I’ve cried more in the last week than I have in my entire life.
Today the waterworks start when I wake up to a last-day-of-school text from my best friend, Lacey. All it says is WE MADE IT!!!!! with an overabundance of exclamation points, but it’s really all she needs to say.
Countless hours of interminable lectures.
A hundred scandals.
One broken heart.
There’s a long green robe that goes all the way to my shins hanging in my closet. A short navy blue dress beside it that I’ll wear underneath the robe. A pair of black pumps for the fifteen most important steps of my life so far, and I only hope I can stay upright in them.
We’re graduating today.
FINALLY, I write back in all caps, and I mean that it feels like I’ve lived four different lives in the space of high school, that so many days felt unending, eternal--like hell. But I also mean that it’s really over and they wouldn’t let us go back even if we wanted to.
We made it, she says, but it’s not totally true.
We didn’t all make it. Some of us were short a few credits or failed a class or got knocked up.
Some of us were driving too fast around a bend two Friday nights ago.
One of us will never graduate high school.
I think of Will the whole time I’m getting ready. Curling my hair, getting dressed, doing my nails. When I drive to Lacey’s and our moms stand shoulder to shoulder, wiping their eyes as they force us to take picture after picture in our graduation robes.
“Oh my God, not you too!” Lacey exclaims when she sees me tearing up beside her as my dad yells for us to say pumpernickel.
“It’s sad,” I sniff, defensive. I turn so Lacey and I are back to back, making finger guns to re-create the first-day-of-high-school pictures my dad took.
It’s cheesy as hell, yes, but I can’t wrap my head around Lacey’s composure, her total indifference to the fact that everything is about to change forever.
“I can’t believe Oliver got out of this,” she sighs as we change positions at Dad’s direction. Her twin brother, who is graduating with us and thus should be subject to all the parental weeping and reminiscing and photographing, left already to meet up with his friends before graduation.
After we’re done taking pictures, we pile into our cars to drive to McKillop High. Lacey rides with me, and as soon as we get into the car, she turns the music up high and starts to belt along with the radio. We’re driving past Avery Park when I get the sudden urge to pull over. Will used to live close by, but that’s not why I’m stopping.
“What the hell?” Lacey says, turning down the music, when she sees where we’ve stopped.
“Let’s go in the tunnel!” I say, already climbing out of the car.
“Are you serious? What are you, five?” she asks, correctly identifying the average age of the kids who are playing in the park right now.
“Oh, come on, Lace!” I insist. “For old times’ sake.”
Lacey has been edgy all day, and instead of letting loose with me, like I hope she will, she digs her heels in.
“We’re going to be late! And we’re going to mess up our gowns,” she says. Normally, this is the kind of thing I’d be worried about, but not today.
Today there is this strange force pushing against my chest, a closed fist tight around my sternum. I wish I could burst into a run, outsprint the feeling. I wish I could leave it behind in this park Lace and I used to play in as kids.
I make my way to the start of the tunnel, a winding, cylindrical slide that used to terrify us when we were little. Lacey follows.
“Really?” she says, one last attempt to shame me into changing my mind, but it doesn’t work. I climb the small stairs leading to the top of the slide, then, with one last look around to make sure I’m not endangering any kids, I push off down the slide. The tunnel is just as dark and winding as when we were little, but a lot shorter than I remember it.
When I climb out of the other end, I can’t catch my breath from laughing.
“Dude,” Lacey says. “Your robe.”
I grab her hand and pull her toward the front end of the tunnel. “What, do they not give diplomas to people with rumpled robes?”
“Does it still make you want to shit your pants?” she asks, peeking into the tunnel.
“More now than ever,” I say.
Apparently, those are the magic words, because after I go through again, she follows me, letting out a loud whoop that I hear from outside as she spirals down the tunnel.
When she climbs out, she is laughing, and I convince her to go back one more time before we leave.
As we start toward the car, I catch a bunch of parents side-eyeing us in our too-big graduation gowns. A chubby-cheeked kid suddenly bolts in our direction, nearly taking Lacey down in the process, as he runs for the mouth of the tunnel.
“Nicholas, you come back here!” A flustered-looking woman hurries after him, but he doesn’t stop. I turn around to watch, silently rooting the kid on. I want to crouch down beside him and tell him to use the tunnel, to keep flying through the dark while he’s still allowed.
“When’s the last time we did that?” I ask Lacey when we reach my car, and she shrugs.
Then I’m starting the car and tears prick the backs of my eyes and I hate that so many Lasts happen when you aren’t paying attention.
There would have been a day, just like any other day, when kid Lacey and Oliver and I would have raced to reach the tunnel first. We would have gone through it, whooping like Lacey did, like we always did, except that when we climbed off that day, it was the last time and we didn’t know it.