with him and never climb out again. She wanted to return to a fire and sit too close to him and listen to crickets chirp and ask too many random questions. Gervassi was already headed out to meet her. He thought he would have been more nervous to see her in person after so many weeks of online contact, but as he stood to go greet her (and Muzical, but mostly Afra) he felt more at ease than he had been in a while. The group trip had been planned since before Gervassi was admitted to the commune, so his previous school friends had never heard the real reason for his sudden excusal from school.
He walked outside the cabin and when Afra saw him, she up and flew to the porch. Muzical walked past them and into the living room, where she would meet her new best friend replacements, since Afra would presumably be busy.
“Well, hi.” Gervassi’s hands drifted to Afra’s and they barely held fingertips as they took each other in. “Hi.”
“Colorado is kind of beautiful. I love it already.” Afra peeked around the bend of the cabin and saw the large window, with several curious eyes watching her and Gervassi’s reunion. She waved Muzical away and turned back to Gervassi. “But, is there anywhere we could go catch up?”
“Is catching up a code for something else?”
“I don’t know, some things are just up to interpretation.”
“Good thing, then, that I was acing my art appreciation classes when I was still in school.” He wrapped an arm around Afra’s waist, marveling at how nice girls smelled, and debated whether they should go inside and introduce Afra to his friends or just get in the car and drive to the nearest natural park. “Do you want to go meet my friends?”
“Not really, but Muzical would be mad if I just left her here with no warning. She did drive sixteen hours to get here, so I have to give her some credit.”
“Oh, okay. I guess that makes sense. We’ll be fast, though.”
“Yeah, cause I have a list of questions for you and if we don’t start tonight we’ll never get through them all.”
They walked inside and the friends all cheered, except for Eleanor. She waved and gave a tight little smile with her thin lips. She wasn’t too thrilled that Gervassi had brought a new girlfriend with him on their camping trip; the one that they had been planning since sixth grade even before they were dating. Eleanor was obviously not moved on, even though she was attending the trip to Colorado with her boyfriend Triscin.
“Hi, guys, I’m Afra.”
Gervassi pulled her closer and made direct eye contact with Eleanor, just a friendly reminder that what was done was done. She had Triscin, he had Afra, and that was that. There was no history in need of repeating. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“Like we need that clarified.” A tall, blond guy wearing a 90’s sweater smiled wide. “You guys get any closer and you’d be fused together.”
“And that would obviously be a bad thing.” Eleanor piped up, her voice veering on the edge of anger but still staying close enough to friendly sarcasm to be safe.
“So, we’re going to head out for a while. Maybe get a snack. Do you guys want anything to eat? Or drink?”
The blond boy in the sweater, his name was Ander, cracked his knuckles and yawned. “I want goldfish.”
“I’ll get some beef jerky if that’s available.” Muzical said, and everyone else in the room gasped. Eleanor, Triscan, Ander, and two of the other people in the cabin were vegans and they did not approve of beef jerky at all.
“I don’t know if there’s any around, but we’ll look for some. We’re going to Walmart, probably.”
“But if we don’t come straight back you can keep yourselves busy. We have important business to attend to.” Afra pulled the list of questions from her pocket. “Questions to answer, first of all. I have a list for you guys too. Maybe you’ll bond better than you thought.” She handed Muzical a list of carefully curated questions. “Okay,” she moved back to Gervassi, “We can go now.”
And go, they most certainly did.
Afra and Gervassi had found their element. They were sitting in the Walmart parking lot sixteen miles away from their cabin, and listening to Liberace, and they had already been shopping. They were on question number eight of the list Afra had written up.
“Who is someone you wished you had a better relationship with?”
Gervassi smoothed his orange (think carnival orange, not Donald Trump orange) hair with one hand and ran his thumb across Afra’s cheekbones with his other. He didn’t want to answer the question. He wanted Afra to draw cats up and down his arms. He knew, though, that this time he had with her was not to be wasted with frivolous cats, that having the conversation they were having would only deepen the spark fire connection they had already made. “I wish I had a better relationship with my food, with my dad, with Maggie, with Hanna the tutu lady,” he caught Afra glaring and him and grinned, “I’m kidding about Hanna. I don’t want a better relationship with her. But food, and my dad and Maggie, that’s true.”
“Maggie, she’s your therapist, right?”
