Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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The First Necessary Heartbreak

The writer’s conference is a camp for grownups, a thing Lily is not yet, but her presence is tolerated since her mother is a famous poet engaged to teach a workshop, and her father a journalist stationed in Alexandria, a port city north of Cairo famous for its destroyed library where last month another American journalist—someone her father claims not to have known—was killed in a violent protest. Lily doesn’t know the details because he is careful not to share them during their Wednesday morning Skype chats. He’s safe, he says. He’ll come home soon, he says, like he always does.

While her father documents Egypt’s troubled democracy, Lily is toted to this medieval stronghold of a college in the wooded mountains of a southern state, herself toting little more than boredom and summer reading books, which grow fat with humidity. Last summer, while her father was in Syria with the BBC, she was toted to a cluster of cabins in a northern wood. The year before, it was a beach where her father spent three days before leaving for Malawi. That was the last time Lily remembers wearing a swimsuit without worrying over her thighs, which have recently begun to round and firm, taking on a womanly shape without her permission.

Lily can be toted places because she is fifteen, slight, a year away from a four-wheeled independence, and because she is an obedient, agreeable girl. Most of her power comes from living out her vigorous youth, steadily growing into the beauty she knows she will become because she looks so much like her mother’s old pictures.

Among the many lessons her parents have imparted is that everything comes down to dominance or its lack—nature abhors equality the same way it abhors a vacuum. For now, her mother is still beautiful, and for now, Lily is less so, but her mother plucks white from her mahogany hair each morning, and her jowls have begun to sag, though Lily would never tell her. Her parents have also taught her to practice kindness whenever possible, and she tries.


To compensate for this year’s smallish stipends, workshop leaders are invited to campus a week before their eager students, a gesture billed as half vacation, half writing retreat. On the first quiet mountain morning, Lily explores the grounds, waves to a young mother corralling twin boys across a quad, reads Madame Bovary until she falls asleep in the sun, and wakes on her bench to a sky so bluely radiant she thinks at first she’s fallen into another dream.

Later, walking to the dining hall, fellow writers frequently stop to hug her mother and tell Lily the last time they saw her she was knee-high to a grasshopper, or still growing out of her baby fat, or just the cutest thing this side of the Mississippi. Again and again, they ask, “And what about you, honey? Do you write, too?”

Her mother answers for her. “Lil has eggs in lots of baskets,” she says, prattling on about the swim team, piano, volunteering at the library, her excellent, uniform grades.

Lily does not say that she has begun to keep a notebook of small, insignificant observations, like the way her mother’s fountain of curly hair sets her off like quotation marks, or how her nickname is a homonym to lil’, a synonym for less than. After dinner she will turn to a new page in her royal blue journal and write: “They are grackles, throating false cries, blackening the ground in a rush to display all their prettiest feathers.”


The second morning, at breakfast, Lily and her mother share a table with a young writer famous for his futuristic short stories, his wife Deanna—her hair an enviable shade of honey, the woman from the quad, a rail-thin playwright, and a wizened, shawl-wrapped woman Lily recognizes, a rock star insofar as poets can be. The writer of futuristic stories shakes her mother’s hand with both of his. He admires her work, he says, it’s an honor, just an honor. Lily’s mother says he is sweet to say so. She says his reputation precedes him, which means she’s being kind.

Lily sets down her plate. Pokes at her egg. It was foolish to hope the summer would be free of entanglements, but there’s always at least one new hangdog suitor. They bother Lily more than her mother, who says moving people toward love is the point of all she’s done. The writer of futuristic stories would be an oddity in her mother’s long line of failed admirers, though. The young, married father of young boys points now with his fork to the book by Lily’s plate. “What do you think?” he asks. His eyes are greenish gray. His chin glints with stubble.

Lily swallows some pineapple, its acid searing her tongue. “It’s fat,” she says, trying to recall what she’s scrawled in her notebook. “Every sentence is big, flowery. It’s a whole world.”

