Afra and Gervassi sat across from each other, watching the waters roll into the sandy shores of Lake Granby. A few towels away sat Muzical and the other wild high schoolers in the Colorado Caravan, as Gervassi had come to call their group over the last few days. He held Afra’s hand, heads resting close together, and sang softly. He could carry a tune okay, though Afra wouldn’t say she'd vote for him on American Idol. It had been a delightful trip; they still had a little over two days left in the cabin before Afra went back home with Muzical and the rest of the Colorado Caravan headed back to Florida. Gervassi sang into Afra’s hair until she started laughing and rolled away from him, for once not caring if she would get sand in her eyes or not. Gervassi watched her splash into the water she had refused to step into all day, because now she obviously wanted him to join her. He nodded to Ander, his bestly sweatered friend, and waded into the lake after Afra.
It was so, so cold.
Eleanor, Gervassi’s ex girlfriend but not to Afra’s knowledge, followed them into the lake and dragged her current boyfriend, Triscin, along with her. He begrudgingly followed and soon everyone had gotten into the rhythm of the sun bathed lake. They splashed and kicked and threw each other in the air and most of the time caught each other and for a minute nothing else existed. The sun was setting over a beautiful day, and the night was young yet. They could set the world on fire. (Metaphorically, of course, and in reference to a song.)
A few minutes later, because the water was freezing and their patience was thin, the group of elated young friends stepped out of the lake, chattering and reaching for their coats and sweaters. (Ander was the only one wearing a sweater, actually.) Afra slipped into Gervassi’s jacket, the same one she had taken from him when they met on the bus. She watched him carefully as he watched his friends. She could tell they meant a lot to him, so it meant a lot to her that he had invited her to be with them this week. As she watched him, though, she could also tell that one of the girls, Eleanor, was glaring straight at her. The girl’s lips were tight against her pale face, bright green eyes glinting like clovers in the rain. Afra tapped Gervassi on the shoulder and he leaned on his elbows to look up at her.
“You called?” His hair was still wet from the water. Afra thought that since he had dyed it orange, when his hair was wet that made it orange juice. She hadn’t told him this, the same way he had never told her she was cuteiful, both cute and beautiful at the same time. There were some things that were better left unsaid. They were apparent even when no words were spoken.
“I did. I wanted to know why Eleanor hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you.” Gervassi wasn’t sure if that was true. He thought if anything, though, Eleanor should hate him, and not Afra. She hadn’t done anything to hurt her. She didn’t even know they had dated in the past.
“Well. We kind of used to date for a while when we were younger. I thought she would have gotten over it. She has her own boyfriend now, but maybe she’s jealous of you.”
“Maybe. You know, I dated people before you.”
Gervassi knew that was to be expected. Afra was a terrific person, and with the way she managed to catch him on that bus, she was bound to have caught the eye of other people and that was okay. Gervassi nodded. “Yeah? Were they nice?”
“Some were. But this one guy, his name was Bobkin and he looked like an ostrich. So not attractive, but I really liked him. Then he ended up being part of,” she lowered her voice and put a hand on Gervassi’s arm as though she was preparing him for the shock, “The Italian Mafia. He wanted me to marry him and continue the line of heirs to the throne, you know, like the Godfather, and I said no.”
“Afra.” Gervassi moved her hand.
Afra laughed. “You’re right, but there was a guy I dated who robbed a CVS.” She looked so earnest that Gervassi almost dropped the case, but he knew it wasn’t true, just like when he had told her he ate a hamburger for lunch and she knew he had only eaten the salad that came with the meal. He didn’t answer her. “His name was Robert, ironically, and he wore a blue bandana. Matched his eyes.”
“Maybe you should carry around like a cup of tea and then you could have a matching accessory for your eyes. All boys should do that. It would be so sweet. Isn’t it funny how boys don’t want to be seen as sweet? All that toxic masculinity, you know, ruins sweet young men from an early age. Good thing you aren’t like that.” She glanced over at Eleanor, who narrowed her eyes even further, and then leaned forward to kiss Gervassi. Hands on his shoulders, she could breathe in the soft lakeside air still hanging around Gervassi. She felt his arms close around her back and hips and smiled against his lips.
Then he gently removed her and she sat back down on her towel. “Afra.”
“Would you stop saying my name like that?”
“Like what? I love your name.”
“Yeah, well, you’re dragging it out like I’ve exasperated you. I’m not a little dog. I didn’t just poop on the carpet. I kissed you.” She put her hands in the jacket pockets and slid her sunglasses on. “Was that not good?” She kept one eye on Eleanor and one eye on Gervassi. Neither of them looked happy, but at least Gervassi didn’t look like he wanted to kill her. “Are you jealous of Bobkin and Robert?”
“No. I’m not jealous of you and your deranged, made-up boyfriends.”
