Prose by Amaruuk Bose
Art by Amy Ng
We were 15 and stupid and had skipped French class because we’d just learned about the concept of free will. We scraped together pocket change for drinks from 7/11, laughing giddily to ourselves as we paced the tiled floor unsupervised. We could get anything we wanted. We’d never felt freedom like that before.
I got an energy drink, he got Sprite, we split a bag of two-bite brownies. We each grabbed a five-cent lollipop from beside the cash register when we paid. We had nowhere to go from there so we sat in the parking lot, holding lollipop sticks between our fingers like cigarettes. I hated my drink. We shared his. I definitely drank more than half.
He asked me what I would do if I won that week’s lottery—it didn’t matter how much it was, it was certainly more than we really understood. I told him I’d buy my mother a house by the ocean and pay university tuition in advance and maybe invest whatever was left.
“Not a real answer,” he complained, “a fun answer. I’d buy myself an island. No one allowed but me.”
“And me,” I invited myself. “You’d get lonely without me.”
“Would I? Or can you not live without me?”
“You love me,” he teased.
He always knew things before I did. Maybe because he actually read the news and not just the headlines, or because he had the kind of face that made you want to tell him your secrets, or maybe he was just better at listening. Whatever it was, it made sense that he would know this before me.
“Shut up,” I said. “Where would you even buy an island, anyways?”
The new subject kept us busy until it was time to go back to school. I was 10 minutes late to class, but I had already decided it was worth it.
We were 16 and dramatic and I had just experienced my first heartbreak. I’d been dating my first boyfriend, Nathan, for almost 5 months. He was everything I wanted him to be: he was on the swim team and he did well enough in school, though he never seemed to understand Shakespeare. I didn’t really mind. He had nice hands.
Hands, I found out, that had touched Sara at a party that weekend.
He stammered through some half-assed explanation, no apology in sight, until I finally interrupted: “You promised Sara wasn’t a problem.”
He was still Tommy then. He wouldn’t be Thomas for a couple more years.
“Nothing’s ever happened between me and Tommy!”
I probably yelled it, tired of having to tell people, amazed that Nathan would try and pin this on me. The hall felt narrow all of a sudden and I was sure everyone’s eyes were on me. I was all too aware of a string coming loose on the cuff of my sleeve and tickling my palm. I wanted to punch Nathan. I wanted to see him cry. Mostly because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry first.
I don’t remember which of us stormed off. I know I told him we were over and I know Thomas was at my side when I started crying in the middle of the hall. I know he took me into the nearest empty classroom so people wouldn’t stare. I know he gave me a handkerchief and I asked him if he was from the eighteen-hundreds and he said “I certainly am, m’lady.” I know I stopped crying after that.
“Nathan doesn’t deserve you,” he said quietly.
I know now that in the long silence that followed, when I cried until I shook and he gave me his sweater, he was trying to say that he would always be there. He was a handkerchief to cry on, a classroom to hide in, a sweater worn for comfort rather than warmth.
Thomas also had nice hands, but I wouldn’t notice for a while.
We were 17 and self-righteous and pulling an all-nighter. We had a History exam the next day and left all of our studying to the night before. We’d hoped that the panic would set in and help us power through but we spent most of the evening procrastinating, choosing instead to watch Star Trek and argue over which songs made us the most emotional. My mom came in intermittently with snacks and left the door open wider than she’d found it.
My sister, Anusha, eventually cornered me when I went to the bathroom. She insisted that I looked at Thomas the way our cousin looked at pictures of her favourite celebrity, and that he looked at me the way men do in the movies, before finally asking: “Do you love him?”
“No.” Even as I said it, it didn’t feel true. Of course I loved him, the same way I loved my other friends. But that wasn’t quite right, either. The realization made my stomach turn. How could I ever want something more than what we already had? “Now get out.”
When I got back to my room, Thomas was painting his nails. I watched him for a while, his brow furrowed and tongue held between his teeth in concentration. He looked up. “What?”
“Nothing.” I held out my hand. “You’re getting it all over your fingers. Let me do it.”
We were 18 and opinionated and going to a concert. We’d long since out-grown our favourite band from junior high—we’d found music we’d deemed ‘better’ and listened to thinking we were above everyone. But when that band announced a tour, we wore t-shirts we were amazed to find still fit and he asked me to do his eyeliner. It was the first time my heart beat faster than usual when we got close. I had to force myself not to think about it.
Our tickets had our names on them, which I pointed out with a laugh. “Shouldn’t this say Thomas? The ivy leagues will never recognize you with a commoner name like Tommy.”
“Shh, not so loud. The ivy leagues’ll hear you,” he played along, grinning from ear to ear. He’d let me put highlighter on his cheeks, too, and they glistened every time we passed a light. I thought he looked pretty. As we weaved our way through bodies in the packed lobby, he took my hand so I wouldn’t get lost. My heart started racing again.
We were 19 and the world came crashing down. I didn’t want to hear it, pacing back and forth as he sat at the foot of his bed and watched.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated quietly, even though he had nothing to apologize for.
“I know,” I said, even though it wasn’t my place. He didn’t argue. He knew I needed it.
“It’s not…I mean, the doctors—”
“Fuck the doctors,” I interrupted. “They can’t save you, so—”
“Well, it’s not for lack of trying.” He reached for my hand. I stopped pacing. His hand was paler than usual. And colder. It wasn’t his. “We still have time.”
“How much time, Thomas?”
A pause. “About a year.”
“Jesus.” A year was nothing. I wrapped my arms around him as he leaned into me, head on my chest. He smelled the same as always, some knock-off cologne called Niagara Rush. The first time he’d bought it, we swore to visit the Falls one day. We were running out of time.
I am 20. I hold a single dandelion in my hand, rolling the stem between my fingers.
“Anusha’s good,” I say. “She wants to be an architect, but we’ll see if that lasts. Remember when you wanted to be an architect? Your sketches sucked. I, however, got an A on that religion essay I was telling you about, so…”
I place the flower on the gravestone.
“I saw the new Edward Norton movie, like I promised. You would have loved it.”
I look around. Clear my throat.
“My grief therapist said these visits would get easier with time. She’s full of shit.”
I can almost hear his laugh. She said that would happen, too.
I take a deep breath. In. Hold. Out. “I think I was in love with you. I probably always was, I just didn’t know it. But you did, didn’t you? You always knew everything, even this, this secret that’s supposed to be mine…and you know what? I think you loved me, too.” I stare at his name, etched into the granite. I forget what the font is called. I liked it at the time. I hate it now. “I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out. Maybe if…well. You know.”
He never liked it when I would wish we had more time.
“Anyways.” I kiss my fingertips, then press them to the top of the stone. “I love you. Yes, like that. I’ll see you next week.”
I wait a moment, like always. And then I walk away.