Friday, February 1, 2013
Grandma’s house smelled like cats and cooked tomatoes. Cats because of the three pie plates filled with cat food that lived on her porch, and tomatoes because Grandma liked to can them. The resulting glass jars were tucked in every closet and unused corner of her house. Some in the bathroom cabinet.
I hadn’t wanted to come this summer. It was the last one before I graduated high school, and I’d wanted to go with my two best friends to the theatre camp I’d discovered online. I had taped the flyer to my parents’ bedroom door two months before the deadline. They still forgot. Maybe on purpose.
Nothing ever changed. I wished to God it would.
As I stood with my suitcase on Grandma’s tea-sipping porch unwilling to go inside the house, someone called my name. I held back, letting my parents scoot past me.
“Yeah? Who’s that?” I squinted into the sun and saw a gangly boy standing in the middle of the road. Red, Georgia clay coated his sneakers and the hem of his jeans. His light brown hair formed a curtain over his eyes.
“I come for a visit and my best friend don't even recognize me. Geez, Grace.” The voice was deeper, but the crooked smile was the same. An old force, the strength of a summer storm, whirled inside my chest.
Eight years ago, we’d eaten ice cream and lit sparklers on the Fourth of July. Seven years ago, we’d caught fireflies in the moonlight. His eyes held their light long after we’d set them free. Six years ago, he’d kissed me on my grandma’s porch right in front of a clutter of cats. We’d made a vow to marry each other if we didn’t find someone by college.
Then, he’d fallen off the face of the Earth. Or moved to Virginia where his dad opened a furniture store. Same difference.
“It’s Will now.” He brushed his hair aside. He still kept a spark of light tucked in the corner of each eye.
I left my suitcase on the porch and walked toward him. I smiled. “Billy.”
The sparks grew brighter.
Each morning, I rolled off the couch and stumbled over to the TV, taking care not to step on the small patch of floor the termites had claimed as their home. I sat in front of the box fan by the window, watching ancient sitcoms and eating my bowl of grits until Billy knocked on the door.
And each morning, Grandma stuffed two jars of tomatoes in my hand and said, “Give these to him. His nana isn’t doing too well, bless her heart, and his daddy is going crazy being away from that store of his. Mind me now.”
I didn’t know what Billy did with all those tomato jars. Probably kept them in corners.
Our favorite place to escape was the playground at the bottom of the hill. No one ever came there in the middle of summer. Sweat made your legs stick to the slides.
Billy didn’t fit in the playhouse anymore, so we sat on the wooden bridge between the swings and the monkey bars, sipping sweet tea from his thermos and watching the way our hands fit together.
After dark, we lay on the grass. I pointed out the constellations, giving them funny names like Buttercup the Bull because I loved his laugh. I also loved how the sleeves of his soft, faded t-shirts brushed against my bare arms every time he moved.
“My dad wants to sell the store,” he said one night. “Move here. For Nana.”
Anticipation and need worked its way around my body, speeding up my heart and twisting my stomach. “Yeah?”
“And…I was thinking of applying to Georgia University. You’re still going there, right?” But a different question hid in the creases on his forehead. One that was six years old.
I ran my fingertips across his cheek, touching my favorite freckles. A smile shivered onto his face, and I answered his unspoken words. “Ask me next summer.”
His eyes sparkled like a thousand fireflies. Their brilliance swallowed me whole.
On the Fourth of July, we sat with our families on the bank of the river. Everyone oohed and ahhed as the National Anthem played over the static-y radio, and the sky exploded. He pulled a box of sparklers and a white plastic lighter from a paper bag. We wrote our names in the air. He tacked “Duffy” onto the end of my name.
My heart pounded louder than the fireworks.
Nothing ever changed. I was glad it didn’t.
Billy’s Nana died the next day. I didn’t see him until the day of the funeral. That morning, I sat in my grandma’s house in front of the box fan staring at the blank TV. Grandma came in with four jars of canned tomatoes.
“Gracie Mae, you take these over to the Duffy’s. They’ll need something to serve all them guests this afternoon, and Billy’s daddy never learned how to cook. Mind me now.”
I stood at Billy’s front door, the heavy jars clacking together in my arms. He put the jars on a table just inside and led me to the porch swing. Billy opened his mouth, took in a breath, and then pinched his lips together. He did that seven times. I gripped the edges of the swing so hard, white paint flaked off into my hands.
Finally, his words poured out like a waterfall. “My dad and I are leaving for Virginia tomorrow. He said we’ve been gone from the store too long. He said there ain’t no reason to stay here.”
“What about next summer? College?” But those weren’t the questions I wanted to ask.
His shoulders, his face, his hands. They answered all of my questions. Even the silent ones. “I’ll be working full time in the store after graduation. Dad wants me to take over in a few years.”
“Oh.” It hurt to breathe.
A faint spark wiggled its way into the corner of his eyes. “There’s a school there. Old Dominion. Maybe you can…” He swallowed. The spark winked out.
We shared the last kiss in the world. It tasted like tears.
My family had gone to Georgia State for generations. He knew my parents would expect the same from me.
Because nothing ever changed.
I wished to God it would.
Photo by: Krystalyn