Oct. 16, 2009

Mnemonics

~6,500 words. R. fiction.

It’s 1997. We are children, and Pluto is still a planet. The old mnemonic still goes, My very eager mother just served us nine pizzas. I sit across the aisle from you in General Science, freshman year. The classroom is newly painted, and the teacher is trying to speak through the faded fumes and hopefully, into our brains. I am lightheaded.

From the opposite aisle, a low whistle; you’re passing a folded piece of paper across. I snatch it in the split-second that Mrs Cruz faces the blackboard to write something – we’re discussing mnemonics, and she’s writing down the most popular of them.

The note says, Science review, Saturday? I smile, glancing sideways as I write, Yes, in red sign pen, right beside the question mark.

*

The clatter of your bicycle somewhere on our front lawn signals your arrival that Saturday; you’re half an hour early. I rush out of the bathroom with a robe on, toothbrush still in my mouth.

On our doorstep, you’re hugging your books against your chest, grinning. “I said ten,” I say by way of greeting, swinging the door open and letting you in.

“You did,” you say, skipping over my slippers, careful not to slip on the slight puddle of water I had taken with me from the bathroom. “Didn’t want to be late.”

You’re smoothing out your skirt in the living room, fixing your shirt. “Why in the world do you insist on riding your bike in a skirt anyway?” I ask, arms folded in front of me as I watch as you set your books on the table, hugging my robe closed.

“So what?” you ask in turn, plopping down on the sofa. “It’s comfortable. You should try it.”

“I don’t bike.”

“How many times have I offered to teach you?” You’re scratching the back of your head again, legs apart unceremoniously on our sofa. It’s always a sore topic, this; how I’ve never managed to get rid of my training wheels, how my sense of balance is near to nil.

I shrug, helplessly, and it is at this point that my mother chooses to mercifully come in from the kitchen; she playfully swats my behind, tells me that my bucket’s overflowing in the bathroom, before turning to you and offering you a choice between Coke or orange juice.

When I come back out of the bathroom, mouth rinsed from toothpaste, hair combed and properly dressed, you’re cradling a glass of juice in one hand while hunched over an open book on the table. “The mnemonic’s right,” you say without looking up, your voice thick with awe. “Who would’ve thought?”

Settling beside you on the sofa, I just say, “It’s a fourth-grade mnemonic. Of course, it’s right.”

“I was in fourth grade once,” you say, turning your head to look, finally. “I don’t remember this at all.”

I laugh. You’re drawing the solar system in the margin of a page; it’s totally misplaced, granted that the section the book’s opened in discusses the Earth’s lithosphere. “That would have meant the mnemonic was a failure,” I say, after laughing. “I mean, the fact that you don’t remember it from fourth grade.”

“The first time around, maybe it was,” you say, penciling in the final planet as a sort of elaborate-looking dot. “Now, though, I’m totally paying attention.”

Laughing, I just say, “Right,” turn the page to where the exam supposedly begins. The thing about General Science is that it touches on everything. This time around, it’s the configuration of electrons. On the corner of the page, I start constructing the zigzagging 1s-2s mnemonic from memory.

You lean in closer, crushing your chest against my shoulder, and the softness that hits me forces my hand to a standstill. “Jesus,” you say, oblivious. “How do you always end up memorizing all these things?”

Swallowing, I reply, “I pay attention.” You shift with a soft, almost mocking, “Ah,” rearranging yourself beside me, a hand over my knee, chin ghosting on my shoulder.

It’s always Saturdays like this that have me asking, later in the night, what it is that’s going on, exactly; why the sadness I feel at the sight of you biking away from our house at sundown is different from all the others I’ve come to know.

*

It’s 2000, the summer before senior year, and you come over often with your bike in tow. Most days are hot and excruciating, and are spent sprawled on our front lawn, the grass brown and dry right where we often sit.

That day, we’re staring at your bicycle, resting against a lamppost. You’re wearing that ridiculous skirt again; it’s the sort that gathers far too many grass blades when you get up.

“You really are terrified, aren’t you,” you ask, out of the blue, nodding over to your bike. I lean back on my elbows, wiggle my toes slightly before shrugging as nonchalantly as possible. I know you too well; this is where you push.

