I knew the moment he leapt from the train. Here he was, mid-stride, airborne and about to fall. Of course, he’d been falling for years. He could feel the shame unraveling behind him like the cords of a parachute with no chute, just fibers leaving his body, finally. He wasn’t unattractive, not his fault. And his clothes were not what you would expect a young man jumping from a train to wear. They were clean, no miles of desperation ground into his elbows, his knees, the side of his body he slept on. No. Let’s see if we can read the cords as they unspool and float above him: a woman, standing against him. He touched her on the wrist. She smiled at him, her hazel eyes, his blue, really blue at the moment. Anyway, she understood his shy heart without asking. That’s what he loved. That and her skin. He loved how it responded to his fingertips, rising, electrified, aching as if it was the first time she’d ever been touched. The whole of his body craved touch, fingertips on the inside of his forearm, his own fingers thrumming her rib cage to life. Her hip against his. Touch. Not the way the grown man had touched him when he was a child, groping him hungrily, even drooling, making the then boy hard and ashamed. The boy recoiled, never touched anyone again, until her. Her hair was unashamed; it draped her face, a shade to be drawn back. He traced the vein on her neck leaving a wake of goosebumps. He longed to kiss her ear, to let his tears roll down her cheeks and pool at the base of her neck. She pressed her body against his. It was summer, and the heat made their bodies warm. He felt her shape, so different than the grown man’s that held him down, nearly drowning him in dark stench. She smiled at him, at his reaction to her body. He looked down, ashamed, trembling. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.” The tears came and dropped useless to the ground. Even her feet were perfect, delicate, at ease in the grass. Her fingertips touched the tears from his chin. He quivered. She pulled politely away and they sat in the shade watching shadows and feeling the wind that mocks lovers’ touch, brushes hair away then leaves amid anticipation. He wouldn’t talk. She was patient; she collected her hair and tucked it into the back of her shirt so that he would know he didn’t have to talk, although she must have wanted him to. She must’ve wanted him to touch her again; she took long breaths at the thought of it, his fingers on the side of her face, tracing her shoulder, pausing, not sure which path to take. “I should say something,” he whispered. She leaned into him, just slightly, making it safe. But a stench rolled in from the underbrush, and he pulled away. He didn’t sleep for three nights straight, afraid of himself. He is just one of many stories I could tell you. No one at school saw him leave. No one saw him abandon his hand-me-down car next to the rail-yard. His rapid heartbeat driving the train forward. I saw him standing, the steel doors thrown open, hating even the wind touching him. But hers was different, wasn’t it? I can see it in his eyes as he falls toward me. The stones just below my surface. I am shallow. He scatters me into a million diamonds hurtling upward, each imprisoning the sun. It’s beautiful, the end of penance.
Stephen Wunderli is a writer living in Salt Lake City. He is a past director of Writers at Work, a writing conference in Park City, Utah. He has published several children’s books, mainly with Henry Holt & Co. He most recently published a short story with The Kalahari Review.