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Chapter no 4

If Only I Had Told Her

Fantasizing about having spent a different sort of night with Autumn in that tent and then mulling over all my mistakes that have kept us apart did not improve my mood. My head aches. I’m even more exhausted, and the guilt is back. Autumn doesn’t want me thinking about her that way. I need to get control of myself.

I roll off the bed and head to the bathroom, unable to stop myself from glancing out my window at her closed curtains as I go. I strip down and get into the shower, switching the water to as hot as possible and staying under the stream for as long as I can stand. Then, quickly, I turn the dial all the way to cold.

You are here, in this moment, right now, I tell myself as the frigid water batters my fevered skin.

The reality is, what you imagined will never happen, and what you remembered is already done.

In this moment, Autumn is your friend. Don’t fuck this up.

But be ready for when she leaves again.

Once I am shivering, I turn the water dial to the middle. I wash away the fantasy of her beneath me and the memory of her head under my arm.

 

My cell rings as I’m putting on clean boxer shorts. I answer automatically, assuming it’s Autumn without looking at the screen.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hi!” Sylvie says. My stomach drops.

“Oh. Hi. Wow. Where are you?”

“London. I have a long layover until my flight to New York, so I’m going to go sightseeing, and I’m trying to squeeze in a lot, so I’ll be busy. I wanted to talk to you one last time.”

She means one last time before she’s back in the States, but it feels like she means one last time before I break up with her, not that she knows it’s coming.

“Yeah,” I say. It’s been getting harder and harder to pretend there will be something for us after Sylvie returns.

“So?” she says. “Are you looking forward to seeing me tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I say again, and it may be the biggest lie I have ever told. “When are you arriving?”

“Around four or so… You’ll be at the airport, right?”

That hadn’t even occurred to me. Of course she expects that. But I can’t hug and kiss her in front of her parents, then break her heart in private.

What can I say? “Probably. I’ll let you know.”

“You don’t know?” There is suspicion and hurt in her voice. At times, it seems like she’s putting the pieces together. I don’t know if it’s cruel or not, to let her suspect. Is it better for her that way? I don’t know how to do the cruelest thing the kindest way.

“Sorry, I—”

“What did you do last night?” Sylvie asks, cheerful again. “Oh, Jack spent the night.”

“Sounds fun!” She tells me about her plan for the ten-hour layover in London, including taking a minicab to a nearby picturesque village, sitting alone and drinking a pint in a pub, then walking along the Thames before catching another cab back to Heathrow. Sylvie has done that her whole trip: every hour accounted for so that she can experience as much as possible. It’s one of the things I love about her. She never does anything by halves; she never lets an opportunity pass her by.

Autumn would like that about Sylvie too. She appreciates passion. If they weren’t both so convinced that the other hated them, they’d be a good influence on each other. The moment Autumn stepped outside the airport, she would lose her sense of direction and her passport, both, perhaps, never to be seen again.

Early on, before I realized how the summer would go, I told Sylvie that Jamie dumped Autumn. We were sitting on her porch before Sylvie left for the airport. I was in the habit of occasionally updating her with public information one might pass on about a mutual acquaintance. It helped to keep up the story of my platonic feelings for Autumn. My lie. Because if I never talked about the other girl whose life so constantly collided with mine, Sylvie, rightfully, found that suspicious too.

Sylvie had a lot of questions about the breakup. As I sat next to her and her bags, I told her all I knew was that Aunt Claire said Jamie had broken up with Autumn. Sylvie was surprised, much like everyone else seemed to be. She asked twice if I was sure about that part. I mean, we’d all heard Jamie brag about how he and Autumn would be together forever.

At the time, I’d suspected Jamie of taking Autumn’s virginity and then dumping her, but I didn’t say so or act too worried about Autumn. I wasn’t about to reignite Sylvie’s jealousy over nothing.

But then, it wasn’t nothing. Autumn was so depressed about Jamie that The Mothers asked me to try to talk to her. Suddenly, Autumn and I were hanging out every day.

