|“So… what do you think about Liz?” Bryan ‘Bubba’ Martin asked. Bubba was a nickname that was so incredibly ironic it was laughable. The name Bubba always made people associate the name to the character from Forest Gump, the fat, black man that talked about shrimp. My Bubba, he was something else. He was a tall, super skinny, incredibly intelligent white guy with traces of hippy in him. I rolled my eyes and gave a sigh.
“She’s perfect!” I exclaimed, and she was. She was a petite brunette that had a fire like stubborn quality. Liz was funny, outgoing, and involved. The fact that she worked with animals gave her that extra amazing edge. Bubba smiled and turned on the vaporizer holding it up to my mouth. The bathroom door was shut and my rainbow rug covered the crack at the bottom. Marijuana was packed in the vaporizer and we were about to partake in the cleanest way to smoke weed there was.
The small detail of clean smoking, of being healthy, had to do with my friend’s waning health. Cancer was waging war on Bubba’s bones. I was just on the sidelines chilling out with my best friend, doing what college kids do, not realizing that death was a possibility that loomed heavy around the corner. My first few lungs full of THC sent the euphoric like tingles through my body. I handed the contraption back to Bubba and as he took his hit, I ran my fingers through his hair. It was brown and shoulder length and beautiful. Bubba’s signature was his hair.
“You should ask her out,” I suggested.
“Yeah, I just might,” he conceded sounding hopeful. That night we ended up together, fully clothed on top of the covers, cuddling each other close.
Three months passed in a blur of midterms and social events. Phone calls from Bubba came every now and then to give an update that was usually sugarcoated about the extent of how sick the chemotherapy was making him.
I stepped through the doors of his apartment he had got when he was healthy. The lighting was dark and his sketchy roommate with a dirty shirt and smudges under his eyes let me in.
“I’m Eric,” he mumbled, “Bryan’s in the bathroom. He’ll be out in a minute.”
It irked me that he called him Bryan, but with the people he met after high school, his nickname never got brought up. Eric and I sat facing each other in the small living room that had boxes stacked in the corner. Bubba was moving out. He was going to be sick for a while and couldn’t keep up with the rent. It was time to move back in with the parents. This should have been a sign of the most ominous type, but I was blind to it.
“Katie!” Bubba exclaimed, walking around the corner, “You’re here!”
I jumped to my feet and rushed to him. His arms wrapped around me tight and it was all I could do not to cry then and there. The aching feeling of longing that I had been diligently ignoring became obvious in the center of my chest. I pulled away noticing how thin his middle was and how he wore a gray toboggan with no signature brown strands peaking out.
“I’ve missed you so much!” I squeaked out swallowing my tears. He took my hands in his and squeezed them reassuringly.
“I’ve missed you, too,” he led me into the kitchen, “Do you want a special brownie?”
I received the mound of moist chocolate with zero resistance, but I bit into without the enthusiasm of a college kid just hanging out. I bit into it ready to dissipate the discomfort of seeing my friend look so sick.
“So, do you and Liz still talk?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Sometimes I think she’s into me, but other times, I don’t,” he explained. I nodded like I had any idea.
The couch met us quickly after that. I curled up to Bubba’s side clutching his hoodie and emaciated body to me. My eyes were closed, but I felt like there was a whole world behind my eyelids falling and flying. Bubba’s arm stayed around my shoulders and he murmured in my ear sending electricity through the tiny hairs, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Please stay with me,” I whispered back, my heart heavy in the now, not realizing the implications of my words, “Please don’t leave me here. I don’t think I could handle it.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
I held on to hope.
Two months later, my phone rang while I was napping. I recognized the Jason Mraz ‘I’m Yours’ song instantly. Bubba had programmed his laptop to play that song when he turned it on and off. It seemed like the best choice for his ringtone. I answered it immediately giving a sleepy, “Hey.”
“Hey, did I wake you?”
“Not really. I was just waking up from a nap. Pulled an all-nighter for a final this morning.”
“God, I remember those. That sucks, man.”
“Yep, So, how’s it going over there?”
