Omar watches her from the aisle’s end as she wraps her fingers around a paintbrush. He sees her blue eyes inch closer, reading the print on the thin plastic sheath. “Hmm…” She grips the handle but doesn’t remove the brush from the rack. “Twenty-eight bucks. Jeez.” Her fingers slip, her hand returns to her side, and she sways out of the aisle. Omar waits a beat, then approaches. He stops where she was standing and pulls the paintbrush off the rack. He runs his finger across the bristles and furrows his brow. A deep sigh lasts one…two…three seconds, and he mimes returning the brush as he lets it slide into the sleeve of his overcoat. When he jabs his hand into his pocket, the paintbrush slips in with it. His heart picks up. His legs buckle. A chill runs through him and he presses down on his feet to steady himself. He turns to face her. She’s browsing the acrylic paints, one hand running through her shoulder length blonde hair. She pauses to look at him, and he smiles.
He looked up from his worn copy of The Great Gatsby and lifted a hand to shield his eyes. She stood tall over him, and it took him a moment to focus on her face.
“Uh…yeah. Yeah. Hi, Megan.”
Her head dipped into the sun and she grinned. He noticed her eyes cutting through the summer glare and meeting his. He tensed in his cargo shorts and t-shirt, curled his toes inside his white Adidas. He felt her watching as he pulled on his ‘fro and uncrossed his legs, dropping his book. A cold flash ran through him, and the hair on his arms stood up. Idiot, he told himself.
She covered her mouth to hide a giggle. “How’s it goin’?”
“Uh…good!” He scrambled to grab his book. “Good. How’s…uh…how’s your summer been…so far?”
“It’s been okay. You still at Bergen? I haven’t seen you since History class.”
“We were in English Comp together last semester, actually.” Omar cleared his throat without needing to.
“Yeah,” he forced a smile, then, feeling himself unintentionally exaggerating it, let it fade.
“Wow.” She looked down, bemused. “So, you must be almost finished, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I…uh…I should be out in the spring.”
She smiled again, leaning on one hip and folding her hands behind her back. Her eyes cut away for a moment, then locked with his again. Omar felt a sudden, familiar pressure to pick up on a subtlety. He noticed he was taking up the entire bench.
“Oh, I’m…I’m sorry.” Omar nudged over and Megan skipped up to sit beside him. He suddenly felt her warmth competing with the sunshine. His skin rippled as she moved, goosebumps rising and falling as she rocked in her seat. He didn’t know where to look, so he turned his head down to his feet and kicked away stray pebbles. He noticed the scratching sound his sneakers made against the pavement and found himself forcing them into a steady rhythm. A breeze rustled the leaves on the tree a few feet away, and Omar stared at the shadows shimmying on the patch of grass underneath. He tried to remember what page he was on in his book. He envisioned placing his bookmark back there. The thought comforted him.
Megan leaned in to bump Omar’s shoulder. “So, what’re you gonna do after?”
“Uh…oh…I dunno…probably another school. You can’t do much with just an Associate's.”
She smirked and swung her legs out in front of her, holding them there and staring at her toes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean…I’ve been slacking, but I think I know what I wanna do, finally.”
He noticed her black nail polish and studded belt. As she brushed her hair back, he saw six rings running up her ear. Tears in her jeans revealed the pale skin of her legs, and he watched them cross and tuck under the bench as she leaned forward to rest on her hands. He turned away to keep from staring. The sunlight beamed down, cooking the pavement. Behind them, a couple grunted through a heated tennis match. Kids ran around the playground across the way. A dog barked on the other side of a chain-link fence, and it took a minute before Omar realized Megan was looking at him.
“Oh…uh…and…so, uh…what do you wanna—”
They both turned to meet a pair of aged, hollow eyes widening from the window of a rusted black pick-up truck. The engine rumbled and the chassis shook, as though at any moment the entire thing would crumble into a steaming tetanus heap. A thick, sun-reddened arm waved her toward it. “C’mon, dammit! Your mom’s makin’ dinner.” The voice fell into a disgruntled murmur, swallowed by the roaring under the hood.
“Oh,” Megan said. “Sorry, I gotta go. I’ll see you around, okay? Add me on Facebook.”
“Oh…okay, yeah, sure.”
Omar watched as Megan’s flip flops clacked against her heels. The pick-up’s rusted door creaked open and slammed shut, and she bustled for a moment in the passenger seat. Omar looked down at the sunburnt pavement. The pick-up released one last rusty roar, and a girl he never thought would notice him was driven away.
The clerk at Pearl Paint slumps over the front counter, yawning wide and thumbing through an issue of Sports Illustrated. Omar keeps him in his periphery. There is no one else in the store. At the end of every aisle Omar pretends to have an itch on his neck, casually looking up while scratching. No cameras or curved mirrors on the ceiling. Nobody in uniform doing the rounds. None of this stops his heart from racing. His thick green overcoat is open, and he’s slipping a set of small canvases inside. He coughs to mask the sound of the zipper and puts his hands back into his pockets, now filled with twenty tubes of acrylic paint and a half dozen paintbrushes. He’s feeling the weight pulling down on him and beads of sweat forming at his hair’s edges. He curls his toes to still the shakes.
