BY JESSICA WANG
It’s The Day we’ve been dreading.
Summer’s ended, and school begins in a week. Only yesterday, Mom took me to buy all the necessary items for the new school year–a bookbag, writing utensils, lined paper. You offered to come with me, but I refused. It’s too depressing to think that you won’t be needing anything here, because you’ll buy all your materials in another place. Another city.
Already, the weather has cooled. Wind whips about me and tugs insistently at my arms, cinched around my middle. As I trudge down the street, I yank my hairband off and smooth my hair down around my neck. It’s thin, but a source of warmth, and will have to do to replace the scarf you gave me, the one I forgot at home on the dresser.
The scarf meant for the winter without you.
Meteorologists are predicting the coldest winter in a long history, based on the early onset of autumn. A blizzard is due in early December, and I recall how much you love snow. But this year, you won’t be there to watch the flakes waft steadily to the ground, or wake up to the pure whiteness that blankets the landscapes beyond the city, the ones we can just barely glimpse from our balconies.
So out of reach, the suburbs. Where you’ll be going, soon.
My steps relax across the rainswept pavement, and I avoid the neat stacks of leaves deposited at the curb. I frequent your neighborhood so often an old woman sitting out on her porch beams familiarly at me. I nod, affect a smile, though in my heart I’m frowning-
A strong gust of wind sends still-green leaves gliding to a rest on the ground. Soon, the leaves will die, and plummet. The lonely, branchless tree will wither beneath the wintry sun.
You’ll not see any of it, though. I will.
Mentally, I shake myself out of it. Don’t think about it, you said. Not until we necessarily have to.
When will that be? In a few minutes?
All through the summer, we managed to do it, didn’t we? Not mention it, all but forget it. We pretended we had forever, that this summer wasn’t the last. That today wouldn’t be the final day.
Nevertheless, occasionally I’d catch you looking at me, as if trying to sear my image into your head. You wouldn’t be smiling, or frowning, just looking a little distant. Melancholy.
Whenever that happened, I’d tap your shoulder and you’d snap out of it immediately.
Only today, it’s me who needs to be tapped.
Another gust; the branches buckle and snap, spiraling to the ground. I stop to stare at it for a minute, then walk on. There’s no way I can save it, can I? I hate it more than anything, this feeling. Helplessness. Unable to do a thing except watch as my life twisted from my grasp-
And thankfully, into yours.
You repaired me, put the pieces back together. You painted a smile on my face and taught me how to laugh again, because I forgot. You tried to cheer me up, effectively hiding me from the darkness. In a way, you blindfolded me.
You told me I’d seen too much, so now you made sure I saw nothing. When anyone was harsh with me, you suggested we leave. Run away. Disappear from here; it would be like we never existed.
That was the thing, though. Running away never solved problems.
At least we could distance ourselves from all the people that hate us, you told me.
Any time you spoke like that, your voice grew so sharp and piercing and your eyes would flare. Yet, if someone asked, “How are you,” you always replied, “Fine,” and smiled that smile, the one that assured everyone everything was okay.
That you really were fine, that you weren’t secretly falling apart.
And everyone bought it, everyone believed you because they weren’t around that day in the middle of the summer when you broke down and wept.
I was alarmed, because you never cried. That day, you did. And it seemed like you’d never cease.
It was because you’d had the nightmare, the one where everyone we knew had tried to kill us. Where we had both been betrayed, where you’d had only me and I’d had only you.
We ran, but were outrun. The nightmare ended with both of us in coffins.
You were deathly afraid of betrayal.
It’s one of the strangest things about you.
You noticed me, somehow, and through observing, saw what everyone else did.
That I needed help, and badly.
Unlike everyone else, you gave it.
You hazarded a lot, in helping me. By giving a part of yourself to me, you risked being taken advantage of, being betrayed.
Yet you still healed me. Made me feel special, inadvertently compelling me to rely on you. Depend on you entirely to cheer me up, to induce a smile.
