"Jalapeño Peppers" by Emily Wunsch
She said that she didn’t believe people should say they were “in love.” She said that it sounded temporary. Something you could be in and out of, like driving through a tunnel. And that made a lot of sense to me. It was like driving through a tunnel where the lights are at the perfect wattage to make it all look like a memory. One where the car is going at just the right speed for the long tubes of high hanging light on either side of the tunnel to fuse into long streaks that make you just the right amount of dizzy. One where you make waves with your hand out the window, the air molecules rushing at your fingers as you catch the beat of the song playing with the flick of your wrist. With her it was that absolute experience of driving through a tunnel.
I was 15, she was 16. We were at sleepaway camp at Southern Illinois University for four full days and four full nights of poetry. From Emily Dickinson’s end-of-this-line-not-really-dashes to Pablo Neruda's hundreds of odes to life’s simplicities. We met in Felts Hall in the vibrant blue classroom with one hidden window. I remember how she stared at the texture of the plastic red chairs. She stated that they looked like goosebumps or the seeds in a strawberry. I was the one with the goosebumps, every time she dropped her pencil at my feet or nudged me to show me a noteworthy line of a poem or even sneezed. I was one girl struck by Sappho’s arrow right in the center of the chest.
On each day of camp she wore a new combination of a striped shirt, jeans and red shoes. I told her she looked like a mime, she laughed. We made each other sandwiches in the cafeteria: she always put too much onion in mine, but I ate it anyway, telling her it was “délicieux.” We shared an earbud, listened to French rap: MHD, Booba, Nekfeu. We took turns blurting out our made up translations, keeping the French accent of course. We discovered each other among sticky elbows, loud talkers and food exchanges. She said that the best way to calm someone down is to lightly stroke a line from their forehead down their nose using your index finger. As her finger neared my face, the nerve receptors buzzed and my knee fluttered. I was undergoing a chemical reaction. She threw me paper airplanes with little windows and escape doors drawn on them. We had fiery dance offs battling for the last jalapeño pepper in the pizza box. She always won.
She called me up on the last night of poetry camp and asked me if I believed in God, I said I didn’t know. She asked me if I was gay, I said I didn’t know. She I asked me if I had ever been in love, I said I didn’t know. She asked me to meet her at the stairwell of the dorm building in six minutes and hung up before I could answer. She sat on the fifth step, I sat on the sixth. She read her poems and I read mine. The stairwell echoed every bleeding word she said, the sharp sound of her tapping her pencil, her muffled breaths. It was 2 AM. The light was dusty on the chipping walls. I held her hand, the black holes of the galaxy in the gaps between our fingers. That moment was absolute. Motionless.
She left the next morning without saying goodbye, her train left before I got up. That’s when I realized it was only a tunnel. Ephemeral. The synchronicity of its electric gloom was going to be replaced by plain light. I was going to think of her often, then sometimes, then never. She was going blur into the mindlessness of my daily routine. All the vibrancy of our short ecstatic tunnel faded into a dim light. One that only turned on during a late, lonely night between turns and pillow repositionings. Our tunnel time together was going to become one more vignette of a memory in the mysterious black hole of my mind.
The day I got home, while I was unpacking, I found a jalapeño pepper between the pages of my poetry notebook. I ate it, it was still crisp.
Emily Wunsch is a writer and storyteller from Oak Park, IL. She has previously been published in Crest Literary Magazine.
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