3 weeks, 1 day earlier
On the eve of Xavier’s seventeenth birthday, I decided I was finally going to tell him the truth.
We were in his bathroom with a folding chair pushed up against the sink and I was dyeing his hair as his birthday present.
“I want it to look like a very deep part of the ocean,” he’d said a few days earlier, when he’d asked me to do it. “Like something a whale would drink.”
I’d taken this as a good sign: him wanting something, expressing wanting something. He’d spent the last month in his room wanting nothing but quiet and to sleep, or maybe his ex-girlfriend back, though we mostly didn’t talk about that part.
“The ocean isn’t any color,” I’d said. “It’s just water.”
“Then like the bottom of the ocean if somebody dumped a whole bunch of blue food coloring in it.”
I bought the bleach and a bottle of dye that looked like ink. I also got a bag of Swedish Fish, because that was our favorite candy, and it worked with the whole ocean theme. We were both really into the ocean back then.
I put the bleach on his hair while he sat on the chair. I had to lean in to do it, and that made my heart pound, and then I felt guilty for its pounding, because it was messed up to feel that way about him and be that close without him knowing. But I’ll tell him soon, I promised myself. I will tell him, and it won’t be a secret anymore.
The bleach burned our eyes and our noses as it turned his hair from black to coppery gold, and then from coppery gold to almost white. We drank whisky and ate the candy and watched part six of the eight-part ocean documentary series we’d been working our way through on his laptop. This episode was about whales and how sometimes a whale will go years in between seeing any other whales. It just floats along down there in the dark, all alone. “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad,” Xavier said. But I knew he didn’t mean it.
After the bleach, I put on the dye. Xavier had already thrown away the plastic gloves, and so I got the blue all over my hands, and then it wouldn’t come off. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” he said when he saw what had happened. But he was laughing, which meant it was worth it.
We poured more whisky into our mugs and clinked them.
The buzzer on my phone went off, it was time to rinse. “I’ll get in the shower,” Xavier said. I got up and started to leave the bathroom, and he said, “No, just turn around.” But it felt very wrong to be in there while he was taking his clothes off, considering, even if I wasn’t looking. “I’ll go wait in your room,” I said. “So the steam won’t mess up my hair.” The water was already on, and loud.
And he shouted, “Since when do you care about steam on your hair?”
“People change!” I shouted back.
I sat on his bed and stared down at my blue hands and decided enough was enough was enough was enough. I wouldn’t just tell him soon, I would tell him tonight. But how would I say it? I’d tried to imagine a million times but had never quite come up with the words. Xavier, I know this might sound like it’s coming out of nowhere, but . . . or Xavier, you know how I always say I don’t want to date anyone, well the thing is . . . Maybe it would be better not to plan. Maybe it would be better to just be brave: take a deep breath, open my mouth, and let my heart climb right out of it.
A few minutes later he came into his room in a towel, and I pretended to need to use the bathroom. When I got back he was standing there . . . dressed.
“What do you think?” he said. His hair hung in thick wet clumps. The blue was way lighter than it was supposed to be, like jeans that had been washed a thousand times. “I haven’t even looked yet,” he said. “I waited for you.”
He bit his lip and opened his eyes wide, a caricature of a nervous person waiting for a reaction. My face grew hot—he was beautiful. How strange to remember that I actually used to find him very ordinary looking. It seemed impossible to me now.
“Oh God, your expression. Is it bad? It’s bad.” He went over to the mirror. Xavier was not someone who looked in the mirror a lot. It was possible he hadn’t even seen himself in a month.
“No, it’s good,” I said.
He ran his hands through his hair, frowned, smiled, made a duck face, made a fish face. “Are you sure?” he said.
“Stop fishing,” I said. “That’s a command and also an ocean joke.”
He grinned. “I guess it’s time to be a functional human being and go out somewhere?” he said. “Like you’ve been saying all along? For my, like, birthday or something?”
It was the first time he had wanted to go out in a month.
He poured some more whisky into one of the mugs I’d made for him at the print-and-copy shop where I worked. This one had a picture of him holding a mug with a picture of him holding a mug with a picture of him holding a mug on it.
I thought maybe he was pouring too much whisky, considering. “Don’t worry,” he said, watching me watching him. “I promise this is okay.” He motioned to the whisky. “I’m really not going crazy like that anymore.”
It was almost eight thirty. Through the window, the sun was setting and the sky was pink and red. “Well, we should at least have some snacks if we’re going to drink like this,” I said.
I went to his kitchen and grabbed some string cheese and pita chips. I told him to open the chips and cheeses and eat them, and we made a game of me directing him around. “Pull off a string. Put it in your mouth. Chew, chew, chew,” I said. “Now swallow.”
“Isn’t it weird, because string cheese is not really string and not really cheese and yet somehow is both?” he said.
“Save it for open-mic night, pal,” I said. “And keep eating.”
He opened up the pita chips. “Pita chips, neither pita nor chip!” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Shoe yourself,” I said. “Become shod.” And I pointed to his Converse on the floor.
“Are you going to make all my decisions for me tonight?” he said.
“We’ll see,” I said.
“About time someone reasonable took over.”
We had another gulp of whisky each, then poured the rest into an empty Cherry Coke bottle, and it was time to go.
