Love Song

We sit and listen as your favorite album plays in the car. The singer has a thick, solid voice, backed by heavy drum beats and soaring guitar, punchy bass. You tell me that next time, I can choose.

I want to hold your hand so badly. In the dark, nobody will see us. You don’t have to kiss me. Just touch me.

***

You pull out your laptop and open it to Spotify. New playlist. We take turns adding our favorite songs to it. You begin singing to one of them, the one that we have agreed upon to be our favorite. I mean, it’s your favorite, but anything you like I like. You’re better at singing than you are at guitar, so I take your acoustic and strum along, picking out a solo at the end. The ring of the strings is crystal-crisp, and my mother would laugh her feathery laugh if she were here.

Which she never is these days. Your voice is rolling waves. Something that caresses the folds of my throat.

It was always this, this love for chords and melodies and harmonies that brought us together. This love for this beautiful temporal world of sound that we bathe in.

After this year, you’ll be gone. Both of us will be gone. But I’ll be the only one who cares. For you, I’m just one of your many best friends. My grades are not sharp enough to go to the same college as you, and besides, you’ll have Jack.

You’re my life. I love every inch of you, inside and out.

***

Track One: Advice for the Young at Heart by Tears For Fears

Love is so beautiful, isn’t it?

One word, yet so many meanings.

A promise. A souvenir. An irrevocable gift.

***

I slam the journal closed and return the pencil to the pouch. I rest my cheek against the cold brown leather, my finger fiddling with the strap to the rhythm of the bass in The Lovecats.

Twelve now. Twelve letters you will never read. As many letters as there are tones.

You could never know what dirty things I’ve thought about you. On my inner eyelids, your bare skin is on mine. I lie on the ground and you kiss me until it hurts. We lie tangled together on the bed.

I cry because I know that you don’t really know me and that’s why you like me. You are pure and innocent and naive and you think I am the same.

***

I write a twentieth love letter to you and enclose it in my journal. I want to write those words up and down my arms and on my neck and on the part of my legs that my capris don’t cover.

I want you to read my heart and see that I love you and that you are my life. I want you to run your finger along the curlicues of the words, trace every letter. You will tell me that my words mirror your heart. You will kiss me there. You will say, “I love you and I’ll never stop loving you.”

But just like I am too afraid to tell you with my mouth that I am in love with you, I am too afraid to put those letters in your hands.

***

Track Three: Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order

My heart is wound like guitar strings, tight with a nauseating anticipation. Waiting for you to say what I can’t.

***

I huff as I walk out of my chemistry class. Tonight is going to be a hard night of poring over my study packets, trying to make sense of the formulas and long names ending with “ate” and “ine.”

I drop my books at the foot of my locker. They slam against the floor like cymbals. A neon yellow Post-It note sticks out of the corner of my locker. I pry it out, hoping it is from you.

My heart tumbles, cracking. It wouldn’t have cracked if I hadn’t let hope let it jump.

It’s a note from Ethan, one of the kids that sits with us at lunch. He has scribbled, in tight vines of cursive, an invitation to a date. Below it, he’s doodled my black headphones, complete with the silver Sharpie drawings on the sides. Next to those, an adequate imitation of my keyboard.

I tuck the Post-It into my pocket. Ethan is nice and I don’t want to break his heart. But I won’t betray you, either.

***

Despite all your innocence and naivete, you have kissed a girl. Her name is Reyna. You come to me with excitement, telling me that you finally have a girlfriend.

I lock the door of my bedroom and wet the trigonometry problems with my tears. I have to rip the page out of the notebook and start over again.

But of course you chose her over me. I’m your best friend since third grade, but she’s new and exciting.

***

I look in the mirror at the pimples dotting my forehead. One of them is bleeding, and the drop of blood looks like a little round jewel.

I go onto Instagram and find Reyna. Shampoo commercial hair. Smooth face. I could never compete. And I bet she’s perfect like you, not a dirty thought in her head.

I text Ethan and ask him where he wants to go.

***

Track Four: Creep by Radiohead

I wish I were like you. Then maybe you’d notice.

I don’t care what it might cost me.

***

We go to your house to study for finals. I tell you about going over to Ethan’s house for dinner. You’re excited for me. Both of us nerds have finally found romantic success.

Just you, really.

You pop your favorite album into the CD player. You sing along as we review the branches of American government and the articles of the Constitution. I sink into your voice, letting it rock me.

