Oliver startled me. “Morning, son.”
I turned around. “Hi. I hope you don’t mind. I made some coffee.”
He nodded. “No, that’s good. I’ll take one black. How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine, just hoping she’s feeling better than yesterday.”
“This can’t be easy for you seeing her like this,” he said.
“I can handle it as long she’s feeling okay.”
“We’ve had some rough days lately.”
“Is she up?”
“I didn’t hear her when I came down.” He pulled up a chair and sat down. “Listen, I know before this, I hadn’t really been present all that much in her life, but she always has nothing but good things to say about you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Please call me Oliver.”
“She’s stuck with me now, but she would never stay here by choice otherwise. I know she’s not happy here. I wish she knew how much I loved her. I tell her all the time now, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes with her over the years.”
I handed him a coffee. “She knows you love her, sir…Oliver.”
He took a sip and peeked at me from over the mug. “Does she know you do?”
“It’s okay to say it, you know.”
I nodded. He was definitely standing at that door longer than I thought yesterday. “I get it. Thanks.”
Throughout the weekend, Skylar continued to be sick as a dog. Despite her showing me her head, she insisted on wearing the wig around me.
I held the strands back for her while she threw up in the toilet Sunday morning.
“Mitch, you should go home.”
“No f**king way.”
I was scheduled to take the eight pm train out of Manhattan tonight and wasn’t going to leave her a second before I had to.
That afternoon, she asked me to run to the store for ginger ale. On the walk home, a thought crossed my mind after passing one of those spinning barbershop poles. I stopped in my tracks.
Should I do it?
Why the hell not? If it would make her feel less alone, it couldn’t hurt. I’d do anything for her.
Bells rang as I impulsively opened the door to the shop. “Take it all off.”
The owner, Luigi, looked at me like I was crazy. “Do you know how many men would kill for your head of hair, and you want to shave it off?”
When I explained why, not only did he take it off, but he did it for free. Apparently, he had a daughter with breast cancer.
I took one look at myself in the mirror and couldn’t help but laugh. My head wasn’t exactly as smooth as hers. “I look ridiculous.”
He patted me on my back, wishing me the best of luck, and the patrons all clapped.
Back outside, my head felt like it was going to freeze into an ice cube. I put my hood on hoping this would help cheer her up.
When I returned to the house, Oliver and Lizete were watching a movie as I rushed past them up the stairs. Skylar was taking a nap, so I put the ginger ale on her dresser and lay down at the foot of her bed, waiting impatiently for her to wake up.
I ended up nodding off and awoke to the sound of her screaming.
“Mitch! What the hell did you do?”
“Don’t freak out,” I said groggily.
“Don’t freak out? Before I fell asleep, you had hair like David Beckham. I wake up, and you look like Mr. Clean!”
I couldn’t help laughing at her reaction. “What…you don’t like it?”
“No! I don’t. Unlike you…I’m honest about it. Nobody actually looks better bald.”
“Well, get used to it. As long as you don’t have hair, I won’t either.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. We’ll be the bald brigade, except at least I can wear a wig. You can’t. All of the male ones would make you look like a 1970’s p**n star.”
“I don’t care. I just want to support you, and this is my way of doing it.”
After several minutes, her initial shock seemed to wane, and she rubbed her hand along my head and laughed. “I get why you did it, but you’re insane, Mitch Nichols.”
“Only when it comes to you.”
Tell her you love her.
“Clearly. I can’t believe you did this.”
“Skylar, I…” Say it. “Got your ginger ale.”
“I have a few more hours before I have to leave. What do you want to do?”
“Just lie next to me.”
“I can handle that.”
Over the next several minutes, she became very fidgety and seemed uneasy.
“Are you okay?”
“My nerves are acting up. Some of the meds cause anxiety.”
“My mom’s therapist told her to create a happy place in her mind whenever she got like that and then meditate on it. Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”
“Hmm. It’s not really a specific location, but it would probably be like a beach house right on the water. It would have one of those reading nooks by a large window overlooking the ocean.”
“What would you be reading?”
I laughed. “Of course. Okay, imagine yourself there reading your smut. Whenever you start to feel nervous, just keep imagining that peaceful place.”
“Where’s your happy place?”
“Lately? Anywhere you are.”
“That’s cheesy, baldy.”
“That’s the truth. As long as you’re there, in my mind, the place is interchangeable.”
She stared at me for a while and suddenly looked sullen.
I gently shook her arm. “Hey…what’s going on? What did I say?”
“Something is bothering you.”
She closed her eyes briefly and when she opened them said, “There’s something I’ve always wondered but haven’t asked you because I’m afraid of the answer. It’s been eating at me lately.”
My pulse raced. I had a feeling I knew where this was going. “Okay…ask me anything.”
She inhaled. “I know you’ve dated a lot of girls…but have you ever had sex?”
Honestly, I didn’t know how I’d managed to avoid this conversation for so long. I had to be honest with her.
I swallowed. “Yes, I have.”
She let out the deep breath she had been holding. She looked devastated. Fuck. I hated this. I hated that I just hurt her on top of everything else she’d been going through.
Her eyes were watery, and her neck was breaking out in hives. “I suspected but wasn’t sure. God, I feel so stupid. I had this fantasy, that by some miracle, you hadn’t and that one day, we’d be each other’s firsts.”
