Side by side, we sat on the old park bench. The late spring air hung heavy around us like a priest’s confessional. Unspoken words buzzed and danced about our heads with all the welcome of a mosquito swarm. I think we both hoped if we ignored the words long enough, they would disappear.
I sat back, the pitted wood a familiar comfort through my shirt. This was our bench. On the last board to the left, our crudely carved initials were still distinguishable against the green flecked and greying wood. The lingering and silent testimony of countless childhood dares and vows to always be there for each other. We grew up on this bench, sharing the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.
Words used to flow freely. Now, they lodged in the throat, refusing to come. When had life become so dang complicated? I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when we crossed the threshold between childhood and lost innocence.
Joey glanced at me and smiled. Not his normal, mischievous smile. Nope. Hadn’t seen that since he started dating Rita, the cheerleading queen. His happy smile had become as elusive as some endangered jungle cat, leaving an empty shell.
“I don’t get it, Em,” he said, “Not one bit. I can’t make her happy no matter what I do.” The toe of his shoe drew a line in the dirt. Joey sighed, rubbing his neck. “I don’t text, and she says I don’t think about her or love her. I do text, and now I’m some near stalker who won’t give her space. Makes no sense to me.”
“She’s a prep and a bitch.” I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands on my worn jeans. I shouldn’t have said it. Joey didn’t want to hear it. But God, I hated her.
Joey’s head turned towards me, and he frowned.
I dared a glance at his hazel eyes to gauge his reaction. While many people used ridiculous rings to decipher someone’s mood, all I needed to do was check the predominant color of his eyes. They shone green. So I’d surprised him. Yeah. Him and me both.
His eyebrows rose. “Say again?”
With a shrug, I looked away. Me and my big mouth had already said more than enough.
“No.” He sounded set and entrenched. I hated that tone.
I shook my head. My tongue and brain were not on same the page at the moment, not even the same book. I didn’t trust what would pop out of my mouth if I let my jaw wag.
My lips pressed together, and I gazed at the sky. Maybe the clouds would form a word, or two, or ten and give me a script to follow. Nada. One did resemble a boat; a boat I was about to go down in. “I’m sorry.”
Joey didn’t miss a beat. “No. You’re not.”
Scratch what I said earlier about hating his tone. I hated it more when he was right. I wasn’t sorry in the least.
“Why did you call her that?” He laced his hands in his lap and leaned towards me. He didn’t sound upset, per say, but he wasn’t happy either. Still, he opened the topic of his love life. Again. Did he think I wouldn’t say something eventually?
“What do you want me to say, Joey?” Rita couldn’t have herself a better boyfriend if she programmed a robot. Joey was the best boyfriend material out there, kind and loyal. He knew just how to make a person laugh, not caring if he appeared a fool. The kind of guy who spent his last twenty to throw his shoulder out to get the stupid oversized bear at the fair if you wanted it. I saw him do it. Still had the stupid bear, too.
“Well, you could start with why you called my girlfriend a bitch.”
“Don’t like her.”
Our eyes met. Silently, I begged him not to press me any further. The horrible truth expanded within my chest, deep in the air pockets of my lungs, and threatened to jump into the world. If those words escaped, there was no telling what would happen.
“Joey, trust me. You don’t want this.” The truth inched its way up my throat where it choked and jumbled together like a pile of rocks. “I said sorry.”
He shook his head. “Naw. Not buying today, Em. You started this.” His eyes shifted from surprised green to determined blue. Normally, I loved the way his eyes changed color. Not so much today.
I started to point out, no, technically he started by complaining about Rita. Though, to be fair, I did set off the bomb. He merely presented said bomb. “I don’t like how she makes you sad,” I said.
Joey leaned back against the bench, letting out a long breath. Slowly, his head nodded, accepting. His eyes dropped. “Yeah. We do seem to fight a lot.”
I bit the tip of my tongue. A lot was an understatement, and he knew it. We both did.
“Is that why you don’t like her?”
Yeah, he asked the question, but it didn’t mean he wanted the answer. He wanted to stay with her. The longing was written all over his face, like a puppy in search of praise. He wanted someone to hold his hand and tell him everything would all be okay. One day, they’d go to prom together and live happily ever after. He wanted a lie. I wouldn’t lie to him.
