by isaac black

“I love you mercilessly, the way a predator loves prey.”

Ryan saw the text as one of his friends was getting to the punchline of a story.

“We hear this singing coming from his room, so I creep up the stairway as far as I can without being seen, and it’s Ben, singing the ‘Oompa Loompa’ song. Doing different voices and everything. I call the rest of the guys over, and we listen to him sing a whole Willy Wonka medley for like ten minutes.”

The group chuckled heartily.

“And then he went out on his date,” Chris added as denouement.

“I love you senselessly. I want to stab out my eyes like Oedipus,” came the next text.

He texted back. “You must really miss me.”

“I miss you ravenously. I miss you like saturday morning cartoons.”

“You must be drunk,” he replied. “Also, thanks for reminding me how much I miss saturday morning cartoons.”

“That’s why I love you. Not the only reason, because I love you horrifically.”

The group of friends was having a fire behind Chris’ house, though in all honesty it was still too hot for a fire, being only the first week of September. A breeze wafted down the canyon. The fire flickered.

“Get me another beer if you’re going inside,” Kurt said.

“Yes, your highness,” Chris said. Chris was a natural host. He could be superficial at times but he put people at ease. That was what he was good at. Each of Ryan’s friends was good at something different, he mused contentedly. He sat in a folding char, the old kind with a tubed aluminum frame and nylon straps, but he was comfortable. Each of his friends was good at something different, he thought again, rolling the idea over in his mind. It was obvious, had only face value, but the setting seemed to lend it profundity. He rolled it around in his mind again before letting it go.

Ryan’s girlfriend had gone home to Washington for a week before she started the second year of her graduate program in Social Work at the U. She was clever, well-read, charismatic. Probably the smartest girl in her program, Ryan had once decided after meeting a few of the others. People underestimated her intellect. She had a preference for lowbrow humor, which didn’t help; nor did her natural beauty. Geniuses are supposed to be eccentric, muttering to themselves, forgetting to comb their hair.

He was savoring her text messages, silly as they were. He unbuttoned the second button of his flannel. It was really too warm for a fire.

“When does Sloan get back?” Peter asked, waking him from his reverie.

“Two days,” he said. 27 hours is what he meant.

“Have you ever met a girl named Sloan who was not hot?” Chris observed, handing Kurt a bottle. “As a parent, you have to be pretty confident in your baby daughter to go with Sloan as her name.”

“Every Sloan is a babe, I agree,” Peter said.

“If you find me a volleyball player named Sloan, that’s all I need. I will marry her, sight unseen,” Chris promised. He had a thing for tall women.

“Why aren’t there are any girls here now?” Kurt asked.

“It’s a waste, isn’t it?” Chris said. “I mean, look at us, we look like a damn Eddie Bauer ad,” he joked sardonically.

They had settled into their seats: log benches or camp chairs. Chris’ house in Emigration Canyon was far enough from the light pollution of downtown that stars were visible in the gaps in silhouetted foliage even with a waxing gibbous about to crown over the Wasatch ridge. Chris’ house was on the edge of a national forest but a straight shot into the city; Salt Lake City had an enchanted proximity to wilderness.

Kurt poked at the embers. Sparks drifted upward and were extinguished. The air was rich and full: when a breeze blew the smoke away he found a landscape in its scent: loam carpeted with pine needles, lichens on granite, sagebrush from farther up the canyon, streams fed with snowmelt into Autumn.

“I am hysterically in love with you.”

Talk of wishing girls were there turned into talk of first girlfriends. First kisses. Fumbling, excited moments, rendered in soft focus by a fond remembering of adolescence. Histories inscribed in the act of recounting to their friends at slumber parties. Neighborhood sidewalks exuberant with teenage discoveries, brimming with memory–when returned from odysseys they slept contented in dens together as miniature men.

The fire burned down to black coals glowing neon at the edges. Sent faint rays of light out of the perforations in the rusted iron basin.

Sloan was a revelation. She was unlike any woman he had ever dated, and he had no idea how or why she had fallen for him. Sloan was a miracle. He wanted to cry, but that was probably mostly the beers. He silently thanked the universe for being so kind. He sent Sloan a text:

“I love you.”

And then came the reply.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.”