Published in November 2011
The world is an extreme place when you’re in love.
You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been in love yourself. Every emotion seems amplified. Just getting a smile from your loved one, sitting next to her during lunch time, walking home from school together, are all minor things that send your heart to the skies in glee. At the same time, every insecurity is amplified. You worry, what if she doesn’t like me back? What if I’m annoying her? Am I being too obvious, too clingy?
Worst of all, the pain of rejection. Getting dumped is so hurtful that it shuts you down, causes depression so severe that you can’t cope. It’s no better to be forced away from your loved one by circumstance, events outside of your control that keep you two apart.
I’d like to pin my romance problems on that. When I’m honest with myself, though, I have no one but myself to blame. There were circumstances, and any reasonable person would accept them as reason enough to avoid a relationship. But this is love we’re talking about. When love is involved, things like reason and logic are meaningless debris in a hurricane of emotion. I never once cared about doing the right thing, even if I told myself so.
I acted out of fear. I didn’t want to get hurt, and I didn’t want to hurt my loved one.
To redeem myself, I’ll summarize here the key moments in this little drama, spanning nearly a year’s time. I promise to be honest this time, both to myself and whoever reads this.
I’ve asked myself, where should I start? At first, I thought it best to begin on the day she and I first met, but there’s not much to say about it. It was the first day of our sixth grade class, in an elementary school that felt very large and very empty. The teacher asked the kids to stand up and introduce themselves one at a time, but it hardly seemed necessary. We were the last class, the final group of students this school would teach. We knew each other, since most of us had been together since first grade.
There was one new girl. She stood up and said, “Hi! I’m Cheryl Tilly. I’m new here because my parents moved into this neighborhood during the summer break. I’m going to rule you all, so bow down before me now and earn my favor, puny mortals.”
Everyone in class looked at her, including me. Most of the students seemed surprised, and a few seemed annoyed. The teacher said, “Cheryl! Sit down and keep outbursts like that to yourself. Next.”
The kid sitting behind Cheryl stood and introduced himself, but I didn’t hear him. The new girl had my attention. She sat down without a trace of regret, no hurt look on her face or dejected body language. Instead, she put her pencil to a piece of paper and began writing something.
During first recess that day, Cheryl bolted out of the room as soon as the bell rang, leaving that piece of paper on her desk. No one seemed to care, so I took a sideways look at it as I walked by. She had scribbled out three columns, titled Who to enslave, Who to kill, and Who to marry, and she had sorted her classmates’ names into those categories. The teacher’s name went into the Who to enslave column. I noticed something else in the Who to marry column. There was not a single boy’s name in there, and the girls listed were some of the prettier ones. My name was among them, Bianca Francesco.
Every class has its clown, and Cheryl filled that role for our class. She was the one to challenge the teacher, crack jokes, and move around whenever she had the chance. One time, she stood up while the teacher was talking. The teacher’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, Cheryl?” she said. “Is something wrong?”
“Nope,” said Cheryl. “My legs were just stiff. You go right on talking.”
After a pause, the teacher continued with her lesson, but put off-balance by the girl who had more control of her class than she did.
I glanced at Cheryl as she stood, this wild girl with the blonde hair and blue eyes. If I were to make my own who to marry list, I would probably put her name on it. She could be bothersome, but I liked her self-righteous attitude. I wanted some of that myself, doing whatever without caring what the world thought of me. It would feel empowering to spend ten minutes reading a visual novel during recess, even though the other kids called them sicko Japanese porn games.
My mind wandered, and I daydreamed. If life were a visual novel, I wondered how I might access Cheryl’s route. We would go on scripted dates together, with few dialogue choices here and there, ultimately ending in some sex scene where all the good bits were covered with mosaic censoring.
It was easier to fantasize about Cheryl than deal with the real person. She was hyper, playing with anyone who could put up with her, butting horns with the teacher every day. I did make friends with Cheryl, but I was no more important than the dozen other kids she spent time with.
Then, about six weeks into the school year, I learned of my brain tumor.
When speaking, I sometimes swap words. No one thought much of it for the first twelve years of my life. Bianca’s just a kid, after all, and kids are still learning how to talk. The first adult who ever suspected a bigger problem was the family doctor, when my mom took me to get a prescription for cold medication.
The doctor did a routine examination on me, part of which was pressing under my jaw to feel for swollen glands. He asked, “Does this hurt at all?”
“It feels a bit snobbish,” I said.
The doctor stood up straight, his brow bunching up. “Snobbish?”
“What?” I blinked. “Oh, sorry. Did I say that? I meant to say, it feels a bit tender.”
“That’s an odd mistake to make.”
I smiled, embarrassed. “Yeah, sorry. I do that fortnight.”
I do that sometimes, but that’s not what came out of my mouth. The doctor asked to see my mom outside, and the two of them whispered at each other in the hallway. When they came back in, the doctor suggested I be brought back in as soon as possible. He wanted a complete physical examination.
