I was in my twenties the first time I realized I was in love with a city. It wasn’t the kind of love that came with the windswept hair and sidewalk kisses and swelling music. This city was far less romantic, but it was familiar. I memorized each road, and the buildings greeted me like friends I had known for years.
But the city isn’t where this story starts. This story starts inside, of all things, a moving bus, on a Wednesday morning, just a few weeks before the end of summer.
I ride the same bus route everyday to work, and as any commuter would know, choosing seats is a game of luck — despite running late half the time, I’d always hope to be first in line for the next bus at the station, and like a cliché, I’d always take the leftmost aisle in the exact middle row, right beside the window, where I could watch the city approaching as if it were on a wide-screen TV.
It’s the middle of the morning, and I place my forearm on the sun-baked windowsill, feeling the late summer sunrays on my face. One by one, passengers trickle into the bus, many of whom had their noses buried in smartphones, earphones firmly affixed. Up front, the mini-television swings out of its place with a squeak, and the mid-morning television drama blares. No one even looks up. I much preferred the buses that played music instead, if we’re being honest. But I hadn’t seen much daytime television anyways, so I fix my eyes on the tiny, pixelated screen and take in my dosage of revenge plots and teary confrontations.
The bus door clamps shut, and with a loud hiss and a jolt, the bus begins treading its way into the city traffic just as the television cuts to commercial.
Just then, I hear a thud beside me. It’s the last passenger, a middle-aged woman who’s just dropped in and perched herself on the seat to my left, panting and heaving — she’d obviously been running to catch the bus. I scooch closer to the window and thank my lucky stars for my timing today.
I hear the woman’s labored breaths beside me, and despite myself, a sneak sidelong glances at her. I take in the two-inch heels and cream satin blouse — a typical city woman. She probably worked in one of those tall buildings in the city with glass windows and highly polished floors. I imagined a frazzled young intern handing her coffee every morning as she strode out of mirrored elevators.
I hug my well-worn backpack a little closer to my chest and find the embroidered keychain dangling on its side. I trace the letters of my name embroidered in bright red felt: June. I was born in July, on the very first day of the month. A miscalculation — my mother had expected me on the final days of June, just before the days began to turn wet and rainy. I arrived later than planned, plump and screaming, but the name stuck.
It had been nearly three years since the city and I became regular companions, ever since I started working straight out of university. Before long, I began adapting all its little habits, many before I ever realized them: how I memorized the patterns of the stoplights and crosswalks, how I could weave my way in and out of crowds while barely even needing to look up; how I grew accustomed to speeding cars and construction noise as the background music to my everyday life. How I learned to be alone in the middle of crowds.
I daydream about the city like this, lost in a reverie of sorts as I watch the skyline that it takes moments to register that the bus has completely stopped, parked on the side of the road. I quickly snap out of my thoughts and do a quick scan of my surroundings: outside the window are hectares of flat expanse of land dotted with a few sparse trees, which I quickly recognize as the soon-to-be developed upscale residential area right at the mid-point to the city. Coincidentally also where our bus engine had very conveniently decided to give up.
Inside the bus, passengers are glancing up from their phones, confusion written on their faces, quickly transforming into worry and anger. Murmurs of dissent begin to course through the bus, and up front, our driver had stood up to face us.
He clears his throat. “Well, everyone,” He begins in a thin, reedy voice. “Let me go see what the problem is and everyone just stay inside, yes?”
The murmurs among the passengers begin to rise, and the woman beside me speaks up.
“Sorry, but how long will we be delayed?” She spoke with a clipped, nasal sharpness that was reminiscent of so many of those high-ceilinged business-district executives.
I checked the time on my phone screen: 11:37. Shit. There was no way I would be making it to my meeting in time. I had never, ever, been late for work — it was almost a convulsion how meticulously I followed work rules, arriving at least fifteen minutes early every single day. The routine of it calmed my senses, in a way, knowing that I had perfect discipline, which of course translated into high praise from upper-hands and colleagues. Sweet little June, who arrived right on time and readied the coffee pot for everyone everyday. I’ve never admitted it to anyone, but it gave me an ego boost every time.
But now I was running late, and my heart was beginning to pound, the familiar panic beginning to swirl in my chest. My fingers twitched, and I ached suddenly for the familiar comfort of a cigarette stick, the calm brought on by a nicotine rush.
I quickly shake my head clear from my thoughts. I was approaching ten months clean, and I wasn’t about to break my streak, but the panic continues to rise, my chest constricting like I was running out of air. I needed to get out.
Standing up, I slide my way past the lady beside me and into bus aisle, running out the open door into the sunlight I take a deep breath, and exhale it in a few coughs. In between the tears in my eyes, I see the passengers begin to exit the bus, blinking their eyes in the new brightness.
I whirl around, and before I stop myself, my breath catches in my throat, exploding into a new fit of coughs — right into the face of a man.
My eyes are blurry with tears, in and in my limited vision I make out the outline of a man not much older than myself, stepping backward in recoil from my sudden attack. I watch the scene as if I were a third person surveying this whole encounter, the events unfolding like a horror story in slow motion: the man’s head has turned sideways as a reflex to avoid my face, and in the force of my turn my backpack swings a nearly full three-sixty, hitting him squarely in the stomach. And then my arms are outreached, and I’m grasping and reaching out it’s too late, it’s far too late, and the next thing I know he is on the ground, butt-first, a cloud of dry brown dust rising from the impact of his fall.
