Salsa-Chip Kisses by Corey Porter
Their ride back to her house was uncomfortably quiet. The car was full of unquestions and nonanswers. Where was his voice? He’d lost it when she’d been unable to look at him, and even if the meager thing had shown up, she’d probably have just shrugged it off until they were back at her house. Anyway.
The three weeks preceding this anti-conversation were rough on the both of them he was sure, and having her home from school was everythinganything he wanted, but not like this. Not in this uglyloud silence. Every dropped “I love you” had stung him a little more than the one previous. Where were they going? She’d stopped calling as often, and he couldn’t find the phone for the life of him when she did. Why’d they have to make those damn things so small? She’d stopped writing altogether, and he felt his letters were just piling up in her mailbox; her overstuffed-lame-duck of a mailbox. No more love notes. No more “honeys” or “sugars” or “sweetie-pies.” Not so cute anymore.
When they did finally reach her house, he opened his door to air the car of their stale notspeak and had to walk around the car to open hers. It wasn’t because she wouldn’t have it any other way - she wasn’t that kind of girl (another joke) - but because in cleaning his car in preparation for picking her up he’d broken the handle. It had always been a tricky latch; they used to celebrate with high-fives when she’d open it herself - an inside joke the whole world had been left out on.
She gathered her things - an extra pair of shoes, a box of animal crackers half-eaten and leftover from her flight home, her purse - and loaded her unassuming frame down with an overstuffed backpack. The same bag he’d packed on her last night in town. Then it had been filled with scraps of fabric she’d someday sew into shirts or curtains or any one of the thousands of things she could make with a needle and thread - it amazed him - but now it was filled with too-many clothes for her four-night stay.
Why’d she have to look so wonderful tonight? Black-and-white checkered shoes - on the flight home she resolved to be more “ska,” and it just so happened that her shoes agreed - “boat shoes” he’d always called them, peeked from under fitted blue jeans that crept along the curves of her hips. She wore a track jacket (blue and white) and kept her hands buried inside its pockets. Her short-not-too-short-hair was pulled back into a ponytail. A ‘no nonsense let’s straighten this mess up’ ponytail. No makeup. Lots of piercings. Beautiful. She was fucking Beautiful. (That’s with a capital bee.)
From his back seat he gathered a jacket she’d left at his house some weeks back and a book she’d bought to read last spring on a sick day. He plucked her purse and a second bag from the roof of his car and followed her into her house through a well-organized garage that smelled like vulcanized rubber.
She walked swiftly but delicately and she hesitated before opening the door to the house, but only momentarily - dashing any romantic notions he was concocting (and there were a few) but he couldn’t really imagine them happening. Not in the frowns of their silent conversation. Through the door, fabric softener and detergent smacked him in the face. This is what she smells like. Why’d she have to smell so wonderful tonight? He lingered through the laundry room. “Every night,” he corrected himself out loud.
He followed her loosely through the kitchen, where she’d already unloaded her arms on the countertop. A pair of Chuck Taylors and a half-finished box of Teddy Grahams stared him down. He caught only a glimpse of her as she slipped into her old/current room and turned on the light.
He’d been to visit her parents for dinner a few weeks back - he really liked her parents, they were nothing like his; her parents were hilarious - and she’d called him from school and asked him to look in on the room and see if her mom had made any drastic changes in the decor. She was convinced it would be turned into a guest room the minute she left (hadn’t happened) and she’d be out of a room. She’d have nowhere left to call home. Other than the empty spaces her bed and desk once occupied the room remained unchanged.
She stood there, lost in thought (or maybe not), and dropped the bag from her back. He followed her in and because of the late hour (it was actually only nine-thirty, but her parents habitually went to bed early) he kept his voice low, “Come here.” They’d always laughed about their ‘stage whispers.’ Lying in bed, they’d theatrically declare their undying love for one another until fits of laughter would overtake them and they’d smile until their cheeks hurt. Her giggle could turn him on end and he’d encourage her with dorky jokes and stray tickles.
