I’M ALREADY WIDE AWAKE by the time Meredith finally wakes up, residual foundation and mascara that I was unable to fully remove with a makeup wipe before bed last night smudged on her face and hair a bundle of frizz. She looks confused and very, very hungover, and brings a hand up to shield her eyes from the sunlight that sifts through the cracks in my blinds.
As last night comes flooding back in her memory, she mutters a curse word under her breath.
I nudge the glass of water I fetched for her a few hours prior and left on the nightstand toward her and she slowly sits up, reaching out to grab the water with one hand and rubbing her temple with the other. After taking a sip and choking down some Advil, she turns toward me and winces. “How shambly did I get last night?”
“Define shambly,” I quip, my lame attempt at lightening the mood.
Her head falls back into the pillow and she groans. “I hate myself.”
“Everyone was wasted by the end of last night, don’t feel bad,” I say. “And I texted your mom pretending to be you and said you were sleeping over at a friend’s house, so don’t worry about that aspect. I got it covered.”
“Lex,” she says, frowning, “you could’ve told her that I was sleeping over at your house. She remembers you, you know. She used to go on and on about what a positive influence you were on me.”
Used to. I don’t draw attention to it, but the implication is still there. We were once good friends. Now we’re civil acquaintances. Which, in a world full of civil acquaintances whose ties rely solely on empty promises of “let’s hang out”s and “we need to catch up”s, means very little.
“I can drive you home, if you want,” I offer.
She reaches for my hand, stopping me short. “Lexi, please.” Her voice comes out sounding kind of desperate. “I need to talk to you. This time for real. Can we go to that coffee shop we were talking about last night? Maybe grab a bite to eat to cure this hangover?”
My voice comes out in a soft puff. “Okay.”
Fifteen minutes, two foamy cappuccinos, and a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich later, we’re seated at a table in the corner of Europa, dawdling around on small talk, putting off the inevitable. The Conversation.
Meredith, unsurprisingly, is the one who works up the courage to segue into the Conversation first.
“Lexi, I’m worried about you.”
Something in my heart droops, and I feel myself further wilting toward the ground, but I manage to put on a happy face, pasting an expression of disbelief over my features. “Why’s that?” I ask as chirpily as I can manage.
She shoots me an unconvinced look. “Jasper leaving. Look, I know we’re not as close now as we once were, but with River being gone and Jasper being out of the picture, I think it would be really nice if the two of us can at least try to be friends again, like old times. Heaven knows I’ll need it, after isolating myself from all my other friends these past few years to suck up all my free time with River, and I think you’ll need it too since Jasper is just about the only friend you have.”
Her words should probably sting, but she’s just speaking the truth. That’s the Meredith Billingsley way—never beating around the bush, always getting straight to the point.
“What’s going on with you and River anyway?” I find myself asking.
She heaves a sigh, rubbing her temples. “I think we’re soon going to be on the outs,” she says. “I wanted this to work, I really did, but the truth of the matter is that we have no idea what life is like apart from each other, and now that he’s going to college and I’ll still be here, trying to make this work just doesn’t make sense, you know? He wants his freedom, and I’m still trying to figure out what I even want out of life. And I think that needs to be a choice that I make on my own, without his influence.”
“I think that’s a really wise decision,” I tell her genuinely.
“Yeah,” she breathes. “I guess so.”
She takes another hungry bite out of her sandwich and I sip on my cappuccino, and it’s strange to think that less than four years ago, we were the best of friends, and now we hardly know what to say to each other. Time has a funny way of either strengthening or weakening relationships; rarely do they remain stagnant. I guess we decide which way it goes based on our intentionality. We’re intentional about the things we care about, and we don’t mind letting go of the things we don’t.
I watch as Cass, the owner of Europa, comes around to each table to light the little tealights placed inside of various colored glass jars. When she gets to our table, she stops and smiles at us. “Would you look at this,” she muses. “Our girl Lexi is hanging out with someone other than Jasper Reynolds. Nice to meet you, dear.” There’s a warm twinkle in her eye as she acknowledges Meredith, and I can’t help thinking that maybe the world isn’t such an awful place if people like Cass are in it.
Meredith grins at her. “Get used to it, ma’am; I’m claiming Lexi back after Jasper moves. We used to be best friends back in middle school, true story. I’m Meredith.”
“Well, Meredith, I’m glad to hear it. Lexi is the kind of person everyone should want to be friends with.” Cass reaches over us to light the candle and a soft purple glow illuminates our faces as the flame flickers to life, dancing distortedly inside the jar’s glass ridges. “You two have a lovely morning,” she says, tipping her head at us and moving on to the next table.
When she walks away, Meredith does a onceover of the coffee shop, taking in the dark walls and the painted planets, along with the freckles of starlight that seep through thousands of punctured holes, and she sighs dreamily. “This place is as close to a fairytale as a town like Abilene can get,” she decides.
I quietly agree with her.
While Meredith polishes off the remainder of her breakfast sandwich, I find myself tuning into my surroundings. The melody of a slippery soft song emanates from the overhead speakers and shatters my soul into tiny fragments in that gently malleable way slow music does. Several tables away, a man in a suit furrows his brows as he reviews some sort of important business documents, tinkling his spoon against a porcelain mug as he mindlessly swirls his coffee around. The chatter between Cass and James, who’s currently working the cash register, floats through the air, the pinnacle of normality as they discuss restocking paper for receipts, and just for a few moments, I allow myself to get swept up under it. Under the feeling of belongingness.
Like I have just as much purpose here as everything else does.
