For Elle, the thought that her roommate (who was more of a little sister to her) was dating her best friend/ex-boyfriend (who was more of a brother) took a while to get used to.
Jodie was pragmatic about it; that was her nature, as Elle had learned. Though not without sympathy, there was a core of cold practicality to her character that made her unlikely to be sentimental. "It's just something you gotta get used to, you know? It's not healthy to dwell in the past, you know that. Surely your experiences with Weston would have told you that."
Tom thought it was uproarious; he laughed for five minutes when she told him. He also claimed he'd seen it coming. "I mean, seriously, Elle, who else does Nicole know? She doesn't go out partying, she doesn't socialize that much in classes, I don't even want to think about the dreadful specimens she must meet at church... And David would rather die than hurt her, so of course she'd trust him.
"And besides, I think they're good for each other. David's a really nice guy, so he needs someone who'll appreciate him for who he is. You know as well as I that most girls our age aren't looking for someone like him: they want a guy who'll drink his friends under the table. And Nicole... Well, I love her as much as you do, but she's so fragile. She needs to be handled with kid gloves. And David'll know how to do that. Really, I can't think of a better match."
Elle saw that he was right, and tried to take joy in their happiness. Nicole positively glowed now; she seemed to be made translucent by her joy, and went smiling throughout the day. She had always been beautiful, but now she was lovely; her demure dress and figure were radiant, and Elle knew a bunch of men must be taking notice of her for the first time, and asking her out.
All Jodie said was, "Sometimes you just light up after a good fucking."
David was in his element too; Elle, who had never needed protecting, had never realized just how much it brought him to life to have someone to protect. He was solicitous, kind, charming, with a grace that put even Tom's courtesies to shame; this was what he lived for. And he was happier too, walking with more of a spring in his step, laughing more, smiling more. And he was getting laid again for the first time in two years, which Elle knew she could not object about. Nicole was pleased on that front as well. Elle, of course, didn't go fishing for details, but she didn't need to; Nicole came to her bedroom that very night and gushed about her first time for five solid minutes. Yes, Nicole was very pleased with her new lover.
The two of them were discreet, of course, even in private when it was just the two of them and her, or her and Tom, or her and Jodie, or even all five of them. At first Elle thought that they were trying to spare her feelings, but she soon realized that Nicole was simply a deeply private person. She and David had never felt particularly ashamed at public displays of affection; Nicole would, even amongst those she trusted. Nonetheless, there were moments. They would watch movies, and Elle would glance over and see Nicole nestled into his arms; or someone would be talking, and David would take a moment to bestow a reverent kiss on Nicole's forehead. It was a level of affection she had never seen him give, could not remember experiencing. And every now and then, very rarely, she might see them kiss.
It was like watching a sacrament.
"Is it just me," Jodie said once, "or do those two have a white wedding together somewhere in their future?"
"It's not just you," Elle had answered.
It was harder to deal with than she'd expected. Tom was kind, patient, accepting, but she could see it even bothered him a little. It bothered her much more. She should be over this by now. How long had it been since she'd been David's girlfriend? They were friends now, just friends, with the easy familiarity of their long association. There was no reason why seeing him with a girlfriend—seeing him kissing, seeing him happy; occasionally even hearing the sounds of their loving—should upset her. There was no reason she ought to look at Nicole, radiant, joyful, happier than she'd ever been, and think, It should have been me. It should have been me...
The end result was that, when Nicole asked her about her housing plans for senior year, and whether she'd like to go on being roommates together, Elle had no answer. "I dunno, let me think about it," she had to say—day after day, while time slid past them. Nicole knew from their experiences last year that, the later they made a move on it, the worse their prospects would be; but she never commented. Perhaps she understood Elle's hesitation. (Or, Elle thought uncharitably, perhaps she's too distracted to notice.)
"You're not okay with this, are you," Tom asked her one night.
"Okay with what?" she said. At the moment, they were lying on her bed, sated and satisfied; his hand idly twirled through her pubic hair. "Tom, you've played with my pussy a hundred times before, if you really think that—"
"That's not what I meant," Tom said.
Elle had known what he meant. But she didn't want to start that.
"You're not okay with Nicole dating anyone, are you."
"Umm..." said Elle. That was not what she felt at all, but she ran with it. "No, I... I'm not. Umm. Yeah. I mean, she's so young. —Not literally, not, like... It's not like she's underage or anything. But she's... Inexperienced."
Tom grinned. "I'm pretty sure David will take care of that pretty soon."
She gave him a swat. "That's not what I meant. I meant that... I mean... If anyone tries to take advantage of her, and..."
"Do you really think David would do that?" he said.
Isn't he?, was what she wanted to say, but that would be unfair. She didn't think David would manipulate Nicole like that. That wasn't in his person; and even Nicole would notice if he had an ulterior motive. Besides, she didn't think he would've needed to. All he would have needed to do was show her the sort of love and care that he was showing now. Nicole was a sweet, uncomplicated girl, but that didn't mean she didn't want to be loved.
The day Nicole lost her virginity was the first time Elle had had any indication that she was seeing anyone, much less David. "How long has this been going on," she asked.
Nicole looked anything less than blissful for the first time all day. "Umm. Since September."
"You first started asking me that stuff in May," Elle said. "It was David who was making you curious, wasn't it?"
"Well... Yeah," said Nicole. "We started... He asked me out, and I said I needed to... To think about it."
"Why? ...I mean. What was to think about? You guys seem... Happy."
"I know, and, I really liked him. I really like him. But, just... You know. I know he's had sex, and I knew he'd want to, and I didn't wanna disappoint him, and..."
"And because no one had ever asked you out before."
"Yeah, and... And because he's so... Different."
"Different?" said Elle. "From who?"
