“If you don’t go talk to her, then I will do it for you,” Stella says.
I shrink in my seat, oozing with shyness. Outside the cafe window, the fiddle player dances in blue jeans as her music takes wing. She has red hair and slender hips. She is beautiful.
But she isn’t Deanna.
Stella doesn’t know that this is a problem. Telling her would be a BIG. FREAKIN’. DEAL. Because it’s only once the words hit the air, like the bow sliding across the string, that they become real.
Stella does not fulfill her threat. The fiddle player packs up and leaves. Back in our hotel room, Stella begins plotting the next day’s tourist activities here in Durango, Colorado, including a bar hop during which she will push me to actually talk to girls.
I picture trying to make flirty small talk with a strange Durangoan in a bar. In my imagination, she has the fiddle player’s thin, delicate face.
Then the face changes. Fills out. Green eyes behind glasses, plush lips. Freckles across the cheekbones and the bridge of the nose. All framed by short, thick, chestnut-brown hair.
“So there’s a girl.”
Stella raises her eyebrow in a “go on” expression.
So there’s a girl.
I flounder for words. The simplest ones, the truest ones, won’t come. As if to speak them will turn the feeling untrue.
“I’ve got… feelings for her.”
And there are the feelings, in the air, little birds in flight. Releasing them is frightening: slow-grown feelings, incubated over the five years that I’ve known Deanna, still feel too fragile to let out.
But the true fear is that, once released, the feelings will only grow. And grow. And grow.
“Is it Deanna?” Stella asks.
Stella rolls her eyes. “Duh. So what’re you gonna do about it?”
I learn to play the ukulele for her. Not that she asked. I learn to do many things for her that she never asked for. Loving her is, in some ways, the easiest of all of those things.
It’s certainly easier than the ukulele.
I play “Learning to Fly,” because it reminds her of her favorite character on her favorite TV show. Because it only has four chords. Because she loves Tom Petty.
Because if I can’t learn to fly with wings, then I can do it with ukulele strings. If I can’t confess my love in my own words, then someone else’s will have to do.
she loves Tom Petty.
I practice for hours. I watch the Tom Petty music video over and over listening for strumming patterns, play along until my hands remember them better than my brain. Sing along in a key too low for my soprano voice.
The next time she comes over to my house, I don’t feel ready. But she walks in the door that day with sadness weighing down her shoulders, with a frown pinching down her mouth.
Her mouth wasn’t made for sorrow.
It’s not perfect timing. I’m not alone with her; she, her roommate Janie, and I are all hanging out together today.
But all I want in that moment is her joy.
And so I say, “Before we go, I’ve got a surprise.”
I take out my ukulele. I breathe deep. I start to play.
I’m a few bars into the intro before Deanna parses the high pitch of the ukulele into a familiar song.
Her smile is like flying. Who needs wings?
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.
Coming down is the hardest thing.
I ask her if we can go on a walk alone.
Just walking together, talking, was the easiest thing in the world.
Once, when she was suffering from particularly bad insomnia, we walked for hours and hours in the middle of the night, stumbling back to her apartment when the sun came up. We never lacked for topics. Just walking together, talking, was the easiest thing in the world.
Why does it have to be so much harder now?
“Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?”
I nod. I swallow, but my nerves won’t go down.
“Let’s sit,” I say.
We sit on a park bench, looking out at the green and yellow grass of the open space in summer.
“So. Uh. I want you to know something. Not because you have to do anything about it or anything, but because I want you to know.”
I can’t look at her eyes for too long. I can’t know what she sees.
But she has told me, on multiple occasions, of the importance of truth in her friendships.
So I look right at her. Her summer freckles stand out like cinnamon in milk. I want to kiss them all.
“So. I think I’ve had a crush on you since we met in school. But you always had a girlfriend then, so it was like…a seed of a crush that never grew into anything. I didn’t mean for it to grow, but lately…it has. So. I have all these feelings for you. And I wanted you to know about them. Because. That’s how it is. And all I want to be is honest with you.”
Words, like wings.
Her eyes widen. Her mouth parts slightly. Surprise. But not negative. She nods. Gives me a little smile.
A smile. City lights in the still world.
“Thank you for telling me,” she says. “I…have had the same sort of feelings for you, too, for a while now.”
I’m learning to fly, around the clouds…
I begin to smile.
I hold my breath.
Don’t say it. Whatever it is, if you say it, then that makes it true. Can’t this just be the only truth?
She rubs at her hair. Sighs.
“I’ve been dating Janie since February.”
But what goes up must come down.
I put away my ukulele. It’s a long time before I play it again.
What is said cannot be unsaid.
But I’d already set my fingers to the strings. I’d played, I’d sang. And then I’d spoken. I’d given wings to my words.
Now they are happening. What is said cannot be unsaid.
I am only grateful that I didn’t say “love.”