CCW Finalist, Fiction
Jess had bought Noemi a two-scooped cone of bubblegum ice cream solely as a prop, but Noemi devoured it passionately. He watched it smear across her mouth, leaving a pink streak on her left cheek. He considered reaching over with a paper napkin and wiping it away but didn’t.
“Dis is sooo good,” she mumbled, mouth full.
“You’ll get an ice cream headache,” he warned.
“Worf it.” She closed her eyes rapturously. There was ice cream on her chin too.
Jess smiled because her eyes were closed. If she’d been looking he would have frowned disapprovingly. He coughed into his hand, a signal for her attention. Her strange purple-gray eyes finally looked in his direction.
“I’m getting married,” he announced, somber, just like he’d practiced.
“Congratulations,” she said happily, between bites.
Another twist, he thought. He’d known Noemi for twenty years and maybe she was aging in reverse. At ten, when they’d met, she’d been overly serious, hugging books to her skinny chest all the time, curtains of stringy brown hair shielding her from the world. She hadn’t wanted to swing on tire swings, or blow spit bubbles, or throw snowballs in the winter. Way before he thought anyone should think about dating, she’d wanted him to be her boyfriend. She’d eyed him seriously, written tragic romantic poetry in silver ink and left it in his locker. When he responded in an appropriately fifth-grader manner (teased her and pretended to be disgusted), she cried for months, especially around him.
They lived on the same block and their parents liked to barbeque together, so geography forced an eventual peace accord. In ninth grade, their friendship bloomed just enough for Jess to realize that Noemi had breasts, slight outcroppings on her bony figure, and that her lips were pink and kissable. His sudden hormonal attraction to her parts offended Noemi more than his playful rejection years earlier. “You don’t really want to be my friend,” she shouted when he attempted a wet kiss. “You just want my body and you’re pretending to care about me.” He argued unsuccessfully and dishonestly for his genuine interest in her mind and stuff, and she slapped him.
They’d gone back and forth in affection ever since. Their mating dance was a ballet of bad timing. Near senior prom, she fixated on the idea that they should go together, but only after he’d asked someone else. In college, they’d alternated summers of desperate pining, he taking even years and she taking odd. He actually went to her college once to declare his love and arrived to find her making out with a mohawked senior. Adulthood put them in different cities and more or
less out of each other’s lives. Still, there were occasional late-night drunken phone calls professing feelings the speaker rarely remembered in the morning.
Once before Jess had moved in with a serious girlfriend, and as soon as he’d unpacked, Noemi appeared. His mother had mentioned it to her mother, prompting her dramatic arrival at his doorstep in a skimpy dress and high heels. He sent Noemi away quickly, calling her a happiness saboteur. As soon as she was gone, he wished he’d said yes.
On the ice cream day, they didn’t talk about the time a year earlier when he begged her to give him a try. “If nothing else, just to see after so many years of flirting with the idea.” Noemi had a boyfriend then, a long-term man who rubbed her insteps. She coldly told Jess to grow up, and accused him of only wanting her when he couldn’t have her, which of course was true for both of them. Jess started to say, “I love you,” until she hung up mid-“love.” They hadn’t spoken since.
The love was a lie but the curiosity was real. Years of back and forth had created something like an itch, an irritating need to know for both of them. But if Noemi was directly offered Jess’s interest, she’d shove him away. Jess understood this because he was the same way about her. However, if she thought it was her own idea, if she begged and pleaded and he resisted, he could feign giving in. Jess was counting on that.
“When’s the wedding?” Noemi asked, still focused on her ice cream. As fast as she was eating, it was melting in the sun. It began to dribble down the sides of the cone. A sticky glob dropped into her cleavage.
And there they were, her breasts, as she snorted a laugh and took the napkin he handed her. He watched unselfconsciously as she shoved the rumpled paper between her boobs, cleaning herself up without any seductiveness. They were bigger than he remembered, but of course, she’d gained at least twenty pounds since he’d last seen her. Noemi had always been a waif, childlike in her body, and Jess had believed that her physical vulnerability was the only attractive thing about her besides her exotic eyes. Now, her hair was hennaed auburn and hung in loose curls, and with her newly curvaceous figure, she was actually beautiful. Content, he thought, a happy, beautiful woman.
“You look fantastic,” he said hopefully.
“Thank you,” she answered, tossing the napkin away. “I feel fantastic.”
“Most women are worried about losing weight, but you look much better with a few extra pounds.” A calculated compliment, because though he sincerely meant it, he also hoped it would strike Noemi in a tender spot. She’d always worried about her looks and reached for a man’s approval when feeling insecure.
“I went to Italy last winter,” she replied. “Like that book, Eat Pray Love? Except I skipped the loving and praying and went straight for the food. I feel healthier and I actually need to wear a bra now,” she laughed. He studied her familiar crooked teeth, something that hadn’t changed.