My ideal fairytale doesn’t consist of castles or faraway lands full of mythical creatures; it looks a lot like the real world, with one minor tweak: I fit into it. In my fairytale realm, I don’t feel like an outcast, and I don’t spend every waking moment agonizing over why I feel like I’m treading through life in such a vastly different manner than the rest of the population. I exist, and it makes sense. End of story.
But, of course, the end of one story bleeds into the beginning of another, and I’m promptly thrown back into the true reality of my life: it makes absolutely no sense. It’s crooked and fragile and messy and chaotic and not at all as graceful and worthy as someone like Meredith or Jasper or even Cass’s lives are.
“I have a question,” Meredith says. “And I really want the honest answer.”
My heartrate quickens, but I fight to remain stoic. “Shoot.”
“Are you going to be okay after Jasper’s gone?”
The standard lie is already halfway down my esophagus when I catch myself, and right at the last minute, I exchange it for something foreign: the truth.
“I have no idea,” I tell her.
She sighs. “I know this is hardest on you,” she says. “God, I can’t even believe how close the two of you are, it’s honestly the most precious friendship I’ve ever witnessed. If I had any inkling that getting River to bring him that day we all went to the carnival back in eighth grade would lead to something so sweet and pure, I would have paired the two of you ages before that. I used to feel so guilty, ditching you to hang out with River. I always invited you, but you didn’t wanna third wheel, and I had no idea how to show you that I liked having you with us. And then I had the genius idea to find you someone so the numbers were even, and I knew right from the beginning that nobody would be more kind and patient with you than Jasper Reynolds.”
I’m surprised by her elaboration on this subject, because it’s not something we’ve ever discussed before. But I find myself wanting to hear more.
“How much did you tell him about me, before he agreed to come?”
She pauses, and I can see her choosing her words carefully, musing them over in her mind. “Enough for him to realize that you’re human, and you’re a human worth knowing.”
“Did he know about the anxiety?” I want to know.
She averts her gaze and drops her voice to almost a whisper. “Yeah. I told him.”
I’m not mad, but I know why Meredith is hesitant to relay this information. When I told her about my anxiety, I made her promise not to tell anyone, despite her insistence that it might do good to let people know, so they can realize why I sometimes came across as standoffish. It’s not anything to be ashamed of, Lex, she had told me one night.
How I got to this point is, though, I wanted to say back.
“So he knew,” I breathe, glad to finally have the answer to that question. I reflect back to his gentle approach to me that day, and how he gave me slack when I pushed him away, but was there at my side when I gave signs of reaching out. He really is patient, Jasper.
“Has it gotten worse, with the date coming so close?” I know she’s talking about the anxiety.
“Yeah.” No use trying to hide what’s already out in the open.
She frowns, and one of her hands finds its way on top of mine, giving a gentle squeeze. “You don’t have to go through this alone,” she tells me. “We’re both losing people we care about.”
I know she means this, and I know that I should feel grateful, and I know that this should tether me back to reality and make me feel like I’m part of something.
But their voices scream in my head, telling me that I’ll always be alone in this world, and even though they were absolutely terrible and Meredith is the kindest friend I could ask for who knows me and cares about me, it’s them who wins my attention over.
I say the only thing I can think of that isn’t a lie. “You’re a good friend, Meredith.”
She smiles crookedly, without a trace of humor in her eyes. “Maybe I’m better at being a friend than a girlfriend, after all.”
I’m posted up in the living room with Willie several hours later, drawing pictures together while Aunt Colleen cooks dinner. She softly whistles a tune that carries over into the living room from the kitchen, some sort of old love ballad, and I wonder how much she misses my Uncle Bill.
He’s a neat guy, Bill Butterfield. He has Willie’s large doe eyes and a knack for making things appear out of thin air, be it coins, tissues, or various types of candy, a skill he acquired from an old friend. I don’t have too close of a relationship with him, considering he’s away on some type of military orders most of the time, but I see how it weighs on Aunt Colleen, not having him around to help her raise Willie. The house is a lot homier when Uncle Bill is around to fill it up with his jokes and amateur magic tricks.
“Do you miss your dad?” I decide to ask Willie, finding it important that he acknowledges the good father figure he’s been blessed with. Luckily, he’ll never realize the pain of having a dad who wants nothing to do with you.
He doesn’t look up from whatever he’s scribbling. “Yeah. I miss Daddy lots.”
My heart swells, and I find myself wanting to protect this innocent little boy from all the hardships of the world, shielding him from the bad things. I can only hope and pray that he turns out as kind and good as Jasper.
He finishes whatever drawing he’s working on and walks it over to where I’m situated, handing it to me. “For you, Leckthie.”
I smile at him. “Aw, thank you, Willie!” I exclaim. But then I look down and see his messy artistic skills, and I almost tear up. There’s a boy with sunshine yellow ringlets for hair holding hands with a brown-haired girl in a garden blooming with rather fascinating classes of flowers, a rainbow arcing behind them in the background. It’s clearly a picture of the two of us, and it’s precious and perfect and I know that I’ll treasure it forever. “I love it.”
Not long after, Aunt Colleen calls us in for dinner, and as we get seated and she says grace, something in my heart stirs. Jasper may be leaving, but this will still be here.
Willie may be no Jasper Reynolds, but he’s something wonderful in the making, and what a blessing it is to be part of this boy’s gradual transition toward becoming who he wants to be.
Aunt Colleen delves into some story about the jerk who cut her off on the way to the grocery store earlier today, and I listen earnestly while Willie twists his fork in his spaghetti. No matter what ends up happening with me, I find myself hoping that this family is blessed abundantly in the years to come. Nobody is more deserving than them.
Too bad they weren’t yet in my life, back when I needed them most. Maybe things could have turned out differently for me, too.
Keep dreaming, my father’s cynical voice echoes in my head. See how that ends up working out for you.