I didn't know what to say. Bobby was often troubled but he never mentioned a thing about Alaska. He'd been schizophrenic toward me all spring, sometimes avoiding me for days and snapping at other boys I adopted into my Best Platonic Male Friend slot, sometimes showing up at my door with plates of whimsically shaped cookies, but this sudden departure was entirely unforeseen. We couldn't even discuss it-- his fantastical plans were already in motion, smothering my cartoony hopes for a summer of eating ice cream cones and philosophizing as the trains rumbled under the sweltering wooden bridge in Highland Park. Why would he want desserts and the companionable repetition of my five or so original thoughts when he could have adventure, freedom, and the tangle-free romance of a barren ice floe? The great fucking North was calling him home. I'd only ever read Julie of the Wolves (or whatever the title of that starkly boring adventure girl novel was) and I was convinced that Alaska held nothing other than darkness, quasi-rapists, and fifty tons of raw elk meat and I needed none of those in my daily adventures.
But Bobby bought a bicycle. It shone under the porch light, moths bouncing off its aluminum frame. Mosquitos sucked our blood in tandem, mixing a hemoglobin cocktail, as he leaned forward and touched my nose with his, cutting off my questions. "I'm coming back. I'm not going to be one of those wayward adventurers."
His eyes were so close that they cyclopsed and I pulled my forehead away. "‘Wayward adventurers' is a pretty bullshit phrase, friend." I shut the door and snapped the tiny curtain closed as a final message. The stitched lavender flowers didn't hide his disappointed half-smile. He knew that I wasn't going to say goodbye.
So he didn't wait. I pretended he might, but the eerily icy song was calling him and his pedals. I touched the sticky surface of a postcard, looking for fingerprints. A greeneyed wolf with an inferiority complex watched me warily as his thickly pencilled words assured me he was safe and eating and didn't have fleas yet. I imagined plumes of scent rising from his sweatsoaked back, the filth of the Alaskan wilderness riding along in his beard, and I knew no one would fuck with him.
I slept a little and waited, the summer soaking into my pores and slowly infecting my brain cells. I didn't answer him because he had to know I was dying and my melodrama blood levels were at an all-time high. Amusing bike trip anecdotes were pissing me off and I needed him. Silence would tell him that. He would come back. I sat in my room and pressed my face into a tiny stuffed manatee and wished...
This was unhelpful. The manatee gave a plaintive squeak as I threw it against the wall and my sadness ceased to be soporific.
The trains rumbled by. Neither the moon nor the sun brought sleep, but I found ways to be as fantastic as someone with the drive to bike to Alaska. I had to. I never finished anything I started, but the house grew littered with half-baked cupcakes (sporting unsmiling icing faces), bookshelves were organized by the author's level of physical attractiveness, and pieces of a quilt were made from faded, stained Disney character t-shirts. My tasks were myriad and taxing. Sometimes I'd drop, exhausted, onto the grass beneath the swingset after lunch and close my eyes. The low swings smeared seasons of dirt across my nose and the neighbors' dog licked my toes in the most comforting way possible. I liked to read Bobby's postcards in that position, the sun blinding behind the thick rectangle of paper held against the sky. As the weeks meandered by, the messages grew less casual and more cryptic, featuring perplexing statements: "I never wanted to go to Alaska, you know. I just need to be away from some people until they figure some things out." "You will always be my best friend. I think of you every day. More than every day." And, the most bizarre: "Please don't have a summer fling. That would be horrible." Bobby excelled at friendship but was painfully inarticulate on paper.
After sunset, the suffocatingly beautiful summer nights always made me want to shout something overly dramatic in my kitchen during after-dinner popsicles and stalk out into the cooling street, eventually wandering under the railroad bridge and counting littered beer bottles and fireflies. Instead, I waited until everyone slept and I lay in the backyard, sipping refrigerated red wine from a flimsy plastic cup that read BROOKFIELD ZOO - GET WILD!!!. That was angsty enough. My loneliness would occasionally fabricate a Holden Caulfield complex and I'd adorn each of my thoughts with a "goddam" and wish I were a smoker. It was embarrassing. But with the cruel teasing of the neighbor children drifting over me from the sidewalk and Bobby seemingly gone forever, I was a bit unstable. I let the slugs and ladybugs crawl onto my arms and fell asleep, tiny tracks of goo and ittybitty legs covering my skin. Insects and invertebrates liked me better than Alaska.
I woke to the 6:50 train whistle, hair wet with something unsavory. I stumbled into the house to find my sister getting ready for her token 7 AM run, every thread of coordinated jogging gear in place. She shook her head at my dirt- and dew-covered clothing and the constellations of mosquito bites covering my limbs. "I think you're in love." I fled the room.
It would be hours until the mail came so I showered days' worth of sweat from my arms and legs, picturing Bobby attempting to bathe in an ice-choked river somewhere in Canada (though, knowing him, a thick layer of dirt would be serving as a second skin by this point). I stopped in the bookstore on the way to the post office to breathe in the sterile air-conditioned environment and the smell of virgin paper. On the way to the benches at the back, I stumbled into a shelf and a book titled You Can't Ride A Bike To Alaska. It's An Island! fell onto my foot. I swore, kicked it under a shelf, and scurried from the store, mumbling an apology to the horrified cashier. Outside, a child ran up to me and smeared thick suntan lotion on my shin, giggling as she trotted back to her mother's leg inside the seafood market that smelled of scaly desperation. She smiled at me through the window, the halibut behind her gleaming in the early-morning light, and it was somehow significant. Maybe it was the sliminess coating my leg, the echoes of my sister's words, or just the knowledge that my left ankle was protected from the sun's harmful rays, but I finally knew why Bobby had left.
And I knew where I was going. The mailbox contained a suspicious-looking postcard which I stuffed into my sock for safekeeping. My backpack contained a water bottle, a bag of dried-out baby carrots, and a Neutral Milk Hotel CD inside a battered Discman. The train station contained no one. I slipped through the back door and sat on the ground next to a pile of abandoned newspapers. Other commuters tried the front door to escape the heat, but it was locked. They peered in at me, a smiling shadow in the darkened, empty station, and gave up. I hadn't rubbed in the suntan lotion and it oozed into my shoe as I boarded the next train that stopped. I didn't know the destination or the price so I hid in the chokey-sized bathroom to avoid the ticketing conductor and pulled out the postcard beneath the flickering overhead light.
It wasn't a real postcard after all, but a picture Bobby had drawn on thick paper, carefully tracing the proper squares and lines onto the back (he hated the word "artist" but his ardent sketchings always meant far more to me than the wood-framed Van Gogh and Monet prints that filled the doctors' offices of the world). The front depicted a happy Crayola-crayoned moose lounging next to a Purple Mountain's Majesty-colored lake, with Bobby and me asleep against its stomach, hand in hand. The back was simple: a heavy, misshapen heart above the question, "Are you here yet?"
I got off the train at the next stop and followed the tracks back home, first walking, then running, tripping over the wooden slats between the rails, watching the alarmed glimpses of conductors' faces as trains flashed by. Bobby was sitting on the front steps of my house and I slowed in front of him, gasping asthmatically and unattractively. He looked up at me silently, expectantly.
I opened my mouth "I love you, too."
And we smiled. And smiled.
And we were finally there together.
And there were still months and months of summer ahead.