Romance, by Rebecca Cook

Watch how he’s looking at you, measuring you. He’s moving toward you now. Hold your lips just so when he leans in for the kiss. Remember everything your mother ever told you. Remember that one day you’ll walk down the aisle on your father’s arm, wearing white, hiding your opened vagina, your terrible secret. Is he the one? Take the tip of his tongue into your mouth, lightly, carefully. Measure the moment, calculate how far you should go. Maybe he’s the one. See the bride and groom, their hands together on the knife, ready to cut the cake. Watch them running through a cloud of rice. Is it you? Is that your white dress? Is he the one?

Love is your father slipping his hands around your mother’s waist. He gives her a quick kiss before letting her go back to the stove. Love is your parents’ double bed full of soft, dark secrets, a bed so high you have to climb up on it, pulling the white bedspread askew. Put your head under the covers. Their bodies are there, so young and tan and thin. Snuggle down between them. Just a few years before this day they moved together and made you, a man and a woman fitting together. You’re longing for it, for a boy to watch you with your father’s eyes locked on your mother as she walks across the kitchen to the refrigerator, a large bowl of slaw in her hands, her bare feet slapping softly on the floor.

You are nine and your mother tells you you will bleed one day. Your breasts are budding. That’s the sign, she says, and the blood will come and then you’ll be a woman and babies will grow inside you. You are ten and you feel the boys’ eyes on you, all your parts. You walk around the playground, over to the slide. You climb up the long ladder, place your piece of waxed paper down and sit on it, push off, and then you’re away, flying through the air. When you land you feel their eyes on you. Run to the gym and there’s the rope. Climb up, using your feet to reach the top and then you’re sliding down and their eyes are everywhere on you as you burn down there, a secret throbbing and you know someone sees you, from somewhere far away. He is the one.

Tucked into your bed under the yellow, flowered bedspread, you read about fairies and fauns. You’re a fairy and when the faun comes for you, you do not hesitate because you are a wild thing and naked. You hold your legs just so, in the way that Barbie never can, spread wide open for him and it’s a magic thing full of the smell of pine needles, sharp when you go into the woods and explore your body, a place for men, a dark, open channel full of secrets. You are wet and wondering where is the one meant to be? You read The Animal Family and long to find the man’s house at the edge of the sea where the forest grows down to the sand. You’re near the shore when he finds you, your mermaid’s tail flapping in the foam. He picks you up in his arms and carries you from the water to his little house where you sleep in his bed and cook his meals and have his babies because he’s the one.

It’s the hot summer after fifth grade. You close your eyes and kiss him on the lips. They are so soft, softer than your cousin’s cheek when you kissed her in the pup tent out in the hayfield. Remember her freckled cheek and your mouth open against it? You moved your lips this way and that, just like the woman on the movie screen, your mouth open and soft and now the boy’s lips feel like velvet but it’s only a game, Truth or Dare, and you lost and he can’t be the one because when you open your eyes your cousin and her next door neighbor are watching you with smiles on their faces, laughing at you, and the bottom of your stomach falls down into your bent legs and you wipe off your lips and look away quickly.

You’re at a swimming pool in the middle of Indiana, wearing your red and white striped swimsuit. You dive in, swim smoothly to the other side. You’re with friends, other women, but then a man comes out to the pool and you lift yourself from the water, his eyes on you. You hold your breath, draw in your stomach, walk carefully to the diving board. Your nipples harden in the light breeze before you dive in again and swim to the other side, his eyes on you, a complete stranger with light brown hair and blue swimming trunks. Could he be the one?

You’re sixteen and you leave your house early, determined. You will see him and you will watch him. You will find his house. You cut through the woods where you’ve never been, walking across the fields and through the pines. You cross the road and head up the hill and onto your friend’s farm, a long way into a thicket and then another and another one. After a long while there’s an opening ahead. You can see a house, the Bridges’ house where you used to gather chestnuts in the fall. Now you know exactly where you are. You know that just up the next hill will be his house and then you’re there, watching for him, peering through the trees. You wait for him, just a glimpse. You wait a long time.

