“Hey, how are you?” Triscin shook his head at himself in the hallway mirror and started again. “Are you feeling okay, considering the whole, um, no.” He stopped again, this time covering his face with his hands and sighing. Then he said to his reflection, “Eleanor, hi, how bad is your pain on a scale from one to ten?” It wasn’t as though he had so much experience with girlfriends in the hospital. He actually had no experience with girlfriends in the hospital which was why now, just a few hours after Eleanor had smashed his car into a tree, he was practicing what to say to her in the mirror outside her room.
It was funny to think about the reasons why there would need to be a mirror outside a hospital room, but not the fun kind of funny. More like the why-is-my-life-suddenly-one-where-I-need-to-consider this kind of funny that no one ever thought was amusing in the slightest. Triscin took a deep breath and bared his teeth in the mirror, making sure he didn’t have any food lodged between them. He tilted his head this way and that way, checking to see if his desperate state was as obvious as it seemed. It was. His eyes were rimmed red, spider veined and spooky looking, but what scared him most wasn’t his appearance. It was his reaction to Eleanor’s accident.
She’d been more awful to him than usual the last few days. It was supposed to be a fun trip with old and new friends; a vacation to Colorado where they could relax and reconnect. Instead, Eleanor had spent the entire time pacing around the cabin, hands tucked furiously into her pockets, venting to him about how terrible it was that her ex boyfriend, Triscin’s friend Gervassi, had brought his new girlfriend, Afra, along with him on his trip. Triscin liked Afra, though. She was very lively and made Gervassi happy, way happier than Triscin was with Eleanor most of the time. The thing that really bothered him about Eleanor’s mood shifts over the last few months was how catty she had become towards other girls. It was almost like she was jealous, but at the same time disgusted by them for not being as pretty, smart, great as she was. Triscin didn’t know what to do. He’d finally snapped when they were all hanging out together on the beach. Eleanor had said something one step too far, and Triscin had stepped right into it. Standing in front of her room now, he couldn’t get the way she had looked at him out of his head. It was so unlike her usual I’m-furious-with-you icy glare or her shut-up-I-think-I-love-you looks. It was more than sad, more like defeated, hollowed out that her boyfriend, the one person she thought she could count on to be by her side, had defended someone else instead. Her eyes echoed in his mind and he shook his head, trying to get the slate clean before walking in to see her.
He knocked on the room door and no one answered, so he cracked it open and peered inside. Eleanor was awake, propped up by about seventeen pillows and plugged into more things than an electrical warehouse. She looked miserable, in pain, about to kill everyone, and so pretty Triscin wanted to cry all over again. He stepped into the room and she looked up, her sharp eyes blunted by the bandages slashing across her face. Her arm was in a cast, fingers shattered from how tightly she had been gripping the steering wheel, so she didn’t wave. She waited for Triscin to sit down beside her bed before saying anything.
He reached for her hand, but snapped at him. She couldn’t move her arms, but didn’t want him to touch her. He’d never felt so far away, even though they couldn’t have been more than a foot apart. Her hair had been pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, nothing like the intricate braids she usually wore. Triscin had spend hours watching her braid her hair. He’d wanted to learn, once, and she’d spent a whole afternoon trying to teach him before giving up, throwing the hairbrush at him, calling him a slow learner, and then laughing like that didn’t matter. It had mattered to Triscin, because he’d wanted to learn something for her and he would have worked harder if she had given him a chance.
“Els.” He held the side of the bed instead of her hands.
“I don’t want to talk to you. When are my parents coming?”
“Soon, they’re on their way.” Triscin stared at Eleanor and looked for the girl he had fallen in love with. This one looked like she would hand him a fork and tell him to stick it in a toaster. “But I came to see you first. I wanted to know you were okay.” His hands shook as he went on because her eyes were focused on the other side of the bed, far away from his careful gaze.
“I’m not okay. Can’t you see that, or are you too busy filling your head with that femi-nazi propaganda Afra’s been feeding you?”
