LOVE is a four-letter word

I stared at my reflection in the mirror one last time. My girlfriend was going to go crazy when she saw me. We would be the best-dressed couple at the ball. Well, at least the best dressed freshmen.

Not that I cared about those things. But I knew she did, at least a little. And I just cared about making her happy.

My phone rang, bringing me back to the present. I sighed when I saw it was my mother. Why couldn’t she just text me like a normal person?

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi, Larry, sweetie. Your father and I need to talk to you about something.”

 I glanced at the clock. “Can it wait? I’m kind of busy tonight.”

I don’t think my father was listening. “Your mother kicked me out of the house.”

What did he just say? I heard wrong, right? A million thoughts ran through my head, but my mother didn’t give me a chance to voice them.

“Oh, like I had a choice after what you did.”

“Don’t play innocent. You said yourself, you and that woman have been together longer than me and Jenny.”

“That doesn’t mean—”

Did they call me to argue or tell me something? I raised my voice so they could hear me over their fighting. “Wait, wait. Start at the beginning. Dad’s moving out?”

I could hear him sigh. “I’m going to go live with my friend Jenny. You met her when you came home. She works in my building. We go biking together.”

“She’s pregnant.” I could hear anger in my mother’s voice, but I wasn’t quite sure why.

I tried to keep the conversation lighthearted. “You going to babysit instead of paying rent?”

“It’s his baby.” I could hear the sneer, picturing my mother’s face as she glared at my father.

My jaw hit the floor. “It’s what?”

Before my mother could incite an argument, my dad explained. “We’ve been seeing each other for a couple of months now.”

“A couple of months. You guys just moved to Philly like four months ago!”

My parents took my disbelief as a sign to start taking shots at each other. “Well, when your father thinks so little of our marriage—”

“Oh, don’t act all innocent. I wasn’t the only one seeing another woman.”

“I never slept with her! Because you and I are still married.”

“But you still—”

“Guys!” Again, I had to raise my voice to be heard. “I really can’t deal with this right now. I have to get going. Tell you what. Why don’t you put all the information in an email and we can talk about it tomorrow?”

For the first time in my fourteen years, I hung up on my parents. I stared at the screen, trying to process what they had said. Before any of it could make sense, my roommate rushed into the room.

“I swear, one of these balls, I will get out of my game on time and not be late to the dance. What are you still doing here?”

I glanced at the clock and swore. “My parents waylaid me. I better go. See you there.”

Grabbing my coat, I left my dorm in a fog.

Sarah was waiting for me in her common room. She was wearing a sleeveless black dress that shimmered. Her long, dark hair was in a complicated braid and she smelled like vanilla. I gave her a quick kiss.

“You look gorgeous.”

She twirled in a circle. “Thank you.”

I nodded to the door. “Ready to go?”

She frowned. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine. My parents called as I was heading over here. Made me late. Come on. Let’s get to the dance before all the food is gone.”

She smiled. I took her coat from her, holding it out to help her into it. Most of our friends followed us out of the common room.

We made our way across campus to the dining hall. The music was already playing. Though I was in no mood to dance, it was the reason we were here. I followed my friends onto the dance floor.

We weren’t there long before a slow song began to play. I pulled Sarah close, and she rested her head on my chest. We swayed to the music in silence.

Then she had to ruin everything.

“I love you.” She said it so simply, it took a moment for the words to register. By the time they did, her lips were on mine.

I jumped away from her. I needed air. Leaving her on the dance floor, I stormed towards the refreshments in the senior section.

When Sarah followed me, I could see anger in her eyes. I hadn’t meant to hurt her. I sighed as she came closer.

“I’m sorry. All of a sudden, I was feeling claustrophobic.”

She took my hand. “That’s okay. You okay now?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

She stepped closer to me, fingering my tie. “Did you hear what I said a minute ago?”

I shook my head. Better to play dumb.

She looked disappointed. “Oh. Well, I took this online quiz and you know what it told me? That I was in love with you. Of course, I already knew that, but I was glad the quiz agreed with me.”

I raised my eyebrows. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m trying to say I love you. This is the part where you’re supposed to say it back.”

I shook my head. “I can’t love you. I mean, I like you a lot and I like being with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m in love with you. We’re too young to be in love.”

Sarah frowned. “Says who? Romeo and Juliet were our age.”

“Don’t they die in that movie?”

“My point was that we’re not too young. You should take the quiz. Then you’ll see you love me too.”

“I’m not taking some stupid quiz!”

People looked over at my elevated voice, but I didn’t care. I was angry. Angry with Sarah for trying to force me to think I was in love with her. Angry at my parents who were three times my age and couldn’t get it right. Angry at myself for answering the stupid phone and not letting it go to voicemail.

Unfortunately, Sarah was the only one available to for me to vent.

“What does a silly internet quiz know about love? It’s not real. Even if I took the thing, it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t love you. I can’t love you. If adults can’t get it right, what makes you think we can?”

Tears were streaming down Sarah’s face, and I was angry with myself for putting them there. But I didn’t know how to make things better.

She sniffed. “I don’t understand. What are you saying? You don’t love me?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Then why are we together?”

“You know what? That’s a good question. This whole thing’s kind of pointless, isn’t it?”

I stormed out of the room. As I crossed the threshold, I took a quick glance behind me. I had broken Sarah’s heart. And I felt terrible about.

Better to do it now than when we were married with kids, right?

Walter, my buddy across the hall, stopped by my room to tell me about his date, but I just couldn’t be happy for him. My roommate sidled in just before curfew, having taken the long way in walking home his new girlfriend.

After telling them both I broke up with Sarah, they left me alone.

