“Do you believe in the butterfly effect?” he turned to me, long strands of wavy hair falling into his eyes. Even though we were on the roof, it was still hazy, partly from the smoke and our breath heating up the freezing air.
“You don’t know about the butterfly effect? Come on Val, aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?” Tony smiles and my stomach churns at the way he says my name. Valerie, but it’s always Val for him, or babe, or sometimes even poopy-head.
“Shut up,” I rolled my eyes, swatting at him. He’s such an asshole. “What is it?” I reach over, taking the rolled cigarette paper from between his fingers. Inhaling heats up my insides, stopping the chattering of my teeth only momentarily. No matter how many blankets we brought up here, we still managed to forget about the bone-chilling cold mornings in the Bronx.
“Well, I’m pretty sure it started because of some scientist, and a graph he was looking at looked like a butterfly? Or there was a storm? No, I think it’s like the butterfly shape meant that there would either be a really bad storm or good weather? That doesn’t matter though. It’s just like, the idea that small decisions can have big impacts.”
“Ok-kay” I cough partially from the smoke leaving my lungs and the cold. “You’re asking me if I believe in that?”
“N-No? That sounds kind of dumb.” I chuckled before realizing he looked surprised, in a way, almost disappointed? “Why? Do you?”
“Yeah… I mean I had this whole joke set up about how Emily dragging you to IHop at 1 AM that one time being the reason why we’re here right now.”
“Oh. Well, If you’re going along with the whole butterfly thingy, then I guess it would be? We could’ve met other ways though.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” he sighs and we fall into a bout of silence. It wasn’t awkward, but not exactly comfortable. In the quiet, you could already hear the beeping horns of taxicabs and pedestrians almost being run over. But, this kind of noise was homey. It’s the kind of noise I’ve gotten accustomed to since living here. The sky was still dark, but this place has one of the best views. Watching the sunrise is only something we have the luxury to do on days where I’m not down in Manhattan at 6 AM and his agent doesn’t have him out of the state for a week, which is, admittedly, rare.
“That was lame,” Tony breaks the silence, cupping my freezing hands and taking the rapidly burning joint from me. I could feel the cold metal of his rings against the back of my palm, but the fact that I noticed that is more embarrassing than the action in and of itself.
“Yeah,” he nods rapidly, hair bouncing up and down as he cracks himself up.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, nothing. It just reminded me of Charlie. He’d always say stupid shit like that.”
Charlie. God, I miss him. “Yeah. Do you still talk to him?”
The smile melts off his face and I regret bringing it up. “No, not really. I’m sure Alex has. They’ve always been close like that.”
“Yeah, but… I thought he would’ve at least talked to you.”
“Well… “ he takes a hit without looking at anything really, just staring forwards at the sky.
“Have you tried calling--”
He winces visibly and shakes his head no. “It’s fine, Valerie. I don’t wanna talk about this right now.”
We never talk about Charlie. His name was taboo for a few months, neither of us wanting to dwell on our past mistakes. I miss him, really I do. Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night just thinking about what happened; but, we’re not gonna slide past the fact that he just said my entire first name. “I’m Val.”
“What?” he frowned in confusion before his eyes widened. The corners of his mouth began to turn upwards when he realized what I meant.
“You always call me Val.”
“But Valerie’s your name, babe. What’s the issue?” he smiles, trying to hold back giggles and failing miserably.
“You know what it is! Stop joking around.” I frown deeper and he starts laughing. He’s so frustrating. “Tony!”
I scoot closer to him under the covers on the old, ratty couch we dragged up here last summer.
“What is it, Valerie?” I kneel, shimmying the blanket off my shoulders, regardless of whether my nonexistent hemoglobin tells me otherwise. Placing my hands on my hips, I frown down at him “Call me Val,”
He looks up in amusement. “I don’t understand what the big deal is, Ms. Miller,”
“Tony Andres Ramirez.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry dumb dumb.” Dumb dumb. I forgot about that one. He opens his arms, placing the still burning joint on the armrest. I slot my body between his arms and his grip is tight around my waist. His body is warm and even though his hair smells like weed and cigarettes, it’s homey. I feel him move to say something but it’s muffled into my chest and I can’t really make out the words.
He pops his head up, peering up at me with his dark brown eyes, and my stomach’s full of butterflies again. My cheeks are already red from the cold, and the way he looks at me isn’t helping. Sometimes, just thinking about him makes my chest tighten up, but in an “I like you so much I want to throw up” kind of way. It’s scary. Feeling like this is… scary.
“You’re warm and smell nice.” he pushes his face back into my chest and if I wasn’t red before, I definitely am now.
“I probably smell like weed,”
“Shut up. I definitely smell like weed.”
