My alarm went off at its usual hour on Wednesday morning. Rolling over, I found that Joel was already gone. I remembered hearing him showering at some God-awful hour the night before, and the comforting feel of his body enfolding mine. I’d experienced a sexual tingle and a lurid dream.
Now, gazing at the empty side of the bed, I half-wondered if I’d only imagined him being there. I touched longingly on the imprint of his head on the pillow then sighed and got ready for work.
Later that afternoon, I managed to catch him for a quick video chat. He looked so forlorn and haggard that I envisioned storming the law offices and forcibly rescuing him from captivity.
“Can I bring you lunch or something?” I asked.
“Naw,” he sighed. “We’re eating as we work here. I just wish I could have my coffee. I had to be out the door at six this morning and Espresso doesn’t open till seven.”
“So you’d rather have your coffee than me,” I joked, “Is that what you’re saying?”
That got a grin from him. “We’re talking about coffee here. I’m incredibly fond of you, but I’d sell you into white slavery at The House of the Rising Sun for a cup of coffee made the way I like it.”
“It’s good to know your priorities. And your kinky fantasies.”
“We’ll see about kinky fantasies come Saturday, luscious one,” he rejoined.
That sent a shiver down my spine. It also made me determined to do something for him. So when lunchtime rolled around, I took the car and drove over to Espresso Yourself. I ordered up two of Joel’s favorite drinks, one with hazelnut syrup, one with almond roche, and got four of the cream cheese muffins, two blueberry, two pecan.
There, I thought, pleased with myself, that oughta maintain his energy—and keep him thinking of me. I drove over to his offices, not expecting to actually see him, just to drop off my loving care package. I’d never actually visited his workplace, and I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to disturb him or get him into any trouble. I was also worried I’d get lost, but I found the firm easily enough.
“Got a special delivery here for Mr. O’Shaughnessy,” I said to the woman at the reception desk. “Survival rations.”
A poised brunette with a decidedly feminine edge looked up from her monitor: pink dress, an understated strand of pearls, very much my type had I been on the prowl. Even if I were interested, however, she had a weighty pair of platinum bands on her left ring finger. Square cut diamonds left no doubt that she was taken.
She blinked up at me, and a smile came over her face. “Let me guess. You’re Devlin?”
I turned on my own charm. “Recognized my voice, huh?”
“My, oh, my.” There was a twinkle in her admiring eyes. “Now I know what he sees in you.”
I laughed and put down my cardboard ‘gift basket.’ “Well, don’t disturb him. I just brought this by in hopes of keeping him from going on a killing spree.”
“Oh, he’s not in the office right now,” she said. “He had some urgent, secret appointment he was determined to keep. Said the firm could damn well survive without him for an hour or two.” She shook her head. “Like he hasn’t been the one too paranoid to leave the office. I thought he was heading for an afternoon tryst with you, but I guess not.”
My pulse picked up. He couldn’t be meeting Eric; I’d erased the message, and it’d been for Friday, anyway. Unless Eric had called to change the meeting? My stomach dropped, but I maintained my smile.
“Should I let him know you came by?” the secretary asked.
I shook my head. “Tell him a courier brought this.” I touched on the coffee, a knot in my throat. “I wouldn’t want him to feel bad about missing me,” I added in explanation. The secretary approved of that, so I knew she’d keep my visit under wraps.
I was sick with uncertainty now. Joel had insisted he couldn’t take a break to see me, not even for coffee, but he’d left work to make this appointment. He wasn’t even working through lunch like he’d said. He’d outright lied to me. Why would he do that unless…unless I was falling short of his expectations? Had he snuck off to do a little comparison shopping? And if so, with who?
Late that night, I heard the key in the lock and his footsteps in the living room. I was already in bed, and still wide-awake with anxiety. I listened to him washing up and getting undressed, felt him slip naked into bed. I waited until his arms were around me, his breathing regular, then I turned and kissed his neck. I nibbled and licked my way on down.
“Hmmm,” he sighed, as I pushed him gently onto his back and bit at his nipples. Finally, I shifted on top of him and scooted down half under the covers to his flaccid cock. It was soft and heavy against his thigh, bundled up for the night in its cocoon. I lapped and sucked at the tip, then grazed the lose foreskin very gently with my teeth.
