Four Years Ago
I knew by Dannie’s text message that something was wrong. I can’t predict the future; but I should have had a premonition that my world, my hope, my future was about to be irrevocably changed in an instant? The truth was, I couldn’t have foreseen what was about to happen.
I receive a text from the girl I loved, saying she needed to speak with me, a naive notion to think the short message was nothing of great importance.
I drive to Dannie’s house with a smile on my face, so excited to see her even though we had only been apart for a day. What can I say? I am a fool for love, addicted in every sense of the word.
I look over at the white rose plucked from the bouquet I bought for tonight.
Women love flowers, I think to myself.
I want Dannie to feel that she is being treated well in all the ways she deserves.
In hindsight, I wished that I’d had a flashing neon sign, saying, Stop, you idiot! You’re going the wrong way! Or maybe a warning that I was headed off a cliff.
I have no expectation to take our relationship to a more physical level tonight. I want to make it clear to Dannie that I want a real relationship, that I am fully committed to her.
When I pull up to her house, when I see her waiting for me at the top of the driveway, I start to worry. Did something happen with her family? Did her mother call? Either way, I want to be there for her however she needed me.
Little did I know …
I step out of the truck, holding the rose with a stupid smile. “Hey, beautiful.” I stop right in front of her before slowly drawing her into a hug.
I have never seen the look on her face I see in this moment. Her expression is vacant, slightly lost. The image is hard to describe, but she looks like a shell of the Dannie I saw only yesterday.
But still, I had no idea …
After shrugging out of my arms, she steps away and quietly said, “Hey, can we just sit in the truck for a minute? I want to talk to you real quick.”
Oh no, something is really wrong.
Whatever is the matter, in this moment, I felt like I can help her.
Although, I am keenly aware that she is avoiding my eyes. But why?
“Sure … are you okay, princess?” I try to stay calm while my blood slowly turns to ice in my body.
We silently sit in the truck before she whispers, “Yeah, of course. I want to talk for a bit.” She pauses right before she rips out my heart. “I can’t see you anymore, Reed. This doesn’t seem to be working out … whatever this even is. We aren’t officially dating anyway. I wanted to be fair to you by telling you to your face that I want to go to college without any attachments. I think I took this too far for too long without considering the fact that I am leaving at the end of the summer. I’m not going to go to Sacramento State anymore. I’m going to be farther away, so there is no point in pursuing this thing between us. I’m sorry I let this go on for so long.”
And there it is. The hammer has fallen. The lightning has struck. My worst fear is realized. I’d held out my heart, only to have it rejected. She doesn’t want me.
My mind hasn’t caught up to the words she has spoken. So, I do what any man would do. I try to reason with her.
I am angry, freaking out, and scared. “What? Are you serious? What is really going on? This is bullshit, and you know it!”
By the look on her face, I know she isn’t telling me something, something pivotal that she doesn’t trust me with, something that has changed everything.
Still avoids my eyes, she continues, “I am serious. I don’t feel like we should drag this on anymore.”
That is absurd. I may believe her if she didn’t look so heartbroken, so empty.
Damn it, Dannie! Don’t do this!
“That’s ridiculous. Look me in the eyes and tell me you feel nothing for me.” I finally have had enough. I pull her to me, holding her face and forcing her to see what she is doing to me. “Look at me! I love you, Dannie. I love you.”
She isn’t going to leave me without a good and dirty fight.
“Tell me you feel nothing.” I lean in for a kiss.
She jerks back, as if hit her. “No! Reed, I’m sorry, but I don’t love you. I don’t feel anything.” She looks like she is going to be sick.
Is she sick? What did I do to make her frightened of me? I would never hurt her. Doesn’t she know that?
I take a breath before I start panicking. This is really happening, isn’t it?
My throat starts to burn, but my heart feels like it is dying in my chest. “What happened? What did I do, Dannie? I’m sorry. I won’t try to kiss you again. Tell me what I did wrong.” My voice finally breaks.
Please listen. Please, Dannie, don’t do this.
As she slowly steps out of the truck and turns to walk away, she pauses with a cold reply, “You didn’t do anything, Reed. I just don’t love you.”
How can I believe that? How does someone stop loving you? Why?
I whisper the only thing running through my mind in this moment, “I don’t believe you.”
