"Are you sure?" Brandon said.
"More sure than I've ever been in my life," Jane said.
His name was Hugh Stratton. He was tall and handsome and broad-shouldered, with amazing eyes, and when she first walked into the Green Valley Protestant Church, Jane Myers could only look on with longing. If only, if only, she found herself thinking. If only I were tall and beautiful and proud. If only there was glamour on my face, instead of a haze of leftover pimples. If only I weren't short and dumpy and slump-shouldered, my hips too wide and my breasts too small. If only, if only. Then someone like him might notice me.
"Nonsense," her friends said. "It's true that he may be handsome, but that doesn't mean you don't have a chance. Looking like a Greek god doesn't mean he doesn't want someone with brains and talent."
He was handsome, that was to be certain—and, to judge by their interactions, he did want someone with more than half a brain. The rumors went through the church like wildfire: not only handsome, but polite as well, engaging even the blue-haired widows of the congregation in personable and open conversation. Jane, who could not stand to do that herself for more than five minutes at a time, could only marvel. The young, the middle-aged, the teens were equally as enthralled: evidently there was no topic at all on which he could not discourse, be it modern technology or the stock market or the latest episode of American Idol. No less than Maggie Reese, the pastor's six-year-old daughter, was heard to declare in a proud voice that Hugh Stratton was her Prince Charming, and that they would marry in due time and run off to live in a dollhouse together. Hugh, of course, was the target of a fair amount of good-natured ribbing after this pronouncement, but he took it all in good stride. In short: not only was he handsome, but there was more to him than met the eye, and it was clear to Jane that here was a man who would appreciate what she had: brains, and talent.
"But the thing is, I have nothing else," Jane protested.
"That's not true either," her friends said. These were not the friends she'd made at college—not Rita and Marcy and Greg Morse, who were nice people but didn't know anything about Jane Myers, not the real one inside. These were the ones from high school: Brandon and Meredith Chambers, Zach and Christa Crane, Derek Strong and Sajel Malhotra and Arie Chang, the ones who had won her loyalty with love and her love with kindness almost a decade ago. These were the ones who understood her, through and through, and when she met this man, this Hugh Stratton with his marvelous eyes and the boyish charm in his smile, she talked to them about it, and even though she lived an hour away by car (in good traffic) they understood her completely.
"That's not true either," Meredith told her. "Jane, none of us have much to be going on physically, except maybe Arie, and who'd she get married to? Someone she'd been friends with since the first day of college."
"Well, that and the fact that the birth control broke and she wanted to be responsible for once in her life," Brandon interjected as he lumbered through. Behind him on two stubby legs came Laurelyn, the Chambers' daughter. She stumbled to a halt, taking in the scene, and then held out her arms to Jane.
"Anty Kwista?" she said.
"Noooo, not Auntie Christa," Meredith said, scooping up the child. "That's Auntie Jane, Laurie. Can you say, Auntie Jane?"
"Antychane," said Laurelyn. Jane felt a ruddy smile on her cheeks. Evidently that was good enough for her.
"Arie got married, in other words, to someone who loved her for her brains and her personality," Meredith said, "not just the second-biggest pair of breasts any of us can claim."
"Who has the biggest?" Jane asked, confused. Meredith was notoriously slim, Christa hardly less so, and Sajel was average at best.
"You, of course," Meredith said. "What are you, a C-cup on a good day?"
"Sometimes, yeah," said Jane, feeling a little bit uncomfortable. "Depends on, um, on the day, or the brand name." She still wasn't used to discussing this kind of thing—at least, not where Laurelyn could overhear. Three years old was a little too young for this sort of talk.
"Well, Arie only broke C when she was nursing Rowan," Meredith said. "You're the most well-endowed out of any of us, Jane."
But that didn't seem to make a difference, ultimately, not in her interactions with Hugh: after a polite and almost dreamy initial conversation, he never seemed to pay Jane more mind than he did any others. Of course, this was not necessarily a bad sign; there were a number of eligible young women who were doing their best to make their interest in him very plain, and he was always polite with them but distant, keeping his thoughts close and never showing any interest one way or the other. Jane, who could not think of any legitimate way to seek him out, never had much contact with him after that first conversation, aside from a smile and a wave every Sunday. "Maybe," whispered the blue-haired crones, "he's one of those newfangled fruits they're always talking about."
"What about you?" Jane asked Meredith. "Didn't you get up to a C-cup when you were nursing Laurelyn?" Meredith's was the opinion she would trust most in these situations.
"Me? C cup?" Meredith said, laughing. "Jane, have you checked your eyesight lately?" Laurelyn, squirming, succeeded in liberating herself from her mother's lap and scampered happily down the sofa.
"Why? I'm not much bigger than you," Jane protested.
Brandon laughed again from over her shoulder. "Yeah right. Jane, you must've done yourself permanent injury, with all your posture problems. Come on, stand up, check this out."
Jane stood up, feeling Brandon's presence behind her, his hands on her shoulders. It was, quite possibly, the first time he'd touched her since high school. Would Meredith mind that she, Jane, her husband's ex-girlfriend?— But no, Meredith was just sitting there, observing them with a serene smile.
