Some lovers elope; some suicide hand in hand. They have another option.
Under the clear blue sky dashed with but a few playful strokes of white cotton, a cool breeze carelessly combed through the treetops, cajoling the afternoon sunlight to dance on shadowy grass. Dry leaves were pulled from their branches and into the open air, swaying and scattering across the stretch of green as if alive.
In an inconspicuous corner of a well-frequented park, he crossed his long legs and leaned into the hard bench to try and make his sore behind comfortable, eyes trained on the yellowing pages of the book in his hands.
Three o’clock, his watch indicated.
An anxious thrumming roiled in his chest. He brushed away a leaf caught between his unruly dark locks and reached for the smoothie beside him, taking a sip through the fat straw. The ice had melted, making his drink a diluted, unpalatable mush, but he hardly noticed the degrading flavor and drank another mouthful.
As he chewed on the red straw with his front teeth, birds were chirping in a riot somewhere among the lush foliage over his head. Flapping of wings. Rustling of branches. Some kid’s energetic shout could be heard, drowning out his parents’ concerned hollers.
A soft voice that pushed all other sounds into the background.
He lowered the book down onto his lap and smiled at the young girl walking up to him.
The dark-green uniform of her prestigious academy was something he’d gotten used to seeing her in. She was small for her age, much to her chagrin, her long brown hair done up with a clamp in an effort to look more mature. But it was a poor one, for her round innocent eyes and rosy cheeks gave her tender years away.
Long ago, he would have gotten up to hug this little girl.
“How did the presentation go?” He put his book away and moved his cup so that she could sit next to him.
“Okay,” she sighed. “Not satisfactory, but was still an A.”
Ah, always so critical of herself.
He ruffled her head, messing up her hairdo on purpose. “Atta girl.”
“Garry!” Red eyes protested in place of her calm visage.
He chuckled and sat back to watch her attempt to salvage the vandalism. Soon, a smooth stream of mahogany was released from the crystal brown clamp, pouring generously down her shoulders and swaying along the length of her back. It framed her chiseled profile.
Nipping the hair clamp from her fingers in one swift motion, he pocketed the accessory with a smirk. “Confiscated.” And before she could voice her objection, he ran a hand down the side of her face, fingers ever so fleetingly brushing her straight locks. “You’re beautiful, Ib.”
As he withdrew his hand, she touched the place where his caress had been and lowered her eyes to the ground. His smile widened at the sight of her indifferent face heating up.
Sitting back in his seat, however, his mirth faded. He’d made the mistake of scanning their surroundings, some of which he’d rather not see.
People were coming and going.
A couple walked hand in hand on their date. A single-child family enjoying their occasional outing.
People were lingering.
The laidback old women feeding pigeons on the cobblestone road. A group of students in dark-green uniforms sat by the edge of the lake.
People were talking.
Thinly veiled disapproval.
Society was really nosy.
Or maybe he had merely become too sensitive.
He got up to throw his smoothie away, and, when he came back, sat a little farther away from her, ignoring her dissatisfied frown. They proceeded to stay in silence. She was rarely the conversation starter, and he was reluctant to speak. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched her fight to keep her thick fall of hair at bay in the face of a powerful gust.
“Don’t you have class right now?” she asked suddenly.
“Ah… I quit this morning,” he simpered, and, at her alarmed look, added, “I haven’t the knacks for designing after all. I don’t want to keep dumping my old man’s money down the drain.”
The fourteen-year-old appeared perplexed, trying to think of an appropriate response to his predicament. He could see her biting back the offer to use her family’s money, as she’d been taught from a very early stage of their relationship it wasn’t ‘appropriate.’ This made him feel even more pathetic.
He kept a wry scowl off his face and knitted his hands together, blunt nails digging into callous knuckles. The sooner he got this over with… “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m thinking about moving back home to help with the business.”
“What? No! What about us—” She seemed to realize something, and a rare spark of anger ignited across her expression. “Is this because Ma and Pa met with you the other day?”
“They just want the best for you, Ib. They’re right.”
He looked ahead, dreading her hurt face. Her parents hadn’t had a problem with him before, treating her attachment to him as a childish crush that would fade with time. But as time passed, it was growing to be increasingly apparent that wasn’t the case. And the final straw was probably how he didn’t even hide his affection for their daughter.
He’d tried. He worked hard to get a degree. He’d stopped smoking, stopped dyeing his hair and wore more sensible clothes. He’d wanted to be someone befitting her, but it wasn’t enough for them to accept him.
