The Ugly Truth
I pulled into an empty parking spot near the back of the small parking lot. I sat in the increasingly warm car thinking for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the small crack in the right corner of the front windshield.
“I’m telling you, you need to get that fixed soon before it gets any bigger!” Alexa had shaken her head in disapproval just a few days ago.
“Nah,” I had yelled over the hectic noise of wind and cars racing by as a result of the rolled down windows. I looked over to the passenger seat where she was sitting, her chocolate brown hair being blown out of her face by the intense wind as if she were at a professional photo-shoot. “It’ll be fine! It’s just a tiny crack.”
“Oh my gosh,” she rolled her eyes laughing. “You’re such a boy.”
At the time, the crack had only been the size of a dime. Now, it looked almost the size of a quarter.
“Yeah,” I chuckled to myself. “She was right,” I said into the empty car as I ran my hand through my sun-bleached blonde hair. I bit my lip at the thought of me having to admit it to her face. Admitting that I was wrong, that she knew better. That sounded like fun. I was going to end up looking really stupid.
The heat from the sun was already turning the leather seats into a frying pan, and it was becoming uncomfortable to breathe in the oven-like car.
I jerked my keys out of the engine and popped open the door. I escaped the first furnace only to walk into another. The 103 degree Florida weather was disgusting to be in. Great for when you got to cool off in the water, but terrible to walk across a black asphalt parking lot in. The sticky, humid air was almost suffocating me.
I decided jogging was faster than walking. I pressed the little rubber button on the key to lock my car behind me and shoved my hands into my front pockets along with my keys. I jogged the short distance across the parking lot over to the front entrance of the animal shelter.
With a little hop over the curb of the sidewalk, I grasped the metal handle in front of me, but immediately jerked it back once the scorching metal made contact with my skin.
“OH- son of a biscuit!” I abruptly was no longer concerned about my hand, but about who heard my odd expression. What seventeen year old guy says “son of a biscuit”? Anyone who heard this must surely think I’m a loser.
I looked around the parking lot, still clutching my sore hand with the other. Thankfully, I couldn’t see anyone nearby. I finally noticed a piece of white paper taped to the window of the door: Please knock! Handle is HOT!
A blast of frigid air hit me as the door opened.
“Seriously? You burned your hand again, Dylan?” the beautiful girl in the green “Save the Animals Volunteer” t-shirt laughed. Her dark brown hair was in a high pony-tail and she was wearing the minimal amount of make-up.
A smile instantly spread across my face the moment I saw her.
“Hey, Alexa,” I said as I stepped inside the air conditioned building. Without hesitation, I engulfed her in a bear hug. Her sun-kissed tan skin felt cool and she had goose bumps all over.
“Sorry, it’s really cold in here,” she said as she pulled away, commenting on her goose bumps.
“Pfft. It’s a lot better in here than outside.” I smiled looking down into her turquoise eyes.
“I believe you,” she giggled. Alexa took my hand as she led me to wherever she was scheduled to work in the building at that hour.
She took me down a dimly lit concreate hall with rows of faded green doors. With each door we passed, I heard dogs of all breeds barking and whining on the other side, wondering what they ever did wrong to be trapped in this hell-hole. I tried to ignore the idea by focusing on being led by Alexa.
We arrived at the last door down the hall. The faded green paint of the door had peeled on some places and showed the true gray of the door underneath. Every time I came to this shelter, I didn’t understand how Alexa enjoyed being here. This place was filthy, foul-smelling, and hideous. The complete opposite of the flawless, perfume-smelling, gorgeous girl holding my hand.
The moment Alexa stepped in the room, every dog ran up to her. It was like they didn’t have three other volunteers in the room.
Most of them tried jumping on her, at least the ones that were physically able, and the others whined. Wishing she would pay some attention to them as well.
All their tails wagging, their mouths open, their tongues sticking out, and their ears perked up.
Alexa bent down to pick up a slobbery tennis ball and threw it across the room. Four dogs, three of them big, one just a puppy, raced after it, hoping to be the lucky one to take it back to the pretty girl with the brown pony-tail.
As the four dogs fought for the ball, Alexa and I got down on our knees to pet some of the other dogs.
“Have you fixed the crack in your windshield yet?” Alexa asked me without looking up from the dogs.
One part of me felt stupid, and didn’t want to tell her, but the other part of me knew she would find out anyway in just a couple of minutes.
“Nah,” I replied casually.
“Oh,” Alexa said with no hint of surprise in her tone. “So it didn’t get bigger?”
She knew it got bigger, and she hadn’t even seen it yet. If I had told her it had, I would look stupid for not listening to her before.
