It’s dim in the back parking lot of the high school. Their shapes move together, pushing and pulling each other until they reach the perimeter of bushes. With the parking lot at their backs, they stop to catch their breath. Noah’s heart is hammering against the curve of his ribs, his breath billowing from between his lips in a ghostly cloud. Beside him, Sam can see the white of his eyes in the dark. She brushes back a strand of hair that has come loose from her braid and scoots closer to him.
“I can’t believe you made me do that,” he hisses. “Defacing school property is a felony!”
“It is not. Don’t be such a baby.”
But she can see his eyes flickering from her face to the school over her shoulder, his body tense as a field rabbit’s. With a tug on his jacket sleeve, she leads him down the street. He stays close, crouching low as if any moment a cop is going to tackle him to the ground. After a minute, he stands straighter and starts walking at her side.
They both jump as the sky lights up. Fireworks burst like exploding stars, the colors standing out against a backdrop of gray. They aren’t too far away, probably coming from the park.
Noah’s voice breaks the silence that stretches between them. “It must be close to midnight.”
Sam looks at him and raises a single eyebrow, a talent that she knows Noah is a little jealous of. “You did want to come,” she muses. “You knew you would miss New Year’s Eve.”
“Who said I missed it?”
Sam looks at him, her face full of confusion. Noah isn’t looking at her eyes. His gaze is watching her lips, which are trembling slightly from the cold. He leans forward until their lips are touching. Kissing.
Sam pulls away before he does. “Woah, what was that?”
“I’m sorry. I…”
“No, don’t apologize.”
Sam kisses him back, the act rushed and full of warmth.
The bass thumps through the floor like the steps of a giant. Lights flash through each room, and Sam can feel her heart pound with excitement. Blood rushes through her veins, spurred on by the three beers she’s already pounded back. The solo cup is like a statement in her hand.
“Come on, Noah. Dance! It’s our first real college party!”
He is standing there, as far away as he can get from the pulsing mass of dancers in the center of the room. He tries to lean against a door-jam nonchalantly, but she can see the uncomfortable curve of his spine and the untouched liquid in his cup.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” he says, loud enough to be heard over the disco-tech.
Sam becomes impatient. She feels bold, her tongue loose. “You’re not much of anything, anymore. Let yourself have some fun!”
“Oh, like the way you have fun? By throwing yourself at any guy who so much as breathes in your direction?”
She stops moving her hips as the words hit her. The music dims as everyone around her starts counting down.
“Well, maybe you should have some fun. College means meeting new people. Making bad choices!” she scoffs.
“Like you didn’t do that enough in high school?”
“You are unbelievable!”
“At least I’m not the one acting like a slut!” The last word flies from his mouth like spit, and they look at each other as the room around them erupts in shouts.
He leads her by her hand, their palms slick in one another’s grasp. She has to keep twisting in order to not knock anyone’s drink out of their hand. When they burst out the back door and onto the cool lawn, she finally lets herself breathe. The crisp air is a relief to her lungs after the stale air of the crowded house.
“I thought we would never get away from all that noise.” There was Noah’s smile, white as the moon and just as wide. She feels uncharacteristically shy around him. He’s older now… looks older, with the stubble that lines his jaw and the curve of bicep she can see even through his sleeves. His voice is deeper and his eyes are serious.
“Yeah, these parties aren’t as fun as I remember them being,” she manages. “They haven’t been the same since we stopped hanging out.”
The truth spreads between them like a mist. Sam looks down at her feet, at the boots that lace up her ankles and the tightness of her jeans against her legs. Dirty snow clings to the dead grass, although it hasn’t snowed in weeks.
“Dance with me?” Noah has his hand held out to her, and she just looks at it.
“There’s no music out here.”
“Please?” His forehead crinkles.
She nods and wraps her arms around his neck. Her wrists rest there, on the hardness of his shoulders. She can’t remember the last time they had been this close, this quiet. They sway a little, finding rhythm within themselves. Noah is solid as a pier. When she can’t stand the silence anymore, she speaks.
“It’s so different,” she breathes. “You’re so different.”
His laugh is short, like a bark. “Are you kidding? I’m the same. I’m always the same.” He pauses, his voice growing softer. “You’re a kaleidoscope. Every time I look away you change.”
“Don’t you hate that?”
“No, I love it.”
Sam pulls away from him, and she hates herself in that moment. Hates herself for ruining what they had just built in the last few minutes together.
“I don’t get it,” she says. “I’m a complete bitch to you and you’re still nice to me?”
Noah looks hurt. “Sam… I love you.”
“Fuck it, Noah. I love you too.”
The wood of the table is unyielding. Her palms are bent over its surface, taunt as a bow. Her fingertips press into its unscratched, glossy surface as if she could dent it. Sam’s hair is draped like a curtain over the back of her chair. Noah sets a steaming mug of tea in front of her and places a hand on her shoulder.
