The first thing that happened the next morning was a phone call from Reverend Pendleton.
Actually, to be proper, the first thing that happened that morning was that they woke up. Jon was quite happy to do so: he had remembered to turn the alarm off this time, so there was no jolting and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Instead, he swam up from drowsiness to a faceful of Caitlyn's hair, which was ticklish but very nice. He had had worries that this position might be uncomfortable for prolonged use, and with a heavier woman he still thought it might be; but Caitlyn weighed about 105, and she made a lovely blanket. His morning wood was very much in evidence, and on occasion brushed lightly against her pussy lips, which gave him an idea.
Though she was still asleep, he was able to find her ear with his lips, especially its backside which she loved him to kiss and lick. He did not have access to her breasts, which were still pressed against his chest, but it was enough; within moments she was awake.
"Mmmm," she said. "Hi."
"Hi," he said. "Turn over."
Soon she was on her side, with him spooned up behind her, his arm looped around her and his hand on her breast, where it so naturally belonged. Her nipples were stiff and erect, begging for attention, and he did not deny her, caressing them with his hand while he continued on her ears and neck and throat with his mouth. When he reached below and found her wet and wanting, he knew what to do.
"Pass me a condom," he murmured.
It was a bit of a trick to get it on blind and one-handed, but he did. Then he coaxed her legs open and slid into her from behind, their bodies still pressed together, feeling her all the way down him, and especially her warm, tight embrace surrounding his cock. The condom sucked—it didn't feel anywhere near as good as unclad—and he had nowhere near the depth that front-to-front positions afforded, but maybe that was for the best; he had never had the longest of fuses, and the fact that he had to urinate was not going to help things.
It was a slow, languorous time, without the urgency of their previous sessions; it was like they were half-asleep, and maybe they were. He swung his arm around to fondle her breasts, sending the other one south to play where the real action was going. He felt his own latex-covered cock, and then the petal-soft folds and lips of her pussy, and then finally the sweet secret bud that was the center of her pleasure. His lips still continued their assault on her ear, and judging by Caitlyn's moans and the way she moved, her hips meeting his every thrust, her breasts presented proudly to her hands, she must be in heaven.
Eventually—far too soon, in his estimation—it was too much, and he pushed himself in as deep as he could go and exploded inside her. "Mmm," she said, holding herself still, and his cock clenched and spasmed and let loose its seed, and she turned her head up to kiss him and said, "Good morning."
"Good morning," he said.
"That was a good way to wake up," she said.
"I liked it too," he said. "Did you... Did you have an orgasm?"
"No, I didn't come," she said, surprising him. Where had she learned that word?
"Do you want me to... Finish you off?"
"Well..." She shrugged. "If you want to. I don't mind either way."
"Mmm," said Jon. The truth was, he wanted to be lazy—but how cruel was that? He'd come every time they'd had sex over the past three days, but she only once. A kind husband would give her the same gift she had given him, and he wanted to, but it was just so much work...
He was shaken from his ruminations by the ringing of a cellphone. He recognized the ringtone, but it wasn't his—it was Caitlyn's.
Caitlyn's eyes fluttered in surprise, and she scrambled from the bed. Jon glanced at the clock and noted in passing that it was 9:30 AM. Evidently this caller believed in punctuality.
"Hello?" said Caitlyn. "Yes, speaking... Oh, hi, Reverend!"
Jon blinked. What? The only Reverend they knew was Lawrence Pendleton, who had married them not two days hence. Why was he calling them?
"Fine," Caitlyn was saying, "just fine... Um, no, unfortunately, we're not on a honeymoon... We don't have the time or the money. But Jon has a few days off, and we're definitely enjoying ourselves... Oh, mostly business. We opened a joint bank account and found out we had a little more money than we thought we did... We started looking for jobs and a place to live... Heehee. We had to go look for some contraception... Hee. Actually, yes, they're great. I'm really enjoying what we do together." This was about the time Jon's eyebrows climbed into his hair. "Hum? No, not really. I mean, we didn't hurt anyone or lose anything by waiting until we got married. But it's nice to not have to wait anymore!
"Huh? —Oh, sure! Um." She covered the mouthpiece with a hand. "Jon, he wants to talk to you."
Jon blinked. Why would Lawrence Pendleton want to talk to him?
"Hello, Mr. Stanford?"
"Hi, Pastor Pendleton."
"From Caitlyn's description, it sounds like things are going really well for you two."
Jon gave a nervous laugh. "Yeah, well. It's only been two days. Give it time."
Reverend Pendleton did laugh. "Yes, I suppose even the strongest marriages have tough days. But, actually... That's what I wanted to speak to you about."
About tough days? "All right..."
"You've been coming to Shellview Federated for a while. Have you ever heard me mention that I provide pre-marriage counseling?"
He had. "Umm... Isn't it a bit late for that, sir?"
Rev. Pendleton laughed again. "'Sir.' Call me Larry, Jon."
"Umm. Okay. Larry." God, how uncomfortable could you get?
"And, yes, it obviously is a little bit late, but better that than never, right?"
"So, you want us to come..."
"It's not an interrogation or anything. I just sit down with you and Caitlyn and we talk about what factors help make a marriage work or not work, and which parts you guys are good at and which parts you may need to look out for in the future. How does that sound to you?"
Clergy made Jon nervous, but he had to admit that, if he and Caitlyn were to make this work, they could use this sort of advice. "That sounds like a good idea, si— Reve— Larry."
Caitlyn mouthed, Sirrevellary?
"All right then. Let me run it by Caitlyn, but, hypothetically, shall we say in an hour?"
"That, uh. That sounds fine to me." They'd have to shower quickly, but he thought they could make it.
"Alrighty then. Pass me on back to Caitlyn, if you would be so kind."
Caitlyn took the phone back. "Hello?... Yeah?... Umm... Actually, yes, that does sound smart. And Jon agreed?... Really? Wow. All right... Okay, an hour it is. Thanks, Reverend!"
She folded the phone up. "We gotta hurry."
They did. They showered together, but for the sake of efficiency there was no playing around; one applied soap while the other huddled under the water. Jon ceded the hair-dryer to Caitlyn, who had a lot more of it, and simply turned on a small fan to hasten his own drying process while he checked his e-mail. He was a little chilly, but it did the job. By 10:05, they were out the door.
To reach Reverend Pendleton's office, they had to go through the Sanctuary, which was what Caitlyn's denomination called their church. Jon had never quite felt comfortable here. When there was a service going, he could blend into the crowd, and besides he had Caitlyn to countenance his presence. But right now the Sanctuary was empty—it was, after all, Wednesday morning—and he heard his own echoing footsteps as an invasion of holy ground.
"I don't belong here," he whispered to Caitlyn.
"Nonsense," she said. "Everyone belongs here. That's the point of Christianity."
"Even a heathen sinner like me?"
"Especially a heathen sinner. Jon, we were all heathen sinners at one point. None of us were born pure. None of us were born Christian. Christ knows that. It's not about living a sinless life; that's impossible. It's about finding salvation in Jesus Christ."
"Yeah," said Jon. "And there's another reason I'm not Catholic anymore."
Before she could respond to this, they reached Larry Pendleton's office, and he greeted them at the door. "Welcome, Mr. Stanford. Welcome, Mrs. Stanford. And, as a Methodist, may I say: it's very smart not to be Catholic."
Jon felt his eyebrows climbing up into his hair. Larry Pendleton gave them a grin and ushered them into his office.
For a few minutes there was only formalities and pleasantries, small talk and banter. Lawrence Pendleton had always had been a somewhat drawn man, pale of coloring, and thin as though his faith had emaciated him. This, combined with his preaching, had always given Jon the impression of someone who was, to be perfectly blunt, rather fanatic in his faith. But here he was also personable, and friendly, and charming. He had charisma, of course; a man needed that, to be a successful minister. But he was not cloistered away from the world in the way Jon, with his Catholic upbringing, had been taught was appropriate for members of the clergy. He was able to connect with them, and meet them on their terms.