He is as tall as a young tree and skinny, a basketball player. He has a nice brick house with a family room in the basement. He goes waterskiing at Lake Weise and drives a Z-28 that he takes up to 120 on the highway. His lips are thin and when he kisses you he opens his mouth but never puts in his tongue.  He never undoes your bra or unzips your jeans. He never opens your willing body sitting in the seat opposite him, your blue and white flowered strapless dress almost coming off. It would be so easy to pull down your dress and show him your breasts but you don’t. It’s a night full of stars and instead you lift up and stick your head through the open sunroof of his car before he pulls you down into his arms and kisses you again. Your body dissolves and you know he is the one but then there he is with Jo Anna. Then there he is with Linda. Then there he is with Diana, your short, red-haired, almost-best friend. Then there you are watching him through the binoculars at the Atlanta Hawks game, he and Jo Anna snuggled together on the bleachers but you’re sure he’s the one.

You watch him at school, you watch him at church. You ride your bike by his house, watching for him. Is he at home? You record every moment of him in your yellow notebook, tuck everything he’s touched into the red folder—a candy wrapper, a movie ticket, a piece of candle, a church bulletin. You fill the notebook with poems and listen to the Eagles’ “Wasted Time” over and over again until you can write down the lyric on a long piece of white paper that you tighten up into a scroll and slip into the red notebook.

You’re so sure he’s the one but he never loves you, not even when you make his mother a from-scratch yellow cake with boiled chocolate frosting. You were so nervous you left out the baking powder, but she didn’t care, said she scraped off all that icing with a knife. He doesn’t love you even when you spend the night with his sister and he calls you into his bedroom and pulls you down onto the bed, kissing you roughly before you pull away because his father is in the next room and you slip back across the hall to the bathroom. He doesn’t love you even when you swim in his pool at the church party, sucking in your belly and walking around the edge, hoping he’ll look at you but he never meets your eyes before you look away and jump in. He never loves you and you need for someone to be the one so you find a boy who wears socks with his flip-flops. He’s weird, standing up on the school bus, wobbling slightly, reaching for balance, wearing white pants with a blue stripe down the side and you notice how curiously flat his butt is but you don’t care and you know he’ll want you because he isn’t popular and you have nothing to lose and maybe if you go out with him Skipper will want you again, maybe he’ll realize that you’re the one if you move on to someone else.

Then it’s dark in the boy’s bedroom and you’re on his futon and he’s between your legs and you feel his hard-on, the first time you’ve ever felt that and maybe he’s the one, the moment full of him and when you take him to church you know Skipper will see you with him and after the first date, when the boy threatens to kill himself if you go out with anyone else, you believe him and you let him open your body as Skipper never did and you let his mouth work its way into you and you let him work his way inside you and you let him have you, an inch at a time, just a little bit further, I promise it won’t hurt, and then it’s all done.

When you were eleven, slimy brown strings came from your vagina, smearing onto your panties. You had begun to bleed and the teacher sent you to the office for the little brown box with the pad and the safety pins and you were so nervous you pinned it on upside down and you wondered if everyone could tell what’d happened to you but suddenly you’re eighteen, standing by the desk in your bedroom, waiting for the pregnancy test to be finished. Ten minutes later the little circle is dark and you know there’s a baby coiled inside you and it’s a secret but almost overnight the doctor is trying to pull the baby from you, the forceps straining his arms and the stool slips out from under him and goes clanging against the wall and you think your baby has hit the wall but your mother is there, holding up your shoulders so you can see and everything is okay, it’s a boy and he’s lying in the warming chamber, his umbilical cord a dark brown worm against his belly, clipped with silver. You have convinced yourself that the flat-butted boy is the one, you married him, quickly, wearing a blue gingham shirt and blue jeans, married him quietly in the church with the preacher and now you hold his son to your full breasts and wonder why you don’t miss your husband when he’s away at basic training. You call your granny and ask her why, why don’t I miss him, he’s my husband, and she says she doesn’t know and her voice is so far away you wonder if anyone can ever reach you.

