Breathing

Issue 46 by Charlotte Evans

Breathing
05.17

“It’s never really over between us, is it?”

He looked at me, smoothing the hair back from my forehead. My cheeks flushed as soon as the words left my lips. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but that’s what had been running through my head. It had been ages since I last saw him, yet there we were, wrapped up in each other as if no time had passed at all.

He looked almost pained as he answered me, a certain kind of vulnerability in his eyes. The kind he only ever got with me. People always said that we loved each other differently – deeper than others. Maybe because we fell in love so young; too young. Maybe it was because we’d always been best friends before anything.

But it was different, I had to agree with that.

He kissed me on the lips, maybe buying time before responding. When he pulled back, there was a slight smile. He kissed my forehead, his arms holding me even tighter.

“No. No, it’s not.”

04.09

“Come on, dance with me,” I said.

He shook his head quickly, shyly. It was just a stupid dance – why was he being so weird? Our other friends were dancing together. It wasn’t a big deal. But he stepped away from me anyways. I huffed and crossed my arms over my chest. He rolled his eyes.

“I just don’t feel like dancing, okay?”

His cheeks were red, and I nodded. He was embarrassed. Typical boy. I’d remind him of this later and bug the crap out of him for being too chicken to say yes.

“Fine. But you better not make me stand here alone while everyone else dances,” I said.

He finally smiled and nodded his head. “Of course not. Standing I can do.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

06.11

“Here,” he said, slipping a green string bracelet onto my wrist.

He was taller than me now, a wild concept since I’d always towered over him. But when he’d been away, he’d hit a growth spirt. Now I had to look up to find his eyes.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

He grinned, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s for you. Keep it.”

His fingers touched my wrist, skating over my scars and I fought off pulling away. He knew they were there, so what was the point? His hand made its way into mine and he intertwined our fingers, giving it a squeeze and letting go.

“I’ll wear it forever,” I said.

I got that feeling in my heart again – the one that was making its presence known more and more lately. What the hell did I do with that? I tried to push it down, make it disappear. I couldn’t feel that way about him – could I? Just because he was far more handsome than ever before and just because we spent all of our time together and just because I could never stop thinking about him didn’t mean that I felt like that. It couldn’t.

Could it?

08.11

He leaned in. He was really about to do it. I couldn’t breathe – was it actually happening?

“My glasses are making this awkward,” I whispered as he came closer. Jesus – why did I say that?

He kept going. I knew he was fighting off the urge to roll his eyes as he touched my cheek. It was tentative, awkward. The way I’d always thought first kisses would be. Anything before it didn’t count and certainly didn’t matter anymore. I’d dreamed of kissing him for years and then it was suddenly happening.

I laughed and he pulled away. “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” he whispered.

He turned away from me and I slid closer to him. I was shaking. He was shaking, too. I had to be the brave one now. Be brave and lean back in. There was no other option. I couldn’t let this, let him, pass me by.

“Come here,” I whispered, leaning back in.

02.20

You on campus today?

His text was surprising. I hadn’t even been sure he knew what school I attended. Our lives were so different from what they’d once been. I’d heard from him on my birthday a few weeks before and had expected the next time to be months later, definitely not this. Would I ever have a normal reaction to seeing his name?

I wasn’t at school, and I couldn’t tell if the knot in my chest was relief or disappointment. Maybe a little bit of both. I missed him, because of course I did. How could you not miss someone who’d played such a role in your life for over a decade?

Let me know when you’re around!

09.11

“This song – it’s our song. Is that okay with you?” he asked.

I hated shit like that. It was so goddamn cheesy, and I’d always mocked my friends for things like that. But suddenly it made sense. How could I say no to him? He was fucking perfect. I’d never had a real boyfriend before and definitely no one I would ever risk having a song with. But he was better to me than I had ever hoped for. He was worth the risk. I rested my head on his shoulder and he wrapped an arm around me as we sat on the floor, sharing the earbuds as we listened. When the song ended, he brought me over to the couch.

He was nervous. God, what if he was ending it already? I couldn’t deal with that. The way I felt about him…

I couldn’t.

He whispered my name, moving in closer and touching my cheek. “I love you.”

It took me a full-on minute of silence until I could move again. I’d loved him for years, but it was still hard to say out loud. I was scared. Those words held too much power. I’ve watched them rip people apart and break them beyond repair. I’ve seen friends and family whose hearts will never be the same. Those three words are our most dangerous weapon.

But I trusted him, as much as I could trust anybody. The look in his eyes told me he wouldn’t hurt me, not purposely. Even in the moment, I was sure that was a naïve concept.

“I love you, too,” I whispered back, after kissing him. I barely allowed myself to say it, but I’d never meant anything more.

02.12

“Get the fuck away from me,” I yelled, turning over in my bed.

How the hell did he put up with me when I was like this? I couldn’t stand myself at this point, how could I expect him to? Everything was dark and cloudy and twisted up. I couldn’t think straight, and he kept trying to help but I didn’t want him to help me. There was no point. There was nothing he could do.