“Fear as a word can’t even begin to cover it,” I say. Behind us, the door creaks open briefly, and my mother calls out offering mid-morning snacks. When I glance over at you, you’re rubbing your stomach with a frown, mouthing, Didn’t we just have breakfast? I laugh.

After a while, you say, “Come on, let me try.” When I shake my head, you add, “Call it payment for, I don’t know, Saturday tutoring.”

“It’s free,” I say, grinning, and I guess it’s the sort of grin that does invite something akin to what happens next – you push yourself off the grass and tickle me to the ground, mercilessly.

My throat closes up at everything – the feel of your hands, the sun through your hair, the weight of you pushing me down, into the prickly grass, blades poking against my back through my thin t-shirt.

I try to hold my breath throughout, gasping with a curt, “Jesus,” at the end of the attempt, my eyes falling to where the impossible lace of your skirt, bunched halfway up your thighs, are tickling mine.

“Sometimes, I don’t know how I’ve been able to stand you, you arrogant bitch,” you tease. You’re still so close, and it’s hard, figuring out if it’s the physical weight of you or the weight of this situation that’s making it difficult to breathe.

When I look at your face, I see that your eyes are brown. I try not to look at how your lips are still curled into a half sneer, afraid of being overwhelmed by an all too strange urge already brewing somewhere far below my skin.

Instead I say, “Fine, you win,” turning my head to the side. I’m looking at your bicycle; you’re laughing in my ear. I’m reminded most starkly of that feeling of uncertain terror that wraps around me, hotly.

*

“I don’t understand,” I begin, alternating erratically with one foot on one pedal, and one on the ground. My hands are sweaty on the rubber of the handlebars, and you’re off to the side, a safe distance, standing with both hands on your hips.

“The idea is to get both feet off the ground at once,” you say, chuckling as you cross your arms in front of your chest. “And pedaling.”

I begin shaking. “You don’t understand,” I say, clearing my throat. My knees are useless; this begins feeling all too familiar. “I can’t do this.”

After a while of just staring at me from the gutter, watching me fumble with my shaky legs getting on the pedal and then off, you walk over to me finally, saying, “Of course you can.” You’re holding the back of the bicycle seat firmly, when you add, “Let go.”

When I look over my shoulder, you’re looking so determined that it sinks my heart a little. “What?”

“Both feet on the pedals, babe.”

“Are you out of your mind?” My breath starts coming in quick gasps, the last word of your previous sentence scraping the walls of my insides, ticklish. “I’ll fall.”

The bicycle seat creaks a little at the force of your tightening grip. “I got you.” I hold my breath, try not to think about what else the words can mean; focus instead on the road ahead. “Once you get both feet up, pedal all right? And don’t stop.”

Don’t stop. I close my eyes, trying to conjure a mnemonic for it – it’s what I’m good at, memorizing acronyms, and I claw through the blankness of my mind for just about anything to help me remember, help my muscles remember what to do; in my head it’s this entirely complicated process, and I haven’t even started yet but already my stomach’s lurching with nausea.

“Relax,” you say, a hand straying on the small of my back; it doesn’t help. “It’s muscle memory; you can’t learn it without doing it first.” And then, “There’s always the first time.”

The first time – fine, I think, pushing both feet off the ground and doing as you say; by the time I have the strength to open them again, I am moving. Behind me, you’re saying, “Slow and sure,” still too close that your breath is warm when it hits my nape. I blink, telling myself to focus, and against better judgment I find myself pedaling harder.

Things get wobbly the moment you let go. “Not too fast,” you say, half-pushing. A second later, when it hits me that you aren’t there anymore, my arms start shaking on the handlebars, and I look back down on the wheels beneath me, wiggling under my uncertainty; it’s like the thing knows I am afraid of it.

I see a hump on the road, a few houses away; I remember it mostly as the edge of my childhood playing field, a sort of border my mother had set when we were very young and she could still tell us there were limits to where we could go.

I feel my knees go weak; what to do now with this disturbance on the road? I want to turn, to stop; yet with my legs locked and frozen, by the time the front wheel hits the beginning of the slope my momentum is gone and I tip to the side.

Behind me, I hear you say, “Pedal!” Somehow, I half-expect it to do the work for me, waiting for it to magically push me further, past the hump; instead I find myself hitting the pavement with my knee, the metal gears pressing into my inner leg, the grease warm.

