It’s the strangest feeling to be sitting in a place where you once sat a long time ago with someone, but this time everything has changed.
Seeing the exact same visuals surrounding you, the same trees planted where they’ve always been and the exact same weathered out wooden planks bridged out in front of you. The same abandoned boat residing in the same place. Your body in the exact same bench where she once took up that hollow space next to you. It’s like you’re in a dream, it’s surreal almost.
But the air isn't as fresh as it once was, the lake doesn’t glisten the same way, and the sun doesn’t shine nearly as brightly as it did before. The world feels like you’ve been trapped back in that same precise moment in time but instead it’s a different version of that reality- a duller one, an emptier one.
Isn’t it funny, that if I had made a different decision I wouldn’t be here now?
If I hadn’t spontaneously decided to bike through the woods that day, only to run into the lonely girl on the swingset, maybe I would be happier now. Maybe I would have a girlfriend, different friends, or even still be friends with Lucas. If I hadn’t dropped what I was doing just to sit beside her. If I hadn’t asked for her name and offered her my m&m’s. If I hadn’t invited her to play D&D with me and the guys, If I didn’t spend all those months coming with her to this exact lake. If we hadn’t sat on this very bench and talked until the sun went down everyday.
Maybe it would’ve all been different.
It’s been several months since the last time we spoke. The last time was the night that I thought was one of the happiest nights of my life that quickly turned out to be the worst. But then again that’s always how things end up with Jane El Ives
Now, it’s summer. The summer before college. The last summer before the rest of my life. The last two months of finding myself leaning in to listen when I hear people mention her name, or having to stop myself from asking Will about the things going on in her life that she will never again tell me about. It’s the last summer we have to be kids, to be free, to have one last shot at finally being what we’ve both known we were always supposed to be-
No. get that out of your head.
This summer was not going to be like the other ones. It was going to be how it always is: me missing El and wondering what I did wrong to lose her again. Me trying to fill up my time with new hobbies and friends who just can’t put the pieces of me back into place like she always can, me wishing that any day now, she would just come back to me and finally realize what I’ve known about us all along. That we were meant to be.
No, it wasn’t going to be like that. Because this time I finally had enough. She had finally taken all I had left, and ripped it away from me without a second thought. I’d finally come to the raw and startling realization that the only person I needed to fill this deep emptiness inside of me, and to also make me feel alive again… was myself.
This was gonna be the summer where I’d finally move on for good.
Yet, as I look around me, I seem to find pieces of her in every corner of this town. In every shop, in every patch of green on the sidewalk, in every secret place we’ve made our own. There are ghosts of our laughter in small convenience stores, remnants of our stories whispered in the wind on abandoned playgrounds, hidden away in cement, in sand, in empty soda cans
We found peace in the small moments, in the little things, like watching the sun vanish behind the lake at the end of a long day, sharing our secrets as if we had to. As if we needed to. It gave us space, freedom, and happiness. And even though this town keeps reminding me of her in ways that are both beautiful and painful, I can’t make myself forget.
Because this town holds all my memories of us like a diary, like a photo album, and sometimes I can’t help flick through the pages, even though the sharp edges leave me with cuts on the tips of my fingers. Even though remembering hurts, I found that choosing to forget hurts a lot more.
So I remember.
I remember everything.
Yet, nothing feels the same.
How do you get over someone that you’ve invested all your time, your effort, all your thoughts, energy, and emotions into- how can that just disappear? How do you really get over someone, anyway? Others made it out to be so simple. That one day you’d wake up, and everything you once felt would disappear completely, the same way a wick of a candle burns until it’s eventually been snuffed out. But I knew all too well how utterly fallacious that was.
I had done everything for her in the past years. I’d pour my all into her. She lit every bone in my body on fire. She made my heart beg and ache every minute we were apart. She was the oxygen in my lungs, the pulse in my veins, and the brag of my heart that beat to a rhythm that only she could understand. That was what loving her felt like.
We’d gone through the motions far too many times at this point for me to continue any longer. Everything I’d just experienced, all the happiness and attachment was for nothing. She wielded a hammer to my heart, and smashed it one too many times. It’s been so long that we’ve known each other- how could she not have known that it was bound to shatter? That my hands would be covered in blood from picking up the broken pieces and trying my hardest to put them back together. How could she not have known-especially when she understands exactly how it feels to have someone walk away?
But I was through with blaming her. I had to place some of the fault of my pain onto my own shoulders. Because honestly, it was my fault for letting her walk in and out of my life as she pleased. It was also my fault for believing I could be with someone who only saw me as a way to numb but not as a means to heal.
But still she incites the pain.
It’s always her who leans in first, kissing me one moment but then leaving the next. It’s always her who says one thing, but then does the exact opposite. It’s always her who looks at me with that same longing in her eyes that I hold in mine, but then looks away. It’s always her who grabs a hold of my heart, instead of leaving it be, squeezing it just hard enough so she can hear the pulsing rhythm: I’m hurting, I’m hurting, I’m hurting.