He moaned and touched my head. “Jesus. That feels wonderful, but I don’t think I can move—”
“Which is exactly what I want,” I said, locking one hand around his wrists and holding them out of the way. “You’re completely at my mercy.”
I lifted his cock with the other hand and went to work, licking my rough tongue over his hairy balls until I could feel the soft skin tightening, the nuts within shifting. Under my stroking hand, his cock emerged from hiding.
“No fair,” he moaned, bucking his ass against the bed sheets. I grinned and started on his piss slit, delving into it, getting a taste of that sweet flavor of his. Fuck, he was delicious.
Joel’s breath was coming short now, his head was rolling side to side. I expanded out, swirling over the silky dome, flirting with the flared rim. His thick cock extended, eagerly leaving its sheath to enter my mouth. I obligingly got my lips about his familiar girth and sucked him down. My tongue glided over pulsing veins as I started to bob, and I inhaled his scent. Joel’s wrists were still in my hand, twisting feebly. He squirmed on the sheets. A deep groan cued me. He tightened up, breath pausing. A shudder and his cock pulsed, its tip striking the back of my throat. Warm cream filled my mouth.
I felt that rush, the one I got from controlling his pleasure, letting him know that I wanted him. Man, I’d missed it. I loved the sounds of his moans, the jerk of his cock in my mouth. Most of all, I loved being able to show him what I’d learned, a reminder that I could satisfy him. Whatever Eric had done for him in the past—was doing for him now?–I could do for him in the future.
And I could and would do it better.
I let his cock slide out of my mouth and released his wrists. Limp on the mattress, he murmured something and drifted off to sleep. Climbing back up his length, I kissed his lips.
“Fuckin’ A,” I whispered, and with his flavor still coating my tongue, I went to sleep myself.
Wednesday morning I managed to get enough work done that I could steal a little time out of the afternoon to keep the appointment I’d set up. I let Gloria know that I had an important meeting that I couldn’t miss, but that I would have my cell on me in case of emergency. I caught a cab home, not having time for the vagaries of the subway, and grabbed a change of clothes and my bike. It was great to be on the road for a while and take a good long break from the paperwork.
The appointment went off without a hitch and when I got back to the office, I found Dev’s little surprise. A Jewish fellow I’d briefly dated in my third year of college would have said I almost got fahklempt, choked up, but I prefer to think I was simply very pleased. How will I ever deserve to have this man give up all possibility of a normal life for me?, I wondered, gazing at those heavenly coffees and muffins. It was little things like this that made me think he might love me, or at least be falling in love with me.
He was just as incredible that night, just as considerate and thoughtful. I came in late again, so late that it was early, and tried to get into bed without disturbing him. I thought I’d pulled it off until he turned over and started kissing his way down my chest. Before I knew it, he’d crawled completely under the covers to give my nuts a leisurely tongue bath. Cool, slow-moving waves of pleasure washed through me, but I was so exhausted I could barely move, and told him as much. He said something in reply, but the covers and my balls muffled it so that I couldn’t understand. He just held my hands out of the way and started using that incredible mouth of his on my cock.
Every motion of his head and caress of his tongue was so sweet, so tenderly done, and that’s what undid me so quickly. Within a few seconds, I was writhing and panting in his clutches, feeling a ball of tension growing taut behind my navel. I came, faster even than the first blowjob I’d ever gotten. Came, hell, I thought the top of my head was coming off.
He was the most amazing man I’d ever been with and how did I respond to his generous gift? SOP, I fell asleep. One second I’m floating from a marvelous orgasm, trying to tell him how spectacular it was; the next moment I’m sound asleep, without even trying to reciprocate.
When my phone woke me a few hours later, I promised him silently that I’d find a way to make it up to him Friday night. I doubted that I’d be able to make it home tonight, but the paperwork had to be done by Friday morning. That meant I’d have that evening completely free. I could spend it devoting myself to him. It was the least he deserved after all the special attention and patience he’d given me this week.
I watched him sleep for a few minutes, with his head pillowed on my shoulder, and his fingers splayed across my chest. I wondered why people always look so innocent while sleeping. Was it because this was the real them, that bit of their childhood self that they never lose, that part of themselves that most people never let the world see, or see only rarely? If so, I could understand why they’d want to protect it, because it looked so fragile, as if a harsh word, or a disapproving glance, would snap it in two.
