We picked that spot on the riverbank because the sun shone directly overhead in the summer. It was more a gully than a river, steep hills rising in either direction. You lived on one side. I’m still here on the other.
The coming solar eclipse transformed our town. We were one of the dots on the arc of totality. People drove in from all over with their minivans, SUVs, and campers. They filled every motel, slept in their cars, pitched tents in the park.
That was middle school. When we first met, you were brand new. You stood in front of our third- grade class and told everyone your name. What struck me wasn’t that you weren’t afraid of us, the roomful of kids sizing you up, but that you were afraid, and you let it show. Your little fists, your wide-legged stance. Ready to run if you needed to.
In third grade, your mom could still walk a little, but by the eclipse, her legs no longer functioned. You were the first one to get a cellphone, strictly for family emergencies, and it embarrassed you. You kept it in your pocket and squirreled glances when you thought I wasn’t looking.
We were alone at the gully when the eclipse started. The stagnant water smelled like methane and wet leaves. We wore those little paper glasses with the dark lenses they’d given out at school. They were crooked on your face, or your ears were.
The darkness of the moon was a little black lump on the sun, and it grew and grew. Goosebumps fuzzed my arms; it was getting cold. You moved closer, and our elbows touched. We shivered. The cicadas and mosquitoes went quiet, and the air itself started making sounds: a wavering, wobbling frequency, like humming with your lips close to the spinning blades of a fan. And then the ground was awash with squiggles of light. Glowing fingernails clawed at the earth, left little crescent scars of brightness on the otherwise unbroken shadow, on our skin and clothes, on your face.
Maybe I wished too hard, in that moment, for you to inhabit me.
Sometime later, the sky lightened, the air warmed, and it was day again, things snapping back to normal more quickly than they’d changed. The cicadas and the mosquitoes resumed their racket and, somewhere far away, people cheered.
You waited a few breaths before speaking. “There’s a dead opossum over there.”
It was curled up in the fetal position, its face hardened in a death grimace. Its fur was coarse, its back smeared with mud. You said to go home, get a shovel, and meet back here.
Grave digging was hard. The ground was rocky all over. Neither of us wanted to touch the opossum, so we used our shovel blades to lift and lower its body into the ground. After it was buried, you got a text message and left for home.
I’ve always felt an affinity for opossums. Their ugliness. Did you know a female opossum can birth up to twenty-four babies, but only has thirteen nipples? A baby opossum is called a joey. They start out as small as a grain of rice and have to climb from inside their mother’s pouch all the way up to her nipples to feed. If they don’t make it, they die. What is it like for the mother opossum, whose body isn’t built to love everyone who needs her?
By high school your dad had taken extra hours and was almost never home. You were the one who carried your mom out of bed in the morning and back up the stairs at night. You could never sleep over. Still, you’d sneak out and drink with the rest of us. You were very good at holding your liquor.
There was a house party and a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve our senior year. I’d just gotten my first college rejection letter and was very drunk. You told me you’d applied to all the same places. I suspected you were lying.
You walked outside just before midnight. I followed. The wind whipped up a fine, icy particulate. We took refuge along the side of the house for a while, leaning against the bricks, my world spinning from the booze, your cheeks pink and wind slapped. There was snow in your eyelashes, brows, and the soft down of your face. You breathed out, and I breathed in. We heard the sliding door open around the corner, and friends shouted our names until they got distracted and started to hoot and wrestle in the snow.
I thought maybe you’d knock me down, too. Cover my body with yours and both our bodies with snow, and you’d eat me up, the moon to my sun. Or the other way around. Our friends went back inside.
“Almost happy New Year,” you said.
“Almost happy New Year,” I said back.
The people on the other side of the wall counted down to midnight and kissed each other’s mouths. You leaned in and put your lips on my forehead.
“Hey,” you said. “We’ll always be friends.” Your mouth closed around a goodbye I’ll never accept.
I didn’t say wait, or anything at all. I didn’t reach for you. There was nothing but cold air between us already, as you turned and walked into the blizzard, toward hill and gully and home and wherever you went after that. I didn’t follow, but only because you didn’t ask.
Opossums don’t mean to play dead. They hiss and spit and bare their teeth at danger, but when that doesn’t work, they faint from the stress, and they don’t wake up for a long, long time.
Do you think we could have buried a still-alive thing? I didn’t go away to school; I stayed here to find out. I’m waiting. The gully stinks. Your mom says hello.