My professor had announced to the whole class that I was leaving for Officer Candidate School at 08:00. Patted me on the back like a proud papa, for the last time. Sitting on the concrete bench outside Cooper Hall after class, I was tortured by the word last. Last night before shipping out. Last class at this school. Last chance to ask out Emma, my study partner. But I hadn’t. Instead, having already said goodbye to my parents, my only plan was to sit on the beach and watch the sunrise. Hours from now.
“Mark…? Wanna come with me?” I heard Emma softly repeat. She was standing in front of me, asking me out — even though she knew I was leaving — and it was all I could do to breathe. I didn’t care about the specifics. I wanted to be just as impulsive.
So I drove, while Emma pointed out the turns. Bare feet on my dash. Smile on her face. So close my fingers brushed her long skirt every time I shifted gears. She was so near. So beautiful. Keeping my eyes on the road was a struggle. Forgetting tomorrow was easy.
First stop was a giant used bookstore — the biggest I’d ever been in. So large I was afraid I’d lose her in the maze of floor-to-ceiling shelves. We found books with outrageous titles in the self-help stacks. Discovered a similar love of classics in the children’s section. Admired ancient tomes under glass at the front of the store. Emma picked out a collection of poetry. I found some stationery. To write home.
“Come with me… I know a place,” she said with a smile.
Next stop was a Spanish restaurant that I never would’ve tried on my own. We shared dishes that tasted amazing and got drunk on flavors. Sometimes her lashes would flutter with a new bite, and I wondered how I could put such a look on her face. Dessert was amazing too, but I realized it might be twelve weeks before I could enjoy such a decadent meal again. We grew more quiet. Smiled less. Our night was coming to an end, and we’d have to say goodbye.
Then Emma reached across the table to take my hand. “Come with me,” she said.
She led me out of the restaurant, down the brick sidewalk a couple of blocks, and into a secluded courtyard hidden between buildings. A place I never would’ve found if not for her. There, stars peeked between tree branches and blended with strings of lights, while the breeze carried the scent of night jasmine mixed with the bay. We sat at a flimsy plastic lawn table while listening to a trio of jazz musicians play set after set, each better than the last. At times, we laughed together with the sheer wonder of the music. Other times, we simply sat together, listening, trying to remember it all. Trying to forget the morning. Again, her smile began to wane. And so did mine. The thought of saying good night haunted us. Then last call was made, and the band started their final song.
“Come with me,” Emma said, as she laced her fingers with mine.
Back on the brick sidewalk, she led us through a series of turns to a wooden boardwalk that winded to the beach. There, I took her into my arms, finally pulling her close. And we began to dance barefoot. Right there in the sand. To the rhythm of the waves. Under the blanket of stars.
“Wait for me?” I asked when the sun rose.
In the light of the new day, she promised in her kiss.
Harmonie Blankenship is a second-generation Floridian who enjoys visiting St. Pete, the setting of this story.