You return from the counter looking incredibly pleased with yourself, holding a tray laden with enough tacos, chalupas and cinnamon twists to satisfy a small family. The guys look over as you slide back into the booth, hands reaching greedily for food. You slap them away.
“Hey. I’m a growing boy.”
They grumble in protest but quiet down as their numbers are called, and one by one, return, looking equally satisfied with their equally overflowing trays. Their noise shifts from complaints about their practically life-threatening caloric deficiencies to heated debate over who exactly made the most hits in our paintball game.
Having made, at most, two hits each and being unqualified to join the discussion, my best friend and I fold paper cranes with taco wrappers. Her hands move expertly — fluidly — through the steps; as the amateur, I struggle to keep up. Within minutes, she produces a crane, its elegance somehow heightened by the gaudy paper. Mine comes out looking like a fat pelican.
“What. Is. That?”
I glance up, and you’re looking right at my pelican, eyes smiling in a way that betrays you even though your lips are pursed in mock disgust. You reach across my best friend, pick my bird up by the tail and succumb to laughter. And it’s your laugh that gets to me that first day. Bright, slow and warm, it’s like honey still stuck to the comb, like sunny fields filled with green grass, daisies and butterflies.
And it’s your laugh that gets to me that first day. Bright, slow and warm, it’s like honey still stuck to the comb, like sunny fields filled with green grass, daisies and butterflies.
“C’mon. Even I can do better than that,” you say, already getting to work.
You, too, soon produce a crane. It’s ugly and crooked and not much better than mine, which I don’t hesitate to tell you. You deny all of my allegations and laugh that same warm laugh.
And for the first time in my life, I feel myself falling.
I panic, deny any possibility of it happening because the enormous pressures placed upon me by parents, classmates and my own self-doubt lately have created a shadow that follows me around, that whispers relentless uncertainties and insecurities into my head. It’s turned me to glass, adorned with the cracks of my diffidence.
And, for months now, I have been on the brink of breaking. So, I am certain: If I fall, I will shatter.
Over the next few weeks, we begin texting regularly despite my fear of developing feelings for you, with your sunshine laugh and crooked cranes. We text in class, out of class, from early morning to late night, and I hate myself because I previously prided myself for never having been one of “those girls” — but I’m thinking about you every second of the day.
At the next schoolwide event, at our best friends’ fierce prompting, you take the seat next to me so that we sit shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand. Not touching, but just close enough. I’m anxious about what other people will think of this, how they’ll react. I tell myself to breathe, but it feels as though the air doesn’t reach my lungs. It’s irrational, perhaps melodramatic, but the thought of any backlash makes me panic. I’m not secure enough to love myself if others don’t.
But you’re secure enough for the both of us, and throughout the event, you lean in every once in a while, whispering jokes in my ear. You keep me laughing nonstop. People around shush us, but for those few hours, I find that I don’t care what other people think.
It’s pouring the day you ask me out, something considered almost an anomaly here. We run across the parking lot after school to your car, and you make an absolutely futile attempt to hold your jacket over my head to block the rain. Neither of us thinks to open an umbrella. By the time we get there, we’re both drenched. But still, you look at me in a way that makes me feel beautiful, in a way that makes me feel safe.
You let me pick what we listen to on the way to the movie theater, and I play cheesy country songs just to get a reaction out of you.
“You would play this type of music,” you say, but then grin to let me know you don’t hate it. We roll down all of the windows and scream the lyrics of the songs (half wrong) the entire trip. My throat is parched by the time we get there, but I’m smiling so much my face hurts.
You ask me out in the back of the movie theater after everyone leaves.
I know it’s coming the entire time, but I’m still incredibly nervous and awkward and uncertain when you do, so all I can do is nod and try not to look too eager and scare you off. For a moment after, I’m afraid it’s not enough, but then you say, “Really?” almost giddily, like a little kid — as if you’d been prepared for rejection, as if you had something to be worried about.
It’s still raining when we leave the theater, but in classic California fashion, the sun is now also beaming.
We go on our first real date two days later. We buy takeout from an overpriced Asian fusion place and drive to one of the viewpoints nearby, where we sit huddled on a cement block at the peak of the hill. You bring only one blanket — on purpose, I suspect — which you wrap tightly around us. We spend the night playing truth or dare, but it’s really truth or truth because we want to know everything about one another. We take turns asking questions, from controversial hypotheticals to deep personal ones. I learn about your future goals and your family — your relationship with your parents, your sisters. You ask me about my childhood, my insecurities, listen to my stories for hours.
