She looked so old. He watched her quietly from his chair outside the small coffee shop. Her hair, normally wavy and loose around her face, was tied tightly in a formidable bun at the nape of her neck. She was only seventeen, her life just beginning, but her eyes were older than his father's.
Her weary eyes remained fixed on the ground. When she finally looked up, he waved her over. She granted him a small smile. He expected she hadn't smiled in a long time. She probably hadn't smiled since his best friend had died. She had, after all, been his best friend's girl. But now, he was gone. He was gone because of a drunk driver. The irony was biting and bitter. His best friend had never even touched alcohol beyond the religious aspect. It was too cruel. It'd been two weeks since the funeral. He couldn't forget, and he suspected that she could never forget.
The two of them had never been close, but there was something he needed to give her. Something he had to do for him. He stood up as she approached the table and tentatively wrapped his arms around her. She stiffened, obviously not expecting the affection, but returned the embrace gently.
"Hey," she said quietly, her voice huskier than usual. It sounded as though she'd been crying nonstop for two weeks. Looking at her bloodshot eyes, he thought that she probably had.
"Hey," he responded. His own voice, he noted, had lost its chipper. "How you doin'?"
"I'm," she faltered. "I'm alright," she finished with a swallow. "You?"
There was an awkward silence. He gestured for her to sit, and she complied. He stared at her, calculating, analyzing. She fidgeted under his gaze. "What?" she asked a bit testily.
"Sorry," he said. "It's just that…you look so –"
"You wanna know something?" she asked. He nodded. "I've always been a fighter," she continued. "In my life, there has always been something for me to fight for. There was always something to look forward to. And there were so many things for me to prove. I had to prove that I wasn't my sister. I had to prove that I could succeed, even if my parents didn't believe in me. I had to prove that I was meant for more than this small town suburbia." She was getting worked up. He was suddenly relieved they were the only ones outside in the sweltering weather.
"And there were all those little girl ambitions. I mean… I wanted to be first female president. God, do you know how awful that would've been?" She choked out a laugh. "And I wanted to be a singer and an actress and a Broadway star. I wanted to prove everyone wrong. I wanted people to see that I was more than a "nerd", and I could do more than math and science!" She paused for a shaky breath. "And, for some reason, I just… I thought that if I just kept working hard enough, that all those good things would come to me. If I just suffered a little longer, I'd get my I.O.U. But, when he died, the next morning, when I woke up… it suddenly felt, like, nothing was worth fighting for anymore. And it felt like all the things that I'd ever achieved before didn't mean anything at all. And I guess… that's when I finally grew up." She wiped furiously at a stray tear. "God…when he asked me out… everything was absolutely wonderful. You know, I waited for him for so long. And when he came around, I remember thinking that this was the beginning of what I was waiting for, the beginning of my better life." Her voice was cracking. "And I forgot that bad things happened. And I forgot to be afraid of the future… And he treated me better than I could ever imagine. He believed in me, and I didn't have to pretend with him. Oh, you won't understand, but… he made me so happy. And I remember that I used to tell everyone that I was never going to get married because marriage was a pain in the ass… But I would've married him. I really would've." The tears fell steadily and rapidly. "You know, he asked me to marry him 'hypothetically' the day we broke up? And… I just can't stop thinking about it! But, if it had been real, I would've still said yes. God, I should've just said yes!" She stopped to suppress her tears, her shoulders shaking quietly. He didn't know what to say or do to comfort her, so he just stared at his iced mocha. The whipped cream had long since melted into goo.
"And the worst part is," she began again "that I never found out if I meant as much to him as he meant to me. I never knew if I ever made him as happy as he made me. What if—what if I was the worst girlfriend in the world? What if he thought I was a mistake? What if I was his last mistake?" She was hysterical.
"Actually, that's why I wanted to talk to you." His voice was gruff. He wasn't sure that he could handle anymore of her painful confessions.
"I have something for you." He pulled out a velvet ring case. She stared dumbly at the box; her tears had slowed to a trickle. "He knew that the two of you would probably drift apart and never see each other again, so he knew you guys had to break up." He paused. He wasn't sure how to word any of this. "But, he was really torn up. And, I've never seen him act like that, so crazy, so desperate. He worked out this big, secret plan. First, he wrote this long letter about how much he loved you. Then, he bought that," he pointed at the box, "and he was going to visit you the night before you left, and slip it into your carry on. He put the letter in there, and he wanted you to read it on the plane. And he wanted to be all romantic. I think he actually would've succeeded at it, for once." He threw in a wry smile. She looked up and smiled too, before returning her intense gaze to the box. He gently pushed the box at her. "It's yours. After he –" He stopped. "After everything that happened, I forgot about it. But his mom found it, in his sock drawer, of all places. She called me sobbing, saying she didn't think she'd be strong enough to give it to you in person. So… she had me do it. I'm pretty sure she read the letter, not that any of us should be surprised…" She nodded in agreement. There was some more awkward silence. Finally, he said encouragingly, "She wants you to have it. I want you to have it."
She reached out a shaking hand and picked up the box, gently fingering the velvet. She reached over the table and took his hand in her own. "Thank you," she whispered, giving his hand a squeeze. Her appreciation was genuine. He could see it glistening in her tears.
He just sat there as she walked back to her car. He swallowed the lump that had been in his throat since morning, when he'd asked to meet her today. He felt as though a large weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He looked skyward and muttered, "This was for you, man. This was for you." He picked up his half-full cup and threw it away. She hadn't left yet, and as he passed her car, he peeked in. He realized, with a jolt that she'd let her hair down, just like she'd used to wear it. She was reading the letter and crying, one hand pressed firmly against her mouth, as she drank in the familiar, neat, tiny writing. He got into his car, buckled his seat belt, and adjusted his rearview mirror. He could see her through it. She was now sobbing, shoulders heaving uncontrollably, both hands covering her face. He noticed, as his own eyes misted over, that she was wearing the simple diamond band on her left ring finger.
He could only imagine what that letter had said to her. He could only imagine how she felt right then. And as he drove out of the parking lot, he couldn't help but wonder if her tears had tasted bittersweet.