We wandered back inside, greeted with laughs and drinks that had been shared among a tiny circle of about seven friends sitting on the floor, echoing each other’s names and talking of how much we were all missed. It was the end of March, technically Spring Break, but the cold cut into every single one of us like a frigid blade. It wasn’t all that unusual for Delaware, when the warmth didn’t find its way in until May if we were lucky. But on this particular evening, it was as though my skin had failed to protect me and the jagged cold was fighting its way straight into my bones with complete certainty.
Returning from the outdoors, Max grabbed an armful of sweatshirts from his bedroom on the way, throwing them into the middle of the circle. The intense chill was bad, but the lack of heat in his tiny townhouse made it that much worse. As everyone scrambled for the warmest sweatshirt they could find, Max sat across from me, and I could feel his chestnut brown eyes trying to read my mind. He always looked at people like that, like they were a crystal ball — delicately trying to search for a future with you, inside of you. I was used to this stare, just as I was used to the chill circulating within me, not coming from the weather. It made my chest ache with what I deserved because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was miles away from me in a big house that smelled like vanilla. He was probably outside, though, smoking a cigarette and listening to his iPod because, like me, he couldn’t be bothered with his tangled thoughts.
“Kat!” Fiona shouted, interrupting the trance his smoke dancing around his scraggly orange hair put me under. “We’re going to play Winter Winker. Do you remember the rules?”
The rules were simple enough, yet the thought of focusing on having to follow them made my head throb. We all had to remain in our circle and pick up a tiny piece of paper from the middle. Most of the pieces contained a picture of sun; however, there was one snowflake in the mix. Whoever picked it up was the infamous “Winter Winker.” This meant they had to wink at someone in the circle without anybody else noticing. If you are winked at, you must lie down and pretend to be dead. The object of the game is to pick out the Winter Winker as they try to eliminate everyone as fast and as sneakily as possible; the silent killer. Luckily, I chose a sun.
Sitting in silence, we all stared at each other. Tiffany was the first to fall. Then Jess, then Hayley, and soon Keith caught my eye and winked at me, a silent gesture with a sly smile to match. Instead of faking my own death, I stood up and headed towards the back door, greeting the breeze once again. The drugs in my system continued to keep me as cold as the air about to surround me. I was blissfully aware of the tales of winter taking your vitality, distorting it and twisting it around your gut, remembering that later it would leave you numb. So I gave in and took one of Max’s sweatshirts. It had other names embedded into its careful stitching. I could feel them on my skin, begging for me to elicit some kind of response. The poor sweatshirt wasn’t at all used to the ambivalence radiating from my body, and I was an intruder with trembling legs.
I turned around, feeling the raw, wooden bench on my bottom even beneath my thick, black leggings to find that Max had followed me out. He was holding out the red solo cup I left in my place around the circle as he took a sip of his own. I grabbed it from him. Sighing, he took a seat next to me, and we shared silence together for a while. There, on that wooden deck, he touched my back before he began to speak:
“I can tell you haven’t sleep.”
“Only two days.”
I shrugged. It had only been a couple of days since I last saw him, but the reminder that he wasn’t there was enough to keep me awake for weeks. I would have given anything to secure the reassurance that he was waiting for me inside, telling me to come here and sit on my lap like he did the day I met him. Back then, I could have sworn we were one in the same. Our jagged outlooks of the people surrounding our daily lives, and how we both preferred sharing ashtrays, cheap liquor, and midnight playlists to the company of others seemed like enough to bolster my theory. But as time went on, he showed me everyday just how different we really were. With a rush of pride, he would boldly proclaim that he could never be like me. It was a fact I promised myself to never accept.
Meeting him was a cliché — one of those instant sparks and automatic click kind of things that I felt nauseated for ever having experienced in the first place. It was August. He was wearing a tye-dyed shirt with ripped jeans, and his orange hair was untamed. He had just come back from visiting his girlfriend in his hometown and introduced himself to me so accordingly it was as if, in that moment, this greeting was his number one priority. I was the last to officially be initiated into the “Seaford Sidewalk” group of friends that would eventually encapsulate my entire freshman year of college. Because I was the last, and because everybody had already met AJ, I felt like I already knew him.
“Just wait until you meet AJ.”
“You’re going to love AJ.”
“I can’t wait until AJ gets back.”
All I could do was nod in agreement, waiting to see what all the excitement was about. I had heard that his presence immediately inflicted a sense of ease and restfulness upon the group whenever he came barging through the dorm room door. He was the commander in chief, and the rest of them followed him timidly through territories they had only read about in books.
His exterior was tough, but it didn’t take long for him to feel that foolish spark too. As the seasons changed, he regularly denied it and made certain the only ounce of compassion towards me never exceeded a simple you’re the coolest person I’ve ever known, which was enough for me. Being a naïve eighteen-year-old with a writer’s mind and an imagination as my most reliable weapon, I convinced myself we didn’t need words to solidify what I already knew. We could both feel it in the space between us. So when he finally broke up with his girlfriend a month later and kissed me in his bed with blue stained lips from the alcohol he had been drinking moments before, I wasn’t surprised. All I could muster from the situation was a sigh that screamed finally and a lingering space that still felt empty.
It was the uncertainty that kept me going and his cold, bitter, aloofness that kept me guessing. Even though our friendship continued to blossom, everything else stayed the same. I never would have guessed he felt differently about it than I did. I kept reminding myself we didn’t need the words and shut him up whenever he tried to tell me that what we have will never amount to anything. How could it be? Every day we would meet at the same sidewalk and talk for hours despite our cigarettes down to the butt and the cold taking over. We would take road trips together; we would eat together, shower together, and drink together, deal with parental visits together… and still, the only thing I could extract from his heart was numbness towards me and soon, everything else…
…one night, I took a drag from his cigarette. The filthy smoke filled the air, and I shivered as he put his arm around me. It was one in the morning, and the world should’ve been asleep, but that college town forbade shuteye on any Friday night. There were kids everywhere; kids drinking, driving, shouting, dancing, being. Look to the sidewalk, and you’d see us. AJ and I. We were the kids smoking.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
We were wrapped up in a tattered white blanket with our butts planted on the sidewalk. Later, the university would add benches and cigarette dispensers to accommodate the addicts, but in that moment the cold cement carried itself up my body, and the question stung like freezer burn.
“No,” I lie.
“Good,” he says, keeping his eyes on me, sealing the deal with a wink.