I never wanted to write this letter. This wasn't how I wanted to explain myself. It was my fondest wish to leave an elegant note upon a yellowed piece of paper, with a stain from my coffee cup at the upper right corner. I would tell you to meet me at some chic café in such-and-such time, and you'd arrive to meet me with that letter, creased from years of folding and refolding, still crumpled up in your pocket. We'd sit and chat, and it would be just like old times.
I never imagined that you'd be the one to leave me.
I wanted to be the mysterious one, the one who couldn't be chained down to anyone or anything. I wanted to disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving heartbreak and sadness in my wake. That was my job. And you took it from me.
Remember when we were kids, Ben? Just two kids playing in the backyard. Remember that time when we were seven, and I decided to run away? I loaded up all of my stuffed animals into my red wagon and was halfway down the street before I panicked and came home. Remember when we were fourteen and that wagon turned into bus tickets, and the toys became my entire CD collection? Did you see me in my garage when I smashed them to pieces with a sledge hammer because I never made it to the station? You never wanted to leave like I did. Sometimes I wondered why. What was so special about your house, so stoic as it stood next to mine? How can I give our home what my house never had, and what yours inexplicably did?
Like I said, I was always nervous about settling down. I was certain that the moment I got scared, the exact minute something went wrong, I would be out the door. But now things are more wrong than I could have ever anticipated, and I'm still here. The house seems empty without you. I'm sitting at the kitchen table as I write this, on stationary stylized with your name. Water's boiling on the stove, but I'm not getting up to turn the burner off. I've thrown open the curtains on the window above the sink, but it's as if the sunlight passes right through me. Every scratch of my pen feels wrong. But I have to get this done. I won't make tea, even though the screech of the kettle is like a blow to the head. I won't get up to fetch another pen, even though this one is leaking all over my fingers.
I've never been one to keep my commitments. Even as we stood at the end of an aisle and declared our vows, I was planning my escape route. Even then, I was looking for a way out. I stumbled during our dance at the reception, even though I took to ballroom like a fish to water. Even then I knew something wasn't right, but I never thought you noticed. It was just like when we were three, and our parents took us to the public library for Story Time. A volunteer read us and ten other kids a collection of fables. Following the snack time afterward, I insisted that none of the fairy tales were real. You agreed with me, but still I argued my point as if you were my opponent. As far as I was concerned, I was the only one who realized that these stories were completely transparent. That's the real problem with me, I think. I never stopped to contemplate that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't the only one who could see through the cracks.
But I'm not writing this to justify my flaws. You know them better than anyone. I'm writing this to apologize, and because you deserve more than a mistake like me. I don't want to be a regret in your mind. You were never one in mine. I know I said that something has always been wrong, only a moment ago I wrote it down. But when I say something was wrong, I meant something was wrong with me. I could never blame you for something that was always my fault. It was almost a relief to see you leave; it meant that maybe I wasn't as flawed as I thought. For if you, the best and only perfect part about me could leave, then one of the times I had hightailed it out might have been justifiable. However, it also meant just that; that the best and only perfect part of me had gone, that all these years you really had been too good to be true.
Remember how I used to hate my name? For a week when I was three and you were four (the month in between our birthdays. Remember how you used to complain when our parents threw a joint party? I got my presents early, but you had to wait three weeks) I would change my name each day, until my mom asked me to sign a birthday card for you and I realized that I didn't know how to spell Sacajawea. At one point I asked you why you didn't change your name, and you said that you didn't want to confuse anyone with the switch. How is that you've always been so thoughtful? Even in preschool you thought about the consequences. I still don't know how to be so farsighted. Like when you asked me to that dance in eighth grade. I never told my parents, never bought a dress. You showed up wearing a tie, and I answered the door in jeans and a t-shirt. I still have a picture of us in front of the special photo backgrounds. My hair looks terrible and my jeans are ripped at the knee, but even then you called me the most beautiful girl in the world.
You deserve so much better than me, Ben. Someone less psychotic, nicer, prettier. I am more cracked than any fairy tale, Ben. You should know that. But even as I tell you to stay away, a part of me is begging you to come back. I don't think I've ever wanted anything more in my life. Remember when we set up that lemonade stand so we could afford to buy those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle masks? I said that I wanted them more than anything else in the world. I know better now. I was wishing for toys, and yet I already had the only thing that would ever matter to me in the end. You.