Shit, I just think, moments later. Your slippers slap against the pavement as you come rushing. “Christ, I said don’t stop,” you say, somewhat annoyed as you crouch beside me, a hand lifting the hem of my shorts, the cotton of it scraping against my thigh. “Let me see.” There’s a faint red line over where your fingernail scrapes against the skin on the inside of my thigh.

“Your bike is heavy,” I just say, wincing. You move over and put it away, resting it against a nearby tree. When I turn my leg over, I see blood. I shift my eyes, search your face for something to feel nice about; you’re looking at my wound with a look of concern I have never seen before. “Is it bad? I don’t want to look.”

“We should clean that,” you say, soft and stern.

I say, “My mother will kill you for this.” Though mostly, I mean to say, my mother will kill me with derisive laughter when she figures it out, but still, you look at me with a slightly apprehensive look that I’m almost pleased with myself – almost – for such an effective lie. When I try to move, the pain shoots up into my head for the first time and I cry out, softly. “Shit.”

“Can you walk?” you ask. You have a hand on my leg, thumb rubbing the grease off. There’s a warmth that radiates from the spot you repeatedly touch and I am forced to look at the sorry state of my incompetent limbs. I can’t make up my mind – should I be angry at you for pushing me to do this? Should I be angry at myself for letting you? Should I be angry that I can’t do it right in the first place?

Should I be angry?

I struggle to get to my feet, leaning into my better, less damaged leg. The skin on the knee I landed on feels warm and swollen. “I think.” And then, “I’m never riding a bike ever again.”

You smile, take my wrist and sling that arm over your shoulder, half-carrying me as we start to walk slowly home.

*

My mother tries to insist on cleaning the wound herself, when we get home, but seeing that she can’t stop laughing I politely decline the offer, taking the antiseptic and cotton from her hands before disappearing into my bedroom; you’re still speaking to her as I shut the door, perhaps explaining in a low hushed voice how it went down, quite literally.

“Your mother says sorry,” you say, entering the room a short while after, smiling like you know you shouldn’t be but can’t help yourself anyhow. I am on the floor, my back against the side of my bed, looking away from the wound as I dab it with cotton soaked in Betadine. I am looking at your bare feet on the floor of my room, saying nothing, only hissing slightly when the cotton hits something it’s supposed to.

“You’re missing the point,” you say, finally, crouching on the floor beside me, taking the cotton from my hand. My eyes move over to your knee, at the hem of your skirt there; this morning, I remember, we were on the lawn and the lace of it was rough against my palm—

You ask, “Is that okay?” when you hear me breathe in sharply. In my head, I want to ask, Who’s missing the point now? But you’re so near, and you’re still wearing the warmth of the afternoon sun about you as you try to be so gentle on such a small wound, that I can’t bear to look.

(I look back to this day every now and then, whenever I ask myself where everything began, and always, there is this: The sight of you tending to my wound as if the world has just been reduced to this one thing.)

*

Your parents take you to Cebu for a vacation, a few days after. The day before your flight you come to my house on your bicycle, as expected.

You say, right away, “We’re leaving for Cebu tomorrow.” We’re sitting on the lawn again, a little after four in the afternoon. Surprisingly, you’re not wearing a skirt; you have on a pair of jeans instead, looking as if you’d just come from somewhere far. “Won’t be back until June.”

It’s mid-May and you’re saying you’ll be gone for long. “I hear they sell delicious dried mangoes.”

“I’ll bring you boxes,” you just say.

(It will be typical for me to focus on something off-tangent, from here onwards, whenever faced with anything akin to this; at fifteen, I am already several shades of the adult I am to become.)

*

It’s drizzling when you return from Cebu, a couple of weeks later; you come by the house on your bicycle, your shirt speckled with fibers of rain, a box tied to your bike.

You’re grinning when I come out; this marks the first time I see you after a long time of being apart. “It’s raining,” I say, smiling like I haven’t in quite a while.

“I have something for you,” you just say, untying the box with this oddly determined look on your face that I’ve always been utterly fond of.

As I laugh, the rain starts pouring harder and I come over quickly with the umbrella by the door, fumbling briefly with the Velcro holding it together. By the time I reach you, you’re already significantly drenched, hugging the box to yourself tightly. There’s mud on your sneakers, and for a while, we just stand there in the rain, under my mother’s multi-colored umbrella, water pooling around our feet.

