With Your Last Heartbeat
I finished my first week of classes with a lot of excitement. The days passed quickly, in that mix of eagerness for starting college and the joy of beginning a new stage in my life. But also, of course, it was because I couldn't wait to see Clara again. That's what I thought until finally, that next Saturday, I arranged to see her at the aquarium as I had promised her.
I arrived at the place about half an hour early. Because of my fear of being late, I left my house well in advance, but the subway arrived on time and delivered me swiftly. In less than twenty minutes, I was already at the entrance of the aquarium.
As I waited, I looked out at the beautiful day above me. The sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly at its highest point. A perfect summer day, with a slight heat that was offset by the sea breeze that came from the beach next to the aquarium. The sun fell on my bare skin, on the parts that my short-sleeved shirt, my shorts or my cap did not cover.
“Exactly noon. It should be about time now,” I looked at the clock on my cell phone.
I put my phone away, and when I raised my head, the first thing I noticed was a wave of people pouring out of the subway entrance, meaning a new train had arrived at the station. I stared at the people for a few moments, until I found what I was looking for. Her face wasn't very visible, but somehow I spotted Clara out in the crowd.
She started looking around for something, and a few seconds later, our gazes connected. She smiled and began to walk quickly towards me, skipping.
“Hello!" she told me with a big smile.
“Hello. How was the trip?" I asked.
“It was really exhausting. The subway was completely full. Traveling on that train was a headache.”
“I see. Hey, aren't you too warm with so much coat?"Clara was surprised when I asked about her outfit. She was wearing a white summer dress, sleeveless and covering her from her shoulders to her thighs. The dress was so delicately tailored that it made Clara look like a princess. That beautiful garment matched a wide-brimmed hat, also white and with a small blue ribbon tied to its crown. Finally, she wore white sandals on her feet, with a small heel. She looked really good dressed like that, and the white color suited her wonderfully.
Strangely, however, she had a khaki colored jacket over her. That moment, I realized it was the same one she was wearing the day I bumped into her, when it was also a bit warm. It wasn't at all usual to be wearing that in late summer, almost in autumn.
"Ah, this... when I left my house it was somewhat cold, s-so I thought I'd bring it"
"Oh, I see" I replied with a smile"
I noticed her nervous tone as she gave the answer. I thought about the possibility that her body was harmed in the accident, and she didn't want to show me marks, but when I visited her I hadn't noticed anything like that. I still couldn't be sure.
“Hey, so this is the aquarium…” Clara began to walk backwards as she was dazzled by the huge sign above her, with huge blue letters and images of animals.
“That's how it is. Shall we enter?”
“Okay” she smiled at me.
We bought our tickets at the box office right at the entrance, and we were finally able to get in. Of course, I took care of paying for them myself.
"Seriously, you didn't have to pay for everything,” she told me.
"Of course I did. I was the one who invited you in the first place"
"Heh? Well then. Thanks"
The aquarium, inside, was as imposing as it looked from the outside. Tanks full of fish and marine animals appeared everywhere, making you believe that you were really at the bottom of the sea. Many groups of friends, couples, and families peered into all of them, and Clara, who had just entered the first of the rooms, was no exception.
“Wooooow! Its beautiful! Look, look, there are little animals everywhere,“ she said in amazement looking at the huge room in front of her.
“Is it, right? It's a huge building, so we will have a lot to see,” I expressed while my sight also wandered through the room.
I couldn't even finish speaking when I realized that the cheerful girl was running towards me again. He grabbed my wrist very quickly and launched into the opposite direction.
“Quick, come and see!”
“Oh wait!,” I smiled at her impetus.
She immediately had me running to one of the tanks, finding a gap in the crowd so we could be in the front row. She looked inside of it for a few moments, moving her head from left to right, while still being amazed at the tank.
“Look at that one over there! How cute” she pointed me one of the many clown fish there were in the water.
“Oh, I think I had seen it in the guide we got with out tickets… here it is”
I took out a small paper book that we had been given upon entering, which served as a guide to the aquarium. It contained maps, stories, and also information on each of the animals in the aquarium. I quickly searched page by page looking for the reference to the fish she had pointed me.
“Here it is. It is an Amphiprioninae or clown fish. They live among corals and anemones, and feed on zooplankton, algae and crustaceans. It also says that in order for an anemone to accept them, they perform some kind of dance with it, so to speak”
“Oh, I had seen those before, but never like this. It looks very cute. And I love their colors,” she smiled while looking back at them
“Me too. It is very cute,” I did the same.
