“Yeah,” Kyla says groggily, rubbing one of her eyes with the heel of her hand as she yanks the door open.
Her hair is mussed and the oversized shirt she’s wearing almost goes to her knees. It’s so big on her that it makes her arms, legs, and neck look like toothpicks, her head like a giant orange resting precariously atop. I can’t help but grin. It might be because she looks like that little girl that I practically raised or it might be because I’ve just missed her so much. Or, it might be because I feel so much lighter as a person. Maybe it’s all three of these things.
“It’s seven a.m. on a Saturday…”
I don’t much care which reason makes me happy to see her, or the fact that she’s belligerent when sleep deprived. I like the way that it feels to smile at her and mean it. I set Mona’s case on the stoop of the doorstep as she eyes me critically, wakefulness finally taking hold of her mind.
“Ashley,” she says almost disbelievingly.
“I know it’s been a couple of months, Kyla, but I didn’t think you’d forget me that quickly.”
Her jaw drops and she stares at me as if I’ve grown a second head, and I frown a little.
“Is it really you?”
I roll my eyes. She’s such a drama queen.
“C’mon, Kyla. I wasn’t gone that long…”
She makes a few indistinguishable sounds before she’s finally able to spit actual words out.
“Wh- I- Just- oh my God!”
She gives me a huge hug and squeezes my neck so tight that I have pull on her arms to return airflow to my lungs.
“It’s good to see you too,” I say in a choked voice that, quite possibly, has nothing to do with her grip.
She pulls back after a moment, tears in her eyes, and slugs me hard on the shoulder. “Why’d you ring the doorbell, you dumbass?”
I rub at my now sore arm. “I wanted to surprise you.”
She holds me at arm’s length, again looking at me like I’m a medical marvel of unexplained genetic deformity.
“Well, you did, you do, oh my God,” she says again.
I give her a wary stare. “You keep saying that. Are you hungover, or high, or something?”
“What,” she barks out, smacking me again. And again, I rub at the spot. “No, I just… I’m shocked!”
I roll my eyes again and pick up Mona, pushing past her into the house.
“I was only gone a couple of months, Kyla.”
She shuts the door and follows me as I go to my room to put my backpack and guitar down, a sigh of contentment escaping me as I realize I’m home.
“I know,” she says, following me. “But you look so different…”
With this I stop and look at her. “What are you talking about?”
“You,” she exclaims, extending her hand towards me as if this explains her reaction.
I look down at my torn jeans, dusty flip-flops, and tank top, all recently purchased at a second-hand store because I didn’t really have a choice. I’d started gaining weight in Nepal and I didn’t want to bother with department stores.
“So I’ve put on a few pounds…,” I shrug self-consciously.
“No,” she says, taking my arm and pulling me to the mirror on the door of my bathroom suite. “Look at yourself.”
I haven’t really looked into a mirror for more than a month now. I gave up make-up so there really wasn’t a need. How I look hasn’t much mattered to me. I haven’t even cared about the fact that I was gaining weight. I felt better and that’s all that mattered.
But as I take my first real look at myself, I realize why it took her a minute to process who was standing at the door. My skin is tanned, stained by the endless hours in the sun and surf, giving me a healthy glow and pallor. My body has filled out, giving me some nice curves and sturdiness. My hair is a wild array of windblown auburn curls pulled up in a loose, wavy pony-tail, lightened and highlighted by my time spent in the sun. But most noticeably, my eyes are different.
I had never noticed before just how dead and lifeless they were because that’s how I lived for so long that it had become normal. But now there’s a glow to them, a light in them, a life that’s beyond the fact that I’m breathing. I hardly recognize myself because, for the first time since high school, I look healthy.
I’m not just alive, I’m healthy.
That thought hits me in the guts, pangs in my chest, and brings tears to my eyes. I see Kyla in the mirror behind me, and notice that she’s crying too, a huge grin lighting up her face.
“You look amazing, Ash…,” she says.
For a minute, I want to be alone, as if I’m embarrassed by what’s happened to me, as if I should be ashamed for something that I can’t even pinpoint. The feeling reminds me of going through puberty, when things were happening to me beyond my control and I felt embarrassed about them because other people were noticing them too. At some point, the shift completed and I became comfortable in my new body, even proud of it. Spencer certainly seemed to like it. But while the transition was taking place, everything was awkward and hard to cope with.
