His kisses taste bittersweet.
I watch him pour the white crystals onto the spoon hovering over the coffee, his technique such that none might escape their fate. Three heaping spoonfuls in every cup. I tease him sometimes about his future career as a diabetic, and he smiles, that toothy grin that makes me want to reach over, brush away the hair that had flopped in front of his eyes, and kiss him every time.
I can taste an undercurrent of tobacco and overtones of fruit along with a slightly burnt sweetened coffee echo of the hours we’d sat here, waiting out the rain accompanied by bottomless refills. Not that we have anywhere to be. Our town doesn’t have much to offer young people who aren’t interested in sports, we’ve already seen the movie that will be showing until next thursday, and since neither of us have a car to go and park like proper teenagers, the truck stop on the edge of town is where we inevitably end up.
I could almost feel the force of the indignation Iris gifts our arrival with, likely dismayed that we’ll not order much more than coffee and fries, and definitely not leave enough of a tip to justify our presence in her world.
It seems her world is one of people passing through. Truckers and transporters jovial and blatant in their harmless flirtation. Tourist families that sit close together in a booth at the back, grateful to be free of the car for a brief instant because it means the backseat bickering will abate for the duration of their meal. I wondered sometimes if Iris had a family of her own. Tried to imagine the wrong shade of pink thin lipped smile she never showed us bestowed on a husband, children.
I was in the middle of picturing a scene where she steps up to the dinner table to take her family’s order when he collapses in a gangly tangle of limbs and rainsoaked cotton next to me. He pushes the hood away from his face, his fingers carrying the acrid scent of the cigarette he’d just smoked through his soft blue black hair.
I tried to dye mine to match, but the blue black just turned it a dark mildew. He tried to be supportive, telling me how punk rock it looked, but he is a terrible liar. My mom shrieked her dismay in more or less the same tone and pitch she shrieks her excitement whenever my sister brings home yet another A. She’s learned to be satisfied with my C+ average, knowing that my plan is to drop out and run off to New York City to be an artist on my 18th birthday anyhow. She stopped sneakily stashing university pamphlets in my room when I was 13, after I started using them to make origami and leaving them in her purse. My sister says she’ll be sad when I’m gone, but I know that she doesn’t really care, it’s just what she’s supposed to say.
He pulls his phone from his pocket, laying it face down on the table before shrugging off his hoodie, using his teeth on the frayed cuffs to more easily slide his arms free. Hanging it to dry on the chair across from him, he throws a glancing smile at me, but it feels obligatory, and doesn’t reach his eyes.
I look at his phone, an unspoken question heavy in my mouth, reminding me of the time he poured an entire packet of sugar on my tongue and my tastebuds felt burned by the sweetness. Then, as now, I find it difficult to swallow, the sugar dissolving at a rate that made spitting it out unreasonable. If I say nothing, will the suspicion dissolve over time? Or will it stay in my guts, fed by insecurity, growing impossibly larger until eventually I choke on it?
I turned and look out the window, but there are no answers in the thick gray sky beyond the glass. I thought it funny how the bleakness of the rain soaked world somehow makes everything brighter by juxtaposition. A little girl’s shiny yellow slicker, the blue of a passing car, the red of the hawthorn berries growing in the abandoned lot across the highway.
I seem to recall hawthorn berries being bitter, but perfect for jam. Perhaps that’s just the way of the world. For every moment of happiness, there needs to crowd in a sense of despair to make sure that everything stays balanced.
I wonder what the weather is like in New York right now.
His phone starts to buzz, moving across the table anxiously until he grabs it and glances at the screen. He’s tilting it at an angle that makes it impossible for me to see who is calling without leaning over awkwardly. He jumps up and is heading out the door without his sweater, into the rain, finger swiping acceptance. The furrow between his eyes alarms me.
Iris sidles over to the table, refills our cups, the black liquid swirling dangerously close to overfull, her practiced hand tilting at the last moment. She stands there, until I look up at her.
“You’re nearly 18? Due to graduate this year?”
I don’t bother to explain my plan to leave before that happens, nodding instead. It seems simpler.
“My daughter would be 18 this year too. She was a joyful little thing. You remind me of her, when you smile. Every time you walk in here, it hurts my heart just a little bit. I’m glad you’re seeing it through, so many people opt out. Your mother must be proud.”
She turns away, her orthopaedic shoes squeaking on the linoleum. Before I have a chance to fully register her words, he comes back in and drops heavily onto the chair beside me, phone clutched tight in his hand, face pale. I’m wondering if he overheard what she said, but no.
“That was my doctor. I have diabetes.”