"From... Me," said Nicole. "I mean, he's very sweet and polite and a nice guy, but he's so... He's not a Christian."
Elle was flabbergasted. "Honey, he may not be a Christian, but I don't think that makes him a bad person—"
"No, no, he's not, that's not what I'm saying. It's... The thing is... He's not a Christian."
"And that's important to you? With you thinking about having pre-marital sex? With you having pre-marital sex?"
Nicole's chin came up. "Danielle, pre-marital sex has nothing to do with it. There are places in the Bible where it says not to do that, but David and I talked it out and I feel that I can do it without causing myself any physical and spiritual harm. So I tried it, and you know what? I was right. I may be a Christian, but that doesn't mean I can't think for myself."
"I didn't mean—"
"But yes, Christianity is important to me. That's part of who I am. It's important to me that, whatever I do, I be able to look my Redeemer in the eye and say, I have no regrets about my life. That's the only standard of behavior I hold myself to, and the only standard that matters."
"Well— Umm," said Elle, feeling hopelessly out of her depth. She had never heard Nicole speak with such steel conviction. "O-Okay, and— And. Umm. David. Prevents you from doing that?"
"No, it's... It's not that," said Nicole, all timid concern again. "It's that... He's not Christian. He doesn't live by those standards."
"And you want him to."
"Well... Why don't you... just... I dunno. Why don't you just let it play out, and see what happens?" Elle said. "I mean... Maybe he'll change."
"Yeah. I hope so."
"And besides, we both know David," Elle said. "He'll understand. He'll listen. If you tell him what you feel and how you think you should act, he'll at least give it some thought before he makes his decision. He may have different standards, but that doesn't mean he'll, like, automatically go and do things you don't like."
"Yeah," said Nicole.
There was a brief, contemplative silence.
Then Elle smiled. "So. How was it?"
"Oh my God, it was so good!" said Nicole, suddenly animated again. "I didn't know I could feel that way! David was perfect, just perfect, he knew everything about me, it seemed. He knew exactly what to do to make everything feel good, and every time I thought it couldn't get better, it did! I can't believe he—" She stopped suddenly, her face growing concerned again. "You're... It doesn't bother you, does it?"
"What doesn't bother me?"
"Umm... Us," said Nicole. "Your roommate going out with your best friend and ex-boyfriend."
"No, of course not," Elle said. She smiled. "You're my sister. I'm really happy for you. For both of you." And, at the time, she had meant it.
Now, it was not so easy to say.
"So, what is it," Tom asked her now. "What is it that bothers you so much? Is it jealousy over her?" His smile grew wicked. "Jealousy over him?"
"Oh, right," Elle snapped, "because I've been secretly jonesing after a girl who's been my roommate for three years, and yet I haven't done anything about it."
"Well, have you?" said Tom, grinning. "You tell me!"
She swatted him again.
Tom was a saint about it all. He saw—he had to see—how it hurt her; and it had to hurt him to see that, because it meant that her heart was not entirely his. But then, he'd known that from the beginning; must've known, since she'd made it clear to him. A little part of her heart would always be with David; that was simply the way they were wired now. And she didn't think that part of her heart was being disregarded just because he was with some other girl now, did she?—because she didn't. So why the hurt? Why the big deal?
It was David himself who came to her next. When she came home from classes, the living room was empty and Nicole's heart was up, so Elle subsided into her bedroom to do some homework. Some time later, there was a knocking on the door. It was David. His presence there in the doorway sent a jolt of regret through her: gone were the days when he could move freely through their apartment. Gone, for that matter, were the days when any of them could. Nicole and David needed their privacy, and no matter how happy they were, or she was for them, that meant walls that could no longer be breached.
"How are you doing?" he said.
"Fine," she said, "just fine. Just... You know. Got home from classes, doing some homework. I didn't even know you were here."
"Oh," he said. "Umm. Yeah." He ran a hand through his hair, the old familiar gesture. "Nicole and I were. Umm. Having some private time."
"Oh," she said.
He colored. "Not... Not like that kind of private time. ...Okay, yes that kind of private time, but... That's not all we do. She's a... She's a very private person. There's a lot of things she wants to keep between us."
"Yeah, just things like... 'Oh,' you know, 'How was school today,' or, 'Did your project turn out all right,' or things like that. I think she just likes having a friend all to herself for once. You have to admit, that's not something she's had a lot of."
"But..." he said. "Listen, I'm sorry that... that it's like that. I mean, she's really a homebody, and I don't mind that, but sometimes I have to be, like... 'Hey, remember, we have other friends.' And... Well, I mean. You're getting third-wheeled. And... I don't like that."
"Oh, well," said Elle, a little surprised. "I'm sure she'll, umm. I'm sure she'll get over it eventually."
"I know, but... In the meantime," said David.
"Yeah," she said. "Well, thanks."
There was a short silence between them.
"So..." she said. "What's it like to be back in a relationship?"
"It's... It's really good, actually. I got really lucky. Nicole is... Nicole is so wonderful. She's so loving and kind... It's like there's this whole stockpile of love that she's been storing up over her life to share with someone."
"And it must be nice to be getting action again," said Elle.
"Yeah, no kidding," said David. "I never... I never realized until I was single. Because, I mean... Well, I was with Angela for a while, and we did it. And I was with Missy Renquist, and we actually did it just the once, before we broke up." Elle, to whom that question had once mattered, was surprised to notice that she didn't care now. "And before then there was you, and even though we weren't... you know... having actual intercourse, we were still... Playing around. And the end result was that freshman year was basically the first time in my life that I was doing without. And... Ugh?"
"Must've been pretty hard," Elle said.
"All the time," David agreed.
"...Err. I kinda meant 'difficult.' "
David laughed. "Wow, Freudian slip there. But yes, it was difficult. And actually, I don't think it was. Umm. Hard. Any more than normal. It was just that, there was nothing I could do about it."
