Distance

He waited along the shore at dawn, almost certain a ship was on the horizon. With the warmth of the sun on his face, he looked down at the golden bracelet on his wrist. It was a gift given to an old friend of his from the man he was waiting for. She gifted it to him shortly before she moved from their little island town to the city. He missed her and called her often. It wasn't quite the same without her there. Since their mutual friend, her former boyfriend, had started working far off, the two of them kept each other company in the long wait for his return. Now, the three of them were split across the seas. He didn't let it ruin his mood. His friend called him more now that they were no longer together. Each phone call and letter he received, in fifteen minutes and five paragraphs, he felt the light of dawn wash over him. There was something else on his mind, something bubbling underneath the surface. He didn't say the words, part from fear and part from confidence that they were already understood. He was late for work. There was no time to wait for the ship. He went back into town to go to his job, doing deliveries for various businesses. No ships came in that day. He called his friend during lunch to see if he was coming yet. No answer. Lonely, he called his friend in the city. "Hey, what are you doing?" He asked her. "Eating lunch." She said. "Why? Bored?" "Yeah, there's nothing to do here." He felt over the golden bracelet on his wrist. The chain on the back was getting loose. He made a mental note to get it fixed at some point. She laughed. "You know, when we were teenagers, you were always the one saying you were going to run off and never come back. And now, you're the only one there. You should come to the city some time." "Yeah, I know, but..." "He comes back there." She said. "So what if he does? Let him go. Are you going to spend your whole life waiting for a few days a year of close distance?" "Don't laugh at me, but I think I'm making progress." He said. "What, is it half an hour instead of ten minutes now? Two pages of letters once in a blue moon?" She teased him. He laughed along with her. "You know he's not good with stuff like that." "And he's never there, so what else is there?" She asked him. "It's not about the words or the time." He looked up at the sky and smiled. "When he's here, I'm myself again." "You don't need him to be yourself." She warned him. "If he leaves and that's all you have, you'll break." "I know, but I..." He leaned back. "I haven't given up yet." She sighed and laughed. "He's all yours. If he won't take you, he's a bigger fool than I already know he is." He laughed along with her. Her words encouraged him more than she knew. When they were teenagers, a little before his two friends started dating, he used to flirt with her the way his other friend did. He didn't mean anything by it. He loved the way it made his supposed rival in love look at him. At least he was looking at him, he told himself back then. Watching them fall for each other, he felt the distance growing in between the silence they both gave him whenever they were near each other. He wanted nothing more than to get in the way, to keep the distance between them for even a moment, so that he could push off that final distance waiting for him once he failed. It didn't happen quite like he imagined. Nothing ever did. They never fully excluded him like he thought, not really. The distance was a normal one, that any friend couldn't close when compared to a romantic relationship. He was young then, and he didn't know better. He accepted it in time, and life went on. They stayed friends. He searched for those warm, sunny moments of closeness where it was appropriate for him. In his heart, however, he yearned for that space she shared with him that he could not know. About a year after they started dating, he realized why. It wasn't something he could talk about with either of them, he thought, or anyone on the island. They lived in a small town with very traditional ideas and word got around to everyone within an hour of a whisper. He kept it inside. She was the one who noticed. When their friend, her boyfriend, went off to work far away, she caught him on the beach one morning. She told him, "You love him that much, don't you?" Her words caught him off guard that morning. At first, he denied what she said. "Huh? No. What are you talking about?" "Don't try to hide it. Everything that runs through your mind is plain as day." She said. "I can practically hear your thoughts." "Is it that obvious?" "I'd turn the radio to a different station, but all I hear are your thoughts about him, coming in loud at all hours of the night." She glanced over at him with a smirk. "I'm sorry." "For what?" She spun the golden bracelet around her wrist. "He's mine. Just because you want him, doesn't mean I'm going to lose him. But you should move on. There's no point in chasing after someone who's not looking your way." "I know." He said. "But I can't stop myself." He wrote him letter after letter, keeping his secret disguised behind playful words and empty observations of the day. Their phone calls, short and infrequent, let him set free a little of his loneliness. For each minute longer, for each sentence more, for every day he returned home, all of those made it worth the chase. He never expected he'd win him over, not back then. Then, he let it slip, just a little. One morning, waiting down by the shore at dawn, he wrote him a lengthy letter. His deepest feelings were guarded by the shallowest of masks, easily discernible through the thin lines on the pages. He thanked him for everything, and told him how happy he was simply being with him. In his most shameful confession, he told him how he only felt happy with himself whenever his friend returned home. Those words, he knew, nearly crossed the line. In the sun's warmth, he allowed that much and sent his letter. That one, his friend replied to within a week. He couldn't believe it. It was brief, taking up half a page, but the words were sweet and gentle like waves. He couldn't tell if he was reading those lines wrong. It was too much hope for him to hold within. It was as if the sun itself had filled him up. He read over it at least a hundred times, trying to convince himself the words before him meant anything else than what his heart led him to. Not long after that, his two friends broke up and she moved to the city on the mainland. It couldn't be, he told himself, but his daydreams were all of holding hands and walking across the beach at sunrise. When he took his walks out to the beach in the morning, he swore he could hear him calling to him from somewhere beyond the distant horizon. That feeling was so strong it lifted his out of his darkest thoughts into a state of constant bliss. A confession might be coming, from one of them, the next time they met. His friend was supposed to be coming home soon. His last return was canceled last minute. Something happened at work and he had to stay at another island for a while. That happened sometimes. He didn't mind waiting there. Whether or not he could see him in person didn't matter. He felt him there in the warm sun, in the soft sand under his feet, and in the gentle morning breeze. He was always there, all around him. Whenever he couldn't get through to him on the phone or by letter, he