By Ian Johnson
They refused to pin their love wholly on the arrival of spring, as they didn’t consider their love to be seasonal, but neither would they dismiss the seasons entirely. As it began, the weather was an accordion, drifting in and out between what had been dormant and what promised to stir, the tiny icicles of the dawn melting into the sun-simmered streams of late afternoon, the frozen bark on monochromatic branches beginning to pimple with the promise of fresh green buds. You could still read on the porch at 4:30, even if you shivered and lit a fire before dinner.
They had passed the winter alone, drinking Lemon Ginger and Tension Tamer teas, staring at their smeared reflections in icy windows in under-heated apartments, childhood blankets draped over their shoulders, feeling heavy beneath the navel but light at the crown, cozily nursing the raptures and ruptures of the year before, gazing backwards, not ahead, each unaware of the other across town. But when the glass thawed and the windows cracked open, when the woods began to tinkle and drip and the treetops began to sing, when going outside warmed their cheeks instead of stinging them red, when the motherly spring approved of it, both felt ready to share themselves again with the world they had for the darker months turned away from.
A technological apparatus and its algorithms, lazy and unnatural, prompted their union, but that was easily forgotten. Their first conversation in breathing proximity was in a cafe. Almost as soon as they were recited, he and she similarly forgot the optimistic biographical sketches they painted for each other, the do you like and what’s your favorite lines of inquiry they both fell back on. Sipping warm tea brewed with fresh leaves, their legs losing circulation, they wished time would speed up and hoped it would never yield to the clock another tick. There were so many ways they were like so many other first dates, yet something kept them in their seats in the little cafe on Liberty Ave long after the spoken conversation dried up, long after those who’d amusingly, adoringly and then annoyingly listened in snapped shut their computers and moved away. They stayed until the message was clear: they would leave the door unlocked for the other, the porch light on, the welcome mat laid out, a bowl of hot broth on the stove. The calendar said it was spring, but there were really only two seasons, in love and out of it.
Afterwards, they hugged goodbye, leaning forward at the waist, straight-legged, like two sides of a bridge embracing over a river raging with run-off, and felt assured of what ran underneath. They had, in their first few hours together, assumed joint custody of something amorphous and fragile, something amorous and pink, a gift of the Earth’s tilt, something which threatened to crack, was supposed to spill, but only when ripe. Both were a little unsure of what to do, but felt sure they would eventually do it, because they’d done it before and would do it again. They hugged goodbye a second time and walked back to their homes that now seemed empty without the other.
A few dates later — after a movie during which they’d rested their hands on separate armrests, a movie that neither could remember enough of to discuss when it was over; and after a dinner which saw them suffer through several long bouts of silence, only mildly awkward, the silence, it was just that their mutual delight at feeling so intimately thawed was thick enough to be intermittently suffocating; when the subliminal intimation could proceed no further, he presented her with a gift, a small box tied up with a red bow. She set the box on her lap and pulled it loose, collapsing the knot, then shimmied off the string. She ran her hand across the bare top, to clear it of invisible pixels of dust, then lifted the lid. Inside was a kiss, the chocolate kind wrapped in silver foil, with a note: Redeem soon, please.
Their dates were official, but they weren’t officially dating, not really, and neither was sure how everything, if anything, would fall into place. Whatever it was, it was over before it began. Both knew it and accepted it, which was why it could start in the first place, because it was already finishing. What made the summer bearable was knowing that fall would follow. Both preferred it that way, the looming loss defining the current gain, and with this comfort in mind and in heart they assumed a more definite shape and color, occupied firmer dimensions and started to carry mass and weight.
Their first kiss, the first one with lips, was shared on a bench in a small park. They were talking and staring at each other’s mouths while they talked – neither can remember what about – long enough to confirm what needed to be confirmed, and then they were kissing. Her lips were colder than he’d expected, but not in a bad way – the verdant canopy above them simply didn’t filter much sunlight. When he moved his tongue to meet hers, she pressed her mouth shut and giggled. She didn’t know why she did this, but she didn’t pull away either, and there was extra rotation at the hips towards the other, and when they kissed again it was more coordinated, and everything warmed up.
Before it was anything else, the sex that eventually followed was a relief and a reminder. The dark winter had almost convinced them it would never happen again. All their parts worked, and fit well with their counterparts and, by the end, were working at high speed and with plenty of satisfying operating noises. Both were smiling, or trying not to smile and failing.
In the weeks that followed, words were used for coordination purposes, and for harmless comments about an ice cream shop or an exhibit through a window, and little else, for whatever had arisen between them could not be supported with words, could only be destroyed by using the wrong ones. They feared words would affect their shapes and colors, which they’d waited so long to see and admire. There was sweat and heat and long nights where their preferred activity didn’t require anything verbal and despite the heights at midnight the whole thing always felt a little sad.
But the end would come regardless of their restraint, and so to avoid the inevitable destruction they would prematurely self-destruct. As summer faded they met again at the park, and sat on the bench that had hosted their first kiss. A single leaf had fallen. He noticed the yellowing edges, the way both sides curled in, as if it was trying to give itself a hug. He rolled the stem between his fingers and the blade danced. He could hear the crunch of the leaf without stepping on it.
She was crying and felt silly for crying, but he was crying, too, and the tears validated something. Too much affection too soon was suspect, but tears at the end were proof. It justified the summer on some higher plane. She wanted to store his tears in the little box he’d given her, so that if she needed to remember him she could dip a pinkie in it and rub his tears on her wrists and neck. They were crying, too, for all that they hadn’t permitted themselves to be.
The sun was hanging low in the sky like a neighbor who can’t quite see over the fence. The wood of the bench was cold and prickly beneath their thighs. It would be an early winter, and the winter would be frigid and lonely, but on the other side of winter was spring, and maybe spring, with a fresh medley of shapes and colors, would come early, too.
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Ian Johnson is the author of the memoir The Bounce and the Echo – Dying to love a game (ATM Publishing, 2019), and the forthcoming novel The Commencement Version (Brandylane Publishers, 2024), as well a number of short stories and essays. He teaches middle school English in Richmond, VA.