Just Friends

March 10, 2012
The teacher introduced her to the class as April-who-just-moved-from-North-Carolina. She had frizzy chestnut hair and eyes the color of lima beans, with a slight gap between her paper white teeth. His name was Aaron. He had cheap prescription glasses and wore cheesy captioned screen tees nearly everyday. The two were about eight years old and saw life in the exact same way: one giant playground. At recess, Aaron couldn’t direct his eyes away from April-who-just-moved-from-North-Carolina. She sat away from the other kids in a shady spot of grass and played with a bag full of plastic toy dinosaurs brought from home. Finally, curiosity got the better of Aaron and he found himself walking over and squatting next to this intriguing new girl. He asked her for her name, although he already knew it. April. That was much shorter than April-who-just-moved-from-North-Carolina. She didn’t ask for his, but she did offer him a stegosaurus. He tried to hide his disappointment, for he wanted the T-rex, who was king of the dinosaurs. She told him the stegosaurus was special because it was an herbivore and that meant it was gentle and sweet, just like him. Aaron didn’t know what an herbivore was, but he did know it was a good thing when a girl called you sweet. He blushed and told April she was a silly head, but she saw that he was blushing and smiled. From that day on, April and Aaron sat together every day at recess. They played all kinds of games; from marbles to pick up sticks to lizard superheroes (April’s creation). More often than not, kids would intrude in the fun and tease them. “APRIL AND AARON SITTIN’ IN A TREE, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Another kid would join in, “FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MARRIAGE, THEN COMES A BABY IN A BABY CARRIAGE!” Aaron would cover his head meekly, his face the shade of an overripe tomato.

“We’re just friends!” April would yell back at them. And they would continue playing.

A few years passed and dinosaurs were replaced with joysticks, the shady spot on the grass replaced by a park bench. One thing the two had not replaced with the entrance of middle school was each other. It seemed that wherever one was, the other could be found a few inches away. They never held hands, and rarely ever hugged; and yet the two always appeared connected. April had grown out of the awkwardly proportioned child from North Carolina. Her short frizzy hair grew into long waves that encircled her porcelain face, and her teeth straightened out into a warm smile. She was decent and polite with the boys who hit on her, but did not flirt back. Eventually, they took the hint and let her be, trying their luck with the next pretty girl that walked by. Aaron, to his dismay, was stuck like marsh mellow paste in mid-puberty, complete with voice cracks and the occasional monster zit. He was two inches shorter than April but had acquired contact lenses and a set of pinch-your-cheeks adorable dimples. The lack of glasses did wonders for his face, which even with its slight baby roundness had strong, masculine features. Below his gold-flecked hazel eyes were constellations of light orange freckles, one of April’s favorite traits. The eighth seat to the left of the school bus was property of the best friends. April made peanut butter sandwiches each morning, which they ate together in their seat for breakfast. At lunch, they would sit in the library; not the germ-infested make-out couch claimed by that-one-goth-couple, but in the back on a dusty step stool in the non-fiction section. Of course, there were ongoing rumors detailing the scandalous acts the two must have been doing back there. Why else would two straight people of the opposite gender seek privacy?

When confronted with the allegations, both would smile calmly and say, “We’re just friends.”

Five years went by; five years in which the realization hit that childhood, once a chilled popsicle, was now a few melted drips desperately clinging to the stick. April had an evening job at a local fast food joint. Aaron worked as a farm hand over the summer, earning a decent chunk of cash. They rarely engaged in normal adolescent activities, such as weekend trips to the mall or an overpriced theater to watch the latest cheesy action flick. Instead, they spent hours in each other’s living rooms, watching gory horror movies and eating peppers and ice cream, separately of course. The two would sneak out and take overnight road trips to the coast. Sometimes, Aaron would “borrow” his dad’s Ford truck, connect two sleeping bags in the back end, and take April to a hillside to look at the stars. He would sing to her with his decent but not impressive voice, and she would giggle and join in, harmonizing in a soprano. What would sound like a drunken karaoke fest to most people was to them a legendary indie band in the making. The only thing that had been discarded between Aaron and April was the inch of space that once separated the two. The crease of Aaron’s shoulder now had a dent the shape of April’s head from the months and months it rested there. They were not obnoxious, in that they didn’t possess that desperate clinginess of a new couple. But they were affectionate, always parting with a kiss, but knowing it would be only a few hours at most before they could see each other again. If they were ever “all over each other”, it wasn’t seen by the populous of their high school. While they were almost always touching, Aaron and April did not cross the line of barf-into-a-trashcan PDA. They acted like a couple. Looked like a couple. Kissed like a couple. Should have been a couple. But insisted they were not. “You guys are just so precious. Why the hell aren’t you official?” was a question they were confronted with daily.