We walked to the train station. “Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot,” I said. We passed the bottle back and forth. The air outside was warm and soft. It was dark now.
The platform was mostly empty. Xavier and I leaned up against the wall. Our arms were touching. Now kiss me, I thought, but didn’t say it.
The train pulled up, we got on. We drank and drank while the trees rushed by outside. An old man was glaring at us over the top of his newspaper, and staring at my blue hands, which I’d forgotten about. Because I was a little bit drunk, I held my hands up like claws and bared my teeth at him. The man just shook his head.
“Thanks for being the world’s best friend,” Xavier said. “I love you.”
I turned toward the window, I felt my face getting hot. “I didn’t say speak,” I said.
He clamped his hand over his mouth.
“That’s more like it.”
But what I was thinking about was the last time he’d told me he loved me, eleven days before. And how different that I-love-you had sounded.
I’d gone over it in my head so many times. It was the sort of thing you make your best friend talk about for hours and hours forever, except I couldn’t because he was the only best friend I had. The only friend at all, really. We’d been at his house, sitting next to each other on his bed, watching part two of the ocean series. This one was about all the very crazy things down there, way at the bottom—creatures that were nothing but jagged gaping mouths, worms that could turn themselves inside out, fish that mated by dissolving their bodies into each other.
We were drinking that night, too, but only a little, and Xavier seemed drunker than it made sense for him to be. Our legs were touching on the bed and for some reason neither of us pulled away. Xavier leaned in close and picked up the locket I always wore—a little brass book that had been my grandmother’s. It wasn’t even really my style, but I never took it off because I loved her, and the locket was all of her that was left. He opened it and pretended to read. “Once there was a girl named Sasha who was the greeeatest in all the land,” he said. Our faces were so close, I could feel his warm breath on my lips. He stayed there, holding the necklace, then looked up at me. He mumbled something and I had to ask him to repeat himself. “I love you so much” is what he said.
We said that sometimes as friends, so it’s not like that was particularly weird or anything. But there was something about the way he was staring at me that was not the usual way at all. It made me feel so good, it wasn’t even safe. Feeling that good could kill a person.
He let go of the necklace, then reached up like he was going to touch my face. I had wanted this for a very long time at that point. I had wanted it for so long and so badly that for just a second I let myself imagine it was actually happening in the real and normal way. But his eyes were all wrong, and I noticed then the prescription bottle on the windowsill. The top was off.
“I think you should get some rest,” I said. He nodded and lay down. I flapped his blankets out over him, then sat on the floor next to his bed. I poked him every couple minutes to make sure he was only sleeping and not unconscious.
Those fucking pills.
Xavier’s parents were good people, but they were also very serious and uncomfortable with emotions and had no clue what to do when Xavier’s girlfriend dumped him and he basically stopped leaving his room. So they sent him to their regular family doctor, who whipped out a prescription pad.
“I know brain drugs can help people, and that’s great. But maybe you should see an actual shrink or something, too,” is what I said when he first told me about the doctor. “Like a person who will, y’know, discuss some stuff?”
“Nope, don’t need to,” he’d said. “These will fix me right up.” He shook his pill bottles like maracas.
There were two kinds of pills: pink sticks to take “as needed” that made Xavier loopy and forgetful, and little white oval sleeping pills.
I’d put my hand on his shoulder, then made my voice all dramatic, like I was in a cheesy TV movie. “There’s not a pill for a broken heart, Xavier,” I’d said. Because sometimes pretending you’re making is a joke is the only way to say the thing you actually mean.
“Ah,” said Xavier. He had half-smiled, which was the most he smiled back then. “But apparently there is.”
I sat with him, waking him up every few minutes, thinking about how if he’d meant that I-love-you in the way it had sounded, it would change everything. How I wanted it to change everything.
But in the morning, Xavier had had no memory of the night before. The pills plus alcohol had switched his brain right off. He asked me what had happened. I told him he’d just seemed drunk, so I tucked him in and that was it.
Xavier hadn’t been convinced. He asked me again and again, “Are you sure I didn’t do anything terrible? Are you positive?”
“Well, if you really want to know, you can look at the video I put up on YouTube,” I’d said finally. “We’re getting soooooo many hits.” And only then did he drop it.
After that he decided to stop taking the pills, to drink less. He started getting out of bed more. He went running once even. It was a turning point and he moved past it. I was happy for him. Relieved, obviously.
But still I couldn’t stop thinking about that night. I wanted desperately to believe it had meant more than I knew it did. I googled “blackouts,” looking for evidence that in a blacked-out state people reveal only the true truth of themselves. But I knew I wouldn’t find any.
And I didn’t.
The train sped on. We passed the bottle back and forth. By the time we got to our stop, it was half empty.
“Now be a normal person for a while,” I said, playing our game.
“Don’t ask me to do the impossible,” said Xavier. He took my hand as we got off the train.
And I gave myself an instruction then, too: Tell him by the end of the night. Tell him no matter what.
I closed my eyes and breathed in, breathed out, and looked up at the moon. His hand was warm in mine, and the alcohol was warm in my belly.
I knew that night was going to change everything.
And it did, is the thing. It did.
Just not in ways I ever could have imagined.