I was defiant, at first, of doing such a thing. But he insisted, and as a gesture of kindness, I relented. He never asked for much, and I was always wishing to help him whenever he needed it. He asked if I would go with him on a “final trip,” wanting to take a trip out of the city. He had heard of a landmark not far out that provided, in his words, “the most beautiful sunset you could ever find around here.” I knew that he needed to save his gas to get ready for his move away, but he assured me that he had saved a little for the short trip there and back and wanted to share it with me.
“It’s been too long since we’ve just hung out,” he said, his words laced with sugar over the phone. He knew that I cherished what time we did have together, however brief it was, and it easily broke through my defense. There was no way I could say no, even if I wanted to, as it was a final request he had against me, a bond between friends before he moved on to bigger and better things. I shouldn’t be sad; not for him, not now. So I agreed and he told me to be ready in a few minutes, when he’d swing by. There wasn’t much I had to do to get ready so, by the time he showed up, I had been standing outside.
The chilled air from the onset of autumn bit at my hand as we drove with the windows down. There was an invisible force choking me in the car as there was still so much I wanted to try and talk to him about, but there was no proper way to bring them out without souring the moment. So, I remained quiet and took in the sights. He had a brown paper bag in the back seat with a large bedsheet. When I had asked about it, all he did was smile without saying anything. I had my suspicions about what it was. He was right about it being a short distance out from where we lived as it only took us around a half hour to get there.
There was a small parking lot situated behind a stone pathway spiraling around a large hill. The sun was already starting to descend in the distance, giving us the time we would need to climb the path up to the peak. He grabbed the sheet and bag and took the lead, briskly scaling the hill with me behind it, nothing being exchanged between us but the breaths we took as we stepped higher. To be honest, there wasn’t a need for words, as there were smiles on both of our faces as we climbed further up.
As I had seen from the parking lot, waiting for us at the top of the hill was a large tree. It stood silently watching over the surrounding land from its perch, its branches reaching out to the distant comrades that it was separated from. Despite being distant from any others of its kind, it grew resilient and solid. I held my hand against the bark, imparting a bit of my warmth into it as a gesture of appreciation. He only looked at me and laughed, knowing what I was thinking and, at the same time, probably sharing the sentiment without the action.
He shook out the bedsheet and draped it on the grass beside the tree. I watched him curiously, wondering why, but as he sat down on the blanket, he patted beside him with one hand and rustled the bag with the other. I sat down and ran my hands over my legs, feeling the damp air from being this close to the ground. He produced a foil-wrapped item from the bag, handing me one before pulling another out of the bag. Inside the foil was a toasted, warm grilled cheese sandwich. I looked at the sandwich, then back at him, my confusion obviously displayed on my face. He laughed again which made me even more confused.
“It may not be gourmet, but it was the only thing I could make on such short notice,” he shared, unwrapping his sandwich and taking a bite out of it. I turned my gaze back to mine and took a bite. It was just the right amount of heat to warm me back up. Despite his complaint, I could definitely taste the care he took in making it, from the butter and type of cheese to how crisp it was without cutting my gums up. With a bite still in my mouth, I thanked him, ignoring my manners to share with him my approval of the food.
We sat there for a bit, enjoying the grilled cheese in silence, before he crumpled up the foil and placed it back in the bag. “I know I haven’t been able to see you much these past few weeks, but I am really glad that you were free to join me out here.” He was sitting forward and I could see that he was tense. I didn’t notice on the drive, but his hair was lightly messed up and he was still wearing his work uniform. Had he come straight from work, I wondered. Despite all of that, he still wanted a moment to hang out and catch the sunset with me.
“No problem,” I chirped in between bites, taking my time to enjoy the meal he had made. He looked at me and I could see that there were bags under his eyes. This too was also a result of his work, as he was a hard worker and his employers took notice of that, abusing his desire to help out by issuing him the most grueling of tasks. “I’m surprised, actually, that you wanted to do this.” He raised his eyebrow curiously, wondering why I would say that. “Well, with you getting ready to move, I figured you would’ve been trying to get as much sleep as you could before the big day.”
“I can get plenty of rest between now and then. I just wanted to make sure you knew that I am thankful for you being around so much.” I choked on a bit of food as he said that, bringing a temporary wave of tears to my eyes as I struggled for air. Forcing the bite down, I looked at him and wiped the tears away. “As I said, I know I haven’t been around a lot to hang out or do anything with you, but I do still think of you as a friend.” I looked down at my sandwich, nearly gone in my hands, and struggled to say anything back, letting him continue instead. “What I’m trying to say is thanks. Thank you for being one of my earliest friends from around here.” I nodded in acknowledgement but still found myself without a voice.
Finishing the remainder of the grilled cheese, I disposed of the foil in the same way he had and sat there. I wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable after his admission, but the floodgates were on the verge of breaking in my mind, the things I wanted to say for so long trying to fight their way out. It wasn’t wise to do this here and now, but I balked and let spill some of the words. “No, thank you,” I spoke out. Only too late did I realize that, with even the smallest of allowances, the rest would start coming out. “Thank you for putting up with me, for being there for me as well. You’ve just as equally made my time here worth it, and it is something that I will cherish.”
“So I guess we both have things to be thankful for from the other,” he whispered, laying back some to look up. I did the same, seeing from his view the ribbons of purple and gray clouds that hung over us between the branches of the tree. We remained quiet for a few minutes as the sky began to burn under the setting march of the sun. I turned to him to say something else and saw him already staring at me from his side.
“I do wish there was a chance to have more time together,” he whispered, shifting his gaze between the sky and me. “I feel like our friendship was staunched by our jobs.” He was right, but it didn’t make it any better. The time that was common to him would have been when I was sleeping, getting ready for work in the morning after. I didn’t hold it against him. I never could, or would, for it wasn’t his fault, I’d say in my head. “And now with the move, it’ll be the whole long distance friendship, connected via social networks or phones. It won’t be the same.”
“You’re right,” I choked on the words as I said it. It wouldn’t be the same, but I was not about to let him leave my life, my world, my memories like that. I looked back at him and saw a tear slip out from the edge of his eye. I sat up quickly and looked back at him, worried. He shook his head and wiped the tear’s stream off of his face. “It’s a tear of happiness and sadness, at the same time,” he said, but it looked like there was more of one than the other in his eyes.
I turned my head to look off in the distance and saw the setting sun as it was starting to dip beneath the tree line. I nudged him to get his attention on what we came here for, which prompted him to sit up and look. “It is indeed breathtaking,” he said, but I was looking at him as he said it. I agreed mentally but fought back so much. He turned to look at me and I quickly turned away, not wanting to be caught here and now. I breathed a sigh as we sat there, looking at the sun indirectly as it drifted out of sight. The stars started to pop out from the settling twilight behind us, and by the time it was officially night, the fall temperature was apparent to both of us by then.
We picked up the sheet and the trash and slowly left the hill, no rush to get to the car this time. This was going to be the last time we hung out, as he only had a few days left, but I wanted to freeze this moment in my mind. He tossed the items into the back seat from my door, making me stand there for a moment. As he turned to look at me, our eyes locked temporarily and I remembered why I enjoyed our time together. He stepped aside to allow me in to the car, and as we drove off, I looked outside the window at the lone tree, fading into the darkness as we drifted away from it, and thanked it for being there as we took in the last sunset we’d share in this moment.