Between them, his wife feeds the twins wet chunks of watermelon. “It’s the pivot,” he says, leaning close. “Interiority. Female agency. Sex. That book broke fiction wide open.”

On the cover: Emma Bovary, bored and beautiful. “I feel bad for Charles,” Lily says.

“Really?” The writer of futuristic stories looks up from sawing at a dry slab of ham. “I feel worse for Emma. Charles is a blind fool. He only sees what he wants to see.”

“I guess,” Lily says, sitting up now, forgetting to eat. “But doesn’t everyone do that? She married him. Doesn’t he have a right to think she loves him?”

“That’s the question,” the writer says, “isn’t it? What does marriage really mean aside from its symbolic power? Charles had choices, but Emma couldn’t go to school, get a job.”

“Sweetie, please,” says the writer’s wife, brushing a curd of scrambled egg from her jeans where his fork, flourished for emphasis, had flung it. Lily feels chastened, too, sinking back against her chair, embarrassed that his wife had become unreal between them—insubstantial—as the little boys tried their best to digest her, slurping her fingers with their morning fruit.

The writer of futuristic stories dabs at his wife’s leg with his napkin. “I get carried away,” he says, a blush rising in his cheeks, and Lily feels something rise in her as well, a creeping heat that makes it hard to breathe. Across the table, Lily’s mother watches as if she can sense that Lily is suddenly alive from hair root to misshapen baby toenails. Her mother, charismatic wielder of sound and feeling, the woman who once told her, weeping and drunk after a fight with her father, that no one could be blamed for anything done in the service of love, raises her glass of juice as if to make a toast. Lily raises hers as well, sips in solidarity. Then she turns back to the writer of futuristic stories. “My mom says ‘passion is the artist’s fruit.’ Wrote it, I mean. In her last book.”

He sits back and watches her from that new distance. “That’s right,” he says. “She did.”

Lily picks up her fork. Thrumming, thrumming, thrumming.


After breakfast, Lily is somehow drafted to help install the twins in a black double stroller, the Batmobile of prams. Deanna, the wife of the writer of futuristic stories, thanks her profusely.

“We were here last summer, too,” Deanna says, muscled legs brisk behind the wheels as the group of them stroll out into the sun. “Breakfast is fine, but dinners are mystery-meat casseroles. I’m a vegetarian, so I lost thirteen pounds in two weeks.”

The boys in the black contraption gabble a continuous stream of nonsense. “I’m shooting for another dozen this time,” Deanna says, peering at Lily through sunglasses.

“No way. You’re perfect,” Lily says, though Deanna just looks like an adult, someone who, like Charles Bovary, believes there is virtue in duty and forgiveness. Her teenage self is almost visible in her thirty-something body, like Venus de Milo returned to her marble block.

“Here we are,” Deanna says, stopping by a cottage across the campus from Lily’s.

After shaking hands with the playwright, the wizened poet, and Lily’s mother, the writer of futuristic stories at last comes to his wife. When he touches the small of her back, Lily sees something in the woman’s shoulders visibly let go, her grip loosening on the stroller’s handle.

The writer snags the book tucked under Lily’s arm, opening it to her tassled bookmark. “You’re at the apricots,” he says, and hands it back. “Wonderful. The best is yet to come.”

She takes the book, thinks of trees split down the middle with lightning. Power lines severed and fizzing. “I know,” she says. “My mother told me about the carriage scene.”

While Deanna bends to retrieve a pacifier, the writer rocks slightly forward and back. “I envy you,” he says, “reading it for the first time. Don’t skim it, now. Don’t you dare.”


The Wednesday before the students arrive, Lily and her mother sit in front of a laptop at their kitchen table crossing their fingers until her father’s call rings through from his dark flat in Egypt. “It’s killingly hot,” he says. The food, though, is to die for.

“Dad,” Lily says, “do you get the Sox out there?” When she was a kid, they’d take the T from Brookline, pay for same-day cheap seats, and stuff themselves on ballpark franks a dozen times a summer. Besides one game with her uncle last year—a miserable, rainy slug-fest against the Orioles who somehow managed to win—she hasn’t seen a live game in years.

