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Coming of Age Fiction High School

Per usual, I am listening to Linkin Park. I am listening to their 2003 hit song “Breaking the Habit,” which I initially assumed was about some catharctic break-through yet is apparently about suicide. The theme makes sense in hindsight, considering that lead singer and lyricist Chester Bennington killed himself in 2017. Just like any artist, he wrote about himself, predicted his own grim future in some sort of twisted self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The wind from the May clouds spews itself into my ears. My left-side earphone falls out. I quickly put it back in- the auditory imbalance always unsettles me- but not before changing the song to something more bland, more happy. I always worry that if I listen to a certain type of music too often, I will subconsciously begin to embody it. 

I lean against the park lamppost and watch the sun slowly crawl down into the horizon: aware of its own surrender, but shamefully so. I close my eyes; I have never been one for sunsets. The closing of the light seems too philosophical, so that I cannot stop thinking.     

Suddenly I think I hear my phone alarm go off. I listen closer, trying to discern the authenticity of the sound: my alarm ringtone is the sound of a duck quacking, carefully selected as a joke when I was twelve years old. The quacks remain small, elusive enough to seem both tangible and imagined.  

If you are just imagining that your alarm is going off, that would be very unfortunate.

After a moment’s hesitation, I turn on my home screen; there is no alarm going off. I smile lightly to myself. That is very unfortunate. 

“Hey!” The noise jars me. I look up from my phone to see my boyfriend, Cole, who I have been waiting for.

“Hey.” I smile at him and scrunch my nose against the sunlight, a habit which I know he likes.  

“Long time no see.” Of course, we saw each other yesterday. Cole likes to think that such statements are charming; I can tell by the self-satisfied glint in his eyes, a small crease in the bottom left corner of his cheek that only emerges when he feels surreptitiously cocky. His joke lacks humor, but I let out a small laugh for his benefit. The crease grows wider.

“So, what did you do today?” My question seems like idle small talk to any outsider; but after a good three or four months of being with Cole, I had long ago learned that that was the dynamic of our relationship. 

“I worked until six-ish, picked up Ellie, ran along the reservoir, you know. The usual.”

“You worked until six?”

“Yeah. My legs are killing me.” Cole teaches rich elementary school students to play soccer at a family club downtown, which means that his outward patience for spoiled children translates into a good $20 an hour. 

“That’s really late. But, you know, if you’re exhausted, we can just meet tomorrow.” I start walking towards my house, which is in the opposite direction from his. 

“No, I still have some energy. For you, at least.” I don’t have to look at Cole to notice the wideness of his crease; likely the size of a small crater, enlarging as he awards himself credit for what he considers romantic. Cole matches my pace evenly and puts an arm around my shoulder, his dark blue sweater grazing the tips of my hair. The weight of his arm is sizable, but not unpleasantly. “So what do you want to eat?”

I pause, as if genuinely thinking. Cole always asks me what I want to eat in the context of him being some sort of dignified gentleman, giving up his manly culinary tastes for his picky woman. Either that or he has no distinguishable taste buds, which would make sense given the general basis of his chameleon-like personality. I can’t decide which alternative is worse. “How about just pizza?” 

“Sounds good.” He strokes my hair gently, smoothing the edges and brushing through the knots.

Of course it sounds good. Everything sounds good to you. You have no opinions. Ignoring myself, I think of the appropriate way to reciprocate his intimacy. I mat his hair playfully, letting myself enjoy the softness of his dirty blonde locks. It is moments like these in which I remember why we started going out in the first place. I inhale deeply. 

“So what about you?”

“Uh… What?” The moment now broken, we pause at the sidewalk in unison as we wait for the light to turn green. I wonder what we look like to passersby, if we seem to be one of those couples that move as one. 

“I mean, how was your day, Spacey?” His notorious crease returns; “spacey” is his nickname for me whenever I daydream, which is admittedly often. 

“Oh.” I momentarily think of how much information I should disclose to him. “Well, I was on the subway to my painting internship and listening to my music was good. But everyone was so peppy on the first day, and it was way too early for all that smiling small talk. Anyone who actually wants to socialize at 7:00AM is clinically insane.”     

I wait for a response, but Cole simply walks ahead as the light turns green. My chest slightly constricts, only loosening when I choose to believe that his silence urges me to continue. It is either my fatigue or the three shots of coffee I drank previously, but my openness both terrifies and invigorates me. “Then I went home, and my mom asked me about you and our relationship, I guess because we have nothing else to talk about. Obviously I avoided all of her characteristically invasive questions. I think she noticed, so she left my room kind of abruptly. So I went for a run, and it was great with the trees and my music and everything. But Melanie has been a bit cold to me recently, and I don’t know if it’s all in my head or maybe she’s sick of m- I don’t know.” I stop talking to take a breath. I open my mouth again, having a lot more to say, yet gently close it.  

The silence looms again, stretching itself wider like some sort of invasive grass. “It’s probably just all in your head.” Cole responds lamely, his words dripping into themselves. 

“Yeah.” Subconsciously, I find my body inching away from his, the cold of the air seeping into my shoulders in his absence. I hate how my body always resorts to depending on him for heat, as if too indolent to deal with itself. I resist the urge to shiver. 

“What?” His murky blue eyes slowly turn to face mine, as if reluctant. 

“Nothing. It’s just, you could give me more of a response. I was pretty… you know, open, just now.” I look down, feeling my cheeks betray my inner self as they tint red. “That’s rare for me.” I ignore the biting edge to my tone, try to dilute it with a gentle fold to my eyes. 

