CHAPTER TWELVE

"I love you." I wondered if I could ever get tired of Al saying that, tired of him whispering it in my ear in an intimate manner, but at that time every time he did it, it made my heart figuratively skip a beat. Al made me flustered in a way I had never experienced before and the days after we confessed to each other were lovely. During that time Al and I went on numerous dates and we danced together which I wasn't good at but there was something about Al that added a special touch to things, and he was patient with me as he guided me through the waltz which his mother taught him. The activities we had done together felt new and exciting despite the fact we've done those things often. There were some activities I had never tried before, such as roller skating and the arcade, and I would've had not attempted to if it weren't for Al who encouraged me.

I bruised my knees learning to roller skate, however, I only learned how to stand up in skates without holding on to the wall. I fell a few times on the rink but it was good fun and a backache that I laughed off. I was a good sport with Al and Al wasn't a bad teacher although I wished he remembered to tell to bend my knees when skating that would've had saved me from a few falls. I managed to go around the skating rink by holding onto the world but at least I made it around with only a few wounds to lick and all my teeth in my mouth. I almost took down Al with me to the ground if his grip on my hand was tighter but at least Al didn't laugh that much when I did fell and helped me up without a complaint. The arcade was fun as well, and I ended up with no bruises, perhaps a wounded pride when I lost in all the games that I played with Al, but I had a great time. I wasn't a pro at video games and mostly played online games, but I got ahead of myself when I came to certain games that I thought were easy but weren't despite what Al said. Al and I also went bowling one night which I could claim a win for because I won by a landslide, but I had suspicion Al was being easy on me although he didn't admit it.

The truth was, if it wasn't for Al, I would be half the person I am now and would still be a gargoyle stuck inside the house. Without Al, I would've had not wondered what the world had to offer and opened myself up to new adventures. I was the wallflower who was content with my roots in an enclosed place, but Al showed me there was ground to cover and more beauty to the world than what I saw outside my window. I was shuddered inside myself and allowed my depression to overcome me without hesitation. My anxiety was ever-present and prevented me from enjoying outdoor leisure activities with my parents, I was limited to inside the house because I couldn't gain the strength to go outside and have dinner at a restaurant even though I wanted to have a good time. Al eased my inner conflict by standing by my side as he gave a listening ear to what problems were consuming me and his patience was a virtue that I was grateful for because there was a time where I wouldn't say anything or wouldn't be able to close my mouth. Al held my hand when times were tough and when my head felt that it was underwater without strength to lift to allow my lungs air.

Sadness wasn't only the symptom of depression, it was the entanglement of symptoms that dimmed the world around me and lessened my joy for the hobbies that fulfilled my day. I felt numb and detached at times when my mood would change from what it was that morning and I had no knowledge of what were my triggers which left me on shaky ground. My dad told me a few times to find a way to control it, but it wasn't that easy for me. I knew Dad had good intentions, but I wished that his solutions didn't sound like that depression was an easy mental health illness to fight. I went to sleep tired and I woke up tired, throughout the day my body felt fatigued and I wouldn't have much of an appetite or I would spend my time shoving food down my throat until I was sick of myself. I was stuck inside of myself without hope that knew what the world was in sunlight, but Al reached out a hand and I held no fear when I accepted it.

Sometimes I thought about the possibilities of what my life would be like without the encouragement from Al to explore the places around me. I imagined that I would be in my room wearing the pajamas I went to sleep wearing as I stared blankly at whatever TV channel I chose, and I knew that would be the tip of the iceberg. I wondered if I would of went back to old habits and used the razor to ease the pain. I shuddered to think that could've been me, a person without hope and with the thought there was nobody that was there for me. I remembered the thoughts I had when I was the deep end, I thought that no one would miss me and that I was a coward because I wouldn't cut deeper into my skin. Unfortunately, that was a part of my life that I was unable to erase thus I had to live with the decisions and the bed that I made because if I kept those memories in the dark, I wouldn't be able to have the strength to move on.

"I love you," Al said to the point where I wondered if there was such a thing of too much love, but I returned the sentiment love a thousand times as well. Al held a power over me that wasn't a dictatorship but a republic, I was allowed my choices, but Al was there to advise me if that choice was the best for me. I wasn't the type of person who completely trusted my instincts, so Al gave me reassurance in the times that I needed it. Al filled me with warmth with just a hand on my shoulder and that helped me during my bad times when body movement was a hardship and it was hard to find laughter. I would be content with Al existing in my life even if his words held no meaning of romance but friendship because what mattered to me the most was to have Al's trust and his company. I would never want to sabotage my relationship with Al with jealousy and miscommunication since he meant so much to me.

