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In A Graveyard
When I was young, I lived in Umbria, Italy. The summer was typically mild and dry, like the rest of the year, but one summer was incredibly sweltering. It hit forty degrees Celsius one day. That was the day my life began.
Every day for the entirety of my time in Umbria (since I was ten), there had been a girl who rode by my balcony on her bike. Always at eight o’clock every morning, before the sun was at its strongest, she came on a shiny white mountain bike. Even during the rare rain showers, she pedalled on, her long hair swinging in rhythm with her movement. I always admired her perseverance, but never once caught a glimpse of her face. Everyday, my respect for her would grow, and I depended on her. I suppose she was my hero, the single constant variable in my ever tumultuous life. By the time I was thirteen, I had probably already fallen in love with the idea of her.
Then when I was fifteen, she didn’t pass by for a whole week. I remember; I was too old, too mature to be panicked, but even on the first day it sure felt like panic. I relied on her so much. By the fifth day, a sense of sadness set in, and I thought that I would never see her again, that she had moved away, or given up biking. Regret choked me.
But on the eighth day she was back. Joy swelled. In the days previous I had regretted not stopping her to talk, or following her home and then gotten some stupid excuse to come in, but for now I was content just to watch her from my balcony. Too bad, really, that the fates intervened.
For the first time in five years, the gravely slope in front of my father’s house got the better of her. The wheels slipped, the bike skidded. I was frozen in the plastic chair, my knuckles white on the armrest, the plastic digging into my skin painfully. It was two seconds before I rushed out of my room, down the stairs, and out the door. In retrospect, she didn’t seem that badly hurt, just a little out of breath. But my hands were shaking and my mind was running at a mile a minute. I shoved the bike off from on top of her and knelt by her side, still shaking from adrenaline and over excessive fear.
“Pa…p-parlo inglese?” I asked shakily. My Italian was never worth crap.
“Yes,” she said irritably. “Why’d you have to throw my bike like that? It could get damaged!” She was definitely American.
“I-“ I started, but my shyness got the best of me. She turned her eyes - furrowed, dark - to me, and I couldn’t say a word. Her eyebrows rose slowly, her eyes less unkind, and I slowly became less mute.
“What’s your name?” I spat out all at once, turning red. Instead of breaking the ice, it looks like I banged my head into it. Looks like I made a crack, though.
Her mouth twitched toward what might have been a smile, and her eyes relaxed. “Beth. And-“
“Rufus,” I said, as though out of breath, “Rufus Payne.”
Her face was rather square, with a long straight nose and wide lips. But her smile made her infinitely beautiful, as a saw when she gave a little laugh and stretched out her hand.
“P-piacere mio, Beth,” I whispered, bewitched by her smile. Numbly I shook her hand, but forgot to let go. Her eyebrows darted up again. With a small “oh” I broke from the trance and used the hand to help her to her feet. She was a few centimetres taller than I, but to me it seemed appropriate, her being mythical, a goddess, unreal.
I reluctantly released her hand and led her into the house. It was spotless, of course, as always. Beth flopped onto the couch, clutching her knee but assuring me that it was nothing. I ran back out and took her bike inside as well. She thanked me, then refused a drink, food, ice, and even a band-aid. Instead, she wanted answers.
“How did you help me so fast?”
I could easily feel the heat rising in my face. It was too much, far too fast - even I, who had been cut off from civilization since my tenth birthday, knew it was weird to stare at and wait for a girl I didn’t know who passed my window everyday.
“I just saw you from my balcony, is all,” I said, badly attempting nonchalance.
“Wait…” she said, her eyes narrowing on my face, then widening them dynamically, “You’re the kid that’s always sitting on the balcony over the road! I see you there, all the time-“
“Every day,” I murmured.
“What’s that?” she said, eyes narrowing again.
“I’m there…everyday,” I whispered, cringing, avoiding her gaze.
“You…you watch me every day?” she said, with what I dreaded to be disgust in her quiet tone. My whole being felt like it was plummeting, deeper with every word.
“Well...” I said reluctantly, “yes.” Rock bottom.
“That…that’s kinda sweet. I’ve got a secret admirer, haven’t I then?”
My head jerked up just in time to see her hide another smile with a hand. Swelling is all I felt, as though I was shooting up from the depths. But another part of my mind was whirling negatively.
“You mean…you don’t think that’s kind of…well…creepy, or anything?”
Her smile fell gently. “I would. But you’re not really that type of person, are you?”
“No,” I said, swelling, rising, nothing to pull me from this high.
We talked of our parents who had both dragged us here, her mother from Chicago, my father from Yorkshire. She had a sister here with her, while it was just my father for me. She went to the local school and spoke Italian, while I was home schooled and spoke almost none. I explained that my father was slightly unhinged, destroyed by the people he had loved. My house arrest was, at best, his way of protecting me, and at worst his way of making sure I could never leave him. She sympathized, and was smart enough to say that she could never understand how I must feel. Her mother was alright, just a little out there. She had no clocks in the house (Beth had snuck in a watch so she could make her daily bike ride on time) and never cleaned beyond the point of what was absolutely necessary.
We talked for hours, and it was one o’clock before either of us noticed the time. My father was away at work; she explained that her mother hardly ever worried about anything. I made lunch and we kept talking. I made her leave at half past four because I was afraid that my father might return early, but she refused until she had kissed both of my cheeks. She smiled and rode away as I watched from the doorway, my insides exploding, my cheeks numb, and my skin in a kind of feverish heat, completely undue to the unseasonable temperature. We had talked about stupid things and deep things, but most of it vanished as I watched her going away, just a very defined imprint left on my cheek and in my heart.
