Distort by Kristin Tajlili
Remember that time me, you and Thomas circled the entire town in the soaking rain because Thomas lost our bus tickets and none of us had a license yet? Remember how, at first, you wanted to call your father, but then you discovered you loved the way the rain soaked through your clothes, and the fact you could immerse your feet into the puddles without being judged? Remember how we locked arms the entire time? After I shook the rain from my skirt, I told you about the time I got kicked out of class for imitating the principal and you, having carved 'Julian was here' with your pocket knife, told me about how you got detention because a teacher thought you were pretending to pole dance.
This happened as Thomas walked by our side, his church clothes ruined from the buckets of water, his black hair plastered to his forehead. The only time I spoke directly to him was to say "shut up" and "no one cares" and that he was "stupid." By the end of the day, Thomas had split apart from us and vanished to the Dollar General parking lot. I still remember finding him; his six foot four two-hundred pound frame looked shrunken under the purple clouds, and the narrow shadows that crossed over his face. I didn't ask him what was wrong. I only told him your dad was about to pick us up, in the harsh tone I reserved for strangers. I didn't even smile at him.
So you ask me, why remember this now? Do I feel guilty or something? Of course I do. But there are times I find myself rationalizing everything I'd ever said to him. I called him stupid, because he kept shoving facts in my face. I didn't smile at him because we'd been waiting on him, and I was still pissed at him for all the times he made me feel guilty because I didn't like him, like the night after I broke up with him, he drove forty-five minutes to my house to return my iPod because he knew I was going on vacation the next day. And how after he returned the iPod he said, "You know I didn't have to do this."
Even a few days ago, as I sat in the funeral wearing my mother's black suit and a hideous veiled headband, I kept thinking, I was a bitch to him, but he deserved it. Every time the thought crossed my mind, I kept looking at you as you wore the tie Thomas gave you, your face frozen, your eyes bloodshot and haunted as if his ghost kept dancing in front of the church, and I told myself to stop. He was nice to me, I thought, He was a good guy. He worked hard in school and he smiled at the boys who called him a faggot his freshman year. I listened to the eulogies. I even gave one myself, but I kept imagining all the omitted details, the details cut out to sanctify him, and immortalize him and make him seem like less like him because after all you can't write bad things about someone at their funeral; you can't even think bad things about someone at their funeral. When I walked out, I felt like I'd done a thousand things wrong.
So why do I still feel as though it's all his fault? Is it because he used to speed and clear cars by mere inches? Is it because he never took the few seconds to check his blind spot and how on our first date he nearly gave me a heart attack from forcing himself over speed bumps? You don't remember how he dropped me off ten minutes before the accident, do you? All you remember is the glass shards piercing your skin.
You didn't even get a chance to say good-bye to Thomas. Asleep from the anesthesia, you slept through your best friend's death. I still remember when the doctor told you. He had his needle in this hand, and he was about to inject it in you to make you "better." When he came in and said, "I'm sorry but your friend, Thomas, passed away." You remained in your bed, back straight as a two by four. You didn't say anything. You just kept picking at your cast. I scanned every inch of your eyes and fingernails for a hint, for a clue. I got nothing. You didn't even look like yourself anymore. Sure, you had the same close cropped hair, the same boyish shoulders, despite your eighteen years, and the same oversized brown eyes, but they'd lost their golden hue.
You disappeared the night after the funeral, perhaps even during, but no one even bothered to notice. You probably slipped through the hole in the gate. The same one, I used to slip under in order to scare the girls that used to play in the cemetery. When I was bored, I used to hide behind one of the tombstones, and when they came close enough, I would launch myself towards them and let out a groan. I wasn't much older than them. In fact, I was probably the same age, but they still found something terrifying about my tanned skin and pigtails that bobbed back and forth every time I jumped. Maybe it was the fact that I looked like them that scared them the most.
When I found you curled against the brick wall, looking as if you could fall through it at any moment, I asked why you ran, and you simply said, "I felt like I didn't deserved to be there, you know?" You confessed all this, but when I saw you the next day, mowing the grass outside your one story home, you only gave me the hint of a smile, before you cranked up the settings on your mower. You didn't even notice that I waited for you.
