You have learned that she does this when she is nervous.
And you know she is nervous.
Her face has brightened — suddenly a lively shade of vermillion, as vivid as the feelings she has never been able to hide, at least to you. Usually (and unusually) articulate, she has lost the ability to string together full sentences. She can’t make eye contact with you, and she gestures wildly with her hands — as if to illustrate the meaning that she can’t manage to articulate with her disjoint words and phrases.
More times than you can count, you have watched her interact with people so smoothly that they don’t notice the nuances in her smile, the subtle eyebrow raises, or the deadpan humor that betrays what she really believes.
This night, you have managed to unravel the layers that she carefully swathes around herself. She is flustered. She talks so she doesn’t have to pause. She talks so she doesn’t have to think.
You grab her by the waist in the middle of a story she tells — pulling her close enough to smell the perfume she has dabbed behind her ears and at the base of her neck. You have watched her do this dozens of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings — before she goes out to laugh and flirt with those who do mean little to her.
A long time ago, she joked that you and she should get married. This is a suggestion that doesn’t really mean anything at 20 years old, when the world waits to present an overwhelming amount of new people for each of you to meet.
For the first time, you notice the light dusting of freckles on her cheek — only the left, where the sun strikes most often.
The first time you kissed her, you were 15 — almost 16. She and you climbed to the top your roof and sat side by side in the space between the chimney and the window that jutted out of the attic. It was a night in October, and the air was glossy enough to cool your skin.
“I can’t wait to get out of here,” she murmured. She didn’t look you in the face then, either.
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve been here all our lives.”
Almost 16 years for you. Just over 15 years for her. That city — its roads, its dilapidated buildings, its levees and lakes and rivers and swamps — were as familiar to you as the veins that patterned the back of your hand.
She added, “It’s stifling to stay in the same place, to be with the same people for too long.”
At that moment, you couldn’t help it. Instead of responding, you leaned over, cupped her chin with your right hand and held her lower back with your left. The entire world around you dissolved as you kissed her, for the first time. On that roof. On a night in October.
Now, you weave your fingers through hers. She has painted her nails silver, like the Spanish moss that hangs on trees in the park by your house. You chuckle as you abruptly remember that time in the 7th grade she tried to scale one of those trees and fell off one of the uppermost branches — tumbling to the grass in a tangle of Spanish moss and leaves. She wore bruises up and down her legs for weeks after, a badge of pride for having climbed that high and a mark of embarrassment for having fallen to the ground.
You reach for her chin. You inch your face closer to hers, and right before you reach it — before you manage to fuse your lips to hers — she pulls away.
“What are you doing?” she asks, startled.
No response. You can’t come up with anything to say.
She stands up — grabbing her coat and purse from your desk — and heads to the door. Before you can even think to ask her where she’s going, she turns around and offers a meager explanation, “We’re not kids anymore.”
You notice, before she walks out, that her face is redder than ever.