I fell in love with him under the neon lights of an all night diner. Meeting him took me to places I had never been. Places I wasn’t ready for. But I let myself get taken away on that flickering neon night because I needed someone.
I was there to get a milkshake with my mom. We met there once in a while when she was in town. She was always late, and I always waited for her outside under the marquee. On this night I could feel a storm coming. There was electricity in the air. I put my Orioles hat on to keep my hair from whipping in the bitter wind. I cupped my calloused hand around the flame and lit my cigarette. I inhaled.
A while later, I threw my third cigarette onto the pavement and ground it out with the toe of my military boot. It seemed as though my mom wasn’t going to make it this time. She’d probably call tomorrow and say she missed her flight. I wasn’t going to dwell on it.
As I was walking toward my bike I saw him.
He was everything I had wanted these past three years. I wanted him in ninth grade when he brought his violin to school. The older kids had laughed at him, but he played it anyway with intense concentration. He played it so beautifully, but no one else listened. I wanted him in tenth grade when he tried to read his poem to the class and turned bright red. The poem was about his grandmother’s garden, and it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever heard.
Most of all, I wanted him right then and there, standing in the diner parking lot, under the neon lights.
He wore a brown sweatshirt and worn jeans. The wind blew his dark hair in swirls above his head. He walked in long strides toward the diner with his hands in his pockets. His skin was luminous and his hair was backlit like a halo. As he looked up, he saw me.
I averted my gaze, but it was too late. He walked to me under the lights. I worried he could see my heart beating through my denim jacket.
“Hey,” he said. My cursed heart beat faster. “You were in my English class last year, right?”
I couldn’t believe he recognized me. I was always so quiet. But then, so was he. Quiet people have a way of noticing each other, even if they never speak.
I nodded. Smiled.
It had started to rain. The pavement shone like a still black pond under the glow of the lights. They flickered along with my quickening pulse.
“Its freezing. Can I get you a coffee or something?” he asked tentatively.
I nodded again.
I was afraid my voice didn’t work. But as we sat across from each other in the vinyl booth something happened. We talked, and it was easy. He was shy at first too and it made me less afraid. As the night flew by and the rain poured down neither of us wanted to leave. We talked for hours, and somehow never ran out of things to say. I couldn’t believe all the things I told him. That was the night I really got to know him, and it was like living in a dream. I never thought about what would happen if I woke up.
After that night I didn’t have to want him from afar. He held my hand in the hallways and rode me home on the handlebars of my bike. I was scared he’d crash us into a car or something the way he wobbled us all over the road. We’d sit for hours in his backyard in the old tree-house laughing, smoking, whispering, kissing. His hands on the back of my neck were worth the splinters. It didn’t matter anymore that my mom lived far away in Boston, or that my dad worked all the time. I wasn’t alone anymore. I loved someone who wasn’t going to let me go. He loved me too, I was sure of it.
After he got a car, the world was ours. It was an ugly blue wreck he paid too much money for, and the stereo worked better than the engine. But it was freedom. He wanted to take me away for the weekend to show me his family’s cabin. His mom was away on business, and I could tell my dad I was at my friend Annie’s house. He picked me up a few blocks from my street, grinning like an idiot. He kissed my hand in a show of chivalry and opened the rusted passenger door, his cheeks blotchy red from the fall chill. He didn’t know then it was the weekend that would change everything. Or maybe he did.
The cabin smelled like old carpet and rain. It was delicious. I’d never been anywhere other than smoggy cities and run down towns. I felt grown up and special here. It was our own place with no distractions and no rules. I threw open the musty plaid curtains and looked out over the sparkling lake. Bright clear light reflected back at me and hurt my eyes.
We roasted marshmallows in the fire pit and jumped in the freezing water. When we ran inside he wrapped a wool blanket around us. I’d never been that close to him before. As the water dried off our skin, I could feel heat building up in both of us. The sunlight faded into deep orange, then red. The night was ours.
Driving home the next day my voice didn’t work again. He talked and sang along with the radio, but I just nodded and made myself smile. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Last night was what I thought I wanted, but I felt empty now. It was supposed to make me feel everything, but I felt nothing at all. I felt small, and I felt tired. I watched the trees flicker by in shades of green and yellow, while pulling at a soft string on my glove. I told him I didn’t feel well and pretended to have a nap. I thought if I could just get home and get some sleep I’d feel better. But that wasn’t what happened.
I had an anxious, gnawing pit in my stomach that didn’t go away. At school I walked around not seeing anything. He looked for me at lunch, but I wasn’t there. I sat in the bathroom stall and just stared at the ground. The bathroom tiles were small and cracked. I stared at them. My eyes blurred and I felt like crying. When the lunch bell rang I couldn’t make myself leave the stall. Everything was wrong, and I didn’t know why.
That whole week I felt distanced from everyone, more so than I ever had. He noticed it too. He didn’t understand, and it couldn’t explain it to him. He tried so hard. He’d try to make me laugh, he called me every night. I hated myself, and I still do, because he really loved me right when I stopped loving him back.
Remembering that brief time, I still see him walking towards me under the neon lights. It makes me sad, but it also it makes me smile when I think back on my first love. I wasn’t ready for him then. I thought I was. I needed him and I wanted him, but for the wrong reasons. I needed to feel safe and special at a time when no one made me feel that way. But lying there in his arms that night in the cabin, I never felt more alone. I stared up at the ceiling and felt lost.
After we broke up he got a new girlfriend. For a while, I couldn’t even look at them. I finished my projects, I took notes, and before I knew it the semester was over. It was graduation time. I could start my own life and leave home.
My heart swelled with hope as I threw my graduation cap in the air. I watched it drift and fly and felt excited. I needed a fresh start. I needed change.
I learned that being loved isn’t what helps me feel secure. Feeling lost all on my own is when I found myself. After I graduated I was truly and completely alone. Everything was up to me. Where I’d live, what I’d do, and who I’d be. It was terrifying. Yet strangely, for the first time in my life, being alone felt amazing.
By Ashley Foy
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