Any Red-Blooded Girl, p.14
EVEN though we’d planned to stay at the dance until the oh-so-late hour of ten o’clock, Mick and I skipped out about half an hour early to enjoy some alone time as my perfect sweet sixteen came to a close.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” I gushed, inhaling as much of the crisp night air as my lungs would hold. It was no lie either. The evening was magical in a way that only happens under the moon and the stars, in the arms of the one you love.
Instead of admiring the beautiful starry night, though, Mick had gone quiet. Quieter than he’d ever been around me before. And for the most part, I was okay with the silence. But after five solid minutes of nothingness, I started to wonder if something was wrong with Mick—or with us.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. “You seem…” There was really no good way to describe what I was sensing. “Tired?”
“Oh, no. I’m all right,” he said with a low sigh. “It’s just that…I’ve been thinking.”
We had wandered back to our private cove, where we flopped down on the squishy sand. And when my eyes met Mick’s, I saw this desperate, pained look that, I swear, I never want to see again as long as I live.
He shook his head and frowned. “I’m gonna miss you,” he forced out sort of shaky. I’d never heard a man’s voice crack like that before, which made the words sound wrong in my ears.
“What do you mean?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I knew what he was referring to. After all, I’d already had the same breakdown over our inevitable separation. I guess Mick was just a step behind me in the disturbing realization.
“Well, our time is so limited,” he said. “You’re leaving when? In a few days?”
“And I didn’t want to say anything before, but my family’s scheduled to leave tomorrow,” he said with a wince.
“Tomorrow?” I repeated, incredulous. Suddenly our separation was not only inevitable, it was immediate.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you right away,” he admitted. “But I was afraid you wouldn’t give me a chance if…if you knew I was going to be gone so soon.”
“No. You’re wrong,” I said, insulted. “It wouldn’t have made any difference.”
He shifted the topic. “What about Michoacán?” he asked. “You’d love it. I promise. It’s surreal: the landscape, the mountains, the people, the culture, the butterflies. It’s the best place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been lots of places,” he declared. “Don’t you trust me?”
Trusting him wasn’t the problem. The problem was that as cooperative as my parents were acting at the moment, they would never in a million years let me run off to a foreign country with a bunch of gypsies. I mean, I’d literally have to escape in the night, disappear off the face of the earth. And if I ever wanted to go home again, I’d be in for a backlash so severe it would make a tsunami look appealing.
“Of course, I trust you. And I want to go. I really do,” I said. “Maybe…”
Desperately, I wanted to agree to his insane request, to take all the pain out of his face and off my heart, to make everything better. But every option I played out in my muddled brain ended in the same disappointing conclusion: We were destined for our own separate paths; Mick Donovan and Flora Fontain were never meant to be.
“At least say you’ll think about it until tomorrow,” he pleaded. “If we had Michoacán to look forward to…well, it would make things easier.”
I wasn’t so sure that dreaming about an impossible future would really blunt the pain of our separation. I mean, maybe the self-deception would eventually backfire, and when Michoacán never happened, I’d kill myself out of disillusionment. But I couldn’t turn him down.
“Sure. Michoacán sounds perfect,” I said. “And I don’t have to think about it. I’d love to go. Nothing would make me happier.”
What the hell. If I was going to agree to think about it, I might as well just agree to the trip. I’d break the bad news to him later, when we were back in our own separate universes.
Mick cradled me to his chest, and finally the devastated, heartbroken look faded from his eyes. “Thank you so much,” he whispered. “We’ll have a wonderful time. You’ll see. The best time ever.”
I was still having trouble believing that our little window of happiness was coming to a premature close. “So this is it for now? Our last night together?”
“Temporarily, yes. But we’ll be together again soon,” Mick promised, kissing me gently on the forehead. “Right now, though, we have one more thing to do. So close your eyes, birthday girl.”
“Do I have to?” I whined. I mean, knowing that the love of my life was deserting me in just a few short hours had put me in a pretty unfestive mood.
“Absolutely. I promised you one last birthday surprise, and I plan to deliver on that promise. But I can’t begin until I’m sure you’re not peeking.”
He pushed himself up off the sand and stared down at me disapprovingly.
“Okay, okay, okay,” I caved. “You win.” I leaned back, tucked my hands behind my head, and shut my eyes.
In his talking-to-a-little-kid voice, he said, “Very good. Now stay right there. I’ll be right back.”
I must admit, I was a little annoyed that my strapping boyfriend had left me alone in the dark on a secluded beach. After all, what if there were psychos skulking around ready to pounce on me at the drop of a hat?
“This’ll just take a minute,” Mick promised from somewhere behind me. Whatever he was doing was creating a cascade of crinkly, crackly sounds. How mysterious. “Almost done. Just a bit longer,” he strung me along.