“This has nothing to do with Afra, Els. Come on, let’s not talk about her. Or them. I’m so glad you’re alive, if not okay. You have the chance to be okay soon, anyway. Not everyone is that lucky.” He was thinking of someone he had lost in an accident, only he had been in the car with them when they were crashed into, and it wasn’t a tree that was the culprit. “You’re a very important part of my life and I want you to know that no matter what, I will do my best to be here for you even if that means just being your friend.”
She snorted in disbelief. “Are you breaking up with me while I’m literally in a hospital bed? That’s a jerk move, but after what you pulled on the beach, I should have seen it coming. Why? You fall in love with Afra too, like Gervassi did?”
Triscin flinched at the thought. “What? No. I’m not breaking up with you. I’m saying I love you, I want to work out our problems because I know you better than you think.” He smiled and reached for her hand again, but she shook her head and he put his hands back in his lap, then in his pockets. “I don’t know why, but I have an inkling all this is more than just jealousy towards Afra.”
Triscin closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he thought he had willed the tears to stay put, but his hypothesis failed him. Tears slipped, a silent, deadly army, down his face as he looked at Eleanor, really looked at her, and couldn’t accept that, even though he had just said he knew her better than she thought, there was a chance he didn’t know her at all. “Why? I love you. I want to be by you when you’re hurt.”
“Stop pretending to be a good boyfriend and leave.”
“What do you mean? I’m not pretending. I try my best and you throw it away any chance you get. It seems the more I love you, the more you hate me.” He swallowed the onslaught of heavier tears. “Never once have you said you love me back, Els.”
“Because I don’t.” She wouldn’t look at him. How do you explain to the person who has stood beside you, tolerating your crap and loving you despite it, that you’ve never once said you loved them because in all actuality, you’ve been using them as a placeholder? How do you tell them that there are people sized holes in your heart and you’ve been trying, for the last couple years, to get them to fill the space they left behind when they left you behind? In Eleanor’s case, you don’t look at them. You pretend they won’t get hurt and you go for it because what is there to lose. “I don’t love you. I need you because you do all the right things. You listen to me. You drive me places. You give me space when I ask for it but hold me tight when I’m alone and scared and that’s what I need. It could be anyone, but you were there. You always have been, and I knew you wouldn’t leave no matter how hard I pushed you.” She stared at the ceiling, cracked and peeling like the broken skin under her casts and bandages.
“What am I supposed to say to that?”
“Don’t say anything at all. Just go back downstairs, be with your friends who do love you, and tell me when my parents get here.”
Triscin wrung his hands together, powerless. “Are you sure it’s not, like, the pain medicine you’re taking making you act like this?” He knew it wasn’t, but she could still take the out. She could say yes, it was medicine making her crankier than usual, they’d laugh it off and pretend nothing had happened while knowing full well every word of it was true. They could keep pretending it was every bit the hopeful romance Triscin wanted it to be.
“It’s not the medicine, Triscin. I’m 100% a wicked person.”
“You really want me to go, then?”
“Yeah. I think that would be best.” Eleanor whispered, safe from the danger of crying because when you’re laying on your back, all your tears fall back to your brain. Not really, but she willed herself not to cry. She wouldn’t, at least not until after Triscin left. “Tell the others they don’t have to come see me. I’ll just wait for my parents and then we’ll go home.” At the thought of going home, Eleanor remembered Triscin’s destroyed car. “Um, before you go, though, what should we do about your car?”
“Guess you should just consider one last thing you used me for, yeah?” Triscin stood up. “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me sooner. I mean, I do, obviously you were getting something out of it, but did you not consider the effects it would have on me and my life?”
“Oh, look at you using big words! What? Did you read a college application sample and realize you’d never get in if it wasn’t for your sports scholarships? Don’t act like you can afford to buy a new car. You could barely afford to bring us on this trip.”
“But I did, because I thought it would be fun.”
