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Used To MAG
“It feels wrong, being back here,” Jeremy remarks, his tone casual, as though we are strangers on a subway car, discussing the weather. “You know, after everything.”
I nod, even though I know he's not looking, letting the breeze carry my agreement away. In all honesty, what I have to say to him about us doesn't matter. Hasn't mattered for the past five months, not since the last time we were here.
I slant my eyes toward Jeremy, categorize his appearance. Torn jeans and a faded Stanford sweatshirt, the embroidered letters frayed around the edges, washed-out, just like his college career. Almost like he knows what I'm thinking, his arms cross across his thin chest, unconsciously protective. Looking away from him makes the bittersweet ache behind my ribs just a little less painful.
Shaking from a combination of nerves and the cold, I step toward the hand-constructed 7-by-8-foot cabin before us. The sharp lines of its childish architecture and wide, staring windows are all the same, the gray paint has not changed, not even by a shade. But the place feels different, cold, as though the owners have gone on a permanent vacation.
Despite his words and probably against his better judgment, Jeremy ambles toward the cabin's porch, legs awkward and weak like a toddler learning its first steps. The shaking in his hands, the tightness of his jaw – every inch of him screams for me to go to him, take that trembling hand in mine, hold him close and whisper quiet nothings meant to soothe.
I don't move, don't say anything, don't offer assistance as Jeremy struggles to get the key in the padlock. Finally, there is a twist of his hand, the awkward grating of metal, fingers slipping ever-so-slightly. And then the shining metal chain falls into his hands, the place unlocks, opens, and the door squeaks as he pushes. Just like it used to.
“Ladies first,” he says, feigning gallantry and forcing a smile as he gestures for me to proceed. I don't buy the act. I know this, know him, know that the look in his eyes means he's scared to go first, afraid of what we'll find. If, indeed, we find anything.
My feet move without my conscious instruction, a puppet tied to strings. The door is five steps away, three steps, one. Crossing the threshold is easy. It's what's on the other side that's hard.
So hard. Because I remember.
This house is a monument to our relationship, a microcosm of every good thing we had – friendship, love, lust, all those summers spent burning the midnight oil and talking ourselves to death. We were a work of art, he and I, all complementary colors and harsh brushstrokes, I with my icy calm and Jeremy with his firecracker backtalk. We had it all – mutual respect, kinship, history. Our stories tangled for as far back as I could remember. I know him like I know the hours of the day, like the turning of the seasons; after so long, he's become predictable.
Like now. I hear him behind me. Three steps across the grass outside, two more past the threshold. Cue soft sigh – now, an uncomfortable shuffle of his feet, the clearing of his throat.
I know this cabin like I know him. Hardly needing to look, I know, know the sturdy wood floor, sandpapered smooth by our footsteps, constant moving-in and moving-out and rearranging furniture. The broken chair in the corner, indestructible when we were young, weakening every year until it finally buckled under the weight of his newfound teenage muscle and long limbs. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, nothing is ever just right anymore.
I turn around, sweeping the cramped space with my eyes. Posters of long-forgotten bands plaster the walls, and a time-frozen Tiger Woods stares down from next to the window. The fireplace is full of cold gray ashes and half-burned paper hearts, leftover from our Anti-Valentine's Day celebration. Half a chess set, a lonely white queen surrounded by enemy pawns. One of Jeremy's old sweatshirts, the one from that night, the night that changed everything. I glaze over the last item, afraid of the memories it brings dangerously close to the forefront of my mind.
Every inch of the place breathes him, is layered with the smell of his hair and ivory soap, and I inhale, closing my eyes, reaching for the fuzzy edges of that younger Jeremy, the innocent one who taught me to play chess on this same floor. But the memory slips away like water through cupped hands, and I look at him, real-life, solid Jeremy, standing across the room in a square of light cast through the window.
“This was our first kiss,” he mutters, a bitter edge leaking into his voice like acid. “Right here. I was 14, just a kid, and you were so … pretty.” his voice breaks, and he cuts himself off, looking down. I watch him while he's not looking, let my eyes trace the furrowed lines of his forehead, the darkness under his eyes that speaks of little sleep and lots of worry.
The past months have been hell
for me. But in all my self-pitying diatribes and crying fits, did I ever once stop to think about him? Jeremy, by my side, holding my hand while we sat together on white-papered hospital cots, strong and stoic and so very serious for the first time in his life. The light in his eyes had shattered at the first solid evidence that this was real – heartbeat monitors throbbing to the pulse of something small and vulnerable, something that should have made us ecstatic, on top of the world. But timing is everything, and ours is all wrong. I feel like we're running a marathon and trying to step backwards, reverse-ordering our relationship like inexperienced fools.
I look up at the four letters spray-painted on the ceiling two years ago, when being young was our A-card rather than a burden. Love, the plywood ceiling reads, clumsily written in all capitals, bleeding red paint like an open wound. Internal scoff, look away and down, try to hide the tears in my eyes. We were just kids; we are still just kids. What did he know – what did I know – about love? About anything?
“Jeremy?” My voice fades like thunder under high-pressure clouds, smothered by the tension in the room until his name sounds tenuous on my lips, like this could be the last time I say it. Here, on the very same floor where we built and destroyed bridges between our teenage hearts.
“I-I don't regret it,” I stutter, tongue-tied, nervous, and pathetic. I want to say so much more: It isn't your fault. We can get through this, together. I'm terrified, so please just hold me, like you used to.
But the words don't come, sticking inside my chest like unfinished letters to a former lover, and Jeremy doesn't speak, eyes still on the floor, black hair hanging limply in his face. His expression is blank, unreadable, and the silence speaks more than every word he's ever said to me.
He looks up, and in a half a moment, a heartbeat, I realize how different this Jeremy is from the shy boy who kissed me so nervously that first time. The spark in those green eyes is gone; the fire in his expression has burnt itself out. The 17 minutes it took me to tell him he was going to be a father stole the last years of his innocence, of his youth. I remember the look on his face, terrified and blinded by some glaring light, like a three-day-old kitten who's just opened his eyes, just seen the world for the first time.
And now all that's left behind in those empty eyes is a desolate sort of resignation, the grim realization that this is all there will be for me and him. Just ourselves, each other, tied together by an invisible thread of duty and obligation. The children who learned to love in this cabin are gone, ghosts swept under our aged feet like dust under a rug. Out of sight, out of mind.
“I love you. I always have,” I say, half to convince him, half to convince myself. The assurance is empty, falling flat on our deaf ears, the concept as foreign as explaining physics 10 years after one has studied it.
“I love you, too,” Jeremy mutters, like it's shameful. Maybe it is.
Later, we trudge back to his parents' house, through the woods and across a field of shin-high grass that clings to our legs like Saran Wrap. Months ago, we would have held hands. Now our arms hang limp at our sides like plants that someone has forgotten to water.
“Not what it used to be, huh?” Jeremy asks with a half-hearted smile and a thumb hooked over his shoulder, in the general direction of what was once everything to me, to both of us. His 18-year-old shoulders hunch like an old man's against the unseasonably cool summer air.
“No.” I wrap my arms around my convex stomach, imagining that I can feel that second heartbeat. “We're not what we used to be.”