Choosing to Hurt

By: Jessica Sutter

He leaves his shoes on the doorstep. Size twelve and a half, wearing through the toes and curling with wrinkles of use. He stopped working at the orchard in November, but red Oklahoma mud still caulks the crevices and holes, stains the laces. I stare at the pile of scuffed rubber, a testimony of the time that’s melted and seeped across the seasons without seeing him here. The last time these shoes walked up to my door, they were nearly brand new, and so were we.

“Hey.” He coughs nervously and loops his thumbs in his pockets once he’s inside. I close the house to the shivery heat.

“It’s been a while.” My words are thin droops that ring in our ears and leave ripples of unspoken understanding.

“Yeah. It has.”

The silence is loud and mocking. Stupidstupidstupid. This wasn’t a good idea. I bite my lip until it hurts. I partway open my mouth, though there are no words waiting behind it. I risk a glance at his face for the first time.

Oh. The sky hasn’t known the color of blue in James Henrison’s eyes.

He turns away. My heart is shattered glass. Sweat trickles down my neck behind my culy hair and the seconds count themselves as they tick away on the clock behind me.

“If I knew you’d be this excited to come over, I’d of asked you a long time ago,” I joke.

One side of his mouth lifts up in a grin that makes the glass pieces inside me ache.

“If I knew you had such exciting plans, I would’ve been dying for the invitation.”

“Oh, I know you would.” I laugh sarcastically, feeling the knots release their nervous grip in my stomach.

“Let’s go for a drive.”

His car smells like it always did-- old upholstery, rain, and cigarettes. When he’s this close I can smell him, too, though I can never put my finger on what about it gives me that feeling. Like a nosedive on a rollercoaster. It makes me forget things. Important things I have to remember, like Evan.

I turn and watch him. Stoplight, brake, green light, gearshift. He’s driving barefoot, like he always did. I smile. The old habit reminds me of the James I used to know. The boy who never said I love you, but held me like he did.

“I’m bad for you,” he says. Out of the blue, matter of fact. “We’re just in such different places right now.”

He always told me that. “I like you. That’s not the problem here.”

“I know.” My voice is soothing honey. No expectations, no pressure. Just the way he likes it.

I think for a moment to gather my words.

“When I’m what’s important to you, you won’t hurt me. I trust that.”

“But you are what’s important to me!” He’s agitated now, indicision taking center stage. It’s never as simple as caring or wanting. There’s always a catch.

I twist my fingers in my lap. I think about Evan. He’s important, too. I hold onto the thought before James’s next words blow it into the wind, where it won’t matter anymore. It’s starting to storm outside. A strange, humid chill finds its way into the car. Rain taps the windows and fogs the glass. The sky is grey, the exact shade of Evan’s eyes. I let out a shaky breath.

“So be honest. How do you feel about me?”

He’s given me the bait, and he doesn’t even know it. This is the question I can’t lie about. I take it as a sign and spill my guts.

“Honestly? You make me crazy. I’m with you, and I forget everything, I hate being close to you. I’m dying just to hold your hand, anything.”

He lets out a groaning, humorless laugh. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not?” I’m pushing it, but it’s too late. I’m done waiting. “It’s just...I don’t know.”

“Okay.” The patient acceptance is back in my voice, but the tension in this tiny space is suffocating. The radio scratches out a song in the thick air. It has the kind of lyrics that make me wonder if he thinks of me when he listens to it.

“Where do we go from here?” Those blue, blue eyes are locked on mine, and my words catch in my throat. He was wrong; we aren’t in different places at all. He’s with me now, close enough to touch, burning at my heart.

“Kiss me.”

I’ve scared him. He exhales slowly. “Don’t say that,” he says again, but softer. He doesn’t mean it. Seconds pass. I’m suspended in midair, trying to figure out if I jumped too soon.

“I’m tired of driving,” he says, pulling over to a parking lot. As soon as we’ve stopped, it’s last summer all over again. Time isn’t running straight, I can’t think. His mouth is familiar after all these months, but different somehow. Because of Evan. The memory of him is distant now. James kisses me like he’s starving for it, desperate and almost frantic. But his thumb is gentle as it rubs against my cheek, close to my mouth, holding me there. I wouldn’t pull away for anything.

I can feel our heartbeats jumping out of our skin. I’m breathless, in that strange way you get when something you’ve been longing for is finally real.

He’s shaking as he pulls back, and I realize he’s holding my hand. He never did that last summer. I brush my lips against his sandpaper cheek.

Guilt is delayed a few more seconds before it hits me smack on the head. I just cheated on Evan. Seven months, my personal record, shattered in minutes. I lean against James’s shoulder, look up at his perfect face. I’ve realized what it is-- he smells like secrets. The delicious, dangerous kind you want to keep private. The kind that brings people together, or tears them apart.