Before We Were Strangers: A Love Story: Chapter 17

We Belong Together

GRACE

We hadn’t talked for weeks, and all the while I was brutally aware of time passing. Matt was going to leave for South America in six days.

I had lost so much weight since our fight, and I felt weak and sick all the time. It was impossible to concentrate on anything, or even think about having a social life.

Tati apologized profusely for being at least partly responsible for that afternoon that ended everything between me and Matt. “It’s probably for the best. You didn’t want to pull a Jacki Reed anyway, did you?”

Jacki Reed was a girl I went to high school with, and I used to tell her story to my friends like a cautionary tale. Jacki Reed used to brag at the lunch tables about her college boyfriend off in Nevada somewhere. For a long time, none of the other senior girls at my high school even believed the dude existed. Jacki always acted like they were so evolved because they were in a long-distance relationship—like that meant he liked her more. She actually referred to it as an LDR. I told her that you can’t make up acronyms for everything; people won’t know what you’re talking about. When we graduated, she enrolled in a shitty junior college in Nevada just to be near him, even though she got accepted to Yale. He dumped her two months later. Now she lives back home and works at the Dairy Queen. We all thought she was the biggest moron.

Poor foolish girl was probably just in love.

It wasn’t Tati’s fault, or the Jacki Reed story. Matt and I fell apart because the walls were closing in on us. Him serving the annulment papers to me proved to me that he wasn’t all-in like he said he was. He probably realized what I had realized: we were on separate paths.

Graduation was approaching so I spent a lot of time in my room, filling out forms for grants and trying to hide from everyone. Matt tried to stop me in the hall once, but I ignored him. I regretted it later when I saw that he had left a sandwich for me outside my door. I cried the entire time I ate it.

There was a stack of mail on my desk that I had been ignoring for a week because I knew what one particular piece contained. It was in a regular envelope, addressed to me by my mother. There’s nothing cheery about a standard, white envelope. I picked it up and stared at it. The front return address was blurry, like someone had spilled water on it. I realized, after reading the letter, that it could have been her tears.

Finally, one morning, I decided to open it.

Dear Graceland,

I’m so sorry that I couldn’t tell you this in person but there is just not enough money in the bank to pay for a flight home for you this summer. Your brother needed a new backpack for school and we hadn’t bought your sisters any new school clothes this year. Everything is falling apart. How can I say these words to you? Your father’s drinking has gotten to be too much for me. We are getting a divorce and he is going to live with your uncle. Your brother and sisters and I are going to move into Grandma’s until we can get on our feet.

I know your father loves you and we are so proud of you. We don’t want you to take any of this on as your burden. Right now we just can’t help out, and I don’t think we will be able to afford to come for your graduation. Please understand. You’ve always been so independent, and we didn’t think you would want us there anyway. You’ve always been able to make ends meet on your own, Grace, and we are proud of you for that. We love you. When you can afford it, come home and visit and we will make a bed for you on Grandma’s couch.

I must tell you we had to sell the piano and some of your things that I don’t think you wanted anyway to help pay for your sister’s tooth. We love you. Keep doing a good job.

Love, Mom

To say I was hysterical would be an understatement. I could not stop crying. How could they? I thought. How could they just abandon me because of their own mistakes? I didn’t even have a car or money to live on, and my mother was using my sister’s tooth as an excuse again when I had given her half of my student loan for it. Where had that money even gone? It was all too depressing to think about.

The second envelope was a notice from the Student Financial Services office stating that I still owed eight hundred dollars for housing. Sitting in the corner of my room as the tears ran steadily down my cheeks, I thought about all the things I could do. I could do some cello gigs, but that would be a minimal amount of money.

With my knees propped up and my head dropped down between them, I sobbed. I could sell my cello. I could go home and live on my grandma’s couch and get a job at the Dairy Queen. I could give up.

And then I heard Matt mumble, “Baby?” as he pushed my door open. I hadn’t heard his voice in three weeks.

“I’m fine, Matt.”

He came over to me. “What happened?”

Without looking up, I held the two tear-soaked pieces of mail toward him. He read them quietly, then sat down next to me.

“I can help you.”

“No.”

He brushed his thumb over my cheek, capturing the tears. “I have money to cover this.”

“No, Matt. You’re going to ask your dad and I don’t want him bailing me out again.”

“It’s not my father’s money. I sold a photo. I was going to tell you but you wouldn’t fucking talk to me.”

“I thought we were broken up.” I stood, walked over to my desk, and grabbed the paperwork I had received confirming our annulment. I tossed it to him. “And you divorced me.”

