We are sitting on the wall at the river’s edge, helmets on, our bikes sprawled on the grass behind us and our bodies touching from hip to shoulder through our winter coats. The water’s surface reflects the grey sky, the current steady and flat beneath our dangling feet. Cal studies the bare branches on the far bank and breathes slowly. We have just finished breaking up.
“So let’s stop being in love now,” I say.
He laughs. “Exactly.”
The air is cold around us, but my right side is warm where we are pressed together.
“It’ll be strange when I cut my hair and you aren’t the first to see it,” I muse.
“You can send me pictures.” Cal leans into my shoulder.
“I won’t, though,” I say, and he nods.
“I guess we probably won’t finish our bike-every-street-in-the-city project,” he says.
“That probably wasn’t the best idea.”
“Probably not.” Like so many things.
Cal turns to me. “We keep agreeing on everything now. Funny timing.”
“No, it’s not.”
The silence sits with us on the wall until Cal’s shoulders start to shake again. I twine my arms around him as he cries, try not to think about how much he loves the word “garland,” how he likes to pull my hands to the nape of his neck and say, “You’re my favorite garland, Judy,” and I protest, “My name is Julie,” but he shakes his head and won’t budge until I confess that I’m a Hollywood legend.
“It’s okay,” he sniffles.
“It is,” I agree.
“I hate it.”
We watch the river for a long time, as if it will tell us how both can be true.
Finally, Cal clears his throat and straightens from my shoulder. “I’m good, I’m done. I’ll get the rest out at home.”
“You know you can call me to talk more.”
“I won’t, though,” he says, and I nod.
A blur of movement catches my eye: another rider braving the brittle air. Her smooth silhouette streaks down the bike path, all pumping legs and fluid speed. I imagine the heat rising from her back, how alive she feels, all the space she has on the road by herself. Cal and I never figured out a system for who would tuck in behind the other as we approached other cyclists, always fumbled at the last minute with our brakes squealing and gears snagging, tires cutting zigzags across one another as we struggled for balance when moving so slowly, indecisively. I watch the solo rider pedaling unhindered; her movement and blunders and collisions are hers only. I hope she knows.
Cal pushes up his sleeve. “So we give our watches back now, right?”
“Oh.” I stare at my wrist. “I’d forgotten.”
“We don’t have to yet,” he says, quickly. “It does feel sudden.”
“No,” I say, “It’s what we said we’d do, if ever.”
“It seemed pretty hypothetical at the time.”
We unbuckle our watches and exchange. I haven’t seen this slim golden band against my skin since we first traded, over a year ago. “I want to give you my time,” I’d said, “in exchange for yours.”
The face looks small and sad, and it’s right on the minute instead of slightly fast how I like it. I move to adjust it, then lift my fingers from the dial. I can wait.
“Your secret to always being early!” Cal studies his watch. “I didn’t know you set it forward.” He holds his arm up, gives it a twist. “Or that you’d worn out the strap so much.”
“We’re really smart for this,” I say. I rub my thumb over the tarnished hole where Cal always buckles the wristband, two spots out from where I set it. “Increase the straps’ lifespans because we wear them at different lengths. They’ll wear out half as fast.”
“The whole thing was just a money-saving scheme,” Cal declares. “Glad we beat the system.”
“Yay,” I say.
The grey sky is getting greyer, the winter light falling short. “We should go home,” Cal says.
“We should,” I say. “And then we shouldn’t see each other for a while.”
The words float smooth and flat on the surface of the river, then sink all at once.
Cal nods. Then he leans over and, as he’s done so many times, bumps his helmeted head against mine, a tiny, buffeted collision that makes our eyes flutter closed reflexively, just for an instant. As they open back up and find each other, he begins to speak, but I cut him off: “Not while you’re looking at me.” I wrap him in my arms again. “Now you can,” I say, muffled.
“I love you, Julie,” he says into the down of my shoulder.
“I love you, too,” I say. “But let’s stop.”
“Let’s stop,” he agrees.
We stop. We stop hugging, stop touching, stop talking. We stand and mount our bikes, point our wheels in different directions. I ride home and wait for the rest of it to stop, everything inside of me. I sit still. I set my watch forward, but I still have to wait a long, long time.
Claudia Schatz (she/her) lives in Philadelphia and is a writer, bike mechanic, triathlete, and editor of The Spotlong Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Glassworks Magazine, Blue Earth Review, Soundings East Magazine, Santa Clara Review, Lunch Ticket, and descant. More of her work is at claudiaschatz.weebly.com.
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