“Will you come and stay with me?” I whisper-sang the line from one of my favorite Gaelic songs into his hair before I carefully extracted myself from his embrace. I knew if he were awake enough to hear me, he’d never understand the words.
I was completely gone on him; I knew it and it both terrified and thrilled me. Leaving him right now was the last thing I wanted to do, but duty called, and there was nothing for it but to get it over with, so I could finally spend some more waking time with him.
The alarm went off and I started awake from a nightmare I couldn’t quite remember. Something about Joel’s arms leaving me, slipping away. Feeling neither his heat nor his embrace, I knew he was gone before I even saw the empty side of the bed. The lustful fragrance of last night’s sex was in the air. God, I missed him.
I jacked off in the shower thinking of him, remembering that first Friday at the gym, his shy green eyes flickering to and from my naked body. I thought of how I’d had him last night, helpless and coming. That made me shoot my seed right down the drain.
When I got to work, I immediately checked my computer and saw that he was online. I called up a video chat and his face appeared a moment later. He still looked wiped out, but more relaxed than he’d been all week.
“Hey. I never got to tell you how lifesaving those coffees were yesterday. Not to mention the muffins,” he said. “I’ve reconsidered selling you into slavery.”
“Tsk. I was starting to look forward to it.”
“I bet you were. You know I had the weirdest dream last night, Shane West sucked my cock—”
“—he was dressed like Tom Sawyer. Suspenders—” he teased, making motions in front of his chest as if he were playing with a set.
“Asshole!” I fought a grin. “You’d better watch your mouth. You’re going to be in my power again tonight.”
The mirth in his eyes didn’t vanish, but it did quiet down. “Afraid not. There’s a truckload of paperwork due at the courthouse tomorrow morning, and we’ve only organized half of it. I’ll be lucky if I get a five minute nap on the office couch.”
I frowned at that. “If that’s the way it’s gotta be, that’s the way it’s gotta be, but I expect you to masturbate in the toilet while thinking of me. Twice at least.”
He stroked his chin. “Once with you, once with Shane West.”
We talked for a little longer and then Joel had to sign off. I fielded a few calls from anxious homebuyers, then let my partner know I was taking a long lunch. Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the drive of Cathy’s quaint cottage. I was actually looking forward to seeing her, which was a change from how I’d felt a few weeks back. In retrospect, I could see that I’d wanted a relationship with Joel from that first morning after, but I’d been terrified of swimming in those uncharted waters. Bringing him to the barbeque had been my way of taking the plunge. I’d shoved him down the throats of my friends and, in doing so, swallowed down the idea of a relationship with him myself.
If Cathy had been there she’d have made me doubt that decision, which was why I’d been so relieved she was a no show. Now, however, I felt very differently. I wanted to see her, in part because we were still friends, and in part because I’d never completely figured out why she’d broken up with me. Uneasy as I was about Joel right now, I really wanted to understand that, maybe keep it from happening again.
I went through the familiar back gate of Cathy’s little house, and around to the sun porch, which was her studio. The screen door, which I’d always said I’d oil, but never had, no longer squeaked as I stepped through it.
I found her sculpting as usual and felt my blood warm up. I’d forgotten how delicate her figure was, visible through the chocolate and cherry floral pattern of her summer dress. There were her small breasts, the nipples I’d loved licking and sucking outlined by the sheer fabric. Then there were her curves. I admit, I’m a basic kind of guy. Whether I’m admiring men or women, I always fixate on what they’ve got from the waist down. Cathy had nice hips and a pert ass; her bare legs were shapely and she peticured her toenails with had rose red polish.
“Hey, Cath,” I said fondly.
“Dev.” She spun, and smiled at me in a way I hadn’t seen in almost a year. As if she, too, was actually glad to see me. Her satiny brown hair was kept back from her face with tortoise shell clips and her large doe eyes were accented with pastel shadow. She had the longest lashes I’d ever seen on a girl, a button nose and sweet lips.
“You look terrific,” I said, stepping up to embrace her. I’d gotten so used to Joel’s firm, muscular body that I almost squeezed too hard. It was quite a change to hold a body so light, to experience the incredible, feminine smoothness of her cheek against mine instead of Joel’s erotic stubble. I smelled that familiar combination of clay and Eternity perfume and feelings I hadn’t had in a month washed over me: the desire to cradle a woman in my arms and nuzzle into her soft yielding places.