Jack and Lena arrive twenty minutes later, laughing instead of apologizing for being late. You don’t care, and I don’t care because we’ve all been friends since third grade. We’re all your best friends, even if that’s not necessarily true for the rest of us. Jack and Lena are closest to each other. I’m closest to you.

There are four weeks left of school. Four weeks until you leave me forever. Four weeks for me to bind you to me so you’ll never forget me.

***

At Ethan’s house, we wrap into each other on the couch while he kisses my hair. He moves his mouth along my jawline. His lips are clouds brushing across my skin. He pulls me to him, hooking his thumbs under the collar of the Fall Out Boy T-shirt you got me. I lay my head on his shoulder, and he buries his face in my hair. “So beautiful.” His breath lifts a few strands of my hair. His words vibrate through my head. “So goddamn beautiful.”

A reminder of how he could never replace you. I’ve only heard you swear once, and only halfway at that. You were giggling as you headbanged, your middle three fingers folded in while your thumb and pinkie stuck up. The official lyrics said “goddamn” but you said “godda—” because that’s how long it took you to realize you’d cussed. And you laughed under your breath, dropping your hands to your side and apologizing profusely to the beat of the song.

“Tell me what you’ve always got through those big headphones of yours.”

I pull out my phone and play my favorite album for him. It’s almost good, how I don’t strain for his reaction the way I strain for yours. We just sit and listen. Or I do. Ethan falls asleep.

He hasn’t even asked me to prom yet.

I think about you and wonder if you’ve asked Reyna yet.

***

I drop by your house and ask if you want to hang out. You say yes like you always do.

We can study together and you can sing because I will never judge you.

To make space for my laptop, I push aside the myriad of things on your desk: the glass figurines your mom gifted you, the little guitar and microphone magnets you like to collect.

Behind me, you strum your guitar, letting a few notes of a melody float out.

Then the melody stops. You plug your phone into a speaker. For a moment, you contemplate. I can tell that though your body is still, it’s feeling, feeling for what song will feel best on your ears and mouth right now. You tap the song of your choice.

It’s “Uma Thurman,” track eight on our playlist. You watch me, pointing out edits as you sing, the melody buzzing against your lips. I know the lyrics well because this is one of your favorites. You’re singing the pre-chorus, where you say you’ll move mountains and work miracles for me. And may nothing but death do us part.

This has to be a sign. No, more than a sign. It’s a confession, you confessing.

Three and a half weeks. I have three and a half weeks.

“I love you,” I murmur, as the song fades out and changes. “Do you love me?”

You blink, halfway through pulling your phone out of your pocket. “Of course I do. There’s no better friend for me than you.”

Before I can stop myself, the confession spills out. I am desperate and I need you to tell me yes before Ethan asks me to prom. I need you to hold me like Ethan did, but tighter. It’ll be tighter because I love you.

You slide your phone back into your pocket. “That’s not right. Not right at all.”

“What?”

You shake your head. “All this time, you wanted me.”

My hands tremble. I can’t believe this. You’re supposed to love me. You were always meant to love me. “I thought—I thought of all people, you would understand…”

“It’s fine. I’m fine. But you can’t string Ethan along like that.” You get up from the chair and shut off the playlist. “He really likes you. You weren’t there to see it, but he was euphoric when you told him yes. And all along, you were using him for me.” For a moment, you stand, staring at the wall, frozen in time.

When you take my notebook and laptop and slide them into my backpack, I can’t speak. I can’t move.

You’re mine. You were always meant to be mine. And how could you? Don’t you know how much I love you? I love you more than Reyna ever could. Someday she’ll leave you but I would never leave you.

You’re my life.

***

By the time I get home, I can’t keep the tears inside my eyes. They fall, a torrent of rushing water. I hide my face in my pillow, but who would see me? My parents work extra shifts now, trying to scrape up what they can so I won’t drown in debt like my cousin.

My phone buzzes against my thigh. I rip it out of my pocket before the buzzing stops. It’s not you, it’s Ethan, asking me to prom.

***

It’s just a phase. It can’t go on for long. You pass by me in the hallway without a word. I text you when the green dot indicates you’re active. You don’t even read them.

Reyna posts a picture of herself in a sparkly lavender gown on Instagram. The dress curves around her bronze legs like a mermaid’s tail, and the gauzy neckline and its glittering rhinestones highlight her cascades of dark brown hair. She grins into the camera.

I hate her. I hate her. Brilliant and beautiful and not a stain on her innocent pure thoughts.

