A short story set ablaze by the tiniest of sparks between two disparate souls…
by: T.E Cowell
I didn’t think much of Emma the first time I saw her. That was late May, before business in my uncle’s shop became crazy. Before tourists from Europe flocked into town and spent money like the world was about to end.
I was standing near the back of the shop steaming the wrinkles out of a new shipment of Billabong button-downs when my uncle’s wife Julie walked in with a girl around my age. They started toward me, and when they drew closer Julie said, “Johnny, this is Emma. She’ll be helping out this summer.”
I rested the end of the steamer on its cradle, turned, looked at Emma, said hi and shook her hand. I noticed all the freckles sprinkled about her face, the paleness of her skin, and her nose, which reminded me of a bird’s beak. I noticed that she had no breasts, that her eyes were light blue like tropical ocean water, and that her hair, straight and long, was neither blonde nor red. She was short and fit-looking, fitter than most women. She had a narrow, angular face and her head was on the small side.
I turned and went back to steaming when Julie said, “Johnny’s our local pro skater.”
“I’m not,” I said, glancing at Emma. “I don’t even skate anymore.”
“He was really good,” Julie said. I didn’t say anything to this, just went on steaming.
I turned my head to check out Emma’s ass when she and Julie started back toward the front of the shop, and to my surprise I liked what I saw.
The following week I was training Emma on all things retail-specific, which basically meant familiarizing her with the cash register and credit card machine. The rest was no-brainer stuff: vacuuming, sweeping, dusting, and organizing sandals and clothes by size. The cash register was easy but you had to get the buttons down to know how to quickly make change so that the line of shoppers kept moving.
Emma was a fast learner. She had the register and everything else dialed by the end of June. She didn’t talk much at first, and when she did it was almost always to ask a job-related question. Soon though, about a week before the first wave of tourists hit, we were talking about things outside of work, like music. Emma was into alternative rock, bands like Green Day, Nirvana, and Sound Garden — music that was a little outdated, a few decades old. She was the youngest of three sisters and she admitted to being heavily influenced by them.
As for myself, I thought alternative rock was lame, that indie rock — bands like Belle & Sebastian, Grizzly Bear, and Yeasayer — was the shit.
Then we talked movies. Emma liked cheesy romantic comedies, I liked foreign movies, particularly when they weren’t cheesy or romantic. Emma liked to run, I liked to walk, slowly. Emma liked to sunbathe, I preferred the shade. Emma liked to drink fruity daiquiris, I liked bitter beer. Though our differences were vast, they didn’t make me think any less of her, except for maybe her guilty pleasure of listening to Justin Bieber.
Sitting behind the counter making small talk, I’d often become keenly aware that I was having a conversation with a female around my age, almost as if I were normal.
I started looking forward to working with Emma each morning. I’d open the shop at nine and she’d show up an hour later and work alongside me until closing time. Soon, a strange thing started happening — the more I looked at her, the more I was around her, the more attractive I deemed her, until one day I liked Emma for how different she was from the cookie-cutter models and porn stars I was in the habit of jerking off to.
Sometime in August, Emma and I started spending time with each other outside of work. We’d walk onto the Venice pier, stop near the lifeguard stand and look down at all the surfers. Even though the waves were usually small, knee-high or so, there’d always be a group of surfers in the water. Sometimes I’d see my uncle out there. I could tell him apart from the others because he always wore a little black hat to keep the UV rays off his bald head. Whenever I noticed him I never called out, but I watched him more closely than the others and saw that he was almost always the best surfer out there, catching more waves and often riding them longer, sometimes shooting between the barnacle-strewn supports of the pier to come out the other side.
One day I went to a restaurant with Emma and her roommate, and a few days later the three of us went to a bar. Before I knew it I was walking Emma home after work. She lived about a mile away in an apartment complex in Marina del Rey where the only view of water visible through her windows was of a chlorinated pool. Her apartment was right next to the marina with all its sailboats on one side and the sprawling Pacific Ocean on the other, but all she could see was that dinky little pool. But at least she had an apartment. At least she had a place to call her own. The surf shop never felt like it was mine because it wasn’t. I spent my nights there and that was it.
Around Labor Day I found myself on a couch in Emma’s living room watching The Princess Bride (her choice) off her laptop. Her roommate worked evenings at The Cheesecake Factory, so it was just the two of us. Beside the laptop on the coffee table were some Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health magazines. On the Cosmopolitan, next to an airbrushed model, I read the words SEX: How To Make Him Beg For More.
In seconds, my heart was beating a mile a minute. Though I wasn’t technically a virgin anymore, I sure as shit still felt like one. I’d lasted maybe two minutes with my friend’s ex, Cheryl, before I came. Two minutes, and then she was off me and gone from my life, saying something before she left about how a premature ejaculator was a major turn-off.
Emma was sitting inches from me as the movie played, but she might as well have been on Mars. I couldn’t even look her way until the credits were rolling, until she asked if I’d liked it.
“It was alright,” I lied.
While I was glad it was finally over, I was more horrified than ever. I hadn’t made a move. All that time and I hadn’t so much as touched Emma’s knee with my hand. I’d had the perfect opportunity to kiss her and I blew it because I was overthinking it, because I was afraid Emma would pick up on my inexperience and that it would turn her off and that she’d look at me differently from then on.
I glanced her way again after asking if she’d liked the movie.
“Oh yeah,” she said.
I didn’t fully believe her. The usual enthusiasm in her voice was gone.
I stood up and Emma followed me into the hallway where I slid my feet into my sandals. I opened the door and stepped outside and Emma followed me again. I wanted to kiss her, I saw this as my last chance to do so, but my insecurity was just too great.
I was about to turn my head and say bye, about to start my walk of shame back to the surf shop, first stopping at the minimart on the corner for a six-pack of Red Stripe to nurse my wounds, when Emma cut in front of me blocking my path down the stairs from her top-floor apartment. She tilted her head up in my general direction, and under a sky just beginning to darken and fill with stars, she closed her eyes. I looked at her freckled face, her hooked nose and pale lips, and her quivering eyelids. She had her hands clasped together in front of her like she was praying.
Her eyes jolted open the second my lips touched hers and I noticed some lines on her forehead in vivid detail. Then her eyes closed and I followed suit with my own. We stayed like that for a few seconds, but to me it felt like forever.
When Emma pulled away she looked at me with glowing saucer eyes and a beet-red face.
“Finally! What took you so long?”
It wasn’t really a question, at least I didn’t take it as one. I took it as a deep exhale, a verbal sigh of relief. There was no hard tone to her voice whatsoever.
Still, she was looking at me, waiting for me to say something, or at the very least to have a reaction. I couldn’t think of anything to say except the truth, which I wasn’t about to admit, because twenty-three year-old virgins weren’t exactly in vogue.
With no other options jumping out at me, I did the only thing I could think of: I smiled without opening my mouth all the way, hoping Emma would find the look engaging enough to pass for words. Somehow it worked. Emma closed the gap between us and brought her lips to mine. She stuck her tongue in my mouth and when our lips parted I opened my eyes and saw Emma smiling as if I’d just made her day. I smiled back, wondering if it was possible that I’d done it, that I’d kissed her not once but twice in such a way that hadn’t aroused her suspicion.
For a few seconds neither of us said anything, and then Emma broke the silence.
“Well, see you tomorrow!” she said.
“Yup! Have a good night!”
We looked at each other a second longer, like we weren’t quite sure what to make of what had just happened. Then Emma turned and went back inside and I made my way back to the surf shop feeling like my real life was just now beginning.