His name was James Murphy. Meeting him made me wish my name was something classic, or Victorian. Something romantic- like Catharine. Queen Catharine or Aragon, except that I'd be "of suburbia." James, he made me feel like sixteenth century royalty, draped in gems. He made me feel like I was the only person he could see. With James, I always felt more beautiful than I was. Even if I was sweaty and wearing an old sports bra with that was fraying at the edges and there was a funny sunburn on the back of my legs- a weird geometric pattern of red against white. That's about how I looked when we met. There was James offering me a hand off the patch of muddy soccer field where I'd fallen.
Which brings me back to my name, because that is what he asked me then. Anna. As plain as Jane, common as Sarah, and completely without Emily's charm or Elizabeth's sophisticated tone. Anna O'Hare. I'm Irish, could you tell? The infamous red hair was denied me. My DNA opted for black instead-poker straight and darker than plain coffee. Somehow, James caused me to forget all of this. When I was around him, I found it hard to hate things about myself. I found it even harder to find anything wrong with him. We had this ease between us, right from the beginning. The kind that usually only comes after years of friendship. The kind that encompasses silences that aren't awkward, but comfortable.
At the start, we understood one another. James and I, we were always meant to be friends. He told me that it was only a matter of time before our lives collided. Yes, we were meant to be friends. Whether or not we were meant to be anything other than that was a bit more uncertain. But slowly, as summer's heat wore on, I began to adore the way his messy hair stuck up at the back, and how he smelled like soap and boy's deodorant- the kind that comes in a red container with a sailboat on the front.
I once begged my mother to be called Annie. She refused, on the grounds that my sister was already Maddie, and Annie and Maddie was just "too cutesy." This was just the latest in a series of blows dealt my way, seemingly caused by my sister, although not one of them was actually her fault. I resented Maddie, because she was everything I was not and could never hope to be- pretty, friendly, approachable, smiling. Maddie always smiled. In photographs, we were polar opposites, different ends of a stick magnet. Maddie's hair curled softly around her, embracing her shoulders in gentle dark waves. Her eyes were blue and alive, in way that mine would never be. I scowled, crossed my too thin arms over my too thin chest and set my mouth in a hard, thin line. I was paper white and paper thin. My hair resembled blackened matches. Of course my parents favored Maddie. Who could blame them?
Here too, James surprised me. Something you should know- boys loved my sister. Boyfriends were a constant at my household. From the moment she was permitted to date (at the age of thirteen) a string of guys attached to her paraded through my kitchen. If I counted back the years and memories, I could see their faces, too, paired up with the time slot that they filled in my life. I'd been scared to introduce the two of them, James and Maddie, afraid that like so many others, he would meet my sister and realize that I was second best, a broken version of the real thing. But James smiled politely, shook hands, and echoed her "nice to meet you." He didn't turn on the charm, and he never attempted to flirt. I nearly fell off my chair.
Later, when we were lying side by side, our backs flat against the grass and our faces upturned to the sky, I confessed that I'd been apprehensive about his first encounter with Maddie.
"It's just, boys always like her. Hell, everyone likes her. She's impossible to compete with- nice, pretty and…" I trailed off, unable to find the words to finish. He propped himself up on one arm on his side, facing me.
"Sure, Anna, your sister's pretty, but she's definitely not you. And," he went on, though I felt myself sink a little lower, "as I remember, it's you I like." I turned my head to look at him. My cheeks were burning red, twin roses blooming- blush colored. My heart was so buoyed by this sentence it was liable to burst clean out of my ribcage at any moment. For once, someone had taken a good look at my sister and I and not come to the immediate conclusion that I had drawn the shorter genetic straw, or that they'd prefer her as company, as a student, as a daughter- as a lover.
This is how it was with James. He had no trouble saying exactly the right thing. He'd flash a high wattage smile my direction and my knees would buckle. James must've found it amusing, the way I had to struggle just to get a simple phrase like "thank you" out of my mouth. I was too used to keeping it pursed shut, occasionally biting my lip. James found this just about the cutest thing I did, and told me so. In a whisper, of course, hot in my ear. This caught me off guard, but I was always like this around James-slightly off balance to begin with, a couple inches left of center. One grin, one joke, one casual compliment, and I was reeling.
"Anna!" I followed the sound of my name- two syllables ringing in James' voice, loudly.
"James?" A question I already knew the answer to.
It was late afternoon at our favorite spot by the creek. The grass was rippling, wind rushing through. He came closer. I knew something was wrong- where was that easy grin that sent a shiver down my spine? We were toe-to-toe, right next to each other. He gripped my shoulders and looked at me.
"I just wanna say I'm sorry, Anna. I never thought things would... turn out this way." This was not the James I knew, confidence in short supply, faltering and losing his train of thought like an unwound spool of thread buried in my mother's sewing kit. Finally, I forced sound past my lips.
"What is it? What's wrong?" My throat was dry and cracking. I swallowed. James ran a shaky hand through his hair.
"I'm leaving." Instantly, comprehension invaded my brain. James' dad was in the military, stationed at the base a few miles from here. He'd been transferred.
Oh sure, James had told me about the myriad of other places in which he had lived; I knew that his childhood had been a series of new schools, new bedrooms and new addresses to memorize. But it had never occurred to me that my town could someday be the latest entry on this long list of locations.
"Your dad?" I managed. He nodded. Silence. James handed me a scrap of paper, a corner torn from a notebook with an inky scrawl snaking across the broken threading blue lines.
"So you can write." He said, as if I needed an explanation. "You will, won't you?" He tried to catch my gaze, which was glued to the tops of my bare feet. "Listen, Anna. I didn't ask for this. I thought this time it was for good." Reaching down, he took my hand. His palm was cool against mine. "It's not the end of anything. I'll be back, I swear." I tilted my chin up, taking him in- the freckles across the bridge of his nose, the green in his eyes in the 3 o'clock sunshine- all of the things I wanted to remember. James pressed his lips to my cheek and turned his back to me. He took off running.
Just like that, James Murphy had sprinted his way out of my life. Smoothing out the creases in the address, I tucked it into my pocket. But this was just for show. I knew I would never copy those numbers and letters on to an envelope, that I would never spell out James' name in pen.
We were always meant to be friends. We were meant to share this summer, this blip in time between sixteen and seventeen. I'm not sure if I was supposed to love him, though I certainly came close. Something was always holding me back. Somehow, I knew it wasn't right. I wasn't going to write. I knew that he'd understand. After all, he knew better than anyone that we were never meant to last.