I arrive home from another twelve-hour shift at the restaurant, aching and exhausted, hunger burning a hole in my stomach. You are on the couch smoking a cigarette, reading a book. A fine rain is thrumming against the living-room window. Our little Christmas tree is in the corner of the room, glowing pink, yellow, and blue. It feels bright and dark all at once. I shut the door softly. I think you don’t notice me, but you do. You always do. Hey, you say, a smile lifting your voice. You meet me in the kitchen and cup my face with your hands. We kiss and you follow me to bed.
I tell people you are my high school sweetheart when they ask, though we both know that is a half-truth at best. Our story is not nearly as neat and tidy as I would like it to be, but I almost think it makes me love you even more. As for you, I cannot speak to that. All I know is that you’ve said Hey in the exact same way for as long as I have known you.
We were sixteen, in love. I love you, you breathed as I wrapped my legs around your hips to ease you in, slow you down. But almost immediately you stopped, and I felt a milky warmth between my legs. Your face paled. I clung to you and I cried. You told me not to worry, that everything will be fine. You walked me home that evening and, kissing me goodbye, reminded me we would be okay. I felt like you clipped off the words “no matter what” so I could sleep that night.
Of course, you know what happened next.
The night my mother found a positive pregnancy test in the bathroom trash, she ran to get my father. Without so much as a word, they yanked me out of bed and drove me to your house. The confrontation that ensued between our parents was ugly. You squeezed my hand and whispered, “Is it really true?” I only nodded, petrified to speak. I overheard our mothers in the other room take turns blaming each other. And though I could not see him, I could feel my father’s steely glare through the wall. I could also feel your fear as you wondered what your own father would do to you once we left.
An hour later, my parents snapped me from you, and after a sleepless night, they took me to my aunt’s house five hours away. I was to stay there until people stopped asking where I was, they said. I watched the ever-brightening dawn through the car window as we crossed the town, county, state limits. I wept silently, as if that were the only thing I ever learned how to do well.
I came back to Burlington when Lucy was the age we were when we made her, but you know that. Of course, I could have returned earlier, for I cannot imagine the topic of my absence lasting longer than a few months. Still, the thought of coming back even a day sooner than I did seemed dangerous, as if I needed that extra twenty-four hours to assume another set of features to ensure that no one I had known in my previous life would be able to recognize me, except you. My parents, in an attempt to compensate for their abandoning me, offered to pay a year’s rent for an apartment on the southside of town. I knew it was only a ruse so that they could form a relationship with their granddaughter; nonetheless, I accepted. Most importantly, that was what Lucy wanted.
No doubt she got her capacity to forgive from you.
So there we were, back “home,” which seemed to be taking on that optical illusion of both changing and staying the same.
From the moment we arrived, I wanted nothing more than to call you. To stop at the rusty old payphone at the gas station bordering town and dial your parents’ number, as if I were sixteen again and just got back from a family vacation and had to call you before doing anything else. I did stop there, but there was no payphone anymore. And I was a fool to think I could reach you—as if time did not move you at all.
Maybe that is why I haven’t tried to contact you at all the past sixteen years. Because time moves people and I was afraid of where you would be. At worst, unreachable—though in my most selfish moments I think the worst thing you could be is happy.
I talked to Lucy about you often. She knew you were the sweetest boy who probably grew into the sweetest man. Of the few items I was allowed to grab and take with me was a shoebox that I kept all evidence I had of you: the notes you wrote me during class, when I thought you had been taking notes; movie ticket stubs; photographs. But none of it was enough for her. For years I was too chickenshit, and she was too patient with me.
That’s the real reason we came back. Better late than never, or too little, too late—I was not sure what cliché awaited me the morning we left Maine, the only home Lucy had ever known.
We were back a week before you saw us on the lakefront one morning. I saw you too.
I knew it was you in the way that one knows something.
I was being pulled toward you. Then just as quickly, I was pushed away. I called this inertia. I know it isn’t the exact definition, but I needed a word to say in my head over and over again to name what I was feeling, to ground me. Inertia inertia inertia. I gripped Lucy’s hand. She squeezed back. She knew it was you too, because she saw her own eyes and her own mouth on the man approaching us.
Before I could rummage around in my storehouse of excuses, before I could even part my lips to speak, you scooped Lucy into your arms. You held her head against your chest and wept into her hair, red like mine.
Inertia inertia inertia.
We walked Lucy to school, as if this was some normal thing we did. We both kissed her goodbye, and without a word, went back to the apartment. Our hands never touched as I imagined they would, and I was always a step or two ahead of you. We shared a cigarette, but we did not speak. We could taste each other’s words already.
The door slammed shut and we sat apart from one another on my lone couch. I could not bear to look at you, so I fixed my eyes on the faux crystal vase on the coffee table, the plastic daisy shooting out of it like a star. But there, forever, it was stuck. Inertia inertia inertia.
I had a lot to say. You listened, you shut down, you walked out. Then you came back.
You had a lot to say. I stood up, paced, hungover with the notion that this was going to be a happy reunion. That I could come back to town after a decade and a half, with our daughter who you have never met, and expect a fairytale. It’s true my parents sent me away once they found out I was pregnant. I cannot be blamed for that. It was also true that neither of us came for the other at any point afterward. Or, most crucially, for Lucy.
About two hours in, you stood abruptly from the couch and met me, still pacing, in the kitchen.
“Just stop. Fucking stop,” you said, grabbing me with both arms and pulling me in. Then I had the nerve to unbury my head from your chest and look up at you. At your beautiful fucking face.
Then you kissed me. It felt different than I remember, yet somehow the same: a sort of tactile illusion.
We made love that morning. We talked about each other, past tense. We talked about our love and how perfect it was. You left before Lucy got home that afternoon and promised to return later. You did. You slept on the couch and joined me in walking Lucy to school the next morning. It became some normal thing we did: every morning until the damp chill of November arrived, we walked Lucy to school.
I love you didn’t come again until we had both said all we needed. It took some time. There was more crying; there were apologies. There were fits and there were starts. It didn’t come until we had integrated who we are and who we were. Until we had both forgiven each other for being who we are and who we were. We both, somehow, understood that we had done the best we could. We laid the past to rest, finally, and in doing so were able to see each other in present-tense, with our daughter.
With Lucy’s permission, I asked you to move in. I got a serving job and you continued working as a welder. We had no other ambitions beyond that at the moment; it was a good life, a life of present and past. We were treading slowly. Meanwhile, Lucy was adjusting to school and getting to know her grandparents. And she adores you. That is no small wonder to me. You are the sweetest boy who grew into the sweetest man.
I tell people you are my high school sweetheart when they ask, though we both know that is a half-truth at best. No, our story is not nearly as neat and tidy as I would like it to be, but I almost think it makes me love you even more. As for you, I cannot speak to that. All I know is that the past is never the perfect fairytale; rather, it is the broken-mirror version of what we would like it to be. But what we have now is a good life and it is ours.
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