Back to You

As published in the Waldorf University Crusader, Spring 2013, Volume 6
Salveson Prize Honorable Mention in Prose

You passed me the water bottle. I held it loosely in my hand, tipped it to my lips and felt the heat as the vodka melted down my throat. I passed it back to you. You were leaned up against the bumper of Laz’s jeep, your faded jeans hanging down below your hips and a plain black t-shirt stretched over your muscular frame. I lay on the hood, legs dangling down the windshield, my naked feet parallel to your head, close enough where if stretched, my toes could tousle your brown hair.

“Do you think you’ll stay here forever?” I asked. We were parked outside your townhouse, hidden by the branches of the thick maple tree out front. I was thankful for this privacy. My hair had fallen out of its protective ponytail and was spread every which way across the hood of the car. The hem of my red sundress had slipped up my thigh revealing a thin line of sun-tanned skin. I felt rebellious, disheveled, hidden.

As I waited for your response, I listened to the sounds of the cars rushing down Route 59 and watched the stoplight on the street corner flicker red to green in unwavering rhythm. This was the same stoplight that you ran two years ago when you were high; I had been sitting in the back seat screaming for you to stop, watching the cars across the intersection blur as they hit their brakes to avoid crashing into us. We had turned, ever so slowly. Or maybe it had been quickly. It was hard to tell with the fog of marijuana coating the car. My legs had been shaking. I struggled to catch both footing and breath. I made you pull over just so I could yell. You were still trying to convince me that it had never happened, that I had just been paranoid. You had that way about you—always trying to argue. You had to be right. Just like me.

You sighed, warm breath mixing with the summer air around us. “I’ll probably stay here for college,” you said slowly, “take a few years to get myself figured out, then move somewhere.”

I didn’t respond. I took in the deepness of your voice, the way every syllable sounded so poetic, so real.

“What about you? Do you know where you’re going yet?”

I took a long swig. My body shuddered at the harshness of the alcohol. I felt the rush in my head, my stomach, my spine. I lay back on the hood. The world around me was spinning: a blur of shadows mixed with distant streetlights. I looked up at the stars, as I often did, to ground myself. They were so beautiful: removed, yet consistent. They always put me in perspective.

The first time I had really admired the stars was the previous summer, traveling with my mother to Iowa for my first round of college visits. We had been driving down a quiet two-lane highway for hundreds of miles. It was the first moment I had really spent with my mother alone since the start of high school; we found ourselves talking about clothes and boys, fears and the future—conversations that I’d always kept in the back of my mind, too afraid to speak to her, yet more scared of what I might discover about myself when I opened my mouth.

The highway had seemed to expand endlessly. It was nine or ten at night and the sky was pitch black. The only lights had been our own, the occasional cross-traffic, and the small reflections of headlights on the mile-marker signs. We had come to a lull in our conversation. I felt a sense of peace, a sense that things were going to be alright, that even though I had no idea what the future held, somehow I would figure it all out. I had looked out the window then, and felt my breath catch in my throat as I saw millions of stars decorating the night sky. These Iowa stars were nothing like Chicago stars, hidden by skyscrapers and airports and cars and streetlights. These were magnificent. Thousands of specks that reminded me of my second grade fieldtrip to the planetarium—a projection of lights on a dome-shaped ceiling. It had been surreal.

I thought about those stars now, lying on this hood next to you. I had always loved my hometown; the simple things, like the worn-down gravel path that stretched all the way from Naper-Plainfield street, past Book Road and the skate park, to the back of the high school and across that old bridge; or the McDonalds on 95th where we would spend our high school nights; or the football field, and the way it smelled like stadium popcorn and sweaty, painted bodies and churned up grass. But these hometown stars, they were nothing like the Iowa stars.

“I think I’m going to Iowa.”

I let my words hang in the air, stagnant, as they caught the humidity and seemed to lay heavy upon us. You shifted back and forth on your heels; to anyone else it would seem as if you were just trying to adjust your position against the bumper of the car. I knew better.

I knew a lot of things about you: the way your hazel eyes always betrayed your deepest emotions, how you pushed yourself at everything you did, the fact that you almost always drove fifteen miles over the speed limit, your inability to deny any form of steak, how you were the toughest guy I knew yet you had a white poodle named Sophie—I knew you. Yet there was always this feeling that I could never really get close to you. I couldn’t describe it if I tried. It was a forbidden tension; we were caught between what we could never do and what we really wanted. Things had always been this way. A pull. Sometimes a nagging tug, but sometimes a rope, like a noose that kept us tied so tightly we could feel each other’s heartbeats. It was so close to killing us; it pushed you away, made me run. Yet we always came back.

You were the only one who understood what I was talking about with the stars. You had lived in small-town Iowa. I thought it was a perfect coincidence that we were connected like that. There were always little connections.

“That’ll be a good fit for you,” you said. I could hear the reluctance in your voice. You were telling me what you knew I wanted to hear. But I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to hear it. You ran a hand through your hair. I watched as the curls fell perfectly back into place. It was a simple gesture, but it made me appreciate the way you were emotional, carrying the weight of your feelings. I appreciated the simple things about you.

I changed the subject. We started talking about sports, plans for the week, anything to get our minds off college and the future. As you talked, I fought my feelings. You were my best friend; you were my ex-boyfriend’s best friend. We could not be together. It just couldn’t happen.

“You want a swig?” You held the bottle out to me. I put it to my lips. Sometimes things were just that easy.

In the end, it was that stars that pulled me out of that town. Months later, I found myself driving home: never-ending highways, tears pouring down my face as an unexpected John Mayer song played on the radio. I had looked at the Iowa sky and remembered that night, lying on the Jeep, talking about life with you. I hadn’t understood the significance then—the simplicity of a single moment—how a mere piece of time can end up defining who we are—that what is left unsaid is often the most powerful—how love between two people just happens, effortlessly.

John Mayer’s song echoed a simple lyric: back to you, it always comes around.

It was the stars that pulled me away. But I had to come back, back to you.