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Romance

My grandmother was driving me home from church when I first saw him.  He was waiting at a bus stop downtown, eyes fixed on the asphalt so I couldn’t get a good look at his face; strands of blue hair hung past his eyes, anyway. He wore big, clunky white shoes on his feet, black athletic shorts, and a pink T-shirt.

            “Woah, would you look at that character?” said my grandmother, dipping her head at him.

            I snickered.  “Looks like someone from a movie.”  

            “Gosh, I have to wonder why people would ever put dye in their hair like that.”

            “Didn’t you get yours done yesterday?”

            “Well, yeah, but I didn’t tell them to make it blue!”

            I laughed as I stared after the man in my mirror, until we turned a corner and he disappeared.  I wondered briefly—very briefly, for no one has much time for strangers—where he was going.

            “Okay, love you, Grandma,” I said, climbing out of her car and starting up my parents’ driveway.  We lived in a one-story house wrought of crumbling red bricks, though my father was planning on renovating the place once he could afford it.  

            My mother was in the front room when I came through the door that morning.  “How was church, Anita?”

            “It was good. Grandma really wishes you’d come, Mom.”

            “Well, honey, she knows I don’t believe in God, so… not really sure why she still wants me to come.”

            “Whatever, is there anything for lunch?”

            “Sandwiches are on the counter.”

            I took a ham sandwich to my bedroom in the basement and promptly changed from my scratchy church clothes—which are the only things that could ever convince me not to attend Sunday services—to a pair of shorts and the tie-dye T-shirt my older brother, Cam, made me seven years earlier.  I plopped down on my bed, sandwich at my side, opened my phone, and that’s when I saw it: the missed call from my boyfriend’s cell that would change everything.

            “Hey, Coltan,” I said when the line connected.

            “Anita?” asked a voice that was not Coltan’s.

            “Uh, yeah? Who’s this?”

            “Anita, it’s Coltan’s father, Andrew. I… I’m so sorry, but he completely shut down just a few minutes ago. We rushed him to the hospital, but the doctors aren’t sure if… if he’s going to make it.”

            I felt my stomach clench at the notes of hysteria in Andrew’s voice, for I’d always known him to be a very emotionless man.  I was sitting straight up in my bed now, trembling, forcing myself not to cry.  I held a hand over my mouth and continued shaking, unable to speak.

            “Anita?” asked Andrew, barely holding himself together.  “Anita, I’m so sorry, but I figured you’d want to know.”

            Coltan died three hours later, and there was nothing anybody could have done.  I held his hand as his eyes shut for the last time, another life claimed by the hideous forces of cancer.  

That was two years ago, and I’ve had time to process it, but looking across the street at the blue-haired man in the same outfit he’d been wearing that day brings it all crashing down on me again.  I’m in my Honda Civic, stopped at a red light on my way home from my job at A&W, and he’s at the bus stop again, staring at the ground, apparently dead inside.  

            “How do those clothes still fit you?” I snarl.  “Couldn’t have worn something I wouldn’t recognize you in, huh? Jesu—jeez.”  I admit I’ve fallen a bit short from where I used to be in terms of religion and worship; I often catch myself cursing God or using his name in vain.  My grandmother caught me once, about a week ago, and I think that’s the closest she’s ever come to slapping me.

            The light turns green.  I press the gas down and pull forward, unable to keep my eyes off the blue-haired man.  As I enter the intersection, he lifts his head, and our eyes meet a half-second before my car wraps itself around the traffic-light pole with a tremendous crash.  

            “Ah, shit,” I moan, tasting copper.  I hit my head on the steering-wheel pretty good, and some of my teeth feel loose. 

            “Where’s the airbags when you need em’, right?” someone asks as I open the driver’s door.

            “Yeah, uh… no kidding,” I sputter, feeling dazed.  I’m not sure who’s helping me out of my car and across the street, but they smell like Axe body-spray.  “Thanks,” I mutter, collapsing on a bench.  I spit blood onto the sidewalk.  

            “Oh, God,” I grumble, holding my head in my hands.

            “Do you mind if I go… move it?” asks whoever just helped me across the street.

            “Please.”

            I force my hands to stop shaking and push my emotions as far down into my gut as I can, embarrassed, angry.  I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, judging, criticizing.  For some reason, I’m drenched in sweat and my strands of blond hair are clinging to my neck and face; I am a mess.

