I remember the lights.
I remember I wanted to photograph them, the way the red and blue splashed across his cold, emotionless face. But I knew even if my feet could move from the place where they had cemented themselves to the ground and I could run for my camera, I wouldn’t be able to capture that moment. There was no shutter speed, no lens, no lighting technique that could properly encapsulate everything I felt as I stared into his eyes.
I had trusted him, I had loved him, and even though my body had changed that summer, he’d made sure to help me hold on to who I was inside, regardless of how the exterior altered.
But then everything changed.
He stole my innocence. He scarred my heart. He took everything I thought I knew about my life and fast-pitched it out the window, shattering the glass that held my world together in the process.
I remember the lights.
The passionate, desperate, hot strikes of red. The harsh, cruel, icy bolts of blue.
They symbolized everything I endured that summer.
And everything I would never face again.
My mom and step-dad thought I couldn’t hear them mumbling in the kitchen about my well-being over the volume of the fifth consecutive episode of Lost I was watching, but I could hear every word. So I sighed heavily and turned the volume up when they approached the couch.
I was still in my pajamas, and I knew I should have at least changed into shorts and a t-shirt so they thought I got up and lived a little that day. The truth was I hadn’t done a damn thing, other than watch that utterly confusing show, anyway. But I lost the ability to care after my second Little Debbie snack.
“Love this show,” Dale said, sitting casually on the arm of our dark brown leather sectional. I pulled my legs up to my chest so Mom could sit down next to him. “Hated the ending, but still.”
“No spoilers, Dale!”
He threw up his hands in mock surrender. “I’m just saying. You’re going to wish you didn’t waste the hours.”
Mom appraised my sweatpants, her eyes lingering a little longer when she spied the frayed edges where I’d dragged them on the ground. Jillian Poxton didn’t do sweatpants and she didn’t think any other woman, or girl, should either. Her choice was always a dress or neatly pressed skirt paired with the perfectly complementary top. Even then, on a Sunday afternoon hours after church had ended, she sat with her hands in her lap and her ankles crossed in a bright, summery-blue dress that cinched her tiny waist and flowed down to her knees.
“Sweetheart,” she sighed the word, her hand reaching to gently squeeze my leg.
“Mom, please.” I leaned up and away from her touch, keeping my eyes fixed on the television. “Don’t.”
“Honey, don’t you think it’s time to get out of this house? I let you stay home all week, but today was the second time you missed church… and you know how people talk.”
I chewed my lip because as much as I wanted to argue, she was right. People did talk in Poxton Beach, SC. The fact that my step-dad, Dale Poxton, owned pretty much everything in the small tourist map-blip didn’t help my case much, either. His ancestors founded the cozy beach town and, surprisingly, the family never did pull up roots and venture out. Dale had lived there his entire life and he knew he would die there, his grave filing in right next to his parents’.
Still, I hated how stern Mom was being with me. Given the circumstances, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal to wallow in self-pity and Zebra cakes for a while longer. But apparently Mom had reached her limit. She may have been my mom, but she was also Dale Poxton’s wife, which meant she had eyes on her, too. Questions. Still, I wasn’t ready to face the music of my new reality.
I had graduated high school just a week prior, and on that same night, my boyfriend of two years had broken my heart.
“Exactly. I do know how this town talks. Which is why I’m not keen on leaving the couch at the moment,” I challenged, trying again to end the conversation by raising the volume on the TV.
“Now listen, Natalie,” Dale chimed in, grabbing the remote from where I’d just dropped it next to me. He pressed the pause button and I sighed heavily. “Your mom and I understand what you’re going through, we do. Believe it or not, we were young and in love once, too. But you can’t waste your summer lying around and…” He trailed off, but his eyes fell to the mess of processed food wrappers gathering on the mahogany coffee table.
“Eating my feelings?”
He exchanged a worried glance with Mom and I wanted to crawl under the couch cushions and die. I hated being looked at, I hated being judged, and I felt both happening from the two people I trusted and loved most.
I was thicker than most girls my age —hell, than most girls, period. I had love handles that hung over my jeans and arms twice the size of my best friend Willow’s. My cheeks were chubby, there wasn’t a single space my thighs didn’t touch when I stood ankles together, and I couldn’t remember a time I’d bought anything smaller than a large when I went shopping with my friends.
I had always been the “big girl”, and up until that point, I had never really thought to feel ashamed about it. It was only the Friday before, at my graduation party, that I realized how insecure I had always felt but had never admitted. I didn’t come to that realization softly. No, I was hurled into it like a high-speed train. Because Mason didn’t just break up with me that night, not for the reason he gave me. He said we were growing apart, that he had plans and I didn’t, that he needed to start thinking about his future. But when he started dating a petite little brunette not even a full two days later, I knew the real reason he let me go. I didn’t even know who she was, but I saw a photo of them on social media and that was enough for me. She was skinny. She was gorgeous.
She was everything I wasn’t.
“Can I have a minute with her, Dale?” Mom asked, like I wasn’t still in the room with them. Or like I was twelve and not eighteen. He nodded, smiling and ruffling my hair before excusing himself. Again, I felt the need to shove my diploma in their face and remind them of my age. Once he was gone, Mom turned back to me.
“Do you want him back?”
I blanched. “What?”
“You heard me. Do you want him back?”
“I don’t really think that’s an option, Mom,” I mumbled, picking at the already chipping gold nail polish on my thumbnail. I wanted to peel every last inch of that high school off of me forever, including the forest green and gold colors I had sported so spiritually every year of my life. “He’s…” I paused, crossing my arms tight over my chest. “He’s not available anymore.”