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve told her about you. You’ve probably come up in my conversations more than a lot of things including my family. Like, my mom and dad.”
“Why did you stop eating?”
Gervassi stopped his hands, both of them, from hair smoothing and cheekbone running. “That’s a really forward question.”
“Your girlfriend, if you haven’t noticed yet, is a very forward person. I’ve waited this long to ask. You’ve waited this long to tell me and I can see you don’t eat as much as you should now, either. I’m always eating when you call me but you?” Afra lightly stared at Gervassi, “Baby, you are never eating. I want you to be strong for both of us.”
“I can’t just stop dealing with this, Afra. It’s like you and the compulsive lying, except mine can kill me. My organs could shut down. I’ve been in hospitals before. That’s, um,” he looked down and his still hands and then across the car at Afra, “That’s what the commune really was for. Eating disorders. Orthorexia. Bulimia. Binge eating. Pica, I guess, too, was one. And there was a girl who had a rumination disorder. That was a bad one.”
“And there was you.”
“There was me, too. I guess you already know the name.”
“It doesn’t matter what it's called, if it’s something you have to go through I want to help you. Tell Maggie I want to help you.”
“You already are helping me, but like we said before, this isn’t a John Green novel. Our illnesses can’t be solved just because we’re in love, or because we found someone who wants to help and understand us for who we are outside of our labels. Real life doesn’t work that way.” Gervassi wanted Afra to answer the question, but she had gone quiet. She was thinking.
“That’s what the name is. For what I got diagnosed with, or whatever. Yeah. The lying. Isn’t it a pretty name for something so terrible?” Afra blinked and realized she had been crying. Gervassi pulled her into his lap and she buried her face. “I don’t mean to do it. But the story with Klavdi and Svalda? It was so much better in my head than just two runaways. I believed for a minute that yeah, I wasn’t Afra the liar and bad daughter, I was Svalda the amazing spy who was doing everything she could for her country’s safety. And I wanted to make someone else believe that too.”
“We’ve both come so far from where we started. Even when I met you, I was feeling so much better. I could breathe again. I wasn’t on the verge of failing organs. I could stand to look at MacDonald’s in the window without wanting to die. Best of all I could look in my mirror and see someone I wanted to be. And you, you are doing so well.”
“I started the group sessions, like Maggie recommended you tell me might help. And it does. It’s nice. Maybe I wish I had a better relationship with reality, I guess.” Afra climbed back into her chair. “Next question?”
Gervassi shook his head. “No, we’ve had quite enough soul searching for one night.”
“Gee, I wonder what we could do now.”
“Do you have markers? I hear some kid named Afra is really great at drawing cats on random guys arms.”
“You make me sound like I’m three years old.” Afra loved that she and Gervassi could slip between conversations; between crying and whispering secrets to an almost empty car, to laughing and flirting and being free to do those things without feeling the pressure to be better than they were. “But, luckily, I am a prepared kid. Here is my marker.” She pulled it out of her coat pocket and grabbed Gervassi’s arm. “Cat or something else?”
He shrugged. “Surprise me.”
Afra drew a sunflower, colored the petals in with a second marker she found on the dashboard, and then they headed back to the cabin, wrapped up in the silence only the best kind of friends get to share.
When they got back, finally, most everyone else had already retired and went to bed. Gervassi had been planning on staying in the hammock on the porch when he was younger, but now Afra was here and that didn’t seem as comfortable. “I think we should find a box.”
“We’ve always said we’d choose a box over a mattress, so let’s find a box. A giant one. One from a trash pile. And I’ll sleep in one corner and you sleep in the other corner and we’ll be co existing while we dream.”
“How can you make cardboard sound so appealing?”
“I don’t know. It could be my hair. Or my teeth. Or my tea gray eyes.”
“Just being you is good, Gervassi.”
“Wow, no Liberace?”
“I know, I know, what a milestone.”
They found a box in the neighbor’s garage, which was open because they had been fumigating ladybugs all week, and in addition to that they had gotten a set of enormous lampshades. Much to Gervassi and Afra’s delight, they were free to take it. They set up on the porch, grabbed a few pillows and blankets, and climbed in. Gervassi kept true to his word and stayed on his own side of the box, the left side, and Afra stayed to the right.
It rained about three in the morning, and when they woke up they found that while boxes were much nicer than mattress frames, cardboard was no match to water.
The box was destroyed, but their story was not.