By Z. T. Gwynn
She always smelled of fresh herbs and stale soap. We met one night, by instinct or ritual, in the neighborhood through which we used to romp. The occupants of quiet urban houses seemed neither to notice nor mind two figures slinking between street lamps in the twilight haze. Silence and thickening fog accompanied us to a place where we still recognized the street names, but not the frowning eaves of the homes which lay upon them. She sat at the foot of a tree.
“So how’s it been?” I asked, looking her in the eye for the first time.
We lapsed into awkward, muted laughter. It was catch-up time.
“Did you really drop out of school?”
“Why did you move out to the ‘burbs?”
“Do you remember lip-hair Larry?”
Neither the questions nor their answers were particularly interesting. We traded unpolished lies about our recent lives until, through those cracks, I saw not the strange woman which she had become, but the girl I had once known. I toyed with the idea that I might have become the bigger loser.
She pulled out a dented bottle of vitamin water with a torn label. “Want some?”
Our knees met as she inched closer to hand me the goods, and it was a shot of warmth reverberating in my thighs. In the bottle, I found wine.
“Classy,” I choked, taking a large swallow and moving to hand it back.
Something flashed in her eyes. “Finish it.”
Under her urging stare, I downed the rest, welcoming the strange static that settled around the edges of the world and that pleasant brain detachment like too much water mixed into jell-o.
“Still the lightweight champion, I see,” she said.
“And I didn’t even have to wrestle anybody.”
“Don’t go getting ahead of yourself.”
I held up the empty bottle. “In vino veritas.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Says the girl from her sobery tower.”
“That can be addressed.” She drew a small, rainbow-flecked pipe from her bag. “It’s called Odin.” She giggled. I didn’t get the joke. “Want a shotgun?”
I nodded, and there was a long spark, a deep inhalation—then her hands, warm with blood or fire, were on my thighs again, and I smelled the cherry chapstick on her lips as they brushed my own. She breathed out, I in, and things became very fast and very slow.
It took us somewhere near an hour to walk one block. I meant to check the time. I didn’t know where we were going, though she told me several times. Moving through time felt like flipping through my grandparents’ photo album, flashing in seconds through pages, through generations, until an interesting face pops up out of the wrong time. At the wrong time.
Stop ‘n’ Go! the sign told me, and I laughed until she dragged me into the tiny corner convenience store. Not knowing why we were there, I gravitated to the snacks, my brain abuzz with whether I liked fruit or chocolate, or sour or sweet better, and how much money there might be in my pocket. Chips were the answer, obviously. But not dip. That would be silly. There was no way we were about to sit out on the street with a jar of medium salsa.
I went to ask her about the dip, and found her already at the counter, chatting with the cashier. He looked to be in his late thirties, with an impressive beer belly and a patch of orange fuzz beneath his chin.
“Did I see you at Rick’s the other night?” he was asking.
“Probably.” She smiled at me as I came up. “I’m actually out with an old friend right now.”
“Right,” he said, giving me the same sort of look I wanted to give him. I couldn’t place the feeling. My stomach turned and the back of my throat burned.
“We’re just getting to the fun part,” I heard her say as I walked out, bag of chips in hand. She wandered after me while I sought a place to eat. We wound up in the park across the street, our backs against a fence, overlooking a glittering wading pool.
She came very close—I didn’t care, I was eating my chips—and then her fingers were exploring my chest and her lips were on my ear and any objections I might’ve had were gone in a rush of hormones and familiarity. Our fingers met like they used to. Our tongues met like they used to.
She crawled on top of my body. She couldn’t have known that I was no longer in there. I floated up above, or somewhere in years long past, looking down in confusion at the album opening below. Moments passed like pictures—like perfectly preserved memories of the bad old times. In fourth grade, I proudly announced to my step-father that I had finished an entire Harry Potter book. He glanced over at me, his meth-addled grin deformed, and told me he’d never wasted so much time in his life.
Our every touch was stumbling and mumbling, failing for the right words to say; our every kiss was trying to find a table at lunch. She eased herself onto me.
“This doesn’t have to mean anything,” she said. We were lying in the grass, about a foot from the fence.