He didn’t know what else to say (maybe I love you forever and nothing will take that away?). His voice came out cracked from underuse during their overquiet and he opened his arms to her. She stepped into him and embraced him and they fell silent again, letting unspoken thoughts mingle above them in her empty bedroom. Just standing there. Warm. Holding I-love-you-too-much-to-ever-let-go so tightly. He’d always told her he loved being wrapped up in her arms. The way their bodies fit together. “Like a pair of stacked spoons” he’d say. And there, he in her hold and she in his, they were safe. They were the one thing no one else had or could ever take away.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said softly, and the moment was over. He let her go and wandered the living room. Photos of her family were plastered on the walls and stacked on new tables. Pictures of her before he’d known her. Two summers ago when they had first met, he ran from his still-running car, threw open the storm door that framed her goodbye-boy body and pressed her to the wall (sliding snapshots from their centers) and kissed her hard. It was their movie-screen moment. Their first kiss. He’d always believed the first kiss set the tone for the relationship. That kiss had sparked an excitement in him that had yet to disappear. Her spark was on holiday at the moment he supposed.
She walked past him into the room to examine two new photos of her cousins. Twins. There weren’t any photos of the two of them - they’d never taken one together in the two years they’d known each other. He never said anything, but she never noticed. Anyway. She moved through her house with grace. He stood dumbfounded, breathlessly sweating and biting his tongue. She traipsed to the fridge and stood in front of its opened door. Cool air fell downaround her and she nervously muttered something about “free food.” She chose a bottle of water and a cheese stick, never one for sweets. When she had first told him he asked “What’s wrong with you!?” but only half-jokingly. He’d come to expect her choosing water over soda, and loved that about her nature - she always followed her own path.
She asked if he’d like to go outside. They’d spent nights on her deck coloring and drinking milkshakes when she was sick, stuffing themselves on salsa chips or her dad’s grill, lying in her yard reading fashion magazines (he only because they sometimes interviewed his favorite bands), counting stars from the dock - the black lake mirroring the summer night sky - holding her in his arms they’d create new constellations.
As she went to open the door, he helped her with one latch she’d missed (always the gentleman) then followed her out onto the deck where her kisses tasted like salsa chips.
The porch light was out, so she plugged in a strand of Christmas lights her family left up year-round. With the lights came an irregular clicking. A fountain tried its best to pump water no longer there. It was an unusually cool autumn, and the boy who was usually emptying his unemptyable pitcher poured nothing. The half-rhythmic meter filled the too-quiet night with sound. “Is...is that okay?” she asked. “Yes.” He had thought they’d sit down and hash out the past three weeks and this one uncomfortable night, so when he sat across from her and asked “What’s going on?” her non-chalant “I don’t was unexpected.
He thought maybe the question had put her on the defensive, but after a minute of silence her words caught up with him. What she meant was “I don’t wanna do you and me .” It stole his breath. She sat silently and picked at her snack, head low, eyes cast toward her feet. He started a hundred sentences in his head but couldn’t finish even one of them. Instead he choked “I...I don’t understand,” and all he could manage to sound (and repeat) was a say-it-ain’t-so whisper of those three words. She refused to look at him in the eye, adding to his confusion. Piling onto his hurt. His heart skipped. Beat space beat. And in that gap: hurt.
He balked then started slowly. Asked about summers and letters she’d written him. A note pecked out on a type-writer he’d given her - she had a fascination with letter-by-letter construction and the overt omittance of a ‘backspace.’ It made them so personal - and this one had found its way into her collection. She’d wanted to collect something. Anything please. Something that no one else would have, so he bought her the typewriter and she wrote him a letter promising to love him forever. His mind raced. He asked her about nights spent in his bed, days lying naked on his floor not wanting to get up; wanting to stay wrapped in each other. Phone calls and emails, the love notes she’d leave him beforeduringafter class. “Didn’t you mean any of it?”
“I guess not,” she whispered.
And with those words his heart split. Hit the road. Cleaved. It was a joke. They used to laugh about a local band and the pictograms scribbled inside their demo tape; little drawings they had given names to: Love plus death plus crime equals heartbreak. The band broke up a couple years later. This was a joke, right? (No) This was that joke. But she wasn’t laughing or smiling or even looking at him for that matter, and he was gagging and reeling and excusing himself from the table and her nonlooks and notglances and nothingspeaks were killing him. Why isn’t she saying anything?! It hurt it hurt it hurt like nothing he’d ever felt and now he didn’t know where to go or what to say or when to do or how to think eat act feel smell taste touch love (love? Surely he knew that...). Even if he knew what to do, he couldn’t.
“I don’t understand...I think I should go,” he said. Variations on a theme. He took the three steps down into her back yard without thinking. Everything was dizzying, and he was swelling with something he’d never felt before. She didn’t try and stop him as he passed and didn’t look at him when he left and didn’t say anything to his half-hearted (cause that’s all he had left) “Bye” and didn’t come running after him and wasn’t crying and wasn’t caring and this was not their movie-screen romance. He walked around the outside of her house with dry cracked lips and stale white cheeks and straight into his car and straight into reverse (his favorite gear) and straight out of her driveway. Out of existence for all he knew.
