Can you love the sun?
Is it possible to love something even though it could burn you?
Her name was Akilah Williams. She was the sun of my universe. She was, without a doubt, the smartest girl in school. We’d known each other since elementary school though we didn’t talk much. I guess you could say we didn’t really meet until our freshmen year of high school.
I remember it was the day of football tryouts. I was sitting on the bleachers and felt as if someone had stuck their hand in my chest and squeezed. I thought to myself. Is this it? Is this how I die?
“Hey, Josh. Are you okay?” A voice to my left said. I turned in their direction and found Akilah Williams looking back at me. She was still in the school uniform, a white button up, and forest green pleated skirt. Her natural kinky coily hair was out of the regulation bun and fanned out from her face, framing it beautifully.
“I’m dying.” I somehow had the strength to say. Even as I felt like I was dying, I was struck by how pretty she looked with her hair down.
She shifted on her feet. “I think you’re having a panic attack.” She sat next to me. “I need you to take a deep breath for me.”
“But… I can’t breathe.” I said between gasps.
She half smiled, the left corner of her lip pulled upward. “If you’re talking, you can breathe. Now, come on. Deep breath for me. In through your nose.”
I did as she said. Breathed in as deep as I could, filling my lungs with air. She did the same.
“And out,” she said. She pursed her lips, letting the air out slowly. I followed her lead.
She breathed in. I breathed in. She breathed out. I breathed out. She kept it up for a few minutes, reminding me how to breathe again. Finally, and thankfully, my heart stopped trying to pound its way out of my chest and I could take solid breaths that didn’t feel like I was breathing through a straw.
“Thank you,” I said, wishing there was more that I could say since thank you didn’t seem like enough.
“It’s okay,” she said. She put her hand on my cheek and looked into each of my eyes. “You should take it easy. Go to the nurse or something.”
I looked away from her. I didn’t want to deal with this right now. I needed to get on the field and earn my spot on the junior varsity football team. It was all I ever wanted.
“I can’t,” I told her simply. “I’ll be fine.”
She eased my face back to hers. “You’ll be fine, but for how long?” I couldn’t afford to ask those types of questions. I wasn’t about to let anything stand in the way between me and my dream.
“Thanks for everything,” I told her.
She nodded. “Take care of yourself.” She brushed her skirt and stood to leave.
As I watched her go, I felt cold without her near me. Empty. As if I was watching the sun fall out of the sky. Only seconds had passed, and yet I missed her already. What was happening to me?
I do not claim to be a genius. Not in school nor in football nor even in life. So it is to no one’s surprise that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize my feelings for Akilah. And when I did figure it out, it was too late.
I was in the cafeteria and I saw Akilah walking with this guy named Thomas Fox who was on the Quiz bowl team with Akilah’s best friend, Kaisie. Akilah was laughing at something he had said. I found myself getting annoyed because I didn’t remember making her laugh that much and then I was wondering what I had to be annoyed about. It’s not like Akilah and I were together.
Nicole, who was sitting beside me, followed my line of sight. “You want to know what I heard?” I didn’t, but that didn’t stop her from telling me. “Akilah and Thomas are going out.”
My bottom jaw dropped. I looked at Thomas with his lean frame, low top fade and chiseled features. He was as tall as I was, maybe taller. He looked athletic, though I couldn’t tell for sure. And he was smart, too which made him perfect for Akilah.
I folded my arms and frowned. He was perfect for her. There was an unfamiliar emotion bubbling up inside me and I realized suddenly that it was jealousy. I was jealous of him. Jealous that he was able to be by her side and make her laugh. It was jealousy that made me say, “I guess geeks can find love, too.”
The entire table turned my way and started laughing. Everyone started cracking jokes about their geek love. I laughed along even though it wasn’t funny. Even though I was hurting inside.
It was in that moment I learned what it had taken me much too long to figure out. I liked Akilah.
Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do with that information. She was with someone. I had missed my chance.
Years passed and I rose up to Varsity, starting lineup. I was the quarterback. The guy every guy wanted to be like and every girl wanted. Well, almost every girl. Akilah remained out of my reach even after she and Tom broke up at the end of sophomore year. I revolved around her, kept up with what she was working on, but never got too close. Just like the sun.
