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I've known Melissa since high school. Back then, I actually had a crush on her. She wasn't usually the type of girl I would like; she wasn't drop-dead gorgeous with a killer body or anything like that. She was average looking with an extremely skinny and frail body that looked like it could break if anyone were to touch it. Back then, for some reason, I liked her. She was smart, funny, and perfect in ways I know believe were her most admirable traits. But I never spoke to her. I never walked up to her and asked her how her day was, or how the math test was, or if she was going that dance on Friday. No, I never spoke a single word to her all four years of high school. Instead, I hooked up with pretty girls. I never dated them; I just hooked up with them.
Half way through our senior year, she changed dramatically. For a month, she wasn't even in school. She didn't even update her Facebook page or text her friends. I heard from her best friend, Kelly, that she was sick. Yet, the way Kelly told me this made me nervous for some reason. It was as if she was lying to me and was, at the same time, wearing the most sad expression. It hurt me somewhere inside. Probably my heart, but I didn't know that back then.
Melissa showed up in school the month after she left and anyone who had known her knew something was wrong. She was even skinnier than before, if that was possible, and she hid her face behind her hair that had grown long and tangled. She only spoke to Kelly and, that too, in one-worded responses that seemed forced. She had gone from an energetic and bubbly girl to a blackened shadow of what she previously had been. I think, even back then, I wanted to talk to her. To help her. But instead, I only watched from a distance and continued hooking up with pretty girls. Eventually, after two months of public school, she left to be home schooled.
I saw her, a year later, at the freshmen spring orientation of my college. She had enrolled in the same state university along with Kelly, who had been there, like me, since the fall semester. She looked a lot better, yet not completely like her old self. She had cut her hair again and it was pushed out of her face. She didn't shrink away from people, as she had in high school, but she still didn't talk to anyone besides Kelly.
I was dating a girl for the first time. Her name was Ember and she had long blond hair and a big chest. That was my type, apparently- a girl with a big chest. I never really listened to anything she said, especially the hundreds of times she told me she loved me. I would mumble something back, something undecipherable, and would continue to make out with her. Now that I look back on it, I think I only dated her to make out with her, which was no different from my past hook ups in high school. She was completely different from Melissa. Completely.
Winter of our sophomore year of college, Kelly, who was in my marketing classes, asked me a silly question. She asked, “Would you like to have lunch with Melissa and me?” I think she knew I was curious about Melissa or else why would she have asked? For some reason, I agreed. When I showed up at the diner, I was a little late. Melissa and Kelly were there and they were arguing about something. I mean, I couldn't hear a word of it, but I could tell by Melissa's expression that something was terribly wrong. My chest started to hurt again, like it had back in high school, as I looked at that expression of hers. It was an expression of terror and angst. She began to tremble and Kelly had to hold her by her shoulders to keep her from falling to the ground. Then, Melissa seemed to have noticed my presence and turned to look at me. She started to cry in what appeared to be trepidation. Back then, I wanted to comfort her. To hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay, even I had no idea why she was crying to begin with.
But I didn't.
After that, they left and Kelly apologized to me over the phone the next day. I never asked why Melissa was crying. I never asked anything. All I did was reply with, “It's fine.”
Ember and I broke up. Rather, I broke up with her. She was distraught and angry and sad and all those emotions girls go through when their boyfriends break up with them. She threw a tantrum in the middle of the campus cafeteria and ran out with tears running down her face and her eyeliner smudged. If you were to have asked me why I broke up with her, I wouldn't have known. But now, it's clear to me. I broke up with her because of Melissa. Because, as corny as it sounds, I couldn't make out with some girl without thinking about Melissa's sobbing face. Without seeing her as she trembled in Kelly's arms petrified.
I broke up with Ember because I loved Melissa.
Well, of course I didn't think I was in love with her back then. Hell, I didn't even talk to her. No, not until my junior year of college did I talk to her.
We were in the cafeteria, same one in which I broke up with Ember. She was sitting with Kelly, as usual, when Kelly called me over. I was confused at first, not believing that she was pointing to me. Regardless, I stood up with my lunch, excused myself from my table of friends, and walked over as casually as I could.
Melissa never looked up at me, but I could tell she was a little frightened for some reason. Her gaze was shifted downwards and she twirled her spoon in her applesauce. I sat next to Kelly and asked, “What's going on?”
She put a finger to her lips and then pointed to Melissa, who then looked up slowly. My chest tightened up when her eyes met mine. I think my jaw dropped a little too. She looked so doleful, so taut, like a little child. Then, she spoke to me for the first time in our entire lives.