She kept her hands, sticky and powdered with clay, away from me as she hugged me back, then she gave me a quick kiss. God, even her lips had a different sensuality from Joel’s, moist and gentle as flower petals.
“It’s good to see you, too,” she said. “Do you want some lemonade?” She motioned to the ice cream parlor table, the one that she’d mosaiced herself. I saw a cut glass pitcher of lemonade with fresh sprigs of mint, matching glasses and a plate of homemade brownies.
That’s Cathy, I found myself thinking, Always making things lovely and inviting. I had no doubt that she’d used fresh lemon juice and purified water for the lemonade. Me, I would have blended some powered mix with tap water in a plastic pitcher, put out Dixie cups and maybe opened a bag of Oreos.
“Honey!” someone shouted from inside the house, making me jump, and in the next moment Cathy’s new guy appeared at the kitchen door. Robbie had gossiped all about him, of course, some kind of electronics store owner. Cathy and he had hooked up recently and she was, rumor had it, crazy about him.
He looked like a bulldog. Square and stocky with a big round head and a face ugly as a prizefighter. He was wearing a threadbare tee and a faded pair of boxers with some kind of paisley pattern.
She left stunningly handsome me for this? I couldn’t help thinking.
“Have you seen my toolbox?” he asked, scratching his ass. “I want to fix that leak in the showerhead. It’s driving me nuts.”
“Check the garage again. It’s there,” Cathy said, returning to her clay sculpture. “Ray, this is Devlin.”
“Oh, hey,” he said, catching sight of me. I half expected him to go on guard and start posturing, but he came right over and shook my hand, friendly as friendly could be. He had a ripe, locker room smell about him. “Heard a lot of good things about you. Nice to finally meet you.”
“Good to meet you,” I returned.
He poured himself a glass of lemonade and wrapped up a brownie in a napkin, then crossed back to Cathy. “Don’t make any plans for Tuesday night,” he told her. “I got us tickets to see that performance artist you were raving about.”
Her mouth popped open and she squealed. Her arms wrapped about his thick neck. “You did? I can’t believe it! I wasn’t going to ask—”
“What? You think I’d let you miss out on this?”
“But won’t you be bored?”
“You can explain it to me afterwards. I love it when you do that.”
Cathy beamed and I felt a strange twist in my heart. It wasn’t that I was jealous, exactly. I didn’t want us back together again, but I felt bad that I’d never made her that happy. That she’d never, even at our best, smiled at me like that.
Ray left and I stared after him. “I guess you wanted something completely different after me,” I finally ventured.
Cathy laughed. “Yes. He’s considerate and flexible, and always puts me first. “
“Ouch.” I sat in one of the chairs and poured myself a drink. “What I meant is that he’s not drop dead gorgeous.”
“I knew what you meant,” she said, smirking. “He’s ugly and he dresses funny, and I adore him. You all right with that?”
“If you are.”
“Speaking of which,” she went back to carving clay, “I hear you’ve got your own new fling. A motorcycle riding hunk with green eyes to die for.”
“Been talking to Robbie have you?”
“Actually, that was Deb’s description. Word is, you’ve been taking him to barbeques, concerts and the zoo. I have to admit I’m envious.”
That did hurt. “I took you places.”
“Dev, please! I was the one who arranged our outings to the county fair and the art museums. Even when we went to dinner, I always picked the place and made the reservations. Your only contribution was to do the driving.”
She’d said as much to me before, during the break-up, but this time there was no rancor in her voice. It was a simple fact she’d come to accept. “You would have never thought of taking me to see a performance art piece,” she finished. “I would have had to buy the tickets myself or do without.”
I shrugged. “I always figured you knew how to make us both happy.”
“Which is precisely the point,” she sighed. “You could have taken me to a baseball game or on a hike up one of those nature trails you like so much. I’d have enjoyed it just because you were trying to share yourself with me, rather than expecting me to satisfy myself and cater to you.”
That struck a bull’s-eye. I’d barely known Joel two days before I’d shared one of my favorite, outdoor spots with him. Why hadn’t I ever wanted to do the same with Cathy? Maybe because I’d never been able to envision her in that context. She was supposed to remain delicate and refined in her pretty dresses and open-toed sandals. She wasn’t supposed to walk dusty roads in jeans and hiking boots. She wasn’t…a guy, a buddy. She was a girlfriend.
