I was supposed to answer the question “If you could zoom through space in the speed of light, what place would you go to right now?”
I couldn’t focus on the topic, but after reading a fellow writer’s post on the subject, this fell out of my head.
“If you could go anywhere in the world,” she asked me, “where would it be?”
My hand was getting warm. Too warm. I could feel the sweat collecting in the center of my palm, sliding down my fingers to meet hers. I was desperate to wipe my hand on my jeans, but you don’t do that. Let go? No way. We were alone. At night. Together. I was holding her hand — you don’t unhold someone’s hand.
“Hey,” she said, nudging me with her shoulder. The back of her shirt scraped and caught on the concrete pipe we were curled in, making her shirt do interesting things. I missed what she said again.
“Huh,” I asked, trying to find someplace safe to rest my eyes.
“If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” I could hear her smile. The lack of light in our hiding spot had reduced us to base shapes: The repeating arcs of our knuckles interlocked. The simple lines of our legs in denim darker than the concrete around us. Curve of her jaw flowed to a sharp chin, leading me to the the tiniest reflection from her lips.
I started to say something romantic, at least the closest approximation romantic a thirteen-year old boy could deliver, when I heard them calling our names. Our friends lumbered through the park, noisily checking every feature that could possibly hide someone wanting to be alone.
The pinnacle of junior-high drama: My friend liked her; her friend liked me; She and I liked each other.
Teenage frustration won over romance. “Anywhere but here,” I confessed, sitting up in the pipe, angry. She leaned in and kissed me. Soft. A peck. Just enough to let me feel her lips touch mine, leave the lingering taste of cherry from her lip gloss before she leaned down and left the concrete tube and me.
* * *
I don’t remember what started it, only how it ended: Two adults, red-faced, tear streaked and a child pulsing with indignation and something resembling fear. All three were statues rooted in the doorway, a monument to pain, anger and misunderstanding.
“Go to your room,” the words ground their way one at a time from behind a prison of clenched teeth. A single, shaking finger pointed the way.
This was not a new dance for us. Same old music, beat pounding in our chests. We knew the steps our feet had to take. The rhythm always seemed inevitable as the patterns worn in the carpet and in all our hearts.
I missed a step and something shifted. It could have been a ragged breath at the wrong time, a cough where there should have been a shout. I’d like to think it was all me. You know, some part of myself recognizing the moment for what it was: A turning point. Either way, that’s what I did.
“Where do you think you are going,” she asked, less question than declaration. Of war or retreat I couldn’t tell. Probably both. I took a step over the threshold, knowing there was no turning back.
“Anywhere but here,” I said to the closed door and walked away.
* * *
“I’ve had enough,” she told me as she packed her bags. Her jaw was set, face wet with tears I was unable to comfort. I watched, stunned, not able to comprehend act. There was a dangerous efficiency to her packing, every shirt folded and pounded into submission, every crease pressed into the last. Murderous packing.
I wanted to ask what I’d done. What was wrong? What I could do to fix it? I asked none of those things.
In between socks and the contents of the night table, she spoke, words leaving her with the cadence of her packing. When she spoke my name and I couldn’t decide if it was a plea or a curse.
“You don’t want me,” she explained to her suitcase. “I’m not sure you ever did.”
“I’ve tried to be what you wanted,” she said, pausing for a heartbeat to swallow, stick of deodorant frozen on it’s trip to a side pocket. “I’ve tried to be what I thought you wanted. I was never good enough.”
“Can we talk about this,” I asked, moving around the bed and reaching out for her arm as she worked the zipper.
“Talking isn’t going to fix this.” Her eyes met mine for the first time that evening and I found I couldn’t hold her stare. I was beginning to realize what she already knew: We were over, had been for months. Tonight was just a painful formality.
“Where will you stay?” I asked her retreating back, a cowardly bone thrown without thinking. She was leaving. I didn’t know what else to say.
“I don’t know,” she said, turning back. Her eyes made the rounds of our tiny apartment without finding me. “Friend, my parent’s. Anywhere but here.”
* * *
Alone together on a lazy Sunday and I couldn’t bring myself to answer the buzz of the dryer even after the third alarm.
I’d never been studied more intently, more thoroughly. She sat in my lap, deep brown eyes studying the curve of my cheek, the stubble on my chin with the intensity bordering on obsession. Diminishing and heartening in a combination of love and discovery only a child can share.
She cupped both sides of my face in her tiny little hands and bonked her forehead into mine, eyes meeting less than a breath away. “Cyclops,” I said, in my best monster voice and she dissolved into giggles, pigtails dancing into my face as she laughed.
“Daddy,” she said to me, question clear in her voice. “Do you have to work today?”
I did — of course I did. We were scraping by on the goodwill of our families and the meager freelance jobs I could cobble together to make a paycheck. There was laundry, cleaning and a million chores that had to be done.
“No,” I told her. “Not today. I have anywhere to be but here.”
She relaxed into my arms, eyes finding the television that never seemed to get turned off anymore. I drifted off not long after she did, lulled to sleep by the sound of her breathing.