Here I am, sitting on a large bus of high-school students (with a few middle-schoolers thrown in), as we are riding back from a church trip. My heart is heavy, and all I can do is stare out the window at the trees that line this Alabama highway, and think about what I’ve done.
Sitting next to me is one of my best friends, who is the closest guy friend that I have. I won’t tell you his real name, but let’s call him Austin. He is asleep, sitting low in the seat with his head leaned forward, hanging down over the blanket that is spread over both our laps. Most of the other kids on the bus are asleep too. We had a rough night last night- we went to bed at four a.m., and woke up at eight-thirty to get ready for Sunday-morning church. As I look around, hoping to look at anybody but Austin, I only see three people that are awake. A seventh-grader named Justin is sitting in the seat across from us, and he is playing a handheld video game. My youth pastor is sitting towards the front of the bus, talking on his cell phone. His low voice, with its mild Southern accent, as well as the steady vroom of the bus’s engine, are the only sounds I can hear. The third person is the driver, a man who attends our church.
I have to admit, I envy these other kids that have all fallen asleep. I wish I could fall asleep. I’m tired, but I can never fall asleep in a moving vehicle. I’ve tried several times already, and I think that I’ll try again, since there’s nothing left to do. But I can’t stop thinking about what just happened, maybe twenty minutes ago.
Austin and I were sitting together, underneath a blanket. He had a pillow in his lap, and I had a volume of good old American poetry, open to a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It went a little something like this:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply-
I was basking in the meter and the verse, willfully suspending reality to sink into her words, when I heard Austin sigh and say, “Jennifer, I have something to tell you.” Even though everyone on the bus was asleep, he still whispered. That in itself was suspicious.
I bit my lip, and raised my eyebrows nervously. “Um, okay.”
“And it takes me a lot of guts to say this…”
I flinched, worried.
“…and I’m not going to lie, I’m really nervous…”
I am, too , I thought worriedly, but not for the same reason you are.
“…are you ready?”
No! No! No! Don’t say it! “Yeah.”
“I like you,” he confessed, with as much passion in his unusually deep and typically monotone voice, that it was as if he was saying, “I love you.”
“I could tell,” was my automatic response. (He had been quite obviously flirting with me for the past couple of days, so much so that, last night, when I was laying against the bus window, trying to sleep, he said that he didn’t want me to hit my head on the window, and he offered me his shoulder as a pillow.) As soon as those words came out of my mouth, though, I felt terrible, and bit my lip.
Before I could say anything though, he went on talking, chattering with nervousness. “Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if you could tell, but I was seriously flirting with you yesterday.” Bless his heart- he’s not the sharpest crayon in the box. He tends to state the obvious sometimes, but that’s alright.
“Yeah, you were,” I agreed, with a nervous laugh.
There was a long, fidgety pause. Hoping to drop the conversation as quickly as it had begun, I looked down at my poetry book, and started to turn the pages, trying to find the section for Robert Frost.
“So…” he murmured, “what do you think?”
“Umm, I don’t know what I think at this point,” I admitted.
“Oh, okay,” he answered.
I felt compelled to speak, so I did anyway. “Well, see, it’s just that you’re such a good friend to me, you know, and I don’t want to date right now. I mean, knowing how teenage relationships are, we’d probably date for six months, and then break up, and it would just be too much heartache to be worth any good. Not to mention, our moms are best friends, and if we dated and broke up, it would be awkward for them, too. They’d be taking sides, and it would just be completely unnecessary. You understand, right?”
“Yeah, I understand,” he answered. “I mean, if you’re not ready now, we can wait…”
I sighed. He obviously didn’t get the message. I wanted to correct him, but he kept talking, not allowing me a chance to speak.
“I mean, you’re right. It would really make things awkward for our moms if we got together. But I’ve just liked you for a long time- since the first time I saw you, actually. I told my mom and dad that I wanted to ask you out, but they said I couldn’t yet, because I didn’t know you yet, and so I didn’t. And we’ve become such good friends over the past couple of years, and you know, I thought it might work out, but I understand.”
I sighed, and bit my lip. I had tried my hardest not to hurt him, but clearly, that wasn’t enough. He was hurt by my refusal, and trying to act tough like he always does. It wasn’t working, though. I could see through his guise easily, because he and I have been friends for so long now.