But now, I realize that I have already become comfortable in this new me during my time of transition. It was quick, as if some switch had been flipped that I was unaware of. I just hadn’t realized that I was new to the level that others can see it too. I thought that it was all internal. But it’s not. It would seem that what happens inside has a way of manifesting itself externally.
I turn and hug Kyla tightly, overwhelmed by my thoughts and emotions and letting the tears flow freely.
“Thank you,” I say after a long minute.
She hugs me back just as fiercely, and I can tell that she’s crying too. For her this new me is exactly whom she’s been fighting for all along. This is just as much her win. When we pull apart, I find myself scared and sit on the edge of the bed as the weight of doubt settles over me.
What if something happens or I lose myself again?
What if I’m not healthy and now that I’ve found life again, I die?
“Stop it,” Kyla says firmly, sitting next to me, responding to me as if she can read my very thoughts. “It’s okay.”
I look up at her, my heart thumping hard on my sleeve.
“What if it’s not,” I ask.
She thinks about that for a moment, that same doubt and worry creeping into her features too. We still don’t know if I’m truly okay. We will never have that guarantee. I’m in remission, but that doesn’t mean I’m cured. It only means that I have the moment, and that moment can be gone in an instant.
“We should go get a check-up,” she says.
I sigh and shake my head. “It won’t help, Kyla. I’m in remission right now, so the transplant was as successful as it can be, but it hasn’t been long enough. It takes time for the cancer to come back. They’ll know more around Christmas when I go in for my year check-up, but even if they clear me at that time, it could come back anytime – years from now, tomorrow, or not at all.”
“But it could give you peace of mind,” she argues.
I think about that and shake my head again. It wouldn’t give me peace of mind, but that’s not why she wants to do it. It’s her own peace in the situation she’s searching for. And while I love her for her concern, she has to know that she can never have that peace so long as she loves me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how I look at it, my plan didn’t work. It couldn’t. She already loved me and there was no going back.
“No, not really. There is no peace of mind in this situation. I have to live with not knowing and find a way to be happy despite that, and so do you. Wondering every day and going to the doctor because I’m paranoid isn’t going to change it. If anything, that will just make me depressed again.” She sighs. “This is why I left, Kyla, and it’s also why I can never be with anyone or have a family, least of all Spencer. How can I say that I love someone and put them through that? How can you want to go through that?”
I can’t help but wonder if the depression will ever really be gone. I had to go thousands of miles away to take my mind off of it. I had to create an alternate reality to escape the pain of it. But this… these relationships – Kyla, Spencer, the band, Erin – they’re real and I could really hurt them if the cancer comes back.
Kyla’s hand takes mine and I find myself trapped in her tear-soaked gaze. “I’d rather know you and love you and lose you to something beyond anyone’s control, then not have you in my life. And I know, for a fact, that everyone else who loves you feels the same way, especially Spencer.”
I nod, because I know that too. But knowing that doesn’t really soothe the sting of what can happen.
“And that’s all well and good for friendships, Kyla. But to have a family, children, and leave them… Why would anyone choose a life of uncertainty with me over the security of a truly healthy relationship? Relationships are hard enough without a sword dangling over our head’s every second of every day.”
“Ash,” she says patiently. “The heart wants what the heart wants. Who can meet their soulmate and choose something less because it’s safer and live with that? There’s no winning in this scenario. One way or another, it’s going to hurt. At least if you’re with the ones you love, you stand a chance at real happiness while it lasts and so do they. And in this case, you still have a chance that it won’t come back at all. What if everyone leaves you and you live to be one hundred? Everyone would regret it then. And I’m telling you right now, if it does come back, you have a family donor right here. We’ll fight. I don’t know why you didn’t come to me in the first place.”
“You were just a kid.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not a kid anymore.”
I laugh a little, considering that she looks just like my kid sister. But then, I have the sneaking suspicion that she will always look like my kid sister to me, even when she’s old, wrinkled, and gray-haired.
She stands up and pulls me with her. “So, enough of this. We take it a day at a time and we make it count. But we do it together.”
I nod, coming up with her easily and releasing my sadness with a sigh. It’s not totally gone, and it may never truly leave. It might be part of me now, this new me, but maybe that’s not so bad. I can see past it. I’m learning how to deal with it. And, for the most part, how I deal with it is to tell it to shut the fuck up and move on with my life.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
“Okay, so, let’s get breakfast,” Kyla says excitedly. “You have to tell me everything…”
“Heya, Slick,” Erin says as she slides into the passenger seat of the Porsche. I quickly pocket the crumpled bucket list just in time for her not to notice. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.”