"I must admit, this is an interesting occasion for me," said Reverend Pendleton. "The first time I met you, Caitlyn, you were... Twelve, I think? It was back up in Washington State. And you were just dwarfed by that giant harp of yours." She was still a good eleven inches shy of it. "But boy, your playing. Do you remember the applause? And then when I was transferred here, and your grandparents and your family took the opportunity to move as well..." He shook his head. "It's almost like trying to sit here and advise my daughter Kim on her marriage. Which would be kind of scary, because she's only sixteen.
"Of course, you're not even twenty-two yet, Caitlyn, and yet here you are. You guys both went to Greenfield University, right? My friend Katrina says she knows a few people down there who are already married, but on the whole, we don't get it. What's up in your generation, that you folks are starting so early?"
"Well," said Caitlyn. "We were planning to wait for at least another year and a half, until I got my Master's degree. But... Things happened."
"But things happened," Rev. Pendleton agreed, nodding. "Boy, how often that seems to be the case. I remember the rush when my friend Dawn got pregnant. This was back when I had just gone through college—you know, 'round the age of the dinosaurs. Well, everyone knew Dawn and Jeremy were meant for each other, so in some ways the marriage was just a formality. And what do you know? Megan is a wonderful, beautiful twenty-year-old, just as kind as her mother and as wise as her father. Or, at least, as near as we can tell. They stayed up in New England, so Amber and I don't get to see them as much as we'd like."
Jon's curiosity was piqued. "This friend of yours—"
"Dawn Graves," said Rev. Pendleton.
"She got pregnant before she was married? And... That wasn't problematic for you?" He was thinking specifically of the Christian taboo on pre-marital sex.
Lawrence Pendleton did not disappoint him. "Well... I don't think it's smart," he said. "I mean, the writers of the Bible put things in for a reason, not just on a whim. But it wasn't really my place, you know? I'm not Jeremy, I'm not Dawn, and what I decide for myself, or what Amber and I decide for ourselves, has nothing to do with what the Graveses decide, or the Stantons, or anyone we know. I think it's a personal thing. I think it's between you and God. Now, Dawn and Jeremy might have some explaining to do when they meet Him, but again, that's their choice. And in terms of harm... Well, it would've been nice if they'd waited, but they did get married, they're still married, I have no doubt their children are wonderful people... It could have been much worse. And I'm sure He'll take that into account.
"I think what Jeremy said they decided was, it'll happen sooner or later, so why not sooner? Well, to prove you can hold off, is why, but again, that's between you and God. They didn't ask me what I thought, so I didn't tell them; I just prayed that things would turn out okay. And, in this case, God has been kind enough to grant us that prayer."
Jon was impressed, despite himself.
"Why," said Rev. Pendleton, his eyes twinkling, "is there some pre-marital iniquity you and Caitlyn needed to discuss?"
"What?" said Jon. "Oh, no, not... Caitlyn was very... Steadfast."
"Which must've been hard for you," said Rev. Pendleton.
"Well... Yes, to some extent," said Jon. "I mean, there's this rock song out on the Internet called Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me—you know, 'Does anybody else get that feeling?' And I think that really adequately expresses the... I mean, it makes you feel like something's wrong with you, you know? How come all these other people, who aren't any better or smarter or kinder or... Or maybe they are smarter, because they aren't dating someone who wants to save herself for marriage. Either way, it doesn't make you feel good about yourself. You start wondering what's wrong with you."
Caitlyn was looking at him in clear disbelief.
"But, on the other hand... No, it wasn't all that hard," said Jon. "You have to realize, the first time I brought up the idea of marrying Caitlyn was... Within about four weeks of our first date. We've been bandying this idea around for a long time. And the first thing we agreed on was that we were going to get married. So when Caitlyn says, 'Not until then,' it's sort of a 'No,' but at the same time, it's also a 'Yes, just, not now.' And that's a lot easier to deal with than a flat-out 'No,' especially a 'No' that isn't being said by anyone because you're not actually dating, much less planning your wedding."
Reverend Pendleton nodded. "It is. I remember those nights very well. Sometimes I'd sit and pray to God, and His answer would be, 'No.' Which isn't very easy to accept, no matter who says it. Caitlyn, I know Jon was your first boyfriend. Didn't you ever feel that way?—like maybe there was something wrong with you?"
Caitlyn, who still had the remains of a first-class gape on her face, said, "Well... Yes, kind of, but..."
"But not about sex," said Jon.
"There's nothing wrong with that," said Rev. Pendleton. "I forget who did this study, but they found out that the average male thinks about sex once a minute. The average female, on the other hand, thinks about it maybe five times a day. Men are just more preoccupied with sex. It's genetic."
"It was more about... Just, relationships in general," said Caitlyn. "Even my homeschool friends managed to meet people and get dates and all. What did they have that I didn't? I could never figure it out, and God wasn't saying much."
"The hard thing about God is that He sends us what we need, which may or may not be what we want," Rev. Pendleton agreed. Jon was surprised again.
"Well. The good news is, that's all behind you. The two of you are married, and happily so, at first glance. Now let's talk about how to keep you that way.
"The way most relationships start is with two things: physical attraction and some common interest. Jon, you see a girl, or Caitlyn, you see a guy, and you think, 'Ooh, looks good. I would want to,' as the kids say nowadays, 'get with that.'" He pronounced it with such precise diction that the newlyweds had to laugh. "That's how you know to talk to them. Then you get a chance to actually talk, and you find out you both have something in common. That's how a lot of these things start.
"But we all know that physical attractiveness is no good rubric of relational success. I happen to think Eva Longoria is an extremely attractive woman, but that doesn't mean we would get along." Jon was surprised; he had met Amber Pendleton, who was Caitlyn's height but easily twice her weight, and the woman had nothing in common with Eva Longoria. "Common habits are good too, but not enough either; both Hitler and Churchill enjoyed painting, and we all know how that turned out. So what makes for the foundations of a good marriage?"
He looked at Caitlyn and Jon in turn; they had no answer for him.
"The answer is shared values," said Rev. Pendleton. "The most important determining factor in a stable marriage is whether the husband and wife want the same things out of their lives. If they hold the same beliefs and are united in their goals, they are far more likely to weather the inevitable crises of their lives together.
"Have you two ever talked about this before?"
Jon felt a wave of relief. He'd noticed many years ago that he was looking for a woman who was almost identical to him, and had worried for a long time whether he was crazy, or maybe just narcissistic. But at the same time, he was a little embarrassed, because... "No, not really. We, um. Well, we talked about our lives—about what we might want to see in our futures, but... Never in much detail." What a stupid idea was that?
"Well, no time like the present," said Rev. Pendleton, smiling broadly to cover up the shock he must certainly be feeling. "Jon, why don't you go first, then? Tell us what you'd like to see in your life."
Oh, wait, now I remember why we never talked about it. "Well..." This was really embarrassing. "There's a video game called The Sims where you get to basically invent and control these simulated people. You make them cook, you make them eat, you make them go to their jobs... It's just real life, but it's crazily addictive, no one knows why. Recently they've come up with a way to factor in mood and self-esteem. The Sim has slots for Hopes and Fears. Fulfilling a Hope—fall in love, have first kiss, kids get into a good school, stuff like that—adds self-esteem points, fulfilling a Fear subtracts them. If the bar gets too far into the red, they go nuts—literally, they start going bonkers and this psychologist has to come and straighten them out.
"The thing that determines which specific Hopes and Fears pop up, is the Sim's Aspiration, which is their overall life goal. There's six basic Aspirations: Knowledge, Wealth, Family, Romance, Popularity and Pleasure, or maybe just Comfort. —Oh, and, Grilled Cheese, but you only get that if they use a machine that malfunctions."
Rev. Pendleton laughed. "Grilled Cheese as a life goal. Well, I'm sure stranger things have happened."
"So," said Caitlyn, squinting at him. He'd taught her to play The Sims, only to be alarmed by the truly dysfunctional characters she made. And then set on fire. "I guess you'd be... I dunno, Knowledge, maybe, or Wealth."
Jon felt his face heating. "I'm a Family Sim."