But that has always been who I am. I've always wanted the only thing I don't have, and in the process of getting it I always lose what had been the most important all along. A part of me wonders now if that's what I'm doing now. Do I want you here again only because you're not here now? My doubt threatens to overcome me.
But still, despite what my hindsight insists, I still believe that this time, if only this time, I know what I need. I remember every moment that we spent together, down to our first meeting. We were three.
My small family had just moved into the house next to yours. My parents hadn't bothered introducing us because they thought I would scoff at you because you were a boy. They'd always wanted a pretty princess, but instead they got me. I walked over to your yard, where you sat playing with three plastic trucks. I asked if I could play, and you reluctantly agreed. You told me your name, and your nose wrinkled when I told you mine. What kind of name is Sabrine? you were asking yourself, and I was asking the same question. Thus came the numerous names of a week in August, in between our birthdays.
Am I boring you with my reminiscing? I feel like you're drifting away, fading like a pleasant dream in the light of day, and asking over and over again if you remember is the only way to prove to myself that you're real. Will I wake up tomorrow to find that all of this was a dream? Will I open my eyes to find a stranger in the bed beside me?
Remember the summer you went to camp? Remember the night we went to prom? Remember the time I broke your heart?
I need to remember how we were, if nothing else. It's the only way to keep myself here. For though I couldn't leave now if I tried, I still find my feet itching to take me far, far away from here. Our roles have been reversed, and yet a part of me is still staring through the cracks, looking for an escape route out of here.
Remember how my bedroom was on the first floor of my house, and you were on the second floor of yours? Remember how the windows of our rooms had no screens, so a person could conceivably come right in? Remember the huge oak tree in the side yard of your house? I always used to wonder if you got scared at night when the branches hit your windowsill in the wind. Remember how your attic was the best place to play, but your parents never wanted us to go up there? It took two of us just to get the the hatch in the ceiling open and the ladder down. But it was worth it, for your attic had the best atmosphere for all things pretend. It started when we were six, but even the night of prom we ditched the parties afterward to go up there.
I guess what I'm trying to say is; do you remember the Midnight Games? If nothing else, I hope that you'll always remember those Midnight Games. Let's retell our story, for old times sakes.
My nights were always the worst. If I thought I was skittish during the day, then I must have been absolutely psychotic once the sun went down. There was something about the starry, open night sky that made staying in bed maddening. Each night, claustrophobia would close in on me, and I'd cry out. My parents would come into the room, and I'd sleep in their room. Every single night, until I was six years old and it was decided that I was too old to come crying to my parents all the time. That's where you came in, Ben. I can only imagine what it must have been like for you when I first knocked on your second-story window. It was my first attempt at tree climbing, so I was more than a little worse for wear as I perched on that branch. Do you remember how hard it was for me to scramble through the window and onto your bedroom floor? I had more than a few cuts and scrapes the next morning. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
I remember being amazed at how neat your room was. Mine was cluttered and messy, and I was shocked at how lived in it looked compared to yours. I always used to try and make it a little more homely each time I came in. I'd knock over a tin of pencils, or rumple your bedspread. But it was always put back in its proper state by the time I came back again. This bothered me, and each night I'd try to leave an even larger mark on your room. It never worked. It was like I'd never even been there, erased from your life with the light of dawn.
But again, I digress. The Midnight Games... They were all I looked forward to in the daytime and everything I loved about the night.
It started out simple. We'd been talking for hours, and you were looking more and more tired. You didn't have the same insomnia as I, and I know I should have let you go to sleep, but I didn't. Instead, I proposed a great dare; staying up until midnight. You hesitated at first, stating that your parents would surely notice us up and about this late at night. That's where the attic came in. It was as far from your parents' room as it could get, and if it was just a little scary up there, well, that would just add to the challenge.
We barely made it that first night. I remember continuously pinching myself as the digital clock we'd brought up with us ticked closer and closer to 12:00. When at last the time had come, we could barely keep our eyes open as we stumbled back down to your room.
