Spring brought college acceptance letters for Mary and the looming reality that she would soon be graduating and leaving me behind. We had talked briefly about what would happen after her graduation when she was submitting applications. She had the grades and test scores to be competitive just about anywhere, and her sights had been set on a school nearly a thousand miles away for years. I knew she didn't want to leave me, but I also knew that she would have regrets if she didn't at least apply there. I knew she had applied to several local universities as back-up schools, but as acceptance letters rolled in, the reality that she would soon be leaving started to sink in. When the letter she had been hoping for arrived, I was trying to be happy for her, but we both knew it meant the end of us as a couple - at least for the foreseeable future. I think we both realized that trying to stay together with her in college and me still in high school hundreds of miles away was a recipe for a nasty break up. Nothing was said about it - what it would mean for the two of us when she showed me the letter on Tuesday. I hugged her and congratulated her. We even went out to celebrate after track practice that evening, but inside I felt like I was dying. Mary wasn't looking like she felt any better than I did.
Brian and I avoided the topic of Mary's impending departure. I knew I was about as much fun as a wet sock all that week, but Brian didn't say a word about it. On Friday he grabbed me after track and told me he'd drive me home. He had just gotten his driver's license and made any excuse to use it, so I didn't think much of his offer until I realized we weren't heading to my house.
“Uh, Brian, where are you going?”
Brian turned to me with a big grin on his face, the one that screamed mischief. “Don't worry, my mom already cleared it with your parents.”
“Cleared what with my parents?”
All he did was laugh and turn on a tape. The Violent Femmes were soon blasting through the car, and Brian was singing along loudly and out of tune. Oddly enough, out of tune sounded about perfect with the Violent Femmes. Pretty soon I was singing along too. We had the windows rolled down and we were both singing loudly enough that other motorists were staring at us as Brian headed out of town and up into the mountains.
Brian drove up the canyon outside of town and stopped at the site of our annual end-of-the-year party. It was deserted at this time of the year, and there was still snow on the ground in the more shaded areas. He stopped the car and grinned over at me.
Brian popped the trunk and we started hauling camping gear down the trail to the clearing next to the river. Neither of us said much. I was letting the sound of the water crashing over the rocks pound all thought out of my head. Brian built a roaring fire, courtesy of a large quantity of lighter fluid, just as darkness was falling. We grilled up dinner in the fading light and sat in silence roasting marshmallows as the moon rose. We had a tent set up, but Brian had placed our sleeping bags and pads out next to the fire. He tossed me a pair of his old pajama pants and a sweatshirt, and we got ready for bed. We settled in side by side next to the dying fire.
Mary wouldn't be gone for several months yet, and I didn't want to ruin the time we had left by brooding, so I was trying to let the sound of the water fill my mind. My thoughts kept flashing back to memories of her in this place, our first time together just down the trail, as well as the times we had come here to go hiking. My mind just refused to turn off.
“Cut it out, Sam.” Brain's voice startled me out of my thoughts. “The whole point was for you to stop torturing yourself inside-out for a while, not to give you a pretty new place to do it.”
“Yeah you are, so don't tell me you aren't. I can hear the little gears grinding in your head from here.” I could practically hear him grinning at me.
“I'm not torturing myself.”
Silence fell between us again as I tried to wrench my thoughts away from Mary. I was lying face up, staring at the sky when I heard Brian rolling over next to me until we were shoulder to shoulder, both of us gazing at the stars.
“That's one hot woman,” Brian said.
“Dude, what in the hell are you talking about?”
“Those stars over there. They look like a Hooter's waitress.”
“You're crazy. You do know that, don't you?” I said to Brian.
“Yep. Your turn,” he said with a laugh.
I have no idea how much time we spent making up constellations and totally nutty stories to go with them. There was the Hooter's waitress doling out drinks from the great keg in the sky, the cosmic football team and other assorted insanity. It was incredibly nutty, but it worked. Somehow he managed to get my mind off of Mary. Eventually we both drifted off to sleep.
