by Eric Scot Tryon
The closet was dark except for the bit of yellow light spilling under the door like water. Even through the music and laughter, I could hear her breathing. Kimberly Whitlock. The bottle had landed on us for seven minutes in Heaven. Empty hangers and shoulders of winter jackets poked the back of my head, and I thought about how much oxygen was in the closet. How fast it would take two people to breathe it all up. When I shifted my weight, my left foot touched her right one. She wore red Vans—the checkerboard slip-on kind—and I thought that was so cool. A girl wearing Vans.
“Six minutes!” they yelled.
We still hadn’t said a word. She hadn’t even moved. But I could hear her. Like when people try to be quiet, sometimes they’re actually louder. I shifted my weight again. We listened to the rest of the party argue over radio stations and last slices of pizza, grateful for their noise. I shifted a third time and banged the back of my head against one of the hangers. It squeaked as it swung back and forth on the wooden rod.
“We don’t have to kiss,” I blurted. I didn’t plan it, but seven minutes was a long time to be quiet in a closet with another person.
“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was soft in the smallness of the space. Not like at school, where she talked like she had already conquered the sixth grade and was doing it all over again just for fun.
I had never kissed anyone on the lips except my mom and one time my grandma, the Christmas when she told everyone over and over that this was going to be her last Christmas, but she’s still alive and that was two Christmases ago. But my first real kiss shouldn’t be in the McConnell’s basement closet where the clothes smelled like wet cardboard.
“Are you gonna tell people we did?” Kimberly asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Hey, three more minutes you love birds,” someone yelled. “Yeah, but save the last minute for getting your clothes back on!” someone else yelled, and they all laughed as if that was the funniest thing they ever heard.
And then she sat down. I didn’t know what that meant, but I did too. We both sat cross-legged, and our knees touched. I still couldn’t see much of her face, and not just because it was dark, but now we were sitting in a sea of jacket bottoms, zippers, and ratty old sleeves, dirty and warped from the snow.
“You can tell people we kissed,” she said. “But that’s all. My cousin got a reputation at school, and she said reputations are like ghosts. Once they decide to haunt you, there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have older cousins. I just had my kid-sister Ellie who did nothing but watch Nickelodeon.
“So you can say that we kissed,” she continued. “I know your friends will tease you if you don’t.” I tried to push a puffy jacket sleeve out of the way to see her face, but it kept swinging back in between us. It reminded me of confession, where you can barely see the person you’re talking to. “You can even say that we used tongue. But just a little, not a lot. Okay? Don’t make it gross.”
“I won’t,” I said, but my stupid voice barely came out. I tried again. “I won’t. I promise.”
“I like you, and I would probably kiss you, but I don’t want do that stuff yet. My dad kisses lots of girls, and he’s miserable. Like, what’s the point, you know?”
I didn’t know. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my parents kiss. Not even when my dad left for his long trip to Los Angeles. They said goodbye with a nod, called each other by their first names, and off he went.
I felt like I should say something. She had done nearly all the talking, and now it was my turn. But who was this girl with red Vans, a cousin with reputations and a dad who kissed lots of girls?
I opened my mouth to tell her that I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say that we kissed. It wasn’t fair to her, and I didn’t want my first kiss to be a phantom kiss anyway. But just as I opened my mouth to say it, I heard the rest of the party counting down. We had forty-nine seconds left. They were shouting numbers and increasing in speed. When they got to twenty-six, it was Kimberly who spoke.
“Ok, stand up.” And we did.
We looked at each other. Not in the eyes, but we looked at each other’s lips. In the dark of the closet her lips looked almost black.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I wasn’t even sure what for. For all that would happen if I said we kissed? For all that would happen if I said we didn’t? For her cousin? Her dad?
And then the door swung open and the light swallowed us whole.
Photo credit: Janko Ferlič