Home - Short Story
We're sitting at a marble top counter, on a couple of those stools that spin all the way around. If you've ever been to a diner, you know the ones I'm talking about. The first thing we did when our butts hit their red cushions was launch into twirls of flying hair and uninhibited laughter.
Haven. That's who she is, and that's also what she's always been to me. Our friendship started in childhood, and no matter how old we got or how much time we spent apart, that's always what it reverted to when we found ourselves together again. Adults aren't supposed to act like us anymore -- at least that's what I gather from the looks the other patrons are giving us. Outside snow is starting to fall. A family walks by -- a boy on his dad's shoulders, a wife holding her husband's arm. The dad/husband points at something across the street, and I watch as snowflakes settle on the family's heads and shoulders while they stop and stare. Through the large windows it all looks too perfect, like a desktop screensaver titled "Christmas Cheer."
Haven brushes the spin-tousled hair off her shoulder -- that bony little shoulder that the underside of my chin is very well acquainted with after we salvaged her dad's old skateboard and tried to ride it down a gravel-ridden hill. Bad idea. Surprisingly great memory.
This is what happens when I look at Haven. Everything about her is a memory. There's warm summer nights catching fireflies in her eyes, snorting laughter watching dumb TV shows on the tip of her nose. There's even slicing off a layer of skin while peeling potatoes, just underneath her fingernail. That one still and probably always will make me shudder.
There's the name of every boy she's ever liked just behind the curtain of her lips. That one makes me cringe a little. And just underneath her right eye, there's a couple of freckles that acted like a checkpoint for her tears to roll through when some boy broke her heart. That memory still pisses me off.
Haven grips the counter with both hands, looking like she's getting ready to throw herself into another spin. Instead, she suddenly turns back to me, shoulders squared and jaw set. "Look at me," she says, "and don't look anywhere else."
So of course, my eyes immediately wander away from hers, but she reaches up and cups my chin with velvety fingers that polarize the steel in her eyes.
"Hey," she says in a tone that lands somewhere between the steel and the velvet. "Trust me, you big idiot. Okay?"
My gaze -- and stomach -- drop, and I feel Haven go stiff beside me. She knows that I know now who she's trying to keep me from looking at.
"Let's get out of here," she says. So we do. It's about time to go, anyways. I don't bother asking myself what the odds of running into my ex are. I stopped asking that a while ago when it seemed to always happen at the worst times. But I'm okay.
We make a surprise stop before the airport. Haven saw a little park area and asked the cab driver to pull over immediately. I open the door, throw my camera over my head and feel the frigid night peck at my exposed skin like a glacier's kiss. It's freezing, but Haven's already running across the road, making more than one angry cab driver beep a horn at her. She laughs like she did when she was six, and when she was 16, like she's always laughed -- with the kind of purity that can only come from reckless joy.
I hurry across the street (making sure it's actually clear before I do) to a gazebo dressed in white Christmas lights. It clothes the people skating on the pond nearby in robes of warm brilliance. Their skates whisper quietly across the surface of the ice, while their laughs shout happiness into the night. I follow Haven into the gazebo and we lean on the railing with our elbows, watching the skaters glide by. For a couple minutes, we don't speak. Then Haven turns to me.
"She's such a bitch, you know."
I open my mouth to respond, but she notices and stops me dead. "No, dude. Stop. Don't even try to make anymore excuses for her."
I wasn't going to, but I sigh and resign myself to silence as Haven spends the next few minutes being considerably more upset about my broken heart than maybe even I am. She's a flame turned inferno now, her voice raspy in the cold, a perpetual cloud of breath floating around her head. The rant makes me feel great, though. Even if she is missing big pieces of the puzzle, it feels great to know that she doesn't need them to see the big picture of hurt my life has become the past few months. She's so genuinely concerned about putting me together that I don't feel cold anymore.
"She's such a bitch," Haven says again, a finale to the concert of her complaining. Then, after a moment, "You should just come home with me. It's Christmas."
I give her one of those tight-lipped smiles, but don't say anything. Even she knows it's not that easy, that I'm not like her. But she doesn't push. A gentle wind has been sending snowflakes underneath the gazebo, and I smile at how Haven's curls catch them. The flakes are so small, yet they glitter with the the light all around us so that it looks like Haven's wearing a headdress made of stars. Sudden fondness for her hits the bottom of my belly, and I wonder (not for the first time) how she's so comfortable letting me be me. Even I'm not that comfortable with it. An urge to grab and hold her close throws my mind into chaos and escapes my mouth in the form of a strangled muttering.
"What did you say?" she asks.
I clear my throat. "I said -- uh -- I love how this looks over here. Let me take your picture." I hold my camera towards her.
Haven rolls her eyes, but doesn't protest. She loves getting her pictures taken.
I lead her over to a spot in front of a waterfall of lights and take a few steps back to adjust my shutter speed and find my focus. I never have to tell her to pose; she always seems to fall into the perfect position.
"Hurry up, ya big idiot."
I twist my lens the tiniest bit more and get ready to fire, but somebody says excuse me, and I pull my eyes away from the camera.
"Do you want to use this in your photoshoot?" a woman with red cheeks asks. "I think it'd look really pretty." She hands Haven what I realize is one of those sparkling sticks. The woman takes a lighter and ignites the stick.
