Girls dated Brian not because of the initial attraction– Caroline typed the opening to her article on break-ups. She had to give it to the guy, at least he knew how to do it right. Not like she and James. Forget James. They were off for now and she’d like to keep it that way. Maybe Brian could teach her. Funny thought. She tapped her phone and listened to the rest of the interviews.
Gina: “Oh My God! A million rose petals falling out of my locker. It was kind of embarrassing, but cool at the same time, you know? No guy just does that, so it didn’t shock me too much when the note fell out. I mean I knew about him. My eyes were wide open.”
Caroline: “What did it say?”
Gina: “I wish you a lifetime of roses and love . . . only without me. Brian.”
Caroline: “Wow. That is both corny and romantic. And Sad. Thank you.”
It didn’t add up. A small lanky guy, without much sense of fashion; green wooly sweaters, mustard corduroys, had the highest track record for dating. Thirty girls and thirty break-ups in two years. Impressive. Why would he go to all that trouble? Why would any girl put herself through it?
Her heart skipped to the next interview.
Megan: “So we’d been together a month and I kind of knew it was coming. His hair’s all messed up – but cute as he drives up in his convertible with his Songs for Megan playlist on. Right? I mean he made one just for me.”
Pause. What songs would he put on a Songs for Caroline playlist? She shook her head. Focus. Play.
“He’s kissing my neck. We’re making out at each stoplight on the way to the Overlook. All the while the love songs are playing, until the last song. We park. The bay lights around us, motor boats zipping by, and get this, he says, ‘The End.’ Nothing else, just the Smiths singing I Know it’s Over and his words. Like in the fairy tales, but messed-up version. I barely cried, it was so sweet. Classy.”
Caroline felt something she desperately wished she didn’t – the wish that maybe he hadn’t met the right girl. Ugh! That was not the right place to go with these interviews. No. Stop. “So, what happened? ”
Megan: “Nothing. Not with Brian. No kissing or talking or anything after. I never had to worry we’d have one of those relationships like you and James–by the way are you guys on or off these days? Because if off I wouldn’t mind . . .”
She didn’t mean to smile again, but it happened, another smile. Who gets away with that sort of thing? All these girls, knowing he’d break up, still lined up to date him? She had their perspective but now it was time for his.
She texted him: I’d like you to take me through one of your break-ups.
Three dots circled in a wave with his name beneath, then: I thought you’d never ask, but shouldn’t we date first?
Caroline: No! Just an interview. You know for the College Website?
Brian: Well who am I to stand in the way of good journalism. Where shall we begin?
They began in a restaurant but ended at Ruins State Beach. On the steamed up front window of his car, Caroline drew a heart. The phone kept recording, her notes held by a single paperclip. Inside the heart, he drew a girl with a crown. “You should have been an artist instead of a journalist.”
Next to it, she traced the lines for his body, his head, and a lopsided crown. “All food for my artistic soul.”
“And we shall feast tonight!” His hand raised in proclamation. “And I shall take this–” He pulled the paperclip off her notes. “–and release you from the bonds of objective reporting.”
“I don’t need any releasing.” But the sheets of paper were loose now and the paperclip was in his pocket. Cold steam wet her fingers as she wiped away the scribbles. “Back to the questions. Is the beach your next big move? Readers want to know.”
“Hmm, the readers want answers, do they?” He helped with her sweater. Goosebumps rose on her neck as she felt his fingers adjusting her collar.
Outside the car, a DANGER: Land inaccessible at high tide sign stood posted at the head of the boardwalk.
Past the marshy creek, white foamy waves of moonlight crashed on the beach. Crashed again. Her skirt needed straightening – but why did it matter? She was just feeling what the other girls must have felt. She let him guide her outside, let him kiss her on the cheek. A friendly kiss, but it stirred her waves.
A wooden walkway wove through the reeds. Frogs croaked, while she asked, “So what’s the deal with all these break ups?”
“Don’t you have your own off and on again thing?”
She needed an elastic to catch her hair from misbehaving in the wind. “I guess James and I will always love each other, but you know how it goes-” She tied her hair into a knot. A tight one. “-but then, maybe you don’t?”
“Ahh, the slow and steady break-up. Purest form of torture known to man.”
“And woman.” She snorted when she laughed, and covered her face. Leaned against the wooden railing of the boardwalk. “This isn’t how interviews usually go.”
His shirt was rolled up at the sleeves. He touched her hand. “How do they usually go?”
Man, were his eyes blue, intense. “Right. Other thoughts on break-ups?”
“How about we pretend, like we’ve been dating for a while.” His fingers on her shoulder.
