“It’s funny, the way everything can feel so small and so big all at once,” Siobhan said.
She was half-lying on an old beach towel on the wet grass. Xander was a few feet away on a blanket, and they were both looking up at the stars. It’d rained all day, but the sky was clear now.
“Yeah,” they said.
She knew she was feeling a lot of feelings. They were swirling like purple and black smoke through her ribcage, and she felt like if she spoke the feelings out loud, that’d be it. The smoke would come out of her mouth and meet the sky to dissipate, disintegrate, because that’s what smoke did.
Everything felt significant because of how it was contained and she knew it would all feel insignificant and silly if spoken out loud—so what would be the point?
“Want to play a game?” Siobhan asked.
“What kind of game?” asked Xander.
“I’ll go over there,” Siobhan said pointing at a lone pine tree at the bottom of the hill they were sitting on, “and I’ll call you, and we’ll talk.”
“How is that a game?”
“It was fun last summer.”
“We were dumb then, fucking bored,” said Xander.
“Just go with it.”
Siobhan stood up and wiped the dirt from the damp grass on her jeans. Xander noticed a few blades of grass were stuck to her elbows. Siobhan walked over to the tree and leaned against it, face illuminated by the blue light of her phone screen. She went to her text messages and clicked Xander’s name at the top and waited for them to pick up.
“Hello,” they said.
“Ello,” she said in a British accent, “who do I have the pleasure of speaking to this fine evening?”
“What a faaaascinating name, dear, my name is Lady Zadie.”
Siobhan was worried this wasn’t going to work in the same way a joke that could land so well at 2 a.m. when you’d hit peak deliriousness always fell flat when you tried retelling it the next day.
“Listen, can you take my number off of whatever telemarketing list I’m on. All I get are spam calls.”
At least they’d said something, but there wasn’t much Siobhan could do with that. Unless Xander was inviting her to persuade them, somehow.
“Oh, this isn’t a telemarketing call, darling. You’ve been selected as a subject for a study I’m conducting.”
“We are trying to determine,” said Siobhan, peeking up at Xander from behind the curve of the tree’s trunk, “what creates someone’s foundational understanding of love, well, specifically outside of familial love.” She saw them lying there, one arm holding the phone to their ear, the other draped across their eyes or forehead as if they were in bed in the morning and the sun from the window was too bright.
Xander didn’t know why they were being such an asshole. They didn’t particularly enjoy behaving in this way, exuding this coldness, but they felt they were on a totally different wavelength. Siobhan’s feelings, her giddiness, were loud. Overstimulating to Xander—a sort of sensory overload. They knew it would be easier to play along, entertain this, maybe even get lost for a while, but they couldn’t shake their annoyance.
“That’s what you want to talk about?” they exhaled, flatly. Last time, last summer, the topics had all been wacky things the two of them had invented—a conversation between two entrepreneurs about a product called Umbrella Drones. They’d been spies relaying top secret information about people they observed from wherever they were each sitting in the park. And sometimes, they were even themselves—more honest versions somehow because the truest truths could be hidden behind the game itself: I didn’t really mean that, I was playing around.
Xander inhaled and on their exhale they acquiesced to the game Siobhan wanted to play. “Okay,” Xander began in a deep, robotic voice. “What is your first question?”
Siobhan was relieved. She’d been questioning the validity of her nervousness for the last few hours. Could she really embarrass herself with someone who’s 7th grade yearbook picture lived in her house?
“What are your favorite love stories in movies or in a song or a book? Like before you’d ever experienced romantic love, what made up your understanding of it, outside of family?” asked Siobhan.
“Hmm,” thought Xander. “This is going to sound silly.”
“I cannot comment on that as I am simply a conduit in the collection of data. Please proceed.”
Xander liked this part. The fog between them. Knowing they could answer honestly with the added assurance that they wouldn’t talk about it more later.
“Okay, I think Bridge to Terabithia. But, specifically the dog in that. What was its name again?”
“Prince Terrian,” said Siobhan, her British accent dropping momentarily.
“Prince Terrian,” repeated Xander, “Yeah. The fact that Jess gave Leslie a puppy and then she’s gone but there’s still something alive and breathing between them, in addition to the world they created together.”
“And, any songs?”
“Umm… let me think. I might need you to circle back,” Xander knew she wouldn’t, “What about you? What made up your understanding of love?”
“Sorry, as the one conducting this questionnaire, I cannot reveal any personal information,” said Siobhan.
Siobhan was starting to feel the personal thrill of the game. Her sense of control. And it made her wonder what else she was feeling. She wasn’t giving herself enough credit for what this was. It was hard to keep it straight in her head that it wasn’t really Xander that she wanted, or even loved. It was herself and everything being with them allowed her to bring out.
“Lady Zadie, you mean?”