I wake up in a cold sweat at the memory of Dannie. How can a memory still haunt someone after so many years? I cover my eyes with my arm, willing my heart to slow down, but the look on her face is still there, and the ache in my chest won’t subside. I remember every detail as if it’d happened yesterday because I’ve replayed the memory in my mind a thousand times, and a thousand times, I’ve wondered what I did to make her leave. What could I have possibly done to cause her to run from me?
How could I have been so naive to believe she loved me the way I loved her?
Even as I think the words, the question rings false. As if somehow, deep down in my naive heart, I meant it when I said, “I don’t believe you.”
“What are you afraid of?”
I recollect the question Ms. Gee asked me this morning. It reverberates in my ears while I look out over the gray-blue water. I hold a warm cup of coffee in my hands, trying in vain to calm the slight tremble in my fingers.
What am I afraid of?
After all this time and four years of therapy with Ms. Gee, one might think I’d have come up with an answer to this particular question, but I haven’t. It’s probably because I have spent too much time distracting myself with my busy life, filled with an exuberant group of friends, and hiding behind my nonstop career as a stylist in a big city to really answer that tiny question.
I’d rather not think about it, Ms. Gee.
I’ve kept my life in constant motion without allowing myself a moment to really think about whom I have been leaving behind and why—or more importantly, whom I have been running from.
I close my eyes, letting the sea breeze calm my cloudy thoughts. It’s a foggy day in San Fran, but even on the rocky shoreline, I can hear the bustle of the city waking up around me. The café is welcoming their early regulars, the joggers are pushing themselves an extra mile, and the career-minded individuals are trying to make every minute count as they rush to be the first in the office.
I am in love with this city. Its people and culture flow in my veins and straight through to my soul, and I am thankful for the anonymity it provides when I need it the most. This city gives me a sense of freedom—even if the feeling is short-lived, even if it is a false sense of security.
What am I afraid of?
Ms. Gee’s question will continue to nag at me until I somehow find the answer.
I left my home, my family, and my friends four years ago to escape from these thoughts and the overwhelming fear that lingers around everything back there. It’s better that I walked away even if none of them see why. It’s better for me to have space and time to figure out how to live with the past. It’s better for the family I hold at a distance and most definitely for the family I’ve found because the truth can have a thousand implications, all of which are burdensome. I could leave because I knew the two people who unconditionally loved me most would forgive me even if they weren’t aware of all the reasons.
A pair of dark green eyes flash in my mind as a deep sense of loss invades my aching heart. I left Reed because leaving was the right thing to do and because he deserved better than the broken, damaged woman I became after that summer.
I open my eyes as a welcome visitor settles next to me. Melody sits in silence, waiting for my explanation for leaving the house so early this morning after an exhausting, sleepless night.
“It’s time,” I finally manage to say what I know in my heart is the truth.
The time has come to go back home. It’s time I stop avoiding my past. I now have to find the courage to pick up the pieces of my old life and find a way to live again.
Melody rests her head on my shoulder. “Are you sure?”
Not so much.
She continues gently, “I know you have come so far since we moved here, but I sometimes still hear you at night …” She trails off, knowing she doesn’t need to say the words out loud.
A night like last night.
Nights filled with terror and torment and waking up, only to realize the truth in them. The nightmares have never gone away, but they have gotten better over time. Either way, I have learned to manage the aftermath of my past, the secret I locked away long ago, but I’m tired of letting those unfortunate truths dictate my life.
“I will learn to live with everything,” I respond with more courage than I feel. “I can’t, however, forget the things that I want, and I can’t pretend anymore that I don’t want to go to college, no matter how much I love living here with you.”
I feel her silent nod of acceptance.
We moved to San Francisco together four years ago—two girls in an exciting, big city—and we have been inseparable ever since. I will miss Melody like a missing piece of my own heart, but I also miss the girl I left behind when we moved here. I owe it to that girl to go back and reclaim the life she wanted before all hell broke loose.
Before my mother gave me a letter, telling me to leave and never come home.
Before my stepfather told me I was dead in his eyes.
Before I lost any and all hope.
And before graduation night.
“I just want you to be happy again, Dannie.”
I don’t respond at all because I’m frozen in thought.