“Yeah, what would be happening at this stage?” The seagulls fighting the waves.
He leaned in, and she felt his lips. The stubble on his chin against her chin. She pulled an inch away. The interview. He was only showing her his ways. The bridge stood above the marsh. “If we start something it won’t end well, will it?”
“Only the full moon knows.” He tried to pull her in again, but the word ‘full’ had sounded like ‘fool’ and it was enough to snap her to attention. She stepped out of the space they’d created and onto a path of towering sea oats.
“What happened to you, Brian? Did you get hurt in a relationship or something?”
He kicked a flat rock into the marsh and it skipped once, twice, and sank into quiet.
Out on the beach, salty wind and waves lapped around them as they paused every few feet to pick up a shell, sand dollar, sea glass. Ahead of his silhouette stood a partial turret, buckling from centuries of high tides. The peninsula leading to the ruins grew thinner with each wave.
She had waded in further than planned and cold ripples circled her knees when he asked, “What was your first break-up like?”
“Typical. No call back. Then, Instagram posts with another girl. Yours?”
He grimaced, reached out for her hand. First it felt cold, he’d been picking through wet sand – but combined, hands holding, his warmth eventually came through. “There wasn’t one because she didn’t realize we’d been dating.”
“So you weren’t really together then?” She wished for their feet to sink deep, deep enough to keep them in this spot. Forever.
But he walked on, and the castle towered only a few hundred feet away now. She caught up. “So what’s the next big plan? The I Love you, but . . . written in sand or something like that?”
“Hmm, not a bad idea.” He fumbled with the paperclip and pretended to jot down something in a note pad, before he turned to continue their walk toward the castle. “You, Caroline, deserve scrolls filled with love sonnets, not just words dissolving into waves.”
The stairs of the half-submerged patio; sandy and slick beneath her feet. Eight barnacle encrusted columns towered over the patio. Snails clung to the bottom, waiting for high tide.
“Do you like it?” His echo among the fallen rooms. Rooms, she imagined, had once been used for dancing.
“What is this place?” The walls repeated back to her.
He hopped onto the step of a broken stairwell. “A Dad-type of king built it for his beautiful Mrs. Queen once, but when they argued about the colors on the walls, or shade of carpet, all fell to ruin. Their kingdom, the castle . . . ”
Behind her, through the remains of a window, dark waves now covered the thin strip of peninsula. “Why didn’t they just divorce? It doesn’t have to be everybody’s fate.”
“The only option out of marriage was death. So, on a moonlit night, as they danced up on the balcony–” He pointed up to where an empty door frame stood in the wall, pieces of its stone lay around them. “–the king let her fingers slip out of his hands. She fell into ocean. Her body swept away while his spirit was dragged out by the tide. Only their heir, a prince, remained in the castle.”
“That’s a horrible thing to live through.” Caroline shivered. “So what happened to the prince?”
“He dated one girl but only in his dreams.” He glanced at her, eyes wide quietly when he said, “Until one day she was with someone else. Off than on, and off. I think his name was King James or something..”
Now she felt him watching her steadily. She felt heat rising to her cheeks. “But how did that lead to . . . ”
“Maybe he hoped that she’d finally notice the skinny guy in the corner.” Waves washed over the stairs, and her feet. He leaned against the brick wall, smiled but without moving his eyes away. “Plus, she needed to learn how to properly end something.”
“Well, maybe if a girl’s with the right person there doesn’t need to be an end.” She had wanted to ask in her neutral, journalist’s voice, but the words choked out. “I know you have your reputation and all, but why don’t I scrap the article for the paper.”
He touched her chin. “We’d ruin it though.”
The waves boomed in the hollow stone room. Whispered on retreat. Boomed again.
“You hear that?” he asked.
“The king and queen, still arguing into eternity.”
“Show me the break-up then. Let’s just get it over with. We can head back before high tide takes over the beach.”
“It’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” He inched his hand down her arm. “There’s a tower room upstairs . . . “
He pulled her up the staircase to a room which had a balcony years ago, but now looked out onto moonlit ocean. They stood in the door frame, the beach completely gone with no way back toward civilization.
Down on his knee, he reached for her hand. “Caroline, will you forever be my perfect memory; never to be shattered by arguments over boring conversations, forgotten birthdays, or badly worded texts.” He slipped a ring made of sea glass and paperclip on her finger.“Promise, you’ll agree to break-up and let our love live forever.”
Caroline felt the ring slip on her finger. “I will-”
The smooth glass touched her skin. The End? But he was standing. Leaning in. Kissing her and whispering, “Interview over.”
Her phone slipped from her fingers and into the waves below.