With one final, shaking breath, I raise my head and for the first time see my savior: the blue-haired man is pulling my car door shut.  He starts the engine and reverses, leaving more than a few pieces of my bumper behind.  The light pole creaks and moans; I pray to God that He can hold it, and He does.

            “Here good?” asks the blue-haired man, pulling to a stop by the curb.  His voice is higher than my younger brother’s and I note he’s not a man after all, but a boy not much older than my brother, Cam.

            I nod earnestly, eager to show my appreciation.  “Yes, thank you so much. I… oh, man, I’m just not having a very good day.”

            He laughs shortly, a hmph sound, and says, “yeah, no shit. I was just—ah, there goes my bus.”  

            Sure enough, the number 3 bus blows past the stop and through the intersection, forgetting who must be its kindest rider.  

“Where were you headed?”

            “Back home; I work at the No Frills just over there.”

            “Oh, well, I can give you a ride once we have this mess all sorted out.”

            “No, no, I won’t bother you—I can just get a cab.”

            “Really? This ride’s a lot cheaper.”  We both stare at my demolished bumper for a few seconds, then burst into laughter.  

            The cops show up and ask me a myriad of questions.  A team from the hydro-company also arrives to inspect the damaged pole.  Once it’s all over, I get into my car and gesture for the blue-haired guy to hop in. 

            “Thanks so much for doing this,” he says, fidgeting awkwardly with his hands.

            “Oh, don’t mention it. So, where are we headed?”

            “Just down Tremaine Street. I’m Ryan, by the way.”

            “Anita.”

            We drive most of the way in silence so thick, I feel like I’m suffocating.  Ryan stares out the window, watching the city fly past in a blur.  His cologne fills the car, and I roll my window down.  

            “So, do you ride the bus often?” I ask.

            Ryan whips his head around as if I had startled him.  I stare at him with a slight frown, and he relaxes.  “Sorry, uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve been riding it almost every day for three years or so.”

            I nod slowly.  “I think I’ve seen you at that stop a couple times.”

            “Oh, you probably have. I don’t lead the most exciting life.”

            I laugh.  “No one in this city does, Ryan.”

            “Exciting lives are exhausting, in my opinion. A lot of people would probably say I’m just jealous, wallowing in sorrow and sour anger at everyone who’s doing better than me, but I seriously don’t have the energy to chase after luxury anymore.”

            I laugh again, harder this time.  “That was a mouthful. What’s your last name, Ryan?”

            “Walters.”

            “Ryan Walters: a man so exhausted by life, he refuses to chase its rewards.”

            Ryan snickers.  “Yep, that’s me.”

            I drop him off at an apartment building decorated with graffiti, then—but not before he tells me to drive safely and watch out for lampposts—I resume my route home.  My dad has replaced the red bricks on the house’s front with sand lime, definitely an improvement.

            “Hey, Annie,” says my mother when I enter the kitchen.  “How’d your shift go?”

            “Oh, it was good. I… I sort of had a crash on the way home, but I’m alright.”

            “What? Annie, why didn’t you call us, sweetie? We could have helped you.”

            “I… I don’t know. Someone else helped me—a really nice guy.”

            “Ohhh, a nice guy? What’s his name?”

            “No, Mom, it’s not like that. He just helped me talk to the police and sort it all out.”

            “Okay, well, maybe you’ll see him again.”

The next time I see Ryan, it’s at the city mall.  I spot him leaving the bank wearing a backpack.  He stuffs a wad of cash into his jeans pocket and heads for the exit.  His skinny arms wave back and forth as he walks, like pendulums.  They swing right into the door’s push-bar as he leaves, and I’m surprised that I want to follow him.

            The parking garage is much colder than the mall, despite the air-conditioning.  I squint my eyes a little to see through the gloom.  Ryan is to my right, waiting on the benches with the rest of the city’s bus-riders.  He’s tapping rapidly across his phone screen and bouncing his leg up and down.

            “Hey. Ryan.”

            “Oh, my gosh! Anita, how’s it going?”

            “Good, good. Yeah, I was just picking up some soaps and shampoos and other… boring girl stuff,” I say with a giggle.

            Ryan offers a small chuckle.  “Hey, that’s important, right? 