“Ah, you know, it’s got its ups and downs. I think I might try a more natural treatment than chemo. I’ve been looking it up some and I’ve got a referral to a doctor that specializes in it. I should feel a lot better if I do that.”
“Oh, yeah?” I replied stupidly. I should have seen it coming. I should have heard what wasn’t being said. The chemo wasn’t working. I steadfastly remained obtuse. “When will I see you again?”
Another two months passed. He was back in my room on campus again. We didn’t smoke in the bathroom this time. He had prescription medicine to help with the pain. I watched as he injected it through a tube straight to his chest and into his bloodstream. He sat heavily on the bed.
“Can we just… lay together?”
“Yeah, of course.”
His body, so waifish and long, wrapped around mine. We drew comfort from each other, the heat bonding us in a singular moment. A slow burning fear of losing him made me realize another emotion. Love. As Bubba would quote, it was like a white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I felt it while he lay in my arms, our edges pointed outward against the world to protect us from the harsh realities of life. It was forever and so short.
He moved suddenly.
“Can I kiss you?” his question caught me off guard.
“Can you… what?” I asked.
“Can I kiss you?”
“But… Liz,” I brought up feebly. My heart was racing. I couldn’t kiss Bubba. He was a friend. The reason I made my friendships work with the opposite sex so well was because I was just ‘one of the guys.’ I was the honorary cool dude with long hair, not the possible girl that could be kissed and thought of romantically.
“I honestly don’t know what her deal is and it really doesn’t matter,” he confided. We were still pressed together, hip to hip, arms around each other, chest to chest. I wanted it, but terror filled me. Scenarios of how we’d never be the easygoing friends we were before one tragic kiss.
“I…I don’t think it would be a good idea,” I finally answered. Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like. I wondered if it would have been fireworks.
I’ll never know because two more months later, a text was sent to my phone. It was an unsuspecting knife to the gut. I had thought Bubba was doing okay. I had missed all of the signs. All of the signs were racing back to me and I saw them for what they were. All of the signs! My stomach tightened, my breath caught, I couldn’t breathe.
Dear friends and family, this is my last goodbye to you. I just want you to know that I love you all and do not want you to be sad for long. I want you to remember the happy memories we had together. With all my love, Bubba.
My knees were weak and I crumpled to the floor. My roommate, Jesse, came to my side, her face terrified for me. I gasped, crying and snotting, screaming into my pillow.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked in a high voice full of bewilderment.
“He’s gone,” I sobbed. “He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.”
“Who’s gone? Is there someone I can call for you?”
There was no one she could call. He was gone.
I kept my mind somewhere that wasn’t reality as my friends, Bubba’s friends, climbed in a car to travel to his funeral. We talked about him a little, no one saying too much, afraid the waterworks would spill out in an uncontainable mess. When I walked into the funeral home, I was immediately engulfed in frantic arms. Bubba’s Mom buried her head in my shoulder.
“I’m glad you could make it,” she choked standing back to look at me, “He loved you so much.”
Tears began streaming down my face and I felt so unreal that my body was just reacting to feelings I wasn’t ready to touch. “Mrs. Martin, I loved Bubba with all of my heart.”
Liz was there. Her face was drawn. I knew she had been with him in the hospital when he passed away. She smiled a tense little smile at me and patted my shoulder. “Don’t cry. He wouldn’t have wanted you to cry.”
It was like being frozen. None of the hurt penetrated my mind. I was out of my body, out of range from the moments that were passing by so painfully. After the service, I walked to the back, getting some air. Mark, a tall, well dressed guy sat with his head low smoking a camel.
“Can I get one?” I asked, nodding to the cigarette. He handed one to me and lit a match without saying anything. We sat for a while, quietly listening to the people in the front talk about their memories with Bubba.
Somehow, time flew by. The awfulness would hit me in waves. I would lie in bed, the dark closing in around me, and the heaviness of Bubba’s absence within the world would crush my lungs. Gasping and crying, I would tire myself to sleep after long hours. It was unbearable to walk past the same buildings, the same spots, that we had spent time together at. Every moment was tinged with grief.
We had sat in the University park by the swing set. The sky had been overcast and we were both a little hung over from the party the night before.
