You decided you were going to cut your hair before you flew to San Francisco.
Sixty-six minutes before, to be specific, in a truly disgusting bathroom just off the departure floor of Denver International. You didn't have much time, your scissors hacking away haphazardly as you bit your lip and counted down the seconds. You gave yourself five minutes, tops. Five minutes to chop off your hair, sweep it out of the sink, and toss it into the nearest overflowing garbage can. You realized a little too late that you'd have to throw the scissors away, too. You still had to clear security, after all, and the very, very last thing you needed was a lengthy hold-up at the gate.
So that's how your heart became an anxious hammer against your ribcage, your fingers sweaty on the plastic grips as you said goodbye to yourself. The effort was inexpert, but it was enthralling. You couldn't help but run your fingers through the finished product, all jagged edges and loose strands, all perfect.
Your hands fell into the sink, then, and sifted through the jet-black remnants of the girl you had been only moments ago. You sucked in a long, deep breath. The mesh around your ribcage pushed back against your lungs.
His lungs, it occurred to you.
Just as your phone began to ring, you paused, and you looked up again. You took in the sight of your round face, the stubborn, feminine redness in the apples of your cheeks, and the thatchy, pitch-dark hair framing your forehead. You squinted. You blinked.
And for the first time in years, you recognized the eyes staring back at you.
If anyone asks, you are flying to California to escape the frigid misery that always envelopes Denver this time of year. Privately, though, you are flying to San Francisco to spend New Year's Eve with a boy. And he's tall, taller than you, and infuriatingly skinnier, with a cloud of red hair you've seen in your dreams since you were two years old.
You were inseparable. You still are, even now. Your long separation has only proven the point. You miss him, and you miss him in a way that puts a hole in your chest. You're seventeen now and you still remember his nine-year-old palms against the glass, his father's license plate driving away from you at twenty miles per hour, thirty-seven miles per gallon.
You remember feeling like something vital had been taken away from you. And you remember staying up all night in blanket forts of your own creation, giggling, whispering secrets to each other, until your mothers decided that you were both getting too old for sleepovers. This was, coincidentally, around the time that the kids in your class began to greet you with taunts of Kyle and Connie, sitting in a tree. Around the time that your hair started to inch toward your shoulders. Around the time that your mother signed you up for ballet lessons that interfered with football practice. To this day, she swears she didn't do it on purpose.
It occurred to you, standing there on the hot asphalt that day, watching him shrink away, that he never cared if you skinned your knees or swore like a sailor. And he never deigned to call you Connie, that ugly diminutive of the uglier, grandmotherly Constance your parents loved and you hated.
"You can't keep calling me that," you remember shrieking, in giggly, half-hearted protest. "I mean, I like it and all, but Stan is just... you know, it's a boy name."
"Yeah, well, Constance isn't a you name," Kyle had retorted. "It's so... no offense, but it's so stuffy. It's so snobby. It makes you sound like you're eighty years old, or a pilgrim, or..."
"Okay, okay, I get it." You interrupted him, landing a gentle punch on his shoulder. "But what's wrong with Connie?"
"What's wrong with Connie? You hate Connie. Practically all you ever do is tell me how much you hate it when people call you Connie. It's just.... it's way too, uh..." He paused here, wrinkling his nose. "Girly."
"Oh, it's too girly?" You paused, incensed, and crossed your arms over the tall, white #7 emblazoned on your t-shirt. "I am a girl, Kyle."
"Yeah." He turned to you, looking you up and down, taking in the football jersey, the band-aids taped to your knees, the raggedy Converse clinging to your feet. "But you totally wish you weren't."
You wanted to tell him, right there and then. You wanted to tell him before his father's Prius vanished at the end of your block. This is why you live for the end of December, really, and why you've made this trip every year, unfailingly, since you were nine years old, an unaccompanied minor. You want him to be the very first person you tell.
Last year, at the stroke of midnight in his room, you almost said it. But you left the words unspoken. You left his lips unkissed.
This, you think, as your plane speeds down the runway and you lean back and your hands rest, interlocked, behind the newly naked nape of your neck - this will be your year.
You hear him before you see him. And how could you not? His voice - Stan! Stan! Stan! - peals through the baggage claim like a church bell, as steadfast and reassuring as it is shrill and disruptive. You actually drop your suitcase when you see his red hair moving through the crowd, and you race in his direction as fast as your sneakers will carry you.
It's all a blur, his chest hitting yours, your arms wrapping over his shoulders, your nose against his collarbone. You're five seconds in before you realize that you're standing on your tiptoes - not because he's grown, although he has, but because he's doing his best to lift you off the ground.
"Oh my God, Kyle."
"Come on, Stan, it's been forever," he whines, and it takes you about a millisecond to relent and kick up your heels. He grunts a little when he lifts you up in earnest and begins to spin around and around, like some kind of human helicopter. All you can do is bury your smile in the soft blue of his t-shirt and hold on for dear life.
You can't see them, but you know people are staring.
You know they think they're looking at two people in love.
"Okay, tell me what this one's supposed to symbolize, or whatever."