I never did get you. The day we circled the town in the soaking rain, the same day I ignored Thomas and kept calling him stupid, you spilled your autobiography, as if the rain let the words drip straight out of you. You told me how going to the beach made you sad because you'd always see families with their beautiful mothers and fathers, smiling in front of the water and how you always wanted to squeeze yourself into their photos. You told me how the left side of your father's bed had always been empty and you could never remember it being filled. Then you talked about the time you dropped your lunch into the puddle and how when you came home, tired and hungry, only a jar of expired mayonnaise remained in your fridge. You even talked about your school yard bully, who stood five inches shorter and fifty pounds heavier but could shoot three pointers like the big kids and how the scars from when he kicked you into a ditch still remained on your back.
You talked about how you met Thomas during the hopeless days, the days of lucid dreams, the days of poetry thrown into camp fires, the days you would pretend the kids on the school buses were talking to you and that when coach Flynn had the baseball team line in front of the sunrise, you could race around the entire school and still beat the other boys. They were the days you spent on the bench with Thomas.
Once you finished, you turned towards him and said, "Remember that?" and he said, "Of course." Then he pretended to punch your arm and you pretended to punch him back. The three of us walked side by side, as the orange sun erupted onto the blades of grass, allowing yellow light to fill the empty spaces. Neither of you could carry a tune, but you both sang like superstars—he with the wilted flower and the awkwardly large strides, you with the hipster V-neck paired with basketball shorts. You told the stories; Thomas cracked the jokes.
In that moment, I couldn't image loving anyone more than I loved the two of you. It didn't matter that I called Thomas stupid minutes ago. It didn't matter that he'd manipulated me and that we'd spent the past two weeks speaking in one word sentences to each other. It didn't matter that we once kissed. He took my hand and the three of us raced to the end of the street, our muddy footprints staining the concrete. I've never come closer to flying.
And when we reached the end, Thomas pulled me closer till my cheeks brushed against his shoulders and my torso rubbed against his. His mouth stretched into close-lip smile. I wiggled away from him in a subtle but obvious form of rejection and just like that the moment vanished. Looking back on it, I realize he was probably upset, but at that point, from the way he huffed over-dramatically and turned as though I slapped his face, it seemed like he wanted me to know I'd hurt him and he wanted me to feel the pain of my own sting. Little things like that made me hate him at times.
But it was different with you. That same day, after your father pulled into my driveway and you'd walked me to my door, you smiled. You weren't that type of boy who smiled with their mouth closed, like Thomas. You flashed your front teeth and exclaimed, "Thanks for today!" and opened your arms for a hug. As I accepted your embrace, you said, "Tell me how your aunt's visit goes?" and I blushed for I'd only mentioned that detail once, if at all.
But the next day, when I saw you alone in the hallway, you smiled and waved at me and when you noticed the way I kept shivering and pulling on my hair, you asked, "What's wrong?"
"I'm worried," I replied. The hallway filled, as classes began to end. I remember feeling people glancing at me, all six feet of me.
"You can tell me anything."
Your friends called for you, but you told them to wait and after I spilled my worries, you smiled and said, "You're one of the awesomist people I've met. I wouldn't be scared of anything if I was you." The way your eyes glowed, and your chubby cheeks flushed pink made me believe you.
"For warmth," you said, handing me your sweatshirt. Before I could slip it over my knobby elbows, I noticed purple bruises marking your forearms.
I asked you, "Who did that to you?" and you replied "No one," too quickly and too loudly. And I promised I would kill them, but you wouldn't answer me; you pretended to see through me like ghosts in a graveyard. After I found out the bruises were from boys on the baseball team, you told me not to worry about the people who were mean to you. You said to forgive them. I never saw you scream. Unless on stage, you kept your voice soft. The night your girlfriend broke up with you, you discovered a part of yourself you never knew, the type of cold anger, where you would cut the cord to your phone, burn all her pictures, and not even look at her when she'd ask you a question. Still you kept quiet.
The days after the funeral, we pretended to be heroes—me and you. The tasks Thomas's father did not want to do, such as mow the grass and tend his garden, you did. His father even let you go through Thomas's stuff—his collection of classic films, his old history textbooks, and his college acceptance letters, all of which he pinned to his wall. I tried to talk to you. Except on your weird days, conversation normally came easy for us, as proven from our exchange of ten page letters, and my cell phone inbox, filled with mostly your texts. However, that day, I found our time together punctuated by long silences.
As we sorted through his stuff silently, we found pictures of the three of us, some where you stood in the middle, and others where Thomas squeezed my side, as if pulling me closer and I thought about the weeks before his death and how the sentences we spoke to each other became paragraphs. I remembered Fourth of July when his body eclipsed the evening sun. He'd promised he would stick around even after my stars burnt out. If that moment had been photographed, you would have been at the edge, nearly cut out from the picture.
