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Event Horizons, pt. II

I.

Cheryl died in August 2004. I had known her for seven months.

We met in Oxford. Well, actually, we probably met in Abilene a day or two before we got on the bus to go to the airport to get on the plane to go to Oxford. We got to know each other in Oxford, though, for sure. 

She was short, somewhat-round, with long (long) brown hair. Her voice was high-pitched and sort of squeaky, but also clear and loud. When she was talking, you knew it. When she was laughing, you felt it. She laughed a lot, and uproariously. If it was funny to Cheryl, it was funny. She was positive, and helpful, and kind. She wasn’t a pushover, though, and she’d let you know as soon as you started getting near a red line. She was beautiful.

I honestly don’t know what happened the first night we “clicked.” I don’t know where we were or what we were doing. It hurts that I can’t remember for sure. But I do know the first time she stood out to me, the moment when my memory of “Cheryl” truly begins.

I was sitting outside one of the two houses our university owned in the center of Oxford, numbers 9 and 10 Canterbury Street. I was outside because that was cooler, and I’m not referring to meteorological phenomena. It was cooler, you know, to be aloof, to be hard to know, to be “mysterious.” I sat outside, leaning against the bike rack in self-exile because I was better than everyone else in those houses, and I knew it. I didn’t need them, I didn’t even need to be inside with them. I sat there on that bike rack, in the dark, alone, to show off to everyone how much of a loner I was. I sat there, just a few feet from the door, just a few yards away from the living room where everyone else gathered, just a few steps away from all the humanity I knew I didn’t need.

Cheryl was walking from one house to the other, and she saw me sitting there. And she laughed at me. She walked past my outdoor prison, and popped up the steps to the house. As she went in, she turned around and said, “Bourland, come inside!” She laughed again. Her smile was beautiful. 

Just like that, she destroyed my little conception of reality, my twist on the world and my place in it. She saw straight through my silent bluster, and it made her laugh.

It annoyed me. It made me love her.

 

II.

For the rest of that semester, Cheryl was always nearby (or I was always near her). We ran in the same circles, we scheduled trips to the same countries. She meant more and more to me with each passing day, like a little sister I’d only just discovered. I remember one night–St. Patrick’s Day. The “bad kids” in the group, myself among them, decided there was no way in hell we were going to miss this chance at debauchery. We stalked off into the night, towards the railroad tracks, looking for pubs. As we went, we passed Cheryl walking the opposite way, back to the houses. No way, sweetheart, we told her, you ain’t going to bed yet. We turned her around and marched her into the city center with us. 

Amusingly, we weren’t the first from our school to tie one on that night. About half the entire Study Abroad group was at the first pub we went to, a big, modern place that felt more like a wing bar in the States than a proper English social house. It was amusing, but it was annoying too, watching these holier-than-thou hypocrites get wasted. Quickly, my friends and I drank everyone else under the table. But Cheryl was the star. She sipped, she chugged, she smoked; at one point, she started sliding under the table herself, pulling a huge drag off a cigar as she went. I nearly pissed myself laughing. 

Finally, as last call started to chime throughout the town, we staggered home. We were singing and laughing, lunging at each others’ special Guinness-branded St. Patty’s day headwear. By that point, Cheryl was in a bad way. She staggered more than most of us (she wasn’t near the veteran we were, all things considered), and she was scared. Scared of being caught by our school’s moral police, scared of what her less-adventurous friends would think, scared of being hungover. My friends and I sat and talked with her for a few minutes before we got back to the house. We tried to pep her up, to convince her she needed to walk on her own two feet instead of letting us drag/pull her through the door. Amber, the only other girl in our party that night, took Cheryl by the shoulder and started walking with her the last half-block to the house. Sure enough, Cheryl rallied, and she walked through the door with her head held high (and her Guinness hat proudly flopping back and forth). 

Once we got her back to her bedroom, though, she collapsed. I helped her sit up on her bed, then sat down beside her. She leaned all her weight on my shoulder as we tried to convince her to drink a couple glasses of water. She sobbed. They weren’t sobs of despair, or anything like that, but more the sobs of, “Oh shit, what have I done?” Amber got her into bed, and we all slipped out into one of the common areas. There, one of Cheryl’s roommates–a sober one–sat. She didn’t say anything as we turned off the lights to the bedroom and told Cheryl good night, but she chuckled. She chuckled, and it pissed me off. I knew she was laughing at Cheryl’s predicament, and laughing at us for getting Cheryl into it. I also knew this girl wasn’t about to bust us. Still, it made me mad. She was laughing at Cheryl. Laughing at Cheryl like that was wrong. 

As my friends and I made our way out of the common room, back to our dungeon in the basement, I started to turn around. I wanted to go back to that girl and tell her to shut her fucking mouth. The only reason I didn’t is because my friends physically stopped me.

That’s what Cheryl had become to me.

 

III.

The next few months were filled with times like that, moments that stand out now as markers of Cheryl’s increasing importance to my life. Her singing a cartoon theme song, her frowning during a tour of a Mini plant, her wandering lost in Amsterdam, her confessing that she loved me. 

