By Matt Miller
I would like to recount a story of youth.
A story so trivial, I am almost embarrassed to consider it so dear to my heart. A story about how I, Zane, grew up–just a little.
In such a story, words of farewell are inevitable.
“You feel better when you talk, and you feel better when someone hears you out!”
That’s something that she would have said.
They’re words that I came to believe in during our time together.
I don’t think of myself as a nice person. I am well aware of my dark side and I fed it as a means of comfort. For me, that was simply being an observer of other people’s misery, quietly listening into their problems.
There’s nothing more comforting than knowing you’re not alone, and in return, they get “the story off their chest.”
It was a mutually beneficial relationship that I orchestrated with many clients throughout my senior year of high school. If someone had a serious problem, I would of course direct them to the police, young men or women’s shelter, or a guidance counselor.
During high school, I felt as though nothing would ever change. I would come late or not at all, talk to very few people outside of my “business," and go home. I didn’t get along with my parents back then, and as a result, would stay out until about five or six in the morning. Once they left for work, I would come home and sleep until noon.
I had no relationship with my parents because of that. They didn’t acknowledge my existence. No dinners together, no celebration of birthdays, no outings. Not even a “move out.” I just wasn’t there. A spectre so insignificant that they didn’t even care to scold it.
It was in a setting like that where I met Charlotte.
We met in a small coffee shop by the school. Her eyes locked onto mine.
“You’re a nuisance.”
“This little game you’re playing. You’re a nuisance.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Charlotte reached over the table and grabbed the scruff of my shirt.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. I found out about you from someone you spoke to a few weeks ago. My friend Riley. Do you remember what you told her?”
“I’m a busy man. I don’t keep tabs on every single thing people come to me about.”
“She was suffering from depression and came to you about it. Shortly after, she attempted to take her own life. I’ve seen the messages you sent to her. Your advice was absolute shit.”
Her grip on the scuff of my neck grew tighter. She stared into my eyes with such intensity, that I could not meet them back.
“I can’t control how someone decides to take my advice.”
"Charlotte, let go of my shirt."
“You’re far too dangerous to let out of my sight. You should be lucky I don’t turn you in right now. From now on, you’re under my supervision. You disobey once, and I take all the texts you’ve sent to Riley straight to the police.”
That was how I met her. That was how we began to spend our school days together.
“Wake up... Wake up, its 7:30... Get out of bed now.” Not even twenty-four hours after I first met that annoying girl, there she stood over my bedside.
“Why the fuck are you in my room? How did you even get up here?”
Charlotte pointed to the door. “I knocked on the door and your parents guided me up here.”
I bit the bottom of my lip.
“So you met them, huh? What did they say?”
Charlotte tilted her head. “Nothing. All they did was point in the direction of your room.”
I groggily sat up. “Ugh, okay, fine, whatever. Just get out so I can get dressed.”
The two of us left my house at 7:45 AM.
“You don’t say bye to your parents before leaving?”
“We don’t talk at all.”
“Oh…well, look: if we have to spend time together, then we might as well get along. Do you want breakfast?”
I stopped walking.
“Why would you offer me that? We’re enemies. Did you forget what I said to your friend? You sure were mad about that yesterday.”
“I’m livid about it. But for those of us who work, a small breakfast is nothing. If I’m going to drag you to school, you might as well learn something. Just pick whatever and I’ll buy it.”
Eventually, I gave in and bought a plate of waffles with Nutella.
“I did say anything…” Charlotte said, counting the few coins left in her purse, “but...”
I choked out an awkward thank you and began to eat.
“You sure are hungry. When was the last time you ate?”
I think back.
“I don’t know.”
“In the past 24 hours?”
“Yeah….probably. I think so, anyway.”
Diving into the waffles, a small glob of Nutella fell onto my white shirt.
“If you don’t want to go to school like that, we can run back to your house…”
“It’s fine. I’m used to not having clean clothes.”
Charlotte silently returned to her meal after that.
The two of us finished our breakfast. At the school gates, she warned me that she would be there to walk me home at 4 PM, sharp.
“And don’t cause any trouble before then.”
Upon entering the classroom, there were whispers…
“Isn’t that Zane?”
“At 9 AM?”
“Why does he even bother at this point?”
“Look at his shirt.”
I stared out the window for the entirety of the day, listening to the chirping of the birds, watching as the sunlight shone through the trees and ignoring everything both the teachers and students were saying.
