Spencer rolls her eyes. “Yes, I remember prom. Now is that all?”
I close my eyes and beg shamelessly. “Spencer, please just try to work with me here. This isn’t easy for me either.”
She softens a little. “Ashley, it’s late, I’m tired, I have to work in the morning, Carmen’s pissed at me, and as much as I’ve enjoyed this little stroll down memory lane, I just want to get this over with.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll try to get to the point.”
“Thank you,” she sighs, leaning back in her chair. “So what about prom?”
Fuck… this is getting hard.
“Um, we went to prom and I got sick.”
She nods. “You got the flu and were down for a good two weeks.”
“Right,” I say.
“And then you broke up with me,” she says sharply and I nod again.
“At graduation, no less,” she adds and I nod again.
“And then you just disappeared,” she continues and I feel a pattern coming on.
There were so many things in my life that I was grateful for. I was eighteen, I had an amazing girlfriend, I was loved and happy, I had a family; I was even valedictorian.
I had been given this amazing opportunity to turn my life around after such a terrible start. I had more than most people could ever dream of and I should have been praising the heavens with gratitude.
I really wanted to. I had been trying to focus on that, to hold onto it. I wanted to remember everything about my life in perfect detail and know that it had been worth living. But it was hard. I was facing some tremendous changes – life-altering changes – and I was so scared.
Do you have any idea what it’s like to live with a secret that would destroy everything that you love?
It was eating me alive, both figuratively and literally. I felt so tired, a bone deep weariness pervading my very soul. I couldn’t breathe and I felt nauseous. It was depressing, and like some cruel joke, it never ended. But I had to pretend, play it off, because I couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt the people that I love like that.
“Five minutes, Ashley,” Principal Hemsworth informed me with a smile.
I was about to go out on stage and graduate. I was about to give a speech about hope and gratitude and pressing forward in life, but despite all of my attempts at believing in those things, I just couldn’t feel it.
I just wanted to yack.
I glanced down at the index cards in my hands and made sure that they were in the right order. So long as I stuck to the words written on them, I didn’t have to believe in anything. All I had to do was say the words, go through the motions, and then… it would all be over.
All of it.
That was the only thing that I could cling to with any kind of hope: it would all be over soon. But maybe that was the problem: I didn’t want it to be, not really.
“Okay, Ashley, they’re going to announce you any time. You ready?”
I glanced up at Hemsworth and nodded, swallowing the bile trying to rise up my throat.
He smiled at me and chucked me on the shoulder. “Don’t be nervous. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Just then, my name was called, and he shoved me not-so-gently towards the steps at the side of the stage. I started to climb them and heard some shouting out in the crowd. Spencer’s voice was booming in the auditorium, even over all of the other noise, and I couldn’t help but smile.
She was so very proud of me.
That made what was going to happen all the worse.
I approached the podium and everyone settled down. It grew so oppressively quiet that my stomach started to lurch, and for a moment I thought that this might end up like sea world: the first five rows will get wet.
“I LOVE YOU, ASHLEY,” Spencer shouted and everyone chuckled, myself included.
It helped to loosen the thorns choking my soul.
I leaned into the mic. “Um, thank you. I love you too, Spence.”
There were a few more chuckles before everyone calmed again. The lights were sort of blinding as I looked out at the small sea of wild-eyed blue devils, people expected things of me, things that I couldn’t deliver.
“I uh…,” I glanced down at my cards and began to mumble. “Friends, family, and fellow graduates, it’s an honor and a privilege to be here today…”
And, God, what had I been thinking? This speech sucked…
I glanced out at the expectant faces, searching until I spotted the only one that mattered, the one beaming at me with love and adoration, the one that I would crush. The cards, the other people, they were instantly forgotten and the world narrowed in. I didn’t know how I was going to get through this. I loved her so much, more than anything, and I was going to murder that love.
I felt tears sting my eyes and began to just choke on my words.
“I know that you’re all expecting me to come up here and prove my sparkling intellect with complicated words and inspirational platitudes. But to be honest, all of that’s just a lie, and, it’s boring.”
There were a few uneasy laughs.
“The truth is that I don’t have any grand advice that I can give you to help you succeed in your goals. I can’t tell you how to face the future because the future has become elusive to me recently.”
My hands were shaking, but I focused on Spencer, hoping that maybe she’d see what I couldn’t tell her despite all of my secrecy.
“All I can really tell you is that life is always hard and never fair. No matter how hard you work, you’re going to stumble and fall and fail. And it’s going to hurt.”
Someone cleared their throat and I closed my eyes against the agony of this situation, an agony not one person in this room could understand.
“God, it’s going to hurt.”
I was going to hyperventilate. I didn’t know what I was saying. It was just pouring out of me and saturating this happy affair with grief. But there was a point in here somewhere, wasn’t there?