Even though my eyes were closed, I was still getting some pretty big clues about what was happening. Case in point: I could smell something burning, and there was a distinct hissing sound that was getting louder by the second. Plus, somehow I could tell it was brighter outside, like when you close your eyes but you can still sort of see the sun.
“Okay, open up!” Mick yelled excitedly. “Happy birthday!”
The only word to describe the scene was magical. My sweet, sweet boyfriend had planted a bunch of Morning Glories—the big sparklers with the hot pink sticks and rainbow wrappers—in the sand and lit them up. The beach was alive with erratic, sputtering bursts of color.
Mick jogged the few steps that separated us, swallowed me in a big bear hug, and peppered my face and neck with ticklish kisses. Meanwhile, I stared agape at the glittering display.
“You like your birthday candles, I see,” he said, beaming like a first-grader with a report card full of straight A’s.
“Candles?” It took a second for the idea to penetrate my brain. “Are there sixteen?” I asked, finally grasping the fact that he’d arranged the beach like a giant birthday cake.
“Uh-huh,” he said with a satisfied grin. “But go ahead and count ’em if you like.”
A couple of the sparklers had already burnt out, and most of the rest weren’t far behind. “Yup. Four rows of four,” I verified. “That’s sixteen, all right.” I eagerly kissed him soft and full on the lips. “Thanks for being so sweet,” I said. “You’re the best boyfriend ever.”
As the last Morning Glory fizzled, he released me from his love-grip and headed toward the water. But when I tried to follow, he cautioned, “Stay there. I don’t want you getting too close to this.”
Too close to what? I wondered. But in a matter of seconds, I understood exactly why Mick had ordered me to keep away. He was lighting more fireworks. Not just sparklers this time, but shooting, aerial ones.
As soon as he’d lit the fuses, he rushed back to my side, where we held hands and gawked wide-eyed at the whooshing streams of light as they shot over the water, burst in a shower of flames, and fluttered away.
“You know what those are, don’t you?” he whispered.
He laughed softly. “Yes, they’re beautiful,” he agreed.
Okay…I wasn’t aware this was a test. Hoping desperately that a clear outline of a butterfly would miraculously present itself, I squinted into the distance. “No, sorry. I don’t think I see it,” I was forced to admit, defeated.
“Just unfocus,” Mick suggested. “You’re trying too hard.” He stepped behind me and slung his arm over my shoulder. “See, there are three lines: There. There. And there.” He traced the red streaks into the sky with a grease-stained finger until they exploded. “Wing. Body. Wing,” he said. “Do you see it?”
“Maybe.” I mean, I could sort of see what he was getting at, but it was still very abstract.
“On the next one, pretend you see it,” he instructed. “Expect a butterfly. But keep an open mind. It’s a bit like looking at an impressionistic painting. You have to use your imagination.”
Great. Dead French guys again. Just my luck.
“Ready?” he asked expectantly. “Think butterfly.”
I heard the pop, and then there it was: Wing. Body. Wing. A butterfly explosion.
“Oh my God!” I shrieked. “I see it!”
Mick squeezed me tight around the waist from behind. “I love you, Flora,” he breathed. “Happy birthday, sweet sixteen.”
To say letting go of Mick that night was excruciating would be the understatement of the century. Because even though he said he’d see me in the morning, I had an unshakable feeling that the last time I’d ever lay eyes on him was just before midnight on my sweet sixteen. I guess that’s why I openly wept like a deranged two-year-old the whole way back to camp.
But by the time we arrived at Tupelo-9, I was just about cried out. And the shoulder of Mick’s nice dress shirt was soaked in snot and tears. Of course, when I tried to apologize for the mess, he wouldn’t let me. And then we hugged. If you’ve never had one of these kinds of hugs, count yourself lucky. It was the kind of hug you give someone when you know what’s about to happen, but you just don’t want to accept it: a long, quiet, desperate embrace, where you latch on so tight you try to disappear into the other person’s soul. I swear, the sadness of it was so heavy and deep that I seriously thought dying might be easier than recovering from the searing pain that had just cracked my chest wide open.
After what seemed like both an eternity and a nanosecond, we slowly began untangling our bodies until we’d separated everything but two fingers, as if we were in an unspoken—yet meaningful—pinkie-swear. Honestly, I’ve never dreaded anything like I dreaded that last little tug that would break us apart forever. And I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In a way, I hoped Mick wouldn’t be able to do it either, since somehow to my mixed-up brain, that would prove we were equally in love and equally in pain.
But then he let me go. It was over. For a few steps, he walked kind of sideways and kept his eyes on me, while I tried to burn an everlasting picture of him in my mind.