By Lynn Ford
I hadn’t wanted to break up with him. But to me, it seemed inevitable. All good things come to an end: the phrase just popped in my head, out of nowhere. I was walking with him when it did. We were holding hands. He saw my facial expression and kissed my forehead, telling me not to worry, even though he didn’t know what I was thinking. He and I were inseparable then, even if we did live thirty-two miles apart.
It began when I saw my reflection in his pupil staring back at me. My love for him. I was watching him laugh, a strand of saliva stretching from the roof of his mouth to his tongue. That isn’t attractive. And his hair; it’s always messy. A mop of hair, similar to Harry Potter, is held proudly when he walks. The way he walks is sturdy and confident, though a bit trembly. The trembling isn’t nervousness just like it isn’t nervousness when his hands shake when he pulls my hair away from my face, managing to tuck it behind my ear after the slight pain of several strands sticking to his sweaty hand. He was born with the shaking. Only thing he has from his father, he says. And he’s sweatier than normal. How could I have fallen in love with those quirks?
Because, I say, they were associated with everything else beautiful about him. And let’s be honest, the hair is adorable, and his shaking just means he needs my steady hand. I have flaws too and he accepts them. Because that’s what love is, isn’t it? We accept each other’s little quirks and weird bodily functions. It’s funny though how those things we thought were little quirks actually run deeper than we thought. They begin to show and bother us when we are truly in the thick of it. Like his stubbornness. When I offer to pay for the bill or when someone tells him Fortnite is better. It just never was a bad thing before. But I guess stubbornness can only go so far before it gets ugly.
– July 30th –
See you tonight. Message sent. I clock in, throw my lunch in the fridge, and head up front, smiling at a customer along the way. The hours don’t seem longer, but they aren’t shorter either. I don’t mind. All I can think of is us being together and the incredible peace I feel being with him. I haven’t seen him in a week or so. Still, the image of Dad at home, working on his project alone like he has been all weekend, is in my mind. He misses Mom, who is still visiting her sisters. And he misses me too, since I’m off to college soon.
My break comes and goes. I am sent to put away the unwanted groceries and the paid items customers left behind to drag along a screaming child.
Call me when you’re done with work, Dad messages me. I click the phone off and turn into the bread aisle first. My shift ends early today, unlike most nights when I leave at one in the morning.
At exactly eight thirty, he is here.
I see him and break into a smile, but the corners of my mouth don’t pull up as easily. Our physical distance seems to have affected our emotional distance too. And then there is that sliver of guilt in my chest. As usual, I ignore it. I should not feel guilty for spending time with my boyfriend. Tonight, eight thirty, is a perfect time for a date and would be too late to spend time with Dad. I am going to be with Dad tomorrow night. This is our time to close the distance between us, reducing those thirty-nine miles to inches.
When I retrieve my lunch pail and purse, we walk around Walmart, wandering by the video game section. That’s when Dad calls. Oops.
I answer the phone.
“You said you were going to call me after work.”
“Sorry,” I sigh, “I forgot.”
He sighs. “I know this might not be a good time but…”
“It isn’t.” My boyfriend glances over at me. I turn away, leaning on one of the shelves.
My Dad goes on anyway, “I talked to your Mom about this. What is this . . . is last night the fourth or fifth time you’ve woken us up by talking to that guy?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“No, I’m done with sorry. Something has to change.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again. “I really am. I just– night is the best time for us to talk since we both work during the day and I’m wide awake when I come home and . . . “
“Listen,” he interrupts. He sighs, “Most responsible adults go to bed early and wake up early . . .”
“Dad, I work at Walmart– usually til 1:00 AM, how am I–“
“No, I’m just saying most responsible adults go to bed early and wake up early,” he pauses, “Grandma told me that you were late to drop off what she wanted before you went into work today.” He goes on to say how upset she was also with my failure to be on time.
“I was only seven minutes late,” I protest. “It was enough time for her, Dad.”
I feel the tears burning. Dad is saying something else, but I pull the phone away from my ear. I look down at my feet, feeling people walk past, staring at me. No, this isn’t a good time, I think. Still, he went on anyway. Just one mistake and I’m not a responsible adult? Not good enough, am I? I roll my eyes. Finally, his lecture is over, and I hang up. I don’t even find my boyfriend to tell him before I run to the bathroom. In the stall, I wipe my eyes. But there isn’t much crying. I’m mostly angry. Every time I mess up, it’s always a surprise to my parents. When I come out, my boyfriend is there. I meet his gaze and then look away. I don’t really want to talk about it. We’ve had conversations before where I just complain about my parents. But this time I don’t want to talk about it. Then he grabs my hand.
