- - -
We were an unlikely pair right from the start. You were blonde, tall for your age, and you had that devastating cute smile that melted all the adults and scared all the other kids. I was short, scrawny, and shy. You could be friends with anyone you wanted. The first day of school, I tried so desperately hard not to be noticed.
"That's my seat."
Those were the first words you ever said to me, on the second day of school. After recess, I'd come in and sat down in the wrong row. Kindergarten can be hard at the beginning.
By the next week, we were best friends like only five-year-olds can be. "My mom's taking me to the park after school, wanna come?" It's strange, the things that held us together when we were kids, so pointless and mundane. "I don't like ham and cheese, let's trade sandwiches." But we grew up and stayed best friends, managed to find other things to share even though we had nothing in common.
You watched all the TV shows my parents never let me watch, listened to all the music I found uninspiring and dry. You became beautiful, smart, athletic. You had a date to every school dance. I only ever went once, that time in eighth grade when David Bradford asked me to the winter formal. You were volleyball team, school newspaper, yearbook committee. I was the girl who was too shy to sign up for anything.
Still, you made me feel like I was important, like someone needed me. "Help me with this, Callie. I'm no good at trigonometry." And so high school was study sessions, and class projects where I did the writing and you did the talking. But it was also trips to the mall and to the movies, going to the beach in the summertime, and playing in the snow at Christmas.
Then there was graduation, after which you were supposed to go to some fancy university on other side of world and I was stuck with the local college. But you decided you wanted to stay here, with me, and I nearly cried myself to death that day, because no one's ever wanted that before.
That was the best summer we ever had. That was the summer we traveled to New York, where I went with you to all the stores you just had to visit, and you went with me to all the museums I thought were just fascinating. We ate ice cream and walked through Times Square, stood atop the Empire State Building and you held my hand because I was afraid of heights. That was the summer we painted your room a different colour on each wall, and while we were cleaning it out, we went through all the memories of us you had stored in your closet: pictures, birthday cards, worn out Christmas gifts. Something special happened that summer, but I guess it was a lot more special to you, because my world came to a crashing halt one night in late August.
"I'm in love with you, Callie."
"I love you."
But then you kissed me, and I guess that was the day we stopped being friends, although neither of us ever did find the courage to say that out loud. So for four long months afterwards, we tried to pretend. Or at least, you did. I know you just wanted to make everything right again. And I know, if you could go back and do it all over again, you'd change it in a heartbeat.
So you showed up the next day, and you laughed and talked like nothing had happened. You smiled, and tried so very hard to be nice to me, to make me forget, but all I could do was stand and stare. All I could do was close the door and tell you to go away.
"I don't feel well. I'm going back to bed."
"Do you want me to stay with you?"
But you came back the day after, and no matter how much I tried to think otherwise, things were different, uncomfortable. It was like one day had changed us so much that we didn't know each other anymore. You left before noon that day.
I never saw you again that summer, not until the semester started and we had to see each other every day in class. It seemed that going to the same college wasn't so important anymore. The week I stopped answering the phone was the same one you stopped sitting next to me. I guess I just couldn't stand the sad looks and the pain in your voice, the downcast eyes and the fidgeting hands. By then it was already Thanksgiving, and that was the first year we didn't spend the holiday weekend together.
And before I knew it, we never talked anymore, not beyond hello and goodbye. Then all of a sudden, it was Christmas Eve and you were standing in my doorway. It was snowing, and I could see your breath drifting up towards the porch light. I was shivering, holding the door open, but I didn't invite you in, and you never asked. You had a backpack over your shoulder, a plane ticket sticking out of your pocket, and you thrust a slip of paper at me as I struggled to find the words.
"Goodbye Callie. I'm going to England."
"Because... everything, nothing. It doesn't matter. I'm sorry."
"How long will you be gone?"
"I don't know. Maybe… I don't know."
All I had to do though, was say the words, and I know you would've stayed. For me. Because, when I think about it now, everything you did then was for me. I remember that time in third grade, when you kicked Steve Fiori in the groin because he pushed me into the schoolyard fence and I cut my face open. You were suspended for that. I remember telling you I didn't want to go to the senior prom, and you spent the night with me, even though you'd already bought tickets and picked out a dress. We sat on the hill behind the train station instead, and watched the summer constellations spin overhead. I remember all the stupid little things you used to do for me without hesitation, and I know I really miss you. But the day you went away, I was silent as I watched you run down the steps and into your waiting taxi. There were no smiles and no waves. And you never did look back at me, even though I couldn't make myself close the door until the taillights were gone in the snow.
I also couldn't find the courage the open that piece of paper you handed me. It sat on my desk for more than two years before I unfolded it in the middle of the night on Valentine's Day because I couldn't sleep. I guess I was afraid it would be some sort of sappy love letter, and I couldn't deal with that. I should have known you weren't like that. It was the name of an English university, a mailing address, and a phone number. Simple, perfect. Just like you.
