This is how it starts: with a sixteen-year-old girl’s heart breaking. It sounds like shattered glass and pink rose petals falling onto white marble in slow motion. Delilah is crumpled, sobbing, on the carpet of her bedroom floor.
River’s message is lit up on her phone screen:
Sorry, Lilah. Can’t do this anymore. Soccer is too much to juggle with a girlfriend. We can still be friends tho. See ya at school.
“Instagram,” she wails to the wall. “Fucking Instagram! He can’t even be bothered to text me like a normal person.”
Just last night, they kissed and felt each other up in the backseat of her mom’s hatchback. She had to beg to borrow it. They exchanged whispers down at the water’s edge wrapped in his duvet that they snuck out the window so they would keep warm after dusk. They stared up at the stars at Quarten Lake and she told him how she’s afraid of staying in Michigan forever, or being trapped. He smiled, kissed her neck. He acted like he gave a shit.
But it’s over now, three weeks till school starts.
She’s going into eleventh grade single. And it’s the worst thing in the world. She really wanted a boyfriend by now, just one. Just to try it. To see what it’s like to belong to someone else, for them to belong to you. Worse yet, she actually loves River.
She pushes off her bedroom floor and stares out the window as the tears dry on her flushed cheeks. Her ache for him is as deep and wide as summer’s ending. The first of the yellow leaves fall and the smell of bonfires waft up the street of her parent’s cul-de-sac.
The next day, she cuts her hair and dyes it dark. She doesn’t need him.
Fast forward to spring and they’re still talking. River couldn’t keep away.
At a party Nick threw that April, they made love for the first time. All the lights were on and the animal heads seemed to stare at her from the walls. It wasn’t how she imagined it would be. It wasn’t all hearts and stars and glitter.
But when Delilah stares into River’s hazel eyes, crushes her lips against his, she drowns out the noise.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
It’s become a chant, a mantra. All she wants is for him to say it back.
She hopes he doesn’t get bored of her. She hopes he doesn’t forget about her. He is young and strong and beautiful. Her Adonis on a longboard flying down Cranbrook Road at three a.m., slick on weed and whiskey stolen from Nick’s parents liquor cabinet.
It’s the good whiskey, the soft whiskey. The kind that burns her throat and makes her spin and spin. The kind that makes her tilt her head back, stare at the stars, and weep private tears.
Everything seems so far away and right around the corner, all at once. It’s almost summer, senior year is starting soon. She’ll apply for colleges and everyone will either move on or stay stuck. She’ll either get her shit together or she won’t. She’ll either keep seeing River or they’ll lose touch.
The problem is, with River, she can talk about anything. Especially when they’re lying on a blanket under the pine tree in his backyard. He only smiles with the gap in his teeth around her. He knows it, too. She can tell. She can tell it scares him. This is happening too fast, she’s falling too hard. Even though they’re friends, even though she’s told him all her secrets.
Even though, even though.
Summer comes and they lay sweat-drenched at River’s family’s cottage in Port Huron, getting drunk down by the dock. They fall asleep in each other’s arms. She goes home at dawn before his parents find out, leaving the pink heat of his room for the solitude of her own.
It’s stupid she can’t just stay over. Adults are always acting like they know better, when half the time they don’t. Everyone treats her like she’s young, and she is, but it’s infuriating. Grandma cried when Lilah pierced her nose. Mom and dad are always gone, but they yell at her for coming home past curfew. They don’t ask her how she is, but they expect her life to be put together. Today, not tomorrow. Like a good little Birmingham girl.
But she’s not good. She’s shattered into a million pieces and she’s still trying to figure out what the picture looks like, when she finally puts them all back together. Like one of those one-thousand piece puzzles mom buys, but never finishes.
When she gets home from Port Huron, as the sun is coming up, she slides open her bedroom window and climbs out onto the roof barefoot. She lights a joint and takes a drag as the light fractures through the old oak in her front yard. It lights up like a cathedral. Better than a church.
Once she’s good and high, she grabs her notepad and starts sketching.
She feels that feeling, the closest thing to magic, besides love, she’s ever known. The feeling when her subconscious takes over and the images just pour out. She feels like she’s levitating, coming out of her body. Transported to a place where creativity flows freely.
Soon an hour’s past, and she’s got charcoal all over the side of her fist. She has to pull back, to blink into reality. When she does, there is a page full of lines, all connecting to form a piece of her: coherent, connected, tangible.
That night, after she and River kiss in the cold green of his backyard before going to the sanctuary of his bed, she shows him the tree. She tells him it’s how he makes her feel.
Sweaty-palmed, she waits. It’s a gift.
“To remember this year, before everything changes,” she says.
“It’s good, babe,” he tosses it onto his nightstand, then goes back to taking off her shirt.
He doesn’t know it, because it’s dark, but she weeps then. Something in the pit of her stomach uncoils, slithering up her throat so she has to choke down a scream. For the first time, she thinks about what her life would be like without River and it doesn’t make her cry. It makes her think of wasted time.
But everything shifts, as it always does, swirling fast as plastic bags caught in humid July air. River and Lilah go to a dirty Detroit party and she kisses another guy. She doesn’t even know why. River is withdrawn and drunk. They go home together and have sex.
It’s the last time.
Delilah knows it, with every bone in her body. When she gets home that night, she locks herself in the bathroom. Mascara is smeared down her cheeks, bloodshot eyes, toilet paper stuck to her chin.
She can’t be with him. He can’t love her like she deserves.
That’s what hurts most of all.
So this is what it feels like to lose the first love of her life. To abandon the one who lights her on fire, for something else. A flicker, a spark of a new beginning. This is the feeling they write songs and poems about. This is why Aunt Julie was catatonic on their couch for a week last winter.
Lilah dug out the notepad and pencil from her bookbag, slumped against the wall. She started drawing, putting everything onto the page:
River is second-hand smoke, the smell before a thunderstorm, the feeling of pink silk sheets against naked flesh. He is the feeling of a broken promise.
Delilah realizes right then and there, at midnight on the cold tile floor, that she will always love every person she’s ever loved.
But she loves herself more.
Jesica is originally from Detroit, Michigan. She is studying for her MFA in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University.