“But if you can say that you’ve learned what it means to fight – to get your hands dirty and your nose bloodied – if you can say that you know what it means to forgive and to love with your whole heart – if, for even a minute, you can say that you were able to look past your prejudices and give of yourself unconditionally – then you’ll know that it was all worthwhile.”
There wasn’t a sound and I could feel my control slipping.
“Just don’t be afraid to really, truly live, to be yourself no matter the consequences. And I promise you that this far too short life will have meant something. It has to…”
There was another long pause of further fumbling and the squeal of a mic. “Thank you.”
One person clapped, and then another, and another until the entire class was on their feet with deafening applause. I was pretty sure that they were just happy that I was done.
Principal Hemsworth approached me and shook my hand vigorously, and it was everything that I could do not to run from the stage.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the graduating class of 2011.”
And that was it. It was over, though it was only the beginning. I watched as the blue caps went whirling up into the air, the shouting and clapping nearly deafening. I made my way off the stage, shaking the hands of the staff as I went and slipped off behind the dais to lean against a wall and slide down it.
All I could do was hug my knees. I didn’t want to face what was next. I didn’t want to face any of it, but I didn’t have a choice. The worst wasn’t nearly over yet.
It wasn’t long before I saw Spencer looking for me at the side of the stage and I was forced to collect myself.
I had to make this convincing.
I came out and she nearly bowled me over, hugging me so fiercely that I could barely breathe, but breathing was overrated these days.
“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered before leaning back and planting an excited kiss on my lips.
I hugged her again, giving myself this one last moment with her before I destroyed everything I’d ever cared about.
And that was it; that was all that I’d get.
I pulled back and sucked in a breath, swallowing all of the emotions and forcing myself into a place of cold indifference.
“Spencer,” I started. “Can we go somewhere and talk?”
She smiled at me curiously but nodded her head. I led her out of the gym, down the hall, and outside. There was a pavilion on this side of the building and, as expected, the area was completely empty. We sat side-by-side on the concrete bench beneath the canopy and I steeled myself before turning to face her.
“What’s up,” she asked brightly.
“I thought that it was time for us to talk.”
God, that was cryptic.
“Ash, is everything okay? You’re kind of scaring me.”
I smiled reassuringly. “No, I think everything’s fine. In fact, I think this is really a good thing.”
“I’ve been thinking. You’re going to The New York Film Academy and I’ll probably be going on tour with my band. We’re young and we have our whole lives spread out in front of us.”
I cleared my throat to choke back the fear and hurt and anger that was coursing through me. I hated myself and the universe in this moment. There was just nothing left to be grateful for. This was too much to ask of me.
“Maybe we should, you know, take a break, see the world a little bit.”
The look on her face started tearing into my guts. It was utter despair, utter grief, and I imagined that this was what my very soul looked like anymore.
“Are you breaking up with me?”
Her voice was small, and for the first time, I’d made it that way. I’d failed her and there was no going back, no matter how much I wanted to.
My voice sounded hoarse. “I’m not trying to break up with you so much as give you the space and freedom to explore a little bit.”
“I-I don’t want space or freedom. Ash. Where is this coming from?”
I shrugged, the action feeling rigid. “I think it’s a good idea.”
She seemed to sway a little bit as she turned away from me dazedly. “You don’t want to be with me anymore.”
This time it wasn’t a question. It was more like she was telling herself what she’d just heard so that she’d believe it. A single tear escaped my eye and I turned away to swipe at it angrily. Fuck, I had to make this fast or I wasn’t going to make it at all.
“I just think, for a while-“
She jumped to her feet, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Just… stop. I get it. We’re not together anymore.”
She wrapped her arms around herself and I had to dig my fingers into my thigh to keep from reaching for her.
“Can I ask why,” she choked out.
“I told you, we’re young and we need to figure out what we want.”
She pinned me with her eyes. “And you don’t want me.”
Again, whom was she trying to convince?
Whom was I, for that matter?
“No,” I said, digging in a little harder. I was sure that I’d drawn blood.
There were no more words but she still stood there, as if waiting for something. I knew that I was; the earth could open up at my feet and swallow me up any time now. But it didn’t. No, that would be far too kind. Instead, I was left sitting there, watching her run away from me just as fast as I was running away from her.
I fell to my knees and dry heaved as the sobs came. I still to this day have no idea how I got home to collect my bag and my guitar, stopping on impulse to grab the green hoodie she’d forgotten on the futon the night before.
I still to this day have no idea how I got to the bus station.
It was all just a blur of pain and muscle memory.
I didn’t actually come out of my stupor until I found myself stepping off of the bus and standing on Los Angeles soil, more than ready to embrace my fate.