Kyle picks himself up off the mattress and leans against the wall. He's biting his lip, and studying the photos in the frame. You're both looking at a triptych, three old television sets propped unceremoniously on a dusty wooden floor. There's an image on every screen, but the pictures are distorted, oversaturated. You find yourself squinting to make out the shapes.
"It's all about, um... decay." He pauses, and takes a long drink from the red Solo cup he smuggled upstairs. "Loss of memory. See, these are all old home videos. Frames from the videos, I mean. I paused the tapes, and then I experimented with the dials, trying to obscure the picture as much as possible. And then I took pictures of the TV, and I messed with the final images in Photoshop..."
"Huh." You lift your own Solo cup to your lips, and drink deep.
"So it's, like, these are real moments - look, there's us at your birthday party in the second grade, and there's me at my bar mitzvah - and maybe they look familiar, but they're hazy. You can't... like, you can't bring the moment back in perfect, living colour."
"Wow." You wish you could say more, but you're at a loss. You step in, closer to the wall, your eyes searching the screens. In one corner, there's an unhappy pink - a wounded, previous you.
"Remember that party? And your mom made you wear that, like, horrific dress with the puffy sleeves, and all these awful ruffles, and Cartman wouldn't stop calling you Princess Connie?"
You can feel your eyes widen as you turn back to Kyle. "And then you kicked him in the groin."
A wide smile cracks across Kyle's face. "And then you kicked him in the groin."
You laugh, and you toss back another mouthful of vodka. "And he fell into that puddle - you know, by the hose? And I got mud all over my stupid dress, and Mom was so pissed."
Kyle shrugs, and tosses an arm over your shoulder. "I mean, that was kind of a dick move on your mom's part," he says. "Forcing you to wear the girly, Disney princess-y dress imaginable? You hated that stuff. All your gifts that year were, like, Broncos memorabilia. I got you a John Elway action figure."
"Oh! With karate-chop action?"
Your eyes fall on the television sets again. For some reason, they're less blurry this time.
"I don't know," you mumble. "For a project about, like, memory loss, you sure seem to remember a lot."
"Well, I mean, I did actually watch the home videos," he retorts. "So that's why all the details are so, um, fresh in my mind. But I would have remembered John Elway With Karate-Chop Action, anyway. You took him everywhere. For, like, two years. Until you lost him on that field trip to the planetarium."
You lean in a little, resting your head on his shoulder, and you take another sip of your drink.
"Man, I don't even remember that."
"You don't? But you were so upset!"
"I don't know! I remember the action figure, yeah, but I don't remember losing it. I had a lot of John Elway junk. My dad probably just bought me a new one."
Kyle pulls away, feigning shock. "John Elway With Karate-Chop Action meant that little to you?"
You roll your eyes, and he grins, reaching out to ruffle your hair. You swat his hand away, but there's a smile on your face, too.
"Dude, don't mess with my hair. I just cut it."
"Really? I was just gonna say, it looks good on you."
"No, it doesn't," you interrupt. "I cut it. With safety scissors. In a bathroom at the airport."
"It does!" He's insistent. "It looks good! It looks really good!"
"Kyle, you don't have to butter me up, okay? It looks like shit. I wanted it to look like shit."
"Well, it doesn't." He falls back against the wall, tipping back the last dregs of his drink. "It doesn't look like shit. It looks great. It looks like you're finally doing what you want to."
You don't have a response ready, and you bow your head. Another sip. You can feel the red begin to bloom across your face.
Tell him, you think. Tell him.
You didn't tell him. You kept your mouth shut, and Kyle went to the bathroom, and while he was away his phone pinged, and you knew you shouldn't look, but you did, and it was a Tinder notification, a message from a guy named Mark, and the truth hit you like a punch in the gut.
Of course he hasn't been waiting for you. Of course he doesn't feel that same ache in the pit of his stomach. Of course there have been other boys - real boys, the vicious voice in your head reminds you, twisting the knife. Of course, of course, of course, of course, of course.
You were going to tell him and now your mouth is dry and hollow and none of it matters anymore.
You remember the way up to the roof from here, and you clamber out of his window and onto the fire exit. It's getting darker, and when you reach the top, the city proper is twinkling below, bright and white under the purple sky. You curl your knees to your chest. You chew your bottom lip raw.
You're stupid. And your head hurts. One too many vodka sodas, most likely. You put your chin in your hands, and look out across the bay, at everything he has. Peaks, valleys, pride parades. The Castro. The sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf. The Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz.
And what do you have? What do you have, really? Your long hair was the only thing keeping you safe in your empty little town, and you don't even have that anymore. Last week, somebody scratched D and Y and K and E into the paint on your locker. F and A and G and G and O and T the week before that. You get the feeling that the insults are gender neutral because nobody knows, exactly, what to make of you.
Some time passes before you hear him on the fire escape. The sound of his feet on the ladder wakes you up, makes you realize that there's water running in rivers under your eyes. The back of your hand can't fly to your face fast enough, and you're grateful for the soft sleeve of your red sweatshirt.