“I can get anything I want on the Internet,” he says, clearly trying not to yawn.

“Right,” Lily says, pushing her chair back from his lagging face. “Anything you want.”

“Lil,” she hears him say as she’s tripping to her tiny bedroom. “You know I don’t want to be anywhere but home.” Both parents call for her to come back, but she is scrawling into her notebook, over and over, the story is bigger than I am—the closest her father ever comes to apologizing every time he leaves to watch another corner of the world crumble to dust.

“Sweet dreams, love,” Lily hears her mother say, followed by the sound of a kiss.


In three days, the campus will fill with writers emerging, established, and aspiring. A contingent will follow her mother from classroom to meals to readings to wine-soaked receptions Lily cannot attend. Every year, a man, or sometimes a woman, follows her mother with particular fervor, begging for scraps, prostrate at her feet. As far as Lily knows, her mother has never strayed, and usually Lily enjoys her would-be-lovers’ inevitable tail-tucked retreat.

But she doesn’t want it to happen to the writer of futuristic stories. He doesn’t know that her mother feeds on love like a hummingbird on nectar, dipping her thin beak while the rest of her hovers safely out of reach.

For these few days, while her mother writes, Lily tours the empty buildings, floors cool beneath bare feet. One afternoon, she follows the breadcrumb squeals of the tiny twins to a fountain where the writer of futuristic stories splashes with his sons in the chlorinated blue.

Deanna lies on a faded blue towel nearby, but props herself up when Lily sits down. “What would you be doing if you weren’t here right now?” the woman asks.

Lily watches the writer play with the boys, wet to the elbows of his blue, plaid shirt. “Wondering what my mom was doing here,” she says without hesitation. “What about you?”

“We have a walnut-colored Arabian. Ginger,” she says. “Thursdays are my day to ride.”

Lily blushes. She’d expected her to say laundry, or grocery shopping, to be grateful the writer of futuristic stories had taken her somewhere far away from the treadmill of her life. “I’ve never ridden a horse,” Lily says, digging her fingers down among the grass roots into dirt.

“Neither has he,” Deanna says, staring at the writer of futuristic stories, her lips twisted into a half smile. “People think he’s done so much. His books, you know. But he’s always in a classroom. That’s where we met. He was my Comp TA, and I thought he knew everything.”

Too much time goes by before Lily asks, “And did he?”

Deanna pushes herself up to sit with her legs in front of her like a girl. The way Lily is sitting. “Sure, he’s very bright,” Deanna says, staring at the broad spread of her husband’s back.

“I have to meet my mom,” Lily says, to free herself from this patch of lawn.

Deanna squints up into the sun to look at Lily who is standing now. “It’s nice that you’re close. I tortured my mother when I was your age.”

“My dad says she’s too nice. To strangers and stuff. She needs us to look out for her.”

Deanna turns back to her family. “She’s lucky then, that you turned out so sweet.”

Besides Deanna and the twins, there are other spouses and kids on campus. The one closest to Lily in age is a boy who bends over textbooks, scribbling into a notebook at the picnic table by his cottage. Lily waves whenever she passes. He is two years younger, give or take.

After leaving Deanna and the writer of futuristic stories, Lily hikes to an overlook, loses the path, panics, finds the trail again, and makes it to dinner on time, wasted fear melting sweetly in her gut. The next morning, she walks to the reservoir and finds the textbook boy swimming.

She’s learned he’s the son of the Japanese novelist and her sculptor husband who smokes floral cloves in the yard next door. The boy’s name is Hiro.

“Mind if I join you?” she asks, a request that seems, to her own ears, overly formal—a poor man’s Audrey Hepburn. He makes no sound. She strips to her suit, walking in until she can float. Hiro swims in silent circles, sneaking peeks that redden his cheeks. He’s so short and shy that his fourteen years seem like ten. After a few more silent minutes, Hiro leaves her floating.