I snap out of this reverie and rush to his side, crouching over to help him up. Without thinking, I zero in on his face, on the almond outline of his eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, the peculiar angle of his jutted cheekbones, when a memory suddenly flashes in my mind: a math class, freshman year of high school, in a place far away from where we are now.
He’s older, his face more angular and pronounced, but it’s the same deep tan and hunched shoulders, the same look of confusion that’s now painted over his features.
“Would you mind uh…”
“Oh shoot, sorry.”
I take a step backwards to give him some space and offer my hand to him, which he begrudgingly accepts. With a grunt, he pulls himself up, immediately turning to check his backside, now covered in a layer of brown dust.
“Well, those new pants sure came to waste.”
I feel an extra wave of guilt wash over me.
“Sorry about that.” I manage, my voice coming out all hoarse and tiny.
“It’s cool. I’ve always been on the unluckier side. I just don’t think I’ve embarrassed myself like that in public in the last…” He furrows his brow.”…Five years.”
His voice is a low grumble, but I detect a barely contained hint of annoyance. He dusts off his backside, a futile attempt. “Hi, June.”
He turns back to face me in earnest, his back against the sun, and I recognize now my classmate from high school, after what must have been eight or nine years, a whole lifetime ago.
“Noah. Hi.” I cleared my throat. “You look… older”
It was a weak attempt, I know, but what were you supposed to say to a former high school classmate after years of close to zero contact? In high school, Noah and I shared the same friend group, as one of the few Asians in a predominantly Western, predominantly white school, but we’d always remained at a certain civil distance, never really progressing past polite acknowledgement of each other. Noah had always been on the quieter side of the spectrum, while I was an active — almost too active — member in class discussions, desperate to secure my place at the top of the roster.
Beyond bus, over the horizon, the sun is sure and erect in the sky, bathing everything in a warm, rippling haze, and I hear the other passengers behind me scattering off by themselves in small groups.
“Wait, where’s everyone going?”
“The driver said it might take a while.” Noah looks over at the driver in question, speaking into his phone with wild agitated gestures. “Something about the engine malfunctioning, or something like that.”
He turns back to face me. “Looks like we might be here a while.”
Oh no. There was no way I would be making it to work at this rate, even for half a day. I quickly type out an apology to my boss on my phone, explaining my current situation. Not once in my two years of work had I missed a day. Not even on my own birthday, although they encouraged me to. I looked up at the sky, silently throwing a curse into the stratosphere. Was this the universe’s way of telling me to give myself a break?
“You could have just let me win the lottery, you know.” I say out loud to the clouds.
“Nothing,” I shake my head. “Sorry.”
“June, are you okay?”
Noah’s peering down at my face, his brows furrowed in a worried expression.
“Yes!” I exclaim. “Are you okay?”
I silently kick myself. I wasn’t usually this bad at conversations, but I’d been out of myself the whole day.
“No, I’m alright. It just… You ran off the bus earlier and it seemed like you weren’t feeling well.”
I pause. It hadn’t occurred to me that the other passengers probably all witnessed my little scene earlier in the bus. I could hear their voices now, all skepticism and concern and pity, murmuring about the poor girl who who ran off the bus.
It’s a few moments before I realize Noah’s been staring at me warily out of the corner of his eye. My skin prickles, and I feel a sudden parch in my throat. I reach around for my water bottle before realizing with a bitter jolt that I’d left it sitting at my desk at work.
Nothing was working out for me today, so it seemed.
“Do you want to go to the convenience store? There’s one somewhere around here,” I do a quick scan around, “And I could really use a drink right about now.”
“You mean like alcohol?” Noah turns to me, appalled.
“No! It’s not even lunchtime!” I laugh. “But what’s with the tone of surprise?!” I turn to him.
“I was joking.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “You making jokes? I never recalled that in high school.” I start walking along the side of the road, around the now-abandoned bus, Noah trailing beside me.
“Well, that was in high school. I’m a total party jock now, I’ll have you know.”
The absurdity of the statement makes me laugh even more, and though he suppresses it, out of the corner of my eye I see the corners of his mouth deepening ever-so-slightly.
“So what are you doing in this area anyway?” I ask. “How did I come to see you in a broken-down bus, of all places?”
Standing beside me, I realize how much Noah had grown over the years: his hair was shorter, his skin tanner than ever, but there was also something else: a straightness in his spine, a tenseness in the way he carried himself.
“Well, I live about twelve stations back? I was on the way to the city for a job interview.” He delivers the final part with a heaving sigh, one that I understood only too well.
“Wait, so have you told them about our situation?”
“Didn’t need to.” He purses his lips, silent for a beat. “They cancelled. Didn’t tell me why.”
“Shoot, that sucks. I’m sorry.” I truly was, the job hunt was an exhausting activity, one that didn’t come with many rewards.
We walk in silence for a few moments, treading over sun-baked soil and the occasional patch of dry grass. In the distance, I spot the 7-Eleven gleaming in all its neon iridescence, glowing even beneath the sunlight like some modern-day oasis, and further beyond, the glitter and ripple of the town’s one and only lake.
“You know, this area used to be a playground.”, I say. Although I rarely visited, I remembered the rusty swing sets and plastic slides, warm and gleaming in the sunlight that they always looked like they were melting. In the colder months, there would be small groups of young families, pushing their screaming kids in the swings. It was a peaceful sight, until a few months back when men in hard hats and machinery arrived, and the next day all that was left was this barren land.
“Did you play here often then?” Noah turns to me, a tiny hint of a smile on his lips, and suddenly I find myself wishing I did.