It felt so feminine to him. Wasn't a man supposed to be brawny and resilient? Not sensitive, not touchy-feely, not... "And you have to understand, there's a blurring going on. 'Romance' Aspiration is really more of a Promiscuity Aspiration. Hopes include being in love with three people, having sex with more than three people—not at once, but over the course of their lifetime. Things like that. Whereas all the things that are normally ascribed to romance—true love, soul mates, happily-ever-after, house-with-picket-fence, stuff like that—go into Family instead. So, what am I? I'm a Family Sim. I'm a die-hard romantic. And that sort of thing is what I want from my life."
In later years, he would be totally surprised he could say all that with a straight face. An utterly red one, yes—but a straight one.
"Well," said Rev. Pendleton. "You're a handsome guy, Jon. In our culture of masculinity, I can understand why that might be a hard admission to make. But if you look at your wife right now, I think you'll notice just how pleased she is."
Jon looked, and, yes: Caitlyn had a huge, almost foolish grin on her face, and her eyes were shining.
"And, speaking as a fellow Family Sim," said Rev. Pendleton, smiling now, "I think it's a very important calling to go into. True, we're not the ones who ever get written up in the history books... But we're the reason anyone's around to read the history books. Where would the human race be, if it weren't for people who were willing to dedicate their lives to raising a good family?"
Jon felt a little better. Though he was sure his face was still red.
"So, Jon, tell me: has Caitlyn ever expressed wants and goals like yours?"
Jon squinted back into the dim past. "Yeah, I, I think so..."
"And tell me, wasn't that about the time you really fell for her?"
Jon blinked. Now that he mentions it...
"And Caitlyn, what do you think of this big soft-hearted lunk?" asked Rev. Pendleton, smiling.
Caitlyn gave a happy, tearful grin.
"So, are we in agreement on our first—and most important—shared value?"
Jon and Caitlyn nodded.
"Then we're in business," said Rev. Pendleton. "Now it's just details."
Details, yes: but a lot of them. Within ten minutes Larry Pendleton had asked Jon to recount the six aspirations, and he wrote them down and used them to help organize his thoughts. Jon, who had always had a dim impression that he and Caitlyn agreed with many of each other's thoughts but had never bothered to dig any deeper, was surprised at just how frequently they were on the same page. Both felt the need to return for a graduate degree—Caitlyn was already doing so, and Jon was keenly aware of the lack of earning power inherent in his status as someone with "only" an undergraduate degree, but he had never felt a calling strong enough to commit to. "Besides, it's not like I don't already have a career—family. The problem is, I'm going to need a second career to support my first one." Neither was a large or flamboyant spenders; Caitlyn could spot a bargain from a mile away, and Jon was frugal by nature. Both of them were fans of comfort, especially fine food, but they knew that these were luxuries that would probably have to be abandoned while they struggled to stand on their own four feet. And neither was dissatisfied with their extant sex life—though Larry, winking, reminded them to keep an open dialogue. "I'm sure there are people who could be satisfied with just blindly putting their naughty bits together for the rest of their lives—but I'm not one of them, my wife isn't either, and we don't know anyone like that. So talk to each other. You'll never know what the other wants or enjoys or dislikes unless you talk about it. That's the secret to a happy love life."
He walked them through some of the more practical aspects of life as well. "Try not to let the small things get on your nerves. It's kind of silly to scar or destroy a marriage over something as insignificant as toilet paper, right? And I think the idea of a joint bank account is a good one, because it reminds you that your actions affect someone else besides you."
"Actually, we were kind of worried about financial aspects," Caitlyn said.
"We've been planning and waiting, and been sort of ready to take this last step for quite a while," Jon elaborated, "but as long as Caitlyn lives at home, her parents have said they'll pay for her degree—which she needs, to get any sort of legitimate work as a harpist. On top of that, neither of our finances were in as good a... Well, that's not true, $60,000 isn't bad to start on, but it's also not nearly enough to go with. Eventually, we're going to need... Well, I mean, we were talking about how we might need to get a second car, so that Caitlyn can go to school while I go to work at 6 every morning, and while we're at it we should get a truck or an SUV so we can move her harp around. That's like $30,000 right there. Then we start talking about real estate—an apartment now, eventually a house—and we start zooming straight up near the millions."
"Higher, if you try to live in California," Reverend Pendleton agreed. "Good weather, but not so good on the wallet. They offered me a transfer to a federated church in Saratoga once, in the Silicon Valley? But Amber and I looked at the housing prices and knew immediately we couldn't go. Well, here's an exercise I often do. Caitlyn, let's start with you. Close your eyes... Now, pretend you're entering your house through the front door. Describe what you see."
Caitlyn, with eyes squinted shut, said, "Umm... I see Rex, for one, umm... He's bouncing up and down, practically, because he's so happy to see me. Umm. I see the living room?"
"What's in it?"
"Umm, some couches, some knickknacks of my mom's on the cabinet..."
"All right, perhaps I should be more specific," said Pastor Pendleton, smiling. "What do you see that you either own or made?"
"Umm... There are some paintings on the wall that I did," said Caitlyn, "but, most of them I gave to my parents... Some of the knickknacks are mine..."
Oh, yeah, Jon thought. She did use to paint. Some of them are pretty good, as I recall. And that was before she stopped painting to learn harp.
"There's... There's nothing else in the living room," said Caitlyn.
"Why don't you keep walking through the house," said Pastor Pendleton, "and telling me what you see."
A major stop was the dining room, which also doubled as Caitlyn's harp repository: her three-quarters as well as her full-size rested there, surrounded by a number of her paintings. The rest of the house, however, was pretty bare... Until they got up the stairs, to her room and the one she had appropriated from Nathan. "Oh boy," said Caitlyn, with a bright grin, "this is going to take a while."
"Why do you think we left it for last?" replied Larry Pendleton with a grin as wide.
Jon had been in these rooms, and they were a sight. Caitlyn had stuffed both closets with clothes, some obtained at bargain price and some at full, but all of unusual make, design or quality. She had painted on the walls, both murals (one in particular a life-size double portrait of two of her fictional characters) and abstract designs. Most of the books and objects and furniture had some sort of sentimental value for her. It had once been Nathan's room, but now it was Caitlyn's.
The room she actually slept in was, if anything, even worse. She had made use of every bit of available space, putting shelves up if necessary. "All this stuff... It'll be a lot of trouble to pack, won't it."
"It will, but the truth of it is, Caitlyn: I don't see possessions, I see dollar signs," said Pastor Pendleton.
Caitlyn grasped at once what he was saying. "I... I guess..."
"I'm not trying to be heartless or entrepreneurial," said Pastor Pendleton. "These are your things, after all, and whether to part with them or not is your decision. What I am trying to do is point out that you have financial resources: you have possessions that can be liquidated. You also have salable talent and marketable skills. Totally aside from your not-inconsiderable talent at the harp, I was thinking about the paintings, and the origami, and the tap shoes, and even the binders of stories you mentioned. Caitlyn, you are an unspeakably talented person, and if you can find a way to put just one of those talents to work for you..."
A stroke of insight touched Jon's forehead. "Dad's an architect," he said. "You should talk to him about interior design or interior decorating."
"And God said, let there be light, and so there was," said Pastor Pendleton, grinning. "See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"The origami and painting might be a little harder to turn into a source of income," said Caitlyn.
"Yes, but, the point is not to necessarily have an answer right this second," said Pastor Pendleton. "The point is to identify opportunities that you should keep an eye out for. What if you see an ad in the paper tomorrow offering money for dancers? What if Craigslist has information on a prize contest to invent your own origami design? About 75% of luck is simply being at the right place at the right time. Now we know what the right place is, so that makes things ever."
They did the same thing with Jon. His journey felt a lot faster and sparser than Caitlyn's did, but at the end of it both Caitlyn and Pastor Pendleton were impressed. "You were a black belt in karate?" she said. "I never knew that."
"Really?" said Jon, a bit annoyed. He was sure he had mentioned it at least three times.
