We are always running out of time. Like oil in our hands, it slips between our fingertips, spilling at our feet. The stain will haunt us forever, as we regret what we should have done with our time. How we should have spent our time in better ways. Sometimes, we love too late. If I had five more minutes, maybe she wouldn’t be out of my life forever. Perhaps if I stepped away from my distractions, maybe I wouldn't be living with my parents at thirty years old.
I thought about these things as I lit a cigarette at my bedroom window. Humid, hot air from the southern California sun reeked downwind of the Salton sea. The stench made me gag, as I took my first dreg. The black smoke filled my lungs with its bitter sting, filling my chest. As I exhaled the smoke, a few books from my shelf fell onto the ground. The clamor made me jump, at first, but I figured it was probably Nala chasing after a moth again. But I was wrong. I turned around to see my nephew, Jacob, digging through the bookshelf. His shocked eyes were a wide electric green, his dishwater colored hair sticking up on end. He was three days away from turning ten, standing in a button down and slacks twice his size.
I sighed and shook my head, “What are you doing in here, bud?”
“Sorry, Uncle Willie.” He said, “I wanted to look at your books…. I'll fix it.”
“No, it’s okay. It happens!” I ditched my cigarette out into the bushes below, “I’ve been needing to clean that thing out anyways. What’d you find in there?”
“That cigarette is bad for you.” he said in a bold tone, as we put books back on each shelf, “It’s going to make your lungs black.”
Jacob was a weird little kid just like I was. He was raised on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings by my sister Luna, who was named after the classic Harry Potter character. She recently cut off the padawan braid I helped him grow because he was getting “weird looks” at school. It shocked me as he held up a worn out collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In another hand, he held several Polaroids, with the back facing me.
“Where did you get that?” I asked in a stern voice, “Jacob, that’s a personal book. Why did you look through it?”
“B-because-” Jacob stammered as I swiped the photographs from his hands, “I didn’t know-”
The pages were aged, but still smelled like her. Like hairspray, her sweet perfume, in a time capsule from happier days. My hand ran across the spine, as I placed the photographs carefully back inside. A dried rose was pressed into the cover page. I sighed, as Jacob froze before me.
“She’s really pretty.” He said, “The girl in those pictures. What’s her name?”
“She was my girlfriend. This was from a very long time ago, bud. I’m sorry for fussing at you, but these pictures aren’t appropriate, alright?” My voice felt like gravel.
The boy nodded, and watched as I leaned over the book, sitting on my bed. He sat beside me, swinging his legs on the edge.
“I promise not to tell about the cigarette if you promise not to tell mom about the pictures,” he suggested.
“... Are you bargaining with me?” I snorted. He nodded proudly.
“Where did you learn to be such a hustler, huh?” I asked, ruffling his hair. Jacob giggled.
“From you!” He beamed proudly.
I sighed and smiled, “Well, you’ve got yourself a deal. Why aren’t you partying out there anyways? Aren’t you excited for your baby sister?”
Commotion from outside grew louder as a game of musical chairs began. I heard my mom cackling the hardest, and imagined her knocking someone out of a chair with her iron hip.
Jacob leaned on my arm and shook his head, “No, I don’t want to be out there. It’s girly and boring. And they don’t make as much time for me anymore.”
Hearing those words made my heart sink.
“But they have ice cream cake.” I reminded him.
“... You’re right.” Jacob said, “Five more minutes?”
“Five more minutes.”
My hand slipped through the photographs, one by one, and my heart was full at the sight of her face again in my life. Nina’s smile was like no other, framed by dimples and her curly brown hair. Her cherry red lips were full and plush. A pink blush formed across her round cheeks, matching the hibiscus in her hair. She made me take this photograph on our first date, looking like a cover girl from an old Hollywood magazine. And there I was beside her… Riddled with cystic acne, my brown hair wet with sweat. There was a considerable amount of sweat beneath the armpits of my button down. We had gone out dancing, it felt like forever ago. I got tipsy and my glasses were crooked over my eyes, and my stupid crooked smile hung like an old wire hanger. I cringed at myself, laughing in disgust. How did she ever love a man like me? We met passing by one another at college, and like a fool I asked her if she liked jazz. She said yes, and took me to one of the greatest Jazz houses in the Inland Empire. I stepped on her feet at least three times that night, but she didn’t say a thing.