We were together whenever I was apart from my father for the rest of the summer. We would walk through all the wineries, olive orchards, and sunflower fields that blanket Umbria and sometimes talk, sometimes just walk. I’m sure it seems very romantic to any of you, but rest assured, it was pretty platonic. The only thing that kept my hopes up was the kiss she gave whenever we went our separate ways; both cheeks, with the most beautiful smile in the world.
In September, Beth’s mother grew tired of Umbria. Beth explained that five years was an incredibly long time for her mother to stay anywhere, which I already knew - Beth had only lived in Chicago for two years, then moved to New York for a few months, then moved to Madrid for the rest of that year, then to London, and Paris, and Frankfurt, and Vienna, then finally to Umbria. I took my allowance (that I was never allowed to spend) and rented a box in the nearest Post Office, so that we could send letters without my father knowing. I’m not sure why I was so scared of him, but I feared if he figured out that I loved a girl, he wouldn’t stand for it. So I stayed cautious.
We were already seeing a lot less of each other due to the beginning of school term, but I knew I would miss her wave as she rode past my window, the talks we had in the afternoons and on weekends when I snuck out, or even the occasional times we met at night in the fields. On the day she was to leave, I saw tears forming and had the indescribable urge to stop them. How, I shouted at myself, how can I?
That was our first kiss.
Sitting in one of the olive orchards against one of the young trees, all my hopes and dreams and all my father’s deepest fears were confirmed. And I knew I didn’t just like her because she was there, because she was the only friend I had. I loved her because…because every sense I had was screaming it.
I felt her tears reach my cheek and knew my impulse had failed me. It would just make it worse for both of us, I thought, even if we can write each other it’s not the same…we’re just friends…you’re a stupid git for thinking anything else…
But as I broke away, full of shame and guilt for ruining it all, her hands reached my eyes and she held them shut. I thought I had imagined it, but I know now I didn’t; “I love you,” she breathed into my ear, and she was gone before I could move. I never said good-bye…I said hundred times more, and she a thousand.
We wrote, but it was a bit awkward. I’m sure she poured over my letters as much as I poured over hers, but it was too strange to write to her as though we were lovers. Of course, we weren’t; that was the awkward thing. I knew I loved her back, but to put it in writing was infinitely hard, but to think that she thought that I didn’t love her back was torture. This is the trap we catch ourselves in…
A year after we met, I was determined to see her again. I had grown several centimetres and gotten much stronger. Not that she didn’t already love me, but I suppose I felt a bit more worthy. I felt more confident, and freer than ever before. I sent a letter to Beth, to meet me in a graveyard in Yorkshire, near the town where I grew up. The date I gave was a month away, plenty of time for both of us to get there.
I left home right after mailing the letter. I left my father a note bearing only the words “I’ll be back”. I had nothing more to tell him, nothing at that time to say.
I didn’t have enough money for a plane or train, nor for many hotels. I depended on other people’s kindness and generosity, which I learned can be both a wise and stupid choice. I told everyone how Beth and I had met, and how she had left after that summer. I never told them that I was only 16, though, and if they asked, I always lied. If the person was older, say, over 35, I told them I was 18 just so they wouldn’t turn me in to the cops. If they were younger than thirty, I just guessed their age and used that. They probably suspected, but didn’t say anything. They knew my motives were pure.
So I got rides with many people, slept in houses and apartments and on the ground. The thought of Beth didn’t comfort or soothe me, though; I actually secretly dreaded seeing her. But the regrets ate me alive whenever I lay down and closed my eyes, and I knew that I had to keep going or the rest of my life would be like those nights.
So I reached the town with one day to spare. All the wishes of “Godspeed” had done me well, it seems. I wandered around my old haunts, most of which I didn’t recognize anymore. I saw the old house where my mother had lived, the school a few blocks down that I vaguely remembered, and a play park that seemed very familiar. I used the last of my very small savings to rent a hotel room, and that’s where I spent my last night.
The next day, I dressed in the last almost-clean clothing I had and walked sedately to the graveyard. It took me longer than I expected to find my mother’s grave, but I didn’t mind. Time seemed slower and at the same time more valuable that day. I sat and rested my back against the stone, and waited. I never glanced at my watch or looked around as if she was about to appear. I sat and thought all day, just thinking about everything, stupid things and deep things, like the things Beth and I had talked about the day we’d met.
Truth was, I’d told her to meet me at sunset.
And so it was that as golden light turned red she approached me. When my eyes saw her I felt them relax, as if she was there to soothe me, and comfort me like the thought of her had been unable to. She sat down, cross-legged, facing me. She said nothing. Our gazes never broke.
“I love you too,” I said firmly. Something shifted behind her eyes, and even though a year had passed, I felt a colour rising in my cheeks. But I would not look away.
She caved. Tears spilled from her eyes like last time, and I lunged forward on my knees, holding her and her holding me. I pulled her back with me and we both leaned against my mother’s stone. She was weeping into my chest and I was willing her to smile, that was what I wanted, not to see her weak like she wasn’t, or vulnerable, like she wasn’t. I was like that, or I used to be. She was a pillar, a Caryatid. I grabbed her shoulders so that I could see her face, and she mine; for just a moment I saw her tears and could bear it no more.
She couldn’t help herself.