We did come back, and that examination included taking a blood sample. They found a chemical imbalance that suggested cancerous growth, but the doctors kept quiet on that at first, gently insisting that I submit to a series of electromagnetic scans.
That’s when they found it, a tumor metastasized to my brain stem. I’ll never forget when the doctor handed me the monochrome print, which showed my skull and neck vertebrae from a profile view.
“There’s no easy way to tell you this, but look here.” The doctor pointed to a tiny white lump in the picture’s neck. “You see that? That’s a tumor, right where your brain meets your spinal cord. It’s already integrated with the bundle of nervous tissue there. I’m afraid there’s no way to remove it.”
I held the print with trembling hands. This couldn’t be real. How could I have a tumor? I had just barely gotten into the sixth grade.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but.... This is a terminal condition. I can’t guarantee you’ll live another six months.”
My parents said I could drop out of school if I wanted. After all, if I had only half a year to live, why spend all my time preparing for a future that would never come?
I refused. I liked going to school, especially for getting to see all my friends. What’s more, I absolutely would not spend the last months of my life depressed and lonely at home. If I was doomed to die so young, then I would make the most of the time I had.
It was the right thing to do, but staying happy under mortality is easier said than done. I became depressed and withdrawn in class. It was hard to focus on my studies, and playing with my friends didn’t excite me like before. I wanted to live like a normal student, but I was lying to myself. None of it mattered. I was going to die soon, so why care about anything?
It was in this angsty mood that Cheryl Tilly found me on the playground. It was late October, but not so cold that the kids wouldn’t come out during recess. I sat on the concrete barrier at the edge of the playground, my arms folded into my jacket, watching the other kids mess around. The boys had turned the jungle-gym into their personal fort, and repeatedly threw each other off the bars. A group of girls sat in the other corner of the playground, playing a patty-cake game and giggling each time they made a mistake.
I looked at them, and I felt old. These kids were my age, but none of them had to cope with their own deaths.
“Heeeeeeey!” shouted a voice across the playground. Cheryl spotted me, and charged over like a pro football player. She knocked other kids aside. One boy retreated while yelling, “Make way! It’s the crazy girl!”
Cheryl skidded to a stop right in front of me.
“Hi there,” she said. “Tell me, Bianca. Why are you sitting here all depressed?”
I looked up at her, hoping my expression would show how annoyed I felt. “I’m not depressed.”
“Bahaha!” Cheryl laughed, then sat on the concrete beside me. “That’s a lie. But I can’t make you tell me the truth, so instead I’ll sit here and be an awesome friend.”
“You don’t need to,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You’re a really bad liar.” Cheryl pointed back toward the school building. “Everyone knows it. You’ve been all sad and surly for the last couple of weeks. It’s harder to ignore than when the teacher starts talking too fast, and her mouth foams at the corners and she spits on the kids in the front row. Good god that’s disgusting. Someone should call her out on that. Give me your cell phone, so I can call child protective services. What was I talking about?”
“About how I’m depressed,” I said.
“Gotcha!” Cheryl stabbed a finger in my face. “So you admit you’re depressed! The first step is always the hardest. The next step to recovery is talking about it. So what happened?”
I said nothing, just folded my arms and looked away.
“Did your dog get run over by a garbage truck?” Cheryl pressed. “Lose all your money in online poker? I bet you had a pen pal you secretly fell in love with, he wrote that he’s getting married—”
“Will you stop it?” I smacked her on the shoulder, then stood up and tried to walk away. “Leave me alone.”
She would never leave me alone, and that’s exactly why I snapped at her so quickly. Of course I wanted to talk about my problems, but it wouldn’t mean anything unless someone cared enough to overcome some resistance. I wanted a friend to chase me down, pry me open and expose my hurts.
Just as expected, Cheryl stood up and chased after me. “Hey! Come sleep over at my place Friday night.”
That stopped me. I turned back slowly, looking at her in disbelief. I raised an eyebrow.
“I know!” she said, laughing again. “I can’t believe I said that either. It just came out of nowhere, but it sounds like the best idea. The best idea, out of all the ideas. We can stay up all night, eat tons of junk food, watch bad movies and share secrets. It’ll be fun.”
“Did you already ask your parents about it?” I said.
“No, but,” she pounded a fist into her palm, “they’ll allow it. If not, I bring the pain.”
“Your parents must love dealing with you.”
“It’s not too bad. When you’re an only child, you get to be the golden child, the middle kid and the troubled one.” She flicked her hands over her face, like an exotic Middle Eastern dancer. “I am a woman of many masks. Anyway, will you come sleep over or what?”
I turned away. “I’ll think about it.”
“All right.” I could just feel Cheryl grinning at the back of my head. “I’ll see you there.”
“I said I’ll think about it.”