"Stan? There you are, I was wondering where you..." He stops, mid-sentence. "Stan?"
"Hi," you mumble, because you can't think of anything else.
"What are you doing?"
"You just... you decided to climb up onto the roof?"
"For no reason."
He should know better than this, you think. He should know not to interrogate you when you get like this. Really, truly wanting to be alone is such a rare thing for you. His presence here on the roof, spitting out obtuse questions, it's making you crazy.
"I obviously don't want to talk about it."
He should walk away, slip down the ladder, go back to his bedroom, but he doesn't. He sits next to you. Your knees touch.
"You never really were a happy drunk."
"Oh, fuck off, Kyle," you spit - and then you can't help but laugh, because you know you're only proving his point.
"See? I know you better than you know yourself."
You bite your lip again, and it hurts this time. You think it might be bleeding.
"Are you, like... are you seeing anybody?"
"What?" It comes out a little too loud, and he knows it. He clears his throat when he turns to you. "Why do you..."
"Your phone went off," you interrupt. "When you were in the bathroom. It was from Tinder. Mark messaged you."
"Wait, you looked at my phone?"
"I was standing directly over your desk looking at your senior portraits, and your phone happened to go off, and I happened to look down, and it said... it said, â€˜Tinder,' it said, â€˜Mark has sent you...'"
You trail off, expecting him to butt in with an explanation of the phone and Tinder and fucking Mark, but he's quiet. He doesn't say a single word, just leans back on his palms, staring straight ahead at the white lights. It is acutely unlike him to be so silent.
"I feel like I'm losing my mind half the time, back in Colorado. I can't believe it's been eight years, and I've talked to you every day since you left, and this is the eighth time I've made this trip."
You pause, taking in a quick breath; you're rambling, and you can blame the vodka for your honesty.
"And I wonder why I do it. Like, why I miss you as much as I do. And I don't just mean the feeling, I mean it's... it's like a thing I do, a ritual, missing you. Taping your postcards to my wall. Counting down the days until New Year's Eve. Checking Snapchat fifty times a day to see what you've sent me, what you're up to. And there's always going to be someone... there's going to be fucking Mark, and he's going to get more of you than I do, and it's not fair."
"Dude, look, I don't even know who Mark is."
"That's so not the point," you sigh, and curl in on yourself. "It doesn't have to be Mark, it could be, like, just... anybody."
"Okay, Stan, you have to know you're not just anybody."
"Who am I, then?" It comes out in a whisper. "Not just, like, who am I to you, but who am I if I don't have you? God, am I even making sense?"
You lean forward, wrapping your arms across your knees. A few seconds pass before you feel his hand between your shoulder blades, moving in slow, reassuring circles.
"You need to answer those questions," he whispers back. "Not me."
There's a short pause, and then you hear his voice again.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Stan Marsh." You pause, and cough, and then: "I'm a boy."
For a split second, his hand goes still on your back. You don't lift your head from the space between your knees. You don't want to see the look in his eyes. There's less weight on your shoulders, but you want it back, suddenly. You're struck by the feeling that you might float away without it.
"Yeah," Kyle says, his hand returning to the slow circles over your shoulders. "I know."
"How could I not?"
"But you never said anything."
"I... I guess I didn't really think it was my place to say anything."
You find yourself inching back, leaning into him, and he takes the hint. His arm curves over your shoulder.
"You had another question."
"Who are you to me?"
You sniffle a little, because even though it's California, and even though you're wearing the thick, fleecy sweatshirt you flew in with, and even though Kyle is warm against you, December is December.
"Um... I'm your... your, um... I'm your person."
"Yes." Kyle nods. "You're my person."
"And I'm your person."
You swallow, and you feel yourself soften.
You wake up at ten past six the next morning to sunlight rolling over the bay and through Kyle's window. Even the thick draperies smothering his window, red and blue, can't keep it out. You're almost angry, wishing you could have slept longer next to Kyle, under the motley, multi-coloured collection of blankets strewn haphazardly across his mattress. The room is a disaster, you realize, as your bare feet tiptoe over last night's beer cans. Disaster, actually, might be the wrong word; the room feels like peace after a storm. There's a warmth in your chest and a dull ache between your legs, sweet and sore.
You lift Kyle's camera - fancy, art school-issue, and, likely, very expensive - and you're careful with it as you press buttons, bring it to life. You make your way through the debris on the floor, and you sit at his bedside, lifting the viewfinder to your eye. Asleep, naked, with his head nestled in his folded arms, he looks different than you've ever seen him. More beautiful, somehow. You're the one who transformed him, you think to yourself, and the realization sends pride swelling in your heart.
The pad of your finger presses against the button, one, two, three, and, of course, the camera shrieks as it captures the moment. You can't help but cringe a little, watching Kyle stir, meeting his green eyes as they flutter open.
"Hey, you," he mumbles, bleary. "What's this about?"
Your mouth tilts up at the corners, and you squint into the viewfinder.
"Memory loss," you say, quietly. "I don't want to forget this."
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!