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General

(This is a continuation of my previous story Popsicle. You don’t have to read both but this story might make more sense with some context.)

Over the years, contact between Jared and I became more consistent yet less personal. As we gained more unrestricted internet access, we were able to text, email, and video chat almost daily. I quickly realized how much harder it was to convey emotion through a screen. There was something so much more personal about mailing letters with cool coins we found, or anxiously riding in cramped cars for hours to see each other without speaking for days beforehand. 

Jared had accommodated to his new home quickly. He made new friends from late-July summer camps and was ready for his first day at his new school. I remember feeling like it was way too fast. Our last visit to the treehouse revealed that Jared was certainly less phased by this change than me… but it still hurt. Seeing him move on so fast made my heart ache while I slowly tried to get closer with acquaintances I hadn't bothered to deepen relationships with before. 

-

We were 15 when Jared came out to me as bisexual. It was around a week after his birthday and I was staying at his house for a few days. He had thrown a party earlier in the day, but all the guests were long gone and we were sitting on his back porch watching for fireflies. I had been too focused on looking for the little flashes in the nearby woods to notice the worried expression on Jared’s face. 

We had wordlessly agreed over the years to not clutter up silence while together. It wasn’t uncommon for us to meet up and then find ourselves appreciating each other's presence and the landscape around us without sharing a single sound. That was the case for that particular night, so when he spoke up, it caught me off guard. 

“Hey, Clay?” His voice came out barely above a squeak. 

I jumped a bit, quickly refocusing my eyes and looking over at Jared. “What’s up?” Now I noticed the way his face was screwed and the contemplation in his eyes. “What’s wrong?”

We were sitting on opposite sides of a green iron bench. Jared picked up his legs and crossed them, turning to me so his back was against the armrest. 

“I’m bi.” 

After the words left his mouth, he looked up and made eye-contact with me. I could tell he was prepared for the worst. 

I cocked my head and squinted my eyes. “Bi, as in-”

“As in I like guys and girls.” His expression didn’t change. 

I maintained eye contact as a smirk grew on my face. “Oh, because I thought you meant like bigmouth. I don’t know which one makes more sense.”

Jared exhaled sharply through his nose, looking down at his hands resting in his lap. I watched the worry melt from his face. It was nice to see my same-old Jared return so fast. 

We both turned back to face the woods, watching the fireflies blink in and out of existence. 

“Thank you for telling me. This obviously doesn’t change anything between us. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

Jared chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe how long I’d been dreading that.” There was a sad undertone to his voice. 

I glanced over at my best friend and softened my expression. “Why? You had to know I was gonna accept you.”

He sighed as a weary smile spread across his face. 

“I know. It just… never gets easier.”

-

We both got our licenses within the following year. I got into a minor crash within six months of my 16th birthday and had to spend the night in the hospital. When I woke up the next morning, Jared was there. I slowly opened my eyes and rubbed the sleep out of them. When my vision cleared, I saw him sitting in a chair in the corner, wide awake.

“Dumbass,” was the first thing Jared said to me. 

I flashed him a wide smile. “Takes one to know one.”

My mom walked into the room and sat down beside Jared. 

“Mrs. Audie, next time, let me be the one to hit him.”

She sighed and looked at me. “If you can do it without damaging the car, sure.”

I was able to leave by lunch that day. Jared stayed over the next night to make sure I was ok and ended up missed one of his finals. 

“It was optional anyway,” he kept telling me. “I can make it up if I really need to. I had an A in the class already.” 

This type of behavior was typical of Jared. He always put others before him, even at his own detriment. I found out later he had to do two weeks of summer school to fix the exam (or lack thereof.)

-

Over the last few years, our visits had started to grow farther and farther apart. From the day he left, we swore to see each other once a month. This grew more and more difficult the older we got. My weekends started getting crowded with extracurriculars and Jared was rarely able to escape his homework outside of the school week. When a month or two had managed to squeak by and we hadn’t been able to see each other in person, it was nobody’s fault. 

