A. J. Kandathil
The last time we sit on the hood of your car, you are jonesing for a cigarette. A 1989 Ford Tempo. That’s what you drove. It is humid and the air smells like hot tar and automobile exhaust. From the asphalt parking lot, we watch the track team run drills around the football stadium. School just let out, and horns beep. Whistles blow. The rusty fence in front of us jangles in the wind.
I know you want to smoke because you flip your Zippo open and shut. Like the valves of a heart, it opens and shuts. The top of it snaps back with the flick of your thumb. I know you won’t smoke in front of me because you never do. I know you. You are always honest. You love this place. You hate that I don’t. You’ll never speak of this conversation again after it’s over. It’s not your style.
Graduation is weeks away, and there’s talk of leaving town. We all dream of getting out and eluding the betrothed epitaph: “Born here. Lived here. Died here.” Some of us will escape it, and some of us will not. I have my ticket out; you’re not interested in buying one. I finally wrote you a letter yesterday, saying all the things we’ve never said. I told you it’s not too late. I placed it in the mail box. I raised the flag.
I hear the friction of a metal wheel scraping against flint. We watch the blue inner flame consume the air that would have held the ash of the cigarette you aren’t smoking, the breath of the words we aren’t speaking. If I am nothing more than a wick, I’ll turn to smoke at the strike of your match. But first, I’ll burn.
“I’ve been seeing someone,” you say. Open and shut. “I thought you should know.”
“How long?” I ask.
“About a month.” Open and shut.
“Who is she?”
“Can’t say. It’s a student teacher.”
A sharp whistle trills from the football field. My mouth is dry. I open it to speak, but you interrupt me.
“I know you don’t approve. Just promise me you’ll keep it a secret. Don’t say anything until we graduate. She could get in real trouble. Promise.”
You stare at me with tight lips, a tense brow. I realize you’re holding your breath. I feel sick. You have found your own way of moving on before it’s time.
“Promise me,” you say.
“Fine. I promise.”
You exhale. “Thank you.”
A soft wind passes and rattles through the fence gate. I lean back. You lean back. A plane passes overhead on its way to Pittsburgh. If anyone from above looks down on us, the soft eggshell of your car, bright as a clean piece of drawing paper, will stand out against the dark asphalt like a black and white frame from a movie reel. From above, they’d see us, leaning back on the hood of your car. Our outlines, side by side, will burn into the backs of their eyelids. After they pass and for the moments before the plane begins its descent into the Steel City, they’ll close their eyes and see an imprint of you and me and our empty-beer-bottle hearts, palms up, looking into the sky.
You say nothing about the letter I sent. I say nothing. You and I disassemble. You take your parts of us; I take mine.
A. J. Kandathil is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Hunter College, where she’s at work on her first memoir, entitled “BURN.” Her recent work can be seen in Issue 02 of Burner Magazine and the April 2011 issue of The Quotable.