At first, it was the dwindling visits to his apartment. Then the evening curfews to keep them from hanging out too late. Now, he wasn’t even allowed to see her anymore.
As he heaved a sigh, she said, “I don’t care. I’ll come with you.”
He looked at her, seeing the determination in her eyes. To be young and naïve. Although, he wouldn’t deny feeling flattered by her devotion to him, and that a childish, irrational part of him nearly jumped at the suggestion. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I care, Ib. Anywhere we go, people are still gonna judge. And I don’t think I can look after you as well as I’d like. We’ll both be miserable.”
“So you assume we won’t be if apart?”
“I was hoping it’ll only be me that’ll be hurting.”
Her red hot glare told him he was looking down on her feelings, and he conceded with a shameful shrug, head sinking between bony shoulders. Silence draped over them once more, like a stuffy blanket that he wished for nothing more than to kick off. The rims of his eyes were starting to burn. He’d been afraid this would happen. He was really doing this, saying goodbye to her. The thought of never seeing her again sowed fear and anger deep in the pit of his stomach, while the frustration at his powerlessness tightened his throat.
“Is there…” she began after an eternity, and he realized the girl had already snuggled up by his side. “Is there no other way?” With her legs gathered to her chest, she looked so vulnerable under the sunlight filtering through the branch spread.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her small frame and found himself musing.
Had he been wrong to be so open about his feelings for her and come off as a threat in her parents’ eyes? He’d honestly thought the Lowells would come through for them. Or at least, for her. Cradle-robbing was probably just too hard to get past, and he’d been too full of it, thinking that their circumstances were special.
But weren’t they special? Having fought for their lives and taken away another’s together? Having withstood traumas and nightmares by each other’s side? Alas, no one would ever understand. The death grip she’d once had around his waist had been strangely comforting. And though she remained silent, he’d felt her erratic heartbeats through her back. The swift moment of tranquility they’d spent under the sun that smelled of beef fat. Running for his life and being on his toes hadn’t left time for thinking. It really was nice not having to think.
He looked at his wrist before giving her a light squeeze. “Wanna go grab a bite?”
She grabbed his arm to check the time and shook her head. “I have to go soon.” The sorrow she tried to keep hidden broke his heart.
“… Isn’t there a place where no one will judge us somewhere?”
He didn’t trust himself to speak, lowering his gaze. Her shoulders sagged, and she got to her feet. “This isn’t over okay, Garry? We’ll talk again later.” She slid her fingers into his jacket and took back the hair clamp. It was supposed to be a keepsake.
As he watched her tread through the grass towards the empty street, her words played on repeat in his head.
And he remembered. He remembered opening his eyes to find the stabbing pain gone and his head cradled in her worried embrace. He remembered watching over her sleeping form, feather-light in his lap, curled up under his ragged coat. He remembered the intimacy they’d shared with trembling abandon in a hideout of dusty bookshelves.
He looked down at his worn wristwatch.
“Huh…the hands’ stopped. Is it dead?” he’d thought to himself in one moment of reprieve.
She turned around in surprise as he grabbed her by the elbow. Breathing heavily, he looked into her eyes and saw his own uncertainty reflected in them. He was being weak and stupid, but he’d always been that way. The question was how far she was willing to tolerate the failure of a man that was he.
The wind picked up again, plastering her hair to her cheek, but she made no movement to tuck it behind her ear. She was waiting patiently, as if somehow sensing the outlandishness of the proposal about to roll of his tongue.
He swallowed, tightening the hold on her arm.
“There is a place.”
“Said all your goodbyes?”
“I don’t have that many. Just Ma and Pa. I should be asking you.”
“You’d think,” he chuckled and decided to ignore the dark smears underneath her bloodshot eyes she tried to cover with side-swept bangs.
With her hands in his, he led her through the busy streets towards downtown.
People were walking. People were talking.
Furtive glances, thinly veiled disapproval and whispering.
Society was really nosy.
But he didn’t care.
He ran a hand through wind-tousled mauve locks, and she pushed long, seamless fall over her shoulder. His heart rattled between his ribcage. As they arrived through the black metal gate, he felt her hesitation. He smiled at her and gave a gentle tug.
She squeezed his hand.
To a place where no one will judge them.
They went up deceptive white steps, and passed impassive figures. His heart was now still, at peace, reassured by the warmth of her soft palm. Browsing the spontaneous but purposeful brushes of the famed artist, they waited for it to become dark.
To a place where there was no one to judge them.
And as they sank into the deep abyss, the walls dripped an oily blue.