Full of shame, I looked down at my book again, and started to try and read. He put on a pair of headphones and started listening to music, and I would have done the same, but my mp3 player’s battery was dead. Oh, the shortcomings of technology…
Eventually, he fell asleep, sitting there next to me. His head moved frequently, nodding forward, then straightening up again, so much so that I got the feeling that he was, in fact, awake. His head would also tilt to the side; the right side, like my left arm was a magnet, drawing him closer. I read a few more poems, and then decided that reading about love was the last thing I wanted to do, and put the book away. I had a copy of Gulliver’s Travels in my bag, and decided to read that instead. I picked up where I had left off the other day, at the start of Part II, and before I’d read a full page, I felt something touch my arm.
Hesitant, I looked.
His head was on my arm, and his face was peaceful, almost happy.
I closed the book. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t focus on anything but my own misfortune.
And here I am. If he wasn’t asleep before, he certainly is now, and he’s still laying against me like I’m his girlfriend or something.
Is this my fault? I’m racking my brain, trying to think of anything I’ve ever done or said that could have misled him into thinking that I had romantic feelings for him. The evidence is piling up, though. I’ve hugged him countless times. We’ve talked and laughed together so much. We hit each other, in that silly way that friends do.
I honestly wasn’t trying to lead him on- I swear, I wasn’t.
But I did.
And here I am, reaping what I’ve sown.
What else can I say? This is my fault. This is all because I screwed up. He’s hurt, and I’m hurt because he’s hurt. I don’t know how to fix this. I think I’ve done all I can- I’ve told him that I don’t want to ruin our friendship by dating. What else is there to say or to do? I know it’ll be a little while, but surely one day, our friendship can go back to what it used to be…
I can just picture my life, if I married him. He’d be terribly happy. He’d love me and take care of me for the rest of my life if I let him, and I know that. But I don’t know that I would be happy. I’m not saying he’s stupid- please don’t think that I’m calling him stupid- but intelligence is important to me. I need someone who enjoys learning, and intellectual things, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about school or making good grades. He doesn’t think about his future, and what he wants to be doing with his life ten years from now, and I do. It’s not so much that I’m ambitious, but that I don’t want my life to be a waste. I’m not sure what you would call that quality, but whatever it is called, it is a quality that Austin lacks. I need someone who is driven, passionate, and who will be a good, sturdy husband. He will make a great husband one day- I know that- but not for me.
And as I think about this, I look toward the front of the bus, at the back of one of another guy’s head. His name is David, and he’s amazing. Not only is he very good-looking, but he’s also sweet, and smart, and perfect in almost every way. He’s good at everything he touches, and somehow, he manages to still be humble, and modest, and thoroughly likeable. He’s motivated. He wants to do something worthwhile with his future. He works hard in school, and gets good grades, because he knows that it’s the first step to making a good future. He’ll make a good husband, too. He’ll love his wife with all his heart. He has that certain protective instinct, a desire to care and provide for the people he loves, and he’s also a total gentleman. I’m telling you, whatever girl he marries one day is going to be the luckiest woman in the world. I would be delighted for that to be me.
We’re stopping at a gas station now, to go to the restroom and buy candy. Everybody else has woken up, including him, and the sound of all the other kids getting off the bus is like some sort of infernal stampede. Hopefully, he won’t fall asleep again. I’ll also have to see if I can find someone else to sit with. I just don’t want to hurt him, and he seems very determined.
I have made up my mind, though. I’m not going to sink in pity, and go on a date with him, just because I feel bad for him. That would only make matters worse- that would only lead him on further. He wouldn’t get that I was only trying to make him happy. He would legitimately think that I was happy, that I liked him, and that would mean he was believing a lie. I’ve already told him how I feel, and I’m going to stand by that. I won’t go back on my word. I told him that we’re not going to date, and that’s what I meant. He’ll thank me for it later. He’ll thank me for not hurting him. He’ll have some girl go out with him for a while, and break his heart, and when I’m still there, to be a good friend to him, he’ll be glad we didn’t go out. I’ll be glad for it, too, I’m sure when David or a guy like him comes along for me.
Austin’s a really good guy, but I won’t feign feelings for him. I don’t like him that way, and I’m not going to pretend that I do, and that’s all there is to it.
I think I’ll go in and buy a soda or something. I’m pretty thirsty. Not to mention, I need to stop thinking about this. I’m just depressing myself. Not to mention, David is calling to me, asking me if I’m going to come in. Just to humor him, I think I will, and at least for a moment, put this mess behind me.