It’s strange, with no El or Oscar. Not on the balcony. On Bangs’s crappy little awning-less porch, we sit hunched up on the pavement.
“Question,” Bangs says. “Love. Yes or no?”
“Yes or no?” I repeat incredulously. How is love a yes-or-no question?
“Yes or no. Do you believe in love?”
I look at her. “Of course I believe in love.” The words come out soft, but still strong. Weighted, somehow. “Don’t you?”
Bangs breathes out through her mouth, a soft sigh echoing in the wind. Tonight is perfect, weather-wise; composed all of swift strokes of breeze but not chilly enough for a sweater. The sky is clear and starless. Really, I know that the stars are still there, behind a thin layer of cloud and dreams, but I like to believe that tonight the stars have blinked out just for me and Bangs. “Not the fairytale kind,” Bangs says finally. “I don’t think so.” There’s a wavering uncertainty in her voice; this might be the only subject I haven’t gotten a definite opinion from her on. But just because she’s not definite doesn’t mean she’s not strong in her thinking, and I know there’s a story here. A tale to be talked out in her ornery, haphazard way, words looping into sentences into paragraphs. But Bangs doesn’t say anything else, just keeps breathing softly, so I jump in.
“You know, I’ve thought a lot about what I want my last words to be?”
“Oh yeah?” Bangs scoots back to sit right beside me, the tips of our elbows barely touching. I loosely link my arms around my knees to get rid of the itchy feeling. Our backs are pressed against the rough stone of her house now.
“Yeah. I mean, it would be nice to go out with a big bang, you know? Leave some big wisdom dump. Unearth a huge secret. A lingering spark would be better than nothing at all. But I think I just want my last words to be ‘I love you’.” It feels awkward, saying the words out there in the open, even though I’m not saying them to her directly. It feels vulnerable. All wrong. The opposite of every other dance I’ve ever danced with Bangs.
I continue: “If I can say them to anybody--my partner, children, parents, friends--and really, really mean it, then I’ll have done something right. I can attest to a well-lived life.”
“Die in peace,” Bangs echoes.
“Yeah. So I don’t stress myself out worrying about the end of ends. At least not my end of ends. When it all boils down, if I can tell somebody that I love them, then it’s been worth it. You know?” I feel like I’ve sliced myself open and been turned inside out.
“I know,” Bangs says. She gives me a flit of a smile, as quick as a dragonfly skimming across water. “Why do you call it the end of ends? I’m assuming you mean death.”
“Well, life’s full of endings. Death is just the last ending. The end of the ends.” I guess I’ve sort of always thought of it this way. Like Bangs said before, the first time we smoked, you breathe and breathe and breathe until you don’t.
“I like that. But what about the beginnings?” This is unusually optimistic for Bangs, and I say so. She laughs. “Well, maybe death isn’t the end, but it’s...the beginning of something. We don’t know. It’s the beginning of something for everybody the deceased leaves behind when they go, but maybe it’s something new for the dead, too. Maybe they aren’t dead. Maybe they’re just...starting over.” Bangs turns and looks at me then, her mouth twisting into a smile, like she knows what she’s saying makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.
Don’t say it, my brain says. Say it anyways, my heart says. I turn to face her and open my mouth, my lips catching as they separate.
“Don’t.” Bangs tips her head back against the wall, no longer looking at me. I snap my mouth shut. “Don’t say it.” I watch the brilliant dark swell of her throat as it gleams in the moonlight, bobbing like the ocean with each dip and swallow. “You’re in love with the idea. The mystery.” I can hear what she’s not saying. What’s too hard to say. You’re not in love with the girl. You’re not in love with me. I want to tell her that the mystery is all part of her allure. Part of the reason why she is so captivating. (But not the reason.)
But just as I swallow up all my words, Bangs shifts and puts her head on my shoulder, still carefully looking up at the sky. I look at her, just then, and I think I’m seeing her. I think I’m really, really seeing her. Not the snark, not the mystery. Not the defense or the barbed wire or even the tragically poetic. I don’t know if anybody else has witnessed this version of her, and it makes me feel...privileged. Privileged to truly see her. Because what I’m seeing isn’t the beauty, or the mayhem, or the tragedy.
What I’m seeing is a girl.
And we sit there, her head on my shoulder, and later my head on hers, drinking up the moonlight and the beautifully starless sky.