“Leo, come on! I want to see them all!,” she again started pulling me away to the corridor.
“Oh wait! The animals are not going anywhere,” I joked as I began to run again.
"I know, but I want to see them all today," she turned and smiled at me.
Clara's enthusiasm meant that I had to quickly follow her as soon as we changed areas. Many times, she dragged me by the hand, other times her emotion won her over and she would run away before me. Clara had said that she wanted to see each and every animal, and she seemed absolutely determined to do so.
The following hours flew by. We walked through the entire aquarium, from end to end, almost without stopping. She felt nothing but total joy and excitement, which could be easily viewed in all of her face.
“Look Leo, the penguins!,” she dragged me while pointing her finger at an outdoor tank.
Inside of the outdoor area were about thirty penguins, of various species, swimming, feeding themselves or simply resting on the shore. The atmosphere was filled with the cawing of birds and the voices of visitors.
“Though it doesn't look like it, these penguins eat a lot. They usually feed on fish, but they also eat other things like krill,” Clara said without even taking her eyes off them.
“You really know a lot about them, don't you?,” I smiled at her.
“That's because they're so cute. They are one of my favorite animals”
“Heh? I see why you're so clumsy now”
She quickly looked at me with a surprised face.
“Are you kidding me? Look how they walk. It looks like they are going to fall off. Now I understand why you fell the other day,” I joked about the park incident.
“What do you mean? That was your fault!" she hit my arm gently as she got frustrated.
“Heh? Didn't you say the other day it not my fault?” Yes, I knew she did
“Not that way, you fool!,” she redoubled her frustration while I smiled happily and laughed.
“Look, look!” the rushing angel told me as she took hold of the railing of the new habitat.
In this case, she chose to see the sea lions. There were many of them, most of them very large. Apparently, they liked to swim around their little lake and, above all, lie down near the shore to receive the beautiful bright sunlight.
“Ah, the lions, huh? Whenever I go to the beach, it is full of them in the area near the port”
“Leo, do you like going to the beach?”
“Yes, I always go with my family or my friends. It is very nice to rest after a tiring day”
I kept staring so intently at the sea lions that I couldn't tell that she had now turned to look at me. She stared at me for a few moments, as if she was up to something, and then she smiled. The first thing I did feel was a hand stretching my cheek with moderate force.
“Hahahaha, you really are as cheeky as they are.”
“Enough! Let me go!” I tried to free myself from her grip while she continued laughing out loud.
“Leo, come quickly!”
“Leo, come here!”
The next two or three hours were exactly like that. We were touring the entire aquarium from end to end, walking fast between the different areas and without stopping at any time. Sometimes Clara would stay a few minutes in them, but sometimes she would stay for much longer, admiring the beauty of the dolphins or the colors of the fish in the main pond, for example. We got to a point where I couldn't feel my feet. Not even when I played football for hours did I feel so tired, and I was not a person who had a bad physical condition. She was just incredibly tough when she was focused on something.
But what really mattered to me about that moment is that at no time had her smile disappeared, nor had her gestures diminished in intensity, nor had the brightness of her blue eyes dimmed, like they were one with the aquarium. And not least, she didn't seem to have suffered from a heart problem at this time. She looked like a little girl enjoying something she had never seen, and that allowed me to draw a conclusion and also forget for a second who she was. I really enjoyed being with her. It was simply too nice.
“Ahhh, I'm exhausted,” she sighed as she reclined on the bench where we had sat.
It seemed like she could be exhausted too, after all.
The bench was right in front of an area that had a huge tank, full of fish. To the side, there was a corridor that led to the viewpoint of the bay. The beach could be seen through the small gap through the door.
“It's logical, we have been walking everywhere today. My legs already hurt”
“Save some energy. We have yet to see the penguins again.”
“Huh? But you have just seen them a while ago”
“Come on! It's just a little more walking. They are very cute,” she said while smiling incredibly sweet.
"Okay, okay" I gave up.
I actually didn't want to leave her without being able to fulfill her wish. That was the reason I was there.
“But, I had a lot of fun, you know? I learned many things seeing the animals, like with that guide who spoke about the manta rays. I would love to come back one day”
“I'm glad you liked it”
I had also had a great time, and the view in front of me was very relaxing. It was a perfect day.
I looked to my left in surprise. Clara looked at the floor as she moved the balls of her feet against the floor.
… I loved coming with you. I really enjoyed being with you today. Thanks.”
