“Ian,” she said, her face breaking into a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “It’s good to see you again.” Her words seemed forced, nothing like the cheerful Gloria I always loved, always full of life.
I stared at her, wondering if there would ever be a day where hearing my name coming from her lips wouldn’t sound like music. But even as much as it pleased me to see her, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe it’d last long before I was watching her curls bobbing away into the distance once again.
“Gloria,” I said, choking on her name and having to cough. “Excuse me.”
“May I?” she asked, pointing to a spot on the bench next to me that was starting to wear.
I nodded. My pulse wouldn’t slow as she sat approximately six inches away from me. The negative space was screaming “she’s not yours” to me over and over so loudly in my head that I had to close my eyes and count my breathing to stop it.
“What aren’t you saying to me?” Gloria asked. I could feel her eyes on me, asking more questions she wouldn’t say. Gloria always had so many questions.
I didn’t open my eyes. “Nothing,” I lied.
“I know you,” she replied, resting a hand on my knee, which only made me feel worse. “Something is bothering you.”
I held back what I wanted to say, and instead I replied, “You can’t just show up here and act like everything is normal.”
After a few moments of silence, I finally looked at her and I wasn’t sure, but I swore her eyes were slightly red, and that tears would break at any moment, very unlike Gloria. As if sensing my gaze, she bowed her head under her hat and her eyes were lost from view. Meeting on the bench seemed less and less like a good thing the longer we sat.
“Everything isn’t normal. You’re right about that,” she said. She turned her head to face the direction she had come, searching for something in the trees. “Everything is so different.” Her words were said slightly aloof, as if she could be talking about anything.
She was right. It was different. Gloria and I met freshman year of high school. We shared classes together but never really spoke. While she wasn’t the most popular girl in school, she was loved by everyone. Maybe that’s not right. She drifted. One minute, she was best friends with Katy Strong, the fastest runner on campus. Then, two months later, she was surrounded by the drama kids all the time. Next it was a geek named John Wind. He had no friends that anyone could tell, until Gloria. After about a week, he suddenly had more than I did. Then she was gone.
Rumors floated around school that she was put in rehab. But that wasn’t true. Her parents were rich, uppity folk. They put Gloria in cotillion and expected nothing but finely manicured nails. Nothing like their daughter, who would fill in her French manicures with black sharpie. They took Gloria out of school for over a month once just because they could. The rumor mill hit and when she finally came back to school, everyone had some kind of holy perception of her and wanted so desperately to be her friend.
Everyone, that is, except me. Sure, she was beautiful. Can’t blame a guy for noticing, right? But I had a girlfriend named Molly who, while not exactly in Gloria’s caliber of pretty, had a fairness about her that made her pretty in a delicate way. She was also the daughter of my mom’s best friend, so she was constantly at my house anyway. Our parents wanted us together and there was nothing terribly wrong with her, so we were.
I was busy putting away books in my locker when she came out of nowhere and whispered, “You’re settling.”
The voice was so close to my earlobe, I could feel the heat of her breath, making me jump. She grabbed my shoulders, spinning me and pushing my back against my locker. Her pale blue eyes dug right into me.
“Hi, Gloria,” I said. Her lips were too close, but I couldn’t move.
“Did you hear me?”
How could I not? “Yes,” I said. “But what are you talking about?”
“Molly,” she said, slightly annoyed. “You’re settling.” She blew a bubble with her light pink gum, letting it get almost to my nose before popping it with her index finger.
I was taken aback by her brashness. But perhaps I had spent one too many nights with soft-spoken Molly. I’d forgotten that some girls actually have balls.
“What’s it to you?” I said, trying to remain nonchalant even if the thought of Gloria so close excited me.
“I’d like to know you.” Her words made my pulse quicken.
“Gloria, I’ve known you for a while.”
“No, you idiot,” she said, smacking the side of my head. “Like, knoooooow you. All of you. The good, the bad, the hairy.” She grabbed some of my chest hair that was sticking out of my shirt and pulled. I tried not to flinch.
“Why me?” was all I could muster. Her no nonsense conversation made me excited and confused.
“Why do you ask so many questions?” She retorted, her mouth turning up into a goofy smile. I found myself smiling back.
I almost answered her but before I could, the bell rang for second period. She laughed to herself for a moment before leaning into me, her cheek against my own. Her skin was practically melting mine as she whispered, “Third period. Girl’s bathroom on the first floor near the gym. Second stall. Bring no one. Further instructions await.”