I’m hurting-oh god, I’m hurting. And now we haven’t spoken in months, and god , what happened to us?
Who even are we now?
I don’t even notice the tears that have gathered in the corners of my eyes, the drops that have pooled together encasing my black irises in a sea of glass, weighing me down lower and lower into the bench where I made her laugh for some of the first times.
I feel like the entirety of all I am will be consumed if I don’t get over her, but it seems as though the consumption is inevitable, because just like a disease she’s spread to every part of me and I don’t think I’ll find the cure anytime soon.
But who am I to continue trying and trying for someone who easily just gives up on us?
It’s been years now and tomorrow it’ll be seven years that I’ve allowed her to toss my heart around so carelessly. Seven years I’ve spent wallowing in misery each time she’s walked away, seven years she’s continued to hurtle me towards a life that I only feel is worth living if she’s in it.
As the thoughts ricocheted around my brain, I suppose my mind had blocked out just how tightly I’d been clenching my jaw and the deep shade of red that combusted over my face. And when I finally realized it, my lungs bursted with dry air as I realized I’ve been holding in my breath this entire time.
I’d been holding onto this unresolved anger for so long that I'd become desensitized to it- barely noticing my clenched fists and my nerves tying in knots. She made me angry. So angry I could scream. All these years, all this time-for what? What was the point of hanging onto someone who did nothing but cause me stress, anger, and pain? I can’t handle this. I can’t continue doing this to myself. I don’t even know who I am anymore. It’s like my brain somehow misplaced the old memories of who I was before her. I have no idea what I was like. I had no memory of what thoughts I’d think about before she captured every single one. I had no memory of what jokes I found funny or what I enjoyed doing without her. I’ve lost myself- and that kills me.
Perhaps I’m more angry with myself than I am at her. Because I’m the one who allowed her to take my sense of self, my independence, my person hood and intertwine it with her own. And now that she left, she took what I knew of myself along with her. I was no longer Mike. I was El’s friend, Mike. I had been El’s friend, Mike for all these years now. El’s friend-
My head jolted upwards at the sudden intrusion of hearing my name. And at this moment I was now kicking myself to reel my mind back to reality, attempting to grasp at the self awareness I had pushed to the side for the time being as a small “huh?” left my lips in question.
“Mike Wheeler? I can’t believe it’s you.”
My eyes narrowed in on the slender figure talking to me, as they stood behind the sun and therefore obscuring my view of their face. But as they came closer, a wave of familiarity washed over me and I scrambled to pick out their name in my mind.
“Olivia?” the word finally left the tip of my tongue.
“Yeah. Wasn’t sure you’d remember.”
“Of course I do. We used to go out.”
“Yeah, in like the 8th grade.” She scoffed.
“I know, but still.” I pushed on.
Needless to say I hadn’t really thought about Olivia ever since she’d left for boarding school all those years ago. We’d never bothered to stay in touch, both of us knowing our fling wasn’t meant to last. It isn’t like we ended on a bad note either. There were no harsh feelings, no regrets, no nothing- we’d just gone our separate ways and that was that. All that popped in my head at the thought of her now was our awkward slow dance in a stuffy school gym, with us trying to play off like we’ve done it before even though we both kept stepping on each other’s feet.
“So did you end up going to Hawkins High?” She asked, and I noticed her walk closer towards me before setting her purse down on the bench I sat on.
I nodded, watching as the blonde haired girl took the spot next to me.
“Lucky.” She smiled, her bright blue eyes skirting to connect with my own. “Practically everybody from our middle school went there. You know.. to this day, I’m still kind of ticked that my parents made me leave.“
“You went to Chaplain Hall, right?”
“Yup. That’s the one. It was an all girl’s school too. So you can probably imagine all the drama and cattiness I had to put up with.” She shook her head with a smirk, causing a small chuckle to escape my own mouth. “But what are you up to these days?”
“Oh. not much really besides college stuff. You know, just trying to make sure everything is good to go for the first year, I guess. What about you?”
“Same here.” Olivia sighed, tilting her head up slightly towards the sky, and her irises seemed to match the exact shade of blue painted above us.
“Do you still live in the same place?” I questioned, and she turned to face my direction.
“Yeah, do you?”
“Same as always.” I answered with a grin, “Is your dog still alive?”
“Munchkin? Of course she is.” Olivia almost laughed, shaking her head slightly in amusement, which drew a bigger grin from the edges of my lips. “You know, you should come over and see her sometime, I’m pretty sure she misses you.”
“Misses me?” I laughed, “It’s been.. what- several years? You really think she’d remember me?”
“Oh totally,” Olivia sarcastically replied. “I’m sure she’d remember your bowl cut, at least.”
“Hey!” I laughed, knocking my shoulder into hers which made her giggle. “That was a tragic time okay? My mom cut my hair.”
“Oh really? I liked it.” She commented in an obvious sarcastic manner, causing me to roll my eyes playfully.
Olivia laughed, and placed the handle of her purse on her shoulder, beginning to get up from the bench as she looked at me with what seemed like a kindness brewing in her eyes. It was a look that I’d only ever really seen from El.