“No, Siobhan. Seriously. Why do you do it?” they asked. “Make up stories?”
Siobhan and Xander were nineteen years old. It was their first summer home after starting college, and they’d left last fall best friends and virgins. But both of those things had changed. Siobhan didn’t necessarily want to make up stories, she wanted to ensure that theirs continued.
“It’s my attempt at understanding the world—people, I mean. I think that’s all any of us are trying to do,” she said, as herself.
“And before, what made up your understanding of love?” asked Xander.
“I thought you thought it was a stupid topic.”
“It’s not a stupid topic, it’s just becoming a stupid game.”
Xander heard Siobhan blow out a little huff of air. She was obviously frustrated.
“Then why haven’t you hung up?” asked Siobhan.
“This part’s good, it’s good when you’re yourself.”
At the end of the day, when Siobhan would lay in bed for a little while after a shower, running her hand along one of her long, silky legs, she’d feel like she was going to waste. Like this beautiful body of hers was only worth something if someone else were there to appreciate it. She thought of people like playlists, and it wasn’t enough to just do that for herself, either. Sometimes Siobhan felt like a projector in a sunlit room. All the light she was exuding was kind of lost without a source to project onto that could then be seen by her. Loving herself was tied to providing love to someone else. So, anyone who didn’t run away from her sensitivity seemed perfect in the way a napkin feels as perfect as a journal when you have a thought you just really need to write down in that moment.
“Okay, so you want my answer?” asked Siobhan.
Xander knew Siobhan. She’d already given consideration to her answer. Her questions were always calculated.
“Well, Super 8 made me understand platonic love in friendships. The way a shared experience and passion and creativity can bind people in an everlasting way. It’s comforting to me. And I like that in a movie. You can walk away hoping those kids grow up and never stop believing in what they experienced as a collective. That even if they don’t all live in the same little town forever, there’s a different little town in their hearts that they all reside in.”
“That’s not your real answer,” said Xander. “Your real answer is that book, The Time Traveler’s Wife.”
Siobhan wasn’t denying it, “So, why did you bother asking me the question?”
“To see if you’d tell the truth.”
“Fine. Yeah, that book. I guess the idea of time travel has its allure. But it isn’t that. What’s stayed with me is that if someone with full confidence told me they knew something I didn’t and that we were meant to be together, I’d go along with it, that would completely get me.”
It was moments like this when Siobhan felt cornered in their friendship. She wouldn’t have known Xander’s answer was Bridge to Terabithia in the way they knew her real answer was The Time Traveler’s Wife. It reminded her that her walls were so low they were nonexistent. The least she could do was dig a shallow moat around her heart. It filled her with a subtle sense of paranoia—the idea that Xander could be doing exactly what she was doing, but from a step ahead. That everything they said was just as premeditated as everything she said.
“Should we get going?” asked Xander.
“What time is it?”
“Bye,” said Xander into the phone.
“Bye!” yelled Siobhan from the tree.
She walked back up the slight slope of the hill towards Xander. They bundled up their belongings and walked towards Siobhan’s car like they’d been sitting in silence together this whole time. Which was how they both liked it.
“Still wanna go watch something?” asked Xander, breaking what felt like hours of silence between the real versions of themselves.
“Yeah,” said Siobhan.
Even though she knew how to get home from the park, Siobhan half-relied on the GPS to direct her. She thought to herself that she preferred not to learn local geography, or how to get anywhere, because the voice of the nav was the only one in her world that would tell her exactly what to do and give her direction in life that she could trust and follow.
In the car, they didn’t talk. Xander checked the weather forecast on their phone and saw little yellow sunshines all the way down the screen which felt absurdly oppressive and disheartening because it didn’t match up with their inner weather at all. It sort of affirmed that whatever window they and Siobhan had been living in had passed and any opportunity there’d been to figure out what they were feeling was gone with the rain.
In the driveway of her townhouse, Siobhan locked her car three times in fast succession, sounding off a beep beep beep before hopping up the four cement stairs to the front door. Xander followed. Nobody was home, nobody was ever really home, and they went upstairs to Siobhan’s room.
They sat on the floor on top of a lime green shag rug that Siobhan had begged for when she was little and could never let go of now because of the fit she threw over needing it. Xander took off their zip-up hoodie and discarded it on the floor beside them. Without the jacket, their forearms revealed even more tattoos then when Siobhan had seen them last. Siobhan traced one, a lily growing out of some sort of animal skill, with her eyes. She felt that even unclothed, Xander would never be truly naked with her now (they’d never been naked together before) in a physical sense. The ink felt like a layer of armor to her—illustrations on the skin like “Keep Out” signs on a fence.
“What do you want to watch?” asked Siobhan, pulling up Netflix on her computer.