Jess seized on the cast-off reference to her personal life. “So, you didn’t find a guy in a foreign country? What happened to your boyfriend?”
“We spilt up,” she answered casually.
“Are you with somebody?”
She shrugged. “Not lately. Well, I’m with myself. I’ve been busy. My job is going really well. I just bought a condo. I haven’t had a lot of time for dating.”
“I couldn’t handle that. I get lonely without a girl in my life.”
“I was like that for a long time. I’ve worked really hard to be comfortable with myself.” Noemi bit into her cone and looked at him thoughtfully. “You must be happy, then, getting married. You’ll always have somebody.”
“I’m a little nervous, though,” he admitted.
“One person for the rest of my life? It’s unnerving. There are so many other people in the world, you know?”
She chewed on her waffle cone. “Oh, I get that. You don’t see me getting married right now. I don’t want to commit to anything that big yet.”
Jess had come to this meeting with a scene in his head, one that had years of history supporting it. In it, Noemi ordered a cup of the smallest serving of sherbet possible, then pushed it around with a spoon, lips trembling and eyes welling up as he declared his love for Rita and beamed martial confidence. Noemi threw herself at him, begged him for one night together. After much debate, they went to a hotel room, or her place, and finally had the sex he’d always wondered about. He’d watched it in his mind’s eye a dozen times since texting her, “I’m coming to Santa Fe. Wanna meet up?” It was bizarre to him that it wasn’t happening. Stranger still, a genuine desire for Noemi pulsed in him. No, it wasn’t just desire. He liked the new Noemi. It made it difficult to know how to play it.
As much as he’d been interested in sleeping with her before, it was not exactly lust and certainly not affection. It was a sexual hangnail, an unexplainable bridge from adolescence to adulthood that he had to cross to release the years of tension and grow up. He figured that when they did it, it would be anticlimactic and unsatisfying, an act that in no way justified all the years of waiting and wanting. He was looking for reassurance that Noemi and by extension all intriguing women other than Rita were, in fact, disappointing and worth giving up. Jess wanted sex that would send him running into Rita’s bridal arms with relief. He wanted to fuck Noemi to get it over with.
“You never told me when the wedding is.”
“End of June.”
“It’s going to be a big wedding. Rita needs a lot of time to get things ready. She and her mom want everything to be perfect.”
“Is that what you want?”
Jess squirmed. “I don’t care about that stuff. I just want her to be happy.”
“That’s sweet. It’s nice that her being happy makes you happy.”
“The only thing I’m insisting on is the bachelor party,” he chuckled.
“I’ve never understood that. I mean, I understand wanting to have one, but I don’t get being okay with your almost-husband getting lap dances and groping strippers the day before the wedding. It seems weird to me.”
“Rita’s having a bachelorette party,” Jess shrugged. “There’ll be male strippers.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“I trust her. I don’t care who she looks at.”
“And she feels the same way about you?”
“Yeah,” he said without conviction.
“I wonder, though, how looking at naked strangers will help your anxiety about only being with one person for the rest of your life. Wouldn’t it make it worse?”
“No, no. One last hurrah. The point of a bachelor party is a farewell to single life, a goodbye to other women’s naked bodies. It’s what you girls like to call ‘closure.’” He grinned devilishly.
“But I don’t understand why that helps. If you’re breaking up with someone, do you say, ‘Let’s have one more wonderful night together and remember everything we like about each other and then never share that again’? Or do you have a big fight and throw their stuff out your window and want them to go away?”
“Getting married is the opposite of a breakup, Noemi.”
“You’re breaking up with single life. You’re giving that up forever. So why do we go and relish everything fun and sexy about being single before we say goodbye to it? It’d make more sense to do all the crappy things about being single, like going to Thanksgiving alone and having all your family worry about you, or going on a horrible blind date, or sitting at home feeling lonely and sorry for yourself. Then you’d be eager to get to that altar.”
He laughed, even though she looked serious. “Is that how you’re feeling these days? All the crappiness of being single? Maybe I should skip the bachelor party and the bad blind date and just listen to your sob stories.” He thought their meeting might be turning into something he could work with.
“No,” she shook her head, her hair shining in the sunlight. “I like my life right now. There’s no feeling sorry for myself, I don’t do blind dates anymore, and my family doesn’t bother me about being single since my brother’s divorce battle started. I’m having the fun part. Which is probably why I don’t feel any urge to get married. When I was unhappy being single, I was really obsessed with the idea of ‘the one.’ All I wanted was to find someone to settle down with so I wouldn’t have to make dinner for just me and go to everything alone. But now I’m comfortable. I don’t mind being alone, and I have a lot of friends and things I like to do. Guys come and go, and I’m fine with that. In fact, I can’t imagine giving it up.”
