Edge of Reason
Copyright © 2015 Victoria Rhodes
All rights reserved.
To all of the wonderful women.
Bonus Free Gift
We were in the bar, drinking. She had long hair and laughing eyes, and her hands mesmerized me. It was just an ordinary girls’ night out. Except we were the only two girls and I didn’t even know her. But her laughter danced around me like chimes and I wanted to hear more of it. Being with her was exhilarating. It was a relief, freeing from my life. We drank cocktails until the music swam. When it was time to go, I offered to pay. I shouldn’t have done it, but she was so carefree, I didn’t want to spoil it by bringing cocktail prices into it.
Suddenly we were in the bathroom, it was supposed to be the pub bathroom but it looked like my bathroom back home, with white tiles, the glass shower doors, and the blood red towels that stood out against the pristine room.
She leaned into me, and I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Her lips were perfect, full and round, and she kept her sparkling eyes on mine as she inched closer and closer to my own lips. Her eyes were glued to mine, but I kept looking down at her lips.
She leaned her body against mine, and I was aware of her curves. Her hands were close to my face, those beautiful long fingers tracing slow patterns on my cheek.
“I don’t usually do this,” I said and my voice caught in my throat. It was nerves mixed with lust.
“Don’t be silly,” she said and laughed, a full, bedroom laugh that made my body tighten. “You’re not doing anything. I’m doing it.”
I sat up and the dark of night folded around me. I swallowed hard. Raymond lay next to me, snoring softly, oblivious to the world. Oblivious to the world I was living in. I slid out from underneath the covers, scissoring my legs as I did. I was turned on. So help me, I’d dreamed about a woman and I was turned on.
“Just a dream,” I whispered to myself. I walked to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes seemed darker than usual, with dark circles beneath them in the harsh light. My hair was a dark mess of curls, and there was nothing recognized about the woman that stared back at me.
Just a dream, and somehow it had felt so much better than my reality. I hadn’t checked the time, but it was close to dawn. I could hear the birds chirping, I could feel the pending day hang in the air. I should have gone back to bed, lay next to Raymond, slept a bit longer before another day of work. But I didn’t want to go back to bed. I didn’t want his body to curl around mine into a spooning position. So I sat down on the edge of the bath and traced my own fingers down my cheek the same way she had.
Just a dream.
Raymond walked around the back of the car to open the door for me. I let him, even though I could get it myself – even though I preferred to do it myself. He was behind me, and while he couldn’t see my face I squeezed my eyes shut and let my face crumple. Three seconds, that was how long I gave myself before I was going to plaster that smile back on.
When he opened the door I flashed him my best grin and stepped out. He smiled back at me, his hazel eyes soft. The light of the streetlight fell on his light hair, making it seem golden.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Ready,” I answered. It was the same way it always was. We’d been dating for two years. The first three times he’d asked me like that a thrill had gone through me that something amazing was to follow. Something magical. What else would I need to be ready for?
But after three disappointments I’d realized he never meant that there was something I needed to be prepared for. I learned that he used ‘ready’ the same way other people used ‘okay’, or ‘come on’. Or where they just didn’t say anything at all.
And after that, it really just wasn’t special anymore.
When I was out of the car I straightened the material of my skirt in case it creased in the car. I wore my go-to little black dress and kitten heels. Raymond had told me I looked great. I knew I did, but I didn’t feel like I did.
We walked into Salvatore, our regular date-night spot. The seating hostess nodded at us and smiled. She knew us. They all knew us. I knew it was supposed to be a good thing. We were making a mark, society knew who we were and when we finally got married, if we ever did, we would keep being that couple, the one that everyone knew.
And somehow, the fact my life was so cut and paste made me want to stick my hands in my hair and scream.
But I didn’t.
Because I was the model girlfriend. And Raymond was the perfect gentleman. There was no reason to scream. There was no reason to be unhappy. There were only reasons to have a smile on my face. And I worked damn hard to make sure it stayed there.
The restaurant was beautiful. Cream table cloths and wine red serviettes, with dark wood trims and finishes all over. It was the epitome of class, and this close to Christmas they’d really gone all out with the decorations. The feel of Christmas hung in the air, and everybody looked happy. It was only right that I looked happy too.
“They’ve done a great job of decorating,” Raymond said after ordering wine.
“I love Christmas,” I answered. I really did love Christmas. It was the one thing that couldn’t disappoint, no matter how terrible it was with family, or how lonely it was without it. Everyone was in the holiday spirit, and that in itself was contagious. Happiness was contagious.
“What are we going to do about the service?” Raymond asked. I looked up at him, frowning slightly, the warmth of my thoughts trickling away a little.
“The church service, sweetheart,” he answered. “Your mother asked us to attend with them.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “I wasn’t really planning on attending,” I said, looking down at the arrangement of silverware in front of me. The restaurant catered for at least four courses. They didn’t set the table for just one meal.
“But its Christmas,” Raymond said, and he sounded like he was confused about it.
“I know its Christmas, Ray,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “But this is the third Christmas we’re spending together. I thought that by now you knew that I didn’t really do church.”
“You can’t make one small exception for your mom?”
I played with the desert spoon, turning it around and around in my fingers.
“I don’t know… what I’m trying to figure out is why you’re making an exception for my mom. You don’t exactly go to church, either.”
The wine arrived and we watched the waitress pour in silence. When she was done, she took out a notepad and a pen.
“What can I get you for starters?” she asked.
“The garlic bread, please,” Raymond said. “To share.”
The girl nodded and walked away. I would have like seafood or a light salad. Or something different than we usually did. But she was gone now, and to call her back seemed like a fuss.
“Your family is a part of you, Tess. You’re important to me, so they’re important to me. It’s a big thing to your mother that we go with her to the Christmas service.”
“We went the first year and you hated it,” I pointed out. He nodded.
“We didn’t go the second year, and she hated it,” he retaliated. I sighed.
“I’m not going, Ray,” I said, and took my glass of wine. It was light and sweet, and it slipped down my throat. I loved white wine. There was just something so much lighter about it than red wine. Red wine reminded me of blood. It had taken me two years to wean Raymond off ordering red wine. Small improvements.
“But it’s important to her,” Raymond insisted. I put my wine down carefully when what I really wanted to do was slam it onto the table, watch it splash. Ruin the night just a little, drain away some of the perfection. It didn’t make sense so I suppressed the emotion.
“Well, not going is important to me. So you’re going to have to choose,” I said. I knew my voice was hard, I knew I’d snapped at him. But I didn’t want to go. I was sick of everyone doing everything my mom said they had to do. I was sick of being dragged to church like it was somehow going to make my life better, give me a divine answer about what I should do when I’m so damn stuck.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Raymond said. His voice was still calm. He didn’t look upset or angry or on the verge of losing it. No, that was all me.
“I don’t want to talk about it later,” I said and I really made an effort to keep my voice low. “I just don’t want to go.”
Raymond nodded and reached out his hand, curling his fingers around mine that were still clutching to the stem of the wine glass. If he saw my tension he didn’t say anything about it. It could have just been a kind gesture instead of one that was intended to keep me in check. I was never a hundred percent sure of people’s motives anymore.
“Hey, I’d rather make you happy than make them happy,” he said. I nodded and allowed a small smile to play on my lips. I didn’t know how to tell him that I wasn’t really all that happy. It would hurt his feelings, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
It was one of the reasons we were still together, even though life with him wasn’t a hell of an adventure. You didn’t break up with someone because they were too perfect. Raymond was the kind of man every girl dreamed of. He was the kind of man I used to dream of. He was well-mannered, a gentleman, and he had a good job as a programmer at an IT firm in town. He made enough money to support a family one day, and he had a good body. Strong and muscular, sex appeal.
He was everything a girl could ever dream of.
And our relationship felt empty. There was no spark, no wild fights and make-up sex, hysterical crying balanced by hysterical laughing. He was straightforward and predictable. And I was perfectly miserable.
Did I love him? Every time I asked myself the answer was the same. Yes. But I wasn’t in love with him. And when I thought back to when we’d met, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever been in love with him. He was the perfect guy for me, everyone said so. Everyone was happy for me.
The garlic bread arrived and Raymond tore off a piece and put it on a plate for me. I took a bite to be polite and put it down again, staring at it while I chewed. It tasted like cardboard in my mouth.
Raymond put his hand on mine again, forcing me out of my thought process. He touched me a lot, small reassuring touches. I fought the urge to withdraw my hand.
“Where’s your mind at?” he asked. Of course, he was attentive as well. There was literally nothing that I could find in him that gave me a reason to dislike him.
“I’ve just had a rough week,” I answered, smiling meekly. “It’s been rough at work.”
I was an insurance broker, and it was a stressful job because I had to generate my own income. There was never a day where I was going to get paid no matter what.
“Is it since you got your assistant?” he asked.
There was more stress since then, because I had to pay him a salary every month, so I nodded even though that wasn’t it.
“When we get married, you won’t have to work so hard,” he said, patting my hand. I looked up at him.
“When we get married?” I asked and focused one keeping my face neutral.
He nodded and smiled. “It’s no secret that I want to get married to you, sweetheart. You know how I much I love you. And we work together so well.”
I suddenly felt flush. I paid attention to my breathing, forcing my body to take in air, and to blow it out again. I made an effort not to look as horrified as I felt. I kept my face carefully expressionless. If I couldn’t look happy, at least I wouldn’t look terrified.
“I’m not asking now, of course,” he said, and some part of me that had wound up really tight relaxed a little. “I’m just saying, I’d like for us to go in that direction one day, and when it does, you won’t have to worry so much about work anymore. When it’s the two of us working together everything will get easier.”
I nodded and forced a smile, hoping he wouldn’t see through the mask.
Raymond lifted his wine glass in the air and looked me in the eye.
“To us,” he said. I lifted mine and clinked it against his glass.
“To us,” I repeated and my voice sounded thin and distant. Raymond smiled, taking a sip. I lifted the glass to my lips but I didn’t sip the wine. I put my glass down the same time he did.
“I was thinking, if you can schedule some time off for yourself, maybe we can get away for a bit. It doesn’t have to be long, just a weekend. But it will be nice to take a bit of a break, especially over the holiday season.”
I shook my head before I had an excuse. I couldn’t do it. “Actually, I was meaning to talk to you,” I said, letting the words come out before I checked them. “I have to leave town for a while. They’re sending me on another conference, a workshop type thing so that we’re geared for next year.”
Raymond looked disappointed. I hated it, but lying now and not going was easier than going and lying the whole weekend
“I’m sorry,” I said and tried to mean it. “I really just can’t take some time off now. But we’ll be together at Christmas, right? That’s something, at least.”
