Sitting at the kitchen table. Rain pockmarked the peeling windowsill, a constant drip and spatter on the screen. The air was warm but damp, all windows lifted, and the front door wedged open with an old tin pie plate filled with colorful road stones.
Mom and Ruth cutting vegetables by the sink: carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage. Water slowly boiling on the stove, a strong smell of pepper and garlic. The big Sunday meal, when everyone was home and visitors might drop by later for coffee and apple cake. Grandpa snoring in the living room, Dad sitting on the porch couch with a bottle of Black Label, listening to the radio, but paying more attention to the rain collect in shimmery brown puddles. Summers had been dry for a long while, and a good rainfall or a dozen were always welcome. Lazy Sunday.
Ruth had been eyeballing me all afternoon, like I was a fly buzzing in front of her. Irritation in her eyes. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I sat in my bedroom for a while, listening to voices drift from downstairs, no words, just the sound of voices, quiet back-and-forth slow conversations. I thought of Ruth, her body pressed against me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know what it meant. Was this how girls played when they got to a certain age? Was she testing me, seeing if I was strong enough to resist all her temptations?She grabbed me, twirled me around like a rodeo calf, and then pressed into me so hard that I thought I discovered the secret of everything. And then this, treating me like a fly she wanted to swat. But she didn’t say anything, not to me, not to my parents. She kept quiet about it, and that must have been a hard thing to do. I wanted to yell it out to anyone who was listening, but mortified that if I did, it would be the death of me. Horse-whipped because of my accidental meeting up with desire. I couldn’t figure it out. But Ruth looked different to me now; not just a cousin who took over my bedroom and filled it with strange perfumy smells and a baby-blue quilt on my bed. Now she looked like a stranger who made me feel self-conscious because I didn’t want to stop looking at her.
I moved the glass salt shaker from square to square on the checked tablecloth.
“Do you have to make so much noise?” said Ruth. “Why do you have to bother us in the kitchen? You’re in the way.”
“I am not. I’m just sitting here. Nothing to do.”
“You’re making too much noise.”
“Just playing checkers with the salt shaker.”
“Well stop it. It’s an irritant. Go sit with your father, or talk to Grandpa.”
“He’s sleeping. They’re probably both sleeping.”
“Well quit doing what you’re doing and do something else. You’re bothering us.”
“Am I bothering you, Mom?”
“You weren’t, but you are now. Go outside. Find something else to do that isn’t here.”
“Just do it. You both are giving me a headache.”
I walked down the driveway for half an hour. Dad was sleeping on the porch couch, and the radio was playing old music that probably made him tumble away from the sound of the rain.
“Do you have to follow me everywhere I go? People are going to say you’re sweet on me.”
“You’re my cousin.”
“I wasn’t your cousin when you shot off in your pants.”
“When I what?”
“You heard me. That wasn’t right, what you did. What we did. I was just teasing you, I didn’t know that would happen.”
“I didn’t know it, either. I didn’t mean to.”
“But you did.”
“I know. So now what?”
“Are you going to hate me forever because I did that?”
She smiled a little. “No. You can’t help it, just like I can’t help it that I’m gorgeous.”
“Is that what you think you are? You’re sort of pretty, but I don’t know about gorgeous.”
“Sure I am. Why, back home, all the boys where chasing after me. That’s why I came up here, to get away from all those poor boys with their awkward words and fumbling hands. They couldn’t decide what to do with them, shove ’em in the pockets, or pick at their chins.”
“They must be poor if they don’t know what to do with their own hands.”
“You didn’t know what to do with your hands. Fumbling around like a goat. I had to make you put your hands on my hips.”
“I didn’t know that’s what I was supposed to do.”
“Well it is. When you want to hug someone, you should know where your gosh darn hands go. They don’t just hang there from your arms like wet biscuits.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to hug me. I was ill-prepared.”
“Well now you know. Should anyone want to give you a hug, you have to know where to put your hands to make them feel appreciated and grateful. Though, honestly, I don’t know why I wanted to hug you. I felt sorry for you.”
“Felt sorry for me?”
“Sure. Poor old farm boy with no girls to fall in love with. I was doing you a favor by teaching you the methods of exchanging a hug.”
“The methods of–”
“You heard me. If you don’t know how to hug, then you don’t know how to dance. Or kiss. Or make puppy eyes at the next sweet young thing that feels sorry for you. It’s all about knowing how to treat a woman.”
“I treat ’em just fine. Please and thank you, and may I take your jacket.”
“Pffft. You’re don’t have a pea rambling around in that head of yours.”
And then she kissed me.