I once knew a boy who loved a girl.
Affections blossomed in the final days of high school when the boy and the girl were only months away from universities a thousand miles apart. On the cusp of living in different places for the first time in eighteen years, on a humid June night and in the immediate aftermath of graduation, they had their first date.
After the girl beat the boy at a round of bowling, after cruising around their town with the boy’s Dashboard Confessional CD soundtracking the budding romance, they laid side-by-side on his varsity soccer field atop a damp blanket soaked from dewy grass. They swiped insatiable mosquitoes and focused on the twinkling canvas overhead.
The boy wanted to kiss the girl and believed she wanted the same. Too timid to initiate, the boy took a break from pointing out the few constellations he recognized and staged a conversation with a star–the gleaming centerpiece of Orion’s belt, to be precise.
“Yes, I agree,” the boy said to the star after small talk. “She does look beautiful tonight.”
The girl laughed.
“Kiss her?” the boy asked aloud, unsure if he correctly heard the swirling mass of hot gas trillions of miles away. “Well, if she’s okay with it…”
The girl obliged.
Overestimating the looming specter of college, the misguided boy squandered the summer and let the girl slip away. They saw each other again in late August along with the rest of their friends gathering on the eve of the next chapter. The boy admitted he had erred and the girl agreed, then they parted amicably and went off to schools where they could learn and change and grow.
The girl met someone new, and the boy only met someones who weren’t the girl. They reunited in their hometowns every winter and summer break, and under the protection of their friend group they nurtured a flickering flame with his jokes and her smile.
The boy accepted that he loved the girl, and though the breaks were not long enough, though the start of a new semester meant a return to her other someone, the boy believed the girl felt the same.
A couple years passed and the boy began to wonder if his timidity held them back from something more. He wondered if the girl was simply waiting for the boy to rip his heart from his chest and present it to her gallantly. He wondered if, under the right circumstances and in the proper moment, he had it in him to proclaim what they both knew but had never been said.
In the winter break of their junior year, the boy, the girl and their friends drove to a house in the middle of the woods for a New Year’s party in the dwindling moments of a snowy December. The house was small and bloated with strangers, the music contemporary and horrid and louder than it needed to be.
The boy drank nothing because he was the driver and the girl drank little because it was her inclination. The tight-knit group kept to themselves and drifted downstairs to avoid the crowd and the noise. When boredom or a need to refill cups nudged the friends back to the main floor, the boy and the girl were alone.
It was an open, sparse basement: white walls and supportive beams, a long mirror occupying one facade, an old bureau with missing drawers shoved into a corner. The party’s muffled music entered weakly through the ceiling, but when the boy looked at the girl he heard something classic and romantic.
He asked her to dance and she approved. The boy’s hands rested on her hips and the girl wrapped her arms around his neck. They swayed softly, slowly, and though they laughed at themselves in the beginning, time and intimacy yielded to comfort and ease.
The girl suddenly rolled away from the boy, keeping hold of his nervous hand with one of hers while holding the other above her head, then twirled back and landed in his chest.
The boy chuckled and sighed. The girl smiled more brilliantly than the bright white room. They resumed the posture of the soft, swaying dance. They edged closer, their cheeks pressed together. Their silence was the loudest thing in the house.
“You know,” the boy began, “I’ve had some interesting conversations with our friends the last couple years.”
“It seems like everyone else always thought we should have been together, even if we realized it too late.”
She said nothing.
He continued with more sincerity: “If we didn’t wait so long, what do think would have happened?”
“It wouldn’t have worked out.”
The girl’s lack of hesitation wiped away the boy’s smile.
“You really think so?”
“College would have gotten in the way,” she proposed, frustrated, arguing with herself. “It wasn’t the right time for us.”
“Maybe that’s true.”
Their dance turned them slowly in the center of the room, and when the boy looked up from the carpeted floor he caught their reflection in the mirror. It couldn’t be true, he asserted to himself.
“But you do know,” he pushed forward defiantly, “that I would have been willing to do whatever it took.”
“And you know that if you hadn’t met someone when you went down to North Carolina–”
He moved in closer, caught her scent and felt so good he could cry. He moved his lips closer to her ear. Their souls interlocked like clasping hands.
“And you know,” he said softly, “that I’m absolutely in love with you.”
The universe paused. The words sprouted wings and flew off into the cold night to live a long, warm life somewhere remote like the Berkshires.