Something changed that night for me. I was tired. Spending all those hours up in the attic had all but cured my insomnia, and I woke up the next morning feeling more refreshed than I ever had before. I felt terrible when I saw you the next morning (you had purple bags beneath your eyes the size of Mars) but I couldn't stop myself from coming over the next night. And then again during the one after that. And by that point it was already a routine for us. You started to adjust to the late nights, and I stopped having minor panic attacks each time the sun went down.
I've no doubt that our parents knew exactly what we were doing, but inexplicably they never said a word against it. Every morning when I woke up, I dreaded that that day would be the one in which the Midnight Games, as we had come to call them, were ruined forever. But it never happened, and I relaxed.
As time passed and we got older, staying up late started feeling less and less rebellious. That's when our Games began to evolve. One night when we were nine I challenged you to run all the way to the forest that bordered your back yard and bring a pine cone back to prove that you'd really done it. In retaliation, you dared me to steal a lawn gnome from the house across the street. We put both items in a special part of the attic, which we would come to call the Treasure Corner. It was where we put the relics of our greatest feats. It's where we put the bird's nest from the bush in my front yard, and the resting place of the decorative flamingo that we'd found, run over, in the street.
The Games changed each time we played. One night you were eating an entire tube of chap stick, the next I was cartwheeling down your driveway at three in the morning. But one element was always the same; no matter what, even if we'd finished our challenges by eleven o'clock sharp, I couldn't go home, and neither of us could go to sleep until midnight had come and gone. It was the very first and foremost rule of the Midnight Games, and it could never be broken.
One night when we were fifteen, I dared you to kiss me. You did, and then even my days were filled with the joy of my nights. In those high school days, I felt completely invincible. I wasn't popular, but that was okay. I had you. You were the only person I ever needed to like me. The Midnight Games were our special secret, something that stayed ours even as we proclaimed our relationship to the world. It was the very best time of my life.
Until I took it too far. You were nineteen, and had just been presented with the ultimate gift; a car. I knew that my parents would never even consider such a boon for my birthday, and I resented you for talking about it so much. It wasn't a new car, just your parents' old, clunking minivan. It was the same pale blue as the sky, but that was as far as its beauty went. The inside was covered with an ugly yellow upholstery, and a hula dancer figurine was permanently super glued to the dashboard. It was the worst car imaginable, and yet to me, it was like a ticket to freedom that I could never have. To me, the cracks in this old van's paint job were exactly like those I had always imagined in fairy tales. Both represented something wonderful, something beautiful; but both were something that I would never have. And because I couldn't have them, I turned to hate. I hated you for having that stupid old van, Ben. Which was why, on the eve of the very last Midnight Games of our lives, I dared you to drive down to the local convenience store and bring me back a cherry slushie. It sounds like an innocent enough request, I know, but should your parents catch you sneaking out to drive at three in the morning, well, that would be the end of your car ownership stint.
I could tell from the moment I finished speaking that I had crossed a line. But you didn't say a word, just got up and reached for your keys. Because that was the second rule about The Midnight Games; you don't refuse. Ever.
There was a moment, as you climbed down from the attic's entrance, when you looked back at me, just for a moment. And in that moment, I know, I could have changed everything. I could have very easily take my dare back, and even though such an action was completely unprecedented, you would have come back up to the attic and we'd continue, just as we always had, giving dares that were reasonable, that were hilarious, that were embarrassing. But never a dare that would endanger us of being found out.
I could have done it, and every day I wish I had. But I didn't. And I can never let that go.
I don't know how you managed to avoid aggravating the creaky stairs of your house as you crept down to the ground floor, but I never heard a sound from the moment you left the attic to the second you started the car and drove away. And I heard nothing after that, either. Not until six in the morning, when I heard your phone ring. I itched to answer it, not because I feared for your safety (you'd been gone for three hours, after all; how long did it take to grab one slushie and come back?), but because I didn't want your parents to wake up and discover me here. However, the only way to stop the ringing was to answer, and if I tried to do that I would be caught for sure; so I waited, tensed like a cat, as the phone rang on and on. I hoped it would stop on its own; after all, surely the caller would give up as soon as they realized that the house's residents were asleep and not picking up? I see now that my reasoning was flawed; if the caller was hoping to reach your parents at six in the morning, they'd obviously assume that they were asleep, and unless it was urgent they would call at a later time. And it was urgent, more so than I could ever have imagined at the time.