One day before the students arrive, Lily finds the writer of futuristic stories on the pond’s gritty beach when she splashes back onto shore. Hiro has already come and gone.

“I thought you fell asleep out there,” says the writer as Lily stands over him, dripping, arms folded under breasts in their pink triangles of fabric, blocking his sun. Her mother bought his new book from the campus store, and Lily had turned to his author page last night. “Think of it, just over twice your age,” Lily’s mother had said, voice brimming with wonder.

“I’m used to the ocean,” Lily says. “There are no waves here. No horizon. It’s weird.”

He shakes out her towel before stepping close to drape it over her shoulders. Fingers there, then gone. Smelling of shaving cream, bug spray, sweat. This is being alone with someone, she thinks, a beautiful paradox. She imagines the classroom where Deanna sat, gaze uptilted, one face among many. As if without her permission, Lily’s own chin lifts slightly, an offering, but he seems to wake and steps back, half-turning away while she secures the towel.

Now he recites from her mother’s second book, published the year after Lily was born: “In her hand / ocean’s blue fades / before her fingers’ pink. / Her touch the world’s command.”

“I read your book, too,” she says, though she’s only skimmed the first page of every story. Kids clone themselves for fun. Machine guns gain sentience. In the last one, a fissure opens in the earth and someone erects a Club Med over it.

“Don’t tell me what you think,” he says. “I never read my reviews.”

She’d planned to say her mother thought it was smart and funny, but empty in some essential way, then say she’d missed the point. Lily says nothing instead. She would like to ask him question after question. Why does he own a horse he never rides? What made him fall in love with Deanna? How can he be so wrong—too old, too taken, too taken with her mother—and still bring to her mouth a cranberry tautness, a readiness to make all kinds of mistakes?

They walk through low brush to the path that leads in one direction back to campus and deeper up the mountainside in the other. I’m right here, she thinks at him. We’re both right here.

“I didn’t mean to stop,” he says. “Hiro said he saw you. I have something for your mom.”

Lily tightens her towel, throat tight. Of course, of course. “I can pass it on,” she says

“Here. It’s just a thumb drive. Some music. Did you know she’s never heard Bon Iver?”

Lily shakes her head, queasy from the odor of pond water drying on her skin. All the way back to the cottage, her mother’s lines ring in her head. “It’s natural to want / to be wanted.” From her first book, The Myth of Eve, the one about the affair her father had just before Lily was born. Because it won a major award, it’s the one her mother’s admirers know best, and treasure.


Saturday, the students arrive, filling mountain air with the chirping of automatic locks. Lucky devotees who snag chairs at her mother’s table during the first full-company dinner beam at Lily. “Such a pleasure to finally meet you,” they say, because they have seen her chalky fetus shape in “My Dear Hitchhiker,” and watched her chip her tooth in “Porcelain.” They held her hand on the first day of school, “mossy as something decayed.”

Across the room, the writer of futuristic stories is similarly besieged, leaving Deanna alone in this crowd, too. Another paradox. Juggling the boys, Deanna catches her eye and winks.

That first night of the real conference, just after her mother leaves for the post-reading reception, a knock sounds on Lily’s door. She opens it, heart a jackrabbit, to find Hiro Tanaka shifting foot to foot on her porch. “Our TV died. Can I watch something with you?” he asks.

“I’m watching Downton Abbey,” she says. “Do you mind?” It’s a rerun to boot.

He shrugs.

She steps aside so he can slide past her, then they take up opposite ends of the couch.

“Sybil’s my favorite,” she says, as Branson tells the youngest Crawley to choose between everything she knows and all she thinks she wants. She’d been eating from a bag of Smartfood, and every now and then holds it out to Hiro so he can take a handful. When the show ends, neither of them want to watch Charlie Rose, so Lily turns off the TV.

