He jumped at the sound.
The newspaper hitting the door on the weekends always scared the shit out of him even though he knew it was coming; the long-forgotten subscription some executive started years ago and never canceled to the London Times still came faithfully every Saturday morning.
He ran his hand down his face, wiping away the night and expensive scotch when he recognized the warm scent of a sleeping woman next to him in the bed. Frozen in suspended panic, his mind carefully placed the who and the why of her. The details then returned to him in a pleasant rush and he smiled towards the ceiling before turning to see auburn curls falling wildly around her like a mesmerizing crown.
It felt both profound and mythical as his sensory memories pulled him down like the undertow: the scent of her hair when it fell around him, the taste of the skin above her collarbone, the sound she made when his hand wrapped around her upper thigh; all of them bypassing his higher brain and settling themselves in his soul.
He thought about a shower but dismissed the idea, not quite ready to let go of the fingerprints she had left all over him. There had been a paradigm shift in his world since she had wandered into his elevator car. Dim and unevenly spaced, the days previous had been mere existence, and more and more with each passing day he had resigned to that accepted version of himself. It hadn’t been much of a life, but it passed for a moderately priced knock-off. Until now. Purpose, anomalous and peculiar, filled the hollow places in him and she slept peacefully still tangled in his Egyptian cotton sheets.
It wasn’t until he heard the soft padding of her bare feet coming down the hall that he looked up from his musings and the eggs he was frying in the small pan, and he once again couldn’t help the stupid grin that seemed to appear in her presence. She wore his shirt from the previous evening, only four buttons holding it tenuously in place as it threatened to fall off her shoulder and brushed nearly to her knees. The sight of her in his clothes—and nothing else—stirred something unfamiliar and strangely possessive in him, like a flag on a conquered land. She smiled shyly as moved into the kitchen with a whispered ‘good morning’ and he exhaled contentedly as she seemed to fit so naturally into his world as if she had been there all along.
She slid behind him, tantalizingly brushing unnecessarily against him, “Well, I didn’t really plan that out and I’m not ready to put a ballgown back on.”
“It wasn’t a complaint, I promise you. Coffee?” He reached for the carafe and an empty cup.
She nodded affirmatively and hopped up on the counter near the stovetop, her arms bracing against the granite allowing the edges of his shirt to fall open and reveal the curves he wanted to memorize, “Am I to assume the unopened toothbrush in your bathroom was for me?”
“I am a full-service Bed and Breakfast .”
“I see that,” she replied with a smile as he handed her the nearly full cup, “although should I be concerned you have a stock of toothbrushes for guests?” She blew quietly on the surface of the steam.
He softly chuckled at her assumption, “No, you can thank my mother for that.”
She gave him a curious look with a tilt of her head.
“She sends me care packages like I’m in a combat zone or something. I think she’s forgotten that England has stores.”
Her mirthful laugh warmed him more than the heat of the early morning sunlight from the windows streaking brilliant stripes across the room. “I was going to make you a full-on breakfast but I realized all I have are three eggs and black coffee. Sorry.”
“No, it’s perfect.” She took a tentative sip of the hot, dark liquid in her cup.
He snapped off the burner and abandoned his task for the promise of her skin, “Last night was perfect,” he murmured as he stepped between her legs.
“So, next weekend,” he continued as his eyes lingered between the opening of his shirt. “Don’t make any plans for shopping trips or concerts or dates with other guys,” he deadpanned distractedly.
“And why is that?”
He gripped her thighs, pulling her closer to the edge of the countertop with his words, “It’s a surprise but you will need an overnight bag and your passport since we are not EU citizens.”
She looked down coyly as her fingers trailed around his waist under his shirt, “Well, that’s too bad, I already have a date with Danny.”
The motion of his hands stroking her thighs beneath the edge of his shirt stilled in muted alarm until he noticed the corner of her mouth lift slightly.
“I had you,” she smirked triumphantly.
“You did not,” he replied with a small laugh as he pushed his eager hands along with the edge of the shirt higher, wrapping her legs around him and nuzzling her ear lazily, “you had nothing.”
“That look on your face,” she ran her hands through his hair, smiling at him. “I had you.”
