"That...that was amazing." He leans back and his head thunks hard against the decorative wood of the bed's headboard.
"Yeah," she says. "It was." She kisses him on the chest, just beside his right nipple. The kind of kiss you'd give to someone's cheek if you were meeting them at the airport and hadn't seen them in a while.
She rolls from the bed and stands up, each move graceful and perfect. He watches, amazed at her beauty, at the way the shadows trace her lines, and the way the limited light accents every feature that it should.
The streetlight outside leaks in through the slits of the blinds, orange and harsh, making everything ugly. Everything except her.
He leans over and pulls a pack of cigarettes from the nightstand. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, but doesn't light it. Her scent is still on him, on his fingers, on his chest. He isn't ready to pollute it with cigarette smoke, not yet. He wants to enjoy the moment, soak up the experience.
He fell in love with her the first time he met her, but he couldn't let on, not after their long conversations about independence and the foolishness of love. They ate their dinner and drank their wine and then they went for a walk. Photographers, both of them, so as they walked, they took pictures. They stopped at hotdog stands, at all-nite diners, at statues and bars and whatever else the city wanted to offer. They took their photographs and they discussed sense and nonsense, and he fell in love. In moments of complete honesty with himself, he admitted that he had been in love with her long before that night, but that's when it became too obvious to ignore.
At the end of the night, they retired to her hotel room, and they...slept together? Fucked? Made love?
He was never clear what to call it, without ruining everything. So he never called it anything at all.
And then the weekend ended, and she flew away and he flew away, and they continued to communicate like they had before: through email, through blog comments, through text message. Maybe--if they were both drunk and lonely--through a late-night phone call.
He convinced himself that whatever he had felt, it wasn't love. Not in the typical sense of the word, anyway. Sure, he loved her, like you love the first spring rain falling on your face, or the way the moon can light up a skyline, or the way you feel when you get a package in the mail. He loved her, sure he did, but it wasn't serious.
One night, he dared her to come visit. Instant messenger, a bottle of vodka on both ends of the conversation, and exchanged self portraits that weren't exactly tame. He dared her to venture out of her comfort zone. "Come out into the sticks and see me. I dare you."
"You come see me first."
"You already know I can handle the city, that's where we met up last time."
"Yeah, but it wasn't MY city."
"Fine, so you show me yours, then I show you mine?"
Eight minutes later, he sent her the screenshot of his plane ticket receipt. Deep in cups, it seemed like a great idea to both of them. The next morning, he woke up feeling like it was too pushy, too creepy.
He texted his concerns to her. "Sorry if I overstepped our boundaries last night with the plane ticket. Not sure how this all works, being friends with someone over the internet."
Her reply: "Fuck it. You already bought the plane ticket. We can discuss your faux pas when you get here. Plus, the photo of your cock painted to look like Chewbacca more than makes up for it."
He chuckled, and then re-read the last part. With a troubled sigh, he dropped his pants. Sure enough, his penis had been painted to look like Chewbacca. And he had taken pictures of it. And sent them to a stranger.
"Looking forward to seeing you in a couple weeks," he texted back.
So he flew to her city, and they met at the airport and she gave him a kiss on the cheek, the kind of kiss you give when you're meeting someone at the airport and you haven't seen them in a while.
He wondered if it was a mistake. He envisioned forced discussion during the cab ride, and awkward silence once they reached her place. Instead, the conversation in the cab was livid and wonderful, and continued into the apartment.
As before, they wandered out into the city. She showed him her town, and was refreshed by his new eyes, and they took their photos and had their discussions, and lived their lives.
Back in her apartment, they stripped down, two cameras, two bottles, and a million different types of light. They began using self-timers, tripods, auto-focus. They took pictures of themselves together. Drinking, pouring, licking. The shutters clicked and the music played, and they ended the night together, just as the sun rose.
"I love staying awake until the sun rises," she said.
"It always kind of scares me," he told her.
"Because it seems like whatever magic happened during the night, it has to end with the rising of the sun."
She kissed him then, on the corner of the mouth, slow and serious, and comfort passed from one set of lips to another. "Not with this sunrise," she said.
The weekend ended, like it had to, and he got on the plane with her promise still in his ears--that she would soon come visit him.
Two months later, mid-day, he received a text message along with a picture. "This day sucks. Fuck this place. Pick me up?" The picture was a screenshot of her own plane ticket.