Then before I even comprehended what she said, she was gone. It was the first time, so I was left standing there stunned, but I’d soon learn that I should be more stunned when she dropped a bomb and actually stayed around to watch it explode.
The Gloria sitting next to me now was nothing like the Gloria then. This Gloria, she was quiet and reserved. She had secrets that seemed to weigh on her. Gloria back then wanted everyone to be in on the secret with her. But I felt Gloria wanting to keep her secrets to herself. I felt the wall around her that she was trying to keep me on the other side of, an invisible separation that I couldn’t penetrate.
“What’s going on?” The worry was building in me. Something had happened. The bomb was coming.
“I did something.” The words were aloof again, not totally directed. Her voice was shaky, her eyes glassed over.
I grabbed her hand. It was ice cold, even though it was eighty degrees outside. “Gloria, you can tell me.” I said the words, but the pit in my stomach was saying “Don’t tell me. Don’t do it.”
“I know. That’s why I came,” she answered, finally looking at me, tilting her head so the brim of her hat brushed my forehead. “I know I can tell you. But I also know that by telling you, I’m hurting you. I’ve really thought about this. Keep that in mind.” She was calm, but scary.
When I had met Gloria in the bathroom stall, our story began. What we did, it wasn’t what you would think of when someone asked you to meet them in a bathroom stall. I was expecting a sexy escapade, but what I got was even better. There were only two stalls in that particular bathroom. One was normal, but the second was a handicap stall. Gloria had somehow gotten a large piece of plywood that fit almost exactly the length of the stall from side to side, resting on the silver bars. If we sat distributing our weight correctly, our backs pressed against the wall of the stall, we could sit facing other. So that’s what we did.
The bathroom was one no one ever really used, so no one ever came. We stayed there talking until the janitor came in and knocked on the stall door. Gloria and I jumped off the board at the same time. Gloria tilted it and tucked it under her arm, the board twice as big as her but she somehow managed. I opened the stall door and we made a break for it. We made it out into the parking lot where Gloria stashed the wood behind a dumpster for safe keeping. She wiped her hands clean with a sneaky smirk.
The adrenaline rush was a new kind of intense for me. Gloria started laughing hysterically until suddenly, her lips and mine were together and everything faded after that. I don’t even remember how I got home. I just remembered how her lips tasted like peppermint, and her hair smelled like grapefruit.
Knowing the way Gloria jumped from person to person so often, I shouldn’t have been as heartbroken as I was about her breaking up with me. When she came back that night in my truck before I received the letter, I secretly prayed that she would stay, that I’d wake up and her face would still be in the crook of my arm, her eyelashes tickling my shoulder. But I knew it was only a matter of time before she was on to the next adventure.
“You were gone.”
She knew exactly what I was talking about. She knew she really fucked up leaving me not once, but twice. I finally saw the tear. It slipped out of her eye and slowly rolled down her face, finishing its flight on her chin and dripping onto her blue dress, leaving a wet mark on her thigh. “I had to,” was all she could manage to say.
“Why are you always running? Why can’t you just sit still for a minute? Why can’t you just be content with what you have?”
With me, I wanted to say. Why can’t you just be content with me? But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Because as many times as Gloria had broken my heart as of late, I still didn’t want her to see that I depended on her. I even depended on the leaving. Because she couldn’t leave if she never came in the first place.
“I wanted to collect people.” She paused. It was such an odd thing for someone to say. “People fascinate me. You fascinated me the most. There was something about you that was so intriguing. I’ve never been able to figure it out. But I can’t stay because you fascinate me. That’s not the same thing as love. Do you understand that, Ian? It took me so long to figure it out myself.”
“You told me you loved me. That night in the barn. You looked me in the eye and you said you loved me and you couldn’t imagine a night without me.” I could almost feel her curls between my fingertips, her breath hot against my neck as she whispered those three deadly words. “So now I can add liar to the list of things you are?” I was mad and confused. Comprehending what she said meant I had to believe it, and I didn’t want to. I believed the other side of Gloria, the one with compassion, with so many friends. The Gloria who was just friends with people so she could study them, that wasn’t someone I could love.
“I didn’t lie. I loved you. I did. Or at least I thought I did. But the more I thought about all my friends over the years, the more I came to realize that maybe I didn’t love, or even like, a lot of them. Maybe I was just fascinated by them. Maybe it just gave me pleasure to be someone to them, even if they weren’t someone to me.”
I leaned over, resting my elbows on my knees. My palms were starting to sweat and I suddenly felt like if I moved too quickly, I might fall forward. I tried to process Gloria’s words but I didn’t think like her. I never had.