As the summer of our senior year came and went, we were able to visit three times. Twice at my house and once at his. I’ve got to say, out of all our memories together, the events that took place on our last visit certainly stand out the most. 

Jared texted on July 19th to tell me that his girlfriend was coming to Indiana to see some extended family. He was going with her and wanted to know if I wanted him to stop by for a day or two before we both had college orientation. 

“Yeah, that should be good,” I said, pressing my phone between my ear and shoulder as I opened the door to my bedroom. “When?”

“We’d leave tomorrow, so probably like the 20-22ndish.” 

I held my phone with my hand again and flopped down onto my bed. “I mean, that’s a bit short notice, but I obviously don’t have anything else to do.”

Jared snickered. “I knew you wouldn’t. See you then.”

True to his word, Jared appeared on my doorstep the next day with a big bag and an even bigger smile. I went in for a hug and he reciprocated it, a little harder than expected. I stumbled back a bit and he giggled. I had always been taller, but ever since my freshman year growth-spurt, I towered over Jared. He took great pride in being able to physically overtake me in any way. 

We got his stuff settled in my room and decided to go out for a drive. Jared spotted a cafe that had only opened last week and suggested we give it a try. 

Once inside, we browsed the menu hanging above the baristas and ordered. I got a black tea and Jared ordered a caramel macchiato. We seated ourselves by a window and chatted, careful not to let our conversation reach small-talk and becoming meaningless. 

“How are things with Miranda?” 

Jared took a sip of his coffee. “Pretty good, I guess. Our 3 month anniversary was last week.” His face fell a bit. “She didn’t remember.”

“I don’t blame her. That’s a weird milestone.”

“I guess you’re right, it’s just... things are going too well.” Jared crossed his arms on the table and put down his head. “She’s so perfect for me and its messing with my head. There’s no spice. No pizazz. I don’t have to constantly worry like I did with Jackie. Or Chase. Or Sam.” His voice came out muffled. 

“That sounds kinda toxic, dude.” Jared didn’t respond so I continued. “Just because she’s not gonna leave you with more attachment issues doesn’t mean she's bland. You weren’t you when you were dating Jackie and Chase and Sam. This is the happiest I’ve seen you in a long, long time. Don’t mess things up just because you’re worried they might go south.”

Jared groaned and picked up his head, resting his chin on his overlapping arms. “Damn it, Clay. Can you stop being wise for a second and just let me wallow in self-pity?”

“Never. We don’t have time for that.” I checked my watch: 7:45. “We should probably get out of here. They’re about to close.”

I collected our now empty mugs and returned them to the counter. Jared stuffed his change in the tip jar and waved to the workers as we exited the cafe. 

Once in my car, we turned on the music and sat there for a minute. Jared was the first to pipe up. 

“This evening isn’t over. We’ve got to do something else.”

I relaxed my body and let it mold to the shape of my tattered car seat. After pondering for a bit, I was hit with an amazing idea.

“The last renters finally moved out of your old house. It’s empty right now.”

A mischievous grin spread across our faces simultaneously as I shifted the car into reverse and turned out of my parking spot. 

-

We stood on the gnarly uneven roots of the large oak tree supporting Jared’s old treehouse and peered up. 

“How is this piece of shit still standing?” Jared exclaimed under his breath. 

“It barely is.” I looked over at Jared. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Nope.”

Jared walked in front of me and tested the first rung of the ladder. When it didn’t creak, he put his full weight on it, losing connection with the ground. Still no sign of instability. He signaled for me to follow as he continued to climb. I grabbed the filthy rope tethered to the ladder and hoisted myself onto the first rung…

It immediately snapped. 

“I’m really not thinking this is a good idea-”

“Come on, Clay! We haven’t been here in so long. The rest of them are stronger, I promise.” Even from a distance, I could see the nostalgia in his eyes. Jared really wanted to do this. 

