Autumn’s First Kiss

Miami is all about the heat. On the cusp of summer, with warm winds blowing in off the ocean that is as tepid as a baby’s bath water, the heat bleeds up through the soles of your shoes as you stroll along Ocean Drive. Further inland, beyond the neon-framed causeway that crosses the inlet, the heat envelops you along palm tree lined roads. At the southern most point, Key Biscayne, in a kitchen, the temperature can reach 140 degrees.

David Souton had had enough of it.

He threw the sauté pan across the kitchen. It clanged against a steel countertop scattering sliced olives and minced onions, and then rolled to a stop on the mosaic tiles at the feet of a bewildered busboy.

“I’ve had it,” Dave screamed, wrapping his hand in a wet towel. “Who the hell put the burner on underneath the handle of the pan? What moron didn’t see that I was using it?”

The line cook standing next to Dave did not say a word, just glanced at the sous-chef, who was inching to put a pillar between himself and Dave.

Dave went for him. The sous-chef back pedaled into a wall and threw up his hands. When Dave got to him, he shook his branded palm out of the towel and thrust it into the sous-chef’s face.

“You don’t belong in a god-damned kitchen! You’re as inept as you are lazy. And you’re my boss?”

The executive chef, John, rushed over, and shoved in between the two of them. Dave noticed the outline of the pan handle that had been seared into his palm, along with the name of the company that made it. In raised relief, Cosco glared at him in a fiery red that softened to orange in the surrounding flesh.

“Alright, Dave, that’s enough. Not here.”

“Not here, John? Not here? Why? Everybody knows that your brother is an ass and that he has my job.”

“You’re only here for another week…”

“Because you screwed me! I helped you build this place, opened it, designed three quarters of the menu, and then you gave that nitwit the sous-chef position!”

John did not say anything, just glanced around at the staff that stood and watched the show.

Dave shook his head and put his arms down. “I don’t even know why I gave you two weeks notice.”

He turned around and walked out, not even bothering to throw his apron at someone. Down the steps, out the door, into his car, and then he was driving to the only bridge out of Key Biscayne, with his palm sticky against the super-heated pleather of the steering wheel. He glanced at the bridge in his rear view mirror. It shimmered in translucent ripples like a reflection in a pond after a child throws a rock into it. When he made the left hand turn south onto US 1, towards his apartment, it was gone.

The heat of Miami infuses everything that is Miami. Cultures seethe and boil in an international stew. Venezuelan and Brazilian mingle with Cuban and Ecuadorian, who further gets stirred into the Latino mix. Chinese and Korean blend with Japanese and Philippine to make the Asian community. Long, dread locked hair can mark the African American or Caribbean Islanders.

Dave thought that he finally had the right mix and set his latest dish on the table in his apartment: seared salmon encrusted with cracked, black pepper, with a kiwi mint sauce.

Thair looked up at him and nodded in approval. The presentation was meticulous, as it should be: the eyes were the first thing that had to be satisfied in a good meal. The salmon was a bit off centered on the plate, half of it resting on a bed of rice pilaf. Soft pink glowed through streaks of black, with the lazy green sauce crisscrossing both the salmon and the plate. A tuft of mint leaves at two o’clock and a careful pile of red cabbage and bright green pods at five o’clock.

“Colorful,” she smiled, and then she flaked off a corner of the salmon, ran the edge through the sauce, and set it gently on her tongue. The heat of the pepper was softened by the sauce.

Dave sat down next to her, with his own plate. He brought with him a crisp, white German Riesling and poured for the two of them.

“Wasn’t this supposed to be your special tomorrow night,” Thair asked.

“Yes,” Dave replied, after a sip of wine. “And can you believe that Tom called and actually asked for it?”

Thair laughed, a musical little laugh, like the sound of tiny, silver bells rustling against each other.

“Said he would pay me double if I came back and worked my final week. Promised me a great reference.” He smirked and shook his head. “ Ass.”

“Are you really that upset about it, though,” Thair asked. “Yes, John gave his brother the job that you deserved, but did you really want it? Weren’t you planning to quit anyway?”

