Soothe The Burn
by Viola

I'm not like them
But I can pretend
I think I'm dumb
or maybe just happy

It all starts when Connor meets a girl.

It starts during that first, sun-soaked September after high school. He leaves home for the first time and he's never felt taller, brighter, bolder, more alive. He has the whole world, wide open, right in front of him, and he chooses Los Angeles.

By the first day of October he's done his first keg stand, kissed his first co-ed. He's stayed out all night and gone swimming in the ocean at sunrise. The sun shines most days; there's just a taste of autumn on the air. People say hello to Connor when he walks through the quad, and the USC Trojans are the number two football team in the whole country. How could things get much better than that?

But then he meets this girl.

Connor loves Los Angeles. He's always wanted to go. There are days when he wakes up and can't quite believe he's really there.

Connor loves his mother and father. He loves his sister, his pets, his friends back home. Connor's never hated anything that he remembers.

But then he meets this girl.

He meets her at a cramped little coffee bar just off-campus. She's small and blonde, with skin like porcelain and light and shadow in her eyes. She looks like one of the portraits in Connor's art history class. But that isn't what attracts him; that isn't what makes him walk over to her. He walks over because she just looks so lost.

At first he thinks she's one of those artsy grad student types. She's very pale and dressed all in black.

"What's your name?" he asks, taking the chair across from her without asking if she minds. It's a very un-Connor thing for him to do. Connor is always polite, always asks permission.

She looks up at him and laughs a little bit. "Good question."

"You don't know?" he asks, playing along. "Or you just don't want to tell me?"

She tilts her head and looks at him seriously. "What do you think my name should be? What do I look like?"

Connor thinks about that for a moment. "Something sweet, something precious," but he's not sure what makes him say it.

"Something darling?" she asks, with a strange little smile.


"You're a good boy, aren't you?" she says, lighting up a cigarette even though there's a 'No Smoking' sign by the door. No one stops her. "Call your mom every week? Do all your homework on time?"

Connor doesn't answer.

"You do. I can tell." She takes a sip of coffee and makes a face. "Does it make you happy?"

"I'm happy," he says. "I've always been."

"Have you really?" She seems surprised at that. "I can't even begin to imagine that."

He sees her there again, weekend after weekend, on sleepy Saturday afternoons. Connor lugs his heavy books there and stays until the sun goes down. Sometimes he sits alone, other times he shares a table with her, depending on her mood.

In November it begins to rain.

"I hate the rain," she says one afternoon as they sit in their coffeeshop, watching puddles form through the open door. "It chills my bones. Makes me feel old."

She calls herself Diane now. But Connor's pretty sure from the way she says it that it isn't her real name.

"I like the rain," Connor says. "We don't get much of it. It's nice for a change."

Diane looks at him and smiles a bit. "It makes sense, I guess, that you'd like rain."

"What makes you say that?"

She shrugs elegantly and changes the subject.

She does that a lot when he asks questions of her, when he asks things like, 'How old are you?' 'Where are you from?' 'Do you have a boyfriend?' She changes the subject, managing him easily. Connor is too polite to press the point.

Sometimes, though, he gets the feeling that she wants him to keep asking. That she'll tell him everything if only he wants it enough. But he still doesn't push.

Later, when the stores have put up their twinkle lights and aluminum trees, Connor walks with her past windows frosted with artificial snow.

"I remember things," she says on this day. "Things that never happened. Does that ever happen to you?"

It never used to, but now Connor isn't so sure.

"Isn't that what dreams are?" he asks instead.

They stop at the coffeeshop. It's the first time they've come there together rather than meeting by intentional accident, by mutual consent.

He pulls her chair out for her and she smiles over her shoulder at him and calls him "sweet boy." For some reason it sets his teeth on edge. It's familiar and it shouldn't be. It frightens him, puts thoughts and memories in his head. When he stands up to leave, he very nearly calls her by a different name.

He realizes then that she knows him, all about him, that deep down in some forgotten place he knows her too. That meeting her here, now, this way, wasn't an accident at all.

He walks away, and doesn't come back for three weeks.

But then it's Christmas and he can't go back, so the decision is made for him. Connor drives home with a car full of laughing friends, up into the thin, clean air, away from Los Angeles and everything he's learned since he left. They play bad music, singing loudly and off- key, getting the words wrong. They drive too fast around the mountain curves and laugh at their own daring. Connor tries to join in. At one point they talk about how different it will be to be back, to see their parents and friends and all the people who thought they knew them before. But now they've changed, permanently and irrevocably and nothing will ever be the same. This, Connor feels, he can understand, and so he nods solemnly and tells them all that he feels the same way.

He feels, sitting in a house filled with woodsmoke, wrapping paper and chocolate on Christmas Day, as though his life, this life is nothing but a half-remembered dream. It feels as though it must have belonged to someone else, and he feels that he doesn't know that person very well anymore. He brings this up, hesitantly, with his mother when they're sitting by candlelight after dinner.

"Oh, Connor," she laughs, taking a bite of pie. She tells him that it's a perfectly natural thing to feel. She felt it herself when she was his age. Everyone does, it's all part of finding yourself, of finding out who you really are, and everyone does it.

She's brought him coffee after dinner, Sumatra with fresh cream, because now Connor is one of the adults. In a year or two, she may offer him a choice of brandy as well. It's a rite of passage, but the coffee just makes Connor think of Diane.

