“Wow,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. I was happy to punch that piece of shit in the face. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
We were both quiet a moment, just staring at each other.
Finally, Ocean said, “You have no idea how much I missed you.”
“Um, I think I do,” I said. “I think I’d win that competition.”
He laughed, softly.
And then he walked over, sat beside me on his bed. My feet didn’t touch the floor. His did.
I was suddenly nervous. I hadn’t been this close to him in so long. It was like starting over again, like my heart had to have these heart attacks all over again and my nerves were sparking, my head was filling with steam all over again and then, very gently, he took my hand.
We said nothing. We didn’t even look at each other. We were looking at our hands, entwined, and he was drawing patterns along my palm, and I could hardly breathe as he left trails of fire along my skin. And then, all of a sudden, I noticed that his right hand was bruised. The knuckles on his right fist looked like they’d been destroyed, actually.
Gingerly, I touched the torn skin. The wounds had only barely begun to heal.
“Yeah,” he said, in response to my unspoken question. His voice was tight. “That’s, um . . . yeah.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
We both looked up. We were sitting so close together that when we’d lifted our heads our faces were only inches apart. I could feel his breath against my skin. I could smell him—his faint cologne, the scent that was entirely his own—
“It—yeah,” he said, and blinked, distracted. “It kind of”—he took a sharp, sudden breath—“I’m sorry,” he said, “I just—”
He took my face in his hands and he kissed me, kissed me with such intensity that I was flooded, at once, with feelings so painful I made a sound, an involuntary sound that was almost like crying. I felt my mind blur. I felt my heart expand. I touched his waist, tentatively, ran my hands up his back and I felt something break open inside me, something that felt like surrender. I got lost in the feel of him, in the heat of his skin, in the way his body shook when he broke away and I felt like I was dreaming, like I’d forgotten how to think. I missed you, he kept saying, God, I missed you, and he kissed me again, so deeply, and my head was spinning, and he tasted, somehow, like pure heat. We broke apart, fighting to breathe, holding on to each other like we were drowning, like we’d been lost, left for dead in a very large expanse of sea.
I pressed my forehead to his and whispered, “I love you.”
I felt him tense.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner,” I said. “I wanted to. I wish I had.”
Ocean didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. He was gripping my body like he’d never let me go, like he was hanging on for dear life.
In the end, the thing that broke us apart wasn’t all the hatred. It wasn’t the racists or the assholes.
I was moving again.
Ocean and I had two and a half months of perfect happiness before my dad broke the news, in the beginning of May, that we’d be leaving town as soon as Navid graduated. We’d be gone by July.
The weeks in the interim passed in a sweet, strangled sort of agony. Ultimately, Ocean hadn’t been expelled. His mother had hired a lawyer for the hearing and—in a twist that surprised only Ocean—it turned out that he was just too well-liked. The school board agreed to suspend him for an extra week and call it a day. They tried to convince him to rejoin the basketball team, but Ocean refused. He said he never wanted to play basketball competitively, not ever again. In some ways, he seemed so much happier.
In other ways, not at all.
We were always acutely aware of our fast-approaching expiration date, and we spent as much time together as we could. My social status had changed so dramatically—climbing only higher after news broke that Ocean had punched his coach in the face because of me—that no one even blinked at us anymore, and we were both stunned and confused, all the time, at the perfect ridiculousness of high school. Still, we took what we could get. We were wrapped up in each other, feeling happy and sad all at once, pretty much all the time.
Ocean’s mom realized that pushing me out of her son’s life had only fractured her own relationship with him, so she let me back in. She tried to get to know me and did a mediocre job of it. It was fine. She was still kind of weird, but for the first time in a long time, she was actively involved in Ocean’s life again. His near-expulsion actually seemed to shake something loose in her brain; she was maybe more surprised than anyone that Ocean had voluntarily broken someone’s nose, and, suddenly, she was asking him questions. She wanted to know what was happening in his head. She started showing up for dinner and staying home on weekends and it made him so happy. He loved having his mom around.
So I smiled. I ate her potato salad.
School was always weird. It never really settled into anything normal. Slowly, after a great deal of soul-searching, my classmates dug deep and found the intestinal fortitude to speak to me about things besides breakdancing and that thing on my head, the results of which turned out to be both entertaining and illuminating. The more I got to know people, the more I realized we were all just a bunch of frightened idiots walking around in the dark, bumping into each other and panicking for no reason at all.
So I started turning on a light.
I stopped thinking of people as mobs. Hordes. Faceless masses. I tried, really hard, to stop assuming I had people figured out, especially before I’d ever even spoken to them. I wasn’t great at this—and I’d probably have to work at it for the rest of my life—but I tried. I really did. It scared me to realize that I’d done to others exactly what I hadn’t wanted them to do to me: I made sweeping statements about who I thought they were and how they lived their lives; and I made broad generalizations about what I thought they were thinking, all the time.
I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
I was tired of focusing on my own anger. I was tired of focusing only on my memories of terrible people and the terrible things they’d said and done to me. I was tired of it. The darkness took up too much valuable real estate in my head. Besides, I’d moved enough times now to know that time was a fleeting, exhaustible thing.
I didn’t want to waste it.
I’d wasted so many months pushing Ocean away and I wished so much, every day, that I hadn’t. I wished I’d trusted him sooner. I wished I’d savored every hour we had together. I wished for so much. For so many things with him. Ocean had made me want to find all the other good people in the world and hold them close.
Maybe it was enough, I thought, that I knew someone like him existed in this world. Maybe it was enough that our lives had merged and diverged and left us both transformed. Maybe it was enough to have learned that love was the unexpected weapon, that it was the knife I’d needed to cut through the Kevlar I wore every day.
Maybe this, I thought, was enough.
Ocean had given me hope. He’d made me believe in people again. His sincerity had rubbed me raw, had peeled back the stubborn layers of anger I’d lived in for so long.
Ocean made me want to give the world a second chance.
He stood in the middle of the street when our cars pulled away on that sunny afternoon. He stood there, motionless, and watched us go, and when his figure was finally swallowed up by the space between us, I turned back around in my seat. Caught my heart as it fell out of my chest.
My phone buzzed.
don’t give up on me, he wrote.
And I never did.