"And all the things on your computer," said Pastor Pendleton. "Novels, musical compositions, ideas for video games, ideas for comic strips..."
"All half-finished," Jon protested.
"Yes," said Pastor Pendleton, "but that which is half-finished can be fully so, right? And I really liked that one board game idea, of four siblings competing for their father's throne."
"Face it, Jon," said Caitlyn, smiling. "You're talented too."
The one thing they were not able to come to an agreement on was, ironically, the one topic that was not covered by The Sims: religion. Caitlyn bought part-and-parcel into the whole Christian message, but Jon was a lot more skeptical. "I was raised Catholic, and I've heard a lot of stupid stuff from them."
"Would you say you were more spiritual or religious," Rev. Pendleton asked.
"More... More spiritual, if anything," said Jon. "But... I have problems with that too."
"With faith," said Larry.
Jon squirmed uncomfortably. How had he known? "More or less."
Larry Pendleton nodded. "That's not surprising. Things would have been so much easier for God and Man both if God had just made his presence obvious, but for whatever reasons, He didn't, and now Man just has to hope into the heavens."
"It's hard for me to trust in something I can't point to," said Jon.
Caitlyn once again was looking at him like he had grown a second head.
"Can't you point to Caitlyn?" said Reverend Pendleton. "Can't you point to your friends? Can't you point to... Oh, I don't know, because I'm not all that familiar with your personal circumstances, Jon, but there's got to be people in your life who show the presence of God."
"...What?" said Jon.
"God works through human hands," said Caitlyn. "He doesn't send angels or messengers anymore or speak out of the sky. He just sends a person, to be His hands and His mouth and His heart." Her hand caught his, held it fast. "Kind of like how He sent you to me."
When she put it that way, it made a bit more sense, but... "Yeah, but, whatever happened to God speaking in his own voice? To pillars of fire and pillars of salt and, you know, choirs of angels and stuff."
"Maybe they ran out of stock," said Rev. Pendleton, a comment that might have been droll if he hadn't been so serious. "Whatever the reason, things like that just don't seem to happen anymore. God works in more mysterious ways now."
"That sucks," said Jon.
"It does," agreed Rev. Pendleton. "I for one have had problems dealing with God, and the things he sends... Because all things come from God, ultimately, which is what makes life so hard to deal with sometimes. My friend Katrina miscarried so badly she was unable to have children ever again. That was from God. My wife was pre-diabetic at the age of forty. That was from God. Things like that aren't easy for any of us to accept."
"Everything?" Jon asked. "Including sin?"
"Yes," said Rev. Pendleton. "Jon, look at sin. Sin starts with something good. Let's just take sex. Sex is good. Sex is a gift. It's God giving mankind a tiny bit of His divine spark, of the creative power that let him conjure world and universes and souls out of nothing. Plus, it's darn good fun. But then Satan gets his hands on it and says, Hey, you know, why not, give it a try, it's harmless—and then we get unwanted pregnancies and prostitutes who have to sell their bodies for their daily bread and the spread of STDs and all sorts of crazy things. But even then, Satan only has his way by preying on inherent human weakness. God made us, just the way we are—susceptible to sin. On some level He must have approved of it."
"But if we're just acting out what God approved of, what's the point?" Jon said. "I mean, He gave us sin, right?"
"Well, yes," said Rev. Pendleton, "but He also gave us the ability to choose. And that's the point, Jon. He wants us to do our best to become better people. Jon, if you were to say what you wanted most for Caitlyn—if you were allowed to choose her destiny—what would you say? What would you choose for her?"
Jon started to give out the generalized platitudes such a question normally inspired... But then stopped, and thought again. This is Caitlyn. She's not the woman of my dreams, she surpassed my dreams. She's everything I ever wanted, and more besides. This is my wife, my love, the woman I want to be the mother of my children. This is the most important person in my life.
Aww, man! How can I possibly narrow it down enough that I could get it all out in one day!
"I would want her to be happy," said Jon quietly. "I'd want her to be able to look back on her life with no regrets. I want her to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited about what she gets to live, and go to bed at night satisfied with what she accomplished. I want her to be content, and satisfied, and pleased with what's around her. I want her to be everything she always wanted. I want... I want her to be happy."
There was a period of silence, while Jon felt a tightness in his throat and Caitlyn looked at him with huge, tearful eyes.
"As you wish for Caitlyn," said Rev. Pendleton. "So God wishes for you. But a hundred, a thousand times more, and stronger. Like a spouse, like a parent, God loves you."
"A parent." Jon straightened up. "Like Caitlyn's parents?"
This time the silence was leaden. Then Rev. Pendleton said, "Yes"—an acknowledgement, not an answer. "Yes."
Caitlyn's hand was tight on his own, and her face was grim.
"How much do you know," Jon asked.
Rev. Pendleton sighed. "How much do I know? A little. How much do I suspect? A great deal more. You have to remember, Jon, Caitlyn, that I have been watching you for almost ten years. One picks up things during that length of time. In comparison, I was with my best friends for only three years in college. You can learn a lot about people in a short amount of time, is the point. Ten years has been enough to gather a lot of speculation... But precious few bits of real fact."
"What do you want to know?" Jon asked.
"I don't know," said Larry Pendleton. "What do you want to tell me?"
Jon looked at Caitlyn. She returned him a long, haunted look... And then a deep sigh.
The version she told was different from she had said last night. It was a little faster, a little more compact; evidently, just the one repetition had given her enough feedback to do some editing. It was far more linear, however—starting with Nathan's departure, wandering through the speculation on her mother's motives and her father's passive acceptance of the chaos around him, but then expanding Jon's role in it. "I was desperate. I just wanted to back away and hide inside my own head and never come out. I... I had the good fortune of being able to talk to Jon about it, and when he heard what I was thinking, all he said was, 'Sweetie, what I'm hearing is that you're basically suicidal,' and he's been looking out for me ever since."
"And more than that," Larry observed.
Much more, Jon thought to himself. She was right, I did say that—but what she didn't say, what I didn't know until just a moment ago, was that that was the moment I started to fall in love with her. Because she let me inside herself for the first time in our lives. —Emotionally, of course, not physically... But of the two, which has proved more important?
"Well..." said Larry. "That's... Well. There's a part of me that's a little pleased that I got it right—I mean, I have friends who are psychologists, but I'm just a minister. But there's another part of me that's not happy at all I got it right, because this is not a good situation." It was such an understatement that Jon almost had to laugh.
"Suicidal, eh?" said Larry.
"We're both writers," Jon said, attempting to explain. "We both have a lot of experience coming up with characters and deciding storylines. There are a lot of influences and personalities that we carry around in our heads."
"That's what my psychologist friend says, and he writes too," said Larry. "But I don't see how..."
"Well, I literally do have characters living in my head," said Caitlyn. "And sometimes, the urge is to, just... I dunno, retreat. Go in, and spend time with them. Live with them. Not come out. They understand me. They care about me. I didn't have anyone like them in real life until Jon came along."
Jon checked a frown. 'The urge is to'?
"So, not literally," said Larry. "But, to all intents and purposes."
"Yes," said Caitlyn.
"All right," said Larry. "I ask because, as a minister, I'm actually obligated by law to have you hospitalized if I find too many signs of suicidal behavior or ideation. Now, while I think it might be beneficial in the long run to do so, I don't think Jon would appreciate me stealing his wife away from him, so we'll sneak you through the cracks. But keep in mind that if things do get ugly, most ministers and all teachers have this legal obligation, and you can use it as an escape route."
"Okay," said Caitlyn.
"But, the good news is, you're free," said Larry. "I mean, you don't have to go back. You're a married woman now, with her own home (eventually) and family (eventually) to take care of. If you don't want to deal with your parents anymore, you don't have to."
"Well, for one, I do have to," said Caitlyn, "because I doubt either of us will stop coming to church. But, even more than that... I do want to, as well. I want to see if I can make peace with my mother. I want to... Nathan just left, just got up and walked away, and while I know he's happy to be free, I also know he wishes he could've made a more peaceable exit. I don't want to do the same. I do want to go back there. I left my mother and father, but I don't want to abandon them."
