Another two weeks passed and I was blissfully unaware that my new life as girlfriend extraordinaire was skidding out of control. Looking back, the warning signs were obvious: the unreturned calls, the unexplained excuses, the parties, the fights (mostly about Bear’s stubborn resistance to “meet the parents”). He had stopped showing up at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, throwing pebbles at my window. We hadn’t gone on a real date in forever; our dates were mostly just parties.
But at the time, I had convinced myself this was how normal relationships worked. Everything starts out really hot and exciting, but things had to slow down somewhere.
The day of the regional playoffs, things almost came to a halt.
Ever since the last invitational, the change in the baseball team had become obvious. Aside from the occasional slipups at second base, where Kyle’s absence was evident, there were emotional changes. The boys wanted it more. Winning was something they were out to prove, not just something that came to them, like it had been during the regular season.
The crowds for games had been growing as it got closer to state playoffs. The regular parents were still there (although Lane’s step-dad, Mr. Addy, kept showing up later and leaving earlier each time), but there was a huge leap in student attendance, even though the travel time was increasing. Even Marybeth and Garret became avid fans, driving an hour or more each night to come.
The game was fairly intense, but we had it in the bag from the first inning. Afterwards, I met Bear outside the locker room like usual.
“Hey,” he said, lifting me up for a quick kiss. (Kisses were the one thing in our relationship that hadn’t faded.)
“So, what’s the plan? You wanna go get lunch?” I asked.
Bear shifted his bag higher up on his shoulder. “Yeah. I think we’re going to the wing place down the road.”
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“Um. Ehren, Matt, Ben… a couple others.” He had started walking towards the parking lot, but I reached out to stop him.
“Hey, Bear, how ‘bout we go to lunch, just the two of us? We haven’t done that in forever,” I asked, my voice deliberately soft.
Bear seemed a little annoyed. “I already told them I’d go.”
“Well, then, tell them you changed your mind. It’s lunch, Bear; they’ll get over it for one day.” I was practically begging.
“They’re my friends, Emma Gray. I want to go.”
“Yeah, and I’m your girlfriend, and I don’t want to go. I want you, for once, not the whole posse.”
“We’ll go just the two of us tomorrow or something, alright? Just come on, Emma.” He started walking again.
“No, Bear, I don’t want to go.”
He turned around to look at me, squinting into the sun. “What do you want, Emma Gray? Because I’m not going to give up my friends for you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’m the girlfriend. I’m the one who’s supposed to give up their friends.”
He screwed up his face. “What are you talking about?”
“We always go with your friends. You never let us sit with Cady or Renee or my friends at lunch. I always have to cancel my plans to go to your friends’ parties. It’s not fair,” I ranted.
“Well, maybe… maybe we should go on a break and you can hang out with your friends all the time. Is that what you want?”
Instant tears sprung into my eyes. “No. It’s not.”
I hated the arrogant stare he was giving me, like he couldn’t care less what I decided.
Finally, I caved and went with him and his friends, but I hated every second of it. I barely said anything the whole time, but our relationship held on a little longer.
I did, however, notice that Andy was there alone.
That week marked a milestone in our lives.
School got out on a Tuesday, but no real “schooling” had been going on for a while. All the seniors arrived at school before the first bell, but nobody went to class. Instead, Ben McKnight brought a grill in the back of his pickup and Chef Grayson lit a bonfire in the barbeque pit. It was s’mores and hotdogs all day.
When the final bell rang, a few cheers went up across the parking lot and sophomores and juniors sprinted out of the building. But most of the seniors stayed in their collapsible lawn chairs. For the first (and only) time in our high school careers, we were reluctant to leave the school campus. The principal came out and took one look at our melancholy faces before inviting us to stay as long as we needed. I left with Lawrie and Laney at about 6:00. (Lawrie was complaining about needing actual nourishment, “not this processed shit we’ve been eating all day.”)