“No, I was just always too… busy.” I poke my toe at a small patch of indented grass, an outline of a pole where the swings once stood. “Now I kinda wish I did.”
“Well you know what everybody says, you only miss it once it’s — ”
“Gone, yeah I know.”
He doesn’t offer me a reply, and so we make the rest of the way in complete silence, save for the chattering of a few birds overhead.
Noah opens the door to the 7-Eleven, and I feel an instant wave of relief when I step in, as the air-conditioning washes over me. I immediately make my way over to the refrigerators and pick out the cheapest bottle of water on the shelf, relishing in the ice-cold condensation in my fingers.
Noah, I notice, has slid into a vacant bench by the window, head bent over his phone, and I join him after paying for my water at the counter, sliding in the bench across him.
“Do you not mind hanging around with me here?” I ask, eyeing him with more than a little wariness as I unscrew my water bottle. Under the fluorescent lights, I take more notice of the lines of his face, the jutted-out curve of his jaw.
“Well maybe I do a little.”
I aim an eyeroll in his direction, then stop myself halfway.
“Joking, June.” He gives me a half-sardonic look.
“You joke a lot these days, don’t you?”
“Sorry.” He puts his phone down, folding his hands into his chest and facing me. “It was just… nice to see a familiar face, after a while.”
I feel a small warm glow inside me then at the unexpected comment.
I change the subject. “So what kind of job were you supposed to be applying for today anyway?”
Noah heaves another sigh then, his chest puffing up with air before answering.
“It was just a part-time thing at this auditing firm in the city. Just to make a little extra money while I finish up my studies.”
“You’re still studying?”
He fidgets with his collar. “It’s my Master’s. Statistical Economics. My parents insisted on me getting one. Wasn’t really thrilled, but you know, I didn’t have the heart to let them down.”
A small memory suddenly flashes in the back of my mind: Noah, getting the highest scores in math exam after math exam, quiet and bespectacled, upstaging everyone else in class.
“So my parents sent me here with an allowance and a mission, and I visit them back home at the end of every year.”
Behind us, the door clangs, and I recognize a few of the other passengers stepping inside, quickly followed by a trail of others. A high, nasally clipped voice pipes out from the crowd, and I recognize my seatmate, the executive lady.
“Do you wanna go back out?”
Outside the window, the sun rays were beginning to wane, and more clouds had started to gather above the horizon.
“Yeah, sure.” He picks up his backpack, and outside the 7-Eleven the afternoon heat hits the both of us in waves. Beyond the grassland, our bus still stood, lonesome and bright yellow and apologetic in the middle of the empty road. I wondered where our bus driver had gone.
By some unspoken understanding, Noah and I turn and begin walking past the 7-Eleven, into the direction of the lake. It was technically called a lake, but it never looked big or dramatic enough to be one. More like an overgrown pond in the middle of puberty.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Noah take off his jacket, tying it around his waist.
“You know, I never knew what your actual birth name was.”
Attending a school of international students had its privileges, but it also forced us minorities to take on a different personas at times, sometimes adopting Western names. It used to bring me a funny fascination, as if we were all pop stars with made-up personas to perform for an audience.
He laughs. “Believe it or not, it’s actually just Noah.” He secures his jacket in a knot around his waist. “Well, technically it’s No-Ah, if you say it in our language. My parents liked that it could go either way. They practically set me up for globalization.”
“When did you move here?” I prompt.
“I was around ten or eleven? But we’d already been moving around by then, moving back and forth between here and home. You know how it is. But the thing about moving around is you — “
“You never really get to set roots”.
He pauses, searching for the right words.
“It’s like, almost everyone I know has someone they call a best friend, you know. Then I realize growing up I never really had one, and I’m not saying this for you to pity me or anything, but it just, it gets pretty lonely.”
Noah pauses, his eyes on the lake, now hazy and glittering in the afternoon sun.
“My brother, he was that person for me, until he — you know.”
I remembered Noah’s older brother had passed the year we were freshmen, and for a few weeks it was all our class could talk or not talk about. The one Friday when Noah had been phoned to leave class early, his eyes bloodshot and raw coming off the phone call. That afternoon when his parents came to collect him, he heaved dry sobs that echoed around the empty hallway. I remember how much he resembled a wounded animal in his disheveled P.E. uniform, his tears intermingling with dirt and sweat. We didn’t see him until the week after next, and he looked so much smaller then; thinner, like half his body had vanished into thin air.
I’d never admitted it to anyone, but I’ve always been terrified of loss. Whenever people asked me what I was most afraid of, my canned response would always be “spiders” or something similarly generic. But the truth was that I have always been terrified of grief, and the all-consuming way it inhibited your body, settling right into your bones until they grew old and heavy. The thing nobody told you about grief was how it stuck with you everywhere you went for the rest of your life.
“I’m sorry about that. I don’t think I ever got to tell you.”
We’re nearing the lake’s edge now, that I can see the tiny ripples on the water’s surface, as well as the reflection of the late afternoon sunlight, warm gold over pale blue opal. A gust of warm wind blows over us, and my hair whips around like a tornado.
“It’s okay. Thanks for saying that anyway.”
“People say life never really turns out the way you plan it.”
“Yeah. And sometimes it works out well enough and sometimes it just doesn’t.”
Noah looks at me then, and I feel my skin prickle.
“I was always so patient and kind when I was younger.” He pauses, mouth lifted into a tiny smirk, and his eyes flit into the horizon, now a blazing shade of orange. “I think I was so kind and patient then, that the idea of me being anything other than that, being upset — like, having anger or sadness as an emotion — was just such a strange, foreign idea to my parents.”
