What a cliché it was for two writers to share a first kiss between book stacks in the library, but Ben’s eyes were dark and his skin brown like pancakes and when he smiled I saw his straight teeth like they had been marinated in Wite-Out. Then there was the way he teased me, the smartass remarks, and the way he went uh-huh with this intense eye contact, so I couldn’t tell if he was really listening or just pretending, or pretending to seem like he wasn’t listening, but he was really listening just to make me wonder.
What a fucking movie we could make.
Over the next few months we hung out, went to readings or bowling or sometimes just lounged by the lake, then back to his place, sex, and I’d leave before he could say it was too late to leave and I should stay over. We had a silent agreement. We weren’t exclusive. We each enjoyed our space. We each had walls. It worked.
So, as I straddled Ben, as my legs rubbed against either side of him, my back arched, my hair falling, almost tickling his thighs, I didn’t expect to hear him say, “Maya, I love you.” I kept my pelvis circling, but stared at the other side of the room, where the television was on mute and some older attractive man yanked some gigantic fish into a boat.
I didn’t know if Ben wanted me to say it back, but I just moaned and kept going and so did he. I had hoped he had just said it in a moment of ecstasy. People say things they don’t mean during sex all the time. I mean I had just said, I’ve been such a bad girl, when really I was an upstanding citizen, but it was for play. I figured he told me he loved me because it was for play- maybe.
When we were done and our chests were heaving, and droplets of sweat glided along my curves, I glanced at the television. The fish was thrashing with a hook in its mouth and water splattered off it’s glistening fins sputtering the camera. All the while, the older man under control, his hands gently, but firmly grabbing it, the fish pulsating, and although I knew it couldn’t scream I could almost hear it there. I turned away.
Ben and I laid side by side and he always smelled like toast to me. I sometimes imagined myself as butter, rubbing my body on his, melting into him.
“Do you want to stay over?” he said.
“Thanks, but not tonight. I have a story I need to figure out.”
“One night you’ll stay,” he yawned and fell asleep. On the screen, I saw the fish swimming back in the water. The man turned to the camera and smiled, looking happy to have caught it for even a moment before letting it go. Before leaving, I turned off the television, the fish now out of sight.
* * * *
Some people went church to think about things, or went to the bar, but the next morning, I went to the library. Everything in it was on borrowed time. I felt the spines under my fingers as I paced up and down the rows, both hands reaching out, touching them all, but not grabbing any one.
I didn’t even know why. Why any of it mattered when Ben was surely unsure of how he felt. Why he wasn’t the one in the library trying to figure out what the hell had happened.
I grabbed a book that was sticking out of a shelf. It’s cover like green felt I could have played a miniature game of pool on. Bringing Fossils to Life in black letters was across it with a picture of two fish in thin fractured lines.
One person I never talked to Ben about was Andrew, although I think Ben knew there was someone at sometime that did something. Andrew used to wear these headphones so large they looked like bagels blasting 80s songs we grew up to. He had this zigzag scar on his bottom lip that was ivory against the pink that seemed to float as he spoke about the new song he wrote, or the band he was going to join, or when he kissed me and told me we should be more than friends. And each time I looked into his blue eyes, they reminded of the ocean in the clearest, purest part, though I had never even seen that before.
But then Andrew told me everything is temporary. And right then I knew it was. That love was nothing more then something to lose and when he moved away, that was the end of everything I thought I knew.
I rubbed the book under my fingers, almost feeling the bones, the dust of the ocean the fish once swam in. Ben wasn’t supposed to happen. Like getting lost and finding that you didn’t need to go where you were going in the first place.
I ended up checking out the book though I didn’t think I had any use for it. Maybe I’d show Ben. Maybe he could use it for one of his stories. I left it on the table next to my bed, catching a glimpse of it before I went to sleep.
The next day, Ben and I soaked in the first of the summer sun by the lake, my bare legs white against the greenish blue of the water and his arm close to mine where it shadowed one of my many beauty marks. He liked to caress the one under my lip with his fingertips, This is my favorite, he’d say before kissing it.
“I love you, Maya.”
I knew he was looking at me despite the wind trying to help me out by concealing my face with my hair like stripes. I wondered if he thought I loved him and just couldn’t say it, or if he hoped I did and would say it, or if he knew I didn’t.
I said nothing and stared over the water. The waves were swaying and too thick to see any fish underneath. A duck floated by and it looked up at us.
“I’ve got nothing for you, sweetheart,” I said.
“I knew you didn’t,” Ben said and moved his arm away from mine.
“I was talking to the duck.”
“So, you have something for me then?”
His eyes lowered when I didn’t answer. I squinted a bit from the sun, and saw a dog asleep as its owner read a book behind him.
“I’m hungry. Want to get some pizza?” he said and got up before I had a chance to answer.
After pizza at his place, after the steam evaporated, after he grabbed the Cholula sauce I kept in his fridge, I’ve heard of leaving a toothbrush, but hot sauce? he had said, I expected him to tell me he loved me for a third time, but he didn’t.
When we finished eating, he said “I have to write tonight.”
“Me too,” I nodded then grabbed my bag and reached inside revealing the book. “I thought you might want to check this out.”
Ben took the book and felt the cover just as I had.
And instead of going toward the front door, we made our way to the couch and just laid in silence. I rolled into him, his fingertips traced my spine up and down like he was trying to find something breakable in the dark, and we both watched the sun unfold across the living room, until it interlaced with us.
Cyn Vargas’ short story collection is being published by Curbside Splendor Publishing and set to be released in Spring 2015.