A Void the Size of the World
I didn’t mean to kiss my sister’s boyfriend.
At least, not the first time.
The day it happened, thick gray clouds sagged and hung so low that it made you think you could reach out and brush your hand along the bottoms. The air blew fast and forced trees to bend toward the ground as their branches stretched for invisible objects. I kept an eye on the darkening sky as I headed home from my job where I scooped ice cream for sunburned kids, tired parents, and classmates. I snuck free cones even though my manager strictly forbade handouts. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it was a paycheck. And a paycheck meant money that would get me out of this town one day.
I felt the rain on my back before I saw it; large blobs of water fell on my neck and covered the sidewalk in polka-dotted specks around me.
I was still a ways from my house, but only a block from
Morton Park. I ran and hoped I could make it there before it poured, because the only thing worse than being covered in ice cream was being soaking wet and covered in ice cream.
Most of the park wasn’t anything special; it had the usual swings, slide, climbing gym, and seesaw. What made it different was that there was also a graveyard for half a dozen old construction tubes dumped in the grass by the city. They were pulled out of the street when it was repaved with asphalt. The tubes sat covered in graffiti and forgotten except as an alternative jungle gym for kids brave enough to scale their massive shapes.
My sister, Abby, and I used to beg Mom to take us here when we were little. Abby would quickly scurry to the top of some massive piece of equipment and I’d try to follow. I wanted to keep up with her, but instead, I’d slip back down and skin my knees. Abby would stand tall and proud, and the only way I could join her was when she reached out her hand to pull me up.
It was by those same tubes that I saw Tommy.
He had on the giant headphones he always wore, his head bobbing to the music. He moved farther and farther away from me, and I told myself to go over to him before he was gone. But I couldn’t. These days it was impossible to be near him.
Because he wasn’t mine.
A crack of thunder rattled the earth, and Tommy looked up and noticed me. But if he was surprised that I was in the park, he didn’t show it.
“Rhylee!” He gestured at me to come toward him, but I remained rooted to my spot.
He hurried over instead and the air felt charged. It sizzled and crackled.
“Duck in here,” he said and pointed at the construction tubes. “We’ll be able to stay dry.”
I followed, grabbed the top, and pulled myself through feet first until I was sitting on the bottom of the tube next to him. He placed his headphones around his shoulders, but didn’t turn them off. The sound of piano music mixed with the rain that slapped the top of the tunnel, creating an angry symphony. I recognized the notes. It was a piece he wrote a few months ago. Whenever Tommy was working on composing music, he listened to it over and over again on a constant loop.
I sat with my back against the wall and feet stretched up on the other side. I pushed away some garbage and tried to slow my breathing.
I didn’t belong here. I was an impostor, pretending to be comfortable this close to Tommy. The thought was ridiculous; we’d been best friends for years, but that had changed. I’d worked so hard these last few months to avoid him. And now here we were stuck together until the storm passed. It was as if the universe had decided play some cruel trick on me, to remind me of what I couldn’t have.
Because he was my sister’s boyfriend.
“What are you doing in the park?” I asked, not quite believing that chance had brought us to each other.
He ran his hand through his brown hair. It was wet, and the ends turned up in curls along the nape of his neck. He
needed a haircut. “I was teaching a piano lesson. The family lives about a block away and I thought I could outrun the storm. What about you?”
“Serving Webster’s World Famous Custard.” I repeated the lame slogan plastered across my lime-green T-shirt and pretty much everything else at Webster’s.
“World famous?” he asked, his eyebrow raised.
“Oh, yes.” I nodded. “People flock from far off lands to sample our vanilla custard with rainbow sprinkles.”
“I remember that cone you made for me a few weeks ago. You do put those sprinkles on perfectly. Not too much but not too little.”
“What can I say? I’ve found my calling.” And suddenly it was like old times again. The two of us talking and joking.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
It felt as if someone had knocked the breath right out of me. Those words were what I’d been dying to hear for so long, because I’d missed him too. After all, this was Tommy sitting next to me. The boy I grew up with; the two of us inseparable as we ran between our houses that sat side by side, only my family’s field creating a separation.
“Yeah, well, things are different now,” I said and wanted to say so much more, everything I’d held inside for so long.
“Whose fault is that?” I asked, not quite sure of the answer. I still didn’t understand what had happened the night that changed everything. It confused the hell out of me, and no matter how much I tried to figure it out, I just went around
and around in circles, finding myself back where I started.
Tommy stared outside the tunnel. The rain warped everything and made it feel as if we were hiding in some kind of fantasy world.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, then waved the two at me. “Is this okay?”
I started to tell him it wasn’t, smoking was disgusting, but stopped.
“If you share,” I said instead.
“You smoke now?” Tommy asked and tilted his head, as if what I said surprised him. As if I wasn’t allowed to change anything he knew about me.
Tommy smoked with some of the other boys at school. They hid behind the baseball dugout, slipping away during lunch. My sister would never dream of smoking, because of running; she said it messed up your lungs. So this, this smoking, was something I could do that Abby wouldn’t.
I shrugged as if it was no big deal. “I haven’t in a while,” I lied.
“Since Gina and Joe’s wedding?” Tommy asked with the goofy lopsided smile I loved.