He thinks of how he’s always hated dealing with clerks. As a kid he made a habit of angling into stores, head down and eyes on his feet, hoping not to attract the attention of the staff. Their sincerity grated him, and he found himself squirming when he was inevitably cornered and supplicated. “Can I help you with anything?” “No, thank you,” he’d always mumble, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact. Even if he couldn’t find what he was looking for, he’d decline. Instead he wandered the aisles alone, hands in pockets, feigning certainty and purpose, mentally mapping the store’s layout. He memorized the locations of his favored items; future trips would be quicker, and staff members more easily avoided. It never occurred to him that he looked suspicious.
Megan turns the corner toward the back of the store. Omar takes the long way around. When he meets her, she’s on her tippy toes, hands resting on the riveted metal shelf, perusing the sketchbooks.
“You were right. This place really is a dump.” He leans on the shelf and crosses his feet—his version of nonchalance.
“Yeah,” she chuckles, “the people who work here aren’t even artists.”
Omar feels the shelf moving slightly under his weight and steps back. “That…uh…that explains a bit,” he nods.
“This place is in the middle of nowhere, too.” Megan runs her hand down a pile of sketchbooks, scrunching her lips, deciding. “I don’t even know how they stay in business.”
“Yeah,” he clears his throat. “Yeah. It’s…it’s crazy.”
Megan pulls on a thick spiral sketchbook, leaving it jutting out from the pile.
“Mmm,” she sighs. “$40? That’s obscene.”
She turns away. He watches. Flip flops clack.
Okay, he winces as he reaches up to grab the sketchbook, fighting the weight of his overcoat. I’m running out of room in this thing. He can feel the canvases shifting against his side as he stretches out and contorts to keep them underneath his coat. Another cough to mask the unzip, and a light tapping on the metal shelves to cover the zip up. He draws the pull string to tighten the coat around his waist and begins to walk slower, more carefully. Hands in pockets, arms pressed against his sides, he widens his gait.
“I think that’s a great idea. Teaching art.” Omar mumbled his ice-breaker, and it competed with the creaking of Megan’s rusted door opening. He felt something in him sink, and wondered whether he should repeat himself once they were in the truck.
“Yeah,” Megan shut the door and smiled. “I’m taking a few more classes at Bergen in September. I love kids, so I think I’d be good at it, too.”
Omar smiled and nodded, relieved that she had heard him. “Cool. That’s cool.”
She shifted in the driver’s seat to face him. The Dairy Queen parking lot bubbled with activity. Teens clustered around the hoods of their parents’ cars, assuming their most casual stances, enjoying their nascent autonomy. Music pumped from every stereo, the different songs and sounds mixing together to create a rumbling din. Through Megan’s closed windows, all Omar could hear was the muffled bass.
He tried not wander off into silence. You always do this. Don’t be quiet. Just be cool. His hand shook as he shoveled his cookies and cream sundae into his mouth, careful not to let the hot fudge get anywhere in the truck. Megan spun her waffle cone in her hand and stared, as though forming a plan of attack. He watched her take her first bite and quiver at the iciness on her teeth. They smiled. Omar ran down his list of ice-breakers, realizing he was nearing the end of them. He thought of one, but hesitated. It might not go over well. But before he could change his mind, he found himself blurting it out.
“So your dad is scary as hell.”
Omar squirmed in his seat. Great. Great work, you idiot.
Megan laughed. “Yeah, everybody says that. He’s harmless, though.”
“To you, maybe,” Omar jabbed, then regretted it.
She eyed him for a moment, then her eyebrows shot up. “Ohhh, that day at the park. Yeah, don’t worry. It wasn’t you. He was just mad he had to come pick me up.”
“Oh. Well…he’s still scary.”
They sat in silence. Omar looked down at his sundae. Don’t do this. Don’t let it get weird. Outside, people were laughing. Through the windshield he saw a few couples together. They shared round tables under umbrellas. They shared ice cream. They smiled. Laughed. Reached across the table to touch each other’s hands. This could be you, he thought. This could be you if you don’t blow it.
Megan leaned over and turned on the stereo.
Come on. Say something.
“I love this song,” she offered.
“Yeah. It’s alright.” he muttered. He doesn’t listen to the radio. He’d never heard this song. Moron. Don’t blow this. Say something. Now. NOW. He swallowed down another bite of ice cream and a thought came to him. “So…are your parents psyched?”
“About…about you doing art.”
“Ah, they don’t give a shit.” Megan shifted in her seat again, her two scoops of strawberry swirl a smooth mound of pink and white.
“Yeah.” She took a bite of her waffle cone. “I’m lucky they even pay for me to go to Bergen. I’ll have to take loans out once I get in somewhere else.”
“Where are you thinking…of going?” He looked down at his dessert. The fudge was melting the ice cream faster than he could eat it. He stirred what was left with his spoon, leaving a soupy glob filling a quarter of his cup, then wondered what he was going to do with it now that he was done.
