It’s midnight, but I have no intention of sleeping.
I can hardly even look at my old bed, sitting in the corner under all the music posters that I didn’t bother to take down from the wall before I left. Quilt pressed and straight, pillows perfectly in place. Like an artifact. Something you might see in a museum.
I haven’t touched it since I got here.
I feel better here, by the window, sitting in my dad’s desk chair because he’s been using my room as an office. No—not my room. My room is in a studio apartment across the country, filled with piercing gold Los Angeles sunlight and sheets upon sheets of half-written songs. This room isn’t mine anymore. It’s only been two years, and yet somehow I feel like more of an impostor than Dad’s bulky desk.
It snowed recently, but not recently enough that it’s still pretty. Instead, the roads are lined with blackened piles of slushy ice and the front lawns of all the neat little houses are splotched here and there with stubborn white patches. The moon is wan and listless, sulking up there in the dark like she’s only doing it because she already signed a twelve-month contract saying she had to. In LA it’s always the same—heat and swaying palm trees, nothing else. It’s been long enough that I’ve forgotten what it feels like to have the frostbitten wind tickle your nose until it turns red, and long enough that I’ve stopped missing it.
It feels claustrophobic, being back here in this tiny town. I want to run all the way back to LA, where at least it doesn't feel like there are walls closing in on you from all sides.
I sit back in the chair and let my eyes shut for just a second. Maybe I will be able to sleep, I tell myself.
Hey, a girl can dream.
The next morning is cloudy; the kind of cloudy where there’s just this slate of unending gray that covers the entire sky, letting only small trickles of sunlight through. I walk downstairs, yawning and rubbing my eyes from the sleep that I didn’t get. Mom and Dad are sitting at the kitchen table, looking like a matching set with their reading glasses and untamed bedhead. Dad’s reading the newspaper, and Mom’s reading something on her phone while she sips her coffee, but I’m not fooled. They both look tense. Come visit, they said. It’ll be good for you, they said. I steel myself. This is going to be painful. Although hopefully not as painful as the awkward hugs in the foyer the night before, acting like I didn’t walk straight out of their lives two years ago and not look back.
“Oh good, you’re up,” says Mom, glancing at me. “How was your sleep?”
“Splendid,” I say, trying halfheartedly to filter the sarcasm out of my voice. The truth is, it hurts being back here. It feels so—wrong. Like it was a different girl who grew up in this house, a different girl who learned to ride a bike on the sidewalk outside, a different girl who slept in that untouched bed upstairs. But I don’t want to admit that, so I make up for it with sarcasm. I’ve always had some of that to spare.
“Have some Froot Loops,” says Dad, gesturing over to the cereal cabinet. “We got some for you.” I stifle a sigh and walk over to the cabinet, telling myself that I’ll try to act like I appreciate their well-meaning but futile attempts at making this feel like home again for me.
An unsatisfying bowl of Froot Loops and a bit of forced small talk later, I head upstairs and get ready in the bathroom. At least this room doesn’t look so irritatingly the same—in fact, it’s completely empty. I guess two middle-aged parents don’t need to use the spare bathroom that used to belong to their daughter.
I stare at myself in the mirror, remembering how I would hurriedly brush my teeth as a kid so that I could go play outside with the neighbors, remembering how I fussed over my hair for an hour before my first school dance, remembering how I threw up in the toilet after sneaking a couple too many sips of champagne from the pantry when I was fifteen. Remembering, remembering, remembering. As inevitable as the tide. I look different now, with a spray tan covering up my old pale-as-Gollum-with-amenia complexion and highlights streaked through the dull brown hair that I thought was too boring. Not for the first time, I look at myself and feel fake.
It’s with heavy feet that I walk back downstairs, with my hair down over my shoulders instead of in a ponytail like I always used to wear it. My friends in LA told me that I looked better like this, and I’ve never picked up a hair tie since.