He couldn’t bring himself to look back on the driveway. He left the wonderful family in the picturesque house and two summer’s worth of memories behind him. The first night they met she stole his heart, and now he drove off without it. (She can keep that broken bleeding scarred charred excuse for an organ anyway.)
The streets of her town stretched out endlessly before him. Hundreds of miles of concrete and asphalt had been laid in the hour spent at her house. The municipal costs must have been through the roof. Astronomical. He kept on anyway. He didn’t know if he’d make it home (Yes he did know). He didn’t care (Well maybe...), or at least didn’t know if he cared. He remembered nights in a hammock, ping-pong and sneaking out for long kiss-smattered walks.
Eventually her town relinquished its grasp on him and the calming cadence of the interstate underneath his tires lulled him into a stupor. He was short of breath and moans escaped him without his knowing. Loss and confusion came pouring out of him. He cried, yelled, and shook violently, the wheel responding to his quakes with shakes of its own. His hands, starting at his small fingers, and his legs, beginning with his thighs, began to tingle (like falling asleep) - something only she had done to him. A feeling reserved for her. “Why does my body remind me of her?” he choked. “It’s not fair.” He wrestled the car back into its lane and fought fought fought his body all the way home.
On this one night - this, the longest (really?) and most painful (really!) night of his life - the stars refused him. No longer would they dance and transform themselves into new configurations. No more dinosaurs, fireworks, dancers or “I love yous.” Now they were plain. Ursa Majors, Ursa Minors, Onions, Cassiopeias. They weren’t for him. So by way of a dimly lit unimaginative sky, he drove home. Back to the house where he’d loved her without shame. Genuinely, Completely. Without holding back. He pulled into his second driveway that night, but she wasn’t there. This time he didn’t need to open her door. He collected his thoughts and what little he could of himself and walked into the house.
His roommate raised his gaze out of a bowl of ramen and with a crowded mouth asked “How’d it go?”
“She broke up with me.”
He dragged himself upstairs, ignoring the repeated advances of his dog, and sat alone on his bed. The room spinning (or rather his head), he could barely focus his eyes on any one object. He’d spent the past weekend cleaning it; moving furniture, dusting, vacuuming, and tacking memories to the wall, sorting old photos to show her - a room once incomplete - where they had spent afternoons in each others’ arms forgetting the clock that had yet to be hung on the unpainted wall. Forgetting the world existed besides them. Now his clean room mocked him. Its everything-where-it-should-be demeanor only reminded him he had cleaned it for her and that she wouldn’t be coming over; wouldn’t be stopping by to glower at his industrious uncleanliness and be totally surprised by the state of things. It was all for her, and now she was not.
Methodically he stripped the walls of her. Her photos, a card she had given him when they first met, jewelry collected (read: given, treasured), scarves she had made him that frequented his neck, a mixtape, a ticket stub from the night of their first kiss - that oh-so-memorable movie-screen first kiss - all these he gathered together. Everything she had given him he boxed up, but not everything. He couldn’t remember everything and of course found her buried deeper in his life than he thought. He couldn’t put away the nights they’d shared over coffee. The walks they’d taken together, sometimes going in circles for hours. Little League games where she’d choose the team with the most adorable kid and root for them, and he’d root against her out of spite. Snow cones. Late night trips to the park. Salsa-chip kisses, fireworks on the 4th of July, constellations, mixtapes, sleepovers, and getting drunk and sharing secrets and kisses in the dark and trips together and whispered thoughts and hopes and feelings and dreams and all the all the everythings he had ever wished for her for him for them and the tears - He could not box up tears. He couldn’t box up hurt.
He buried his box in the basement among unread books and furniture unused; in a corner sure to stay dry and undisturbed.
He removed himself to his room and removed his clothes. He cut the lights and laid on the floor in a room too bare. Too too too unfamiliar. She’d given him a card she made herself, and now he looked at where it used to hang. A stick-figured crayon drawing of the two of them hand in hand left only a bald spot on his wall. “I’m glad you exist,” it read. He traced the words with his fingers on the carpet and knew that he had completely given himself up to her. He was hers. She would call and he would scramble to the phone. She would knock on his door and he would trip over himself in excitement on his way to the door. When she first touched his arm with her hand in the back row of a too-noisy show he didn’t want to go to, he remembered why he’d come in the first place. When she’d grabbed his hand and followed him running down the hall of an empty theater laughing he knew he’d always be hers. She always refused his jacket, but he always offered it anyway.