She felt Brandon's hands drawing her shoulders back, and then pushing the small of her back. She felt the way her whole body changed orientation, like a piece of curved plastic flipping inside out. Now, instead of coiling forward, her spine was arching back. She felt taller—more capable—in charge.
"See?" said Meredith, gesturing. "Look what's been on the front of you this whole time."
"Whoa," said Jane, staring. I never realized. I honestly never realized...
"It's all there, Jane," Meredith said, smiling. "Now you just have to use it."
But that thought made her shrivel up inside. "Use it? You, you mean, like..."
"No, not like that," Meredith said quickly.
"Good, 'cause, I don't want to, to slut myself up like that just to get attention," Jane said.
"To who?" Meredith said, confused. "Where'd you get that expression?"
"Christ, Jane, I thought we'd gotten you over this," Brandon said, circling around to plunk himself in an armchair to her right. It was secondhand, smelly and rather threadbare—like everything here. The Chamberses were doing better than they had four years ago, when Laurelyn upset all their plans, but that still didn't mean they were doing well. "I thought, after you'd gone through The Program..."
"It wasn't that different," said Jane, though it was a weak protest.
"At least you were seeing shades of grey," Brandon said. "There is a gradation between prim-and-proper and complete skank."
"Well, yes, but..." Jane said.
"Have you done it since then?" Brandon asked, half accusing.
"Brandon!" Jane said. "Your daughter is right there!"
"I don't think she's old enough to understand this sort of thing," Brandon said, which Jane thought was an appalling display of irresponsibility. She looked to Meredith, expecting to find agreement—and so she was surprised when Meredith said, "We should introduce you to our friend Caitlyn. She used to think that way too. 'No compromise' and things like that."
"Of course, Jon's been softening her up," Brandon said. "Last I heard I think they were going to start trying to have a baby of their own."
"Probably not," Meredith said. "She called me just the other day. There was a pretty nasty parking-lot accident and her car got totaled, 'cause it was like ten years old to begin with. Might set them back a year or so financially."
"Still, we should introduce you," Brandon said in a different tone of voice. "I think you'd get along with her."
"The point is, no, Jane, you don't have to let anyone else get up-close-and-personal with your, err, assets," Meredith said. "But they're there... And men are visual creatures, as much as—maybe even more than—they are emotional ones. You can use them, even if you don't let anybody else use them."
"I don't want to let anybody use me anyway," Jane said.
"Sorry," Meredith said. "Bad choice of words. We're not asking you to let anybody use you, Jane."
"No—" said Brandon, vaulting off the armchair. Fifteen feet away, Laurelyn was balanced on the arm of the couch and evidently preparing to jump skyward. "No, no— Laurelyn, what did Daddy tell you? The couch is dangerous. Remember what happened to Wally the Wallaby in the story?"
Laurelyn gave him a face of repentance that Jane, personally, would have been hard-pressed to resist. "Sowwy, Daddy."
"I swear, she thinks she's a sparrow or something," Brandon sighed, to which Laurelyn erupted in a profusion of giggles. "I'm not a birdie, daddy!"
"I'll take our little avian to bed," Brandon said, gathering up his daughter. "B-R-B, as the kids nowadays say it."
"Heehee, B-R-B," said Laurelyn, flashing a smile over her father's shoulders.
"Oh, no, Laurie, not you too," Brandon lamented as he took her down the hallway. Her reply echoed back to them: "Daddy said it first!"
Jane was finding it hard to control a grin. "They really get along."
"They do," Meredith said, beaming. "I lucked out: of all the men in the world, I got the one who loves his daughter."
Looking at her friend's smiling face, Jane was torn. True, Meredith was one of the people she loved most in all the world, and delighting in her friend's happiness was almost too easy... But at the same time, Jane was keenly aware that it could have been her sitting there, married to a man who loved their daughter—her, had she not been foolish enough to turn him down, had she known who he would turn into. Mrs. Jane Chambers. If only, if only.
"Anyway," said Meredith, in such a strange voice that Jane suddenly wondered how much of her thoughts had shown on her face. "Where were we. —Oh, yes. Jane, the first thing you should realize is that your personal attractiveness—whether you have it or not, we could argue about that—is probably an asset in your situation."
"What?" said Jane, completely nonplussed. She had been expecting some veiled criticism pointed at her reticence to join the modern sexual revolution.
"You don't think of yourself as particularly attractive," Meredith said. "That's probably a good thing. If this man Hugh is the shallow, eyes-only type—the kind that goes out with a cheerleader only because they're attractive—you're not going to get along with him. You're the kind of person who wants to be challenged, Jane, and your battlefields are your brains and your talent. If he was just some guy who was handsome, you'd get bored of him so quickly."
"Yeah," Jane agreed.
"So, the fact that you're not, I dunno, super attractive is actually a benefit to you. It means all the empty-headed, vacuous, muscle-man types are going to ignore you, because they know straight off the bat you're not their type. I've known really beautiful women—and a few really hot men—who can't find a smart date to save their life; no one with half a brain even tries talking to them. You've got kind of the opposite problem: no one without half a brain tries talking to you."