After a while, you’re saying, “I missed you,” so lightly, smiling as you wipe the raindrops from your face with an equally moist palm. It almost makes me laugh, the sight of you trying to get the water out of your eyes in vain, but the heavy thing that takes over my chest, as I contemplate saying it right back as I should, traps the sound inside my throat.

If I say it, I think, I may not mean it in the expected, proper way; perhaps, if I do, it will come out meaning more than I am ready for. The truth is all that while I’d been thinking, only at the time, I had no words for any of it, so I just say, “What’s in the box?” putting a smile on for cover.

*

When school starts, you still come over regularly on Saturdays; mostly it’s for Physics, a little algebra, some trigonometry.

By the end of June, they start handing out application forms for college.

“Any idea where you’re going,” I say, staring absently at the list of courses tucked inside one of the forms. We’re in my bedroom, lying amidst half-open books and scratch papers littered with haphazardly written formula, small illustrations of triangles, broken lines. “What you’re taking?”

You’re lying on your stomach as you stare at the list in your hands; it’s from a different university, not the one I’m looking at, and there’s a slight disappointment that starts swelling in my chest. “I don’t know,” you say, shrugging as you flip the paper over, before lifting another from the pile. “I don’t usually plan this far ahead.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I say, a bit incensed at how laid back you seem to be; how unstressed. At the time, just thinking about graduation makes my temple throb with worry. “This is the rest of our lives we’re talking about.”

Lifting your eyes off the page you’re on, you look at me, brow creased, “I get that, okay?” you say, though it comes out as if you’re snapping at me. I shake my head, shift my eyes to the ceiling instead. I’m asking myself why it is you don’t care as much as I do; why this doesn’t seem as important.

“Hey,” you say, noticing the shift in mood that blankets the room, putting a hand on my leg. “Sorry, okay? It’s just that,” you pause, breathing in, and I brace myself for something heavy. “I’m not even sure I’m graduating, just trying not to get my hopes up.”

It hits me just then, how we are actually so different. I sit up, reach over to touch your hair, briefly. “We’ll do whatever it takes,” I just say. You nod, after, but you don’t look any more hopeful. Sighing, I crawl over beside you until we’re shoulder to shoulder, settling on my stomach in kind. Picking up a pencil, I start drawing Pascal’s Triangle along the margin of your Algebra book.

“Hey,” you say, when I get to the fifth level. “Thanks for doing this.” You slide a hand over mine tentatively, so light that it’s almost weightless. I manage a smile, but I don’t get past the last “6” in the sequence anymore.

These days I wonder, if you’re feeling it too – that thing that courses through me whenever we’re touching, whenever we’re this close.

*

We’re expanding a fifth-degree polynomial when it happens; it’s a Sunday afternoon and my parents are out for church. We’re huddled closely on the floor and I’m looking over your shoulder as you scribble on a yellow pad. I must have hovered too closely that when you turn your head, there I am.

I remember that your skin is soft; my lips sink right into it when as you move your head further to the side, until I almost catch the corner of your mouth. In reality, it happens in a split-second – you turn, I kiss you, it’s an accident, I withdraw; but in my head, it slows down, for the most part, and in the briefest of moments my lips feel burnt.

We don’t talk about it, after; I mumble a slight apology immediately, and congratulate you on a flawless execution. You blush anyway, saying thank you.

When we part that night, we don’t hug. Suddenly, it seems like we are too aware of whatever it is that has been swimming underneath all this, all this while.

*

I see you rarely after that; I wish I can say I had time to reflect about how things are slowly shaping up between us, but the truth is, I can’t.

*

The next time I see you, it’s the weekend before the state university’s college entrance exams, for which we had both applied. I am completely surprised when I see you, as you are walking up to our door; you look so strange without your bicycle.

It’s the edge of July, and the weather does not know what to do with itself. In the morning, it is usually all sun, turning to rain showers toward the night. When you come it’s somewhere halfway through, and the heavy clouds are slowly coming upon us.

“Where’s your bike?” I ask, noting the absence of books in your hands.

“We’re having it fixed,” you say, shrugging. And then, “Are you ready for the exam next weekend?”

It’s the first time I hear you address anything past high school, in general. It’s the first time I hear from you in weeks, actually, after that thing, with the polynomial. Remembering suddenly, I am nervous and unsure of where to put my hands. “I’m taking it on Saturday,” I say, finding a back pocket and stowing a hand there. The other, I just gesture with awkwardly. “In the Math building. When’s yours?”

