September 26, 2007
By Chelsea Tudor, Thornton, IA

The night before the beginning of the “time of my life,” according to my friends, I realized that it’s true, what they say: A picture really is worth a thousand words. I was looking through my photo album, saying months-early graduation goodbyes to the faces of my friends, when one picture in particular caught my attention. At first glance, you’d see a guy and a girl, the guy’s arm draped around her shoulders, the girl smiling happily into the camera. But my breath caught in my throat - taking a closer look made a world of difference. The girl is smiling, but that is not happiness shining in her blue eyes. It’s fear and sadness and hey, it’s a picture - why shouldn’t she be smiling? The guy, on the other hand, is glaring down the camera, eyes and mouth unsmiling, his arm pulling the girl toward him in a near-headlock. Although they appear to be happy together, their eyes tell a different story.

The phone suddenly rang, snapping me out of my photo-induced stupor. I picked up to hear the voice of the guy in my photo album. “Hey babe; you ready for tomorrow?” Bobby asked, excitement in his voice. As I prayed for his good mood to be consistent, I chatted with Bobby, simultaneously wishing I had given that picture a closer look before I’d gotten in so deep.

***Next Day***

“All right, guys, smile!” I shouted, holding the camera at yet another angle and ignoring Bobby and my friends Nicole and Matthew’s groans. The flash went off, and as they blinked the blinding stars out of their eyes, a photograph slowly formed on the small digital screen. The bright light washed them out, making them look almost translucent…as if they were ghosts, mere memories, already.

It was spring break of 2006, and my friends and I all had a touch of senioritis. Due to the fact that we resided in a small town in Connecticut, we were psyched to be spending our vacation in Cancun, Mexico. As teenagers tend to do, we spent our time toeing the line between life and death, right and wrong, teetering precariously close to danger. We engaged in risky behaviors in our day-to-day lives, living like life was going out of style. You see, when we are children, we like to think of ourselves as being invincible. We run around without a care, doubtful that the time will ever come when we realize we are mortal. And when we face that, it’s perhaps the hardest transition to make. Unfortunately, I would reach that turning point much too soon in my life.

Our first few days in Mexico went dizzyingly fast; the escapades of choice were bar after bar, club after club. The nights blurred by - the mornings after consisted mostly of coffee, Tylenol, and complex discussions involving what each of us could remember, usually only a few too many shots or an unwanted appearance in an in-the-making Girls Gone Wild video. But by nightfall, we were on our feet again, eager for whatever hand life would deal us next. When you’re eighteen years old with a fake ID, nothing can stop you from having fun.

Finally, the fateful night before we would be forced into leaving our intoxicating paradise arrived. We all decided we would make this night the best on yet. However, it was still early, so Nicole, Matthew, and I played a few rounds of poker and ate dinner while Bobby struggled to haul himself out of bed. I decided to go change just as he was stepping out of the shower.

“Is THAT what you’re wearing?” he inquired, his eyes narrowed into the glare I knew all too well. With Bob, I had always been under constant scrutiny, but by no means had I gotten used to it.

“Umm…yeah. Why; doesn’t it look okay?”

“Well, you do know you’re going to be dancing, but not around a pole, right? Whatever…it’s not up to me,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. He stalked out, cuing the beginning of a long routine called the Cold Shoulder, a concept I had become quite familiar with. Let me explain about Bobby…

We’d been together for only six months when it started. The jealousy, the protectiveness…after it began, our fighting became nearly a daily thing. He had never hit me; of course not! But some days I wonder if maybe, just maybe, physical pain would be more tolerable than this constant striving to dress and act right so Bobby wouldn’t get mad. Some days it was tiring, although it all became worth it after a big fight, when he would tell me how sorry he was and how he’d change. I learned in time not to take that promise to heart, and now, a year later, I’m still dealing with it. Why? Love, what else?

In the car on the way to a popular nightclub, Nicole and I chattered about how much fun the night would be - we had heard that the club was a favorite of Lindsay Lohan’s! I included Bobby in the conversation, sure that if we could fake happiness, everything would be all right again. I’ve learned in the past, though, that an optimistic façade is nothing but a mask, so I tread carefully with Bob - that’s what’s best to do in a relationship where there’s no more room for you. He laughed and nodded along with our giggling, but it was only a clever cover-up…during a pause in the conversation, he sat slumped against the passenger seat window. I couldn’t see his face, but I could sure picture it. I leaned back in my seat and took a deep breath. Nothing was going to get me down tonight!