“Come on,” he whispered, approaching me.

I grabbed the book next to me and threw it across the room, hearing it hit the wall with a thud.

“Jesus,” he said. “What the fuck?”

I sat up and saw his bewildered and hurt eyes. God, why had I done that? I could have hit him and that wasn’t me. That was never me. I wasn’t myself in these moments. I hadn’t wanted to hit him, I just wanted to hit something. My lip quivered and my eyes filled with tears. He would leave now; I knew he would. Why would he stay? There was hardly anything left in me.

“Hey, shh,” he whispered, sitting down on the bed and taking me in his arms. “It’s okay. You’re alright.”

I let him hold me, crying into his shoulder. He whispered soothing words into my ear, rubbing my back.

“I’m right here,” he said. “I’m never going anywhere, okay? I’m right here. I love you, okay? I love you.”

I muttered incoherent words back, whispering that I was thankful for him, for his love. What would I do without him? He was happiness, the only form I knew. The only form I’d ever known.

05.14

We were on the phone, half off our heads.

“Please don’t do this. Did you do it?”

“No. Not really.”

“What the hell does that mean? What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

“How much blood is there? Did you take any pills? God I – I can’t –”

“I didn’t take them. There’s not much blood. Not more than usual.”

“I – I cannot do this without you, alright?”

“We’re not even together.”

“Who cares? I can’t do life without you. You know that. Stay, even just for me if that gives you a reason. Please, I wish I could fucking drive to you. Someone’s on their way, okay? I’ve got someone coming.”

“Okay. I’m okay. I’ll be okay.”

01.12

“You can’t reach it lying down!” I laughed.

“Yes, I can!”

We were lying in my bed, him reaching up with a permanent marker to try and write on the beams of the top bunk above us. His arm could just barely reach, so the letters were coming out huge and messy.

“What are you even writing?” I asked.

He shushed me and kept going, pausing only to lean over and kiss me on the forehead. I waited, watching him as he slowly scrawled the words.

“There,” he said when he was done. “That way you’ll never forget.”

I FUCKIN LOVE YOU

He signed his name next to it and then pulled me into his arms, my head resting on his chest. I angled my face upwards to his, kissing him.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

09.19

The comedy club was dark and crowded, full of dull laughter and half-drunk people on a night out. I hadn’t planned on coming there, but my friends had wanted to, so there I was.

He hadn’t noticed me on the way in. Maybe I could keep it that way the whole night. As long as I stayed hidden in my booth and nursed my beer, I could be okay.

I made sure to look around before heading to the bathroom – naturally, it was the absolute farthest distance from my seat. He wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Good.

Not that I didn’t want to see him, because a part of me desperately did. We were still friends, or so we kept telling each other. This time was different, because we were both with other people in actual good relationships.

He was standing in the doorway to the stairs, out of sight from my booth. His eyes widened as he saw me.

“Holy shit, hi,” he said. “I didn’t know you were here.”

My heart pounded and I couldn’t help but smile as we hugged each other, lingering probably just a moment longer than we should.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Some friends and I are sitting in the back.”

It was loud, and people kept moving past us to get upstairs. We couldn’t catch up. And that was probably for the best, due to the dry feeling in my mouth.

“I’ll see you,” I said, starting to step past him.

He grabbed my arm. “Wait. Catch up soon?”

I grinned again. He grinned back. How could I say no to that?

“Definitely.”

05.14

“You look good.”

He was full of shit. I was in sweatpants; my hair and makeup all over the place, leftover from prom earlier that night. Prom had been an absolute fucking disaster and I was a mess – so much so that he was actually spending time with me, something that hadn’t really happened in a while. Ever since we’d broken up, it was hard to stay friends, though we both clung to it. He was still there for me, even when I didn’t want him to be.

“Shut up,” I said, sipping from my mickey of vodka. It was almost empty now. “I’m a mess.”

“Nah, you always look good,” he said, shooting me a grin.

He was lonely. I was lonely. We’d both just ended different relationships, so of course we would find each other. Old habits.

He kissed me near the water, for the first time in years. It was fueled with something different than before, but that made sense. We were both different now. Older, hardened, definitely not wiser. But still, his hands cradled my face softly and he kissed me the way he knew I liked.

“Shit,” he whispered, waking up with me the next morning, tangled in the backseat of our friend’s car.

I was still drunk. So was he, as he leaned in and pressed his lips to mine.

05.17

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there – at the memorial.”

I didn’t want to talk about that. I could hardly think about the memorial without bursting into tears or feeling as if my heart would explode right out of my chest.

“It’s okay. You didn’t know,” I said, looking away from him. There were feet between us as we sat on his bed – a mattress on the floor, not really a bed. The distance was weird, unnatural. It was always peculiar being nervous around him. I didn’t like it much. “But you still helped me. I couldn’t have made a speech without talking to you first on the phone.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? When it was… when she died. You know I would’ve come,” he asked.