He picked her up suddenly with her small surprised squeal muffled in his shoulder, as he carried her back down the hall to his bed, forgetting the idea of breakfast entirely.
Head on the pillow, I could feel you sneaking in
As if you were a mythical thing
The French countryside whirled by in a blur, green and blue streaks surrounding the train cabin while she watched excitedly through the enormous windows and he watched her.
“It’s crazy that we just spent almost half an hour underwater,” she spoke as her eyes followed a quaint cottage nestled among the vineyard-covered hillside. “I’m sure this is not nearly as exciting for you since you’ve been here before.”
He shrugged, “This is definitely better.”
His memories of the last time he was in the country were intermixed with so much self-loathing and purely destructive behavior, he felt as though he might have unintentionally blocked it out. Flashes came back occasionally of things he would rather forget like a particular evening of intemperance with a friend of Danny’s in her apartment off the Rue de Rivoli; the blurred vision of Danny sandwiched between two half-dressed women and a third nameless face unbuttoning his own pants caused him to shift uncomfortably in his chair.
“You never say anything nice about Danny. Why are you friends with him if he is so terrible?”
“He’s not terrible,” he sighed, reluctantly broaching a topic he’d rather not. “I just tend to do things I wouldn’t normally when I’m around him. He was a good friend back in Philly. We used to go on sales calls together...we kicked ass as a sales team. He’s just changed since we moved here.”
He looked out the window at the red poppy fields whipping past, bright crimson bleeding endlessly into the distance.
“I’ve heard the stories,” she added wryly, and he turned to look at her surprised.
“Come on, Jim, women talk,” she cocked her head at him with an incredulous lift of her brow. “And when people started seeing us together at work, I got an earful.”
“Wait. An earful about what? What did you hear?”
“Do you really want to know?”
He shook his head affirmatively, encouraging her to continue.
“That you two are players, the fuck-them-then-leave-them type. Which made you all the more attractive to some of them,” she rolled her eyes sardonically. “They warned me to stay away from you.”
He chewed his lower lip in thought before answering, “I deserve some of that but I’ve never dated anyone from work. Danny has, but not me.”
“Well, you are guilty by association then.”
She looked out the window, not seeing anything but her thoughts in the bands of color and he studied her profile worriedly. This was different. Everything about her was different.
He reached over to take her hand between his, deciding that truth was better than nothing, “Listen, that was not really me. I was...desperate after Karen dumped me and then moving over here, the only familiar thing I had was him. I just sort of let myself get pulled down the path of least resistance.”
She nodded and smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes and he could tell there was something there that she was reluctant to say. Instead, she looked at their joined hands, endlessly weaving and stroking her fingers with his.
“I hope you know me well enough by now to believe me.”
She looked at him softer, “I do. I know you.” She nodded again and squeezed his fingers, “It’s just scary, this whole jumping off a cliff thing with someone.”
“You didn’t jump off a cliff with Roy?” The question came spilling out of him without any thought, and something painful on her face made him wish he hadn’t.
“No, he was a path of least resistance for me that I was always too afraid to step off of.” She echoed his words with a sad smile. “This? With us...this is something entirely different.” She held his eyes and that now familiar feeling of fate returned and his chest tightened in response.
He wanted to tell her that this was it for him; that there had been little doubt in his mind since the first week they had started dating. That he wanted nothing more than to call his mom and buy a ring and make plans for the next sixty years.
He didn’t say any of that, of course.
“It is different.”
Paris was everything she had ever imagined it to be.
It was alive and vibrant, and the very buildings themselves seemed to exhale inspiration. She felt the vibration of it all deep in her bones and it flowed electric through her. It heightened her senses, the beauty of it caressing her like a lover, and she wanted to absorb it all, every nuance and detail so that she could draw on it forever.
Arched windows. Wrought iron terrasses. Aged trees lining the Seine. It all sung to her in the language of her soul. She looked over at him to find him already looking at her, and she knew he heard that song too.
“What do you want to see first?” his words drifted over her like the breeze that carried them.
They started at La Dame de Fer, her metal framework stretching high into the azure French sky, and saw the city spill out in every direction. The tourists gathered around her endlessly, a million images taken of the same romantic ideal.