The club was a tangled mess of sweaty limbs; the bass of the thumping music pounded in my chest as we struggled to make our way around hip-shaking bodies. Nicole and I started for the bar while Matt and Bobby found a table for us in the back. The hours passed quickly, and after a mishap involving a failed attempt to crawl under the red curtain to get to Justin Timberlake, we decided to go dance. We took of giddily toward the dance floor, and Nicole climbed up on the bar and extended her hand to me. Instinctively, I grabbed it. My modest had vanished - my best friend and I pulled off dance moves that would make Beyonce weep with envy. I lost track of time as my common sense melted away under the flashing strobe lights; at some point, I glanced below me and met Bobby’s eyes, staring at me in a way I’d never seen before. Hoping to avoid further conflict, I jumped down to face him.

“What’s wrong, Bob?” I asked.

“Nothing…just, you looked so good dancing up there that I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. And neither, I noticed, could ninety percent of the guys out here. I’m surprised you don’t have dollar bills sticking out of your jeans,” Bobby replied, that hard look still in his eyes.

I half-laughed, shrugging the situation off. “Oh, come on, we were just having fun. Don’t be such a baby!” I joked, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I didn’t realize he had hit me until it was all over and he stood staring at his fist like it had a mind of its own. I raised my hand to my aching cheek and felt arms around me, pulling me away. Bobby looked up at me in horror and took off toward the bathroom. I watched his retreating back, as I always did, fighting against the grasp of my friends. Although he had taken everything - my confidence, my security - he was all I had. My face still burned, but I resisted my loved ones’ comforting grip to try and make Bobby stay. When it hit me that that was impossible (and pathetic), I grabbed Matthew’s car keys out of his pocket and turned to leave, ignoring, running from, my friends’ protests.

I stumbled over to Matthew’s red Porsche and climbed in, watching my shaking hand force the key into the ignition. Looking back, I think I knew what I was about to do was crazy - it was the sort of thing our health teachers warned us about most - but sometimes we convince ourselves that a decision about to be made is the right, altruistic thing to do when, in all actuality, it’s just easier than facing harsh reality…and of course, my altered state of mind didn’t help matters. I cruised down Main Street, lined with trees, singing loudly along with, ironically, the song “Highway to Hell.”

As I wrapped Matthew’s beloved Porsche around a tree, all I could think about was that strange expression on Bobby’s face after he hit me. And suddenly, it was like I was looking down at myself, mangled in the car wreck. There was nothing the doctors could do - killed on impact, they said. It would be hours until my friends found out - Nicole and Matthew would cling to each other sobbing; Bobby would punch a hole in the hotel’s closet door, tears streaming down his face.

It’s funny how a death matters only to the people that you were close with. To everyone else, it’s just another ending. Flowers wilt, colors fade, the sun sets, people are born and then die…it’s inevitable, the only thing in life sure enough for us to depend on. At any rate, I have a lot of time to think now, sometimes about my parents, or Nicole, but it’s Bobby’s face I see more than any other. I wonder quite often if there was something I could’ve done differently to make things turn out better. If only I hadn’t danced up on that bar. If only I had tried to work things out with Bob. If only I hadn’t taken the keys…

The truth is, time is merely an optical illusion - never quite as stable and dependable as we think it is. If only there was a way to go back and tell your childish self to slow down. I was always so eager to grow up and be faced with “grown-up” issues. Now that I got my wish, all that I can feel is the overwhelming somberness of reality, overcome with nostalgia for the innocent, laughing kids we all used to be.

I still watch Bobby every now and again. He’s currently dating this girl, Monica. I saw them fighting once, and a few hours later, Monica was slipping sunglasses on over her bruise to go out in public. That’s when I stopped watching. But I still wonder if Bobby ever thinks about me or regrets anything, and I ignore the sickening feeling I get when I convince myself that he does not. After all of this had happened, why do I still feel so guilty? Why do I still miss him? I shouldn’t, but I do. I do.

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