Payton stands there limply, her hands lifeless and still at her sides. The bun of her hair is barely ruffled from our lift but her face, though she tries desperately to conceal it, is contorted into a pain so deep it is cutting ridges into the spaces around her eyes and on her forehead. Pale strips of light break in through the curtains of the studio and, as the afternoon sinks lower into the sky, I mirror Pay’s stance, statue-like and guarded. Because now, I am powerless to do or say anything in the face of what has just happened with Max.
After a while the girl at my side appears to snap back into her bones. One moment she is quiet as dawn in the fields, the next she is brighter and sprightlier and a lot more like Pay. “You ready?” she asks me, a smile stitched to her lips as if it had never been lost to a thick scowl and heavy jaw. “I could use some of your mother’s tea, if you have any today.”
I tilt my head, regarding her. Narrow my eyes, breathe in her change in mood. “I have some tea.”
“Good, then. Let’s go.” And with that, she leaves me stranded in the middle of the studio, and I watch her dart off towards the girls dressing room, the soft fruits of her perfume lingering in the air that feels suddenly dense with the promise of vengeance. She has disappeared, and I have no choice but to follow her.
I wait outside feeling like the stupidest boy alive for having threatened my friendship with Payton, and even stupider for it having come between her and her best friend…her, her boyfriend. Allowing my head to hang towards the floor I slump against the outside wall of our Dance Academy, waiting for the girl that means the world to me but, as I am beginning to find out, poses an ocean full of questions that I haven’t yet found out the answers to.
“Ready,” she announces as the front door to the building swings open and shut again in the same second. Her hair is loose for once, hanging down her back, all the colours of the beach in the evening sunlight. She looks beautiful: I want to tell her so, but I don’t know if I should. Instead I smile at her and, as if it is the most natural thing to her, she hooks her arm through mine as we head towards the park.
Overhead the sky prepares for night-time, clouds layering over one another as the sky beneath is a confusing palette of afternoon blues and evening shades of auburn and peach. It looks peaceful, comfortable with itself and its rituals. I however feel tense and nauseous and like I might stumble over if it weren’t for Pay’s firm grip on my arm.
A half hour later we are sitting under the oak tree in the park. The tree has quickly become ‘ours’ after the first time we came here, that day when she screamed in the café at Max and Eliza.
The sky now is darker, a rich velvet of navy dusk draping over our heads. Pay slouches, her back against the tree, one leg hooked up and the other flat against the cool evening grass. I lie on my back, trying to pick constellations out of the murky haze that is the sky tonight, the light from the city polluting air so that the stars are veiled behind its gaze. If I hadn’t kissed Pay that time we came here first; if Max hadn’t seen me lifting her just now; if we were the same two people in a different city a few years from now, this might be romantic. But, as I worry that Max will hate me and hate Pay and then Pay will hate both of us, I find it impossible to even push my mouth into a smile at the sight of this beautiful girl who sips fruit tea under the silver moon.
“I don’t want this to be difficult,” whispers Payton, twirling a strand of her hair around her finger. She sighs, as if by doing so the darkness can absorb her troubles so she can be free of them for a while. “I don’t want things to be awkward between you and Max. You’re both important to me.”
My breath escapes me in a long exhalation that is louder with the relative quietness of nightfall. “I don’t want things to be awkward either. I’m sorry for –”
“I’m not sorry,” she breathes through the night, and as the moon shifts behind a shadowy cloud she scoops my hand from my pocket and entwines her fingers with mine. “I’m not sorry we kissed. I am sorry that I’m with Max and that I can’t be with you.”
The rejection stings like lemon juice on a paper cut. Without meaning to, I yank my hand away and jerk up, leaving her curled around the space where my body has just been. I can’t cry because I’m not good at opening up, but I am too hurt to be dramatic and shout at her, and too rational to blame her anyway. It’s not Pay’s fault she can’t be with me. It’s Max’s. And however rational I can be about Pay, I can’t be rational about Max when he’s throwing himself at Eliza. I can’t let him hurt Pay, but I can’t be the one to hurt her either.
I’m so confused that I feel dizzy. Sighing away the weight of this afternoon I sit myself back down next to her and run my fingers through her hair. She closes her eyes, and in the moonlight her hair is white and pearly and endless, the subtle hues of her cheeks harsher with the blacks and greys that the night-time lends. It’s as if her whole being contrasts itself: she is outgoing and confident and enigmatic, and in other ways she is secretive, undefined and vast. I want to tell her that if only she’d let me, I could be there for her and help her figure out her soul.
The only thing getting in my way is Max. Once he’s out of the picture, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble telling Payton that she is the moon and the stars and the sky in November. She is my summer and autumn and spring and all those seasons in between. I may not have known her long, but when you…when you like someone this much, you know that if you’re apart from them for too long, you’ll regret not saying what you should have said when the moment was there for you to say it.
So, tomorrow? I don’t know. Will Max be angry at me, or be angry at Payton? Or perhaps both of us?
“Just see how it pans out,” whispers Pay as she rests her head on my shoulder, as if she could hear my thoughts. “Max is usually okay after he’s cooled off.” I want to believe her, but as the moon peeps out from behind its cloud, casting cruel shadows onto the planes of the park, I find it difficult to believe that he will let this one pass.