We Were Summer and Winter
A short story
(If you’re new, start with Part 1.)
We did three more shows, and none were as good as our first. Ms. Gilbert was too kind to push for a between-show rehearsal to clean up our act, but the sudden change in our chemistry didn’t go unnoticed by everyone else.
“Are you guys fighting?”
“Did something happen?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Nothing happened. The stars just haven’t aligned, I guess.”
Then college applications took over, and Grease was forgotten. Hell-bent on getting out of the state for school, I applied to every respectable institution on both coasts, keeping a minimum distance from home of five hundred miles. Not that I didn’t love my folks, but it became increasingly important to escape Dillon. To move on with my life, to wriggle out from underneath his shadow, to continue my self-education. Perhaps theater had not been a lie, but simply a way to improve myself, to become better than a doll-shaped harpy like Amber.
I took my first job that summer making sandwiches at a local sub shop. Encouraged by the small change that was all mine, I took another job typing in numbers on Excel spreadsheets for a real estate agency. Only acting had been as satisfying as feeling my own cash in my hands. I sold off my Bronco and bought an old sports car.
I didn’t need Dillon. I was great, all on my own. Summer had come.
Senior year began with a shouting match in the school courtyard. Dillon found Amber the first period of the first day of school, on her knees in a bathroom stall with the starting quarterback.
That was the end of that. I should have been flooded with a sense of victory, or something like it, but I only felt bad for him. We had study hall the very next period together. Dillon’s eyes burned red, and his lips quivered as he scribbled nonsense in his notebook.
My competition for the Sandy role on my right side, and Lissa the living tattoo parlor on my left, I gave them each a whispered apology and picked up my things. Dillon glanced up as I sat next to him, then hurriedly looked away before rubbing his eyes with his palms.
I didn’t say anything, no condolences, no explanations. Instead I dragged my desk close, put an arm over his shoulder, and gave him a gentle squeeze. I’d meant to pull away immediately to avoid looking like I was moving in on damaged territory, but in an instant Dillon had grabbed hold of me and squeezed back, hard.
“Thanks,” he said. I only nodded, and he drew back, not unkindly.
I sat there the rest of the year.
We settled into a quiet rhythm, as comfortable and steady and familiar as the tides. It came to light that we’d applied to none of the same schools, which Dillon was the first to protest. He rejoined our table at lunchtime; he was the new guy now, and I the leader of the herd, the matriarch. We joked about it.
After the Grease incident last year, two sophomores received the leading parts in the play, while Dillon and I were relegated to supporting cast—for the best, I decided, as it gave us plenty of time to goof around backstage. There was no more talk of going out, or of Amber, and it came as a surprise to me that I didn’t mind. Dillon’s company was enough, for now. From time to time I hungered for more but quickly set it aside.
No need to ruin a good thing.
I tried out dating, now that I had the time and money for it. A dark-haired junior with a lopsided smile and a rebellious fondness for pink had joined our table the year before, and soon meeting up at the mall became making out on the couch in his garage, or on the swing set at the neighborhood park after dark. Dillon didn’t like him much—the pink wasn’t his thing, and he worried about Ian’s less-than-honorable intentions (worse than my own dad), but he made an effort not to complain.
I wished he had.
Acceptance letters arrived. I watched Ian’s eyes wander, and decided to sever him before he could backstab me. Dillon was the only male in which I didn’t assume the worst. I got into three of my top-choice universities, and I realized I had my acting achievements and resulting college essays to thank. Or was it Dillon? I brought the three acceptance letters to school, put them in unmarked envelopes, and shuffled. My method appalled everyone. I selected an envelope at random and sent back my reply.
I was headed to Massachusetts.
Dillon only got into one of his schools, and would be retreating the opposite direction to southern California. Study hall became a time of last hours together, of entire notebooks full of memories and messages, of gossip and hopeful excitement about the future.
Finals came and went. At graduation, we snuck thumbs-up and dopey grins across the rows to each other. My folks put on the after-party, allowing us each a celebratory glass of wine. The adults left for home and the kids moved out into the yellow grass, swarming over the fading colored plastic of the playhouse like ants, taking up familiar places on the slide.
