A Missing Beat by Abby Manzella

It started with music: The Black Crowes, The Police, The Cure. That’s how they spent their time with each other. Leo and Maxine, together in the front seat of his silver Accord, separated by only the stick shift. They sat there to listen to just one more song at the end of the night. Then Maxine would saunter up her driveway without looking back—a performed nonchalance. But before that, he let the car run and the air conditioning blast. Together, they breathed in the darkness of the late hour with the car’s headlights off to keep Maxine’s parents from staring through curtained windows.

One night as September loomed, Leo said, “You gotta hear this one,” as his hand brushed her knee. Maxine felt the shock of his touch in her solar plexus, a term she’d also heard once in a song, long ago, a child’s song. The term felt made up and magical.

“Just count,” he said quickly as a keyboard signaled the song’s opening. Leo began his pulse with a set of imaginary drumsticks. Maxine cordially followed suit as a conductor. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. She felt as though she were guiding the music with the “t” pattern of her fingertips. Leo and Maxine’s hands danced as they both gazed out the windshield into the heat-filled dark. They continued in sync.

In anticipation, he smiled a split second before she felt it. But she felt it. There was a move from the parallel count of four to the triangular motion of three—right there at the end of the first verse. The tempo remained steady, but the stress shifted—the world shifted—as the song swung to 1-2-3. If you weren’t paying attention, the missing beat would be lost in that moment of change. Instead, the move from verse to chorus would feel like everything had converted into slow motion with each beat stretched to its limit, but it was an illusion of the shift. Four to three, the moment extended on and on.

“Did you feel it?” Leo asked, and Maxine nodded slowly without turning her head. Her hands twirled on. He resumed his own count. The smile remained on his face. Her smile joined his.

Leo was so much older—but only in a way that was significant when you are a teenager. He could drive. She could not. He walked the high school halls. She, not till the fall. They met at their summer job, scooping ice cream for those who could afford a steady supply of such treats, so together the two of them got sick on their own sampling of chocolate ripple, cherries jubilee, and then even the toppings, until Maxine would let no sweetness touch her tongue for many summers after. But for thirty hours each week, they shared their days, and eventually he started driving her home after they closed.

Still, the age gap meant nothing happened beyond that grazing of Maxine’s knee on this night so close to the end of the summer. Nothing happened as they marked the rhythm of the notes, counting and singing long after the measures returned to the expected sum of four. Leo and Maxine thought of nothing else. Staying fully in such moments would become harder and harder with each passing year.

Yet, back then, Maxine felt it—that skipped beat right near the very beginning of things. She felt it and remembers it still.

ABBY MANZELLA — Abby is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements, winner of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award. Her work has been published by places such as Literary Hub, Catapult, No Contact, The Rumpus, and Bending Genres. Find her on Twitter @abbymanzella.

Art by SHERRY SHAHAN — Feeling shipwrecked in 2020, Sherry began ripping words from the heart of old magazines. Her collages resembled drawings found in a kindergarten classroom. She likes that about them; it frees her from ideas of what art should be. Her collages have appeared in Rattle (cover), Orion’s Belt (cover), Down in the Dirt (featured artist), Gargoyle, Open Minds and elsewhere. She earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.