“Yeah, you do.” I smiled teasingly before he poked my side. My hair whipped back in the wind, his face pressed against my sternum. The thin long sleeve I wore did very little to shelter me from the cold, but having him here helped. I barely noticed his grip tightening around me when my fingers were running through his hair, nails scratching lightly along his scalp. There was a warmth creeping up my back, and before I knew it, the industrial-looking vent shafts towards the back of the roof were being basked in orange.
My fingers moved towards the front of his scalp, pushing his bangs back. The scar he got from tripping in the IHop parking lot at 4 AM last year is still there and a part of me feels bad. We were piss-drunk and arguing, and even though it wasn’t my fault the guilt still lingers. We went to an Urgent Care. Charlie was there. I don’t wanna think about this anymore. I kissed his forehead and held him tighter so he didn’t ask what was wrong.
“You're so cu--”
“I don’t wanna go to Austin.”
The words I had planned to say died in my mouth.
“I don’t wanna leave New York. I’ve been here my whole life.” He looks up at me with sad eyes, and if the sunlight wasn’t slowly moving across his face, I wouldn’t have noticed how glassy they looked. “I don’t wanna leave you.”
“Babe,” I sighed. There’s not much I can say. When he told me he got a screenplay offer in Texas last month, I didn’t let myself dwell on it. If I detach myself now, then it won't hurt when he’s gone -- I tried to convince myself, but here I am, on his lap in our favorite spot to watch the sunrise. “It’s a good opportunity.”
“I don’t wanna go.”
“You’ve already bought your plane ticket.”
“I can get a refund. I’m doing fine here. I don’t need--”
“Tony.” His name comes out a lot angrier than I meant it to.
“Do you want me to stay here or not?!” His voice broke and I winced at the sound.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You don’t act like it.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I supposed to say? Of course I want you here but I can’t tell you to drop one of the biggest opportunities in your career for me; some white girl that works at a depressing publishing company. Charles hasn’t spoken to me since graduation, and Emily will be in Hong Kong till March, and ever since I stopped talking to Dad, New York doesn’t feel like home anymore. The more I think about it, the worse it hurts. All I have left is you, but I can’t just say that!
“I want you to go. I want you to move on to better things than, I don’t know, smoking weed with me? On the roof of our rat-infested apartment building?”
“Tony. All you’ve ever done is pray for an opportunity like this. I can’t watch you turn it down.”
“So then why are you contemplating this?”
I only noticed the space between us on the couch when he got up, snatching the still-burning cigarette paper and chucking it over the edge of the building.
“Come to Texas with me.”
“You know I can’t do that.” I’ve already thought about it.
“Then, I’ll just come back after we’re done.”
“You’ll be down there for at least a year, Tony. I can’t pay rent by myself not knowing whether you’ll come back or not.” It’ll hurt too much being surrounded by you when you’re not here.
“I could fly back on weekends.”
“That’s too expensive.” Stop trying.
“Valerie,” his voice breaks on my name and I don’t have the heart to try and correct him. “You don’t even wanna be long distance.”
We’re not even dating. “You wouldn’t have time.”
“You don’t know that. I’d always make time for you.” It hurts.
“Why are you making excuses not to go?”
When he speaks, he doesn’t look at me, only straight ahead at the sun that’s making its way up the horizon. “I don’t know.” He mumbles more to himself before repeating it louder. “I don’t know, okay? Is that what you want? I can’t say I love you because you won’t say it back. And I can’t say I love New York because I don’t. And I can’t say you’re the only thing that feels right anymore because I’ll scare you away. So I don’t know, really, I don’t.”
“Stop! Oh my god!” he yells and I flinch. “Stop saying my name like that.” He turns to look back at me and at this point, the need to cry is eating away at me. I look down at my hands, though my visions blurry, I could still make out the barcode tattoo on my inner wrist. My throat closes up when I think about the matching one on his ankle.
His hands were buried in his hair. “Like you don’t want me to leave.”
I try and blink the tears away, but no matter how many times I blink, looking at him makes my vision blurrier. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s been almost three years of this. You like me, but you don’t love me. We live together, but we aren't together. On and on and fucking on again, Val. Does that make any goddamn sense to you?”
“I don’t know! What do you want me to say?” I’m scared of how I feel.
“Do you want me to stay?”
“Tony, I can’t.”
“Answer the question, Valerie.” I want to throw up.
“I think you should go to Texas.”
“I’m not gonna ask you again. Yes or no. Do you want me to stay?”
4 years later
My eyes burned from the sleep deprivation but I was finally here. I rubbed them furiously before shimmying forward in the car seat when my phone started ringing.
“Where are you?”