I woke up the next morning feeling well rested for the first time all week. I was disoriented for a moment until the memory of the previous night filtered back into my sleep-addled brain. The sun was shining directly in my eyes, and I could smell coffee brewing, so I resisted the urge to roll over and go back to sleep. I pried my eyes open to find Brian grinning at me over what I hoped was a mug of coffee.
“How the hell can you be so friggin' perky in the morning?” I asked.
“Mostly because it annoys you,” he said with a grin while handing me a mug full of dark liquid.
The coffee was horrid, but it was coffee so I wasn't going to complain. I was very thankful that Brian had gotten the fire going again, as it was freezing outside of my sleeping bag. I watched the cloud of steam that was forming in front of my face from my breath and the coffee while I tried to kick my sleepy brain into gear. One thing I can say about the sludge Brian called camp coffee is that it was very, very strong. Soon the caffeine was singing through my veins, and I was feeling a bit more human. Brian tossed me a pop-tart and some clean clothes then disappeared into the tent and emerged in fresh clothes.
“Hurry up man, we got things to do,” he said with a smirk.
“Oh really? And what things might those be?”
Brian's only response was one of his more evil grins as he began to clean up the breakfast mess. I knew better than to try to get any information out of him in this kind of a mood, so I hopped into the tent and got ready for the day. Brian had finished up around camp and was dousing the fire as I plopped down next to the fire pit and put my shoes on. He tossed me a pack with water bottles and the first aid kit and grabbed his own pack.
“Where exactly are you hauling me off to this time?”
“Trust me, you'll like it.” Brian took in the dubious look on my face and started laughing. “Really man, I haven't gotten you killed or seriously injured yet, so just trust me.”
“There's always a first time.”
I tried to keep a straight face as I said that, but I couldn't. We both knew that I was along for whatever little adventure he had planned. Brian had gone to a lot of trouble to try to get my mind off of everything, so the least I could do was play along.
We hiked along a familiar trail for a quarter of a mile or so in comfortable silence, then Brian veered off onto a trail I'd never hiked before. The trail became pretty steep, and I realized we were climbing the hill overlooking our campsite. As we wound our way up the mountain in silence I realized that Brian's little ploy to distract me was working. The gut-churning sense of impending loss had faded into the background and I was able to just enjoy being here with him.
After a couple of miles of hard hiking we finally reached the top. The view had been well worth the hike. I could see the campsite below and the mountains for miles in all directions. Brian fished some peanut butter sandwiches and apples out of his pack and handed me my lunch while I admired the scenery.
The two of us relaxed for a while, and talked about nothing in particular while our food settled, then headed back down the trail. Brian dropped his bag as soon as we got to camp and started stripping off his sweaty clothes. I dropped my pack and tried to focus on not watching him. The little chorus of voices had been, if not silent, at least quiet enough to be ignored for the last several months. They were singing loudly in multi-part harmony over the scene that was unfolding before me now. I had shut my eyes and was thinking that I actually preferred moping over Mary to what was running through my head right then when suddenly I felt the world tip. I opened my eyes to find that a very naked Brian had just scooped me up and was grinning like a maniac at me as he tossed me into the river. I surfaced a second later spluttering from the cold and very relieved to find that the water only came to my waist. I opened my eyes in time for Brian to splash in next to me, still wearing a big grin.
“What? You looked hot. Soap?” he said while offering me a bar of soap.
All I could do was blink at him. He shrugged his shoulders and started soaping up. I tore my eyes away from his body and started to make my way back to dry land. The water was freezing cold, my shoes were bogged down in the muck at the bottom, and the combination wasn't helping my coordination. I finally managed to haul my shivering self out of the water.
“Aw, Sam, come on. I was just having fun with you.”