“You never forget your first cellmate,” I say playfully, shifting the car into drive and pulling away from the curb of her duplex.
She laughs, but after a moment I can feel her eyes on me. She’s far too quiet for someone of her energy level. I give her a sidelong glance and ask, “What?”
“You look different,” she says.
I smile to myself.
“I like it,” she says after a moment of scrutiny.
“Thanks, I think.”
She grins back, brushing a loose lock of curls away from my face so that she can see it better.
“Oh, it’s a compliment.”
The touch sends little goose bumps creeping down my neck and I clear my throat.
“You look about the same,” I say, earning me a smack on the thigh. “But that’s always a good thing,” I recover.
“Mm hmm,” she says satisfied. “You’re lucky I agreed to meet with you after almost three months of no returned calls.”
My smile falters a little. “Sorry,” I say. “I was going through… some stuff.”
“I can see that,” she says as she gestures to me. “But you’re good now?”
“Yeah, I really am.”
“Good, but you’re still not forgiven.”
“What’s it going to take,” I ask with as much mock seriousness as I can muster.
“Hmmm… I don’t know. We’ll see where you stand after this surprise you keep talking about.”
I smirk at that. “Are you afraid of heights?”
Erin’s bravado falters a little. “Um, I’m not really sure. Why?”
“You’ve never been on an airplane?”
“Nope, I’ve never been out of California.”
“Wow, well we need to remedy that soon.”
“I like it here, thank you.”
“Well so do I, but traveling can really change your life. Don’t you want to see what’s out there?”
She thinks about that for a moment and then shakes her head. “I mean, I know what’s out there. I can see anything thanks to this nifty invention called the internet. I guess I just never really felt the need to go there and see it for myself.” She shrugs. “Besides, my entire family’s here. Why would I need to go anywhere else?”
This is a little surprising. Erin seems so wild and untamable. I can’t imagine her feeling comfortable in a box, even one as big as California. She seems like the kind of person who needs to roam, to explore. It never occurred to me that she might be content in her little corner of the world because that’s unusual.
“But you’re changing the subject, Slick. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Why did you ask if I’m afraid of heights?”
“Oh, no reason. Just curious.”
“Yeah, somehow I don’t believe that…”
“What’s wrong? You nervous?”
I glance over at her and laugh because her bravado is failing her and I can see it. She smacks me again but laughs along good-naturedly.
“I’ll find out today though, won’t I?”
I shrug. “Maybe.”
“Ugh, c’mon, Slick. Tell me what we’re up to.”
She attempts to pout and bat her eyelashes at me, and I have to admit that it’s an attractive look for her, but it’s not enough to make me budge.
“Are we going on an airplane?”
“We’re not skydiving, are we?”
“Gah, you’re killing me here…,” she exclaims.
“You’ll live,” I say. “Maybe…”
I laugh again as I see her nervousness war with her will not to show it. And I can literally see the moment where she decides that she’ll go through with what I’ve planned whether she’s scared or not. I have to admire her stubbornness.
“Fine. Can you at least tell me what you’ve been up to for the last three months that made it impossible to return a phone call?”
I settle in for the hour drive on the freeway and share with her some of the highlights of my lone trip through Europe, not going into any depth on why I went or what I went through while there. I try to focus on the highlights, those things that made me truly happy. And while she listens, nodding and smiling appropriately, I can tell that this isn’t a particular subject that we share a passion for, so we quickly revert to talking about music. This subject sets us both on fire and we talk about upcoming shows, agreeing to see Dance Gavin Dance together if they roll into town. The tour hasn’t been finalized yet.
She also mentions that Brand New will be playing at the Troubadour next month and one of the opening bands fell off of the ticket because the lead singer was caught holding marijuana at the California-Mexico border. I immediately call my agent and ask him to get ahold of Cyn to book us. Brand New has been a personal favorite of mine since I can remember, and the chance to see them, let alone open for them, would be a dream come true. So, we spend the rest of the ride listening to Deja Entendu and belting the lyrics at the top of our lungs.
By the time we arrive in Temecula Valley we’re both hoarse but happy. Erin gives me a strange look and says, “Wine Country?”
“You plan to get me drunk and take me skydiving… in wine country? Because I have to say, I’m more of a down-to-earth, whiskey kind of girl.”
