The noise is suffocating. And I can see that her ear is bothering her. And knowing the looks and whispers that will come by us getting up together, I ask her if she would like to step out for a moment. Get some fresh air. Our friends share smiles. There is some egging on. Not sure if she sees any of it. And I’m sure there are some jokes passed around as we make our way through the crowd into the great outdoors. Our only company are the banished smokers. And we sit across from each other just talking. Nerd stuff. Our usual conversations. And then…

“Where did you go right now?”

I’m seventeen and it’s summer. The scent of Candies perfume fills the atmosphere of our bodies. She whispers all the dirty things we should be doing. And she looks into my eyes as she asks me her question. And I can see the pain that lingers behind them. And I can hear the words she’ll tell me when I inevitably break her heart in a matter of months. When I meet the sweet cheerleader girl who’d rather play guitar in a band. When I meet said girl’s best friend, the redhead from San Antonio.

“Are you even listening to me?”

We’re fighting again. And I know we’re at the end of our time, but both of us are still trying to wedge the puzzle pieces together. We’re just too afraid of having to start over. She’s made too many plans. She’s got it all figured it out, while I’m still struggling to find out who it is that I want to be. Though, deep down, I know it isn’t the person I’m growing into. And I turn to her, and I see the tears in her eyes, understanding the pain that I’ll introduce in a matter of weeks when I go missing. When I break up with her over a phone call because I’m the coward I deny being.

“Are you ok?”

Her green eyes inspect mine. She who watches me sleep whenever she awakes first. She who I long to hold on to even as she runs away from me. She keeps me centered. I called her my balance to my counselor. There’s so much I want to do for her, but can’t get past my own anxieties. We’re at the stop light and I know the words she’s about to tell me. She’s uncertain, but I know the truth. She’s pregnant. And my life is going to split into two. There were times when I wanted to leave because it seemed easier than remaining a slave to what I felt for her. But at that moment when the words slip from her mouth, I know that I want to stand by her side for as long as she will have me. And while the possibility seems endless, I began to wonder if she can see in my eyes the pain she will cause me. And I wonder if it’s with the same clarity that I have when I see it the pain I’ll cause her.

“I think it’s my mommy’s friend.”

Shaun and I lay in bed watching TikTok videos when the phone call comes in. And I ignore it because it’s late and nothing good can come of this. When I listen to the phone call, it’s from the hospital. The information doesn’t compute correctly. My mind doesn’t process it that I’m hanging on to the fact that they mispronounced Jeanna’s name. When I call back, I learn of her condition. Stable but critical. An oxymoron to put me at ease, I imagine. On the way to the hospital, I’m calling her mom. I’m calling her brother. I’m calling Izzy and Marci. When I get there, the nurse takes me aside and tells me she’s the only survivor. Her mom, Marci, and her nephew gone.

“Can you be strong?”

And I’m sitting next to my father. He has less than a day left when I tell him that there was a time when I watched him from afar. That whenever he visited, I’d hide behind my grandmother’s plants just to catch a glimpse of him. That in the sixth grade, I darted from the backyard to the front when I saw beat up Dodge pickup drive by. And I told him that there had been so much anger that brewed up inside me when he never bothered to look for me. But we are both adults now and we both share the blame for not having a relationship. Neither of us budged. And I tell him that I didn’t hate him. “And if you need to go, it’s ok. You can go. I’ll be ok.”

And I’m here. With her. Watching her hands. Watching her eyes. And I’m searching for myself in them. And I think about what I’ve lost this year. And all that I’ve gained. And I replay all the conversations we’ve ever had. And try to memorize all the words to each of them.

“But are you living in the moment? Or are you living just to remember?”

And every ghost I’ve held on to. Every moment when I looked over my shoulder to what I had and what I lost. The guilt I’ve carried for not being there, and not being enough. And the moments when I could have tried harder. It’s all led me to this. Now.