Igniting the field with brilliance, the early afternoon sun settled in its place high in the sky. I found it funny that just a week earlier the field was being kicked in and pulled back up by determined cleats. All along the sidelines lay towels drenched in sweat and nearly empty sports drink bottles. Just last week, I stood in the stands with my best friends, cheering until my throat was raw.
Now, that very same field was turned into the platform for our sending off. Countless rows of chairs adorned with big blue bows stretched all the way down to the endzone. “Class of 2019” was spelled out in balloons. I didn’t think the day would come so soon.
“Good afternoon, students, parents and faculty! I am Principal Justine Howard, and foremost I want to thank you all for being here to help celebrate such a great milestone.”
The crowd gave a welcoming applause, and I took the opportunity to stick out my neck and smile at Alex in the J section. Too bad we were in alphabetical order.
“Throughout my career I’ve given out a fair amount of detentions, but today I’m very happy to hand out diplomas. Looking out at you all now, it warms my heart to see you’ve grown into such remarkable men and women.” She paused, on the verge of tears.
“Now if you all would help me, I’d like to welcome to the stage an indeed remarkable young woman, graduate Sienna Martinez!”
Up on the stage, I admired some of my favorite faces in the crowd.
Mr. Klein shot his thumbs up into the air.
Jasmine blew me a kiss.
My father stood tall with his Nikon in hand, ready to take a hundred pictures.
My mother’s eyes were wide and filled with tears as she wiped at her cheeks.
Likely having conspired earlier, Alex and Joseph simultaneously shouted out: “we love you!” And just like that, any fears or nerves I had vanished. God, I loved each and every one of them.
“Good afternoon everybody. Ah, standing on this stage makes me feel so many different things. I’m proud to have made it this far, and I’m even prouder to have been chosen to represent my senior class. Aside from being nervous as heck I’m also sad.”
That earned a laugh from the crowd.
“’Cause whether we want to or not, we all have to face the fact that everything ends eventually. I’ve never liked endings, especially when it comes to a good book. And I’m sure we can all agree that we’ve never liked when the last day of summer came, or parting ways with a close friend.
But like change, endings are inevitable. You have to close that book. Leaves are will start falling, and you will say goodbye. Today is one of those days for us. Today we say goodbye to the things that are familiar. The things we’ve gotten so comfortable with...
We’re moving on. We’re leaving our home, and that hurts. But there are people who have impacted us so greatly, people who are such a big part of us, that they will be with us no matter where we go.
Today we graduate and officially begin our lives as new people. Like I said, change is inevitable, scary but inevitable. Honestly, I think we’re all ready for it. One last time, Bears, I wanna hear you roar!”
The crowd erupted into a collection of whoops, cheers, and claps. Principal Howard hugged me tightly, and then we posed for a picture taken by none other than my dad.
“Wonderful job, sweetie. Absolutely wonderful,” she said, smiling from ear to ear.
I exited the stage and met Mr. Klein who escorted me back to my seat.
“Now, without further ado let’s get to those diplomas! The first lucky senior to be on her way is Michelle Arias!”
Our senior class was made up of a little over 400 students, but before I knew it was applauding for Jazmin, Ethan and then Alex. She did it. My best friend graduated. There was no way in hell my makeup would last until the end of the ceremony. No way. I cheered for her louder than anyone in the audience.
“Sienna? Get back up here!” Principal Howard cheered happily.
I walked across that stage and grabbed hold of the piece of paper I’d worked so incredibly hard, over the last four years to receive. This was my time.
“Congratulations. You did it.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Howard... I’m gonna miss this place.”
“Trust me, we’ll miss you too sweetheart.”
With another big hug, I was being sent off the stage and on to the next phase of my life.
A few hundred more names were called before Joseph. But like Alex, I cheered at the top of my lungs when he sauntered across the stage. The grin that spread on my face was full of pride and pure adoration. That was my fan-freakin-tastic boyfriend. My man.
After handing out the last of the diplomas and turning over the last tassel, Principal Howard and Vice Principal Saunders took center stage to bid us all one final teary-eyed goodbye.
“Ladies and gentleman, lets give the biggest round of applause for the senior class of 2019!!!”
It was at this moment that time seemed to slow down to a full stop, creating the most beautiful picture. Not a single face in the sea of parents, students or faculty was amiss. Wide smiles, joyfully teary eyes, and a sky full of creatively decorated grad caps. We made it.
After the ceremony, Alex shared with me, Ethan and Joseph that her father helped organize our post-graduation party. I wasn’t sure why he volunteered to do it, but I was thankful; I appreciated he was doing something that would mean everything to not only the graduating class, but his daughter too.