She wrapped herself around his arm, her sweater falling off her shoulder in the autumn air, as they walked across the river and through the gardens toward the Trocadéro; his comforting presence allowing her to truly watch the fascinating humanity all around her.
“They are all selling the same things,” she lifted her chin in the direction of a man with his wares spread out on a blanket. “Do you think they shop at the same store?”
He chuckled at her lame joke, and she appreciated it, “Probably. This is what these guys do, and they are very good at it. Don’t take anything they hand you or you might end up with a miniature glow-in the-dark Eiffel Tower for thirty euro.”
She grabbed his shirt suddenly, “Oh my God, look!”
Across the cream and black marble tiles of the plaza, a man dropped to his knee in front of a woman in a ritual that needed no explanation or commentary. People around them stopped to witness and there was a smattering of applause when the answer was obviously affirmative, kissing unendingly in the backdrop of the City of Light.
She felt his eyes on her again as tears threatened to spill over her lashes at the powerful emotions it had evoked in her, and she glanced at him embarrassed, “Can you imagine? That was perfect.”
“I can definitely imagine.”
She looked up at him at the honesty he spoke, his eyes reaching the dark recesses of her and revealing her secrets to the light. Perhaps it was the emotions or the atmosphere, but she needed to kiss him, to feel in him what his words failed to express and she stood on her toes until she reached his lips with her own.
Dinner was sumptuous, nestled in the back of a dimly lit restaurant on velvet seats. The food and conversation spilled over Alsace wine and the hours felt like minutes.
By the time they returned to the hotel where they had left their luggage, it was late and the moon was above the stone buildings surrounding their terrace. While he took a shower, she indulged and leaned over the edge watching the lights flicker like the starlight and the people move leisurely on the street below. The wine from dinner flowed warmly throughout her body and he moved up behind her, still slightly damp, droplets from his hair falling carelessly on her shoulder.
“It’s so beautiful,” she turned in his arms and he smelled like milled soap and him. “I just want to say thank you for all this. This weekend is like a dream and I can never repay you.”
“You repay me by just being with me.”
She slid her hands under his shirt, longing to feel the contact of his skin.
“And,” he bent down to graze his mouth over the impossibly sensitive spot under her jawbone, “the weekend isn’t over.”
He walked backward, taking her with him off the terrace and to the bed, where he pulled her on top of his prostrate body. She sat up, sliding her knees alongside his hips and looked down at him, feeling him ready and waiting and male beneath her through the thin material of his pants, every part of her future now contained in the moss green eyes that held hers.
She skinned her blue sweater over her head while he watched, his eyes running over the surface of her as if he was committing its every plane to memory. She unfastened her satin bra, sliding it off her shoulders and letting it fall to the floor where the remainder of their clothes soon followed. Without comment, intoxicated and breathless, she took him inside her body, and the city around them sighed in relief at another love story reaching its natural end.
Light from the street spilled through the white lace curtains and she swore she could see the edge of the Arc de Triomphe in the distance. She could feel his breath across the fine hairs of her stomach where his head rested and the soft motion of his thumb as it stroked the ridge of her pelvic bone when her skin absorbed his whispered words.
“The perfect end to a perfect day.”
They spent nearly the entire day at the Louvre and he simply followed her, amused, as she got lost in its overwhelming splendors.
He probably should have been listening. She was definitely saying important things about shadows symbolizing decay and light wrapping around a subject but he was just waiting and marveling at his existence in this place and in this time that just happened to collide with hers. He had never been a particularly romantic or poetic man, but he found himself thinking of words like incandescent, resplendent, and soulmate even though he usually just told her he liked her and that she looked pretty. Maybe it was just Paris.
“I like this one,” she mused as she stood in front of a painting that was easily the size of the house he grew up in. “See that woman? She knows what he is telling her isn’t real, but she doesn’t care. She’s a beautiful fool, but she knows it. She’s turned away, but she is still listening. He’s offering her something lovely but is holding back. It’s all contradictions. See that gift he is hiding behind him? He is keeping it from her…or perhaps he’s giving part of himself to someone else.”
He tore his gaze from her to the painting, in all its Renaissance glory, in an attempt to be a somewhat active participant, he studied it and mulled over her words.