Larry Pendleton was silent for a long moment.
"Turning the other cheek," he said finally, "is one of the hardest things Christ ever called us to do. But it's also the most important. If there is anything I can do to support you in this difficult time, Caitlyn..."
One of the dumbest things Christ ever called us to do, Jon thought, but nobody was asking him his opinion. "There is something you could do," he said, and Caitlyn outlined the plan.
"Hmm," said Larry. "That's a little above and beyond. What would Jesus do in a situation like this? It swings both ways. I have nothing but sympathy for you and your plight, Caitlyn," he said, intercepting their confusion before it could rise, "but as a minister, it's in my job description to stay neutral. No matter what happens, no matter who wins, both sides are going to need healing and reconciliation. If I plant myself on one side—yours, in this case—I forfeit my ability to minister to the other. And I'm not sure that's a choice I should be making or even considering.
"I'll need to discuss it with my wife. Having said that, if Amber suddenly shows up on your behalf, you'll understand why." He winked broadly.
"What are you going to tell my mom, if she asks," Caitlyn said as they prepared to depart.
"Nothing," said Rev. Pendleton. "She of course has a right to know what's going on in her household—but you, Mrs. Stanford, are not a part of that household any longer. And, if she wants to know what's going on in the marriage of Jon and Caitlyn Stanford, she of course is free to ask them herself—but it's not my place to tell her anything. Unless, of course, you want me to tell her something."
"Something about the harp, maybe?" said Jon. "We had to leave it because it wouldn't fit in my car."
"At the very least, I'll probably need it for church on Sunday," said Caitlyn.
"Well, we couldn't deprive ourselves of our favorite harpist," said Larry, smiling broadly.
It was after one 'o'clock when they came out. They found the nearest McDonald's to assuage their hunger, though Jon gave a dubious glance at his wallet; the meeting had given him a keen sense of expenditure. Then they headed back for another squint at Craigslist.
Caitlyn was clearly surprised when Jon started marking down job offers he thought he'd like to look into, but he shook his head. "I love Dr. Polkiss and Dr. Leyton. They're great people, and I have a great job there. But $40,000 a year isn't enough to go on, not with you in the picture."
"I could get a job," she said.
"You could, but you have a degree to finish, and we need the money now. You don't graduate for a year and a half. Your finals are next week. Maybe it'll be practical for you to get a job next year, or even next semester, but for the moment..."
"Yeah, but, that's just for the moment," she said. "Jon, once I get my degree, I can get a real job, and make some real money."
"Yeah, but I still have to make more than $40,000 a year," he said. "Because what happens when you start having kids? You talked about wanting to be a stay-at-home mom."
"You talked about wanting to be a stay-at-home dad," she said.
"Yeah, but, we can't both stay at home. Unless we take out massive loans or something."
"So why you?"
"Because... What's the point of a husband, if not to support his wife? I mean, do you know why marriage started?"
"It's biological. It has to do with how men and women have children."
"Isn't it the exact same way?"
"Not really. Let's take a caveman named Bob. He wants to have tons of kids. So, the smartest thing for him to do is go out and have sex with tons of women. It's easy for him to have sex—doesn't even take five minutes, if he just climbs on board and then squirts and then leaves again. And, by the laws of probability, about a quarter of Bob's sex partners will be fertile. So, if he gets it on with twenty women, in nine months he'll have five kids. But he's not even there to see them, 'cause, once he was done, he went stumping back off into the wild blue yonder or the jungle or whatever—keep in mind that we are really talking a caveman society here. Subsistence-level. Hunter-gatherer."
"So. If Bob just wander around, having sex with every woman he sees, he'll leave a bunch of children behind. And that ensures Bob's genetic legacy will live on, because the more kids he has, the more likely some of them will live to adulthood, and have their own kids, and keep his genetic heritage alive."
"Right. Following you so far."
"Now. Let's take a cavewoman named Sue. What's her smartest strategy if she wants to have tons of kids? Keep in mind that after Bob has had sex with her and made her pregnant and stumped back off into the jungle, she still has to bear the child. That's a nine-month process, during at least three of which she's practically paraplegic. Then the baby pops out, and she's breast-feeding it for two years, and toddling it for another two or three. All during this time, Sue can't fend for herself. She isn't getting much sleep because every time the baby wakes up and cry, she has to stick her boob in its mouth. She's vulnerable to predators, especially if the baby is crying and attracting their attention. She don't have a lot of time to go out and hunt and forage and gather. The likelihood of her dying is pretty darn high, and of her child dying even more so.
"So, what's Sue's smartest strategy? Sue's smartest strategy is to find someone—let's call him Jim—who can take care of her while she's tied down with a baby for years at a time. She should find someone who can hunt and gather for her, and drive off predators when they come looking for the baby. She should find someone who will provide for her."
"So, why not another woman?"
"Well, for a couple reasons. Number one, what if she's pregnant—it wouldn't do for her to be laid up as well. Number two, there's a nice symmetry if the father of her baby is looking after both her and it. Number three, her objective is to have tons of kids, not just this one. So it's nice to have a guy, and his dick, on hand for whenever she's ready for the next one."
"But what's in it for this Jim character? I mean, he gets a lot less sex and a lot more responsibility."
"Well, yes, but, number one: 'lot less sex' may not be accurate. Sure, our wandering barbarian Bob gets to have sex with more women, but only once per woman, and then he may have to do a lot of wandering to find the next one. Jim, on the other hand, may get less variety, but much more regularity—he can have sex with Sue practically whenever he wants. For two: yes, more responsibility, but as we've already discussed, there's at least two men in the world—myself and Pastor Pendleton—who don't mind or even like that. Which isn't so surprising, if you think about it. Willingness to be a provider is a positive survival trait, so evolution would select for it. Bob might get tied down, but he'll never be satisfied, and may not do as good a job at raising his kids as Jim does. He may have less children, and weaker ones, than Jim does. In just a couple generations, that can make a big difference.
"And Jim gets other benefits that Bob doesn't at all: companionship, for instance, and emotional attachment. Love. Love for his wife and his children. Love from his wife and his children. Access to better and more plentiful stores of food, because when he has extra, he can store it somewhere instead of being limited to what he can carry while he wanders. Maybe even extra manpower, if he and Sue are living near other couples—and extra manpower means lots more benefits. Culture, more ambitious projects, more food, better quality clothing... Civilization, basically."
"So, that's how marriage started?"
"That's how marriage started. There's a saying that a history teacher gave me: men give love to get sex, women give sex to get love. But either way, the point is to increase the chances that the children live long enough to have their own children. I think you could really make a case for grandchildren being the driving reason for all of life. Why do we have marriage? Why do we have laws? Why do we have civilization? To make grandchildren more likely."
"And that's why being a provider is important to you. It's what evolution says you should want."
"And I guess it's cool to be a human and all, and be able to deny your own instincts and impulses and genetics and programming. But what if you actually do want to act out these things? I hope that's not a crime, because, like Pastor Pendleton said, the human race would be sunk without people who are perfectly happy to follow their genes."
"Where do you get these thoughts, anyway?"
"I dunno. Around. From books. From classes. From watching what people do. I mean, most customs and laws have a reason. We just don't generally know what they are."
"So what about not having sex before marriage? What's the reason for that?"
"Umm... I don't... Truthfully, I don't know. It's not etic to most cultures—I mean, you'll find marriage, some form of it at least, in just about every civilization in existence. But the taboo on pre-marital sex is not as widespread. For that matter, the taboo on extra-marital sex... I mean, most cultures prefer it doesn't happen, but there's varying levels of tolerance of men sleeping with women who are not their wives, or mistresses, or prostitutes, or whatever."
"I... I may have an idea."
"Yeah?" That sounded rather callous, so he tried to soften it with a smile. "Go ahead. I'd like hearing it."
