Authors: Helen Hoang
Without taking time to think, she answered, “I want to kiss you.”
When she heard the words fall from her mouth, a furious blush heated her cheeks, and she spun around and busied herself emptying the dustpan into the garbage. Why had she said that?
He approached her. “ Esme ...”
She stepped around him and swept up the rest of the hair on the floor. “Sorry. Forget I said that.” She dumped everything in the garbage again and hurried to return the broom to the closet. “When do you want to go to Cal Berkeley?”
Rubbing at the back of his neck, he said, “We can go after I eat something and shower again, I guess.”
“Okay, I’ll get ready.” She limped toward the hallway.
“Wait, aren’t you hungry?”
Not for food. “No, thank you, Anh.”
“I’ll get you when it’s time to go, then,” he said as he ran his hands through his newly short hair.
“Take your time.”
She’d just be in her room, trying not to think about him.
s Khai drove Esme to Berkeley, he couldn’t get her confession out of his head.
She wanted to kiss him.
He wanted to kiss her back.
But he couldn’t.
You kissed a woman if you wanted to date her and have a relationship, if you wanted to love and be loved in return, if you
love. If you kissed a woman when you couldn’t deliver on the rest, you were an asshole. It was better to jack off in the shower.
He wished that was an option. Ever since Esme had come into his life, he was in a constant state of arousal, and there was no relief— except for what happened by accident in his sleep. To date, he’d had to get up four times in the middle of the night and change his boxers. It was embarrassing as fuck. Like being twelve again. And his dreams always involved her. Always. Half the time, they involved her Hammer pants, too.
It had been a while since he’d seen those particular pants. Currently, she wore a pair of blue jeans that looked like they’d been painted onto her legs. He didn’t care for denim himself, but he wouldn’t have minded running his palms along her thighs. For someone who didn’t like touching, he spent an awful lot of time fantasizing about it.
When they reached campus, he parked as close as was humanly possible to the registrar’s office, and they walked down the road together. More accurately, he walked. She limped.
“The doctor should have given you crutches.” Instead of his phone number. Opportunistic bastard. “How are you feeling? Do you need help?”
“It’s not too bad.” The smile she beamed at him was sunnier than the yellow long-sleeved shirt she wore. One of the sleeves had orange text down the side that read
Em yêu anh yêu em
. His written Vietnamese was god-awful, but he knew enough to roughly translate that as
Girl loves boy loves girl
. It was a nice concept. The circle of love and all that. Too bad he could never complete that circle.
“Let me know if you want to rest. I can just carry you there, too.”
She tucked the hair behind her ear. “If you do that, people will think you’re my boyfriend.”
He looked at the students walking around campus and shrugged. “Why does it matter?”
“In that case, I hurt really bad. Carry me all the way,” she said as she smirked and took an exaggerated limp.
He knew her well enough now to catch when she was joking with him, but he picked her up anyway. She laughed and wrapped her arms around him, grinning at him as her eyes sparkled in the sunlight. Right then and there, Khai decided green was his favorite color, but it had to be this specific shade of seafoam green.
She grew self-conscious all of a sudden, and her hands curled into fists. “I can walk.”
“We’re there.” He nodded toward the large white building with its four massive pillars and
engraved over the middle set of double doors. “The registrar’s office is in there. They should have a database of all the students who’ve gone here. I don’t know if they’ll give us the information you want, though.”
Staring up at the building, she nodded. “He walked up these same stairs.”
She wiggled her legs, and he let her down. She aimed a distracted smile at him before she hobbled up the stairs to the building. When they made it inside, she looked around with roaming eyes and parted lips.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and gave her space to explore. He didn’t really understand her fascination. It was just a building, and it wasn’t like her dad had left part of himself here. Well, if he had, that was nasty.
There wasn’t a line at the registrar’s, so they walked directly to the counter.
“Hi, how can I help you?” the guy asked through his enormous orange beard.
Esme hugged her purse to her chest, wet her lips, and glanced at Khai quickly before she said in rehearsed-sounding English, “My dad went to school here a long time ago. His name is Phil. Can you find him for me, please?”
speak English. She just chose not to. With him. The guy looked at both of them over the tops of his purple plastic-rimmed glasses. “Are you serious?”
“You don’t know his last name?” the guy asked.
She swallowed, shook her head, and replied in English again, “No. All I know is Phil.”
Khai slowly turned his head so he could analyze her. She only knew her dad’s first name. That was surprising and ... sad. This decreased her chances of finding him dramatically.
“There are probably thousands of Phils here.
a Phil.” The guy tapped his name badge where it said
Khai arched his eyebrows. The guy was about two hundred percent Phil, but his age and coloring were all off. “She has a picture.”
She hurried to pull it out of her purse and handed it over. “ Twenty-four years ago.” She tried to smile, but her lips barely curved before she cleared her throat.
Philip Philipson offered Esme an apologetic smile. “I totally want to help you, but I’m not allowed to give you this information. I’m so sorry.”
“But he was here,” she insisted.
“I’m really so sorry. Maybe you should hire a private investigator,” Philip said.
She hugged the picture to her chest as her eyes went glossy, and Khai wanted to reach across the counter and shake an apology out of Phil. Before he could act, Esme pushed away from the counter and limped from the room.
He followed behind as she rushed out of the building, hobbled down the steps, and limped across the plaza to sit by the round water fountain. She dragged in deep breath after deep breath, but as far as he could tell, she wasn’t crying. She might as well have been, though. He didn’t see how it was that different from what she was doing.