“I’m going to visit some friends,” I tell my parents, who are still at the table with their coffee and tense shoulders. “To catch up and stuff. See you guys later.”
“Okay,” says Mom, looking up from her phone for a second to stare at me. Her eyes are sad, but I ignore it, just like I’m ignoring how strange it is that she didn’t tell me to be home for dinner the way she always used to.
I walk in the middle of the street. The weather feels even more depressing when I'm outside. The wind nips and stings at my cheeks and I let it, leaving my flimsy, insufficient coat unzipped.
Too soon, I arrive at a street so familiar that I’m almost surprised it doesn’t have the words welcome back spray painted across it. Some sort of sign that it remembers me, that it’s glad I’m here. A stupid thought.
The door I knock on is dark red and tinged with memories. Before knocking, I hesitate for just a second. He knows you’re here, I tell myself. You texted him. Of course, he didn’t reply, but that doesn't mean he didn’t see it. I knock quickly before I can talk myself out of it, my heart beating furiously.
I expect his mom or sister to open the door, but instead when it swings open my breath catches hard in my throat because it’s Ethan, and I’m not ready. Those blue eyes that I didn’t realize I missed so much widen when he realizes it’s me.
“You look different,” he says. That’s all.
We end up going to the diner downtown. It’s a tiny place, tucked in between the liquor store and the so-called Chinese restaurant that sells food that’s more American than Chinese.
We talk in between bites of waffles about meaningless stuff. Trying to catch up with someone you’ve known forever isn’t easy. I tell him about LA—only the good parts, obviously. I don’t tell him about the rent that I can’t pay or the record companies that won’t sign me or the friends that I don’t like.
I don’t tell him how much I’ve missed him.
He tells me about what he’s been doing and all the people he’s been hanging out with in my absence, and I half-listen. Truthfully, I spend most of the time just looking at him, trying to figure out if he’s real or just another dream. I’ve dreamed about him more times than I’d like to admit.
When he's done eating, he sighs and puts his fork down. "You know," he says, staring down at his partially eaten waffle, "I haven't dated anyone since you left. Or kissed anyone. Or anything."
I just stare at him. My mind immediately fills with memories of all the people I've hooked up with in the past two years, and I want to slam my head against the red-and-white tiled wall.
"It's okay," he says quickly, looking up at me. "I know you probably can't say the same. I just thought you should know." And I nod, and that's that.
Afterwards we get back into his pickup truck and sit there in silence, staring out the windows, at our laps, anywhere but each other.
I want to think that he’s changed, that he’s different, but it’s not him. It’s me. He’s still the same boy with the blue eyes that I left standing in the middle of the road two years ago with nothing but shattered pieces. I don't even know what I've become, or who I am anymore, but I know that I'm different. And I hate it.
It’s quiet for so long that I want to scream.
“I missed you, Hailey.”
My heart threatens to break. Maybe the silence wasn’t so bad.
I force myself to look at him. His eyes aren't pleading, aren't longing, they're just waiting. Waiting for me to give him something, because so far I haven't given him anything except stories about my new home. “I missed you, too.” He nods and looks away, turning the keys in the ignition and pressing down on the gas.
We don’t go anywhere in particular. We just drive and drive and drive, past all the places that we used to go to. The movie theater where we would go on dates and get free popcorn because one of our friends worked there. The high school we went to. The park where I first kissed him. Leftover Christmas decorations that people haven't bothered to take down are halfheartedly plastered to the fronts of houses—browning wreaths, flattened inflatable Santas, drooping garlands. The time after the holidays always makes everything feel like a graveyard of the joyousness from the month before.
The world is icy gray, but it’s warm here inside the car. I can feel his eyes on me when I’m not looking. My heart stumbles in my chest. It almost feels like we’re seventeen again and don’t have a single care in the world.
