They met at the gym at eight, huddling beneath umbrellas in a chilly rain. The doors were locked. The bus was late.
It came at 8:30, a white one with comfortable seats and little TVs. He got on first and took a pair of seats. She came late, soaked with rain. She sat down a few rows behind him, across the aisle. He looked back at her. “I want a row to myself,” she said. “So I can spread out.”
He looked at the rain streaking down his window. He curled up so she could not see him.
He tried to sleep in their remaining friendship but the bus stopped and went in the morning traffic, and the earth that passed was bland, grey and yellow, before they stopped altogether in Oxford when the bus broke down. After thirty minutes, another picked them up—they spoke several words in that time and she moved two rows behind him, from three, and brought a DVD to the front, Memoirs of a Geisha, and remember, she said, I told you it’s my favorite movie. She said it in that way he thought she used to speak to him.
He looked back at her, a fake smile, and said it was a good movie. Could the volume be lower? She went to the front and tried but couldn’t get it to work, and said I’m sorry. He said it was not a big deal and leaned his head against the glass and tried to understand the girl, or the rain, or something, and silently, he felt the cool of the weather on his forehead.
They stopped at a Wendy’s in Douglasville for lunch. He looked for humanity in the parking lot but found none and gave up and subsequently went inside. She sat already with her roommates. He sat with the Koreans.
Next to Lukas now, four rows back. They finished the movie and she asked if it was good. He slept in the ensuing conversations, or tried. He gave up and joined, but the noise softened—she pulled a blanket over herself and leaned on Lukas. He turned to his window and the passing earth.
It was just as he’d imagined. Spanish moss, old houses, they passed a graveyard with oaks that bent above gardens in the rain. The grass was greener here than in Alabama. The roads reflected flickering headlights, the sun broke for just a second and fell through the wires of a bridge into a river.
They stopped at a white motel, halfway renovated. The Palatial Inn.
“I almost vetoed it based on the name,” said Ms. Mitchell. “But we’re right in the historic district.”
Their rooms had one between them, on the second floor on the back of the motel. The landing overlooked a parking lot, and past it, the back of an old brick building. Steady green trees started above its roof, then a glimpse of the river.
The group met in the lobby downstairs and set off down the street. It was dark and cool through the fainting rain.
“What’s wrong?” she said beside him.
“Nothing.” He walked slower. He did not want to talk to her. She stayed with the students and Mr. Kelly. He slipped back in step with Ms. Mitchell, staring at the sidewalk, feeling the heavy shapes that draped over them.
“Fuck,” he screamed when a truck roared past and soaked him through his pants and jacket. Ms. Mitchell laughed, a sharp, little burst. She did not know how he felt yet.
“I thought that only happens in movies,” he said. He knew it was funny but it was not.
They served catfish. The posters were in French, Cabaret and Moulin Rouge, the Ballets Russes, bottles of wine. It was dark so that the walls looked dark. The candles on the white cloth did not stop his shivering. He sat across from her. Corey gave him his jacket and he ordered hot tea, hating that the waiter knew what it was. Pretentious city, pretentious fucking restaurant. God, Lukas was ugly. He’d once tried to finger that ugly girl Jade. It hadn’t stopped him from making fun of her.
She was across from Chase and worried or hurt. No, he knew her better than that; she was mostly worried but her feelings were hurt. He tried to laugh with them, he tried to look as if he weren’t fading into the wallpaper, listening to the flame of a candle as it swayed, the sound unnoticed by the rest of them.
The traffic had dissipated, the streetlights had their wide watered canvas, uninterrupted down and neat beneath the giant, arching limbs. “What’s wrong? Chase, I know there’s something wrong, do you want to talk about it?”
“Yeah.” He felt the rasp, a catch before it left.
She came to his room to watch Lost, then they sat on the landing and talked and he heard her so well, though they only muttered in the warming breeze.
The rain had stopped completely when she said, “You know it wouldn’t work. We’d break up and then where would we be? We’d be thinking of other people. It’s better this way, there’s no pressure. You have to work in a relationship, and eventually, we’d lose.”