"I think... The ban on pre-marital sex... Maybe it's because sex is... So powerful." She was halting and slow, choosing her words with care, and now her cheeks began to redden. "I mean, I know that when you and I... Do things, I sometimes... I get really into it, and... I'm not as... In-control. As I'd like to be. I'm really starting to understand why people make such a big deal about it, and want to have it so much. I mean... I want to have it." She was positively crimson now.
He gathered her into his arms. "Well, there's nothing wrong with that, before or after marriage."
"There is! You're not supposed to want it until you're married. That's what the—"
"No, that's not what the Bible says. It says you're not supposed to have sex until you're married. But it doesn't say anything about wanting because you can't do anything about that. If God were to condemn us for wanting to have sex despite not being married, well, every person on earth, married or otherwise, would go to Hell. I mean, the sex drive is an integral part of our nature. It's strong."
"I know, and that's why I think there's the rule against doing it before you get married. It is strong. It makes you feel so... Just, so... I dunno, naked, and, and, connected, and... I mean, we're doing something so special. So... So sacred. Nothing hidden, just a man and a woman, every bit of them, without shame or, or fear, or... And I think you would feel that way with just about anyone you had sex with. So, if you did... If you had sex before you married the person, you would think, 'Whoa, we're so close, I love him so much,' except that you don't, it's just the sex. And then people get married and then discover that they actually hate each other and it's a mess."
"So, you're saying, the reason people aren't supposed to have sex before they marry is because sex can make you think you're in love with them."
"Right. You'd marry the first person you slept with. So, it's safer not to have it involved. It's safer to... Leave it out. So that it can't fool you. So that it can't lie to you. Or else, how do you know that you really, really do love that person?"
"Well, there's some people who think that you don't know that for certain until you sleep with them."
She blinked up at him. "Do you think that?"
Well, it seems kind of irrelevant at the moment, but... "I... Honestly, I dunno. And, I mean, unless something really drastic happens, we're not gonna be able to try it the other way, will we? But it seems like... Well, to be honest, I couldn't be happier with the sex we have. It's good, and I think we can make it better still. But then, I don't have anything to compare it to. ...Which, maybe, is the point. I mean, you know what they say about ignorance is bliss, right? I'm never gonna be dissatisfied with our sex life if I don't have anything to compare it to. ...Assuming, of course, we're able to get to a point where we're both satisfied in the first place—which maybe never happens to some people, but, again, I don't see that as being a problem for us."
"Yeah. I've been really... Satisfied, too. With what we do." She gave a little giggle. "I mean, we've been married for only three days, but we've already done more things in more ways than I thought we could."
He smiled. "Baby, you ain't seen nothin yet."
"How do you know all these things, anyway?"
He shrugged. "The Internet. Where else. If you still wanted to go out and learn, there are pages I could direct you to." He made a wry smile. "Or movies I could show you, that I have on my hard drive."
He thought she was astonished for a moment, but if so, she covered it well. "Why, Mr. Stanford! Such wicked behavior!"
"I know, I know," he sighed in mock anguish. "I have been sinful. But, I must say, Mrs. Stanford, that it may be to your benefit."
She gave him a hooded smile, and then a kiss that was full of promise; and then he was lost in her mouth, and the sweet heat of her breath, and the warm light of her body in his arms, and the fragrance of her hair, and the overwhelming warmth of his love for her.
"So," he said, once he had his breath back, "these websites, um. Should I... Show them to you now? Or...?"
She squirmed. "Well... I have class tomorrow. And finals next week. I really should..."
"Yeah. Now would be a really good time to mess up your studies, huh? And I should keep lurking on Craigslist and stuff like that..."
"Oh, man. I have to... I have to go around asking people to help back us up when we confront my mom on Friday."
"Yeah, why? Is there something wrong with Friday?"
"No, it's just... It's the first I've heard of it, that's all."
"That's okay, it's the first anybody's heard of it."
"When did you decide this?"
"When we talked with Pastor Pendleton. I think that if we have his support..."
"Yeah. He's seen us, but even more than that, he knows your family very well. And they know him. And your mom's always talking about how much she respects him."
"He's just such a powerful ally. And... I don't want to leave this hanging any longer than necessary. I want... We need Mom to..."
"You mean you need."
She shoved away from him. "I didn't mean it like that."
"I didn't either. Baby, I'm not saying it's a bad thing. What Pastor Pendleton said, about turning the other cheek and that being the hardest thing to do... Well, I still think giving the enemy a second opening is a bad idea. But it's also a really brave thing, and a really powerful thing. And... I admire you for wanting to be that kind of person, because it's not easy. It's like the people who climb Mount Everest. Is it a smart thing to do? Probably not. Does it really change anything, on a global scale? Probably not. But we still admire them, for having the guts or skill or even just foolhardy nerve to try such a thing."
She looked at him strangely.
He shrugged. "Baby, I love you. What you want for yourself is what I want for you."
"Even if you think it's stupid."
"Especially if I think it's stupid. 'cause, hey: I better be on hand in case it fails, right?" He gave her his most disingenuous grin, and was rewarded with her faint smile.
"Now. You give me the list of people you'd like to recruit, and I will call them and see if I can set up meetings for you while you do your homework. How does that sound?"
She kissed him again. "It sounds like I have a wonderful husband."
You know, he thought, a man could grow to like hearing those words.
The calls were fairly easy. Everyone on the list—Mrs. Sellitz the harp teacher, Mrs. Klein the oboe teacher, Uncle Max, Grandma and Grandpa Cassidy—knew him, to one extent or another, and knew at least bits and pieces about the situation furthermore. Jon was able to elaborate with a certain amount of detail: "I mean, I'm not Caitlyn, I don't know the exact deal, but I'm reporting what she's told me as best as I can." What wasn't hard to explain was the idea of The Plan, which he himself had come up with. Grammy wanted to talk with her granddaughter, as did Mrs. Sellitz, and Caitlyn promised (by proxy) to call them as soon as she had a spare moment. In the end, everyone they approached was amenable, and suddenly Caitlyn had doubled her amount of backup.
"You know..." she said reflectively. "We may not have to bring all of them in. Too many... My parents may just close their ears. I mean, the more people think they're stupid, the more they're likely to ignore them out of sheer stubbornness. Maybe we don't need everyone."
"Well, in this case, at least you can pick and choose," he said. "Depending on what you decide to say and how you decide to say it to them, you have a lot of options. And that's better than the other way around."
"Yeah, true. What have you come up with?"
"About the same as yesterday. You wouldn't think we'd be able to find much in the way of housing in the middle of December, but there's some stuff available." He spun the laptop around. "There's a few I thought we might want to take a look at. There's one right near Shellview State that is pretty cheap—only $700 a month. I thought that might be our best bet. It's cheap, it's near school and about as far from Polkiss-Leyton as we are now, and it solves the second-car problem in that you can just walk to school. The problem is, since it rents to students, it probably won't be in the best shape, but hey, beggars can't be choosers, right?"
"When can we look at it?"
"I don't know, I was going to call the landlord."
After dinner, Caitlyn returned to her studies, but Jon had an errand to run. Wednesdays nights were when Octapella met, along with Sunday afternoons. Jon wondered what the difference would be, walking in there with a ring on his finger. So many things that could change now. So many things that could stay the same.
Jon, a punctual fellow by every means, was surprised to be one of the last people to arrive—not that he was late, but that everyone else was early. "I think I like this sort of attitude," he said, grinning. "So much better than regular choirs when you can't start for fifteen minutes because of tardiness."
"Hey, who gives a damn about the music," Richard laughed. He was their first bass and never failed to have a smile on his face. "We're here to find out about the festivities."
"I mean, proposing to her is one thing," said their second alto Beth, who had been instrumental in getting the proposing plan to work at all, "but actually marrying her is a whole nother cake."
"Hail, almighty adult one," said Christa, their second soprano, with a smirking grin.
"You're one to talk," said Jon. "You and Zach just got married this summer."
"Well, what can we say," said Zach, with his customary easy grin. "Welcome to the early-start club, man."
"Twenty-three isn't the same as twenty-one," Jon protested.
"Yeah, but in this day and age, where you're not an adult until you have your master's at age 26, you still started early," said Rod, the bass 2. "Besides, you graduated before most of us were even students here, and now you're married. The only thing you're missing is some grey hairs."