“How do you get all that from a partially dressed woman ignoring a man trying to get her to take a gift?"
She sighed at him exasperatedly, but her smile told him he still got to go home with her.
After another full and long day, their hotel bed called out to him. He needed to feel her again, to assure himself that it was all real and not some dreamscape he would be pulled from suddenly. He needed her skin on his and the soft sound she made when he slid inside; the way she gasped and arched her back when her thighs trembled. It reminded him he was alive, and she was alive with him. All of it causing him to want to find those poetic words again, to convey to her the meaning of it for him, some symbolic metaphor about fractured souls finding each other in the darkness.
But he settled for just holding her as she fell asleep.
And if it was an open-shut case
I never would've known from that look on your face
Lost in your current like a priceless wine
It had been a shitty morning since she had gotten to work. The design she had worked on for two weeks had been barely even glanced at by the art department director during the morning meeting and she was certain that nothing positive would ever come out of this internship for her. Nothing at work anyway. So much of her life now felt surreal, like she had stepped into some other woman’s shoes and she half expected Jamie Lee Curtis to appear at any moment. Her ridiculously handsome boyfriend, that had taken her to Paris several weeks ago, she reminded herself, had spent the better part of that morning making her breathless in his enormous walk-in shower.
Weekend getaways to Paris and amazing shower sex before work were not things she would have ever imagined for herself even a year ago, and sometimes she felt like she was holding her breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
His warm hand pulled at her from behind, spinning her around and through the open door into the stairwell in one smooth motion. He pressed her against the wall next to the door as it clicked shut, looming and deliciously large, and she felt the Braille of the sign labeling the thirty-sixth floor at her back.
His mouth was over hers before she could speak, moving and in and around it like he always did as if he was searching for something only she possessed; their heavy breathing echoing down the endless cement column.
“Why do I always feel like I’m being kidnapped?” she murmured bemusedly as he began working his way down her jaw to that magical place below her ear he knew made her shiver.
“Have I told you I like this shirt? I like this shirt.”
“You saw me put it on, don’t act surprised,” the tip of her nose pressed against his earlobe as his hand ran up the side of her neck.
“This is the shirt you wore the day after our first date.”
She slid her hands under his expensive coat and felt him tremble slightly, “Good memory, it is.”
“How could I forget? It’s all I thought about for days.”
“Well, what a coincidence, this is the suit you wore that day too. It’s my favorite.”
He pulled back to look at her with a wolfish grin, “You have a favorite?”
She snaked her hand between them and palmed him over the fine gray polished cotton, eliciting a muttered curse from him into her shoulder. “Of course I do.” She let the words stretch and linger as his eyes darkened and followed her lips.
With a small groan, his hand slid up to return the favor over her breast, “I really wish they had an unlocked maintenance closet around here.”
She stifled a short laugh, “They don’t and we should stop. Someone could bust through this door any minute.”
He sighed deeply, resting his forehead against the warm skin of hers, “I know.”
The sound of a door opening several floors down separated them and they stood silently listening to the person ascend a flight of stairs and open the door to leave again.
“So, pizza tonight? That little cafe a couple of blocks away?”
He straightened and flattened his tie against his shirt, “How can you shift to food so quickly?”
“It’s an acquired skill,” she pulled the heavy door open, straining slightly under the weight, and he reached out over her head to help her but didn’t follow.
“You aren’t coming?”
“Uh, I’m going to need to take a minute...maybe a run...”
She frowned empathetically, “I’m sorry.”
He glanced down the hall before reaching for her fingers and brushing them across his lips, “I’m not. I’ll see you a little later.”
She swirled the milk in her tea, watching the two contrasting shades blend together and she still felt the heat of his body on her skin like a ghost.
“Hey, Pam,” Danny’s deep voice pulled her from her thoughts and she smiled at him pleasantly but guarded. From what Jim had told her and from what she had heard, he was dangerous. Not in the usual way men like him were, but in the spellbinding way he could deceive and manipulate and she felt irrationally protective, wanting to deflect any attempt to hurt him.
“Hey, can I ask you for a favor?”
“You need a favor? From me?”