After a half hour of incessant ringing, I heard someone getting up downstairs, and a moment later I heard your mother answer the phone, then gasp at what she heard. She called out your father's name, waking him up after what I imagine were some well-placed slaps to his face; and then he was gasping, too, and finally, three hours overdue, I began to worry about you.
Before your parents got the chance to leave their room, I darted downstairs, wincing as my feet hit all the creaking steps. I knew something was gravely wrong when no one in the house noticed their door slamming shut on my way out.
I sprinted over to my own house, climbing through the window and settling myself on my bed just as my own mother came in to wake me up.
“Sabrine,” she whispered gently, then more forcefully as I continued to feign sleep. I didn't know what had happened, and I didn't want to; I wanted to curl up in a ball underneath all of my covers, to create the same atmosphere of claustrophobia that I used to hate (but now seemed strangely comforting), and never come out again. But I couldn't pretend to be asleep anymore, as my mother was now shaking me into the waking world. “Sabrine,” she said, sitting down next to me as I sat up, “there's been an accident. It's Ben.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment when my life began to change. And it was this one. I know what you're thinking: that night was more than ten years ago, so how can it be the catalyst for what's happening in the here and now? And my answer to you is that the slow breaking apart of the life I had invested myself in was exactly that; slow. It may have taken years to show the entirety of its destruction, but this process was one that I know to have started that particular night. This, this very second when I heard those two words, It's Ben, this was when everything began to truly fall apart.
I went to see you in the hospital later that day. Apart from some bruised ribs and a few cuts and scrapes, you were okay. It was okay, you said then. You were alright, and that was all that mattered. You didn't blame me, but from then on, one thing was clear; the Midnight Games were over. Forever. Never again would I enter your attic, much less stay up there all night with you. But like you said, it was okay. You were alright. And that was all that mattered.
After the first few weeks after your accident, things began to go back to normal. We moved into our dorm rooms at the college we had picked out together. We talked, we laughed, and it was okay. I told myself that again and again. It was okay. You were alright. And that was all that mattered. But it wasn't okay, and though your safety means the world to me, it wasn't all that mattered. Over the next few years, even as we got married, and bought our first house, and settled down --all things that are supposed to bring your world together into a tight, safe, beautiful package-- I could feel myself deteriorating. And when we pulled down a door in our hallway ceiling to find an attic in the exact same style as the one in your childhood home, that was the last straw. All was quiet for a moment, as we simply stood and looked at each other. And suddenly, we were fighting. I was screaming, you were screaming, and my world was finally and inexplicably crumbling into dust.
I stalked into our bedroom, planning to slam the door in your face, but you followed me in, and still we were yelling, screaming at each other as I pulled out a suitcase and began to pack the most worthless things into it; a stick of gum, a shoe horn, and finally, a lawn gnome we'd been planning on stationing on our lawn like a night watchman at our palace.
I got it halfway into the suitcase, then froze. A lawn gnome, exactly like the one we'd stolen from the house across the street one night. One of our Midnight Games, the spoils of which had been put reverently into our Treasure Corner. I had stopped shouting. You went on for a few minutes, then fell silent as you finally took notice of what I was holding.
I could have turned back then. I could have set the awful lawn ornament down and turn to talk to you, like a normal human being. But I didn't. Instead I threw it at your head, then started to cry as it smashed into the wall to your left. I never could aim properly.
I expected you to scream at me. I expected you to swear, and shout, and maybe even throw something back at me. But you didn't. Instead, you reached around me, grabbed my suitcase off of its haphazard position on our bed, and walked out the door.
And here we are, Ben, two days later. In that time, we've spoken once. You called later that night to tell me that you were at a hotel in the next state over, and that you were getting your mail forwarded from work, and not to go see you. And I won't. Instead, I want you to come see me. I'm sending this to your office, where I know it'll reach you eventually.
I'll be here, in our house, waiting for you, Ben. Waiting here until you come and kick me out. And every night, I'm going to sit in the attic and stay up until midnight. And one night, I hope that I'll hear a creaking from the entrance and you will come walking in to see me. I want to make this right, Ben. But I can't do it alone.
I know you're far, far away right now. Farther than I've ever been. But here's the cold, hard truth: Of all the times we stayed up late, those midnight games were always my favorite.