Say there’s a girl. Say she’s in college—twenty-one, an anthropology major—feeling older and more enlightened than she is. Have her sense the immensity of the world and want to swallow it. On the weekends, she protests with pink hats, joins hunger strikes, raises money for sea turtles. Let her have dark hair—obsidian—or blonde with frosted tips. Make her tall, muscly, like an Olympian.

Say there’s a boy. Say he wears the same Patagonia coat and Swedish sweater. Have him be a homebody, a real introvert type. Make him lean with cheekbones like blades, though tall like the girl. He passes evenings with a telescope staring at the sky, wondering how many of him could fill the earth, and how many earths could fill the sun. Unnecessary questions haunt him.

Somehow (the details are up to you) arrange their schedules so they will meet after New Year’s at a bar where they know few people.

Orchestrate it like this: She’ll ask if she knows him from somewhere and he’ll say yes, Astronomy on Tuesday/Thursday. They’ll get a drink, then move through the bar, find a table sheeted in quiet. She will ask his major, hometown, favorite book. He will ask her favorite planet. Let them bond over firmly held views on Palestine. Love for the Bee Gees. Agreement that yes, Dylan deserved the Nobel. Then they’ll share their shadows in broken bits. The girl will talk about her childhood. Hatred has inked like an oil spill, polluting every good memory. Her father, a serial cheater. Her mother, a whimpering martyr. She, a born protester, wailing against this life. (Insert fuller backstory here.) The boy’s hatred is more complicated, not yet fully formed. A father who lived on disability checks and Miller Lite and a mother who worked as a county nurse, saving every life but his. A first girlfriend who died in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Let them look at each other and see themselves, see someone else hiding from the world.

They’ll start dating.

In those first months, make her focused, sharp-tempered, quick-tongued. Make him sensitive, relaxed, artful with romantic gestures. And when they fuck, it should be tender, hushed, quick. Sometimes, he will place his hand on her face, but she will bat it away, say “No!” and he will finish in seconds.

Then. Have her worry that he won’t stay. Have him wake with dreams that she died, her car rolling off a bridge. Make her disappear for whole weekends to march in foreign cities without so much as a note. Make him eat alone. Compound this (naturally) with other anxieties. Tuesday’s final in Astronomy. Rising student debt. What to do after graduation. Give him just enough patience for her outbursts that he knows to be quiet, just enough frustration to question if he should leave. (But don’t let him. Not yet.)

While they totter on the precipice of graduation, bring back the parents. Have her mother call to announce that her father (the serial cheater) has died. Have them grieve and stress together. Of course, you must make the girl afraid of what loving him means, having seen what love can do. Make the boy scared of losing her, having lost more than his share.

And then, the question: Will they make it?

(Here is where you have some options.)

Option A:

They graduate and get married. The wedding is small and simple. They honeymoon in Costa Mesa. They start jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees. She will work from home—a copywriter—and he will go to grad school for Clinical Psychology, where he will learn to diagnose his own past. He will bring home theories on how to raise children. Together, they will agree on proper discipline, on Montessori methods. They will live like this: have five babies, mortgage a house, buy some shit, grow old and fat together, and then their children will move away. Later, the children (now believing themselves enlightened) will announce all the things their parents did wrong. Even though they had it easy, without all the cheating, drinking, and disability checks. Still, the children will say remember that one time? And the parents will not remember. Until the day they die, they will not remember.

Option B:

Have the girl say: Long distance. Have her move to grad school with a promise to email daily. She will do this for a year, and the boy will always write back, until she doesn’t. Have her marry someone else, someone as dark and sharp-tempered as she is—until she realizes that he’s even darker. Give her enough sense to divorce and start over. The boy: have him marry a girl from a good family, whose childhood he envies. She will never understand him. She will always wonder why he cries in his sleep.

Option C:

Have the boy—still in college, still that first year—reach for a condom under his bed. Say it has a pinprick hole, and the girl gets pregnant. She will panic. How to have a baby at twenty-one? How to juggle dreams and life? The boy will make lavish promises—how he’ll get a job and sell his telescope for extra cash, how they’re in this thing together. Let her have the baby, keep the child (a boy, a girl, your choice). Let them scrape away a living and learn how cruel and hard the world is for young people in love.

Option D:

Have them make no plans.

As graduation looms, have him show her how to use the telescope to see the milky rims of planets, the husk of the moon. Have him say that five hundred trillion of her could fit on earth. And a million earths could fit in the sun—and doesn’t that make her feel small? Have her say something sappy or sweet, something out of character like, “I may be small, but you make me feel important.” Let them have the kind of memory they will carry in their pockets, take out and examine like shells when the world inevitably meets them.

Then, choose A, B, or C, and go from there.

Ciera Horton McElroy’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Chattahoochee Review, Lumina, the Crab Orchard Review, and Ghost Parachute, among others. Her work has also received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and Smokelong Quarterly. Ciera currently resides in Orlando, Florida where she interns at The Florida Review and works as a communications consultant. Follow Ciera on Twitter @cierahorton

© 2018 Ciera Horton McElroy. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, November 2018.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Luis Prado).


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by Ciera Horton McElroy