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s something.” He smiled and picked up the menu so that we could order our main course. Raymond had finished all the garlic bread. My piece still lay forlorn on the plate.
The waitress came and beamed at us. Apparently, happy couples made everyone else smile too. Everywhere we went together we got that reaction. It made me feel like a fraud.
“We’ll have the duck l’Orange,” Raymond said. “With rice for me, and salad for the lady.”
I looked down at the menu.
“Actually, I’d like a fillet steak. With chips,” I said. The waitress blinked at me but scribbled it down. “And a glass of water.”
Raymond smiled but it left his eyes. He folded his menu and I handed mine to him so that he could give both to the waitress. She floated away and left us alone.
“Well, that’s different,” he said. I shrugged. “You always have the duck.”
I didn’t actually like duck. I’d always been polite. And I was killing myself by giving him everything he wanted and making him believe that he was doing the same for me.
“I’m just in the mood for something different,” I said. He nodded and looked around the room, taking in the other customers around us. He didn’t know that when I’d said I wanted something different I hadn’t been talking about the meal, I’d been talking about my life. Getting married to Raymond one day? It was the one thing I was supposed to be dreaming of. He was perfect husband material. Why, then, wasn’t I perfectly happy?
The neighborhood hadn’t changed at all since I was a child. I drove past the convenience store on the corner, Strawberry Fields home industries where my mom had ordered my birthday cake for eighteen years, and the hairdresser that knew everything about everyone.
There are those who drive back to their childhood home and feel nostalgic about it, relive the memories of growing up in the neighborhood, and feel at home eating mom’s cooking again. I wasn’t one of them. Tension built inside me the closer I got, and dread pushed down on me like a large hand until I struggled to breathe. When I parked in front of my parents’ house, my dad was the first one to open the door.
“There she is,” he said, giving me a sideways hug. I smiled.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around more,” I said. “Work has been chaotic.”
My dad nodded. It was easy to please him when it was just his opinion. He was a happy kind of guy, eager to please and not easily disappointed. Unless my mom was disappointed. She was the head of their house, and what she felt and believed was what he felt and believed. I didn’t know if he did it on purpose to keep the peace – I wouldn’t have blamed him – or if he just never really had a very strong opinion of his own.
My mom came out, arms already outstretched, and pulled me into a tight hug.
“We never see you anymore, we miss you!” she cried out. She wore one of her strange dresses, with a wrap around her head and lips that were almost the same shade of red as her hair. I was lucky I’d gotten my dad’s genes.
“Where’s Raymond?” she asked, walking into the house. My dad extended an arm, indicating that I should follow. I did.
“I don’t know, he has things he needs to do,” I answered my mom. She looked back at me, still walking forward.
“Don’t be silly. What can he do that’s more important than you? I was looking forward to seeing him.”
“I know, mom.”
There were days when I wanted to tell her if she loved him that much then she should be the one to marry him. I loved Raymond and all but I didn’t have what it took to see him as often as that. I was already seeing him again tonight.
My mom put on the kettle and took out three cups.
“Cynthia is doing the flowers for the Christmas service again this year. She’s going to make the church look like an oasis,” she said, distributing tea bags.
“Everyone likes her arrangements,” I answered.
“They’re too nervous to say what they really think. They don’t like it.”
My mom was gossiping about the people in church. It seemed like a paradox. There was a reason I shied away from religion.
“You’ll see for yourself. You missed it last year. I can’t believe they asked her again this year. You’ll see what I mean—“
“Mom, I don’t think we’re going to come to the Christmas service,” I said, cutting her off. She stopped, hands hovering in the air with the sugar pot and spoon.
“We’ll join you and daddy afterward, and we can all have Christmas lunch, but we’re not coming to the service.”
She put down the sugar pot.
“Raymond said you were coming,” she said like it was final.
“That was before last night. We spoke about it over dinner and we’re not going to join you.”
My mom pursed her lips and leaned her hip against the counter.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she said. Here we go.
My dad walked into the kitchen. “Doing what?” he asked. My mom folded her arms over her chest and pulled up her eyebrows, giving my dad the face that told him he was expected to step in and fix everything.
“Tessa doesn’t want to come to the Christmas service.”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, mom. I’m old enough to make these decisions for myself.”
“She doesn’t have to come to the service,” my dad said. I was surprised he was taking my side.
“But she didn’t go last year!” She turned her attention to me. “You didn’t go last year, and you never go during the year either. Where has your faith gone?”
I sighed. My faith was always an issue. When I grew up I’d been forced to go to church every Sunday, Christmas, and Easter. When I moved out I stopped going. I didn’t have an issue with my faith I knew where I stood. But I didn’t want anyone to push religion on me. I shook my head and folded my arms, too. My mom shook her head and poured the boiled water into the cups. The silence in the room grew thick.
“At least you’re doing things right with Raymond,” she said. “When are the two of you going to start talking about marriage?”
She handed me my cup and walked out of the kitchen to the living room. I followed suit with my dad behind me and we sat down, all facing each other. I noticed that my dad didn’t take a seat next to my mom and I wondered vaguely when that had stopped. If I’d still been in the house, or if he only stopped sitting next to her after I’d left.
“I don’t really want to get married right now,” I said.
“You’ve been dating for two years. Don’t you think it’s time?”
I took a sip of my tea, which gave me a moment to formulate an answer.
“I’d like to hold out a bit longer. Maybe move in with him first see what life with him will be like.”
My mom put down her tea cup and gave my dad a pointed look. He frowned at her, and then he sighed, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
“Your mother and I would prefer it if you got married first,” he said.
“What for?” I asked, looking from him to my mom. She had an expression on her face that I couldn’t read.
“So that you’re not living in sin,” my mom answered me.
“Oh please, mom. This isn’t nineteen-fifty. It’s not like we haven’t—“
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said, turning her head away and holding up her hand. I was going to tell her that we were already sleeping together. It didn’t make a difference where we lived if we weren’t going to wait for marriage. If I had it my way we wouldn’t have to wait for marriage because it wasn’t going to happen. But that was another sin, and I couldn’t talk about it. I was already the black sliding daughter that refused to go to church and was willing to share a house with someone without being married to him.
My mom stirred her tea and took a sip. It was awkwardly silent between us. It was happening more and more lately, the longer I was in my own place, out from underneath my parents’ roof. It was like I was evolving into the person [_I _]wanted to be, and it just wasn’t the person they wanted me to be anymore.
“Have you heard about Carol’s daughter, Lydia?” my mom asked me, changing the topic.
“I went to school with her, didn’t I? She’s a year younger than me.”
My mom nodded and took another sip of tea. “Carol told me that she’s gay! The poor woman. She wanted to disown the child but Paul won’t hear of it. He says Lydia is his daughter no matter what, and he’s not going to cut her off for loving the wrong person.”
I groaned inwardly. I didn’t have an issue with homosexuality. People were people, even when they didn’t follow the conventions. I wondered how I’d managed to be so liberal when I’d grown up in a house that was so conservative.
“Good for Lydia for having the courage to come out like that. I can’t imagine it was easy, not with Carol being her mother.”
My mom looked at me with her lips slightly parted and there was horror on her face.
“It’s completely unnatural,” she said.
“To love someone?”
“To love another woman! They do filthy things, Tess. Filthy!”
So I shut up and drank my tea, because talking about anything to my mom wasn’t going to work. The conversation rolled on and she shared all the neighborhood gossip with me until I knew what everyone had been up to since my visit two weeks ago. Finally, I moved forward until I was sitting on the edge of the couch.
“I have to get going,” I said. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’m going out of town tomorrow. Work is sending me.”
“So close to Christmas?” my dad asked.
I nodded. I was lying to them, too, but if I’d told Raymond I had to tell my parents. They would talk. I hadn’t really planned on going anywhere, but after I’d lied to Raymond about it I had to get out of town. I didn’t know where I was going yet, but I was going.
“How long will you be gone?”
“I’ll be back in time for Christmas,” I answered.
It was late Sunday afternoon when I put a packed bag in the trunk of my car and kissed Raymond goodbye.
“It’s not going to be long. I’ll be back again by Thursday.”
“Call me when you get there,” he said and opened my door for me. I got in and he closed it again, and I turned the ignition. When I pulled out of the driveway he waved at me. He would leave, go to his own home. I drove out of town, and I was relieved. I dialed my assistant’s number.
“Jerry, hi. I need a few personal days. Reschedule my appointments for Thursday and take three days off. I’ll see you again on Thursday morning.”
I hung up. He would get the message on Monday morning.
I drove to the next town – I didn’t have to go out of the state to get away from my life – and booked myself into the first hotel that I saw. They had rooms available and I went up to the third floor. My room decorated in shades of green with pine furniture. I put my bag down and collapsed onto the bed.
Finally alone. This was good.
I slept most of Monday away because for the first time in a long time I had a chance to. Raymond phoned in the morning to hear how it was going. I silenced his call and sent a text telling him I was already in session. I should have felt guilty about lying, but I didn’t. Honestly, I just wanted to get away.
By the time nighttime rolled around I got dressed into tight jeans and a halter top. I redid my hair so my curls weren’t just a wild mess, and I put on some make-up. I drove into town and found a karaoke bar. I didn’t sing and most other people couldn’t either, but there were enough cars parked out front that I went inside. I didn’t want to be the only person sitting in a bar on a Monday night.
The bar was cheerful and happy, with bright glowing lights and a long reddish bar that ran along one wall. There was a small stage opposite the bar, with two mics and thankfully no singers. A few people were scattered around in small groups, talking and drinking, and music blared from speakers I couldn’t see.
I walked to the bar and sat down.
“Can I order a cocktail?” I asked the bartender. He shook his head.
“Only beers, wines, and spirits,” he said.
I ordered a vodka tonic.
“That’s a desperate drink,” a woman said from a bit further down the bar. She leaned over the bar, putting her body on display, and she smiled at me.
“I don’t feel like wine, and I don’t do beer. It narrows it down a bit.”
She nodded and smiled, taking a sip of her drink. Judging by the bloody color in the stemmed glass it was red wine.
“You should come on a Friday,” she said. I shook my head.
“I’m not going to be in town that long.”
“Pity, they extend their repertoire and make cocktails.”
“To accommodate the crowd?” I asked. She stood up and moved to the seat next to me.
“No, I don’t work during the week and I’m the only one that makes cocktails around here.” She flashed a cheeky smile and took another sip of her wine. I liked her right away. She had long honey-colored hair and green eyes that smiled at me even when she had her wine glass to her lips. She wore a summery dress that showed a lot of tanned skin, and she looked like she was comfortable with herself.
She put the wine glass down and her long fingers traced up and down the skin. I wasn’t going to lie, she was sexy. A lot of the men in the bar thought so too.
“Bethany,” she said, holding out her hand. “Beth, for short.”