I laugh. “You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to. Although, I’m pretty sure what I have planned includes spirits of some kind.”
I can tell that she’s frustrated by my vague responses and that what little I’ve given doesn’t make any sense to her. I take a no small amount of petulant satisfaction in this frustration. But then I wonder if what I have planned isn’t a little much for her. She’s not a high-class kind of girl. She’s rough and tumble, and the idea of roaming a winery just isn’t her idea of fun. I assume that this, coupled somehow with heights, is what’s running through her mind, and the two together just don’t make any sense. I sort of like that she’s underestimated me, or at least my understanding of her. But then I don’t want her to be put off by our excursion.
I take a turn onto a dirt road between a couple of vineyards and we see a sign that says, ‘Temecula Valley Wine Country Balloon Adventure,’ with a big picture of a rainbow colored hot air balloon on it, and she glances over at me. It’s too late to figure something else out now…
“Hot air balloons?”
I grin at her.
“How high do they go?”
I grin a little harder, maybe even menacingly.
“Oh, maybe three-thousand feet.” That’s probably the max but I want to keep her on her toes. “That’s about three times as high as the Wilshire Grand Center Skyscraper in L.A. You ever been in there?”
“No,” she says apprehensively. “But that’s the tallest one in the city, isn’t it?”
I nod, pulling into a gravel drive outside of a classic, Italian winery and putting the car in park.
“You ready,” I ask.
I can tell that she’s nervous, but she can’t admit defeat so she sets her jaw, nods, and steps out of the car. I follow and we meet an older woman who’s waiting on the steps.
“Welcome,” she says in a thick accent. “Are you miss Davies?”
I nod. “Ashley. And this is Erin.”
She smiles at us and gestures for us to follow her. “I’m Rosa. We’re just about ready to depart. It should only be about five minutes or so. Would you like to sample one of our finer vintages while you wait?”
“No, thank you,” I say. “But we could use some water and a restroom.”
She nods. “The restrooms are just down that hall on the left,” she points. “I’ll have water waiting for you when you’re done.”
I take Erin’s hand and pull her to the restroom. She’s starting to turn a little green, so we both use the facilities and I check on her as we’re washing our hands.
“You okay,” I ask.
“Perfect,” she says.
“You can back out, if you want.”
I’m a little nonplussed at this situation. Erin comes off as the type of person who jumps from airplanes so often that it doesn’t even give her a thrill anymore. It never occurred to me that she might be genuinely uncomfortable with heights. Hell, even I’m nervous, but it’s on my list, whether I have something to lose or not anymore.
“No, I’ve just never been up in the air.” She dries her hands and looks at me speculatively. “You’re more of a thrill junky than you make yourself out to be.”
I laugh at that. “And you’re more domesticated than you make yourself out to be.”
“I’m not domesticated,” she says with offense. “But there is a certain amount of…”
“False bravado,” I offer.
She grins, some of her fear shrugging off. “Maybe.”
“So, you gonna do it?”
She thinks about it for a minute and nods. “Yeah, I think I have to.”
“You have to?”
“Well, yeah. I can’t let you show me up. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Okay, then,” I say, extending an elbow. “Let’s do it.”
She takes my arm and we meet Rosa at the reception area. I sip at my water while Erin gulps.
“Take it easy, Erin,” I chuckle out. “We won’t have access to a bathroom for about three hours.”
She gives me a murderous glare and sets the water down before heading back to the bathroom, alone this time. I take this opportunity to talk to the older woman.
“What comes in the lunch basket?”
She smiles, “Today we have a beautiful tray of prosciutto and grissini, with fresh motzarella balls, artichokes hearts, olives, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, grapes, and berries. For desert, there are succulent chocolate truffles that go perfectly with one of our finer red wines.”
This sounds amazing to me, maybe even better when it’s said in the woman’s lilting Italian accent, but I frown as I consider if Erin will like any of it. I’m really not so sure.
“Can you do me a favor,” I ask.
“Well, of course,” she replies, giving me a strange look.
“Can you pack a couple of beers and some water? I’ll pay extra, of course.”
She immediately agrees and snaps her fingers at a younger man in the bustling dining room behind her, telling him something in Italian which I assume he scurries off to take care of. About this time Erin comes back and the older woman asks if we’re ready. I look to Erin for confirmation and she nods, though she takes my arm in a death grip.
