Love Isnít a Promise

Justin Lo

I.

He was on his way back from the convenience store, carrying home a few snacks; she was sitting on the bench outside the pharmacy, waiting for her pictures to be developed. His shape, framed in the setting sunís luscious glaze, holding a sagging plastic bag in each hand Ė that was the first she ever saw of him. Of course, she didnít know that under the veil of shadow, he was actually frowning. Nearly crying. This was his last full day in town, and he was moving a thousand miles away tomorrow. These would be the last bottles of ginger ale heíd buy from the corner Seven-Eleven, the last bag of ninety-nine cent Classic Lays. To her credit, though, he was equally ignorant of the fact that she was merely on vacation, visiting her grandparents at the start of summer break. So soon, sheíd be thirty thousand feet in the sky, heading home in a Boeing Seven Twenty-Seven, munching on pretzels or peanuts and staring distantly at those precious few photographs of Granny and Gramps. Maybe sheíd never see them in the flesh again.

It was in this state of complete ignorance that these two rising tenth graders happened upon each other that day at dusk. She merely smiled at him, not even really paying much attention. She was more concerned, as it stood, with making sure she had enough cash to cover the prints, so after briefly making eye contact, she returned her focus to the small wad of bill in her hand.

He felt a small pang of warmth when she smiled at him. She was cute. A little chubby in the face, with short but feminine reddish-brown wavy hair. There was something about the way her hair bobbed as she counted her money to herself that made him stop and sit down on the bench beside her.

She thought he was a little creepy, but then she saw his bags of food and took immediate interest. She was of course a bit cautious, but not overly so; he seemed too scrawny to be imposing, and besides, she was not weak of heart or body, herself. So she peered over into those bags, evaluating the snack.

"Tsk tsk," she said, "Thatís not a very healthy dinner you got there." No matter how one looked at it, that was not a pick-up line. But it presumed a certain involvement, maybe even friendship.

"Oh, itís just a snack. A tradition of mine, I guess," he said off-handedly.

"I think Lays are too greasy," she commented. "But whatever floats your boat, I guess."

The boy laughed a little. "So whatcha doing?"

"Iím waiting for my photographs to be printed," she answered. "They said itíd only be thirty minutes."

When she suddenly resumed her money-counting, he realized that she considered the line of conversation complete, for whatever antisocial reason she had dreamed up. The ensuing silence was tense.

"Er, how long has it been?" he asked suddenly, his hands fidgeting a little.

"Almost forty-five by now," she answered, looking at the plain plastic stopwatch that adorned her left wrist beside a bracelet of small jade cut-outs. She clearly didnít have much knack for fashion, he decided.

With a sigh, she closed up her wallet and slipped it back into her small sack.

"Damn it, Iím short one buck," she cursed to herself. She slouched forward a little, trying to consider what to do. Being a rising sophomore was unpleasant because it was that age when the proximity of having a car and credit card and getting to the next base with oneís significant other made their present inattainability particularly stifling.

"If itís just a dollar, I can lend it to you," he said, pulling out a very crinkled bill. It looked as if he had tried to fold origami out of it but failed multiple times before stuffing it into the back pocket of his jeans.

"Oh, donít worry about it," she said, waving her hands to shoo his away. But he didnít retract his hand, and she examined it, those wiry fingers grasping the dollar bill. His fingers were somewhat misshapen, but they had character. And they somewhat went well with green, she noted, although it must be said that in her eyes, just about anything went well with green.

"I insist!" he said, and she gave in rather willingly. Perhaps her earlier rejection had only been a reflex, and she expected to eventually take it in any event. Or maybe she just knew that it would make him happier this way.

He smiled. It was a slightly crooked, charming sort of smile.

She smiled back. It was a broad, lightly-dimpled-on-the-chubby-cheeks sort of smile.

In short time, the photos had been paid for, the sun had set, and the two were now once again sitting upon that bench. The mood alone could have inspired romance in the most reserved of adolescents. But this couple was instead looking quite bored. In fact, it was admittedly hard to say that they were sitting on the same bench. They very nearly werenít Ė he was positioned on the far right, and she on the far left. Their hands were outstretched, as if their fingers wanted to interlock, but even if they spread out their arms like wings, they would not reach one another. Such was their independence, such was their love.

Yes, maybe they were in love. Or maybe it was just misreading their swollen eyes full of bittersweet-orange luster. But after they sat there, looking dazed and bored as mentioned before, they resumed a conversation. Not the conversation of a few minutes ago, but one more timeless, one that perhaps they would only begin years from now.

"When will you be coming back?" she asked.

"Back? Here?" he replied in like form.

"Yes, here," she said impatiently. She scooted over a foot or so in response to some indescribable feeling that suddenly entered her heart.