He smiled his charming smile, and she found herself returning it against her will.
“My friend is opening her restaurant and I know that she would really like to see Jim there. It’s been a while since he has come around and it would be a nice surprise. Can you put in a good word and see if he wants to go?”
There was an unspoken undercurrent of meaning in his words and she read it clearly. She was the reason he hadn’t been around his friends.
“Why don’t you just ask him? Why do you need me to?”
“I know what his excuses will be, and I figured it might be easier to just take one of those away.” He shifted his weight, leaning casually against the counter in the office kitchen, “I’ll be honest with you Pam, he has been angry at me and I don’t know exactly why. I was hoping to smooth over things with him.”
She could guess several reasons why Jim had been pushing him away, but it wasn’t up to her to decide if it was worth it.
“I’ll ask him.”
“It’s hard to really get into soccer.”
“It’s football here, babe.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just people get so excited about it but I feel there needs to be more pushing and shoving and…shoulder pads.”
He smirked at her as she offered him her crust without looking away from the tv and he took it from her wordlessly.
“I realize that sounds very American of me,” she added and he chuckled around a bite of crust, pulling her feet up into his lap as she set her plate aside and sat back on the couch. “The pizza is better here though.”
“Now, hold on. That’s a bold claim,” he looked at her in mock seriousness as he wrapped a large hand around her socked feet. “Have you had real New York pizza?”
“I have, and I stand by my statement.”
He pulled her leg playfully, and she slid down the pillow and she laughed, “I don’t even know who you are.”
After several minutes of cheering crowds and screaming announcers, she spoke again, “I talked to Danny today.”
“And what did Danny have to say?”
“He told me about a restaurant opening he wants you to go to.”
He shifted, tucking her legs under his arms further with his eyes on the game but not watching it, “Yeah, he mentioned something about that. I don’t know…there’s just nothing appealing about being around that crowd anymore.”
“I think you should go. Spend some time with your old friend and not just sit around here with me.”
He looked at her, squinting speculatively, “After everything I’ve told you about him, you want me to go hang out with him?”
She shrugged, “I trust you and besides, how much trouble can you get into at a restaurant opening?”
He made a face, and she laughed softly.
Without warning, he pulled her legs, bringing her further down the couch and under him in one motion, settling himself securely in the harbor of her hips as his mouth found hers. “Maybe the only place I want to be is right here, doing exactly this.”
Soft, strong fingers drew a trail down his back until her hands found his back pockets, pulling him closer still, “Promise me you’ll think about it.”
He knew he could never deny her anything, but her arguments were particularly compelling when she was writhing luxuriously beneath him.
Show me the places where the others gave you scars
“We could rent a car, but I would rather take a train. I’m terrified of driving on the left and me navigating roundabouts going the other direction is a horror no one should be subjected to.”
“You know it’s my birthday in two days. It can be my birthday present,” he spoke as opened the glass door to his building for her.
He lifted his chin in pleasant greeting at the doorman as the elevator doors opened with their usual efficiency and they stepped into the brightly lit car.
“It’s Saturday night already. I have to go home sometime, Jim. I’m down to my last pair of clean underwear and technically they are bikini bottoms.” She punched the 16 as she turned, making it glow bright under her fingers.
“Really? Interesting.” She pushed her elbow into his ribs playfully, and he leaned against the back wall, “Underwear is overrated. You can just use the machines in my building, anyway.”
She turned behind her to speak, standing stubbornly in the middle of the car facing the door, “But the launderette is right around the corner from my flat and cheaper.”
“I hate that place.”
“I know you do, but I’ll be fine.”
The intoxicated strange man that wore bright orange pants and a dirty Rolling Stones t-shirt every time she saw him was only there occasionally, but the one time Jim had been there he had been exceptionally drunk. He yelled at her for not moving her clothes fast enough which quickly escalated to him shoving Jim when he placed himself in the middle. He swore it should be shut down, but settled for assurances from the manager that the man was no longer welcome.
He pushed off the back wall of the elevator, pressing his body up behind her and she leaned back against him slightly as his voice lowered, lips grazing the outer shell of her ear, “Or, you could leave all of your clothes here, wash them downstairs and get full bathroom privileges with a giant walk-in shower with a bench.”