She told me that one of the last nights in Oxford. Once again, my friends and I had engaged in an epic pub crawl. So epic, in fact, that it had turned into a club crawl. Cheryl had joined us once more, and had picked up right where she left off from St. Patty’s day. Three or four of us were sitting in a booth in this one particular club, overlooking a really rather small dance floor. The other occupants of the table departed for another round, leaving Cheryl and I alone. Immediately, she turned to me and said, “Bourland. I really, really like you.”

I was stunned. Really? Had she just said that? I think she knew I was going to be stunned like that, because she didn’t wait for me to speak.

“I really like you, and I know you don’t feel the same about me. But I wish you did,” she said. She was so… sad when she said it. More sad than I think I’d ever seen her before. She didn’t look me in the eye, really, just went back and forth between the pint glass in front of her and something off in the middle distance. She was sad because she thought I didn’t like her, and it was killing her to say it to me. I knew she was drunk–well, wasted, really. Still, this wasn’t a meaningless drunk confession. Telling me that she liked me, and then immediately admitting she knew I didn’t reciprocate, hurt Cheryl.

How did she know I didn’t feel the same way about her? I told you, she could always see right through me. So, why didn’t I feel that way? I mean, I loved Cheryl. Why didn’t I love her?

Because she wasn’t hot enough. She was overweight, and she wasn’t pretty. She was cute, but in that same kind of “little sister” sort of way that made me feel so protective of her. It was true there was another girl on Study Abroad who I was actually interested in. Well, two. And it was true that I still wasn’t “over” my last spectacularly-failed relationship–and wouldn’t be for years. But the simple truth of why I was so stunned that night, why I had never once even considered the possibility of more than friendship existing between us, is because Cheryl wasn’t hot enough for me.

I know that makes me a horrible person, and I know there’s precious little I can do to make up for my transgression. And make no mistake, it was a sin. Cheryl meant more to me than I could even say back then. My own vanity and pigheadedness stopped me from ever seeing how much I meant to her.

 

IV.

I spent that summer of 2004 in Abilene. My first full summer away from the house, and thus my first real year of living “on my own.” A few of my Oxford circle were in town that summer, as well. Cheryl was among them.

After her confession, Cheryl went on as if nothing had transpired between us. Honestly, I don’t know if she chose to do that, or if she simply didn’t remember talking to me. Either way, I was happy to have her as my friend still, and secretly relieved that my own shallowness hadn’t been publicly exposed. She had started dating an Oxford-ite, one of my new friends from the “bad kids” group. They were happy.

The week before the beginning of fall semester, Cheryl and her boyfriend drove to San Antonio. I know that was her hometown, and I think they were going down there so her parents could meet her new beau. The trip from Abilene to San Antonio by car mostly follows US 87 south through the Big Country, down into the Hill Country around Austin, before joining Interstate 10 north and west of San Antonio.

I don’t know whether it was on the trip down, or on the way back north, but they got into a car accident. Single-car accident, whoever was at the wheel lost control. The car left the road, and, if my hazy memory would resolve for a second, I could tell you all the details I heard about the crash afterward. 

Cheryl died instantly, as far as I remember. Her boyfriend survived almost unharmed.

How long it took the news to find me, I couldn’t say. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time. I do know where I was when I first heard, though. I was at my friend’s apartment. Not an Oxford friend, but a good friend nonetheless. We were sitting around, doing what we normally did at his place: drinking, getting high, and playing video games. Sometime after dark, his cell rang. It was our mutual friend–an old Houston buddy of mine–trying to find me. My friend passed over the phone, and I picked up.

When the news first started to burn away the dew coating my brain, I was mad. Actually, I was already mad. I was mad at this particular friend who had called because of what I thought had been an attempt on his part to get me busted earlier in the year. So when he started talking about Cheryl, I was immediately pissed. How dare this asshole even mention her to me, I fumed to myself. 

Slowly, though, I started to catch on. Why was this friend of mine mentioning Cheryl? He hadn’t been in Oxford. He didn’t know her. What insanity was this about a car crash? What was this bullshit about someone being dead? What did any of this have to do with Cheryl?

A few days later, there was a small memorial service on campus. Somebody set out a few dozen folding chairs on the floor of the main basketball arena. A too-big stage, normally used for our school’s daily chapel services, was wheeled over in front of the chairs. Almost everyone from Oxford was seated there. More friends from school filled out the crowd, with a handful of professors, faculty spouses, and other university staff sprinkled in as well. It was a pathetically small gathering. Too small for Cheryl.

I walked in late, stoned. I sat in the bleachers above the court, glowering down on the proceedings. What fools, I thought. Here they are, acting out the motions of a memorial, eulogizing someone none of them knew like I did. There they sit, crying, like their grief is anything compared to mine. Now they pray, blindly, seeking mercy from the same god that just murdered my friend.

When it was all over, I walked down to the court. I shook a few hands, pointedly ignored a few others. I hugged my Oxford crush, one of Cheryl’s best friends. I tried to figure out something to say to Cheryl’s boyfriend. Eventually, I gave up. I went outside into the insultingly bright sun, walked over to my friend who had just pulled up in his truck, and got in. We drove around with a joint, and I complained. I whined and bitched and moaned about all this bad shit happening to me. I snorted derisively at the thought of those losers back there, still wrapped in their faith, still looking for answers I knew they’d never find.

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