There was nothing to think about. From the instant she shouted the invitation, I knew I would spend Friday night at her place. The chance was too good to pass up, being alone with a friend in an intimate and mutually vulnerable setting. Not to mention this was Cheryl Tilly, the girl I was afraid to have a crush on. It was the thing I most wanted, but couldn’t admit wanting.
I never told Cheryl that I planned on coming over. She assumed I’d be there, and she was right. Friday afternoon, I went straight home and gathered up my things. One change of clothes, a blanket and a pillow, some bathroom items and my tablet computer. My mom drove me across town, following Cheryl’s directions to a house much like ours.
My mom left me in the driveway and drove off. Feeling nervous about this whole ordeal, I walked up to the front door and raised a fist to knock. Before my knuckles hit, the door flew open, and there stood Cheryl. She wore the same outfit she had worn at school today.
“Bianca!” she said, pounding me with a hug. “I’m so happy you came.”
“Agh!” I couldn’t hug her back, too busy keeping hold of my things. “Yes! Now let go, or I’ll call my mom and go home.”
“You can’t go anywhere if I don’t let you go. But, well.” Cheryl took a step back, and her arms fell off me. “We’ll use an honor system. Come on in! I’ll show you around the house. I’ve got like fourteen bathrooms.”
The floor plan was the same as my house, and had only two bathrooms. It was interesting to see how another family did different things with the same space – differently organized furniture, shelves stacked with nicknacks and pictures hanging on the walls. Best of all was Cheryl’s bedroom, which she guided me into with a flourishy wave of her arms.
“And this is the command center!” she said. “Be careful what you touch, or you’ll launch nuclear missiles at Johannesburg.”
I walked in slowly, taking a long look around. This room wasn’t a command center, but a nerd-girl’s wet dream. It was cleaner than my bedroom, but much more cluttered. Every foot of wallspace was covered with shelves or cabinets, all crammed with books and the jewel cases of video games or movies. On the left was a big computer desk, and on the right was Cheryl’s bed.
“Are you sure this is the right room?” I said.
She turned back to face me. “Yeah? Why?”
I stepped over to the bed, began unloading my things onto it. “I don’t know. I just expected some paraphernalia.”
“Oh, you mean porn?” Cheryl dropped to her knees, reached under the bed and tugged on something. “That’s all right here—”
“No! Stop.” I grabbed her on the wrists, yanked her away from the bed. “I didn’t mean that. I mean like, sports stuff. Posters of basketball players, baseball pennants, maybe a spare soccer ball sitting in the corner.”
“Sports?” Cheryl’s face twisted. “Have you even met me? I don’t like sports. Just a bunch of big burly men grabbing for balls. I’m more about swashbuckling tales and romantic adventures. Oh, like this.” She turned half-around to reach at the bookshelf behind her, and pulled out a paperback book. “It’s a sci-fi story about a freighter ship captain who gets caught up in trade disputes, and it’s much more fun to read that it sounds like. I’ll let you borrow it. There’s more in the same series if you like that one. Oh! And there’s this.” She got another book from a higher shelf. “This is a fantasy novel about a tavern wench who learns she has magical powers, and it has a whole bunch of self discovery and learning to love yourself and all that good garbage. I’ll let you borrow this one too.”
Cheryl threw those two books at me, then went back to the bookshelf in search for more.
“Let’s see. There’s also this one, but I don’t think you’ll like it. Oh, and this one’s good, but it’s kind of old. And—”
I came up behind Cheryl, put a hand on her shoulder. It was time to stop this, or I would go home with half of her collection.
“Two books are enough for now,” I said.
She glanced back, a half-hurt look on her face. “Are you sure? It’s so rare that I get to share the things I like with someone.”
“All right.” I pointed back under her bed. “Get out the porn.”
Cheryl and I lay on her bed, stomach-down and side by side. With our elbows propped up on her pillow, we looked through a girly magazine one page at a time.
“Wow,” I said. “Those are unrealistically large.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s not even arousing. You see knockers like that and you think, that poor woman. She must suffer some nasty lower back pain, and spend a fortune in over-sized bras.”
We turned the page, looking at the next set of nudes.
“Ha!” I laughed at the picture. “Someone overdid the skin bronzer.”
“Right?” Cheryl put a finger on that girl. “She looks like a white woman trying to be Brazilian.”
We turned the page again. The next set of images showed two naked girls holding each other, as if in the glow of post-lovemaking snuggles.
“Aw,” I said. “Now that’s kind of sweet.”
“Isn’t it? It makes you think more of romance than sex.” Cheryl traced her fingers over the page, letting out a wistful sigh. “I really hope I can do that with someone some day.”
Now there was an uncomfortable subtext. Not wanting to give Cheryl any chance to take the idea further, I changed the subject.
“So why do you have stuff like this?” I said. “Most people just have porn on their computers these days, not printed magazines.”
“I know.” Cheryl turned the page, showing the next set of nude girls. “I guess it’s the same same reason I have so many paperback books. It feels more real, more authentic when you can hold it something in your hands.”
