“She’s asleep,” I report.
“Like, safe-to-take-a-shower asleep?”
“I think so.”
“You want first shower, second shower, or both shower?”
“You can go first.”
She gets out of bed, and stops to kiss me on the way out. Her hands move under my oversize shirt, and I don’t resist. I fall right into it, kiss her a little bit longer.
“You sure?” she asks.
“You go first,” I tell her.
And then, just like Zara would, I miss her when she’s left the room.
I want it to be Rhiannon.
She sneaks out of the house while I’m in my shower. Then, twenty minutes later, she’s back at the door, to pick me up for school. My mother is awake now and in the kitchen, and smiles when she sees Amelia heading up the path.
I wonder how much she knows.
We spend most of the day together at school, but not in a way that limits our interactions with other people. If anything, we incorporate our friends into what we have between us. We exist as individuals. We exist as a pair. We exist as parts of trios, quartets, and so on. And it all feels right.
I can’t get Rhiannon off my mind. Remembering what she said about how her friends would never know me. How no one else would ever know me. How what we have together will only be us, always.
I am starting to realize what this means, and how sad it would be.
I am already feeling some of the sadness now, and it isn’t even happening.
Seventh period, Amelia has study hall in the library while I have gym. When we meet up after, she shows me the books she’s taken out for me, because they look like ones I’d like.
Will I ever know Rhiannon this well?
Amelia has basketball practice after school. I usually wait around for her, doing my homework. But she is making me miss Rhiannon too much; I have to do something about it. I ask her if I can borrow her car and run some errands.
She hands over the keys, no questions asked.
It takes me twenty minutes to get over to Rhiannon’s school. I park in my usual space as most of the cars head in the other direction. Then I find a place to sit and watch the door, hoping she hasn’t already left.
I am not going to talk to her. I am not going to start everything again. I just want to see her.
Five minutes after I’ve arrived, she appears. She is talking to Rebecca and a couple of her other friends. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they’re all involved in the conversation.
From here, she doesn’t look like someone who’s recently lost something. Her life seems to be playing on all chords. There’s one moment—one small moment—when she looks up and glances around. For that moment, I can believe she’s looking for me. But I can’t tell you what happens in the moment after, because I quickly turn away, stare at something else. I don’t want her to see my eyes.
This is the after for her, and if she’s in the after, then I have to be in the after, too.
I stop off at a Target on the way back to Amelia. Zara knows all her favorite foods, and most of them are of the snack variety.
I stock up, and before I go back into the school to find her, I arrange them on the dashboard, spelling her name. It is, I believe, what Zara would want me to do.
I am not fair. I wanted Rhiannon to see me there. Even as I looked away, I wanted her to come right over and treat me just like Amelia would treat Zara after spending three days apart.
I know it’s never going to happen. And that knowledge is a flash of light I can’t quite see through.
Amelia is delighted by the dashboard display, and insists on taking me to dinner. I call home and tell my mother, who doesn’t seem to mind.
I can sense that Amelia realizes I’m only half here, but she’s going to let me be half elsewhere, because that’s where I need to be. Over dinner, she fills the silence with tales from her day, some real and some completely imaginary. She makes me guess which is which.
We’ve only been together for seven months. Still, considering the number of memories Zara’s collected, it feels like a long time.
This is what I want, I think.
And then I can’t help it. I add, This is what I can’t have.
“Can I ask you something?” I say to Amelia.
“If I woke up in a different body every day—if you never knew what I was going to look like tomorrow—would you still love me?”
She doesn’t miss a beat, or even act like the question is strange. “Even if you were green and had a beard and a male appendage between your legs. Even if your eyebrows were orange and you had a mole covering your entire cheek and a nose that poked me in the eye every time I kissed you. Even if you weighed seven hundred pounds and had hair the size of a Doberman under your arms. Even then, I would love you.”
“Likewise,” I tell her.
It’s so easy to say, because it never has to be true.
Before we say goodbye, she kisses me with everything she has. And I try to kiss her back with everything I want.
This is the nice note, I can’t help thinking.
But just like a sound, as soon as the note hits the air, it begins to fade.
When I walk inside, Zara’s mother says to her, “You know, you can invite Amelia in.”
I tell her I know. Then I rush to my room, because it’s too much. So much happiness can only make me sad. I close the door and begin to sob. Rhiannon’s right. I know it. I can never have these things.
I don’t even check my email. Either way, I don’t want to know.
Amelia calls to say good night. I have to let it go to voicemail, have to compose myself into the most like Zara I can be, before I answer.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her when I call her back. “I was talking to Mom. She says you need to come by more often.”
“Is she referring to the bedroom window or the front door?”
“The front door.”
“Well, it looks like a little bird called progress is now sitting on our shoulder.”
I yawn, then apologize for it.
“No need to say you’re sorry, sleepyhead. Dream a little dream of me, okay?”
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you,” I say.
