The game is called: If we’d just met.
“If we’d just met at the grocery store—” Brandon begins.
Callie can’t help but laugh. “The grocery store? That’s romantic…”
“No, hear me out. Grocery store. Saturday morning. Jesus has lost the shopping list again. Mariana won’t get off her phone. I’m basically going crazy. And then BAM. I see you.”
“What am I doing?” asks Callie.
“You’re buying papayas,” says Brandon.
“What? …Who buys papayas? I have never bought papayas.”
“Exactly. That’s why I notice you. I think: hey, that girl has unusual taste in fruit.”
“And that’s what you look for in a girl?”
“Absolutely. Plus, you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. We’re in the produce aisle and it’s like this light is shining down just for us. I see you and—I just know. You’re the one.”
“Me and my papayas,” Callie says softly, smiling.
She closes her eyes and imagines the scene. She feels Brandon shift beside her, his arm tightening around her, his breath warm and steady as he leans close. His lips touch hers, the barest of kisses.
“Exactly,” he murmurs.
They lie in the middle of an empty room on bare floorboards and talk about all the ways they could have met and how much easier it could have been.
If they’d just met because Brandon was starting a band and Callie replied to his Craigslist posting…
(“Wait, what kind of band?” asks Callie.
“I don’t know,” says Brandon. “Like, Mumford and Sons?”
“Oh my god, you’re serious.”
“What’s wrong with Mumford and Sons?”)
If they’d just met because Jude needed a tutor and Brandon wanted to make some extra money…
(“Excuse me, I already help Jude with his homework,” says Callie, faux-offended.
“Okay, so, maybe we tutor him together,” says Brandon.
“This is the most boring one yet.”
“We fall in love over algebra equations.” He kisses her nose. “It’s basically the start of a romantic comedy.”)
It’s a game that can go on for hours.
Brandon’s scenarios range from mundane to bizarre (“we’re residents on the moon’s first colony”), but in each one he remains certain: they could have met any way, in any life, and they’d still have fallen in love. His belief in their love is unshakeable.
The game is supposed to make her feel better. But it only scares the hell out of her.
For Callie, love is fragile. It doesn’t transcend circumstances; it’s a flame that can be snuffed out if you let it.
Callie can’t tell him that she’s never bought anything at the grocery store with anything more than the correct change. She’s certainly never bought weird fruit on a whim.
She can’t tell him that foster parents don’t pay for tutors for kids that aren’t theirs. She can’t tell him that joining a band is something that only regular teenagers do: regular teenagers who worry about zits and their GPA, rather than worrying about bruises on their arms and moving 50 miles away at 50 minutes’ notice.
For her, falling in love with Brandon wasn’t a matter of the stars aligning. It wasn’t wispy love at first sight; some kind of mystical light shining down on them. Hard luck threw them together in a bad situation and somehow they found something good.
The game only reveals the fundamental difference between them: Brandon thinks they’ll get another chance, while she knows that this, right here, is all she gets.
“Worst case scenario, we wait two years,” he said to her once, “then we’ll be adults and no one can do anything.”
Two years may as well be forever. It’s enough time for Brandon to meet someone else, to realize he wants more than the trashy foster sister. It’s enough time for her to drift further out to sea – alone, alone, alone, the word like a drumbeat – until she loses herself entirely. Brandon is her anchor; she can’t lose him.
He’s halfway through telling her about how they would have met on the moon when she interrupts him.
“Tell me you love me,” she says and hears the desperation in her own voice. “Not grocery store me. Not moon colony me. Not the cute girl next door you were supposed to fall in love with. Me.”
She rolls over, so that she’s on top of him, pressing her body into his. She looks at him intently. Flat on his back on the dusty floor, he looks vulnerable somehow. His hair is rumpled. His face is pale; the mole on his cheek like a comma. His smile is fading as she brings him back to reality.
“I love you,” he says without hesitation.
Then, when she doesn’t respond, he says it again, over and over.
“I love you, I love you, I love you.” A new drumbeat to replace the one in her mind.
She cuts him off with a kiss. He kisses her back, deep and searching. Her fingernails scrape bare floorboards as she pushes her fingers into his hair, clinging and desperate to anchor herself.
She doesn’t need another life. She doesn’t need a fairy tale to make her feel better; an imagined universe where things might be simpler.
She just needs him. An empty room and him.