You Compared to Me:
They always called you mean. The mean boy who was selfish, and spiteful, and only ever cared about himself. You being the man you were, agreed to their words. You called yourself evil, yet perfect and never wrong. You never tried to change their minds. You went with the new rumor of the day when it came around. You were the one people said picked on those who were weaker.
I was that weaker. Though I can’t recall a time you ever picked on me. It was the others who did. The ones who passed the blame onto you. I was the quiet one, the small one. The one whose presence was hardly known. I never paid attention to those around me. My mind wrapped in the words of the book in my hands. I learned at a young age to ignore their words. That to disagree secretly meant to agree. I learned to simply walk away. It wasn’t worth defending myself.
You never stood up for yourself and I never stood up for myself.
Instead, we learned to stand up for each other.
I used to watch you. You had a particular way of talking. As if you looked down on everyone around you. But I knew you didn’t. No one else saw you with your parents. The day I was late leaving school. The day your parents lay blatant words of criticism and hate as they spat at you. Those people didn’t have your knowledge. The knowledge that you would never please the people who gave you life. No one saw the look of defeat that filled your eyes when you thought you were alone. You used to spend long nights in the library I had worked at. You would read every word, every book had to offer. Just to drown out the voices in your head telling you that you would forever be alone.
That was the first time you noticed me. Really noticed me. I would fuel that need–bringing books I thought you would enjoy, yet taking back the ones you had already read. I did what all the others were unable to do. I acknowledged you, the one reading the books. Not the one cowering behind fragments of broken mirrors. And once my shift had ended I would sit with you. We never talked, just sat there and read. I liked to think you enjoyed the company of a silent stranger. There was no room for judgement. There was just a type of silence one found in peace. Neither easy nor wrong.
It was a silence we were afraid to break.
An illusion we were afraid to see.
From that night on we would meet in the library in the late hours of the night. For months we never really talked–just passing words here and there. I never smiled, and you never laughed. That was just how it was. We were the perfect strangers, the perfect outcasts. You would want to talk, or I would want to talk. Eyes would meet briefly, before the words on the pages pulled us back into separate worlds of our own. Hidden in the words our eyes read for us.
Now, I think that was what you actually liked about reading. Books took you to a different place and a different time—to somewhere far from here. As long as it was different, the book would hold your unwavered attention. That was something else I had noticed. You would avoid stories that were just like your own. Full of hateful words and screaming voices. But, you also avoided happy endings. Did you not believe in them? Or, did they frighten you? It was hard to tell. I’m not sure if there ever was an answer to those questions. There was one book in particular, but the title remains unknown to me. You would pick it up, turn a page and then close the book and put it back on the shelf. Rushed and forced. Every night, you repeated this process.
Was it your story you were reading?
Were you trying to find your ending?
On that cold, bitter day I expected little. The air was bitter. Each inhale of breath was frozen. We happened to bump into each other on the walk to school. First we just glance at each other. Neither knowing what to expect of the chance encounter. Though we walked together nonetheless. We didn’t speak. But there was no need to. We were comfortable in this steady pace. Side-by-side. It was familiar.
We caught the gaze of all who were around us. We heard the private whispers and saw the judgmental looks. The question “why are they together” hung in the air on frosted breath. What does “together” mean? What does it matter to the strangers whose names remained unknown? For us, it meant nothing. Not yet. In a world all my own, I kept lost in my thoughts. Of what-if’s and the perhaps; I slipped on a patch up ice that had been hidden under a thin layer of snow. Shocked from my thoughts. But any pain that should have appeared didn’t. Immediately lost in a different thought, a memory I hoped to keep. Your emerald eyes wide in surprise. Your mouth gaped slightly. Only silence left your lips at first. But then a sound I almost couldn’t identify in my shock rang in the cold air. Like the sound of chimes and the swell of music. It was light, and a little airy from the cold. Yet warm still, like a summer’s night. It was free.
You had a laugh that was without constraints.
And for the first time, I smiled freely.
One night you didn’t come to the library. I waited for you though- all the way to closing time when I was chased from the library into the rain-filled night. I felt uneasy before I took notice of a silhouette hunched over against a wall. It was you. Your head bowed as if in defeat. A loose sweater that hung from your shoulders. Feet bare on the cold and soaked ground. I didn’t have to ask. Your appearance was clear. I knew the reason you were late. I could see it in the way you barely lifted your head when I stopped in front of you. You ran. You ran from them, from their bitterness. You ran from them to here. To me. And though I don’t know why. In this moment, to me, you were perfect.
I took a step to you. You felt the heat from my body and leaned forward. Your head hit my shoulder. Your hand formed a tight grip on my shirt, and you clung to me. As if I was the last line that kept you tied to this world. I wrapped my arms around your back, and patted your head as the rain poured around us and lightning lit up the sky. You murmured nonsense into my ear- you apologized for everything that had gone wrong. For everything you felt had been your fault. And in that moment I felt your body tremble, and something wet hit my shoulder where the rain couldn’t reach. I didn’t say anything; I felt your grief. I understood it as if it had been my own. And at some point, perhaps it could have been. Whether your continued shivers came from the cold or your pain, I won’t know. We wandered the town that night.
You held my hand tightly in your own, and talked until you were hoarse.
It was dawn by the time you let me go.
We Became Us:
The rumors became worse. Poisoned words tainted the air. You ignored them as we walked to school. You had stopped by my home that morning. You had wanted to walk together, and in my surprise I agreed. We didn’t talk about anything, really. We just talked to hear the sound of our voices in the air. You would list random facts, and I would listen. You were rarely ever so vocal and I wanted to bask in it. You were content just talking about the bird and their ability to fly. You talked about light, and our ability to distinguish colors. Sometimes you would smile while you talked, and sometimes you just talked. When you told me something new, you would look at me. As if you were desperate to see my reaction, so I always had a smile. I wanted you to talk.
And as those poisoned words filled the air, you continued to talk. You didn’t care, and I didn’t want to break whatever trance you were under. And eventually their words became a distant hum whereas your words rung loud. You talked and I would listen. It was perfect. I had nothing to say. You had everything to say. You needed someone who would listen. That day we surprised everyone. The students, the teachers, all of them.
We came together that day in early spring.
It was no longer you and I; it was us.
When We Fell Apart:
Spring slowly melted into summer, and school neared its closing. The air grew warm and the world became lively. Graduation neared, and just like in the beginning, things changed. I remembered the time I thought about that day. How I wondered if it would ever truly come- if there would ever be a time when I would be rid of the people in this narrow-minded town. But it did; what days remained came to an end and evening rose on the day of graduation. Diplomas in hand, we sought each other out. I found you first though. You stood out amongst the crowd. You had ditched the gown and hat and slung them over your arm. You looked around the group, and the moment you spotted me you rushed over. You parents hadn’t come, but you didn’t seem to mind. You hugged me instead, and whispered congratulations.
We both knew what was to happen after today– that nothing would remain the same. You would leave to become a doctor and I would leave to go to an art school out of the country. No longer would we see each other after today. We both knew that. It made this moment all the more bittersweet. No longer would we see each other, not like before. And no matter the promises we made to keep in touch, we knew it would be hard. And that eventually that effort would dwindle away. But I supported you, and you supported me. And that hope to one day reunite was still there.
It was a silent promise. One we didn’t know we could keep. Yet made it still.
That day at the start of summer when we fell apart.