Darren was sprawled out on the couch in the living room, his free hand dangling dangerously close to the carpet with a lit cigarette. He looked over at the coffee table, where his Fruity Pebbles and milk had gotten soggy and formed into a multicolored unappetizing lump. Barely giving himself time to taste it, he tipped the bowl back and sucked down the mush like one would knock back a shot of liquor. After he wiped the milk from the corners of his mouth, he lay his head back again. He took the folded-up letter from his pocket and read it for what seemed like the umpteenth time. It was the only hope he had for getting out of the miserable hellhole apartment and the miserable hellhole reality he lived in. And the apartment was truly a hellhole. Sagging floors, holes in the walls, water stains and every other thing that a condemned area would stereotypically have. His father, who he lived with, came into the living room to remind Darren to pack for what seemed like the fifteenth time in the past four hours. His father also told him that today would have to be the day to tell Alex.
Of course, not long after his dad had mentioned her, he heard her knocking at the door. His father had been right; today was the day that he would have to tell her. There was no point in lying anymore; they had grown up together since they were children and had been near-inseparable best friends for almost as long. His father let her in, she came and sat down on Darren's legs. She had come to pick him up to keep her company all day; her mother was making her run errands for her. She stubbed out his cigarette and pulled him upright by his arm and pulling him out the door by his wrist. She continued pulling him like she would a resistant child all the way down the apartment stairs and to her car. It was all in fun, of course.
Alex had promised the day would be incredibly boring, and she had kept her word. Nothing but stops to drop off checks, pick up mail, get money out of the bank, pick up some heavy thing of her mother's and haul it to the back seat. Darren thought the back end looked like it sagged afterward. He put in a CD that he had made for her a long time ago. He was playing with the graduation tassel dangling from her rear-view mirror when he saw her mouthing along with the lyrics. It made him smile. She had always said that she hated the band. He looked back at the tassel, still playing with it. He never noticed how old it looked before; it definitely looked as if it had more age to it than only three months. He saw something else he recognized, but this time he made no sign that he'd seen it, as it was obviously supposed to be tucked away. It was a friendship bracelet he had made her when they were around eleven or twelve years old. He smiled again, if only because he had his tucked into his wallet.
They stopped at a cheap, cozy restaurant and ate lunch at an outside table. They sat and tossed general chitchat back and forth. The kind that doesn't mean anything; the kind you use to fill a void. Darren could see it for what it was; Alex thought that it was real conversation. She asked him how he felt, and he responded that he was bored out of his skull, adding on that it was with the monotony of the day and not the company. He always like clarifying his statements and ideas, especially those that had enough wiggle room for assumption, so that everyone would always know exactly what he meant by what he said. Alex had gotten used to it by now. She thought it was kind of cute. She asked him what he wanted to do, and, without missing a beat, he told her that he wanted to go and play at the park. She asked him if he was serious, and he told her that he was very serious. So, she humored him and they went to go play at the park.
When she got out of the car, Alex pulled (what she could) of her short, bobbed hair into a ponytail and pushed her over-sized sunglasses onto her forehead; she stood with her hands on her hips, surveying for fun to be had. Being a Saturday, there were quite a few children running amok, and it almost deterred her. Darren grabbed her hand like she had done to him earlier, only rather than pull her as she had done, it was more like the urging of a kid on the playground convincing their friend to go with them on some adventure.
As it was, Alex didn't actually need too much prodding. They went to the slide first, and she admittedly felt a tad childish waiting in line with children several years younger and several inches shorter than she was. It didn't help that some looked at her funny and others giggled. She just waved politely at them. Darren watched from the side, standing over by some parents, who told him how cute they thought his girlfriend looked in line and how they should take a picture. He told them pretty quickly that she wasn't his girlfriend, just his longtime best; one mother told him that it was a shame and that he could do a lot worse, the other told him that there was a fine line between best friend and girlfriend when it came to things like this. He just agreed, not wanting to talk about it anymore.
Darren felt like he was watching Alex transform into the girl she was when she was five or six. Each step climbing the rungs of the ladder seemed to strip away another layer of self-conscious teenager. Each step brought her closer and closer. By the time she had gone down, he could see a twinkle in her eye that he'd never seen. She felt suddenly carefree, suddenly innocent, like she hadn't in years. All the stress of the constant teenage pressure of high school, both educational and social, felt like it had suddenly been lifted. After she had gotten in line three more times, Darren took her by the hand to the swings.
