staff feature: hope welborn
We’re getting good at goodbyes.
Which is a bad thing, actually.
Luke sits across from me at “our” table. The perfect spot in the corner of Pier Burger. Behind him, the sun is setting over Santa Monica Pier. The last streams of daylight reach through the large window and touch his sun-dried, blond waves. His eyes, the exact shade of the ocean at dawn, look anywhere but at me.
We’re also good at avoidance.
“Catch anything big this afternoon?” he asks.
Not, when is my flight. Or if I’m going to the concert tonight.
I pick at my hot fudge sundae, pulling the cherry from the top and plopping it onto my tongue. He knows the answer.
He also knows I always fish off the pier with my dad on my last day in Los Angeles. It’s our tradition.
“Just a few tiny crappies and a decent mackerel,” I say. “I threw them back.”
Obviously, as I can’t take them on the plane. Just me and my matching set of Burberry luggage will make the trek back to Boston tomorrow.
Luke nods and finishes his fries.
One last meal together before I go. Another tradition.
Spending summer with Dad has always been the highlight of my year. But this trip has been different. Less peaceful. More … unsettling, I guess.
After my parents divorced, my mom moved us as far away from LA as possible. We started out in New York but migrated to Boston, so I could get a “proper” prep school education, she said.
Me and my Ivy League education. A degree in molecular biology, a prestigious job in research at Massachusetts General Hospital. An expensive (aka tiny) apartment on the West End.
I’m living the dream.
But all I can think about is a golden-haired surfer boy 3,000 miles away.
Luke has been my best friend since junior high. Before I moved away, we suffered through braces, pimples, and history class together. Back when I was taller than him and could out-run, out-fish, and out-surf him.
I’m not sure when friendship turned into a crush. Maybe around the time he hit a growth spurt and developed biceps I wanted to curl into.
Luke stands and dumps his trash into the bin. “You ready, Wava?”
His nickname for me, a play off my name – Ava – born from our days of learning to surf together.
We amble along the boardwalk as twilight falls, painting the sky in pink, purple, and gold. This is home. Teens out of school, tourists snapping pictures, parents pushing toddlers in strollers. Seagulls cry overhead, swooping down to snag discarded hotdog buns.
Reggae music floats on the warm breeze that tosses my hair around my face. In Boston, I keep my locks in a bun while I peer into microscopes. But here, I let my hair down. Literally and figuratively. Here, I am free.
I breathe the salty air mixed with funnel cakes and Cinnabon, already missing it.
Luke bumps my shoulder with his and jerks his head toward the Ferris wheel. I nod. He buys two tickets, and we settle into the metal bucket. After a few jerks, we’re moving. Into the night sky. Bright fluorescent lights swirl around us, turning Luke’s hair orange, red, purple.
I’m thirteen again, watching as the only life I’d known pulls away from me like the pier below us.
We reach the top and start down again. Moisture pricks my eyes and tumbles over my cheeks.
Luke’s hand covers mine, the heat from it reaching down to my bones. He gives me a sad smile, and I lean into his shoulder, tears falling in earnest.
So much for being good at goodbye.
“You don’t have to go, you know,” he says.
I sit up, swipe at my face with my sleeve.
His brows pull together. “I mean, if you’re that unhappy there.”
“I’m not unhappy in Boston.” It’s true. I do love my work. I just think I love him more.
So why can’t I say the words?
“Oh. Well, then.” He looks out over the ocean. “That’s good.”
I’m trying to think of how to say what I feel.
Another jerk, and the ride starts slowing down. Our bucket descends to the pier.
We walk some more, the silence between us less comfortable than before. Our time together is slipping away like the waves recede from the shore.
“You wanna walk over to the concert?” Luke asks.
The summer outdoor concerts at Pacific Park are another of our favorites.
“I should probably get back. Early flight tomorrow,” I lie. My flight doesn’t leave until noon. But I don’t know how much longer I can hold myself together.
Disappointment clouds his face, but really, what other choice do I have? Hurt him now or hurt me later?
“It’s been great seeing you,” he says, enveloping me in a hug.
I wrap my arms around his waist and press my face into his chest, absorbing his smell and the way my body molds into his. I refuse to be the first to break the hold.
After a moment, he leans away, holds me at arms’ length. “Have a safe trip.”
I nod as emotion chokes out words.
He walks away, and I retreat to the end of the pier. Gripping the metal railing, I stare out into the black water, my breath coming in sobs and gasps. I can’t keep doing this. Every goodbye strips away a piece of my soul.
He never uses my real name.
I turn, and Luke is there, the evening fireworks reflected in his eyes.
My heart stutters as he pulls me toward him. His lips touch mine, and bolts of lightning shoot through me. So many years and pent-up emotions flood out into one amazing kiss.
My legs wobble like the first time I stepped onto a boat.
Luke rests his forehead against mine and breathes out what I’ve longed to hear.