It hit me then, all at once. Fuck me. No wonder she’d wanted out of the relationship. I took a sip of the lemonade, needing to cool a suddenly dry throat.
“I wanted things to be all my way,” I admitted. “How you were supposed to act and be, how I was supposed to act and be. And whenever you asked for something to be your way, I thought you were trying to change me.”
She froze and gawked at me, gawked like I’d just unzipped my skin and revealed my true self. “I don’t believe it. All those arguments, all these months, and you finally get it. The man finally gets it.”
I flushed with chagrin. Thinking back on it, yeah, Cathy had tried to tell me all this, sometimes calmly, sometimes shouting, often with tears of frustration in her eyes. Stubborn asshole that I am, I hadn’t gotten it. Hadn’t wanted to get it.
“I just assumed—” I pressed on, “that we broke up because I was working too much.”
Her big brown eyes took me in, sad and sympathetic. “I know. We argued about that, too, remember? I kept telling you that I didn’t care about that. You wouldn’t believe me. I mean, Jesus, Dev, do you have any idea how much I—” She stopped then set aside her tools and crossed over to join me.
Using a rag she had on hand, she poured herself some lemonade and lifted the glass without smudging anything with clay. “The problem,” she went on, “was that you were so scared I’d mold you into something different, you wouldn’t budge on anything. And there I was, bending over backwards to accommodate you, making myself into something that couldn’t change or grow. Do you know how hard it was for me to admit that? I loved you enough that I was almost willing to let you do that to me.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” The lemonade was sitting like acid in my stomach. “I always figured I was to blame—”
“—now that I see it, I’m amazed you were so nice to me. You should have dumped me sooner and harder, right on my thick, stupid head.”
She laughed a little. “I wanted to. You can’t imagine how mad I was at you; but the blame wasn’t all yours. I needed you to change for me, and you couldn’t. And you needed me to accept you exactly as you were, and I couldn’t.” She shrugged. “We’re both better off.”
Our chat eased up from there, switching over to gossip on mutual friends. She fetched the gallery info she’d printed out for me. “I like what I’m hearing about this fellow you’re with,” she said, walking me out to my car. “It sounds like he’s good for you. Maybe we can double date sometime—if you don’t think that’s too weird?”
“It’s weird, but why not?” We exchanged a friendly kiss and a final embrace.
I felt rather odd driving away from that house where I’d once shared a life with Cathy, as if some dusty attic inside me had finally been cleaned out. Part of me was relieved that the clutter between us was finally gone, but the other part of me was appalled. With the attic empty I was able to see all the angles and corners of myself that I’d never known—or wanted to know were there.
Like the fact that I was a self-centered fuck who expected his lovers to change to satisfy his fantasies. Like the fact that I was a lazy asshole who couldn’t be bothered to return the favor. No wonder I’d only had serious relationships with feminine girls like Cathy; they were willing to bend themselves out of shape for me. A guy, especially the manly type that interested me, would have called me on my shit. Joel had. From the get-go, he’d been crystal-clear about what he wanted, and that he wouldn’t take less. He’d also let me know that I’d better learn to love him for what he was, not for what I wanted him to be. If I couldn’t, I could fuck off.
Trapped between my infatuation with him and his demands, I’d done what I’d pretended for all this time that I couldn’t do: I’d changed. Which, for the first time, put me the other side of the fence: changing anyway I could think in hopes of keeping Joel. To make it even more ironic, every change I’d made had led to another harder change: first was just agreeing to a relationship with a guy, next was examining my feelings. Last, I allowed Joel to take me.
Now…now I had another change to make. Perhaps the biggest and hardest of all.
I slept badly that night and was restless at work all the next morning on into the afternoon. Cathy was still on my mind. What she’d said about us, her new guy, even the feel and fragrance of her. I’d always thought that if I ever settled down it would be with a girl. Yesterday’s self-revelations, however, had pretty much blown that assumption to bits. Hard to believe I was considering it after only one month, but there it was. I was thinking of a man for my life-partner. It would mean accepting not only monogamy, but giving up women as well.
I might have questioned whether I could do that, but the way I was feeling made any doubts ridiculous. The very thought of seeing Joel tonight had me as excited as a kid invited to a birthday party.
