Imagine all the people you meet in your life. There are so many. They come in like waves, trickling in and out with the tide. Some waves are much bigger and make more of an impact than others. Sometimes the waves bring with them things from deep in the bottom of the sea and they leave those things tossed onto the shore. Imprints against the grains of sand that prove the waves had once been there, long after the tide recedes.
That was what Atlas was telling me when he said “I love you.” He was letting me know that I was the biggest wave he’d ever come across. And I brought so much with me that my impressions would always be there, even when the tide rolled out.
After he said he loved me, he told me he had a birthday present for me. He pulled out a small brown bag. “It isn’t much, but it’s all I could afford.”
I opened the bag and pulled out the best present I’d ever received. It was a magnet that said “Boston” on the top. At the bottom in tiny letters, it said “Where everything is better.” I told him I would keep it forever, and every time I look at it I’ll think of him.
When I started out this letter, I said my sixteenth birthday was one of the best days of my life. Because up until that second, it was.
It was the next few minutes that weren’t.
Before Atlas had shown up that night, I wasn’t expecting him, so I didn’t think to lock my bedroom door. My father heard me in there talking to someone, and when he threw open my door and saw Atlas in bed with me, he was angrier than I’d ever seen him. And Atlas was at a disadvantage by not being prepared for what came next.
I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. Being completely helpless as my father came down on him with a baseball bat. The sound of bones snapping was the only thing piercing through my screams.
I still don’t know who called the police. I’m sure it was my mother, but it’s been six months and we still haven’t talked about that night. By the time the police got to my bedroom and pulled my father off of him, I didn’t even recognize Atlas, he was covered in so much blood.
I was hysterical.
Not only did they have to take Atlas away in an ambulance, they also had to call an ambulance for me because I couldn’t breathe. It was the first and only panic attack I’ve ever had.
No one would tell me where he was or if he was even okay. My father wasn’t even arrested for what he’d done. Word got out that Atlas had been staying in that old house and that he had been homeless. My father became revered for his heroic act—saving his little girl from the homeless boy who manipulated her into having sex with him.
My father said I’d shamed our whole family by giving the town something to gossip about. And let me tell you, they still gossip about it. I heard Katie on the bus today telling someone she tried to warn me about Atlas. She said she knew he was bad news from the moment she laid eyes on him. Which is crap. If Atlas had been on the bus with me, I probably would have kept my mouth shut and been mature about it like he tried to teach me to be. Instead, I was so angry, I turned around and told Katie she could go to hell. I told her Atlas was a better human than she’d ever be and if I ever heard her say one more bad thing about him, she’d regret it.
She just rolled her eyes and said, “Jesus, Lily. Did he brainwash you? He was a dirty, thieving homeless kid who was probably on drugs. He used you for food and sex and now you’re defending him?”
She’s lucky the bus stopped at my house right then. I grabbed my backpack and walked off the bus, then went inside and cried in my room for three hours straight. Now my head hurts, but I knew the only thing that would make me feel better is if I finally got it all out on paper. I’ve been avoiding writing this letter for six months now.
No offense, Ellen, but my head still hurts. So does my heart. Maybe even more right now than it did yesterday. This letter didn’t help one damn bit.
I think I’m going to take a break from writing to you for a while. Writing to you reminds me of him, and it all hurts too much. Until he comes back for me, I’m just going to keep pretending to be okay. I’ll keep pretending to swim, when really all I’m doing is floating. Barely keeping my head above water.
I flip to the next page, but it’s blank. That was the last time I ever wrote to Ellen.
I also never heard from Atlas again, and a huge part of me never blamed him. He almost died at the hands of my father. There’s not much room for forgiveness there.
I knew he survived and that he was okay, because my curiosity has sometimes gotten the best of me over the years and I’d find what I could about him online. There wasn’t much, though. Enough to let me know he’d survived and that he was in the military.
I still never got him out of my head, though. Time made things better, but sometimes I would see something that would remind me of him and it would put me in a funk. It wasn’t until I was in college for a couple of years and dating someone else that I realized maybe Atlas wasn’t supposed to be my whole life. Maybe he was only supposed to be a part of it.
Maybe love isn’t something that comes full circle. It just ebbs and flows, in and out, just like the people in our lives.
On a particularly lonely night in college, I went alone to a tattoo studio and had a heart put in the spot where he used to kiss me. It’s a tiny heart, about the size of a thumbprint, and it looks just like the heart he carved for me out of the oak tree. It’s not fully closed at the top and I wonder if Atlas carved the heart like that on purpose. Because that’s how my heart feels every time I think about him. It just feels like there’s a little hole in it, letting out all the air.