reread the last one sent. His heart always skipped a beat at the line "you're always with me, here, I feel it". He felt like a teenager falling in love all over again every time he read that. His other friend and him always joked that he was no good with words, but every now and then, he said the perfect lines to capture anyone. "I wish I were with you right now." He traced those words on the paper and moved to another line he loved. "I couldn't do so much without you." He skipped down further. "We don't get to see each other as much anymore, but when I read your letters, it's like we're closer than ever. I want to get closer." Another line he loved read "I'm always thinking about you, and how much you mean to me". The letter ended with the line that gave him the most hope. "When I come back home, there's something important I want to tell you in person." His mind ran wild with what that could mean. Again and again, he told himself he must be wrong. In spite of that, he let his mind wander through his most wishful of daydreams. Kissing in the light of the morning sun, bathed in shades of red and orange. Laughing as they walked along the sand. Promises kept in secret under shady palm trees. Oaths under church bells, wearing matching rings. He knew he was getting ahead of himself, but he couldn't help it. He'd always been a hopeless romantic, one who couldn't give up on anything. If he asked him to wait there on that island for eternity and never returned, he'd wait and listen for the warmth of his voice in the breeze and the sound of his heartbeat in the swaying leaves. That was how he was. He accepted that, as foolish as it was. Perhaps, he hoped, his foolishness would finally pay off. He pictured them at the altar, kissing again and again, swearing eternity to each other. If not that in his future, he hoped at least for a date that went on until sunrise. He thought back on the years. How many had it been since he fell in love? He couldn't pinpoint the exact date. It was too long ago. He first became aware of it when his two friends started dating, but he suspect he had been in love since they were young children. That was really why he was so jealous when a little distance came between them. He'd always been able to get in as close as anybody else. She surpassed him, and his lack of reaching that coveted space stung deeply. Now, he might be getting his chance after all these years. He never quite gave up hope, but he never thought it'd take that long. If his friend didn't confess to him, he swore to himself, he would instead. He couldn't contain his feelings any longer. He was ready to cross that unspoken line between them, consequences be damned. He couldn't hold back anymore. A wave was rushing over him, powerful enough to drown him. If he could have him, he would never ask for anything else again. His most wanted dream would be realized if he could hold that hand and promise himself to that man. So overcome with hope, he didn't catch himself crying. "With you, I know I can be myself." He said to the wind, wishing for his words to be carried along the sea to the one he wanted to hold. One of the links on the golden bracelet had snapped open. He bent the metal back to keep it in place until he could get it fixed. He wrote a note reminding himself to get that done before his friend returned. The next day, the ship came across the horizon. He saw it come in before work. There wouldn't be time for him to greet his friend without being late. He didn't care. He ran to the dock and waited for his return. He could feel the distance between them with each passing second. There, finally, his friend came down from the ship. His friend waved at him as he walked down with a woman. She looked a lot like their friend in the city, the girlfriend who he left behind on the shore with half-hearted letters. From fashion choices to hairstyle and facial features, the similarity nearly disturbed him. For a second, he thought she was there, together with him again. He went over to his friend. "You're back." "I'm home." His friend said. "Who's this?" He asked. "I told you I wanted to tell you something important when I got back. This is my fiancée. We're getting married in three weeks." His friend said. The wind around him cut coldly like ice. He stared at the woman. "Fiancée? But...since when? You were dating someone else only a month ago." "We met when I got stuck on that other island. She works at the hotel I stayed at, and well, I knew then when we met that she was the one I wanted to spend my life with." He held the woman's hand. The woman smile, her face eerily looking like a distorted version of his old friend in the city. She put her arm around him. "Don't lie. It's because I wouldn't let you go. I bought the rings and proposed. He nearly said no." "I did not. I just didn't expect it!" His friend laughed. "Oh, congratulations." He said. He felt the moon on his back. "What I wanted to say was...will you be my best man at the wedding?" His friend smiled at him in that way that always made his heart race. "S-sure...Anything for you." He said. "Why don't we go in town? I have so much to show you." His friend kissed the girl on the cheek, then looked over at him. "Do you have today off? Could you take us around town in your van?" "Yeah, I guess. I wasn't going to do anything important today." "Perfect! Let's go." His friend walked ahead with the woman. He stood behind them for a moment, watching them closely. She looked like his friend, but the way she spoke and moved was nothing like her. She was a poor imitation of the real thing. He sighed and looked up at the sky. This was going to cost him his job. There was no reason for him to do this. He walked forward with the moon on his back and the sun blinding his eyes. As he walked across the dock, he tripped on a loose board. He fell forward. He heard something snap and fall into the water. His wrist felt a little lighter. His friend looked back at him. "Are you okay?" "Yeah, I'm fine." He lied. Words he strung together, of eternity and longing, devotion and love, he unraveled them all in his mind and tossed them to the sea. Nothing ever came out how he imagined. Nothing ever did. He spent the day with the couple, carting them across town as they kissed and held hands, breaking through the small distance that even his former girlfriend couldn't reach. His boss called him several times, but he didn't answer. He took the couple to a hotel to stay at, then went home. He had one more phone call to make. "Hello?" His friend in the city answered the phone. "Hey..." He held the phone close to his face. "I need you to pick me up." "What? What's wrong?" She asked. "I can't...Please, please, come here." He begged her. Her tone changed. "Pack. I'll be there by morning." Dawn came like it always did. He waited down by the sea, listening to the waves. His suitcase rested beside him, with a bag of letters on top of it. Another ship came in, the first one of the day. He ran to the dock. There she was, dressed in silver and pink like the moon's last morning light before the sun eclipsed it. She held her hand out. "Let's go." He ran to hug her. No words were exchanged between them. She understood everything he wanted to say. They left on the next boat out, taking turns throwing away every letter in the bag.
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