The first time I saw him smile was when the teacher reminded us that it would soon be summer vacation. It was as if the darkness lifted for a brief second as the sunny days of summer cast their light upon his face, bringing at last a solace to the trapped soul beneath the flesh. It made my day, no matter how fleeting the expression was, just to see that glimmer of chance that he might be happy again.
I had watched him for months, never saying a word. It was never done openly. I couldn’t let him know about me, even though I knew about him. Maybe if there was a chance he would accept me, I could do it; I could let him know how I felt. But I knew the pain was all too real. I could never replace what he had lost.
That didn’t stop me from looking; casting glances his way when he was working on an assignment, or daydreaming about him as he stared out the window with a blank expression. It wasn’t just because of the way he looked, though that was certainly a draw all on its own, but there was something more about him that I could not explain which pulled me toward him. My best guess was that I wanted to help ease his pain. I couldn’t bear to see him so heartbroken.
But the smile faded and so did the day, and the last few weeks dragged on. I continued to watch for signs of happiness from him, but as the summer drew nearer all I saw was anxiousness. When the final bell rang on the last day of class he was the first one out of the room. For a fleeting moment I considered running after him, knowing that this might be the last time I saw him before the next school year began, but I couldn’t.
It just wasn’t meant to be.
Summer. I couldn’t wait to finally enjoy a break from school, and a break from responsibility. I’m sure it’s the same for all other fourteen year old boys. It was different for us than the younger kids. Our parents allowed us more freedom and a later curfew, but it wasn’t as good as it was for the older kids. We couldn’t drive, and the jobs we could get to earn ourselves spending money were far more difficult to find. If we wanted money, we had to beg; maybe do some extra chores for an increase in our allowance, and if we wanted an adventure, we had to walk, or ride our bikes.
My parents wanted me to enjoy the summer as much as I could. They felt bad for uprooting me in the middle of the school year like they had, but my father’s transfer had made that unavoidable. They gave me an increase in my allowance, which would make it easier to do things, if there was anyone to do them with. I had made a few friends, but none of them were serious ones. None of them were close enough for me to invite on summer adventures or to tell my dark secrets to.
And so I was destined to spend the majority of my summer alone. I’d done it before, but hoped that this time it would be different. But by the second week in, I was bored of the routine, and spent most of my time in my room, daydreaming. As I lay on my bed on one particular day, I realized that the power to change my destiny was in my hands. I could make of the summer what I wanted to. There were still places I could go that I could find people my age, and maybe that friend I craved was still waiting to be found.
My thoughts immediately turned to my favorite summer activity. With sudden excitement, I dug my swimming suit out of my bottom drawer and quickly changed into it. I pulled on a thin shirt that would be more manageable with the heat, and then rushed out the door to grab my bike. In less than fifteen minutes I was at the community pool, a towel in my hand, and stepping through the fenced off area into a swarm of kids. I smiled as I saw some kids I recognized from school, and I knew this was the best idea I could have come up with.
I swam through the crowds of kids until I met up with my peers. It wasn’t long before I joined a water fight, and a few moments later I felt like a regular kid again. This was what summer was all about, I realized. I had been missing out, stuck in my fears. Because I hadn’t been brave enough to venture out before, I hadn’t known how much fun I could have. The kids I was swimming with were easy to get along with, and I began to see how little it took to make friends. As I laughed and played along with them, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been wrong to avoid approaching the boy in my class those weeks before. Maybe if I had reached out to him, he would be with us now.
I excused myself for a moment, telling my new friends that I had to use the restroom, though in truth I had to think about this new revelation. My thoughts returned to the boy, and the pain I knew he felt. Once more in my daydream I saw him smile, and it filled me with hope. In a moment the memory would fade away again, and I would be left with nothing but the warm feeling.
But the memory didn’t fade. Squinting in the light I realized that I was seeing that smile again, though this time it was aimed in my direction. The pool sat at the base of a hill in the middle of the city park, with several large shade trees standing tall from the slope beside it. The boy from my dream sat beneath the shade, a book in his hand as he smiled down at the kids in the pool, and at that very moment it seemed as if he were smiling just for me.
Without meaning to my eyes met his and I smiled back. The expression seemed to startle him, and his smile slipped as he quickly put his book away and stood up. He turned his back to me and made his way up and over the hill. I watched him until he was out of sight, wondering if I had upset him somehow. Not knowing what to think, I returned to the poolside where I said goodbye to my new friends, and exchanged numbers, promising to return the next day. I gathered my few things and headed outside, where I once again climbed on my bike, this time to head home.
