Reaching down for a stuffed toy, I throw it into the living room as she rapidly fetches it. I laugh as she comes back to the room and gets ready to jump. She curiously looks at me as if asking, "Why are you so happy?"
"Uh-uh." I waggle my finger close to her face. "I don't kiss and tell."
She pouts her big black eyes. "You're as nosy as your grandmother."
Speaking of her...I pick up my phone that's ringing by the side table. "Happy New Year, Mom!"
"Happy New Year, Genna!" She returns the excitement as only a mother can. "What's got you in such a happy stance?"
Should I tell her?
I need some girl talk. I only know a few women in Miami—Devin sisters and Mrs. Ruiz. Who better to talk to about a man than the person who knows me better than I know myself? Oh, what the Heavens she's my mom!
"I met someone," I say, holding back a jolly smile and biting the nail of my index finger.
"Oh." From such a prying woman as Sandra Peterson, I'd expected something other than an "oh."
I sit straight up. "Oh?"
The line goes dead and if it weren't for the static voices I hear in the background, I would've guessed she'd hung up.
"No, Frankie. You talk to her...I just...I can't..."
"Your mom tells me you've met someone," Dad enters the line, clearing his throat. "A male I presume?"
"Yes, Dad, a male," I say, exasperated. "Can you put Mom back on the phone?"
I'm not talking to Dad about Devin. That's just weird.
"We start a new year and you're already trying to get rid of me? I see. Now listen, your mom never lets me have the phone and we've added that to her New Year's Resolution list, so tell me more about this boy before she changes her mind. Please, don't tell me he's a Democrat."
I exhale. There's really no point in fighting this. "His name's Devin. He's a software developer and I don't know what party he belongs to nor do I care."
"Impressive. Sandy, he's smart!" I hear him shout.
I giggle consequently rolling my eyes. "He's twenty-six. I don't really know much about him, Dad. Can you just put Mom on?"
"Your mom isn't feeling well."
I try really hard. By God, do I try really hard not to think that Mom's reaction has something to do with Jess, but the signs are all there. As soon as I mentioned Devin, she went stale. Did they forget who they're talking to? How can she think I'd make the same mistakes as Jess?
"Really? Because she was just fine until I mentioned I met someone."
I interrupt him, not wanting to hear another lie. "Don't start the new year with fibs. I'm not her, Dad. I'm not Jess. Please, don't compare us, and pride yourselves on the job you've both done in raising me."
I learned from my sister's mistakes. I tried my hardest to be the daughter she was never able to be for my parents. I gave up being a teenager for them. For Mom to think that I would follow in her footsteps hurts. It hurts more than I could've ever imagined because it feels like all this time, they've been waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He breathes out. "I know, sweetie. I think she's just scared. You're so far away..."
"Would you tell her to call me when she feels better?"
"Yeah," he says. We hang up soon after that, taking my happiness with him.
Jess used to be sweet and caring, but when she met Hansel, everything changed. She turned into the classic teenage rebel who broke the rules set by society and our parents. She hated being young and wanted to appear older than she really was—with the body of the Goddess of Venus, she always did.
I was constantly at a crossroads with her, not knowing the right thing to do. Should I betray her trust and tell Mom and Dad she'd sneaked out or should I be a good daughter and tell them where she went? Not knowing the right answer, I did the cowardly act every night and pretended to be asleep.
Angie barks before I hear the familiar knuckles of Devin rasping on the front door. It's the only thing that manages to bring a smile to my face. Throwing the past far into my hippocampus, I quickly get out of bed and brush my teeth.
"Hey," Devin says when I open the door, putting a foot on the crack so that Angie doesn't run out. "What are you doing?"
"You came all the way here just to ask what I was doing? You could've just texted me."
"Texting is the lowest form of communication. You deserve a face-to-face interaction."
At that, I laugh and Angie takes the opportunity to sneak out and run into Devin's arms. I roll my eyes when she licks his cheek and if it weren't for her being a dog, I would think she was trying to seduce him.
He places Angie on the floor, only now noticing my red eyes. As if my chin was made of fragile glass, he touches it, tilting my gaze to his. "What's wrong, Corazón?"
I shake my head, detaching myself from his soft fingers. "Nothing."
"Crying is not nothing. We cry when we're hurt. Who hurt you?"
"No one hurt me. It's just...I was thinking of my sister." Salt invades my taste buds as a tear rolls to my lips.
"Ah, I'm an expert when it comes to sisters. I have three, remember?"