As fate would have it, our paths crossed again senior year in a creative writing class. I would never admit it, but Mr. Lewis’s creative writing class was my favorite part of the day. His classroom was is in the computer lab on the second floor overlooking the parking lot. That room was one of the few classes that still sported a chalkboard. Akilah sat in the far right corner of the first row while I sat in the far left corner of the last row. We were the closest we’d been to each other since freshman year, and yet still so far.
He would assign writing prompts to stretch our minds and challenge us to see things from a new perspective. We would spend most of the class working on our drafts and talking through ideas. Once a week, we would have a mystery writer critique. Mr. Lewis would choose a draft at random and read it out loud. He’d ask us all for feedback, what we liked and what we didn’t and what we thought the writer could do better. He would never say the writer’s name, no matter how much we asked, hence the mystery part.
Mr. Lewis said, “I don’t want how you feel about each other to affect the feedback you give. The writer knows and can grow from the feedback. That’s all that matters.”
I always got excited when Mr. Lewis chose something I had written. More excited than I had ever been in a football game and even more nervous. It felt like I was laying my soul on the chopping block to be butchered and critiqued and yet, I knew as much as the criticism hurt, my story would become that much stronger because of it.
As we approached the end of the semester, I had more than a couple of strong short stories under my belt. I was in the middle of writing a difficult scene between my two main characters when I saw Mr. Lewis approach the front of the room.
“Alright class, can I have your attention please?” Mr. Lewis said. Heads popped up above and to the side of monitors to see what he had to say. “With the time we have left for today’s class period, I’m going to assign partners for the final project.”
Groans echoed throughout the room in response. I groaned right along with them, but inside, I was jumping for joy. All of our writing so far had been solo projects. I was curious to find out what writing with someone else would be like.
As I listened to the partner assignments, it was clear that he was partnering by alphabetical order. Knowing there was a long way to go before he would reach my name, I turned back to work on my scene, keeping one ear focused on what he was saying.
“And finally, we have Joshua Washington and Akilah Williams.”
No, that can’t be right. There must be some type of mistake. Everyone was murmuring about their partner assignment, but even more people were questioning me being partnered with Akilah.
“Joshua and Akilah?” Kaisie said. “That is so totally unfair. He’s just going to mooch off her, do none of the work and get the best grade in the class.” Did I really seem like the type of person who wouldn’t do their fair share?
“Akilah’s going to be pissed. He’s going to bring down her precious GPA,” Taylor said, from the seat next to me. This got a couple of laughs. He was on the football team with me, so I knew he was just kidding around. That didn’t make me feel any better though.
Hey, I wanted to say in my defense. I’m just as surprised as you are. But all I did was laugh. Like I was in on the joke that was at my expense. Because they can’t laugh at you, if you’re laughing with them.
“You all do realize he’s the strongest writer in this class. It’s more likely I would bring down his grade than he would bring down mine.” It was Akilah. She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t need to. When she talked, you listened.
A hush fell on the classroom. What could anyone say to that? Akilah had spoken. In my defense, no less.
“Let’s not focus on grades,” Mr. Lewis said, taking back control of the classroom. “I’m more concerned with how you handle a collaborative writing process. Understand?”
There were nods and yessirs. And that was the end of it.
The bell rang soon after and class was dismissed for the day. I took my time packing up my things since I knew Akilah would be one of the last ones out of the room. I needed to say something to her, right? She defended me after all.
When most of the class was empty, I walked up to her. She looked up at me with a dazzling smile. “Hello Joshua, and what do I owe this pleasure?”
I was dumbfounded and all she did was say my name. I really should have come up with a game plan before coming over here. “You didn’t have to do that, you know,” I said, finding my words. “They were just joking. You didn’t need to take it so seriously.”
She raised her eyebrow, not believing me, but instead of saying what I knew she was thinking, she nodded slowly and said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“But…um,” I scratched the back of my neck, in the universal gesture of I am out of my depth and I don’t know what to say. “Did you mean it?”
She stood up and pushed her chair in. “Did I mean what?” She waved goodbye to Mr. Lewis and exited the room with me following behind her.
