From the author: A new kind of relationship blossoms in a small town when most citizens leave to fight in World War II.
Before our men all left in ’42, there he’d been. Our windows pointed at their driveway. His cigarettes pulled my chin like a fish hook — sleek, not painless. I’d see the couple next door necking by their truck and leer from our living room, dust clean blinds as an excuse to watch.
Sometimes I dreamt about their kissing. No shame in passion, my sister Maggie once said. But she was a flapper born on the wrong side of the dust bowl. Gals still looked up to her. Me? I was never Rosie from the posters. But I wanted to be riveted by lips like that.
After the town was left to us — all brassieres and babies — his wife lingered in that driveway, sucking on his cigarettes, hoping that goodbye kiss wasn’t final. Boys cycled by, their eyes feasting since no one was around to tell them otherwise. But even to those fellows — a few pimples away from the recruitment office — she wouldn’t give a blink of time.
After two months of driveway gazing, I invited her to dinner. Maggie would’ve been proud of my brazen request.
“You’re often hanging laundry. I imagine you don’t have a dryer?” I asked.
She shook her head, pursed that kissed mouth touched now only by a new shade of lipstick and his abandoned cigarettes. She offered me one, though I didn’t smoke.
“You’re welcome to use ours,” I said.
“I like the sun on my skin. Come join me sometime. Your backyard misses you.”
My cheeks flushed. Must’ve been the new pasta sauce. “You miss your husband?” I asked.
I dreamt of my husband’s lips and everything they’d whisper. Undertones of rum and vengeance.
When I saw her out back again, I went in my backyard with a basket of dry clothes. She nodded, perhaps to me, perhaps to the radio pouring out of nosy Nancy’s kitchen. We didn’t talk, but she left a slit between her linens where I saw that sun on that skin and those chapped lips. When the basket was empty and the courage drained like a wine glass, my fingers touched the heat on the top of my head — I was an expired cigarette.
Our dryer hushed that summer.
We moved together, in silence. Neighbors in stale grocery aisles, in the bare department store a ways off, in the creaking pews among Sunday yawns. But always mute. We sat through Annabelle’s book clubs, crossing and re-crossing our legs, drying our lips, silent. Even shared dinners simmered in quiet.
Her husband came home in a pine box. We stood together next to the fresh little mound under that same sun heating that same skin under our dark veils. I stopped dreaming of his lips.
I woke with the echo of the man who graced my ring finger and vowed another future. He’d come home one of these days but find me next door, smoking another man’s cigarettes.
This story originally appeared in Necessary Fiction.