The four of us took one final look at Ridgeview high in all its glory before piling into Ethan’s Jeep. Pulling out onto the road, I couldn’t help but turn around in my seat and watch the school become smaller and smaller as we drove further away. A single, thick tear rolled down my cheek.
The party was being held at the Johnson residence. After all, it was the size of a mini hotel, so of course it would accommodate hundreds of kids. However, it was weird seeing so many people there at once. For so long it had been just me, Alex and Joseph occupying the empty space. But today, life was breathed back into this family’s home.
I was on my way to see what Aaron and my father were cooking up when a flying, wet foam ball almost knocked me into the pool.
“Whoa! Take it easy over there!” I shouted.
“Sorry, Principal Martinez. Won’t happen again,” Khai replied with a wink, emerging from under the water.
“You know what, if I were the principal I’d have held you back so you can work on that attitude,” I said, kicking the ball back into the pool.
“Love ya!” he shouted back.
Safely arriving at the grill, my senses were sent into overdrive as I inhaled the smell of steak and shrimp.
“Please tell me this is almost ready,” I whined, clutching my stomach.
“Casi, casi,” (Almost, almost) my dad replied flipping the steaks.
Aaron finished basting the shrimp in teriyaki sauce before turning to meet me.
“Is that really you, Sienna?” he asked.
“It sure is,” I replied.
For the most part he looked the same, with only the slightest signs of aging in his hair and around his gut.
“The last time I saw you was when you were fourteen. Now here you are all grown up and newly graduated...”
Sorrow thickly lined his voice, but I knew it wasn’t because of me. It was because of Alex. He’d missed out on such vital years of her life, just to come back, barely making it to see her become a woman and walk the stage. But I know things weren’t easy for him when he was away.
“Hey, Lucas, can you take over the grill for a moment?” he asked my father.
“Sure, no problem.”
Aaron walked off toward the gazebo that was set up on the grassy side of the backyard. Alex and Ethan were dancing together underneath it. He looked like he wanted to talk to her but decided against it, letting the two carry on. I didn’t even notice I was frowning until my dad poked my cheek.
“What’s got you upset, princesa?”
“Nothing. Just thinking about Alex and her dad.”
“Don’t worry yourself, okay? Just enjoy the day, enjoy this.”
He held out a deliciously gorgeous looking shrimp, pierced on the end of a skewer. Without a second thought I closed my mouth, biting down on the succulent treat. I instantly felt better.
“Mmmm,” I groaned. “I will take 50 more of those.”
“Coming right up,” my father said, chuckling lightly.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw Joseph and Jazmin slip outside from the sliding back door of the house. I hadn’t seen either of them since we first arrived, and Joseph didn’t even answer his phone when I messaged him.
“You gonna save some for me? I like shrimp too.” Joseph said, as he and Jazmin made their way to the grill.
“Yeah, so do I!” Jazmin said enthusiastically.
I stuck my nose in the air. “Nope. You’re gonna have to wait until the next round goes on.”
Jazmin stuck her pink tongue out at me, and I took my plate of freshly grilled shrimp and went off to find a place to enjoy them. Joseph wordlessly followed behind me. Thankfully I found a cozy spot underneath a tree next to the gazebo.
“Wait- before you sit.”
Joseph peeled off his suit jacket and laid it across the spot I wanted to sit at. The small amount of annoyance I felt for him not answering his phone earlier, dissipated immediately.
“Joey, you’re gonna have grass stains.”
“Better my jacket than your dress.”
“Well... only if you sit on it with me.”
An adorable grin appeared on his face. “Okay, let’s sit then.”
“Here.” I held out a shrimp for him the way my father did for me earlier. His eyes never left mine as his lips closed entirely around my fingers. Flustered, I quickly snatched them away.
“... it’s good right?” I asked, staring at my lap.
“It’s amazing, just like you.” he replied, swiping under his lower lip.
“I haven’t even done anything,” I said, looking at him out the corner of my eye.
He took my hand in his, squeezing it. “Of course you have. Your speech was perfect, and that’s amazing to me because I don’t think I could have done it.”
I shook my head, interlocking our fingers. “But you have like ten times more confidence than me.”
“Maybe a little bit more social confidence, but that was a huge crowd out there. Between you and me...” he leaned in close. “I would’ve shit my pants.”
We laughed hard together.
“Oh no, we certainly wouldn’t have wanted that,” I said, once again playing with the loose curl in Joseph’s hair.
“Do you like my hair long?” he asked, looking at me from underneath his eyelashes.
“I do actually.” I let go of the curl and brought my hand to the back of his neck. “The more to pull on.”
“Oh, Sienna... you’re gonna be the death of me.”