“Sunday, in the Business Administration building,” you say.

We fall silent as I try to hide my disappointment that we aren’t taking it on the same day; I had hoped to catch you, after, maybe tour the campus a little, fret about the Math problems that skewered our brains, the limited time we had to answer everything. It’s all planned out in my head, and then in only so many words, all of it’s been undone.

Somewhere, thunder begins to rumble; typical signal of dusk, these days. “Rain’s coming,” I say, looking at the dark clouds sliding closer. “Do you want to come in?”

You shake your head. “No, I just wanted to wish you luck,” you say, and with that you’re turning around and walking away and breaking my heart; it all happens so fast, I almost don’t catch myself using the word heartbreak in my head and meaning it.

*

Halfway through Ms Espinosa’s Physics class, a couple of Wednesdays later, I receive a note from you; it’s been passed on by at least three people, seeing that we’re seated this far apart. It has my name written on it, and when I unfold the note, you’d just written, Can we stop being weird?

I try to catch your eye from across the room, but you’re taking down notes so furiously that you don’t even turn your head.

*

“We’re not weird,” I say, approaching you while on the way out of the room for lunch break.

“You get this… look,” you say, still walking. I follow you as you make your way through the corridor, now slowly filling with hungry students. “Something’s changing.”

We take the side stairs, trying to avoid the crowd. “What do you mean, something’s changing,” I say. I’m trying to keep up with you without losing what little composure I have to this nervousness that has begun inching its way up my spine. I want to say I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it’s not entirely true, that.

You make your way downstairs, sighing; you’re hugging your books tightly to your chest as we touch the ground floor. Still, we say nothing.

“What do you mean, something’s changing?” I ask again. By the time we get to the lockers, the crowd has already thinned. I drop my voice to a whisper, leaning against the locker beside yours. “What do you mean?”

When you close your locker door, it’s with a heavy sigh. “Just,” you say, securing the lock, “Let’s keep this together, okay? I need you.” I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from making a sound. I’m not sure what this is or where this is coming from. “I need you to not be weird around me.”

“I’m not weird around you,” I say, when I find my voice again, as we’re walking to the cafeteria, sometime later.

“Then why did it take you such a long time to say something?”

It hits me like a rough shove in the chest, and I am silent throughout my meal, barely even touching it.

*

The weekend before the second college entrance exam we have to take, you come to our house with your bicycle and books – a sight I haven’t seen in quite a while.

“Oh,” I say, voice soft in my surprise. I am on the way out of the door with the trash. “You’re here.”

You walk with me as I make my way for the trash can at the curb; the garbage collection schedule is in half an hour, and you’re not saying anything, just looking at me as I move around, as I turn my head to the far end of the street where we expect the truck to come from.

I’m already on my way back to our door when you say, “I’ll fail this exam if we don’t go over algebra, at least.” I look at you like I hadn’t talked to you in days – it’s not too hard, actually, considering how I really haven’t. “If I don’t get in anywhere, I won’t be in Manila at all.”

The last part of that almost makes me want to drop this cold shoulder altogether and just hold on to you, smooth your hair, say something like, We’re gonna make this work; or, We’ll make sure that that’s not going to happen.

Instead, I just say, “Come in then,” hands balled up into fists by my side, nails digging into my palm. I walk toward the door and open it wide for you. “We’ve got a lot to cover.”

We barely say anything outside of the review – when one of us says something, it’s always something about the equations, the unknowns, the x’s and y’s, the formula. You’re lying on your stomach amidst your open books on my bed, while I’m sitting cross-legged beside you, trying to be close enough for instruction, just near enough to not be touching you. Along the upper edge of your yellow paper, you’re scribbling the quadratic formula over and over, side by side.

“That’s good,” I say, trying to lighten the mood a little; we’ve been at this for hours, and all the while, it feels like there’s a heavy suitcase on my chest. “Writing it over and over. That way you won’t forget.”

You stop after the fifth ‘2a’, extending the tail of your final “a” to the side, curving it playfully upwards before drawing it back down again, a long elaborate trail. “Is that what we do, then?” you say, eyes fixed on the tip of your pen.