“Rutgers. That sounds great. Yeah.”
“Yeah.” She turned to look out the window. The summer air was cooling. Beyond the parking lot, the haze of chemical plant exhaust on the New Jersey Turnpike scattered the light of houses in the distance. The moon hung over them, cut by a thin strip of clouds. There were no stars.
Megan tapped on the steering wheel. “Shit’s expensive, though.”
The roads were clear. Route 17 was usually a parking lot, even on a weekday afternoon. Omar took this as a good sign. He sat back in his seat and eased his grip on the wheel. The leather interior of his father’s red Volvo squeaked under his weight. Megan twirled a golden lock of hair around her finger, watching the passing cars and storefronts from the window. Music was playing but it was barely audible beyond the gurgles of the radio’s static. Omar pulled into the right lane, minding the signs outside the strip malls going by. “Okay…Pearl Paint. Pearl Paint. Pearl…Paint.”
Megan pressed her back up against the window to face him. “Hey…are you sure you wanna do this?”
Omar puffed up. “Yeah. Yeah. No sweat.”
“I dunno.” She sighed. “I mean…”
“Well…you…you need this stuff, right?”
“Yeah, but, I mean, have you ever even done this before?”
Omar thought of the time, when he was seven, he pocketed a jumbo pack of Zebra Fruit Stripe gum from the supermarket checkout line when his mother wasn’t looking. They were five minutes from home when she looked in the rearview mirror and demanded to know where the ball of candy in his mouth had come from. Ten minutes later he was sobbing in front of the stone-faced Pathmark store manager, confessing his sins at his mother’s insistence.
Then there was the time in third grade he snatched a $20 bill from his father’s wallet and took it to school, where the cafeteria’s vending machine wouldn’t accept it. He asked a lunch lady for change and got strange looks from everyone as he walked around the rest of the day with a softball-sized wad in his pocket. People asked where he had gotten so much money. They asked if he was sure it was all his. Every lie Omar told to cover his tracks weighed on him. He felt everyone’s eyes on his back, the money turning to a hot coal in his jeans, and he panicked. When he tried to sneak it back into his father’s pants that night, he got the whooping of his life.
“Sure. Sure, I’ve done this before.”
Megan wrinkled her face but said nothing.
The highway stretched on. Storefronts began to give way to more and more trees on either side. Where is this place?
They pulled into a parking space when they arrived, and Omar shut off the engine. They stared at the store’s entrance in silence. No one came in or out. The whole plaza looked empty. Megan unfolded her crumpled syllabus, looked it up and down, and dropped her hands into her lap. She sighed, “You really don’t have to do this, you know.”
Omar braced. He began to feel his hands shaking. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and took slow, deep breaths. Megan’s eyes matched the sky. He pictured them widening slowly, uniting with the endless blue above them, devouring everything on their way—the car, the highway, the clouds, him. “No, I want to,” he said. “I want to. Just pick out what you need and…and I’ll take care of it.”
He forced a smirk. “Trust me.”
Megan taps twice on a little black box of charcoal sticks and kneels to rifle through another stack of notebooks. Omar looks at it and exhales a bit, relieved at its size. He walks by her and quickly slips the box into his sleeve without stopping. He pauses at the end of the aisle, fakes an itch again, and scopes out the area before turning to face Megan. She grins and mouths, “That’s everything,” before getting up and walking toward him, a book of watercolor paper in her hand. Omar darts his eyes around the store and looks at her again.
“You sure that’s it?” he whispers.
She nods. “I’m gonna go pay for this.”
“Okay. I’ll head out and meet you at the car.”
Omar sighs. His coat pockets are bulging. A thin gloss of sweat covers his brow, his underarms, behind his knees. His leg is shaking, and he can hardly hear anything over the pounding in his chest. Okay. Okay. Almost there. He finds himself nodding and not being able to stop. It’s cool. It’s cool. We’re cool. She fixes her gaze on him and tilts her head to one side. Omar feels himself growing shyer but can’t break eye contact. Megan’s face reddens at the cheeks. Omar sees her toes curl up, and she starts rocking lightly from side to side.
And in one, swift movement, she hugs her watercolor book tightly against her chest, leans in, and plants her lips on his.
“Thank you for doing this. You're really sweet.”
She walks away.
A rush of warmth sends jolts through Omar’s body. His eyes close. Their lips had met for only a second but he stands transfixed, savoring the remnants of her kiss. He turns his own lips inward, sliding his tongue across them. His deep breaths take her in. The smell of her hair wafting against him for that brief moment gives him goosebumps. His eyes open and he sees her skipping up the aisle toward the checkout counter. His nerves are gone. He floats out of the store. Despite the weight of his coat pulling down on his shoulders, his grin widens. His fear is gone. Despite his muscles aching from pinning canvases and sketch pads under his arms, he beams. His worries are gone. Even when a thick, heavy hand lands on his shoulder, and a gruff, self-satisfied voice rises behind him, asking, “Warm for such a heavy coat, isn't it?” Omar smiles, brimming.
Published in The Merrimack Review, Spring 2015.