“Anyways,” She said, “I should get going, but you really should come see her when you have a chance. We only live a block away from each other anyway.”
“You know what,” I said with a smile, perhaps one of the most genuine ones I’d given in awhile,
“I’d like that.”
“We’re about to put in Nightmare On Elm. You down?”
“Sure, I just have to use the restroom real quick. Don’t wait up.”
I locked the door behind me, and let out a shuddered sigh before I started pacing around the small bathroom, clawing at my senses with each anxious step that landed on the tiled floor.
What was I doing?
This was the epitome of my summer. I’d gone to Max’s house every weekend, hanging on her couch with a drink in hand, while her and Lucas stayed huddled in a concoction of legs over laps, and hands caressing thighs, staring at each other eagerly as the two of them enjoyed each other’s company so freely.
Why did I do this to myself?
Perhaps I missed having a best friend. That someone I could talk to about anything and everything. Maybe I thought the more I hung around Max, it would somehow naturally fall back to that- just like old times. But things were different now. She had Lucas.
“By the way, sorry for calling you a bitch.”
“You called me a bitch?”
“Yeah, behind your back.”
“Sorry for acting like one.”
“We both were being bitchy.”
“Let’s never let a boy come between us again, okay?” Max insisted, nudging her elbow in my side as we walked alongside each other through the park.
“Yeah.” I replied, with an eye roll. “That was kinda stupid.”
“You mean- very.” She emphasized, with a lighthearted laugh which caused a smile to cross my face.
“So.. you and Lucas?” I asked, turning to her with inquisitive eyes.
“Yeah.” She blushed, glancing towards the ground. “I know he can be a dick sometimes, but once you get to know him he’s not half bad.”
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Max this genuinely happy. I couldn’t help but think that maybe this relationship would turn out different for her, or at least I hoped so.
“You know, I’m convinced he hates me or something.” I admitted.
“I’m pretty sure he does.
“Well he won’t.” Max reassured me with a smirk. “I’ll talk to him.
She then glanced over at me with a peculiar look hanging in her eyes, and I knew what she was about to say before she said it. It was the dreaded question I’d only been trying my hardest to avoid this entire time.
“Say, what ever happened between you and Mike?”
My face faltered and my heart sank with it. “I don’t know.” I mumbled under my breath. “We just kind of fell out.”
“Weird. I was so sure he’d be the one you’d break your no dating rule for.” Max said, before pulling out a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket. “But I get it, shit happens.” she muttered, flipping the lid open with her thumb before offering it to me.
I shook my head, waving away the box. “What do you mean?” I asked her.
‘You never saw it, did you?” The redhead scoffed more in amusement than surprise, as she wedged a Marlboro between her teeth. “The way he was whenever you were around. I swear, it was like you were his whole world.”
And the more time I spent alone, muted, and sentenced to third wheeling Max and Lucas’s relationship, as I continued to wonder about what was missing from my own life that led me here, my mind eventually started wandering in other directions.
At first I would try to block it out, telling myself that we’d ended it once and for all. I could never go back there again and neither could he. After all, I was the one who ended it anyway. But still my thoughts would eventually drift back to him, and much as I tried to force myself to focus on anything else, the memories of us seemed to push their way through, gripping at my lungs and wires, easily breaking the barrier I tried to place between them, just to make its way to the front and center of my mind. And soon enough, that’s all it was- in the front of my mind.
He was in the front of my mind,
And I missed him, god, I missed him.
The nostalgia began to flood my brain like a tsunami, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unrelentless. Seeping into each pore of my skin and filling my veins, until the memory of him made its home inside of me.
Mike’s laughter echoing throughout the park, as we spun together as fast as we possibly could on the tire swing.
Mike’s hand gripping onto mine, helping me to stay balanced in my attempt to ride Max’s skateboard.
Mike’s awkward wave, whenever he heard me yelling his name from the stands during his swim meets.
Mike’s lanky stride, as he trotted down the halls beside me, the two of us making some weird hilarious comment that only we could understand, obnoxious belly laughs filling the air around us as students glared at us in annoyance for making so much noise.
Mike’s proud gaze and enthusiastic smile when he told me that he’d attend my first movie premiere. The dream I’ve had ever since I was thirteen years old. The dream that he helped to inspire.
Mike’s eyes fluttering to a close as he told me in a shaky voice, his worst fears, his problems, and feelings about how he never felt like his dad really cared. How he’s most scared of ending up alone. How he feels he never quite measures up. How he’s scared he’ll live an unfulfilled life similar to his parents. How he always feels that anything good in his life won’t last for long but how talking to me always makes him feel better.
Mike’s tears falling onto my arms as we continue this game of tug of war, pushing and pulling on our feelings for one another. Friends again, yelling again, kissing again-
Mike telling me to leave for the last time.
The realization then hits me like a wave of bricks, pushing each inch of skin back into a state of comprehension. I stopped pacing and stood there, just long enough so I could be still with my own thoughts.
And for once they’re finally clear,
“I’ve made a big mistake."