She was calm, sitting by the rocks, gazing at a dirty river’s motions. At the end of her sight, the sun was settling, plunging into the current of the Rahway river. He stood a few feet from her, casting rocks into the middle where they created subtle ripples. She took a pull of a cigarette and blew the smoke into the atmosphere. They were quiet. That happened sometimes.
They awoke that morning in the same bed, sharing the covers and some body heat. He turned to her sleeping face and studied what he had been seeing for a few years. He started with her forehead, passing a beauty mark just above the right eyebrow, then down to the long bridge of her nose. He eyed her full, pink lips before scaling down to her chin and the small indent in the center. Her skin was pale despite her Hispanic roots.
Her cheekbones were high and defined above a strong-lined jawbone. He traced his finger down to her neck, which was filled with unique marks like the one above her eyebrow. He leaned in and smelled her, then lay there until she awoke. After laying in bliss for a quarter of an hour, she began to rub the back of his head.
“Ben? You awake?” she asked with a dry mouth.
“I am, just debating if I want to get out of bed or not.”
“We gotta get up soon. I wanna go to the park today.”
“We'll go,” he said, looking up into her deep brown eyes. "Don't worry."
“For sure. ‘Till then?”
“We’ll figure something out. Are you staying up?”
“Don’t know," she said, rubbing both eyes with her palms. "I could lay here all day after last night."
"That might be the best compliment you've ever given me."
"Might be actually."
They laughed and moved closer to each other, exchanging kisses as they rested on the same pillow. She turned around, pressing her butt against his waist. He wrapped his arms around her and drifted.
Later in the day, the air had become sticky in a way, like it wasn’t moving. They spent most of their afternoon in the park. She liked the outside, mostly the view of the river from the trail that circled the body of water. She liked the color of the trees, the bodies of grass that surrounded them. He enjoyed going, too, but only because she favored it so much. She didn’t find that feeling in many things.
“Come here baby," she said
He turned to her with his bright blue eyes, then cast a few more stones into the dark water before going to her. Her legs were open as she sat atop a large, flat boulder. He went in between them, back against the rock. She wrapped him up as he did with her in the early morning.
“Yeah,” Ben said, frowning, “I’m good. Do I not seem that way?”
"I dunno, you seem a little distant. Like somethin's on your mind."
"You catch everything, don't you?" he asked with a grin.
"That's my job," she said. "I just noticed the past few days you've kinda had this distant look on your face. Just thought I'd ask."
"Alright Jo, you got me. Can't say I'm surprised."
"So what is it?"
"Nothing serious," he said with her elbows resting on his shoulders. "You remember Emily, right?"
Jo snickered, "I mean, I know a few Emilys baby. Which?"
"My neighbor, I told you we were good friends before I met you."
"Ah, okay, yeah what about her?"
"I don't know it's-she's in my Journalism class, and even though we aren't close like we used to be, I still talk to her every now and then. But she's been out of school for almost two weeks now. I didn't really notice at first, but I see her in her backyard sometimes, or I'll see her room light on, so it's like, she's just home, you know? Makes me wonder."
"That's a weird thing to worry about," Jo said. "Maybe she's not feeling well, who knows. Why you thinkin' 'bout that?"
"She's been through a lot, Jo. I've told you that. The last time I talked to her, she barely looked at me. She was quieter than usual. I know it's none of my business anymore, but she had these marks all over her arms, too. Regardless of our relationship now, I still worry. Like I said, we were close."
Jo nodded as the two stayed quiet for some time after, allowing the heat to gather between them. It was getting dark. The mosquitoes were a bother, especially being so close to the murky river. The tide was low and a soft breeze was going back and forth. He had gone over to the water. Jo went up the hill, leaving him alone. She would do that every now and then when they would get into a quarrel. He wouldn’t hear from her for days on some occasions. He would go to her house, only to learn of her absence. She wouldn’t go to their regular spots, either, like the park. She would disappear.
“Ben, let’s go,” she called out from the top of the hill, scratching at her arms. “I’m getting bit up.”
He nodded as he tossed a handful of pebbles into the water. He scaled a steep dirt hill that led up to the ground where she was standing. She wrapped her arm around his neck and looked down at his face. His eyes were low and lips tightly sealed. She kissed his cheek a few times, then unlocked her arm from his shoulders. They walked side by side, leaving the river as the night crept in.
He was on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and pacing steadily. Jo strolled through the street, clenched to her tight leather jacket. She pulled a cigarette from the left side pocket and a lighter from the other. Ben spotted the cloud of smoke over the cars, following Jo as she walked. He didn't mind the habit on certain occasions, when he knew she was stressed. She would kill ten to fifteen a day when he had met her. That number had been cut down to about six.
They turned onto her street, which was always quiet and modestly lit. A few cars were parked in front of the houses lining both sides. There was a mid-sized tree assigned to each home, planted a few feet from the front porches. Her house was towards the end, and could be seen from a good distance away when dark. They stepped into the driveway, walking between Jo’s shabby pickup truck and Maria’s relatively new Accord. The curtains dressing the front windows of the home were slightly parted. From the outside, the two could see a woman dancing gracefully in a spacious living area.
Jo unlocked the door with Ben attached to her back. The woman turned, her face flushed, eyes like they had been caught in a set of headlights. Her salt and pepper hair was wild and resting just above her tan, sun spotted shoulders.