“Yes, but…”

“No but’s. Be honest.”

In all honesty, Dave knew, Thair was right. He had timed his two week notice to coincide with his graduation from college. With a degree in journalism, he would finally fulfill his promise to himself and put the cooking and his other toys behind him. Put Miami behind him and head back up north. Play time was over.

Thair nodded at his silence. “John and I have something in common: we’ll both miss your specials.”

“Tell me,” Dave said, “if I didn’t cook for you, would you still miss me?”

“Well,” Thair started sarcastically, and then she paused. “Si, I would still miss you, mi carino.”

‘My dear one’ she called him. Or it could mean darling. Or affection. A deep friendship or something more. Long ago, Dave gave up trying to listen for the inflection that would give away its true translation. He always thought it was adorable. He liked it. But he also thought the ambiguity was her way of reminding him of a boundary between them. She was a Miami resident, hailing from Venezuela. Older by half a decade. Far removed from the college boy from Rockville, Maryland, who was still stumbling home most mornings with the sunrise.

Later, the meal was pushed back, and glasses of wine clanked on the balcony of Dave’s apartment. The ceiling fan thrummed overhead, softening the heat of a Miami evening at the end of May.

“Well, at least you picked a good time to head back up north,” Thair finally said.

“It gets hot there as well.”

But not like in Miami. In weeks, Thair’s long, reddish brown hair would be bound for a three month stretch, through the beginning of September. The soft, reddish-brown curls would be uncontrollable in the moist summer, with the temperature and humidity both hovering near 100 constantly.

Heat becomes passion on the dance floors of Miami. A feast of music and sweat is gorged upon by anybody brave enough to throw themselves into the melee. The line between sensuality and sexuality gets obliterated as bodies gyrate and pulse against each other. Monogamy is ignored. Awkwardness gets seared away by the rhythms and beats. Sometimes, all that you can do is grasp at each other to keep from drowning.

Thair put down her glass of wine and stretched like a cat, her long legs unwrapping from underneath her, and her blouse falling away from her arms that she stretched towards the fan.

She looked at Dave. “Why do you have that stupid grin on your face?”

Dave tipped his glass towards her. “That blouse fits you as well as it did on New Year’s Eve.”

Thair looked down and realized that the low neckline had dropped a bit too low, revealing a dark nipple riding on a small, firm mound. With a crooked smile, she covered herself.

Friends. That was all, Dave knew. But New Year’s Eve had been a tough ordeal. After the dancing. After the Dom Perignon, beer, tequila shots and lemon drops. After the rich meal and decadent desserts. After the laughter of friends, hugs by co-workers, and kisses by strangers when the ball dropped on the large screen television in the restaurant ballroom. After a stumbling and staggering trip to the closest apartment. After a drunken game of musical beds, where people just flopped to pass out, unmindful of who else was where. After Dave found himself with Thair, on a futon, in the middle of the living room.

He had woken just before dawn, with the first blush of the New Year rising on the window. Thair lay facing him, stretched out, with one delicate hand millimeters away from his own. Her blouse was stretched down, to reveal remarkable pale, freckled skin. A dark halo surrounded a tiny nipple, cresting a smallish breast.

Friends, Dave had told himself. Just friends. He ached, though, to reach out. Touch. Run his fingers through that luxurious hair. Cover her lips with his own.

Maybe she would have responded in kind. Maybe she would have slapped him. Maybe she would have just have said no. But maybes got pushed aside, again, and he had closed his eyes, to awaken again at noon. Thair still slept, rolled over on her other side, the blanket tucked up around her neck.

He had been the first one to wake. The first one to make it back to his car and the first one to find his own bed.

“Excited about graduation,” Thair asked, as she poured herself another glass of wine and pushed at a stray strand of hair that was sticking to her cheek.

He shrugged noncommittally, not wanting to set-off Thair’s acute bullshit detector. Yes, he was excited, but also frightened. Seven years for a four year degree were racing to an end in the same haphazard way he had lived those seven years. He had met Thair two years into it, when she was a waitress at the place he had gone for a job as a line cook. Natural talent had gotten him promotions. A character flaw had gotten him addicted to the Miami nightlife.

