Story by Natalie Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes
I feel paralyzed. I know that I’m not, but I feel it. My motion wavers—sometimes I can catch the feeling of being underwater, extra pressure against my limbs as I try to move forward, staring ahead at murky seaweed, unable to move out of its way.
The first time, I died. I was two years old. I don’t remember it. My mother pulled me up out of a neighbor’s pool just as I blacked out. The neighbor, an EMT, was home thank God and brought me back, but if the neighbor hadn’t been home, she would have lost me, my mother tells me, shaking now as she did then, not relieved as much as remembering her fear.
The second time, I almost died. Jumping from my dresser to my bed, the curtain cord I used as a rope caught around my throat and knocked the life almost all the way out of me, so close it seemed to be left only in my fingertips and the ends of my hair and the deepest part of my heart, the last to lose warmth like the smallest closet in the house when the electricity goes off in winter.
That one I remember. I fell out of life and onto carpet, flailing in water, urine soaking my pants as my brain sucked the last oxygen it could get from my blood.
Now, I am mostly okay. They say you lose brain cells every time something like that happens, but I was mostly above average in school. Sometimes I tease my mom and say that maybe if those things hadn’t happened, I would be a genius, but I don’t joke like that unless I am angry.
I only listen to pop music right now. I bathe in all the summer hits, letting each beat shiver my fingers on the steering wheel. I cling to these songs, a renewed youth, I say, of being single again at twenty-seven. Single again not as a teenager when it is tragic and formative, but single again as an adult when it is tragic and you are fully formed, so it is just chipping off chunks of stone from a complete statue.
If you must be single again, June is an excellent time for it. The pool is open the longest hours—you can mourn as you sunburn—and you can throw your energetic bursts into running or tennis or beachside yoga. A January single will leave you heavier, but a June single will leave you lighter, a few extra chunks of marble on the floor around your base.
I am sunburned, and my legs will not move off of my bed. I try to will them to the floor, but they fall listlessly and I follow them. Now, I am no longer single and sobbing in bed; I am single and sobbing on my bedside rug, realizing how many crumbs are in it for the first time. My fingers trace a pebble—I think it is a Cocoa Krispie. If I was hungry, I would eat it, but I am not that hungry and, I tell myself, not that desperate.
I flick it away between my fingers and hear it land somewhere in my closet. My whole body sags back to the carpet, a liquid spilling into it. I float on the carpet, letting my legs rest where they want to.
She was never right for me, just an optimistic hope that I would be ready for her. I am sitting upright at a booth in a coffee shop. If we were here together, we would have loved having the booth; they are hard to get.
Now it is just one of me, and I have the booth to myself. Normally I would feel self-conscious as the other people circle around me with their mugs, trying to squeeze four at a table for two, but today I am triumphant, light without her weight, light with my own determination. This will be my new best life. June is an excellent time to be single again.
Two hours in and my bookmark has only inched along. Actually, inching is too liberal for what bookmarks do—an inching bookmark would be a feat. My bookmark has paged along from the pages too early to have numbers to a section with Roman numerals. I can’t even make it to the regularly numbered pages.
My book drops beside me. I feel lighter than my book at this moment. Where my book is weighted to the table, I am free, tethered only by gravity and a job and some family out in the suburbs.
I feel the lightness of June accelerated by the caffeine, and I prepare to take off. A group of five is searching the room, and I can no longer sit in pride at my booth. I have crossed from moon-gravity lightness to outer-space nothing. It pulls me away from my seat. I try to feel euphoric as I rise. I am going—I am rising—I am light.
But I am also scared. I have no tethers and space is only sixty miles up.
December, Six Months Later
I have forgotten I was ever sunburned. The sunburn was the least scorching part of my June. My weight is back to normal. I was too light and then too heavy, and now I am back. Of course, the holidays will knock that up a bit, but I will be normal, even in that.
The coffeeshop is remodeling. They only have one booth left, and it is dominated by a girl with a single cup of black coffee and a tiny laptop the size of a paperback. I circle the coffeeshop once before I work up the courage. To share a table is no big deal, but to share a booth is a statement.
I ask. She responds. I sit and pull out my book. Then I realize that my drink is ready. Now I must leave the booth and come back. We are more intimate already than I have been with anyone in six months. Sharing a booth is the most personal thing in the world, aside from sharing a kiss or a mausoleum. We share no kisses, but I do wonder about her work.
She wonders about my book; I know she must. But I focus on my coffee and I read.
My booth is invaded. He asked, and I couldn’t say no. I am normal now, and maybe this is a normal thing to do. I shuffle my feet below the table to make room for his legs. We sit across, but not directly. He eyes my computer. I read the title of his book.
Twenty Minutes Later
She puts her feet on the seat next to me, the toes of her shoes barely visible on the bench, like the paws of a small animal getting ready to peek up at me. I smile and flip the page. My smile retracts in case I am being watched. She doesn’t notice and continues clacking. Her feet weigh down the padding of the booth bench, and I like the sink of the pillow with her feet there.
I am light in the presence of strangers, even in sharing a booth. I am working fast today. It feels good to fly through each task, like a gliding bird watching the land fly beneath him, who feels as though the world as it turns is doing all of the work.
June Again, Six Months Later
We are heavy with love in all the ways that make children cringe, mainly the children near the water who watch us as we read on the shore. We read together every day after work. Yesterday we watched the sun set behind the buildings, and now we are watching it add freckles to his skin as he bobs his head to music, the two of us in a world of our own.
We are light with love in all the ways that make adults uncomfortable, mostly the adults who use this bike path, who stare at our backs as they approach and turn to watch us as they pass. I see the runners dart their eyes away from her as she rolls to a new side on the blanket. We watch her skin burn slowly in the afternoon sun as she spills her hair around her, creating tendrils of shadow on her shoulders.
He takes me for dinner tonight. We are going to a new place; we have walked past it a million times, and he finally made reservations. I learn later that the restaurant requires reservations nearly four months in advance. He made them the first time I mentioned it. We will eat pig face and cornichons and soak up crème anglaise with wafers of heavenly cake.
It weighs down my pocket like an anchor to the ground, even as we walk from the car. I pray that I will not drop it in the food when I pull it out, that no one will really be watching, and that only her delight will turn heads.
I see it before he finishes pulling it out of his pocket. I am scared—more than I ever thought—but I do not hesitate, and my gasp draws the attention of the older couple next to us. They take our picture and pay for our meal. I walk home incomparably happy with the weight on my finger.
I have forgotten my June sunburn once again. Later, I will see the picture that the old couple took, and I will remember the sunburn. But mostly I will remember the sun.