“What are you looking at?” He turns to me all of a sudden, and I realize I kept my eyes fixed on his face longer than what probably was necessary.
“Nothing!” I say. And then there is. “I was just wondering what you’re like when you’re angry.”
He smiles at that, to my surprise, the corners of his mouth deepening ever so slightly into his cheek. He shifts his feet, and the fading sunlight catches on a scar just below his lip. In my head, images flash of an origin story for the scar: a fall off a bike after a wrong turn, a schoolyard scuffle with another kid. The thought made me smile.
“I wish I’d known you then.” I say, the words coming out before I can stop them. “I think we could’ve helped each other.”
I think back to those days in locker-lined hallways and cafeterias crowded with adolescents, all of us trying our best to seem as put-together and aloof as possible, yet all desperately dying for each others’ approval.
“In high school, you weren’t supposed to care. Or at least you were supposed to act like you didn’t.”
“Sucks, doesn’t it, now that you look back at it.” Noah’s eyes are still fixed at a point on the water, and suddenly he’s kicking off his shoes and peeling off his socks.
“You can’t — no, you’re not actually doing that. Noah.”
The boy is relentless, now untying his jacket and rolling it up beside his shoes. “Come on, June.”
He stretches out his hand, and before I protest myself, I’m mirroring his actions, kicking off my shoes and socks into a corner.
He starts to laugh, his voice a deep, raspy echo over the water.
I slide my backpack from my arms, feeling more than its weight lifted off my shoulders and strip down to my mini-dress. Without my leggings, my legs are cold and bare, and a violent shiver rips through me.
“We are gonna be so cold later.” I could already feel it coming.
He shrugs. “We have my jacket.”
“I am so going to regret doing this tomorrow.“
“You can worry about that tomorrow then.”
His hand is still outstretched, and I take it in my own, taking notice of the quickened pulse on his wrist.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this.” I whisper.
“You ready?” His grip on my hand is firm and tight, and my heart does a little somersault. “Yeah?”
“One, two… three!”
We run towards the lake’s edge, into the direction of the sunset and lift off our feet from the sandy rock, and for a few short moments the entire world was completely quiet. And then the next moment we’re in the water with a splash, icy cold liquid running rivets up our exposed skin.
The water was a living thing, and it swallowed our bodies whole. In the few short moments we spent submerged underwater I could see the outline of Noah’s body, shirt and jeans and all, blurry in the blue-green of the lakewater, his hand still firmly clasped in mine.
I feel my lungs contract, and together we come up for air, gasping in the new biting wind. Noah’s air is plastered flat on his head, water glistening on his skin like dewdrops in the fading light.
Beyond the lake’s edge, beyond the 7-Eleven and the bus and the passengers and everything else I left behind on land, I see the first few evening stars, faint and hopeful against the skyline. There’s a new stillness in the air, broken only by our steady breathing, and neither of us say a word, as if by some mutual understanding we both knew any other noise would break this stillness, this peace that now surrounded the water and Noah and I.
I break free from Noah’s hand for a moment and submerge myself underwater once more, blowing a slow, steady stream of air through my mouth. I count the bubbles as they exit my lips.
One. It was the middle of the work week, and I was nowhere near getting any work done before my deadlines.
Two. I was underwater, swimming in a lake in the middle of nowhere.
Three. I was in the water with a beautiful boy, who might have just been a little bit in love with me.
I come back up to the surface for air, and dusk’s now fully settled in, the sky a deep shade of purple and orange dotted with a few more stars.
Noah’s looking over at me, the pale moonlight reflecting in his almond eyes, and there’s something else too, a kind of soft wonder in his gaze. An expression I didn’t see often, let alone I had a name for.
“You wanna go back out?”
I nod, following him up the lake’s edge. Together, we climb back out of the water, and I feel the early autumn cold hitting me in earnest, my teeth starting to chatter. The consequences we would inevitably have to face would be coming soon, I knew, as a bitter wave of reality colder than any lake water came washing over me.
I pull my thin scarf from my backpack and dry myself as best as I can with the little fabric, when I feel Noah walk up to me, holding his jacket out in my direction.
“Take it. I’ve got an extra T-shirt in here somewhere.”
“Thanks.” I accept the warm clothing gratefully without protest and, turning around, quickly insert my arms and zip it up my torso, the dry fabric bringing warmth to my otherwise soaking figure. I wring out the water from my hair and when I turn back around, Noah’s in a fresh T-shirt, his formal wear now soiled and dripping wet spread out on a rock. In his T-shirt his arms are more exposed, and more than ever I take notice of the deep tan of his skin, the new lines in his abdomen where his skinny body had once been.
“June.” His voice is deep and soft above me, and I feel a tingle on the bottom of my soles.
“Seriously. Have you been okay?” He shakes a hand in his in his hair, small droplets of water flying everywhere, then squats down to where I’m sitting, both of us facing the lake as I hug my knees against the bitter wind. He turns to me, his brows furrowed together in that expression again. His arm makes a sudden motion towards me as if to touch my face, but he detracts it just as quickly.
There’s a pause as I take in the gravity of his question, then slowly I shake my head, taking note of the tears forming in my in my eyes I’m unable to suppress, hot and angry even in this wind.
“No.” I tell the ground beneath my feet, my voice barely above a whisper.
“But I felt better today than I have in months.”
The words come out slow and measured, the realization hitting me just then, and I turn to my side to face him fully. One-half of Noah’s face is illuminated in a pale glow under the steadily growing moonlight as he watches me, his hair still providing a steady drip of water on the sandy ground between us. I watch as a single drop rolls off the side of his face and down his shoulder, before disappearing into a dark circle on the ground.