"And with the way you folks sing, I'm likely to have them," Jon retorted, grinning. "So. Shall we get started?"
Octapella was an eight-voice group. Jon, a year after graduation, had been recruited into it by Greenfield's choral conductor, Professor Chapman. Jon was a good singer—not virtuoso, but he could get by—and even more than that, had been in the college's previous group and had more composing and arranging experience than anyone who had graduated in the last ten years. Jon didn't think that was accurate, but Professor Chapman had said so, and he supposed he would know. The others were mostly sophomores or younger when the group was founded at the beginning of the previous school year. They were now a year and a quarter old, and were already starting to make waves, not just at the college, but in the greater Shellview area.
Professor Chapman had done most of the recruiting, and he had recruited well. The previous group Jon had been in, Cantico Insanico, had been a pretty dull place, its members lacking the enthusiasm or energy needed to communicate full-voice eight-part pop music. The group had gone nowhere, and dissolved when its leader (Jon) graduated. When Professor Chapman approached Jon with his new ensemble, Jon's first reaction was, "Don't make me lead." Here, he didn't have to. Bethany Rademacher, the alto 2, was also a first-class monitor, keeping the group from veering too far off-course. Roderick Whitson was a piano virtuoso and could play out most anything passed to him. Serena Langdon, the soprano 1, had perfect pitch and a keen ear for vowel blending. Jon was free to sit back, crank out arrangements and provide stylistic guidance, which suited him just fine.
And boy, could they sing. Jon had done his best to infuse Cantico Insanico with the best singers of his day, but had gone missing in one critical component: joy. He'd found good vocalists, yes, but not the sort of person who sang for the sheer fun of it. Octapella, on the other hand, had that in spades. Professor Chapman, with his long experience at choral directing, had also managed to inveigle many of school's best singers, and the experience was so enjoyable that graduating seniors Zach and Christa Crane (nee Sternbacher) had stayed on despite starting their graduate studies and, now, working part-time jobs at Shellview Episcopalian Church to support themselves.
The end result was that, in terms of talent-to-weight ratio, Octapella was the best musical group at Greenfield University, bar none—and Jon had a hunch that they could make a running for being one of the best in the state, too.
It was the last rehearsal prior to their Christmas concert, so there was a lot to run through and some last-minute notes to issue. They were reusing all of their Christmas repertoire from the previous year—they'd gotten the group together just before November of the last year, and not had a lot of time to practice—but with better lead-in and no costly auditions to go through this year, they had spent the last ten weeks cramming music into their heads. Jon was always impressed by how fast people picked things up. Roderick was excellent, and Richard hardly less, so the basses practically took care of themselves; Christa was an excellent sight-reader and could hold up Serena when necessary (which wasn't too often); Bethany did the same with Melinda Sorensen; and Jon, who had often written the parts, could provide just about anyone with the right notes if they came up short, though his first priority was his fellow tenor Zach. Zach was an excellent singer and not a half-bad learner, so Jon thought it a hell of an accomplishment that he was actually the slowest member of the group when it came to picking up music.
And, of course, the details of the marriage started coming out. "Why didn't you tell us you proposed," Zach asked, and as usual Jon had to protest, "We didn't tell anybody, we wanted to keep the information secret so that it didn't somehow get back to Mrs. Delaney and cause her to blow her stack."
"And what did she do when she found out," Zach asked.
"Blow her stack," Jon said, sensing the futility of trying to keep history from repeating itself.
All the people here, of course, had met Caitlyn, and heard at length the stories of her confining circumstances, so they understood what it all meant. "I guess you didn't see any better options," said Christa.
"Jumping into marriage as an act of desperation?" Serena asked. "That sounds kind of... Dumb."
"It does," Jon agreed, "but, remember, I did propose. And she did say yes—before we knew any of this was going to happen. I know Caitlyn was waiting for it and I know I would've done it a long time ago, only I didn't have the logistics and the money and the plan worked out."
"Would she have said Yes a long time ago?" Rod asked.
"...Maybe," said Jon. "Depends on when exactly 'a long time ago' is. You have to understand, we've..." He scrubbed at his neck, suddenly embarrassed. "It didn't really coalesce for a while, but we've been talking about getting married since we were together a month."
Serena and Rod, among others, looked puzzled, but Christa just nodded. "We saw the same thing happen with Brandon and Meredith. I mean, it took them until two summers ago to really make things official, but to some extent that's all it was—making things official. They'd been married in their hearts for a long time—at least since we all came to college."
"Brandon said he just... Knew," said Zach. "Really early on. Which I don't quite understand, personally, 'cause, Christa and I had a much more normal process. We dated, we fell in love, we started to really like each other—"
"We started to really like each other," Christa said, grinning broadly.
"—we started doing the sex," Zach said, "and then we came here to Greenfield together, and eventually some time in all this goings-on I started wondering if Christa was, maybe, the kind of person I'd want to spend my life with. Because, I mean, you can really love someone without them being the kind of person you want to marry. You need to have—I dunno—common goals, and the same priorities— You need to be on the same wavelength—"
"Shared values," said Jon, feeling a dizzy sense of deja vu.
"Yeah, that's it," said Zach. "Shared values. And so one day we just got to talking about this—well, 'one day,' that's not true, I brought it up 'cause I wanted to know—we got to talking about this and I asked her, you know, What do you want out of your life, you know? And she started telling me, and I felt really weird but really happy at the same time, because everything she said, I wanted too. And I'm just like... Wow. You know? I mean, how many people do you know who married their high school sweethearts?"
"Four," Jon said, who had gotten to know the Cranes and the Chamberses pretty well through Caitlyn.
"Besides us," said Zach, with a smirk.
"No, the romance stuff is not what I'd be concerned about," said Serena. "Jon, anyone who sees you and Caitlyn together would know instantly that you two are good for each other. The kind of couple you'd put money on. But being emotionally ready to marry each other isn't the same as being old enough, or mature enough, or rich enough, or... all those things. What about those? How are those working out?"
"Well..." said Jon, keenly aware of the discussion they had just had with Pastor Pendleton. "Truthfully, that's not as stable as it could be. I would have proposed to Caitlyn a long time ago—I would have married her a long time ago—and I think she would have accepted, too—except that we weren't ready. She wanted to stay home and let her parents pay for her master's degree, which she absolutely needs if she wants to have any sort of career as a harpist. Plus, more time for me to build up a savings. That was really the main reason for us not doing anything presumptuous, and obviously this explosion on her mom's part really forced our hands. We're still... We're still working on it. We feel optimistic, though."
"You can start small," said Richard. "Everyone has to start somewhere. Find a cheap apartment, cheap furniture, cheap clothes... Better get some birth control, 'cause that's definitely a smart investment—"
"Yeah," said Christa, "absolutely. Poor Meredith—after Laurelyn popped out, she was able to go on and finish her last six months, but the money got so short that Brandon just... Dropped out. They've been struggling to catch up for a year now, and it looks like things might not change for a while."
"Hey, be fair," said Zach. "The only reason Meredith got through her degree at all was because of you and Sarah baby-sitting."
"Yeah, but, we can't breast-feed," said Christa. "We couldn't just, like, take over—and Meredith wouldn't have wanted us to, anyway. She and Brandon... I dunno, they're having problems, but you can also see they're totally happy. They're exactly where they want to be—married, and starting a family. It's too bad Brandon never finished his degree, but that's probably the only thing they'd change if they had the chance to. They love it."
"When they're not falling down exhausted," said Zach.
"Yes, there is that too," said Christa in an entirely different voice. "Maybe we should've moved back with them."
"I'm sure Meredith's parents are taking good care of them," said Zach. "And besides, if we did, we'd never get this Christmas concert sung."
"What? Oh! Right!" said Christa. "Sorry! I didn't mean— Uh. Where were we?"
Jon chucked to himself. Do Cait and I check out like that? "All right, then. Starting back from measure 22..."