“But you have books on your computer too, don’t you?”
She grinned. “Who says you can’t have both?”
We spent another hour looking through porn magazines. When that got boring, Cheryl dug a movie disc out of the shelves.
“You have to see this,” she said. “It’s old, but it’s also the best bad movie ever made. Imagine some weirdo European mutt of a man who raised a bunch of money on selling jackets—”
I held up a hand. “I think I’ve heard of this movie.”
“But you have to see it!” Cheryl put the disk into a player, then turned to head out of the room. “I’ll go get something to snack on. Sit and watch the amazing menu loop.”
She walked out, leaving me alone for a minute. I sat back on the bed, and the big monitor on the computer desk showed simple montage while a mellow piano tune played. I had no doubts about the movie being uproariously bad, but this song was nice and soothing.
I’m glad I came here, I thought. Cheryl was fun to hang out with, and this sleepover had taken my mind off my impending death. Living for only another six months might not be so bad, so long as I could have fun times like this.
Cheryl returned with an armful of junkfood, candy and chips and soda. She dumped it all on the bed next to me.
“Don’t worry about making a mess,” she said. “I figure we’ll both sleep on the floor tonight, since the bed is too small for both of us.”
As if I’d sleep in your bed even if it were bigger? I was tempted to ask, but I bit my tongue. I already had some feelings for this girl. No need to throw difficult innuendo out there.
“All right!” Cheryl grabbed a remote control from the desk, then hopped onto the bed beside me. “Are you ready for this? You aren’t ready for this.”
She clicked “Play Movie” on the menu.
We were laughing ourselves breathless in a half hour.
“She did not just say that!” I said, after nearly snorting out a mouthful of soda. “She just— I can’t believe she just—”
“Just wait!” said Cheryl. “It gets better. Or worse.”
Another half hour later, the movie ascended from simply funny to outright amazing. Plot threads came out of nowhere and vanished again. The characters were more than poorly written and badly acted. The scene direction, the pacing, the tone, all of it was beyond words. I had never imagined a movie could be so awful but still so fun to watch.
The movie tried to end tragically, but everything about it just made Cheryl and me laugh harder. The credits rolled, and we were both trying to catch our breath.
“That was....” I gasped. “That was incredible.”
“There’s one last thing too.” Cheryl hit a couple of buttons on the remote. “There’s an interview with the director, about five minutes long.”
She started that extra segment, and we were laughing ourselves hoarse by the end.
“Oh god,” I said, feeling lightheaded. “I thought that was just an act, but he’s actually like that.”
Cheryl returned the movie to the menu loop, and the mellow piano song began playing. She set the remote down on the bed.
“Okay,” she said. “This is going to sound weird, but hear me out. Whenever I watch that movie, it actually gets me thinking.”
“Thinking?” I said. “About what? Horrible sex scenes?”
“No, that comes later.” Cheryl put a hand to her chin, and had a far-off look in her eyes. “I think about the future.”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“Well, look at the movie we just saw. The story they were trying to tell was basically a reinterpretation of the good old Adam and Eve tale. Man is comfortable with his life, but Woman is impatient and bored, and she commits sin so they both can experience something different.”
“So, what?” I said. “You’re worried you’ll do stupid things when you get older?”
“I do stupid things right now.” Cheryl laughed. “But no. What I meant was, in the future, will I be the kind of person who keeps growing, or will I get comfortable and just float along?”
“That’s up to you.”
Cheryl nodded. “Yep. And that’s why, starting in junior high, I’m going to a private school.”
I leaned back, a bit surprised. “Wow, really? Which one?”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. Sister Carissa Literary School for Girls. It’s upstate from here.”
“Sounds expensive,” I said.
“It is. My parents won’t even tell me how much the tuition is, but it must be some ungodly huge number.”
“And they’re okay paying that much?”
Cheryl shrugged. “Privilege of being an only child, I guess. I’m not going to turn it down. I really want to go. Look at all this.” She twirled her finger around. “All these books and junk. If I don’t grow up to be a novelist, I’m really doing the world a disservice.”
I blew air out my lips, making a pfft sound. “As if everything you write will be a bestseller.”
“You know it.” Cheryl pointed to me. “What about you? Are you gonna be an Adam or an Eve when you grow up?”
“Um....” My eyes went unfocused, and my shoulders slumped. I had no idea what to say. Cheryl had just asked the impossible question. What do you get when you divide by zero? What happens when an unstoppable force meets and unmovable object? What does Bianca Francesco want to be when she grows up?
I’m not going to grow up, I wanted to say. I’m going to die, Cheryl. I’ll never see my fourteenth birthday.
She could tell she had said something wrong. She lowered her finger, and her face grew concerned. Another second, and she made the connection. She just stumbled on the problem that had left me so depressed the last couple of weeks.
“There’s something really wrong, isn’t there?” she said.