My palms itched, and I rubbed them on my legs, pressing down as hard as possible.
“Okay. Fine.” He hit his thighs with open palms. “Why don’t you like her? Real talk. ”
The words fell heavy and final in the space between us as he invoked our long-standing promise to be honest with each other. With two words, he blocked off any and all hopes of escape. I sat, frozen. How was I expected to start? I couldn’t think of a single way that didn’t involve destroying our friendship.
“Are you sure?” Maybe, if I gave him a chance to take it back, he would.
“Real talk, Em. Hell, I’ll start. You wanna know why I’m with her, right? Okay. I’ve liked Rita since, like what? Forever? And now I’m dating her. Me and not someone like Tom Gibson. Should be heaven, right? She’s the perfect girlfriend. Drop dead gorgeous, always smiling. Popular. Everything a guy wants, am I right? But when I’m with her lately,” he shrugged, “all we do is fight. She’s upset. She’s angry. And the more I try, the worse I do. Yeah, maybe I should break up with her, but I keep hoping, something’s gotta give. Then it’ll be easy. Like a…a good friendship.”
I frowned and blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“What?” He frowned. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. His hand shot up to rub at his neck. “A good friendship, Em. Relationships should be smooth like a good friendship. Right? That’s what I thought I heard Mom say once…on the phone…with…someone. Aren’t you girls supposed to know this stuff?”
“Whoa! Whoa!” My hands jumped up to stop him. “Have you met me? Not exactly the rom com queen here.”
A smile, an honest to goodness, genuine smile graced his face. “Yeah. Ya do kinda have a point.”
“Well, duh,” I said, fighting back the urge to hug him. Here was the Joey I knew and missed. “So you knowing all that. Why talk to me about this stuff?”
“You’re a girl.”
“Seriously? Is that what you’ve been doing? Is that why –?” I leaned against the bench letting my head fall back. “Sorry to disappoint you here, but I don’t know any more about relationships than you do.”
“Yeah. You can say that again.”
Was that what he’d been wanting from me all this time? Love advice? I let out a snort, feeling the tension start to disappear. Maybe now things could start to go back to normal, and he’d stop jabbering on about Rita. I hit him on the shoulder with back of my hand. “That’s what you get for being so stupid, Stupid. I’m your friend, not Oprah.”
“Yeah…You are my friend aren’t you?”
“Sure as sure.”
“And we’ve got a good friendship…Don’t we?”
My stomach did a flip-flop. There was something in his tone, in those last words. And I didn’t understand it.
Hoping for some clue, I turned towards him. No such luck. We had known each other our whole lives. I knew him inside and out, better than his parents, his siblings, anyone. But now, there was something completely alien on his face.
And it shot a thrill right up my spine, like I touched a live outlet. Every nerve screaming in agonized pleasure. I swallowed to try and wet a mouth filled with sand.
Unbidden, the words blurted out. “Rita doesn’t deserve you. And you know it. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s her. All her.”
My stomach clenched tight and hard. Even without being a relationship expert, something told me that was probably not the right thing to say. Here we had just gotten back to normal, and I went and blew it again. Today was not my day. Why had I said those things? True? Yes, beyond a doubt. But I knew better than to say it out loud. Mouth, meet foot. Had I gone and ruined our friendship?
The silence taunted and whispered prophecies of doom as it dragged out between us.
“I know,” he said, voice soft and low. I think my heart stopped. Did he say what I thought he said? I wanted to look at him. I wanted to say something. But everything was locked up frozen. It took more effort than I had ever known speaking to take, but somehow, I managed to ask, “Are you going to break up with her, then?”
“I think I should.”
Our eyes managed to find each other, and we sat there, just looking. My mind felt like it was running frantically but not getting anywhere, like a hamster on a wheel. If there was something I was supposed to say, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what. I wasn’t even going to try.
He leaned forward.
Warm lips pressed against mine. Everyone always talks about how lips are supposed to be all soft and sweet. His were, but I could also feel the chapped ridges and the remains of soda.
Like magnets, we bent in once, twice, three times. I was scared to push for more, but no single touch was enough to quench the hot thirst welling up inside. This was Joey, my friend, my best friend. And we were kissing. What did it mean for us? I didn’t know. We’d figure it out later, somehow.
Right then, all I wanted to was to drown in the taste of his sweetness.