            “Yep, gotta have my girlie things.”  I immediately hate myself for being so awkward—why am I being awkward?

            Ryan laughs again, and for the first time I notice he has really, really white teeth.  “So, are you just heading home now, or…?”

            “Um, yeah. Yeah, I… I guess I don’t lead a very exciting life either.”

            “Hey, boring’s the way to go.”

            I laugh, then I just smile.  I still feel incredibly awkward, but I also feel… happy?  The cold, clammy hands that have been pressing against my insides since the day I lost Coltan have withdrawn a tad and I am not forcing my smile.

            “Unless you wanted to… hangout, or something.”

            Ryan averts his gaze and mutters, “oh, uh, no. Sorry, I’ve… got things to do.”  When I see his eyes next, they’re furtive and he spends the rest of the conversation avoiding my gaze.  By the time his bus arrives, I’ve asked myself plenty of questions about what the cash in his pocket is for, but I don’t ask him any.

            “This is me,” he says, pulling a ticket from his other pocket.  “I’ll see you around, I guess.”  The bus’s headlights are blinding in the enclosed space, and I shield my eyes as it approaches.

            “Yeah, good to see you again.”  As the air hisses out of the bus’s exhaust and it pulls away, I’m left feeling empty and sad again.  It’s not until I’ve found my car that I realize it’s Ryan who inspired that joy in my gut and pulled the slimy hands away.

            I also realize he’s the one who let them back in.

            After I leave the parking garage, I scout around the lot for bus number 7.  It’s to my left, lined up at the intersection’s red light.  I follow it until Ryan hops off at a neighborhood even shadier than his own.  There’s more spray-paint than bricks on these houses, and the majority of the residents are out on their porches with pipes in their mouths.  The stench of pot is heavy in the air, and when I get out of the car, I can hear a couple screaming at each other through an open window.

            Ryan is heading toward one of the apartments; he waves at a frail man who’s blowing smoke into the air at the front door.

            “Ryan!” I yell, jogging over.  “Ryan! Hey!”

            Ryan turns on his heel, his forehead creased with wonder.  “Anita? What are you doing here?”

            “I… I followed you, I thought maybe—”

            “You followed me? Like, the bus?”

            I nod and start to think this wasn’t the best idea.  The man at the door empties his pipe on the doorstep and walks inside.  The stuff on the step is not weed.  “Ryan, what’re you doing here?” 

            “I’m… I’m a cokehead, okay? Cat’s out of the bag. I came here to pickup, but since you’ve taken the liberty of following me…”. Ryan storms away, but I seize his wrist.  “Let go, Anita. You shouldn’t be here.”

            “I came here to see you, Ryan. I… I wanted to… oh, never mind.”  I’m with Ryan, but the cold hands are still pressing against me, clawing at me, like rats looking for a way out of my stomach.  They reach from the awful abyss Coltan left inside me, straining to make themselves heard.

            “To what, Ann?” he asks quietly, suddenly calm.

            In a split second, I have time to think that I’m a very impulsive, rash person when it comes to love, and that Ryan is never going to love me once I do this, especially since we met when my mouth was full of blood from the car crash he was saving me from—I think all of this, and then our lips are together, and my arms are around him.  He kisses me back, and the hands inside me are gone.  

            Two weeks later, on my 20th birthday, Ryan—who’s now two weeks sober—is pulling into my parents’ driveway in a new Honda Civic, just like mine.  My brothers, young and old, bustle around, searching for a window.  

            “Ann, he has blue hair!” Charlie, my youngest brother, exclaims.

            “Yes, I am aware,” I breathe, making my way to the door.  

            “Ann’s dating an emo,” calls my older brother, Cam.

            “I hate you all,” I say as I open the door. 

            “Happy birthday!” Ryan says, holding a chocolate cake with a velvety rose on top in both hands.

            “Thank God you’re here, my family’s driving me insane.”

            Ryan laughs and follows me inside.  “Where do you want the cake?”

            “Bring it in here!” my mother calls from the kitchen.  “So, you’re the boy we’ve been hearing so much about.”

            “I suppose I am.”

            “Hey, put her there,” my dad says, holding his hand out.  Ryan shakes it.  “So, you’re Ryan.”

            “Yes, everyone,” I say, “this is Ryan, my boyfriend.”

            “Nice hair,” Charlie says.

            “Ch—” I start but Ryan interrupts.