At first, I told myself it wouldn’t last, so it wasn’t worth mentioning to Sylvie. Then after about a week, I let it slip that I’d missed her call because I was watching a movie with Autumn. Hanging out with Autumn again had felt so normal, even after all these years, and her name had just slipped out.

Sylvie interrupted me. “You and Autumn are friends again?”

I hadn’t heard that tone in her voice for a long time. “We were never not friends,” I said, and there was a pause on Sylvie’s end.

“So,” she said, “anyway.”

And that was that. Sylvie never asked about her again. I’ve managed to not mention Autumn, despite how much we’ve been together this summer.

In those early days of the summer, when Autumn and I started hanging out again, I hadn’t planned to break up with Sylvie. What would have been the point? I was still in love with Sylvie, and when I originally fell in love with her, I’d already been in love with Autumn for years. So emotionally, for me, nothing had really changed.

But over the past few weeks, it’s become clear: I love Sylvie, but I can’t say that I will be in love with her every day for the rest of my life. I adore so much about her and understand her foibles, but I’m not devoted to her. She’s a partner but not a part of who I am.

My devotion to Autumn is engraved on my very being. I am in awe of her. I will sit in the stands and cheer her on in life as her most ardent admirer. I know I will always love her in the same way I know I’ll always need oxygen.

Sylvie is taking time off before starting college. She needs some more time to figure things out, so I’m glad. But our situation won’t get easier when I’m down in Springfield with Autumn and Sylvie is still here in St. Louis.

“How about I call from my layover in Chicago, and you can let me know if you’re going to be at the airport when I arrive tomorrow,” Sylvie says.

“Okay,” I say. I’m worried about her acceptance of my dereliction of duty. Does she know what’s coming? Is she hoping that by being agreeable, she might convince me to stay? Is she clueless, so happy to see me that it doesn’t matter if it’s at the airport or after? Do I want her to suspect or not?

“Well,” she says, “I should go. Hopefully, I can sleep during the flight.” “What time is it for you?” I ask, a go-to question of our stilted

conversations of the past few weeks.

She answers, but there’s an announcement in the background, and I can’t quite make out her words. “Oh. It’s…”

I’m surprised when I glance at my alarm clock. Where did the afternoon go?

“Five o’clock. Anyway.” “I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” I say, and it’s not a lie. It’s just not the whole truth. She hangs up.

 

As many times as I’ve asked myself how Autumn and I ended up this way, I’ve wondered the same thing about Sylvie and me.

If I hadn’t made the varsity soccer team, everything would have been different.

Jack and I had worried one of us might not make it on the junior varsity team. When the lists were posted, I searched for my name on the JV list and was devastated to not see it. Still, I was happy for Jack.

Then I heard one of the taller, older guys say, “P-hen-e-ass Smith? Who the hell is that?”

“It’s Phineas,” I said. “Call me Finn.”

There were a few chuckles, though I wasn’t sure why—until I saw my name. On the varsity list.

Jack told me later that my ability to brush off the snarky comment from that junior, my new teammate, made me seem cool. There had been chuckles of appreciation according to him. I wasn’t sure about that though.

I was terrified by the unexpected development, despite Jack’s enthusiasm.

“You are going to be cool, and you’ll make me cool by association. You get that, right?” Jack told me as we waited for my mom to pick us up after tryouts. Jack had not one but two parents as affectionately neglectful as Autumn’s father, and my mom was often his ride for activities we did together.

“I don’t know about that,” I said. I was as tall as the seniors and juniors on varsity, but they seemed eons older. Also, I was used to being one of the best on our intramural teams. Surely, on the high school varsity team, I would be one of the worst. I’d probably spend all season on the bench.

“Finn, it’s high school. It’s an ecosystem, and you just shot to the top of the food pyramid!”

I rolled my eyes.

“You mean the food chain.”

“Whatever. You’re going to date a cheerleader,” Jack said gravely. I laughed aloud at the thought.

 

The varsity soccer team practiced on the north field, near the student parking lots. The junior varsity team practiced on the south field, closer to the circular drive where parents dropped off and picked up kids. Even though Jack and I were on different teams, our schedules were still the same, and my mom would drive us to and from practice every day for those last weeks of summer.

