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I must have been thirteen when I fell in love. It wasn’t that exact moment I fell for her. I’d probably had feelings for a while, her existence growing on me from an early age, like the tide creeping up the beach. Without me realizing anything, she became someone important to me.
It must have started with the little things. Her rough laughter, the way she talked, intelligence sparkling behind her chestnut eyes, how she played with her hair whenever she was nervous. She was also older than me, something that always distanced us. She was fourteen when we first met each other, eighteen when we went our separate ways. I remember her hair came slightly below her shoulders, smooth, just a hint of curls. Her bangs fell right above her eyes, her slim nose, a bit upturned but not too haughty, high cheekbones, a small chin, thin lips that always hinted a mischievous smile. Every part of her came together to become this person I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Thinking back now, my existence must have been strange. We were on friendly terms, but we never really knew each other. To her, I must have been someone to be taken for granted. Not that I meant anything significant to her from the start. I probably stood out the least in our group of friends. Yet when I wasn’t there, it was strange. Like something missing from the background.
Time passed after our first meeting. I found my heart beating faster when I talked to her; sweaty palms were too mainstream. I’d just started the eighth grade. Things were the same, the way they had always been. Our parents knew each other well so she and her family would come over and eat dinner with us. Then we’d go up to my room and talk and laugh and do meaningless things, and it hurt to act normal after I realized I loved her, but at least I was talking to her at all. So I thought I could be happy with that.
Each time we talked about our lives, I felt our widening gap in age. Here I was worrying about my algebra test next week and she was worrying about what college she would apply to. I knew it wasn’t right for me to love someone who was so much older than me. But I held onto a thread of hope. Whenever she smiled at me, or ruffled my hair, the constant stream of ‘maybes’ that rushed through my mind kept me going. It was all I could hang onto.
“Hey, do you have anyone you like?” she asked me, one day. We were sitting outside on the front porch, shoulders touching, relishing the same evening breeze.
“Hm… Not really,” I said, hoping I sounded nonchalant.
She was swinging her legs back and forth. “Good.”
“Why ask all of a sudden?”
“I was just thinking, you know, maybe talking to you about relationships.”
“Oh don’t worry, I don’t need any advice. I’m already a lady-killer anyway,” I said, thinking she was joking.
“It’s stupid to date in high school.” Her tone surprised me. When I turned to face her, she wasn’t looking at me. “How can we date when we don’t even understand what love is?”
I remember I felt a sudden pain in my chest. Because I knew I loved her. And it wasn’t about her looks, although she was beautiful. It wasn’t about her personality. It wasn’t about anything other than this feeling of bonding, transcending words, like a connection between two souls. I was too young to understand it then, but looking back, I always felt confused about why I loved her. Maybe this was the reason. And maybe it was also why she was always by my side, even as we were never in a relationship.
I didn’t say anything and just looked out at the sunset, a brilliant orange- tinges of purple mixed in. It wasn’t an unfamiliar scene to me. I’d often sit outside, look at the sky, think about her, think about if what I was doing was healthy. Think about what she was doing. Wonder if she even thought of me for a second. And I knew she didn’t. But I hoped. And now she was telling me that I didn’t know love.
“Sorry,” she said. “I sound like an asshole.”
“No you don’t. That’s not it. I- just don’t know what to say to that.”
She smiled at me. “It’s fine.” She ruffled my hair. “I’m sorry for bringing this up.”
“It’s okay,” I said. Then there was this heavy silence between us, like a void. Our shoulders were touching, but our feelings might have been galaxies apart. We both stared at the sunset.
“Prom’s in a couple of weeks.”
“Worrying about a date?”
“How’d you know?”
“I knew you’d have trouble.”
“Are you implying-”
“How about going with me?”
“You’re talking to me, right?”
“Who else would I be talking to?”
“But… a middle schooler? At prom?”
She seemed taken aback by my response. Then she laughed her frozen expression off.
“Right? What was I thinking, huh?”
The rest was a blur. I don’t remember what we talked about. Our conversation must have been half hearted, automated responses, small talk. And when the sky was finally painted a deep purple, she left, and I stayed on the porch, trying to count the stars.
We never ventured back on the topic again.
Later, I’d find out that she went to prom with a college friend of hers.
The worst part of it all was that I couldn’t bring myself to hate him. After just a few words with him, I knew he was just too decent of a guy. I couldn’t compete. He was funny. Caring. Good looking. I knew I lost to him in every way.
So I watched as they became closer and closer.
We drifted apart. We lost contact. It wasn’t sudden. It was something gradual, like a spring breeze. One day, I realized we hadn’t talked in over a month. I remember feeling this deep sadness welling up within me, reading our last few messages, pointless small talk.
School ended. It was summer. Already.
Our group of friends came together to hang out a few times over break.
I remember the precise moment at a Steak ‘N’ Shake, as I was sipping my already liquefied milkshake, that they announced it.
They were dating.
I excused myself to the restroom. I walked in and slumped against the wall.
You already knew this would happen.
Then why was it so painful?
If you really love her then you should be okay with what she wants.
She was right. I didn’t know what love was.
I was selfish. I wanted her for myself. I didn’t care about her feelings. At that moment, I was angry at her. For not choosing me over him. For dating him. For virtually ignoring me. I didn’t think about her circumstances. Nothing made sense to me, because I was naive. Because I was scared. Because I could never tell her how I felt about her.
Eventually, I went back to sit down amidst everyone. There were jokes and squeals all around. No one stopped talking about it. They kept asking them questions. Who confessed? Had they gone on a date yet? Had they kissed? Maybe even more…?
I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out of the restaurant, unnoticed.