“I do love that bench,” she added softly and felt the hum of his reply against the skin of her neck.
“You have a drawer full of pajamas, a toothbrush, and mascara that are all permanent residents already, why not the rest?”
She smiled wordlessly at his reoccurring request to somewhat move in with him. And if she was honest, she did basically live there most nights of the week, her umbrella next to the door and her favorite yogurt in the fridge, but there was something terrifyingly official about moving the rest of her things over.
The mechanical female voice announced their arrival on the sixteenth floor with its usual indifference, and the stainless steel doors whisked open again.
“What are we going to do for your birthday?” she asked as they stepped out into the long hallway and she noticed a woman with a large piece of luggage standing at the end.
“Karen?” His surprised voice drifted over her shoulder and the stranger looked up at him in recognition, a smile breaking out on her beautiful face.
“Jim! I’m so glad this was the right place!”
“What are you doing here?”
To her relief, his tone was anything but warm and welcoming and Karen looked at her as if noticing she was there for the first time, but neither one of them acknowledged her presence.
“I know it’s been a few months, but I thought the offer might stand to come and visit you. I had some use or lose vacation days to burn before the end of the year so… surprise!”
His reply was incredulous, and she felt her own heartbeat begin to pound in her ears, “A few months? That was like eight months ago.”
“Jim,” she stroked his name with an intimate familiarity. “You said you missed me and this was the first chance I had to get over here. It’s a long-ass flight, by the way.”
She felt the ground falling away from around her and the air suddenly became thin. “I’m going to go,” she mumbled weakly as she took a few unsteady steps backward.
She turned toward the elevator, her heavy, laden legs carrying her there remarkably quick and she heard him calling after, even though the sound was far away and distant.
“Pam. Wait!” He was suddenly behind her with his hand on her arm. “Will you wait a second?”
As she pressed the call button, the doors opened immediately, and she stepped inside, finally turning to face him. His panicked expression was somewhat reassuring, but she kept hearing the way his name sounded on Karen’s lips and it seemed to drown everything else out.
“I had no idea about any of this, believe me. I haven’t talked to her since before I even met you.”
The doors started to close around him and he held them both open, his hands bracing near his head. His voice lowered now, pleading, and for the first time she looked him in the eyes, “Pam. Please. Let me tell her to go home. Don’t go.”
“It sounds like you have some things to work out—” he started to interrupt her but held her hand up to stop him. “I’m going to go home, do some laundry, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
She hoped her voice sounded steadier than she felt and he held her gaze hard for a long moment, his green eyes stormy and dark, the muscles in his jaw tightening, before finally relenting.
“Okay. Text me when you get home safe.” He let go of the metal harshly, his arms falling away from where they gripped the edges, and she watched his face disappear behind the cold, steel doors until all she saw was her own faint reflection in the polished surface. She felt panic start to build in her chest, making her breathing shallow and tears burned painfully at the back of her throat until they finally broke free.
It was the first time since the Gala that he hadn’t kissed her goodbye.
“Who was that?”
“I haven’t talked to you in months. Why the hell do you think you can just show up here now?” He was so angry and flustered he could hardly get the key in the lock to turn, and that pissed him off even more. He was scared, terrified, at the look in Pam’s eyes and there was a panicked feeling deep in his bones he hadn’t felt since the Gala.
“Jim…” He felt her hand on his arm, a familiar touch he had once longed for, now just made him cold and furious. He pushed open the door and away from her and she followed him inside.
“This was not the reception I was expecting to get, I can tell you that.”
He turned to look at her now as she pulled her suitcase in the door and closed it behind her, the foyer lamp illuminating half her face. She looked different from what he remembered. Subtle changes seemed substantial: her cheeks were more angular, her eyes more cynical, her hair was shorter; it all added up to making her nearly a stranger. He knew he was not the same person now either, his preferences of what beauty was had completely shifted to a very pissed off, curly haired woman across town.
“What did you expect? The last conversation we had you basically told me to fuck off.”
“The last conversation we had you begged me to give us a chance and come see you.”
Her face was determined and set, and if there was one thing he remembered, it was that Karen Filippelli didn’t like to hear the word ‘no.’