“Dannie? What are you thinking about?” Melody’s voice finally cuts through the thick fog that momentarily surrounded me.
“Oh, you know … everything. The past, my family, all my craziness.” I shoulder-bump her in quiet thanks to her genuine concern while trying to lighten the mood.
Melody doesn’t let up. “Are you going to see your family when you get back?”
Hopefully not. “I have no idea.”
“You should think about seeing them, Dannie. I know your dad misses you.”
I wasn’t referring to my dad.
When I left four years ago, I left behind the people who loved me. I just haven’t figured out how to let the ones I love back into my life without letting the ones who hurt me in too.
I stand up, brushing off the sand sticking to my legs and backside, cutting off the direction of her questioning. My family is a complicated mess I’d like to avoid discussing on the beach. My beach spot happens to be my place of solace, my place of reprieve, from all things dark and menacing. I don’t want to ruin my last memory of this place with talk of a family I don’t fit into anymore and a life I’d rather forget.
I turn the tables on Melody. “So, is your boyfriend going to take the plunge and move in now that our bachelorette pad is down one bachelorette?”
Melody gives me a silent nod of her head, knowing that I disapprove of her choice of boyfriends and that he is in fact moving in despite my prior objections. She encompasses all things sweet and pure of heart, yet she finds herself in relationships of the worst kind. Her high school boyfriend, Jay, was a cheater, a drunk, and an all-around sleaze, but Damien is no better. If I were to be more brutally honest, I’d say he was worse. Controlling is the word I would use to describe the man. Tall, dark, and handsome, for sure, but he is also calculating in a way that Jay never was. He has a sharp eye, demanding nature, and a fierce temper, which is a volatile combination when wrapped in a charming package.
I can’t seem to shake the feeling that Damien is somehow … wrong.
Unfortunately, Melody doesn’t see it. Needless to say, I don’t want to isolate my friend by hating on her boyfriend and make the dangerous mistake of giving her nowhere to run but into his arms. I’ve been down the road of destructive relationships before, and I don’t see a clean way out of this situation.
I look over at the face of my friend and wrap an arm around her shoulders, giving her an apologetic squeeze, knowing that words will do no good in a moment like this. When everything is said and done, I can only hope that we can find a way to survive the storm.
We’ve survived so much already.
I open one more box of old textbooks with a grunt.
Unpacking is the worst. It’s a waste of time, especially when you’re hyper-organized. It takes substantially longer than if I were someone who could simply throw my crap into the corner and call it good—like my roommate. If he wasn’t my best friend, I might kill him.
“You about done there, Reed? I’m starving.”
I scowl at Marcus. He knows this process takes me forever. He knows I’m not even close to being done, but after four years of being roommates, he is still trying to rush me. I guess I can take a break. I breathe out a heavy sigh of defeat. I don’t want to leave this mess, but I can’t deny that I’m starving too.
“Excellent.” He smiles, unconcerned by the look I sent him.
I follow him out of our apartment and toward the pizza place that’s close enough to walk to. Thank God for college towns.
“So, do you have to go get your books? I’m planning on grabbing mine tomorrow, if you wanna catch a ride with me,” I offer, knowing full well that Marcus hasn’t gotten his books.
Luckily, classes here at Sacramento State University don’t start for another week.
“Sounds good, man.”
We walk into the restaurant and wait in the long line of other college students who have moved back this week and are unpacking and getting settled before the new semester begins.
My last year. It feels good. I’m planning on going back to Kansas for grad school. Marcus, having grown up with me in Kansas, has come to love California. Either that or his college girlfriend, whom he met freshman year, is not willing to leave. I’m sure they will figure their situation out. He and Lena are good together, so I am happy for him.
Marcus clears his throat, as if to get my attention. “So, what would you say if I told you that Lena had a friend she wanted to set you up with?”
What? I nearly choke on the pizza in my mouth. “Well, I’d say, there’s no way in hell. No offense to Lena, of course.”
He looks a little disappointed but not at all surprised. “Man, it’s been too long. You’ve gotta let her go …” He trails off, knowing that topic is off-limits.
I feel like crap, knowing that they mean well by trying to get me out of my no-relationship policy.
I bite the bullet. “Tell you what. Once school begins this semester, I’ll meet this girl. But under no circumstances will I go on any awkward dates with this chick, okay? We can all go to a bar or something.”