It turned out, compared to the older guys, I was still pretty good. I wasn’t the best on the team, but I no longer worried that I would spend the

games on the bench.

At the end of the first practice, my teammates all walked to their cars. One guy asked me if I needed a ride, which was nice, but I told him I was all set and walked across campus to where Jack would be waiting for me. I was excited to tell him that practice hadn’t been as hard as I thought.

I was walking next to the gym building, not really paying much attention, when a door opened next to me. I almost ran into a girl carrying a cheer bag.

“Oh!” she squealed.

“Alexis!” I said in my surprise. “Sorry.”

She blinked and looked at me. We’d never actually spoken before. I wasn’t sure she even knew who I was. Three other girls with similar bags joined her.

“You’re…Finny, right?” Alexis said.

“Finn, actually,” I said, but I took it as evidence that Autumn had talked about me to her friends.

“Right. Well, no harm done. Wanna walk with us?”

And that was why, when I met up with Jack at the circle drive, I was accompanied by four pretty girls.

“Uh, this is my friend Jack,” I said as we approached the wall where he was sitting. “Jack, this is Alexis, Victoria, Taylor, and…” I realized I didn’t know the last girl’s name, and I blushed.

“I’m Sylvia—Sylvie,” she said.

We all joined Jack on the low wall, waiting to get picked up. We didn’t talk that much, but the next day, as I trudged from the north field to the south, I saw the girls by the gym door again. It was only as I approached and saw them watching me that I figured out they were waiting for me.

“You ready?” Alexis asked when I reached them. “Y-yeah?” I said, and we all walked together.

After that, I expected them. It wasn’t much. They hung out with us while we waited for our rides. We didn’t really talk, because we didn’t have anything to talk about. It was like we wanted to hang out with each other without knowing why. Well, I knew why I wanted to hang out with them; they were Autumn’s friends. I thought.

One afternoon when my mother was running late and the girls had already gone, Jack claimed to be in love with Alexis based on her being so pretty and nice.

“They’re all pretty and nice,” I said. “We don’t actually know anything about any of them other than that.”

“It’s a good start,” Jack said. “And Alexis is my kind of pretty. Actually, I thought maybe you would be into her?” He checked my face. “That’s kinda why I brought it up?”

“Oh? No.” I didn’t see why he would think that.

He looked relieved that we weren’t into the same girl, but he remained suspicious.

“Yeah, well, who do you like then?” he asked.

“I mean, I don’t know any of them, dude,” I said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t know if I like any of them.”

“Okay, whatever. I know you’ve jerked off to one of them at least once by now. Which one was it?”

“Come on…” I began, and Jack punched my shoulder. “See! Which one? Victoria, right?”

“Sylvie, you pervert.” “Really?”

“What?”

“I didn’t think she was your type.”

I laughed. “What is ‘my type’?” and he gave me that blank look, that “Autumn” look as I’d come to think of it.

Maybe he thought I would be into Alexis because she had brown hair, brown eyes, and was about Autumn’s height. Victoria’s figure was closer to Autumn’s shape. Sylvie, blond with a willowy ballerina figure and tall enough to look me in the eyes without raising her face, is Autumn’s physical opposite in every way. Except that they are both beautiful.

“I don’t know,” I told Jack that day. “Sylvie seems like she’s…herself? And I like that.” Sylvie hadn’t gone to our middle school, and I wondered what Autumn knew about her, thought of her. Since Autumn wasn’t a cheerleader, maybe she hadn’t met her yet.

“Okay,” Jack said and went back to talking about Alexis. My interest in anyone besides Autumn, on any level, was enough for him.

I was so happy that summer. I thought that my plan was finally coming to fruition. Autumn’s cool friends liked me. She and I didn’t talk that much those summer weeks because we were both busy, so I didn’t notice that Autumn never mentioned them anymore.

What I should have noticed was that Autumn’s “friends” didn’t seem to talk about her anymore either.

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