A familiar sense of ineffectualness seized him. He never knew what to do when people were emotional like this, but he wanted to do
For lack of any better ideas, he sat down next to her and said, “My parents divorced when I was little. I know my dad, but we never see him.”
She turned to look at him. “Why not?” Back to Vietnamese again. What did it mean?
“He’s busy with his new family and lives in Santa Ana. He’s an accountant. Like me. Or maybe I’m like him. I don’t know.” He rubbed his neck. “ Maybe ... it’s better that you don’t know your dad. You can imagine he’s better than mine.”
“That’s true.” A small smile touched her lips, but it faded quickly. “But I just— I just wanted to know, and if I go without seeing him, I’ll have wasted the trip here, and ... ” She swiped a sleeve over her eyes and tried to take more deep breaths, but then her face collapsed and her shoulders shook.
Fuck, she was crying for real now. Something much like panic gripped him. She couldn’t cry. She was supposed to be happy for the both of them because he didn’t know how.
He grabbed one of her hands. Hand-holding was good, right? But then she leaned toward him, and soon he was hugging her as she buried her face against his neck. The air rushed out of his lungs. She was in his arms, turning to him, trusting him, just like that time she’d had the nightmare.
It was terrifying. It was wonderful.
He didn’t know what to do other than hold her tighter. Students crossed the plaza. Birds chirped in the trees, and a soft breeze blew. Sunlight was warm against his face. She nuzzled closer, and the weight of her body pressed on him. He felt the impression of lips on his neck.
Did that count as a kiss?
She turned her face to the side and peered up at him through damp eyelashes, and he brushed the residual moisture on her cheek away with his thumb. So soft, so pretty. He stroked wet tendrils of hair back from her temples, and her lips parted.
In an instant, everything changed. The wind became velvet, and sound was the loudness of his heart and the rush of his blood. Colors brightened and danced. The green of her eyes, the yellow of her shirt, the blue of the summer sky, it all centered around the pink of her mouth.
He didn’t realize what he was doing until he saw his fingertips smooth over her bottom lip. What a sight to see his tanned skin against her pale face. Her eyes went luminous and dreamy, and when he ran his fingertip over her lip again, her mouth opened wider. He found himself leaning toward her, wanting, wanting, wanting, but he managed to stop before he broke all his rules.
“You can kiss me,” she said, her voice half whisper, half husky rasp. “Anytime you want, you can kiss me.”
Girl loves boy loves girl
repeated in his head. He couldn’t love her, couldn’t make her any promises. He should stay away from her.
Eyes steady on his, she continued, “You can kiss me ... and touch me ... and not marry me. I just ... want to be with you. Before I go.”
Her words sent clashing reactions through him. His stomach bottomed out at the idea of her leaving, but concurrently, tension drained from his muscles. She’d given permission and made it clear she had no expectations. Kissing her wasn’t connected to dating or a relationship or marriage or love. He could just kiss her because he wanted to.
He could kiss her.
His skin went hot, and he knew it was going to happen. He was going to kiss Esme. It was inevitable now.
He brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek, and a shaky breath sighed between her lips. He had to taste them, had to know them.
Cradling her jaw in his hand, he leaned toward her.
you,” a loud voice interrupted in a thick Russian accent.
h no, that voice was familiar.
Esme jerked away from Khải with a start, and her heart dropped when her fears were confirmed. It was her. “Hi, Angelika.”
Khải looked from her to the tall blond Russian woman, and Esme broke out in a cold sweat. He was going to find out she was a big liar, and then he was going to look down on her more.
“I did not know you have a boyfriend,” Angelika said.
Khải didn’t correct Angelika. Maybe that meant something, but Esme didn’t have time to think about it. They needed to leave right away. Maybe if they were fast, Khải wouldn’t figure it out.
She jumped to her feet. “We need to go. Later, Angelika.” She wanted to grab Khải by the arm and drag him after her, but she was afraid of touching him the wrong way. After a moment’s hesitation, she limped off on her own, hoping he’d follow. Luckily, he did.
But instead of letting them leave in peace, Angelika tagged after them. “I am thinking of applying here if I pass the GED. But I do not know if I will pass. If you take the test, you will pass.” To Khải, she said, “Esmeralda is very smart. She gets As on all of her tests in class.”
Esme’s heart jumped and started beating so fast her vision blurred. Too late.
“You’re taking classes?” he asked. “At the adult school across from my mom’s restaurant?”
She nodded as she stared down at the ground, wishing she could melt into the cracks between the bricks. Now he knew she wasn’t Esme in Accounting. She was Esme who hadn’t even graduated high school.
Angelika took an uncomfortable step back. “I, um, I will see you later. Have a nice weekend. Nice meeting you.”
Esme waved, and Khải flashed his usual barely there smile at Angelika before focusing on Esme again.
When he opened his mouth to speak, Esme hurried to say, “We’re done now. We should go.”
As she limped back the way they’d come, she distracted herself by taking in as much of the campus as she could. Her dad had walked on these same bricks, breathed this same air, seen these same trees. This was probably the closest she’d ever get to him.
Khải caught up to her with easy strides of his long, uninjured legs. “We should go the other way.”
“The car is this way.” She pointed toward the parking lot.
“There’s another place we should try.”
She paused. “Another place?”
“The alumni building. They might be more helpful. I probably should have taken you there first. Do you need help getting there? It’s not far. It’s just over there.” He motioned in the other direction, toward a cluster of more modern buildings surrounded by old trees.