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The first time I met you, the stars flickered and the world came into sharper focus and I knew you were the one, and when your warm-cocoa-on-a-winter’s-day eyes met mine I knew you knew too.
...that was what would’ve happened in a story, wasn’t it?
The first time I met you we were two awkward sixteen-year-olds not quite used to dealing with members of the opposite sex just yet, fumbling for common ground, desperately trying to appear unaffacted but it showed—oh, it showed, you with your hands constantly fiddling at your sleeve to brush off imaginary specks of dust, I with my newfound appreciation of the floor tiles.
The first time I met you, you were just another person I had to obligatorily navigate the waters of conversation with.
The second time I met you, we ran into each other in the hallway and you shyly pulled out two free coupons for the movies, saying that I was the only one you knew in class and wouldn’t it just be a sin to waste two perfectly good movie tickets—with free popcorn, no less?
That was what would’ve happened in a story. I wish that was how our second meeting went. It was so much better than what actually happened.
The second time we met, we did run into each other—literally run into each other, while I was carrying a test tube containing some chemical that only vaguely resembled what we had to do for class, looked like something Neville would cook up in Potions, and was definitely very acidic. And I had to go and pour it all over the front of your shirt.
I spare a moment even now to thank the Universe for not making me break the test tube against your face.
You sputtered and flailed, and we rushed to the bathroom to salvage your shirt. I was too mortified to notice that 1) I’d followed you into the wrong bathroom, and 2) you proceeded to take your shirt off, run it under the tap, and I was too focused on said ruined shirt to pay attention to you-without-a-shirt at all.
I suppose I forgot to mention that water and concentrated acids don’t mix, because then your shirt caught fire and we just kind of stood there staring at it for a second.
Put it out put it outputitout, you screeched, and I screamed something back along the lines of how the flip am I supposed to put out a fire that you started with water?
And then there were smoke detectors and the shrill brringbrringbrriiing of the fire alarm and a whole slew of confused teachers. And then there was detention.
I spent the majority of the time studiously avoiding your eyes, which were boring holes into the back of my head. After that, we were told to clean up the mess some vandals left behind on the school lockers. I told myself I’d get through this quickly; we’d forget this ever happened and never speak again.
I was doing so well, too, and then you managed to accidentally upend your bucket of soapy water over my head and somehow lost your grip on your sponge, which sailed through the air and smacked me in the face, and oh, it was on.
In a bizarrely ironic twist of fate, the lockers were left sparkling clean while the rest of the place looked like it had been attacked by an overeager mop from Sleeping Beauty.
You had to get the final strike in, of course, so you squeezed the last of the soap suds from your sponge into my hair and said, Now we’re even. And I remember thinking hey, maybe this isn’t so bad after all.
The third time we met (and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth), and I mean met in a very loose way, we just made eye contact in the hallway and tried to nonchalantly poke/tickle/trip the other as they passed by.
The seventh time we met, Mr. Brody paired us up for Chem. You turned white first, then slightly green, and inched backwards carefully. You went to beg Mr. Brody for a different partner. I, of course, turned my nose up and mock-scornfully asked why I wasn’t good enough for you.
Mr. Brody started waving his arms madly, and he pretty much bound you to me from then on.
I managed not to pour another tube of concentrated acid on you, although you never quite stopped eyeing me suspiciously whenever I handled test tubes.
The eighth time we met, you invited me over to your house to finish up on a Chem project, and your little sister asked if we were dating. I’m not sure, at that point, if my long-suffering sigh was because of the mere thought of dating someone like you, or because I’d started—just a little—to wish it might happen...
After that, us meeting up in class, in the hallways, sitting together at lunch became such a common occurence that I didn’t bother counting. I daresay we became conjoined. The ninth time we went to the movies, and the tenth time was when we both went to prom together.
We both agreed that it was because prom attendance was compulsory, and we both didn’t feel comfortable enough to go with anyone else. I don’t know if that was what you told yourself, but it was that moment that I realized I didn’t really want to go with anyone else but you.
You told me I looked great, and I dared to hope that maybe you meant it as something more. It started out perfectly and our friends raised knowing eyebrows, but it didn’t end perfectly because you left to dance with some other people after I stepped on your toes once too many. You asked me beforehand, of course, if it was alright to leave me – and I said that it wasn’t a problem, because really, what choice did I have? You asked me beforehand, of course, and I said yes, don’t mind me, because who am I to keep you all to myself when you were simply magnetic and explosive and ever-expanding like the universe?
Even now I wonder that if maybe I’d learned to dance properly, maybe you wouldn’t have left.
You spent the entire night with someone, and from my seat I could see the way your hands fiddled with your imaginary sleeves. But I could also see the way your cheeks turned up at the sides because of how much you were smiling.
And it hurt that I wasn’t the one making you smile, but really, what choice did I have? So I laughed along when our friends jokingly offered me their condolences, for it appeared you’d been stolen away from me.
Days passed. The eleventh time, you dragged me over to your house again, clearly disheveled and panic-stricken. I had an inkling of what might’ve been causing the problem, a slow burn that started in my stomach and crept its way to my chest, and when you finally opened your mouth I could almost guess what you were going to say, word for word.
