I sit on the counter of the gas station, sneakers tucked up neatly to avoid the racks of chocolate bars and lollipops, with a textbook balanced on my knees.
"You have to get down if a customer comes in," says Ophelia, poking my leg.
"Yes, ma'am," I say, not looking up, focusing instead on deciphering the illustrations depicting plant reproduction.
She shoves my shoulder. "There's no point in you being here if you won't talk to me. Go home if you want to study."
I snap the book shut and look up at her. "Is that so? My presence isn't enough?"
"When you're quiet, you might as well be anyone else," she teases, catching eye contact. I hold it for as long as I can before dropping my head. I still get nervous when I meet her eyes.
She's just so beautiful. No matter how I try to describe her, to draw her down to simple words, I can't do her justice. She has black hair but it's not enough to say that it curls around her face like smoke. She has dark eyes, but I couldn't say what color they are exactly because the way they make my stomach dance is so intense I can't hold her gaze long enough to find out. I could try and explain the color of her skin and the shapes created by the freckles on her cheeks and nose, but it would never be enough. The tattoos of flowers on her arms, the sun on her face, the way I could listen to her talk for hours. It all exists somewhere outside of language. My desire is so intense that it makes me want to run from her but pulls me back like gravity. Nothing could ever be enough. Not kisses or her fingers on my skin. I'd only want more. She is like water in a drought.
But she will never know. She has Jack and when one loves someone as much as I love her, they know that sometimes it is best to let the love burn itself out before the fire gets out of control and burns other lives down with it. So, I love her from afar, even when I'm right next to her.
"I have to finish this chapter," I tell her. "I have a lab on Monday."
"That's two whole days away," she says. "That's basically a hundred years. I'm sure you can find some other time. I'm so bored."
Rain pours down outside, and it has been over an hour since the last patron pulled into the gas station. He didn't even come inside, just filled up his car at the pump and left, tires screeching over the wet asphalt.
"A hundred years, huh?" I look down the alleys of candy and chips and out the window. With the heavy sheets of rain pounding down just past the pumps and pouring in heavy streams from the canopy overhead, the road and the fields beyond it, blurred by the rain, suddenly seem fragile. As though the rest of the world has begun to wash away, and Ophelia and I are existing in a liminal space, away from the rain but still affected by it. The only thing concrete is the gas station, the corner of my textbook digging into my leg, and Ophelia standing there behind the cash register. We are momentarily frozen in time.
"Is something wrong?" she asks. "You're so quiet today."
She wears a bright red shirt with the station's logo of sun and moon ("Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!") with her name tag pinned right below. The material is stiff, and she tugs at the collar.
I shrug my shoulders. "There's a lot on my mind."
It is torture being so close to her but still being unable to reach out. Jack makes her happy and she loves him. There isn't space in her heart for me and it would be selfish to ask her to make room. I can't ruin this. I can't lose my friend.
She tilts her head, her ponytail slipping over her shoulders. "Tell me about it."
"I can't really find the words."
I'm sure I will have other loves than this one, but now, with the rain splashing down outside, shielding us like a curtain from everything beyond us, I feel rawer than an open wound.
"Is something wrong?"
I shake my head. "Not really. This weather is just bringing me down."
She casts her eyes out the window. "It really is coming down out there. Spring showers like this usually only last a little while but, man, it's been hours."
An idea sparks inside me that pushes the gloom to the side.
"You should close the store," I say suddenly, a smile slipping onto my lips. "Let's go outside."
"I can't close the store." She furrows her brow. "We're supposed to be always open. What if someone pulls up?"
"Then you go reopen it." I look up at her from my position on the counter, opening my eyes wide to create a dramatic, pleading look.
"If the owner comes by and I get in trouble-"
"I will take the fall. Cross my heart."
She rolls her eyes. "Fine but only for a few minutes. I don't want to get soaked."
"Thank you, my queen," I tease, swinging my legs over the counter and sliding off, leaving the textbook behind. Ophelia pulls the red uniform over her head, baring the black tank top underneath and revealing the tattoos of twin angels beneath her collarbones. The black and grey shading is so smooth and precise that they seem to be resting on her skin, rather than part of it.
"What?" she asks, noticing my lingering eyes.
"Your tattoos," I say. "No matter how many times I see them, I can't get over how clean they are."
She brushes her fingers over the angels. "My parents hate this more than the flowers. They think they make me look cheap."
"Remind them that money doesn't buy happiness. Besides, it's too late now. It's already on your skin."
"Sometimes I get scared by how permanent my tattoos are," she says. "It sort of reminds me how much life I'm supposed to have left."
"I know how that feels." I have script tattooed on my ribs and I know that feeling. I can only pray that the words I found so beautiful at eighteen still sound beautiful at fifty.
But as permanent as this liminal space feels, the rain could slow at any moment, so I push open the door and am hit by the smell of rain hitting wet pavement. Ophelia flips the open sign on the door to the side that reads Closed for cleaning! and reaches up to release her hair from its ponytail. She looks freer now, with her hair blowing in the gentle wind and her bare arms raised above her head to stretch out the hours spent behind the till. We pause together under the canopy, looking at the curtain of water just beyond.
"We're going to get so cold," she says. "And absolutely soaked."
I laugh. "Worried you'll melt?"
"You're stupid." And she pushes out of the safety of the canopy and out into the rain. She splashes through the puddles, arms outstretched, and face split with joy and tipped up to the heavens. Watching her spin, droplets running down her cheeks and flying from her hair, feels almost religious. I forget it was my idea to go out here and just want to watch her. But then she's reaching for me and dragging me out into her spin. The rain is warm, and she is laughing, and I am laughing, and everything is beautiful. The gas station is gone and now the rain is our infinity. We dance together, kicking arcs of water from the puddles, laughing and twirling, our fingers slipping apart and then finding each other again.
Above us, the clouds part just enough to let the sun through. The rain doesn't stop. Instead, it turns to gold.