Sympathy laces his features at my tone of voice. The sympathy is fast replaced with an elated smile as an idea crosses his mind. "Come on. I know just the place to take you to cheer you up. You've got ten minutes to get ready."
"Devin, where are you taking me?" I shout when he walks up the stairs to his apartment.
"It's a surprise." Turning around, he says, "Wear waterproof clothes."
Waterproof clothes? What does he even mean by that? Heading back to my room, I look through my closet for water-resistant clothes. Not finding any, I settle for a dress and light makeup. A few minutes later, I open the front door to Devin, who's looking at my pale blue dress and gladiator sandals with amazement.
"When I said to wear waterproof clothes, I was thinking more along the lines of a bathing suit. Maybe even shorts," he mocks.
"A dress is waterproof...ish." My eyes browse his khaki shorts and navy-blue shirt. With his green eyes behind aviator glasses, his robust mouth is the only thing I manage to make eye contact with, begging to be kissed.
"We're going to have fun today, Genny. I'm taking you to the beach." His smile leaps from his lips to mine as he grabs my hand and guides me out of our apartment complex.
We walk the streets of Downtown Miami Beach for what feels like hours. If New York City and the Caribbean had a baby, it would be Miami Beach. The streets are booming with life and music this early in the new year.
A slow reggaeton oozes through the air. The melody so similar to the song Devin and I danced to that my cheeks heat up. He looks at me amused eyes.
Shaking his head, he gives me a smug smile. "Nothing. We're almost there."
After a while, the concrete sidewalk turns into glistening beige sand and the air isn't polluted with music, but the whooshing of waves. I stand there for a minute, taking in the serene sight and the smell of fresh air for the first time in my life.
Anxious to feel the grainy sand under my toes, I reach down to untangle the strings of my sandals. Devin surprises me by getting down on one knee almost as if he were going to propose. His warm breath touches my calf as he unties the strings of my sandals.
My fingers interlock with Devin's as I walk through Floridian sand. We walk forward until our feet are soaked by cool water. My toes curl. My heels dig a hole in the sand. My hair hasn't touched the sea, but I can feel the ends curling with saline.
We sit on the sand for a while, letting the sun graze our skin with vitamin D as we gaze to the horizon.
"Isn't it beautiful?" he questions.
I turn my eyes to his. "Yes, you are." Holy Mother of God, did I really just say that? My cheeks turn red, and it isn't just from the sun.
He chuckles, looking down as he draws circles in the sand. "I'm messed up in the head, Genny. I'm solid on the outside, but can, at any moment, dissolve into liquid. I'm flawed. I'm anything but beautiful."
"Isn't that the aphrodisiac of beauty, even with flaws one can still be beautiful? You don't have to be perfect to be beautiful."
Something passes in his eyes as he moves forward. He wraps an arm around my waist, slowly pulling me to him. I rest my forehead on his, my eyes closing when I feel his breath millimeters from mine.
As I lick my lips, Devin catches my tongue and sucks it into his mouth. His lips are soft, yet he applies enough pressure to make me insatiable. Devin devours my mouth like it's his last meal and he wants to taste every possible condiment.
He topples over me, bending me to the strand until my back hits the saturated sand. The impact of the cool water on my body and his hot kiss makes for an electrifying shiver that starts at my toes and bolts through my body. It settles in a place no other man has been before.
I break the kiss, turning my head to the sea when a slow wave rolls down my spine. There's a giant wave forming, big enough that surfers in California would come down just to surf it. It cranes itself high, commanding the water upward.
That's a big wave. That's a really, really big wave.
"Devin," I warn, seeing white horses trotting toward us.
"Be my girlfriend."
I turn my wide eyes to his. "What?"
"Be my girlfriend."
I laugh. "Don't you think that's a bit too fast?"
"Isn't life too fast? Yet we live it every day, rarely acknowledging its existence."
"Devin, this isn't philosophy 101. A tidal wave is going to drown us alive if we don't move."
"Say yes and we'll move."
I try to push him off with my hands, but he doesn't move, he's too strong. Although I don't mind because I love the feel of his body on my hands.
"I won't get up until you agree," he smiles, and for the first time looks at the beach. His features blanch as all the air is sucked out of his body. "Oh, shit, that's a big wave. Brace yourself, Genny." He ducks his head into the crook of my neck.
"Oh, my God. No, okay. Okay," I say hysterically. "Yes, I'll be your girlfriend. Now move before we get swallowed by the sea!"
An accomplished smile stretches his lips. Before we stand, he bends to give me a quick kiss. I bolt to the dry sand. I hear Devin's laughter behind me and turn around. What is he laughing at?