That summer was a cherished memory in my heart and I hoped not to have it erased from my mind when my skin begins to wrinkle and my hair starts to gray but the knowledge that Al was flourishing in his life and had plans that were steady left a hole in my heart because I feared that meant my space in his life would become smaller. I was proud of Al for his achievements and that he knew what he wanted for his future, but my self-esteem interfered which made me sad that I haven't done anything with my life worth writing about or celebrating. I hated myself for thinking wrong of Al and for the way I felt about Al living a few miles away from the place I called home. I wasn't eager for the distance between Al and I because we didn't spend that much time together as a couple and I was addicted to kissing him whenever I had the chance. I would miss holding Al close and hearing his breath in my ear that signaled that he was by my side and not miles away. I knew that I had to adjust to the distance, but it was easier said than done, and I felt as though I was too dependent on Al and it was hard to shake that mindset.

The final days, until Al left, were a countdown I tracked with a marker and a calendar that hung on the wall by my door in my room. It became harder to cross out each date as the days went on because I knew I would miss Al terribly and I wondered how hard the distance would hit me when I came to terms that Al wasn't there for me to hold. I was certain that my heart would ache for some time, but the dark cloud wouldn't hang over me for long and consume my mind. I was stronger than I was a few years ago thus I knew that I would heal and become a better person for Al while he was away in college. Personally, I hoped that I wouldn't cry so much when it was time for Al to say his goodbyes, although I was going with his parents and him to Columbus for our last ride together for a while, I knew that my eyes would be glued to the rearview window to keep Al in my sight when it was time to drive back home without him.

The day before I was to say goodbye to Al, I held tight to him when we said our goodnights at my front door after I helped him pack his luggage. I was close to crying because I started to overthink about how things might change to a point where I couldn't follow. Al reassured me the best he could but once a seed grew in my mind it was hard to chop down the root and burn the poison from the ground. I managed to let him go but I wondered if I would be able to when the moment came for the true farewell between Al and me. I knew I was acting dramatic and allowed my doubts to take over my thoughts, but it was a habit that was hard to control when I had done it for years. As a person, I still had areas where I needed to grow but some weeds were difficult to cut to allow the flowers to bloom.

That morning I awoke early, or perhaps I was already awake since I was restless the night before and didn't sleep deep enough for it to be considered the REM cycle. I tossed and turned that whole night and I couldn't stop shaking my leg as though I had shaking leg syndrome like the time, I experienced it with a previous medication which eventually led to frustrated tears. I spent time looking in the mirror to try to appear less of a mess that I felt because I didn't want Al to fret which he did often when it came to me and my emotions. I took a deep breath to settle my nerves and got dressed in a simple outfit of a t-shirt and jeans. I was dressed and was a full cup of coffee by eight-thirty in the morning, the Andersons planned to leave at around ten in the morning, but I thought it was best for me to be ready for there was nothing else for me to do.

I walked to the Andersons' house instead of calling for a ride because I needed some air and I knew that they were busy with helping Al move his luggage and the like. That day was beautiful with the bright sun but inside I felt the opposite, however, I had to keep it inside since the sadness inside of me was exaggerated to the point where it began to annoy me. When I arrived at the Andersons' house I saw Al in the driveaway placing his luggage in the trunk of his parents' car, Al was to drive his car to the campus and his parents were to follow because they had more space in their car than Al did and also, they wanted to make sure Al got to the college safely and without trouble. I was to ride with Al in his car, so I would've had more time to spend with him and so that we would've had some alone time.

"Hey, Al!" I called out as I made my way up the driveway.

"Case!" Al rushed to me in a fast walk and gave me a tight hug. I was going to miss his warmth and the comfort he gave me when he held me.

"Oof. Not so tight." I teased Al.

"Oh, har, like you don't hug me tighter." Al pinched my cheek between two fingers.

"Ow," I whined. "Well, if you stood still, I wouldn't have to hold you so tight. All you do is bob and weave." I returned the pinch that he gave me.

"Uh-Huh? Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?" Al started bobbing like a boxer with his arms up.

"You are so corny, you know that right?" I giggled.

"Oh, Good Morning, Honey." Ma greeted me as she walked down the stairs of the porch. She wore a navy wrap dress that matched her well.

"Hey, Ma. Morning," I said before Ma gave me a hug then she turned to Al.