You’re nineteen, standing in your parents’ kitchen with your two best friends, crying because you’ve left your husband in the army in North Carolina. You’ve come home and will never go back to him because you’ve finally, finally gotten away from him and you’re remembering the Sunday after you got married and you didn’t want anyone to know you were pregnant. Skipper was the one who made the announcements that day. He stood at the pulpit and said “Congratulations to Becky and Jimmy Bowman on their recent marriage.”

You’re twenty-one and he’s just a blond hairdresser you picked up at the mall where you work and maybe he’s gay but you don’t care. In the backseat of his car you open his pants and there’s his turtle-necked dick, already hardening to your touch and you wonder how anything could be so funny as his wrinkly foreskin and, without even wondering if he’s the one, you take him in your mouth and you remember that first kiss, soft like velvet, and now his dick is as smooth as a cloud and the inside of your head is as white as your parents’ bedspread and you’re four years old again, walking down the long hallway with a box of Kleenex, dropping them elegantly behind you because you’re the flower girl and there’s a bride in white and a handsome groom but now you’re stuck inside this moment with your mouth full of the hairdresser and if you suck long enough maybe he’ll be the one.

Then you’re twenty-two and your boyfriend is chasing you through your parents’ house with a bag of cookies and when he catches you, he crumbles them into your hair, chocolate and peanut butter pieces flying everywhere. Your parents are laughing at you and you’re screaming and laughing and waiting to be alone with him so you can fuck him again, but it’s a secret you keep–the sex, the sex everywhere all the time. You’re divorced, free as air, but you tell yourself you should be good. On the first date he gets you naked, trembling in his fully-dressed lap. You’re parked near the church and maybe you should pray for strength because the next time you’re together you do fuck him and maybe he’s the one. You dress to go out, waiting for him to pick you up. You slip on your white, zippered Candies jumpsuit. No underwear, easy access. You are sexy, all dressed in white, a bride on a wedding cake. He takes you to his dead grandmother’s house and fucks you on the sofa, on the bed, on the bathroom counter. When you bleed he fucks you anyway and there’s a spot of blood on his dead grandmother’s perfect white bedspread and you wonder when you’ll be married because he holds you in his lap and talks about the grandkids the two of you will have one day and everything is as it should be but then you’re on the floor of your bedroom and he just fucked you and now he’s telling you goodbye, he’s telling you that he’s not the one and you’re driving over the mountain smoking unfiltered Pall Malls and crying, speaking to no one in a made-up accent and you drive until you find his car and force him off the road. You throw his jacket and sweatshirt on the ground, screaming at him. You drive him to the top of the mountain and fuck him hard, an I-hate-you-fuck, a good-bye-to-dreams fuck, a so-long-forever fuck because he is not the one and the future stretches out before you and you’re alone, alone on a wedding cake, wearing white.

Then, suddenly, you can’t stop laughing. You’re twenty-three years old, fresh from the shower, your hair wrapped in a towel. You stare into the mirror, watching your face full of smiling. You laugh and laugh. “I’m going to marry him” you say and you know it’s true. His name is Dale and he’s nineteen and you barely know him with his odd face and young Republican haircut. You’ve spent one, sexless evening with him on top of a mountain, talking about God, talking about things you can’t remember because you were drunk but he leaned forward and touched your knee and you knew he wanted you, you knew he was yours. It didn’t matter that he was younger. It didn’t matter that he already had a beautiful girlfriend. It didn’t matter that his parents wouldn’t approve of you, older with a four-year-old child. All that mattered was that he was the one and when you woke up the next morning you couldn’t stop laughing because two weeks before you’d prayed to God that you would find him and now here he is.

