This story is by Manju Patnaik and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Took me a while to realize I had found my ‘happily ever after’, only because I was searching for someone else’s definition of it.” – Anonymous
The sunshine didn’t last long. Our world was grey, filled with pain and fear. Cancer had gotten the upper hand. Mop was leaner and his unruly hair that once gave him his nickname was gone. I wouldn’t have recognized him but for the goofy smile, the same smile that drew me to him the first time we met. I held onto him while I fought every force trying to take him. I built a cocoon around us. During this time, we not only planned for after the inevitable, but also reminisced the last 10 years of our lives together. It seemed like it was only yesterday we met for the first time. My mind wandered back to that day.
It was a beautiful Friday night, and I was slaving away at my Geometry assignment, when I heard the rhythmic beat of a ball. Our home was one of two homes in a cul-de-sac off the main street and the other home had been vacant for a while. Perhaps a new family had moved in! At the thought of new neighbors, the sound of the ball became interesting. I snuck out my window to investigate further. It was my first-time seeing Mop. A tall, lanky boy with a mop of dark curly hair. He looked about my age.
After watching him for a few minutes I gathered up the courage to say something.
“Hey neighbor,” I called out.
He looked up with a big goofy grin and without batting an eyelid asked, “Hey Red, wanna shoot some hoops?”
I remember rolling my eyes at the nickname. While shooting hoops, I discovered he was going to be in my sophomore class at school. As we continued to play, we instantly became friends. He was funny, kind, and smart.
I am shaken from my reverie when I realize Mop is tiring. Chemotherapy is exhausting him, and he needs to rest and let the poison do its work. Though something inside tells me it has raised the white flag.
Before he nods off to sleep, he smiles. “Red, you never change, especially that hair of yours. I assumed you had the temper to match it and would punch me for calling you that nickname, but you just grinned and rolled with it. It’s one of the things I love about you.”
As he sleeps, my restless mind continues to thumb through my cache of memories.
After playing basketball for about an hour that afternoon, we spent most of the weekend getting to know each other. On Monday morning, he was waiting for me on our front porch.
“Red, ready for school?”
“Yep are you nervous?”
He only grinned at me. He was always ready to take on the world.
For the first few weeks he clung to me and my friends, but soon he’d made new friends. In school our paths rarely crossed because he was in advanced sciences while I was not. While I was a band kid, he could not play a note to save his life. But every morning he waited for me at my front porch to drive into school and at the end of the day we would drive home together.
Outside school we became inseparable. We did our homework together, went to the movies, or just hung out. The best times were when we would sit on my front porch, after dinner, to talk about our plans. We had grandiose plans which included Engineering at MIT for him and Economics at the London School of Economics for me. It was not long before our families became close. While Mop and his family celebrated Christmas and Easter with us, we celebrated Holi and Diwali with them.
By December of our senior year, we knew we had each been accepted into our schools of choice. The time had come to soar. As we got closer to graduation, I started to experience an unexplainable sinking feeling. It wasn’t until one evening as mom and I were completing forms for my impending travel, it hit me. Mop and I were going to be separated for a few years. The very thought made me sick to my stomach.
Ma sensed my state of mind. “I hope you realize you are in love with Mop and will tell him how you feel.”
I was shocked.
This is not love. It couldn’t be. Mop is my best friend.
I didn’t respond to her.
My time to enter a new phase of life came quickly. The night before we parted, we stayed up late. Neither of us said much, which was odd.
“Mop, I’m really going to miss you.” Surely, I could have come up with something better.
He put his arms around me and held me tight.
“Aw…shucks, Red, I’m going to miss you too.”
A lot was left unsaid that night.
Thinking back on it now, I laugh. We sounded so lame and awkward.
We made no promises to keep in touch regularly. We’d both be busy, and it wasn’t practical. A few text messages now and then, maybe a phone call or two. The only promise we made was that we’d both be back home for Christmas break.
I landed in London on a wet, dreary day. The City’s emotions synced with mine, but I’d made up my mind I was going to make the most of the opportunity. In no time, I was drawn into my new life, with new friends, having unique experiences, the memories of which would last a lifetime. While I loved it, I still missed Mop almost every day, wondering what he would think of this museum or that concert. I wanted to share these experiences with him. Through social media I knew he was dating, as I’m sure he knew I was. We rarely talked, and when we did, it was always rushed.
On one call with him, I tentatively broached the subject. “Hey, the girl in the picture seems nice. Must be special.”
“Whatever! I don’t like the look of the guy you went to see the London Tower with,” he retorted.
That gave me an inkling that he was as bothered with my dating life as I was with his. But we never broached the subject again.
Christmas break was upon me and by then I was sure of my feelings for him. Ma was right, I had fallen in love with my best friend. On the flight home, I was a wreck. I was unsure of what to expect from him. I nervously chewed on my nails.
Ugh! How I hated the habit.
As I waited for my suitcases in baggage claim, someone grabbed me from behind and pulled me into an embrace. Mop had come to pick me up! And he was alone! His familiar features and goofy smile warmed my heart, and the butterflies in my stomach fluttered. I was ecstatic to see him.
“Red, are you crying?”
“Yes, because I love you.”
He chuckled. “Is that a bad thing?”
Through the sounds of the beeping monitors, he is hooked on to, I hear him mumble, “Earth to Red, can I get some water?”
As I filled his glass for him, he said, “Red, remember when I met you at the airport the first time you came back from London?” My hand shook visibly as I handed him the glass of water. How could we have been thinking the exact same thing at that moment?
“I remember, I think you were very certain I would come home alone.”
“I was not!”
I smiled, “That cocky grin of yours said everything.”
“We had so much to talk about, plan for and look forward to. Red, this was not in our plans.”
But John Lennon was right when he wrote, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans” from his song Beautiful Boy.
On a bright summer morning, Mop passed away. The constant beep of the machines became silent. The deafening silence engulfed me for many years. I was grieving and angry at everyone who was here while he wasn’t. There were so many years left to grow old together, and so many memories to make. My happily ever after snatched too soon. I was furious that the fairy tales were lies. In them, living happily ever after never went beyond the kiss shared between the prince and princess.
Time has a way of numbing the pain. As I inched my way back into the sunshine, the memories of our short time together became my crutch of sorts. I would always miss him. It occurred to me that while many spent a lifetime searching for their happily ever after, I found solace in knowing I had found mine in the short time with Mop. I defined my new happily ever after.