            “No, it’s fine. Thanks, buddy.”

            We eat while my parents pressure Ryan with an endless stream of questions.  I help him where I can, but my parents are pretty relentless with this stuff. 

            Before dessert is served, Ryan excuses himself to use the restroom.  Charlie’s eyes follow him around the corner into the hallway, and the click of the door closing marks the beginning of my own torture. 

            “So, have you had sex yet?” Charlie snickers.

            “Charlie,” scolds my dad, slapping him lightly on the back of the head.

            “What? It’s a good question!”

            “No, it isn’t,” says my mother.  “Now can you please just act your age until dinner’s finished? God.”

            “Do you know who he is?” Charlie smirks.

            “What does that mean?”

            “He’s one of society’s silent watchers,” Charlie says, as if that’s supposed to mean something.  I look at my dad for assistance, but he only shrugs and raises his eyebrows.  With an exaggerated sigh, Charlie explains, “It’s a name I’ve given to a lot of people—actually, a certain type of people—that are just… around.”

            “Charlie, you’re weird, bro,” I chuckle.

            “No, I’m not; I just understand people.”

            Cam cackles at that.  “You understand people, eh?”

            From behind his glasses, Charlie’s bug-like eyes are wide in protest.  “Yes, Cam, I do.”

            “Don’t laugh, guys,” says Mom.  “Charlie, I think you’re right, buddy. You have a good insight on people sometimes.”

            “Thank you. Anyway, a silent watcher is, like… aw, crap, I wrote my own definition down somewhere. One second.”  Charlie retrieves a sheet of paper from his room and reads: “Someone driven not by their own vigor but by the expectations of everyone around them; they strive for only the bare minimum in life, just enough to stay off the streets and remain honorable in their peers’ eyes.”

            My mother’s mouth is agape.  “You wrote that?”  Charlie nods.  “Charlie, buddy, you might be a genius.”

            “Yeah, don’t mention how he just called my boyfriend a complete loser,” I say, frustrated that his definition somewhat matches Ryan.

            The toilet flushes and my father changes the topic to everything that went wrong at his job today.

            After dessert, Ryan and I get into his car, and he drives us across town to a secluded beach he and his brothers used to go to as kids.  The sun is setting, and it’s so beautiful I can’t be bothered to get in the water.  We kiss on the hood of his car for a while, then we just lie in the grass.  While we do, thoughts of the first time I met Coltan trickle into my mind.  It wasn’t beautiful like this (it was at school) but it was good.  I was close to him, and I miss him a lot.

But life doesn’t revolve around love.  Life revolves around temporality and that means, in order to be happy, we must exalt what we have above what we have lost.  

As I smile into the silent watcher’s eyes in the face of falling sun, I know I’ve finally managed to accept that.  

August 24, 2021 13:25

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4 comments

Zen Wren
13:26 Sep 02, 2021

You got a lot of depth out of characters who have not very exciting lives…! I worry for Anita and Ryan, and I think that shows how well you developed the characters. They have both been bruised by life and I appreciate that they find a hopefulness together. Ryan is just two weeks clean and he’s got a new car and a fresh attitude, presenting birthday cakes and meeting the parents. This seems too good to be true. I wonder if he will start going to church with her and grandma too. The language around Anita’s loss with the cold, clammy hands...

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Hosea Guy
17:45 Sep 02, 2021

Thanks a ton for your feedback! I tried really hard to make these characters unique and convincing, which is something I often struggle with in story writing!

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Linda Gruenberg
10:18 Sep 02, 2021

Interesting characters. The brother who makes definitions of character types adds some important depth at the end. The blue-haired guy is fascinating in that Anita describes him at first in almost evil terms ("apparently dead inside"), and then she has that accident while her eyes are fixed on his. It throws me down the trail of thinking this guy is perhaps supernatural? He becomes more real when they meet and exchange names, and definitely more real when he admits he's a cokehead (which adds information to the "dead inside" comment from ear...

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Gip Roberts
20:36 Aug 30, 2021

I think you have the potential to write a full-length novel based on this. I like any story where a character who began as a stranger ends up being more than meets the eye. Liked the twist about Ryan's addiction problem, which made him a complex character many people can relate to. Most of all, I loved: "In order to be happy, we must exalt what we have above what we have lost." Made a perfect ending.

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