“It’s just…” I clear my throat, unsure of where to begin. “I don’t really know anymore what it is my family wants me to be. I’ve been spending my whole life trying to figure it out. I pick at a few blades of wet grass beneath my feet. “Trying to live up to it, whatever it is.”
I feel another lump in my throat, sharp and stinging. “But it just doesn’t seem to ever be really enough.” I hear my voice waver at the end of the final sentence, and I take in a deep breath of the cold night air to fill my lungs.
Noah had been honest with me the entire afternoon, and I feel the words unravelling themselves loose from my lips as if a dam had been opened. I brush a tear from my cheek, hating myself for causing such a melodramatic scene.
“It’s like,” I straighten my back, searching for the right words. “Everyday I open my Facebook or my Instagram, and I see some kid my age or younger starring in their own Netflix series, or whatever. Or making millions from their own businesses. Forbes’ ‘Thirty under Thirty’ and all that”.
Noah makes a sound somewhere between a scoff and a laugh.
“Like, I know I don’t deserve a standing ovation or anything for just… being here,” I make a vague gesture at our surroundings. “But you know, it does kinda suck.”
And then a laugh begins to bubble within me, warm and uncontrolled, which I let loose to ring over the water. At the opposite bank I spot a flock of birds take flight into the sky.
“Noah, can I tell you something?”
He nods wordlessly, another one of his inexplicable expressions on his face, that small half-smile again on his mouth. I catch sight once more of that tiny scar, wondering what it would feel like under my fingers. If anyone else had ever touched that scar before, been this close to his body.
“I wish someone would throw me a surprise party.”
I’d never admitted that to anyone before, for how shallow, how petty it all sounded. I’d taken part in many surprise parties before, and the subject of such had seemed always slightly embarrassed by the effort; happy, yes, but also an undercurrent of bashful gratefulness: ‘Oh you shouldn’t have!’ Then afterwards all smiles and hugs and happy tears.
“I just wanted to know what it felt like to have that many people care about you that they all show up in one place and time.”
I’m sober now, surprised even by how much I’d revealed to Noah, who hasn’t said a word in the past few minutes.
“I’m kind of a catch, you know.” I tell him, half-jokingly. “Not right now but on a good day.”
“I think you’re a catch right now.”
Noah’s shifted around to face me, his face stone serious, unaffected from my attempt to ease the tension.
“June.” His voice is a low whisper, his eyes fixed firmly on my face, I could practically feel the heat where it was trained on me.
“Yeah?” I say without looking up at him, and he moves closer to me, so close I feel the heat of his breath on my forehead.
“I think more people care about you than you think.”
He’s so close I can see the individual threads on his cream-white T-shirt, and for no reason, for any reason, before either of us say another word, I feel my right hand come up from my side and place it softly on the expanse of his chest, where I feel the rhythmic throbbing of his heartbeat under his warm skin.
“June. You know I like you, right?”
I feel more than hear his voice above me, low and hoarse, almost carried away by a sudden gust of wind.
There’s a pause where the only sound is our breathing and the faint thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat or mine; I could no longer tell the difference.
“I- I like you too,” I barely manage to stammer out, my voice even thinner and smaller than his.
His Adam’s apple bobs, and a small smile spreads slowly on his face. The air between us is thick and crackling with electricity, the touch of my palm on his skin magnetic. He moves a step closer to me, and I feel his measured breaths on my face.
“Can I kiss you, then?”
His voice is a whisper, and I hesitate only a moment before closing the gap between us with the softest of kisses, my body folding into his. I feel his lips melt into mine, and then his fingers are on the small of my back and suddenly there are fireworks under my skin and a glowing, golden warmth spreading from my chest to the tips of my fingers and toes. I run a hand in his hair, still soaked with lake water and oh, it is every bit as soft as I’d imagined.
We finally break apart, after moments, weeks, years — I lose track — and when I pull away from him my breath comes in the form of a word: “Finally.”
I feel Noah’s smile against my cheek, and we stand there like this, beneath the street lamps and moonlight, and even further beyond, the dim glimmer of the twinkling city lights. I look up into his almond eyes and see my own longing and desire reflected in them, and there’s something else too — a sense of relief at finally, finally having crossed that unspoken barrier.
Noah’s breaths are warm on my face, and my arms are still winded around his neck, my index finger at his nape, just below the hem of his shirt, and I trace his name on his skin in cursive: Noah.
Noah, who’d always kept to himself in class, and only spoke in a small, quiet voice that made everyone turn and listen, as if his presence was always unannounced.
Noah, who I’d once caught making paper crane origamis for the younger students after class, when he thought no-one was looking, weeks after his brother had passed. I’d never told anyone.
Noah, whose body I now held in my hands, alternating icy cold and warm flush and his heart beating a million miles a minute, the both of us enveloped and nestled by the evening wind. And for the first time in a long, long time, I didn’t feel like I needed to be happy or useful to be worth something, like I didn’t owe anybody anything to be here, taking up this space.
We break apart from each other, his fingers lingering momentarily on my ice-cold collarbone, and when I look across the lake I notice for the first time the trees and the grass and flowers illuminated by a mixture of moonlight and fluorescent streetlights, all existing in their own place and time, steadfast and unapologetic, living and breathing as I did. How they bloomed towards the sunlight half the year and were called beautiful, but weathered rains and storms in secret, taking only what they needed, while no one took any interest in them. Always growing.