"Scared of a little salt water?" He walks to me casually, but I know better than to trust a man who made me choose between drowning alive or being his girlfriend. So when I see his hands outstretch by his sides, I take a step back and narrow my eyes.
"What are you going to do, Devin?" I look around for an escape plan.
He shrugs, taking a step closer to me.
"Nothing, I just want to show my girlfriend how sweet salt water can taste."
A defiant look crosses his face as he questions me with a raised eyebrow. I don't wait for him to make the first move. I turn and run, trying to erase the smile off my face or the natural ecstasy I'll feel when he catches me because I know I don't have a chance in the world of outrunning him.
The wind kisses my ears and blows my hair back while the rays of the sun warm my cheeks. Powerful hands grab my waist and inked arms lift me up in the air. I can't help the blissful scream that comes out of my mouth. He cradles me in his arms like a baby and turns back to the water.
"Devin," I say, trying my best to sound threatening.
He doesn't listen, determination is printed on his face as his feet get soaked by salt. When we enter the ocean, I clung to his neck with all my might. Snippets of cold water sprinkle my blue dress and his shorts slowly cling to his skin as they soak.
"If you sink me, I'll break up with you before we even have our first date!"
I wrap my legs and arms around his body like a child being carried by their parents to bed after a nightmare.
"This is just the beginning, baby," he whispers in my ear and ever so slowly—ever so painfully, excruciatingly slow—he sinks down. I gulp a huge puff of air before a wave swallows us down into the cool ocean.
We resurface from the water in only seconds, my blonde curls—now straight with saturated salt—stick to my face. Devin swipes it back as I spit the water I collected in my mouth into his face.
"I can't believe you just did that!" I say and start giggling, splashing briny liquid with my hands as he tries to get away.
He slow dances to the rhythm of the waves as he takes sluggish steps to the shore. Oh, no. He won't get away from me that easily. Remembering my swimming lessons when I was five, I dive deep into the waves.
When I see Devin's feet, I grab them and pull back, but nothing happens, his body stays upright. I float up and see his arms crossed over his chest, a cocky smile on his lips.
"I'm stronger than that, babe," he says and runs out into the shore as I stand there hating his strength.
When he gets to dry land, his body is dripping with wetness. His hard nipples attach to the cotton in his shirt, making him look like a supermodel ad. Without breaking eye contact, he begins to slip off his shirt.
As slowly as he strips, I start taking steps out of the water and closer to him. He throws the shirt in the sand when I stand on dry land just a foot from him. For the first time, I get a good look at his sculpted chest.
It's as if his upper body has been taken out of an early nineteenth century TV. Both his arms are covered with black zig-zag and Celtic lines with other tattoos I can't make out. The lines are compacted together, intersecting and threading his arms as if the artist tried hard to cover something.
At this moment, I wonder what he's trying to hide.
His defined pecs are also hidden in black. My gaze travels south to the only part of his body that isn't covered in dark ink but light scattering of hair from the bottom of his pecs to a wording above his bellybutton.
Devin's abs aren't overpowering, not washboard abs, but not the fluffy stomach of a man who sits around drinking beer all day either. Rather, his abdomen is strong and vigilant, leading to a sculpted Adonis belt. His deep V demands attention and my nipples are the first to offer it.
In the lower part of his stomach is the quote I'd seen the day we went to IHOP. The cursive lettering above his bellybutton reads, "Never stop trying," below his navel the quote finishes with, "Outrun your shadow."
My feet lower in quicksand. The only thing moving is my heart that stumbles into uncontrollable tilts as I try to decipher the meaning behind the somber phrase etched into his skin.
Never stop trying; outrun your shadow.
What can that possibly mean?
It's impossible to run away from your shadow. No matter how fast one goes, it will always be there and it's impossible to outrun it because it's attached to your feet. Then again, there's a plethora of meaning behind that one phrase. Shadows are dark, they show the outline of one's body, another side of them.
Could that mean he's trying to outrun his dark side? But Devin is anything but dark, so that wouldn't make any sense. He's as colorful as the Aurora Borealis dancing in the Arctic skies. I shake my head out of these thoughts.
I decided to start this year with a new me. I won't pester him or myself about things I don't know or things he's not ready to tell me. So, I let this go, hoping it's the best thing to do for him and me.
Devin wrings the water off his shirt and tries to do the same with his shorts, scrunching them against his thighs. I walk to him to offer a hand, the sand exfoliating my feet as it clings to my heels.
"Need any help?"