He thought how she justified her fears this way. He stared at the steps and hoped the water wouldn’t fall when he blinked, vaguely aware of her chipped red toes and the curve of her plastic sandal. He thought he’d never think of Kseniia again if he could have Savannah. He knew it more than anything else.
“You always break up after a few months. You always do.”
“I know, that’s why it wouldn’t work, I’m not ready to let myself—.”
“I would give you everything, you know that. I could be with you and never—want anything else, I don’t care about anything else.” None of his words were unique. He was frustrated at his own inability.
“But I can’t yet,” she said. He lowered his head further because his lip shook. She said, “And I hate it when you say you don’t care about music, you have to. You have so much talent—”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does.”
“No, NO it doesn’t.” He cried.
He raised his head after a minute, ashamed. The parking lot, the lights, the shape of the building, the trees, they were unsure impressions through his eyes. He could have told her that he loved her then. He could have told her on the night in Tuscaloosa or anytime since he’d come back from Christmas break. He knew not to tell her in anything else than their friendship, a bond stronger than any couple’s. He knew those words would kill, those words that were not beautiful or meaningful. They were ugly, ridiculous words, even if he loved them.
“You have so much ahead of you. We have an amazing friendship. You’re an incredible pianist. You’re a great friend. A lot of girls think you’re attractive.”
No—Chase—why can’t you just be happy?”
“I try so hard. I tried so hard with Kseniia and I still failed. I try so hard to make our friendship work.”
“But you shouldn’t have to. We’re best friends. You can tell me anything, you aren’t trying to win me over or something, we’ve already got a perfect relationship. That’s what’s good about being friends. We don’t need to worry about it failing, or what happened with Kseniia.”
“But I try so hard—all the time. I don’t want to lose you next year.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. Sure, we’ll probably be apart, but I know we’ll still be close even if we don’t talk every day. Like with Eudora, we’ll still be friends next year because we both know that.”
“How do you know, and it’s just not good enough to be friends, we have such a strong bond—I don’t want to lose any of it. And y’all are different than us, y’all are girls.”
“No it isn’t. We don’t have to lose this. Believe in our friendship, it’s strong enough.”
“Maybe I love you more than you love me.”
“No—I don’t think that’s true, Chase. I’ve tried so hard to help you. But I’ve tried so hard, and after all this time, you’re still not over her. And I don’t know what to do anymore, okay? My life is hard too.”
“And I’ve always tried to help you.”
“But you know Chase, that you’ve needed me more.”
“What about Alan? I tried to fix y’all up. Even though it was you, even though I felt—you know.”
“No. Look what I’ve done for you. It’s not like you haven’t been a good friend, I’m so glad we became friends, but I don’t know what to do anymore. Have you thought about seeing a different psychiatrist? I know you said you wanted a woman, maybe you should.”
“It wouldn’t matter. I’m too fucking smart for a psychiatrist.”
“Okay. Well—Chase, I’m trying to help. I saw you on the bus today, and I knew why, but I need my own life too.”
She stood up and leaned against a pole a few feet away. “I knew what you were thinking on the bus. Maybe you do care about me more.”
“No.” he paused. “But you could never stay in it if we dated. You always break up.”
“I know. I’m not ready for that.”
He noticed the trees again.
“I need my own time sometimes. I just wanted to have fun on this trip and not worry about anything.”
“How do you do that?”
“Just don’t make such a big deal of everything. We don’t have to be together every second.”
“Yeah, Lukas is pretty cool, too.”
“Chase, come on.”
“I mean, seriously,” he said, “couldn’t you do just a little better? I mean, look at him. He’s ugly. I think you could do a little better. I mean, you don’t have to be a complete slut.” IT SCREAMED INSIDE HIS HEAD. IT ROARED. But the anger swelled even after he spat it at her.
“LOOK AT ME,” she said, and he faced her. She had stepped closer, and as she looked down at him, he couldn’t tell if she had been crying earlier—her eyes looked red, but he could have been wrong. But in that instant she was fierce. Absurdly, he noticed her beauty even then, as he died on the steps and she looked down in righteous anger.