The night sky’s settled in in full, and I hear the chirping of cicadas surrounding us, louder than I’d ever heard them before. It struck me then, how strange it was that I’d never really known what a cicada looked like, yet I’d grown used to their song every evening.
“June?” Noah’s voice is a murmur, soft and liquid.
“Yeah?” My lips are still raw from where he’d taken them, and I feel a sudden heat creep up my neck.
“I’m really glad I didn’t get to my job interview today.”
I laugh at that, and he does too, the vibrations from his chest reverberating through to my palm, and we take in the quiet together for a long, stretched-out moment, interrupted only by our steady breathing, that I don’t register when either of us fall asleep on the bank.
I wake to the sound of shouting in the distance, and the world dipped in a midnight blue. I reach into my backpack for my phone and check the time: 8:22 pm — alongside a flurry of messages and missed calls from family and friends. I bite my lip, silently berating myself for not sending them updates. I would have to deal with the consequences soon.
But right now it was fully night time, and it had been nearly nine hours since we were left stranded. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Noah slowly rouse, his hair sticking up in every direction, a far cry from the slicked-back cleanliness of this morning.
“Hey. What time is it?” He asks, his voice still groggy with sleep.
I open my mouth to answer, when a reedy voice calls out over the field: “Bus is leaving!”
I turn and recognize the stocky figure of our bus driver, surrounded by a small smattering of what I suppose are the few passengers left behind from this morning. I stand up quickly, dusting sand from my clothes, my sudden movement bringing spots in my vision, and pull Noah up from the sand, my backpack slung on my other arm.
We make our way beyond the grass, past the lake and the sand and the 7-Eleven, and I notice with a small smile that Noah hasn’t let go of my hand from when I pulled him up, and we make our way across the field with our hands clasped together, my right with his left, just like we had hours ago in the lake, quiet save for our footsteps on the soil in the evening twilight.
I break the silence with a question. “So when did you start liking me and all that?”
He pauses for moments before answering, his head tilted towards the sky. I hadn’t meant it as a serious question, but he’s deep in thought, shoulders poised before answering.
“Right about the time you pulled me out of the dust. The sunlight behind your hair and everything.”
I chuckle at that. This morning seemed like entire weeks ago.
“No, that’s a lie. I’ve always admired you in school, June. The way your hand flew straight up whenever Miss Fitts would ask the class a question.” He laughs — a deep, breathy sound. “But your voice would, like, always be shaking whenever she called on you. Like it was a performance you’d been rehearsing.”
I think back again to the younger version of myself, high-strung and unsure, always so eager, so desperate to please.
“I wish you’d told me that then.” I say, as we meander our way back to the pavement. “But I might’ve fallen for you right there and then.” He laughs at that, and so do I, and his thumb brushes over mine where our hands are joined.
When we get back on the bus, I notice there are considerably fewer of us passengers left; the others had probably phoned for other transportation to take them away, continuing on with their lives. The thought strikes me then, that I could’ve done the same, phoned my friends for a ride-hitch.
But on second thought, I suppose a quieter, stronger part of me didn’t really want to, in spite of it all. I suppose there was something about this otherwise insignificant expanse of land that needed me to be there, as much as I needed it.
Perhaps the stories were right all along. That the universe or whatever unnamed force were in favor of all of us, willing for all of us to survive, no matter what trials it threw at us. Bringing us to the right people at certain times, certain points in our lives, and sometimes, if we were lucky, to just the right people at just the right time, even if it was just for one afternoon. The thought filled my chest with a warm sort of melancholy.
“June.” I hear Noah’s voice in my ear from his seat beside me, as the bus begins its ascent towards the city, nine hours later than its original estimated time of arrival. I feel a bitter tug when I see the city skylines approaching, glimmering and beautiful as ever in the night sky.
“Will I ever see you again?”
I freeze, unsure of what to tell him, where our relationship now stood moving forward.
We’d kissed in sunset by the lake like some Hallmark movie. Was that love? But I’d found comfort in his hands. In his presence on that patch of grass, our bodies soaked with lakewater and that late summer moonlight, I’d felt alive, as fully alive as the water current in the lake and the wind, all inhibited by that same unnamed force. And I had never felt more at peace, like I wasn’t running from someplace or rushing to wherever I needed to be.
“Hey,” Noah says, his hand on my arm. I realize I’d been lost in thought for minutes. “You don’t have to decide anything now if you don’t want to.”
Then he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a small piece of paper I recognize as our bus ticket and begins folding shapes into it, and before long I recognize the angles of a tail, a pair of wings. It’s a —
There’s a tinge of embarrassment on his face, and I feel my heart crumble a little bit.
“It’s for you. I’m quite good at them actually. Not the best bar trick, but still. Something to remember me by or whatever.” He places the paper crane into my hands, black print peeking out of the white canvas.
“I know.” I whisper, more to it than to him.
“Well — I always thought you would be good at something like this.” I fumble. “I saw you do it once in… math class.” It wasn’t math class, but that secret would stay with me.
The city’s approaching nearer now, and I feel my heart thumping, like a timer on a clock. Neither of us say a word, so we continue the ride in silence, the paper crane cupped securely in my hands.
When we arrive in the city, the night’s fully settled in, the city fully coming to life. There are crowds and music at every storefront, and the first few hints of Christmas decors, a new chill and the promise of possibility in the air. I knew the city well, and on another day I would’ve felt right at home, always fascinated by the sights and sounds and the beating pulse that permeated the city’s very pavement. But tonight it felt so foreign, it was almost jarring.