I get to see Joel tonight! I kept thinking. I get to have drinks and dinner with him, and afterwards….Ah. Afterwards. I trembled with anticipation.
I get to see Joel!
“You’re fidgeting,” Paula muttered. My partner was in her late fifties; stick thin with silver hair always perfectly coifed. Colleagues thought us an odd couple, and we were, but we worked well together, like tag-team wrestlers handing clients back and forth till the property was sold.
“It’s my personal life,” I apologized, restlessly shifting in my chair and glancing at the clock yet again.
“Hm, so I figured.” Sitting at the desk next to mine, she filed her nails while scanning the new properties list. “Did I mention that our four o’clock canceled?”
“Really?” I perked. It was three-thirty. Joel almost always went for coffee at around four, and he certainly would today, after being deprived of it for most of the week.
Paula sighed. “School’s over, Junior. Get on home. Anything comes in, grandma will take care of it.” Her tone was always very dry and even I wasn’t always sure when she was joking, but I took her at her word and snatched up my messenger bag.
I parked at the apartment building and thought about going upstairs to change, but I was too eager to see Joel. Besides, he loved me in this suit; it was the same one I’d worn that fateful Friday when we’d finally come together. I straightened my tie and jacket, then made my way from the parking structure on down the hot sidewalk.
There, standing right in the front, bay window of the coffeehouse, was Joel. No mistaking that black fedora. He had his back nearly to me, a coffee, muffin and the crossword on the table. I felt myself grinning like an idiot. Christ, did I have it bad for this guy or what? I was still grinning when I came into full view of the window and saw that he wasn’t alone. Another man stood opposite him, big hands holding onto Joel’s arms. A blond man in a sheer teal shirt, matching tank, and lose white trousers.
My heart jumped into my throat and stuck there. Jesus Fucking Christ. Gabe was right, there was a resemblance. His eyes were a much lighter blue, hair a lighter blond, eyebrows more full, lips wider, but we had a similar facial structure. I didn’t know which was the worse shock, seeing the likeness between us, or seeing the gray threading Eric’s hair. He had ten, maybe as much as fifteen years on me, and it was eerily like looking at a time machine. I’d bet money that once he’d been exactly like me, drawing admirers in on looks alone.
Eric hands were moving lovingly up Joel’s arms, possessive enough to piss me off. The look in those summer blue eyes was regretful. He was talking earnestly, apologizing, I bet, just as Gabe predicted he would. Take me back, Joel.
Joel wasn’t moving away; alarmingly, he seemed to be listening. Fuck! I took a step toward the door.
And then, quite unexpectedly, Eric jerked Joel into a kiss. Not like with me and Cathy, a friendly kiss, no. This was a kiss so intimate it knotted up my gut. It was a bedroom kiss filled with sexual secrets and private emotions. I saw Eric’s arms go about Joel’s neck, his fingers running through his hair.
Joel—Joel gripping tight to his shoulders. He clung to them.
When Eric finally pulled back, he wore a smile so disarming, so sincere it erased all age for a moment. He looked timeless.
I’ve lost, I thought then, everything in me crumpling. I still couldn’t see Joel’s expression, but Eric’s was enough. That air of triumph told me that he’d won his suit. I wondered if I’d even had a chance.
Dismayed, I stepped closer to the window and Eric’s euphoric gaze caught sight of me and my outraged expression. A brow lifted, angry-amused at what he undoubtedly took to be a homophobe’s reaction to two men kissing in broad daylight.
He gave me the finger.
I spun around and hurried away, my tie flapping and my cell phone banging from within my jacket pocket. I darted around people in shorts and tee-shirts, cutting across the street and nearly getting hit by a car. My shoes on the pavement beat a hard tattoo.
I’d thought Joel was mine. I’d been wrong.
I couldn’t help but admire the glorious, late summer day around me as I strolled down the walk to Espresso Yourself. I’d just been over to Katie’s to pick up Devlin’s gift, and had it tucked under my arm with that day’s paper. I was really looking forward to having a fresh, iced mocha and a nice muffin while I did the crossword. Mulling over whether I should have the almond roche or the hazelnut syrup, I pushed my way through the swinging door. The fuchsia cowbell over the door jauntily announced my arrival to the ladies behind the counter.
