By Sarah Fran Wisby

A WOMAN FELL in love with a man who was five years younger than her. This five years would make little difference, she thought, when they were both a bit older, and in fact it seemed to make little difference now, when compared to some of their other differences, such as the difference in their temperaments, or in who wanted to sleep with a lot of different women and who preferred to imagine just one hand moving on her throat for the rest of her days.

Some of their differences were semantic. For instance, upon hearing the word summer, the man thought of baseball and bristling green grass and the smell of his leather glove, whereas the woman thought of elegant shade trees with dangling globes of red and yellow fruit and glossy, spade-shaped leaves – but this was one of the differences they appreciated about each other. Why couldn't all their differences be like that, the woman wondered.

Certain of their differences mirrored each other in comical and tragic ways. He had just gotten out of a stifling though initially passionate relationship and was therefore mistrustful of passion, and she had just ended a pleasant but passionless relationship and was therefore jonesing for passion. When they fucked, he always wanted her to go faster and she always wanted him to go slower. When he got close to coming he approached the moment with quiet reverence and when it had passed he felt relieved, grateful, and also fearful, as if he'd gotten grape jelly on his good clothes and was waiting for his mother to scold him. When it was the woman's turn, she fought bravely against the tide of her orgasm until the last possible moment, and then she tended to sob and occasionally guffaw at the strange pictures that flashed through her mind: pantries full of garishly colorful cans of food, villages of dancing circus bears, even full-blown scenes from the Bible, though she'd never been religious. After she came, she'd be of two minds. She'd want to lie in his arms in his ridiculously comfortable bed (the cloud, he called it) and smell the slight mildew odor of his skin and try to prolong what really she knew couldn't be prolonged. At the same time she'd want to swiftly remove herself from his bed, run the two blocks to her own apartment and break down sobbing in the shower, which is what she usually did.

In spite of the mildew smell and all the sobbing, the woman still liked to picture herself with the man in some future scenario, a ranch-style house in the desert or a borrowed apartment in Europe, their many differences growing and shrinking in turn, so that no single one of them would be too alarming, but in fact bearable and even exciting. She looked upon their differences the way a fruit grower might look out upon his or her orchards as each variety of tree approached its own season of production. Always something is making a defiant show of its petals; always something is letting its petals drop softly to the ground.

He could not picture them together like this, or else he would not, which amounted to the same thing, and this was another one of their many differences.

One day last summer they had baked cherry pies and watched a Red Sox game on television. This was when they were both with other people. In fact, the pies were birthday pies for his girlfriend and her boyfriend, who shared the same birthday, and even shared a preference for pie over cake.

As they were taking the pies from the oven, their arms, which were bare from oven mitt to shoulder, brushed against each other, and the woman became very flushed, though she thought she could blame it on the heat from the oven if he mentioned it, which he didn't, because in that same moment the pie she was holding slipped from her mitts and they both jumped back from the shock and the noise of the glass dish hitting the floor. The dish broke but did not fly apart, and the dark cherry liquid leaked out in a little pool on his kitchen floor.

He lived at that time in a coach house with windows on all sides. The kitchen was flooded with sunlight, and the ruined pastry with its deep ruby cleft, the red pool spreading from it, looked so amazing there on the clean, cream-colored linoleum that they decided to leave it there a while.

Later, when the afternoon had cooled somewhat, they sat cross-legged on the floor with the pie between them, looking at each other and speaking with a seriousness mingled with frivolity. Looking back, she sees that she was more serious, he more frivolous. They ate the pie with their fingers, which were already sticky from the serious, frivolous thing they'd just done.

She had to stop at the bakery on the way to her boyfriend's party that night for a tray of apricot tartlets dusted with powdered sugar, another one of his favorites, with which he was extraordinarily pleased.

Another day, in autumn, the man stopped by the woman's apartment to kiss her deeply on the mouth, which he'd been doing, off and on, for over a year. She had lost count of the times she'd heard the doorbell, gone through the private agony of wondering if it might be him, felt the surge of joy looking down the stairs to see his sneakers bouncing on the sidewalk in front of her gate, his skinny legs wobbling.

Now, in her living room, she felt her whole body involve itself in the kiss, which plunged through the cavern of her and threatened to pull her out of herself. His hands were on her hair, stroking it softly forward against the sides of her face. Her hands were on his chest, feeling his nipples through the thin fabric of his T-shirt.

When they eventually pulled apart, he said, "Pretty great, huh?" and she nodded. She wondered if he'd been kissing anyone else like that, and if not, how he could be satisfied to just kiss her like that every once in a while, just fuck her for an hour every now and then, and seem utterly unscathed by it. Hot tears pressed at the corners of her eyes.

"I have to pee," she said. He saw the tears but let her pull away and stumble down the hallway to the bathroom. He let himself out onto the back porch while she splashed water on her face and whispered dammit dammit dammit into the basin of the sink. He touched the furry leaves of the tibouchina plant while she considered the many things she felt.

Why does this always happen to me, she asked her damp face in the mirror, though it was more of a rhetorical lament than a true inquiry, nor was it even factual. Nothing quite like this had ever happened to her before. She'd never before flirted with a man she found unattractive and then watched bewildered as non-attraction grew into a desperate, real attraction. She'd never before so loved the ghastly agony on a man's face as he had an orgasm, never before not disliked the taste of a man's come. It was a little like cucumber and also like egg whites, though of course she only imagined that because of the texture.

She'd been in love before, but that had been almost 10 years ago, and with a woman, and she could hardly compare the person she was then to who she was now. She wasn't even sure if she would call this love, though she had, many times, called it just that, in the privacy of her own mind or of her shrink's office, and once, memorably, out loud, last winter in a hotel room in Las Vegas. They had taken Ecstasy, and everything in the dull brown room had collapsed into itself so that breathing and fucking and speaking were the exact same thing. He had breathed, thisisthebestsexI'veeverhad, to which she had replied I'mfallinginlovewhataboutyou, to which she had received no reply. Perhaps this was just another of their semantic differences.

No, not in love, she told herself now, but somewhere in the vicinity, an equally rare and complicated place, on the desolate fringe of things. Once she had located this place – and knew that it was a place inside herself that she would always have and could visit whenever she chose – she felt a little better. But she still couldn't bear the thought that what he felt for her was so much less than what she felt for him. And yet she knew it was so, for he'd come right out and said it once, several months ago, in her bed with the baby blue sheets, long after the fog of Vegas had dissipated, and was at this moment getting ready to say it again, out on the porch.

Sarah Fran Wisby is a writer who lives in San Francisco. This story took second place in the Bay Guardian's Fiction '05 contest.