"Actually, Iím going away for a long time," he said. "Iím moving."

"Oh," she said. "Thatís okay."

"But Iíll come back and visit," he said, betraying his own desires. As if it were some sort of punishment for his hopeful revelations, his body scooted over as well. Now their fingertips could brush together, hypothetically speaking of course.

She shook her head. "Iím only here on vacation, anyway. It was silly of me to ask in the first place."

"Ten years."

He was staring at her with a look of challenge in his eyes. His gray irises swirled in the light as they focused on just her one form.

"In ten years," he repeated.

"In ten years what?" she asked, but he had already stood up and was on his way home, one sagging plastic bag to a hand. She laughed to herself at the absurdity of that boy, watching him vanish into the dark side of the horizon. Then, after patting off the benchís dust from her clothes, she took off running in the opposite direction.

There was a small lingering smile on her lips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

II.

His tie was just a bit lopsided today: the knot was asymmetrical enough to send the rest of the silk piece veering to the right. But at this point, it didnít matter. He had left work early and driven straight to the airport. He might have even parked illegally in his haste.

The sun was setting as he stared out his window, claiming for himself the sights of the rolling plains below. The expanse of beige gave way to the wrinkled faces of old mountains, clouds like tufts of white hair on their grandfatherly temples. He was older, he thought to himself, but not that much older.

He reached down into the briefcase at the ends of his feet, pulling out a small yellow-and-white bag. There wouldnít be pretzels on this flight, not to mention the peanuts which had gone the way of the dinosaurs, in a much less magnificent fashion. So, he rationalized, he had to settle for this little pleasure Ė for survival. And in popped the first chip: warm and salty as always.

She glanced at the grandfather clock from the corner of her glasses and groaned. Amanda was late for her shift Ė again Ė and to boot, today was apparently a celebration of bookstore browsing, leaving her with nothing to do but watch the patrons lounge, read, and leave. Maybe words had become like paper or salt, too readily plentiful to treasure and value. Her own book had gone stale; even the cash register seemed to dust over.

She didnít want to wear this dull charcoal suit all day but at this rate, itíd be a luxury to even grab dinner. She idly tugged off her scrunchy and redid her hair, which she was growing out because she thought it made her look more youthful.

The shadow of the clockís stern rectangular frame glided across the floor, brushing against the covers of the periodicals, sheathed in plastic bags. She rested her chin on her forearms, hunched over the desk. She reminded herself that she couldnít just leave, at risk of losing her job and thus her means of paying for college. Amanda would just have to make good on the six Ė no, seven, including this one Ė drinks that she owed. It wouldnít be long before that tardy coworker would have to buy her a whole vineyard to erase her debt.

And as she daydreamed about prancing through her own grape-lined fields in Burgundy, Amanda finally rushed in, tripping over her heels.

"Iím so sorry!" Amanda shouted, startling the patrons whose caffeine doses were waning with the afternoon sun.

She just looked up from the cashierís counter and held up seven fingers.

"Geez, you canít even hold that many, you lightweight," Amanda growled playfully in her peculiarly alto voice.

When she stood up from her seat, the cushion a perfect cast of her behind, she towered a whole head above Amanda, who nevertheless confidently hopped onto the swiveling chair and spun around once, before clapping her hands above the register.

"Well, Iím off!" she cried, running off without her umbrella, then realizing that it had just started to rain outside.

Amanda smirked and tossed the black cylinder over. "A date, huh?"

"I suppose you could say that," Amanda thought she heard as the figure disappeared into the dripping landscape outside.

He got to the airport fifteen minutes early due to a vigorous tailwind, so he took his time Ė going to the restroom, buying a chicken caesar salad wrap, and watching the sun at its mid-afternoon glow with the chatter of families and political pundits in the background. Then he yawned, standing up and tugging at his yellow tie again before heading out the exit, the tall glass doors held wide open by the security guards.

She was in the car, trying to use the vanity mirror to fix her hair while adjusting the ribbon around the waist of her casual calf-length dress. But the hair escaped from her grasp again and she gave up, letting it fall down along her shoulderblades, wavy and unruly. She thought she looked like a lion, and when she started up the car and realized that she didnít have enough gas for the two-hour trip, she roared like one, too.

At the gas station, she couldnít help but notice the aisle of chips in the shop. She briefly considered buying a bag to humor him, but then the image of a bulging beer belly made her dispose of that thought. Instead, she hopped back into the driverís seat, flipped on the radio to the crooning of electric guitars, and cruised onto the highway, the clouds completing their conquest of the formerly sunny day. She lifted her sunglasses over her forehead and sighed, wishing she had bought a coffee at the café before leaving.

The sun hadnít quite set yet, but he could see the blanket of smokestack-gray clouds in the distance. It wouldnít be quite the same, without the sunset. Maybe it wouldnít work at all.