I turned to make a sharp comment back and stopped dead at the sight of him. He had moved towards me and was standing in knee deep water displaying all of his glory for the whole world to see, or at least for me to see. My eyes trailed down his body taking in his chest and stomach and finally landing on a dark patch of hair surrounding what was an impressive package even after having been dunked in ice water. The voices in my head were screaming out their approval as whatever smart comment I had been about to make died in my throat. I closed my eyes and turned around, knowing that my recent dunking in ice water wasn't going to hide my body's approval of what I had just seen for long. I went into the tent and put on dry clothes while I tried to wrestle my brain back into submission.
I have no idea how long I spent in the tent, but when I finally came back out Brian was fully clothed, had already packed up the rest of camp, and was sitting by the fire pit looking like a lost puppy. I sat down next to him carrying my soggy, mud-covered shoes and handed him one. I answered his quizzical look by handing him a stick.
“I figure since you're the reason they're all muddy that you can help get them un-muddy.”
Brian silently began sliding the muck from my shoes, then said quietly, “Dude, I'm sorry. I forgot that you can't swim.”
“I forgot you can't swim. That's why you were so pissed at me right?”
The funny thing was that the thought hadn't actually crossed my mind, but I couldn't exactly tell him that seeing his dick had miraculously cured my fear of water.
“I'm not pissed. I was just getting warm. In case you didn't notice, the water was freezing.”
“No really, man, I'm not pissed at you. I'd just rather not go skinny dipping in ice water.”
Brian started laughing. I could tell he was trying not to, but soon he had progressed from a muffled chuckle into all out knee-slapping guffaws. He'd get himself under control, take another look at me and burst out laughing again.
“What the hell is so funny?”
“Sorry, man, it's just, you should have seen your face when I tossed you in.”
I was trying to be angry with him, but I couldn't. Pretty soon I was laughing along with him while we scraped the muck off of my shoes. We got them as clean as we could and finished taking down the camp. Once everything was loaded into the car we headed back down the canyon and back to reality. Our ride home was nearly silent except for the radio, but I really was in a better place than I had been all week. It wasn't a strained silence, just quiet. When we pulled up to my house, Brian hopped out and helped me get my stuff out of the car. I stopped him as he turned to get back in the car.
“Hey. Thanks for that.”
Brian bumped my fist with a big grin on his face. “Any time, bro.”
* * * * * * *
The next several months passed more quickly than I imagined possible. Mary and I spent every moment we could together. We didn't talk about what her leaving meant for the two of us, but we both knew it was the end of us as a couple. We would call and write and continue to be friends, but I could hardly ask her to not experience college life while she waited on me, and I couldn't experience any of that with her.
I went with her to her graduation party and tried to celebrate. I was proud of all that she had accomplished, but it felt like someone was stabbing me every time I thought about her leaving. We spent every minute we could together that summer. I finally had my license and a car – an early 70's, fire engine red land yacht. Not exactly the coolest car on the planet, but it was mine and it made it much easier for us to see each other.
We spent a lot of time up the canyon making love on a blanket near the river. Each time became a little more desperate, like we were trying to somehow bind ourselves together permanently. We headed up the canyon the night before she was leaving, packed dinner and our blanket, and stayed until the stars were out. We knew we had to leave soon because her flight was leaving early the next morning. Neither of us could bear to say goodbye. We made love over and over again. Finally the cold night air got the better of us and I drove her home. I kissed her goodbye on her front porch and watched her walk inside.
I drove back up the canyon to be alone. I knew I couldn't bear to see her off at the airport, but I also couldn't bear to go home and try to pretend that everything was normal. The past two years had been the happiest of my entire life, and Mary had been half of that happiness. I spent hours replaying memories in my mind, remembering every little detail of Mary: how she felt in my arms, her smell, the feel of her hair, the sound of her laugh. I sat in my car holding the blanket we had made love on over and over again until I finally fell asleep.
I woke the next morning to the sound of tapping on my window. When I pried my eyes open, I saw Brian peering in my window at me. The clock on my dash told me that Mary's plane was long gone. I opened my door and Brian handed me a bagel.
“Figured you'd be here.”
We sat in silence and ate our bagels and I tried to fathom life without Mary.