October 1, 2001
Seventeen years since the first summer
by Cynthia Kim
t was one of those early June nights that held a promise of the warm lazy days ahead. A casual exchange after a late class led to dinner at his apartment. Chicken in dark sauce. My blouse was white and the sauce hit it just to the right of the open second button.
He knew exactly what to do, jumping up to grab a towel, blotting away the stain against my half-hearted protests. We could have gone back to the meal once the stain was dealt with. Logical people would have. But not us. We are many things, but logical is not one of them.
The kiss was tentative and almost chaste. I drew away and retreated to the living room. This is insane, I told him. It'll never last. We're too different; we're Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire and Madonna.
He wasn't convinced. I made a list: You're an adventurer, a dreamer, a risk taker. I'm a thinker, a planner, a chronicler. You've got a family on the other side of the world to go home to; I've got a career to start on. You eat with chopsticks and a spoon; I use a fork and knife. You're brown; I'm white. You're Buddhist; I'm Catholic. You smoke; I don't.
I wore him down through the sheer volume of objections. Just friends, we agreed before I finally rose to leave.
A few weeks later, our paths crossed again. The party wound down after midnight and he agreed to give a mutual friend a ride home. I went along for the drive. At least that's what I told myself. He dropped her off, doubled back toward my house and drove right by it.
The second kiss, shared over the stick shift of the VW Rabbit as a thunderstorm rolled in, was electric. Our paper-thin agreement to be just friends was folded, spindled and mutilated in a matter of seconds.
That was the beginning of the summer of cold pizza. We ate it for lunch at least twice a week. It became a routine. Jog down from the 7th floor x-ray suite, hop into his waiting car, grab a pizza, throw it on the coffee table, strip off our clothes, hit the bed or the floor or the shower (being horizontal was not a requirement), watch the clock, eat the pizza on the way back to the hospital. At first the techs got on my case for being late: who would file their forms, hunt down their missing records, answer their phones? But as the days wore into August, they seemed amused by my lengthening lunch breaks and covered for me with a snicker in exchange for the sordid details.
The summer of cold pizza went from impossible to perfect in the blink of an eye.
July again. It was raining. Pouring torrents. I stood in disbelief, watching my perfect, impossible year dissolve before my eyes in the parking lot of a flea market. It's over, he told me. Never one to soften the blow - I wouldn't have expected anything less from him. It'll never work, he said over and over again in answer to my relentless parade of whys.
Just friends, we agreed again.
That lasted a week. By the following Saturday night we'd relented, quenching our hunger in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. Up against the cracked tile wall in front of the restrooms. Parking lots, basements, the back seat of a 1979 Chrysler, we couldn't keep our hands off each other no matter how hard we tried. The pressures from outside mounted as the realities of our families, our cultures, and our carefully planned futures bore down on us - but we just kept throwing sandbags against the door.
It was the summer that we hauled up the drawbridge, set fire to the ramparts and refused to think about the consequences.
A June wedding. Picture perfect, except for the ragged margins and dog-eared corners. Almost two years to the day since that second kiss in the VW Rabbit and we were about to become not just a couple, but a threesome.
I sweated through three long months of swollen ankles and morning sickness, watched the shiny new band of gold cut deeper and deeper into my finger as my body thickened like an overripe peach. It should be illegal to be eight months pregnant in the summer. Still, we managed to keep the spark alive, even when my belly grew to be an obstacle.
It was the summer of creativity.
Maybe it's the seven-year itch arriving two years early, I told myself. Or maybe it's five years of marriage going down the drain on the heels of a misunderstanding blown to catastrophic proportions. A tricycle tire inflated to fit a monster truck.
Three in the morning and he was packing. I knew how drunk he was when I saw what he threw in the suitcase. Clothes he never wore. Books he never read.
He didn't leave that night. The suitcase sat half-packed on the bedroom floor as we raged in whispers, careful not to let our voices carry upstairs to our daughter's bedroom. One skirmish after another was played out on the maroon carpeted battlefield of the living room, each ending in that stubborn old stalemate: It'll never work. Fragmented images of parking lots and basements tugged at my mind. Always summer, always the rain.
The sun didn't really rise that morning. It was overcast and drizzling when dawn broke. If the sun had risen, I imagine it would have bathed us in light as we devoured one another on the living room floor. I wondered later if we'd sucked the heat and light and fire out of the sunrise.
The wounds of that night cut deeply and festered through the seasons that followed. It was the summer of disconnection.
When he dropped to his knees on the bathroom tile, I thought he was kidding, another sweet attempt to coax a smile on a grumpy morning. The way his head twitched like a live wire torn free in a storm told me it was for real.
The ambulance came. I followed it to the emergency room. Parked the car. Met the doctors. Nodded through explanations that explained nothing. EKG. Irregular rhythm. They repeated it a half dozen times, but the best I could make of it was that one of the jagged green lines that should have been going up was going down. No baseline to compare it to. Better not to take chances, they said as they filled out the admissions paperwork and ordered an alphabet soup of tests.
Never again will I complain about cooling my heels in a waiting room. The day you arrive at the emergency room and they don't make you wait is one of the scariest days of your life.
The reality of the summer of the jagged green lines knotted itself around my heart as I watched the orderly load the crash kit onto the stretcher for the two-minute trip from the emergency room to the CICU.
But one of the perks of landing in intensive care is a private room. No coughing, wheezing, half-deaf roommate to pull the curtain on. That first night I climbed into the bed next to him and arranged myself around the tubes and wires. The night nurse peeked in long after visiting hours had ended, shut out the lights with a wink and went on her way.
We watched the jagged green lines in silence as the July 4th fireworks crackled over the steamy city outside the window. A decade of summers behind us; we ran our fingers over each one in the darkness like a treasured collection of smooth shiny pebbles.
A week later they disconnected the monitors and we went home. No more jagged green lines to worry about: I'd married a man with an abnormally normal heart.
August now. A year since the call came, a scratchy early morning message from half a world away: a heart attack had claimed his father. A year since he scrambled to book last minute plane reservations. A year since the summer of mourning.
His older brother's house, hundreds of miles from home, and it's raining again. We lie in bed, legs entwined, listening to the rain fall on the unfamiliar roof.
The room is dark, but I know from the change in his breathing that he's crying. Being here on the eve of the memorial ceremony has taken its toll. After a year, I still have no words of comfort to offer. I know that some day, when I'm the one who's grieving, he'll offer me hard-won wisdom. He has been my rock from the beginning.
Seventeen years since the summer of cold pizza and we are still imperfectly perfect together.
Sixteen years since the summer we barricaded the doors and we are still hunkered down against the storm outside.
Fifteen years since the summer of creativity and we are still discovering new ways to leave each other spent and drooling on the sheets with the mindless pleasure of it all.
Ten years since the summer of disconnection and we are no longer afraid to bring the scars out into the light and run our fingers over them.
Six years since the summer of the jagged green lines and we know the fragility of the body and the strength of the spirit.
One year since the summer of mourning and I pull him closer as we give ourselves over to the darkness, the silence, and the raindrops once again.
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