"Besides Miss Rosie Palm."
"Yeah, and that... I mean, it's not the same. I mean, it, it seriously wasn't the same. I don't know why, it's not like your fingers are any different than mine, but..."
"Yeah. I had to learn to, you know, take care of myself. I mean, I had to learn it. I'm can't even say that I re-learned it because I don't think I ever knew. You knew, and whenever I had an itch, I just had to ask, and..."
"God, the same thing happened to me," he said, running his hand through his hair, the old familiar gesture. "I think I may have an extra-strong sex drive, too, because we were... Because of how often we did stuff. So I was just constantly... And then it was like, 'Wow, how lame is this, that I don't even know how to, you know, handle myself.' It was pretty lame, let me tell you. There was... A learning curve."
"There must be a learning curve going on right now, too," she said. "I mean... Well, call me crazy, but... I really kinda doubt that Nicole has a lot of experience about what to do in bed. Or even very many ideas."
"That's true enough," he said. "But... I mean, you know her. The things that are important to her, she takes very seriously. And... This is important to her. Even in only the few weeks we've been doing it, there's been... A lot of improvement. And she doesn't, like, hold back either. Whenever some new idea comes up, she isn't like, 'That's weird, let's not,' she just... She goes for it."
Elle gave him a wry smile. "Looks like you've got a genuine slut on your hands."
"No, actually, it's not like that at all," said David. "She's not... She's so uncomplicated about it. It's not like, 'Ooh, let's be dirty' or whatever; she just wants to... Please her lover. And if I come up with something I think I might like, or that she might, she's interested. If I think it'll be fun, she'll go for it. She just... Gives of herself, completely. It's refreshing."
"...I wanted to," she said.
"What?" said David. "You—? Ohh, ohh, no, no. Nellie, that's not what I meant. The reasons you held back... I understand them a lot more now. And besides, you didn't hold back. There were things you didn't do, but the things you did do, you did wholeheartedly. That's exactly the same as Nicole; I have no doubt we'll come across something where she draws the line. What I mean was... Well, you know the girls who just... Who do it, because that's the only way to keep a man interested? Well, that was Angela, and that was definitely Missy Renquist. They were just like, you know, 'Okay, get it over with and then I can get back to my business.' " He gave a short laugh. "I mean, I'd offer to, you know, reciprocate, and they were just like... 'Why would I wanna waste time doing that?' "
"You're serious? You offered to go down on them, and they turned you down??" The memories were faded now, but as she recalled, David had been one heck of an expert at oral sex. "Well, just shows how stupid they are."
"Yeah, no kidding. It was like... They were just blow-up dolls, or something. And not because I wanted it that way, because they did. They wanted me to just use them to get off, and then leave them alone. Whereas you... You did things with me because you wanted to. And after we broke up, it became really clear to me, really quickly, that that was way more important than the fact that you made me wait four years."
"And now you get that with Nicole."
"Yeah, I... I mean, I think part of it was high school. They just wanted someone, anyone, around, and if they needed to, you know, lie back and think of England to make it happen... People are less like that at our age. But whatever the case, I decided that I didn't really want that anymore. I wanted someone who was going to, you know, participate."
"Not just in sex, it was... Everything." He gave her a wry smile. "Let's face it, Nellie, you set a pretty high standard."
"You still call me that," she said. "Didn't I ask you not to call me that anymore? Like, five or six years ago?"
"Sorry," he said. "It's just... How I think of you. You'll always be 'Nellie' to me."
"I'm Elle now," she said.
"You're Danielle," he said. "It's who you'll always be."
"Which isn't Nellie," she insisted. "I mean, I don't call you 'Davey' anymore."
"No. I couldn't. You're not 'Davey' anymore. I'm not the person who gets to call you 'Davey' anymore."
David was silent for a long moment.
"Are you okay with this?" he said finally.
"With... Me. And Nicole. With us."
She snorted. "David, don't tell me you'd end it if I told you to. I know you better than that."
"Okay, that much is true, but... I mean, we could be... More discreet."
"No, I'll be... I'll be fine. And I couldn't ask you to end it, not in good conscience. You're my best friend, she's my sister. I want you to be happy. I want you both to be happy."
"Okay," he said, coming forward to put his hands on her shoulders. "Because we care about you. Both of us do. Heck, you introduced us, we owe you for that if nothing else. But even if not for that. We may have... Other priorities... But that doesn't mean we love you any less."
"You're sweet," she said, "thanks." And she gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "But I'll be fine." She laughed a little. "Besides, I've got Tom to keep me busy too."
"Yeah," he said. "Tom. Nellie, have you..." He trailed off.
"Have I what?" she said. There seemed to be a lot of potential endings for that question. "Have we gotten serious? Have we done it? Have we fought? Have I thought about whether it's going anywhere?"
He shook his head. "Never mind. Forget I said anything."
She laughed. "Davey, you can't just leave me hanging like that! Tell me! What were you going to say?"
She laughed; he didn't. "I'm going to leave you hanging like that, Danielle," he said, shaking his head again. "Good afternoon. Forget I ever said anything."
And what was she to say to that?
Well, obviously, she didn't just forget it; she started wondering what David had been trying to say. But who could she talk about it to? Tom himself was right out, for obvious reasons; she kept her eyes open, wondering if David knew something she herself had missed, but there was nothing in Tom's demeanor to suggest that anything was wrong or untoward. No, he was the same as he always was: polite, charming, optimistic, and fiendishly good in bed. One thing did come to her attention, though: that they almost never talked about the future. Or, perhaps more accurately, about their future.
So, she did what any self-respecting girlfriend would do: she brought it up one day. "Honey, where do you see yourself in five years?"