But he continued to slide along with the red tail-lights, the oncoming stream of headlights like the decorations on a roller coaster at night, ascending into the darkening horizon as the carriages tilt upwards, carried by the teeth of the chains. As he met the clouds head-on, he felt the shadow propel him into free-fall. The lights shimmered in the rain-painted pavement.

With the rain pouring now, she could barely make out where the road was, let alone look for a Seven-Eleven sign. She pulled into a meter parking space facing the oak-dotted median of Main Street, unsure of what to do at this point. She regretted wearing the dress and regretted not having a map printed and regretted a lot of other things which had nothing to do with her predicament.

So she sat there, pondering what would happen if she just sat there, waiting for him to arrive.

And he, too, pulled into a parking spot on Main Street, although he was right in front of the Seven-Eleven. But he regretted not changing out of his suit and regretted not bringing flowers and regretted not having booked a hotel.

And they wondered to themselves why they remembered this date, why they circled it years ahead of time, why they thought that behind those clouds somewhere, the sun was setting exactly the same way it had exactly a decade before.

Like that, they sat, scarcely three oak trees apart, brought back to the circumstances of life and the uncontrollability of chance.

III.

He finally stepped outside, drawing open his umbrella, wandering about, not even knowing what he was looking for. The sights were nearly unchanged, save for a couple new storefronts and a remodeled steeple for the church. Small towns were comforting that way; they only changed if you were the one who grew, and he hadnít.

She lifted her dress to her knees as she touched her shoes down into the shallow puddle beside the car. It had been seven years since her grandfather had passed away, after which her grandmother had moved into her vacated room at her parentsí home. Even though by chance she ended up attending college in the same state, she never felt much occasion to come back. Without Granny and Gramps, it was just another town, and a rather static one at that. It was a wonder that the residents got by with two delis and one pub on Main Street.

He walked down the sidewalk of the two-lane road, but it was hard to see the color of peoplesí hair, not to mention even trying to make out whether the passerbys, huddled in their coats and rainboots and umbrellas, were men or women. There were relatively few people out, but enough that it was disorienting to examine each and every one. He jangled his keys in his pocket idly as he thought to himself, a habit he had picked up from his boss at work.

She moved over to the sidewalk, standing below a light-post, hoping it might make her more visible. But with her umbrella still feebly standing against the rain, the contrast of the shadow only made it harder to see her face. So instead she began to move towards the steeple of a church she saw across the median, whose bells might chime on the hour.

He started to move more quickly, realizing that even if he couldnít recognize her, there was a chance that her car might have an out-of-state plate. Not a foolproof plan by any means, but better than standing in front of Seven-Eleven. He ran a circuit around the length of downtown Main Street Ė three blocks or so. He sighed at the end, catching his breath Ė all the license plates were local. He jangled his keys again, absentmindedly.

She glanced at her watch. It was 5:57 Ė three minutes or bust, she told herself. By now her dress was quite drenched, but at least she had a jacket which prevented any particularly sensitive transparency. She shivered as the cool droplets dribbled down her shoulders and nose, causing her to sneeze. Seeking shelter, she tried to scoot under the narrow entryway to the church, but the precipitation seemingly curved around the frame and her black umbrella. In spite of herself, she could feel her heart pounding. She lambasted it frantically, reminding herself that she was waiting for one person in the whole wide world, on one day of all eternity, in one town of all towns, and the only thing going for her was an incomplete phrase that she had repeated to no reply.

He was becoming distracted, thinking about the work he would have to do on Monday to make up for todayís early departure. And he wondered, too, if he had committed the greatest folly of his life Ė or at least, waste of a weekend. After all, he was waiting for one person in the whole wide world, on one day of all eternity, in one town of all towns, and the only thing going for him was an incomplete phrase that he had uttered with no clarification.

But still, she was alive in a way she hadnít been alive for years. Those years in the bookstore and in college were half-hearted; she had dreams but they were only a step ahead of her, the waves of the ocean without the land on the other side. It was 5:59 now, but she was calm and warm.

Because it wasnít destiny that had brought him here; it wasnít just a promise.

She sincerely believed that, without speaking a word, he had answered her that day.

That she understood what he meant and why he meant it.

That he believed in her because he saw in her

The kind soul that she saw in him.

And at that moment, the great hand of the clock struck six; and his fingers, jangling the keys, struck the panic button of his rental car. The church carillons tolled triumphantly, punctuated by the blaring of the belligerent car alarms. In this polyrhythmic cacophony, he looked towards the chapel and she looked towards the flashing carlights, and they beheld each other for the first time in ten years.

With slippery arms, they slid into an embrace, and their kiss tasted of the autumn rain. They retreated into the Seven-Eleven, laughing heartily as their souls clasped tightly onto the lurching heave of time leaping forward.

