I looked into his dark eyes, the way the light of the sun was creating shades of gold and dark brown in his hair, the way his hand was laid on his chest, still and unmoving. I examined his face carefully, inches away from him.
He looked back at me, smiling to reveal his set of perfect teeth. He was playing havoc inside of me and he didn’t even know.
‘What is it?’ he asked good-humoredly. He was more at peace today than ever. Was it because, for the first time in our rebellious relationship, we were far away from the prying eyes of people we knew? Or was it because he had made a decision?
I shook my head and lowered my gaze, embarrassed. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched his hand as it hesitated before he wound it around my waist, pulling me towards him; gently but with resolve.
‘Tell me’ he breathed through my hair, still at ease.
I sighed and bit my lip. ‘I don’t want to go away from here’, I finally admitted, trying hard not to choke.
‘Why?’ he wondered aloud, more to himself than me. He was too relaxed.
“It’s just that’ I put my hand on his and tried to turn around in his arms to face him, to see his expressions while I spoke. I wanted him to see the urgency in my movements. I wanted him to see the uncertainties in my eyes and the way I was trembling from anticipation as well as fear. ‘Just that I need to be here with you’
I drew in. He still hadn’t let go so I couldn’t see his expression. I waited patiently for his reaction. Would I hear what I longed to hear?
‘Don’t go Beth,’ I wanted him to say. ‘Stay here with me’ I wanted him to be broken at the prospect of saying goodbye to me.
One word from him, one look and I would agree to let go of all the bleak things my future was offering and replace it with him alone. The dread that being in a hostel, having to share a room with some horrid girl and having to be disciplined was inducing would fade away in an instant if only he took an unconditional oath to be with me forever. Forever was a big word.
I was so unused to what was coming. I had grown up here, in this carefree, playful town with boys flanking either side of me. My short auburn hair would fly in the sun as I would run my steps light and noiseless on the grassy field. I would be a gazelle, I had decided when I was little and I would spend my life here, running and tasting the bare, cold wind on my face. My skin was forever tanned. Being indoors would drain me; take the color off my face. I was meant to be around boys. It was only natural.
‘What time does your train leave tomorrow?’ he finally spoke, breaking into the reverie I had drifted off to in his arms.
I sighed rather pointedly. ‘Around nine, I think’ I replied, my lips pursed. ‘I’m not sure, I didn’t really ask.’
Something in my voice hinted that I had accepted defeat and he finally let go of his grip around me. I turned slowly; I wanted to look into his eyes. They were deeply sympathetic; I wasn’t sure if I saw pity in them. Or was it love? I could never be sure with him.
Cory was different from the other guys I had grown up with. Maybe that was why when at fifteen, the guys around me first started noticing girls, I became lonely. They would hang out after school with the girls from uptown who wore pretty dresses and giggled unnecessarily. I would scowl at their retreating backs and cycle away in the opposite direction. Or I would go swimming.
Then when it would grow dark and cold, the girls would go home and the guys would return to me. We would be ten again, racing, wrestling and fighting. Until at school the next morning, the girls would be back, batting their eyelashes and smiling coyly through their long tresses. I always saw them as a different entity from myself: ‘the girls’. They got on my nerves.
I found Cory when I was sixteen. He was grave and intense, unlike the boys I was used to. He would sit under the shade of a tree with a book, watching the birds fly across the deep blue sky or the lilies sway in the evening breeze, contemplating at the complexities of life. Cory could not be prone to maddening bouts of teenage infatuations. Cory could only love from his heart. He was incapable of deceiving anyone, including himself.
He could swim across our pool in a heartbeat, his arms sinking and rising smoothly through the ripples. It was as if water parted respectfully to let him through.
And he enthralled me. He was the guy of my dreams.
I stared back at him now, waiting for him to respond. I could see him thinking carefully; he’d want to frame his sentence in a way that wouldn’t make me start crying. Crying made him uncomfortable.
‘I’ll meet you at the station a little before nine’ he said solemnly. He reached out with one hand and tucked a strand of my flyaway hair behind my ear. My heart ached silently.
‘Can you possibly not be earlier than that?’ I implored desperately.
He shook his head. ‘There is something I need to tell you,’ he whispered delicately. ‘But I want it to be perfectly timed.’
My heart lifted. I knew now. I could read it in his sparkling eyes as he studied my face approvingly. He loved me beyond reason, perhaps as much as I loved him. We were only seventeen but we had known each other for so long now. Never alone, never far from the searching gazes of the people who couldn’t understand true love and despised us for being so wrapped up in our own cocoon. But we had known each other perfectly, passionately.
‘If you ask, I will leave everything and run away with you’ I blurted unthinkingly. I turned crimson as soon as I uttered the dialogue but he only smiled in reply.
‘I don’t like the way they judge us’ I added tentatively.
