IT WAS A WATERMELON LOVE
Juicy, sweet and fast. Alice was fifteen that summer and in Provence with her family on their first trip to Europe, when she saw the boy at the motel pool in neon green swim trunks and black sunglasses. Gabe had offered her a slab of gum. By sunset they were kissing behind the pool shack, his hand under the strap of her tank top. When they said goodnight, he had pulled her back to leave a kiss on her collarbone.
Now, when Alice steps into the gallery, her hand covers her collarbone as if the imprint of his lips could still be visible twenty-eight years later. Fields Deconstructed is the title of Gabe’s show, and just the colors seeping through her peripheral vision – golds, twilights, lavenders – are enough to give her sunstroke.
Her eyes thread through the room. He isn’t there. Or maybe she can’t recognize him anymore. Is he shorter than she remembers? Has his hair left him? What will she look like to him? The things she lost must have left their mark.
That summer, her mother had insisted Alice wear long cotton skirts to guard against the sun, skirts that made her both shapeless and impossible to hide. She couldn’t disappear when her mother cackled in the abbey, talking loudly in Chinese about the poorly carved Virgin Mary with the double melon chest. Impossible to fade when her father chewed pens, straws, leaving behind saliva-soaked mangles at restaurants, tortured by the possibility of getting laid off even though he had dragged his family to France at the hint of an invitation by the senior partner, Mr. Oberlin. The Oberlins stayed in a hotel with rose vines in a hilltop town. The Chans stayed in a motel in the flat of the valley where the mosquitoes outnumbered the roses, and the pool was heavily dosed with chlorine.
Gabe had smelled like sunscreen and chlorine, and underneath the chemicals: something clear, like cucumber and salt. In the afternoons they would walk through the vineyards until they found a patch of shade, and laid in the grass. He would weave dandelions between her toes. They talked about the books they liked and the music they hated. He talked of being an artist, but his stepfather had gotten him an internship at a hedge fund.
Now his solo exhibit is in the East Village, and she drove five hours from Boston to see it. If it weren’t for the pamphlet of New York gallery openings left on the coffee table by a visiting friend, she never would have known. The last emails were exchanged over twenty years ago: how the blank in between grew from days into months until the last one went unanswered. Yet at the sight of his name halfway down the pamphlet, the smell of sunscreen and chlorine flooded her.
His paintings are abstract but not unrecognizable: the shapes outlined crisply with ink from uninhibited splashes of color. She stands in front of a painting of poppies set against a gray haze, and she can almost feel the pricks of weeds and dried grass against her ankles. A man in a vest blocks her view and squints at the canvas. “At least the wine is good,” he says to his date.
Wine. She heads to the back of the second room where bottles of white wine teeter in a bucket of melted ice. The first glass, finished too quickly, is refilled. She wanders to the other paintings and forces herself to sip, not gulp.
A painting with melting sunflowers makes sweat trickle down her neck. One blue splash of canvas makes vanilla ice cream appear on her tongue. By the time she has seen most of the pieces, she feels like her feet are firmly dipped in the motel pool.
A nasally voice splashes her out of it, “Do fields need to be deconstructed?”
She turns around, unable to identify the voice from the group of gallery girls who are sniggering into their wines and swaying in heels. She wants to smack one of them, or all of their faces, identically flattened by makeup. They remind her of the girls in Provence who had glided over cobblestone in their short summer dresses and jeans shorts, how they had pierced her with everything that her family wasn’t. Not draped in linen. Not sipping rosé on terraces.
Nauseous, she glances between the door and the bar. She decides to refill. If her husband were here, he would be slipping a twenty in the tip jar, worried the gallery can’t afford the free drinks while asking herself if she’s drinking so much because of the July heat. She has married an inattentive yet generous man, capable of great sacrifices. She is the one who flickers in commitment. She knows she is only considerate, offering small generosities while keeping her capacity for cruelty in check.
The gallery girls have followed her to the bar, and the tallest one with the sharpest heels says, “The poppy one looks like my period on laundry day.”
Panicked, Alice sweeps over the heads and threads through the paintings in sight. Maybe he has used too many colors. They’re undiluted, glaring. The compositions are too obvious. And with a grimace of defeat, she remembers that he had had pimples on his back, darkened by the afternoon walks they had taken in the sun.
The chatter around her grows louder, until the voices of art students, gallery girls and men in vests are a chorus of disapproval.
She turns to leave, and she sees him, coming out of the back room. He is with a bespectacled man, the curator maybe, who shoulder claps him before going to greet clients. Gabe is wearing a white linen shirt and jeans. A slight hill of a belly protrudes, but nothing alarming. His hair is the same rich brown waves, cut more intentionally. She covers her collarbone, overwhelmed by a new fear. What if none of the paintings are about her? What if the fields are just fields?
She thinks of her father who is buried back in China next to his father, and her mother who doesn’t cackle at much these days, except at winning in mahjong. She thinks of her daughters, who with every milestone – a tooth lost, a sixth grade graduation – make her feel the approach of her own mortality.
On the last night they saw each other, Gabe had stolen three fingers of his stepfather’s good scotch by pouring it into a mug and refilling the bottle with water. They had walked the mug through the apricot orchard and drank from it on the stone floor of an abandoned farmhouse. They had sex. She can’t remember much of the act itself, only that afterwards, they had lain on the floor, elbow to elbow, their faces salty wet. It must have been a watermelon love. Bright, heavy and brief.
He sees her. His face wavers between doubt and something crisper: excitement or panic. He raises a hand as if to wave, then lowers it and smiles. He crosses the room. Her hand leaves the collarbone and extends forward.
Yun Wei received her MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College and studied at Georgetown University and London School of Economics. Her awards include the Geneva Literary Prizes and Himan Brown Poetry Fellowship. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Michigan Quarterly, Shenandoah, Summerset, Poetry Northwest, Wigleaf, Word Riot, along with several other journals. Her debut novel is represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She works in global health in Switzerland, where she relies on chocolate and tears to survive mountain sports. Find her here.