When the grandfather clock struck twelve o' clock, signaling another half-day without him and his broken promise, I asked, "Are you going to be there for me?"
You replied, "Of course." As you dusted the surface of the window, amidst the August heat, I noticed the way your eyelashes flared out when you closed your eyes and kept glancing at Thomas's old pictures. You didn't even look at me. Layers formed between us, until we became separated. I'm not even sure you could see me, so I spoke once again, this time my voice rising. "Are you sure, because I don't even feel like we're friends anymore?"
"We are. There's just a lot going on in my head."
"I know, but that doesn't explain why you ran off during Thomas's funeral."
"I told you."
If you were getting uncomfortable, you didn't show it. You just kept shifting through Thomas's old records, as if I'd asked you the most mundane of questions. "What's the real reason? Because 'I didn't deserve to be there' sounds wrong."
You didn't answer me. I looked at you and tried to read your mind. I couldn't. I just kept remembering the last time I'd hung out with Thomas, before the car crash. He'd slid his hand over mine and I didn't stop him. I let the heat of his hand surge through me and make me uncomfortably warm. When he'd dropped me off, he didn't say goodbye, not even after I waved; instead he gave me a half-smile and said, "We should do this again sometime. Minus Julian." Then his taillights disappeared into the darkness.
"What were his last words?" I asked.
You tightened your grip onto the photos. Your arms didn't move. I could sense the dust settling onto our skin, as the rain harmonized with our voice.
"Don't ask me questions like that Abigail."
You said this automatically, without feeling. I don't believe you meant to be cold; the photos of you and Thomas flying through the baseball field probably distracted you, but I wished you said this in a nicer way, like the day I saw you in the hallway, and you gave me your hoodie.
"I just feel like I'm losing him. Because you know how during the funeral, they kept saying good things about Thomas and I just kept thinking, they got everything wrong. Like, they didn't even begin to capture what an asshole he was. But who knows, maybe I'm just pissed at him for dying. What kind of idiot practically kills himself after getting into Columbia."
"He didn't kill himself." You tightened your grip on the photo, until it crumbled. Seconds later, you said you had to organize some memorial for Thomas. Before I could capture you, you left the house, the floorboards squealed behind you, thousands of dusts bits swirled through the air like angry bees. I wanted to tell you, no, you had always been a liar, but instead I sorted through Thomas's shit.
I came to the memorial. I even agreed to help set it up and speak, but the whole time as I mourned with my fellow classmates, I glanced at the lone cedar. Its leaves had turned to dust decades ago. Even the grass along its edges had died, leaving the tree's gray roots exposed. Like that one day, rain harmonized with your voice. The old dress shirt your dad lent you wrinkled, as your small hands grasped the microphone, and you stood in front of the stage, letting the lighting search for you. The rain ground your faith to dust.
After you finished your speech, the audience stared. A few commented on how wonderful it was for you to set up this whole thing, but you only gave them the ghost of a smile and said, "Oh! It's no problem. Thomas was my best friend."
As you left the school grounds and journeyed into an empty field, I followed, watching my mud prints overlap with yours. You traveled towards the horizon line, but it kept moving farther away.
"Julian!" I screamed. You paused, and I used this chance to lunge at you like I had to those girls several years ago. My nails dug into your forearms. You didn't wince. I remembered how the day of the accident, as Thomas rolled up his windows, I considered jumping back into the car and whispering, "I'll give you another chance," but instead I stood there and tried to figure out the meaning behind his stupid half-smile. The warmth from your tiny wrists set me on fire. And as the sun began to shine through the rain; your eyes reflected the light.
You said, "I ran away, because even after all the good times me and Thomas had, I couldn't stop thinking about the glass shards that cut through my skin. I'd almost died that day and it was all his fault. It's ridiculous. But I can't stop thinking that way. I can't."
You didn't ball up your fists, or fill up the entire alley with your screams. You didn't burn buildings, or smash windows. You just pulled me closer, until I could see my reflection, distorted in your eyes. My face smashed up against your soaked hair. As we kissed, I counted backwards, watching Thomas soar through the highway over the school, the cemetery, the lone cedar, until he reached the dugout, where his bat snapped and his ball shot over the fence-you could run all four bases but you'd still end up home. When we released, I stared into my reflection, and I understood what, all those years ago, those girls had been running from.