“Nope. It just stayed the same size,” I lied.
Alexa nodded her head. I could tell she didn’t really believe me. She knew I was lying, but didn’t give me a hard time about it. She could nag me about it when she saw the crack for herself.
Finally, the little dog proudly walked back to Alexa, the tennis ball almost too big to fit in his miniature mouth. The other three big dogs slowly trailed behind, too embarrassed that the little guy got it.
“Good job, Mickey! I can’t believe you got it with those three big guys there to take it away!” Alexa took the ball from the puppy, whose name was apparently Mickey, and scratched the top of his head.
“Hey, that’s my girlfriend!” I teased. The puppy looked at me, his head tilted slightly to the right, his ears perked up. “You wanna fight me for her? I’ll fight you.” I said to Mickey and scratched him behind the ear.
Mickey saw this as the signal to play, and jumped on my lap. He attacked my fists with his teeth, gnawing on my knuckles the way puppies do. Alexa giggled as she threw the tennis ball across the room again. Mickey jumped off my lap to participate in the game as well.
“I was thinking we could pick up some Taco Bell and head to the beach?” I said, trying to hint that I wanted to leave. “When’s your shift over?”
“Oh, it ended 15 minutes ago,” she said as she took the tennis ball from a new winner. “I just wanted to stay a little bit longer.” Alexa kissed the dog in front of her on the top of his head. I started to get a glimpse at a different side of Alexa. A side where she was more humble, a part of her heart that I thought was so beautiful. “We can go now though.”
As we walked through the hot parking lot, over to my car, I started asking Alexa about why she liked working in that shelter.
“I mean, you don’t even get paid,” I argued.
“It’s something I love doing.” She smiled at me.
I thought about that for a moment, remembering her kissing the dog on the head before we left. “Well then in that case, maybe I’ll sign up to do it with you eventually.” I grinned.
But Alexa didn’t seem too excited about this. Instead of joy, I saw sadness in her eyes. I stopped walking. “Babe, what’s wrong?”
But she kept walking to her side of the car like nothing was wrong. “Huh?”
I reached my door to the driver’s seat at the same time she reached hers but refused to unlock it until she answered me.
“Alexa,” I said. “I know something’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she shrugged her shoulders while looking down at the car door, obviously lying.
“Stop saying that---” I started, but Alexa cut me off.
“I thought you said it didn’t get any bigger.”
“Huh?” I asked, completely confused. Alexa pointed to the crack in my windshield on her side. I felt embarrassed and stupid. I tried not to make eye contact with her.
“It was always like that,” I lied as I tried to unlock the car.
“Nooooo it wasn’t!” Alexa laughed as I climbed into the car.
I rolled down her window and called out, “Just get in the car. Do you want lunch or not?”
+ + +
I parked my tiny car, and we headed over to the sandy paradise. Like we had expected, there was hardly anyone here at one of the smaller beaches in Florida.
Alexa spread the blanket on the sand, and I balanced our food and soda on the unsmooth ground. We settled down and started digging into our food.
“Thanks for this, babe. I was starving. I hate having to wait till three to eat.” Alexa said as she put a chip from her plate of Taco Bell nachos in her mouth.
“Anything for you,” I said and reached for her hand. Our fingers intertwined and Alexa smiled at me with her mouth closed, still chewing. “And after everything, it’s actually is 4:05 right now.”
“Ugh. No wonder I was ready to eat my seatbelt!” Alexa said with her eyes wide.
A cool breeze rushed over us, and we both sighed.
“That taco looks gross.” She said as she put another cheese covered chip in her mouth.
“Nah, it’s actually really good.” I nodded and took another bite.
“Dude… It’s a Dorito flavored taco…” Alexa waited for a response.
I chewed a couple more times before I leaned close and replied, “Exactly!”
“Ew! You got food on my face!” she laughed and wiped her cheek with her hand.
“Aw, did I? I’m sorry.” I said, still talking with food in my mouth.
Alexa screamed. “You did it again!” she laughed loudly.
“Maybe I should just dump the rest this taco on you to make things easier,” I dangled the orange taco over her head.
“No! Dylan! Don’t you dare!” I grabbed some of the lettuce from the top of the taco. “No! Dylan! Stop!”
She screamed with laughter as she started to scooch away from me. I sprinkled the green little shreds all over the top of her hair like pieces of confetti.
“AHHHH!” Alexa screamed as she jumped up and ran away. I quickly chased her with the remains of my taco.