It was evening and the skies were clear. The moist air stuck to my skin, a hot summer breeze blowing in my face. I began to wish I hadn’t come outside. But what else could I do? So I sat down on the curb and thumbed out messages I would never send to her on my phone. Then I caught sight of them. Fireflies. They flew erratically, blinking to give off a warm but brief burst of light. They flickered in the darkness like dying stars.
Suddenly, I felt slim fingers tapping on my shoulder. I turned, looked up, to find her.
“Hey,” she said.
“Whatcha doing out here all alone?”
“Uh, well, you know. It’s stuffy inside.”
“Actually, I’m out here for the same reason. Fresh air feels nice.”
It had been months since we talked directly. The feeling that there was still a barrier between us from our conversation on the porch never seemed to fade away. I scooted over so she could sit down next to me. We sat in silence for the next few minutes, not knowing what to say. After some time, everyone began to file out of the restaurant, so I assumed they had finished eating.
“Let’s get going,” I said to her as I got up and held out my hand.
She looked up at me, as if she was lost in thought. For a second, I felt that inexplicable closeness between us again, some kind of warmth spreading over my whole body. I desperately resisted the urge to embrace her right then and there.
“Okay,” she said. And she took my hand.
I spent the next few nights wondering. Why? I tried to brush it off. But I had a habit of over contemplating things. Trying to find a reason.
Like something resurfacing again and again, the resonance I felt that night lingered on my mind. It didn’t amount to anything though. As time crept by, she seemed to distance herself from me even more.
I heard that she had decided to attend a college in a different state. That she was leaving after summer break. Our group got together once more, a departure party for the seniors. We decided on a road trip to the beach. We all crammed ourselves into one huge van, legs tangled together, drooling on each others’ shoulders, giggling like grade schoolers. We all sang stupid songs, told stupid jokes.
We arrived at the hotel and checked into our room. It was a large suite, sectioned off. Two massive bedrooms, one for the guys, one for the girls. We threw our luggage down and sprinted for the beach, splashing up and down the shoreline. Laughter floated through the dry summer air. For three days, I almost forgot about everything I’d gone through. For three days, we all had the illusion of being close. Everyone was in high spirits. We played in the sand, explored the boardwalk, relaxed around a small fireplace at night. A comforting lull settled on our daily lives, as we became used to the atmosphere, used to each other. But everything comes to an end and before I realized, it was already the last day.
We didn’t buy dinner that day, we cooked it ourselves. We ate ramen, roasted corn, and pork strips. We all raised our soda bottles and toasted the seniors. Everything after that was a blur. Some of our friends went to sleep, others played cards, and a few decided to walk the high tide. I found myself on the hotel balcony which overlooked the ocean. I sank down into a plastic chair, lost in thought, finally understanding that I wouldn’t see her regularly anymore.
And then it happened. It was the exact same as back then, on the curb. Her fingers tapped my shoulder and I thought I was dreaming but I wasn’t. Her warmth was real. There was the slight shhh of the tide in the distance, the slight murmur of conversation drifting up from below, but it was only us two, and everything else was the background. Or maybe it was just me who thought that way; I never knew what she was thinking.
“Hey,” she said.
She plopped down next to me, relishing the sea breeze. “Feels amazing out here.”
Her skin was lightly tanned, a healthy glow, noticeable even in the dark. Our hair flew behind us, bits of sand flying into our faces. I don’t even remember her expression in that moment. Only that she existed next to me.
My eyes searched for something, anything, that would calm me down. Then I saw them, the fireflies, flitting in the distant dune grass. She noticed and looked at me quizzically.
Momentarily, the fireflies clumped together to give off a bright flash of light. It almost seemed to pulse through the air, even though it was only a tiny speck to us. I looked over at her.
She looked dazed.
We were quiet again, just watching the fireflies roam free.
“How do you always find me?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said, after a moment. “I just felt like I needed to come out here. That night too. On the curb.”
“Maybe we’re telepathic.”
“I’m being serious!”
She laughed and laughed as I tried to explain the theory of telepathy to her.
And then we talked. We talked like the old times in the past, before she had gotten a boyfriend. Before I started to feel self conscious around her. Before she asked me to prom. Before everything. The void between us dissipated, if only for a short while. She told me about her dreams for the future, what grad schools she might apply for, about the view from the balcony, about relationships again, about everything. It felt like our souls were connected- this feeling of bonding that couldn’t be broken- and I truly felt that we could stay this way forever, even after she had left for college.
When the words finally petered out, all that was left was the sound of the sea breeze.
After a while, she stood up, her chair scraping the sandy balcony floor. She told me we should probably be getting to bed. That we had a long day tomorrow. That it was already three in the morning..
I told her I’d stay up a bit longer, that I really enjoyed the feeling of the wind. “You go ahead,” I said, waiting for her response.
She said fine, do as you like, and told me, “Good night,” in a sing-song tone, like she was talking about the weather. Then I heard the rustle of her clothes, her footsteps, and the door sliding open and closing in the background, and I remember I was alone as could be on that balcony.
I cried, but in my defense, what else was I supposed to do? I’d never shared such intimate talk with someone not part of my family. I’d half expected her to say that she would stay out with me. Even if she was tired, even if we didn’t talk, maybe we would just sit in a comfortable mood. But her light hearted “good night” concluded everything, like our long conversation had been nothing special. I don’t remember how long I cried but I’m sure it was for a while. And it felt good, feeling sorry for myself. Silently, the tears dropped, burning small holes in my hand where they fell. At that moment, nothing mattered to me. But soon, the tears faded. And so did the aching in my chest.
Life returned to normal after everything ended. She left for college. I started high school. Nothing changed. It was as it had always been for a while. We never talked again after that. And I was fine with it, surprisingly.
But what I felt that night, I can still feel now, the emptiness, like the darkness over the dune grass in the distance.
The fireflies were gone.