"Oh, to have lots of hot women throwing themselves at me," Brandon said, plopping down on the couch next to his wife. Their hands found each other with so little bustle that Jane wondered if they even realized they were doing it. "As problems go, there's worse ones to be had."
"Not to mention that if only smart people come and talk to me, there must not be very many of them at all," Jane said. She had had only two romantic prospects of any sort since breaking up with Jeff, and neither of them had lasted longer than a few months. Jeff had moved on into a job with a major software company and was now on his honeymoon with that woman Rachel, whom Jane had first met during the rehearsal dinner. She liked Rachel—actually, she liked Rachel a lot—and she was happy for both of them, but it stung to see Jeff, who was even less attractive than Jane herself, managing his life out while she was still mired.
"Well, part of it is that we're young," Brandon said. "You're turning twenty-four next, right?"
"That comes after twenty-three, yes," Jane said.
"The way the economy is nowadays, and the education requirements, people don't really start looking for someone to settle down with until around this time in their lives," Brandon said. "Twenty-five, maybe even thirty. You're the kind of woman men will want to marry, but not exactly—no offense intended—the kind of girl guys want to date. And it's all girls and guys dating at this point in our lives."
That much was true. Jane tilted her head to show assent. She knew better than to protest that Brandon had married Meredith when she was nineteen: partially it had been due to Laurelyn, but also because both Brandon and Meredith had been looking for someone to marry—probably even before they knew they'd been looking. It was sheer luck that they had found each other, and that made them the exception that, if anything, proved the rule.
"Also... Jane, I may be alone in thinking this, but I don't think I am," Meredith said. "I believe that beauty is not a gift but an attitude."
"Hah. You tell 'em, baby," Brandon cackled.
"...You totally lost me," Jane said.
"I think beauty is not a gift but an attitude," Meredith said. "I think it's not about how much you have in terms of looks, but about whether you're willing to embrace what you do have."
Jane blinked at her.
"God gave you a lot of things, Jane," Meredith said. "Foremost among those are, yes, brains and talent. And heart. You have a lot of heart, Jane. You don't have as many things that make you physically attractive—which we could argue about a lot, because the simple fact is that you still have more than the rest of us—you don't have as many things that make you physically attractive, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. And if you embrace all your gifts as your strengths—not just the attractiveness, not just the brains, not just the heart, but all of it—then you think you are beautiful. And if you think you are beautiful, other people will treat you like you're beautiful."
Jane turned this new thought gingerly over in her mind. She wasn't sure she believed it—and yet it made a strange, elemental sort of truth to her. Certainly it was a hopeful thought: that maybe she wasn't crippled by the hand life had dealt her, that maybe she could actually shape her fate instead of being roped in by whatever random talents or graces God had decided to parcel out to her. Maybe she had a choice.
"It's the truth," Brandon said. "And we don't have to go any farther back than the topic of boobage to prove it. Meredith, as I'm sure you know or at least may have suspected, used to be very insecure about her endowments—or, as she saw it, lack thereof. We finally got her over it. It might have been partially because of the wedding—she was so busy, not to mention tired from lugging Laurie around, that we barely had time to talk, much less have sex, much less entertain insecurities; and I think she finally got out of the habit of stressing over it."
"Well, that, and, they did get bigger, because of nursing," Meredith said. "And they stayed a little bit bigger too, which was really nice."
"But the point is not that they got bigger," Brandon said. "The point is that Meredith accepted what she had, and was able to say, 'Yes, I am beautiful, what God gave me makes me beautiful.' "
"And then, to reward me for saying that," Meredith said, "God gave me Brandon." Her grin grew wicked. "And then He gave me bigger breasts."
"Dude, they only went up by one number interval," Brandon said.
"Hush, don't spoil my mood," Meredith said with an irrepressible smile.
But that still didn't explain why, the very next Sunday, Hugh came up to Jane to speak to her, because Jane hadn't put much (or any) of their advice into effect. In fact, she hadn't even finished deciding whether it was true and helpful or not. And nonetheless, there he was, Hugh Stratton, so calm, so effortless—she'd seen her friends girding themselves to ask someone out, even been asked out a few times before herself, and every other person had been nervous, antsy; one had almost thrown up. But Hugh might have been watching TV for all the sweat he broke. He gave her his smile and his smooth, shining voice, and let her know that he didn't have any plans this afternoon after the service ended, and would she care to brighten his day with her company?
Would she care to? Would she!
On that first outing, Jane was flustered and shiny-eyed by turns. If church gossip was to be trusted, she was the first person Hugh had voluntarily chosen to spend time with—she, plain Jane Myers! And then there was the fact of his sheer physicality: the twinkle of his eyes, the glow of his smile, those broad shoulders, the way he seemed to tower over her even though he had barely a few inches on her. He was not inappropriately affectionate—in fact, he barely touched her at all—but she was constantly aware of his presence, of the mere fact of his existence. She had never before felt such an overwhelming level of physical attraction to another person.