The two of them weren't swinging in time with each other, but it didn't seem to matter. Lately, Darren hadn't seen Alex so vivacious, so excited and happy in several years. The stress from the pressure her mother gave her to succeed as well as her climbing of the social ladders had made her both subtly distant and noticeably, but not overtly, snobbish. But now, she had a look of absolute glee covering her face; she was actually giggling. He was also glad that her behaviour was childlike and not childish, between which was also a very fine line. The sun hit her face at a certain angle when she was swinging upwards and Darren realized that he'd never noticed how absolutely stunning she was.
After close to an hour of swinging, they hopped off and Darren got them ice cream from a nearby stand. They went and hopped on top of a couple of picnic tables that were beside each other. While they ate their treat, Alex would occasionally notice a faraway, detached look to his eyes. It would only be momentary. He was thinking about something; this she knew. And it was definitely something heavy. After she finished her cone, she hopped off of her table and got on top of his, sitting close enough beside him to wrap her arm around his shoulder, kiss his cheek and thank him for the wonderful idea, that she was having more fun than she had had in a very long time. He only smiled and laughed in that quiet way of his, where he would seem to chuckle by breathing once out of his nose. And then the look flashed over his face again.
They were silent for a while; it was somehow more comforting than shallow chatter, and they both enjoyed the quiet. They heard the birds; they heard the children. But, as Darren got up to use the restroom, Alex noticed a scrap of paper sticking out of his back pocket and grabbed it, asking what it was with a kidding girlish shriek, until she read it. She asked what it was again, though this time with a bit more of a serious undercurrent.
It was now or never, and she had already read it. So Darren told her exactly what it was. He had been accepted to a school that was in Tennessee. She felt the need to point out its extreme distance from Chicago. She asked him if he was going, and he said that he was. She asked him how long he'd been carrying the letter around, and he said that it had been around a month and a half. She asked him if he had already told his other friends and he said that he had. She wouldn't have been so upset if she, his best friend since they were in primary school, had not been the last to know. She wouldn't have been so angry if they hadn't have both applied to, and were planning to attend, the University of Illinois in Chicago. She wouldn't have been so hurt if he had told her sooner, rather than her find out less than a week before he left. And she wouldn't have been so devastated if she hadn't had been harboring feelings for him that she wouldn't admit.
It was a very quiet ride back to his apartment. He had to look out the window the entire time; for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to look at her. Darren hated to ruin such a nice day out with something messy like this, but it was inevitable. They finally pulled in after what seemed like eons of awkward silence, and Darren tried to think of a million different approaches, but he kept drawing blanks. There was so many things he wanted to say, so much he wanted to get off of his chest. But he wanted to look into her eyes when he told her, and that was impossible; she had put her sunglasses on, knowing fully what Darren would want to do. She made it impossible for him to get that vital connection between the two of them. He asked her if she would come and hang out with him before he left, maybe even come see him off at the bus station. She only gave a half-hearted "whatever", not a real answer at all, and got back into her car without telling him good-bye. It was the last time they saw each other again.
When they first met, he'd been eating potent painkillers and she'd been eating speed pills. He introduced himself as Darren, she was Lindsey. They hit it off almost instantly. The two of them had that rare, immediate spark of chemistry so rarely found among two people. They were at a party at a mutual friend's house. With everybody else loud, obnoxious and drunk, they stepped outside to the wraparound screened-in porch of the old-style southern house. They were wanting to get away from the sounds of raucous, stereotypical college partying and get to know each other a little better. Darren lay out in a lawn chair, Lindsey sat in the porch swing.
As she rocked back and forth, the way her legs pumped the swing reminded him of home and he got a sudden flutter in his stomach. Her words came out in long, amphetamine-crazed streams of thought. She would often stutter, as her she could only speak at a fraction of the time in which she thought. Darren listened and hung on to every word. Lindsey talked about her home life, about her college classes, about her car, about her job she'd taken on during the summer, her friends and anything else she could think of. Darren didn't know if the warm feeling that spread out all the way to his fingertips and his toes were the results of drug-induced euphoria or the crush he knew he was slowly developing.