I was prepared. Theoretically, being prepared helps, but real life doesn’t abide by theory much. So my heart still skipped three beats when you went, I think I like someone—you know, from prom? Remember? I really, really like—argh, what do I do whatdoIdowhatdoI—?
I stopped you then, rolling my eyes even though it was my whole self that I wanted to roll—preferably out the window—well, go ask then—
Ask? You said, eyes wide. You mean like—
You’re not too bad-looking yourself, you know, I teased, even though it was the understatement of the century and you weren’t just not bad-looking, you were (are) hypnotic and overwhelming and... radiant.
Even more so when that grin lit up your face and you said—kind of breathlessly—yeah... yeah, you’re—I’ll do that!
Maybe that was when I should’ve told you, but I was your friend first and foremost, and what claim did I have over someone as undeniable as you?
I stopped counting again after that, because even though we still hung out it wasn’t just me and you anymore, it sort of became me and you and... that other person.
That other person turned out to be a spoiled, uppity waste of space. You both had a fight at some point, and for a moment it was me and you again. I was there and you were there and it just felt so right, the words of Taylor Swift running through my head over and over—can’t you see you belong with me?—and oh, finally, on one glorious day, the pieces came together and you saw.
But that was what would’ve happened in a story.
What actually happened was that you both made up after a little while. You never saw, but even with Taylor Swift still running through my head I wasn’t jealous.
I was never jealous.
I think I knew, right from the start, that we never had a chance. That I was destined to be your friend, your first mate, never your significant other. And I was never jealous—never hated your real significant other, because you were both blessedly cosmic—two planets spinning towards one another because of their gravitational pull, and God help me you both deserved one another.
So I resigned myself to the truth. I like to think I deserved you too, but in a different way, and so I told myself this is okay, this is enough.
Senior year came and went, and I was on my way to South Carolina for university. I didn’t want to lose you—what little of you I had left—and so we were hoping, praying that you’d get accepted into the same state I did, at least. And you did, but that other person didn’t, so you both decided to let things die off gently before the distance started causing real problems. We went to South Carolina, just the two of us, like old times, and I dared to hope again.
It didn’t really happen like that, though, not the way I wished.
We both went our separate paths, promising to keep in contact, promising to visit each other a lot and don’t worry, we’ve got the Internet, it’ll be easy! So we did. The first six months we did, but I knew—the same way I knew I was never the one for you—that it was just a matter of time. I found that I was the one starting conversations more and more often, and that our late-night sharing sessions devolved into banal how are yous.
Absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder for us, it appears.
Absence is a man half-submerged in minus-10 degrees water, scrabbling for purchase against the thin ice even as it crumbles under his grasp. Absence is a man clinging on, even though he knows it’s inevitable, just to buy himself a few scant seconds to prolong his existence.
It’s in man’s nature to cling, after all.
So I clung to the ice and floundered as you melted beneath my frantic hold.
We had a high school reunion in the third year of university, and I observed with no small amount of shocked admiration how you were still so intimate with that other person, even though all you had for three years was a long-distance relationship. When you turned to me... well, it was like those banal how are yous, but in real life instead of online conversations.
I felt like we were back in square one—two awkward, fumbling sixteen-year-olds who had just met for the first time.
That cemented the fact that we were never going back to the way we were before.
And that’s okay, I knew it was coming all along. Preparation didn’t help, but it’s okay.
Maybe you both will get married one day, and you’ll almost forget to invite me. But then you’ll chance upon an old shirt and remember the crazy stranger who’d dumped a test tube of concentrated acid on you and landed you both in detention, and you’ll write down my name as an afterthought. I’ll go up and congratulate you both, and you’ll turn that smile on me—your generic smile, the one that’s still gorgeous, but it’ll be the one you give to everyone, not the smile that used to be meant only for me.
And that’s okay.
I think I loved you. Love you, that is. I think I still do. I fell in love (am in love) with your brilliance, your presence, your extremities. I am in love with the way you feel without constraints, the way you laugh with your entire self and cry without boundaries. But you never knew, and you’ll never know. I felt our threads breaking when we left and I feel the threads breaking even now, fraying and fraying until a single strand is lost in the sea of time and distance pouring out of Life’s cupped hands, until another strand of us joins that one and another joins them.
And that’s okay.
Letting you go was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but that was what I did. I let you go the way a plant relinquishes the last bits of sunlight as the Sun sets, but I let you go without the comfort of knowing that the Sun will be back tomorrow.
If there’s one thing I can say about us—our relationship, and consequent lack thereof—is that I was not selfish. I never could find the words back then, and even if I’d been able to, I wouldn’t have said them. There are words better left unsaid, hidden in the crevices of my tongue, stuffed behind the memory lanes of my lips.
I don’t think I was ever selfish. So maybe, maybe just this once, maybe I will let myself be selfish. Maybe I’ll send this letter to you and the Earth will stop spinning because of the sheer realization you’ll have upon reading, and you’ll think how could I be so blind, how could I not see that I belonged (belong) with you?
But who am I kidding. This isn’t a story.
And that’s okay, Em.
It really is.