Her hair couldn’t be controlled; it whipped around her tanned face and stuck to her lips, courtesy of her blue lip gloss. Her sunglasses made it impossible to see her eyes, but I knew if I pulled them off, I would see how the blue irises shone in the reddish-orange light. I had one hand on the wheel and the other around her shoulders. We were on a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, a winding route stretching nearly the length of the West Coast. My 2004 Pontiac was barely up to the task, wheezing along slowly. I was no stranger to horns behind us, usually from cars sick of tailgating at 45 miles an hour. We had started in Newport Beach, where we both lived, and were driving north. Elian said we should aim for Portland; I thought she was kidding. I hoped.
The Pontiac, also called Phil, had started off well-stocked with granola bars, apples, energy drinks, books, and Elian’s ukulele. The snack supply had dwindled, and the scenic parts of the drive had few convenience stores. I was forced to curb my habit of eating when bored and turn to other entertainment. Elian spoiled the plots of the new books I had brought, which inspired my conversation strike for a few hours. She melted my resolve with a rendition of the complete “Wicked” album, accompanied on her ukulele. We had played games too – slugbug, alphabet, rock-paper-scissors.
Elian wanted me to drive with her hands over my eyes or roll down the windows to take pictures. Her Polaroid camera had made me the subject of a few photos, but Elian always made a face when they developed. I asked her why after a particularly flattering cross-eyed photo of me emerged.
“The camera never captures how incredible you look,” she said matter-of-factly.
I didn’t believed her for a second. Elian was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I couldn’t believe she was mine. Our lives were shaping up better than I could have ever imagined. We were both going to UC Berkeley in the fall. I was planning to major in biology, and Elian was … still deciding. Her thoughts on the subject were something like, “I don’t give a damn,” but I was hoping she’d pursue writing and publish some of her poetry. I had never been the subject of it; she told me writing poetry about the love of one’s life was positively the most cliché thing.
The drive had been stunning, with views of sprawling forests, and detours to the ocean and museums. I checked in with my parents every few days; they were mildly concerned about letting me go on a multiweek road trip with my girlfriend (and no one else), but they’ve always been into free-range parenting. I’m kidding (mostly). My parents had always trusted me, and they loved Elian almost as much as I did. The first time she met them, she brought her mother’s famous pie, talked about volunteering at an animal shelter, discussed her plans to travel the world, and by the end of dinner, had my parents thinking she was the perfect girlfriend for me.
While my dad and I were setting up the first “Star Wars” movie in the den (as my mother and Elian did the dishes), he asked casually, “So are we going to be seeing more of Elian?” I obviously hoped so but didn’t want to jinx anything, so I noncommittally shrugged. Later that night, when Obi-Wan was offering Luke his father’s old light-saber, my phone lit up with a text.
Elian: So I guess I might be seeing more of you? *shrugs*
Me: I can’t believe u heard that. Eavesdropper.
E: I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was bringing popcorn to the den, but then I heard your dad ask about me and saw you shrug. What’s your actual answer?
Me: I didn’t want to jinx anything.
E: Superstition is your excuse? :(
Me: I’m not superstitious, just didn’t want to make u feel trapped if u want to leave
E: So you’re giving me a way out?
Me: Do u want 1?
E: HELL NO. I’m in it for the long run.
Elian’s hand snuck under the blanket and entwined with mine. Illuminated by the screen, she looked luminous. When the credits rolled, my parents left to clean up.
I rested my head on her shoulder. She smelled clean, like laundry detergent, but not chemicals. Just clean. If angels smelled, it would be like Elian Belt. I took a deep breath and brought my head up to hers.
“Are you trying to make a move?”
“Um …” was my brilliant response.
She started to say something, but I pressed my mouth on hers, and she shut up.
The first time Elian coughed up blood was at a picnic. We had taken a hike in Crystal Cove State Park, which left her out of breath and hacking.
“It’s just my asthma,” she reassured me. “It acts up during allergy season.”
It was November, one of the best months for allergy sufferers, but I didn’t press the issue and just offered Elian some water. The tissue she held in front of her mouth was spotted red. I laughed. That was the most cliché sign of sickness. The spotted tissue.
“Why is this funny?” Elian asked, sounding annoyed. I hastened to apologize. Elian started to laugh. This brought on another coughing episode, but I was glad she could see the humor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to do something else clichéd. It’s lung cancer. Small cell.”
“Small cell … the type of cancer your aunt passed away from?” She nodded. “Are you going to die?”
“Yes,” she said simply.
Me: How’s the hospital treating you?
E: Oh, you mean besides the chemo?
Me: Yeah, just the general overview. What they would put on a brochure.
E: Newport Children’s Hospital is the best thing that’s happened to me since my diagnosis. I’m fighting this disease with qualified nurses and specialists! They even hold back my hair while I puke up breakfast!
Me: Not a good day then? :(
E: I feel like crap. When are you visiting?
Me: I can’t, remember? At my cousin’s wedding.
E: Sorry. I forgot. Stupid freaking cancer must be spreading to my brain.
Me: Don’t say that.
E: CLICHÉ JAR FOR YOU!
E: I’ll forgo the normal donation to the jar if you bring me a new book when you come.
Me: I see what you’re doing.
E: Poor me, poison dripping into my veins. Can I get my best friend/lover to visit, please?
Me: Any suggestions for books?
E: Nothing with vampires or angsty teenage narrators please.
Me: You’re an angsty teenage narrator.
E: At least I’m cute.
Elian’s funeral was by-the-book boring. Yes, criticizing a funeral is awful, but it wasn’t what she would have wanted. Fortunately, her instructions for a proper funeral were enclosed in an envelope she gave me the last time I saw her.
The last visit, Elian looked haggard. Her skin was mottled with bruises. The chemotherapy had stolen her appetite, and she looked like her bones were trying to dig themselves out of her skin. My eyes teared up at this woman, the love of my life, reduced to a bag of bones in a hospital bed. Elian saw my horror and flipped me off.
“Stop looking at me like that,” she said bitterly. “Everyone does it now.”
I rushed to the bed and kissed her forehead. I stroked her hair and kissed my way down her face until my lips met hers.
“You are the most beautiful woman in the world. I will love you forever,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed.
“Don’t you dare apologize for making my life meaningful,” I told her.
The details of our good-bye weren’t special. Elian was drained from fighting cancer, and I didn’t want to spoil the moment. We kissed. There wasn’t crying or proclamations of eternal fidelity. I simply told Elian I loved her, said good-bye, and walked out of the room. I couldn’t stand the idea of being there when she died, and Elian shared my sentiments. There would be no 3 a.m. phone call that would spur buckets of tears. It was better this way.
Elian’s instructions for her second funeral were simple as well. I returned to the cemetery the day after the funeral. All the cards and flowers were still there, but I placed an envelope in between two bouquets. The letter read:
In this envelope is a ring. The following is what I would have said when I proposed:
Elian, the first time I saw you was at a school function for new students. You were wearing a white dress with a flower crown I pronounced “very hippie.” I asked you to dance, and I was a goner. You are the love of my life, and I’m grateful for every experience I’ve had, good and bad, because they led me to you.
You are the center of my universe, and I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy. I would like you to give your permission to make us wife and wife. I love you, Elian Belt. Will you marry me?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.