She had the sense to apologize for her scatter-brained manner when he dropped her back at the church. This, probably single-handedly, saved their marriage.
"It's all right," he said, smiling; for the first time, he seemed slightly self-conscious. "Actually, it's a little flattering to have someone so flustered. Everyone else just... Seems to ignore it. Either that, or they're throwing themselves at me, trying to offer me something."
"I... I would never do that to you," Jane said, her face coloring.
"I know," he said. "That's why I asked you out."
It was a whirlwind from then on. Though sometimes it was hard to stifle the various cases of nerves she got in his presence (the giddy, stammering excitement of being seen with him in public, of jaws dropping and staring eyes) (the intellectual jam of having to debate her viewpoints) (her body yearning for him in that private, unspeakable way), soon they were dropping into each other's company like old friends. There was always something to talk about with him, be it history or politics or modern trends or even sports, making Hugh only the second person after J. K. Rowling to make her care about them. He had that rare gift of conversation, the ability to break anything down and make it not only understandable, but interesting as well. He knew so much; Jane had no idea how, except that he must have a photographic memory.
He introduced her to Wikipedia, which blossomed into an all-consuming addiction as she surfed the site voraciously, intoxicating herself on knowledge, correcting pages that were inaccurate, glorying in the sheer vastness of information at her fingertips. He began to take her ballroom dancing, something she had never tried before and still didn't think she was very good at, especially compared to Hugh—but he assured her that it was okay, it was the man's job to do all the work and make the woman look good—and to judge by the occasional compliments she received about what a good dancer she was, he might be right. He even took her golfing a few times, something she had never tried before without the prefix 'mini' attached. She didn't enjoy it all that much, but she didn't mind either: to her, any outing with Hugh was fun, no matter what they did.
She felt selfish at first, feeling as if she hadn't given him anything in return, but after a while she realized that this was not true at all: things would come up in their conversations, and sometimes he'd follow through on them. It started as small things—websites she would suggest, music she'd heard—but when she saw him halfway through the second Lord of the Rings book, which she knew he'd never read and for that matter never had any interest in, she knew. The funny thing was, he never brought these things up, never mentioned them—either they slipped out (like The Two Towers, which she glimpsed in his car) or she had to dig for them.
She noticed early on that, even though they were dating—and, as time went on, dating steadily—he never stopped talking to the other women, the brazen ones, the ones with an agenda that involved his money and their womanly parts. ('In the world, but not of it,' my fanny.) He was just as receptive to them as before—which wasn't saying much, since he had merely been polite to them before; but it still made her nervous, because it suggested nothing had changed. She wanted to talk to him about it... But a part of her quailed at the thought, terrified at uncovering the idea that this wonderful man was, perhaps, just not that into her. She didn't want to know that. It might be nicer to have the fantasy for a while. But after a few months, it had all come to nothing: he never talked about them personally, never brought them up, never gave any sign that any of them had any purchase on his heart; and they, too, realized that he had no interest in them and began leaving him alone.
He was a maverick. She liked that about him. Oh, it was not that he was a revolutionary or wanted to overthrow the system or did the opposite of what people expected, just to make an impact; it was simply that, when his actions disagreed with what was accepted or normal, he had no problem going his own way. He thought out his consequences, made his decisions, knew what was best for him, and stuck to it. Jane appreciated that: she was much the same way. On the occasions when their opinions of 'the right way' conflicted, they would talk it out in a respectful manner, explaining their viewpoints and deciding jointly. For instance, Hugh felt that it was important to experience sex with a woman before marrying her, as part of the general compatibility testing that was part-and-parcel of the courtship process. Jane, who had had sex with a man who had no intention of being with her for the rest of his life, never wanted to do so again—though, of course, there were many other things they could do together in the meantime.
And do them they did. Oh my, did they. The Jane Myers of high school would never have imagined herself being here: here, in the arms of this immensely magnetic man; here, being kissed this thoroughly and this skillfully... And Jane herself, responding, submitting—wanting more! She was nervous for a long time about her lack of talent at kissing, but Hugh was patient, kind, receptive, teaching her without being pretentious about it and convincing her, constantly, that it was okay, she didn't have to be a good kisser, or a good hugger, or any of that stuff—she was perfectly good at it now. Eventually she realized that she wasn't worrying about it anymore. She remembered what Meredith had said about her insecurities simply fading away, and decided it was true. And she didn't feel guilty about kissing him, touching him, holding him, not the way she had with Brandon. Of course, she had been a different person back then—and (in all love to Brandon) she had never found him as overwhelmingly physically attractive as she did Hugh.
Of course, it didn't go much further than kissing—not too much further. She let him give her back rubs, easing tension from her shoulders after long days at work, and after a while started trying to give them back. As with the kissing, he coached her, patiently and without ego, giving her ideas to try and feedback about what he liked. Soon she was letting him touch her bare back, which was more sensual than she'd imagined, and it was amazing what he could do to her neck with just his fingernails, or even his lips and tongue. And there were times when her body cried out for release, cried out for his touch, cried out in a voice that had only been awakened by her cataclysmic week in The Program and that, since then, had been nearly impossible to silence.