“Well, where’ve you been all week? We was beginning to think that fella of yours had you locked away so’s he wouldn’t have to share your company with anyone else. Wudn’t we, Bea?” the sweet, little Southern Belle of a girl said sassily.
“Mmmm…yep,” the owner agreed with a nod. “Something like that anyway. Wanna tell him what you were really thinking, Desiree?” Desiree giggled impishly, and I felt myself flush. “I did wonder if something wasn’t wrong since that poor boy’s been moping all week.”
“Well, except for Wednesday afternoon, that is. He was wearing a big ol’ grin when he came in and got two drinks and muffins for you. Said he was on a mission of mercy,” Desiree chimed in.
“No, nothing like that,” I said with a chuckle. “I’ve just been dealing with a huge case all whole week. Thankfully the hard part’s over, and everything got turned in on time.”
The bell over the door jangled, and both of them glanced over at the person who’d come in. I didn’t pay it any mind, though I wish I had. For whom does the bell toll? It tolled for me.
“That’s good news. What’ll you have to celebrate?” Bea asked.
“I think I’ll go with the almond roche today, aaaand…”
“The blueberry muffin with cream cheese filling…if you have them?” a voice said behind me. All three of us turned to see Eric standing there as if he owned the place, cocky-looking as ever. “That’s what he always wants when he goes for almond roche,” he said to the ladies. I stared, unable to believe he was really standing there, acting as if the last two years had never happened. His gaze shifted to me. “Well, you do. I can’t help it if you’ve got well established habits.”
I didn’t know what to say, and even if I’d had something ready and waiting, my throat had closed around my vocal chords. I couldn’t stop staring either; I think I almost expected him to dissolve, like a mirage on the highway. He was real though, I never could have come up with the outfit he’d chosen on my own. The sheer, dark teal shirt, almost large enough to be a jacket, with a matching silky tank tucked into loosely flowing, white pants that nearly covered his whole foot. It was the sort of thing he’d wear when he was trying to impress someone. That someone had to me; this couldn’t be a coincidence because he didn’t show the slightest sign of surprise at encountering me here. He’d put on a little weight, and there was more grey sprinkled among the ash blonde, but he still looked great. Especially considering he’d turned forty-five back in April.
“You look fantastic, Babe,” he said, flashing his thousand-watt smile and pulling me to him for a hug. My brain had just started to reengage, but the unexpected, and unwanted, contact sent it reeling again. “You’ve obviously been taking good care of yourself.” I felt myself stiffen, wanting to push him off, but not wanting to make a huge, public scene. “You feel fantastic, too. Just like I remember,” he whispered in my ear.
It was too much. I brought my hands up to his shoulders and disentangled him from me. Turning back to the counter, I paid for my coffee and muffin saying, “I look fine now, but you should have seen me six months after you walked out.” I picked up my stuff and walked away from the counter. Knowing he’d follow, I kept talking. “I lost about twenty pounds the first two months. Gabe told me I looked like I’d been in a concentration camp or something.”
“Oh, God, Baby! I didn’t know—”
“How could you?” I interrupted harshly. “You changed your phone number the day you left, and you couldn’t be bothered to worry your pretty, little head about how I was doing!”
I set my stuff down at the small table by the window where I liked sitting when I had time to relax. I turned to take my seat and Eric grabbed my arms and pulled me around to face him.
“Joel…I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you, I just—I lost my head for a while.”
“Never meant to hurt me…” I sneered. “You thought what? That walking out without so much a simple explanation, completely cutting me off so I couldn’t even call and find out what I’d done to drive you away, would have me jumping for joy?”
I was trying to keep my voice low, not wanting an audience for this confrontation, but people were beginning to notice that something was going down. He moved his hands up to my shoulders, squeezing them with his strong fingers.
“No! It wasn’t like that at all. Please, don’t be like this, Joel,” he said, his eyes, the soft blue of a desert sky, locked with mine.
The regret and longing I saw there made my skin crawl. I knew now that he wasn’t just trying to clear his conscience; he thought he could win me back if only I’d let him explain. If I’d just be the old, reasonable, exonerating Joel, but he’d killed that man. I tried to turn away from him, but he caught me off guard when he jerked me to him, covering my mouth with his. I gasped in surprise, and he took advantage of my parted lips. I shuddered in revulsion at his presumption, my tongue trying to escape the touch of his. He held me firmly, his arms around my neck, his hands in my hair. He wasn’t letting me turn my head, and the little I could move wasn’t enough to break away. I gripped his shoulders hard, my fingers digging into muscles that weren’t as firm as they’d once been, and thrust him from me.