I took it.
“Tessa.” Her skin was smooth and her hands were warm. She held my hand for just a fraction longer than was necessary, and she smiled at me again with those eyes.
“So, what are you doing in town?” she asked.
“Business conference,” I answered automatically. If I stayed consistent no one was going to know I was lying. But Beth pulled up her eyebrows and a smile tugged at the corner of her lips. They were wonderful lips, full and round. I rolled my own lips and forced my eyes back up to hers. I was being rude.
“There’s hardly place for business conferences in this town,” she said. Our ‘business’ stretches a far as the local mom and pop grocery store.”
I sighed and turned my glass around and around on the spot. “Fine. I’m escaping my life.”
“Trying not to be.”
She laughed at my answer and her laugh was full and caressing. The kind of laugh that belonged in the bedroom. It danced over my skin and I smiled.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. There’s a whole lot of nothing going on here, and we do it with pride.”
Someone stepped up onto the stage and the music from the speakers faded.
“Oh god, she’s been in here every night for the last week. I think she’s going through a divorce,” Beth said. We both turned and watched the woman that had crawled up on stage. Words appeared on the screen and she started screeching.
Beth leaned into me so that I could hear her over the music. She smelled like vanilla and I got goosebumps down my arms.
“If you ask me she just needs a good lay.”
“Or a lot more to drink,” I breathed. Beth smiled at me, not moving her head away much.
“She can drink more, or we can drink more. I think either should help.”
She ordered more wine for herself and a refill for my drink. She also asked for two shots of tequila.
“Oh no, that’s a bad idea,” I said. “Tequila and I don’t play well together.
“Oh, come on. You’re already running from your life. Might as well do it properly. It’s just a bit of alcohol. Sleep it off tomorrow and you’ll be good to go.”
The shots appeared on the bar and she picked them up, handing one to me.
“Salt and lemon?” I asked.
“Walk on the wild side. Wash it down with your desperation over there,” she said, nodding to my refilled glass. She threw her shot back, and I rolled my eyes and did the same. It tasted bitter in my mouth and washed down my throat like fire. I hadn’t had tequila in a long time.
I took my drink and chased the tequila down with the vodka tonic.
“Much better,” Beth said.
My body was on fire. I could feel the alcohol burning in my veins until my skin felt hot and slightly numb. I leaned against the bar, watching the poor woman singing. I glanced at Beth. She was leaning against the bar, too, but she was watching me. My stomach lurched the way it usually did when a hot guy was staring at me. When our eyes met she smiled and picked up her wine glass, turning her attention to the singer.
I forced myself to keep my eyes on the singer, but I was very aware of Beth so close to me. She’d shuffled even closer to be heard over the music when she spoke, but after she’d stopped talking she hadn’t moved away. I didn’t mind it. In fact, I liked her being so close. It felt comfortable, more comfortable than I’d been with someone in my personal space in years.
Three more tequila shots and a lot of bad singing later, and the world was spinning. My phone chirped in my handbag but I ignored it. I was drunk, and I was happy. I didn’t want to be reminded.
“Oh my god, that was too much,” Beth said, and she slurred a little.
“Four tequilas too much,” I added and we broke into a fit of giggles. “I need to pee, come with me.”
I slid off the bar stool and stood looking around for the bathroom sign. Beth grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me to the stage and then past it to the door right next to it.
“The whole pub knows we’re in here now,” I said as she banged through the next door and into the restroom.
“They can’t hear us, the music is too loud.”
“Hear us doing what?” I asked and we giggled again. I leaned against the wall for balance. Beth stumbled toward me. She was wearing high heels and she teetered on them. It was a dangerous height for anything more than two drinks. Her ankle gave way and she collapsed against me, swearing.
She pulled a face that looked like guilt, and I laughed at her. Up close I could see the freckles dusting her nose, the red blush that colored her cheeks. I was suddenly aware of how close her face was. Her eyes were big and green and staring right into mine. My breath suddenly caught in my throat and I swallowed my giggles.
Beth looked at me with those eyes and I was caught in her stare. I was frozen like a deer in front of headlights. Her eyes trailed down to my lips and back up. Everything was perfect, the way it would be with any new person. The attraction, the physical closeness, the burning in my veins, the moment of hesitation before anything happened. The mixture of nerves and the want to push through.
Except it wasn’t a guy. It was a woman. It was Beth.
She leaned forward, moving slowly so that I could stop her, swear at her, yell at her, laugh because we were that drunk. But I didn’t stop her. I just stood shocked and rooted to the ground. Everything slowed down. My breath left my body in a light shudder and I drew it back in again. I heard my pulse in my ears.
And then her lips were on mine. She kept them there, not moving like she half-expected me to slap her. I didn’t do that. I didn’t exactly kiss her back either, but I didn’t push her away. When I didn’t move for a moment or two, she moved her lips against mine. She lifted her hand and her fingertips brushed my jaw. A jolt of electricity shot through my body.
And then I kissed her back. I moved my lips against hers, and the alcohol burned in my veins, making my body melt against hers. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice was screaming ‘what are you doing!?’ but I pushed it away. Right here, right now, it was just me and Beth.
Her lips tasted like red wine and tequila, bitter and daring, and under it soft and sensual and sweet. It was the softest kiss I’d ever had. I didn’t touch her, I kept my arms by my side. I was scared that if I moved the magic would break and I would fall into the abyss of condemnation about what was busy happening.
Her hands trailed down my neck, onto my collar bone and then over down my chest. Not far enough to be inappropriate, but far enough to make me gasp. Half of me was freaking out. The other half tightened in all the right places, and a shudder rippled through me. Her mouth on mine, her hands on my body, how close she was and the amount of alcohol in my veins made me want more.
So help me, I wanted more. I wanted her to touch me everywhere. I wanted her lips to kiss down my neck, following the trail of her hands. I wanted her body to press harder again mine, and the barrier between us, the clothes we were wearing, gone.
The thoughts hit me with such an intensity it was staggering. I was fantasizing about going further with Beth. Much further.
My body was responding to her, to my thoughts, and I felt flush. I slowly lifted my own hands and touched her back, then buried them in her hair. I touched her neck through the hair and her skin was soft. She leaned closer to me, taking my response as an invitation to do more, and her body pressed up against mine.
I felt her breasts, and my own skin burned where she touched me. I was drowning in aching lust and alcohol, and I couldn’t breathe. Beth finally broke the kiss and pulled away, looking at me. Her eyes were drowning deep, and she smiled. My breathing was too fast and too shallow, and I felt like I was floating away, and sinking down to earth all at the same time.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. She smiled and her face lit up, and she didn’t look nearly as drunk as I felt, which made me wonder how much of this had been completely spontaneous.
“For what?” she asked. “I was the one doing it.”
Her words traveled with a jolt through my body. They were so close to the words I’d heard in my dreams.
“I need to pee!” Beth said and hurried into a stall, leaving me standing alone by the door trying to relearn how to breathe. She was so casual about it like it was normal. Like what had just happened hadn’t shattered my whole world.
Maybe it was just me.
When she came out she washed her hands and looked at me.
“Are you done?” she asked. I was fully aware of her lips, the way that they curled when she smiled the way they shaped her words, and I shook my head.
I turned and went to into a stall because I did have to go to the bathroom, but I hadn’t said no to her because I still had to do something. I said no because I felt like my whole world was spinning, and no, I was definitely not done.
I arrived home on Thursday. After I’d gone to the hotel – and I’d gone alone – I hadn’t seen Beth again. I’d sobered up, and what I’d done had hit me full force. What had happened scared the crap out of me. Not because of what she’d done, but what [_I’d _]done. What I’d thought.
She’d put her number into my phone, and I didn’t phone it. She didn’t have my number, so if I really wanted to I could avoid her, I didn’t have to see her ever again if I didn’t want to. I just didn’t know if that was what I wanted. I felt more lost than when I’d left. Three days ago I’d been unhappy in my relationship, but I’d known who I was. Now I didn’t even know that.
A car pulled into my driveway. I recognized my mom’s red Prius and sighed. Nothing like a visit from my mom to force me back to reality. I opened the door when she walked up the steps and smiled.
She didn’t return the smile.
“We need to talk,” she said.
“I’m fine thanks mom, and how are you? I had a great trip, thanks for asking.” I wasn’t in a good mood, and seeing her didn’t make it any better.
“Don’t get smart,” my mom said, narrowing her eyes at me, and I bit back any other snide remarks I’d wanted to throw out. On good days I swallowed what my mom dished out – she was my mother, after all. But on bad days, like today, I stood up to her. I didn’t know which was worse, fighting with her, or taking what she dished.
“I spoke to Jerry.”
“My assistant? Why?”
“I wanted to talk to you. He said you took personal days. You told me you were going to a conference. They don’t do conferences in December. They wouldn’t so close to Christmas.”
She had me there, no one did anything close to Christmas. I’d been stupid with my lies.
“So where were you really?”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “I just needed to get away, mom. I needed a break from being the perfect daughter. The perfect girlfriend. Hell, the perfect anything.” I plopped down on my couch and buried my face in my hands.
“Don’t curse,” she said in a clipped voice and perched on the edge of the couch next to me. “Why did you have to lie about it? It’s not like we were going to follow you there and make your life difficult. If you need a break, you could just have said so.”
I looked up at her. “Oh yeah? Like you were going to give me a break from the Christmas service?”
The skin around her eyes tightened. “That’s not the same thing. Church isn’t something you need a break from. You can’t just turn your back on your faith.”
I leaned back in the seat, feeling like I was a teenager again.
“I don’t actually have to go if I don’t want to. And last I checked my religion, my faith, is my problem. You had your turn to tell me what was wrong and right. Now you have to let me go and trust that I’ll choose my own thing.”
My mom pulled a face halfway through my speech. “Don’t give me that. You lied to us. You lied to Raymond. What are you going to tell him?”
The mention of Raymond made my stomach twist into a knot. Nerves bunched under my ribs like a fist. I flashed on Beth in the bathroom, her pupils dilated, lips slightly parted. And then pressing them against mine, and I didn’t stop her. I felt sick.
“I just needed to get away, okay,” I said, closing my eyes for two seconds.
“Is something wrong, honey?” mom asked. She scrutinized my face. “Are you two okay?”
Were we okay? Of course we were. Was I okay? Absolutely not.
“Everything is fine mom. Just let me do this, let me do my own life, okay?”
My mom sighed and looked up at the ceiling.
“I’m just worried you’re heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “I’m worried that you’re losing sight of what’s right.”
“What are you talking about?”
She stood up and paced the room. I watched her. She walked from the television to the window that looked out over the driveway to the front door, the bookcase, and then back to the couch. When she sat down again I felt like she’d criticized everything in the room without saying something.