It’s late afternoon when he parks the car at an empty gas station. I sit in the passenger seat and watch him fill up the tank, his breath coming out in clouds, and drown in all the things I haven’t said. I haven’t told him that there’s nowhere else I would rather be in the world than here in his car, that I’m dreading having to see my parents again and then eventually going back to LA. And I’m not going to tell him, either. Maybe he already knows.
He’s leaning sideways against the back door, staring at nothing in the distance. So suddenly that I don’t have time to tell myself to stop, I get out of the car.
We just stand there, looking at each other. His eyes are as familiar as breathing.
For a second time, my body seems to possess me suddenly, and I walk forward and wrap my arms around him. He’s so warm that the wind’s icy bite melts away.
He doesn’t hesitate. As though he’s been waiting for me to do this, he pulls me closer and holds me like he doesn’t want to let go.
I don’t go back home that night.
He takes me to his house, without asking if I want to. He just knows.
“I’m moving out soon,” he says with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans when we go up to his bedroom. There are boxes everywhere, most labelled “trash” or “donations”. I nod and look inside a “trash” box, pulling out a chain necklace that looks like it came from the dollar store. I hold it up and smirk at him.
“You would always wear this back in middle school. I don’t think you took it off at all in seventh grade.”
He smiles too, remembering. “Ah, yes,” he says wistfully. “My gangster faze.” I stare at it for another minute, then snort and promptly slip it over my head. It feels heavy on my neck, even though it’s made of plastic and only hasn’t cracked or broken yet because of some obscure miracle.
He sits down on the bed and looks at the floor. I walk over and sit down next to him, close, but not too close. We sit in silence, but it’s not awkward. It’s the kind of comfortable silence that you can only get when you’re with someone who knows you inside-out. Someone who knows you better than you or anyone ever will. And part of me relishes in it, in this comfort, but the other part of me wants to cry because I know I can’t stay forever. And I know that he knows too.
It hurts to break the silence, but I do. “Ethan?”
I take a breath. “Don’t wait for me this time. All right? I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again, and—”
He shakes his head, fast. “Don’t talk like that. I know, okay? I know.” I let out a sigh and nod. More silence ensues. I lean back on my elbows and stare around the room. It's hardly recognizable now, with the walls stripped bare and all the furniture gone except for his bed.
I've slept in this bed before. Too many times to count, I would sneak out late at night and run and run until I got to his house. I would throw myself into his arms and then we would sleep here, in this bed, and I would feel warmer than I ever had.
It's dark now. I don't need to look outside to know that the sad moon is out, and all the stars that I could never see in the city are glittering coldly in the black. Without saying anything, he gets up and pulls an old T-shirt out of his dresser. He holds it out to me, and I stare at him. He gives me a tiny smile. "Don't worry. It's clean."
I half-smile back and take it from him, going into the bathroom to change. I think about all the times I've slept here before, wearing his clothes. All the times we've done this exact thing. So why the hell am I so nervous?
I open the door. He's standing right outside it, wearing pajama pants and an old shirt. I take a breath and grab his hand, ignoring the pounding in my chest. I lead him over to the bed and we both sit down.
He nudges my shoulder with his and then shifts so that he's lying down on top of the covers. Without letting myself think about it, I lie down next to him. He's so warm, I can feel the heat coming off him even though we aren't touching.
I fall asleep in minutes.
When I wake up it's still dark out. At first I can't remember where I am, but then I feel his arms around me and everything hits me like a wave. I curse myself for my compliance, knowing that doing this is only going to make it worse when I have to go. And I know I have to. He's leaving this place too, and then there'll to be no trace of what we created here in this claustrophobic town.
I think about what will happen when I go back. I'll keep writing songs and performing at crappy restaurants and underground venues. I'll keep being friends with the friends that I don't like. And I'll keep dreaming about him, about the one person who's able to tell my real smiles from my fake ones.
The chain necklace that I forgot I was wearing brushes against my neck and I smile. Sighing, I press closer against him, feeling his chest rising and falling steadily against mine. I lay in the arms of the only person who's ever known me, and I let myself be warm for just a little while.