"Yeah. All of the water has collected in the backside of my shorts. I can't reach around to wring it."
There's no better way to answer his joke than with a laugh. "You want me to squeeze your butt?"
"Isn't that what girlfriends do?"
"We need to talk about the whole girlfriend thing."
I might like Devin, but it's too early to be his girlfriend. Not to mention my parents would think I have gone off the rails. Then again, don't they already think that?
His lips quirk up into a sly smile. "How about we grab something to eat and we'll talk some more?"
"We're soaked." I look down at my drenched dress.
"We'll dry by the time we get there."
We get out of the gritty sand and step into the streets of Miami in search of a place to eat. The familiar energy between us is charged with a natural pull as our arms brush and our hands grace. Though I'm apprehensive about this girlfriend/boyfriend relationship, my fingers tingle to interlock with his.
I've never had a boyfriend before. I never had the chance to have a boyfriend. After what happened to Jess, my parents sent me to an all-girls Christian school. When I graduated high school and went to college, the guys in my courses were just not interesting enough.
My first kiss was in eighth grade and I don't even consider that a real kiss because it was nothing compared to the way Devin kisses me.
A real kiss is the way he presses his lips to mine every time our mouths meet.
A real kiss is the feeling of sparks exploding in my tummy
A real kiss is the eruption of passion I get with every swipe of his tongue with mine.
A real kiss is the fissures of desire forming that make my knees wobble with every sigh of pleasure he ignites from me.
I don't know what it is about him that makes me wish for things I never had before. That makes my body answer to his in ways it has never done to anyone before. However, I'm scared. I'm utterly terrified of making mistakes, of dishonoring my faith and the person I've been for so long because whenever I'm around him, I forget about the world.
We enter Sazón del Caribe, what I'm assuming is a Cuban restaurant based on the type of music playing in the speakers—a mix of timbales and maracas. A young woman greets us in Spanish and walks us over to a table out on the sidewalk.
"What does Sazón del Caribe mean?" I ask, trying my best to pronounce each syllable correctly.
He gives me a lopsided smile. Gosh, that smile. "Taste of the Caribbean. I thought you took Spanish in high school."
I huff, rolling my eyes. "So did I."
He laughs and looks down at his menu as I do the same. I did take Spanish in school, but that was years ago and without practicing it, I've forgotten most of the words. We order our food soon after the waitress places our drink on the table.
I direct my gaze to the streets. From where we are seated, I'm next to tourists and pedestrians parading around Miami in their bathing suits and flip-flop this early in January.
Galeton would be inundated in feet of snow this time in the year and people wouldn't be caught in short-shorts let alone a bikini. Though we all form part of this big United States, the cultures in every state are so different that it feels as if I've stepped into another realm.
"Is Miami always like this?" I find myself asking this question frequently, but it's surreal to live in this city.
"Alive. Mesmerizing. Even in the winter, the streets are bursting with vibrant colors as if it were summer."
He leans forward as if to tell me a secret. "There's no winter in Miami."
"So it's summer all year around, huh?"
"Yep." He reaches down and takes a plantain chip, scooping some of the white sauce. He places it on my bottom lip. The sauce drips down my chin. Devin reaches forward and swipes it with his tongue. His lips softly brush mine.
"Open," he says when he pulls away.
His penetrating gaze is as hypnotic as the streets of Miami. Without arguing, I open my mouth to the chip. The flavor is a mix of potato chips with a hint of garlic.
"More?" he asks. I nod.
"I know what you're doing," I say as I swallow another plantain chip.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says oh, so innocently.
The waitress brings out our Cuban fritas and departs to the front to greet a family waiting to be seated.
"About the gi—"
"Take a bite and tell me what you think."
I bite into the bun as masses of flavors hit my taste buds at once—caramelized onions, shoestring potatoes, ketchup, and chorizo. I take another bite.
"I think maybe we should date and see where things go. I mean, I literally just met you. For all you know I can be a serial killer."
"Dating?" he asks as if the thought never crossed his mind. "I think we surpassed dating when you met my family. And since you didn't kill them that cancels out the serial killer theory."
I laugh. He kind of does have a point.
"Plus, dating is overrated. We could be in a relationship and go to the movies and dinner without the whole 'will he call' 'does he like me' or 'is he going to kiss me' shit because you'll know the answer will always be yes."
His lips turn into a seductive smirk. I can tell he knows I'm going to agree with him because he does make a valid point. Why worry about questions I already know the answer to? Why walk on eggshells with him when I know I like him and he likes me, too?