What We Call Love

Submitted into Contest #53 in response to: Write a story that begins with someone's popsicle melting.... view prompt


Funny Romance

“It’s dripping, Johnny,” Sabrina says, referring to the popsicle I held in my hand. Three bright red dots appear on our white picnic blanket. I hasten to position myself so that the popsicle was dripping on the grass around us instead. 

She tilts her head, one hand absentmindedly rocking a toy truck back and forth, to our daughter Delilah’s awe. “On second thought, it looks kind of good actually. Maybe we can tie-dye it when we get home.”

I look at her then. The popsicle left my fingers sticky. Sabrina was still squinting at my accidental polka dots, a small smile on her face, and that was when I realized I loved her.

She turns to our daughter and coos at her. “Isn’t that right, Delly-doo?” 

Delilah giggles. The sound makes my chest tighten, and I smile at her almost involuntarily.  

I guess it’s weird to only realize this after five years of marriage, but my relationship with Sabrina has always been, well, unusual. We met in college. Back then, I always walked her home from parties when she was drunk out of her mind. On a particularly nasty night, I remember pulling her hair back as she puked in the gutter in front of someone’s house, and how fast we ran when the front door suddenly opened. 

Sabrina partied practically every weekend. She missed the deadlines on her assignments half the time. I regularly woke up to her sleeping on the couch in my dorm room (thankfully, my roommate didn’t mind) because she was too tired to climb three more flights up to her own dorm. In the tender nights when I walked her home from a party, she’d often let slip vague family troubles. It wasn’t hard to connect her binge drinking and overall impulsive behavior to that.

I didn’t know how to help. I only knew to be there for her. I let her use my dorm for studying and doing homework whenever she wanted (I had a bigger desk and better lighting) while I stayed in the library instead. At some point, I even learned her class schedule just so I could remind her on any upcoming assignments.

Halfway through our second year, on one of our many after-party walks, Sabrina stopped in the middle of the road. Her dark curly hair was in a loose ponytail, and a strap of the overalls she was wearing had slipped off her shoulder. Despite the bags underneath her eyes and the way she swayed with every step, she looked at me very resolutely.

“Johnny,” she said.

I winced at the alcohol in her breath. “Yes."

“You are my dearest friend,” she declared, grabbing my shoulders. “You are an angel sent by God to make sure that I get out of college alive. I love you dearly and I will never forget all the things you’ve done for me.”

“You know what,” she added before I could respond. “Let’s make a deal. If both of us reach 30 years old and neither of us are married, in a relationship, or in love with someone, let’s marry each other.”

I blinked down at her. The orange streetlights casted distorted shadows on her dark skin. From underneath her overalls, I could see Oscar the Grouch imprinted on her oversized T-shirt, along with the words “I <3 Trash” in what appeared to be Comic Sans. Her eye makeup was smudged, leaving flecks of glitter around her face like stars. 

She was my best friend.

I shrugged. “Okay.”

“I’m serious,” she said, practically shouting. “I’m literally in love with you. Platonically.”

I shrugged again. “Me, too.” 

 She tilted her head, birdlike. “I mean it, Jonathan.”

“I do, too,” I said, but I don’t know if I really did. Mostly I was just playing along, sure this arrangement wouldn’t really happen.

“Okay,” she nodded firmly, as if committing our pact in stone. “Also, tonight will be the last night you escort me home drunk because I am getting my life on track starting tomorrow. I mean it this time.”

“Okay,” I parroted back. She’d said that plenty of times before, but I smiled at her fondly anyway. I loved her then, too, but not like the way I do now. Love, as I’ve learned, never really goes away. It only evolves.

It turned out that Sabrina meant what she said--all of it. She stopped going to parties, and she stopped crashing at my dorm (“I kinda miss her, not gonna lie,” my roommate had said). Instead, she invited me out to coffee shops, where she would order expensive drinks to force her to be productive. We’d do our homework together: I ran my codes while she sketched her projects. 