In a way, you weakened me.
During that process, you began to lean on me too. Began to need me as much as I needed you. Still need you.
The prospect of existing without you is daunting.
Frankly, I don’t know if I can do it.
I still remember the day you told me you were leaving.
I told you I hated my school, and dread returning in the fall.
At least I won’t have to go back to that hellhole, you said, smiling wryly.
You’re dropping out?
No, transferring. To an all-year boarding school in the suburbs, halfway across the country.
You always spoke so lightly; I could never differentiate between a joke and a admission . You weren’t joking then, but I hoped you were. There’s nothing I can do about it, you noted, so there’s no use moping.
That didn’t change anything, did it?
At the time, neither of us really gave a thought to what that meant about us. I suppose we thought our relationship was strong enough to handle long distances, but now, thinking about it, it still won’t be the same. Sure, you’d be at an all-boy school, and I’d be stuck here, but letters and e-mails can’t keep us together.
We both know that.
And I can’t help but think that you were right, when you said everyone pays for their happiness. A little bit of good means a little bit of bad later. “It’s the way the world is,” you said. “So it’s hard for me to be happy, because I know I’m going to hurt, later.”
I see what you mean.
I’m hurting now.
Before I’m ready, your house slides into view. Automatically, my steps quicken. Even now, even today, I’m still excited to see you-
Excited to say goodbye-
At the edge of the property, I pause, remembering the first time I came here. Remembering how nervous I was to be meeting your family, to be in your house. The tinted windows had never seemed so menacing, the chandeliers so fragile. Your parents didn’t like me, I knew that. Deny it all you want, but they never liked me. I don’t blame them. Most people don’t, after all.
Here, three months later, the house remains exactly the same. The rosebushes are trimmed as usual, and the flagstone path is littered with fallen leaves and petals.
The giant U-Haul truck parked in the driveway is a slap in the face. As I watch, the front door bangs open, your dad slowly maneuvering a cardboard box toward the truck. He flicks a glance at me, heaves the box into the vehicle, and halts. Wipes his hands on his jeans.
Something’s wrong. You couldn’t have-
“Where is he?”
He shifts uncomfortably at my directness. “He already left. Currently on the plane headed to his grandparent’s house in Florida.”
“His mother decided for a change of plan, so he left this morning. He tried to call you, but your phone was off.”
“Why didn’t he come find me?” My voice trembles like a candle flame in the wind-
The front door flies open and your mother sashays out. At the sight of me, she pulls up short. “He’d miss his flight,” says your Dad, with obvious hesitation.
“You mean you didn’t let him.” They never liked me, never will. I know it. They’ll do anything to stop me from seeing you, and we both know it. Don’t deny it.
Don’t think about it. Not until we necessarily have to.
Not until we must say goodbye.
Only there is no goodbye-
Because you’re gone. Already. When you were supposed to wait. When you were supposed to say goodbye. Still it’s not you I’m mad at–no, that’s impossible–it’s your parents. For forcing you on the flight. For telling you today, for sending you off this morning, when it was supposed to be late tonight-
I was supposed to accompany you to the airport-
I was supposed to be left behind at security. Supposed to watch as you gradually disappeared.
Supposed to go back home, alone.
My hand twitches with the urge to slap your mother across the face, to wipe the smugness from her blood red lips. The triumph of finally putting one past us, finally being able to separate us. It no longer counts what she thinks of me, does it? It’s not like I’ll ever see you again, while she’s breathing.
Then my eyes flicker to your dad’s sheepish expression, and my fingers loosen. “He left something for you,” he says.
“Where?”, but the end doesn’t lift like questions normally do. It just remains flat on the ground, like it doesn’t have the strength to get back up.