Marcus smiles immediately.
What the hell have I just gotten myself into?
After moving to California and the whole Dannie situation, my best friend applied to California’s Sacramento State University. Luckily for me, Marcus was always brilliant at school and was willing to move in with me. He graduated early and got accepted easily.
I really needed him that first year after Dannie left me. I was a wreck.
I had decided to stick with my original plan to attend Sac State simply because it was close to my family, it had the major I wanted, and most importantly, Dannie said she wasn’t going here. After she broke off our relationship, I called her every day for the rest of the summer, trying to reason with her and get her to reconsider her sudden change of heart. Calling seemed better at the time. I didn’t want to show up at her doorstep like a deranged ex, and I drew the line at stalking her.
I heard from Melody that she got a job that summer, working almost every moment she could. Dannie apparently also stopped hanging out with everyone important to her, becoming a recluse who rarely went out. She cut everyone off, not just me, which seriously worried her closest friends and family.
Dannie had always been independent and aloof but never had she cut all ties completely with the people who cared for her most—well, until that summer. We all called one another the first few months, trying to figure out what was wrong, trying different methods to get through to her, but nothing worked. Eventually, I stopped trying. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I wasn’t going to force someone to love me back.
I’m not proud to say that I walked away. A person can only handle so much rejection. By the end of the summer, I decided that I would try to move on the best I could. So, when I heard that Dannie had changed her college to San Francisco State, I was relieved but heartbroken all over again. It felt like the end. Like a book that suddenly shut, there was a feeling of finality to it.
I knew I needed to move on. I tried the only ways I could think of. I stayed busy, didn’t think about it, dated other people but didn’t fall in love again, didn’t think about it, stayed busy—well, you get the idea.
“Want to hit the gym?” Marcus says, snapping me out of my thoughts.
How someone can eat that much pizza and then work out without throwing it all up is beyond me, but I find myself agreeing anyway.
As we’re walking, I decide to rile him up, considering I sort of agreed to a blind date and all. “Ask Lena to marry you yet?” I smile at him and wink.
I’m not gonna lie. I’m super jealous he has someone. Lena is a great girl. She’s really sweet, and she obviously loves Marcus.
“Not yet. I’m thinking right after graduation …”
I snap my head up to search his face, only finding complete sincerity. Not what I expected. I’m not shocked per se, but I asked the question as a joke, so I’m taken a little off guard.
“That’s great, man. I’m happy for you. Although I don’t know what she sees in you, man …” I am completely joking, but it doesn’t stop him from forcefully punching me in the arm.
Marcus is a one-of-a-kind sort of friend, more like a brother. I’m lucky to have him. He’s a great-looking guy, and he has always gotten attention from women. I originally thought when he came to Cali, he would be a bit of a ladies’ man. But at one of the first parties our freshman year, he ran into a girl from class, and they hit it off. The rest is history.
“You cool with that?”
I know he is referring to my aversion to relationships and my lack of anything remotely romantic—unless you consider the occasional one-night stand romantic. And let’s face it, that would be a hell no.
Serious for a moment, I reply, “Of course. I want you to be happy.” Truthfully, no one deserves happiness more. Just because I don’t believe in falling in love anymore doesn’t mean I don’t want that for him.
I head through the gym doors, cutting off the direction this conversation has taken.
Marcus takes the hint. “So, vet science, huh? Have you decided on where you’re applying?” He makes small talk. He can sense when I’m brooding, and as per usual, he tries to pull me out of my sour mood as we begin our reps.
“Yeah, I’ve applied to Kansas and a few schools in SoCal.” Listening to the words I use, I can hear the influence of Cali. I cringe slightly before shaking my head while trying to concentrate on working out instead.
We are both over six feet and athletically inclined, so we are equally matched for spotting, and I constantly find myself in need of an outlet for my anger and frustration. Needless to say, we find ourselves here a lot.
How is it that, when you wake up early for your first day of work, you still end up late?
I grip my coffee as I step inside the classroom on my first day as a teaching assistant, or TA. I am nervous but hope my anxiety doesn’t show as I quickly find my seat. I set my coffee down on the desk, avoiding the eyes of the students already in their seats, while Professor Williams writes on the board. He glances over at me with one raised bushy eyebrow as a warning. We just met only last week, so this is a poor first impression of my work ethic.