She didn't go to Brandon and Meredith about that. She didn't go to Zach and Christa either, whom she loved but didn't know nearly as well as she did the Chamberses. No, there was only one person she would trust with something like this.
And of course, his answer was predictable: "You could always use your vibrator. I know Arie meant it as more of a joke, but there it is."
Jane colored. "Derek, you know I don't like that."
"Alternately, you could, you know, play with yourself."
"You know I don't like that either."
"Then try a cold shower. But you know as well as I that those don't work very well."
When Derek and Arie had decided to attend the University of Seattle together, they had had no idea that their relationship would dissolve that summer. Of course, neither had anyone else; by the time anyone knew, it was too late to change plans. But the first thing Derek did once he arrived was apply for a transfer to the nearby Washington State, only to find that he hated that place as well; the climate, he claimed, disagreed with him, and he had only really gone out to Washington because of Arie. After a dissatisfying sophomore year at Mount Hill Community College, he announced that the college experience was unsatisfactory to him and that he would drop out. Jane, at that meeting, had looked around at the others and realized that none of them could help him: Brandon and Meredith, Zach and Christa too tied up with their own adventures, Sajel too distant (having offered to join Arie at Seattle and been accepted), Arie not even here because Derek had convened them. It had been up to her. And to her immense surprise, she had found herself suggesting he come down to Schweitzer with her. He had, and though he hadn't been truly happy there either, having only one friend and having some trouble making more, he was, he declared, Jane's friend for life.
Jane had laughed to herself to hear that: after all, she was his already as well, for the magic of loyalty he and all the others had showed her in high school. And then pondered to herself: that perhaps she had just worked that same magic upon him.
But friend or not, his short, bristly demeanor wasn't any easier to deal with.
Jane had had plenty of practice, after two years in college, and she swallowed her irritation. He's just like this now. Listless. I don't know how he managed to graduate. He was living with his sister Jenny Hughes now, along with her husband Trevor and their eight-year-old daughter Cassandra, and Jane sometimes wondered how he impacted the family. "I wish there was something I could do that would... I dunno, that would take my mind off it."
"There are things, yeah, but it's easier to just, what, humor yourself and get off. Faster, probably." She could not see his face over the phone, but she could imagine it very well.
She sighed. "I guess." It wasn't that she had a problem with, well, stimulating herself, at least not per se; she had done it, and to be honest she had enjoyed it. The problem was, she had also been with men before, carnally, and though neither of her experiences had been ideal, she could never face her own arousal without remembering those times, and feeling just how inadequate it was to be lying here, naked, on her back or on her belly, her hand between her legs, feeling cold and empty playing with herself when, if things were to happen as God had intended it, there would be another warm body here, another voice, another heart, another face. Even when she put the phallus-shaped vibrator Arie had given her inside herself (intended, as Derek had said, as a joke, but still fully functional), it just wasn't the same. It just wasn't the same.
"I want the real thing," she said. It came out more plaintively than she'd intended.
"So do I," Derek said, "we can help each other out."
Jane laughed. This wasn't the first time he'd suggested that—and, judging by his rather profound state of datelessness, it probably wouldn't be the last. "Thank you, Derek, but... That's not my kind of thing."
"Gotta be with Hugh, right?"
With someone with whom she felt attraction, yes. Derek was a good man, and she loved him dearly, but just not... In that way.
"Well, you know your choices on that score," Derek said. "I mean, you're the one who said that you'd know when it was time, and that when it was time, you wouldn't hold back."
"I know. But... It's not time, Derek. I know it's not time. I've always known when it's time to—to be sexual, and, it's just... Not..." She trailed off.
"Why isn't it? It sounds like you two are really getting along together. About half the stuff we talk about is Hugh this or Hugh that. You're really into him, Jane."
"I know, but..." I'm not sure he's into me.
She didn't say it, but Derek heard it. Best friends were like that. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, we..." She'd been mulling over this for months, and now she thought she had an answer. "We never talk about him. You know? He... We have these great conversations, and we do stuff together, and I really like spending time with him, and— And, I mean, we're already making plans to come down soon and meet everybody."
"Huh. Moving fast. You haven't been dating him for six months, and you're already taking him home to meet the family?"
Jane blushed. "I meant my friends. You guys. Brandon, Meredith. The Cranes. Sajel. You. I meant my friends."
"So did I."
Jane paused over that one. It was certainly true that she spent more time on the phone to Brandon than to Lisa and her parents combined—and he was the third closest of her friends, after Meredith and Derek. But that was neither here nor there. "My point is, we spend a lot of time together and I like his company and we have great conversations—"
"And he kisses well."
"Yeah, and all that other stuff. But, like... I don't know anything about him. He's like a wall of facts, but he doesn't talk about himself."
"Well, he might feel the same about you. I remember that Brandon broke up with you because you weren't letting him have a piece of you physically or emotionally."
It stung, the way he said it, but that didn't make it any less true. "Yeah, but, I'm not doing that anymore. I've been telling him about me. I've been letting him in. I—" She trailed off.