He sighed, “Karen, that was eight, very long, months ago. I have moved on and I’m dating someone else.”
“That was her?”
He nodded and exhaled, hoping that would push her to leave.
Instead, she shrugged off her trench coat and hung it on the hooks next to the door like it belonged there.
“You know, I haven’t seen anyone else this entire time? I kept thinking about how we ended it and it didn’t feel right.”
“Bullshit, what about that guy you kept talking about…Dan something?”
Her demeanor changed noticeably at the mention of that name, he thought wryly, “He’s just a friend and focused on his career.”
“Sounds like a match made in heaven,” he added bitterly.
She ignored him, stepping further into the flat and towards him, and he backed away in kind, “Listen, this jet lag is no joke. What do you say, I take a quick shower, and then we go get something to eat and get caught up?”
He looked at her like she had suddenly lost her mind and he wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t. “No,” he laughed at the absurdity, “You are not staying here and we are not going to dinner.”
Her countenance changed as the last flickering hope in her was fighting to survive and cruelly he thought at least she finally had the decency to look apologetic.
“I, uh…it’s late and I can’t find a hotel room now. At least let me stay tonight, and I promise I’ll get a room somewhere until I can get my flight changed.”
His sense of integrity pulled at him and it made him angry all over again that he didn’t feel he had a choice. He couldn’t send her off by herself in a strange city after nine on a Saturday night on the slim chance she could find an available room…even though she absolutely deserved it.
“Fine, but you are gone tomorrow.”
His phone vibrated in his pocket and he flipped it open. ‘I’m home’ glared back at him with cool detachment and the panicked feeling returned. He only hoped she would talk to him again after she found out she was staying here. He typed back, Good. Call you later tonight? but didn’t get a response.
“There’s no need for you to be a jerk, Jim. I know this is not what you wanted, but I still consider us friends.” She spoke softly now, hurt laced her words as she lifted her suitcase tiredly and started carrying it towards the bedroom.
He nodded slowly in agreement, biting the inside of his cheek in thought, “You can imagine what kind of problems this causes me; my ex-girlfriend showing up unannounced from another country.”
“Well, maybe if my showing up causes you problems, you don’t have the relationship with her you think you do,” she replied quietly as she disappeared down his dark hallway.
You know that my train could take you home
Anywhere else is hollow
This had to be some sort of cosmic comeuppance. Somewhere along the line, he had pushed his luck, and the universe was paying him back. Maybe he deserved this. Maybe happiness wasn’t something in the cards for him and he was just destined to be some bitter asshole, alone. His phone sat open on the armrest of the chair, dark and silent, two unanswered calls to her number, as he took another long drink from his second bottle of Bass that had been in the back of his fridge since he had moved in.
He could hear her moving around his flat behind him but he didn’t turn; the sound was foreign, the cadence off and the notes flat. If sand draining through an hourglass was music, it would have had the melodic rhythm of Pam moving in his space and his life and no one else.
“What the hell are Weetos, Jim?”
“Chocolate Cheerios,” he mumbled and took another drink, not sure if she even heard him.
“You have no food. Can I have one of these yogurts?”
“No,” he turned his head sharply in her direction but he missed the frustrated look she shot him, “they’re expired.” It was a lie, and he doubted they were, he just knew they were Pam’s.
“There is cereal and some leftover Thai. And beer,” he finished cooly, still facing the window over the city. He knew he was being a jerk and pouting like an overgrown child, but he honestly didn’t care.
“There’s a stack of takeout menus in the drawer near the door.” It was his half-hearted attempt to be hospitable.
She sat down on the couch, and he heard the expensive leather give way, “Are you going to talk to me at all?”
He sighed deeply, his shoulders hunching slightly from the effort, and he turned to face her in his plush leather chair.
“What would you like to talk about?”
“I don’t know,” she threw her arms up exasperatedly. “Maybe how have you been? How is your family? Do you enjoy living here? Nothing too profound, I promise.”
“My family is fine, the same. I actually like it here…now. How about you?”
He was trying very hard to be cordial when he felt like sulking, and he hoped the universe was taking notes.
“The same. I really like my job, it’s exciting and different. I love living in the City.”
