I didn’t see the collision coming, didn’t suspect there would ever be one until I saw that dumb black beanie and hipster glasses over the chip shelf I was restocking. He’s talking on the phone, doesn’t seem to have noticed me, which gives me time to properly freak out.
The last time I saw him was a clear June morning, nothing like this rainy September day. I remember silky black robes and stiff, square caps. A golden tassel tickling my face in the breeze.
Friends–Gabby and Luke and Mara, mostly–crowding around me for pictures. My parents look proud, my dad says he knew I could do it.
The memory gets a little foggier after that.
There’s the after party at Summer’s fucking mansion, getting more drunk than I would prefer, Luke calling me a dumbass and offering to walk me home.
Me, thinking that Luke looked very pretty, then saying it out loud, then kissing him on my front lawn.
Then there’s yelling, a lot of it, and none of it mine.
My dad’s distinct, deep bellow ricocheting off Luke’s reedy, defensive whine. It’s the opposite of everything normal, where I’m too confrontational and too rash, and he’s too quiet and too nervous. Besides a couple choice slurs thrown in Luke’s direction by my dad, any specific words being exchanged are lost to panic and alcohol.
There’s blood dripping from Luke’s nose, and the sudden clarity of knowing we have to get out.
I take his hand and run, and then things get foggy again.
We run for what seems like hours, and when we finally stop, Luke is running his hands up and down my arms and through my hair, and I love it, then I hate it, then I’m the one who’s yelling–it’s unbearable.
Next thing I remember is Deanna telling me she doesn’t serve underage drunks.
After that, I wake up on a lumpy, musty-smelling couch, and that’s where I’ve woken up every day since.
It’s all so goddamn cliché that over the past year I’ve tried to replay it differently in my head. There are versions where I come out bravely and soberly, versions where I stand between my dad and Luke and yell right back, versions where everything is the same up until we run, where I don’t let go of his hand and don’t make him stop running his hands over me, versions where we figure it out together.
This isn’t one of those versions, obviously, because he’s standing across from me, absurdly focused on the nutrition facts on a bag of trail mix.
Before I can tell myself to shut the fuck up and hide in the storage room until he’s gone, I say, “that’s probably the healthiest thing you’re going to find in here.”
He looks up, glasses slipping to the edge of his nose. “Oh shit.”
Panicky laughter bubbles up from my tumbling guts. “Yeah?”
“My manager’s not gonna be happy with that customer response.”
He stares for a moment, then begins to walk quickly down his aisle. At first I think he’s bolting, but instead he makes his way up my aisle, arms outstretched in what I don’t recognize as a hug until it’s already happening.
“Kip,” He clings to me like vice. “Oh my god, I’m super glad you’re not dead.”
At my tone, he takes a flighty step back, a retreat that I didn’t know I was intimately familiar with until seeing it again makes me want to punch something. “Yeah, I just mean. I mean.” He’s gone from elated to flustered, looking down at the box of dorritos to my left, then up at me, back down again.
It takes me a moment of reacquaintance with his mannerisms to realize he’s not going to finish that thought. “Hey, why the fuck would you think I was dead?” I press.
“I mean, not… not literally dead, I guess. Or maybe. I don’t…” He pulls his beanie off his head and begins twisting it in his hands. His hair is a shock of electric blue, a deep contrast to the mousy brown it had been the previous five year I’d known him. “I just… like—I—I tried to ask your mom about it one time when I ran into her at the grocery store, and she started crying? Like, that can’t be good, right? Gabby knew something but she was being tight-lipped and I just.” He stops abruptly. Shakes his head, shoves the beanie back on his head and pulls it all the way to his eyebrows.
“I’m…” I should say I’m sorry. He would say he was sorry, or at least try to, if our positions were reversed. He would write it on a cake and bring it to my house and offer to marathon The Office until I felt like forgiving him. “What did you want me to do?”
He pulls the beanie lower—it’s covering his eyes now. “I want to leave.” The words are mumbled, quiet enough that, for a moment, I think I imagine them.
My heart plunges to a depth that I didn’t think I was capable of feeling anymore. “You can go.” I step out of his way as fast as he withdrew from the hug.
“No, no I…” He takes a deep breath, uncovers his face. “Are you okay?”
What an infuriating question. Way to make me look like even more of an asshole. “I’m fine, Luke.” It’s the first time I’ve said his name in over a year, and it feels one quarter amazing and three quarters excruciating. “How are you?”
“Good, yeah, good. So you’re not, like, well. You work here, I guess. So that’s good. Money is—money is good.”
“Yeah, I’m a fan.” It comes out all wrong, short-tempered yet teasing.
“I should–go—” He makes an abrupt move to step around me, then aborts, and we end up shoulder-to-shoulder, facing opposing directions. “I wish…” He shifts, our shoulders almost touch. “I wish you had texted me and let me know you were okay. Just. One text. I—I was really worried about you.”
I scoff, and immediately hate myself for it. “What, send off a quick ‘hey, FYI, I did not commit suicide after horrifically outing myself, laterz, fellow homo.’”
He chuckles, and even though I can barely see his profile in my periphery, my memory fills in the gaps of a crinkled nose and toothy grin. He whispers, “Yeah, that would’ve been alright.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I sigh. “Luke—”
The entrance bell rings, and I jolt like my manager had caught me stealing supplies. The woman who just entered barely glances at us, walking straight to the counter.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, ma’am,” I choke out.
Luke’s voice, softly: “I’ll leave you to it.”
I look back at him, and even through my daze I know I don’t want him to go anywhere.
He takes a step backward so that we’re face-to-face again, and for one absurd moment, I think he’s going to kiss me, right here in the dorito aisle, like we’re in a teen romcom. Instead, he takes my hand in his and squeezes it once, then smiles. “Later, homo.”
I laugh, genuinely. When he steps away, I’m trying so hard not to feel his absence that I don’t see him leave.
I’m at the counter, on autopilot. “Sorry about the wait, ma’am. How can I help you?”
Cigarette preferences are given, but I don’t hear. I ask her to repeat, and I still don’t hear. I’m about to ask a third time when clarity hits me square in the chest, and I’m left breathless. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll be right back.”
“Luke!” I catch him on the sidewalk. He turns, eyebrows pinched, looks me up and down like he’s looking for an injury. “Hey, Luke. So.” I giggle. I don’t know why. “I uh… may have deleted your number? Is there… any way I could get that back? Like, if you’re okay with that. If not I totally get it, it’s no big deal I just thought…” I inhale, pathetically out of breath from my short sprint.
He grins. “Yeah, I think I’d be okay with that.”