Lying on the warm grass in the middle of the field, we are surrounded by the long shadows of the dorms. Tom smells of summer and fresh clothes, and I want to press my nose into his neck to inhale him whole. Instead, I don’t move when our fingers touch by accident. I try not to breathe too loudly.
Although the campus cafeteria shut down for the summer already, we sneak in through the window anyway. We’re reckless and exhilarated. We try starting the coffee machine, but it’s turned off. We steal a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream from the freezer someone accidentally left on.
I hold on to the fence as we fly down the cafeteria staircase. The green paint that’s chipping off in places sticks to my sweaty palms. My hands smell of metal and mud and melting ice cream.
There’s a photo of Tom’s girlfriend in his room, right in the middle of his desk.
“She’s cute,” I say as I sit down on his bed.
“She’s not cute. She’s beautiful,” he replies, avoiding my eyes. It makes me like him even more.
By the end of the summer holiday, Tom phones me to announce that he won’t be coming back to school. I choke up and say nothing.
We agree to meet on Sunday at ten in front of the bus station in Ridgefield, an insignificant town on the border. Tom likes its shape on a map. I get up at dawn and pack a bunch of sandwiches, some crisps, a couple of red peppers, grapes, cheese. I know Tom hates tuna, I’m unsure about anything else.
I arrive first, and I lean against the concrete wall to cool myself down. “I was here,” someone wrote with a blue marker. “I wasn’t,” I think. With my eyes closed, I focus on the sound of a bus leaving and Tom’s footsteps quietly approaching.
There’s no one out on the streets, but the sense of people watching us through the peepholes, from behind the locked doors and drawn curtains, follows us as we walk by. Tom lightly touches my back when he points at a black cat with a red collar sunbathing in the middle of the road. The small of my back keeps burning while we climb to the forest on the top of a hill above the town.
We lie in the shade, reading our books and eating sandwiches as I pretend this is real life and it’s where I’m supposed to be. Suddenly, without looking up, Tom breaks the silence: “My father’s dying.”
I sit up. We never talked about anything serious before.
“Pancreatic cancer.” I instinctively lean over to hug him, the hardcover he’s holding poking my ribs.
“He has a couple of months left.” I squeeze him harder, and he’s sobbing, and my right cheek is wet and we both smell of tears.
Later, when he calms down, he wipes his face with a sleeve of his blue shirt. He mumbles through his fingers: “I could miss my bus. Stay another day.”
It seems like a thoughtful thing to say, but it’s safe because it’s impossible. Tom’s ticket and the police pass are only valid for that day. Although he never mentions her, and because he never mentions her, I’m mostly thinking about his girlfriend.
An unexpected summer shower forces us into a dark corner of a closed down hardware store. When we finally kiss, it’s clumsy and exciting and confusing. Between kisses, Tom whispers that he wants to see me again.
The air smells of wet asphalt and coal, his face smells of my mouth, my hands smell of his hands. I whisper back, and I know I’ll never see him again.