Tom dropped his fork with an audible clatter. "This is because I'm graduating, isn't it?"
"Or because I'm still living with my folks. I thought you understood that: it's cheap and it's convenient, and saving money isn't exactly a dumb idea in this economy."
"Hold on, hold on!" said Elle. "I'm not trying to grill you or anything, Tom. Jesus! I'm just curious about my man. The way a girlfriend is supposed to be. You never talk about where you see yourself going. Or, for that matter, if you see me still being there."
"Well... Yeah," said Tom. "The... Well, I dunno. The truth is, I don't know where I'm going."
"See?" she said. "That wasn't so hard."
"Yeah, but, what girlfriend wants to hear that," he said. "Especially not after three years of dating."
"True," she said. "But go on."
He looked desperately uncomfortable, but he plowed on. "I just... I know what I'm good at, you know? And... There isn't a lot of market for it. Not right now, maybe not ever. I mean, it's not like your job—you're a graphics artist, you can do texturing for movies or video games or just about anything that involves 3D CGI. Me, I put paint on canvas. Very low-tech. So, I'm gonna have to find something more... Practical. And... I mean, it's just a job, you know? It pays the bills. I don't really care what it is, so long as it does. But... I don't know what it's gonna be yet."
"Fair enough," she said. "If I hadn't decided to go with graphic arts, I might be in the same boat."
"Nonsense, they at least need photographers for weddings and such," he said. "But... Since you were wondering, that's why I don't bring it up. Because I don't really have any future plans, nothing concrete. And... I mean, how do I ask you to step into that?"
"Well, I might say yes," she said.
"Or you might say no."
"True, but that depends on me, doesn't it? At least I'm not like some sort of pre-law or pre-med who has no patience with anybody who doesn't have their entire life planned out already."
"Ha. Good point." He picked up his fork again. "Okay, let me ask you, then. Do you see this going somewhere? Do you see us still together in five years?"
It was her turn to think for a bit. She used her fork to toy with a broccoli floret. "Well... Actually, what you said is a really good point. It's kind of... It's kind of hard for me to picture me next to you in five years, because there's nothing concrete to picture. But... I'd like to be." She reached out and put her hand on his. "I really like you, Tom. I wouldn't still be here if I didn't. And I don't mind just, you know, hanging out and waiting to see what happens."
He nodded. "That's kind of how I look at it. It's not like I can tell you, 'Oh, this-and-this has to happen by the time I'm 25,' so, why try to make plans?"
"So, tell you what: whenever you know more about where you're gonna be? Give me a call. Look me up."
He gave her a smile. "You might still be right there."
She smiled. "The possibility does exist."
It was good to know what he was thinking... But it didn't help explain the mystery of what David had said. David of course wouldn't talk about it; wouldn't even, for that matter, acknowledge that a conversation had happened. Nicole... Well, what would she know? Nicole had her own concerns, and sordid details about her roommate's boyfriend was not likely to be one of them. And while Elle had made her share of other friends in her years in the dorms, she hadn't kept in touch with most of them; her sphere of interest had contracted when she moved into this apartment. Besides, what was she going to say to them? Hi, it's Elle, your former hall mate, and I was just wondering if you had any juicy gossip about my boyfriend?... Yeah right.
Who was left?
"Well, it could possibly just be rumors," said Jodie. "We are all, thankfully, past the point where people spread malicious lies around just to be douchebags, but the possibility does exist. Alternately, perhaps David is onto something, but he isn't sure. Or maybe he's jumping at shadows. The long and the short of it is that either Tom does have some secret he's hiding, or he doesn't, and everything else is kind of secondary to that. What you need to do is figure out, one—" She held up a finger. "—whether there is a secret, and two—" The second finger. "—what it could be."
"I don't think David would bring up something he didn't consider important," Elle said.
"Wrong. He clearly backed down from whatever it was."
"Okay, let me rephrase it: umm. ...I don't think David would bring something up unless he considered it something actionable. He wouldn't just yank my chain. He thinks there is something at issue, whether or not it's his place to tell me about it."
"So you think there is a secret," said Jodie.
"I..." Elle shook her head. "I don't know. Tom is... He's a very genuine person. I don't think he could keep a secret."
"All the best liars are like that," said Jodie. "Do you want me to ask around?"
"Ugh, no," said Elle. "The last thing I need is to... To stir up something."
Jodie gave her a smile. "You should be more like me. I don't have to deal with this shit. If someone's messing around with me, I just don't sleep with them again."
Truthfully, that kind of lifestyle did not sound particularly appealing to Elle. "Well, at least you don't have lots of history to wade through."
Jodie laughed. "True that. Hell, I don't even sleep with someone more than three times anyway."
"Ugh," said Elle. "Peace and quiet would definitely be nice. I've got classes, I've got tons of homework, I've got this hanging over my head, I have to see David and Nicole being all lovey-dovey in each other's faces all the time..."
Jodie gave Elle a sidelong glance. "You know, maybe we could be roommates next year."
Elle glanced around at Jodie's apartment. It was a one-bedroom apartment: Jodie preferred not to have roommates, for greater ease of entertaining men. "Here?"
"No, silly, we'd get a bigger one," Jodie snorted. "It'd be a nice change of scenery, don't you think? And it'd get you away from the Lovebug Couple."
"Let me think about it," said Elle, although she knew she'd probably agree. Maybe. She wasn't sure she wanted to room with Jodie. She missed Nicole. She missed the friend she'd had, before David came and took her away. She missed the friend she'd had in David, before Nicole took him away. ...I'm not likely to get either one of them back, am I? But still, she couldn't help but hold out hope. Maybe something would happen to make it all bearable. Maybe some miracle would occur. Maybe...