“You know,” I said. “When you said…After everybody had said…” Why were words so hard?
“Oh, about your writing? Of course, I meant it. Even Mr. Lewis says you do great work.”
“How could you know it was my writing?”
She shrugs. “I’d know your writing anywhere. And besides you do this precious little smile anytime Mr. Lewis reads from your work. I’m surprised no one else has noticed.” We had made it to her locker. She spun the combination lock and once she opened it, she faced me. “And if you ask me, Nothing up my Sleeve is the greatest thing ever written. And there’s that one line in it. How does it go? “He loved her as one loved the sun, from afar.” Gosh, gives me chills every time. How did you come up with it?”
Nothing up my Sleeve was a story I had written earlier in the semester. It was about this street magician named Orion who finds out that he’s descended from Pharaohs and he has to keep Anubis from raising an army of the dead. It was a favorite of mine as well. The line she was referring to was about Orion who had fallen in love with his childhood friend Kyla. Sound familiar? “Oh you know,” I said, vaguely, “the words just come to me.”
Obviously, that story is about me and Akilah. There’s even an earlier draft of the story on my online dropbox that still has her name in it. If I’m being honest, any story I’ve written that has a love interest probably has an early draft with Akilah’s name somewhere. Having her name helped me get into the right mindset of how it would feel to love someone. And even though I couldn’t be with the real Akilah, this was good enough.
I do not claim to be a genius. That goes without saying, but bears repeating. I had invited Akilah to my online dropbox so we had a place where we could work on our draft together. It was the dropbox where I keep all of my drafts, so I knew it would be easy for us to access. I had not realized the error of my ways even when she approached me after Mr. Lewis’s class and asked, “Hey Joshua, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, still completely unaware. “It’s a nice day. Want to meet on the bleachers in say, 15?”
She nodded and went to go get her things.
When I got to the bleachers 15 minutes later, she was waiting for me with her laptop open on her lap.
I sat next to her and she passed me her laptop without a word. I looked at the screen and it was open to a document. I instantly recognized it as an early draft of one of my short stories for class. Too late, I realized that this was a draft that had Akilah’s name in it. Too late, I realized that I had given Akilah access to my entire drop box. That she could see all of the drafts therein. Oh dear god, why have you forsaken me?
I ventured a look in her direction and she had her head tilted, amused, waiting to see how I was going to talk my way out of this one.
“Akilah. It’s not what you think,” I stammered. “It’s not… it doesn’t mean I have feelings for you or anything.”
“You just use my name as the love interest in everything you’ve written.”
“Yeah.” I shook my head. “I mean, let’s start over.”
She smiled. “Please do.”
“I may have used your name in a couple of my stories.”
She scoffed. “A couple?”
“Okay, a lot of them. And I may have had a little crush on you when we were freshmen, but now… “ I paused. How did I feel about her now?
She scooched closer to me. “And now? How do you feel about me now?” Her eyebrow was raised in question.
“N-now?” I stuttered. She was too close and it made it hard to think clearly.
“It’s a really simple question, Josh. How do you feel? Either you like me or you don’t. Which is it?”
“I…um,” I scooched away, putting distance between us. “I don’t know.”
She looked out on the open field. “He loved her as he loved the sun, from afar. I wonder if he noticed how lonely that made her feel. No one can feel love that’s too far away to reach.”
It was strange hearing my words said back to me. I never saw how sad they were. “Akilah…”
She looked at me. “What are you afraid of, Joshua?”
“Everything,” I admitted.
Akilah seemed to appreciate the honesty. “I get it. There’s safety in loving from afar. You don’t have to be vulnerable. You won’t get hurt. You won’t get burned. But up close,” and she closed the distance between us and this time I didn’t pull away. “That’s where the magic is. That’s where the living is. It may not work out, but isn’t it worth the risk?”
I took a deep breath in, and slowly let it out just like she taught me all of those years before. We were face to face now with just our breaths between us. My eyes flicked down to her lips. They were so close. Isn’t it worth the risk? I could hear her say.
I didn’t know for sure, but I was about to find out. We kissed and in that kiss was everything I never knew I was missing. Warmth and passion and love. Loving her was like loving the sun. I might get burned if I get too close, but man, it was worth it.