But I took it slowly. I was out of energy, as I pondered what my exchange with the other boy had meant. I worried that in smiling back I had somehow given myself away, and that the boy now knew the secret in my heart. Somehow he knew how much I ached for his smile, and had taken it away from me, not wanting to give me something that so rarely belonged to him.
Tears came unbidden to my eyes as I came to a stoplight, wondering if I had somehow ruined any chance I had with the boy without even saying a word. I hung my head in sorrow until the roar of the cars to my side informed me that the light had changed. Looking up, I focused on the path ahead that would take me home, not wanting to deal with the thoughts any longer than I had to.
That’s when I saw him again. He was walking with a purpose, his book clenched tightly under his arm. Unable to tear my eyes away, I watched as he made a turn I hadn’t expected. He had entered the city cemetery.
I couldn’t help myself. Hopping off my bike so that I would not catch up to him too quickly, I walked down to the low stone wall that separated the sidewalk from the land of the dead. My curiosity had been piqued, and somehow it was overriding my fear. At some point over the last few minutes, my tears had stopped flowing, and I was filled with a determination that they would not come back.
I knew that I was intruding upon a private moment as I came upon the boy again, but I couldn’t back away. Not when I saw him kneel on the ground before the grave of the boy he had loved so deeply. Sobs overtook him as he touched the tombstone tenderly, running his hand across the name as he whispered it between his cries. I hid behind a tree, but still could not take my eyes away. I was torn between a need to approach him in comfort, and a need to run away. My internal struggle kept me rooted in place, waiting for a sign that would push me over the edge and make me choose one option over the other.
Then he regained control of himself, and he began to speak. It sounded like a conversation they had had a thousand times, but I could only hear one side, as if they were speaking over the phone. It didn’t seem to matter to the boy that he wasn’t receiving any response; he continued to chatter away as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
And then he smiled. It was the same smile that had lit up his face before, the one that made his face glow with the warmth of summer. He smiled as he recounted the day’s events, and how he had thought of their love everywhere he went. His smile lit up even more as he talked about the people he had seen and spoken with, their friends and their families. And then he spoke of something I hadn’t seen coming. He began to speak about me.
I stood in stunned silence as I listened to him talk about the moment at the pool. He remarked about how he sat in their usual spot, watching the other kids play. He hadn’t meant to, but he couldn’t help but check out the guys in the pool, and there was one in particular he couldn’t keep his eyes off of. I looked down as he described my attire in every detail, wondering if this was truly happening.
“You don’t have to hide. I know that you’re there.”
His statement caught me off guard. I looked up to see him staring directly at me. In sudden panic I threw myself behind the large tree and caught my breath, anxiously wondering if I should make a break for it. I had left my bike lying in the grass out in the open, and I would have to let him see me again in order to get it. Even though I knew that he had already seen me, I wanted to make a clean getaway if I could. With trepidation, I peeked back around the tree to see if he was still looking for me.
The look that awaited me nearly tore me apart. He was still smiling, though this was not the smile of summer, but of autumn. It was sad and mournful, as if he were saying goodbye to a fleeting moment of happiness. It was as if summer were dying inside of him.
When his eyes met mine again, I felt as if he were begging me to stay. Despite my fear I couldn’t turn him down, not when I knew it was going to cause him pain. Taking a deep breath I stepped out from behind the tree. His eyes lit up instantly, and the smile returned to the warmth it had held previously. My confidence increasing with every step I walked toward him, until I stood by his side before the grave.
He looked away from me nervously and back down at the tombstone. I followed his gaze and read the name silently. I had heard the name before, spoken in the halls whenever the boy would walk by. Everyone had known about their relationship, and it wasn’t even kept secret from the new kid. There was a certain reverence reserved for the boy’s loss which had been felt by the entire student body. Whoever the tombstone belonged to, it was someone who had left a void for more than just his lover who stood beside me. Every student had felt his passing. Everyone but me, that is. For I had never known the great kid who slept beneath my feet, neither could I truly grasp the pain his lover felt. Perhaps that was what drew me in. I wanted to know his world, no matter how dark it was.
“I’ve seen you watching me,” he spoke again, shattering my musings and bringing me back to the reality of the moment. I didn’t look up at him, and I knew he wasn’t looking at me either. He had brought me into this moment, but it was still his time with his lover, and he was not about to exclude the boy he loved from our conversation.