Matt quickly made a paper airplane out of it and sailed it out of my open dorm window. “I hereby declare you my ex-wife. So what? Who cares. It means nothing.”

I stared at him.

“It’s not gonna be that easy, is it?” he said.

“I need time.”

“We don’t have much.”

I sat on the windowsill, looking out at the lone tree in the courtyard, swaying back and forth. “That’s my problem. Time.” I turned to him. “Which photo did you sell?”

“The one of you. The first day we met. The one where you’re picking the button off the floor. Mr. Nelson chose it for the university gallery and it sold the first day. I jokingly put a thousand dollars on the price tag, thinking no one would buy it. It’s as much your money as it is mine. I want you to have it.” His look was sincere and sweet. We were talking and it felt good.

“It’s not mine.”

“Well, as my ex-wife . . .” He started laughing. “We might have been married at the time the photograph sold. Who would know?”

I couldn’t help but laugh, too. “We were married for a couple of days. And anyway, it would be fifty-fifty.”

“Okay, fine. I will take the other five hundred and then give it back to you for all the modeling work you’ve done for me.”

“I wish I could really laugh about this, but I’m just so angry with my parents right now. I can’t believe they act like I wouldn’t want them here for my graduation,” I said.

“It’s their way of making themselves feel less guilty.”

“They’re gonna fuck me up with this pressure.”

“No.” He was suddenly serious. “No, they’re not. As soon as you stop thinking that way and you see how amazing you are, all that resentment you have for them will turn into gratitude. You’ll be like, ‘I’m glad my parents didn’t give a shit because it made me fuckin’ awesome.’ ”

Letting his words sink in, I sat there quietly for several moments. I knew what he meant. “Yeah, I guess. Someday I’ll be like, ‘Thanks, Mom and Dad. You fuckers.’ ”

“Exactly!” Matt said, triumphantly.

“Thanks, Matt.”

“Anytime,” he said, standing up and walking toward the door. “Hey, will you stay here for a bit? I need to run and get something.”

“Okay.”

He returned a short while later with donut holes, orange juice, a tiny practice amp, and an electric guitar that I recognized as one of Brandon’s. I was lying on my bed so I turned on my side, propping my elbow under my head, and watched Matt move around the room. He put three rainbow-sprinkled donut holes on a plate and handed it to me, along with the mini bottle of orange juice. He didn’t say a word; he just gave me a small smile. It was early but already hot and stuffy in the room.

He kicked off his shoes and pulled his Smiths T-shirt over his head then threw it at me. “You can wear it if you want.”

“Matt . . .”

“What, you like wearing my shirts.”

That was true. I stripped down to my bra and underwear and then pulled Matt’s T-shirt on. That Matt smell made me feel all warm and tingly.

“See? Better,” he said. I nodded.

He wore only his black jeans and the belt I had made for him, with his wallet chain swaying back and forth as he moved around the room.

Squatting near the amp, he plugged it into the wall and looked up at me. Tears were filling my eyes again. “You okay?”

I nodded. I wasn’t crying about the letter or the money or the photo; I was crying because the thought of Matt leaving, even just for a few months, killed me. He would be leaving in a week. He’d be a world away, and I would be left behind, crying over being too young to give it all up or to ask him to give it all up. Crying that I hadn’t met him later, when getting married would have made sense and neither one of us would have freaked out.

My face was throbbing and puffy with tears as I watched him sit on a wooden stool and position the green-and-white Telecaster on his thigh. He strummed it once and looked up for approval. It wasn’t loud; it was a perfect, clean sound. I had never seen him play an instrument or even attempt to, but something became very clear to me in that moment. Matt had been practicing . . . for me.

“Before I start, I just want you to know that I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” I said, instantly.

“Can we please go back to the way things were?”

“But what about . . .”

“Grace, can we please enjoy the time we have with each other?”

“Yes.” I burst into tears.

His fingers plucked one note and I knew he was playing “Hallelujah.” I cried even more.

He sang the words softly and flawlessly. I marveled at him, so young and beautiful, sitting shirtless and barefoot, with undeterred focus. When he was finished, he strummed one last time and looked up at me. At that point I was a blubbering fool. His smile was a pitying, sad kind of smile, reserved only for when a person knows there’s nothing that can be said to make things right. He was leaving. And I couldn’t stop him.

In a shaky voice, I told him how beautiful his playing was and I asked how he learned the song. He told me that Brandon would sometimes hang out at the PhotoHut, so he had asked if Brandon would teach it to him. He’d practiced it over and over for me since the Jeff Buckley concert so I’d finally get to hear it live.


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