He wonders where she is, if she has anywhere to go. He can't imagine that she has parents or that she would do something as everyday or boring as sit with friends drinking eggnog. He imagines that she probably hates Christmas music; he can't imagine her feeling any other way.

In January, Connor goes back to Los Angeles. He's there less than two days when he sees Diane. She's on the street just after sunset, walking west so that Connor can only see her from behind. He knows it's her, though, and he hurries to catch up.

"How was your holiday?" she asks, a little mocking smile playing around her mouth. "Have a nice break from me?"

He doesn't take the bait. "Christmas was nice. What did you do?"

She doesn't take the bait either. "Do you actually believe in all that?" she asks instead. "Prophecies and sacrifices and impossible births?"

"Anything is possible," Connor says and takes her into the nearest café and buys her a drink. She looks like she could use one.

"Diane isn't really your name, is it?" he asks.

She sighs heavily, looking tired and older than she could possibly be. "I don't know. Is your name really Connor?" When he doesn't answer, she says, "Names aren't as important as we pretend they are. They're easy to forget."

Their waiter is hovering, protesting that Connor can't be more than sixteen and shouldn't be in here. Diane slips her a twenty and tells her to just bring the drinks already.

She does.

Connor can hold his liquor, but whatever Diane orders is stronger than he's used to. It's thick, heady, reminds him of the black-and- white movies they show at the old movie palace just off Greek Row.

She leans in close and maybe it's the alcohol, maybe it's something else, but he leans in, too. He's never thought of her that way, but something about tonight makes him want to climb into her arms and never leave.

"There are things I could tell you," she says. "Things you should know."

Connor watches her for a long moment, then slowly leans away. "No. I don't want to know."

"You'd be better off."

"Would I?" He pushes his drink away. "Would I really? I like my life, Diane."

"It's a lie," she says solemnly. "There's nothing worse than a lie."

"I can think of a lot of things that would be worse."

She takes another drink, leveling a finger at him. "Name one."

He can't, but he knows they exist.

A few weeks afterward, Connor wakes up one morning, amid books and notes and highlighters, to discover that somehow overnight it's become spring. He stumbles to the window, tripping over his open laptop on the floor, and the sun is out, the breeze smells like cut grass.

That morning he doesn't go to class.

Instead he lies in the grass with his friends, drinking Italian sodas and reading magazines. In the afternoon they play frisbee and Connor thinks that maybe Chris' friend Janelle likes him. He decides to ask her to the movies.

When he gets back to his room it's dinnertime, the sun is down and there's a message on his machine. It's Diane, even though he never gave her the number.

He finds her in an alley behind an abandoned restaurant. She's standing there with a cell phone in her hand and a look on her face that says she knew he'd come when she called for him.

"What's this about?" He's annoyed with her, angry at having to leave his sunny, spring day behind for this cold, wet alley.

She laughs. He thinks maybe she's a little drunk. "Oh, it's about another night like this in another alley with a boy like you. You look like him, you know. Not a lot, just a little, around the edges. But I can see it. You smile more, though. You smile more and better, and I guess that's what he wanted for you."

"I look like someone you know?"

She weaves toward him, nearly dropping the phone. "Someone I knew. He killed me, time and again. I just kept coming back. I don't even think he realizes I'm here this time." She takes Connor's face in her hands. "He loved you that much. I don't think I believed he could. I know I didn't believe I could."

"You don't love me," Connor says. "You barely know me."

"That's true." She smiles, dropping her hand. "But I do love you. I loved you before I ever knew you."

"You aren't making sense. What is this about, really?"

"The world, Connor. The world is different because of you. I am, and I don't know what to do about it."

He shakes his head, closing his eyes as though that will make her go away.

"It's true," she says.

He won't let it be. "It doesn't have anything to do with me."

"But what about me?" she says a little desperately. "You don't- You couldn't know because you won't let me tell you. You won't listen."

"I'm sorry," he says, reaching out for her. She's very small in his arms, smaller than she looks. Her heart flutters against his chest, rapid and uneven. Her breathing is shallow and unhealthy, and he wonders why he's never noticed before. "I'm sorry this is so hard for you."

He loves her, he realizes. Not in the desperate, yearning way he's ever loved a girl before. Not quite the way he loves his mother, his sister or his aunt. She inspires something different in him, a connection he doesn't really understand.

But he's still going to walk away. Because whether he loves her or not, he's still going to choose himself. Because that's what it comes down to: his life or hers.

Connor likes his life. He can't be what she needs him to be.

He tells her this, and she laughs when he says it. "I didn't really expect anything else, you know. I would have done the same thing myself. And we're an awful lot alike, aren't we?"

He lets go of her and turns to walk away.

"I don't want you to save me," she says. "I don't really need saving, not anymore. I guess I just wanted someone else to know what I know."

"I'm sorry it couldn't be me," he says without turning around.

"You know enough."

He does turn then, but she's already gone when he looks.

When Connor finally goes home again, in those first days of summer that feel like they might never end, he knows that he doesn't belong to USC or to his parents or to Diane. He goes home, leaving the scent of the ocean behind for brisker, thinner air, and knows that it isn't about who he was or is or believes himself to be. What is most important, Connor realizes as he climbs up narrow mountain roads with heights and depths that fall away on either side, is who he will become.


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