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You find a new coffee place. This one has yellow walls and stiff armchairs and they don’t swirl hearts in your foam the way you like, but you bear it because he doesn’t come here.
After that, you change your radio settings. Yours are currently tuned to his favorite classical piano stations, but you can’t listen to that anymore because it makes you remember afternoons spent in his house listening to him practice. You stop meeting your friends in the hallway after chemistry class since he comes here too and you don’t want to see him. You sign up for extra clubs and classes and fill any other spare moment of your day with studying or friends because if you don’t give yourself time to think about him, it can’t hurt.
Art class is the one period you share together, the one place you can’t avoid him. It’s the most painful part of your day, though you pretend it isn’t. You laugh loudly at the jokes your classmates tell so he can hear how much you don’t care, but once, your eyes stray to where he’s sitting on the other side of the room. His head is bent over a half-finished painting, hair curling softly at the nape of his neck because he hasn’t had a haircut in a while. Something twists in your stomach, and you turn away before he can catch you looking.
After class, he approaches you. “Hey,” he says, hands shoved into pockets, an uncomfortable smile stretching across his lips. It’s kind of him to be the one to break the ice, but you don’t want it broken just yet, so you pick up your books and give a smile too bright to be real. “Late for class,” you say as you push past him, wincing when you realize it’s lunchtime.
That afternoon you say yes when Adam Lee invites you to his party Friday night. You spend an hour getting ready when the evening arrives. Change into a pretty dress. Paint makeup on your face until you feel radiant. Let him kiss you on his back porch once the party ends even though his mouth tastes of stale beer and his meaty fingers keep slipping lower. Because it makes you forget, if only for a little bit.
Then the next morning you find a forgotten voice memo with his name on it. Before you can will yourself out of it, you click play. As his music fills the room, a ghost of a memory surfaces in your mind. Him, seated on the wobbly black piano seat in his mother’s living room. Looking over to you, eyes smiling with his mouth, long piano fingers curving over ivory keys.
Remembering hurts more than you want to admit. You blink twice, shake your head, and think of Marissa’s words, trying to bring back some of the fire from yesterday. It works, a little bit. It’s so much easier to hate him than to miss him.
Fuck him, you think to yourself, turning up the Spotify playlist you made last night appropriately titled “fuck him” until the floor shakes and your ears bleed, but it’s alright, since your heart hurts a little less.
“Fuck him,” your best friend Marissa exclaims to you over a plate of apple-walnut salad and herb toast. It’s Saturday, the day the two of you have lunch together, and today she’s taken you to an overpriced cafe. They have terribly small portions, and as you stab at an apple slice with your fork, you can’t help but wish you’d gotten pizza instead.
“Fuck him,” she repeats, clearly enjoying the power of the words. “You don’t need that boy. You don’t deserve the hurt he’s caused you.”
This speech is simply a requirement of Marissa’s job as best friend to the heartbroken, and you know it, but her words still stick with you. How dare he make you feel this way? A spark of outrage bubbles in your stomach and glows brighter, hotter. By the time Marissa pulls up to your house and kisses your cheek goodbye, you are burning.
You spend hours getting rid of everything connected to him. Christmas cards, old photographs, even club T-shirts with his name on the back. You write elusive posts on Twitter like “isn’t it so wonderful when someone you care about squeezes your heart dry” and “like if you’re single.” You delete dozens of pictures from your phone, un-like his social media pics, remove his contact. Create an angry playlist and try to remove him from your thoughts, too.
There’s a girl on his Instagram page. She isn’t you, and she’s tall and very pretty, with dark green eyes and hair dyed a shade of ashy blonde you could never pull off. A quick click on her profile tells you she plays piano too. Something sharp and ugly takes root deep in your stomach, and you call Marissa. The two of you spend the next thirty minutes scrolling through her posts, making fun of her captions and lack of color theme. You feel like a terrible feminist once you hang up.
You wonder if he only posted the picture to make you jealous and is hoping you’ll call him. You wonder if you should call him.
You come to your senses before you can, but tears are rising in your eyes now and you can’t hold them back. They spill down your cheeks hot and thick, faster than you can wipe them away. He looked so happy in that picture and here you are now, crying on the dusty hardwood floor over a boy who doesn’t care about you.
You don’t know how you misread it all so badly. Maybe if you were prettier he would have wanted you more. Maybe if your thighs didn’t stick together or if your hair decided whether it wanted to be straight or curly and not stubbornly in-between, maybe if you were tall and had dark green eyes like the girl from the picture. Maybe, maybe.
That night you fall asleep thinking of the day you first realized how you felt about him. The two of you had gone to the county fair in a big group last July, right in the middle of a terrible heat wave. The air was hot and dry and you’d forgotten to bring water even though your mother had reminded you twice, so he bought you a cherry Icee. Twelve dollars plus tax.
“A rip-off,” he said, placing the drink in front of you, but then he grinned so you would know he wasn’t mad.
Drinks weren’t allowed on rides or in lines, so you had to have your Icee at the table. He waited with you, telling stories about his siblings and his piano teacher all the while.
You took forty minutes to finish your cherry Icee. He didn’t mind.
There are more hours in the day than you want. You never realized how much time you spent talking to him or thinking about him until you tried doing neither.
You wish you could move past this the way girls do in movies. Eat entire tubs of chocolate ice cream, read romance novels and weep at every page. Have therapy sleepovers with all your girlfriends and come out on the other side happier for it, stronger. Except you can’t see the other side, not yet, anyway.
You miss your conversations, more than anything. He was charming, always, and kind and funny and caring. Sometimes he would say just the right thing and look at you just the right way and you would feel a big, swirling feeling deep in your belly, and the moment would consume you. You miss that sensation, miss him, but you’ve learned not to cry when you think of him anymore. Instead, you feel empty, hollow, and maybe that’s even worse.
In art class today, he smiles at you, hesitant and sweet. You haven’t spoken or so much as acknowledged each other since that very first, morning-after day, and his smile now makes you certain he’s moved past it all.
Hurt swells in your throat, pushes against your lips. You can’t make yourself smile back.
It happens slowly. Begins with the coffee. You return to your old and loved coffeehouse, mainly because you miss the plush velvet seating and familiar hearts in your drinks, but also because enough time has passed and the possibility of running into him here doesn’t terrify you anymore.
You do catch a glimpse of him a couple times, and you feel fine, for the most part. It’s like a cut starting to scab over. It hurts still, but not as much as it used to, and soon it won’t at all.
One morning, you’re the first two people in art class. If this ever happened in previous weeks, you’d hurry to your seat and busy yourself with your planner. Get out your supplies, start sketching an outline on your canvas. But you steel yourself now, hold your ground instead.
“Hi,” you say this time, and your voice is clear. Maybe you’re not ready to be friends with him just yet, but you are healing and this encounter feels like progress.
One day, far in the future, you will meet someone new. Someone who makes you remember long piano fingers and cherry Icees and the first boy you ever loved. But it won’t hurt to think of him then, not one bit, because this will be someone meant to stay.
Cynthia Zhou (@ethernautics) draws and writes in Philadelphia. She likes amphibians, shapes, and swing dancing. Find her at cynthiazhouart.com!
Arushi Avachat (@arushi.24) is a writer from Pleasanton, California. She is a three-time National YoungArts Winner in Writing and a three-time Scholastic Writing Awards National Medalist. Arushi released her first book, a short story collection titled When Love Dies, in Spring 2019. She is currently revising her second book, a Young Adult contemporary novel, as part of Author Mentor Match Round 8. Arushi studies English and Political Science at UCLA. She loves dark chocolate, Jane Austen novels, and California winters.