Lissa and the other Sandy assumed spots at my sides.
“I always thought you and Dillon would end up together, Madeleine,” said Lissa, eyeing Ian from across the lawn as he flirted with a mohawked sophomore.
“Me, too,” said the other Sandy. “But I guess you were just meant to be friends.”
I had nothing to say to that, considering the many foolish years I’d spent longing after him—only to find out he was best as my best friend.
Considering this could be our last summer together, Dillon and I made good work of it. I quit both my jobs two weeks before leaving for school and we spent every day at the water park, or the backyard, or packing our childish things. We didn’t speak much, because with the end coming, words seemed worthless.
My new school started a week earlier than everyone else’s, so my parents threw me a surprise going-away party the night before my dad and I were set to drive out. With the car loaded up and my room starkly empty, we partied late into the night, and I wondered at how all of our lives had changed. Lissa and Dillon put on an impromptu play—a modern rendition of Hamlet, with the requisite number of penis jokes thrown in and a plastic flower in a pot of fake water instead of a skull.
Teenagers trickled out one by one, until only Dillon and I were left. Being alone together suddenly felt claustrophobic, so we made our way outside to the long driveway that had been packed with cars only moments ago and stood under the stars.
“It’s been great, Maddie,” he said to me, bridging the two feet of dead air between us. “I’d never have made it through high school without you.”
“What? You? Since when?” I laughed. “You don’t have to make up stuff like that to make me feel better about leaving. I’m happy just to have met you—again.”
“I’m not making up anything.” Dillon looked star-ward, closed his eyes, and inhaled so deep I thought he was trying to drink the sky. “You were my rock. I’m glad you went public.”
“Me too.” He opened gray-green eyes and watched me as I spoke. “I’m glad you were my best friend.”
“Your best friend, huh?” He grinned, something predatory and self-satisfied.
“Yeah, best friend. What of it?”
Dillon took one more look up at the stars, muttered something incoherent to himself, then closed the gap between us. I hadn’t realized how I’d stopped growing while he kept on until he leaned down and pressed his lips to mine. Plying them apart, drawing a gasp from somewhere deep in my belly, burning me straight through like a slim bolt of lightning.
He kissed me as if he’d always known I wanted it, but waited until the last minute so I couldn’t do anything with it.
So it was useless to me.
At first, a flare of anger burst behind my eyes. But I held that kiss precious nevertheless, knowing he’d only done it because he was my best friend, and best friends know what the other longs for deep inside. We said our goodbyes as if it hadn’t happened, that kiss, and he climbed in his Civic. I watched, frozen and stuck to the pavement, as he drove away.
Summer was over.
Early the next morning I hugged my mother, my dog, my sister. I climbed into the passenger seat of the van and rolled down the window to let the sun in. My dad and I shook hands in the front seat, a good luck gesture to start our journey. He put the car in drive and off we went, on to Massachusetts, the back seat full of duvets and jean skirts and photos of Dillon and I pinned to a cork board.
Friends would ask me about him in the dorm rooms. Who was that handsome gray-eyed guy with the wavy blond hair, one arm slung over my shoulder so protectively? “A friend,” I’d say. Every time I landed a part, I couldn’t help remembering those days on the slide, practicing Summer Lovin’, or that kiss under the stars when he knew I’d be leaving him.
But just as Dillon and I couldn’t escape gravitating to one another through childhood, then through those awkward teenage years, some force beyond my own shoulders pulled us back together again. I stopped by to visit my parents after graduation. A short trip, as I’d been hired on to teach a summer Shakespeare program a few towns over.
When I drove up that long driveway, surrounded by its yellowed grass, I saw a familiar green Civic parked by the house—and lounging beside it, Dillon. He was no longer a boy.
Dillon grinned at me, and before I was out of the car, he whisked me up into his arms.
“Hey, Maddie,” he said into my hair. No one had called me that since the night before I left home. “I missed you, my winter girl.”
And then he kissed me, and it wasn’t because I’d always wanted it, or because we were saying good-bye.
This time, it was a promise for more.