Tourist Traps

I shook my head, my mouth curving into a grin as I focused the lens.

“Such a tourist.”

Gemma laughed, as I knew she would—an open, surprised thing. I quickly snapped the picture she forced me to take. The camera held at least a dozen of these pictures: of sand, and water, and salt-washed wood, and Gemma’s laugh. For the memories, she told him.

“It amuses me when people accuse me of being something that I am and expect me to be offended. It’s like when you tell me I’m a girl.” She raised her eyebrow and used a hand to gesture, game show style, to her body. “I am clearly a girl. I am also a tourist. I feel no shame in gawking and taking obnoxious pictures.”

She walked over to me and I turned so she could see the tiny screen in my hand. She placed her chin on my shoulder, as she surveyed the photos we had taken. I leaned my head to the side, so I could surreptitiously rest my cheek on her sun-warmed hair.

I saw the bemused gazes from the few people milling about. The older couple shuffling by smiled; I thought I saw the man wink at me. I knew Gemma didn’t see this, she never did. I felt her hand fall off my shoulder, casually breaking contact, and watched as she wandered down the boardwalk.

Guilt crept into my mind, as it always did when my thoughts came to Gemma. I scrolled through the pictures. Everyone assumed we were dating, or that it was only a matter of time. She always laughed and insisted we were just friends. We even joked about it—wasn’t it so funny that no one understood our friendship? I hated that joke.

Looking at the picture now-the two of us grinning up at the camera, the wind lashing at our cheeks, making Gemma’s hair fly up around her face-my smile froze in a bitter reflection of the pixelated form. Gemma called back to me, teasing me about my slow pace.

            Coward, I thought as I marched towards her. I reached out and wrapped my arms around her waist, picking her up. She yelled, but her protests mixed with her laughter. I breathed her in, creating and savoring my delusion.

She tried to bring her heels to the ground, but I curled my arms closer, unwilling to let her go just yet. Every act felt somehow more important today, more final.

“Put me down. Chase. Can’t breathe,” she choked out. She began making cartoonish noises, coughing and gasping dramatically. I let her go, but kept a hand on each of her hips. She jabbed at my chest, a quick one, two punch; seemingly unaware of the possessive nature I was holding her.

“What was that for?” She asked, scowling, but I could hear the amusement in her voice.

I shrugged, “I’m just happy you’re here.”

“Well, aren’t you sweet?” She replied with her best Scarlett O’Hara impression. She stepped out of my arms and backed away, “I’m happy I’m here too. You need to stop living so far away.”

“And leave all of this?” I gestured to the ocean and swept my hand across the boardwalk we were leaving behind. Gemma looped her arm around mine and tugged me toward the beach. I dragged my feet, hesitant to get too near the icy wind racing across the sand.

“Gem, it’s cold, the sun’s going down. We can come back tomorrow.”

“Humor me.”

She let go of my arm and scrambled down the dune, brushing past the sea grass. I grudgingly followed behind, cursing the sand making its way into my shoes.

“Stop being so gloomy. You get to see this all the time.” She stood at the shoreline staring out at the horizon and shivered.

“You’re freezing. Let’s go back to my place, get something to eat.”

“Just a little bit longer.”

            Crazy girl. I wandered along, picking my way through the shells and driftwood that had washed up. I could barely hear her voice above the crashing of the waves.

“You know, the ocean’s always the same on the surface.”

I looked down at the shell in my hand and got an idea. I began gathering my materials. Half listening, I yelled back: “What do you mean?”

“You can’t see what’s below. No matter what happens, no matter what the world throws into it, or takes out of it, it just keeps pushing and pulling against the shore. It still looks like the same salty, green liquid. Most people don’t even want to see what’s underneath. I mean, does anyone jump into the ocean and open their eyes under the water?”

“Yeah Gem, it’s called snorkeling.”

She turned toward me in frustration, “Chase, I’m trying to be profound here—”           “Tada!” I threw my arms out to display my masterpiece. I had taken the shells I found along the beach and made a C and a G, with a stick I traced a heart around the letters. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as she examined my artwork.

“Well this is adorable. I had no idea you were the next Van Gogh.”

I pulled her into my chest and muffled her laughter, “Ok, smart-ass. You turned around before I was able to draw the ‘4eva’.”

She wriggled out of my grasp and grabbed the stick I had abandoned in the sand. I watched Gemma sketch out ‘4ever’, “There, now it belongs in the Louvre.” She tossed the stick at the ocean and laughed when it landed just shy of the waves: “Not a word about how I throw like a girl. Let’s get out of this wind. I’m starting to look like Rudolph.”