“Sam, we’re still young,” he says, but the words sounded scripted, even to him. “We have our whole lives to start a family together. There’s always adoption…”
She lifts her head to look at him, but her eyes are looking at something far away. Is it possible to grieve for something you never had?
“I wanted this baby, Noah. I wanted our baby. This isn’t how I pictured our lives. And now, another year’s gone by. I pictured us having a family by now.”
“We can still have that.”
She doesn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she draws a shaky breath. “I’m getting old, Noah. I’m old and I’m broken.”
“Thirty isn’t old, Sam. It’ll be okay. You’ll see. We can try again, when you’re ready.”
She doesn’t say anything, just lets her unspoken words drift between them like a grey sea.
The moon filters in through the window of the kitchen and reflects in Sam’s eyes. She leans forward, her hands resting on the edge of the sink. She hears Noah coming up behind her, but she doesn’t move. His face is kind, but lines of worry cross his forehead.
“I just wanted to see the fireworks,” she practically whispers. She finds tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. She has been doing a lot of crying lately. Noah’s strong arms embrace her and she leans into him.
“You’re changing,” he says.
Sam feels a ripple of anger spread through her mind at his words, but she knows he’s right. “I’m always changing. You know that.”
“I know.” He hesitates. “I just don’t want to get left behind.”
She stays quiet. She has nothing to say, no words of comfort anymore. No reassurances.
“You need to open up to me. You stare into space and you never talk to me.” His voice borderlines on pleading.
“I’m talking to you now.”
Noah’s arms leave her waist, leaving behind a cold breeze.
“You know what I mean,” he says. “You can’t shut me out.”
“I’m not shutting you out.”
“Yes, you are. I just want to know what you’re feeling. Why won’t you tell me what you’re feeling?”
His words like needle pricks on her spine. She wants to shout at him, to scream until her lungs give out and she has to gasp for breath. But instead, she says, “I feel as though you deserve better than this.”
Her words ring in the room’s space, and Noah looks sad, so incredibly sad.
“You know that’s not what I want,” he tells her.
“That’s not what I want either.” Tears sting her eyes. They flow freely down her cheeks. “Fuck, Noah, you’re what I want.”
He is holding her, arms around her shoulders to supporting her weight as she lets herself sob in relief.
She can see Noah moving, though her lids are heavy with the drug that passes from the nearby IV drip to the tube in her forearm. As she watches him move back and forth alone the wide window ledge, she finds herself drawn to what he carries. His arms are full of tissue paper bundles, yellows and reds and blues encasing hundreds of stems. Wildflowers burst from the ends of the packages, and he struggles to hold them all as he sets up an array of containers. Some are vases. Others are what look like oddly shaped jars or Tupperware. She smiles, her purple lips stretching just far enough to show a sliver of teeth between them. She licks them in a vain attempt to moisten their cracked surface.
Noah turns around, the brilliant display a burst of color behind him.
“Happy 40th anniversary!” Lines web out from his eyes, but his smile is still young. In his hand, ho holds a single sunflower on a thick stem. Crayola yellow and round as a dinner plate, it looks clownish in his grip. He holds it out to her and she lifts a frail arm to take it. Resting in her lap, she can see the detail of the brown seeds, how they spiral in tight to the center of the flower. The petals are soft under her fingers and she strokes them gently as to not pluck them accidently.
“Is it really our 40th?”
He leans over to kiss her before sitting at the foot of the bed. “Sure is! I tried to get the nurses to smuggle us some red wine. This year’s anniversary gift theme is ‘ruby.’”
Her laugh is staccato, but he knows it’s sincere. “I take it they didn’t let you?”
“Not a chance.”
“I’m surprised they even let you stay so late.”
“I was too, but it being New Year’s Eve and all…”
“Even the nurses are celebrating tonight. It’s nice, seeing so many smiles around here instead of the usual tired faces,” Sam says, her voice growing quieter with each word. Her own face looks tired, she knows. It seems all she can do is sleep these days. Anything else makes her sick. Reading, television, even seeing Noah was too much for her sometimes.
Always changing, she thought. Radiation will do that to a person.
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she says.
Noah turns to lie beside her, over the white sheets. He keeps his shoes on.
“Do you remember when we were little and we would pretend to play doctor and patient together?” he said. Although she doesn’t turn her head to look at his face, she knows he’s smiling. She can hear it in his voice.
A muted cheer comes down the hall. The clock on the wall is five minutes slow.
“You were always a better doctor than me,” Noah admits. “I just never wanted to admit it.”
The sunflower shines like a beacon on the rumpled sheets. Sam tears her eyes away from it and looks at Noah, so their noses point at one another. The shift makes the IV drip swing for a moment before going still again.