“I think the house came with Connect Four, if you want to play,” she says, mostly to fill the silence, but it’s touching to see the way his whole face turns to smile when he says “sure.” She takes the blue disks while Hiro takes red. Toward the end of their third game, footsteps and laughter sound on the porch. “Connect four!” he says as she goes to peer out the window.

“Isn’t this sweet,” Hiro’s mother says, following Lily’s mother into the cottage and letting her hands settle on her son’s thin shoulders. Behind the women come Hiro’s father, the writer of futuristic stories, and Deanna, clutching a walkie-talkie—no, a baby monitor receiver—bleary as if she’d just been snatched from sleep.

“Say goodnight to your friend, Hiro,” says the boy’s mother, and Lily ducks beneath the woman’s beaming gaze, following Hiro out onto the porch, away from the sudden cacophony inside. When he reaches for her, she wonders if he is braver than she thought, but instead of pulling her close, he shakes her hand, firmly.

“Goodnight,” she says, flinching from the moth courting her porch light.

She lowers herself to the top step, watching Hiro melt into the night until the screen door squeaks itself open and the writer of futuristic stories settles into one of the creaky rockers.

She can’t help but turn to him, sitting almost at his feet as he bends into an orange flame to light a smoke. Maybe he’s like all the others, helpless before her mother’s radiance, but as her mother herself might say, “two-faced Janus is the one true god; / change his truest doctrine.”

“Boring reception?” she asks. Inside, she hears laughter, the snapping of shuffled cards.

“No worse than usual.” He jerks his chin toward Hiro’s cabin. “You two have fun?”

Inside, Lily’s mother is pouring from a new bottle of wine. Lily thinks of a phrase for her notebook: I have been the architect of my own night. She studies the stars like spilled sugar.

“Hiro’s a nice kid,” she says.

“That’s not so common,” the writer says, dropping his foot to the floor to lean close. “Most grown men—well, you won’t find many nice ones.”

Close enough to smell the whiskey musk that cloaks him, he leans even closer to grind his cigarette into a saucer by her wrist, and then—quickly, like the only part of a dream she’ll remember on waking—slides his hand up her neck to grip her jaw, not entirely gently. He says her name quietly, that double flick of the tongue. Then, just as quickly, he’s back to rocking, hands in his lap, and she is counting the breaths, twenty-two, before her mother spills onto the porch, swaying toward them in the semi-dark. “M&M poker,” her mother says, drunk but not sloppy, working her necklace like a rosary. “Are you two in?”

Inside, Deanna waves with the hand not holding her wine, seeming unconcerned as if young girls sat on darkened porches with her husband daily. Except, Lily thinks, maybe they do. Maybe Lily is like one of her mother’s admirers, falling and falling with nowhere to land.

“I’m exhausted,” Lily says, retreating to her bedroom, her notebook, her heady dreams.


In the morning, Hiro knocks again. Lily sets down Emma Bovary’s terrible, convulsive decline as his hands dance impatiently on the railing. “I found something,” he says. Her mother is reading manuscripts. Lily calls through the screen to say she’ll see her at dinner.

Hiro is short and slight, but tireless. He leads her past the reservoir, higher up the mountainside than she has been, showing no signs of stopping even when she lags behind, even when pricker bushes ladder their legs with scratches, even when she loses sight of his thrashing progress. She is parched when she finally spots him bending over a bush with green, almond-shaped leaves, pinching light blue berries into his upturned hat.

“Are they safe?” she asks between long sips of air.

“Here,” he says, handing her a silver water bottle, warm but wonderful, which runs in rivulets down her neck. He wipes the rim with his sleeve before drinking. It’s hard to believe she was like him once. A serious child going about serious tasks. She doesn’t know when things changed, but it was nothing she asked for. If she could go back to the place where Hiro lives, smack between magic and possibility, she’d waste no time.

“How did you find this place?” she asks. The clearing is far from the established path.

“Exploring,” he says, and Lily has to bite her cheek at his matter-of-fact tone. Exploring, for no reason besides the joy of discovery. Of course. When had she quit exploring just for fun?