“I'm sorry about last year.”
Her voice was as reticent as a mouse's. I had to lean in closer to hear, but she only recoiled back.
“Wait, last year?” I asked.
Melissa looked over at Kelly, who nodded. “At the diner. Kelly and I were supposed to have lunch with you. But I...” She looked down at her applesauce again, lost in her own thoughts.
My chest was throbbing. “It's okay. I wasn't that hungry anyway.” I laughed nervously.
I think she smiled. I think. It was a small one that lasted about half of a whole second. It was for so short of a time that I would have loved to capture it on a camera, if I had the chance back then.
After that confrontation, Melissa, Kelly, and I had lunch at the diner every Thursday. It was strange and sometimes extremely awkward, but I couldn't bring myself to say no. I wanted to be there with her. We all became quite close; it was shocking how quickly my relationship with those two changed since high school. In my senior year of college, I found out Melissa's secret.
Melissa, Kelly, and I were at my apartment. Ever so often we'd do this- go to someone's apartment and watch movies, or eat dinner, or just hang out. Melissa was beginning to talk and smile more and Kelly was jubilant. She wanted to try something new, she told me. An experiment, was exactly what she called it. She never gave me any details, hell, she didn't even tell me what the experiment was. She only said, “I want to see how much better she really is.” But when she got up in the middle of Shawshank Redemption, the movie we were watching in my apartment, and left to use the bathroom, I realized what the experiment was.
I glanced over at Melissa, who was sitting to my right and curled up under the blankets. She was so tiny and frail, just like in high school. I was alone with her and only one question was pulsating against my brain. I wanted to know what happened to her in high school. I didn't know if it was my place to know, but I wanted to.
So I asked, “Melissa, could you tell me what happened to you back in high school?”
Her head snapped towards her and her eyes were wide. She was wearing that same expression she had worn in the dinner two years ago. Again, my chest hurt terribly. So, this time, I decided to do something about it. I took her hands in mine and smiled softly. She was reluctant at first, seeming to be uncomfortable with the gesture, but in the end, maybe out of pure exhaustion, let it be.
Melissa looked down, hair falling in front of her face, and said, “Why do you want to know what happened to me?”
I was perplexed by the question. All I could do was say, “It's okay if you don't want to tell me.”
But she told me. She told me everything. The first words that came out of her mouth were, “I was brutally raped and left for dead outside of my cousin's house.”
As she continued to tell me what happened, I felt useless. I couldn't believe how much of a heartless animal I was. In high school, all I ever did was watch her ghastly figure walk through the halls and wonder what was wrong. I had heard those rumors, terribly mean rumors about her, and didn't say a word. All I had done was watch. And now, as I looked at her thin body trembling as she bawled into open lap, I felt tears form in my own eyes. I was a coward. I had loved her in high school, when this happened to her, and didn't do anything.
It explained so much. It explained why she avoided people. It explained why she cried hysterically when she saw me, a male, watching her at the diner that one day years ago. It explained so much.
“I'm... so sorry, Melissa.” I say, reaching out and gently bringing her face up to meet mine. My heart, not my chest, was aching in pain as I saw her pain. I moved the hair from out of her eyes and wiped away her tears with my thumb. I cradled her face between my hands, like she was an innocent child, and whispered again and again, “I'm so sorry.”
Today is our second year anniversary. I never expected her to say yes. Hell, I was willing to wait for however long it would take to have her as mine. I thought she needed more time to adapt to the whole idea, especially because of everything she had been through. But she said yes the very first time I asked her. And she smiled at me, warmly, and took my hand in hers. She kissed me and, though she looked a little nervous as always, she beamed in happiness.
She's sitting across from me at the dinning table in our townhouse and reading a note I had written to her back in high school but never had the courage to give. One of her hands is covering her mouth as she tenderly cries and the other is holding mine over the top of the table.
“This has horrible grammar.” She chuckles into her hand. But she looks up at me and says, “You liked me back then? Back when we were in high school?”
“From freshman year, I think.”
“But you were always with other girls and-”
“And they were never like you. I never dated them because they weren't you. I was just too stupid and teenage to realize it.”
She softly grins and leans towards me. “You want to know a secret?”
I nod, leaning in to her. "What is it, Melissa?"
“You can't tell anyone or I'll kill you.”
I zipper-seal my lips and smile.
“I had a huge crush on you in high school, too.” She kisses me.