The inimitable Mr. Funk is here to remind us that it's true: you never forget your first one.
The First One by Matthew C. Funk
He bent that red carpet smile in my direction. Wrapped eyes of baby-blanket blue around me. A thread of hurt tugged tight in his jaw.
A look like that made me want to hold his hand. Bobby Ray must've sensed it instantly. He moved a step away as we wended past palm cypress and belly-high grass.
"I took Kelly down to a river just like this," he said. His eyes floated with the midges and the pollen. They didn't look lost, though. They looked found.
Bobby Ray clasped around Kelly every way he could and counted hatching stars with his breath in her ear.
"This is happening just for us," she told him. Her fingertips bedded in his palms. Her heartbeat inside his ribs. The warmth of her hips pressed in reply to his thighs. She gave him everything he could ever need in this embrace.
He wanted to be everything for her.
"We're the center of the cosmos," he said. She spread a smile against his throat that told Bobby Ray that he had said the truest thing in history.
They counted twenty-three stars and lost count of their kisses. Stayed locked together until they forgot time was a thing and then took a river-smoothed stone each to hold on to that magic. Bobby Ray woke the next morning beside Kelly, chin still tickling from the plaid wool coat she'd worn.
The next month, they drifted together like daffodil seeds. The month after, she took on pneumonia. Bobby Ray failed his classes tending her.
Three months later, they ran out of things to talk about. Six months later, her face was ice when he sermonized about the night by the creek. It took a month more before she left him for another.
"He writes poems to me," Kelly told Bobby Ray over the phone. "You never did that. I need someone who shares everything with me."
Bobby Ray wouldn't look at my frown. He walked slower, bayou mud on his boots taking on new weight.
"I can't recall what Kelly's voice sounded like," he said. "I still carry that stone, though."
"And the next?" I said.
Every morning after their third anniversary, Bobby Ray woke early to make love to Josephine. His hips and fingers took their time as dawn spread a bruise outside the bedroom window. She looked at him in her climax like she was seeing the whole world being born.
By the time he'd laced up his oil-stained boots, Josephine's stare was sour with loss all the way through.
"Be sure to call," she said.
"When do I not?" Bobby smiled fit to break his face. Jo just frowned.
"You're everything to me," she said, only after he turned his back for the door.
At work, he'd imagine every text message sent to Jo as a brick: A fortress wall against the person he had been when he let down his love for Kelly. He set 24 bricks that day. He called three times, sneaking away from the auto shop and whispering behind his grease-stained fingers. He wrote a checklist of sweet things to do for Jo - flowers, a card, arranging her cosmetics into a heart - on the back of a parts receipt.
Dinner that night was as tense as every night. After the reheated meatloaf, his prodding got Jo to tell him what was wrong.
"You were slow in responding to the message I sent," she said.
"When? At 3? I was with a customer."
"Was the customer a woman?"
Bobby Ray shook his head but he couldn't lose the crippled bend in his lips.
"I just gave up on her," he said. "After four years."
He looked at me with empty eyes hungry for absolution. I just kept my head down, watching the mire deepen around my feet.
"And then?" I asked.
Bobby Ray answered the banging on his door at 3am with a baseball bat in hand, to find a kid standing there. Colleen had brought her boy. The porch light haloed her quaking shoulders and his seven-year-old frame.
"What?" Colleen's voice matched the black scratches of running mascara on her cheeks.
"You going to hit me now?"
"Go away, Colleen." Bobby Ray started pushing the door closed. It was either that or grab the split he felt cleaving his heart.
"No!" She shoved it open. "Eric needs a father!"
"He has one," Bobby said, every word splitting that stitch deeper and colder. "It ain't me."
Boy and mother sobbed. "You can't just turn me away," Colleen said. "I'm in love with you."
Bobby fought the door closed. Shooting the deadbolt didn't protect his windows from being broken. Colleen stayed another two hours throwing rocks and curses.
Bobby woke three hours later for work. He deleted voicemails on the way: Colleen's five angry messages. Two sad ones from Pam. Another from Kimberly, hopeful but wary, wanting to start things up again.
Even after he put down the phone, Bobby had to repeat in his head that he didn't care. Around lunch break, he believed it enough to stop.
Until, after work, he called up Sandra.
"Tell me about Jean," I said, looking into the stew of leaves we paused by.
"Dottie, actually," Bobby Ray said. "I need to tell you about Dottie."
Bobby Ray huddled about Dottie on the blanket spread riverside, the moisture of their lovemaking cooling below, stars frosted above.
He buried his face in her neck. She stayed so still, just glowing, as if she'd consider movement a sin.
"This is perfect," Dottie said. "This moment. Right now. It's all I need."
Bobby Ray nodded, even as a split started in his chest. By the time it cut to groin and head, he reached for his pants. Dottie grabbed his arm, as if desperate to keep him.
"Did you do her like Jean here?" I asked. We both stared down now.
"Yep," Bobby Ray said. "I did them all like Dottie: Belt around the neck. They say strangulation's one of the kindest ways to die."
"Sure," I said, brushing leaves and beetles from the tatters that were left of Jean's face. "Kind."
"I got tired of feeling that perfection destroyed," Bobby Ray said. He looked away from Jean, her ruptured nudity running over with the insects he'd left her to. "Seeing what it did to them."
I met his eyes. Their color looked more like the blue-bottle flies swarming around.
"How many girls between Jean and Dottie?"
"I stopped counting, Detective," Bobby Ray said, spreading that movie-star smile. "I just didn't care."