Skylar had no idea that I watched her. Once a week, I would sit in my car diagonally across from her house on the quiet suburban street where she lived now—with him. It made me want to vomit just thinking about her with another man, let alone having to witness it.
This spot was one of three where I parked that provided the perfect angle to see into her living room. I would switch positions each week to be less conspicuous, and my car lights were always turned off. A small pair of binoculars came in handy and except for the lack of a partner in crime, it was much like a stakeout you’d see in the movies.
I packed dinner in a brown bag; usually a peanut butter sandwich and a protein shake and made a night of it until the lights shut off downstairs, signaling that she had gone to sleep. Then, I’d drive home to my empty bed and hope that I’d dream about her.
The name of her street was Bayberry Lane. It was the type of neighborhood she deserved: safe, aligned with plush trees and perfectly manicured lawns, about two and a half hours outside of New York City in Jersey. It was the next town over from where we grew up and the type of place I’d always imagined we would end up together, happily ever after.
It had been five, long years since Skylar uttered a single word to me. Most of that time, she had been living out of state. The word on the street was that she left to attend interior design school, but the truth was, she had been running away from me.
Because I broke her heart.
A few years after she left, she met a guy. Our mutual friend, Davey, would give me inside information on her, and as much as I hated the idea of Skylar settling down with another man, if she were truly happy, I knew I had to accept it. It was a whole lot easier when she was far away. I’d assumed she would never come back here. That is, until one night when my world as I knew it turned upside down during a simple run to Target for toothpaste.
I spotted her first. She was looking down at the back label of a bottle of mouthwash when I entered the aisle, and she hadn’t noticed me standing a few feet away.
My heart started to pound while my chest constricted. Skylar was always a beautiful girl, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of her as a full-grown woman. I had always imagined how it might be to see her again, but the intensity of my physical and emotional reaction caught me off guard.
Her long, auburn hair was a bit darker now and tied into a low ponytail cascading down her back. She was wearing a simple black and white plaid wool coat that had a thick belt wrapped around her tiny waist. She seemed a lot taller, but when I looked down, I realized it was because she was wearing high-heeled boots.
She still hadn’t turned to notice me, and with my chest tight and my throat closed, I just stared at her, silently urging myself to say something before she walked away. The word was hardly audible when it came out. “Skylar.”
When her eyes met mine, it felt as though my heart started beating again for the first time in five years. It made me realize how dead inside I had been.
She took a small step back, and her chest rose up and down in shock. Not only had this been the first time we’d laid eyes on each other since before she left town, but I looked a lot different.
A couple of years ago, at the height of a depression, I started taking my frustrations out on my body and began a rigorous workout regimen that had now become a daily routine. So, I was bigger and probably a little scarier than the college boy she left behind.
She didn’t know the half of how hardened I had become, more so on the inside. She, on the other hand, looked delicate and sophisticated compared to my rugged appearance in worn jeans and a soiled, beige construction jacket.
She stood there speechless, looking down at the tattooed letters on my knuckles. She never knew me with tattoos.
Say something, Skylar…anything.
Then, I heard a male voice at the end of the aisle. “Come on, Sky. I don’t have all friggin’ day.”
Sky. No one called her Sky. She hated that nickname. And he was being short with her. I didn’t like his choice of words or the look on his face that I spied before turning my head, pretending to look at the toothpaste selection.
I was seething. Him. I didn’t even know him, and I wanted to destroy him. All I knew was that he had the only thing I’d ever wanted.
She turned around toward this guy who I could only assume was the boyfriend. “I…I’m sorry. I’ll be right there.” She sounded nervous, discombobulated, nothing like the cool, self-assured Skylar I once knew…and loved. I still loved her. She had been my best friend, the most important person in the world to me for so many years…before I f**ked us up.
My face was still turned away when I heard her heels clicking away from me and more than that, I felt her body leave me as the sudden absence triggered the return of a familiar and unbearable longing that I had only recently learned to keep at bay.
I stayed in the same spot for an undetermined amount of time, staring blankly at the shelves as all of the emotions I tried to bury for years flooded me full force again.
When I finally moved, I saw her standing in line waiting to pay. Her boyfriend must have been waiting in the car because he was nowhere in sight.
Let her go, Mitch.
I almost did…until I saw it.
Skylar lifted her hand to her eyes and began wiping away tears. She looked behind her shoulder to make sure no one was watching and didn’t realize I was just on the other side of her a few registers down hiding behind a magazine. My heart felt like it was ready to explode. She was crying, and I knew it was because of me. It should have hurt, but instead, it invigorated me.
She still felt something.
Whether it was sadness or hatred or even a fraction of love, I didn’t know. But anything was better than complacency. I had convinced myself that Skylar was gone forever, not only away from town, but that her feelings for me had to have long dissipated. I had never been able to move on from her but assumed that by now, she might have moved past what happened between us.
As she wiped her eyes again, I knew I had to know more. I just needed to know whether she was happy. She sure as hell didn’t look it, and that made me angry. I had stayed away all these years, never fought for her, because I thought she was better off. Even if she could never forgive me, I needed to know for my own sanity that Skylar was okay.
So, that’s how the stalking came about, although I liked to call it watching; that was a little less creepy.
It was freezing, but the heat stayed off because turning the car on would have drawn attention to myself. I shouldn’t have been here, but the truth was, being near her felt more like home than anywhere.
Tonight, she was alone, and these were my favorite nights. She’d sit on the couch and read or watch television. Sometimes, when she’d watch TV, she’d laugh out loud to herself. Staring at the lingering smile that followed was the best form of meditation for me. When Skylar smiled, she lit up the room, and there was nothing more calming to look at. It was important for me to see her smile. It meant I hadn’t wiped it away altogether.