“You have?” I asked nervously. This was all new territory for me, but there was no sense denying the truth simply because I was scared of his reaction to it. He already knew the truth, so what good would it do me to run away from the issue?
“Yeah…” he confirmed with a sigh, but then stopped, unable to finish the thought. I began to grow even more nervous until he suddenly went on to admit, “I was too wrapped up in myself to say anything though.” He turned toward me for a moment as he held out his hand and said, “My name is Christian, by the way. But I’m sure you already knew that didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied quickly, taking his hand. I was surprised at how soft and warm it was, and it took me a minute to realize that I had stopped my thought there. “Oh I’m Nick,” I added with a blush as I let go of his hand. He smiled at me supportively, once again filling me with the warmth of his soul.
“And I knew that already…” Christian said with a chuckle. Then he blushed as well and looked back to the gravestone. We returned to our silent ponderings for another moment until he whispered, “I’m surprised you followed me here.”
“I am too,” I replied, my cheeks turning an even deeper shade of red. “I don’t really know why I did, but now that I’ve spoken to you, I’m glad I decided to.”
“Me too,” he whispered, glancing back up at me again. This time his smile had little of the sadness in it, until he turned his eyes back to his lover’s name again.
The silence stretched on for several minutes as I stole several glances at him and considered asking the question I had been dying to know. Realizing that it seemed as if I could ask him anything, I took a deep breath and asked, “How did he die?”
“Drunk driver,” he replied without emotion. “We had just celebrated our first anniversary. I’m sure neither of us expected it would be our last.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head helplessly. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”
“The death itself was something I came to terms with after the first few months,” He admitted quietly. He stared at the gravestone with moisture returning to his eyes as he went on, “but it’s his absence that I feel every day. We were so happy together. I know that most people don’t think you can find true love at thirteen, but we really did.” He turned his smile toward me, despite the sadness in his eyes. Wiping away the tears from his cheek he continued, “He was my best friend, but he was so much more. I spend these summer days going to the places we used to love, doing the things that we always did. I can’t stand the thought of not having him around, and I feel like if I stop, he’ll disappear.”
I let the thought digest inside of my mind before I observed, “I heard you speaking to him earlier.”
“Yeah…” he said, wiping away the tears again as his smile faded a bit, “maybe I’m just crazy.”
“No,” I replied firmly, causing him to look at me in surprised. “No you’re not,” I insisted again, maintaining eye contact so that he could see that I meant every word. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping him around. He’s still alive in your memories, and he should stay that way.”
“Thank you, Nick,” he replied after a moment. I was rewarded a few seconds later by the smile returning to his face again.
“You’re welcome,” I answered without hesitation. The silence returned, but this time it was Christian who seemed to be fidgeting, fighting with something he wanted to say but could not find the words, or possibly the courage.
I was about to tell him that he should speak his mind when he turned to me and asked, “Can I ask you something?”
“Why have you been watching me?”
It wasn’t a question I wanted to answer, but I knew I couldn’t back down now. I had to give him the truth. “From the moment I first saw you, I wanted to be your friend.”
“I’d like that,” he replied as he turned back to me again. “But why?”
“At first I saw how sad you were, and I wanted to make you feel better,” I explained, unable to finish the thought. It was hard to bear my feelings, and I wasn’t sure that I could.
But Christian wasn’t going to give me a choice. He pressed the issue by asking, “And then?”
“And then I saw you smile,” I answered with a blush.
“My smile?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You smiled at the thought of summer,” I explained. Seeing that he still had no idea what I was referring to, I went on, “I saw your face light up when you knew the school year was ending. In that small moment, my goal changed.”
He nodded slowly, but I wasn’t finished. “I wanted to see that smile on your face every day,” I explained further, blushing but unwilling to look away. I made sure to look into his eyes as I added with a smile, “I wanted you to have summer forever.”
Christian looked as if he were going to cry again, but there wasn’t a bit of sadness in the tears that fell across his face. For a third time he wiped away the tears, but this time when his arm came away I saw the smile I had been waiting for in full bloom. The smile of summer had returned, and my heart skipped a beat as he spoke, the radiance of that grin touching every word. “Come on, you’re still new in town. Let me show you around. I think it’s about time I remembered what summer is supposed to feel like.”
It wasn’t until we reached the exit to the cemetery that I realized he had grabbed my hand. I looked at our hands in wonder, then back up to his face. Summer had come again, and this was one I would never forget.