That same night, I also opened the birthday cards you sent me the last two years, the ones I never read and couldn't bear to throw away. The ones you sent to my parents' house even though I didn't live there anymore. They were simple cards, with flowers in lush fields or sunrises in radiant blue skies. "To a friend," they both said, and inside, all you wrote was "Happy Birthday, Callie." Then there was your name at the bottom, above the date, and nothing more.
I stayed up and tried to write you a letter that night, but ripped it to shreds because I hated the way it sounded. Instead, I ran out the next morning and bought you a birthday card, three months in advance. I stood in the gift shop, glossing over all the cards that read "to a special someone", and I almost cried when I opened one that said "friends forever". Of course, I ended up with a card just like the ones you sent me, something safe, a flock of birds over a lake. And of course, I wrote the exact same thing you wrote, only with the names transposed. Then I scrawled "I'm sorry" inside and sealed it in an envelope.
The card waited on my desk for weeks on end, while I searched for a reason to send it. Twice, I put in the trash but dug it back out before the day was over. Eventually, your birthday came, and I finally sent it the day of, knowing you'd get it late but wouldn't care if you were anything like you used to be.
Two weeks later I got a postcard featuring Buckingham Palace, and on the back was your careful lettering. "I'm sorry too, Callie." Then there was a date and time, a flight number, and again the phone number. I almost called you right away that day, but I realized it was past midnight in England. Or at least, that's what I told myself when I set down the phone after dialing only the first two digits. I never did try calling again.
- - -
So it's July now, and it's a beautiful day beyond the stale grey tarmac of the airport. I'm standing in one of the innumerable waiting areas, looking out the huge windows, and trying to guess which plane is yours. When they finally announce your flight though, I realize I'm at the wrong terminal and I have to race across the airport.
By the time I get to the correct gate, the place is already empty, and you're the only one there, sitting alone on an ugly green chair. You've cut your hair, and the ends are black now, but it's undeniably you, and I'd recognize you anywhere.
"Carrie. Carine." I correct myself, but it's too late, because even though I told myself we shouldn't use nicknames anymore, to each other, we've always been Carrie and Callie.
You stand and turn. Your eyes meet mine for only a second before they flick back to the ground. "Callie. I wasn't sure you'd come."
And if this were a movie, I'd fling my arms around you and hug you, like we're still friends and happy to see each other, but real life is never quite so simple. "I'm glad you're back, Carrie."
We walk to the car in silence, drowning in the snippets of inconsequential conversation that fill the airport in a hundred different languages. Your single bag lands in the backseat, and without a word, you climb into the passenger seat.
You're looking out the window as I start the car and take us out of the parking lot. We've driven for five minutes before I break the silence because I don't know where I'm taking you. "Are you staying at your parents' place?"
"They don't know I'm back."
"You didn't tell them?"
"I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get on that plane."
I look at you then, and I realize you're crying quietly, the tears running down your cheek, and it scares me more than anything else because I've never seen you cry before. Not even that time where you fell off the swing and broke your arm when we were nine.
Gently, I guide the car off to one side and pull over. "Carrie?"
"I..." And I don't know what to do, because in my mind, I'm going through all the things I wanted to say to you, but it all seems so meaningless now. Besides, you were always the talkative one. You were always the stronger one.
So I'm sitting here, watching you cry, pretending that I don't care. And I wish I could tell you that everything's going to be all right, but most likely it won't. Life's not like that. I wish it didn't have to be like this. I wish I could've told you about all the stupid things I thought of when you were gone. "What can I possibly say to make things right again?"
"Tell me you love me."
For a moment, it's quiet, and the only sound is that of your breathing, shallow and too fast. Angrily, you wipe your hand against your face, and I think you're going to say something, but you turn back towards the window.
I wait a minute, then two, and five more pass before I sigh and start the car again. You roll down the window, drying your tears and letting some air in against the stifling atmosphere of the car. I turn on the radio, because the silence reminds me of those months before you left. And I wish I could fix this. I wish we could go back to the time when youth was forever and the future was unassailable. Or so it seemed. But that was before we found out the truth about each other and we went our separate ways.
So I drive, and we both watch the highway go by as the radio blares some cheesy love song from last year.
- - -
A little later, we turn onto the street that used to be home, and although neither of us says a word, we both know where we're going. Your parents' house is four houses down from my parents', and two blocks beyond that, is the park where we used to spend so many sunny afternoons and starry nights. I stop the car, and by the time I've got it locked up, you're already heading towards the big tree on the hill we used to call our own.
We sit in the shade, back to back, and for a moment, I can almost pretend that we're still friends. I close my eyes, and we're fifteen again, watching the sun rise from this hill. That was the summer we went camping in Maine and wound up getting lost in the woods. We found our way eventually, but for a few hours we were scared out of our minds and all we had was each other. I remember coming home and sitting in this exact spot the next morning, holding hands underneath the blanket draped over us. "Don't ever leave me," you said, but you ran off three years later.