“Is what what we do,” I ask again, though the way you’ve said it, so heavy with intended meaning, has already caused the butterflies in my stomach to break out anyway. I watch as the ink seeps out of your pen right where you’ve left it pressed on the paper.

“Write it down and hope we don’t forget.” You’re still pressing down on your pen on that singular space, the dot around the tip growing as the ink crawls further out, seeping into the paper, the mark dark as oil.

I say, “I won’t,” and then, “That ink’s going to stain.”

“Is that right?”

And because I know better now, when you turn your head, I am not there; I am far away, and only looking.

You will tell this story differently, years later, but this is how it happens: On this day, halfway through the binomial theorem and the quadratic equation, you push yourself off the bed and look me in the eye squarely before kissing me.

I remember most of all that look of helpless, open want that I will never see anywhere else again.

*

The night we lose ourselves, it’s to the sound of books being pushed off a bed, their spines hitting the floor with dull thuds, their pages ruffling whenever they fall open; of paper being rumpled and ripped underneath the mindless struggle of entwined limbs.

It all happens so fast, to employ the eternal adolescent cliché – the fan and the lights are on and the room is suddenly too warm. I remember tracing the trail of sweat from your clavicle to your navel, as you slip your shirt overhead. I pause to breathe; you are smiling and I am falling into you further, just because I can.

We don’t say anything. You are everywhere, planting kisses in spaces. You kiss my scar, your fingers light on my knee, and I have to shut my eyes.

(I remember little else, apart from that distinct sensation of burning and the taste of the cherry gloss on your lips throughout.)

*

There is no morning after. You slip out around midnight, pushing yourself off the bed and into your clothes, which you find on the floor with the books and the notes and that pen. I don’t get up but I’m awake, trying to watch you discreetly in silence as you try to piece together everything, after.

You don’t even look back as you make your way for the door, closing it behind you with a soft click. From where I’m sitting up in bed, I can hear the sound of you pedaling away from our house, the gravel crunching under your wheels.

Off the edge of my bed sheet, I notice a small black dot. I remember thinking, I told you so, before allowing myself to cry.

*

We don’t talk much, post-incident; it turns out to be the last entrance exam that I will take, while you end up taking a total of four in all. Early the following year we find out how I passed both my exams, and how you failed all of yours.

In the remaining days in between, I avoid your eyes in the hallways, in corridors, in class, my shoulders heavy with the guilt of failure. On the day we open the last envelope, we are seated side by side in the cafeteria; this is the last time I could bear having lunch with you, before the guilt takes over me completely, making it impossible to just be around, when all I can think about whenever I see you is how I can’t do anything else to keep you here.

*

It’s 2001. We’re graduating and we have our graduation dresses on. It’s the middle of a sweltering mid-day at the edge of March, and the air in the gymnasium is thick with heat.

By virtue of our surnames, we are seated two rows and three seats apart. Your hair has grown longer, over the months, and against initial expectations, you’ve kept it anyway; it flows over your shoulder and falls down the middle of your back, softly. I stare at it for most part of the programme, flinching whenever you move.

When your name gets called, I clap until my hands are sore.

Toward the end of the program, I get up on stage and lead the pledge of allegiance to the alma mater, as a manner of putting things to a close. All the while I shift my eyes from my copy of the pledge to your eyes in the crowd. You’re staring up at me with your right hand raised, smiling. The sight of you makes my chest constrict, reminding me of the destined parting after, and I start breathing heavily.

You come up to me later, toward the end of the alma mater hymn, and my eyes are moist as I am overwhelmed by the moment: Ten years of going to this place, now ending with this miniscule moment, and I am standing here as just another girl.

You say, “Are you crying?”

“No.” Though the sniff after betrays me anyway, and you end up laughing. I touch my cheek and laugh myself, and as the hymn reaches a crescendo toward the end, you throw your arms around me, gathering me into a hug. You’re murmuring something unintelligible into my neck; your breath is hot, and it makes my spine tingle.

With my face in your hair, the scent of you sweet and heady, there’s nothing I can say, apart from “I’m sorry.”

When I kiss you, it is brief; it’s over so quickly that I doubt anybody else even notices--how I push you away and pull you back in; the way I hook a hand at the back of your neck, biting slightly at the corner of your bottom lip before letting you go and turning away.

