"Jordie, don't go," Harriet cried, grabbing onto his shirt. Her eyes were wide, shining, and he almost let himself fade at the sight of her.
Almost was the key word. Hetty was good at breaking his heart--she'd done it ever since she came into his life. By now he was used to it.
He knelt in front of her and said, with a confidence he did not feel, "I'll be back. You know that. I always come back."
"But you always come back late," she mumbled, tears streaming down her cheeks.
It was absurd, he thought sometimes, how different both of them seemed. They'd been born only three years apart, and while Hetty was still a baby, he'd already been thrust into teenhood. Though there were no manuals to teach him how to live, no safety net waiting below. Jordan was too young to know this at that point, but still he did. He knew if he failed now, he'd never get back up.
He heard the car honk. He leaned forward and kissed Harriet on the forehead. He dropped his suitcase on the grass and cupped her cheeks, wiping away her tears.
"Be good," he said, smiling. "I'll miss you. I'll write to you."
"I miss you already," she whispered, but he ignored her. He jumped to his feet and ran to the car, throwing the suitcase in through the open window. His mother yelped, scolded him, but Jordan did not care.
When they began driving, he turned back. Harriet stood in the middle of the street, all fifty inches of her, and something in Jordan flickered to life at the sight. It was nice to have something waiting for you, he thought. It was nice to have someone depending on you. He settled into the weight of it with the assurance of a boy. By that point, he had never let anyone down.
Boarding school shaped Jordan from an awkward, bratty kid into an assertive, well-groomed adolescent. He was popular among his classmates, the class's clown. Even his teachers adored him. He was an intelligent, compassionate, sensitive boy. He was never cruel, like so many of his peers, but smart. His intellect shone through him in many ways, pouring out from everything he did. Sure, there were some ill-mannered attempts at humour, some pranks which got out of hand. But as everyone said, what did you expect, grouping boys together like this?
For all his popularity, Jordan was still a kid. He wanted to be looked at, wanted the attention. He was greedy, too. One compliment had to be turned into a thousand. The faculty, which had never had a reputation of stinginess, were happy to oblige. They wrote to his parents, singing his praises, showering him in adoration.
He was happy at school. He excelled in his classes, never had to worry much about anything. Like a well watered plant, Jordan bloomed. He did not seem to get the memo: he was a teenage boy, after all, a certain level of gracelessness was to be expected. But he never did seem to go through the familiar stages. His skin was smooth like plastic, his voice hardening like a knife being sharpened. He grew without letting anyone know--one moment he'd been a child. The next, he was fully formed.
Teachers wept at graduation. They grasped his hand, fingers clammy with sweat, and cried how much they'd miss him, how he was the best student they'd ever had. He smiled until his cheeks hurt, eyes watering at the harsh lights, and when he finally found himself alone, after so many years, he drew a long, deep breath.
He turned. He blinked, confused, at the girl in front of him. It wasn't fair to say that he'd forgotten her; of course he hadn't. There had been summer vacations, melting ice cream dripping down his wrist, the unforgiving California sun burning through his shirt. The hot concrete, the pattern of the couch imprinting itself on his leg as they'd laid, wasting away, in front of the television. Christmases, too, the feeling of her elbow touching his as they sat on their knees, staring out the street, hoping it'd miraculously snow. The freckles in her nose--they had never changed. Three dots, pointing west. Her smile had, however, and when she beamed at him in the parking lot, he almost didn't recognize her.
"Hetty," he sighed, a strange feeling of air tightness grabbing at his chest. "Jesus. You look different. Did you fix your teeth?"
She laughed at that. "Got braces last year. I guess you didn't see them."
Jordan had gone out east with his family that year. They hadn't even dropped by for Thanksgiving. "Yeah, I guess not."
An uncomfortable silence followed. It felt almost physical, the barrier between them. Jordan wondered if he'd feel it, if he only raised his hand, that distance that seemed suddenly abnormal. He'd never been unsettled around Harriet before, but honestly, he was hardly able to remember that the girl before him was the Hetty he'd known. Every time he'd thought of her, all these years, the first thing he ever saw was her at eight years old, standing in the middle of the car lane, tiny fits bundled up into her dress. The thought of her growing up was suddenly painful.
"I didn't know you were coming," he said.
"I didn't, either," she shrugged. "Your mom invited me when they were leaving. I just hopped on in."
Jordan smiled. "Sounds like you."
"Yeah." She bit her lip. "I missed you."
She said it in one breath, as if it'd been pulled out of her forcefully. Jordan felt faint. It was odd how much they'd changed. How quickly, at that. Harriet was now seventeen; he, twenty. The gap had never felt so wide before, not even when she'd just been born, pink and ugly, and he'd carefully touched his finger to hers. He remembered thinking how fragile she was, how helpless. He remembered thinking how nice it was to hold something so alive in his arms.
Now it stretched between them, almost animated. Jordan could see its pulse, wondered when it'd break--if it would ever. He wondered about a lot of things, about the sound of her voice when she said she'd missed him. How pale, shimmering in the air like gold. Easy to miss, if one didn't know where to look. Jordan saw the map of it splayed out on the back of his eyelids.