She gave me a tender smile that was impossible to avoid. I again started to feel that particular way. I didn't know what it was, but it had shaken me to the very core.
“You don't have to thank me. I also really liked having accompanied you.”
We both looked happily ahead, towards the endless artificial sea that was in front of us. But I still wanted to ask her about something.
“Besides… this was your first time in the aquarium, right?”
Clara was surprised by the question I had asked her, but she still didn't stop smiling when she answered.
“Haha, how did you find out?”
My perception was not wrong.
“So it was true. Well, today you were looking at the entrance sign with great fascination, and you also seemed shocked to discover each of the areas, as if you had never been here”
“I see. So you're more observer than I thought”
She paused for a few seconds as she smiled at me. I loved seeing that picture, but not exactly right now. Then, she continued.
“You're right. I could never come here before. It's one of the things I wanted to do for a long time," she told me softly.
“Oh, I see”
I looked forward again, as if the little conversation was over. I lost my gaze on the tank in front of me, with beautiful fish. I really enjoyed being there.
“So, did you have a good time?”
I turned my head as I asked her about that day. But the first thing I saw was a girl with tears in her eyes.
“Oh? Hey, are you o-“
“Yes!," she interrupted me suddenly, "I'm... fine...”
As she tried to answer, she wiped the tears from her eyes with her bare hands. Her voice sounded anguished, and she kept shaking.
“Clara! Don't, please,” I leaned closer to her.
“I'm sorry. I don't want to make this scandal,” Clara tried to recover while looking at me, still with wet eyes.
She tried to regain her composure as she continued to gasp for breath.
“It's my condition... since it was detected there were many things I couldn't do. Not just things that would make my heart race, but pretty much anything. For a long time I was locked up in a hospital, sometimes a few times a week, sometimes for too long”
While she was telling all this, my chest felt tight again. I didn't like her being sad all the time.
“I'm sorry, I'm regretting this again. You don't deserve to have to listen to me” she kept forcing her smile.
“Don't say that.”
Clara was surprised again when she saw my gaze turn serious. I think we were like that for about ten seconds, although I couldn't be sure.
“Stop with that. I don't want you to keep thinking that I don't care. I'm so sorry you went through all of this. It must be horrible.”
I was looking for the right words to say. Clara, for her part, did not take her eyes off me.
“You know? I can't change what you already lived. But I'm really glad I met you. More than you imagine. And I want you to be happy”
I saw how she became distressed again.
“That's why I want to do everything possible to see you smile. I want to do everything I can so you never have to cry again. Please, let me do it”
I could have sworn that through the door that connected to the veranda, a small ray of sunlight was slipping in from the beautiful orange sunset. And that ray allowed me to appreciate Clara's face entirely. Her still wet eyes showed surprise, her white skin stood out like snow, her black hair was a little messy and I could even swear her cheeks turned red. Clara was truly beautiful.
I couldn't understand why I had said that, too. I just wanted to make her feel good, but now I made it seem like I felt something else for her. But that moment, I thought...
I should have been seeing things from Clara's blue eyes. Then I would have realized that my face was almost the same as hers. I had also flushed, and my eyes had become watery, and my skin sunlit, only I couldn't tell it myself.
"Wasn't that what I really felt for her?"
“Leo… you silly…”
She looked down to her lap, smiling. I felt like she was embarrassed, in a good way. It was a really sweet scene, now that I think about it, and I wish it had lasted longer.
“Oh… ah” she reacted again.
Clara had been surprised by something. I focused my gaze to the same place as her, downwards, and saw that both of my hands were resting on her right hand. I don't know why I didn't notice that when I approached her.
“Oh, I'm sorry” I said quickly but in a calm voice.
“No, it's okay”
You could interpretate that I backed my hands off after that reaction of us. But no. I did not do it. I did not want to.
I looked at her straight in the eyes again. I was still surprised. Then, in an instant, she flashed a sweet smile, a perfect picture. And then her smile widened to mock.
... were you really looking forward to do this?"
“Huh? O-Of course not.”
I finally moved both of my hands away from her, being so embarrassed that I rested them behind my back.
“Hahaha, how cute you are, let me grab your cheeks”
She pounced on me again for a few seconds. Even though I didn't like that being done to me, it felt really good to play around with her like this.
“Enough! God, I want to make you feel better and you only make fun of me,” I said dismissively.
“Hahaha, you know I don't do it maliciously. I'm just playing with you,” Clara abandoned her task.