Afra snapped back as if Gervassi had picked up a pair of scissors and threatened to slice her open with them. Gervassi wished he hadn’t said anything. He knew guilt was never a helpful thing.It hadn’t helped him when his father had looked at him and said, even while he was lying in the hospital, how his having this “little problem of yours” was just a “way to get attention” and “do you know how much you’ve hurt this family?” Yeah. None of that ever helped, and now he had done the same thing to Afra. She took the jacket off and stood up, taking her towel with her.
“Et tu, Brute?” She curled her fingers into fists, nails digging pink crescents into her palms.
Gervassi watched her walk towards Muzical. He picked up the jacket she had dropped and started to go after her, but the looks he was getting from the whole Colorado Caravan, even Eleanor, told him he’d better back off. He called after her, though, once she and Muzical started walking towards the car.
“Afra, don’t leave!” He started to make his way across the cool sand, but Ander caught him and shook his head.
“You have to let her calm down. I don’t know what the heck you did, but as upset as she was, Muz is going to kill you and I’m still debating whether or not I should help her. What did you do to her?”
“Nothing. I mean, nothing on purpose. I said something to her that I shouldn’t have said. I have to call her. I was trying to help, but I did it wrong.” Eleanor smirked behind her slender fingers. “Why were you scaring her, Els?”
Eleanor put her hands down. “Me? What was I doing? That witch had the audacity to come with you to our trip. Ours! And you’re mad because she interrupted? This is not my fault.”
“You could have been more welcoming.” Ander said.
“Why? Just because the lot of you are all super social butterflies doesn’t mean I have to accept any little random stray you decide to adopt, Gervassi.” She tossed a slice of her hair over her shoulder and rolled her eyes in a way that, unlike Afra’s, was obnoxious and not in the slightest bit endearing.
“Don’t call her a stray.” Afra knew her place in the world more than most adults did. She wasn’t lost. Gervassi was glad she wasn’t here to listen to this girl talk like this about her. “I brought her with me because I love her and I wanted her to meet my friends, most of whom I thought would love her too, even if it was just because she was my girlfriend.”
Ander straightened his sweater nervously. He had seen the demise of Gervassi and Eleanor ever since they had started sliding away from each other and into the arms of new people, but he didn’t foresee the collision happening so soon. Especially not on a public beach.
“You want me to call her something else? A stronger word that means the same thing? That would still convey the message and let you know that I think your girlfriend is a real-”
Triscin interrupted her. “Els! Stop. You can’t talk about other women that way. You need to empower each other and lift each other by the words you use. So do us guys. We need to put an end to all the painful remarks we make about each other and soon, the world would be a more supportive place where everyone knew they belonged instead of being ostracized for their differences and being judged based on unfair prejudices.” Everyone stared at Triscin, who until then had shown no sign of such powerful vocabulary or such progressive views. Eleanor was not pleased.
“Shut up! No one wants to hear you and your TED Talk fantasy, okay? Literally, no one here cares. Go throw a football or something and let me handle this.”
Gervassi threw his hands up. “What happened to you, Els? You used to care about what everyone had to say. And now you’re berating your boyfriend for defending human rights and you chased my girlfriend off the beach with your death glares.”
Triscin shook his head. “No, that was you.”
Gervassi realized this was true. “You’re right. But still, you aren’t the same person I thought you were, Eleanor. Neither are you, Tris, but that’s a good thing.”
Ander handed Gervassi his cellphone. “You need to call her. They’re already at the cabin.”
“It’s me, Gervassi. I’m sorry. I was mad at Eleanor, not you, and I’m sorry, again.”
Silence and then, “I thought you of all people might know what to say, but I guess we’re still learning.”
“Yeah. We are.”
“You guys on your way here yet?”
“Are you still mad at me?”
“No.” Yes. “I’m not.” She was.
“We’ll be there soon, but call Muz and Ander off my case. They want to kill me.” He tried to lighten the mood, but Afra didn’t appreciate the joke.
“I’m not sure I need you alive.”
Gervassi’s smile dropped. “What?”
“Never mind. Just, when are you getting here? I’m hungry.”
His hands were shaking and he knew it was stupid, that wild teenage hormones blew every word out of proportion and that was why teenage dramas were such prime entertainment, but Gervassi’s hands kept right on shaking. His father had said something along those lines to him, right before he sent him to live with the Aunts. He had brought home a steak dinner three weeks after Gervassi returned home from the hospital. When Gervassi didn’t eat his meal, his father had hissed, “If you don’t eat, you die.”
Gervassi couldn’t eat, though, and he told his father this, whereupon the man leaned close to him, over the cursed steak plate and whispered, “Die then, and save me the trouble.”