“Yes ma’am.”

We trudged up the beach and back to the car. I grabbed the keys-heavy with the chains she kept on the loop-from her hand and ran to the driver’s seat. I jumped up and down with the nervous energy of a five year old.

“I’m driving.” I called to her.

“My car,” she said.

“Yeah, but you’re a maniac and you don’t know where you’re going.”

She rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. We got in the car and I pulled off the coastal highway, past the stilted houses. I could feel the silence stretching between us. For her it was normal, she was always lost in her head, but I usually never stopped talking. Today the only subject that came to mind started with, I love you. It felt like I was going to just hurl the words all over her. I turned on the radio to quiet the declaration that had become a chant in my head, and groaned when I heard a cowboy warbling about his guns and trucks.

“Don’t they ever get tired of singing about inanimate objects?”

“Don’t start with me, Reggae mahn.” She said in a horrible Jamaican accent.

I laughed. It was only one CD, but she would never let me live The Sounds of the Island down. I listened to her sing along. She entertained me with her interpretation of the music; she kept the beat with her feet on the dashboard. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her curling her hair around her finger, a habit she’d had as long as I had known her. The setting sun glinted off her red-brown hair as she mechanically twirled it, let it go, and reached up to grab another piece. She kept her eyes on the rows of dried, brown stalks that whipped past the window.

The urge to break the thickening silence became distracting as we drove along. I heard myself babbling about my hatred for country music, and then I blurted out: “How’s your family?”

She stopped singing and I saw her fingers still.

“Fine.” Her fingers began their motion again.

I cringed at her short response, “Sorry.”

“Chase you don’t have to treat me like I’m some fragile thing. ‘How’s your family’ is a perfectly normal question.”

“So do you want to give me a real answer this time?”

She sighed and reached over to fiddle with the radio. “Flynn is doing ok, I guess. He won’t talk to me about it and I don’t know how to help him except to just listen when he talks. Mom’s the same, as always.”

“Is he still thinking about… you know?”

“You mean is he still thinking about taking a tie, wrapping it around the fan in his room, and hanging himself?”

“Geeze, Gem.” My shoulders tensed at her harsh words.

“I shouldn’t have told you about that.”

“You tell me everything. You shouldn’t have to deal with this by yourself. Your Mom, your brother, they’re not coping well and they burden you too much.”

Gemma’s laugh was a cold imitation of the ones I had heard all day. “You wanna tuck my mom in when she’s had too much to drink? You wanna sweep up the broken glass, puts bits of furniture out on the curb after Flynn gets into one of his moods? Helping me isn’t about talking. I’m fine. They’re the ones that are screwed up.”

I tapped my fingers on the wheel and focused on the white stripes transforming into a single line. She turned up the radio.

“How about we talk about something else?” She said.

“Chinese or pizza?” I asked.

***

My hair fell across my eyes in a bad imitation of Cousin Itt.

Chase sat down beside me on the couch and slapped a pile of take-out menus on the table. “Can you quit playing with your hair?” He said, as he fidgeted with the stack.

I peeked at him through the curtain of my hair and stuck my tongue out at him. He was never this quiet. “You’re the one being weird.”

He traced the Chinese characters on one of the menus. “Gemma, I love you.”

I nudged his leg with my foot and willfully ignored his meaning. “Love you too, Chase. Now feed me.”

He crumpled the take-out menu in his hand. “God dammit, Gemma!”

Chase ran his hands through his blonde hair and pulled at the carefully gelled strands, as if he could pull the words out that way. “I love you. Not like a brother or a friend. I am in love with you.” He laughed resentfully, “You tell everyone we’re just friends, but that hasn’t been true for me in a really long time. Jebus, I think you’re the only one who still stubbornly clings to that idea.”

I stared at him and focused on our joke, “Oh, Jebus.”

He smiled at me. “The patron saint of morning after’s isn’t gonna help you with this one, Gem.”

“Don’t tell me what Jebus is or is not capable of.” I snapped, “I made him up. As far as I’m concerned I can invoke him at any point.” I curled my legs underneath me and nestled against the arm of the couch. I looked at him then: feet firmly planted on the ground, head in his hands, small smile playing on his lips.

“Wasn’t that the night I decided twenty-two shots was a good idea?” He said.

“I tried to say Jesus when you told me how much you were drinking, but I was drunk too so I said Jebus instead.”

“And that’s the only thing I remember from that night.”