We alight the bus, Noah right behind me, the other passengers spilling out like animals from the ark after the great flood, half of them seemingly dazed by this new bewildering environment and the other half hastening to step out into the city, handphones to their ears, mouths chattering out apologies and explanations.
Noah and I stand next to each other on the sidewalk, the city’s residents rushing past us on both sides, coats and handbags swinging. Now that we were finally in the city, I hadn’t really thought of what would happen next once we got here, now that all I had left to do was return home.
A wild, desperate, and steadily growing seed in me longed to run, to take Noah by the hand and run to wherever the city would take us. After swimming in a lake in the early autumn chill, fully clothed in the middle of nowhere, anything felt possible,
as if the world was made of spun sugar and everything was hopeful and nothing was out of reach.
But the real world was wider than the lake and the sand and that particular stretch of road, and the city, beautiful as it was, was unforgiving. Behind Noah’s back, beyond the malls and skyscrapers, I could just make out the outline of the building where I worked, where I would have to clock in tomorrow as if nothing happened today other than a minor inconvenience, as if my entire life hadn’t shifted in the space of one afternoon.
“You up to go around with me? I’ve never really been here much.”
His hand is out again, a hopeful half-smile on his face, and I fight all my instincts not to take it in mine. There’s a weight behind his question that both of us were aware of, that what he was asking of me was far more than what was stated.
“I’m… not sure.”
Noah’s face falls, and I feel my heart squeeze. I had grown used to the dependency of my life, that it was a routine I knew all the ins and outs of, and to take in another factor felt all too jarring, far too much of a change. Deep down, I knew I’d set myself up for heartbreak that afternoon, when I’d let go of all my inhibitions and followed my every instinct and intuition to Noah. And there was bliss in that water, and a peace like I’d never known.
But I also knew in my gut I wasn’t ready to be part of something larger than myself, and to take Noah in my life at this state, where the most I could give were half-promises, wouldn’t be fair for either of us. Suddenly the autumn wind, which not long ago had felt like some metaphysical force, now felt angry, stinging, as if it were punishing me for my stubbornness, my un-bending to its will.
“We don’t have to take it too fast, June,” Noah begins, his voice drowned out by the roar of a sudden bus. “And-”
“But you live so far away.” I cut him off, despising myself more by the minute.
He swallows, and when he speaks, his voice is thinner, weaker, smaller than I had ever heard it.
“But just — “
“But it’s nighttime now.” I say, gently as possible, my insides crumbling even as I say it. “And it’s another normal day tomorrow and I have things to do and so do you.”
When I look at Noah, he’d never looked younger than he had all day, and for a moment we’re both fourteen again, Noah’s face in the same wounded expression the day he retuned to school after his brother’s wake.
“June, I care for you. And I’ve never been like this with anyone before.”
His voice breaks, and his shoulders fall to his side as if dragged by some weight. The somberness of his words hits me in waves, and I steel myself before delivering my final blow.
“I don’t want to be cared for. I want to be understood.”
I see Noah’s heartbreak in his eyes, and suppress myself from taking his head in my hands and apologizing and taking back everything I said, despite every muscle in my body, every cell in my brain screaming at me to.
The moments are passing by quickly now, the city growing louder by the moment, the gaping ache in my chest growing larger and larger as if it a cavity had been cracked open somewhere under my skin, beneath all the muscle and tissue.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen, Noah. None of this was supposed to happen.” I say, the tears pooling in my eyes that I no longer have the strength to stop. Why was I doing this? Would it be too late to apologize? Why did doing the right thing have to feel so soul-crushingly impossible all the damn time?
“I don’t believe you, June. I don’t believe you one bit.” And he turns before I can stop him, footsteps quick to leave me in the pavement, his back quickly disappearing into the crowds.
I unclench my fist from where I had it closed by my side, unfurling my fingers to reveal Noah’s paper crane still in my hand, the only thing I had left of him, of everything that had happened today. I turn it over, and one wing’s folded into a crease, crumpled from my chokehold on it, and the tears start to flow again, hot and angry and uncontrollable at everything that had transpired today. At the bus that broke down this morning, ruining all my plans, at Noah being on that bus with his hopeful naïveté and his comfort and the soft wonder in his eyes when he talked, and above all at my stubbornness and my rejection of it all. As if on autopilot, with no clear intent, I pick my feet up and head to the bus stop at the opposite side of the road, the city no longer feeling like the home it once was, and wait for the bus to take me away, back to my home.
One year after
I wake to sunlight filling my room, the slats on my window making shadows on the wall, and a low breeze rattling the flimsy window frame. It’s the end of the work week, and I drag myself up with my last ounce of strength, the promise of the nearing weekend my only motivation.
When I step outside my apartment, there’s a new chill in the air again, but the sun’s still formidable, bright as ever even in the mid-morning, and I take a moment to breathe in the change in the air, pausing on the narrow ledge right outside my locked apartment. Just below, I watch as crowds begin to gather at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, when my phone pings, and I open it to a memory notification from one year ago.
I swipe the notification open, unlocking my phone, and an image fills the screen: a sunset, purple and blazing orange, over a pale opal lake surrounded by a smattering of trees and rock, calm and serene — and there’s something else: just on the bottom right, beneath the muted sky, the blurry outline of a male figure hunched over by the lake’s edge.
I feel a sudden rush of emotion, my chest suddenly constricting, and memories bloom together in a blur from the back of my head, spilling out fresh and cutting: a broken down bus on the side of the road; sun-baked stretches of soil; a man in the sand, then under the fluorescent lights of a convenience store, face in a half-smirk; then by the lake, moonlight in a pair of almond eyes.
