Steev Baker

Shawn kissed April for the first time in the deep end of the Carson’s pool, treading water under a stack of black inner tubes. It was hot and the air smelled like melting rubber and fake coconut. His hands kept slipping off her shoulders, which were impossibly brown and freckled and bony and beautiful. Their eyes were closed and they were pressed together like seahorses. Her lips were fresh strawberries. Then suddenly, they weren’t. He opened his eyes and he was alone in the center of the tubes. She was on the outside, slapping at the rubber and laughing and he wondered what he had done wrong and how she had so quickly dived under the water to escape him.

The second time, fireworks were exploding in the sky and some noisy band was playing classic rock songs at the park pavilion. It was July 4th. Shawn’s finger was trailing the disappearing arch of a flower in the sky. April pressed against him and watched as if she had never seen fireworks before. They were sitting on a blanket on the hill, just two stupid high school kids among a thousand hot and cheering tourists of summer. Little kids had sparklers; they had each other. She leaned into the curve of the space where just moments before he had been resting his arm. She pressed her lips against his cheek, then against his lips. He tasted the sharp, vinegar tang of bug spray, then the warmth of her tongue. He opened his mouth, but she was gone again. She waved at him from the hot dog stand, her eyes iridescent with the reflected light of exploding stars. He felt like all of the breath had been squeezed out of him. Confused and excited and disappointed all at the same time.

“What happened just then?” he asked when she came back clutching a sticky bottle of soda and a soggy napkin wrapped around a huge pretzel.

“I don’t know. I guess I was just hungry.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.” And she leaned in again and stupidly he kissed her again and she disappeared.

Later he learned she had turned up at home in the upstairs closet where the mothballed winter coats hung.

When it happened next, they were wrapped around each other in the huge front seat of his aunt’s rusted Pontiac, he was fumbling with her hair and kissing her neck when she pulled his face up to hers. He could kiss her anywhere but as soon as his lips touched hers, she was a mile away, standing at the entrance to the state forest, slapping at mosquitoes in the dark.

Shawn spent his senior year following April around from place to place, not intentionally, but because they seemingly could not exist in the same place at the same time. She thought it was a game, to see how long they could hold out before their lips met. Their hands wandered and they nibbled at each other like children savoring Easter candy. He hated every moment of it. He wanted to feel her voice inside him and taste each new word as she formed it.

At prom, they stuck around long enough for one dance before climbing into her car and driving around the lake to her parents’ cabin. They were two glasses into a bottle of cheap whiskey, choking and laughing through every sip, before he tried to kiss her again. She was suddenly back at the Riveria among the prom kids, sans shoes, where she decided to stay because she was drunk and dancing seemed like a good idea. He finished the bottle by himself, then threw up in the lilac bushes off the front porch.

“Things just aren’t working out,” she said the next day through his buzzing hangover. He was returning her car and the key to the cabin, as if he had borrowed them from her.

“But I love you,” he said.

She sighed and tilted her head. Her dark hair hung over her shoulder and dropped into the hollow between her breasts. He could smell her skin just by looking at her.

“I love you, too,” she said inexplicably, “That’s why it doesn’t work. We love each other too much.”

“That’s not possible, is it?”

She shrugged and rested her wrists on his shoulders. Her fingers moved up and twisted into his hair, which was getting long and shaggy. Before he knew what was happening she was pulling him toward her lips. One last kiss. It was her way of getting rid of him. The second their mouths touched, she was at her grandparents’ house the next town over. He walked home and stood in his bedroom where a suitcase was open on the bed, empty and hungry.

April went to college, majored in philosophy. Shawn graduated with a degree in physics. They were married on the same day, but to different people. They each had two children, and those children grew into beautiful, careless teenagers with loves and lives of their own.

Then, in July of the summer Shawn’s father died, April came back. She quietly moved into her parents’ house. Her mother was gone by then. April was seen in town, applying for jobs, renting a post office box, getting a library card.

When Shawn found out, he sat in his living room and stared at his wife’s collection of paperbacks. The titles on the spines were absurd, but there was peace and safety in a clear beginning, middle, and end. His life lacked this, as if he were living in the white spaces between letters on the page. The book might contain a beautiful story, but to him it was unreadable.

That night, he snuck like a cartoon villain across the lawn of April’s parents’ house, carrying a ladder on his shoulder. She was in her old bedroom, waiting for him at the window.

“You’re here.” She was not young anymore, but it didn’t matter. She was beautiful and real and her face was the same as it had been that first summer.

Out of breath at the top of the ladder, he nodded. She leaned out to kiss him.

“Wait.” He put his hand on her cheek. “I want to look at you before you go.” She had tiny, thin lines at the corners of her eyes. Gray was tangled in among the dark threads of her hair.

“I’ll disappear this time and I won’t come back.” There was no movement in the house behind her.

“I know.” His hand slid from her cheek and hovered over her mouth. He held her breath in his palm.

“I never understood why you left or why I stayed,” he said, moving his face closer to her. There was nothing to keep their lips from touching.

“I thought it was my fault,” they said at the same time.

He dropped his hand and watched her smiling for a full minute. She moved her fingers through his hair. When they finally kissed, he felt her move right through him, each of her aching molecules colliding with his. They burned brief and hot and bright. Then the ladder was empty and the house was empty, and the sky was filled with stars.

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