"I missed you, too, Hetty," he said. "God, time has really passed, hasn't it? I remember when you were a kid."
She smiled at that, bowed her head. Where had she gotten shy from? "I remember you when you were a kid, too."
He laughed. "Fair enough."
She looked back. Her hair had a sheen to it, almost vibrant. Jordan had to resist the urge to tug at it, to see how it would feel tied around his wrist. Her eyes were still huge, obscenely so. It made her look like a doll, made all her features too small, too out of place. He noticed, briefly, that other people would find her ugly. She seemed uncomfortable in her own skin, bending in on herself. Her dress was unflattering, her legs too long for the rest of her. Jordan was mesmerized. Is this the girl I used to push away from me at New Years? he thought. Is this the same girl I told my friends about?
"I should go," she said. "I don't want to miss my ride back."
When she took a step back, he mirrored it forward. She smiled at him and he felt that old, familiar string tugging at his stomach, tying him to her. He wondered if she felt it, too, that pull. He felt rooted to the spot--if she were to move, his legs would turn to jelly and he'd be dragged through the asphalt. He pondered, briefly, why that did not seem like such a bad idea.
"Go," he said. It burned his throat. Harriet nodded, unfazed, and when she turned and walked back into the school, he managed to stay upright.
Harriet was his first kiss, he remembers, years later. He's fully grown, now, with a job and an apartment and a vacuum cleaner he still hasn't learned how to use properly. Jordan lies in bed, sheets at his ankles, and passes through every interaction they ever had. He remembers them playing tag--she was five. He remembers Harriet sitting at the kitchen island, her fingers sticky with icing, her cheeks filthy with chocolate--she was seven. He remembers the salty tastes of her tears--this one, he doesn't remember until now. How when he got into the car, on his way to the school for the first time, he'd sucked his fingers into his mouth before turning to look at her.
Jordan wonders when it started, the hunger. Maybe it had always been there--maybe he'd been born faulty, an error in his making, a desperate fear of abandonment that led to his eventual obsession. And, really, what did he expect? Harriet hadn't needed him since she learned her ABCs. She loved him, sure, but affection was not the same as dependence. Jordan has not seen her since that night, moving immediately into his college dorm, straight into the city from there. But since then he still feels stuck, glued to her like a sticker he had not managed to peel away just right. His skin feels thick in the places he remembers she last touched.
He's thirty and alone and he misses her so much it hurts. He feels an emptiness inside him, a storm that with the dexterity of a performer had swept him under, so quickly he'd barely noticed until he was drowning.
Jordan has no friends, now. He has a job, at least, one he hates. It pays enough to afford rent in the city, the groceries, though he hardly earns enough to buy things that would make him happy. A new record, he lists in his head. A new t-shirt. A bag of candy. A plane ticket back to California.
He rots away in his mattress, dust gathering at the corners of the room. He feels trapped, like somewhere along the way he took a wrong turn, exited when he should have entered, and now he's lost, wandering. Alone.
Jordan remembers that party--Harriet had been twelve. New Years, he had his best clothes on, his parents had let him sip champagne. He felt drunk with teenhood, the excitement that came with knowing you finally had a place in the world. He'd seen her, standing in her pink dress, flowers woven into her hair. He'd been so happy, then, so pleased to be a part of something, that when the clock had struck twelve he grabbed her face and smashed their lips together. He'd wanted to feel grown up, was his excuse. At thirty years old, fifteen years too late, Jordan realizes how stupid he'd been.
Harriet hadn't been meant for great things, was all anyone talked about when they talked about her. She'd been a quiet, reserved girl, never particularly good at anything. She'd stood out like a sore thumb, haunting Jordan every day of his life like a splinter he'd never managed to carve out. They'd been brought together by proximity, by convenience. Jordan's mom had never had a job--Harriet's had too many. From the moment she'd been born, she was dropped off into his arms, into his care. Jordan was never happy to be left alone; even now, forty five and with no stable relationships to show off, he still craves the attention he'd been given in his youth. His charm has long since faded, though her mark still seeps through his skin, settles on his bones.
He tells himself that's the reason why he notices when she approaches him. That's why when she touches his arm, he's lit aflame.
He loves her and he needs her and these two things are equal. He loves her because he needs her; he needs her because he loves her.
"Long time, no see," she says. Time has been kind to her. He hadn't been able to see--Harriet's beauty had always been the worn out, tarnished type. Age has done nothing but improve it.
"Hey, Hetty," he says. He feels ancient next to her. Forty two--forty two! God, who remembers being that young?--and beautiful, she smiles at him.
"How have you been?" she asks.
He wants to tell her everything. That he's miserable, though it's not a sadness he feels often. That he wanted a different life for himself, one filled to the brim with her, but that now it feels as if it's too late. That even now, more than twenty years later, he still feels planted to the ground of the school's parking lot, graduation day, when he saw her for what feels like was the first time. That he loves her, that he's obsessed with her. That his aching is deep and old and has never drifted.
He asks her, "How have you been?"
He reminds her, "Remember that time when…?"
He tells her, "The happiest time of my life."
He admits to her, "I've missed you."
And she replies, smiling, "I know."