"So, you came back," he said.

"What, you didnít think I would?" she asked, pinching him playfully through his blazerís sleeve.

"Well, we had just barely met, I thought you might take it as a joke. After all, you didnít know anything about me."

She shook her head and smiled, as if to say that he was wrong, that somehow, through all of this, she already knew so much about him. But instead of saying that, she just suggested, "Letís go find an inn somewhere, before we catch colds."

"Sure, there is one two blocks past the chapel. Iím sure theyíre not full," he said. "We could meet there in, say, twenty years?"

She kicked him playfully with her sandals, getting mud on his pantlegs.

"Oh, sorry about that," she said, looking at the mess. He just laughed.

At the inn, they sat side-by-side facing the window, clad in dry casual clothes, towels wrapped over their hair, tinged with the scent of shampoo.

"Why ten years?" she finally asked, looking out at the rain while sipping at a cup of black tea.

He shifted his feet along the wrinkled bedcovers. "It just meant something, ten years, to a high schooler. Ten years. A long time."

"But weíd still be young," she said.

He laughed. "You really think so? I feel old."

"Because you work!" she said. "That tie was pretty bland."

"Oh? I donít recall you being a fashion expert."

"Hey!" she exclaimed. "Iíll have you know that Iíve improved on that in the past few years. Just look at how tasteful this t-shirt and jeans combination is," she said, gesturing at her clothes. Somehow, having to earn her education had made her a humbler person.

"So, you donít work?" he said, opting to avoid commenting on her clothes. He actually found them endearing, but it didnít seem like the right time to flatter her.

"I do, but itís just temporary. I do shifts here and there at the Mountainside Bookstore, but itís to help pay off my college loans. I actually want to be a high school teacher."

"For photography?" he asked.

She winced. "No, I learned a long time ago that that Ďcallingí didnít come with a dial-back number." She grinned. "I actually want to teach math, can you believe that?"

"Whatís hard to believe about it?" he asked.

"Oh? Iím not sure how a girl is supposed to take that. But what do you do? Besides wear bland yellow ties."

"Itís banana pudding colored," he said. "I think itís adorable."

She glared. "No, itís just the color of Layís potato chips bags, you junk-food glutton."

"Wait, how did you Ė?"

"That kiss tasted like salt and grease!" she interjected.

"Not the autumn rain?" he asked, surprised.

"Well, that too," she said, rolling her eyes. "But I pay attention to the details. The details!"

He sighed. She wrapped her arm around his shoulder, prompting him to realize that she was taller than him, at least when they sat down. In all biological improbability, she had grown while he hadnít.

"So anyway, Iím actually an editor for a local newspaper," he said.

"They still sell those in your town?" She seemed genuinely surprised.

"We adapted to the internet revolution!" he insisted. "And plus, thereís nothing like getting newsprint on your fingertips in the morning." He made a gesture as if feeling the dusty substance between his fingers.

She grabbed his hand and examined it. "Speaking of which, your fingers still look weird."

"They work fine," he said, shrugging.

Suddenly, she remembered something and reached into the back pocket of her jeans, pulling out a crinkled bill which looked like it had been used for origami practice. "Here," she said, placing the bill in the palm of his hand.

"What, no interest?" he said. She leaned forward, tilted her head, and kissed him on the ear, the act dislodging the towel from her head, allowing her wavy red hair to cascade down.

"I suppose this could work for a Big Grab bag," he muttered to himself, blushing from the kiss. She just sighed, wondering why it almost felt like she was handing over drug money.

"You know," she began, changing the subject.

"Yeah?"

"Iíll graduate this year, so maybe I can move afterwards and become certified wherever you are."

"Arenít you getting a little ahead of yourself here?" he asked.

"Oh, and planning a romantic reunion ten years in advance isnít?" she replied in turn. "But itís okay, itís just an idea. I guess weíre just the types who like to look to the future, instead of dwelling on the past."

He stroked her hair gently, wondering if he ought to ask her about all the things she had been through in the interim, why she was only now a senior, whether her grandparents were well, whether she had any romantic relationships. But somehow, that didnít seem to matter. She would tell him when she wanted to, or not at all.

"Would you like to go to sleep?" he asked.

She yawned, covering her mouth partway. "We could also try staying up all night."

"Are you a kid or something?"

"No," she said, "I just want to be absolutely sure that youíll still be here tomorrow, weird fingers and all."

And they laughed, knowing that neither had to be reassured about the otherís undying devotion. Even if they hadnít shared their pasts or even their names, they shared something even greater: the entire expanse of the future with them at center stage.

Without changing into pajamas or closing the curtains, the two collapsed onto the bed, their exhausted bodies interlocked, their moist breaths bathing each other in their well-deserved repose.