In this state of high agitation she managed to pass most of a month. Nothing, it seemed, could give her relief. Moments with Tom were tainted, inevitably, by the question of how to proceed (if at all!) with her investigation; she might forget it until the very last minute, when he was dropping her off at her apartment, but then something in his behavior—the inflection of a word, the shift of an eye—would remind her, and ruin everything. Home life was no better, with Nicole increasingly withdrawing to spend time with David. Jodie, though friendly and possessed of a robust humor, was simply not sentimental; to her mind, Elle did not need help, would simply work things out on her own, and if she did need help she'd ask. But Elle did not want to ask. She wanted to be asked. She wanted to be around someone who would notice her mood and take pity on her. Jodie was not that person. Even her sex life was damaged; sex, which had once been to her a joy, a diversion, an escape. She felt trapped. By everything around her, she felt trapped.
Finally it was Valentine's Day, the third anniversary of her first time with Tom (though they had done it at least a hundred times since then, and maybe even five hundred). Tom declared that he had planned a surprise, and she was a little dismayed when this surprise ended up just going back to his parents' house. She was a little more understanding when the surprise involved that they were out for the evening, and the two of them would have some fun cooking (or attempting to) a meal for themselves. It was perhaps a little more work than she'd expected, but Tom had become a little more domestic in his plans recently, and she could only assume that he was starting to think more seriously about a future with her. Plus, it probably would be at least a little fun.
Elle decided to enjoy the night as much as possible. She had been moody and snappish for most of this quarter (which was more than half over already), like a six-week bout of PMS, and she could tell that her friends' patience was beginning to wear thin. Wouldn't it be nice to put aside her preoccupations and just have fun for once? She resolved to do that as much as possible tonight.
What surprised her was how amorous he was tonight. They had become very comfortable around each other over the last few years; he didn't push for sex. —Well, not that he ever had, really; he'd seemed content to let her decide the pace and content of their sex life. And most of the time he was okay with just letting it happen—or not happen, since there would always be tomorrow. (Not that that was very frequent.) But today... Well, today he was all over her.
"Wow," she said between kisses, "what's... gotten... into... you?"
"It just occurred to me to remember," he growled, "just how fucking hot you are." He bent her over the counter and then, sinking to his knees, pulled her panties down and immediately delved into her pussy with his tongue. She moaned at the sudden jolt of stimulation.
Wow. What was going on here? Was it her clothing? She was wearing a nice dress (she'd thought they were going somewhere), one he said brought out her figure, but he'd seen her in it before and never gone wild like this. Had he taken some Viagra or something? But soon she had other things to worry about: his lips, for instance, and his tongue, licking their way around her mound, insinuating themselves between her lips, laving the entrance to her pussy. Soon she was moaning, and rocking her hips back to meet his tongue.
Suddenly his tongue left her, and she had a moment of confusion. But then there was an unzipping noise, and his rampant cock was at her pussy. She shifted her hips as he positioned himself, and he slid in to the hilt in one dizzying thrust.
"Oh, my god," she whispered.
Sometimes they made love; and that was good. But this was fucking, pure and simple, and she loved it. Every thrust was heaven, every withdrawal a grief. He was deep inside her, deeper than he normally went, touching places inside her she had forgotten she had; she rocked her hips back with every withdrawal, wanting to keep him contained, wanting to feel the impact as he slammed back into her. The slap-slap of their bodies echoed through the room; she felt his balls brushing against her mound with every thrust. She threw her head back and let the animal take over.
It didn't take long for him to come—unsurprisingly—but that was good too. He groaned, jerked, shivered; and suddenly she was full of liquid silver, of delicious white light that crept down into her every crevice and tingled there. And Tom groaned and collapsed against her back for a little while, and she felt his breath, the little pokes of his five-o-clock shadow, the whisper touch of his lips and teeth as he kissed and nibbled at her skin.
Finally he stood up. "Oh, that was good."
She didn't want to stand up; not and lose the delicious feeling of his cum inside her. She smiled up over her shoulder at him. "I needed that."
"So did I." He looked at her panties, still in his hand. "And I'm keeping these."
Now she did stand up. "Tom, you're going to trickle out of me and run down my leg. ...And then onto the floor. Your parents will smell. They'll ask questions." She held out her hand for them.
He looked at her for a moment, and then handed them over with a sigh. "You're no fun."
"I want to," she said. It might be fun to walk around with no panties on under her skirt. Especially if it leads to what it just did. "But it's not worth the trouble."
After that, they began to get to work. Elle was not a particularly experienced cook, and Tom even less—he lived at home, and she still ate at the dining commons more often than not. But Tom had found some beginner recipes that did (in fact) look within the realms of possibility; and he had taken the precaution of finding some numbers for pizza places in the event that all was lost. Plus, it was fun, arguing over how to arrange the chicken chunks, how to best apply the sauces and spices, whether butter, oil or margarine would be best for heating the frozen veggies, and whether the water for the pasta was hot enough. She had never realized that Tom was this competitive before. It was... Refreshing.
And of course, there was the sex. Dinner probably would've only taken about 90 minutes to prepare under normal circumstances, but today Tom was insatiable, she had never seen him so frisky. Not twenty minutes had passed from their initial encounter that he was bending her over the counter again, but this time to do a better job eating her out. She had never come while standing up before. Then, a little later, he encouraged her to kneel before him and suck him off; unexpectedly, when he was done, he pulled back and ejaculated all over her face—another thing he'd never done before. His cum was warm on her face, but slimy; it didn't sing against her skin the way it did in her pussy.
"Oooh," said Tom, shivering. "That was good."
"Glad you liked it," she said, giving him a smile, which was difficult because she felt positively covered in cum, as if there was so much of it that she could barely move it. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to use your bathroom to wash my face a little."
"Here," he said. His shirt had come off in the various merry-making; now he stepped out of his pants and boxers and bundled them all up. "Just leave those in there." He grinned. "And you should leave yours too."
