“10,” Illeana raised her champagne glass in the air as she started the countdown with the rest of the crowd. On the right of her, the deep, soothing voice of a man reverberated in her ears. She gazed up at him.
Her eyes trailed down his face to his lips and her heart pounded against her chest. She was going to do it, her cheeks burned, she was going to learn the taste of those lips. For the last few days she agonized about whether or not she’d take the plunge and kiss the man she was in love with. Yesterday she decided that, yes, once the clock struck 12, she was going to pull him down by the collar and press her lips against his. Granted that she could physically do so. Akano wasn’t that big of a man nor much taller than she, but he was strong and difficult to catch off guard. So, Illeana’s ability to pull off her mission relied heavily on either him being too lost in the excitement or him allowing her to do so in the spirit of the holiday.
It’d only been 3 years since they’d met. Two of which she’d been hopelessly in love with him. It was purely coincidental that’d they come across one another and that’s what she found beautiful.
Illeana had been at the grocery store reaching for the lightly buttered popcorn on a shelf just out of her grasp. On the speakers a woman was calling for help at the number 2 cash register then the call was shut off and music played softly again.
Hoping someone in the aisle was tall enough to give her a hand, she looked to her right. The woman there was much too preoccupied with her fussing toddler in the carriage. She also thought she might have seen tears clinging to her lashes as she failed to calm the child down.
Then she looked to her right and there she saw Akano. Two bags of chips in his hands, both sour, cream, & onion but one was kettle and the other was baked. He was oddly tense and serious as he considered both bags.
“The kettle is good,” Illeana said, walking towards him. “But I prefer the baked.”
He looked between the chips a second more before putting the kettle back and tossing the baked in his carriage. “Thanks,” he said, turning towards her.
“I was wondering if you would help me, please,” she turned and pointed. “I can’t reach the popcorn up top.”
“Sure, no problem.” He walked forward and grabbed the box, “This one?”
He gave it to her and she thanked him. As she was about to place the box into her carriage he began to stare intently at her and she froze in her spot. She glanced at him and noticed that he was actually quite attractive but that hadn’t made being stared at any more comfortable. His eyes narrowed in concentration and he leaned a bit closer. Her eyes darted from side to side not knowing where to rest them.
“Ah,” he finally said, straightening back up. She breathed out in relief. “We went to high school together.”
Surprised, she looked up at him. She thought for a moment, cycling through faces, and there he was. “Uh, yeah, cool,” she said, putting the popcorn in her carriage and making to leave. “Nice seeing you again.”
“Man, how long’s it been?”
She waited to see if he was going to answer himself, but he watched her patiently, expecting her to do so. “Six years.”
“Wow, that’s right,” he placed a hand on her shoulder and she stared at it, lips pressed together, wondering if she should just shrug it off. “Remember our chemistry teacher?”
“Yes?” What was he doing? He was breaking the unspoken rule. Pretend you don’t recognize your school acquaintances.
“He was cool, huh,” he dropped his hand. “Every class was fun.”
“8.” Illeana took a deep breath, trying to relax her nerves. Every second made breathing feel more difficult.
Akano had been the nicest and probably the weirdest teenager she had known. He’d been well-liked, even among teachers, despite being a troublemaker. There was always a crowd around him. Loud, obnoxious, and full of laughter. She didn’t remember a day he was ever without a smile.
Sixteen year old Illeana had had the biggest crush on him. They never spoke much but he greeted her every day and when they made eye contact, before Illeana looked away with her cheeks blazing hot, he smiled at her. Of course he was this way with everyone but it hadn’t stopped her from feeling she was special.
When they sat together for a few months in history class he’d shared his contraband with her. While trying to look nonchalantly in the other direction, he’d poke her thigh with chocolate, cookies, pretzels, anything he could smuggle into his pockets and into class. Most of the time they’d get caught because he had a terrible poker face, but every single time she accepted. These secret moments together made her feel like her unrequited feelings weren’t completely unrequited.
He was loyal, even to friends of friends and he’d get into fights whenever someone badmouthed anyone he remotely liked. His dislike of bullying also caused trouble more than once. In other words, he wasn’t unfamiliar with the principal's office, the detention room, or the in-school-suspension room. But admiring his spirit for good, and his all-around pleasant personality, any adult who spent time with him, loved him.
Akano was easy to love. But not for everyone as was the case for his single mother. Once he’d finally confessed to his mother’s abuse in junior year he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. Illeana had thought she’d never see that bright smile again.
On that fateful day in the grocery store, those feelings did not resurface. Quite the opposite, she’d wondered how she’d liked this talkative buffoon in the first place. All she had left was milk and bread to grab and then she could binge the show that she had in her netflix queue. Instead she was stuck in awkward conversation with a man she barely remembered.
“So, um, Akano. Really great seeing you again, but I got to go.”
His eyes went wide, “Oh-oh, right yeah. Sorry. I get caught up sometimes.” Then a huge grin spread across his face. Illeana almost thought she saw a lightbulb go off over his head. “Let’s exchange numbers so we can catch up.”
She’d agreed. She just wanted to escape the situation as quickly as possible and she hadn’t wanted to feel like she did when she threw out her dog’s worn out, pretty much in pieces, favorite toy.
