The song spraying from the speakers of his car was the kind born to be an elegy for August nights; its opening notes swept over my toes like the tide, and I let the words cool my sunburned cheeks. I didn’t know where we were going, and even though I hadn’t known him for longer than a few months, I trusted him when he said his surprise was worth leaving the lake early. The voice in the speakers sang softly: I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs. I unbuckled and turned my back to the window, but before I could pull my upper-half out into the rushing air of the still-hot summer evening, his hand gripped my calf. “What’re you doing? We’re going sixty!” his voice sounded panicked, but I could hear that familiar lilt of curiosity as his last word bounced around the front seat before being swept out the window. I’m a fool for that sound in your sighs. I tilted my head down to look at him, and I wondered why, suddenly, he was acting like a first-time parent. I thought of his laughter from the week before; I remembered it echoing, full bellied and stumbling, through the hazy glow of the bonfire between us. He had just made his way back down from the top of the radio towers lining the ridge, and the streams of praise from partygoers made his brown eyes, already ambered from the hungry flames of the fire, glow with pride. No one had ever made it to the top in the history of Krell Hill bonfires, but he moved quickly through the beams with a beer in one hand and a joint between his lips. I wondered where that Justin was tonight. “Justin, you’re acting like my mom,” I said, only half joking while I ignored his worry. “Turn it up!” The wind poured over my skin as I leaned out the window. All I could smell was the smoke from the grill that still clung to my hair, and an earthy breeze whispering at the back of my nose. The combination reminded me of an old pantry, in the farthest corner under a shelf of flour and sugar, the smell of chocolate chip cookies sneaking through the musty, bitter scent of damp wood and dried herbs. I closed my eyes for a second and lifted my arms up over my head, running my fingers through the wind as if sticking my hand into the smooth ripples of a lake from the safety of a boat. I thought of how closely flying feels to swimming, and I started to laugh. I’m a fool for your belly. I didn’t have to see his eyes to know he was watching the warm colors of the night soak into the smooth tan of my thighs, watching my shirt ride up the sides of my sunset-slaked stomach as I stretched even further out the window. He started laughing, too, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t know that laugh meant “I love you” and “Can we stay like this forever?” I’d be lying if I told you my laugh meant the same thing. I’m a fool for your love. I looked out toward the horizon as the song slowed; our laughter hidden beneath the gentle lyrics filling the car. The sun was setting like it was packing its bags at the end of a honeymoon—slowly pushing the week’s vibrant, memory laden clothes back down into the valleys of a suitcase somehow turned smaller than when it was unpacked on the very first night. Caught in this pool held in your eyes. I slipped back into my seat when I noticed the car slowing down. He turned onto a road hidden behind a cluster of over-grown apple trees and rambunctious weeds, and quietly drove us up a winding dirt path to a clearing that overlooked the city. He put the car in park and looked at me, his smile stretched so wide it was hard not to smile with him, and his hand reached out across the front seat to work gently at smoothing out my windblown hair. His fingers brushed up against my cheek as he tucked a few strands behind my ear, and I was thankful for my sunburn’s natural resemblance to reddening cheeks, so I didn’t have to feel guilty when mine didn’t burn at his touch. Caught like a fool without a line. “Come on,” he said as he turned the song up as loud as his speakers could go. “I put it on repeat.” We’re in a natural spring. I slid from the passenger seat, and my feet crunched into the dirt as I followed him around the front of the car to look out over the city below us. The sound of violins moved around our bodies, and the city lights looked like fireworks reflecting off the surface of a lake; maybe they just looked like stars. He pulled me close, and bathed in the soft yellow of his headlights, started rocking us slowly to the sounds that tickled the backs of our ears like a stolen breath. With this gentle sting between us. I looked up at him and tried to absorb every bit of that moment. The waves of his hair were falling over his forehead and brushing across his eyebrows, but they didn’t quite reach his eyelids. He looked down at me under a mess of thick eyelashes, his eyes brown like melted Hershey’s chocolate oozing from the sides of a fresh s’more. His cheeks were covered with scattered freckles that reminded me of chocolate chip ice cream, and I wanted to brush my lips across them, to taste every morning and every stolen moment, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I pulled back a little, and his hands dropped from my waist. Mm, but stay, don’t close your hands. The final cadences hung eerily in the air as we walked back to the car. Our pointer fingers were hooked together loosely, but our bodies were as far apart as they could be. I remember the car ride home more vividly than the moments above the city: a silence so alive it crawled into my pores and clung to the hairs on my arms. It was the only thing bridging the distance between us. He told me he loved me when he walked me to my front porch that night, and under the slow chill of the summer stars, I had to tell him I didn’t love him back. That was the last time I would ever be close enough to hear his heart beating in his throat, close enough to brush my lips across his cheeks, across his lips, but I’m glad I never did. The world is filled with people telling you that your first love is always the hardest, that this time in your life will help you navigate future relationships, but what about the first loves that aren’t people? Sometimes there isn’t a difference between the sea and the sky, but I never loved Justin Malley. I loved the August nights in eastern Washington that taught me how to live. Stay open.
Sierra O’Brien (she/her) is a recent graduate of Western Washington University's creative writing program, and is now living in St. Paul, Minnesota while she pursues writing full-time. Some of her work has previously been displayed in Spokane, Washington's Marmot Art Space, and can be found on Vocal Media. She's a cupcake enthusiast who loves Fight Club, the ocean, libraries, and sleeping in! Twitter and Instagram: @sierrraaaobrien.