"Umm," she said. "There are windows in this house."
"The counters are tall enough to cover up everything," he said.
"Not on me."
"Yeah, but, who's gonna be looking? Today, of all days? Besides, it'll be dark soon."
"Yeah, but then we'll turn on..." She sighed. "I'll think about it."
And so, Valentine's Day became, in her memory, the day on which she discovered that splashing her face with water only spread his semen around. And that the soap just made it worse. She still felt completely coated, even after she'd scrubbed herself with soap three times. If only facials from the salon would stick around like this.
She wondered whether it was safe to go out with no clothes on. The truth was, she liked being naked, especially during the warmer months when sunlight was prevalent. But mid-February was not one of those months, and she could see herself getting cold. Plus, whenever she went around naked—which was mostly up here, in Tom's bedroom—they had privacy; there were stairs to provide early warning, and because of the viewing angles, nobody outside should be able to see up into his room through the windows. Going out to the kitchen, on the ground floor and at the front of the house to boot, was completely different. And yet... It would be fun. And Tom... Well, it might inspire him to even greater heights of interest. As if he needs further inspiration.
She was still debating when Tom's phone rang—the double buzz of an arriving text message. At first she set off to yell down the stairs...
...Until she remembered the dilemma that had been hanging over her head.
No, was her first thought. No, no way. That's too far. I wouldn't... I mean, I have no reason to. There's absolutely nothing to make me suspicious—not in his behavior, not in his love for me, not in... Anything. Nothing except ten seconds of conversation with David. And yet those ten seconds had stayed with her... Because they reinforced her own fears. It's too good. He seems perfect for me. I keep looking for the worm in the apple, because there's got to be one. It's been three years and I haven't found one, which probably means that there isn't one... But... But I keep suspecting...
The phone made its double buzz again. A second one had arrived? From whom? Why?
She hadn't realized she had made her decision until his BlackBerry was in her hand. The hand was trembling, which made it difficult to figure out how to work the thing. How had Tom checked his messages over the last three years?... Was it this button, or...? Ah, there it was. Okay, so...
b/c if u wr MY b/f, id have some problems w that ;D
Who was this? What was going on? What was the 'that' being referred to? Oh, this wasn't even the first message; it was displayed them from top to bottom. Elle closed this message and opened the first one.
r u SURE ur g/fs ok w us sleeping 2gthr?
Elle stared. The room shook perilously; below her, Tom let out some sort of exclamation. She fought hard to keep from falling down as the clatter of pots and pans resumed. What was going on here? Who was this person? Was it even a girl or a guy? The message was ascribed only to the person's number, without any biographical information—like a name—stored in Tom's phonebook.
Walking in a dream, Elle took the phone across the room to Tom's computer. She fired up Google, and then Facebook, running a search for the text message's source number. It came back with records on a Ramona Davies. Facebook yielded a tall, tan girl with streaky blonde hair and the perfect black dress and pearl smile of a supermodel. Sorority, whispered the part of Elle's mind that was still functioning.
There were no helpful messages on Ramona Davies' profile page—no Wall posts, no SuperPokes, no gifts; nothing that might come from Tom. In desperation, she used a Control-F to access the "Find" function and typed in Tom's name... Only to have the browser find it right at the top of the page. She was logged in as Tom Gilmore.
Her hand numb, she clicked on his Inbox.
All the messages were from girls.
All the messages were from girls he was sleeping with.
How long had this been going on?
"Elle? Are you okay? It's been a..." said Tom, arriving at the top of the stairs. "...Hey. Hey, um. What's going on?" He smiled. "Checking your e-mail?"
"Who's Ramona?" said Elle.
The smile fell from Tom's face in crooked fragments.
"Who's..." Elle looked at his inbox, snagging a name at random. "Who's Lisa? Who's Kathy? Who's Butler? ...Butler? Oh wait, that's a last name."
"Yeah, if there'd been a girl named Butler, I'd be confused," said Tom.
"You're not even denying it?"
"What good would that do?" said Tom. He wasn't smiling anymore, but neither had he raised his voice. "I mean, you're sitting right there, Elle."
The drama trauma was too much. She pitched forward, nauseous, retching. Fortunately for Tom's rug, it had been a while since she'd last eaten, and there wasn't much to come out. Still, he'd probably have to replace it. And maybe clean the chair off too. She remembered that the chair had been hand-made by his grandfather and passed down through the family, and felt a moment of guilt. And then a clawing sensation of anger.
Still, when Tom took her around the shoulders and helped her to the bed, she didn't resist. Once he had her settled in that familiar spot, he went for a cup of water and a cloth to wipe her face. She rinsed, spit it out into the cup. Maybe she should've saved some to drink.
"There," he said, reaching for his clothes. "Feeling better?"
She didn't answer. To have this betrayer tend to her as if nothing had changed...
"Now, are you ready to talk rationally?" he said, standing up to step into his pants. "To talk, and listen, like adults?"
"Don't tell me you have a 'rational' explanation for this," she snapped.
"As a matter of fact, I do," Tom said. Either he was the best liar she'd ever seen, or he actually meant it. She had a fleeting wish for Jodie to be here.
"Fine," she said, "whatever. Give me your magic explanation."
"Okay," said Tom. "I shall do so."
He was silent for a moment, his chin in one hand, and then stood up to pace.
"To put it simply, I approach sex from a different angle that you do," he said.
"Yeah," she shot back, "you think it's okay to cheat!"
"Would you like to hear my explanation, or are you going to interrupt me all the time," he asked, still in that mild voice. "'cuz it'll go faster if you let me talk."
She gave him a glare, but subsided.
"I approach sex from a different angle than you do," he said. "To you, it's a very special thing, one that you only share with people who are really important to you. For me, it's more of a... It's a bonding thing. It's like hugging a friend."