“Yup,” I say, and we’re led along the edges of the dining area with people eating what appears to be an exceptional breakfast, to a long row of patio doors that lead to a deck facing a spectacular view of the vineyard stretching in the distance. Normally, breakfast is how this tour starts, but I didn’t want to do this on a full stomach, so I opted for a picnic lunch of finger foods instead.
I look out the doors to see the rolling rows of grapes disappearing into horizon, an almost stark line between heaven and earth that’s only broken by the large light-bulb shapes of a dozen or so colorful balloons reaching up towards the blue of the sky. We follow to one of those balloons and I start to feel excited when we reach the basket. A young man inside smiles brightly, his well-manicured hand reaching out to greet us with a limp, almost effeminate grip. He’s very clearly gay, and that helps to put some of my mounting anxiousness at ease, though I’m not sure why.
“Welcome to my family home,” he says. “My name is Fabritzio. I’ll be your pilot today.”
“Ashley,” I say. “And this is Erin.”
I pat her hand on my arm and she relaxes a little.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” he chimes brightly. “We’re happy to have you.”
He helps us both up a small set of drop down steps and into the basket, pulling the steps up by a rope and securing them to close the basket around us. About this time, the man who scurried off to fulfill my request comes bounding over with a large wicker basket in one hand and a bucket of ice in the other. Both are secured to the inside of our balloon basket, and two beers, a bottle of wine, and couple of bottles of water are placed in the ice to continue chilling.
The two men have a short conversation in Italian before our pilot turns to us and claps his hands.
“Well then, do either of you have any questions before we depart?”
“I don’t,” I say.
“Have you done this before,” Erin asks, eyeing the young man speculatively.
He smiles warmly at her. “All my life,” he says. “Since I was just a boy.” He holds his hand to his waist as if to indicate how short he was when he started his career. “I fell in love with the balloons when I was just a child. Rest assured that I am a very skilled pilot.”
She nods. “And, what happens if it starts to rain?”
I listen for the answer to this question as well. It can rain at the drop of a hat at this time of year, even though there is no indication at this moment. The skies are clear and the breeze is soft.
“We very carefully monitor the weather. If we are surprised by the unexpected, which rarely happens, then there are several ways that I can safely land the balloon. It’s all a matter of adding heat to the balloon to offset the cooling effects of the rain. All of the spectacular views you are about to see are part of my family’s vineyard. If it looks like it will rain or begins to, we can safely land anywhere between here and our final destination and someone will come to collect us in a vehicle.”
This seems to mollify Erin and she nods, but she’s still a little green around the gills. I chuckle at her and she pinches me where she’s holding my arm.
“Are we ready,” he asks.
I look at her and she nods again, gulping a little.
With that, he smiles and Erin jumps as the he pulls the chord above his head and a fire rips to life in a burner with a loud scalding sound. As we start to pick up off the ground, the man who brought the basket walks around the edges, untying ropes from small eyelets that are holding it to the ground. It’s then that we begin to drift higher and the people and landmarks around us begins to shrink even as our view of the rolling countryside begins to expand.
I can feel the air start to thin and the pressure makes my ears pop, but the view turns breathtaking and I find myself staring out at it with a sense of awe and delight. Erin’s grip is strong, but it starts to relent a little once we settle onto the easy motion of the breeze and the burner is finally silenced. The ride is much less turbulent and more peaceful than that of an airplane. There are no metal walls to groan and rock against the incredible air resistance. There are no engines to roar and rumble. It’s a gentle, smooth feeling, like gliding on a cloud.
I glance over at Erin and smile, and while I can tell that she’s still nervous, she smiles back. After a time we find ourselves settled on our elbows looking out over the vistas of vines, rivers, and trees, and enjoying a comfortable silence.
The view is… well, fantastic, but the honest truth is that it pales in comparison to how I feel in this moment. The trip to Europe made me feel alive. It helped me to realize that I want to live. That was as huge step for me, a leap really. Actually, when I really think about it, it was a sprinting pal vault that sent me sailing forward at an alarming pace. But I landed safely; it was hard and bruising, and left me sore, but I had made it through.
The problem is that once I landed, I could look forward and see that I still have a tremendous length to traverse. Just like the undulating hills around us in panorama that seem to go on forever, as if the city or the world that I know is there doesn’t exist, I have to trek to what seems to be an infinitely vanishing horizon. It’s like chasing the sun. I’ll never really catch it or reach the end of it, and I know that. And knowing that is daunting and overwhelming, what feels like a futile task.