And then we hang up, because nothing else needs to be said after that.
I want to give Zara her life back. Even if I feel I deserve something like this, I don’t deserve it at her expense.
She will remember all of it, I decide. Not my discontent. But the contentment that caused it.
I wake up feverish, sore, uncomfortable.
July’s mother comes in to check on her. Says she seemed fine last night.
Is it sickness or is it heartbreak?
I can’t tell.
The thermometer says I’m normal, but clearly I’m not.
An email from Rhiannon. Finally.
I want to see you, but I’m not sure if we should do that. I want to hear about what’s going on, but I’m afraid that will only start everything again. I love you—I do—but I am afraid of making that love too important. Because you’re always going to leave me, A. We can’t deny it. You’re always going to leave.
I don’t know how to respond to that. Instead, I try to lose myself in being Howie Middleton. His girlfriend picks a fight with him at lunchtime, over the fact that he never spends time with her anymore. Howie doesn’t have much to say about that. In fact, he stays entirely silent, which only infuriates her further.
I have to go, I think. If there are things I will never have here, there are also things I will never find here. Things I might need to find.
I wake up the next morning as Alexander Lin. His alarm goes off, playing a song I really like. This makes waking up much easier.
I also like his room. Plenty of books on the shelves, some of their spines worn down from rereading. There are three guitars in the corner, one electric, the amp still plugged in from the night before. In another corner, there’s a lime-green couch, and I know immediately this is a place where friends come to crash, this is their home away from home. He has Post-its all over the place with random quotes on them. On top of his computer is something from George Bernard Shaw: Dance is the perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire. Some of the Post-its are in his handwriting, but others have been written by friends. I am the walrus. I’m nobody—who are you? Let all the dreamers wake the nation.
Even before I’ve gotten to know him, Alexander Lin has made me smile.
His parents are happy to see him. I have a sense that they’re always happy to see him.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay for the weekend?” his mother asks. Then she opens the refrigerator, which looks like it’s been stocked for at least a month. “I think there’s enough here, but if you need anything, just use the money in the envelope.”
I feel something is missing here; there is something I should be doing. I access and discover it’s the Lins’ anniversary tomorrow. They are going on an anniversary trip. And Alexander’s gift for them is up in his room.
“One second,” I say. I run upstairs and find it in his closet—a bag festooned with Post-its, each of them filled in with something his parents have said to him over the years, from A is for Apple to Always remember to check your blind spot. And this is just the wrapping. When I bring the bag down to Mr. and Mrs. Lin, they open it to find ten hours of music for their ten-hour drive, as well as cookies Alexander has baked for them.
Alexander’s father wraps him in a thankful hug, and Alexander’s mother joins in.
For a moment, I forget who I really am.
Alexander’s locker is also covered in Post-it quotes, in a rainbow of handwritings. His best friend, Mickey, comes by and offers him half a muffin—the bottom half, because Mickey only likes the tops.
Mickey starts telling me about Greg, a boy he’s apparently had a crush on for ages—ages meaning at least three weeks. I feel the perverse desire to tell Mickey about Rhiannon, who is only two towns away. I access and find that Alexander doesn’t have any crushes himself at the moment, but if he did, they’d be female. Mickey doesn’t pry too much about this. And quickly other friends find them, and the talk turns to an upcoming Battle of the Bands. Apparently, Alexander is playing in at least three of the entrants, including Mickey’s band. He’s that kind of guy, always willing to chip in with some music.
As the day progresses, I can’t help but feel that Alexander is the kind of person I try to be. But part of what makes his personality work is his ability to stick around, to be there day in and day out for people. His friends rely on him, and he relies on them—the simple balance on which so many lives are built.
I decide to make sure that this is true. I zone out of math class and tune in instead to Alexander’s memories. The way I access him, it’s like turning on a hundred televisions at the same time, I’m seeing so many parts of him at once. The good memories. The hard memories.
His friend Cara is telling him she’s pregnant. He is not the father, but she trusts him more than she does the father. His father doesn’t want him to spend so much time on the guitar, tells him music is a dead-end calling. He drinks his third can of Red Bull, trying to finish a paper at four in the morning because he was out with friends until one. He is climbing the ladder of a tree house. He is failing his driver’s test and fighting back tears when the instructor tells him. He is alone in his room, playing the same tune over and over again on an acoustic guitar, trying to figure out what it means. Ginny Dulles is breaking up with him, saying it’s just that she likes him as a friend, when the truth is that she likes Brandon Rogers more. He is on a swing set, six years old, going higher and higher until he is convinced this is it, this is the time he will fly. He is slipping money into Mickey’s wallet while Mickey isn’t looking, so later on Mickey will be able to pay his share of the check. He is dressed as the Tin Man on Halloween. His mother has burned her hand on the stove and he doesn’t know what to do. The first morning he has his license, he drives to the ocean to watch the sunrise. He is the only one there.