"It's a little more than hugging a friend," she retorted.
"That's true, maybe that wasn't a good analogy," he said, "but... To a certain extent, yes it is. I don't feel like it's something I have to reserve for a select class of... Well, that's not true either. Yes, I do reserve it for a select class of people. But I define that class differently than you do. I don't feel... I don't feel that I need to be romantically involved with the people I have sex with."
"It's casual sex," she said.
"Well, maybe that's not the right... Well, maybe it is the right description. But 'casual sex' implies just doing it with some stranger, someone you've never met before. That's not how I approach it. I don't have sex with strangers. Only with friends. With people I have some emotional connection with.
"What, so... I'm just a friend," she said, hurt despite the anger. "I'm just a—"
"No no no," Tom cried, rushing to her side. "Of course not. Of course not. Danielle, we've... What we've shared, the times we've had... Elle, not a month ago you asked me if I thought this was going somewhere, if we might still be together in five years, and I said yes, and I meant it. I wouldn't say that to any of the other women I'm sleeping with. None of the other women I sleep with would even ask me that. They know it's not going anywhere. They know it's... Just for fun. They know that there's no love involved."
"What," she said, sniffling; her nose had gotten stuffed during her little vomiting spree. "You're going to tell me that you still love me, even after you've been balls deep in all these other—"
"Yes," said Tom, his eyes clear upon hers. "I am.
"Elle, you're making a mistake a lot of people in closed relationships do. You're confusing sex with love." He stood again and began to pace; it was something he did to help organize his thoughts, but she'd never seen him do it as often as he was tonight. "As you know, it's entirely possible to be in a sexual relationship with someone without loving them." She thought about Weston. "And, as you know, it's entirely possible to love someone, or be in love with them, without having sex with them. Thus, we point out that sex and love are two completely different things. And, furthermore, it can be posited that sex and love are not connected, that one does not flow, naturally and inevitably, from the other. Are you with me so far?"
"Well, that's where I am. To me, sex and love are two different things. That means that I can engage in fulfilling and enjoyable sexual relations with women I don't love—or men, for that matter, if I happened to swing that way, though I don't. It also means that I can engage in fulfilling and enjoyable loving relationships with women I don't have sex with—which is, I might add, where we were until this day two years ago. I loved you then, as I love you now, but we weren't having sex."
"Then what's the point?" she said. "Why even bother doing it with me at all?"
"Well, because..." He paused, and his eyes went out of focus, looking beyond whatever what was in front of him. "Because sex and love is the best combination," he said in a soft voice. "Honey, I've had sex without love. And I've had love without sex. But with you, I have both, and it's... It's the best, most wonderful..." His voice broke, and she was startled to see he was crying. "Danielle, when we are together, I give myself to you fully. In a way that I don't with my other lovers and can't with my other lovers. And, we... We make magic together." His eyes turned to her, heavy with tears. "We have the best of all of it."
She said nothing, not wanting his appeal to work on her. Wishing that it hadn't.
"I love you," he said. "That's the important part, and you know it. It's very possible to have sex with people you don't love; people do it all the time, even husbands and wives. They do it with each other sometimes. But when you find love... That's the sacred part. That's the part you treasure. And I have, and we have. Honey, even you can admit that, no matter how many liaisons I've had outside our relationship, it's never affected our relationship. And that's because I know what's important. Those other things, they're just... Fun. With you, I have the world. And if you can accept that I have always been loyal to you emotionally—in the way that matters—then we can be on our way.
"And I'm not being careless," he said. "I use condoms with everyone but you, I make sure the girls I sleep with are on the Pill, and I have myself tested for STDs every month." He gestured to his desk. "The latest one's right there if you want to see it. It says negative. It always has. Now, I've probably been lucky, but I am not being reckless. I'm not just, you know, sticking my willie wherever. My standards of what constitutes an acceptable sex partner may be different from yours, but that doesn't mean I don't have standards."
"Well, I'm glad of that, or else I'd be insulted that I'm one of them."
He flinched. She felt a moment of remorse.
"So..." he said. "That's... That's what it comes down to," he said. "I think that... Huh. Well, I've rehearsed this talk in my head like once a day for the past year, but this still came out a lot better than I expected. I think that I've explained myself about as well as I can. And... Honey, it's not like you can't explore either. If you see people you want to, you know, experiment with, I won't object. You'd have my permission. I mean, David! If you... Well, maybe it's too late now, since he's kind of committed to Nicole. But, if you had wanted to..."
"That's far enough, thanks," she said, and he fell silent.
She took advantage of his silence to look over the situation as she saw it. The fight—if it could even be called that—had not gone anywhere near what she'd expected. When she'd found out about his infidelity, she had braced herself for denials, accusations, anger, throwing things... But instead she had gotten this discussion, which was almost entirely rational. (And the only irrational parts, she had to admit, had been the ones she'd provided.) He had made his case, plainly and logically, and she had to admit that there was sense in what he said. (Certainly, some of his ideas might have been useful to her—like when Weston had kept pressuring her to do it with him, claiming she didn't love him unless she did.)
Tom had been honest with her, she realized. He was right: their relationship had never suffered; in fact, it had gone on for more than three years without his ever giving a sign that his heart lay elsewhere. He claimed it hadn't!—and, for all she knew, he might be right. True, he had never been a particularly affectionate or demonstrative person; he might put his arm around her on occasion, but that was all. Occasionally she had wondered why he didn't like to hug her and kiss her more. Now she realized that, to him, that was what sex was for. As David used an embrace and a tender kiss to show affection to Nicole, so Tom used sex to show it to Elle—this had been going on for their entire relationship, and she'd never noticed. Or perhaps she had; perhaps she'd understood that sex was the way he communicated love physically. After all, though she'd questioned why he didn't express it, she'd never doubted that he felt it.