“Come on.” He offers a smile.
“What, where are we going?”
“Just follow me,” he says, tugging me toward the grocery section so fast I have to step into a light jog. He grabs a liter of root beer and hands it to me. “Whatever you want, Ardent. What else?”
I grin at his use of my last name. “What, no . . . “
“Ardent,” he says, looking me in the eye through those Harry Potter glasses. “What else do you want?”
I look down at the root beer, my favorite drink. Wait. “Actually, I really want orange juice.”
He nods and puts it back. “All right.” And then he leads me to the freezers, demanding I pick any ice cream I want. Strawberry popsicles. We get dip n’ dots too. And then coffee. Blueberries. He buys it all and we hop in the car, lecture forgotten, tears dry, and the night ahead of us. He parks behind the old abandoned hospital, our usual meeting place. It over looks half of Scidmore Park, including the river that runs through it. He sets up the Nintendo Switch while I eat my share of the dip n’ dots. We play Mario cart; it’s my first time.
That’s when Dad calls again.
“I think it’s time to call it a night.” But he isn’t thinking that it’s time, he’s demanding.
I’m not going to call it a night. I’m not even coming home, I think. I’m going to grandma’s house afterwards anyway! “Okay, thanks Dad. It’s okay; he has to leave at 10:30 anyway.”
I hang up. Looking back, maybe we could have avoided it all if he had parked in grandma’s driveway instead of the suspicious looking hospital. Maybe it would have been best if we had never planned anything at all. Or maybe I should have never been honest with Dad about my hours and turned off the GPS tracking on my phone after work. But I didn’t.
Moments later, we are in the back seat, cuddled with a blanket and watching The Office, dip n’ dots gone. Bryce gets a text from his mother.
Eliza’s dad just called your Dad. Eliza is too loud when you guys talk on the phone at night. It is waking him up. He’s not complaining about you but about how loud Eliza is.
“What the heck?” I frown. Lights flash. He looks up so I sit up too. A police car pulls up behind the car. I glance at Bryce, wide eyed. But his face is calm, composed. A cop knocks on the door. Bryce opens it. The cop points his flashlight at me.
“Are you Eliza?”
I squint. “Yes . . .?”
“Yes. What’s the problem?”
“Your Dad called. He wanted to make sure you weren’t doing anything illegal.”
I frown. Illegal? Dad knows I have never shown interest in drugs. Even if I did, where would I get them? That is the only thing I question. I don’t question why Dad lectured me over the phone at Walmart, even when I said it wasn’t a good time. I don’t question why he
demanded I come home. I didn’t ask myself why he wanted my date to end. Because that is what fathers do, right? They end dates. They scare the boyfriends away.
The cops are saying something else. “Park is closed . . .”
Bryce responds. The cops leave. We get back in the front seat and Bryce drives me to Grandma’s. I know he is waiting for me to say something, but I tell myself it is too exhausting to try to find the words for what just happened. Looking back, perhaps it was hard to find the words . . . but I think I could have if I wanted to.
“Goodnight,” I say. “I had a great time.”
“Goodnight,” he says. He gets out of the car. He pulls me in to a hug and I hold him close. I always hate saying goodbye. Then he leaves. Little did I know that this was the last times we’d see each other before something broke inside us, changing us forever.
– August 4th –
“I need to talk to you,” I say over the noise of blended conversations either about the sermon or what they had for breakfast. I can’t look him in the eyes.
“Oh yeah?” He says, his gaze flitting over to his friends. He’s so calm, teasing me like nothing is wrong. But everything’s wrong.
“Oooh,” he teases, and this remark is an added weight on my chest.
I walk past him toward the church doors that lead outside, my head down. I am strong. I know I am. But I never wanted to be strong in this way. I never wanted this moment to come, even though for months, I knew it was. The weight on my chest is the biggest it’s been, the roof of my Dad’s house growing heavier every day. I know the words I will say are going to lift the weight.
I pull him behind the church, staring up at him. His eyes are little too wide apart and his nose is wide too and his jaw sharp. He has a handsome face, complete with that crazy hair.
“I don’t want to cry,” I say. The weight on my chest is getting heavier. I avert my gaze from his and take a breath. A breeze blows strips of hair away from my face. I catch a whiff of Bryce’s Old Spice cologne. Tears form because his face is blurry. “Okay? But . . . I think . . .” I exhale the words: “I think we should break up.”