Derek, as always, heard. "You love him," he said.
"No, I... I want to say that. But, I can't, really. I don't know him, how can I love him? But... I want to know him. I've been letting him know me, and hopefully he likes me—"
"Probably, or you guys wouldn't've lasted this long—"
"But I don't know him, and that means..."
There was a period of silence.
"I don't remember where I heard this, I think it was Contemporary Views on Scripture." That was a class they had taken together, Jane out of interest and Derek more out of idle curiosity. "But, back in the Bible, whenever a man and a woman slept together, they described it as 'Bob knew Sue.' Adam knew Eve, David knew Bathsheba, Abel knew a goat, whatever. Which is really archaic, really, but, I think there's something to that. To... The knowing of someone. That there's some things you can only know about a person if you sleep with them."
"Yeah, and... I want to know him, you know, that way."
"You want to know his penis in your vagina," said Derek, ever the soul of tact.
Jane blushed, but held her course. "I want to know him carnally. But, before that, I have to know him personally. I have to, you know, know the other parts of him first."
"And so you'll know it's the right time to know him..."
"When I know him."
There was another nodding silence.
"Kind of ironic. When Brandon dumped you, it was because you wouldn't let him know you in any way shape or form. Now someone's doing the same to you."
"Yeah, and I'm the guy that's got to reach out."
"How worlds turn," Derek said. She wasn't sure where he'd gotten it, but it was sort of his catch-phrase now: his way of commenting on anything new or interesting.
"How worlds turn," she agreed.
So it was that, on their next date (which turned out to be the next afternoon), Jane asked him. "You know what we never talk about?"
"No," said Hugh, smiling, "what do we never talk about?"
"We never talk about you," she said.
She saw the smile drip from his face and hoped she hadn't just made the biggest mistake of her life—because, now that she had said it, she certainly wasn't going to back down.
"We talk about other things all the time. We talk about me—yeah, we do that sometimes. You know a lot about me. We talk about your job, about the things you do, about the things that interest you. We talk about the most random things. And don't take me wrong: I like talking about those things with you." Her voice softening now. "I enjoy every minute we spend together, Hugh. I really, really like you. I want to tell you that I love you... But I can't, because I don't know you well enough to love you."
He was looking at her with cautious eyes, but he had not got up and bolted yet, so she felt emboldened enough to finish her thought.
"So let's talk about you a little bit. Who are you? Where did you come from? What do you want? Where are you going? What can you tell me about the individual mishmash of genes and upbringing and circumstances and training that produced Hugh Stratton?"
Hugh was silent for a moment, his normally cheerful face slack and still. He toyed with a saltshaker. "That's... That's a lot of material to cover."
She laughed. "That's true."
"Can you... Sheesh, can you break it down a little?"
"Well, all right," she said, smiling. "How about this one: Why did you decide to ask me out?"
Hugh gave her a look that made her a little apprehensive. It was rare to see him this self-conscious. "Well... I guess... Because you're so independent. You know? All the... I mean, all the people throwing themselves at me. They all think I'm such hot stuff." Jane had to stifle a giggle at the double meaning; as a rule, she knew, Hugh wasn't a fan of that sort of double-talk. "Whereas you, you're... I mean, you just kind of ignored me, you know?"
She did laugh then. "And you found that attractive?"
"Well, I... I knew you were stable. You know?" His sky-blue eyes pierced her. "I knew you were sensible. I knew you weren't going to, what, to slut yourself up and try and get a piece of me."
"To who?" Jane said, aback. "Where'd you get that expression?"
He shrugged. "I dunno, it... Just seemed appropriate."
"It kind of is," she said.
"But, so... Yeah," he said. "That's, um. That's kind of why." And he looked at her with his eyes like sunlit skies and sun-drenched hair and the slump of his shoulders and she suddenly realized that Hugh—Hugh!—wanted her approval, wanted to know if he had somehow passed her test.
And she reached out and covered his hand with hers—either her hands were large or his were small, maybe both, but they were almost the same size—and said, "Well, I hope I haven't disappointed your initial impressions yet."
He smiled—a real, true smile—and suddenly she realized that the thing he pasted on was not a smile after all, just a mask to hide his true feelings, and that maybe (it was entirely possible) she had never before seen him actually, really smile.
"You're doing pretty well, I think," he said, still smiling. "We've gone on longer together than I have with anyone else before. I'm... Not so keen about this whole telling-you-about-me thing, though." The smile slid off his face, leaving something crooked behind.
She tilted her head. "Oh? Why not?"
"Well, just... Well, previously, we were just sort of going on, you know? We'd hang out, and have fun, and spend time together, and, you know, just be. There wasn't... There wasn't any pressure involved."
"I'm not trying to pressure you now," Jane said.
"Jane, think about what you just asked me," Hugh said, and Jane felt a sheepish smile grow on her face. "I like that there wasn't pressure. I like that, you know, we just hang out sometimes. I like that you aren't, you know, trying to... Trying to hook me in or something. I mean, all these people..." He sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. "I've been like this since high school, you know? My parents are kinda rich, and, I've got all the brains and stuff—and then I turned out to be kind of handsome too. And suddenly people who weren't giving me the time of day are all draping themselves over me. Because they want—"
"They want what you have," Jane said. "They want the meal ticket."