“We’re just friends,” they would say, and proceed down the hallway, hand in hand.

High school rushed by as quickly and seamlessly as four seasons. At graduation, Aaron’s name was called before April’s. Teachers glared as she jumped out of line to attack him with a massive bear hug. A picture was taken and it ended up in the newspaper along with other sentimental shots. The two left to the same state college. April had her heart set on becoming a dental hygienist; Aaron changed his major five times. After two years of mandatory dorm living, they saved up their money and rented an apartment together that had likely once been the abode of some serious tweakers. Their classes were scheduled at inconveniently separate times of day. A tradition was developed of leaving each other little notes on the bathroom mirror depending on who left the apartment first. If April were running late, she would simply snatch a post-it, apply lipstick, and leave a kiss. Aaron would tip toe into their room and run his lips lightly across April’s forehead as to not wake her up. Even in slumber, a slight smile would cross her mouth. No matter what, Friday was pizza night. Sometimes, they would invite a handful of friends over to join in the festivities. Many assumed they were engaged due to the comfortable way the two interacted.

They were used to this assumption of course. “We’re just friends,” they would chant whilst stuffing pizza in each other’s faces. Life was a playground.

A decade passed. April got her first gray hair. Aaron developed a tan. April fulfilled her goal and was debatably the best dental hygienist in town. Aaron worked as a history teacher, one who was crushed on by the girl population of the school, and maybe even a few guys. With their combined salaries, they were able to purchase a home in a quaint little sub division, complete with white fences and a stainless steel kitchen. On Saturday mornings, they would get up early and take strolls to the nearby park. As they had once owned a seat on a bus, they now had their own designated picnic bench in between two maple trees. A bond had formed, after years of conversation, in which it was not always necessary to speak. There was a certain bliss in each other’s company. Gradually, April’s belly began to grow round. Inside it was a small child with a tiny nose and chubby arms and ten baby toes. His name was Adam, and he was the single most important thing in Aaron and April’s lives. He was something they shared. Something much cuter and more precious than any marriage certificate. From their picnic bench, they watched Adam play. He had his own set of toy dinosaurs that accompanied him down the slide, on the swings, in a shady spot of grass. There were other kids at the park, and their parents would often chat with April and Aaron. “Your son is so adorable. Look at those freckles!” Decent small talk, mostly. But their favorite question of all was “How long have you two been married?”

To which a smile would simultaneously dart across their lips and they would respond: “We’re just friends.”

Old age crept up like a raincloud over sunshine. Adam had his own family, and they visited April and Aaron every Friday for pizza night. Aaron bought himself a Ford truck and surprised April one day with a trip to the countryside to sleep under the stars. The two now walked together every morning, and sat at the same bench, watching the sunrise. One afternoon, April left for a routine checkup, leaving a wrinkled kiss on a sticky note on the bathroom mirror. And in the midst of their predictable lives, the dreadfully unexpected hit. Cancer. A five-letter word with the power to shatter all sense of well being. The two were strong. They fought. They played with their grandkids wearing smiles that said everything was okay. But they could not avoid the bulldozer coming down on their playground of life. April was hospitalized, growing weaker and weaker each day. But to Aaron, she was the beautiful porcelain skinned girl he had befriended and bonded with in elementary school. He visited her for hours every day, and usually stayed overnight. The doctors had to wake them up with the harshest of blinding lights every three hours for tests. But April was only so strong. Aaron told her it was okay. She had lived a wonderful life and had a wonderful child. It was okay to let go. She looked up at him and smiled, the same smile she had given him the first day they met. “You will always be my sweet and gentle stegosaurus.” Her eyelids closed, and Aaron held on to her hand until he realized they were not going to open again.

“I love you, my dearest friend.”

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