*

Late that night, after the respective celebratory dinners, you come over to our house, the creak of your bicycle so audible even from so far away. I’m sitting in my room when I hear the beginning of it, getting closer and closer, and in a bit I am sprinting back out of the house in my pyjamas.

Your face is fresh when I see you; your make up is off, and your hair is damp. Under the glow of the street lamp, I can’t help but think about how beautiful this light makes you; about how hard I really want to kiss you, now. After a while of quiet staring, you begin laughing lightly, the night making such pretty shadows on your face as you move.

“What?” I ask. The night is cold, but my cheeks are warm from blushing.

“Nothing,” you shake your head. “Just, wow. We’re DONE.”

I smile myself, mulling the thought over. “We’re done,” I just say back, for the lack of a sensible thought.

You’re still nodding as you make your way toward the lawn. You’re wearing extremely short shorts, and I just say, “That’s going to itch,” as warning.

When I settle beside you, the grass poking through my cotton pyjamas, you just say, “We’re leaving this in a few. Let’s do this for as long as we can, okay?”

These days, all that’s left to do, it seems, is hang on to the feeling – for as long as you have to. For as long as you can. For as long as it lets you.

Breathing in, I reach for your hand; you take it, fingers threading through mine. We hold on for a long, wordless while.

*

There is no excuse for what happens next – this erratic vacillation between friendship and romance that’s entirely ill-advised. When I am older, I will confess to not knowing better, using age as my sorry reason for the indiscretions that fill the days in between the edge of high school and the beginning of the rest of our lives.

I will confess to not knowing better, but I will not regret: The hazy slew of days we spend doing nothing but lounge in my bed, flipping channels in one hand, playing with your hair with the other; the nights we spend hastily discovering the bodies we came with, carefully mapping the synapses scattered all over our skins with our eyes closed and lips half-parted, always.

I will not regret: That one afternoon you let me ride your bicycle with you, perched nervously on the little space left on the bike seat, arms wrapped around your waist; cheek pressed against your back. I remember the bicycle creaking dangerously under our combined weights.

Reaching our destination – it’s the tree on a far hill that we often frequented as children – you just say, “You drive on the way back,” teasing me.

I lean back against the tree and look far out – it’s been a while since I’d seen the view from up here, from where we could clearly see the roofs of houses, including yours and ours. Further out, we can see the outlines of buildings from a city not too far away.

I remember how you’re leaving in a few days; the familiar sadness begins to wash over me again, though by now the feeling has dulled significantly from over-repetition. Instead of painful chafing it only scratches at my insides now, a lot like newly cut fingernails.

After a while, I say, “Maybe by the time you get back, I’ll be able to ride a bike with you. The two of us, down a proper bike trail.” I try smiling, yet I only get so far.

You shrug. “Maybe I should leave my bicycle. With you, I mean.”

“You are your bicycle,” I say, shaking my head in disapproval. “I mean—”

“I mean,” you interrupt, a hand on my arm. When I look up, you’re smiling, so close. “I trust you with it.”

I feel like I want to kiss you for it, this thing that fills me with so many feelings, yet by the time I make up my mind, a hand ready and tugging at the collar of your shirt, we are engulfed in a sudden rain shower that pours anyway despite the late afternoon sunshine.

You say something about mythical beings getting married in the underworld and I laugh. I still want to kiss you but you’re turning away, you’re getting on your bike, so I just walk on over and take my place right behind you, holding on tighter than before; my hands are wet and so is your shirt.

There is mud everywhere we pedal carefully past, and by the time we reach our yard our legs are speckled with earth. We are dirty, we are soaked; we laugh as we practically slide off your bike, leaving it askew right on the grass after our gate.

You kiss me casually, light on the lips, on the tip of my nose. “Do you regret any of it?” you ask, tracing my eyebrow with your thumb softly. “That this should end up breaking hearts?” I look at you, wondering if you’re joking. When you knit your brow, I realize you’re serious. “That this should end?”

That time I say, “I don’t,” kissing you again, just as lightly. “Anything that couldn’t break my heart in the end is probably a waste of my time.”

You lick at your lips as you say, “You’re probably right.” Before I know it, I’m being kissed more furiously against the wall of our house. The roof above us starts clattering when the rain falls harder, but then it passes quickly after a couple of minutes. Your lips are moving against mine; they taste like this is the last time.

When we part, the rain is gone and the shadows on the ground are long as the sun is slowly setting.#