I drove. You DJ’d. We made that deal on our third date.
But that night—the one I’m talking about—was our ninth. We hiked out to the bluffs to watch the sunset, remember? And then I got us turned around in the woods for a second because it got dark way before I thought it would . . . idiot, I know.
But it was the drive back. You remember—driving with the windows down, the summer air howling around us, tearing down those sleepy back roads with your fingers in my hair, and you were already falling asleep.
I loved how you could never stay awake on trips. It was like magic: you’d be amped to go—trail mix, carrots, water bottles, playlists—and twenty minutes later, lights out. Done. But the second I parked, you’d wake up. It was kinda freaky honestly. And you were always so sweet, ’cause you’d apologize and say you’d never do it again, and just wait until next time, I promise and I’d laugh and promise you right back that it was okay, really, and you’d get that bummed out look like you were mad at yourself, and I’d fall for you again so hard it felt like someone chopped me off at the knees. Then I’d hug you really hard, and tell you one more time it’s okay shut up, and you’d grin up at me and finally believe me.
You fell asleep that night slumped over the console leaning on my shoulder. I remember I could still smell the shampoo in your hair mixed with the musk of the day while the cicadas whirred and sang. It was intoxicating. I never ever remember being that happy. I thought if I could just keep that moment, keep it forever, I’d be the luckiest guy in the world. You can’t plan stuff like that. I mean, maybe some guys can, but I’ve never been able to. I’m the guy that gets turned around in the woods, but for some reason every time I showed up and asked you out, you’d cock your head in that funny way you do. And you’d say yes.
I still don’t know why.
Maybe I’m just that lucky.
I remember you were sleeping so hard that your breaths got to that point where I started wondering if maybe you weren’t really breathing anymore, you know, because there’s just that super long pause between each one, almost like you were unconscious, you know? And I realized that you trusted me. You trusted me to keep you safe, to get you home. And this warmth just filled me up inside, and it was so hot I just thought I was gonna explode. My heart hurt—it actually hurt. It felt like someone was squeezing it in two. I wanted to do anything to feel that pain for as long as I could, so I drove right by your exit. I drove by it because I knew the moment I pulled in your driveway you’d wake up and it’d all be over: your head on my shoulder, the breeze, the cicadas, the smell of your hair—all over. And I couldn’t do it. I needed more time. I had to have more time. And so I drove and I drove, and that’s when I knew . . . that’s when I really knew.
I love you.
I said it. I said it out loud. I said it that night while you were sleeping. It was the first time I said it to you. I don’t know why I never told you. I think part of me still feels like that night was a dream: driving while the stars spun away into the horizon, and the wind howled, and you kept on sleeping warm on my shoulder. I think I felt like if I ever tried to explain it to you, it wouldn’t have made sense, but now it does. It makes sense. Because I needed one last story for you.
I needed one last story for me.
I needed one last story for us . . .
“. . . that was the first time I said ‘I love you.’”
Her breaths came in ragged wheezes with a long pause between each one, a super long pause where you began to wonder if she really were breathing anymore. Almost as if she were unconscious. Almost.
“Are you ready?”
The voice floated down from somewhere far away.
He looked across at the white coat with the kind, forgettable face.
He looked at the machines.
He looked at her.
He looked at her sleeping there. Knowing he couldn’t wake her. He would never wake her again.
It was her exit. And this time he couldn’t drive by.
He leaned his head on her shoulder, closed his eyes, and nodded.
*author’s note: written while listening to The National – “Hard to Find”