Jacob was with me, so I set the naughtier photographs in the back of the book for later. My thumb traced through the pages, as I found one marked up with a highlighter-
“Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
We had many wild nights, I remembered, like the wild cherry lipstick print on that page. Just as when she kissed me on the fourth of July.
“Will!” Nina’s voice called to me, “”Will,s top!” An explosion of red and gold light shimmered overhead, followed by an ear thudding boom. I chased after her, my feet slipping around in the wet grass. She looked back at me, her long hair flowing like ribbons over her shoulder. The skirt of her scarlet dress flowed behind her, as she held her sandals in one hand. My footsteps gained a higher speed behind her, as we ran by the light of fireworks exploding overhead. The sprinklers suddenly cut on again. She shrieked with laughter, as we made our way towards shelter at an empty gazebo.
This pocket of the park was practically empty as everyone watched the show. Nina slowed to a trot as she stepped onto the concrete pavement. Shimmering champagne fireworks fizzled as background dancers for their louder leads. I caught her in my arms and squeezed her tight, which made her giggle. She turned around and kissed me, and I sighed as her sticky lip gloss stuck to my lips. Notes of black currant and sweet roses filled the air around her long neck, as I leaned in to kiss it over and over again. A small, poorly concealed hickey decorated her throat.
“God, you look beautiful tonight.” I said, “How am I so lucky?”
She smiled at me, “You bet your ass, baby.”
Pops of blue and red decorated her tan face. I held her cheek in my hand, rubbing up to her ear. We heard music in the distance, and with the way she looked, I pulled away a moment and stood up on the picnic table.
“What the hell are you doing?” She laughed. I offered my hand to her.
“Dance with me.” I requested, “It’s not often that I find a pretty girl to dance with.”
She looked down at her body, “Oh, so you think that’ll hold up the both of us? You’re hilarious.”
I took her hand with a jerk, as she stumbled up to me, “Yes, I believe so.”
I can’t remember exactly what song it was that was playing. I was so enthralled by her presence, nothing seemed to matter. She rested her head on my shoulder, her hands in mine, our heat pressed together. The buzz from her mom’s tequila was slowly wearing off, as I swayed gently in the breeze to meet her steps. Fireworks soon ceased, even when the music stopped, we kept dancing. Crickets replaced the silence around us, their strange melody a rhythm of our time together.
For that moment I was the happiest with her. She moved so gracefully, in my arms. But it was clear there was something on her mind, as she looked up at me. Her eyes looked glassy in the dark as she said to me.
“I wish we could just run away.”
“And where would we go?” I asked.
“Paris.” She said, “We can go to Paris. Let’s go all over Europe together. The base language is Spanish, right?”
I shrugged, “You said it, not me. I haven’t even been outside of California. Besides, the french hate us.”
“Eh, maybe. But who cares? They think they’re better than everyone else. We could make it by doing odd jobs all over Europe.”
“Eh…. What else?” I teased.
“We can go to Hawaii. I miss my family there on the big island.”
I pinched my face into a scowl.
“What?” Nina laughed, “Why that face?”
“Sand.” I muttered, “I don’t like sand. It’s all coarse, rough, and irritating. And it gets everywhere.”
Nina rolled her eyes, “Okay, Anakin Skywalker.”
I kissed her forehead, “Why can’t we just stay here? It’s no eighth wonder of the world, but it’s home.”
“Because there’s so many beautiful things I want to share with the man that I love.” She said, “And it’s you. I love you, William.”
Those three words were the start of our downfall. She smiled, saying them to me, but in response to my silent shock, her happiness faded.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, “What did you say?”
“I said I love you.” Nina replied, laughing nervously.
Suddenly, the moment felt lost to me at the mention of love. I pulled away from her, shaking my head.
“I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, Nina.” I said, “We’ve only known each other for like what, three months?”
She stood there before me, putting her hands behind her back. I sat down and removed my glasses, to squeeze a headache out of my nose bridge. I swear she looked like she was about to cry, sitting beside me.
“My parents married three days after they met.” Nina said, “And they’ve been together for thirty years.”
“My parents only got married because my mom was pregnant with me.” I muttered bitterly, “And they hate each other.”
“I’m not your parents.” She stammered, “And you aren’t mine, and that’s okay. But love, love has no timeline-”
“Are you serious right now?” I laughed, “Do you have any idea what you sound like? You have no idea what love is!”