Much to their equal disappointment, the sun finally came up and it seemed like their night had ended. They had talked the entire night, from almost ten p.m. to sunrise; at one point during the night, Darren had gotten into the swing with her, laying down (because the morphine pills had him lazed and dazed) with his head in her lap. As they watched the sun rise, he told her how much he would have regretted getting wasted-drunk and not really getting to know her at all, and she agreed. Then they halfway joked that the night could have been nothing more than a one-night stand, rather than the beginnings of what could be a fantastic friendship. They exchanged numbers and promised to get in touch with one another, both of whom fully intended to keep their word.
The next time they met, both of them had been eating speed tabs. Lindsey picked him up at his new apartment and they went out on an adventure, driving down back roads and main roads, getting lost for the hell of it. They had decided it best that Lindsey drive, being that he had only just moved and barely knew the main roads. This time, Darren, too, was jabbering like a madman, going back and forth about the minutiae of everyday life. They fed off of one another's energy, their conversation seeming to be endless. Once again, both of them felt that palpable spark of chemistry, but let it be for the time being. Neither wanted to ruin a good thing.
Once again, much to their shared dismay, the night had to end, although this this time it ended long after sun-up. Both were absolutely fried and the comedown was hitting them hard by ten in the morning. So Lindsey dropped him off and they went their separate ways once more. That morning, when Darren was lying in bed, sleeping heavily, he dreamed of her face, shining, smiling and beautiful. With her now in his life, the memories of the girl back home, the feelings for her that used to eat him alive, their less-than-pleasant good-bye, had quietly faded away. He didn't know that at the same time, Lindsey dreamed of him, too.
Several weeks went by before they saw each other again. But they could not keep the other off of their minds for long. Both of them were busy with work and school, however, and neither had enough down time to cruise like they had. The wait seemed interminable for both of them, and both of them had a feeling that they knew why. But they would keep it to themselves. Finally, to their relief, they got a window of opportunity, which they pounced on. Darren picked Lindsey up and the two of them drove out to a field on a friend of his' property. The friend said that he wouldn't object to them using it.
They lay out on the hood of his car in the balmy Southern summer nights, passing a large bottle of wine back and forth. By the time the bottle was half-empty, they were side-by-side, his arm tucked beneath her neck and her head leaned on his shoulder. The drinking had made them both lower their guard, and soon began to chat about more personal matters. Lindsey spoke of her cesspool of a home town, her physically abusive father and her mentally abusive mother, her dreams (including those about Darren), and what she had to do to escape from the hellhole she lived in. Darren talked about the older brother he idolized, his emotionally distant father, his deceased mother, the poverty he'd grown up in, his own dreams (including those about Lindsey), his hopes and his ambitions.
She burrowed deeper into the hollow of his shoulder, and he stroked her arm. Every now and then, their talking would cease and they would simply lay in each other's arms. Lindsey looked up to the stars again, pointing out different constellations. Darren longed to kiss her, but hated to think he was taking advantage of her being a bit tipsy. He rolled over to face her, looking into her eyes, her eyes looking back into his. He caressed her face with the back of his fingers. He worked up the nerve and leaned in to kiss her. She returned it, the two of them connected by the tongue. They became more heated, more passionate, until they had lay out a blanket on the grass and gained the deepest understanding of each other.
He made a comment about how nice the weather was and had been that night in the afterglow of their intimacy. She absentmindedly agreed, asking for the bottle as a soft breeze played with her hair and gave her a chill. Without even thinking, he remarked about how much Alex would have loved it out. Lindsey asked him who she was, if she knew this "Alex", and he told her that she didn't, that she had been his best friend for years. He included that they were no longer on speaking terms. He tipped the bottle up, remarking that Alex would kill him if she saw him drinking. Lindsey didn't even answer that time. She just burrowed into Darren's chest, trying to put the attention on her, rather than some girl he obviously once had feelings for. She let it slide for the most part, as both of them were more than a little drunk.
When he opened his mouth again and the first words out of his mouth had to do with Alex, Lindsey had been pushed too far. She began snapping at him, asking if Alex was all that he could think about, if that was who he wanted to be with right then. She snapped that she was there, too, and was feeling that she was inadequate from the way he couldn't stop talking about her. Darren just looked deep into Lindsey's eyes, making that connection he always yearned for, and looked away to turn the wine up, draining it and throwing the empty glass bottle into the woods, watching it sail. He looked back into her eyes, but now with a drunken swoon. And then he apologized; he told her that she was right; he told her that Alex could never compare with a girl like her. And then he held Lindsey close to him, feeling her warmth and her heartbeat, and forgot about Alex forever.