“Chase, I—”

I felt his lips crash against mine. Chase and I had kissed before, on drunken nights where the dark and the alcohol told us it meant nothing. This was different. I let him kiss me, but turned my head when he pulled me to him. I was curled in his lap and he still held me in a desperate grip, probably afraid if he didn’t pin me down now I would avoid this conversation forever. He knew me too well.

“I can’t,” I whispered to him, too afraid to make my words any louder.

He buried his head in my neck; I could feel his frustration vibrating against my skin.

“Tell me, Gem, what can’t you do?”

I focused my eyes on my knees, hoping he would accept my silence. I didn’t know what words would make him like me after this was done; where the careful line I had been walking with him had disappeared.

He angled my head, forcing me to meet his blue eyes. His speech was gentle now, the way you would talk to a wild animal. “You can’t get away with that this time Gemma. I’m not some random guy you can just dismiss when things start to get serious. I know you; I know you’re scared.”

I tried to stand up but his embrace made my attempt awkward and clumsy. His hold was supposed to be affectionate, but the hands grabbing me felt like chains. I finally got my feet on the ground and looked down at him. “You should know how screwed up I am. You deserve better than that.”

“I know you think you’re a mess, but Gem life puts cracks in everyone. You’re not just the puzzle-piece person you claim to be.”

I hugged myself. I wanted to hit him instead. “Well, you’ve just got me all figured out, don’t you?”

“Gem…”

“Just stop—stop. I don’t want to be in a relationship; it just never works for me.”

He stood up and faced me, “You’ve never let anyone in. Can you really tell me that any of the guys you dated knew about the days you would just lie in bed? Did you ever call them crying because your family used you as their therapist again? Did you ever yell at any of them? Hell, have they ever seen you as anything but easygoing and happy?”

“People don’t like sad people,” I muttered.

“God, Gemma, do you know how cynical that is?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” He pressed his fingers against his forehead and closed his eyes. “You just keep everyone at arms length,” Chase grabbed my hand and wove his fingers in the spaces between mine. “Everyone except me.”

I slipped my fingers from his grasp and walked to the window. Chase’s place overlooked the bay. Polluted for years, the only thing it was good for was the view. I breathed out, the weight of the conversation suffocating me. The glass fogged over and I watched as the heat from my breath blurred my view. My fingers moved over the condensation and drew my own landscape in it. I just stared out at the rolling waves and kept doodling.

“Gemma?”

I looked at Chase’s reflection in the pane, obscured by my own nonsensical patterns. I heard him move toward the window. He reached across me and wiped away my film of water droplets with his sleeve. I could see his image clearly now against the black water.

“You’re right, you know. We could be great. But Chase if I lost you… I can’t lose you. You’re my safe place.”

“I’m never going to leave you Gemma. I promise.”

“Sometimes people don’t get a choice.” I said to the cold window.

He spun me around and lifted an eyebrow, a feat even my jumbled mind found amusing. “Is this really about your Dad and brother? You were a kid. You’re fine now, happy.” He said simply. “Gem, death is just something that happens. You can’t let that stop you from loving people. You can’t be that afraid.”

“I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of grief.” I rubbed my hands against my face, searching my mind for the words that would make him stop this conversation. “Chase, people always leave in the end and it kills me. I can’t go back to that place.”

Chase laid his hand on my cheek, “You’re my person. I think we’re worth it.”

I looked up at him, the corner of my mouth lifting into a blank grin. I would let him have tonight. “I know Chase.” I kissed him then, a thank you and a goodbye.

***

            Chase made his way to the living room couch, where he had left Gemma last night, and spotted the blanket folded neatly over the arm.

“Gemma!” His voice echoed through the empty apartment.

Chase turned to the door and shuffled down the short hall. He stared at the dangling metal chain as it swung back and forth. He struggled with the knob and yanked the door open. Panic and anger built inside him as he raced down the stairs. He could feel it creep across his lungs and heart, crawl up his throat until he thought he would choke on it.

He got outside and heard the rumble of an engine. He sprinted to Gemma’s monstrous truck. Chase rammed into the passenger side door and slammed his palm against the window, one sharp thump, and then another, as they looked at each other.

The window slid down and he stared at Gemma. She wouldn’t look at him, just kept staring at the horrible pattern on her oversized sweater. They both listened to the radio for a beat, a cowboy crooning about lost things.

“You’re running. Why?” He said.

“I’m sorry.” Gemma whispered to her lap

He looked at the girl he had loved for five years and realized what she had been trying to say last night: she would never let him.

“Go ahead and be broken if that’s what you want.” Her fingers tensed on the steering wheel, but she kept her gaze on that sweater. He turned around, and still the cowboy sang.

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