You bring only one blanket — on purpose, I suspect — which you wrap tightly around us. We spend the night playing truth or dare, but it’s really truth or truth because we want to know everything about one another.
I finally run out of steam after hours of talking, and we sit quietly for a few minutes, looking out at the view, the stars. We don’t speak, but the silence is somehow comfortable and safe; the peace interrupted by nothing other than the chirping of cicadas.
You turn to me then, say it’s my turn to ask another question. I tell you I’ve run out, but you’re insistent that I come up with just one more. I rack my brain, confirming that I’ve depleted my supply of questions, so you ask if you can ask a question instead. I nod, but my breath catches because the air has suddenly become denser. I know what you’re going to ask before the words even leave your lips.
When you ask, I don’t have the breath in me to answer with words. So I just lean in. You meet me halfway, and the world falls away. I melt into it; it’s slow and soft and sweet and safe, in ways incomparable to anything else. It’s a kiss of $20 coconut curry chicken, of twinkling stars visible despite the light pollution, of feeling infinitesimal but also simultaneously astronomical because we’re pressed so close I can’t hear anything but the pounding of your heartbeat.
When you drop me off later that night, I see you stay parked for an extra minute or two, even after I get out of the car. I text you immediately, teasing you for having such a lousy sense of direction that you have to pull up Google Maps to get home.
My phone buzzes with a reply from you a few seconds after: “Fyi, my direction sense is impeccable. just wanted to make sure you got in safe, stupid.”
I suppress my excitement — this has to be a beginning-of-the-relationship type of thing.
It’s six months in, and we’re now fighting every other day.
For the most part, it’s minor conflicts — you don’t call when you promise to, I snap at you for no reason, you criticize one of my friends, I criticize one of yours. In many ways, you’re still the same guy you’ve been the entire relationship: the one with the sunshine laugh, the one who’s witty and affectionate and self-assured, who makes me witty and affectionate and self-assured. But still, the dynamic has shifted in the past few weeks — you’ve grown more distant, less inclined to spend time together, and I can tell it affects me more than you.
I casually bring it up a few times, and you’re apologetic, receptive, always. You explain you’ve been swamped with school, family, friends, promise you’ll be more conscious of how you allocate your time. I always end up feeling guilty for being too needy, end up assuring you that you can prioritize everything else above me, that I fully understand.
We go on our first real date in weeks, and I pay extra attention to my appearance that morning. Over the course of our relationship, I’d rarely felt the need to wear more makeup than a quick brush of mascara; you made me feel that secure. Lately, however, I find the all-too-familiar feeling of self-doubt you’d previously helped me lock away threatens to rear its ugly head.
You pick me up at 6 p.m. sharp because you’re never late, and the drive over feels the same as it’s always been. You greet me with a hug and a peck, compliment the way I look, and we tell each other about our day, shouting the words of throwback songs in standard carpool karaoke fashion. Your phone goes off with notifications every few minutes, but you don’t look at it, partially because you’re driving and partially because we’ve always had the unspoken agreement to stay off of our phones on dates.
We arrive at the restaurant and are told to wait for a few minutes, during which you check your notifications. I don’t mind — we’re just waiting. We’re seated shortly after, and you put the phone down but not away. Your eyes scan the screen whenever it buzzes with a notification. We talk during our meal, and you’re sweet and courteous and satirical, just like usual, but your responses are brief, the conversation dry, so, as it has become lately; it feels as though you’re not fully present.
By the time we finish dinner, I feel deflated; I wish being on a date with me was enough to keep your attention. I wish I were enough.
We sit in the car for a moment after so you can respond to texts, and I ask where you want to go next; we never end dates with just dinner. You look at me sheepishly then, say you thought I’d have to get home, that your buddies have been texting you to go play poker.
I’m overwhelmed. All of my senses insist you, holding my hand across the center console, are the person who made me feel sufficient even when I felt worthless, who could point out stars in the light-polluted night sky, who made silence feel safe instead of daunting, who patched the cracks in my glass with your honey laugh and words of reassurance.
But that person would never make me feel like this. You would never make me feel inadequate, inconsequential, lonely — especially when I’m not alone.
So when you drop me off that night, I get out without saying anything. You grab my hand then, say you’re sorry to leave me this way, ask me not to be mad. Your tone is begging, but your eyes are weary; I wonder if you’re just trying to avoid conflict or if you actually care.
Your tone is begging, but your eyes are weary; I wonder if you’re just trying to avoid conflict or if you actually care.