“I don’t want people to talk. What does it look like when you’re not attending church after we’ve been in the parish since before you were born? You were christened there.”
“You’re not honestly throwing this at me are you?” I said, looking up at the ceiling the way she had earlier, and then stopping myself because I didn’t want any part of me to resemble any part of her. I flashed on Beth again for no reason at all. How she leaned on the bar, her hair brushing against the reddish wood. Her long fingers around the stem of her wine glass.
There was no reason at all why I was thinking about her. Nothing had brought this one. And still she was on my mind, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Thinking about a woman that way was the ultimate sin. I grew up in a household that was more than just homophobic. Religion put a whole new spin on being gay.
I couldn’t do this. But I had done it. If not all the way in real life, at least close to all the way in my mind. And wasn’t thinking about it just as bad as doing it? At least, that was what I’d been taught.
“Can you go?” I asked my mom, looking at her. She was mid-lecture, something I hadn’t heard, and she paused with her mouth half-open. “I have a headache.” That wasn’t a lie. It was starting between my temples, a dull thud.
“I don’t want us to fight,” my mom said. I got up and walked to the door.
“If you didn’t want the fight you could have waited for me to drop by, or at least given me a heads up you were coming. Or you have just stayed away altogether.”
I closed my eyes and put my hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry, mom,” I said. I knew I was being rude. “I just had a rough week.”
She snorted. It was Thursday and I’d been off for three days. It shouldn’t have been rough at all. But throw in an identity crisis and a new set of moral issues, and rough had a new definition.
“I’m going to take a headache tablet and go to bed. I’ll drop by tomorrow before I see Raymond, okay?”
My mom walked to me and put her hand on my cheek the way she used to when I cried. It made me feel nostalgic in the kind of way that made me feel even sicker. She patted my shoulder and then she left.
I took two tablets and a glass of water to bed. I drew the curtains so it was dark so that I could fall asleep. And even though I had two tablets and a dark room, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her again. Her smile, her hands, her eyes, her hair. I turned on my side and looked at Raymond’s photo on my nightstand. He’d given it to me after we’d been dating for four months. And I wondered how on earth I’d been able to somehow screw up what should have been the best thing to happen to me.
I pulled into the driveway in front of Raymond’s house and parked. I sat in the car, listening to the engine tick. The sun had already set, leaving the world drenched in the inky black of night. Raymond was smiling even before he opened the door for me. I smiled, too. For the first time in a while I looked at him, really looked at him. His hair was the color of wheat when the season changed, and his light brown eyes had golden flecks in it that danced when he smiled.
And he smiled a lot. He pulled me into his arms and folded me against his body. His nose was in my hair and he kissed his way to my mouth.
“I missed you,” he said when he let me up. I nodded, but I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t find the words to say it back because the truth was I’d spent all the time away from him thinking about the woman in the bar, the one that had managed to rip my feet out from under me. So instead I laced my fingers through his and pulled him into the house.
I kissed him, curling my fingers around his collar, pulling myself against him. He made a small sound of surprise, paused for a moment, and then he wrapped his arms around my body and kissed me properly. His tongue slid between my lips, and I let it. He tasted me like he hadn’t tasted me before.
My body responded to his, heating up. I moved my thighs, scissoring them against each other. I pushed my hands against his chest, feeling his muscles underneath the shirt. His hands ran up and down my body, following the rise and fall of my curves.
He broke the kiss, looking at me and he was breathing hard. He took my hands in both of his and kissed them. Then he took my hand and led me to the bedroom.
He closed the door like we weren’t the only ones in the house, and wrapped his arms around my body again. His hands found the hem of my shirt and he pushed his fingers under it. They fluttered over my bare skin, and I got goosebumps. He kissed me, working my shirt up and over my head. I unbuttoned his shirt and peeled it over his shoulder, tracing his shoulder muscles with my nails. I loved his shoulders, his chest, his back. His manner was always perfectly respectable, careful to give me what I wanted, but his body was the kind that belonged to an alpha male. He sighed into my mouth out of pleasure. My sigh mirrored his but it was out of frustration.
We made our way to the bed. He got out of his own pants before he unbuttoned mine and slowly pulled it down my legs. I lay in front of him in only my underwear, and he smiled down at me like I was a vision.
God, I really didn’t deserve him. He was kind and good and he only had good intentions, and I lied and cheated – if doing anything with a woman was cheating – and I just didn’t deserve him.
He kissed me down my neck, leaving a trail. My skin tingled where he’d been, and I tipped my head to the side to give him more room. He found my chest and I arched my back so that he could unclip my bra. He pulled it off and threw it to the side. My nipples tightened in the cold air of the room and I was free in front of him, no holding back, no hiding.
He worked his way down, planting butterfly kisses on my skin. My body tightened in response. His mouth found my breast and I moaned. He massaged and kneaded the other breast with his hand, and my body woke up to him, slowly unfurling. I curled on the bed under his hand, his mouth. I wanted more, so much more. I moaned, and he moved his body in rhythm with his mouth, hovering over mine.
Whatever he was as a person, he was damn good in bed.
Then he was back on my mouth and he pressed his body against mine, and I could feel the length of his hunger pressing against me. His fingers worked my underwear down my legs. I lifted them up for him to make it easier. I was naked, bathing in a pool of moonlight that fell through a crack in the curtain.
“My god, Tessa,” he murmured against my lips. I found the top of his underwear, curling my fingers over the elastic of his jocks and pulling them down, lifting the elastic so I didn’t pull him down with it. He pushed up on his elbows giving me room, and I worked it down the rest of the way with my feet.
He was naked, his skin on mine, and I drank in his touch. He kissed me on my neck. The length of his body was against the length of mine, and the feel of him made me open my legs. He positioned himself at my entrance, and I gasped when I felt the tip slip into me.
He looked at me, his hazel eyes more gold than brown, and then he pushed into me. I gasped as he entered me, and he drew my breath out until he was inside of me to the hilt. He stretched me and my body yielded and gave way to him. He held still for a moment and I felt his foreskin slip back. I moaned and he pulled out. The friction was delicious. He pushed in again, starting with a rhythm – out and in, out again – and I gave myself over to the feeling. He stroked my insides and built an orgasm inside of me.
He kissed me, bucking his hips against me. His body was hard and slick on top of mine, skin shiny with sweat. My body responded to his. His mouth was by my ear and I heard his breathing, hard and erratic, matching my own. I wrapped my legs around his body. The orgasm flooded through me, suddenly, like it had been waiting long enough. It washed through me, starting at my hips and spreading to my extremities until it bled out of my fingers and toes. I curled my body around his, nails biting into his skin, and he groaned.
Finally, it let me go, and I came down from it, gasping and panting. The same tingling feeling that always accompanied Ray spread over my body and my legs were numb.
Ray smiled at me, touched my face with his hand, brushing a stray strand of hair behind my cheek. Then he picked up his pace again. He pumped into me, and the friction was more intense than before with my walls clamping down around him. I moaned and cried out, and his hips took over, building a natural rhythm, fast and furious. He grew inside of me, long and hard, and then he exploded, releasing inside of me.
I could feel him pumping, feel him filling me up, and it was impossible to think there was still room for him. He lay down on top of me, careful not to put his full weight on me, burying his face in my hair. Finally, he slid out of me and rolled to the side.
“You are amazing,” he said, his voice breathy.
“You did it all,” I said. He closed his eyes, smiling.
I lay facing the wall with Raymond’s body curled around mine like a question mark. His arm was draped over my body. And suddenly I flashed on Beth, her kiss in the bathroom.
My stomach twisted and I willed the thoughts away. But the more I tried to not think about her, the more it felt like the memories were fighting me. The familiar clutch of tension grabbed a hold of my gut.
We’d slept together, and it had been everything it was supposed to be – sensual, passionate, full of emotion. And still, even after I did it, I still couldn’t shake the guilt and the pressing question inside of me. I closed my eyes, tried to will it away again. And I couldn’t. Raymond was my only way out right now. My only answer, because as long as I was with him, everything was the way it should have been. The right man, the right life. It was perfect. Wasn’t it?
I turned in his arms so that I was facing him. I studied his face, because that was here, now. That was what was important. He had the sleepy look on his face that he always got after sex. His smile was lopsided, the one end tugging up higher than the other. He traced his fingers over my face, the line of my jaw, my cheek, over my eyebrow and then down the line of my nose. And finally over my lips. That did the trick. It was all him again. I sighed.
“What did I do to deserve you?” he asked. I squeezed my eyes closed. It wasn’t the question he was supposed to ask. When I opened them again he was looking me in the eye.
“I love you,” I said. And I meant it. I really did love him.
“I love you too. This just feels right. Lying next to you, waking up next to you…”
He leaned forward and kissed me. I took a deep breath and blew it out again with a shudder. I needed to get rid of Beth, the thought of her. If Raymond chased it away… being with him was how it should be.
“Well, then we should make a more permanent thing about this,” I said. It was out before I had a chance to think about it properly, because if I did, I was going to back out of it again.
He frowned slightly, and it was adorable.
I shook my head. “I’m not trying to make a huge commitment, a big step in our relationship, all that,” I said. I didn’t want him to think we were going to get married tomorrow. “I just think that, well, we’ve been together for two years. Maybe we should take the next step, you know? Maybe we should move in together.”
His face lit up in a cross between a smile and a frown. I ignored the cold fist in my stomach.
“Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?” he asked. “Shouldn’t I be the one to ask you?”
I shrugged, and he smiled and kissed me.
“That sounds great,” he said.
“My parents are going to be horrified,” I answered. He smiled and kissed me on the forehead
“We can figure it out.”
I nodded and threw my arm over his chest, putting my head on his shoulder. I really hoped so. He sighed, and I sighed too. He was completely happy and relaxed under me. It was just me then, I was the only one that was still tense and unsure.
We moved in together. I was right, my parents were horrified. Living in sin, that was what they said we were doing. But I was old enough to make my own choices, to decide what I believed. The fact that I still had to figure out what exactly that was, was beside the point.
It was okay living with him. Not as bad as I thought it would be. We went to our respective jobs each day and I often had to work late. We didn’t see each other as often as I was scared we would. In fact, because we saw each other all the time at home we didn’t make that much of an effort with date night.
Which meant that we spent a lot of time in each other’s company, but not together. And it worked for me.
Four weeks. That was how long everything was fine, and my life just started falling into a new routine. It was a life that I thought maybe I could live. I didn’t know how long I could keep doing it, but as long as it was working I wasn’t going to ask for anything to change. I did the groceries and kept the home pretty much as I liked it.
Life was everything it should have been. And it felt empty.