“Yeah, and look how fun this all is. I’m in the hospital bed and you’re getting dumped. So how’s that turn out for you?”
Triscin stared at Eleanor. “You know what my first thought was when I saw the car rammed into that tree? It wasn’t, will the insurance cover this, or, stupid emotional Eleanor had to go and break stuff. I thought is she okay and why wasn’t I with her. I looked down at the mug of hot chocolate I was bringing you because even though I knew you were sad that your ex boyfriend from like a million years ago had finally moved on, it didn’t matter. It never mattered that I was never good enough for you, Els. I just wanted to make you happy because I thought that if I did, you would put an ounce of effort into the relationship.”
“I wish you were still like the first time I met you. You were sweet, then. You listened to me. You asked me to the High School Dance™ and wore a suit that matched my dress and you brought me flowers because you knew I liked to carry around things that showed how much you liked me.”
Triscin couldn’t believe that he’d worried about Eleanor. She couldn’t die. She was too mean to let go of life so soon. She still had so many people to torment in life. “I hope your parents take you home soon.” It was an awkward way to end things, but Triscin knew that if he stayed any longer, he wouldn’t want them to end at all. He walked back down the hall to the elevator, stepped in, and avoided eye contact with the middle aged man adjusting his glasses. . When the elevator arrived at the food court level, Triscin got off to go find his friends. They were sitting together at a table by Turkey-Empty-B. He saw Afra’s hands closed tight over Gervassi’s and thought to himself how funny it was that while he kept reaching for Eleanor’s hand and she always pulled away, Afra and Gervassi seemed to be getting closer every minute. He wasn’t jealous of them. He liked watching the way they talked to each other one second in loud, brash, overbearing tones and then in the next they whispered to each other about who knows what. Well. Triscin thought he knew, once upon a time, but Eleanor had dashed those dreams. If she was the one who’d been in an accident, why was it Triscin who felt wrecked?
“Hey, guys.” He sat down across from Muzical, Afra’s friend. She was humming under her breath, but she stopped when she saw him. He smiled. Her humming had been nice. Showtunes, he thought. This girl is so into the showtunes. “So, uh, we broke up.”
Afra jolted, her face dark. “A collective breakup? Like it was okay from both parties?” Her eyebrows drew close together, lips thin.
“Haha, no. It was not a mutual agreement.” Triscin felt his smile slipping; he slipped it back on. “I’m guessing I won’t get custody of our one shared houseplant.” No one laughed. “She’s okay though. Definitely not dead. Definitely remembers me. I’d say she’s had a personality change, but I think I’m the one who needed the new perspective.” He blinked at his friends. “You know?”
They nodded and said, “We know.”
Gervassi leaned over to Afra and moved a strand of dark hair from in front of her face so he could see her better. That simple gesture made Triscin want to hide under his bed, away from all girls and their claws and their pretty tricky sneaky ways. Afra flung mashed potatoes at Gervassi with her plastic fork. He laughed and pulled her closer, almost so they were sharing a seat, but Triscin could tell they already shared a heart. What would it be like, he thought as he watched them, to be so in sync with another person that you can talk about anything, anytime, and feel as comfortable as they do?
“Hey, you alright, man?” Muz snapped her fingers in front of Triscin. “You look like you ate a zombie foot or something.”
“That’s gross. And I was just thinking.”
“Yeah, that’s probably dangerous.” She grinned, dimples deepening. “Did you get something to eat?”
“No, I didn’t. I will though. What did you get?” Triscin found it easier to launch into an unrelated conversation instead of dancing around the Eleanor Elephant in the room.
“Chopped Kale Rainbow Powder Roasted Butternut Squash Maple Cilantro Quinoa Salad.”
Triscin nodded. “Vegan?”
“No, my parents are from Haiti.”
Triscin laughed, loud enough for Afra, Gervassi, and Ander to stop their conversation and stare at him.
He realized it was the first time since they had gotten to the hospital that something was actually funny.