fiction

the taste out of peanut butter

The baseball moon hangs luminously over the windshield. Once, maybe months ago, you would have smiled up and whistled to that craterous face. But everything, even whistling, feels exhausting now. You join the stream of cars on Main Street and set your teeth forward, as if you could deafen the rush of a happy, autumnal world on the cobblestoned sidewalks–sweatered university students, clutching freshly-carved pumpkins, clutching each other–by clenching your jaw. As if you could deafen your thoughts.

Then you are there. Sooner than you want, not soon enough. And even as you think it, you know it is not Time being unfair but you. It’s just that there is so much unfair, it’s hard to keep it from rubbing off on you.

The wheels of your car clunk against the train tracks, and the Camry skids to a halt by the fence, spraying gravel like water. You shrug into a coat, slam the car door, and lean against it like James Dean in all his movies: jeans tight, lips cinched around a cigarette, hair heightened with sweat. His lipsticked sweethearts, their box-dyed hair as dense as matted dog fur and hair-sprayed into bobs, clung to him and wept when he looked like that. So you lean, one knee bent, sneaker tucked in the fender, and your eyes scan the darkness as if it were a smoldering desert horizon. Your blood seethes in your ears along with the whistling wind. Then you glance at your watch. You shouldn’t be excited. (You are.)

She leaps out of the compact blue Volkswagen, low-heeled shoes kicking up gravel as she flies toward you. Her arms shift from folding across her chest to dangling at her side to hiding behind her back, and then she stops just before where you lean against the car. You do not move. While she deliberately clamps her hands together, finger by finger, you notice how her hair gleams like a penny in the blue moonlight. You look away. It is annoying and cute, how nervous she is.

When she asks if you will walk with her, you nod, one brief jerk of the chin, down and done. She smirks at you and asks if you had a bad day. You shake your head. But the storm in your stomach only churns more vigorously when she clutches your elbow, calling you “dear friend,” when you cross the street.

In October, Main Street reeks perpetually of pumpkin guts, and you tell her this. So she grabs your hand and leads you to the still-green hiking trails behind the old train station. Your blood rushes down your arm; her index and thumb have latched around your wrist now, light as the butterflies that sometimes dip by you in the pool at summertime, but when she has released you, you glance at your watch. The minute hand whirls in its perpetual circle, as furious and energetic in its swirling as your stomach. Too fast this time. Much too fast.

Raising her eyebrows at you, she points at the fountain and dips a few painted toes in. They transform to little blueberries in seconds, and she screeches, laughing, slinging water at you. The thin strips of pink in the distant sky have faded now, and though she shivers under only moonlight, she turns in circles in the water.

You bite your cheek and look up, around, anywhere but at her. But her husky contralto rises above the sound of fountain waters; she thanks you for meeting her. In your peripherals, her eyes focused on you, and you look. Shifting her weight forward on her shoeless, sockless feet, she reaches up to muss your hair. You want a thousand things in that moment, and the first is that she would never touch you again. Or that she would.

When she declares she wants to go to Main Street for the last few minutes, you follow. The street lamps only dimly light the alley you walk along. She tries to grab your hand again, but you move in time to put a rail between you. Feeling your teeth clench up around your imaginary cigarette, you say nothing. As you follow her through clusters of university girls wearing ankle boots and glasses they don’t need, she snatches up your thumb and holds tight, and you suddenly release the air you had been holding. But still, the watch ticks.

She points to the sign, a short distance now, and picks up her pace. The edges of her sweater whip in the wind. When she turns to see if you still trail behind her, she looks so small, a big-eyed child with copper hair and blue toes. She still carries her shoes in her right hand. When her teeth chatter, you demand she put them on, and though she obeys, she crosses her eyes at you; you roll yours. She loops the second lace and twists her sweater around her with a flamboyant bow, hand sweeping, and your lips squeak upwards. You glance at the watch, though: five minutes.

The old sign with the antlered white deer clatters back and forth in the wind above the shop, and hearing the sound, you turn your wrist away in order not to see the time. She has linked her arm in yours now. Her skin buzzes with warmth and tiny goose bumps. Like the coffee shop lamps pouring out the glass front into the blue night, her face glows, and her hair too as she stands on tiptoes to look in the window, caught in the crossfire of silver moonbeams and golden light.

She points with her eyes, and you follow their trajectory through the glass, to a little burgundy table for two in the corner of the shop. A young man sits with a leather bound volume, faded golden lettering from the title glinting occasionally. His gaze remains fixed to the page, which he does not turn. He sits on the very edge of his chair, weight distributed unevenly, as if he will jump to his feet at any moment. And though your eyebrows hedge inwards and the golden coffee shop grows blurry, you feel the pressure of her fingers on your inner arm acutely, and you zone in on those three fingers: one, two, three. You note aloud that he must keep intelligent conversation if he reads Voltaire and ask if he plans on cutting his nails anytime soon. She laughs, declaring he plays guitar, and you clench your invisible cigarette, tense your jaw.

As if hearing your voices, the young man clips his eyes up in a quick squint through the darkened windows and hesitates. Then waving with graceful arcs back and forth, he beckons your friend to the table. He slaps a five on the coffee counter, and the frizzy-haired man with a beanie begins to make a drink. Your friend cocks her head at you and crinkles up her eyes when you pat her on the back, removing your arm from those three fingers.

“Good night.”

You draw away from the glowing windows, begin to pull back from her, but you can’t. She trots her eyes over to yours, unreadable but playful, asks you if you are jealous, not meaning it. Why should she mean it? Why should it be true? Yet you nearly blow your cover, brushing your thumb over her cheek, and her eyes flicker.

Then she straightens her sweater and traipses inside. The young man smiles. They sit down together. And when the barista sets two enamel mugs in front of them, they do not look up.

The wind whistles and burns with cold, even through your coat, as you walk back to the train tracks. There under the striped awning of the old depot, your Camry and her Volkswagen wait side by side. But when you climb in your cold car, you do not start the engine. The air inside stagnates, and a motionless chill envelops you as you focus on your breath, in and out, always the same. You look up through the windshield and wonder why it should be no comfort that, white, pockmarked, low in the sky, the moon too sits alone.

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