Alexa ran as fast as she could through the sand, making the golden dust fly behind her. I ran up behind her and wrapped my arms around her. She screamed and reached up to try and stop me from making it rain Doritos tacos on her. Alexa actually did grab the taco, but she grabbed it maybe a little too hard.
Alexa crushed the taco in her hand, making food fly all over the two of us. We both laugh at our immaturity.
I held her there in my arms. She leaned the back of her head against my chest to look up at me.
“’Guess we should swim now so we can wash all these Dorito crumbs and lettuce off us.” Alexa giggled.
Hours went by. Just the two of us.
The hot sun beating down on us. The cool water there to refresh us. I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else.
Eventually, we walked over to the convenient store to get some snacks and drinks. We went back to our towel and talked. We talked about anything and everything. The shelter, my job, school, how these BBQ chips were surprisingly delicious.
“Hey…” Alexa sat up from her previous position of lying on her back next to me.
“What’s up?” I asked with a mouth full of food.
Alexa pulled her knees up to her chest and played with her toes.
She looked so beautiful. Her brown hair, now wavy from the salt water, went down her back. She wore a black Against the Current T-shirt and shorts over her bathing suit. The setting sun created an orange halo around her head.
“UC got back to me…” she finally said without bothering to look at me.
“What did they say?” I asked not worried and put another barbeque chip in my mouth. From her tone, it sounded like they turned her down.
“I’m going!” she says with enthusiasm, but the fact that she won’t look at me tells me she’s faking.
I didn’t say anything. Alexa finally looked at me, nervous. We just stared at each other for a long moment.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I knew this day would come, but I guess I had always thought we would somehow avoid this. That I would go to the University of South Florida like I had always dreamed and she might plan to go there, too. For me.
But that didn’t look like the case here. I could see it in her eyes. She was very serious. She had always mentioned how badly she wanted to go to the University of Chicago, but I had never imagined this moment. The moment when she told me she had bigger plans in her life than us.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” She whispered because if she said it loud enough, her voice would crack, and she wouldn’t be able to hold it together any longer.
“That’s great Alexa.” I said without emotion. In her eyes, I could see fear. I just didn’t know what she was so afraid of. Me being mad? Her being rejected by me?
“No really, Dylan. What do you think about that?” she gulped nervously and rested her head on her knees.
I looked back up at the orange-pink sky. What did I think about that? How much was Alex really worth to me?
We had been dating for a year, and I really believed I loved her. She was my best friend, my girlfriend, my favorite person in the world. That person I could spend hours with doing nothing and never be bored. What would it really cost me to lose her?
After a long moment of silence, I sat up and scooched closer to the heartbroken girl. I took her warm hand in mine and looked her in the eyes.
“I’m going with you.”
Alexa let out a small chuckle and looked out to the ocean in front of us.
“No, I’m serious Alexa---” I started.
“No, Dylan. Let’s stop being 13 for a second, okay?” she snapped and turned to look at me.
“Alexa, you are my best friend and---” I tried to explain but she interrupted me again.
“Look, Dylan, just no.” A tear fell down her right cheek, and her voice changed from the reaction her noise was having to the tears. “Listen, I love you. But let’s just be real. Please.” Her once turquoise eyes now looked more purple from the reflection of the pink sky. “We both knew this would happen someday. Where we had to go our separate ways.” She went back to playing with her toes. “There is no way you are going all the way to Chicago to chase me. We both have bigger things in life to worry about than ‘love.’” It was ugly, but it was the truth. “I need to go to college in Chicago and you need to go to UFC---”
“What if I don’t get in?” I interrupt.
Alexa laughed a bit. “Of course you’ll get in, Dylan.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and looked back out to the purple ocean. “We’re not forever. Nothing is. And it’s time to continue on with life.” I didn’t take my eyes off of her. I listened, clinging to every word that came out of her mouth. Every word she said changed our future just a tiny bit. “We’re about to be adults, Dylan. Adults. And we are going to have to make some pretty huge decisions.” She finally looked back at me. She had that same look in her eyes from earlier, when I told her I might volunteer at the shelter with her. “And this is one of them. It will determine a small piece of our future.”
I didn’t want to believe her, but I knew she was right. I grabbed her hand and she took it. We both sat there in silence. So close, and staring out into the ocean that seemed to go on for infinity. Listening to the music of the waves, of seagulls squawking in the background, some kids screaming and laughing a little further down the beach.
“I’ll miss you, Alexa.” I said. “I’ll visit you, and you’ll get to take me to all your favorite places in Chicago.”
A small smile spread across her face. She closed her eyes as she took in a deep breath of the salty air, and rested her head on my shoulder. “Deal.”