I knew how hard she was trying in those early days of her “new life.” There was an intensity to her that I hadn’t known before, a determination to do things right. I could tell she was sort of faking it, this new-found love of productivity. She’d jump headfirst into all her new projects, attacking each one with a ferocity I didn’t know she was capable of. We regularly spent whole days at the coffee shop. Soon, though, Sabrina had well and truly found her groove, so much so that I knew she was no longer forcing herself to be productive. She just was

“I do love this,” she’d said to me once after we left the coffee shop, where we were the last customers as always. Her portfolio was tucked under her arm, and a striped scarf was wrapped around her neck. “I love creating. I forgot how fun it was. Way more fun than self-destructing every weekend.” 

She sighed, her breath a cloud of mist. “It was about time, huh, Johnny?”

Yes, Sab, I wanted to say. Yes, it was. I smiled at her as we made our way home. 

Sabrina remained sober. Eventually, we both graduated on time, her with a degree in fine arts, and me in computer science. After college, we stayed in touch as much as we could. This usually meant brunch twice or thrice every year, and the requisite phone calls during birthdays and holidays. Otherwise, we lived separate lives. I knew that at some point she began working for an advertising company. Meanwhile, my position at an IT firm kept me stable.

I forgot all about our silly promise up until my 30th birthday. Four months earlier I’d made the same call to her, but for some reason I hadn’t remembered our little pact, despite the fact that I was the sober one during that discussion.

Do you know what this means,” she shouted as soon as I picked up the phone.

It took a moment for me to realize what she was talking about. When I did, I said, “At least greet me first.”

“Happy birthday,” she huffed. And then, “Will you marry me?”

I laughed aloud. Up to that point, I had had my fair share of relationships but none lasted for more than two years. Practically all of my exes, upon our inevitable breakups, had said some variation of the same sentiment: I feel like I’m the only one invested in this relationship.

Which, to be fair, was true. I hadn’t felt particularly attached to any of them. Not really. I was starting to think I’d never feel like I truly belonged with anyone. The only time I’ve ever even come close was when I was with Sabrina, whom I later found out had pretty much the same experience with her relationships.

I shrugged at myself. “Why not?”

Our whole relationship was--for lack of a better word--ridiculous. 

We both confessed that we felt the pressure from our families, and from society in general, to marry. 

“Guess we’ve reached that age,” Sabrina said when we met up at our signature coffee shop, and it was true. Parents, extended family, and even relatives I hardly knew had been subtly reminding me that I was getting older, and that I had to settle down soon.

Sab and I thought that being married would benefit us both. For one thing, it would stop our parents’ subtle but persistent attempts at setting us up with random strangers our age. It would also make several practical things easier.

“Better tax benefits,” Sabrina said. “And it’s easier to buy a house.”

“Better healthcare, too,” I added.

“Damn,” she swore. “Why did we have to wait till 30 then?”

A few days later, we proposed to each other with plastic mood rings.

“Aw, mine’s all blue,” she said, stretching out her fingers. 

I took out the small pamphlet that came with the ring and handed it to her. “That means you’re in love.”

Our wedding was small, but it satisfied both of our families enough. Along with our coworkers, we had invited some friends from college, including my roommate.

“I knew it’d be the two of you in the end,” he said, slapping me round the shoulder. Sabrina and I smiled and didn’t bother to correct him.

When the minister said, “You may now kiss the bride,” Sabrina and I shrugged before high-fiving instead. Our guests laughed. I could feel my mother’s embarrassment from where she stood in the front row, but she couldn’t say anything to me now. I was doing my duty as her son; I was getting married.

Sab and I moved into a house we bought together. We could still date whoever we wanted, and if we did fall in love with someone, then we’d just get a divorce. For a while, both of us had gone on a few dates, but none of them ever lasted. Eventually we just stuck with each other.