But up here, on this next leg of the journey, with someone truly fantastic beside me who isn’t Spencer, with the endless what if’s stretched out in front of me, I can stop and realize just this moment. I can see the now and how that’s really all that matters. Sure, I need to continue forward, but instead of seeing endlessness and futility, I find that I can just take a step and enjoy where I’m already standing. It’s not what I thought it would be by any means, but maybe that’s okay. Hell, maybe that’s just what it should be.
“You’re really surprising, Slick.”
I glance over at Erin. Somehow her soft words aren’t an intrusion on the quiet.
She nods and releases a pensive sigh. “Yep.”
“Why is that?”
She thinks for a moment and then gestures to the view. “I just didn’t see this. At all.”
I look at her, waiting for more, and she chuckles. “Okay, it’s hard to explain, but I guess what I’m saying is that when I met you, my impression was one of… well, a frightened animal.”
I snort out an incredulous, “Well, thanks…”
She nudges me with her elbow. “I don’t mean it like that. I just mean that you seemed really, I don’t know, resistant? Not to me or anything specific, just in general, like you were waiting for something really terrible to happen.”
I think about that for a minute and I know that she’s right. I just didn’t realize that I was so easy for her to read. I can’t tell if it’s just because I’m so clueless or because she has a heightened awareness of character. Who am I kidding? I know that I’m clueless, so it has to be that or some combination of the two.
“It’s like that night with the mechanical bull,” she continues. “You seemed scared to do it, not the bull itself, but something had you worried to the point where you didn’t think you could do it. But when you did it, you let loose, and once you did, you were all about it. And then that night we got arrested. It’s like you’d snapped and were looking to force whatever it was you were waiting for to happen.”
And again she’s right. “I mean, I liked you, I like you…” She smiles almost shyly at me and I grin back. “But now, with this, I don’t know, it’s just different. This doesn’t seem like you’ve snapped or forced yourself. It seems like you’re just here, doing what you want to do and being happy with it.”
And with this, I debate within myself whether I should tell her what it’s all about, how she’s right about everything she saw and felt, then and now. Would she think less of me? Would she think more of me? Would she treat me different or give me pity, or any of a million different responses that I don’t want?
But more importantly, is it fair to keep it from her any longer?
I can only come to one conclusion. And while I’m an extremely private person, as evidenced by the fact that I told no one I was sick when it happened and that no one knows about Erin – not Kyla, the band, Shirley and Sam, and most definitely not Spencer – it’s not fair to keep things from her when she’s clearly so open with me. I can’t find a single lying bone in Erin’s body. She’s completely open. What you see is what you get, even with her false bravado. She doesn’t hide that it’s fake. And I know that I should give her the same courtesy, because if I know anything at all about people in general, it’s that they tend to expect a return on what they give. I also know that it’s a fair expectation.
So, I pull the crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and hand it to her. She looks at me strangely before opening it and starting to read it out loud. The first line stops her in her tracks.
“Marry Spencer and start a family…”
I know that I’m going to have to explain this list, so I don’t hesitate.
“Spencer is my first love. And it wasn’t until recently that I sort of found closure with that.”
“Sort of,” she asks.
I sigh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever not love her.”
I want to kick myself as I tell her the truth, but then I just spill it all out because that was the whole point of telling her this: honesty.
“And she’s still in love with me. But she can’t be with me.”
“Just keep reading.”
So she continues out loud, not stopping again until she gets to, “Backpack through Europe. Is this in relation to your recent trip?”
I nod. “They’re one in the same.”
“Okay,” she says, clearly confused, but willing to keep digging.
She keeps reading and stops again when she gets to, “Take a hot air balloon ride?”
I smile at her and she smiles back, and to my relief, she just keeps reading, not asking any more questions until she’s done.
“So,” she says, holding the paper up curiously. “You have a life to-do list. I think it’s kind of awesome. I mean, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. You’ve set goals and you’re accomplishing them now.”
She hands the paper back to me and sighs. “Maybe I should do something like that. I tend to get really distracted or put things off.” She smiles ruefully at me. “I have the attention span of a spinal tap drummer.”
We both laugh at her joke. “I still don’t see how this is stopping you from being with Spencer though…”
I think about the best way to approach this without just blurting it out, but come up short. There’s no easy way of saying it, and honestly, I just don’t want to say it. I’ve been telling myself that I’m dying over and over again since I knew it and I just can’t. I want to live. I plan to live. I’m not going to look at it any other way anymore. So, instead of thinking about it, I just start talking.
