“I’ll just pretend I never saw anything.”
His shoulder blades are two axes and he digs them into the bark of the old blue spruce. Scoots into the dirt, which is veined with roots and littered with pinecones. He picks up a twig and creams it into the earth; watches it bend and snap. Another. Bend and snap. Bend and snap.
Bryce looks on behind black wayfarers and says what he should say.
“Well, do you?”
Ethan doesn’t know how to respond so he invites the silence in from between the rustling limbs of the trees and he lets it lay in his lap like a weary dog. Things have been going great, and why wouldn’t they? It’s late summer and the crickets have started whispering about another year of school. Camp ended four days ago and the magic is still there, as far as Ethan can tell. She certainly seems to still believe in it. In him.
“You’ve talked to her since, right?”
Bryce has the whole day and he knows how slow Ethan can be to talk. He spins his longboard on its tip with one finger. Adjusts his cap. Watches some kids play on the set. Ethan finally continues.
“Things have been… normal.”
“What’s normal like?”
“Normal is… great, actually.”
Another twig meets its fate in the shaded ground. He reaches for another.
“So then what’s the problem?”
The problem is that Ethan is a wreck and he knows it. The problem is that life always seems too short and too long at the same time. The problem is that girls talk to their friends too fucking much and that trust is never really trust when you’re 14 and the whole world has to be everywhere all of a sudden, instead of trapped up in his room and the school bus and metal lunch boxes and summer camp like it used to be. The problem is that quite frankly he’s embarrassed of himself and the way he acts and he wishes people wouldn’t mention it so often because he hates it more than they do. But mostly the problem is that he doesn’t know what the problem is. He picks up another twig and buries it alive.
Things had changed the day before last. He and Emma were together; a first date of sorts, the first date in the real world at least, away from camp and prying eyes of counselors and bunkmates obsessed with making up stories about sex and betrayal and breaking the rules. Hours melted together like watercolor brushstrokes and mostly they talked about the past, as if they were planning on writing each others’ memoirs when they grew older and needed to know the small stories; the ones about kindergarten and little broken bones; casts on them that everybody signed, getting lost on the playground and being late for class and crying all the way to the principle’s office; anything that might help to convey the bigger picture. He looked back on the hours of blended brushstrokes and admired it like a work of art. But of course, things change like they always will.
“You still haven’t said whether you do or not,” Bryce says.
“Whether or not you love her. You haven’t said.”
Ethan was back at home when his phone lit up and confused him and made him a little sick. Sarah: She told me you said that you love her. He had to sit down and read the message again, just to make sure he was still sane. Another message set his phone to flames and it felt like waves were crashing in on him from every side. She told me you said “I love you” and when she asked what you meant you changed the subject. He put the phone down without responding because he didn’t know how.
He hadn’t said it. He had lived through enough Disney movies and stupid TV shows and he had heard enough scorn and shock and shame wandering through the hallways of school and riddled across computer screens to know that “love” is a dirty word. She must have misheard as she was fishing for words in a sea of nervous mutterings and mixed up sentences amidst movies and ice cream parlors and bus rides across town.
“Don’t know what to tell you, Bryce.”
Bryce flips his board onto the cement and leans back on the park bench. He drags in uncertainty and sighs out content. Closes his eyes. Finger reaches an eyebrow and works it in circles, back and forth.
“It’s a big thing to tell someone,” he says.
“I told you I didn’t say it. She must have misheard, but–”
Another twig snaps beneath his fingers.
“–now she probably thinks I’m some…”
Some soft-assed romantic who doesn’t know how to take things slow. Some son-of-a-bitch poet who thinks that love is all around us and that everybody deserves love! Some pervert who will say anything if it gets him closer to getting laid. Some kid with the maturity of a 6th grader who doesn’t understand what love is yet. Some pretentious prick who thinks he understands everything already.
The boys get up without much consensus and cross the park towards the refuge of shade and AC and maybe cold lemonade if mom got home and saw the concentrate laying out. Bryce worn out from an easy day. Ethan deep in troubled thought.
He thinks about love and suddenly his brain is a rusting filing cabinet. He thinks about his father and his sister and his mother and about Bryce. Thinks about his old dog Dixie who ran away one night and how it felt as if his bones were made out of fiberglass and his eyelids became muddy trenches and how his chest could no longer contain his heart, how as he laid his head down to sleep that night he discovered what love tasted like after it had fell off the top shelf of the pantry and shattered on the floor. The two cross 17th and start down a leafy block and his mind wanders to a place it had recently found familiar.
Emma threw up in the river last week. He remembers sliding out of mess hall to drink in dark silence by the river that flows behind the cabins. Stars seemed brighter, or maybe the space between them blacker. He kicked down to the river’s edge when he heard the noises and saw an outline of a figure he knew well. He remembers thinking it was strange, at first, because Emma wasn’t sick or else she would be in the infirmary with everyone else that caught flue and why was she all the way out by the water where no one could see her? He remembers Truth hitting him in the head like a baseball bat and her fearful eyes shining in the starlight.
Maybe love has less to do with commitment and time and passion and more to do about piles of broken twigs under spruce trees. Something to do with understanding what can’t be understood and sitting with wax souls by candle light. Tearing the skin off our backs to show the scars that don’t heal.
Bryce unlocks the front door and steps inside.
“So what are you going to tell her?”
“I’m going to lie.”
Ethan ventures into the kitchen and pulls out his phone.