“Oh, that’s a good idea. Any artist in particular?” Her hands hovered above the backlit keyboard, the cursor blinking now in the YouTube search bar.
Xander shimmied beside Siobhan, leaning against the unmade bed with its lavender duvet falling off the edge and reached over to take the computer off her lap to type.
Over the past few months in particular, Siobhan had come to realize that she had feelings for everyone. The issue was she had quickly learned this was not how most people functioned. She suspected that, underneath the guardedness most of her friends held in relation to love interests, everyone did have feelings to a degree—but nobody else admitted them as readily as Siobhan. Curiously, to her own surprise, it dawned on her that someone reciprocating her feelings also ruined the whole thing. She didn’t desire more, mutuality, or reciprocity in the way she suspected she would. That stuff all made it less hers and hers alone.
The thing that most people don’t realize is that having feelings for someone and wanting those feelings to be reciprocated are two separate things with more distance between them than one might expect. Siobhan was starting to think that loving someone, even when it’s unrequited, is simply a reminder of what passion and cruelty your heart is capable of.
“How old were you when your parents got divorced?” asked Siobhan.
“Eleven,” said Xander.
“How do you think that affects your love life?”
“What makes you think I have a love life?”
“Love might be too strong a word,” offered Siobhan.
“I mean, it was easier to meet people this year, for sure. What about you?”
“Yeah, it was easier.”
“Do you not want to talk about this? You brought it up,” said Xander.
“I do. I can just tell that you don’t want to.”
Xander had always kind of thought that Siobhan would’ve been their first. Not in a serious way. In a childish, comforting way. Like they’d never had a crush on her, they’d always been friends. They always spent a lot of time alone in her room. It would’ve been easy. And that was the biggest issue. The ease. It felt like taking advantage of something. Of Siobhan. Even now, Xander knew the power they held in the dynamic they shared. If they just sat on Siobhan’s bed, she would follow. If they put their hand on Siobhan’s cheek, she would kiss them. But Xander didn’t want any of that, they just wanted things to be like they always had been, before Siobhan like came into her era of female empowerment and had discovered her sexuality or whatever. Which, to be clear, Xander wasn’t at all opposed to in a general sense. They just didn’t want to be the object, or an object of it.
Siobhan had slept with seven people her freshman year. Five boys and two women. And that’s how it was at eighteen, nineteen, and she presumed into her twenties too, that the boys wouldn’t be men in the way the girls were already women. The sex never left her feeling very good about herself after a day or two. She didn’t really know what she was doing in the game sense of it all. It often felt like she was at a poker table with a handful of tarot cards. She wasn’t playing the same game as everyone else. Hook-up culture lacked depth in all the wrong ways. She didn’t want other people to have feelings for her, but the erratic nature and immaturity of it all gave her imagination very little fuel. She always invited her conquests back to her room and found herself wondering if it was coincidence that their side of the bed was always the one closest to the door. Logistically, it made sense, she was the one leading, but it always meant they were the ones closer to leaving.
“I think there are cookies or something downstairs. Want anything?”
“Sure,” said Xander to nothing in particular.
Siobhan nodded and left the room. Xander looked at their reflection in the full length mirror leaning against the wall next to her desk. They tousled their own curly black hair and then picked at a mosquito bite on their arm.
“Gross,” said Siobhan, tossing a snack-sized bag of chips to Xander who had already expected her to bring back anything besides cookies.
Siobhan opened her own bag of chips, but held it up to Xander before eating any. “Oh, which do you want?”
“I want this.”
“So have it then,” she said. But there was something underneath the words. Something in the tone. Xander knew to let it be.
Siobhan drove Xander home and hesitated in their driveway, her finger hovering over the button to roll the window down, pushing down the urge to shout out into the night something, anything to them as she watched them walk away.
She waited for the feeling to pass, for Xander to be inside and away from her view. She shifted the car out of park and into drive before noticing that she had been holding her breath. She let out a big exhale and turned up the volume on the radio until she could feel the bass in her chest, reverberating. This felt better.
Her phone started ringing through the car and she answered.
“Hey,” she said.
“Is anyone else with you right now?”
“Good. I have the coordinates for a top secret mission.”
Siobhan smiled, and she was pretty sure she could feel Xander smiling too, even from a mile away. As logistics were exchanged, Siobhan began to think that maybe being in love with someone was nothing more (and nothing less) than two people giving each other permission to love themselves.Annie Fay Meitchik is a writer and visual artist with her BA in Creative Writing from The New School and a Certificate in Children’s Book Writing from UC San Diego. Through storytelling, Annie aims to amplify the voices of marginalized identities, advocate for equality in art/educational spaces, and synthesize her own life experiences with a comedic edge. Learn more and explore her previously published works here: www.anniefay.com.