We lived more like roommates than an actual couple. We slept in separate rooms, but the kitchen was our shared space. Sab hated cooking, though, even when I tried to teach her. Every now and then she’d make requests, simple meals from her childhood. Even now, Sab didn’t talk about her family. I only met them once at the wedding. With their cold, disapproving looks, Sab and I decided once was enough.

Her artwork filled the house. She had more time to work on personal projects when she started working from home. Her surrealist paintings of various wildlife filled our walls: an elongated cheetah above the couch, a bright blue zebra in the kitchen. Occasionally she’d also leave random doodles all over the house: by the bathroom sink, on my bedpost, inside my closet. On each of them was some variation of Sabrina and I as stick figures, both declaring “WE ♡ MARRIAGE.”

It was a ridiculous arrangement, but it was comforting as well. We both minded our own business, but we always helped each other out when needed. She’d gotten into the habit of waking up extra early to make me my morning tea before going to sleep again. After work, I always made sure to stop by the bakeshop and get her favorite pastries so that we’d never run out of stock. My relationship with Sabrina soon felt less like a decision made from societal pressures, but one out of genuine love, if not romantic love.

Four years in, she brought up the idea of having a child.

We were out on the patio, sitting on the matching pair of rocking chairs we had bought at the flea market. I was working on something on my laptop while she was eating a clementine. The citrus scent clung to the humid summer air. She tore off a slice and handed it to me wordlessly.

As we chewed, she said, “What are your thoughts on children?”

“What?” I said, eyes still on the laptop screen. 

I felt her shift in her seat. “I was thinking… I kind of wanna be a mom. I mean, I have all this free time. And, well, I guess I’ve always wanted a kid? Deep down and stuff?”

I was silent. Did I want a child? At that point I hadn’t really given it much thought.

“But obviously, I’m not the only one involved with that decision,” she said, handing me another slice.

“Well,” I began, finally taking my eyes off my laptop. “I mean...we’ve never actually had sex.”

“Oh, God, Johnny, no,” she laughed, eyes wide. “I was talking about adoption. Trust me, I do not want to get pregnant, not with you or with anyone else.”

“Right,” I said, relieved. I nibbled on my clementine. “Okay. Give me some time to think about it?”

And I did. We started visiting orphanages a few months later, and when I saw Delilah, I was already sure.

Sabrina had audibly gasped. We watched her playing around in the nursery with a few other babies, giggling to herself.

“A half-Black, half-Korean baby,” she said. “Jonathan, she’s perfect.

We then converted Sabrina’s room into a nursery. The first night that the two of us slept in the same bed felt a lot more natural than I expected.

“Guess we’re finally a real couple now,” Sabrina muttered, curled in on herself like an apostrophe. 

“Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have been married for decades and they don’t even sleep on the same bed,” I responded.

“Nerd,” she whispered, and then we fell asleep.

I never really saw myself as a father, but for Delly I was willing to try. We flipped a coin to decide whose last name she would get, and then had her name legally changed to Delilah Jeong. 

“A shame,” Sabrina said, “since ‘Delilah Myers’ sounds so much better.”

In the kitchen after we finalized her adoption papers, I held her for the first time and cried. I would have been embarrassed if Sabrina wasn’t already sobbing herself.

Having Delilah changed our relationship. Our days and nights revolved around her. I took a leave from work so I could help take care of her, but she was a whirlwind. She couldn’t seem to sit in place, always crawling around the house. She loved tugging at the houseplants until leaves were scattered all over the floor. She regularly woke us up in the middle of the night with her crying. By the end of our first month with her, the bags under Sabrina’s eyes had all but tripled, and I knew mine did, too.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Delilah made our days brighter in a way I didn’t think possible. I felt so much love for her that even the sight of her drooling all over her bib made my heart clench tighter. Sometimes, when Delly was finally, blessedly asleep, Sabrina and I would just look at each other and smile so wide our faces hurt.

“You’re my family now,” she’d said once, rubbing at her eyes with exhaustion. It felt like a confession. “You and Delly.”