It was a month later when he finally contacted her. By then she’d forgotten about their meeting and had figured he did too.
Yet, he called, not texted much to her chagrin, and with perfect timing no less. She’d just finished the show she was binging and had been left with the hollowness that often followed. Wondering what she was to do now, she agreed to lunch.
Much to her surprise it was pleasant. Though it might not be so unexpected that she found more enjoyment in his company when it had been her choice to be taken up in it and she wasn’t in a rush to get home.
He fondly reminisced about school memories. Funny memories that had Illeana laughing until she had tears in her eyes. But it wasn’t just the fun things he was willing to talk about. Amazingly enough, he comfortably opened up about personal subject, something Illeana could never do.
“You know,” Akano had said. “It was you who gave me the courage to tell someone about my mother.”
Her mouth hung open waiting for the food on her fork. She placed it down on the plate, “Me?”
“Mhm,” he didn’t break eye contact despite how embarrassed Illeana would have been if she were in his position. In fact, she very desperately wanted to break eye contact herself but felt it would be rude. “You were the only person to notice when I wasn’t feeling at my best. You asked about my well-being and it made me feel… valued.” He smiled, the same one she always admired. The sort of smile that warmed her up as if she were lazing in the sun. And her face flushed.
She didn’t remember ever noticing him having any bad days. If she were honest it was her belief that he’d always been happy-go-lucky every day. But, everyone had their off days, even someone as nice and genuine as he was, especially if they had a terrible home life. For a moment, though, she wondered if he had mistaken her for someone else. However, if he was able to remember her, of all people, then it made sense that it was because she held a place in his heart for something she’d done. That idea made her self-conscious and maybe a bit happy.
What was it that made her fall so in love with him? When even was it? The last few years blurred together and she honestly didn’t care that much.
Illeana loved Akano. She was glad that they had met again. She was glad that they were standing side by side on New Year’s Eve, waiting for the year to change.
The smell of his cologne caressed her nose. His knuckles lightly brushed hers, it was almost unnoticeable, but she felt it. Music played on the loudspeakers drowned out by the party goers counting down.
Was she really going to kiss him?
Illeana had had boyfriends before and thus had kissed them. Her first kiss with each of them had been spectacularly unspecial and her very first kiss had been a dare. None of her relationships had lasted long and though she hardly believed it had anything to do with their first kisses, all her relationships had also been unspecial.
That’s why her kiss with Akano had to be special.
Akano looked over at her and grinned. She smiled back. Of all the people there, he was the most special person. She could even go further and say of all the people in the world, he was her most special person.
When she’d gotten into a car accident that left her in the hospital, feeling miserable and guilty, he made that room seem brighter. He’d painted a rendition of the incident of the yorkie versus their chemistry teacher. An event that occurred when their classroom door to the outside was left open on a hot day. The dog snuck in and had their teacher running around, elusively escaping his grasp until he gave in and let the dog stay.
Illeana had learned that Akano was a terrible artist. But the gesture felt more genuine than the flowers and cards that made her feel close to death.
Celebrating the New Year seemed arbitrary. The only difference between December 31st and January 1st was a measly 24 hours. People went on about ‘New year, new me’ when no one really changed or could change in such a short amount of time.
Change was slow and gradual and the change in year didn't make any more difference than the change in day did. Except mess people up when they wrote the date.
Illeana felt like she had become a new person since meeting Akano again. And it had taken three years for such a change to come about. Yet, she still wasn’t completely new, she still hadroom left to grow. Akano had provided a push with his openness, honesty, and kind nature, and Illeana took that push and began to drive herself forward.
She opened up more often, allowed herself to cry in front of others more often, and tried new things more often. She’d even tried Akano’s aunt’s homemade takoyaki and made the whole family laugh when she failed at pretending she liked it.
“Wow, you’re bad at lying,” Akano had said. Which meant very little coming from him, she told him as much and for some reason he was surprised.
Illeana was going to kiss Akano.
“1! Happy New year!” everyone yelled, drinks splashed from their glasses and fireworks soared into the night sky and exploded. Hollering and whooping broke out amongst the jumping crowd.
Illeana hugged and DIDN’T kiss Akano.
“Happy New Year’s, Illeana. I hope to spend many more with you,” Akano breathed in her ear. Warmth spread from the tips of her curled toes to the points of her ears.
She will kiss him, not today, on a special day, at a special moment, at a special place. Illeana will share a special kiss, slowly, preciously, and consensually, with the man who was special to her.
She loved Akano this year as much as she did last year and her love will continue to grow.
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I really liked the way you maintained my interest throughout - often these sorts of stories that are very internal with little happening externally can be a little slow, but I thought you did this perfectly. I loved this contrast; "Illeana was going to kiss Akano." / "Illeana hugged and DIDN’T kiss Akano." Super likeable characters and the ending was realistic but in a way that I didn't feel at all cheated. Really well written! Maybe this sentence is a little clunky: "She just wanted to escape the situation as quickly as possible and she had...
Thanks so much. I was a little worried that there wasn’t gonna be enough for the characters to be likable, so I’m really glad you thought they were. And yeah, I can see how it’s a clunky sentence. Thanks for letting me know. <3
Nice! Made me smile. The end...very good!
Thanks so much!