For a few months, being awoken by Charlotte, going to school with Charlotte, catching up on sleep during the day, and being walked home by Charlotte was my new daily life.
And maybe, just maybe, during the loneliest of nights, I would look forward to seeing her the next day. On one autumn day on our way home from school, as both the setting sun and falling leaves dyed the town orange, I decided to ask Charlotte a question lingering on my mind.
“What made you want to help me?”
Charlotte spun on her heel.
“Because I want to work with youth, Zane.”
“Why is that?”
She bit her bottom lip.
“I guess there’s no reason why I can’t tell you. My sister committed suicide last year. And then I almost lost my friend to the same thing this past spring.”
“You mean the girl that I talked to.”
“How is she doing now?”
“She’s alive and recovering. But her attempt left her with some severe injuries.”
My teeth clenched.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
Charlotte put her hand on my shoulder. “Because you’ve been making improvements to your own life, Zane. You can’t be totally blamed for what happened. You were just one of many things that made her do what she did.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t get why you were able to forgive me for what I did. I don’t get how we can sit here and talk like this.”
She hugged me. Out of nowhere, she had hugged me.
“C’mon, Zane. If I can’t even get one delinquent back on the right track, how can I possibly hope to save lives?”
It was then.
I’m sure that’s when I fell in love with her.
“Zane…I owe you an apology too. I wanted to blame it all on you. I didn’t want to consider that any of the blame could lie with me not noticing. I didn’t want to have to analyze the things I said. I didn’t want to have to feel responsible for both what happened with my sister and my friend. I used you as a scapegoat, Zane.”
“You can’t just read people’s minds, right? I don’t think it was your fault. What I was doing back then was wrong. What I said was wrong.”
“Zane,” Charlotte began, “If there’s one thing you learn from your time with me I want it to be that people who need help will often not ask for it. There are some things people can’t say, even if they really want to. I think I somehow saw that in you, Zane.”
I’m sure that moment is when I fell in love with the annoying, persistent, stubborn, but yet sweet, forgiving and caring girl who saved me from myself.
But I couldn’t tell her that, no matter how much I wanted to.
Charlotte and I stayed together right until she graduated.
“You’ve graduated from my care, Zane!”
She said that to me with a smile on her face as she pat my back.
“And you graduated from high school.” I said, putting on the best smile that I could muster. “I guess I’m finally free from you.”
“Yeah….I’ll be going away to University in September.”
There was a sound of sadness in her tone.
“That’s great,” I said.
My words were followed by a long silence.
“I’m sorry. I can’t think of anything else to say.”
At that moment, the one thing I did not want to happen occurred.
My eyes began to water.
“Are you okay, Zane?”
“It’s just hard for me. I’m sure that you and all the other graduates will go on to have happy lives, and for people like me, life will be hard, and I’ll be all alone in this city…”
Charlotte began to tear up, as though my tears were infectious.
“It’s not like I want to leave you either, Zane! But if I stay here and don’t move forward, then what will I have taught you? You’re capable now. You have your work in on time, you’re far more polite and you even eat better.”
“But waking up on time still seems to be out of my reach.”
Charlotte smiled through her tears.
“Let’s work hard, Zane. I believe in you.”
Life was difficult for me after Charlotte left. In the autumn and the frigid winter, I searched for a job, but there wasn’t a single one that I qualified for. I was unable to stay in school and lived my life on the frigid winter streets.
My homeroom teacher had apologized to me.
“You’ve been much more serious lately, Zane, and yet –”
“I know,” I said. “By the time I smartened up, it was already too late.”
The teacher wiped his eyes under his glasses. “This kind of thing…for me to have to send a youth out into the world like this…it’s not easy for us either, you know.”
For some reason or other, he gave me a reference and we shared a cup of tea.
That was the end of my school days.
Those were the only words left to me in this lonely reality. They were all fourteen years of school had left me with.
“Charlotte, Charlotte, Charlotte.”
I repeat her name to myself. Just hearing it gives me a little bit of courage. The name of the girl that I love, who I’ll never, not once in my entire life, say that I love.
I’ll never say it.
Not even once. Not for the rest of my life. The girl who taught me how to care for others, and showed me that I was capable of caring for myself. I will someday fall in love with someone other than her, who is no longer in this town. There’s no way for me to catch up to her anymore.
Even so, in my eighteenth year, someone saved me.
I was saved by my first love, who will never know how much she did for me. With resumes in hand, I repeated her name to myself, and passed through the gate of the school for the last time.
Photo Credit: Scott Boyd