“I’ve gotta use the bathroom.” I slid off the bed and padded out of the room. I held a hand over my face as I went out into the hall, trying my hardest not to cry.
I spent longer in the bathroom than I should, thinking up a way to keep this sleepover from getting awkward and uncomfortable. I couldn’t start crying in front of Cheryl, and I didn’t want her dwelling on my problems. This afternoon had been too fun so far. It would be a waste to let the mood change.
In the end, I decided to take a lesson from Cheryl herself. I had to charge back into that bedroom, and say something loud and attention-grabbing.
Cheryl had turned off the movie by the time I returned. She sat back on the bed, nibbling a snack bar with a vacant look. She glanced up at me, and I knew this was my moment. The very next thing I said or did would set the tone for the rest of the night.
“That school you mentioned?” I said. “I think I’ll go there too.”
Cheryl’s eyes opened wide. “Really?”
“Yeah. What was it called? Literary school?”
“Sister Carissa Literary School for Girls.” Cheryl hopped off the bed and grabbed my hands, excited. “Are you serious? That would be the best thing ever! The only thing I didn’t like about going to a private school was leaving all my friends behind. But if you came along, that would... wait!” She gave me a stern look. “You should only go if you want to, not just because I’m going.”
“I do want to. I read lots of books, like you do. Though, um.” I glanced around the room. “My taste in reading material is much less pulpy.”
“I bet that’s a lie, but I’ll let it slide because I’m so happy!” Cheryl hugged me, clamping her arms around my neck tight. “It’ll be so great, you and me taking on a new school together!”
I enjoyed being hugged this time, perhaps too much. It was a temptation to close my eyes and lean into her, gently whispering don’t let go. To keep myself from doing that, I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back.
“It’s not a for sure thing!” I said, trying to calm her down. “I haven’t even told my parents yet. Who knows if they’ll want to spend the money.”
“I’m sure they will,” said Cheryl. “It feels right.”
If only she knew how ridiculous that sounded. I could just picture it now, going to my parents and asking, Hey Mom and Dad. I’m going to be dead in six months, but can you spend a bunch of money on your daughter’s future that will never happen? At least you won’t have to pay tuition past the first year.
“We’ll see what they say,” I said. “For now, I want to relax. You have any more movies to watch?”
“Do I!” Cheryl let me go, went back to a shelf and pulled out another movie disc. “Believe it or not, this one’s even worse than the one we just saw. People getting attacked by clip-art birds!”
“Sounds awesome. Put it in.”
This second movie did have its laugh-out-loud moments, but it was more astounding than the first. It became a spectacle of escalating stupidity, making me wonder how bad a movie had to be before its creators called the project off.
But no. This movie had somehow gotten published, giving us a great way to pass the time. The afternoon slipped into evening, and we lost all track of time while watching movies, then trying a couple of video games, then swapping the names of favorite books. I looked out the window, and saw it was full on dark outside.
“Look what time it is,” I said.
“Huh? Oh.” Cheryl glanced at the alarm clock next to her bed. “Man, time flies. Want to get the bed stuff ready?”
In preparation for tonight, Cheryl had a couple of roll-out bed pads. We laid these out on the floor, covered them with pillows and blankets, then changed into our pajamas. Cheryl sat up on her pad beside me, and pulled out her ponytail. She shook her hair free, letting it fall to her neck in a golden mane.
“Mmm,” I moaned into my pillow. “I’ve never seen you with your hair down before.”
She glanced at me. “Yeah. I only untie it when I sleep or shower. My hair gets in my face all the time otherwise.”
“But that’s part of the fun,” I said. “You should let your hair down sometimes. Guys will think you’re sexy.”
Cheryl let out a cruel laugh, pahahah! “Like I care what guys think of me.”
I smiled. “Right. I saw that paper you wrote on the first day of class.”
“What paper?” She stood up from her bed pad, just long enough to hit the light switch. The room fell into close darkness, the only light coming through the window from the moon and streetlamps. Cheryl came back to her bundle of bedding, lay down beside me with her head propped up on one hand.
“The paper,” I said. “The one where you categorized people. Who to enslave, who to kill, who to marry.”
“What?” Her face scrunched up, then she remembered. “Oh, that. I did that so I could look like I was ignoring the teacher. I threw that paper away after school.”
“Well, still. I noticed there wasn’t a single boy’s name in the who to marry column.”
Cheryl rolled her eyes. “Oh no, I’m found out.”
“Not only that,” I said. “My name was in that list.”
She laid back on her bed pad, looking up at the ceiling. “That was before I knew you. It wasn’t meant to be serious or anything. And besides, if that list still exists in my head, most of the names were removed after I got to know people.”
“Most? How many are left?”
“Just one.” Cheryl took a deep breath. “I’m not going to tell you who, so don’t ask.”
“Aw. Why not? You’ve got a crush on someone in class. That’s good gossip.”