Hearing her say that crushed me. “I wish so badly that could be true, that I could take it back. I need to explain it to you.”
“Explain sex to me?”
“No…God…just let me talk, okay?”
A tear fell down her cheek. “I can’t believe I’m crying over this. These damn meds.”
I turned to her, and our faces were inches apart when I wiped her eyes. “You’re crying because you care about me. If you had just told me you had sex with some guy, I’d probably be on the train right now to go kill him. So, you’re handling it better than I would.”
She sniffled. “How many?”
“Who were they?”
I let out a deep breath. “My first time was with a girl named Leah. She was two years older. It was back in Long Island right before I moved to Jersey. It wasn’t special. It was a mistake.”
“And your second time?”
“A bigger mistake. It was with Brielle.”
She shuddered, closing her eyes. “When?”
“About a month after I moved here. It was one time.”
“Did you use protection?”
She looked so sad, and it felt like my heart was in a chokehold. How do I explain to her that it didn’t matter without sounding like an asshole? I had always regretted that night with Brielle, but I couldn’t take it back.
“I almost wish I hadn’t asked you.”
I needed to find the words to explain to her that no girl has ever mattered to me like she has.
“The first time happened so fast. I worked with her at the local supermarket. She had been coming onto me for a long time, and I gave in one night. She wasn’t a virgin, and I didn’t know what I was doing. We never went out again, and then I moved away. With Brielle, it was different. I had made up my mind to do it. It was almost mechanical. I was testing myself during a time I had vowed to stay away from you. I thought if I could move faster with someone else, it would somehow make it easier to be around you and not want you that way.”
“So, you were using her…”
“In a way, but I honestly think she was using me, too. She had just broken up with her boyfriend. I don’t want to sound like a dick, but it honestly didn’t mean anything. Then, she told a bunch of people at school, and that pissed me off. I regret it.”
“You make it sound like it’s no big deal.”
God, I sucked at this. Tell her how you feel.
“It doesn’t feel like a big deal if your heart’s not in it. All I know is, after the night you and I kissed, I couldn’t imagine wanting anyone else. That kiss alone was the most phenomenal thing I had ever experienced in my entire life. I'm sorry I can't give you my first time, but you’re the only girl who’s ever had my heart. As long as you tell me to wait for you, I will. I can’t go back and change the past, but I can guarantee that if you decide to give yourself to me someday, it will damn well mean something.”
She didn’t have time to respond before we heard footsteps. I jumped up off the bed.
Lizete opened the door. “Oh my God! Wow.”
At first, I was confused then realized she was reacting to my shaved head. I was so worried about Skylar that I’d forgotten about my hair being gone.
“Yeah, Mitch came home with a little surprise for me.”
Lizete tried to contain her laughter. “Wow…it’s…wow. Anyway, dinner’s ready. Then, your father’s gonna drive Mitch to Manhattan to catch his train.”
We followed Lizete downstairs without continuing our conversation. The fried chicken and rice she made tasted great, but I had to force myself to eat it. My stomach was upset because I didn’t want to leave Skylar, especially while she wasn’t feeling well. She was being really quiet throughout dinner. Oliver made small talk while she and I stole glances at each other. I hoped she wasn’t still thinking about my admission upstairs, although I suspected she was.
After dessert, Skylar excused herself to go back to her room. I waited a few minutes before following her and caught her as she was coming out of the bathroom.
The hallway was dark and before she had a chance to open the bedroom door, I pulled her toward me and hugged her tightly.
I buried my face in her neck and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“For everything…for upsetting you, for not being able to make you feel better, for having to leave.” I spoke into her skin. “I feel like a failure.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. Thank you for telling me the truth earlier.”
“I’m sorry it wasn’t the answer you hoped for.”
“Let’s not talk about that anymore, okay?”
“Okay.” I kissed her forehead. “I just want this to be over.” My voice was shaky, but I refused to cry. “I wish it were me going through this and not you.”
“Don’t say that. I wouldn’t ever wish this on you.” She lowered my shaved head to her mouth and kissed the top.
“What if I stayed and went to your treatment with you tomorrow?”
“Mitch, you have school. You can’t do that. That would upset me more than you leaving.”
“I can’t just go home and pretend that everything’s normal anymore now that I’ve seen firsthand what this has been like for you.”
“You have to.”
She let go of me, opened the door to her room, and I followed her in. She walked over to the mirror. “I’m starting to lose my lashes.”
Skylar continued to look at herself while I hugged her from behind, filled with anger. In just two days, I saw this f**king cancer strip away at her bit by bit. That was only what I witnessed, only a fraction of the time she’d been fighting it with several months left to go.
I just wanted to make her forget for a minute. We didn’t have much time before her father would come upstairs, so I turned her around, put both of my hands on her face and pulled her lips into mine. I had been dying to kiss her all weekend, but there was never an appropriate time.
Her body was stiff at first, caught off guard by my sudden attack. When my tongue slipped inside her mouth, though, she slowly relaxed into it. It had felt like an eternity since the last time we kissed like this. I was quickly reminded of how sweet she tasted and how out of control it made me feel. Even as sick as she was, I was still so unbelievably attracted her. She sighed as I hungrily opened my mouth wider over hers and began to kiss her more aggressively.
I spoke over her lips. “Have I ever told you how much I love your lips, Skylar?”
She smiled through our kiss and moaned into my mouth. We both pulled back suddenly when someone knocked on the door.