Now, Delilah was almost two. I watch her wrap her pudgy fingers around her toy truck as Sabrina fiddles with the edge of the blanket.

“So? What do you think?” she asks. Something about the way she spoke told me that she had asked me several times before without me noticing, lost in my own reverie. 

She had gotten so familiar over the years. Then again I think she always was. I could hardly remember what my life was like before she was in it. 

“About?” I manage to say. I was reeling from my sudden realization. Though perhaps it wasn’t so sudden after all. Maybe it had been creeping up on me for some time, waiting impatiently for me to finally notice and acknowledge it. Love can do that, I suppose

“About tie-dying this blanket,” she explains patiently, rolling her eyes at me.

I nod absentmindedly, staring at her hand resting on the small of Delly’s back. She was still wearing that crappy mood ring I had gotten her all those years ago as a joke. It was still the same midnight blue. I look at her. Wrinkles had started to appear by her eyes, crinkling with every smile. She’d come so far from that quixotic, impulsive college girl, but she still had that same warmth.

We had built a life together, the three of us. Maybe Sabrina would find my confession too awkward to live with, and she would divorce me. Maybe we’d have to fight for custody over Delly, and then we’d have to settle for taking turns with her every week. Maybe I was about to ruin the one true thing I’ve known all my life, but I knew I had to say it regardless. This thing I was feeling, suddenly, felt too big to keep to myself.

Why did I love her? I look at the mess I’ve made with my popsicle stains. Because she saw art where others would only see my clumsiness. Because she’s the best part of my life. Because love is when “I” turns into “we.”

Sabrina tilts her head again, a gesture so familiar I could feel her doing it even when I was looking away. Noticing my gaze, she shifts her position to look at me. My heart tightens like a fist.

I guess somewhere along the way I had fallen in love with her again, just in a different way.

“Will you marry me?” I ask her. “For real this time?”

August 07, 2020 08:42

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Grace M'mbone
09:23 Aug 13, 2020

Aidrielle I loved this, all of it. Wow. You created Sabrina and Jonathan to be these logical and beautiful characters. I love that you highlighted societal pressure to get married. It would be an honour if a writer of your ilk took a look at even one of my stories. Stay safe Aidrielle ❤️❤️😘


Aidrielle R.
09:47 Aug 13, 2020

thank you very much!! i'm so happy you enjoyed. i'll be sure to check your stories out soon, too! stay safe as well <3


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Rayhan Hidayat
06:49 Aug 13, 2020

Hey, decided to pay you a visit back! 😁 And wow, this absolutely made my heart melt, just wow 😮 Their touching friendship, the unorthodox marriage, the whole process of falling in love, it all added up to such a quirky, funny, and poignant feels-trip. I knew what he was gonna say at the end there but I got goosebumps anyway 😭 Very nice touch making the couple what I’m assuming is a Black woman and an Asian man, that’s a pairing I’ve honestly never seen before. And the little nods to their disapproving relatives added an extra layer of ten...


Aidrielle R.
08:06 Aug 13, 2020

thank you so much!! i'm glad you enjoyed. i loved writing about them weird little journey haha. and i wish diverse couples were more prevalent in media! and i noticed that too haha i think it was just a coincidence though!!


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Taylor Arbuckle
20:27 Aug 10, 2020

I'm not even sure where to begin with this. There's so much to say. The unconventional dynamic between Sabrina and Johnny was a blast to read, the subtle POC representation was also a joy, and the way it was all brought full-circle was satisfying. At the end, after seeing their whole journey laid out, the idea of loving Sabrina and Delilah as much as Johnny did seemed easy. Really great job with this, I enjoyed it so much. Thank you for writing.


Aidrielle R.
01:20 Aug 11, 2020

this is so kind, thank you so much!! i'm glad you enjoyed <3


Taylor Arbuckle
06:30 Aug 11, 2020

of course :) i look forward to reading more from you in the future


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