“Can’t do it. Plausible deniability. Non-disclosure agreement. Double jeopardy. Pro bono e pluribus unum non-compus mentis coitus interruptus. You know how it is.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Cheryl.”
“Wasn’t meant to. Besides, you can’t expect me to go sharing my nasty dirty secrets when you’ve got some of your own.” She rolled her head to the side, looking at me. “You’re upset about your word-swapping, aren’t you?”
That stopped me. I froze, until my heart pounded to remind me that I wasn’t breathing. I took in a sharp breath, feeling like I had just been punched in the gut.
“What?” I said.
“You’ve been doing it all night,” said Cheryl. “Like, you said the movie had ‘horrible trash scenes.’ I’m pretty sure you mean horrible sex scenes, though your version is equally descriptive. And you said you’d try going to Sister Carissa’s school next year, you called it a binary school. Oh, and you said you read lots of lobsters. Unless they’ve got printed carapaces, I think you meant books.”
My insides felt cold. I thought back over the last few hours, trying to remember what I had said. This is part of my aphasia. To my own ears and memory, it seems like I said what I meant to say. If no one corrects me, I can’t tell that I said anything wrong.
“Oh god,” I said, putting my hands on my face. “Have I been doing that? I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s kind of cute, in a weird way. But most people don’t do that, so I’m guessing that’s what’s made you so sad recently.”
She had just scratched the surface. If my aphasia were a problem by itself, I wouldn’t have cared so much.
I swallowed hard. My eyes were burning.
“I wish it were that simple,” I said.
“I know how you feel,” said Cheryl. “Nothing is ever simple. I mean, look at me. I invited this girl to a sleep over, and I thought it would kill two birds with one stone. For one, it would get her out of her depressed funk. For two, I would see her up-close, hoping I’d see all these annoying little imperfections about her, stuff that would make me dislike her. Then I could go back to just being her friend. But of course, the exact opposite happened. Not only is she pretty and smart, she’s fun to be around. She likes the things I like, knows how to take a joke, and she’s incredibly cute when she laughs, and....” Cheryl took a breath. “Oh, this is the worst part. Total insult to injury here. I invited her over so I could find flaws that would make me not like her. And I did find those flaws, but they just made me like her more. Isn’t that insane? Irony defeats me.”
Cheryl rolled onto her side, turning her back to me. “Well now that I’ve said everything and you probably won’t want to be my friend in the morning, I’ll just shut up and go to sleep. Good night.”
It was no more than a minute, but it seemed like a lifetime passed, my body frozen to the bed pad. Never before had I experienced someone confessing feelings for me. I had no idea what to do.
Then, in a moment of clarity, the answer came. It was so obvious, so simple that I wanted to smack myself for not doing it sooner. I shouldn’t have let Cheryl finish talking.
I slid along my side, scooting my body next to hers, while staying under the covers. I pressed my front into her back, put my arms around her from behind, and whispered near her ear.
“I love you too.”
Her body tensed, and I could feel her breath quicken, felt her heart pounding through her back.
“Bianca,” she said. “You’d better mean that. If you don’t really, really mean that, I’m going to start crying. No joke.”
I curled my body up to hers, nuzzled into her hair. I made a desperate squeak, “I mean it.”
With a twist of her hips and shoulders, Cheryl rolled 180 degrees, flopping around to face me. She hugged me back, clamping her arms around me and tangling her legs with mine. We held each other close for a long time.
I will never, ever forget my first kiss. We were a couple of kids who didn’t know the first thing about physical romance, but our feelings were genuine. The raw, pure emotion of the moment made it real.
We pulled back just far enough to look each other in the eyes. Our foreheads touched. She stroked her hand over the side of my face, her fingers caressing my cheek, my temple, my ear. Without thinking, I angled my face up and pressed my lips to hers. She met me in the kiss, but we didn’t know how to do more. After a few seconds, I pressed my face into the crook of her neck, again hugging her tight.
“Just hold me,” I said. “Let’s stay like this.”
She nodded slightly. “Okay.”
We fell asleep that way.
I wish that, when I woke up the following morning, it was a pleasant experience. By all rights, I should have opened my eyes to the face of my new lover lit with fresh sunlight. I should have snuggled with her, stayed in bed together for a while after we awoke. We should have said good morning and I love you, then began a new chapter in life, facing the world as a couple rather than two individuals.
Sadly, that’s not how it happened. Instead, I woke up with Cheryl’s hair in my mouth and a sick feeling in my stomach.
Last night didn’t happen. It didn’t happen. Please let it be a sweet dream.
But there was no mistaking it – our bodies were too close together, our limbs all tangled up. Cheryl had slept on my left arm, so it was numb from the elbow down.
I need to get out of here. I’ve got to call my mom and go home.
I tried to free my arm without waking Cheryl, but it was no good. She stirred, took in a deep breath, tensed to stretch her back muscles. Her eyes flicked open. Her face wore a confused expression at first, as if she couldn’t remember why she had slept with a girl on the floor. Then she remembered, and she looked to me with a smile.