I blink and we're seventeen, the day you broke up with Trent Saunders. That was the only time we ever had an argument I asked you what was wrong with him, and you never did tell me, but in the end, it didn't matter. We sat under this tree, leaned against the trunk, and watched the stars come out. It wasn't worth fighting over anyway, the important thing was that you were happy again, and that was all that counted. I remember you hugged me as the sun set, stretched out your legs and put your head on my shoulder. "Don't ever change," you said, but we both knew that wasn't possible.
I open my eyes, and you're not in front of me, but I can feel you nearby, and in my mind you're exactly the way I remember you. Your breathing is calm now, in time with mine, and I wonder what you're thinking. I wonder if you missed this as much as I did.
"Callie?" Your voice is different though, shaky, the self-confidence gone.
"Do you still come here?"
"Sometimes. Not as much as before. Only…" Only when I'm thinking of you. But I'm not about to say that out loud, so I stop and change the subject. "Can't we just be friends again?"
"I… I'm not sure."
I turn towards you, but you're still looking away, so I stare at your back instead, and I see the vulnerable part of you I never noticed before. Then, without thinking about it, I find myself voicing the words I've been saying to myself for so long.
"I'd like to say I never lied to you, but I know that's not true. See, I remember telling you that my dad was a superhero, that I used to own a horse, and that Josh Baker had a crush on you when we were in fourth grade. But those are just the lies you make up when you're kids, the ones you tell yourself growing up, sort of like the lies about becoming rich and famous, about marrying movie stars and moving to Hollywood. Those aren't the lies that hurt. Because I remember the other ones too. I remember the lies about summer vacation and going to college, about growing up and falling down. I remember the lies about laughter and sorrow and success and despair and death and life and love."
"You lied to me, Callie. And I still remember, days gone by, when you used to tell me that best friends meant friends forever."
"Let me fix this then. Let's be friends again."
You turn, and there's hesitation in your eyes, but you reach over, take my hand, and just for a moment, it's like you never left. Then a moment turns into a minute, a minute into an hour, and before I know it, we've been sitting here for so long that the stars are out and the sun is gone behind the tress. It used to be that this was our spot, our little corner of the world. Out here, there was only the limitless sky and it's million blinking wishes. Out here, we could pretend we were alone in the universe and nothing could ever reach us. It's just that this last little while, when you were gone, it seemed this place was lonely, and nothing else.
"I missed you, Carrie."
"I'm sorry, Callie."
And in my dreams, this is where you throw your arm around my shoulders and tell me that the past doesn't matter, that we can go back to the lazy afternoons we used to spend together way back in high school. But you stand instead, look off into the approaching night, and your words are so soft they cut right through me.
"Will you take me back to the airport?"
I guess it's not just about being friends. You want something more, and I want something too. I want what we used to have, before love got in the way, but we're not kids anymore and it's not so easy to forgive and forget. Still, I miss the days when we could have fun together, when we could sit here and share anything, but maybe I'm just clinging to this memory of you that doesn't exist anymore.
"I can't stay."
"Please? For me?" And I know this isn't fair, because if you're anything like you used to be, you'll agree to this and I'll hate myself forever.
You don't answer though. You just let go of my hand, which you've been holding all this time, and you start walking away, back towards the car.
I run after you, call your name, but there's no response, only a quickening of your step. When I reach you, you're at the car, and it's only my hand on your shoulder that stops you. I can see the tears again, and this time I feel my own coming. "Don't leave, Carrie. I love you."
"I love you. Don't go."
"You don't mean that."
I don't. Not the way you want me to, but I'd give anything to make you stay, and I don't know what else to call this feeling. "I just miss you, Carrie. I remember watching Charlie Brown's Christmas with you every year, and I still have that Ninja Turtles colouring book you gave me for my fifth birthday. I just miss being friends. And if I could change this, change myself, I would, but…"
Your arms are around me all of a sudden, and I don't get to finish my thought because you've wrapped me in a crushing hug. "I like you fine just the way you are."
"I can't promise anything, Carrie."
"Don't then, and I won't either."
So I guess this is what it means to be friends. No promises. But that's okay, because it used to be 'no secrets', and we both know how that turned out. And maybe I'm not sure about this, but I do know that you're the best friend I ever had and that means more than anything else.
Slowly, we separate ourselves until we're facing each other again, and I can see just a little bit of that smile that's been missing all this time. "So you'll stay?"
"For the summer at least."
A real smile. "I love you, Callie." You kiss me then, and I let you, just this once, because you're happy again and it's been so long since I've seen you like this. I let you, because you're here, you're happy again, and I don't want to change that.
- - -