They are the worst words in the world. I hate the words. But I know it must be done. I continue between breaths, “I don’t agree with everything Dad did,” I continue, “but I also don’t think you should have sent that text.” Why is my voice already sounding congested? “And then you won’t apologize,” I add. Dad’s face looms in my mind’s eye, glaring at me, calling Bryce crude names, saying I deserve better as I read the late-night Facebook message:
Oh btw I would appreciate if u have a problem with me u can talk to me because I’m my own person since I turned 18 instead of talking to my Dad. Which if u talk to me we can actually talk about. Thx Mr. Ardent
Have a goodnight sleep
I remember those childish words. I remember embarrassment. But I also remember my will bending under my Dad’s weight, the weight of the roof I live under. He didn’t apologize, my brain echoes.
I honestly expect Bryce to turn away in disgust. To laugh at me like it’s a joke. But instead, he pulls me in an embrace, the embrace I’ve always been able to trust, to take comfort in when I cried about my homework or my parents or friends, or life in general. But now this would be the last time I hugged him like this and I need to memorize every detail. I feel his shirt, soft in my grip. It’s a blue shirt. My nose is buried in his shoulder, but my eyes can see past, looking at the grass waving, the sun hitting the pavement, the cars driving past and the people inside having no idea that they are a momentary witnesses to a young girl ripping her own heart out. I feel his chest rising and falling with each breath, his body warming my skin. His arms, wrapped around me, so safe and secure. Yet, the last time they’ll hug me. I pull away to wipe my tears.
“So much for not crying,” he says. I force a laugh and stare up at him, searching his eyes, searching for tears. There. I see it. Water in his eyes. A little red. He hugs me again, this time pressing his nose into my neck and breathing deep, the smell of me. The tears of course just come faster. My phone buzzes and I pull away just to answer but Bryce takes it as his que. He pulls away and up, the warmth gone. Our embrace over. He straightens.
My parents texted me. “I have to go . . .” I say.
He doesn’t respond. He turns to go, even though I’m the one who has to leave. We turn the corner. The family car is sitting under the awning, engine running. Bryce steps toward the church doors. An usher opens one for Bryce and for me, like I will follow. But I can’t. I stay outside.
“Bryce,” I say.
He keeps walking.
“Bryce,” I say again. Tears blur my vision. “I love you.”
He turns his back and disappears behind the door.
The tears flow harder. The usher is oblivious to what just happened.
I open the car doors. There’s a pang of guilt, like I don’t belong here.
“Doesn’t even look like he cares,” Dad comments when I get in my seat.
“Yeah if he wanted you,” Mom turns around in her seat, eyes glossy, “He could have come up to Dad right then and apologized.”
Their words are tiny pinpricks. Right now, all I do is weep, even if I don’t want my family to watch me. I can’t help it. There’s a giant hole in my chest, stretching. My mouth opens as if trying to mimic the gaping hole in my chest. But it can’t stretch wide enough and instead, sobs roll out. My cheeks are soaked.
We stop at grandma’s house to celebrate her birthday. But I stay in the car. I am utterly lost and alone. Before Dad steps on the gas, he turns to me.
“This is why you don’t date,” he says, as the tears stream down my cheeks. He has that stern angry look where his black bushy eyebrows arch closer to his eyes and the corners of his mouth turn down. But this is the look he gave me when my pastor was taking advantage of my volunteered service. He is not mad at me. Just mad at Bryce for treating me poorly even though I don’t believe Bryce treated me poorly.
“I don’t regret dating him,” I sob.
Dad hesitates. I think I see a glisten in his eyes and his eyebrow twitch. But then he turns away and leaves me alone.
I clutch my arms, holding myself, as if that will help keep the pain at bay. But it doesn’t. All good things come to an end.
– August 8th –
Memories flash in my mind’s eye. My journal has seen every thought on the breakup, every detail, every desire. And now I know what I must do. My teeth chatter but not from the wind blowing as I speed 65 down the rural highway. I’m nervous. Excited. Thrilled. All at once. Through thick and thin, we said. “This is the thick part,” I wrote in my journal. “This is the time to back up your words.” I don’t regret the breakup. I was right: the weight on my chest had lifted and the roof of my father is no longer crushing my lungs. Packing for college is easier. And after thirty-two pages of journaling, I saw how much I really do love Bryce, despite his flaws. I turn down the dirt road, the shortcut to Walmart. All good things… I flick the blinker. Turn left. In the parking lot.
There’s his car. Blue like the sky. My favorite color. Vibrant and beautiful. The car would make my heart jump because every time it appeared, Bryce was taking me somewhere. I pull up next to him. All good things . . . I take a deep breath. I grab my journal filled with letters I never said or sent. I exhale.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I climb into his car.
All good things are worth fighting for.