When we were seven, she counted the steps between our houses, making sure to subtract four where she had to go around a tree and add two when she hopped over a ditch. The number she got was the same as the number of days in a year if you didn’t count Christmas or our birthdays. She said this meant something, but she wasn’t sure what yet. I counted my steps going the opposite way – subtracting and adding where necessary – but only hit 345 before I reached her porch. This also meant something, but until she determined what that was, I was told to make a 17-step circle in the yard before approaching the door.
The summer after she counted for the first time, she tried to make the trip every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This should have totaled 35,838 steps, but she got the chicken pox in June and missed a week, bringing her total to only 33,304 – which meant nothing. A few days after she woke up covered in angry red spots, her mother called my house to ask if I’d like to come over and catch them. I was horrified at the idea of catching a disease intentionally, but my parents told me it was for my own good and sent me walking to her house with a thermos of soup and a stack of books. In her room, she was covered up to her neck in blankets. Her face was covered in red sores that were splotched with pink calamine lotion; each one looked like fiery, agitated nipple. I climbed into bed while her while her mother left to heat up the soup.
“My mom says I have to get you sick,” she whispered.
“My mom says I have to let you,” I replied.
“What are we supposed to do – touch?”
“I think so. Or maybe you could just breathe on me.”
She nodded and then reached for something on the nightstand. I didn’t see what it was, but when she turned back around she clicked on a flashlight and pulled the covers over our heads. We looked at each other seriously for a moment. The light shining on her face made her pox all the more gruesome.
“We could kiss.”
I don’t remember who said it, but the words were heavy and adult and made my stomach do strange things. Silently, we nodded to one another, gritting our teeth and scooting closer on the bed. I reached straight out with both arms and cupped her shoulders, slowly pulling her towards me. Not knowing any better, we both kept our eyes open wide – each set inching closer to their opposites. When our mouths were an inch apart, she began to shake.
“Ready?” she asked, more to herself than anyone.
I pressed forward, mashing my lips against hers. Her lips were hot and dry from the fever, and I could feel several of her scabbed sores pressing against me. My brother had told me something about using your tongue, but I was too afraid to move, or even blink. Up close, her eyes looked like seaweed and black ink. The kiss ended, and I got sick. We spent the rest of the week counting our sores – 418 collectively – and connecting them with thick, colorful markers that smelled like rotten fruit.
Many years later, she approaches the altar. She raises her head and I find her face through the veil. She was very good about not picking her pox, so not even the smallest, pale, round scar is left. She is smiling, but her eyes are misty with the beginnings of tears. Her niece follows her, doing her best to hold up the dress’s silky train. The music swells and is nearly overwhelming in the small church. The slow, measured step of the wedding march can be frustrating to watch, but it is easy to count; even under the long, silky dress I tally every movement of her feet. She opens her mouth when she reaches me, but I already know.