But Natalie and Conor were splitting, falling apart, breaking like a million pieces of glass. She never said it aloud, but kept it bottled inside, relying only on the easy smiles and lilts in his voice and his hands splayed against her lower back as he walked alongside her. Graduation loomed over them like some dark cloud, and Natalie couldn’t believe how ironic it was: She’d spent all of high school waiting for this very moment and now her stomach flipped at the mere thought of life beyond Alamena Senior High, life when she would start a new beginning in San Francisco and when Conor would become simply “Pellan.” Just another recruit, just another soldier.
She missed him already and he hadn’t even gone yet. There was tension between them, even then, as if they were both asking themselves if the next couple of months were worth it. They never spoke of his leaving, except when Natalie would drink too much and ask him in slurred speech, “What are we doing?” They didn’t know if three more months of memories were worth it, didn’t know if they should just break it off before they were forced to say goodbye. But he would always shake his head, never answering her, and kiss her hard, as if to take the words from her mouth and make them disappear completely. They were living a lie; pretending that this could go on forever. When he kissed her she tried to forget about dormitories and hundred dollar paperback books or dusty boot camp bedspreads and thousands of pushups, but in the back of her mind she was screaming.
The weed spilled out on the table, little nuggets of dense green bouncing around like childhood marbles. She broke it up with her fingers, digging into the pieces, grinding it up with her hands. Natalie had done this a countless number of times: sprinkle, shape, lick, light. It was like second nature to her: the crisp feeling of the Zig Zag papers against her fingertips, the marijuana showing through the near-translucent outside of the joint, tinting the white green. Conor was there, though his presence was not the same: his gaze on her was sharp, harsh. She turned to him, rubbing her forearm as if his eyes had burned it.
The joint was finished and she lit it, sucking the acrid smoke deep down into her lungs and holding it there, relishing in the slight dizziness this action caused. He stared at her, his eyes squinted, a sneer on his face. She held the joint out to him in two fingers, the paper burning down, slowly, like a wet fire.
“I can’t,” Conor said, and her heart fell. This was the first solid and concrete change between them: Conor was usually the one with the joint in his hand, a pleased look on his face, his mouth dry when she kissed him. “They test. And they’ll see it.”
They. The word hung in the air between him, like the smoke curling around their heads, around his shaggy mop of hair like a forbidden halo. They were Natalie’s enemies, taking him away. To him, they were the future: his bosses, his comrades, him. Ash sifted onto the floor like sooty London snow, gray and lifeless. Natalie shook her head, as if to clear it, and coughed slightly, tapping the ash of the joint off into a leaf-shaped dish. “Oh,” Natalie said, her voice hoarse and almost a whisper. “Okay.” It wasn’t, though, and as he turned on his heel and left the room, Natalie could feel her hands shaking.
Natalie groaned and rolled over, her eyes stuck with sleep. Conor was tapping on her window in his familiar little code, just loudly enough to wake her. It had happened millions of times, him crawling into her window with his feet muddy and his face red, shaking or slurring or too fucked up to go back home. She grabbed his hand and helped him in as he struggled to get his long limbs through the tiny frame, like a hobbling baby deer. He buried his face in the crook of her neck as they sat down on her bed, the mattress dipping with their weight. “I want to change it,” he whispered, barely audible with the far off groan of the air conditioner. She could smell Southern Comfort on his breath, sweet and sickening at the same time. “I just wish I hadn’t fucked up in high school. I wish I could do something else. Go to school with you. Stay here and rot. Anything.”
“You could. Tell them you’ve changed your mind.” It took all her strength to not beg him, to not grab him by the collar of his shirt and shake him, to not say: Please, you’re throwing it away. You’re throwing it all away. But she didn’t and he sighed, his breath stirring her hair.
“It’s too late,” he said, and it was. They only had three weeks left. “I have nowhere else to go.”
When he left it took her two days to get out of bed. It was still summer: the air was still wet with moisture and heavy on her body and unbearable. She didn’t even cry when she thought of him, but instead just shut herself off, staring at her ceiling, her stomach in knots, mouth dry. She’d already written him three letters, but it took days for mail to get to Texas from California, and she knew she wouldn’t hear from him for another week. She wrote about miniscule things: new shoes, a movie she’d seen, how the sunset looked on Thursday. She didn’t like to read them, instead finishing with I love you in looping cursive and sealing the pages away in stamped envelopes.
She wondered about silly things, like how he looked with his beautiful hair shaved off, how scratchy his comforter was, if he thought about her as much as she thought about him. He’d told her when he landed in Texas that he’d forgotten toothpaste and that was the last thing he said before the phone cut out.