After they’ve rested, he shows her the berry’s star-shaped bottom and the ripe ones’ distinctive bluish gray, picking them by cupping a bunch and rubbing until ready ones fall and unripe cling. She likes the hint of his parents’ accent neatly clipping the edges of his words. They rinse half a dozen in his warm water and their sweetness on her tongue is startling.

He produces two sandwich bags from a pocket, and fills one for her. She tumbles the berries around in their plastic, loving the feel of their taut skins rolling like marbles between her fingers. The woods are kinder on the way back, full of sun and shadow. It’s not until they are back on campus, pausing to scan the dinner crowd, that Hiro stands on tiptoe to kiss her quickly.

“I like you,” he says through purple lips.

She realizes that Hiro has secured a place for himself in her story. Her first kiss, quick as it was. The first feeling, fleeting, is anger. She’d been saving it. Denying others, patient, waiting. Then comes a squirming sort of pity. “Hiro . . . ” she begins, but he lifts a hand to point at her mother running awkwardly across the midday lawn, long skirt whipping behind.

“Mama?” she whispers, leaving him.

“Where have you been?” her mother asks, breathless. “It’s on the news.” Then Lily knows to run with her back to the cottage, air sawing at her throat, where they listen to the BBC describe a massacre at the Republican Guard Barracks in Cairo during dawn prayers. A Welsh journalist on site claims the military fired on the crowd. “Snipers,” her mother says, twisting a thin paper towel around one finger. “God damn your father.”

“He’s in Alexandria,” Lily says. “He’s not in Cairo, Mom.” But in all likelihood, he ran toward the danger, not away. In all likelihood, he was in the crowd. In all likelihood, her mother has kissed the writer of futuristic stories, at least that, and even if Lily did, now he wouldn’t be her first. In all likelihood, her father will call two days from now, tired and gaunt but safe and alive, right on schedule. Her mother Skypes him now, but it just rings and rings and rings.


On Wednesday, Lily and her mother sit on the porch, laptop humming nearby. Lily appeals to logic. Either her father will call, or he won’t. Either he will survive this to keep chasing war and pestilence across the globe, or he will—what, give it up to cover dog shows and peewee football at the local Trivial Times? Either her parents will run out of ways to punish each other for sins real and imagined, or they’ll be endlessly inventive because it’s all they know.

When Hiro wanders over, Lily asks him to tell her everything he knows about plants. He does this, filling the yawning silence, because he still likes her, even after she told him yesterday that she needed him to stay a friend. It was hard to say, but necessary. Kinder than pretending.

“The urushiol in poison ivy oil lasts years on gardening gloves,” Hiro says.

Lily watches the screensaver hollow into a funnel, then surge into a mountain, then twist into a slinky, silvery tornado, reversing its fortunes again and again.

Hiro says, “Bamboo grows really fast. Sometimes a meter a day.”

Lily’s mother drops her head into her hands. It is ten minutes past the usual time.

“Strawberries are the only fruit,” Hiro says, “that bear seeds on the outside.”

When at last the Skype rings through, the background is light instead of dark. The window is uncurtained, Lily’s father is dressed in white. A hospital johnny.

“Oh God,” Lily’s mother says. Hiro clings to the banister, sinking into silence.

“Everything’s fine,” Lily’s father says. His head has been shaved beneath the bandage. “It just grazed me. I was the luckiest guy in the crowd.”

“Come home,” her mother says, an expert at speaking through tears. “Now, now, now.”

“I fly out tomorrow,” he says, “but the story was worth it. Just wait until you read it.”


Their last night in the mountains, Lily accompanies her mother—manic as she’s been since the call, relieved, enraged, violently in love—to the final evening reading. Tonight the writer of futuristic stories reads of a city where everyone’s lives depend on lines unspooling before them like the London Underground. When people are sick, lines lead them to the doctor. Cancers are caught early. Anxiety is a thing of the past. But when the mapmaker dies without an heir, some people are hit by busses or starve ten feet from cupboards full of food. Some become guides, leading terrified citizens through the rest of their tangled lives. Some retrace the lines they’ve left behind, reliving the past. The rest flee in droves, drunk on adventure, and die by the dozens, mad with a freedom they’d never known to seek.