“Yeah, you were pretty open.” He pauses, pursing perfectly-crafted lips into the quintessential pose of discomfort. “You just have to understand- I’m kind of realizing recently how you’re really moody. Like, you only listen to sad bands with angsty lyrics that you pretend to relate to, or like weird artists who complain about life. And you get annoyed at people easily, but then the next moment you love them. Or you’ll be all mad at the world, but then you’ll do something else and feel all fresh and lively.”

“I’m not moody. That’s just… how I’ve always been. I’ve always been defined by my emotions.” I hear my voice as an outsider: soft, as if unwillingly squeezed out from my core like some unwarranted slug. I try to make my last sentence have more conviction, but it only manages to come out more high-pitched. 

“No, you are moody. You’re all cheery one second, and then the next you’re like going through something.” 

“I don’t know, life can be tiring.” I smile lightly. I imagine myself drawing furiously in charcoal, as if each jagged black strand is a desperate attempt to infuse humor. 

“Just be normal. You don’t have to pretend to care about weird things or to feel so intensely all the time.” Cole gently pulls me into his chest, lets his chin rest on the top of my head. He releases me and holds my hand as we turn the block, his grip loose as a stray ribbon.

I am grateful that we are not facing each other: my heart beats faster as I try to restrain the tears gathering themselves into a small arsenal inside me, ready to attack Cole with what a part of me knows is well-deserved guilt. But another part of me- the larger, more prominent one- claims that this guilt is unnecessary. For better or for worse, Cole is one of the few to have truly gotten to know me well, and must be given some sort of objective credibility.   

“Yeah, you’re right,” I whisper. I imagine a thin gray wall separating myself from my emotions, and the wounded sizzling in my chest begins to subside. My mother’s words echo in my head: You want a boy like Cole, someone who is stable, that is what’s good for you.

I lightly brush my fingers over Cole’s as we head into our usual spot, which is a pizza restaurant owned by Italian immigrants. 

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom, order for me?” 

“Sure.” Cole smiles at me; it culminates in his eyes in a playful twinkle, so that I cannot resist smiling back. “One spinach, one mushroom, right?”

“You know me well.” Turning my head before I can see his reaction, I briskly walk to the bathroom.

The click of the lock immediately calms me, a physical iteration of having temporarily separated myself from external reality. I stare at myself in the mirror. I adjust my hot-pink bra to show a bit more cleavage, and pull up my denim pants to cover more of my lower stomach. I take my pointer finger and brush it under my eyelashes to have the pseudo effect of mascara, and do the same for my eyebrows. After fixing a few frizzes on the top of my head, muttering about the hairy halo I was apparently sentenced to, I apply a tad of dark pink lip gloss. 

Finally I observe the one part of myself that I have been avoiding: my eyes. Of course, my glassy gray eyes are irritatingly expressive, reflecting my every emotion like the most disloyal of rivers. As if observing a different self, I have seen my eyes at various lights and colors. Presently they are vacant, rows of willow trees reflecting a dead sort of nothing.  

I look down at the sink and slowly close the faucet. The paper towel ingraining itself into my hands feels like a grainy push from reality, and I practice a frozen half-smile in the mirror. My eyes now look poised, crafted to the very cusp of perfection. They irrefutably belong to someone who is simple to understand, who is as grounded as the most gentle kind of breeze. This girl is who you are, I tell myself. Her, and only her. 

I walk out of the bathroom and check the time: 7:36PM, which means that I have time to eat with Cole and then study for my chemistry test tomorrow. I turn my phone off and put it into my back pocket. My chest feels lighter, stronger, as if I painted it in some sort of golden lining. 

“Hey, I’m here!” I see Cole in the far-right corner of the restaurant, his three plain margherita slices already in front of him. My order is more detailed, so it always takes longer to come. That other girl within me notices the indicative symbolism behind our orders, and demands I leave the restaurant. 

I smile and hug Cole from behind, my arms gently wrapping around his neck and chest. I take my phone out of my jeans pocket. “The picture will just be for me,” I tell him shyly.

“But I have longer arms.” Cole takes my phone and lifts it high upwards, an angle which he knows I prefer. After he takes the photo, I sit down and move my chair closer to his. 

Cole shows me the picture. Per usual, his smile is wide and natural, accompanied by creased eyes that have an easy mirth within them. I look like a robot next to him, haunted by a characteristic frozen half-smile that makes me appear unsettled by the camera. 

I stare at Cole across the table and feel a slight jab in my chest. His mind is effortlessly arcadian, without question, without thought: an open plain, mostly grassy with a few dandelions wedged here and there. In my head, I see him as a surfer, gliding endlessly into the sunset as if the very meaning of life is some joyride.  

“What?” Thankfully, Cole is at least occasionally able to pick up my social clues.  

“Nothing. Just hungry.” I tousle his hair and take a bite of my pizza. I chew slowly, as if the rate of my chewing will hopefully transcend into the rate of my thoughts. 

In response, Cole places a lock of my hair behind my ear. I force myself to smile at him. In such a public sphere, we easily look like we are in love; the whole restaurant takes notice of us, desperately eager to observe and inhale our youthful vigor for themselves. Their attenuated yearning reeks in the air like tobacco. I recognize it like an aged friend, because I recognize it in myself. 

June 26, 2021 00:44

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