It was a very rewarding rehearsal, even counting the distractions of Jon's newly-altered marital status, but a long one because of that. It was nearly 10:30 before Jon was home—a half-hour past his bedtime, if he intended to return to work tomorrow, which he did. Caitlyn had probably been studying all this time—or maybe she'd given up and curled up with a book instead. Or perhaps she was chatting with Nathan on Instant Messenger. Whatever the case, he was looking forward to seeing her.
So he was rather surprised to find where she was: on his computer, staring wide-eyed at what was on the computer screen. She wasn't using Firefox, which was his browser of choice, but rather Internet Explorer, which he knew was what her family used... And which he used for his excursions into the wet wild world of porn.
He wasn't sure what she had gone online to look for—maybe the websites he had spoken of earlier, but maybe something else. Whatever the case was, it was the websites she had found, and that she was now gaping at.
Even as he watched, she clicked the mouse button, and the browser moved to the next page—this one with photographs of various sex positions. She scrolled down so rapidly that he wasn't sure she was even reading the text, but evidently she was, because halfway down she sat back with a stunned expression on her face.
Jon cleared his throat. "Ahem. Um. Hi."
Caitlyn whirled around, her face stricken and utterly red, and Jon couldn't help but laughing. This only caused her face to get redder, which only caused Jon to laugh more, but eventually she cracked a smile, and Jon opened his arms and she ran to them willingly.
"I'm—" she started.
"No you're not," he said, grinning. "I think it's wonderful to have a girl who's interested in what we do in bed and wants to learn more. —To have a wife who's all that stuff."
"Yeah, but... You walked in on me."
"Could be worse. Once in college my roommate walked in on me in a very compromising spot. I was, err. Performing some manual exploration."
"I was masturbating."
"Oh. Oh! You must've been so embarrassed!"
"No, not really, actually, we just both handled it with dignity. I said, 'Um, hey, could you wait outside for a minute,' and when he saw I was missing certain clothes, he understood why, and he went outside. I mean, it's not like he didn't know about it. Masturbation is a fact of life when it comes to teenage guys. I'm sure he does it."
"How do you know?" she teased. "Did you ever walk in on him?"
"No," said Jon. Boy, that would've been uncomfortable. "Umm. No. But I'd be really surprised if he didn't, let's put it that way. He'd be in the like two-percent minority of men who don't."
They stood in silence for a while, fast in each other's arms, giving love and receiving comfort.
"So, my beloved," he said. "What have you found in your searches?"
"A lot," she said. "Way lot. More than I had any idea about. It'd take like a week straight to get through it all."
"Well, we only have the rest of our lives... And besides, it can't take that long to read."
"No, I meant, to try it all," she said.
He felt his eyebrows jump into his hairline. "Mmm. Ah. And, umm. Anything you'd like to place priority on?"
"Umm... I dunno, I... Well, I thought everything looked kinda cool, at least to try. I mean, that doesn't..."
He could feel the heat from her face through his shirt. "All right then," he said lightly, "let's go the other direction. Anything you don't wanna try?"
"Umm... The, um. I didn't like the idea of, the... Behind. That just seems..."
"What, doggie-style?" he said, confused.
"No, um..." It came out in a whisper. "Anal."
"Oh-hhh." He could see why she might find it distasteful. "That's okay. It never seemed like the greatest idea to me either."
"Okay," she said, her relief obvious. "I also didn't know about... Oral sex. About..."
"Really? You seemed to like it just fine last night."
"No, I know, I mean... About me, going down on... You."
Now that was a disappointment.
"I-I'm not saying I'm never gonna do it," she said hastily, as if sensing his reticence, "I'm just... I mean... Me, putting my mouth on your... That thing was inside me."
"Well, I've washed it off since then..."
"Jon, stop it. This is serious."
"No, it isn't. Caitlyn, this isn't about... It's not like a contract or anything, where we have to, I dunno, set down in stone what we're going to do to each other. It's for fun. It's whatever you, or I, or you and I, feel comfortable with. I mean, yeah, I'd be disappointed if you didn't want to go down on me; I think you'd enjoy it and I know I'd enjoy it. But it's not the end of the world."
"Why would I enjoy it? I mean, putting your thing in my... In my—"
"Look, Cait. My friend Adam is gay, right? So, one time he asked me what was so special about a woman's pussy. He said, 'It's kind of ugly and it probably doesn't smell too nice... As opposed to a cock, which is all nice and clean and so much easier to put your mouth on. What's so great about it?' And it was a good question, that I was never really able to answer, not from a physiological point of view at least.
"But the real answer is this: I like doing it because of what it does to you. As a matter of fact, I like doing it a lot, because you like me doing it a lot. And I would challenge any man in the world to try it, and then still see if he dislikes it after he's seen how much his partner enjoys it. It's hard to argue with success like that. —And, by, 'success,' I mean, 'orgasms.'"
"Well, then," she said. "Shall we take a look at the computer and see if anything... Rises to the occasion?"
Did she just... My goodness, have I created a monster here? "I would love to, but... Baby, I have to be awake in seven hours. There just isn't..."
"Oh. Okay." Even he could sense her disappointment. (And if he'd known just how aroused she'd gotten from her 'research,' he might have changed his mind!)
"But it'll be the weekend soon, and we'll have... Plenty of time." He kissed her. "To try out... Whatever you want."
"Mmmm." Her audible smile again. "Is that a date?"
He grinned. "I think it's a—"
It was her cellphone again. "Umm. Hold on. Yeah. —Mom?"
Jon jolted almost involuntarily.
"Right... Right... Okay..." The temperature was falling by the second. "Okay..." A long gap. "Right, and what are you going to do with it? Leave it in the corner untuned? You can't play it." Positively scornful, that one. "Oh yes I can talk to you like... No I am not, mother, I am not Caitlyn Claire Delaney anymore, I am Caitlyn Stanford, and I can talk to you any way I darn well please! And there's nothing you can do about that!"
Then there was a long torrent of shouting from the phone, tinny but perfectly readable in hatred. And then the click of a disconnected line.
Caitlyn stood for a moment, listening to the dial tone. Then, slowly and carefully, she folded up the phone and put it down.
Then she started to cry.
It was many long minutes before she was in a shape to speak to him. Jon cradled her in his arms, stroking her hair, feeling the warmth of her body. He could never understand how she could seem so insubstantial, yet so solid. It was like holding a cloud, or heat, or light.
"It was my mom," she explained. "I called her about my harp—I'm going to need it, soon, or else my practicing will be... Well. I called and she didn't pick up, so I left a message. And she said—" A hiccup. "She said, that... Because they paid for most of it, it's mostly their property, and they're not giving it away."
Jon frowned. "Where'd they get their understanding of law?"
"No, no, that's the problem. They're right. We had to work this out when I was six because Nathan and I co-bought a bike. The proportion of money paid is equal to the proportion of ownership. That's how businesses are owned, that's now real estate is owned... And since I only paid about $2,500 for the harp..."
"How much of it do you own?"
"About... About ten percent."
"Yeah, it was... It was $23,000. And I was twelve, obviously I couldn't pay that. So... So now... They're saying that if I want it back, I have to— Buy the other 90% of it—"
"So tell them you want the 10% you own. Maybe they'll let you have some strings."
"And then— And then they said that, the only way I could get it for free was if I— If I left you, and came back to them, and—"
"Shh," he said. "No. No, there's no need to repeat such awful, hateful words. It's over. She's lost, and she knows it. We have money. We can beat them. If we need—"
But Caitlyn only cried all the harder.
Jon held her for many minutes more, but his eyes were closing and time was ticking away. "Caity, I— I don't mean to, to be insensitive or, or anything, but... It's eleven. I do have to sleep—"
"I know," she gulped, "I know. I'm sorry. I just—"
"It's okay. It's okay. Here. Let me put on some pajamas and then I will hold you as much as you want."
And he did, and she did too, and he did hold her, for all of the night. But though she slept, and eventually he did too, he had a feeling that the honeymoon, such as it was, was definitely over. It's the first time we didn't have sex when we could have.
Welcome to the real world.
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