Any other girl would have been running for the hills at that point. Maybe she should have, so she could’ve spent more time traveling the last two months of our relationship than wasting her breath on me. Instead of yelling at me, or arguing, she did the exact opposite. She squeezed my hand, forcing me to look her in the face.
“I know it takes patience.” She said, “And I’m willing to work with that. How about…. Adore? Is that a good word for you?”
“.... Yeah, that’s perfect.”
“Then...I adore you, William.”
“I adore you, Nina.”
Her phone began buzzing with text messages from her mother, and she groaned loudly, “Shoot. I’m fifteen minutes past my curfew. I should get going.”
“Screw their curfew.” I teased, pulling her into my lap. She giggled happily as I kissed her neck.
“I can’t!” Nina whined, “They’re going to be pissed like last time.”
“Come on, darling…” I begged, my hands wrapping around her nimble waist, “I don’t want to leave you in a sour mood. Five more minutes?”
“.... Fine.” She sighed, giving into my affection, “Five more minutes.”
It was rocky after that, keeping her at arm’s length. It wasn’t because I hated her. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever been with. But I was up in my head for so long, I pushed her away. And by the time I tried to make things right, it was too late. And all that was left of her in my possession was this poetry book she read from. I tried to call her, to see if she could pick it up, but she blocked my number.
My mother burst into my bedroom without a knock. Her grey hair was pulled back by a worn out scrunchie, sweat began to bead on her pale forehead and fogging her glasses.
“Where the hell have you been?!” She asked, almost breathless.
Her usual antics got on my nerves, “Oh! We were just having some guy time in the man cave, per Jacob’s request.”
Jacob held up my graphic novel version of Dracula, “Look, nana!”
She immediately brightened, “Wow!!! That’s Dracula! Don’t you think he’s scary?”
Jacob shook his head no, “I like him. He’s cool!”
“Well.” She sighed, “Stater brothers messed up and the cake still hasn’t come in. They have it ready, but someone needs to go pick it up.”
I pursed my lips and grabbed my keys, “And by someone, you mean me, right?”
She nodded and ushered me out, “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“Fine.” I muttered, “Be right back.”
It was like my mom to send me out at the hottest point in the day, in a car where the air conditioning is broken and my clothes are glued to my skin from sweat. I muttered curses against her the entire thirty minutes, wondering why my dad couldn’t get off the couch for once and do it himself, as I soared over the parking lot speed bumps. Stater brothers was crowded with summer bodies, though a walk through the frozen isle was enough to soothe me. There was a line of three people ahead of me, with numbers in hand for their orders. According to the online receipt in my hand, mine was #322. A pulse of irritation came over me as #324 received their order before me.
As I began to scroll through zillow for an apartment in town, a familiar voice caught my attention. My heart stopped a moment, as the dulcet tone soothed my ears. All the metal concerts I had ever attended were in no comparison to the sweet music of her voice. She was speaking Spanish, as I peered over my shoulder to find her there.
The clocks had slowed around me, as I saw her there. Nina looked as if she hasn't aged a day since the break up. Her long hair was now cut above her shoulders, and a glow came from within her that felt like staring at the sun. A cornflower blue gown adorned her figure, as she reached for a few baguettes from the basket. She smiled and cooed softly at a smaller head of dark brown hair sitting in the basket seat. The baby was holding onto a bag of hamburger buns, squishing them beneath her banded hands. I had never seen her so happy until this moment. Before, I fantasized about seeing her again, wondering what I could say to her, to show her how much she still meant to me. As the words stuck to my throat, another man came up from behind and stuck a pack of ice cream on her neck. He was a tall, broad shouldered, and handsome Latino man, wearing a button down and slacks. She let out a small yelp, jumping as the man laughed happily. Their baby laughed as well, happily tapping her hands against the metal bar. Nina scowled playfully as her husband kissed her cheek, and they moved forward. I made an attempt to wave, and smile a bit. She was kind enough not to ignore me, but returned a hello, before moving forward. The girl I had loved was long gone now, and seeing Nina happy was a catharsis for me, as she walked on. Her husband wrapped a protective arm around her waist, and she leaned on his shoulder.
“Order number three twenty two!”
I looked back to the front counter, raising the receipt, “Here, I’m #322!”