“What do you need, Charlie?”
“Nothing, just Em dropped by with some document? Thingy? I think? I don’t know. She just said it was yours and left.”
I undid my seat belt and got out of the car. My poor little BMW’s been chugging along for the last eight years, but she’s doing her best. “Oh, that! It’s the manuscript you asked for.”
“I asked for a manuscript?”
I understand that we were drinking, but I didn’t think it was that bad. “Nothing, just hold onto it, okay? I’ll explain later.”
“Kay’,” he muttered before speaking with someone on his end. The lake was still and even though it didn't rain this week, I still took off my shoes, leaving them on the hood of the car.
“Are you still at the hospital?”
“Yeah, but I’m on my lunch break. It’s been really hectic lately, but I guess that’s to be expected.”
“Especially since you’re working in the ER now. To be honest, I didn’t think you were cut out for it.”
“Ouch,” he chuckles and it brings a smile to my face. “You wound me.”
“Yeah yeah, you’ll be fine. I mean, what do I know.” I snicker before stepping down the small ledge where the road ends onto the tiny beach where the mouth of the lake opens. It’s not too cold tonight, but even so, the wind causes ripples across the water's surface.
“You still didn’t answer my question, Miss Editorial Director.”
“Oh, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Tell me, tell me!”
“Y’know that lake we used to go to in freshman year?”
“Geez, you still go there?”
“I told you it was embarrassing!”
“What’re you doing there?”
The sand was cold beneath my feet as the lake swallowed the waters, leaving the damp sand exposed before rushing back and my feet were wet. I didn’t expect the moon to be out, but at least it wasn’t pitch black.
“I don’t really know. I just come here whenever I’m stressed.”
“Well, what’s stressing you? You don’t have to tell me, but I used to go there a lot after graduation. After everything.”
God, just remembering that makes me feel bad. “Charlie, I’m fine with telling you. I wouldn’t have said anything otherwise.”
“Just making sure,” he says offhandedly and I want to flick him. But, I’m glad he called me. It took a lot of courage for me to call him up again after Brian’s graduation party a couple years ago, but that’s in the past now and there's no need to keep thinking about it.
“I was driving home from work and the radio was on. I know it’s really stupid, but then Sparks started playing and I almost cried.”
“I know, believe me, I know. It’s been so long Charlie, but I just can’t. That was our song.”
“I’m in no place to judge, but geez man. That’s rough.”
“It’s… fine. I can talk about what happened but, that song is just too much.”
“So you went to the lake to clear your head?” he says and I could almost see his down-turned eyebrows. He’s such an empath, it’s sweet.
“I guess. Don’t worry about me though! We need to go out and celebrate soon, with Em and Rory like old times y’know?”
“We don’t have to! I’m fine with just hanging out and stuff. We haven’t picked out like a day or anything yet so it’s no big deal.”
“Man… we’re getting old,” I say more to myself than to him but he laughs anyway.
“Yeah. It feels like we were freshmen just yesterday.”
“Now you’re getting married, and I have an actual job.”
“Yeah,” he sighs, and we just kind of sit here with the crackle of people moving in the rooms around him and waves washing up beneath my feet. “I probably shouldn’t encourage you but… why don’t you call him?”
I’ve already thought about it. I used to dial his number every time I thought about him but I never pushed call and… I’m glad I didn’t. I wouldn’t have known what to say and I still don’t know what to say now.
“It wouldn’t end well.”
“You don’t know that for sure. What if it ends on good terms? Like, you get closure or I don’t know, peace of mind.”
“I don’t know Charlie. I’d… I’d have to think about it more.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” he laughs high and pretty. I wish he was here.
“I know. Thanks though. For everything.”
“No problem. That’s what I’m here for-- oh shit.”
“What is it? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, I just didn’t expect it to be so late. I gotta go clock back in.”
“Alright, don’t overwork yourself okay? Say hi to Michelle for me.”
It’s late and I should head back, but here I am: sitting on a shitty little beach being depressed over someone I never really dated. But, I shouldn’t say that. It’s not like I can really forget all of the grocery store trips, meeting his parents, crying on the balcony together, watching the sunrise, and… the tattoo. I pull on my blouse’s sleeve to cover the ink I should have gotten removed. It’s hard to think about.
My body feels heavier than it did this morning when I stumbled to get up. The waves come and go, only serving as a mirror for the sky. Some of the tension leaves my shoulders when I exhale, but if anything, I feel worse. For someone so indecisive, I did an absolute great job at getting attached to someone that I let go. I mean, I’ve really outdone myself this time. It’s funny. So funny in fact, that I didn't notice the rumble of laughter in my chest before my cheeks were wet.