She smiled at his shrug. “And then your going away party. And then you’re going away.”

Another shrug. Another smile. Another reach for the bottle of wine that now bobbed in the melted ice cubes.

It had always seemed to Dave that Thair rode the Miami heat like a surfer. A boyfriend here and there, from time to time. Maybe a girlfriend as well, here and there. At some parties, but not all of them. She was as much a fixture on Miami Beach as her pale pink stucco apartment building. He had never seen her not smiling. To her, Miami was home.

Dave was a transient, like most of the population. Just passing through, he always told himself, a means to an end, though a four year jaunt had tumbled into a seven year excursion. An uptight northern kid had found his way into the heat, embraced it, and almost drowned in it. Almost. Something always held him back so that he was able to keep his nose above the molten liquid. Women, booze and parties had stretched his time here, but had never hooked into him. But he had also never been able to detach himself enough to settle down. His plans for the future just kept getting pushed further along the time line.

Maybe that was what Thair saw in him. Maybe that was the reason for the “buenos noche, mi carino” at the end of the evening. The double kiss on the cheek, in a culture where everybody kissed each other on the cheek. Maybe that was why Thair placed her kisses so carefully, with no ambiguity; close enough to the mouth to show intimacy and warmth, but far enough away to reinforce a boundary.

Miami residents ignore the heat. Seasons are not measured by the flipping of pages on a calendar, but by what the residents might have to deal with. The paths of hurricanes dominate news cycles in the fall. Snarled traffic, crammed beaches and long lines everywhere mark the swell of population from the tourists in the winter. Then, the heavy rains come in the spring, where a quick run to your car can soak you as thoroughly as diving into a pool. Summer is blast furnace season. Just like with northern winters, you start your car ten minutes before leaving, but instead of heating it up and deicing the windshield, you are turning on the air conditioner to make the air breathable.   It is only the transients that ever complain, whether it is the whining of the college kids or the whimpers of the retirees who don’t want to admit that they are transients. Your reaction becomes a barometer to how long you’ll be staying.

A bird glided right in front of Dave’s car–a normal occurrence in an area that literally burst with wildlife, no matter how many houses and malls were built. Unlike all of the other times though, there was a thump, and then a splash of feathers. At first, Dave didn’t stop.

The corner of Dave’s brain that played with metaphors, mashed them together into dizzying contraptions, screamed at him. He was on his way to graduation, to walk the walk, and put Miami behind him. His parents were going to be there, down from a place and time where his name was not Dave, but Bird, a nickname he had been tagged with when he was six-years-old, for continually flitting and flying from one thing to another. Twenty years later, everyone in Maryland still knew him as Bird. His plan, after the going away party, was to drive back there, settle down, and see about starting a life. An adult life. As David.

He pulled the car over and stepped out into the cypress filled, quiet neighborhood and had a panic attack.

Much later, very disheveled, with wide-eyes and the feel of his heart beat thrumming in his neck, Dave took the offered diploma with his left hand and shook hands with the dean. As he stepped down off the stage, he caught the bright flash of his mom’s camera, belatedly smiling.

The rest of the ceremony was a blur, as Dave took short controlled breaths, fighting the rising heat within him.

Where the hell had seven years gone? No resumes sent out, no internships, no networking, no becoming a blip on an editor’s radar. He had told himself that he would do the nine to five thing after college, after the Miami night life was behind him. Time had moved on while he had taken a siesta in the midday sun and all that he had to show for it was a diploma, a suit that was too small, and all of the chef’s coats and funky pants that he had thrown out the night before. There had been a very light load to pack into his car.

Another short-controlled breath.


Inhale through the nose then pucker the lips and exhale slowly through the mouth.

A splash of feathers.

Dave filed out of the auditorium.

In the north, far from the beaches of Miami, during severe summers, there are deaths from the heat. It is usually the elderly and infirm. Maybe the air conditioner breaks, or they just never put it on because they either cannot afford it or just don’t feel the heat the way that they should. A drowsiness overcomes them, and then, as the last drops of sweat seeps from their body and evaporates in the stillness; they nod off, never to awaken again.