Two days after your first conversation you meet to discuss the future because you know you’re going to get married. You both know this, though it makes no logical sense. You don’t even know each other but the future seems clear. You’re both embarrassed by the strangeness of it all, talking about a future when you don’t even know each other. Is this how dreams come true? You’re standing in one of the hallways behind his store at the mall, looking at each other and looking at the floor too, trying to decide how to feel. You’re so excited and embarrassed and uncertain. But also very, very sure. You ask, “Can I have my own apartment when I turn forty?” and he says, “I think that can be arranged.” You ask, “Do you wear boxers or briefs? I like boxers,” and he says “Briefs. But I’ve been wanting to make a change.”

He comes to your house wearing a teal sweatshirt and tight jeans. He takes your piano apart because it needs tuning, just takes it apart like this is something anyone would do. How does he know how to do this? You’re fascinated by him. Then he’s standing with you on the landing because he followed you upstairs, trying to steal a kiss and he says “I’m so horny,” and you’re embarrassed. Who would say that? But you want to laugh, too. You want to take him into the bedroom and throw him on the floor but you don’t because your parents are there. Instead you hide your embarrassment, hide your excitement and hold his hand and try to understand him, this boy you already love.

You don’t have sex at first because it’s too soon. Always before it had been so hard to wait but now it’s different. You have to get used to each other, to the idea of each other. You’re parked in the car in your favorite parking spot, a place Skipper once brought you, years ago. You have the condoms in a little paper bag. Everything’s been planned and the first time you touch him your brain is on fire because it’s exactly what you’ve dreamed of, and you ask God if it’s supposed to be this perfect, everything in place. Everything is perfect, but you can’t do it. You both fumble, suddenly uncertain what to do, like two inexperienced kids. You don’t know each other. It’s all too strange. So you go away to visit a friend and you talk on the phone with him, over and over, falling more and more in love. You say, “I’m watching The Sound of Music. It’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.” He says, “Yes, I agree. It’s very romantic. It’s one of my favorites,” and you love that he understands, that it’s one of his favorites and the more you talk the more you have in common and you can’t wait to get home.

After you’ve been dating a month, you rent a cheap hotel room. You bring Long John Silver’s fish and fries and a bottle of cheap red wine. It’s the first time and he wears his dress socks and you get lost in his smell, something about his upper lip and you’re drawn in and down and under and you fuck him every day and then it’s February and you’re lying with him on the floor of your bedroom on the gold, folded up comforter where you sleep. He’s leaning his head on his hand, bent over you, stroking your face, an intense look in his eyes. He says, “I want to marry you as soon as it’s feasible,” and you say, “Yes,” and it’s the most romantic proposal you’ve ever heard, something Mr. Spock would say and five months later it’s your wedding day and there you are wearing a white dress holding one red rose and he’s waiting for you in his parents’ yard, his forehead all broken out from the stress, wearing his skinny, black tie and black suspenders. You’re so young and the day is bright and perfect and the preacher says “Now take her hand in yours and look deep into her eyes” and you’re so embarrassed you almost squirm, hand-in-hand, and for a moment you’re a girl again, sitting at the table with your mother and father and everything’s as it should be because one day you will grow up and he will be there, just like your daddy when he gets up from the table and says it’s bedtime, time for little girls to be asleep, and he tucks you in, kisses you goodnight, and you dream of the one, of someday, when everything is as it should be. And it is.

***

Rebecca Cook was a Margaret Bridgman Scholar in Fiction at the 2009 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, has published poetry and prose in many literary journals, and has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Recent work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Southeast Review, Grist, Pank, Plume, JMWW, Stone Highway Review, The Cortland Review, 2nd and Church, Mayday Magazine, and Bitter Oleander. Poems in translation have appeared in the Romanian literary magazine Convorbiri Literare. Her chapbook of poems, The Terrible Baby, is available from Dancing Girl Press. She blogs at godlikepoet.com

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