"Yeah, and, just... I have to be careful about those people. You know? I have to... I have to keep my guard up."
"Yes, you do," Jane said. Some part of her mind, the detached part, was keeping up with his conversation very well. The rest of her was awash in doubt. The face that he had shown her—so calm, so comfortable, so warm, so masculine—had fooled her completely. He had exuded confidence like a warm balm, a confidence that had enveloped her too. It was so convincing that she had never even once questioned whether it was his real face. Even now she felt her senses introduce doubt. There's no way someone could do that. There's no way someone could... Not that well. Not that strongly. He's beguiled everybody. The mask that he put on...
And then she remembered Brandon's words: that those of us who wear masks are also, at times, the ones most likely to be fooled by them.
"And so you'd dump them," she said. "Because they weren't interested in you. They were only interested in... The other things."
"Well... Some of them," he said.
"Some of them?"
"The others left me," he said. "They... They left because... They said that, I wasn't... I wasn't opening up to them, or, or something like that." He tried to make it an off-hand comment.
Jane felt herself abuzz with understanding. "And why didn't you?"
The look on his face was all she needed. After all, hadn't she felt that way herself, not too long ago?
"Hugh," she said. "I wouldn't be asking if I didn't like you already. I wouldn't be asking to know more if I didn't want to know more. I may not know very much about you, but what I do know, I like."
"You don't know very much about me at all," he said, with a humorless laugh.
"Yes, that's true," she said. "But there's nothing I can do about that. That's your decision: how much to show to me. I want to know, now, if you'd like to change that decision."
"What if I don't?" he asked, and this time there was no mistaking the anxiety in his voice.
She sighed. "Then... Well, I'm sorry, Hugh, but, if you don't, I'm not sure there's much or any point in us remaining together. I like you a lot, and I enjoy your company, and I think I could even love you... But if you don't want to find that out, then I'm better off leaving you and finding someone I can love." As she said it she felt a stab of panic—more like a flood, actually. She didn't want to lose his company, his laughter, his intelligence. She didn't want to lose the feeling of his hands on her skin, the smell of his body, the beating of his heart. She didn't want to give him up at all. But, if it came down to that, she decided, she would make herself leave. Because she knew she was right—that there was no future unless he decided, now or later, to let the walls down—and no point, in that case, in staying.
(When she told this conversation to Brandon later, he gave a jerk of laughter: "Hah! That's exactly the conversation I had with you, just before we broke up."
("How worlds turn," she murmured under her breath.
("Sorry, what? This phone is crap, I keep telling Meredith we should get a new one—"
("I said, 'How worlds turn.' In any case, doesn't that just mean I've learned something?"
(She wasn't sure he'd get the reference, but either he knew it or he'd divined out its meaning, for he simply laughed again. "Yeah, it sure does, kid. How worlds turn, indeed. Hah!")
"Look, Hugh," she said in the present day, "why do you date?"
"What purpose does it serve? Is it just... To have fun? To have friends? To, I dunno, to be physical with women? Or is there something more?"
"What are you talking about," he said, wounded, "you know there's something more. We've talked about this. I'm not just... I'm not just playing around here, Jane. I'm trying to find out..." He trailed off.
"Trying to find someone to love," she said.
He said nothing.
"It's okay," she said. "We're about that age. A little early, maybe—most people start only around twenty-five or so—but we're starting to be that age."
"Where'd you hear that?" he asked.
"So, here's the deal," she said, ignoring him. "There's someone here—sitting across the table from you, actually—who wants to find out if she loves you, and if you love her. In order to do that... You have to let her get to know you. You have to take off that mask and let her see the real you. There is, unfortunately, no way around it. You have to try it and see—and, yes, give her the chance to hurt you. The only thing I can tell you is that, from where I'm sitting, I think it's likely that she probably won't. At least, not intentionally."
He gave a gust of humorless laughter. "I guess you'd see that pretty well. From where you're sitting."
"Yes," she said primly, "I would."
His laughter slowly died out, and eventually he was left sitting there, gazing at her with that worn, slack expression.
Then he took a deep breath.
"Okay," he said.
"Okay," she said, and tried to conceal the elation inside her.
"If I could ask, I'd like you to be patient with me," he said. "I've never... I've never done this before."
"Don't worry," she said, smiling. "I'll help you."
"Okay," he said. He turned his hand palm up under hers. "Okay."
As they went around the back of the coffee shop to get their cars, unexpectedly she felt him tug at her arm. When she turned, he pulled her to him, his arms around her, and all at once she was protected by the fortress of his embrace, his broad back shielding her from harm, his warm breath in her hair.
"That's why I asked you out," he whispered. "Because you don't wear masks. You're just... You. Strong, unshielded, beautiful you."
She laughed a little. "You should hear what Brandon has to say about that."
