At that moment I wanted to kiss Ben, even though he was my daughter’s boyfriend, even though he was twenty-three years younger than I was, and even though he was trying to dial 911 on his cell phone.
“Wait.” I covered the phone with my hand. We were in his Honda Civic, watching a small funnel cloud churn up a soybean field in the distance. The car was stalled in a flooded dip on a county-line road. Hailstones hammered the roof, then didn’t, as if someone above us had flipped a switch. “Let’s sit it out.” The twirling white thread of the twister was moving away from us, receding into its eggplant-colored cloud. Three years since my husband died. In all that time, I hadn’t wanted to look outside my vault of grief, let alone kiss anyone. Now I wanted to kiss Ben.
“We’ll miss the concert, Mrs. Keene.” Ben gripped the phone and seemed about to cry. He blamed himself for misjudging the water and inching the car into it.
I lowered my visor and looked in the mirror. My hair was frizzing and I began to doubt the new taupe eye shadow. When I flipped the visor back, I noticed the floor mats were oozing damp onto the rope soles of my red espadrilles.
Ben’s shoes were sturdier––polished black lace-ups––and he wore a slim charcoal-gray suit with a maroon tie. He smelled of lemon shampoo and hair gel, but underneath I detected spring garlic and hoisin sauce from his parents’ restaurant, The Superior Golden Dragon. He waited tables there while he worked toward his EE degree. He had been Claire’s boyfriend for a year.
“She’ll understand.” Claire was already in the city, at the symphony hall. She would perform that night with her high school orchestra––her last concert before graduation. Bach Violin Concerto in E Major. In three hours, she would stand at the edge of the stage in her pearl-white dress with the puffy skirt. She would dip her shoulder into the long, melancholy notes of the adagio, ever calm, eyes half-closed, honey-brown hair in silver barrettes, wrist fluid with the rise and fall of the bow. Right now she was probably tuning her violin and kidding around with her musician friends to keep them as calm as she was.
Ben looked at his phone. “911 will be crammed anyway,” he said.
It was crammed the night my husband died. In a storm much like this one. Not that Matt had been out in the storm. He had been riding his stationary bicycle in the basement. He had kissed me not ten minutes earlier. When I went back down there, he was sprawled on the floor with one foot still caught in a pedal strap.
Thunder rolled across the sky. I took Ben’s hand, as if the noise frightened me, a schoolgirl with an excuse to touch her date. “This reminds me of the night Matt died,” I said.
I had held my husband’s hand too, in the ambulance, after it finally showed up, after we were streaking our red-flash way through the green rain with the siren joining all the other sirens that night. Matt was already dead. “Probably before he hit the floor,” the medic said, trying to be kind. He had given up on resuscitation. Matt’s chest looked raw and bruised from the pumping and the paddles.
Another smattering of hail, then rain sluiced the Civic’s windshield, blurring the crop-rows around us, blurring the black sky to the north and the blue sky to the south. The windows misted and the air in the car grew thick with ozone, humidity, sadness.
“What I’d really like to do is kiss you,” I said.
Ben looked into his lap, as if in prayer. With the thumb of his free hand, he clicked the phone off. He bit his lower lip. I expected him to blush or try to save himself with a jokey remark, but he held this pose for a long time.
“What happened that night?” he asked.
“He was probably dead before he hit the floor,” I said.
Ben looked at me. The dark irises glittered but gave away nothing. He leaned in and barely touched my mouth with his, all spearmint toothpaste and uncertainty. I was a schoolgirl then, feeling the throat-catch of longing I had almost forgotten and the heartbeat that slows yet bangs harder, out loud, a cartoon heart breaking out of a cartoon chest. I’m afraid I put my hand inside his jacket and lined my fingers along his ribs. I’m afraid I pulled him into a harder kiss, or a more desperate one, or more embarrassing. A long time ago there were teeth-scraping, tongue-smashing, nose-flattening moments like this with Matt, but I had almost forgotten those too.
Through his shirt Ben’s skin felt damp, almost feverish. In the middle of the head-adjustment for the next kiss I remembered Claire. I remembered touching her forehead for fever. When she was three she had a close call––meningitis, ambulance, middle of the night. She was calm even then. She was calm after her father died too, or at least calm enough to spoon-feed me for the first three weeks to keep me alive.
Through the murk of the fogged windows and the thin shield of my lowered lids, came a pulse of red light. It seemed a bad joke on danger and I halfway laughed mid-kiss. We pulled apart a few seconds before the tap-tap-tap.
Ben lowered the window and there stood a stout man in rubber boots and a tan Highway Patrol uniform under a clear slicker. He bent down, pushed his cap back, and peered in.
“Everybody okay here?” he asked.
“Just stuck,” Ben answered, looking straight ahead. His lips were already puffy and his ears were pink.
If the man deciphered anything, he pretended not to. With lawman practicality, he hitched his belt and said, “I can get a tow truck here pretty quick.”
I leaned across Ben so I could see the patrolman. “Thank you,” I said, managing to flood my voice with relief. “We need to get to a concert.”
“Just sit tight,” he said. He went back to his car and turned off the flashing light. A handful of hailstones pattered our roof once again, mixed with static from his radio.
Ben’s phone had slipped to the floor. He reached down, somewhere near my foot, but he didn’t retrieve the phone. Instead he touched my ankle. Or, to be precise, he traced the side of his little finger in a circle around my anklebone. He ran his palm lightly up the back of my calf to the crook of my knee and let his fingertips, one at a time, press and release there in tiny pulses, like a coded message.
Later, at our seats in the dim symphony hall, during the adagio, Ben will reach over and take my hand, much as I took his in the car. Next to me, the mother of the first chair cello––I met her once at a potluck––will glance at us, frowning. We will not care.