I go to sleep that night with no texts from you. I wake up the next morning to two brief ones: “i’m sry for being a dick today.” Then: “it wasn’t right to leave so i could play poker.”
I distract myself with friends, don’t reply to you for hours hoping you’d text again, hoping you’d call, hoping you’d do something — anything — more than a half-assed text.
When I still haven’t heard from you again by that afternoon, I come to my decision: I can’t be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me, no matter how emotionally attached I’ve become.
I finally reply to your text, telling you to meet me at our usual place.
I’ve always prided myself on not being a crier, so I don’t cry.
Besides, even if I allowed myself, I wouldn’t be able to. I go into the conversation frighteningly numb, wanting to sob but utterly unable. The space in my belly once occupied by the fluttering butterflies now sits empty, hollow — it feels exponentially worse because the emptiness somehow successfully fills the space, leaving no room for air.
Our conversation that day is honest, brutal, more so than it has ever been.
I go in prepared — though not ready — to say goodbye. But, somehow, we leave that abandoned parking lot, hours later, with a new understanding for one another, with the mutual agreement to do better, try harder, give this one last go. We both know something this good is too difficult to come by.
I watch as the time approaches midnight and begin my routine on the dot. Lights off. Door locked. Window open. Screen out. Having done this way too many times to count by this point, I’m successfully out of the yard by the time my phone reads 12:02.
As usual, I’m worried that you won’t be there yet, worried that I’ll be caught and, as usual, my worrying is for nothing because you’re punctual, parked one house down where you always park.
I yank open the car door, and you startle (caught off guard by my inhuman speed, I presume) but then grin in a way that’s so genuinely sweet it makes me happy to be alive, to be here, now. You pull me into a bear hug the moment I get into the car, squeezing me so tight that I can hardly breathe. I’m suffocating in a good way.
“Guess what?” you whisper, as if it’s something fragile, delicate. “It’s officially our one-year.”
We drive to the 24-hour 7-Eleven, load up on family-sized bags of Doritos and sickeningly sweet cans of double-shot Starbucks drinks, then head to the viewpoint where we had our first date. You practically leap out of the car the moment we park.
“No, no, no, no, no. Don’t get out until I tell you to.”
I’m confused, but I do as I’m told, and I hear you rustle around the back of the car. Moments later, you come to my side of the minivan, open my door, tell me to close my eyes and guide me around. I open my eyes to see the back row of seats folded down. The empty trunk is covered with sleeping bags and a comforter, string lights hang around the roof of the car, snacks and presents pile in the middle. It’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.
You’re staring at me, practically bouncing on the balls of your feet, trying to gauge my reaction.
“I love it.”
You beam a great big smile of honey and sunny fields and pull me into the trunk after you so that we’re leaning against the seats, facing the view. You hand me your present before I even get a chance to grab mine. Coincidentally, we both made memory books, each filled with as many letters as pictures and mementos.
We flip through the books together, allowing the memories to flood over us like a wave. And it’s looking back at the memories, at how much we’ve changed this past year, when I truly realize the magnitude of the impact you have had on me.
We’d known each other for three years before truly becoming part of one another’s lives, but you came into my life exactly when I needed it the most, when I was practically drowning, struggling every day just to live, to breathe.
I’m leaning against your side, so I only have to tilt my head up slightly to look at you, to express my gratitude for tonight, for everything. But I look up, and you barely move, just give me a peck on the top of my head, keep looking through the book. And it hits me then that you didn’t do any of this for my gratitude, for recognition of any type.
We stay at the viewpoint until sunrise and watch as night breaks into day.
When you drop me off that morning, both of us are bleary-eyed and beyond exhausted but genuinely happy. I walk to my gate to sneak in, look back and see you waiting to make sure I get in safely, just as you’ve done every time you’ve dropped me off in the last 365 days.
It’s perhaps beyond words to describe just how much of an impact you, with your sunshine laugh and crooked cranes and off-tune falsetto and endless games of truth and truth, have had on me. Perhaps I honestly don’t know. I also don’t know exactly what the future holds for us, whether we’ll be able to stay content as we are now or work past our disagreements.
We’ll still fight from time to time and have petty arguments. That, at least, I’m certain of — it’s only normal, after all. But we’re riding a high right now, so I choose to bask in that feeling instead of dwelling on what might happen.
But we’re riding a high right now, so I choose to bask in that feeling instead of dwelling on what might happen.
So, I look back at you one last time before going back in. You blow me a kiss, smile a tired smile, make a gesture to shoo me in.
And I realize there’s one other thing I know for sure: I’ve fallen, but I didn’t shatter.