There was only a week until her address changed to San Francisco and she hadn’t begun packing yet. She would just lie in bed and try to think of other things besides Connor and letters and toothpaste but she couldn’t. Her mother would bring her soup, fret over her swollen eyes, and tell her that there were going to be other boys in San Francisco. Nothing helped, so she would just start another letter to him and scrawl his strange address on the front.
She didn’t want to be forgotten.
It hurt her how she was embarrassed to say that she had a boyfriend in the service. It seemed so out of character, at least to the new people she was meeting, because she wore anklets and listened to Joni Mitchell and burned patchouli incense in her dorm room. Her roommate had cocked her head to the side when she told her about Conor, and showed her a picture of them with their foreheads pressed together. “Really?” she asked, her eyebrows furrowed. “Is he, like, like that? You know, an Army guy?”
“No,” Natalie said, “He’s not.” She wanted to explain that he had no other choice, that the recruiter told him it was the only way he’d get anywhere, but she was tired of explaining. Instead she just tacked the picture up by the head of her bed and turned her back on her roommate, her fists clenched so her fingernails split the surface of her palm: four little half-moon cuts in the soft skin there.
“I didn’t get it,” he said into the phone, his voice breaking. “I’m not getting stationed by San Francisco.”
Natalie froze, all her plans ruined: she’d spent the last month busying herself with papers and clubs and meeting new people. But he was always there, in the corner of her mind, with a quick smile and squinted eyes, tugging at her to remember him. She’d had fantasies of him getting his preferred base, of them walking through the streets of San Francisco. She thought of him when she was in Chinatown: dodging the neon-reflecting puddles on the sidewalk and looking into plastic baby pools of tiny squirming turtles. She thought of how his arm would feel around her shoulder when she sat on benches overlooking The Bay, with the air heavy with wind and storm clouds. “Where are they putting you?” Natalie asked, interrupting the steady sound of his breathing on the other side of the line.
“North Carolina. Half the guys in my group went there. No one knows why.”
She couldn’t even think of anything comforting to say, because all she was thinking was 3,000 miles, 3,000 miles, 3,000 miles.
That night Natalie went out with her roommate to some party five blocks from their dorm. The streets were slicked with rain, and Natalie wore heels that clicked on the sidewalk and tried not to slip. There were Jell-O shots, slick and slimy and gleaming like radioactive oysters. Natalie slurped them down, one after another, and soon her tongue was bright red like a fire truck and she was kissing another boy. She hadn’t meant to, and even when she tried she couldn’t remember how it happened because all she was thinking was 3,000 miles and how hard things were going to be. But the other boy wasn’t Conor and she broke the kiss when his hands snaked up her shirt, stuttering out an “I’m sorry” before walking home by herself, heels splashing puddle water up her legs and her shoulders shaking.
It had been four months and they were running out of things to say to each other. He could talk to her on his cell phone, now, but often they just sat on the separate ends and didn’t say anything. She could tell he’d grown tired of her stories: professors and hookahs and noise violation drama. She often read her text books while he talked to her, or flipped through channels on the television. It had been too long since she’d felt his skin on hers, but he was coming home soon and was going to drive the four hours to San Francisco to stay with her. Deep down, she was worried about it, worried if their chemistry would even still be there. She wondered what people would think of him, with his shaved head and new muscles. Natalie swallowed and shook off all the bad thoughts that cluttered her head, hoping that there was enough between them still to keep them afloat.
When he knocked on her door she didn’t know what to think. She peeked through the peephole, as if to lessen her reaction when she opened the door. Natalie opened it and threw her arms around him, burying her face in the crook of his neck and breathing him in. He didn’t smell the same: he used to smell like sawdust and oranges and soap. But now he smelled like cologne, a sort of stiff musky scent that made her eyes well up. It wasn’t bad, just different, grown-up and everything Conor wasn’t. “I missed you,” she whispered into the curve of his ear like she used to, but it wasn’t the same. He kissed her, and she felt his eyelashes brush against her skin. She pulled away, and he grinned, though it never reached his eyes.
That night, her roommate stayed at her boyfriend’s, and they had sex in the darkness of her empty room. Afterwards, he pressed his body to the length of her back and fell asleep, but she grew hot and irritated and moved to put a couple of inches between their bodies. His breath stirring on her neck annoyed her and even though the bed was too small, she felt as though the distance between them was bigger than the 3,000 miles that had separated them before.
They had finally broken apart, split down the middle, and when he left the next day he kissed her without feeling. She wrote him a letter that must’ve said “I’m sorry” a thousand times, and she put it in an envelope without reading it, and sent it 3,000 miles away to the boy that used to make her believe in forever.