Was sex separate from love? Undoubtedly, it was. But was that something she could live with? Say she did go to David and offer to sleep with him, no strings attached— No, that would never work; he'd never agree, and neither would she. So somebody else. There were hot boys around her; this was college, after all. What if she were to go to one of them and say, "Hey, what if..." Undoubtedly she could. But would she want to?
"Tom, I don't know if I can live with this," she said. "It's... I mean, it's one thing for you to have told me this three years ago, when we first started doing it. I don't know what I would've said then, but... But that's not the point. It's one thing if you had told me this. But you didn't. You just... Went on with your..." What was the term he had used? "Your 'open relationship,' behind my back."
"If you're saying I cheated on you—"
"Are you saying you didn't?"
"I'm saying that my heart is and has always been faithful to you, Danielle. I'm saying that, though I may have shared my body with other people, my heart belongs only to you."
"I believe you," she said, and was surprised to realize that it was true. "But that's not what matters. If you had cheated on me, fine, I would understand. We all face temptations, and sometimes we're not strong. But it's not that you cheated on me. It's that you lied to me. You've lied to me for... How long has this been going on, Tom?"
"Well," said Tom, "I think that's kind of besides the point. We really—"
Now there's the defensiveness I've been waiting for. She let her voice compress into a whip-crack. "How long, Tom?"
"Since... From the beginning," he said. "Always."
She nodded. "That's what I thought. Tom, you've been carrying this off for three and a half years. How can you expect me to trust you after that?"
"I..." He licked his lips. "I... I can't answer that, Elle. I don't know. But... I mean, trust can be regained... Can't it?"
Can it? "Tom, I think it's time that we... That we see other people."
His face fell. As she saw it, she knew that expression—sorrow and disbelief on a bloodless-pale face—would stay etched on her memory throughout time.
"You aren't going to change your ways, are you? No, you wouldn't, even if I asked. And I wouldn't ask. Some things just can't be gotten past. This is who you are, this is who you want to be, and that's wonderful. I'm glad for you. But I can't be with it. That's not who I want to be with." She gave him one last kiss on the lips, to seal the deal. "I love you. I will always love you. But... We aren't right for each other."
"There's... There's nothing I can do," he said. He was definitely crying now.
"I'm sorry," she said.
He said nothing. Just watched, and watched, and watched, as she went down the stairs, put on her shoes and stepped out into the bitter night. Even once walls and floors and ceilings were in the way, she could feel his eyes on her skin.
Outside, her breath frosted on the air, and she shivered as she rippled through the numbers on her phone. There were two of them in her hand: she still clenched his BlackBerry; she had taken it without even realizing. She put it under the Welcome mat, where his parents would doubtlessly notice the bump when they came in. Then she called Jodie for a ride.
David and Nicole were sympathetic and solicitous; David wrapped her in a blanket and Nicole gave her a huge hug. They clucked and chattered over her while she spilled out the whole thing. David looked guilty. "Nellie, I'm so sorry. I didn't... It was just a rumor, all of his... companions must have known to be circumspect. I didn't mean to, to cause this. To bring this all down around your head or anything."
She shook her head. "It would have come out eventually."
"What a crazy idea, anyhow," Nicole said. "I can't believe he'd subscribe to such an outrageous attitude. And thinking you'd let him get away with it!"
"Now hold on, Lena," said David. "Just because you disagree with him doesn't mean he's wrong."
"Oh, come on, David," said Nicole. Elle had never seen her quite this indignant. "Don't tell me you believe what he says."
"No, of course not," said David. "I don't, and neither does Danielle. But he has the right to make his own decisions."
"And his own mistakes?" said Nicole, in a tone of voice that made evident they had had this argument more than once before.
"Yes, Lena," said David, and this time Elle made the connection between the diminutive and Nicole's full name. "Even his own mistakes."
The conversation more or less broke up after that. Though David and Nicole were kind, and their few moments of companionship reminded her of the times they'd all shared long ago, eventually Elle realized that they would prefer their privacy and said she would go to bed. It was David who made the approach after. "Umm... Nellie, you... You don't mind if..."
"If what?" she said, pulling the covers up around her.
"Well... We thought that you... That you'd be out with Tom until tomorrow, so... I was gonna stay over. ...It's the first time I've done that."
"You don't need my permission," said Elle. "Go ahead. It's Valentine's Day. Someone should enjoy it." She forced a smile.
Instead of leaving, he came into the room to hug her. "Nellie, I'm so sorry."
She put her arms around him automatically.
"This... This really sucks, and I wish there were something I could do," he said.
"Thanks," she said, "but... I'm okay."
He withdrew to look her in the eye. "You're sure."
"I'm sure," she said.
"It must be sad to think that, every time he said he loved you, he didn't really mean it."
"No," she said. "He did. And that's even sadder."
And so David disappeared into the door across the hall. And not long after that, the sounds started.
It was the first time she'd ever been forced—really forced—to hear them make love; every other time she'd had something else to focus on. Nicole's sex life had had a remarkable beneficial effect on Elle's homework, for instance. And they were quiet most of the time, maybe because she was there, or maybe because that was just in Nicole's nature. But now there was nothing but roaring silence, a few thin walls and a closed door between them—between his dusky murmurs, her whispered endearments; the moans, the gasps, the sighs; the faint noise of the bedsprings; and finally their voices intertwining in crescendo. At the end, Nicole cried out: "Oh, Davey, Davey, Davey—"
And then they woke her up at two in the morning doing it again.
Elle groaned. She rolled over, picked up her phone, and punched in a brief text message: Jodie, yes I will room with you next year. thx much -D. Then she stuffed her head back under the pillow and wished that next year would come much, much faster.
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