“Just like old times, eh, Baby?” he said breathlessly, giving me his most seductive smile, the one that’d always made my knees weak for him. He tried to lean into my chest. I held him away, still too stunned at his obliviousness and temerity to respond.
His eyes focused past my shoulder, through the window, and his expression changed to annoyed disgust as he flipped someone off. I turned automatically to see who it was, and the sight of Devlin briskly walking away, close to running, made heart jump into my throat. He jaywalked, nearly being hit by a car; its horn blared angrily. My heart dropped into my stomach, and I felt like I was going to throw up.
“Fucking asshole!” Eric hissed arms akimbo.
I shoved him away from me, my anger sharpening to a razor’s edge. He stumbled back, stunned into silence. “That ‘asshole’ is my boyfriend, you fuckwit!”
“You never said you had a boyfriend,” he said accusingly as I gathered up my stuff so I could go after Devlin.
“You never bothered to ask, did you?” I pushed my way through the shop door. “Hell, no, of course you didn’t. You waltzed in there assuming that I’d been pining away for you this whole time; thinking that all you had to do was strut your pretty self up to me and make your little ‘apology’ for using my heart like a doormat to wipe the dog mess off your cute, little shoes because everything’s always about you. Isn’t it, Eric?” I walked off in the direction Devlin had gone, hearing Eric’s sandals scuff along behind me.
“That’s not true—” he protested weakly.
“No, it is true, Eric. I only saw it after you left, but it most definitely is true. You took up with me because you didn’t think you could do any better. Then, as soon as you realized you could do better, you walked out without even bothering to explain. I had no idea where you’d gone, and you had the number on your cell changed. You completely cut me off and cut me out of your life without a single care for what it would do to me.”
“No, it was never like that. I loved you…I do love you. I thought that since you were here you were free and wanted to see me.”
“What in Hell are you talking about?” I nearly screamed, coming to a dead stop and turning to face him. “You thought since I was getting coffee I wanted to see you?”
“The messages I sent. I asked you to meet me here, and here you are.”
“You asked me once to meet you here, a month ago, and I didn’t respond to that text, or any of them for that matter, so why would you think that?” I said incredulously.
“No, I sent two others with the time and day of the meeting. I figured if you didn’t come—”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I never got them.” I started to walk away again, and he caught me by the arm.
“Please, Joel, can’t we just sit here for a minute and talk about this?” he pleaded, indicating a bus stop bench.
I sighed heavily and sat. “Fine, let’s get this over and done with. For the record, I had no clue you thought you were meeting me. If I’d've known, I wouldn’t've come, and you wouldn’t've possibly ruined my life for a second time.” I sucked down half of my chilled drink, giving myself a mild ice cream headache. I desperately needed the caffeine kick.
“But—how long have you been seeing this guy? Are you serious about him?”
“You know, that stopped being any of your business two years ago,” I gritted out through clenched teeth. Opening my eyes, I looked him squarely in the face. “If you’d've come back after six months, I’d've taken you back with open arms and a glad heart. If you’d've come back a year ago, I’d've let you back into my life. Even a few months ago, I’d've resisted, but ultimately I’d've let you woo me back and spent the rest of my life praying you didn’t hurt me again. Now it’s too late.”
“Joel, hear me out. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that, really. It’s just—one day I was looking in the mirror and I couldn’t see the man I’d always seen my whole life. It wasn’t that young kid I remembered from high school and it wasn’t the strong, handsome one I was in college…it wasn’t even the man-about-town I was in my thirties. There was this stranger looking out of the mirror, he had grey in his hair and lines around his mouth and eyes, and he was starting to get a little soft around the middle.
“I got scared, pure and simple. All my life, I’ve been my looks, they’d been everything I was to everyone I’d ever known, and suddenly I realized that they were gone…that I was disappearing with them.
“A couple of days later I was in a store, looking for a new outfit. We had plans for the weekend, and I wanted to look as nice as possible. I was hoping to find something…I don’t know, youthful, I guess, and there was this kid working there. He kept giving me the eye, and coming over to see if I needed any help with anything, and I just couldn’t believe it. He’d just turned twenty, and he was so…”