I didn’t leave my room much on Sunday. My parents took my advice, each sending me an email detailing why the other one was responsible for the destruction of their marriage. After reading that, I had no appetite.

Walter dragged me to dinner when the dining hall opened. Thankfully, Sarah wasn’t there. I really didn’t want to face her. I forced down a peanut butter sandwich and some soup. As soon as I saw Sarah approaching, I excused myself from the table.

I returned to my room, only to spend all of study hours staring at my math book. I had no idea what any of it said.

Monday was spent in a daze. I had no clue what was going on in class. I didn’t write down a single thing. By second period, I was wishing I had faked sick so I could stay in the infirmary instead of going to class.

I had third through fifth periods free. My plan was to spend the entire time in my room, but Walter popped his head in after his English class.

“Come on. Lunchtime.”

I waved him away. “Not hungry.”

“Not taking no for an answer. You need to eat.”

“I’m not sitting with her.”

“I don’t expect you to.”

Sighing, I rolled off my bed. “I hate you.”

He smiled, clapping me on the shoulder. “Feeling’s mutual, dude.”

We almost always ate lunch with Sarah and her roommate. Today, they sat in an entirely different section of the dining hall. I sat with my back to them.

I was somewhat surprised when Walter’s older brother joined us a little while later. I greeted Pat with a nod before pointing to his girlfriend, Sarah’s roommate. “Bro. Did you guys break up, too?”

He was clearly baffled. “Huh? What’re you talking about?”

Walter said something with his mouth full. I wasn’t quite sure what he said, but I guessed it had to do with my relationship status. His brother seemed to understand him.

He shook his head. “Oh. Sorry, man. No, we didn’t break up. We’re just . . .”

Walter swallowed. “He’s avoiding Melinda.”

“I am not. Okay, fine. Maybe I am.”

I gave a small smirk. “Why? What’d you do wrong?”

“Why do you assume I did something wrong?”

It was obvious by the way he played with his food that he was guilty of something. I shrugged. “Didn’t you?”

He nodded, but Walter was the one who explained. “He tried to–”

Pat sent his bother a look that suggested he might hurt him. “Shut up! It’s not important.”

I smirked. “You realize Walter’ll just tell me later, right?” Of course I wasn’t serious. We all knew Walter wasn’t about to break anyone’s confidence, let alone his brother’s. But it was enough to ease some of the tension at the table.

While Pat explained how he had overstepped some boundaries in the backseat of his car, I couldn’t help but feel jealous. His girlfriend wasn’t even mad at him. He was avoiding her because he was mad at himself.

That’s not that different from what I was doing, was it? Sarah had done nothing wrong, but I was taking things out on her.

After I gave him some advice on how to stay on the correct side of the line, Pat smirked at me. “If you’re such an expert, why’d you break up with Sarah?”

I sighed. “She scared me. She thinks she’s in love with me because she took some stupid online quiz. She’s not.”

“How do you know?” asked Walter cautiously.

“Because you can’t be in love at fourteen.”

I could see Pat disagreed. “What makes you say that?”

“Because if adults can’t get it right, how can we?”

I hadn’t meant to snap at them. I saw Pat and Walter exchange baffled looks before turning back to me. Walter sent me a sympathetic look.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“I really don’t!” I sighed. “I’m working through some stuff. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Walter changed the subject to his own girl troubles, but I only gave him part of my attention. In turning to face him, I had caught sight of Sarah out of the corner of my eye.

I missed her. And it wasn’t fair of me to break up with her because my parents had screwed up their relationship. I thought about this while I brooded in my room during fifth period. I thought about this while my history and math teachers droned on that afternoon. I thought about this while I ran laps around the indoor track, trying not to watch Sarah at her basketball practice below.

I decided to talk to Sarah. Things may be over between us, but she had a right to know why we broke up. I went to her dorm before dinner. After checking in with an advisor, I headed up to her room.

And nearly bumped into her roommate. She glared at me, warning me not to hurt Sarah, before sliding down the stairs to avoid stepping on her broken ankle. Shaking my head, I knocked on Sarah’s door.

She was sitting on her bed, looking miserable. When she saw it was me, she didn’t say a word. I entered the room anyway, sitting in her desk chair.

“I’m sorry.”

She glared at me. “We’re not getting back together.”

I shook my head. “That’s not why I’m here. I just thought you should know what’s going on. The other night, as I was getting ready to come pick you up, my parents called. To tell me they’re getting divorced.”

She looked at me with wide eyes. “They told you that right before the dance?”

I nodded. “I learned more later, but basically my dad’s been seeing this other woman and got her pregnant.”

Sarah gasped. “I’m so sorry.” She held open her arms, and I crawled into them without thinking. I could feel tears stinging my eyes. I rested my head on her shoulder as I told her the rest. “My mom and sister are moving back to Rhode Island. Dad’s staying in Philly, obviously.”

“How’s your mom handling all this?”

I shook my head. “She’s planning on moving in with the woman she’s been seeing for over a year.”

Sarah pushed me away so she could look at me more clearly. “She’s what?”

I nodded. “Yup. Apparently, they were about to file for divorce months ago, but when my sister got sick, they decided to stay together for her. Now that she’s managing okay and my dad’s having a new baby, they figured it was time to split.”

I couldn’t stop the tears any longer. Sarah drew me close, letting me cry as she ran her fingers  through my hair. “And that was running around your head when I told you I love you. No wonder you freaked out.”

I sniffed. “I know you think you’re in love with me, but I can’t love you. I may never be able to.”

To my surprise, she looked me in the eye and smiled. “I know you believe that. But, you’re wrong. You love me. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

Her lips met mine and for the first time in days, I felt at peace. I may not be able to love her, but she and I were definitely meant to be together.

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