“Well, have you ever met anyone who’s made a list like that?”
“Um,” she thinks, making her forehead crinkle. “No, I haven’t. I did see a movie once though. It was called The Bucket List. But that was about people who were going to d-“
And with this she looks at me, shock expressing itself rather cutely on her face.
“You’re okay, right…? I mean, you’re not… dying…”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I mean, I may never know until it just happens.”
“Why,” she breathes out. “How…?”
I don’t go into graphic detail on my childhood, but I tell her enough to know what caused it and why I’m in the situation I’m in, both emotionally and with Spencer, my friends, and my family. I also explain how there’s no real certainty in one day to the next, how something as simple as a cold could show that I’m no longer in remission and, in essence, could kill me. I also explain how I pushed everyone away when I found out, and continued to do so up until just a few months ago, giving her just enough of the Spencer situation to understand.
She absorbs the information quietly. She doesn’t cry or apologize, and I’m thankful. She does, however, open one of the beer bottles and take a few swigs. I chuckle and join her, imbibing in the cold spirit and letting its sweetly bitter brew give me a slight buzz. Fabritzio’s offer of lunch is turned down, and we settle back into the quiet of the ride, sipping our beers whilst lost in our own thoughts, the view totally forgotten until Fabritzio mentions that it looks like it might rain and that he’s going to cut the trip short just to be safe.
We both scan the sky to see that dark clouds are forming in the distance and I release a heavy sigh. I’m not sure if anything’s been ruined, but we’ve both been very quiet, and the clouds seem almost like an omen as we start a steady but careful descent back to the ground. Erin gets a little nervous and takes my arm in hers again. It’s at this point, that I break the silence.
“Are you upset that I told you?”
“No,” she replies quickly. “I just hate that you’ve been going through that and you always will. And I hate not being able to do anything about it.”
I clink my bottle to hers in a gesture of solidarity and we both swig.
“Since you’ve opened up so much, I feel like I should tell you that I understand what you mean when you say that you’ll probably always love Spencer but can’t be together.”
I glance over at her but she doesn’t look at me. Instead she stares at her beer and she continues. “My first love committed suicide.”
My heart drops into my toes and part of me wants to cry while the other part of me wants to hold her and still another part of me wants to ask a ton of questions. But knowing what I know about broaching difficult topics, I just stay still and quiet and let her talk it out.
“No one knows why, and no one knew that he felt that way, least of all me, but he shot himself one day while I was at work. His brother found him.”
She takes another sip and we get closer to the ground as a few drops start to fall from the sky. Our pilot ignites the burners to be sure we don’t plummet and I’m grateful for the noise because it gives us both a reprieve from the conversation. It’s short, but that’s all that’s needed before she continues.
“I was going to marry him and start a family. You know, the same things you wanted with Spencer. I wanted them with him. He’s the only person I’ve ever wanted that with. Ever since then, that part of me has felt broken, like I’ll never actually love someone like that ever again. So, I date and live, and I’m pretty happy, but it still feels like that part of my future is lost and I’ll never get it back.”
“I understand what you mean.”
“I know you do.”
And with that I release my arm from her hold and put it around her shoulders, holding her against me. She tightens her grip around my waist and we both hold on as more and more rain starts to fall and soak us. The noise of the burner makes conversation impossible, so we just stand like this in silence, finishing our beers as we draw to a landing.
“I’m sorry for the weather, ladies, but I’ve made the call and a shuttle is in route. Until it gets here, we’ll just have to wait it out. It should be here in about twenty minutes.”
Glad to be on the ground, Erin pulls away. “Well,” she says. “This has been an eventful day.”
I smile at her, hoping to bring back some of the light, easiness of our relationship.
“Yes it has, but it’s also been a good day.”
She smiles back at me and while I’m not sure either of us really believes that, I decide that I’m going to believe it regardless, and Erin meets me in this place of easy delusion.
“Didn’t your list say that you wanted to dance barefoot and kiss in the rain?”
I give her a strange look but nod in the affirmative.
“Well,” she says, gesturing to the open country we’re stranded in. “What better place can you think of to cross that off, unless you already have?”
I shake my head, and wipe the wet curls out of my eyes. “Nope, I haven’t done that yet.”
“Okay then,” she says authoritatively, taking my hand, opening the entry to the basket, and pulling me down after her.