“Honey, I forgot you left,” she said, breathing deeply with a hand over her left breast.
“Don’t mind us.” Jo smirked. “I like those moves, Ma. That’s how you got down back in your day, huh?”
Ben closed the door behind him and waved with a shy smile. "Hey, Maria."
“Olá, Ben. And yes, way back in my days. I used to be such a good dancer. Come dance with me,” she replied, extending her arm out to the girl.
“In another life, maybe.”
“Ben, how about you?”
“I've never been much of a dancer. Glad Jo doesn’t make me do that stuff.”
“You’re both going to grow old and regret not enjoying those young bodies.”
“Uh huh.” Jo nodded.
Maria raised the volume on the television and started moving her hips to a rhythm highlighted by a Surdo drum. Ben and Jo climbed the stairs, making their way to her bedroom. It stood at the far end of a long hallway. The small room wrapped them in its warmth upon entering. The space was lit by rows of hanging lights that lined the edges of the ceiling. The floor was covered in her clothes, and the bed had been left undone. The smell of perfume mixed with cigarette ends hovered around the layout.
Ben threw himself onto her bed and burrowed under the cover with the clothes he had worn by the water. He kicked his shoes over the edge of the mattress and folded his arms behind his head. Jo snickered as she observed him. The tall girl ambled over to her closet and undressed completely. The action prompted Ben to gaze at her long, cream-toned figure, observing the various marks scattered around her torso. There was a tattoo covering the skin from her right shoulder, down to the elbow. The design was a vivid depiction of flower heads, all colored black with spots of her complexion in between. She kept another mark on the inside of her left bicep that read the words, "Save Me." He trailed his eyes along her legs and round butt, to her slim waist that he liked to rest his hands on. He watched as she finished changing, finally dressing her neck with a thin gold necklace.
She turned to him with a smile that obscured her teeth as she tied her hair into a knot. She had a small set of breasts with her nipples just a few shades darker than the skin around them. Her stomach was flat, with a ring hanging from the scar in the middle. She dressed in a pair of sweatpants and threw on an over-sized, dark shirt. She slid in next to him and kissed his cheek as he turned his attention to the screen of his phone. He browsed a news-feed that featured a slew of current events as she wrapped her arms around him. She tucked one under the small of his back and the other over his shirted stomach. Her legs stretched across his thighs.
“I love you.”
He turned to her and braced her cheek in the cusp of his palm.
“I love you,” he replied. "And about earlier. I’m sorry I think about things that have nothing to do with me. I'm sorry that I'm concerned about an old friend. It just seems strange to me."
Jo kept to herself for a time, kissing his shoulder and drawing circles on his chest with her fingers. He went back to his phone.
“I don’t ever want you to think that it’s a jealousy thing,” she started. “I got ahead of myself to be honest. I remember what you told me about her dad, 'bout her getting abused and all that. I know she was really close to you in those times. It's okay."
"Exactly, and she would only talk to me about it," Ben said. "I didn't know what to do back then. She told me not to say anything, so I kept quiet about it. Who knows if it's still happening."
"C'mon baby, don't let that shit sit in your head," Jo said. "That's their personal stuff. What could you do about it, anyway?"
“I don’t know," Ben said, shaking his head. "But have you ever found yourself in a situation where you feel like you have to do something? No plan, no actual plan, but still feel like you have to help in some way?”
“I don’t believe that.”
She perched herself up with her elbow and tucked a few hairs behind her ear.
“If I feel like doing something, I do it. But only if it’s my business. I could give two shits about some guy murdering his whole family in fuckin’, I dunno, San Francisco. That’s not my business. I’m not gonna go over there and protest how he should get the death penalty instead of life. That's got nothing to do with me.”
“That makes no sense, Jo. That's not comparable to this in any way. I know Emily personally, longer than I’ve known you. And with everything that happened with you and your dad-”
“Yo, what the hell? Why even bring that up?"
He closed his eyes and gathered his breath. He felt her eyes on his face.
“I didn’t mean that," Ben said. "I’m just saying. People close to you, you tend to wanna help them if you can. I don’t think I'd be at peace if I don't at least go over and check on her."
Jo tightened her jaw and turned towards the door.
The room was without their words for a moment. Ben had not gone back to his phone. Jo picked at her fingernails as she stared at the floor.
“I didn’t mean to bring your dad up, babe, I just-”
“It’s fine," Jo said. "Do what you gotta do with your friend. I'm sorry. It's a sensitive subject for me, too, so I get it."
"I know it hits home with you," Ben said as he pulled her close to his chest. "I'm sorry for bringing it up. But you asked what was on my mind, and I can't lie to you."
"Good," Jo said, sticking a soft fist against his chest, "I always want you to tell me what's on your mind whether I like it or not."
“I will, I promise," he said, shutting his eyes. "Thanks for listening."
"Of course, baby. I love you, I'm okay. You wanna shower now or in the morning?"
"I love you, too. And I didn't bring a change of clothes, so I'll shower when we get to my house."
“Alright then.” Jo sprung up and placed a kiss on his dry lips before curling next to him in the shape of a ball. She then nestled her head beneath his arm as he ran his fingers through her short, curly hair.