"I'll see you there," he responded, and his heart beat faster and harder and he told himself over and over that he wasn't in love.
They experienced the same level of comfort, which surprised both of them. They stopped at highway fruit stands instead of hotdog stands. They took photos at all-nite gas stations instead of all-nite diners. They retired to his little house out in the country instead of an apartment in the middle of the city.
The next morning, he made her breakfast. She awoke to the smell of bacon and freshly-ground coffee, and she took a shower with too-hot water and then curled up on the couch to eat. When she was finished, he took her dishes, and he kissed her on the forehead, and she reminded herself that she didn't believe in love, not the capital L love, anyway.
They spent the day taking photos out in the orange-red world of autumn, and that night, he made her spiked spiced cider, and they kissed as her head swam, and she was afraid.
Afraid of being hurt, afraid of hurting someone so special, afraid of everything.
She ignored the fear, pretended that it didn't exist. She was here to experience life, to have a good time. To laugh and to live, and to go back with stories and memories. She glanced across the room, into the sunroom that he had converted into a studio. It was very professional, except for the Twister mat, the inflatable penguin, and the three bottles of baby oil. Okay, so to laugh and to live, and to go back with stories and memories and pictures.
The morning found her alone in bed, warm, slightly slippery, and content.
He came from the kitchen, and he had a fresh cup of coffee that tasted just right, and he said the exact perfect thing, and their laughter turned to kisses and their kisses turned to more, as the morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon turned to evening.
Then it was time, time for the trip to end, time to get back to reality.
He walked her as far as the airport would allow, and when she turned to kiss him goodbye, he ignored the tear in the corner of her eye, and she ignored his quiet sniffle as he hugged her.
How many times after that? He couldn't even remember. She could. Fourteen. In his little country town or her city, or if there was a sale on plane tickets, somewhere else. They'd look, independently.
"Hey, flights to Phoenix are 75 bucks this week, you in?"
"World's largest ball of twine in Cawker City, KS. Need to see."
"Where the fuck is Amarillo? We should go there!"
And it was all an excuse. The pictures they took of the largest ball of yarn, or the place where Pee-Wee Herman ramped his bike, or the building from Die Hard. None of that mattered. What mattered was that they were together.
She turns to him, making sure that most of her face is in the shadows, trying to hide. It doesn't do any good--they have both studied light and shadow and besides, he can see her tears falling and soaking into her shirt.
He feels stupid right now, still naked and in bed, totally vulnerable, open to whatever pain wants to come along. He wishes he had lit the cigarette--at least then he'd have the illusion of some sort of strength.
"Is this it? I mean, really? We make lo...we're together, and then you're just taking off? Not even a decent goodbye?"
She sniffs, and then rolls her eyes, because she didn't mean to sniff, and now she's frustrated with herself. Her face is still hidden in the shadows, but he doesn't need to see to know that she rolled her eyes. That's what she does. Especially when she's about to cry. It occurs to him that he knows so very much about her, but not nearly enough.
"Don't," she says. "Just...don't."
"Don't?" He usually takes a certain bit of secret pride in how he never has to ask her to clarify. He knows her that well. But right now, it doesn't matter, because nothing is making sense, or it all is, and he's just seeing it fall into place. But whatever. Right now, a question is the only thing keeping her from opening the door and leaving his life, so he's more than willing to ask.
"Don't do this. You knew it wasn't a forever thing."
"Before you go, can I ask you a question? It's...it feels like kind of a mean question."
"Do you feel better about yourself? When you break hearts? I mean, I know you tell yourself that you've done it again, that you've ruined another soul or whatever. I know that you want to feel like shit, and you'll make the mark in the bad-things-I've-done journal. I know you'll want to feel bad. But deep down, how is it? Does it hurt, or does it make you feel better?"
And she smiles a victoriously hurt smile, and she says, "That's a damn good question."
She opens the door, and the light and noise and bullshit of the outside world pours into the hotel room for just an instant. Then the door closes with it's wooden-slam, metallic-click, and there's only the sound of the blowing air conditioner.
He wants to punch, hit, hurt. He wants to break the world. Instead, he lights the cigarette, and ignores the tears that leak from his eyes, and he tells himself that he never believed the lie, anyway.
Posted under Short Stories on 9/17/10