"Oh, Sweetie, let your dad help you." Ma said.

"No, it's okay, Ma. Dad is older than me, anyway." Al replied.

"Oh, don't let him hear you say that." Ma laughed then went back into the house.

I helped Al put away the last two bags of luggage into the trunk of the car and we both went inside the house. Al's mom was in the kitchen preparing the first day of school lunch for Al and I thought Al was going to miss his mother's cooking.

Al's dad sat the dining table with a mug coffee and a newspaper in his hands.

"Oh, Hey, Casey."

"Hey, Pops."

After a quick bite of the lunch that Al's mom prepared before the ride, Al did one last check to see if he remembered everything. Once Al finished, Al's parents went to their car, Al and I went to his car then we started the drive to Columbus that took more than two hours. Despite the length of the journey, I was happy to be with Al for as long as I could before I had to say goodbye and had to wait a few months before I could see him in the flesh again. I knew that there was a strong possibility that Al would return for the Thanksgiving break and the Christmas break, but impatience still grew underneath my skin. I knew that I had to prepare myself mentally for the days when Al was busy with his studies and finals to call me to say hello or update me on his situation, but I was willing to push through my own barriers to support Al in his endeavors the same way he supported me through my depression.

"What are you thinking over there?" Al questioned.

"Hm?" I tilted my head. "Oh, just thinking about when you start to get busy with school, I'll support you even when we haven't talked in a few days because I love you and I care for you."

"I love you, too and I know that you're going to be worrying yourself over the phone wondering if I'm going to call -"

"I'm not." I interrupted.

"But I'm not going to keep you waiting for long, okay. Besides if I don't talk to you to distract me from my stress, I might go crazy."

"So, I'm your stress ball?"

"In kind words."

Al and I chuckled at the thought, I wouldn't mind if Al used me for a distraction from his studies because I would need his voice to distract me from the dark thoughts inside of my mind when they came to visit. Al and I spent the rest of the ride to the university with conversations about everything and nothing, Al spoke the most, but I didn't mind the sound of his voice unlike the voices of others in public. Al's voice brought me joy and warmth so I wouldn't care if he spoke to me for hours because it would bring me comfort.

When Al and I got closer to the campus of the university, I kept a hand on his arm to settle my nerves because I wasn't prepared for the farewell. I hoped that I didn't cry too much because it wasn't a tragedy but a brief separation that I would've had to adjust to since it was the cycle of life. I kept my eyes on Al for the rest of the trip because I had this inane thought that I had to remember every feature of his face, fortunately, Al understood and didn't call me out on it, or I would've been embarrassed to be seen that way. Too soon we arrived at the college and for a moment, the rug was pulled from my feet before I found my footing.

The parents, Al, and I got out of the cars and helped Al carry his luggage to his dorm room. I saw tears in Ma's eyes, and I wondered if I appeared the same way although I hoped not since I wanted to save that for the ride home so Al wouldn't worry about my stability. Al's parents said goodbye to Al first before they left him and me to have a private goodbye. I held tight to Al with reluctance to let go but I knew I had to no matter how much it hurt my heart. Al returned my firm hug with the strength of his own arms and I felt his hesitation to let go of me.

"I guess this is goodbye for a while," I said softly, and I felt Al's thumb wipe a stray tear from my cheek. I could see the sadness in Al's eyes, and I saw this was hard for him too.

"Yeah." Al placed a kiss on my forehead. "I'm going to miss you."

"I'll miss you, too."

Al and I shared a kiss before I went back to the car in the parking lot. I looked back once before I cleared the door of the room and I gave a last wave before I couldn't see Al anymore. I walked down the stairs in a daze and wondered if my heart was still in my chest because I felt too numb to be sure if it was still there. I thought that I left my heart with Al, which I did figuratively, but I wondered how long this feeling of detachment will last before I return to normal. It was hard to say farewell despite the fact it wasn't forever, and that Al and I could communicate through texts and calls, but it wouldn't be the same to talk to him face to face where I could hug him close to me. I looked out the window of the car on the way home in silence and Al's parents talked quietly in the front seat which allowed me time for myself to let out tears and to collect my thoughts.

I reminded myself that that moment wasn't the end but a new start for Al and me to work through together as a team and a couple which calmed down the torment of emotions I went through and lessened the tears that rolled down my cheeks. For the first time in a long while, I looked towards the future with optimism, I was ready for what battles that may come because it was worth the fight if it meant my good health and having Al in my life.

THE END