“Didn’t think this would happen.” She reached a hand out to touch my face. “If you’re not too scared of morning breath, I want to kiss you again.”
I intercepted her hand before she touched my face. “Wait, Cheryl. We, uh. We need to talk.”
She blinked, cleared her throat. “Wow. One night and you already want to give me a dump-you speech?”
I sat up straight, letting the covers fall off me. “No, it’s not that. I can’t dump you if we’re not together.”
She sat up, mirroring me. “If that didn’t count as together, then nothing ever will. You said you loved me. Was that a lie?”
“No! Of course not. I just... god, Cheryl.” I put a palm to my face. “This is hard to talk about.”
She sat up straight on crossed legs. “Take your time. I’d really like to know what’s bugging you.”
I dropped my hand into my lap, looked at her and felt defeated. “We can’t be together like that. If we are then... I’ll just end up hurting you.”
“And I’ll hurt you,” she said. “I thought that’s how couples are supposed to work. You fight, make up, forgive each other. Helps you grow, you know.”
“No, I don’t mean that. What I mean is....” I was trembling, and my eyes were hot again. “I won’t be around for very much longer.”
“What, really? Is your family moving?”
“No!” I said, nearly screaming. “Can’t you see I don’t want to say it? Don’t want to think it? I have a brain tumor, Cheryl! I have a tumor and I’m dying!”
She was stunned, mouth hung open and eyes open wide. I buried my face in my hands, and the floodgates opened. I started crying, belting out every tear I had wanted to cry for the last two weeks. Cheryl composed herself quickly, knee-walked over and grabbed me in a hug so tight that I couldn’t escape if I wanted to.
“My god,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
I hugged her back and sobbed onto her, letting her pajama shirt absorb my tears. She rubbed my back, took the shock of my body convulsing as I cried.
“Are you serious though?” she said. “A brain tumor? Like, cancer?”
I said nothing, just nodded my head against her.
“And the doctors couldn’t do anything.”
I shook my head.
“That’s.... That’s awful.” She sighed. “I don’t even know what to say.”
Planting my hands on her shoulders, I pushed her back. I wiped my hands over my face.
“That’s why,” I said, sniffling. “If you and I... got together, it would just end in a few months. I don’t want to hurt you like that.”
“I don’t care,” she said, giving me a squeeze. “I still love you, and I’ll defeat your tumor.”
I let out a snorting laugh. She said something so ridiculous, I couldn’t help myself.
“No,” I wriggled out of her arms and standing up. “I’m sorry, but it can’t happen. I’m going to go clean up, then I’ll call my mom and go home.”
Cheryl let me go, her shoulders slumping. I stepped out of the bedding and padded to the door. At the threshold, I stopped and glanced back back.
“I had fun though,” I said.
“I’m glad,” she said. “I don’t know if you want to, but um. There’s a video game we didn’t try last night. You know, just to kill time until your mom gets here.”
I nodded, sniffled again. “Yeah. Thanks.”
When the car drove up to Cheryl’s house, I threw my stuff in the back and hopped in the passenger seat. Before even saying good morning, I asked my mom the question.
“Hey,” I said. “How would you and Dad feel if I wanted to go to a private school?”
Now to skip forward a year.
There’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said about that time. Cheryl and I were still friends, and we both wanted to be more, but I didn’t let it happen. The fear of loss, the fear of hurting Cheryl was more than I could accept.
We drifted along like that for one year, Cheryl sometimes nagging me to be her girlfriend, me always refusing. We were both accepted to Sister Carissa’s school, and we moved into the dorms early. Since there were few other students around, we had the chance to spend a lot of time alone together. Cheryl hoped to wear me down in the week before school started, but even then I pushed her away.
It finally happened on the first day of school. Cheryl and I met the two other students of the first year class. A quiet French-bilingual girl named Lorelei Brandt, and a nervous-looking tomboy named Magdalene Paige. Those two quickly fell for each other, and it must have been that attraction that convinced me to listen to Maggie.
“It is too that easy!” she said, smacking her hand on the bed. I was resting in the nurse’s office, after suffering my worst-ever aphasia attack during the first day of class.
“Look, we all die some day,” Maggie went on. “Whether it’s tomorrow or sixty years from now, we all have to deal with death at some point. That shouldn’t keep us from loving each other right now. And you know what’s weird?” She pointed a finger at me. “I think you know that. You’re a smart girl. The problem isn’t whether you’re going to die soon. The real question is, do you love her back?”
I couldn’t argue with her. She was right, and I had been a fool. I had been making a mistake for a whole year, and instantly wasn’t soon enough to set things right.
That’s when it happened. I threw my tablet computer at Maggie, then stood up and stomped out of the nurse’s office. I found Cheryl out the school campus, walked up and tackled her with a full-bodied hug, nearly knocking her off her feet.