“Who?’ he demanded, amused at my sudden outburst.
‘My parents, your father’ I muttered. I was hardly audible now but he caught each word quite easily.
‘It’s the difference in perspective’ he mused.
‘What?’ I asked my eyes wide with interest. He smiled mysteriously again.
‘It’s the way we think that differs’ he shrugged and then lapsed into silence.
‘What do you mean Cory?’ I insisted, unable to let go. His observations intrigued me. He was more mature than he ought to be.
‘Adults see the world more rationally than we do’ he explained, by way of expanding. ‘TO them things are not as strong and fresh, or vivid and extreme as they are to us.’
‘To me’ I corrected, feeling he was as ancient as the tree under which we sat, its branches knotted in indefinite wisdom around us.
‘To you’ he agreed.
We were silent again. I looked ahead of me now. We were in a little clearing we had discovered a few days ago. Wild flowers interrupted the smooth, almost velvet grass around us. There was no one for miles around us. I was sure of that.
‘We’ve never been this alone’ I reflected.
‘No’ he said. ‘Take it all in’
I smiled at him, wanting to touch him. But I refrained. We had never sat so close before. I noticed duly that his eyes were larger and darker than I had ever noticed. Enigmatic, somehow. The closeness didn’t bother either of us. It was only a more visible extension of our wired souls.
‘We should go’ he whispered suddenly, almost reluctantly. It seemed to ache within our hearts to break the screaming silence around us.
I uncurled slowly and got up. He was already on his feet, brushing the dried leaves and blades of grass off his sweater and jeans.
I looked around me one last time; not knowing when I would return. I would have vacations, I knew, but they seemed so far away.
He reached out for my hand and led me to the other edge. We walked in silence through the dark trees for a while until the thicket thinned suddenly and gave way to a concrete road. Our cycles were safely parked under the shade of a tree.
He let go of my hand as we mounted and began to cycle down the winding country road. He began to hum a song; one of his favourites. I was too overwhelmed to sing along and so I cycled in silence, trying not to think as I fought back my tears.
After a ten minute walk through the forested path, we approached the first houses. Soon enough, all trace of the dark woods disappeared and we were at the crossroads. We stopped.
Cory was dismounting so I quickly followed suit. He approached me and I was surprised to note that his fists were clenched; his eyes reflected the sadness I felt in my heart.
He kept distance for we were in close view of the houses of acquaintances. Some people were taking evening walks, others sat on their porches under the fading twilight, enjoying the pleasant weather. I was the only one who wouldn’t be here tomorrow.
Cory stared at me wordlessly and I stared back, goodbye stuck in my throat. The seconds dragged by and we stood still, torn by the turn our lives were taking. I was so sure that any minute now, the pain would get unbearable and my boyfriend would say, ‘let’s run away.’
I knew we could. I knew where we would go. And nobody would find us. If only he would want to, as bad as I did.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ Cory finally whispered instead. I nodded, unable to respond. We could see I was about to cry. He looked at me thoughtfully, probably wondering if it was best to stay or leave.
‘Stay’ my heart yelled but he turned and mounted his cycle. Then he was gone.
By the time I reached home, it was dark already. Mother was cooking in the kitchen, preparing a turkey as a farewell gesture, since I wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
I slammed some doors so my parents would know I was home. Father sat on the living room couch, reading.
I went straight up to my room, without bothering to communicate. My packed bags were already lined up on one side. I was leaving a few things behind; my favourite quilt, my coffee mug and most of my letters. That hurt but I didn’t need to think about it.
I changed silently. There was nothing I wanted to do in here; nowhere I could look without pain- the most intense and penetrating pain- driving like a hot knife through me. Everything was telling a story. The walls, plastered with photos of soccer teams and my favourite bands were screaming in disapproval at my insolence.
‘Am I a rebel?’ I wondered suddenly. ‘Was I fighting too hard?’
I remembered the things my parents had said to me and fury rose like a large monster within me.
No, I was hard. I was fighting for my freedom. I had the freedom to be with a guy. I had the freedom to want to be a swimmer. I didn’t want to be caged within the confines of an institution intent on changing me into a lady of the world.
Cory always said, ‘Society drives us to do the acceptable and we do it, often unthinkingly. To do anything else is to protest. It is to declare war and the world will despise us until we start to despise ourselves. Very few have the strength to continue having strength in themselves.’
He cited Einstein as an example. And Da Vinci, always Da Vinci.
The drifting aroma of roasted turkey lured me to the kitchen despite myself. Suddenly I found myself silently laying the table. Soon, father joined us. Wordlessly, the delicious pre-Christmas feast was before my eyes and we began to tuck in.
Finally, my father enquired, ‘Are your bags all packed?’
‘You will be home in February’ he mused by way of compensation.
I nodded again.
‘We will miss you’ my mother piqued, with sudden warmth.