She takes her shoes and socks off and rolls up her tight jeans, which is a feat all on its own. I do the same, and without another word, she takes off, pulling me after her to frolic in the downpour like two extremely bored children unwilling to let the rain coup them up inside. We chase each other and splash where we can, the mud cold and thick under our feet, causing us to slip, fall, and laugh.
Once we’re thoroughly filthy and winded, she pulls me close and wraps her arms around my neck, rocking us into the motion of a slow dance where only we can hear the music. We’re quiet and cold and caked in mud, but happiness radiates from both of us somehow.
We continue this way until we both hear the roar of an engine and turn to see the headlights of a van drawing close to our location. She looks me right in the eyes. Hers are soulful and deep, and I can’t help but feel the absolute heartfelt plea in them when she says, “Thank you, Ashley.”
And with that, she swipes at the mud near my mouth with her thumb to clean it away and leans up to give me a warm, chaste, and lingering kiss. When she pulls away, I open my eyes to find her beaming at me.
She laughs and runs over to our discarded clothing, scoops them up in her arms, and says with satisfaction, “I need a shower.”
The trip back to the vineyard is a comfortable one, with the heater turned on full and a couple of blankets wrapped around us. Erin is her usual self, all bubbly and fun. It’s as if the seriousness of this excursion hasn’t touched her, and I’m grateful for that.
When we get back to the vineyard, we’re offered a room where we can clean up and we purchase some of the more tasteless commemorative clothing from the gift shop. Erin’s shirt is bright blue and has the head of a cat in place of the balloon as it flies over the city beneath. Red sweat pants, calf-length heeled boots, and a draw-string wicker hat round out her look. My shirt is simple and white, a red balloon rising up with the words, ‘Full of Hot Air,’ at the top. My sweat pants are checkered and my hat is a snapback with the vineyard’s logo on it, all finished off with my combat boots. We look ridiculous, but we’re warm and clean, and we decide to picnic by the fire place in the great room and enjoy each other’s company.
A phone call from Kate interrupts us and I realize that we’ve spent most of the day just being together. I’m late for band practice and, for the first time, I decide that Erin shouldn’t be a secret anymore, so I invite her along. She agrees immediately, but only on the stipulation that neither of us get to change our clothes.
I quickly agree and we take off back towards the city, this time singing Paramore all the way. When we get there, Kyla immediately starts to take pictures of me with her phone, only stopping when she realizes that I have a girl with me, a girl who casually takes my hand as if she’s done that a few hundred times. Kyla rudely yanks me out of the practice room into the recording area attached, and I give Erin an apologetic look over my shoulder but she just smiles at my sister’s insanity good-naturedly.
As soon as the door shuts, Kyla begins. “Ashley, are you dating her?”
I turn my attention to Kyla and frown at her… disapproval?
“Um, I’m not sure. We just sort of… hang out.”
“Is this the kind of ‘hanging out’ that has you holding hands, touching, kissing… you know, more than friends stuff?”
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
Her jaw slacks open and she shoves me on one of my shoulders.
“Why didn’t you tell me,” she nearly screeches.
“It’s new, Kyla. Why are you so mad about it?”
“Mad…? I’m not mad! This is fucking great! You just didn’t tell me!”
I shrug. “I guess, I’m telling you now.”
“Huh uh,” she says. “You’re not off of the hook at all.”
“Kyla, I have to practice now.”
“When we get home, I expect a full rundown on everything.”
I throw my hands up in submission. “Okay…”
She nods once, smiles, and smacks me on the way out of the room. I follow her back to Erin who leans in and asks, “Is everything alright?”
I roll my eyes and whisper back, “It’s fine. My sister is just… mentally retarded.”
“Oh,” she says with a slight frown. “Okay.”
“Ash, let’s get going, huh? I have to work tonight,” Kate says from behind her drumset, clearly annoyed at my tardiness.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”
And with that, I pick up my guitar, check the tuning, crank the knobs, and start out the set. Jon and Jack don’t look at each other, so that tension is still there; Kyla’s still annoyed; Spencer is nowhere to be seen; a day of light-hearted fun turned serious; I didn’t get to finish the hot air balloon ride. Nothing is right, but all in all, nothing is wrong. And as the first few notes chime of one of our more energetic songs, I catch Erin’s eyes and she winks at me. I can’t help but smile at her and somehow, despite how everything in the world is completely off balance and lacking any happy certainty, I feel good.