Michael’s room was dark, with only a square of yellow light pinned sideways against the far wall. Emily’s crumpled New Yorker remained alone on the mostly-made bed, waiting in the silence of the empty house.
A jangling came up the stairs, followed by a nervous giggle and a shush, and then the bedroom window carefully slid up. Michael stepped into the room cautiously, and looked around as though never having been there before. Emily gave him his hand as she stepped over the sash and joined him in his darkened room. Neither of them spoke.
The two of them waited there at the foot of his bed, in the pale gauze of the neighbor’s strong porchlight, but they didn’t know what they were waiting for. Michael still cradled the fingers of Emily’s right hand. The room held its breath: they could step into each others’ arms now and embrace, there in the dark and without another word. It would be nothing—a journey through six inches of empty air—to change everything forever, to meet the other with kisses and touches and more.
But neither of them moved, though both of them wanted to. The moment grew impatient and then slipped away and was gone.
Michael finally turned towards his desk, and Emily looked around the room, finding the beside light on his nightstand. Bending at the waist, she switched it on, then turned back to him in the buttery light of the small lamp.
“I don’t like bright lights,” she mumbled, not meeting his eyes. She smoothed out the front of her top. Emily was still wearing the clothes she had worn that hot afternoon, a thin and loose tunic top over small white shorts, and now, close to midnight, she felt under-dressed and bashful.
“The lamp is fine,” he said, and then neither spoke again. Both of them looked around the room, and occasionally caught each others’ eye.
“It’ll be fun,” Emily finally said, in a quiet voice. “It’ll be an adventure.”
“It makes sense.” Michael nodded at her. “If we’re gonna hang out this summer, we need to…do this. You know, at least once, to get it out of our system.”
Emily frowned, but said: “Exactly. Oh, and Michael? Don’t get some idea that this is about what happened with the cop and you protecting me. ‘Cause that’s too gross to even think about: all throwing myself at the alpha male who, like, backed down a competitor. Okay?”
“Okay. I promise,” he chuckled, then struggled to find something to say. “So…yeah.”
“Here, sit on the bed with me.” Emily was quiet again. She took his hand and they perched on the foot of his bed together. “I’ll tell you a story.”
“Alright,” Michael whispered. “What about?”
“Um, about the first time I ever saw you. Ever really saw you, I mean.” She smiled at him. “It was about two years ago. Do you remember how, after you joined The Gang and Josephine had told me all about you and your real story…do you remember how I avoided you?”
“Well, I was totally devoted to just being as mean as I possibly could be. Ignore you when you talked, walk away if we were alone together. Well, you remember. But then…in the spring I was in Dr. Gaughan’s class after school had let out. The room was empty, it was just me, and I was looking out the window, watching everyone leave school. A rainstorm had blown in from nowhere, and people were freaking out. The underclassmen were running for their parents’ SUVs, the upperclassmen were running for their own cars, and every single one of them had their books, their school books, up over their heads. Like this, you know, to protect their hair or their clothes from the rain.”
Emily held her hands up over her head, as though she were holding a textbook. The bottom of her thin shirt raised up just enough to show an inch of her belly, but both of them pretended to ignore it.
“And then I saw you just walking away from the crowd, down to your bus stop. Everyone else was running, trying to get to a car, but you were going the other way, just walking through the rain. With the collar of your jacket popped up, I think. And you didn’t have a book on your head…you were cradling something in your jacket, being careful to keep it wrapped up. You passed right by the window, and when you adjusted your jacket and I saw what you were protecting: your books. You were the best dressed kid in school, you had this wardrobe that just blew everyone away, but you didn’t care about that…you were just trying to keep your books dry.”
Emily looked down at the dark wood floors of Michael’s room. She bit her lip and let it slide out from between her teeth.
“That was like…yeah, that was like the first time I ever saw who you really were. And that’s when I knew that I had to find a way to be kinder to you.”
Michael didn’t speak for a minute, then shook his head slowly. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“I know you don’t,” Emily whispered, then smiled up at him through downcast eyes. She blinked twice, very slowly.
Michael raised his hands and placed them gently on her shoulders, pausing just a second as his fingertips first brushed the thin fabric of her top. When he spoke, it was in a low but almost faltering voice. “Emily, tell me this isn’t about the twins.”
“It’s not about the twins. It’s not. It’s about Michael and Emily.”
“Okay, then. Okay.” Then, in an even softer voice: “I always knew it would be you.”
“That’s what you said Thursday night,” she whispered.
“It was true.” Michael moved his arms down to touch her bare arms and then her soft waist. “It still is.”
They traversed the last impossible inches between them and then they were in each others’ arms. He could smell her shampoo, and she breathed in the last traces of yesterday’s aftershave. Emily clung to him with hands both firm and tender, leaning across to hold him in her arms and to be held by him in turn.
They moved up onto the bed without truly letting go of each other. Emily brought her face up into the warm expanse of his throat, and gently touched a button on his cotton shirt. The world was brand new, and when Michael reached back to turn off the lamp he invented the night and the darkness. He turned to Emily so she could find the notch of his shoulder and settle into it.
Nothing happened that night. No clothes were removed, aside from four separate shoes dropped heavily to the floor one at a time. They lay side-by-side for hours, quietly touching or whispering in the dark, sometimes so low the other couldn’t even hear the words but loving anyway the sound of the whisper. When Emily finally, reluctantly, prepared to go back down the fire escape, they parted with the only kiss of the night, soft and warm on the others’ cheek, as they pressed their bodies close one last time.
But something had changed, there in the dark. When Michael first turned the bedside light off, he turned back to Emily and she found him, pulling herself beside him and into the space where her body fit against his. For a moment they were still Michael and Emily, two friends who had found themselves sharing a bed. Then, like exhaling, they relaxed into each other. Each body found a way to accept the other, and it was then, that moment alone as they sunk softly together, that they became something else.
“This is nice,” Michael whispered. It was an ending, and it was a beginning. They were together now.
Emily’s hand moved across his chest and found the slit between two buttons of his shirt. She slid her middle and ring fingers through the opening and rested her fingertips against his warm chest.
“That’s nice, too,” he whispered again. They could both feel the steady beating of his heart.