This story is one of the August Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
I meet him at a park. I’m sitting at one of those picnic benches, scratching tally marks in the wood with a fingernail, and he sits down across from me, says, You look sad. I look up, startled, angry, bitter maybe, ready to tell him exactly where he can put his useless words, but the eyes I meet are wide and wet and warm and maybe a bit lost. They aren’t the sort of eyes you want to say mean things to. So instead I say, So do you. And he nods at that, nods a few too many times, I think.
And I wonder what kinds of dysfunctional kids we are. Sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves in a bright, sunny park. Or maybe, I think, it’s the world that’s dysfunctional, daring to be so beautiful when life is in fact an ugly thing. So when he asks why I’m sad, this is what I tell him: Because the day is beautiful, but life is ugly. And he nods some more, like this makes perfect sense and I am a perfectly normal girl.
And he’s looking at me now, waiting, I know, for me to ask him why he’s sad. And maybe I do want to know, but I can’t ask because words aren’t things I can command, not anymore. Sometimes they pour out my mouth in long and eloquent articulations of thought I didn’t know I was capable of, but mostly they don’t come at all. I imagine them sailing back in time, where they can belong to a girl who is much more fun and doesn’t think life is ugly. A girl whose mouth spouts the sort of words people like to hear.
So I don’t ask why he is sad, although I’d like to. But the words sweep in with a different question. Do you believe in love? is what my lips haltingly ask. He looks at me a beat too long, surprised, I think, although what I said before would surely be more surprising. He looks at me, I suppose, like I’m a book with all the pages torn out. Or maybe like there’s one page still intact, but it’s smack dab in the middle and might as well be written in hieroglyphics. Finally, he says, I think love exists for those who allow it to.
I don’t ask what he means. I know what he means. I know in that place in my chest that has gone all tight and achy, that place I mostly try to ignore. I know what he means far too well, so I don’t really respond to what he said, but instead tell him, My mom says love is seasonal. She says it’s good while it lasts, but when it’s over, you get out. That’s why she divorced my dad and divorced Roy and why she kicked my brother Sam out of the house. That’s why one day her love for me is going to run out too.
This is why it’s better when the words just stay away. Because now I’ve said what no one was ever meant to hear, and I’m staring at my hands, cheeks burning, waiting for this boy to mumble a few unmeant words and dash off to somewhere far far away. I wait and wait and wait for this until the seconds have piled up too high and I have to look up, see the judgment in his eyes.
And there the judgment is, ice that burns behind dark eyes. But for all the fierceness of his eyes, they cannot match the iron of his words. I do not love seasonally, he says, measured and deliberate, as if a battalion stands swiftly behind his words. And I understand then that the judgment in his eyes is not meant for me. And I am somehow sure that if we were to love each other, this boy and me, I might be made to believe in a future where love is not something so flimsy and fleeting as winter or fall.