He couldn’t see an entrance. She was happy, which was new. She was new. He wanted her, but the way he might want any woman. He felt a standard-issue lust, the kind he could talk himself out of with thoughts of how Rita was all that and more, but not the painful ache he usually felt with Noemi. All his maneuvering and scheming dropped, slipped out of his control and shattered on the sidewalk. Familiar, impossible Noemi was gone, unreachable, unfuckable, gone into some abyss without ever satisfying the desire they’d passed back and forth all those years. All that was left was happy, new, beautiful Noemi, who was somewhat baffled by his romantic life but not particularly interested in him. His shoulders relaxed. Jess smiled a little, gently, genuinely, something he hadn’t done in front of Noemi for a long time. He gave up.
“Sometimes I can’t imagine it either,” he admitted. “But I love her, and she wants to get married, so I’m doing it.”
“But the bachelor party first.”
“I just want one more night doing the fun single things. I didn’t think I’d marry Rita when I met her. For a long time, I didn’t know if it would last, so I didn’t ever appreciate that single life might not be a possibility again until it already wasn’t.”
“A lot of things work that way,” Noemi nodded sadly.
“Like us, I think.”
“There never was an us.”
“That’s what I mean. There could have been, but there wasn’t. I always figured that one day there would be, at least once, and before I knew it, the option was off the table.”
“When you got engaged?”
“No, when you changed. The weird teenaged girl who didn’t smile and wrote purple poems is all gone.”
She laughed. “She’s been gone a long time! What about you? The skinny, goofy soccer star and class clown is now a grown-up.”
He patted his slight belly. “True. But I think I’m still me.”
She cocked her head. “I used to think of you as Peter Pan. Your hair, it’s the color of peanut butter, like the Disney Peter Pan, and you always used to look like you’d conned someone out of giving you a detention that you deserved. You even looked like that when you were twenty-one! So I thought, Peter Pan, never going to grow up.”
“Peanut butter?” he snorted.
“It is. I never knew another name for that color.”
“It’s just brown.”
“And you don’t look like you’re dodging trouble anymore, either.”
“But you still wanted to give it a try with me for a long time.”
“I don’t know if it was desire as much as loyalty to an old dream, you know what I mean?”
Noemi looked him up and down and shook her head. “You came here because you were hoping to have that first last time that we never did. You only ask to see me when you want to sleep with me. I knew that’s what you wanted the second I heard from you.”
“But you said I’d changed.”
“Not about that.”
He blushed and grinned, half-sorry and half “What do you expect?” Just then he looked the same, like a naughty kid who was having a good time, a boy who’d swing out of his tree fort hollering wildly and offering insincere apologies to appease grown-ups. There was a light in his eyes, an innocent sort of trouble, that she hadn’t seen since he hit puberty. She smiled.
“So why’d you agree to meet me?” he asked.
“Just to try out a different answer,” she said. “I wondered what would happen if I didn’t yell at you for hitting on me or cry for your attention. I’m glad I did, actually. I like you this way, Jess. I like talking to you when you’re honest and neither of us are trying to get anything from each other.”
They’d never had a moment like that. He beamed at her and patted her free hand. “I’m glad too. I thought I had to sleep with you to grow up, like it was compulsory. But I don’t feel that way now.”
Noemi studied him as she finished the last of her ice cream cone. She felt a rush of wanting. He looked nice, she thought. “What if we did?”
He glanced around, embarrassed and shushing her. “We’re outside an ice cream parlor, not a bar, Noemi. There are kids here.”
“Kids hear worse things on TV,” she said, waving her hand around dismissively. Her silver rings glittered.
Old Noemi never swore, let alone in public. But new Noemi was sexy, fun and willing, and she was all that was left of the girl next door. It would be like sleeping with a ghost. It would barely count.
Jess hesitated. “It doesn’t bother you that I’m getting married?”
“Normally, it would, but not in this case,” she said evenly. Noemi was eyeing the inside of the ice cream parlor. From where they sat they could see through the glass door into the freezer case and its rainbow of ice cream flavors.
She looked straight into his eyes. “Honestly? Mostly because I’m enjoying you today, and you look cute. I want you and I’m being selfish. But some of it is that you sound ambivalent about getting married. Your reasons don’t make sense to me. I don’t think anyone can really be happy with a partner until they aren’t afraid of being alone. Maybe if we have sex, you’ll come to your senses, or she’ll kick you to the curb, or something like that. And then you can get married when you’re ready, when it’s right.”
“Ouch,” he grimaced. “Couldn’t you have sugarcoated that a little?”
“I’m sorry, but I try not to lie anymore.”
He glared at her. She was not Noemi. She should have a new name. Suddenly he wanted to be home with Rita, away from this stranger and the possibilities she offered and all of it. Jess looked down at his cup of mint chocolate chip. It had melted completely and was a puddle. Ice cream soup. An ice cream sea. Disgusting and inedible. He stirred it with his spoon.
“How was that flavor?” Noemi asked.
Jess didn’t answer because he didn’t know. He wished he’d eaten it when he’d had the chance.