“In his room,” he responds, opening the front door for me. Without looking at either of them, I ascend the stairs. I pause briefly at the threshold to take a breath, then push open the door-
And the room-
The room’s completely empty-
My breath catches in my throat, and my whole body freezes. I know it’s insane, but somehow, somehow, I prayed you were still here. That it was all just a joke, a poorly made one, but a joke all the same. That what you’d left behind for me was really you. That, upon opening the door, I’d fine you sitting cross-legged on the floor, laughing at me for thinking that you’d ever leave without telling me, thinking that you’d ever just up and go-
I’d laugh and hug you, and everything would be all right.
And maybe, just maybe, you’d also say that you weren’t truly going to move. That your parents had changed their minds, that the city suited them better–
Only no, this room’s empty. There’s nothing but a piece of paper lying on the window sill, like a fallen leafdropped in from the front yard. Crossing the dusty wooden floor, I snatch up the sheet and sink to the floor.
Dear Rena, I read.
I know you think this is unfair, jut as I do–but maybe, maybe it’s for the best? We never really had to say goodbye. Don’t. Goodbye’s too sad. “see you later” works better, because I will see you later. I’ll find you. It’ll be like old times.
Time’s running out. Sorry. I can see you crying right now, so please don’t. Please don’t, because then it’s like I’ve died. I haven’t died. I’m still alive, and so are you. And listen to me–people are so hard on you, but don’t let them hurt you. I want you to remember this, okay? You’re my image of perfect. You always have been. If nobody’s perfect, than you’re the closest to it.
I’d tell you I love you, but you already know that.
See you later, then.
The paper floats from my hand, buffeted by the gales escaping the window-
I don’t cry, don’t speak. Simply sit there, stock still, listening to the wind blowing, to my own breaths, even and slow…
I watch your letter zoom across the room, before hitting the door and crumpling in a heap to the ground.
See you later, then.
You left behind no name, no signature.
It’s as if–
As if you don’t want me to remember.
You want the paper to have been from anyone. Like you want yourself to fade from my memory, someday disappear.
Why do you want me to forget you?
Slowly, my hands grip the sill. They propel me up, and I prop myself against the wall, breathing hard with my effort. I move across the room, swaying on the threshold like a drunk.
It’s odd, this feeling-
I feel light as air.
But it’s not a floating feeling, it’s more like-
Like I don’t really exist.
My hands shoot out and grab the doorframe to steady myself. I feel the solid wood against my palm, my fingers clenched around the edge.
Still here, then.
My eyes rest on the paper. Drawing a breath, I head downstairs.
The paper stays on the floor, still unsigned.
Both of your parents remain on the driveway, speaking lowly to each other; their expressions are inscrutable. When I pass by, they both pause in their conversation to look at me. No one says a word as I drift from your home, down the street.
I feel like nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I leave no marks as I pass, no footprints–even if I weren’t here, everything would be exactly the same.
So how do I know I’m here, exactly?
Without you around, who will remind me?
My feet are moving, but I don’t feel them connect with the ground. The breeze toys with my hair, but it seems like someone else’s locks. Vaguely, I feel cold.
Colder than ever.
“She’s gone,” I hear, breathy like a whisper, after I’ve put seven houses between myself and them.
The wind carries to me the sound of the backyard gate swinging open-
I turn, a stray breeze whirling my hair before my eyes-
And you step out-
For a long moment, we just gaze at each other.
Why’d you do that?
Then you give me that sad shake of the head, and I understand.
I know why.
You raise a hand. “See you,” you murmur.
I wave back, whisper, “Goodbye.” You smile, briefly. It doesn’t reach your eyes.
Slowly, I turn away. Away from you.
Don’t look back, I picture you saying.
I walk away, feeling the thud of my feet against the pavement, feeling the breezes tangle my hair, lashing at my cheek.
I’m still alive, and so are you.
A little bit of good means a little bit of bad later.
So does that mean a little bad now means a little good later?
Silently, I make my way down the street, passing again the old woman on the porch. She nods at me, smiles.
I smile back.
Don’t look back.