Slowly I inched forward with my eyes on his lips, until like magnets, we collided. I smiled against his mouth, being deliriously happy.
With one final peck, we reluctantly pulled away from each other. In front of us stood my mother. I instinctively got ready to rip my hand out of Joseph’s grasp, but he firmly held onto me.
“Hi, baby... Joseph, how are you?” she asked sincerely.
“Couldn’t be better,” he answered, smiling at me. I never understood how he could be so confident in front of someone like my mother.
“Good, good. Uh, if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to my daughter for a moment.”
“Of course.” Before he left me and my mother alone, he whispered into my ear: “You got this.”
I gestured for my mom to take Joseph’s seat on the grass beside me. She shifted awkwardly trying to find a decent position for her legs. It was funny.
“I think it was wonderful for Aaron to do this for you all,” she began.
“Oh for sure. It turned out better than I imagined it would.”
Looking out at the scene before me I couldn’t help but tear up a little. It was great. My dad turned the grill back over to Aaron, grabbed a water gun and joined David. They ran around like teenagers, spraying at Marlene and other people around her.
Ethan and Alex had hopped into the pool and joined Khai and Jasmine in a more tame game of water basketball. The rest danced and sang to the light tunes being cranked out on the speaker. This was the perfect way to end our last day as high schoolers.
“You may not believe me but I’m happy for you. I didn’t see it at first because I didn’t allow myself to, but you deserve Joseph... you deserve to be happy and you deserve to be free.”
Finally, the words I’d been waiting to hear for so long.
“I’m sorry... I am so sorry for the way I behaved- for the way I treated you. I was just scared.” A deep frown settled on her lips.
“Scared of what, mom?” I asked, turning my body toward her.
“I was scared of you growing up. I wanted to protect you from the world. I- I wanted you to stay my little girl forever.” Sighing, she took my face in her hands. “But I never realized how truly unhappy I was making you. I never fully realized that I should’ve been trying to protect the world from you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, arching a brow.
“You’ve always been ahead of your time... you’re such a beautiful, strong young woman and that is dangerous,” she said, giving me a watery laugh.
“I...” before I could stop it, a downpour of tears left me. “All I’ve ever wanted was for you to be proud of me.”
My mother pulled me into her arms and cooed. “I’ve always been proud of you. Always. Don’t you forget that.”
For a few minutes she let me sob into her shoulder. When I ran out of tears, I pulled away and cringed at the dark mascara marks I left on her white dress.
“Sorry about that...” I said, wiping my face.
“We’ve got a washer and dryer for a reason right?... here.” She pulled out a small square cloth and handed it to me. I cleaned off my face and smiled.
“Can I have everybody’s attention?”
Aaron’s voice boomed over the speaker as he spoke into the mic plugged into it. Everyone stopped in their positions and gave him the spotlight.
“I want to say that it’s been a real pleasure hosting your post graduation party. Thank you all for coming to celebrate. In addition to that, I’d like to say a few words to a very special graduate. Alex?”
Everyone followed his gaze to the pool where Alex sat on the outer edge, drying off in a towel. Her eyes were shimmering and wide with surprise, but nonetheless she joined her father’s side in front of the crowd.
“This party is for you, more than anyone else... I know I haven’t been the best father to you, but I’ll spend the rest of my life proving to you how sorry I am. I’m here for you, and you’ll never have to wor-”
Alex cut him off, wrapping her arms impossibly tight around his torso. Her eyes were shut tight as she spoke. “Dad... I love you.”
The mic slipped out of Aaron’s grasp as he cradled the back of Alex’s head. “I don’t deserve you, Alex... I don’t, but I promise I’ll make things right. I love you too. So much,” he murmured.
I was glad those words weren’t said over the mic for anyone to hear. That was a moment for him and his daughter to share alone, and I’m so happy that it happened. Although she was crying, on Alex’s face was the most genuine smile I’d seen from her in months. She needed this moment.
Scooping the discarded mic from the ground, Marlene, who was still soaked from earlier’s water gun fight, spoke cheerily.
“Who’s ready for dessert? I just brought out some cake, chocolate covered strawberries, fruit s-”
Marlene didn’t even get to finish her sentence before kids were speedily climbing out of the pool and racing to the gazebo where a gorgeous spread of desserts were laid out. Hell, even my dad deserted his water gun to follow along.
“You teens sure like sweets huh?” she asked, with a hand on her chest.
“Personally, you had me at chocolate covered strawberries, which reminds me...”
I didn’t care that I was wearing a three inch wedge, I sprinted to the gazebo to get myself some of those decadent beauties. Joseph had one in his mouth and three in his hands, while Alex helped herself to a behemoth slice of cake.
“Joseph, you better save a strawberry for your girlfriend!”
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