“I know,” she replied sweetly, knowingly. “I’ve been waiting two years for you to say it.”
The boy did his best to hide his relieved sigh. Now he was ready to throw open the gates and let the flood rush out. “And I’ve wanted to tell you since the beginning. I just didn’t want to make things difficult. I know you’re with someone else—”
“Don’t be sorry. What could you have to be sorry about?”
“I’m sorry I can’t say it back,” she said. “A part of me wants to, but I can’t.”
That was enough for him. “It’s okay,” the boy comforted the girl, responsible for her distress but unable to regret the cause.
They never stopped dancing. The boy caught another glimpse of the pair in the mirror, where he saw something perfect and whole and unbreakable, and decided to say the rest.
He told her about the times he’d been with her over the last few years that he’d wished could last forever: sitting beside her at backyard bonfires watching the shadows of flames dance across her face, arranging drop-offs of the rest of his passengers to ensure they had a few minutes alone before she disappeared through the front door at the end of a night out, the smiles they exchanged across crowded rooms that erased every person from existence for a precious moment.
He told her that no matter who he met while they were apart, no other girl compared, that no amount of distance and time could alter his feelings, that she was worth the wait if that’s what she required.
He felt them moving closer each time they spoke, even though they had already erased the space between them.
The girl started to cry and the boy felt her tremble. Their cheeks separated and they faced each other, foreheads pressed together, the tips of their noses lightly grazing, her damp brown eyes locked in the gaze of his own. Her beauty crippled and strengthened him.
“But I want you to know,” he told her, “that in the end, with all my heart, I want us to be together.”
“I’ve thought about it…” She trailed off, considered, then added: “After our first date I went home and told my family I was going to marry you.”
The boy felt something foreign in his chest. With new confidence, he answered: “Well, the story isn’t over yet.”
She sniffled softly. He touched her cheek with his and felt a tear.
“Don’t cry,” he begged sorrowfully. “I don’t want you to cry.”
The girl wiped her face. The boy wanted to punctuate their conversation with a kiss but restrained himself, needing more than just a kiss goodbye. He wanted their next to last forever. The stars demanded nothing less.
He leaned forward and rested his head against hers. Once more, he watched them together in the mirror and knew he had to cherish it all.
Months followed until the boy and the girl returned home for one last summer before college’s finale. He came home ready to fight for her. She came home convinced everything had been a mistake.
The muggy months were fruitless. Every moment they had alone, the boy argued for their love while the girl rejected it all together. Nothing was left unsaid, and no words made a difference. They talked less, and by late August as the breeze turned cool and bags were re-packed for senior year, the boy’s last flicker of hope smoldered.
The friends had a farewell dinner and drove forty-five minutes to a posh coastal town. After fried seafood and watered drinks they nursed slowly throughout the meal, they walked to the beach chattering excitedly about their final year of college and everything that lay beyond.
“This is our last summer ever!” someone exaggerated tearfully.
The boy snuck away and plodded through the cold sand. He stopped when mist sprayed his face. His toes wiggled in the soft damp earth where the Atlantic greets America. Waves built and broke, smashed and slammed, and the cloak of night made the violence of the ritual seem peaceful.
The boy stood alone until the only girl he had ever loved suddenly appeared beside him. She wore a white dress that swooshed under the command of the strong ocean breeze. The moon twinkled in her eyes.
The boy and the girl shared the beach silently until the girl asked earnestly, “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” the boy replied in a way that fooled no one.
“Are you sure?” she pushed back playfully.
“I think so.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
The boy pivoted to face the girl, her smile brighter than the dazzling boardwalk, and saw the tumult of the last few months. He remembered three years of living off morsels of hope mined from fleeting moments of intimacy. He saw a great love wasted and a story snuffed out on the same cold winter night he thought it began.
“I’ll always have something more to say,” the boy stared her down, “but I think we’ve said enough already.”
Eight months earlier, it had taken all his courage to open the valve and say what he’d held back for years. It had taken all his strength to bury the rest.
“Okay.” She huffed and drifted back to their friends laughing on a bench by the pier, ready to pretend like none of it had happened.
The boy would follow when he was ready, but first he watched her go and considered the smile that no longer brought him joy after a summer of devastation. She smiled because she had moved on, and the boy decided to do the same.
A pang shot through his chest that erased all the good that came before.