Here goes nothing.
I guess I’ll have to double my efforts at earning his trust and respect now.
Why did my car choose today to not start? That’s what I get for buying a cheap beater car that was more fuel-efficient than my old truck.
I smooth down my slightly wrinkled button-up, hoping it doesn’t look ridiculous on me. I feel like a tool, wearing something that is so not me. I went all out, even wearing old-man loafer-type shoes instead of my usual shitkickers, like I’m some sort of hipster. My sister would laugh if she saw me looking like a Cali native. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin.
After a few deep breaths, trying to calm my frantic heart, I finally start chugging my much-needed coffee. Listening to the prof go over the syllabus as well as his expectations for British Literature, I get a little antsy. It’s not my favorite topic, but I desperately need the extra income because student loans aren’t cutting it, especially now that my car has gone haywire.
For many, Brit Lit is a requirement to complete their undergrad, but some are truly interested in majoring in English or literature. Either way, I will have to read quite a few extra books this semester in order to grade their essays and exams.
You gotta do what you gotta do.
I have finally settled in enough to attempt a cursory glance at the students in the nine a.m. class, hoping to find a girl worth the time I’ll be spending here—or at least avoiding one with whom I have a history not worth repeating. I slowly make my way through the students, deciphering which ones are here for credits and which ones are here for their love of literature.
My eyes suddenly glimpse a familiar face that makes me choke. A hard pair of azure eyes are locked on mine with an expression that freezes my heart.
Dannie. Here. In my class. My Dannie.
No, not my Dannie. She left me. She wanted nothing to do with me.
She. Left. Me.
Scolding myself, I stare for longer than is appropriate, but I don’t care. It’s Dannie.
My stomach is slowly tying in knots as I steal a glance at a beautiful woman who is a phantom of a girl I once knew. Dannie seems to be shocked, frightened, and maybe even regretful. I can’t be sure, as she is a stranger to me now.
I first take note that her hair is just above her shoulders. No longer does her hair freely flow to her waist. This chick has a stylish yet sophisticated style that is not at all like Dannie’s carefree demeanor I once loved. I take in a curvy figure that has filled in, changing a teenager into a woman who takes my breath away. I’m more than a little preoccupied with her body when I force my eyes to snap back to a face that is all too familiar. What was once the fresh face of a teen is now shadowed in makeup in such a way that suggests she knows what she is doing.
I can’t imagine Dannie doing her makeup every day. The thought is ludicrous. It can’t be her. Yet those eyes … those eyes seem filled with recognition as they widen slightly.
She appears to be as startled as I feel, and she looks away. It’s then that I notice a slow blush on her skin.
It’s her. It really is Dannie Lee. In this classroom. My classroom!
The pain I have been unconsciously suppressing, the anger from a bitter rejection, rises in my throat until it feels like I’m consumed by rage. I realize I’m breathing hard, practically panting, with my hands curled into fists.
Keep it together, Reed. Keep your shit together.
I take a deep breath, forcing myself to look away as I mentally absorb the reality that I am a TA in a class that Dannie is in. I must stay impartial. I cannot afford to lose this job. All the other jobs around campus have been filled by now, and if my car is not going to be functional, then I can’t financially afford to lose this job.
She’s just a girl. Just like any other girl. Nothing special about this one.
Even as I think the words, the thought stills in my brain, as if dead. It’s so far from the truth, and there’s no point in lying to myself.
She was everything to me, everything I wanted, everything I naively hoped for. What a lovesick fool I once was. What a ridiculous pipe dream. I was forced to be a realist the day she left me, ripping my heart to pieces.
Truthfully, I have never been the same.
Well, sweetheart, there’s nothing left for you to break, so you can just move along. Thanks.
I let my bitterness bleed into the recesses of my body, giving me resolve. Anger is my best weapon against other emotions. That’s all I will allow myself to feel. I refuse to be attracted to her. I refuse to close my eyes because her face is all I will see. The girl in the white dress on a picnic blanket no longer exists.
And as the prof excuses the class, I stand, walking away from her this time without so much as a backward glance.
Payback’s a cruel bitch, princess.