“Shit fuck what what is going on? Hell damn damn man I just don’t know.”
He fell out of his clothes and spent the night in his too-large bed (she wasn’t there to crowd him and steal the covers - try sharing a pillow with her), waking himself frequently through convulsions - leaving him gasping for air. He couldn’t roll over and (stage) whisper to her. “Are you still sleeping?” he’d ask. She’d ignore him and smile. “Guess so,” he’d concede, and pepper her body with kisses until she burst into laughter.
He slept in the next morning, but finally resolved himself to walk through his daily routine, even if that’s all it would be. Stage whispers shit. He began his day shaken and unshaven. He draped last night’s clothes over his figure. His shirt hung loosely from his shoulders. He put on a hooded jacket and dragged himself down the stairs. His roommate had left for work and left him a note. “If you need anything - call.” His stomach turned at the thought of milk so he left the kitchen empty, dark and untouched. At the front door he rattled the leash and called his dog. They ran through the street towards the trail. He laughed at himself, running in blue jeans. “This is so fucked,” he said. “Do I look ridiculous?” He watched the dog for an answer. Autumn air smacked his cheeks with little sobering effect. Bitter leaves and stiff morning air greeted his senses, who were glutting themselves on the Indian Summer smells. He ran off the trail and climbed underneath an overpass - mourning traffic droned overhead. Its shadow draped him like a pall, but unlike a corpse, he sucked air in through clenched teeth, fighting for breath.
Eventually worn out, he gathered himself and walked home. The daily routine melted into a blur of television. Baseball games, MTV, don’t-miss-this-deals, you-can’t-let-this-pass-you-bys, histories, comedies - none of it kept his full attention. Naps broke up the day intermittently and eventually he resigned himself to pajamas. Hours of noteating and notspeaking occupied him until his roommate came home from work and found him dirty alone tired upset (how many dwarves were there?) on the couch. “Dude, I think you should get out.”
That night he followed his friends into a bar. They paid his way and kept his glass full. Someone sat on stage alone and sang songs to no one in particular. Melodies wafted over sticky floors and condensed crowds, through the smoky (cough cough) air to find his ears. The masses made a massive commotion in such a tiny place. Spilled beer trampled napkins dashed hopes lost phone numbers fake phone numbers half-struck matches cigarette butts everywhere everyone. Loud shouts stuck out of the racket but the crowd had no faces. Sour sandpapery lyrics met the visible (you can see it!) split in his heart and worked their way in. No one heard him hear them. They couldn’t. They were busy busying themselves and burying clear thoughts in pitcher after pitcher of bitterstale beer. Over the hum of an unconcerned crowd the songs became sutures, and though they stung, he found no need to tear them out. At the bar, his friend raised a shot and toasted “friendship” but secretly he raised his glass to “hope.” As he took the drink he felt the uncertainty dwindle ever so slightly. No. That wasn’t it.
“I love her,” he said. The song picked up and soon he found himself smiling, belting out the next line, drowning out the stage the crowd the notcaring unkind hopelessness that threatened to choke him to death. He scrambled up a barstool and stood atop the bar. Kicking. Fucking dancing. Singing shouting as loud as his lungs could handle. Louder even. The music stopped but he didn’t. The crowd lulled but he couldn’t. Barkeeps and tenders shouted and grabbed at his feet, but he danced free. Up above the world and its (really his) fear uncertainty doubt hate nothing. He sang with fervor. He didn’t have a heart, he’d given it to the girl he loved so there’d be no more. No more pain or regret or fear. Maybe that’s how he danced above the crowd - without his heart he was just lighter than them. He sang until he bled and he cried because he felt so damn good. Above it all, he had nothing left to fear. Fuck it all. He knew now that he loved someone something somewhere so great that it was bigger better more important awesome than him. He knew now he cared about someone somebody - nonono - her “This is what’s it’s like to love! This is loving someone more than everythinganything!” He cared about her he loved her he cherished her he was proud of her so much that nothing could ever make him stop. Nothing could keep him from mixtapes, movie-screen kisses, stage-whispered “I love yous,” dinosaur constellations, and all the everywhereanywhere everymoments he wouldn’t miss for the world. Nothing would stop him. Nothing could ever stop him. His singing. His dancing. His love.