“That’s good,” he took another long drink and winced slightly, motioning at the bottle in her hands. “This beer is kind of flat, sorry. It’s been in there for a while.”
“So expired beer is okay, but expired yogurt isn’t?” When he didn’t respond to her joke she continued, “Is she from around here?”
“I’m not talking about her,” he stood, gathering both, now empty bottles, and put them in the recycle bin in the pantry with a loud clatter that caused her to jump slightly.
He opened the fridge to retrieve another but instead just stood there staring at the half-empty case under the bright glare of artificial light. He sensed her move up behind him and he straightened, the refrigerator door closing with a soft whoosh.
“I miss you.”
He felt the three words on the cotton of his shirt beneath his shoulder blades, her familiar scent wrapping itself around him like a blanket he had tossed off long ago. He turned to look at her, unsure of what was happening but understanding all the same. He had longed for just these circumstances, to be standing here with her in this kitchen, and the strange ache of that forgotten pain echoed in the distant parts of his memory.
“I didn’t come here to mess everything up for you. I just wanted to be with you again.” Her words fell soft and whispered over him, and he closed his eyes. She was once everything, his home when he was so far from it, living in a foreign land and dreaming of the known and ordinary.
But she wasn’t that any longer. Home had a new meaning and had worked its way into the fiber of his being and wound its way around his soul. Home was the way she wrapped her leg in between his when she slept. It was the way she never ordered fries but ate his, anyway. It was the way she laughed at his jokes, even when they weren’t funny. It was how some hair always escaped her ponytail, the keys she could never find, and the way she said his name.
He felt her pull on his shirt, slipping her arm around the back of his neck the way she always did before she kissed him and stepped back, causing her to lose her balance slightly in surprise.
Falling in love with a woman was effortless it seemed, but it was what he did with that love that mattered, he decided. There was a sudden clarity, a defined black and white where there had once been muddied confusion, and he reached for his keys laying on the counter, winding his apartment key off the ring.
“You can leave the key with the doorman when you leave in the morning,” he pushed it across the granite surface towards her. “I have to go.”
“You know I really cared about you? I do care about you,” her eyes were desperate and he could see the glassy edges of them in the lamplight.
“I cared about you at one time too, Karen,” he added sincerely as he pulled the door open, turning back for one last glance at the past. “But I love her.”
Wreck my plans , That's my man
She had seen his missed calls. She watched the phone light up and vibrate under her hand and his name flashed in bright blue pixels.
Not that she hadn’t wanted to talk to him, she had, desperately, but she needed to breathe and the storm raging in her mind needed to calm. With every fear and insecurity screaming loudly, her world was out of focus, tumultuous and gasping for air.
She had planned to do her laundry, but the basket sat nearly overflowing next to her door and she sat staring out her window, lost in thought when she heard his knock. She knew she would find him on the other side, the same way she knew she would have returned those missed calls before she went to bed.
She pulled the door open to find him standing there, messy hair and scruffy face, with a mixture of fear and determination written in the deep jade of his eyes.
“Hi," she returned softly and stepped aside to let him in.
“She’s still at my place,” he started nervously without preamble as he turned to face her again. “She’s there but I don’t want to be. I—”
He stared at her so long and so intensely, she almost broke under the weight of the tension.
“I’m in love with you. I know it’s sort of a weird time to tell you, but I needed you to know. Her being here,” he shook his head and looked down at the floor with uncertainty, the bravery he walked in with seeming to dim, before looking up at her again. “It made me realize it’s you. It’s always going to be you.”
“I don't know how to explain it, but it feels more right than anything I've ever felt in my life.”
She exhaled a laugh as a rebellious tear broke free from her lashes, and the confused expression he wore at her reaction made her want to almost laugh again. It seemed so obvious to her now that she had gotten herself tragically, beautifully in love, winding herself so deeply around the essence of him that nothing would ever be able to untangle the knots.
She closed the distance between them, her fingertips wiping away his concern as his arms wrapped around her instinctively.
“I love you too.”
The box felt heavy in his pocket. The burden of it not merely a few ounces but weighty with promises and commitments and stepping out into an unknown.
“Hey, can I talk to you about something?”