I sighed and stepped up to the next bar, gentler this time. It squeaked but didn’t buckle so I continued up with a steady grip on the rope. Once at the top, I saw that Jared had already sat down. He was in the exact spot he was the last night we spent together here so many years ago. My heart twanged as I remembered that night. The popsicles. The spotty rotten wood allowing us to see the night sky. The way he fell asleep as if he didn’t realize that he would be moving in the morning. I remembered how drowsy he was for our goodbye and questioned how well he remembered it. I looked over and saw the same sunbleached kickball we had talked about to long ago. The one we had temporarily lost in Mr. Jones’ yard. That cranky man had passed years ago and his house had been completely remodeled. Something about the familiarity of our old junk still remaining untouched made me feel safer. I continued to stare at the ball as I walked to my spot in the treehouse, tripping on the way and sending a jagged splinter into the skin conjoining my thumb and index finger. 

“Oh sh- Jesus, that hurts.” Thick blood was already running down my palm. 

Jared quickly rose and helped me get up. I removed the splinter from my hand and looked around for something to bandage it with. 

“Maybe I should have grabbed some napkins from the cafe…” Jared muttered under his breath. “Just.. hold it, I guess. It will dry eventually. 

I rolled my eyes and sat down adjacent to where Jared was. He returned to his spot and let his eyes roam around the old wooden walls. I continued to wonder how different our perceptions of our last encounter here were. 

“You know,” Jared said after falling silent for a few minutes, “I’ve got something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest recently. It kind of has to do with the treehouse so I thought now would be a good time to tell you. I think, when we were little, I use to have a crush on you. I think.”

I started to say something but Jared cut me off. “Just let me talk. I’m not saying this because I recently rediscovered old feelings or something. I’d rather have this treehouse collapse on us right now than have any romantic interest in you. It’s just, the more I look back on it, the more it confuses me. I’ve never been as close to a friend as I am with you. Of course, feelings are much more intense when you’re little, but even then. Nobody even came close to you. Even when our visits got more spotty, I never felt like we drifted. It’s not like either of us put in special effort, we just… stayed friends. But our bond is nothing like mine with Miranda or Chase or whoever else. Nothing at all.” He paused and made eye-contact with me. “Do you know what I mean?”

I scrambled to find my words. “I mean- yeah, I get it. Especially the part about spotty visits, but... Why tell me now?”

“Well, I was planning on doing it at some point while I was here. It felt like a secret, and I hate secrets. The treehouse just seemed like a good spot. We’ve had a lot of great times here.” He ran his hand along the wood floor, careful not to catch any splinters. “I also wanted to do it before we went to college. That’s really gonna take a toll on our social lives. How’s your hand?”

I removed my thumb from the cut and looked. The blood had dried, but stretching the skin made it pop back open. “It’s ok. I probably shouldn’t move my hand much though.” We were quiet for a minute before I continued. “At this point, does it really matter if you liked me? It was so long ago. It’s not like that would change anything now. Maybe some of it comes from your doubts about your relationship with Miranda?”

Jared shook his head. “I don’t think so. It’s been bothering me since before her. I just don’t like not having closure, you know?”

I exhaled sharply through my nose. “Well, there’s no better way to get closure than have a full-circle moment in the place most deeply rooted in your problem.”

“Tell me about it. I seriously can’t believe this thing is still standing. My dad must have done a really good job maki-

CREEEAKKKK!

As if it was on cue, the treehouse started to tilt away from the tree. Jared and I panicked and threw ourselves down the ladder, barely even hitting the rungs. 

We fell back onto the damp grass, laughing breathlessly. The old structure stopped moving once our weight had been lifted from it. The sun had set long ago and the stars were just as vivid as I remembered from our last treehouse visit. We laid there for a while and grouped together stars as "constellations." naming them after things that were most important to us at the moment. Slowly, Jared’s head found its way to my shoulder, the same way it had so many years ago as we continued to gaze up at the night sky.

July 24, 2020 06:20

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1 comment

Jillian Oakes
06:23 Jul 24, 2020

im gonna be honest, i'm not as crazy about this one as I was about popsicle. i was on a stricter time-crunch for this one and wish i could have finished out Clay and Jared's story with more power. might have to come revist it later, but for now, enjoy.

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