Sure, I was fascinated by Gloria, but that was because I was madly in love with her. I couldn’t disconnect the two like she could. It consumed me sometimes. The love I had for her was stronger than any kind of fascination.
Gloria rested a hand on my back, the ice of her fingertips a warning for what was to come. “There’s more,” she said, her voice weak.
“You might as well get it over with. What now? You’re leaving forever? Or do I get another letter in six months where I can relive our break up all over again?” Her hand grew rigid on my back, her fingertip felt like a pin prick, so intense on one spot. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t snap at you. I know you. This is just the kind of thing you do.”
If Gloria was hurt by any of my words, she didn’t show it. The fact that she had already let a tear slip was significant. I’d never seen her cry in the two years we had dated. Laughter, yes, always. But sadness? It was like a foreign language. She was either happy, or aloof, not totally there, lost in some world I could never be a part of.
“I’m just going to say the thing I have to say. Because if I don’t just say it, I never will.” She paused, gathering the courage to continue. “I had an abortion, Ian.” She paused, her eyes closed. “The night in your truck…” She trailed off, her voice feeling far away as I tried to wrap my head around her words. “I didn’t remember to take my birth control. I forgot one night. I never forget a thing but somehow I forgot. And then my period didn’t come. And then, BAM. There was a fetus inside me. A baby.” Her throat caught. “A baby that I couldn’t deal with. So I got rid of it. It’s gone. But I had to tell you. I had to tell you, Ian. I killed our baby.” Her body released and all the tension in the tip of her finger was gone, relaxed and melted into my back, no longer the ice it was a few moments before. I wasn’t sure if it was comforting or sickening.
There was a time that Gloria and I rode a carousel. We skipped third period and went to this abandoned amusement park that had just closed a few months before. The fence was locked, but there was just enough space to squeeze in between the doorway. We didn’t expect the carousel to work, so we weren’t surprised when it didn’t. Gloria got on a horse and pretended she was going in circles, around and around. She swung her curls back and forth with the wind, laughing at the top of her lungs, her head thrown back in pure joy. I stood there watching her, wondering how odd it was to see someone you could never tie down, on a carousel that wouldn’t even move.
I tried to picture her like the girl on the carousel as she said the words: I killed our baby.
“Ian,” she practically screamed at me, causing me to finally look at her.
She’d been saying my name, shaking me, and all I was thinking about was that damn carousel and how badly I wished it had moved. When I finally saw her face, I couldn’t see where the tears started or ended. The skirt of her dress was completely soaked.
“You,” was all I could say to her. She encompassed every emotion I could think of. She ruined everything I thought of her.
“Yes. Me. I can’t take it back.” Her nose was puffy and red, her mascara slowly forming rings around her eyes, making her look more human than I’d ever noticed. She seemed tired, like she was weighted to the earth.
That was the only question I had. I was so in shock, I couldn’t even process her words as a real thing. I couldn’t process until I knew why. Because the why was what would hurt the most. The why was what would allow me to finally let go of her damn balloon.
She inhaled slowly three times, calming the sobs. When she finally could talk normally, she said, “What if the baby only fascinated me? How could I justify bringing a baby, our baby, into a world where its mother didn’t even know if she could love it?” She seemed both sure of herself and confused, if that was even possible.
If there was a feeling worse than sadness, that’s what I felt. She killed our baby. She’d rather kill our baby than try to love it. I couldn’t comprehend it. I was barely an adult, but I was still a responsible one. I had a right to know before she killed it. I had a right to be a part of the decision. Maybe she would never love it, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t.
“I could have loved it. I could have loved that baby even more than I thought I loved you, Gloria. People aren’t just play things to me. A baby means something to me.” Each time I said it, the wound felt deeper. I stood up, towering over her, unable to contain my anger any longer. She seemed so far away, another girl entirely from the girl on the carousel. “This is it, isn’t it? You’re leaving, but this time, you won’t be back.”
She nodded, letting the hat cover her eyes, her body shaking again as she sobbed.
“You’re a coward,” I whispered, anger bubbling inside of me.
That’s why she capitalized The Bench. She knew that from that day forward, I would never be able to look at this damn bench the same again. It would always be The Bench, the bench where I learned that Gloria DeCanter killed our baby.
“Why blue?” I didn’t look at her. I focused all my attention on the trees. They seemed ever the more threatening than they had before.
I looked back at her as she looked back up at me, her face distraught. “It was a boy. And they say, blue is a calming color.”