I narrowed my eyes at him and stuck out my chin. “I’ve smoked since then,” I told him, which wasn’t true at all. In seventh grade when his sister got married in their backyard, the party went into the night, and as our parents celebrated with an endless supply of alcohol, Tommy and I had slipped away with a beer hidden under his jacket and a pack of cigarettes we found abandoned on a table. We drank the beer, passing it back and forth, the foreign taste making our heads foggy and light at the
same time. We lit cigarettes and pretended we knew what to do as we coughed our way through tiny puffs that made our eyes water. After, we lay in the field and watched the stars sparkle and shine in the inky blackness around us.
Abby caught us as we headed back, the smell a dead giveaway. She was hurt we left her behind. I felt bad and put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into our group, but she shrugged it off and walked ahead of us. We tried to include her when she was around, but no matter what we did, it seemed that’s how she always felt about Tommy’s and my friendship. Left behind. Which was so different from what Abby was used to, because my sister was always the center of attention. Tommy had been the one thing that was mine and only mine, but Abby found a way to take him, too.
“We don’t have anything better to do while we wait the storm out.” Tommy interrupted my thoughts. He pressed on the lighter and held the cigarette against his lips. The end glowed bright as he took a breath in. He slowly blew the smoke out before he passed it to me.
I placed it in my mouth. I sucked in like he did, but the drag was too deep and my eyes watered. I fought the impulse to cough, even though my throat burned. Coughing was a sign of weakness.
“You haven’t smoked again, have you.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. He knew me too well.
“There’s a lot of things I haven’t done,” I told him. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not good at them.”
“Is that so?” Tommy asked in a slow, drawn-out way. He
reached for the cigarette and his fingers wrapped around mine, holding on for longer than a moment before he took the cigarette back.
“Something like that,” I said, my voice caught in my throat. I stopped before I went too far. I was confused by what was going on. It sounded an awful lot like I was flirting with Tommy, and flirting definitely wasn’t allowed with your sister’s boyfriend. Especially when it felt as if he was flirting back.
The two of us sat so close our shoulders touched, the music from his headphones now a slow, sad song. He didn’t mention Abby, and I wasn’t about to bring her up. My sister had a way of taking over things. She’d gone with friends to a nearby lake earlier today. She had dropped me off at work on her way, her friends singing along to the radio, their hands trailing out the car windows as they drove away.
A flash illuminated the sky and the thunder that followed was so loud it seemed to shake the ground. I jumped and hit my head on the top of the tunnel.
“You okay?” Tommy touched the spot. His fingers wrapped around a piece of my hair and twirled it. We were so close I could feel the soft cotton of his shirt against my arm.
“I’m fine,” I said, but I wasn’t. I didn’t feel fine at all. Instead, I was nervous and sad, but I definitely didn’t want him to know any of that. I took the cigarette from his hand and placed it between my lips again. It was still wet from his mouth. I inhaled deeply, this time getting it right.
“Careful,” Tommy said.
Thunder rumbled around us. I closed my eyes. My body hummed with electricity.
“I don’t want to be careful,” I said.
“Me either.” He held my gaze, and I willed myself not to look away. His eyes revealed everything we weren’t saying to each other, and I was dizzy with desire.
“I made a mistake,” he said.
“I made a bigger one,” I replied, and those words opened everything.
Because in this dark tunnel, with the rain pounding down around us, I felt different. Like I was the person Tommy was supposed to be with. I forgot about the night a few months ago when he tried to kiss me and I pushed him away, too scared of how things would change. I didn’t think about the hurt on his face that changed to anger, because that wasn’t the way he thought it would go. And I certainly didn’t remember how I found him later that night, his arms wrapped around my sister as she kissed him in the way I should have.
Instead, I became the person I wish I’d been that night. The one who kissed Tommy back instead of running away scared.
I flicked the cigarette outside and watched it sizzle out in a puddle.
I couldn’t wait any longer.
I made the first move, but Tommy didn’t hesitate. We closed the space between us. I opened my mouth to let his air in. To let him in. His breath smelled sweet and smoky as his lips slid against mine and erased everything else in the world.
We didn’t take things slow. There were no gentle kisses or hesitations. Instead, I kissed him with a furiousness that took my breath away. I pressed myself into him, trying to take everything that I could before I lost it all again.
And he let me.
He pulled me down so I was on top of him, and I would’ve traded my soul to the devil if we could’ve stayed like that forever. His skin burned against mine. I kissed him until my lips swelled and bruised, but still I wanted more more more.
Our kisses went beyond this moment. They held years of our friendship; scraped knees and mosquito bites we scratched until they bled, snowball fights on the way home from school, and Tommy crying next to me when a car hit his dog. It was him standing up to the boys who pushed me down in fifth grade, the two of us scaring ourselves silly over the horror movie we weren’t supposed to watch, and me standing next to him and holding his hand at his grandma’s wake when he was ten. It was the way things were always supposed to be.
He buried his face in my neck, my hair, against my mouth until it seemed as if neither of us could ever breathe again without the other. I don’t know how much time went by; a minute, an hour, the entire night, our lifetime. It didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered but us.
We kissed until his face was lit up in a flash of lightning. The thunder after was what shocked me back to reality and we paused to catch our breath.
“It was always supposed to be you and me,” he said into my hair.
“Always,” I answered back.
I put my hand on his chest and felt his heart racing through his shirt. He placed his hand on top of mine and this was us.
I thought about what he said. You and me. You and me. You and me. And what that would mean to my sister. His words took us to the edge of things that involved “deceit” and “destruction”—but for him, I was willing to jump.