After the reading, Deanna asks for Lily’s help with the boys. “I would, but—” Lily says, nodding to her mother in conversation a few feet away, just getting to her father’s thirty-seven stitches.

“Go, help,” Lily’s mother says, overhearing, turning back to her rapt listeners: “It’s like she’s the mother sometimes.”

So Lily carries Donnie while Deanna takes Darryl, depositing the boys in a Graco crib. At the door, Deanna gathers her lovely hair and pins it up with a blue Bic. “Stay? I have wine.”

“I’m pretty tired,” Lily says, though the opposite is true. She is too alive to stay.

“Okay then. Thanks for your help,” Deanna says, closing the door but not before Lily sees her face unpin itself and sag away from her bones. Shouldn’t she have known, sitting in her husband’s long-ago classroom, that others would fall for him, too? Isn’t it unfair to make all of this Lily’s fault? Still, she almost falters, stays safely away. She almost does, but doesn’t.


The receptions are held in a grand white house with a wraparound porch ringed by green hedges. Peeking around an oak’s thick trunk, Lily spots her mother through a living room window, students swarming her like fruit flies. Gesturing, her mother’s hand glints with rings.

The writer of futuristic stories sits on the porch, chair tipped against the outer wall. When he looks her way, she steps into his line of vision, then rounds the corner of the house and flattens her back against the shingles. As she’d hoped, he follows.

“Is Dee okay? The boys? Your father?” he asks, scotch adhering to his drawl.

“Everyone’s fine,” she says, wishing she could bat Deanna’s name from the air.

“Your mother’s inside. I’ll grab her—”

“No, don’t,” she says, reaching out, catching his wrist. “It’s just, time’s almost up. I just thought—” She doesn’t need much. Just to know she’s not imagining all of it. And maybe her second kiss. She’s young, there are complications, but if he has wanted her, that’s something. “I just wanted to see—”

“For yourself,” the writer says, shedding her hand to muss his own hair. “I get it. Kids always know more than we think. Well, I’m sorry about all of it now, of course, what with your dad. Not my place, maybe, but don’t be too hard on her. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. She’s a beautiful woman, brilliant, and—”

Numbness is setting in from the ankles up when she interrupts, forgets about being kind. “Please, stop. I shouldn’t have come,” she says, recalling the sweaty heft of his son on her shoulder and the cottage where his wife waits and waits and will keep waiting, his wife who Lily knows now must have seen this a hundred times before, this familiar trap, the dizzy fall. Could it be that Deanna’s sadness was for Lily, not herself? She almost feels like laughing. Who better than the wife of the writer of futuristic stories to see how this would play out?

“Oh, now I see.” The writer leans against the wall, his shoulder pressing hers. He looks up where a pair of lights reveal a cloud of gnats like summer snow. “I’m writing about you and the Tanaka boy,” he says, “only he’s called Hugo in the story. You’re scientists in an active volcano, field testing high-heat wetsuits. I’ll send it to you when it’s done, if you want.”

Lily swallows against the bitter film coating her tongue. “A volcano,” she says.

The writer reaches for her at last, blindly, one hand against her back, drawing her roughly against him, whispering heat into her ear. “You know, that kid’s going to spend his whole cursed life looking for another girl like you. You never forget the first one to break your heart.”

“It’s not what you think,” she says, remembering the wasted kiss. She wishes it never happened so she could deny everything the writer thinks he knows about the future.

He releases her and she stumbles back, watching him return to the party and her mother, who will still be the most beautiful woman in any given room for a long time to come. Lily watches him go, then walks home through the dark woods, inventing punishments for writers who believe in clichés as tired as broken hearts.  end  

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