I wiped my plate clean quickly, not wanting to break down in front of them. I left the table awkwardly and no one said, ‘its bad manners’.
Once in the safety if my room, I switched off the light and buried myself under my pillow.
I dressed quickly the next morning, eager to get to the station. I knew Cory would be there with his own bags; his utter misery had been so visible. Hadn’t he said, ‘It not important to do what the world believes is right. However irrational or illogical, we must follow our hearts even if we are isolated’?
But we weren’t isolated. We had each other.
I barely paid attention to details as we breakfasted. My parents made small talk in continuation with last night and I nodded some more. I was too taxed, too flushed to bother about goodbyes. I was too less of a girl.
As my dad began to load the car with my bags, my mother came out and stood next to me. She squeezed my arm and placed a brown package in my hand.
‘Something homemade for you’ she responded in answer to my searching gaze. ‘I will email you quite frequently dear. Will you reply?’
Her voice was so loving, so forgiving that I smiled and nodded.
She was reassured. She could see I wasn’t going to weep. I had already dried up whatever tears I had gathered last night, I had no more to spare.
My anticipation was on fever pitch when we entered the station. Father busied himself finding my coach and a porter for the luggage but my eyes scrutinized the dimensions of the nearly empty station.
Finally, as the clock struck nine, I saw him. He looked calm, his hair arranged perfectly like a crown of gold on his head. His eyes were sparkling as ever, unperturbed. But my heart fell like snow. There was no luggage on him. Nothing to indicate that he was coming along. Instead, he held a bouquet of wild flowers from our secret place, in his hands.
He stopped when he reached me. My heart had already sunk to my shoes. I could feel my father’s disapproving glances bounce off my back now.
‘I went back to get you these’ he smiled and held out the flowers.
I took them without uttering a single word.
‘You look lovely’ he said sincerely, warmly. Almost apologetically.
I stared at the flowers exquisitely tied together with a satin ribbon. Cory had just given me the perfect goodbye gift ever; a piece of my raw heart from the most beautiful place on earth. A tribute to our unexplained love. I could see clearer now. And I was baffled.
‘You said-’ I looked up suddenly, eyes wide with shock and understanding but he held out a finger to silence me.
‘Listen to me first’ he drew in a long breath and looked straight into my eyes.
‘This is hard for me too. Harder than I thought. Harder than it should be, seeing my understanding of the adult world. Somewhere beneath me, I am a teenager too.’
His voice was filled with hatred now. I could see he loathed himself for being a teenager. He had a weakness, despite his wisdom.
‘We run too much’ I told him. I didn’t mean it in the physical context anymore. I couldn’t see why he wanted to be like the adults he often reprimanded. Why was he in such a hurry to grow up? When he knew how lovely and beautiful it was to be what we were, why did he fight it?
‘I know’ he whispered. ‘I’m running too.’
I nodded. Now I understood completely. And I was numb.
‘Beth’ he said, taking my hand in his while father finally turned the other way to give us some privacy despite himself. ‘I love you. And knowing me, you understand how much I mean it. But I must break up with you.’
I had foreseen it, of course but I gasped anyway. The word, in flesh and bone, broke me. Tears rushed up to my eyes but I stayed composed, my face expressionless.
‘You said to chase dreams by the end of their tails’ I muttered.
He nodded. ‘That is exactly what I intend to do.’
‘Am I not your dream?’ my eyes were beseeching, questioning. I felt pathetic.
He shook his head. ‘Only a weakness’ he mouthed. He knew it would be the last straw.
And it was. There was nothing more to do or say. I turned without goodbye and stomped off towards my father.
Father had guessed as much. He took my tiny hand into his large one and led me to my coach. The train whistle blew.
‘You’ll be okay’ he stated. He knew I would.
I didn’t respond but I didn’t pout either.
‘You know, you hurt me’ he continued.
I tried to roll my eyes but the effort was overwhelming. I sighed.
‘I know father. I’m sorry’ it seemed so easy to see.
Father smiled suddenly and his scarred face lit up. ‘You need not to say sorry’ he said seriously. ‘You only needed to find yourself. Now you can explore.’
I nodded. I understood but could not grasp the implications.
The whistle blew again. ‘I love you’ my dad reminded me.
‘I love you too’ I whispered softly as I stepped onto the footboard.
The train began to move. Father waved. I waved back.
Behind him, I could still see Cory standing exactly where I had left him, his hands casually tucked into his pockets.
A sudden leaping desire overtook my heightening sense of loss.
‘Goodbye Cory’ I yelled, as loudly as I could. ‘Thank you for everything.’
The words reached him a fraction of a second after I uttered them and a smile lit up his intense face, growing all over him. Despite myself, my soul leapt and as the train sped away from the home where my heart was, Cory’s beautiful eyes stayed with me, telling me to fight and fly. Because that was the only way for me to become more than I wanted to.