I say his name out loud before I realize it, the guilt and ache from one year ago fresh again in my chest. With a sharp twinge, a memory flashes of the last image I had of him: his back disappearing into the night, the city’s crowds swallowing him whole. I look down again at the sunset on my phone. I never even remembered taking the picture.
I’d never erased that day from my memory, nor had I regretted any of the choices I made that day, painful as they were, and a small part of me suddenly remembers every detail of Noah from the one afternoon I had gotten to know him, touch him, hold him, his heartbeat on the palm of my hand, and a small part of me suddenly wonders whether I should’ve left him with some form of contact — my phone number, or even an email address. Maybe a girl braver than me would have.
It’s nearly fall again, I can smell it in the air, right in the midpoint between summer autumn, just when the leaves began to change. As if on cue, a single leaf falls from the tree above my head and brushes lightly on my shoulder before fluttering to land right beside my left foot. I imagine it a sign, a message of sorts, sent to me by some mystical force of fate that was sure to bound us together. When did I become such a romantic?
A sharp gust of wind blows through the balcony, and I dig my fingers deeper into the pockets of my coat, when I feel my fingers brush over the edges of paper rectangles, which I recognize unmistakably as old discarded bus tickets, accumulated over autumns past that I’d never gotten to throw out. I take them out of my pocket, examining the faded print — most of them dated from this time last year, a couple from further back when my memory jogs. The black print peeking out of the white canvas, rough fingers folding shapes into them.
I hesitate, quickly evaluating my choices, and before I think of anything else my gut tugs me around back to my apartment, unlocking the door, rifling through clothes and the bottoms of old backpacks when I see it, faded and creased and frayed, but still undeniably whole.
I pick the paper crane up as gently as possible in my hands, the right wing still crumpled from when I’d clutched it in my fist, and suddenly I feel the marks on my hand where the paper edges met my skin that night on the city sidewalk, the hot tears on my cheek when I watched Noah disappear into the crowds.
I had felt something with Noah, and although I didn’t have a name for it, I knew it was something that only came once in a blue moon, perhaps once in a lifetime. Outside the apartment, I felt the autumn cold again, that same bitter wind on my skin that had surrounded us by the lake, as well as a new urgency pounding in my veins.
Down the elevator, across the road, to the bus station. A million thoughts swirled in my head as I make my way through the terminal. Past the buses, past the rushing crowds, a blur of grays and blues. The sun was shining outside despite the cold. Wasn’t it sunny that day too? The picture of the sunny fields flashes in my head, punctuated by patches of dry grass in the afternoon heat. I pick up my pace and run until I’m breathless, past swinging coats and bewildered looks until I reach my destination, the ticket counters.
There’s a row of them, all side by side, and it dawns on my mind how one small decision at one particular place in time could change the very fabric of your life. I chose safety that night a year ago, the logical choice, I convinced myself, or was it plain cowardice? I wasn’t going to be a coward today.
I take out Noah’s crane from my pocket and begin unfolding it, retracing the shapes where Noah’s fingers had been a year ago until the ticket’s a flat rectangle again, and I could just faintly make out the name of a place of origin. Suddenly, a voice I recognize as Noah’s pipes up in my head: “about twelve stations back?”
I smile at the memory, and check the station name on the wall map: twelve stations from where I stood matched the name on Noah’s ticket. There’s a buzz in my veins, and my arms shake, my heart thumping in triple-time as I make my way to the counter. I hear my voice request the purchase, I see the attendant hand me the ticket, and I feel my feet carry me over to the other side of the station, opposite of where I was supposed to go.
I climb on the bus, and outside the window I see the city skyline in the opposite direction, steadfast and true, and I knew in my gut I wouldn’t be seeing it today.
The bus moves, and the trepidation in my chest grows, filling my body with a jittery mixture of dread and thrill. The ride takes hours, and between the people getting on and off I imagine Noah amongst them. Had his appearance changed? Would he remember me, or even want to see me after what I’d done to him?
We’re nearing our destination now, I see the gray outline of the bus station a few hundred meters ahead. Outside the bus window, the town is a quiet, sleepy one, empty road punctuated only by the occasional vehicle, but there was certain calm I wasn’t used to. Above the sparse buildings the sky’s a brilliant sky blue, so bright it felt like the promise of possibility.
Our bus crawls to a stop, and I rise from my seat, every nerve in me lighting up all at once like a string of matches. There was no turning back now, and I brush the thought from my head that I’d only set myself up for disappointment. I remembered thinking a year ago, about how the universe was on our side all along, willing for the best possible outcome. Would it be in my favor today?
I get off the bus and make my way through the unfamiliar station, weaving past signages and stalls, passengers with their luggages, somehow less in a scramble than the one I’d come from, and I’m nearing the very end of the station when I spot a figure in a gray jacket, a mop of combed hair leaned against a railing, undeniably waiting for the arrival of a bus.
His hair is longer, his tan deeper than ever. But I recognized the shape of his shoulders, the lines of his back.
“Noah.” I breathe out, and then louder: “Noah!” There was a joy in my voice that I couldn’t control.
And then he’s turning, he’s turning, and it’s in slow motion and his eyes land on mine, and I’m in front of him, and he’s in front of me, sunlight behind his hair and everything.
“Hey,” I say, the entire world coming to a stop. “I missed your face.” The truth of the statement lifting a cosmic weight from my chest.
The smile that spreads on his face is so wide, I see the tips of his crooked teeth.