I took off work a bit earlier to find time to do grocery shopping. I was in the fresh produce aisle when fingers curled around my wrist. I looked down, saw red nails, and turned to those green eyes that I’d just managed to push out of my mind.
“Tessa!” Beth said, throwing her arms around my neck and pulling my body against hers. “I didn’t think I was going to see you again.”
I pulled out of the embrace, feeling suddenly like I couldn’t breathe. My stomach had dropped to my feet and the tips of my fingers trembled. I rubbed them against each other.
“What are you doing here?” I asked and my voice sounded tight and breathy.
“I’m in town for a while. It’s my week off and I wanted to see what it was like not to be attached to that damn bar. I had no idea that when you said you were out of town you were really just one town over. That’s hardly out at all.” She laughed, and it was that same lush laugh as before, the bedroom laugh that crept over my skin and made me want to reach out my hand and touch her. I shook my head.
“Well it’s been great seeing you,” I said, and tried to walk on. I wanted to get away from her. It wasn’t about her, it wasn’t about the fact that I couldn’t stand her. It was the exact opposite. I had to get away from her, because if I stayed I was going to be drawn to her so hard and so fast until I just didn’t know how and where to stop anymore.
I started walking away, pushing the grocery cart in front of me, and for two seconds I believed she was going to let me go. The hardest choice was going to be the easiest for me. But then she called after me.
“Tessa,” she said and I looked over my shoulder, turning just a little bit. “Do you want to come out and have a drink with me?”
I hesitated. I was supposed to be spending time with Raymond later. But her green eyes were big and liquid, a deep emerald, and her wheat colored hair was pulled back from her face and hung in a thick silky ponytail over her shoulder.
“I could really use a break, unwind a bit, and it’s so much less depressing when I’m not drinking alone,” she added when I didn’t say yes straight away. I should have said no. I should have made up an excuse and walked away. But instead, I felt myself nodding as if my body was doing the thinking instead of my mind. A smile bled across her features, lighting them up, and she nodded.
“I’m going to be at The Office at eight,” she said. She made a kiss into the air and turned, her hair swishing after her.
The Office was a bar or cocktail lounge that attracted businessmen and women. It was warm and classy and not the kind of place I usually went to. I phoned Raymond when I got to the car.
“Honey, a girl friend that I haven’t seen in a while is in town, do you mind if I see her tonight and we spend time together tomorrow night” After I said it I squirmed about the fact that I called her a girl friend. It was only one space away from girlfriend. I felt a flush creep up from my collar.
“Is it someone I know?” he asked.
“No, she’s from a different part of my life,” I said and again I squirmed about how weird that sounded. “I don’t know what time I’ll be in again, but I don’t think it will be an early night.” It was easier to play it safe. He was okay with it. Of course he was. He wasn’t the complaining, nagging type that had temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way. That would mean that he wasn’t the perfect man, and of course he was.
Deep down inside of me I wanted him to argue with me. I wanted to fight with him. I wanted him to be unreasonable just once so that I wasn’t the only one that was making mistakes all the time. So that I wasn’t the only horrible one in the relationship.
After he told me he loved me and hung up I stared at the phone in my hand for a while. I felt like somehow going out with Beth wasn’t just a girls’ night out. It felt like I was doing something I should hide, something I should apologize for.
But it was just a couple of drinks at an after work bar. It was nothing strange. Right? I wasn’t doing anything wrong. If I kept telling myself that, maybe the hollow feeling in my stomach would eventually go away.
I met her at eight. The Office was a long narrow place with a bar in the middle of everything and booths arranged all around it. Beth was in the back. She wore a green top that dipped low enough for me to see the swells of her breasts and it made her eyes stand out and look like spring leaves. I had dressed up a little, a wine red blouse that accentuated my curves in a way that didn’t look like I was asking for attention, black pants and kitten heels, and I felt dull and washed out just looking at her.
She lit up when she saw me and beckoned me over enthusiastically. I leaned over to hug her before I sat down. She waved a waiter closer and ordered me a cosmopolitan. I wasn’t sure if she knew that it was what I liked. She was already sipping on a Martini.
I’d been nervous before I came, but now that we were sitting together, surrounded by other men and woman dressed similarly, having a drink, I felt more at ease.
“I can’t believe this place, I’ve been here every night since I came to town,” Beth said. I looked around. It wasn’t a bad place, but I didn’t think it was as great as that. “I’m glad you made it,” she said, touching my knee lightly. “I thought maybe you would be busy.”
I shrugged. “Nothing that I couldn’t postpone. My boyfriend is okay with me changing plans on him.”
She smiled when I mentioned Raymond. “Tell me about him.”
It caught me off guard a little. My drink arrived and I was relieved to have something in my hands. I took a sip and the tart taste filled my mouth and anchored me. I played my fingers around the stem of the glass.
“Raymond is the perfect guy. Literally. He is everything that any woman would want. I never have any reason to be upset with him, or to wish that he was different, or that he would shake off nasty habits. He’s just… always the same,” I said, and looked at her, hoping that it had sounded as it good as it was supposed to sound.
“But?” she asked.
“I just feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming.” She looked at me and her eyes were so bright and so invasive that I felt myself crack open and a little bit of what was inside dribble out. I sighed and looked into the pink liquid that filled my glass. I took a long sip and swallowed, breathing out and ending with a sigh.
“To be honest with you, I just wish there would be something. Anything. Drama, problems, issues, anything that wouldn’t be the perfect relationship. He’s so perfect that it makes me feel I can never be. I can’t do anything the way he does it, and it makes me feel like I’m lacking.”
“And that makes you feel like you resent him,” she said. A statement, not a question. And before I knew it, I was nodding. A shock traveled through my body. What was I admitting to? What had I just said? She put her hand on my thigh and leaned into me a little. My breath caught in my throat.
“You’re not wrong,” she said. “I can’t live without drama.”
“Really?” I asked. She nodded and looked into her own martini glass. It was empty, save for the toothpick with the olives on it.
“My last girlfriend was so dramatic we used to fight all the time,” she said. She carried on talking but I suddenly couldn’t hear what she was saying.
“So you’re…” I stopped myself in the middle of my sentence, catching myself before I was rude. Beth looked at me again, and her face changed from thoughtful to unsure to something that looked like she was trying to swallow a laugh.
“A lesbian?” she asked. I closed my eyes, swallowed, nodded.
“I mean, I just didn’t… God. You don’t look… I mean.” I felt ridiculous. “I’m sorry,” I said and touched my forehead with my fingers. “I’m just making this worse.” I felt like an idiot and my ears were burning.
This time, she did laugh, letting it go and it was beautiful, dancing around me like chimes.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s really fine.”
I nodded. She didn’t say more than that, and the silence grew around us, warm and thick.
“Can I asked you something?” she finally said. I’d finished my cocktail and I felt it. Not much, but enough. It had just taken that edge off, and my just finding out about Beth’s sexual orientation sank in and it felt okay. I didn’t have an issue with people being homo or heterosexual. It was their business. It had caught me off guard because of what she looked like. There was nothing butch about her, and I had to confess I’d been stereotyping.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
I looked at her, and her face was serious. She looked like she was nervous about my answer. Self-assured Beth suddenly looked uncertain. It was my turn to look away again. I let my eyes slide over the other people in the bar. I wondered if they all were as put-together as they looked, if they were really happy, if their lives were going where they wanted it to, if they were stuck and didn’t know which way was out.
I wondered if they were putting on the smile for society’s sake, or if it was real.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know what to do after we kissed in the bathroom,” I said. I’d lowered my voice when I’d said ‘kissed’ and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I don’t usually do stuff like that and it confused me.”
“Did it scare you?” she asked.
“It scared the hell out of me,” I confessed. “I’m not… you know… lesbian.”
Her smile faded when I said it. She shifted just a little closer to me. I didn’t how to react if I should have moved away or not, so I didn’t do anything.
“I didn’t kiss you because I thought you were lesbian. And you don’t have to be to kiss a woman. It’s not about the sex but about the person. It’s who you get along with, you know?”
I nodded. I didn’t really know. I’d grown up in a household where anything like this was frowned upon. But she was being so open about it, so serious. She leaned into me, close enough for me to see the glitter on her eyeshadow.
“There are people here that might know me,” I said. My body was freaking out on me again. I was hyper aware of her body, and I felt like every nerve ending was raw.
“Let’s get out of here, then,” she said. She took out money and put it down on the table, and got up, walking toward the door. I scrambled to grab my purse and follow her. Outside she walked into the night, and I trotted to catch up to her.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I stay in that hotel,” she said. “We can talk there without worrying about who might see you with me, talking about the ultimate sin.” She smiled when she said it. I hesitated. Going with her to a hotel?
“Come on, this isn’t supposed to be creepy. There are just too many people to be yourself, you know?”
I nodded and walked with her. We walked into the lobby, and up to the elevator. When we were in the room I relaxed for the first time.
She kissed me the moment we were inside the door. I froze again when her lips touched mine, but she pulled away almost immediately.
“You’re still the most stunning thing,” she said to me and walked to the small fridge that sat on the desk next to the bathroom door like nothing had happened.
“I don’t know what this is,” I said. “Everything confuses me. I like men.”
Beth shrugged. “So? Some people do. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that if you like one you can’t like the other.”
“I’m not bi-sexual,” I said, shaking my head. I thought back to my dream, and I pushed it away. Beth pulled a bottle of vodka from the fridge and unscrewed the top. She took a swig and pulled a face. She walked to me, swaying her hips.
“Are you telling me that you don’t find me even the smallest bit attractive? You didn’t like it when we kissed?”
I opened my mouth and closed it again because I couldn’t say that. She nodded and took another swig of vodka, pulling a face again. She held out the bottle to me, and I took it. I gulped down the bitter liquid, pulling a face and coughing.
“God, that’s vile,” I said. When I looked at Beth again she looked at me in a way I usually looked at men. She stepped closer, pulling me into her, and her lips slowly moved towards my face. This time, I didn’t stop her. I didn’t freeze. The vodka set my body on fire and my last inhibitions crumbled. I was the one that closed the gap, my lips pressing against hers. I heard a gasp and I wasn’t sure if it had been me or her. I held her face in between both my hands, cupping her cheeks. She put her hands on my hips and traced my lips with her tongue. I opened my mouth and she slipped her tongue into my mouth, drawing lazy circles around my tongue.
My breathing sped up, became shallow and erratic. I was aware of every bit of her body that touched mine. Her hands on my hips burned through my shirt. I could feel her breasts pushing against mine, and my nipples tightened at the idea that I was kissing another woman.
She ran her hands up my body, using her nails lightly. It tickled and I forced away a giggle when her hands landed on my breasts and I gasped. The laughter was gone. I stopped kissing her.