“You know, Katie,” he had said, “We could go to Guam. Or Bali. I’ve heard it’s really amazing in those places.”
“Let’s go to Bali,” I had planned, “After next semester, we’ll have time to save up. Can you imagine what it would be like to wake up in Bali?”
The conversation replayed in my mind. I grasped at those memories, our plans for the future. I’m not sure if it made me feel better or worse.
A year went by too quickly. Each holiday and birthday dug a hole deeper in my heart. A new song would play on the radio and I would have tears well up and spill over because he would never hear it. I traveled to Italy and Botswana. These foreign places with their unbridled beauty and passion would never be stepped on with his feet. I couldn’t bring myself to go to Bali.
I was drinking on my 21st birthday. Jesse helped me stumble back to our apartment and she laid me gently on the couch.
“God, I just miss him so much sometimes,” I slurred. Jesse sat in the armchair next to me.
“You still think about him all the time, don’t you?”
“It’s just moments,” I begin, “Like tonight. I wonder how things would have been if Bubba had been there.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” she trailed off. There was nothing she could say. A deep desire to declare something out loud hit me forcefully.
“Two seconds - two breaths really - turn fast, so fucking fast into twenty years that turn into forty more and I'll realize that I blinked and have lived a lifetime without him.” I announced, “How can I do that? How can I let that happen?”
Jesse said nothing and after a while, the drunken dizziness put me to sleep.
Another year with its holidays and special occasions came and went. Bubba became something like a ghost. Dreams of Bubba holding me in his warm arms would come to me every so often. They would all end with his body slowly disintegrating down to bones and then ash. I sought comfort in others and in work. Eventually, another man came into my life.
Jack held my hand as we walked past the river. The sun was shining and my skin felt golden under its rays. Jack stopped me, my body turning into his as his arms enveloped my waist. I smiled at him, tucking a piece of stray hair on his forehead back. There was stillness, a sort of perfection, as we stood there holding each other.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked. Can I kiss you? Bubba’s voice rang in my mind. Can I kiss you? Can I kiss you? Over and over it called to me. I looked into Jack’s earnest brown eyes and leaned forward to melt my lips against his. Can I kiss you? There weren’t any fireworks.
I stayed in this borderline world of desperate love. I consumed myself in Jack, and he, like everyone else in the world, suffered on a level that was under the skin with a bruised past. The baggage weighed me down with time and years.
The beer cans littered the floor on a Tuesday night. I looked out of the window at a twilight sky, the last vestiges of light flying away. I wanted to fly away with it, fleeing the darkness. A song played on the radio. The first few notes were familiar and aroused a longing that came from a deep part of my soul I had forgot I possessed. Jason Mraz’s voice lilted from the speakers. “You’ve done done me and you bet I felt it…”
I left the next morning catching a bus straight to Mrs. Martin’s house. She let me in through the side door, her hair flat, but her smile was bright.
“Brianna just had her little baby boy, you know,” she chatted, “His name is Brady.”
Brianna was Bubba’s sister. Brady would have been Bubba’s nephew. Not now. Not ever. It was hard to sit in front of Mrs. Martin. I hadn’t known her well when Bubba was alive, but now that he was gone… we had become something akin to friends. She drove me to the cemetery and the trees were just starting to bloom leaves for spring. Mrs. Martin and I stood before Bubba’s burial space in solemn silence. Red and white roses decorated the gray edges. I placed my purple peonies at the bottom of the plot. After a minute, she patted my arm.
“I’ll leave you alone for a bit, yes?” she offered. I nodded appreciatively. Three years had gone by and here I was. So many changes had come into my life. I felt like a different person than the one that had been held in the arms of her best friend. I questioned whether I would have become this person if Bubba had been present for my worst choices in life. I let myself daydream and it didn’t take long for me to imagine Bubba holding my hand in his mother’s kitchen. On the day I received the worst text message of my life, did I lose my soul mate or myself?
I dropped to my knees in front of the grave and finally, a whisper in the wind spoke the truest of truths, “It really sets in when I see it in stone. They say I'll be ok, but I’m not going to ever get over you.”
(Word Count: 2711)