Hearing it this way from Afra was a million times worse and it hurt him physically, only egging on the grinding teeth of his stomach. He did eat breakfast, and the salad, and he had fully planned on having something for dinner because bit by bit and piece by ever loving piece, he was getting better. He knew that. He was worth his battles. “I- is that really what you think? You wouldn’t care if I was dead?”
“Of course I would care, why do you think I wouldn’t? I drove to Colorado for you. I put up with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for you, both the actual girl and the show.”
“My dad said, well, it doesn’t matter.” Gervassi ran his hands through his drying hair and swiped at the tears, wholly unprecedented, rolling down his cheeks.
“It does matter. Of course it matters. Tell me.”
“When I get back to the cabin I’ll explain it to you.”
Afra had made him cry, and now she couldn’t be mad anymore. She wanted to find him next to her and reach for his hands, but the only person home was Muz. “Okay.” She closed her eyes.”Okay.”
The carpool drive home with Ander was almost silent.There was a song playing on the radio that Gervassi was too distracted to think about. He had enough words rattling around in his head. Ander turned the radio down and, while keeping his eyes on the road, asked Gervassi what the unholy frittata was going on.
“I don’t know. I’m just tired.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, where did you go when you disappeared? Why didn’t you text, or call, or email? You could have sent an actual paper letter and that would have been something. I thought you were dead.”
“You aren’t far off from the truth.”
Ander’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re a ghost?”
“No. I’m not a ghost. I was sick. I am still sick, kind of.”
“Oh. It was true then.” Ander felt his heart sink. Eleanor really was the gossip queen of America. “Eleanor said you were in the hospital for some eating disorder?”
“Yeah.” Gervassi couldn’t believe this was the way he was telling his best friend the truth. Well, more like retelling him what he already suspected was true. “Some eating disorder.”
“Hey, don’t be mad, but I thought that was a girl thing. Like for cheerleaders and whatever.”
“No, no.” Gervassi had heard this before, plenty of times. “Turns out anorexia is an all inclusive disease. It collected even me. Cheers.”
“Why did you stop eating?”
Gervassi hated that question too. “I didn’t do it on purpose. My mom had just died,so that could have triggered it, but I don’t know. There’s not like a defined way to know.” They turned the corner and Gervassi saw Eleanor and Triscin’s car in the sidecar mirror. He looked away from the mirror. “But Maggie, she’s my therapist and my nutritionist, she’s been a great help. But that’s not where I was at first.”
“Was there really a cult?”
“No, it was a commune. Not a cult. I left because I hated it, but it wasn’t a cult.”
“Oh. Eleanor said you had joined a cult. I didn’t believe her.”
Gervassi smiled. Good old Ander. “Good, because it was a commune, not a cult.” They drove into the cabin’s parking lot.
“You could have talked to me. You should still talk to me, if you want to. I know I’m not Afra, you probably shouldn’t kiss me, but I am your friend. I hope you know that.” Ander pulled at the collar of his sweater. “Even when I had no idea where you were, I kept thinking, ‘Gervassi would have liked this,’ or, ‘Gervassi would do that,’ and it was weird because I thought you would have said goodbye.”
“I’m glad I reached out and got to come with you guys on the trip. You’re a good friend, Ander. The best friend. But I have to go talk to Afra.”
He left Ander to take care of Eleanor, deciding whether or not she would be able to stay was a hard choice, and went into the cabin. He saw Muz and asked her where Afra was.
“She’s upstairs.” Muz and Afra had been sharing one of the guest rooms after the cardboard box melting incident. “I’ll go get her.”
“I can go.”
“Nah, I’ve got it. You wait here, young man.” Muz vanished up the stairs and when she reappeared into the living room, Afra was waiting behind her.
“Hi, Vassi. I’m sorry.” She pushed Muz lightly out of the way.
“I’m sorry too.” He smiled and Afra remembered that if she pushed him away, he would take his smile and her heart away with him. “Let’s go outside?”
“Sure. Let’s.” They left Muz inside to read 43 Shades of Aquamarine, an interesting romance novel about a billionaire mermaid and her favorite spry young sailor.
They sat down on the porch swing and listened to the crickets chirping in the background.
“Why does this feel familiar?”
“Does the Walmart parking lot ring a bell?”
“Yeah.” Afra moved closer to Gervassi and the bench shifted underneath her. “It’s not a bad thing, though, to get mad at each other, or be hurt. That’s how we learn to trust people. You know someone loves you when you stab them and they stick around to help you clean up the mess.”
“That’s not a great analogy.”
Afra chuckled softly into her cold palms. “No, it’s really awful.” She rubbed her hands together. “But not everyone can steal their lines from John Green, Vassi.”
“That’s true, that’s true. So. What would a John Green character say right about now?”
“A John Green character wouldn’t say anything at all, my good fellow. Can I have my jacket back? It’s cold.”
Gervassi handed her the coat.