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A Glimpse Back
There was nowhere else to go.
I had been wandering the streets for too long, seeing little kids stare, point, and laugh. Like they'd never seen a nose piercing before. As if getting rejected at interview after interview wasn't enough.
The playground around the corner had always been the 'spot' when I was a kid. It wasn't quite like the others. There was one thing that made it different. "He made it different," I whispered to myself, shivering and pulling my cap down lower.
It had been left to ruin; the city couldn't afford to keep up all the playgrounds. This one had to go. The slide was warped. I remembered when I'd slide down, when that short trip down seemed like the scariest thing, the highest peak, I'd ever do, ever climb. Tires stuck up from the concrete alongside the skeleton of a trashcan. A bare tree swayed in the wind.
"Why do you come back here?"
I turned around and watched David come out the door of the apartment building. His gray jacket was lightweight and didn't seem to be enough to battle the cold, but for him, it was. I kept looking at him. I noticed the dog tag that became his when his brother died in the army. I noticed the silver chain almost hidden behind it, the necklace he'd given me that I'd given back. I kicked at a stick. I didn't even know if I could answer him, but I could try. "I just feel so trapped... like I'm stuck in this body. And I guess I am."
"Is that supposed to be an answer?" He walked up to me, hands shoved in the pockets of his skinny jeans.
I fixed my purse on my shoulder. "I don't know. Maybe. Here's the only place I feel free, the place I'm almost happy to be in my skin," I said softly.
"Sometimes, I forget I'm even here." He sighed. “Near enough to here, I mean.”
I wondered how he could forget. I used to have to blare music and do something stupid just to forget. "How could you forget that you're here?" I asked, chewing my bottom lip.
"It's easier to forget, isn't it?" He shrugged and sat down on a tire poking up from the concrete.
I sat on the other tire, too close and yet not close enough. "Nobody should be like me." It was a simple thought, blurted out, something I couldn't take back.
"Don't you dare think that for a single day." He looked angry and frustrated. "It's like you're always making yourself out to be so awful when you're not."
I stared at my boots and frowned. "I didn't know you'd come outside. I didn't expect this."
"Yeah, well, sometimes you can't really anticipate these types of things," he mumbled sarcastically.
I glanced at him. I remember when those dark eyes of his filled me with warmth and fear, fear that I'd be hurt. Love is vulnerability. And I was always so vulnerable to him, so easily broken, easily hurt, like a porcelain doll too antique to last much longer. Now all I wanted to be was detached and unavailable. "One of these days, things are going to fix themselves."
"Things like this don't just 'fix themselves', Ash. Sometimes you have to do something about it," he said.
I followed his gaze to the slide, that warped slide. We were like that: warped, broken, just plain messed up. You couldn't slide on it, and who knew if you could even climb the ladder. “Then how do you fix it, David? Want to give me a hint?”
He turned to me and pushed a strand of pink hair under my cap. “I've never told anyone the secrets I've told you.”
“I haven't either.” David leaned in almost hesitantly, like he wasn't sure of what he was doing. His lips pressed against mine softly.
Time stood still, only for a moment. Then it sped up, as if trying to catch up. He pulled away and stood up before I could catch my breath, before I could respond, before I could even blink. “This is stupid to say, but whatever. I don't think about anyone the way I think about you. I see you everywhere I turn; it's like you're haunting me.” His voice was harsh, clipped.
“Am I some ghost now? Something you want to move on and leave you alone? You came out here and talked to me.” He infuriated me, always up and down, always a contradiction of who he was seconds before.
“What else was I supposed to do?” He looked at me with guarded eyes. I wondered what he was guarding. Was it something he was afraid to face, afraid to acknowledge, or afraid to admit to me? Was it something I was afraid of, too?
I didn't say anything. What should I say? That I love him? That I hate him? Would this have a happy ending either way? Would it be a fairytale? Would we say we loved one another, kiss each other like there's no tomorrow and live happily ever after? I laughed. There was no such thing as happily ever after. I wouldn't fall into his arms. The past wouldn't, couldn't, be forgotten. Things would never be the way they were. “How am I supposed to answer that? What can I say to make you happy? Nothing,” I finally said. “I can't say something to impress you. I can't pretend to be someone I'm not.”
“You're not afraid to stand up to me, Ashleigh. You're not afraid to cut through the crap. We always talked in circles, nonsense that we only fully got in retrospect. We avoided what we really wanted to say. That's what broke us.” He was right. Instead of answering a question, we'd tip-toe around the bush until we couldn't avoid the answer anymore.
“You're supposed to learn from past mistakes, right?” It was rhetorical. He usually answered anyway, but this time, he didn't.
I look at him for a long time. It was easy to realize that I'd memorized his features. I'd memorized the way his hair kind of went up and to the side, the way his smile kind of crooked to one side. Maybe, just maybe, something would change. “You're right,” he said, putting his hands back in his pocket and walking back to the building.
I heard the door open and shut with a metallic clang. I got up and left the playground, looking back once I had crossed the street. It was over, and it felt like it hadn't happened at all.