“Don’t ever call me that again. Ever. I’ll finish this conversation, but don’t ever call me that again. I’ll call you,” she said, and walked back to her room. He didn’t move. He opened his phone. 11:22. It rang at 11:24. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Savannah, I’m really, really sorry.”
“Do you really think that about me?”
There was a shameful pause. “Sometimes,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Why?” He felt her crying.
She was the first girl he had known enough to understand at all in that way. He knew that when Daphne had unbuttoned his shirt at the softball field she had wanted it. He knew that Sophie had wanted him in the hallway of the Girls’ Dorm and that Helen had kissed him with at least as much fervor as he on that Friday night in the Concert Hall. He knew that girls have desires, but he never believed it in a still moment. With Savannah, he knew it was there, he knew that no matter if he didn’t want it to be true about her, she was, on some elemental level, the same as any girl. She was the best of all of them and infinitely better than he in that way and practically every other. He knew that, but he didn’t care about himself or anyone beside her. When he realized her flirting with a boy he repressed knowing it. Jealousy overwhelmed him. Her deepest breath forced him to know what he could not acknowledge.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’re not. Savannah, I’m really sorry.”
“Why did you say it?” she said.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Chase, I’m a seventeen year old girl. I mean—I mean, I have hormones.”
“I’m not like that at all.”
You’re not, I know, Savannah, I’m sorry, please—you’re my best friend—and you’re not at all.”
He felt awful when they said goodnight, knowing no apology was enough, knowing he had sinned against the one he swore never to wrong. He had hurt her. Truly he was unwell, but he loved her above the earth. He marveled at her, that she finished the conversation. But she had long since slipped into the gown of his charitable nurse, deprived of the happiness he once gave her, and now the loyalty that had never been doubted. All he could feel was that one word and then, ashamed, he knew that no, he could feel in his throat what she couldn’t bear to, and he hated her father or whatever made it that way. He hated himself. No girl deserved more than she did. Most always had more.
Later that night: watching the whispered conversation on the television, Corey pointed at it, Seun Sahn laughed, an ambulance outside, a police car, more followed. He went to the landing with Corey as the last of them disappeared around the building at the end of the lot. Seun Sahn stayed. They took their jackets and headed down, wary of Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Kelly. It was past midnight when they reached the water, where a cobblestone road with embedded tracks led them past bars of many people. The police were not in sight. They continued on the uneven road. He stared at light on the river, from a modern building across the way. He wished for her, the way you dream in the night for things that seem remote but close and maybe more possible.
They walked for half a mile until a kind of tunnel came over the road. It ended and the grass sloped into the water where drops jumped on the surface. A shape appeared in the night ahead, a statue on the bank of the river. She waved a sheet or something, a dog at attention by her feet, looking to the same spot as she. They read the table on which she stood:
SAVANNAH’S “WAVING GIRL”
They took a long set of slippery steps up from the bank and under lush trees, into the street above, the one they had taken to the restaurant. They passed it. He made a point to not forget its name. It would be important to him one day: La Grenouille. They passed a boy their age, who was obviously not homeless—he asked for money. “Sorry man,” said Corey. He walked on. “No one ever messes with me. God, I love being black,” he said. They took a turn onto a wide, empty road. The mist held in the glow of the iron lamps above. The block ended in a “T” at a wall. There looked to be a cemetery through the gate. He saw grass and thought of her, back at the motel, maybe asleep, and he looked to the night for a second, hoping Corey didn’t see, asking forgiveness for the awful word. It resounded in his head, the fallout from its immediate blast. The gaze from the streetlamps rushed his face and burned his neck—he could not breath. He recoiled from the blaze and the noise that started in Corey’s alarm, the girl waved for a ship that would not come, he stood on the bank as Savannah drifted the current, farther, farther out and down, till she was a barque coming onto the ocean.
Norton MacKay is the author of The Admirers, a collection of stories, as well as The First Short Story: Henry Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale.’ Formerly, I served as the Editor-In-Chief of Aura, the literary arts magazine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.