The best thing about Payton is that she is no different in person than she is on the phone. The worst thing about Payton is that she hides her secrets in her soul and freezes her eyes so that I can't tell what she is thinking.
My name is Elliot Graham, I'd said to her at the dance. I take jazz and contemporary. I'm Payton Leons, she replied (with the confidence of someone who dances for a living, is state champion, and wears the sweatshirt in front of you to prove it). I take everything. I'd laughed at that, because it reminded me of how I am confident when my feet are swimming across the floor but, when my defences are weak and my mum is crying and I'm trying to rebuild her bones, just how easy it is to feel like the weakest person on earth.
And you've no idea how hard it is to be around Payton. I feel like I am falling in love with her, yet I can't tell her, because Max is her guy and she doesn't even see that he’s hitting on that leggy girl whose name sounds like fire, or lizard, or something I can’t quite recall. Who am I to break the friendship between the girl I want and her best friend – her boyfriend? Who am I to take their years together and rip them up as if they're a worthless piece of junk left in the mailbox? Who am I to hurt Pay like that?
"Sorry about my shouting," she admits breathlessly as I loose her hand, letting it fall to her side as if it had been nothing but a casual stint of hand-holding between to lovers in a old painting. As I plonk by ass on the carpet of grass under the sycamore tree in St. Jocelyn's Park, the girl with the golden waves (that remind me of beach and summer and sunshine) seats herself next to me, a huffy bundle of elegant bones and scowling features. “I’d say I didn’t mean to shout, but I did. Though I am sorry. You shouldn’t have had to deal with that.”
“I want to deal with things,” I admit, though my bravado and manliness is escaping me just when I need it most. I don’t want to be a sensitive prick because girls don’t like that – do they? Do they? – but I don’t want to be insensitive and a massive jerk because my dad IS one, and I don’t want to ever be anything like that man.
Payton glares at me, the once perfect bun of her hair tousled from her arms-flailing at Max and Fire girl. Her makeup, so pristine when she met me in the park that once before the dance, so perfect always, is smudged the tiniest bit under her eyes and around her cheeks. I don’t want to tell her, because to me, she is perfect even without the straightened waves and masked face. In the sunlight of the studio especially, when she is arranging her body into a plié or some complicated move I haven't yet learned the word for, she is more beautiful than most things. “What?”
I’ve confused her, haven’t I? She hasn’t the first idea what I’m saying. I place my face in my palms and deep breathe, in-out-in, HOLD, out-in-out, HOLD, in-out-in, HOLD, out-
“El?” breathes my girl as she scrambles to her knees. I lift my head to show her that, in fact, I am not hyperventilating; I am not having a panic/heart/freak attack. I am just trying not to tell her I love her, and I am struggling with that because it would undoubtedly earn me a punch in the face – and possibly my jewels – from Max and a sharp slap from herself. And those two things will NOT win me even the right to peer at her face, much less guess the secrets of her eyes.
“Doesn’t matter,” I rush, instead grabbing the flask that Mom packed in my sack before I left the house. I’m a little embarrassed that at my age Mom still packs my sack, but this morning I didn’t have time and anyway, Jules’ hot tea is out-of-this world fantastic.
The girl with the sky in her eyes places herself back on the ground, folding her knees into a quiet triangle as her eyebrows furrow into funny shapes on her forehead. She cocks her head, expecting. What does she want from me? An explanation? An admission? A…kiss?
Shut up, I say, but I say it out loud instead. I don’t mean to, and suddenly the steaming cup of mango and cherry tea that I’d just poured into the undersized cup erupts, scalding my leg and bleeding a confusing lava of cherry-orange into the unassuming avacado-green lawns. Overhead a few sycamore seeds helicopter to the ground and land into her hair, so I reach over and pluck one free. She pulls her nose up at it, the darkness of her eyes glaring at me as if to say, what the hell are you doing with your fingers in my hair and, what was in that flask?
Whilst I expected her to chastise me for invading her personal bubble, she instead says nothing, the secrets of her eyes brimming at her lashes, burning to break free. As the afternoon fades and the memory of the evening cicadas stirs in my mind, I am awash with the sentiment that, perhaps, Pay feels the same way about me. That Pay could love me.
That, if only I could just reached out and brush the sunshine hair behind her ears, if I…pressed my lips to her nose, then our world – hurting and broken and messed up as it may be – might just be okay again.