“It’s okay,” she mumbled against my lips. The vodka in my system, the cosmo before we’d gotten here, was just enough to not let me stop. My body was on fire, and I wanted her to keep doing what she was doing.
Having a woman’s hands on my body was so different. She was soft and sensual, and it was like she knew exactly what I wanted. She massaged me and touched me, and a flame ignited between my legs. I knew I was wet. I could feel it.
I slid my own hands down her back, tentatively. I didn’t know what to do. I ran my fingers through her hair. I traced the curve of her back and then I slid my fingers over her ass. It was firm and perfect.
I broke the kiss and looked at her. Her pupils were dilated and she smiled.
“I can’t do this,” I said. She stopped, pulled her hands away. I shook my head. That wasn’t what I’d wanted. I pushed my hands into my hair.
“Oh god,” I said, and grabbed the bottle of vodka, gulping more of it down. I didn’t want to stop, my body didn’t want me to. But if I wanted to carry on I needed help. Beth drank more vodka too but I didn’t think she was nervous about it.
When I put the bottle down again, she stepped closer to me and tried again. And I let her. She pushed her hands under my shirt this time, and her hands on my skin felt like electricity. Her fingers found the underwire of my bra, and then she slipped over the satin material of the cup. She ran her fingers around my hard nipple for just a moment, and then she pulled her hands back out again. She undid the buttons and peeled my shirt off.
I stood in front of her in just my bra. She looked at me, reached around to unclip the bra, and it fell to the floor.
I started lifting my arms to cover myself, but she shook her head and pulled off her own shirt. She stood in just her bra, black and lazy. It was in contrast against her creamy skin, and she looked beautiful, with amazing curves.
“Don’t cover up,” she said, and reached out a hand, pushing my arms down. With the other, she touched my breast. My breathing was fast, my chest rising and falling. She took my hand and led me to the bed, where she gently pushed me so that I sat, and then lay down. She crawled on top of me and kissed me again.
She kissed my neck then, leaving behind a trail of fire. Her hands found my breasts and she rolled her nipple between her thumb and forefinger.
More vodka, more kissing, and we were suddenly naked. Her body rose and fell, her curves asked to be touched everywhere. She helped me get rid of my pants, too. When her hands trailed lower and lower, I put my hands over hers.
I breathed in to say something, but I didn’t know how to tell her I wanted to stop without stopping completely. It was just too much. But she just lay down next to me, pulled my face toward hers, and kissed me again.
We lay like that, naked, in each other’s arms, kissing, until we both fell asleep. The vodka dragged me down, and I was gone.
I woke up with a start to the shrill ring of my phone. I was still in the hotel room, alone on the crumpled bed. I heard the sound of the shower. I clutched the sheet to my chest and scrambled across the room to find my phone in my purse by the door.
I missed the call.
“Shit,” I cried out. It was after ten. I hadn’t let Raymond or Jerry know anything. I began searching frantically for my clothes and pulled them on. I finger combed my hair and rubbed the dark make-up circles away. I was just done when Beth stepped out of the bathroom, wearing just a towel. Her hair hung in wet strings down her back and her eyes looked somehow more intense.
“I’m so late,” I said. “I have to run.”
Beth nodded, leaning against the wall. I walked to her and kissed her.
“Call me,” she said. Her voice was thin. I shook my head and walked over to the desk, finding hotel stationary. I scribbled my number on the notepad, tore off the piece of paper, and gave it to her.
“This is my number. I don’t want either of us to disappear again.”
Beth’s face lit up. She clutched her towel to her body, and I left the room.
When I got home, Raymond was there. He wasn’t at work. My mother’s car was in the driveway too. I groaned. My head throbbed with a horrible hangover from all the vodka. Raymond I could handle. I couldn’t deal with my mother, and I sure as shit didn’t want to see them together. Not now.
I took a deep breath and pushed open the front door. They both sat in the living room. Raymond jumped up when I walked into the room.
“Tess, are you okay? Where the hell were you?” he asked. It was the closest I’d ever heard him get to cussing.
“I’m sorry, it got a bit wild,” I said. I pawed at my head. The headache was terrible.
“Are you hung over?” my mom said, joining us. I nodded.
“Of all the irresponsible things… who do you think you are? You’re old enough to know better than this Theresa.”
My mother only used my real name when she was really upset.
“Look, mom. It was just an innocent girls’ night out, okay?” Innocent, yeah right. “I’m sorry I did this. I’m back now, everyone’s safe and sound.”
“We were worried sick. When Raymond couldn’t reach you he phoned me and rightfully so.”
I nodded, hanging my head.
“I’m going,” my mom said and marched out the door. We listened to her car pull out of the driveway.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, turning to Raymond.
“What was that?” He asked. I opened my mouth to answer but he kept going. “When are you going to stop letting her walk all over you?”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“I just disappeared for twelve hours, I come home hungover, and you’re upset that I didn’t stand up to my mom?” I asked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Ray walked away from me, pacing the room.
“I know your parents are a handful, I get it. But you can’t keep living life the way they want it for you, you know,” he said.
I was suddenly angry. What did I do to deserve this? Crap on me for my behavior last night, sure. But how I dealt with my parents?
“You should be happy I’m doing what they want. It includes you,” I snapped. He narrowed his eyes at me, and I tried to think if I’d ever seen him upset before. I couldn’t remember properly, it made the throbbing worse.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked. You’re making it sound like you’re just with me because that’s what they want.”
I shook my head and walked away. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back.
“Is that what this is?” he asked. I shook my head. I didn’t know what the hell anything was anymore. All I knew was that my head was killing me and he was angry for the wrong reasons.
I sighed and shook my head. “That’s not how I meant it.” Even though in a way it was. “But you’ve only been here for two years. I’ve been living with my parents my whole life. I think it’s safe to say I know a little more about them than you do. All you know is my mom treating you like you’re god-sent because of who you are. And I can’t seem to ever do anything right. You don’t’ think that stings? When you’re the child they never had and I’m constantly walking in your shadow when you’re not even family?”
I took a deep breath, and the look on Ray’s face stopped me. He looked hurt, the anger had drained a little. This was worse, a lot worse.
“I’m just trying to get you to live the life you want,” he said softly. “Even…” I swallowed. “Even if that means that life isn’t with me.”
Everything around me felt like it was shrinking, squeezing me into a corner. He was offering me a way out, and instead of taking it, I felt like everything was crashing around me. A hangover was the worst possible way to deal with something like this.
“Raymond…” I said but somehow I couldn’t find more words to finish that sentence. I didn’t know who I was anymore, what I believed.
“Do you love me?” he asked. I nodded because I did. I didn’t love him in that way, the way that I should have. But I cared for Raymond. Maybe it was just because he was so pure, but I did feel something for him.
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? My head is really bad. I just want to go to bed, sleep it off. We’ll talk about it all later. I was wrong, and I shouldn’t have behaved the way I did.”
Raymond hesitated and nodded, pulling me in for a kiss. I didn’t know how to stop him from kissing me. It was too much. But he planted one on my forehead instead and I had to focus on not looking relieved about it.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said. I smiled at him, unsure what to make of anything, and turned to go to bed.
I stood in front of Beth’s hotel. I’d told Jerry I was going out for lunch, I would be back in an hour. I told myself that putting a time limit on things would make it easier for me and marched to her hotel room.
I’d gotten a message from her this morning.
[_Thinking of you _]was all it had said. And it had made my stomach clench tightly into a knot of nerves. I’d hidden my phone from Raymond until he’d left for work, terrified he would find it. I was acting like I was having an affair. And I really wasn’t, was I?
I hesitated before I knocked on the door. My hands were trembling, my heart beat in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. I was just about to knock again when the door opened. She stood in front of me, bright and radiant and my stomach tightened the way that had nothing to do with nerves.
“This is a nice surprise,” Beth said and she smiled. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, and her natural beauty was somehow even more inviting than when she was all dolled up. Her hair was tied up into a bun on her head, and she wore a loose shirt and boxer shorts that looked like they’d once belonged to a man.
“Beth,” I said and swallowed, trying to make sure I sounded frim. “Can we talk for a minute?” I glanced at my wristwatch. “I don’t have a lot of time.”
Beth nodded and stepped to the side, letting me into the room. A rush of memories from two nights before flooded me when I did. I looked around the room. I didn’t want to sit on the bed, not after what we’d done there. I didn’t want to sit on the chair by the desk, either, because that seemed like it was too formal. So I stayed standing.
Beth sat down on the bed, and I fought the urge to join her. I took a deep breath.
“I don’t know how to say this,” I said.
“Just say it,” Beth said. Her eyes were guarded, and she had a weary expression on her face. She knew that what I had to say wasn’t good news.
“I can’t see you again,” I said looking down at my hands, pushing all the words out in one go. There was a moment of silence. When I glanced up at Beth’s face she’d constructed her face into an expressionless mask. She didn’t say anything, and that always made me keep talking.
“It’s not you… you’re wonderful, you really are.” Great, I was starting the its-not-you-its-me speech. “I just can’t keep doing this. I don’t even know what this is… and I have a boyfriend. We live together, he talks about marriage. I can’t mess around with someone else… a woman.”
I stopped talking and took a deep breath. Beth still hadn’t said anything and it made me feel like I was the bad guy.
“We really had a great time together,” I said again, hoping that it would get a response. When it didn’t, I pushed my hands into my hair and groaned. “Please say something?”
She looked down at her hands, then out the window opposite me, and finally at me.
“I didn’t think what we had was a one night stand kind of deal,” she said. “When you gave me your number…”
“I know,” I said. I’d given it to her because I really did want to see her again. Why did I suddenly feel like the bad guy if I was just trying to do the right thing? “I just can’t do this to Raymond. He doesn’t deserve me going behind his back—“
“Forget about Raymond,” Beth said, and her voice was clipped, cutting me off. “What do you want? Sounds to me like you keep doing what everyone else wants, and you never put yourself first.”
I closed my eyes and tipped my head back. “You’re going to lecture me too?” I asked. When I opened my eyes again she was frowning slightly. “I already had a fight with Raymond about how I’m not standing up for myself.”
Beth’s face changed, the frown giving way to a small smile.
“Well, maybe you should listen to him. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.”
I breathed in deeply and blew it out again. “I still can’t do this to him. He deserves so much more. And even if it is what I want, I can’t keep him tagging along making him think that marriage with him is what I want. I can’t keep seeing you on the sly, hiding away from society thinking that as long as it’s a drunken night I won’t have to worry about regrets.”
I’d spoken more to myself than to Beth, but she got up and walked to me. When she stood in front of me she took my hand. I looked down at the connected, two delicate hands, fingers intertwined.