It was a fair question – and I knew he would’ve. I could’ve called him the minute I’d gotten word and he would have been by my side without a second thought, despite the fact that we hadn’t spoken in at least half a year. He would’ve dropped anything and everything to be at the memorial. But I’d felt weird asking. I didn’t like asking him for anything – not anymore.

We were silent for a minute after that. He could tell I wasn’t going to answer. I moved from the edge of the bed to the top, sitting back against the wall next to him. He took my hand then, intertwining our fingers. It had been a long time since he’d done anything like that. Then again, it had been a long time since we’d last properly been alone.

“Tell me. Tell me what’s been going on with you,” I asked.

He nodded, his face turning up into a grin that I was far too familiar with. It was a special grin – a very real and honest one. For the rest of the world, it was different. A bit cockier, a bit slyer. But for me, it was wide and bright and beautiful. I was one of the few people he’d ever properly let in. Possibly because I’d just known him for so long. For years and years. Back before everything had gotten too complicated and we’d grown up and grown apart. Back when we were just best friends, trying to figure out our places in the world.

The same grin.

05.12

I was crying in the hallway – how could it be over?

It was me. All of it had been me. I had pushed him to this point. Me and everything wrong with me, all the ups and downs, my refusal to let him in… all of it.

He’d told me that wasn’t the case, but I knew him well enough to know that was a crock of shit.

I slid down my locker onto the tile floor. I didn’t care that people were staring. Fucking let them stare. This was it. I was done.

“No, come on.”

I looked up – why was he there? He had dumped me – or had I left him? – and now he was standing in front of me. He almost had tears in his eyes as he helped me up and pulled me into his arms. I wanted to resist, but I was weak.

“Please,” he whispered. “You have to take care of yourself. Please.”

He pulled away slightly, kissing my forehead for a long moment as the bell rang. We would both be late now, but I didn’t care. We both needed this moment. When the halls were empty, he finally pulled back.

And then he walked away.

07.17

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

He huffed, looking behind me. There were still a few partygoers awake, but it was late now, and most people were finding a place to sleep. He looked ridiculous with his arm in that cast. I wasn’t even sure what had happened – he’d been annoyingly vague when I’d asked, which meant it was probably from something stupid.

“Stay with me tonight,” he said, stepping towards me and touching my cheek.

I let out a shaking breath, closing my eyes. Of course that had been the first thought in my head when I’d gotten to the party earlier and saw him, but I hadn’t wanted to assume and I didn’t want to set myself up for heartbreak again.

“Are you sure?” I whispered.

He chuckled, leaning in and kissing me. “Of course I’m sure. Come on, we both knew it was happening.”

He took my hand in his good one and led the way, us falling into bed together just like we always seemed to do.

04.12

“I want to dance with you,” he said, as the band played our song.

“What – now? We’re at a concert and we’re sitting down,” I said.

He smiled sheepishly. “Now. Forever.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard that word out loud in that context. We’d only been together a few months with a hell of a lot of bumps along the road – mostly from me – but I felt it in my soul, floating about my brain. It had always been in my brain when it came to him.

A naïve concept, forever.

But in Massey Hall it didn’t matter.

10.11

He was singing to me, the words about sunshine in my ears. He wasn’t a good singer, but he liked to try for me. The song was fitting, and I had scribbled it onto my bed post to remind me of him. He was like my own sunshine. I called him that in my head, though no one knew. It was for the song, but also, he was my sun in the dark. When my mind was far too cloudy to face the light, he’d poke his way in. Creeping slowly at first before bursting through all at once. It was a talent of his, perfected over time and executed without much effort.

“Just breathe,” he whispered at the end of the lyrics. “Keep breathing.”

Of course, easier said than done.

So he’d hold my hand anyways.

05.20

He was in my dreams sometimes, even after all this time.

The green bracelet sits on my nightstand, and the song comes up on shuffle. Sometimes I don’t skip it. We’re different now. We’re happy apart, at least I like to think so. His girlfriend doesn’t like me, and my boyfriend tolerates his presence in my life because he knows it’s different than other past relationships.

Twelve years of friendship doesn’t get thrown away, even if we don’t talk that often.

Our lives are intertwined. His sister married the son of my parents’ friend.

In my dreams, he smiles at me. He laughs. I go a while without thinking about him, and then suddenly he appears, persistent in my subconscious just enough so I don’t forget him. His voice reminds me to breathe, and his eyes remind me to care for myself.

He lingers. The bracelet. The song. His words. His eyes.

Keep breathing.

Keep breathing.

About the Author

Charlotte Evans

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I am a third year student studying Creative Writing & Publishing at Sheridan College in Mississauga, Ontario. I enjoy writing both fiction and creative non-fiction, and have had a piece published online before. I love to spend my time reading, listening to music and brainstorming new creative projects.