He had turned off his bedroom light to keep them from coming in, to keep his mother from slamming her hip into the door and demanding he give assent to whatever version of whatever story she was telling to make her point. Yes, mama, I was there. Yes, mama, you said that. Yes, mama, they didn’t give you the time of day. No, mama, you were very polite.
In his pocket, his phone buzzed, the vibrations rough against his hipbone.
not much. u?
The blue light of the screen illuminated his face as he replied. He typed up the message several times, breathing deeply and resting the tip of the phone against his forehead in between each revision. The light on his thin cheeks made his eyes look more luminous, his eyebrows more bushy and black, his nose longer and more pointed.
Downstairs, the plates went quiet and the water shut off. Stomping hits the kitchen floor. The back door creaks, and bounces shut with a slam. Jorge can almost hear it, it’s so familiar, the soft click-click of his dad igniting the lighter, lighting the cigarette. He knows he’s just pulled his first drag and that he’s leaning the back of his head against the siding of the house. Jorge wants to open the window, so he can smell the burning, the familiar exhaust of a family dinner hanging on the air. But he doesn’t want his dad to know he’s awake, so he stays still, finishing the text.
stuck at home. wish i was anywhere else.
He can see she’s read the message. She’s typing. She responds. wanna come over and watch something?
He drops the phone onto the pillow next to his head. He stares at the sky, the sunlight melting into the softest purple. Downstairs, he can hear the hum of the sewing machine. His mom is quilting, like she often does after a fight. The TV is going softly, some show keeping her absent-minded company in the back bedroom downstairs. He stands, stepping to the window, tucking himself into the curtains on the side of the frame. The porch is empty. The shower downstairs snaps on, the pipes in the wall creaking. No one would know if he just left.
He grabs his phone, his hoodie, his sneakers.
on my way over.
The window hisses a little as it comes open, and he crouches on the little roof over the porch. His feet sting when he hits the ground, but no one hears, and he pushes into the dimming air and runs between the neighbors’ houses, down the culvert, and through the snaggy, overtangled brush into the next subdivision over.
The trees here are thinner, the spaces around the houses more open. The homes are newer, more plastic-looking. He’s done this before. Most nights, it’s Gavin who leads the way. They traipse around back of one of the big white houses, ducking in the basement door at dusk, laughing and shushing each other over ice cream and stolen beers, watching How I Met Your Mother, griping about chemistry homework, about reading Hawthorne for English, about PE class and Miss Nelson’s jiggly arms. Emily’s dad may amble in at some point, share a beer, crack a joke, and then climb back up the stairs to bed. Emily’s mom is usually out cold on Ambien, too stoned to care.
But Gavin’s gone with the debate team this week. And Emily’s dad is in Berlin for work.
And Jorge is alone, standing in Emily’s backyard, staring at her basement door, texting her.
She bobs around the glass, her face big and smiley, her hair bouncing in a tiny ponytail.
He feels this, this moment, the heaviness of it. Is this it? Has he imagined everything?
No, last time, Emily leaned her head on his shoulder during the show. Last time, she kept accidentally touching his knee when she was talking. Last time, she had round olive-colored eyes that unblinkingly watched when he told her and Gavin that story about his uncle Ben. Last time, she moved around him more carefully in the kitchen, and last time, she didn’t hug him goodbye. Was it an accident? Or did she feel it too, the polar magnet buffer that pushed him away from her a little, always. The magnet zone that would flip and click if he thought she’d want him to get a little closer, that would yank him in if he thought he could find the words to ask.
And there she was, tank top and blue jeans and bare feet and ponytail, pencil behind her ear.
“Hey!” She reaches up to hug him and darts back down, her face flushing.
“Hey, Em. Thanks for having me over.” Stupid, nothing thing to say.
“No problem! They fighting again?”
“Always.” He shrugs.
She nods her head toward the doorway. “Come on in. I’ve got some beer and popcorn.”
He follows her, smiling, shoving his hands in his pockets, pressing the feel of her back into his thighs, remembering how very real she always was. How surprising it felt to discover, when hugging or brushing past her, how small and warm and muscle-twitching she was. Like a small bird, all tense and alive and quick.
They squished into the couch cushions, the bowl of popcorn between them, the projector screen bright. She hits the remote and the show’s theme starts and they munch popcorn fistfuls, bits of kernel jumping onto the couch, the floor, her cleavage. He doesn’t notice this, but does notice her hand darting down between her breasts to catch it out. She grins at him. “Popcorn! So awkward.”
He nods, and glances back at the show, but she’s moving the bowl of popcorn to the coffee table and scooting in closer to him. She looks up at him and he can feel her eyes on the side of his face and so he turns to her and looks back.
She is not a quick trembling bird of a thing now, but a cat at rest, waiting.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she says back.
The theme song is over, and the show’s cast members are bantering in the morning sunlight about cars. He’s seen this one before.
“Can I kiss you?” she says.
He stares at her. This, so soon. The beer isn’t even open yet. This, and now the guessing is over. Yes, he was right. He hadn’t imagined it.
She smiles, and her arm is around his shoulders now. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you all this spring. But Gavin was always here or whatever. It was never the right moment. And you’re never going to ask, so: can I kiss you?”
All he can think about is: what if my breath smells bad? What if I don’t know how to kiss right?
And then, her face. The soft round line of her jaw wrinkling a little into her neck, the tiny crease at the inside edge of her earlobes, the stray spike of eyebrow that she never tweezes and leaves her looking slightly crazed, her eyes, dark and still and sure.
He licks his lips, not realizing he’s doing it. He swallows. “Okay,” he says. “Sure.”
She smiles a little, the corners of her eyes deepening into little creases as her cheeks go round and then she’s there, her breath is warm and her lips are soft and they stick to his a little, and he kisses her back eagerly, hungry, wanting to impress her. He sucks on her bottom lip and pushes his tongue into her mouth and pulls her into him with his hand on the back of her neck—
“Wait, stop,” she says, pulling back. She’s smiling, her mouth open and her tongue showing a little just behind her bottom teeth, soft and pink. He feels suddenly cold and shivers a little, and as he does he realizes her hand is still on his forearm. She looks pleased, amused. Expectant.
“What is it?” he says, afraid to hear her answer. The show couple is in a fight now, and food is all over their fake New York apartment.
“Calm down. Take it slowly. We have all night,” she says, her eyes soft. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his hair, and then letting her hand fall to rest softly on his chest. “Your heart is racing,” she says. “Is this the first time…?” He nods, biting his tongue lightly, tensing his jaw.
“Take a deep breath,” she says. “I won’t run away.” She sits very still, and she doesn’t.
He breathes out, slowly.
She is there and she is pressed into him, her thigh next to his, hip to knee warm against his. Her one arm is around his shoulders and her other hand is pressed into his t-shirt, and he can feel his pulse pounding against her palm. And she smells like popcorn and butter and her hair smells like coffee from her afternoon in the café near the school and her skin is firmer than he thought it could be and softer than he expected, too.
He lowers his head and rests his forehead on her cheek, inhaling her smell. He kisses the crease under her chin and sinks to rest on her shoulder. She pulls her arms around him and brings him into her arms more wholly, and he sinks into the warmth of her. “Okay,” he says into her shoulder.
“Don’t run away, either,” she says, kissing his forehead.
“I won’t,” he says, and the laugh track for the show roars.
Hännah Ettinger is a storyteller on a quest.