On the other hand, she seemed tense when he was around. Those nights, she spent more time cleaning or cooking, never relaxing. They’d argue a lot and one time, it culminated in his grabbing her and kissing her apologetically. As much as I had tried to prepare myself for what I might have to witness when I decided to do this, that really stung like hell to watch. Thank God it ended there. I wouldn’t have stuck around for anything more. That’s for damn sure. Show over at that point.
She was reading tonight. With my binoculars, I studied her pensive expression as she concentrated on her book with her legs wrapped in a knit blanket. She had lit a couple of jar candles on the coffee table, and there was one lamp on. She was so friggin’ cute in her red-framed reading glasses. I wondered when she started needing glasses and then stopped that thought process because it led me to wonder about all the other things I had missed.
I would have given anything to hold her while she read and to fall asleep with my nose in the crook of her neck. Just the thought of that warmed me inside as I sat in my dark, cold car. I couldn’t figure out why some nights he never came home. I would sure as hell be home every night if Skylar were mine.
A howling wind shook my car as I continued to gaze at her through the window. Her eyelids became heavy, and I watched intently as they slowly closed tight. She had fallen asleep on the couch.
I could see my breath as I sighed and leaned my head back against the seat, conceding that it was time to call it quits for the night. My heart hurt every time I had to leave her. But I would keep coming until I had what I needed: assurance that she was happy and safe.
Until next week, my Skylar.
I put the key in the ignition and turned it to start the car when the engine hesitated. Thinking nothing of it, I immediately turned it a second time when the same thing happened.
Please! Not here of all places.
That’s what I got for bringing the shit car. I owned a really nice truck, but it was massive and would have attracted too much attention on the quiet street. This car was an older Corvette I purchased for fun, working on it occasionally, but it mainly stayed in my mother’s garage.
After a third attempt to start the car, I got a flashlight and kit out of my trunk and opened the hood. The battery wasn’t dead, so I tinkered with some wiring in the hopes that I could get it to start. When I cranked it again, it still wouldn’t budge. I repeatedly turned the ignition, pumping my foot on the gas, praying that I could get out of here before Skylar woke up and noticed me.
I took a break, slamming my head against the steering wheel in frustration. After about five minutes, I decided to try it one last time before I would abandon my car and walk the several miles home in the freezing cold.
This time, I pumped harder on the gas as I turned the ignition, and to my absolute horror, the car backfired in a loud bang.
I needed to grab my shit and just go. Now. Go!
I exited the car, and as I turned to lock it, there was the sound of a door bursting open and footsteps scraping the pavement behind me.
“Is everything okay out here?”
My body froze. My back was toward her. I had a hood on, so she couldn’t see my face to identify me. I was almost mad at her for coming out because for all she knew, I could have been a serial killer. But Skylar always had balls too big for her own good.
I had two options: run with my head down or turn around and face her. But how would I explain this?
It felt like my heart was in my mouth when I turned around and removed my hood. “Skylar…it’s me.”
FIFTEEN YEARS EARLIER
I really hadn’t wanted to go to the playground that day. Gram thought it would be a good idea for me to get out of the house because I had done nothing but play video games since I arrived yesterday.
I was staying with my grandmother for the summer because my parents were fighting all of the time, and my mother didn’t want me around to witness it anymore. The excuse she gave me was that my grandmother had been lonely and asked for me to live with her, but I knew better.
Things back home were really bad. Some nights, Dad didn’t come home, and I was scared that there would be nothing left to go back to.
“Come on, Mitch. Maybe meeting some new kids will brighten your mood.”
I begrudgingly slid into the backseat of my grandmother’s older, beige Camry. “Gram, I love you. But I just don’t want to be here all summer. I want to go home in a couple of weeks.”
“Sweetheart, I know. But your folks…they have some things to sort out. Besides, I have been waiting all year to spend quality time with my most handsome grandson.” She smiled at me through the rearview mirror.
“I’m your only grandson.” I offered her a half smile before staring out the window for the rest of the ride.
Gram pulled into the playground parking lot. “You go on and play. I’ll be sitting right here in the car knitting if you need me.”
I had already made up my mind that I was going to remain miserable. So, while the other kids chased each other around, played ball or climbed the rock wall, I walked across the park and planted myself on the bench farthest away from the action. I had snuck my portable video game player into my shirt before we left the house, so I took it out, trying to drown out the screams and whistles of the other kids.
I felt a whack on my arm. “Tag! You’re it!”
My head rose slowly in annoyance. A scrawny girl with two long braids was running away from me, egging me on to chase her. She looked back with a silly smile that soon faded when she realized I still hadn’t moved from my spot to play along.
She walked back to where I continued playing the video game. “I said you’re it. You’re supposed to chase me.”
I stared at her for a few seconds. “I’m really not in the mood for this today.”
She looked down then sat next to me and whispered, “Then, now would not be a good time to tell you that you have dookey on your shoe.” She flashed a shit-eating grin and covered her mouth in laughter.
I lifted my foot. “Shit.”
“You shouldn’t use that language.”
“Excuse me: crap,” I shouted sarcastically as I rubbed my foot on the grass to remove the dog poop.
She tilted her head. “Why are you such an as**ole anyway?”
“Oh, you can say ‘asshole,’ but I can’t say ‘shit?’”
She ignored my question. “You should go over there. There’s a sprinkler you can turn on to clean your shoe.”
I groaned in frustration, walked over to the sprinkler and ran the bottom of my shoe under water, careful not to get the rest of me wet. When I turned around and walked back, the girl had disappeared. So had my video game device.