“I really like you, Tessa. And this doesn’t just happen, you know. You’re just different than the rest of them, and I want to see you again. When I’m with you time stands still, and when we’re apart I make plans so that I can see you again. Is that wrong?”
I didn’t nod, but I didn’t shake my head either. Because the truth was I felt like that about her too. And that scared the shit out of me.
“I’m not lesbian,” I said.
“You told me,” Beth said, and there was no sarcasm or reproach in her voice. “I’m not asking you to be. I just want to see you again. I want to spend time with you, get to know you, your life. I don’t just fall into bed with anyone, you know. This… this is special.”
I clutched my chest, feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
“I can’t do this,” I said again. I was cornered. Not physically, but the panic I was feeling was enough to let me know it was emotionally true.
Beth dropped my hand. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Everything is great when we’re together. Why do you have to keep thinking about it, analyzing it, pulling it apart so that it has to make sense?”
I turned my back to her. “You don’t understand because you have no idea what my life is like. I grew up in a community that would probably stone someone for being homosexual. My parents won’t just disown me, they would ostracize me. And Raymond… how can I do this to him? He’s literally the best thing that ever happened in my life. [_I’m _]the one that’s lacking because I can’t seem to find the passion for him that he should get from me. He’s done nothing to deserve this.”
Beth put her hand on my shoulder and tugged gently, asking me to turn around. I did. Her face was soft again, and she wore the expression that made me fall for her in the first place. When I thought that a shock of electricity ran through my body. Is that what had happened? Had I fallen for her? It was too much to take in, too much to think about. I pushed it away because formulating a complete thought about being with a woman made me want to back out of it.
“Don’t do this,” Beth said, and it sounded like she was pleading. “Don’t walk away from this. You know you’re going to regret it.”
“How do I know that I won’t regret staying?” I asked.
Beth shrugged. “You don’t.”
It was confusing and I was no closer to anything that I’d been when I’d gotten here. I’d come here to tell her off, to tell her I never wanted to see her again. Instead, she was convincing me to keep doing this, and a part of me wanted to agree with her, pick it up and run with it. She was pushing me into something I didn’t want.
But then, that wasn’t true. If I hadn’t wanted it I wouldn’t have agreed to meet her at The Office. I wouldn’t have gone back to her hotel room. I wouldn’t have drowned my fears in vodka so that I could be with her, which was what I wanted deep down inside.
And I would have been here trying to break it off. The only reason this was happening was because I knew that if I didn’t put a stop to it, I was in danger of going through with it. Of really being with her.
Beth looked at me, her eyes an intense green. Her pupils were dilated, her lips slightly parted, and my body responded to her. She oozed sex appeal, and even though I was stuck arguing with myself, I wanted to be with her. I wanted her. Like she knew what I was thinking, she stepped closer to me. Her closeness took my breath away. My whole body trembled lightly, and when she leaned forward and brushed her lips against mine, my stomach lurched and I was turned on and ready for her immediately. I put my hand behind her neck and stopped her from pulling away. I kissed her hard, my lips mashing against hers. She kissed me back, her tongue on my lips and then in my mouth, and she was breathing hard.
I was the one to break the kiss.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” I said, but we both knew it was too late for that. Beth smiled.
“I know,” she answered.
I left the hotel room feeling like fire was coursing through my veins, and Beth and I had plans to see each other over the weekend. When she closed the door behind me part of me felt like it was going to float away, and part of me dragged down to my feet. I’d come here to tell her off, to fix my life and get it back on the track it was going.
Now I was in some sort of relationship with her, the opposite of what I’d planned to do. All I needed to figure out now was how I was going to juggle Beth and Raymond, how I was going to figure out my life without losing parts of myself.
“Where were you?” Raymond asked from the armchair that faced the door just as I flicked on the light. I jumped, my heart skipped a beat until I realized it was him. I put my hand to my head.
“You scared me,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “Where were you?” he asked.
“I was out with Beth. You told me you had to work late so I thought it would be a good idea to do something to keep busy,” I said. It was a smooth recovery. I was getting good at those. For the past couple of weeks I’d seen her whenever I’d had a chance, and I’d always managed to talk my way out of trouble with Raymond.
“I know that I work late sometimes, but don’t you think this is outrageous? I never work that late.”
I glanced at my wristwatch. It was close to midnight.
“What time did you get in?” I asked.
I nodded slowly. “I didn’t know what time you’d be back.”
Raymond sighed and got up, walked to me until he stood squarely in front of me. I rose up on my toes to kiss him, trying to diffuse his anger, but he pulled his head back, rejecting me.
“What’s going on, Tess? Since we moved in together it’s like I’ve lost you. You’re never home anymore, and you’re so distant.”
I shrugged. “I’ve just been busy.”
“Doing what?” he asked.
I shrugged and pushed past him. I didn’t like being confronted straight on like that, especially if I had something to hide. I put my handbag on the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. I’d been with Beth, I’d driven the hour’s drive to her place and we’d spent the night in each other’s arms, talking, not talking, exploring each other’s lives, bodies.
We’d had sex for the first time the weekend after I’d wanted to tell her off. I’d gone to her place, driving to the same town where we’d met, and it hadn’t taken alcohol to get me to kiss her. We’d undressed each other slowly, and when she’d taken me to her bedroom, I’d let her touch me and kiss me everywhere, and I’d done the same with her. It had been like magic, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
She was stunning in every way.
And Raymond was following me through the house. This was far from over.
“We’re fighting all the time,” he said, staying in the doorway when I opened the fridge. I wasn’t hungry but I didn’t want to face him.
“I shouldn’t have stayed out so late,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t watch the time, we got to talking and you know how we women can be.”
“Actually, I don’t know. You never invite any of your friends over. I don’t even know who you’re with when you go out. All I know is that every time you come home it feels like a little less of you comes back.”
I hadn’t invited Beth over to introduce to Raymond for a reason. I wasn’t about to introduce my two lovers, even if he didn’t know about her. And I was scared that it would show that we were more than friends. I didn’t want Raymond to know about my sexual identity. To be honest, I didn’t even know what that was.
I still loved Raymond. I still liked his body, I still slept with him. But I was falling in love with Beth, too. I wanted her body. I slept with her. And I didn’t know how to deal with that.
Raymond watched me move around the kitchen for a while. I filled the kettle to make tea and I found leftovers in the icebox. I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t want to drink anything, but I wanted to keep busy. I couldn’t look Raymond in the eye.
“Is there someone else?” Raymond asked, and my body went cold.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re just always gone. I feel like I’m losing you no matter what I do. Are you seeing another man?”
I took a deep breath and shook my head, looking him in the eye. “There’s no other man, Raymond,” I said. Because there really wasn’t. But I still felt like a bitch for avoiding the truth. I turned my shoulders to him, leaning my hip against the counter.
“I just don’t know if this is working the way it should anymore.”
He paled a little, and he swallowed. I could see his Adam’s apple move with the effort.
“What are you saying?” He asked. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“No. I’m not breaking up with you. I don’t want to lose you. But I do think that we need to take a break. Maybe we moved in too soon, forced something that wasn’t ready yet.”
“Too soon? We’d been dating for two years, and you were the one that suggested it,” he said. And he was right, I had. But I’d done it for all the wrong reasons. I’d moved in with him because I’d felt guilty about kissing Beth that first night we’d met. I wanted to prove to myself that I was still a functional woman, that it had been a freak accident of some kind.
I’d moved in with him because I’d been panicking about his talk of marriage, and I’d hoped that it would ease things off a little bit if I gave him something that was a step closer, but not the real deal.
And it would have worked, too, if I hadn’t kept seeing Beth. It would have worked out, and our relationship would have been the same painstaking journey on my side, the same happy trails on his side, if I had just what I’d gone there to do that one afternoon. If I’d just told her off.
But I hadn’t wanted to. And I still didn’t.
“This really isn’t working though, is it?” I asked, making a question that he had to answer. I wanted him to answer it for himself, say the words that we both knew were true.
“No, it’s not,” he said. And somehow those words hurt instead of being what I wanted to hear.
“Look, Raymond. Baby. I think it might be better if I move out.”
“What?” he said and he looked shocked, like he hadn’t known it was coming. “Why?”
I sighed. I was going to have to spell it out for him, and I didn’t want to be the one to break his heart. It was what I’d been avoiding all this time, by being the model girlfriend for more than two years, for making him happy even when I wasn’t. Because I couldn’t bear to hurt a man like him. But we were stuck. I was stuck.
“We can’t stay in the same house, we need a break from each other. And living together is just not working. We spent more quality time together when we still had our own places. Everything was better then, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” he admitted. “But something tells me it’s not going to go back to how it used to be before this. Couples never recover after a break, Tess. They end up breaking up. You know that.”
I nodded. I did know that.
“Is that what you want?”
I didn’t answer him, not just because I didn’t want to hurt him, but because I wasn’t sure what my answer would be. I still didn’t want to lose him. I knew I was being selfish, I knew that by dragging him I was just going to end up hurting him and hurting me. But I didn’t want him to walk out of my life. I may not have been happy in a relationship with him, but he was the best person in the world to know.
Somehow his opinion of me mattered to me. More than my own. Which is why I just didn’t have what it took to tell him about Beth. About the fact that I was so confused about my sexual identity I didn’t know which way was up anymore.
“I just think it will be better for us if we each have our own spaces, our own lives, and we met each other halfway,” I said.
“And what happens to us then?” he asked. I shrugged because I didn’t know. I was determined that I could make it work. I just couldn’t have a relationship with Beth while I was living in the same house as Raymond.
Raymond shook his head, turned his back on me, and started walking away. But then he stopped and turned and came back to me. He took both my hands in his.
“Is there no other way we can fix this?” he asked. “Can’t we fight for us?”
“But that’s just the thing, Ray. We don’t even know how to do that. We haven’t even fought until now, we’ve never had to.”
“We can learn. We can get through this together if we make an effort.”
He was emotional I could see it on his face. His eyes were pleading. I wanted to say yes. I wanted to tell him we could keep fighting, we could make it work. I could try harder, make my arrangements with Beth different. Be the woman I used to be for him.
But that just wouldn’t do. I’d never been happy that way. Being with Beth was the first real happiness I’d known. And I didn’t want to lose that. I couldn’t keep lying to Raymond, lie about where I was, what I did. But also about what I felt for him, that I was happy.
“Let’s just take time to ourselves and see where we stand,” I said, and those words were harder than I’d expected them to be. “This doesn’t mean we have to lose each other. I just think we need to take a step back and look at everything again.”
Raymond’s face closed, the emotion draining out of his eyes until there was nothing left but emptiness. It was the first time I’d seen him so dry, so void of anything.
“Ray?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Tess,” he said and he let go of my hands. “If you don’t want to do this properly, I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep pretending, hoping for something to change so that we can be together again the way I want us to. I can’t do a break.”