After three pints of the dark Guinness beer, the panic that Dave felt was finally beginning to subside. In the small, neighborhood pub, his going away party was in full swing. A three piece band with huge sound was tucked into a tiny corner. A crack of pool balls had Dave looking up at the chalk board to see where his name was on the list to play again. He was handed another pint.

The fourth pint tingled like freon in his stomach when Thair finally made her entrance, rushed over to him and dove into his arms. “Congratulations,” she breathed out, in his ear, under the music, in between the kisses. “Mi Carino!” The freon transformed into a molten something.

Then Jimmy was there with his arms around him. Then Kathryn, Janis, Rick, Veronica, and Ben. All the while, he kept glancing over towards the bar, where Thair sat with friends, occasionally glancing back.

Dave had never been one for romantic relationships. He had been, in Maryland, but Miami was not Maryland. During his seven year vacation, he had been having too much fun to be attached. That drowsy heat of the Miami nights was intoxicating. It was all that you needed to drink, though Dave, like most, indulged anyway in the spirits, beer, and liquors that flowed into Miami from around the world. People were the feast that also flowed into Miami from around the world. A smorgasbord of international delights. Dave was not a stud by any stretch of the imagination, never was any good at being a player, but it was all so there, so immediate, and so transient.

Dave pocketed the three ball in the corner. He winced, not at the shot which went cleanly in, nor at the leave which set him up nicely for the seven ball—a bank into the side, but of a memory that had swam up through his giddy fog.

It was a wince that turned into a laugh that everybody ignored. Was it six pints now? How many hugs had he gotten from people? How many kisses?

His first kiss, so long ago, had been a disastrous thing. The lights were out in his cousin’s room, where nobody was supposed to be. The sounds of lips smacking and gentle mumblings came from his older cousin and his girlfriend. His girlfriend’s friend sat next to Dave on the loveseat. They inched closer an started to peck at each other. Dave remembered her hand resting on his chest. He was all of ten and she two years older. Then, she slipped him the tongue.

A snorting laugh would have become a belly laugh if he had not been lining up his next shot. When the girl had slipped Dave the tongue, all rational thought had fled, quickly followed by irrational thought. Racing hormones had been smothered with sheer and utter terror, and Dave had followed both rational and irrational thought. He crashed through the locked bedroom door, stumbled down the steps, bolted through the front door, and was two blocks away before anything resembling consciousness had returned.

A shapely hip bumped the pool cue in his hand. Instead of the eight ball sinking into the pocket, the cue ball followed an odd trajectory that left it spinning and then diving down the opposite pocket. Game over, he lost, and he looked up to see the bumper smiling at him.

“What are you laughing at, mi carino?”

“Pure terror, Thair. Pure and utter terror.”

“C’mon,” she said, “let me buy you a drink. A going away present.”

Dave could still remember the first time he had stepped into the Miami heat. He had been driving all night and into the morning with the air conditioner blasting. He stepped out of the frigid car and into the soft, morning heat. The enveloping warmth had eased its way through his entire body like a double shot of tequila—with the rest of the bottle close at hand.

The small group of women at the bar were laughing. Thair had tears running from her eyes, and Dave allowed the belly laugh to come roaring out of him.

“How far did you run,” Carmen asked, Thair’s Peruvian friend.

“I really don’t remember,” Dave said. “It happened sometime in the afternoon, there were a few miles of railroad tracks, a park, and I eventually made it home. Dinner time.”

Another round of laughter, another round of drinks.

Dave was trying to think his way through the befuddling haze of far too many pints of beer. Every time he got close to Thair, she would make it a subtle point to get Carmen between them. Were the drinks the going away present? Or was Carmen? Carmen had that look about her, that transient look that said a one night stand was not completely out of the question. Dave loved Miami.

“Aww, my poor carino,” Thair said, with a long wink. “Are you ready for your first kiss yet? Tongue and everything? Or will you be running the entire way back up to Maryland?”