She sat back down, still looking at me, and her emotions returned to her like a boomerang. Without crying, and while smiling, but it was still very noticeable.
“Leo. Really, thank you for everything”
Clara gave me a big smile, without opening her mouth, as she ducked her head forward. I felt that, despite of her feeling anguished, she was full of happiness. I could only feel glad about it.
“What are you talking about? Don't thank me for anything yet, we still have to see the penguins again,” I told her as I stood up.
I had by chance stood right between her and the sun behind my back. I was in a setting worthy of a beautiful photograph.
“Shall we go?," I told her while extending my hand to her.
She looked at me for a few seconds and nodded.
“Yes. Let's go,” she said with a beautiful smile and grabbed me by the hand.
We spent another hour touring the aquarium. Not only by the penguin sector, but around the entire building. And when Clara was finally satisfied, we headed back home by subway. As the train was full, we had to travel standing on our feet.
“It felt great to go out like this after such a long time. Thanks for coming with me,” she told me.
“I already told you to stop thanking me so much. I also had fun”
“Well, but also thank you for this. It's very cute.”
She took a small penguin-shaped keychain out of her jacket pocket. It had a red ribbon on its fin. I had given it to her when we passed by the gift shop on our way out of the aquarium.
“It's okay, you are welcome. I wanted to give you something as a souvenir. Although.., thank you too for this”
I took an identical keychain out of my pants pocket, with the only difference being that the ribbon on the penguin's fin was white.
“It's no big deal. I couldn't be the only one to receive something. Also, now we match"
“Haha, I guess you're right. Also, I love this combination of colors” I said being actually excited to have something that matched with her, even more if it was white and red.
"Yeah, I love them too"
The subway reached a part of the route in which it traveled on an open bridge over a channel that connected both bays of the city, as if it were a light rail. From here, the city and the coast could be seen on both sides, with the beautiful sunset on the left side and the sky already dark on the right side, where we were standing.
“Wow, it's the moon. Look how beautiful it is today,” Clara pointed me when she saw a full moon high in the sky.
“Is it, right? I love this part of the train, it's my favorite view in the whole city”
We kept looking at the moon for a few seconds, and then I continued talking to her.
“So, where do you want to go next time?”
“Huh? The next? Hmm, I don't know, but are you sure? Maybe I'll relapse again or-”
I interrupted her before she thought about it again, as she seemed nervous. And I, suddenly without thinking, held her hand in mine again.
“Are you kidding? Sure, it could be anywhere you want. We can go to the beach, to a picnic or to the park. We can have coffee, go get pastries from Doña Irma, and even ride our bikes if you're feeling better. As long as you're okay...
As I looked at her, I couldn't help but see that behind Clara's back, in the sky, the moon was shining beautifully through the subway door. I went to see it against the subway's door glass, smiled even more while gazing at it, and turned back to her.
… I would love to take you to the moon and back”
Again, she was surprised, with the moonlight reflected in her eyes and her cheeks now visibly red. But of course, even I was surprised that I could speak like that. I wasn't a specially outgoing person, but for some reason now I felt all these words were not enough.
“Leo, dummy” she began speaking to me in a soft and tender tone, and then continued laughing, while keeping the same calmed voice, “we can't go to the moon, what are you saying?”
“Huh? Why not?,” I asked her while laughing, too, “What if this subway could now fly, like a rocket ship?”
"What are you saying? It's obvious it cannot," Clara couldn't contain her laughter.
We keep laughing like this until we reach our destination. We got off at the same stop, since we lived quite close, and I walked her to her house. I didn't want to leave Clara alone at night, both because of her condition and because of the obvious dangers it carried.
"So, we'll talk later, okay?," She asked me standing in front of the door of her building.
“Of course. See you later, Clara”
"See you, Leo. Good night," she greeted me with another nice smile.
Clara closed the glass door, and I stayed for a few seconds watching her walk down the hall to the elevators. Then I continued my way home. Taking a few steps back toward the street, I ran into another person who had crossed the street by the middle of the block and wanted to enter the same building. I had already went by him when I heard a voice...
He opened the door of the building, and before entering, he turned around to look at me. I had stopped, motionless. I recognized him instantly, as I could not forget anything that happened that week: he had short black hair, and he was wearing a sweater under his jacket.
“You have no idea”
The man finally turned around and closed the door. All that happy afternoon, all those beautiful feelings that I felt… were now corrupted by Clara's father's warning.