Just like you. Nothing like me. Stupid and ugly and wild with dirty, deranged thoughts.

On prom night, I stay home in the corner of my bedroom, though my mom thinks I’m going. She doesn’t know I broke up with Ethan after two weeks of dating. (“What a handsome boy for my sweet girl!”) She doesn’t know that you hate me now, and I can’t stop craving you despite it all.

I plug my headphones into the playlist we made together. I run through it, all the way to the last song. You gave in when I argued it should be the last song. I said it was haunting and beautiful, but you said it was dumb to put that song last because it opens the album it’s in.

***

Track Fifteen: The Kiss by The Cure

I can’t get your face, your voice, your smile out of my head.

It haunts me, everything you are. I wonder if you will drive me mad, mad as Heathcliff. I never meant any of this.

***

At three in the morning, I can’t sleep. Images of you and Reyna flash on my eyelids. You and Reyna, swaying to the pop songs they play in the school gym. You and Reyna, giggling in the dark in the backseat of the car, you and Reyna, slipping into your bedroom to kiss and kiss but never anything more, never any of those things I would desire. I scream silently into my palms. I can’t stand it. I run my hands over the keyboard in the dark, not daring to play it. My parents are busy enough. They don’t need my banging waking them up at three.

My phone buzzes. I almost don’t take it out of my pocket, because surely it’s Jack or Lena or one of our other friends worrying about my isolation again. Or Spotify trying to force Premium onto me.

I press Middle C by accident, sigh, and take out my phone.

It’s you. I barely swallow my scream. It’s too good to be true. You must have butt-dialed me or something or—

hey, i know you’re probably asleep. it’s ok if u don’t answer. i’m sorry for getting mad at u. i really am. i shouldn’t judge u for what u feel. we’re all confused sometimes, and i can’t blame u for that. i should have tried to help u instead.

The tears break out of my eyes and stream down my face before I know it. Your icon sits, waiting at the bottom of the screen. A few times the bubbles appear to show you’re typing, but then they stop.

I should reply. You’re waiting and you can see my icon, too. I can’t. I can’t say a thing.

You’re so good. You’re too good. It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean what you say and you just pity this sobbing mess. You’re better than me and you always were. I was just too dense to realize that. I never deserved you and you never deserved me.

***

Finals roll by and I still haven’t talked to you. I do apologize to Ethan, and though he nods and tells me it’s fine, I can’t dig the guilt out of me.

If I’m sorry at all, I’m sorry that I lost you and I’m too afraid to face you. I’m sure you see every dark, deranged, delirious thought in my heart.

As the senior class files out after exams, I spot you down the hallway, clustered with Jack and Reyna. I want to run to you as if nothing ever happened. I want to sit down in your bedroom or mine, while we play random chords and melodies, trying to write a song before we finally give up and stick to covers. I want us to be what we were before.

I bite my lip and cruise past you.

If I love you—if I ever loved you—I should leave you alone. I’ll only hurt you. You don’t need me. You’re better without me.

***

Track Ten: How Beautiful You Are by The Cure

They do say there’s a fine line between love and hate. I just never thought I’d cross it with you.

***

It’s the end of my first year of college. I stuff my clothes into my suitcase while my roommate untangles the mess of notebooks and papers in the back corner of our dorm. I zip up the suitcase and kneel down next to my roommate, sorting through what we want to keep and what we don’t. She smiles. “You know how everyone always says they’ll burn their notebooks and homework?”

“Yeah?”

“I always said that too. Maybe I will this year.”

“Yeah. Me too.” I split the notebooks and papers into two bags: to keep and to burn. To burn. I like that thought.

I still think of you sometimes, though I got rid of so much. I deleted that playlist. I gave your CD to the local Salvation Army. I put a picture of my family over yours in the locket. I took your name off my contacts, though I kept the phone number and the messages. You’ve texted me a few times, and I’ve responded politely. I don’t want to start anything up again.

I sling the bags over my shoulder and pull the extending thing out of the suitcase. “I’ll see you in the fall, Natasha.”

She’s halfway through the university sweater she couldn’t fit into her bags. “We can get a flat together next year if you want to.”

“Sure. I’d love to.”

It’s better this way, though sometimes I miss our years of friendship.

That ship was sinking anyway. It was best we both got off of it and drifted away.

I roll onto the plane home. It takes off, lifting me into the sky. I always loved this part—where the ground shrinks and shrinks, until it’s nothing, and all around there’s just the gauzy clouds and pastel blue sky.

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