All the way back to Maryland, with Miami just some fuzzy memory. In a few months, winter would be on him, and he would be shoveling the snow off and away from his car to make it into work. Would it be a reporter’s job? Would he find his way back into a kitchen? Or maybe he would be temping, while trying to get his seven years of college to work for him?

“I think that I might be ready,” he replied, wondering if he should slip his arm around Carmen’s waist. “Though there is really only one way to find out.”

The bar was thinning out, the band packing up their instruments. Dave had been invited to a variety of places. The bars in Coral Gables might close at two, but the clubs on South Beach and in Coconut Grove were open until six. He sat with Thair, Carmen, and Veronica.

“So David,” Thair said, though she said it in Spanish, with the emphasis on the “v” rather than the harsh “Da.” “What are you going to do?”

“I really don’t know,” David said. About anything. Home or to a club? Carmen or maybe some other international delight that would also not be opposed to a one night stand? Maryland was still so very far away.

“I think that it is time for something real, Thair.” Her face softened, and she didn’t say anything.

“Last call for alcohol,” the bartender boomed out. “You don’t have to go home,” he started.

And the few remaining patrons finished for him, “but you can’t stay here.”

David reached his hand past Carmen, through a splash of feathers, to take Thair’s hand. “I’m getting out of here. Home I think—I have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow. Would you walk me to my car?”

Was that a puzzled look on Thair’s face as she nodded? Dave didn’t know, didn’t think about it, as he thanked and kissed Carmen and Veronica. Once, on a trip up north, he had forgot himself and leaned towards an acquaintance for the double kiss. She had leaned away, with her face screwed up like she had just bitten into a lemon. He would miss the kisses.

Hand in hand, Dave and Thair stepped into the moist Miami evening. The parking lot was quiet, far from the revelry of Miami Beach and Coconut Grove. The Miami heat could be sensual at night, as it was tonight.

Not wanting to stumble, Dave leaned his back against his car, shifting down low enough so that he was eye to eye with Thair.

Thair didn’t say anything, as she stood and waited with both of her hands in Dave’s hands. It occurred to him that he had never held both of her hands at the same time. She had tiny hands, delicate, and they fit in his with room to spare.

“We’ve been friends now for five years,” he said, looking into her eyes. “And this is good-bye.”

No reaction, no help at all.

“I don’t have any right to ask you this,” he said, as he loosened his grip on her hands, “and I don’t want you to say yes unless you really want to.”

Still no reaction.

“But I wanted to, have to, ask you for a kiss before I leave.” He didn’t have to explain to her that he did not mean the twin kisses, and she didn’t answer him, but she did react.

Thair leaned into David’s chest, allowing him to encompass her in his arms and pull her tightly in. Their lips met, their mouths met, and their tongues found each other. She pressed against him as a lover would, running her fingers through his hair, so he would never have to question if the kiss had only been a favor.

After a timeless moment in the soft heat of the Miami night, she pulled back, took his hand in hers, and traced the burned brand of the sauté pan with a delicate finger. After what seemed another timeless moment, she looked up at him.

The battle between freon and molten heat that had been in Dave’s veins ceased to exist, replaced by simple blood.

“Why did you wait so long, mi carino,” she asked, now allowing one of her hands to cup his cheek.

He took the offered hand and brought it to his mouth. Kissing it. Tasting the salty sweat. Feeling the warmth of it with his lips.

“I really don’t know, my dear one. I really don’t. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Wasn’t sure. Didn’t trust myself. And maybe now I finally wanted something real. And maybe because I wanted a memory of warmth to get me through those northern winters.”

She kissed him again, not as a friend, but also not as a lover. In a span of time that could be measured, she covered his mouth with hers and ran the tip of her tongue along his teeth.

And then she was gone.

If you have ever driven Highway 95 between Miami and a northern state, you will find a line of demarcation somewhere in Georgia or South Carolina. It is where the air changes. It is a subtle change, but very real. The air loses its softness, becomes more crisp. A hazy heat will become a dry heat. It is where the possibility of a long chill becomes a reality, where autumn can bring a sobering frost.