Haven gives a yelp of surprise and glee as the sparkler flares to life. "Take the shot! Take the shot!"
So I do. I take a few until my roll is all used up.
"I hope they turn out great," Haven says to me after thanking the woman and as we head back to the street.
"I think they will," I say, knowing damn well what I saw through that lens is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
We get to the terminal two hours before Haven's flight, and kick up on a bench next to check-in.
"Thanks for coming out," I say. "It means a lot. More than you know."
"I just wish I could've stayed longer."
I just nod, not really knowing what else I could say. We sit in silence for a minute, then that minute turns to three. I find myself looking for something to say that isn't small talk, then something occurs to me. "You didn't tell me if you were dating anybody." Haven rolls her eyes, and I ask her what. I feel like an asshole for only asking about it now.
"It's just -- I don't know," Haven says. "Haven't found anybody, I guess." She has a way of gesturing with her entire body whenever she feels uncomfortable, and I'm always amused to see how that certain feeling can push and pull at her limbs.
I bring that up, that little quirk of hers, and spend a good amount of time trying to mimic it. She retreats into denial and claims there's no way she ever looks as dumb as I do right now. We laugh, and then the conversation turns to people we refer to as "fringe friends," the people who came into our lives for brief moments. We look a couple of them up on Insta just to see what they're up to nowadays. We find out Henry recently went through chemo, that Isabel married right after high school and has four kids already, that Levi is still working for his dad's dealership even though he confided to us the fear of getting stuck there forever.
I have a thought, grab Haven's phone out of her hands, and type in Andrew Easton into the search bar. Haven groans, but eventually she helps me pick the right guy out of the list that pops up. Apparently the name is a pretty common one.
I scroll through some of his photos, shaking my head at the amount of wax this dude puts in his hair. "This dude is such a douche," I say, fully expecting her to jump on board and shovel some shit-talk coal into the engine of my hate train. But Haven only tilts her head at me.
"What do you mean, 'why's that'?" I say. "The dude broke your heart."
Haven pulls her feet up to the chair and hugs her knees. All of a sudden we're on her grandpa's rooftop (age 11, maybe?), the old shingles rough against our jeans. We watch dusk pull a gray blanket over the fields, revealing constellations of fireflies in the swaying grass.
Haven mumbles something to her knees, pulling me back to the present, and I have to ask what, what did you say?
She lifts her head, and places her chin atop one of her kneecaps. "I said I broke his more."
I'm confused, then irritated that apparently there's a lot more to the story that I've been living without for so long.
"How?" was all I could think to ask. "How did you break his heart more?" I remember all the talks she and I had about this guy, how I never really felt he was right for her, how all her crying about him only convinced me more.
The airport speakers crackle to life, playing the airline jingle and then projecting a woman's announcement that boarding for Haven's flight has started. Haven stands up and throws her duffel over one shoulder, and we move together towards the growing line at security. I keep looking sideways at her, wondering when she's going to answer me. With every step forward, something in my chest squeezes tighter. I wonder what this something is, where it came from, and why it's suddenly so desperate for the rest of the story. I stop at the rope barrier, where the line to security funnels, and watch with something like panic as Haven takes another step forward without me. But just as I'm about to say hey, what the hell, she stops and turns around.
"It was stupid," she says. "I was cruel. I told Andrew I was in love with someone else, but that person wasn't in love with me. But he wanted to keep trying. And I didn't know what else to do, so we just ended up being two hopeless idiots in the dark, looking for suns that wouldn't rise for us."
A part that used to be deep inside me, but has just now surfaced, knew it. I knew what she was going to say. But how?
Before I can sort through the mess in my head, Haven hugs me, says merry Christmas, and gets swallowed up in the quickly-moving line.
There was one time when we were seven. Haven and I went to a birthday party together. She was the only one I really knew, though, so I stuck by her side most of the night as our large group of elementary kids moved between attractions at the mall arcade. At one ride, we needed to pair up in order to take a virtual ride through a rainforest filled with dinosaurs. I got separated from Haven, and she ended up getting paired with another kid. Rather than wait around to be a pity pick, which I was convinced I would be, I ditched the ride and went to go sit in the driver's seat of a nearby racing game. On the screen, a yellow sports car flew around a sharp corner, and I grabbed the steering wheel in front of me to pretend like I was the one driving. I was about to fly around another corner when I started hearing a commotion behind me. I turned in the seat to see Haven pushing her way out of the line to the rainforest ride. When she saw me, she rolled her eyes and yelled, there you are, you big idiot. She waved me over and told me she left the other kid to go with me. I was so embarrassed because everyone was making those "ooooh" sounds kids do when they see a boy and girl engage in anything less than cootie-fearing behavior. I blushed, but I was so grateful.
At security, Haven's getting devoured in another line. But this time, she won't push her way back in order to make sure I'm not alone. This time is different.
This time I'm going to push my way to her, because back when we were seven, I fell in love with Haven Cruz-Carpenter, the girl who came back for me. It's only taken me 20 years to realize it.
Hold on, you big idiot, I shout in my head as people shout at me out loud for pushing past them on the way to the x-ray machine. Hold on, and maybe tomorrow morning we can watch the sun rise together on top of your grandpa's roof, just like those summers when we were kids. I'm going home today, no matter if we take this flight.