“What?” I asked, and a hollow feeling opened up in my chest. “What are you saying?”
“I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to wait on the edge of my seat for everything to work itself out again. I’m going to pine over you, and what if it doesn’t work out? I can’t do that. I can’t keep hoping if I don’t know that the answer will come. We can’t just do a break. It’s all or nothing.”
“You’re breaking up with me?” I asked. He hesitated only a second before he nodded.
“I’m sorry, Tessa. But I need to know if you’re mine or not. I can’t hang in the middle. I can’t do a break. It’s all or nothing like I said, and you don’t want to go all out on this.”
He nodded as if confirming it to himself, and then he walked out of the kitchen. I was left behind in the wake of destruction, finally free from the life that had been smothering me, and I felt like I was cracking all over. I loved Raymond, but I couldn’t imagine a life with him.
Why then, did I feel like I was shattering? Why was his walking away one of the most painful things I’d ever felt? I sank to the kitchen floor, desperate to keep myself together, and even as I tried to keep a handle on things I felt myself unravel.
Moving out was harder than moving in. It felt like everything I owned had expanded, double, become so much that I didn’t have space for it. Beth was there, helping me arrange my life around the giant hole that had opened up in it. She didn’t ask questions about the breakup. She didn’t even talk about it.
And I was relieved. It was hard enough to pretend I was fine about it in front of her. I didn’t want to make things worse by showing her that the break up was taking its toll on me. I didn’t want her to know that I’d somehow ended up with a broken heart, even though I’d always told myself that Raymond wasn’t the man I wanted.
We started in one room and unpacked all the boxes, working our way through the house. Beth unpacked and unwrapped, and I put everything where I wanted it. We worked together in silence most of the time. She didn’t comment on everything I had, which I was relieved about. My mother would have done that.
She wasn’t talking to me now that Raymond and I had broken up. She blamed me for losing the perfect man. There were moments where I believed she was right. She wasn’t even there to help with the move. I was happy about that. As much as I didn’t want Beth and Raymond too, I felt even stronger about my mother meeting Beth.
“I’m glad that you’ve taken a step in your life, making it go somewhere,” Beth said halfway through the day. “I mean, I know it’s not easy, but it’s important.”
I just nodded. It definitely wasn’t easy. I carried a box into the bedroom and cut open the tape with a knife. It felt like someone physically punched me. Everything in the box Raymond either gave me, or we got together. I took out a card that he’d sent me with a bunch of flowers when we’d just met. It was his handwriting on the card, the loopy scrawl telling me he thought I was beautiful. There were earrings and necklaces, teddy bears, cards, ticket stubs and dried flowers. And suddenly I couldn’t keep pushing it away.
Tears burned behind my eyes and I took a deep breath. Beth walked into the room, talking, but stopped mid-sentence when she saw me.
“Are you okay?” she asked, and then she glanced at the box. Tears spilled over my cheeks and a sob racked my chest. I covered my face with my hands and cried. It hurt. There was a hole in my chest and the pain was unbearable. I’d been thinking about what it would be like to break up with Raymond for a long time, and I’d never even come close to this.
This was pure torture. It was hell.
Beth stormed out of the room again, instead of coming to me, touching me, holding me the way I needed. I didn’t run after her. I didn’t demand to know why she was angry even though I didn’t understand it. Instead, I just sat there and cried for the first time since we’d broken up.
It took me more than an hour to pull myself together, and when I finally did I walked to the kitchen. The fridge was still empty, but we’d packed a basket with food so we could lunch in the new house. Beth was making a salad with the ingredients we’d packed, chopping and cutting feverishly on the counter.
“Beth?” I asked. She didn’t look up at me, instead, she just kept hacking away at the cucumber.
“You’re angry,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I knew the answer. She rolled her eyes. “Why are you mad at me?”
She stopped cutting and turned to me, knife still in her hand. She pointed it at me, and I eyed the silver blade.
“You’ve been telling me for weeks how your relationship with Raymond wasn’t working out. You couldn’t get it past yourself to break his heart, but now that he broke up with you instead, the way you wanted it, you’re falling apart? Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“Judging by your reaction I’m guessing, not very good?”
She turned back to the cutting board and I was glad the knife was occupied again.
“It makes me feel like you were lying to me. It makes me feel like you’ve just been saying all of that to make me believe that our relationship was going to go somewhere. That you were going to leave him eventually so that you could be with me.”
“I wasn’t lying to you,” I said. “There was a lot in that relationship that wasn’t working for me. But Ray and I were together for over two years. That’s a long time. I can’t not have loved him during that time period, Beth. I know you’re mad, and you feel betrayed, but I was with him when I met you. You knew that he was part of the picture. You were the one that still wanted this.”
“Maybe I’m being selfish, but I want you to be all mine, okay? I want you to feel like that about me. I don’t want you to go crying over someone else that broke your heart, and I’m standing right here. He’s your ex now, and I’m here, your present. How can you sit there and cry about him when I’m in your house, helping you build a new life?”
I was getting angry.
“Look, Beth. I did love him. And a part of me still does, and always will. You can’t expect me to just move on. You’ve loved and lost before, you know what it feels like to have a broken heart. I really need you to be a friend right now, and not a scorned lover. You won, okay? You’re still here and he’s not. Doesn’t that mean something to you? It’s a choice I’ve made. Not the breaking up bit by itself, but I could very well have fought for him and made that relationship work. You’re being a bitch for nothing.”
She opened her mouth, rage on her face, ready to explode at me. But then her face softened, the anger drained out of the atmosphere around us, and she closed her mouth again. She nodded.
“You’re right,” she said. “About all of it. I’m just being a pain in the ass. I just know what it would feel like to lose you, and it scares me because we haven’t even been together for that long. I’m sorry.”
She walked to me and gave me a hug, and I sighed a shudder traveling through my body. She pulled away from me, put her hand on my cheek and kissed me on the mouth.
“I’ll behave, I promise. Let’s just get this house sorted, and then we can drink wine and watch chick flicks and deal with this break up the way we should.”
“And you’re not going to fight with me about it?” I asked.
“Not today,” she said and smiled. And I knew she was right. There would probably be days where we would get really stuck about things like Raymond. But for now she was being nice, and that was all I needed right now.
The doorbell rang and I rubbed my fingers under my eyes, making sure that I didn’t have dark circles underneath my eyes. Beth walked past me and she was the one that opened the front door.
“Is Tessa home?” A male voice came from the front door and I stilled. I would recognize that voice anywhere. Beth came into the kitchen.
“Someone’s at the door for you. I’m guessing by what he looks like that it’s Raymond,” she said.
“This okay?” I asked her, gesturing to my eyes where I’d tried to fix the make-up. She nodded, and then she inhaled, opened her mouth.
“What?” I asked when she didn’t say anything.
“Just be careful, okay?” she said. I nodded, but we both knew that was not what she meant to say. She was worried about Raymond being here. And I had to admit I was worried too.
He was standing just outside the door, hands in his pockets. He wore a flannel shirt over his t-shirt and his jeans were scuffed on the knees. He looked terrible, with messy hair and a three-day-old stubble.
“Hey,” he said when he saw me, and he forced a smile that didn’t make it all the way up to his eyes.
“Hey,” I answered. I stood in the door feeling awkward.
“Can I come in?” he asked. I nodded and stepped out of the way.
“I’m assuming that’s Beth,” he said, nodding toward the rest of the house.
“She’s helping me move,” I said. It was so painfully strained. I wanted to hug him, feel the familiar arms around me, feel like something was still alright between us. Raymond nodded and looked around the room. There were still boxes stacked everywhere and it was a mess.
“We still have a bit of work to do,” I offered meekly. He nodded again.
“How are you doing?” he finally asked. Horrible. I missed him. I wanted things to go back to the way they were just so that I didn’t have to feel so incomplete and miserable all the time. But I didn’t say it. Instead, I forced my own smile. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah, I’m alright,” he said, and we both knew we were lying to each other.
“Why did you come?” I asked after a while when neither of us had said anything. He took a deep breath, pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them over his face.
“I miss you,” he said. “I get that it didn’t work, and I’m not going to ask you for anything like getting back together. But I just wanted to see you. I would like to keep seeing you. I want to keep in touch if that’s okay with you.”
He looked at me and his eyes were questioning and nervous, like he was sure I would say no.
“Really?” I asked because I didn’t know what to say.
“We were together for two years, Tess. I wanted to marry you. I can’t just carry on like nothing ever happened, like we didn’t have anything. You’re a part of my life. Until the other day, you were everything. I want to keep seeing you, even if it means we’re just going to be friends because I can’t just delete the part where you belong out of my life and carry on like I’m not crippled.”
I felt a lump in my throat rise and I was dangerously close to crying again.
“I still love you, Tess,” he said. “Just because we couldn’t make it work doesn’t mean that’s stopped.”
“I love you too,” I whispered because I didn’t trust myself not to cry. “I’d like that. To stay friends.”
Because I missed him too, so much it hurt. He nodded, jammed his hands back in his pockets.
“Alright then. Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he said and turned toward the door. He was almost all the way out of the house when I took a step forward.
“Raymond,” I said, and he turned to me. “Thank you,” I said. “For everything. For being great then. For still being great now.”
He smiled again and this time, it bled into his eyes, and he walked out of the house.
“You okay?” Beth asked behind me. I nodded without looking at her. I didn’t trust myself not to cry. My life was upside down, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. In the span of a month, I’d become undone completely and my life was rearranging itself. I had Beth who loved me and she was going to be there for me. I didn’t have Raymond as a boyfriend anymore, but he was still in my life, and that had to be good enough.
I was just happy I hadn’t lost him completely.
“It’s going to get better, honey,” Beth said, coming to stand next to me, taking my hand. But I had a feeling that things were going to get a lot more complicated before it would get better. This was really just the start.
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Tessa’s life is perfect. She has everything a woman could want, a good job, a family that supports her, and a boyfriend, that only ever tries to make her happy. But somehow, even when she has all these things, she feels like her life is empty. When she lies to Raymond to escape her cut-and-paste life, she meets Beth, a whirlwind of a woman that takes her breath away. Too much alcohol, too little inhibition, and it ends in a night that confuses Tessa and leaves her perfect life a little skewed. She tries harder to make things work with Raymond, partly out of guilt because of what she’s done, and partly because she struggles to change the fact that she’s so unhappy when everything in her life tells her not to be. When she runs into Beth again, and says yes instead of no, her life turns upside down. She doesn’t know who she is, what she wants, who she loves anymore. When she loses Raymond, it hurts more than she expected, but why is that a problem when she still has Beth? With so many questions she barrels forward, hoping that somewhere, some of her actions will offer answers.