I had barely noticed him sitting across from me that day. If Jake hadn’t properly introduced him to us once he had joined our table in the far corner, I don’t think I would ever have said ‘Hi.” He remained seated throughout the entire two hours, eyes circling the walls of the library as if it were his first time there and occasionally sparking a chuckle from his lips at inside jokes he didn’t comprehend.
“So, what do you guys think of him?” Jake said, catching up to us as we headed out and holding his heavy textbooks over his head as rain droplets stained its covers. “I was thinking he could join our group.”
“Join?” Natalie questioned, furrowing her brows as her grip on her umbrella strengthened from the harsh winds. “We just met him.”
“He doesn’t seem so bad.” said Paul, tilting his head to the side slightly to fit under Natalie’s umbrella. “He’s just quiet.”
“Andrea, what about you?” Jake asked. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged, more focused on what I was going to make for dinner. “He’s fine, I guess.”
And with that, Ben had become a part of our newly born group of students just trying to make it out of college alive with a couple of new and old scars across our bodies. He was always there. He was at our late-night round of milkshakes at a nearby dinner, our tiring study sessions at our
local library, and calm evenings at my apartment. And the more times he popped up, the more words that would slip out of his mouth. The more I realized he wasn’t just fine.
He had lived a fairytale once. In the magical, wondrous land of Ohio, there lived a dashing prince and a serene princess, a pair that somehow ended up saving each other. But then, a clan of evil villains known as the American Education System broke them apart one fateful day, sending the princess to one state and the prince to another.
Her name was Alice. She has almond-shaped eyes and silky fiery red hair. A birthmark on the back of her left leg and freckles across the bridge of her nose. She was the wallpaper Ben had on his phone, his pupils enlarging at the sight of her as we lay on patches of grass. He would ramble about her for hours and hours that it could cause a timer to malfunction. Everytime he got up from his seat and left the room, it was to hear her sweet voice through his phone like a long lost melody. I could practically see his heart thump and ache for the day Alice would return into his arms.
“She told me she just got an A on her final exam. She’s so smart.”
“Did you know her mom has her own bakery?”
“Look, that’s the necklace I got her for our first year anniversary.” He pointed his phone towards me one day before class.
“Wow.” I said, my nails taping against the desk. “Are you guys dating?”
He chuckled, closing his phone and placing it screen down. “Yes.”
“Really? ‘Cause it doesn’t seem like it to me.”
Eventually, my sarcasm turned into reality on a sunlit Monday evening. Ben and I had agreed to meet up at a local downtown cafe to finish some last minute work. I spotted him almost immediately. His head full of bushy brown hair hung low as I approached his table. I took a seat, letting my backpack slouch against one of the legs of the chair as I pulled out my rose gold laptop. I opened my mouth to speak until I noticed a clear stream of water running down Ben’s cheeks. Tears.
His cup of espresso was drained out completely and his phone was opened to a contact of Alice, puddles over the screen protector to enlarge her name as if it were mocking him.
I whispered. “Talk to me.”
They had fought over their future. They had fought over what school they would apply to next, what age they should get engaged, how many kids they wanted to have and whether they wanted kids in the first place.
Once people standing in line or sitting at their tables began to give us concerned looks, I brought him back to his dorm, letting him cry on shoulder until a blotch appeared on my shirt. I held his hand gently as the sun sent back down and the moon crept up as he began to question what was left of his relationship.
The flames in his eyes began to burn to ashes and were discarded in a trashcan at the back of a barely-lit alley. The thumping of his beating heart began to quiet down like teenagers entering a library. He was no longer grinning when her name appeared on his phone. He would talk to her with a flat voice, lacking any emotion and sit right back down as if he had gone to use the restroom.
Gradually, Alice was no more, a receipt of the past. A piece of clothing brought back to return in an exchange for one that was a perfect fit. Me.
Somehow, as the months on a calendar turned, the distance between him and I shrank, centimeter by centimeter. He wanted to know me the way we both knew her, following me like a stray cat on a crowded street.
“Hey, I got you this.” He slid over a blueberry muffin, wrapped in saran wrap yet the scent purified my nose. “I just wanted to thank you for letting me talk about Alice.”
“Aww.” I grabbed the muffin in the palm of my hands, inspecting its every side. “You shouldn't have.”
Like a magnet attracted to a wall, he just kept coming back for more, offering to help with school work, do our laundry together, or try out my favorite game on his nintendo switch that he had bought on “accident.” He would let me float in a river of compliments and encouragement, following me on the side on the grassy paths.
But from time to time, I would try to see if there was still a spark in the pit of his heart that could be lit once more.
“How’s she doing?” I asked him once as we sat facing each other at the cafe as soft jazz and mundane chatter swung through the air.
“Fine? I don’t know.” He shrugged, his head dipped and eyes facing the messy words he scribbled below. Suddenly, his head lifted. “Hey, I was thinking we should meet here again tomorrow.
That spark resided in the heart of mine. What’s comedic is that let it burn. I let him drool over me like it’s a children’s cartoon, let him ponder if my head would fit into the nook of his neck, let him ponder the sensation that would run through his veins when our pinkies intertwined. I needed him to do so because his affection was my motivation like a morning cup of black coffee. I needed him to look at me like I was worth a hundred shooting stars.
If my father, who sits around the houses, beers always slipping from his sweaty hands down to the living room rugs, can’t give me a general love, then I’ll take Ben’s. If my mother, who’s dancing around in the clouds, can’t give me a general love, then I’ll take Ben’s. I’ll take Ben’s any day until it’s no more.
He pulled me into a kiss on a Wednesday evening around 7:30 pm. My lips rested on his like a pillow advertised at a mattress store. I wrapped my arms around him as the sun sank down beneath and an orange haze illuminated our skin. I began to picture Alice in my mind from then, wandering in her wonderland of adventures. Does she still love Ben the way he used to love her? Does she count down the days until they would reunite or has she forgotten how many days it has been since their hands last touched? What if she had moved on as well, lost in another man’s embrace? I hope she has. I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty then, loving the way Ben loves me.
Danna Taboada (she/her) is a sixteen-year-old writer from New York. She loves listening to music of any genre, dancing, spending time with her family and friends, reading, and writing. She plans on majoring in Creative Writing in the future.