By Danny Menter
This Story Won Second Prize in Our Contest
6: Mrs. Fields shows us how to polarize a needle by rubbing it on a scrap of silk and placing it on a leaf above an inch of tap water in the bottom of a tin can. The needle is supposed to guide us north, through a copse of oak trees to a line of orange cones set up on the far side of the playground. My needle spins around wildly, wobbling indecisively on one point then twirling away. But yours is steady, and you appear like a fairy child, giggling beneath the trees, slipping your hand confidently into mine.
You always knew where you were going.
17: We go to prom separately, but find each other instead and sneak outside to the golf course with Solo cups of spiked punch. We talk colleges, moving away, your parents’ divorce. The sprinklers erupt, molten in the streetlamps. Your eyes shine huge and wet, but then someone calls from the parking lot, and I turn, distracted. When I look back, you’ve drifted away.
22: You’re a North Star, fixed as crystal. I’m a drowning sailor grasping for buoyancy. You have a long-term boyfriend who plays Lacrosse, whose family skis in Banff, whose skin stays orange in winter. We lie on a deflated air mattress in my dorm, graduation robes kicked somewhere around our feet. For years this is what I wanted, waving my lantern from the cliffs, and now that you’re within sight, I’m afraid I’ll shatter you against my shore.
You stare stonily at the ceiling. You’re ready to leave him, start this with me. You hold your phone out, offer to cancel the flight if I just say yes.
We pack, silently. When I drive you to the airport, you slice your palm on my trunk, leaving a crimson handprint on the door handle that lingers for weeks.
23: Two letters after six months of silence. The longest we’ve ever gone. Dread feels a lot like hunger. The first is a cream-colored envelope, you and the boyfriend standing in a field of wildflowers. It must have been his idea. You hate these kinds of things. A date I vow immediately to forget. The second comes a month after the wedding and is harder to unsee: your hands cupped under your belly.
Later, I watch flames swallow the announcements on my stove.
28: Nothing these five years but recurring landmarks and tracks that circle back. Then, at the reunion (thought you would be there) I heard about your divorce, and the worse news, and I fly out the next day. I stand by your bedside in the oncology unit while your son waits outside, trying to triangulate this pain. I hoped he would resemble me, needing that to be a connection we shared, but I know he’s not mine. Too sure of himself. I try to tell you I’m sorry, that my compass has always been broken, that I should have found my way to you long ago.
My tongue’s a beached canoe, but after a flutter of eyelids, your hand finds mine, navigates it to your lips, and you ask what took me so long.