The next two nights were straight parties for Bear, and I didn’t see him until we met up an hour before graduation. Bear, Lawrie and I were in the same row (with the lovely Jenna Wells) because of our last names. The ceremony started about 45 minutes behind schedule and moved along dryly. I watched Cady Anderson and Renee Carrigan walk across the stage, then Lane Keaton, then finally it was our turn. I followed Jade Wilcox up to the stage in an excited shuffle.
“Emma Gray Wilder,” I heard over the PA, quickly followed by a, “Lawson Reid Wilder.”
We were on stage, walking, Lawrie immediately behind me. The whole feeling was incredibly surreal, and I barely remembered to listen for the, “Bradley McKinnon Williams.”
By the time I had shaken all the hands and received my diploma (my diploma!), Lawrie and I were being ushered off the stage. Not two steps off the stairs, I felt Lawrie’s arms encompass me and I turned into his hug. We heard Mom’s screaming and looked up, and there was the whole family. Mom, Dad, our two pregnant sisters and their husbands. Even Mr. Addy was standing, applauding.
I let the warm feeling spread as finally our tassels were turned and our caps were in the air and Lawrie was hugging me again and we were processing out.
Then came the endless pictures. Pictures with Lawrie, with Mom and Dad, with Lawrie, Mom and Dad, with the sisters, with the whole family, with Lane, with Lawrie and Laney, with Renee and Cady, with Bear, with Bear, Renee and Andy. Pictures with everyone who ever meant anything to me over the previous four years.
And then it was over.
Kids were scattering, rushing to one party or another. Mom gave us kisses and let us go (“Be home by midnight!”) and we were off.
I had never seen Ben’s house so packed before. Everyone was there. The whole baseball team, the whole cheerleading team, hell, the whole water polo team was there. For some reason, I kept expecting something different. I mean, it was our graduation night. Wasn’t it supposed to be one of the best nights of our lives? But it was just another Ben McKnight party. Same drunken boys (and girls), same sweaty bodies sliding against each other, same loud music and beer pong.
Honestly, it was a little boring.
I texted Renee a few times, but she was at Cady’s for the night and it was hard to carry on a conversation. Bear, on the other hand, seemed to be having a ball. The one thing I can say I definitely learned from him was Ben McKnight Party Rule No. 1: level of fun = level of alcohol consumed.
I said goodnight to Bear as soon as I could wrestle Lawrie and Laney out the door.
But school wasn’t really over, not quite yet.
Baseball state semi-finals. The morning after graduation.
The boys managed to scrape out a win (I don’t know how, considering three-fourths of them were massively hung over) which meant state playoffs in a week. Which meant four-hour practices every day until then.
By Wednesday, I was fed up with baseball. Overnight, it had become everything everywhere. If we weren’t at baseball practice, Laney and Lawrie were discussing Matt Summers’s fastball, or the newspaper was doing an article on Ehren Engel, or someone was painting inspirational messages on their store front windows.
Basically, all anyone cared about was baseball. Including Bear. Suddenly, I was on the backburner, and the team was his focal point.
I finally managed to corner him after practice on Tuesday.
“Hey, Em,” he said, giving me a quick kiss. He was sweaty and I could smell the hot June afternoon on him.
“Look, I gotta go. Cody and me are hitting the batting cages.”
“Okay. Are you busy tomorrow?”
Bear smiled. “Emma, it’s state playoff week.”
I stared. “Well, yeah. But you have to have some free time, right?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, sure,” he exhaled. “After practice, all right?”
I nodded, slightly unsettled.
“See ya, Em.” He ran off and caught up with Cody in the parking lot.
I trudged back to the baseball diamond to finish picking up all the equipment (by myself, since Renee hadn’t come).
I looked up to Lawrie’s horn. Laney was halfway out of the passenger side window.
“You need a ride?” he called.
I nodded pitifully and threw all the mitts into the dugout.
That night, I slept in Lawrie’s bed, Lane on my left, Lawrie my right, and dreamed about the night the cutest boy in school asked me out.