“I love you,” I said. “I want you to be my girlfriend. I wasn’t brave enough to want that before, so I hope I’m not too late.”
Cheryl was stunned. She stood there, arms slack and dumbfounded, until she came to her senses and hugged me back.
“About damned time,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut tight.
I wanted nothing better than to take Cheryl back to my dorm room, but we had two more hours of school that day. After lunch, I grudgingly followed the other girls back to class. Our teacher gave us some study problems to do, then busied herself with drama-texting her boyfriend while we worked. It was inappropriate, but I hardly cared. I just wanted the bell to ring.
I worried that Lorelei and Maggie would bother us after class, since we four were the entire first-year class at this school, but fate was on my side that afternoon. The teacher tricked Maggie into taking on a whole bunch of emotional baggage, and she retreated to her dorm room to cry the afternoon away with Lorelei. I didn’t know or care what they were doing at the time.
Cheryl and I went back to the dorms. She had grabbed onto me from behind, her arms hanging around my midriff, which put her so close that she kept stepping on my heels.
“It’s really hard to walk like this,” I said.
“You deserve it,” she said, resting her chin on my shoulder. “I’m really angry at you. How long have you made me wait for this? Like, when did that sleepover happen?”
“About a year ago.”
“A year.” She pointed off to the side. “Here, let’s go into my room. You made me wait a year. How upset should I be?”
We went into her room. Cheryl kicked the door shut behind us, used one hand to lock it, then went back to hanging off me like a parasitic growth.
“As much as you want to be,” I said, rolling my shoulders to loosen them. “I’ve been an idiot, and I’m sorry. I wish I could make it up to you.”
“You probably could, if you’re creative enough.”
Creative? I hoped I was creative. If I was getting the education needed to be a novelist, the whole thing would be futile if I couldn’t think creatively. I could think of something that would make Cheryl forgive me.
That reminded me of why I wanted to start writing in the first place. I had read so many stories, paperbacks and digital books and visual novels, and all the ones I liked shared a common thread. They all spoke of romance, of the dynamic energy between two people who love each other. If I could tap into that energy for the sake of writing a story, then maybe I could use it in my life.
I love Cheryl, but how can I show it? How can I make her happy?
I twisted around in Cheryl’s arms, turning to face her. I pressed my body into hers, pinning her against the door, one hand on her lower back and the other on her neck.
“All right,” I said. “Marry me.”
Our foreheads were touching, so we looked into each other’s eyes. Hers narrowed a bit, as if she didn’t know to take me seriously.
“I’ve said that before, but I was joking.” She looked down, to the side. “Two girls can’t married, legally.”
“You think I’m joking?” I caressed the side of her face, like she had done that one night. “And I don’t care about the law. I care about you.”
Cheryl wriggled her hips against me, as if objecting to the idea.
“But what does it mean?” she said. “How can you get married without a chapel and a priest and witnesses?”
“Those things are all superficial. What really matters is that I swear to always love you, grow with you and be with you, even when we get old and sick and ugly, until death parts us.”
She met my eyes again, and her voice grew thick.
“Of course. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
I nodded slightly, rocking my forehead against hers. “You may kiss the bride.”
We kissed, and this one quickly had more heat and passion than the kisses before it. She grabbed at my hair, and I felt all up and down her back. Our feet stumbled across the room together, and we crashed onto the bed in a tangle.
“I love you,” she mumbled between kisses. “I love you so much.”
That was basically our honeymoon. I won’t go into detail about how we spent that afternoon. Not only is it too personal, but we did nothing worth talking about. Just the exploration and gentle teasing of new lovers. Imagination can fill in the rest.
It suffices to say that, as I lay back on the bed in the light of sunset, Cheryl rest her head on my shoulder and walked her fingers along my stomach.
“It’s gonna be hard, when you go,” she said.
“I know. I wish I could change that.” My fingertips traced down the length of her spine. “But, whatever it’s worth, I don’t want you to mourn me too long. I care about you being happy more than anything. If you find someone else a week after I’m dead, I’ll be totally fine with that.”
“As if it were that easy.” She stretched, pressing herself into me. “I’ll never find anyone else like you.”
“No, but you might find someone you love for different reasons. And, hey. Listen to me.” I put a hand on the side of her head, forced her to look up and meet my eyes. “If you meet her after I’m gone, I want you to be with her. You understand? Don’t be alone just because you miss me. There’s no worse way you could disrespect my memory.”
“All right.” She let her head rest on me again. “Just don’t make me think about it right now.”
I let it go. After all, I couldn’t control what Cheryl did after my passing. All I could do was give her permission, and hoped she did what was best for herself.
In a way, I’m the lucky one in our relationship. I’m going to die sometime soon, but I’ll won’t be lonely or unloved until then. And after I’m gone, I’ll have nothing to worry about at all. Cheryl is the real burden-bearer here. I both love and respect her for it, and I’ll do everything to make her happy with the time I have left.
Dying Words Index