"Yeah, Brandon," said Hugh. "I hear his name a lot. Is that your best friend from college?"
"No, that's Derek," she said. "Brandon's one of the people you'll meet, if we go down to Mount Hill. He's..." Brandon: her first boyfriend, the first person to love her as a person; Brandon, who through himself and his friends had given her so much. "If it weren't for Brandon," she said, knowing it to be true, "I wouldn't be here."
She felt and heard his smile rather than saw it. "I guess I'll have a lot of thanking to do when we meet him."
"We both will," she said.
And from then on it was once again easy: the conversations, the time spent, the company. Hugh had not been lying—he was not used to being asked anything personal—and at first she worried that she would not be patient or kind enough; when it turned out to be natural for her, she was as surprised as he was. She had never thought sensitivity was one of her strong points—and, in fact it was not, as her coworkers reminded her time and again. It must be Hugh who brought this out in her.
He told her about his past, one she recognized from Brandon's descriptions and, to a certain extent, from her own life: parents with success on their minds more than children, parents to whom a child was merely an accessory. Opening up to them was a mistake, for anything he said to them could be used against him, and he had learned not to do it by the time he was eight. School was his solace, where he succeeded, or didn't, solely on the merits of his efforts and brains (mostly he succeeded). But then high school came, and with it the blessings of a chiseled jawline and argent eyes and natural athleticism and a body that filled itself out seemingly without any effort on his part; and with these blessings, the burden of being one of the most prominent and popular people on campus. In college, things had only become worse, for no one wanted to be his friend, only reap the beneficiaries of that friendship: the people he liked were scared off by his handsomeness, while the people he disliked were attracted by it. Jane remembered what Meredith had said the downsides of being attractive, and made a mental note to thank her. Finally, he had graduated with his business degree and flung himself wholeheartedly into the corporate world. He had, of course, made his share of enemies: jealous co-workers whom he had outperformed and jilted secretaries whom he had turned down. But, for the first time since elementary school, he was being appreciated for who he actually was.
"At least," he added, "the first time since I met you."
And, in turn, Jane found herself telling him things about herself she had thought she might tell no one but her husband—and perhaps not even him. The insecurities, the nervousness, the fear; the cold nights alone, lying in bed knowing her roommate, or Derek, or Marcy, was alone with someone right now, sharing their bodies in that most intimate of ways; or lying there feeling her own body ache, feeling the momentary satisfaction of orgasm dissolve into the deeper, greater gap in the comforters that somebody should be filling, somebody besides her, somebody beside her. She told him about her first two sexual encounters, both fulfilling and unfulfilling in their own ways, and the only intimate contact she'd had since then, a handjob she had given to one of her college boyfriends (the only relationship to last any length or go anywhere; they had gotten along just fine, but she had let him push her into it, and even as he spurted over her hand she knew she had made a terrible mistake, that she hadn't really wanted to do this and that now he would never let her stop, and that she must end it now because of that one compassionate mistake). She told him about the deep loneliness of watching her friends not only pair off but marry, and even (this was perhaps worst of all) the little bitter jealous parts inside her, watching them have things she could only dream of.
"But you do dream about them," he said.
"Yeah," she said.
He tilted his head, a gesture it took her a long time to interpret.
They started talking about the future: about hopes and dreams and fears and plans and even long-dormant ideas from childhood. Jane had always known, like Brandon, that she wanted a family; she knew now that Brandon would have given her one if she'd let him—that Brandon had been trying to make her a part of his family, though he himself admitted he hadn't gone about it very well. But that ship had sailed. Now she had to work at it on her own. With any luck, Hugh might be able to help her.
"Well... I suppose," he said. "I mean, I never really thought about it."
"Silly," she said, smiling. "What else is the point of getting married?"
"Having sex?" he said, with such ingeniousness that she laughed.
"What else is the point of having sex?" she said.
"Having fun?" he said, and she laughed again. That much was true. But she had learned enough in college to know that marriage is not about love, but about the making and raising of children; in fact, there was a small, radical part of her that felt that if a couple loved each other and intended to live together for life, but not have children, there should be some other bond for them to enter into that was not marriage. It was a strange thought, and the only person she'd ever shared it with was Hugh—leading to a spirited and enjoyable debate about the social, religious and practical definitions of the term.
They had it the Tuesday before they went down to Mount Hill. Afterwards, Jane wondered if that had tipped him over the edge.
Meredith and Brandon were living in a rather careworn three-bedroom apartment on the less-reputable side of town, closer to the big city, but they willingly opened their one guest room to them, plopping down an air mattress and two sleeping bags. Hugh was used to a little more luxury than this, and Jane could tell that he was a bit dismayed, but he put on a smile—a real one—and said, "Cool, I've never had a sleep-over before." He loved Laurelyn from the get-go, but, of course, Laurie had been charming the pants off people for years. And while he was not impressed with the circumstances, Jane could tell that he was impressed with the Chamberses, who were gracious and polite and welcomed him with open arms, as they always had. She remembered something Jeff had said about them once—A lot of love, and maybe not enough common sense—and then something she had read in a Star Wars book somewhere: "treating family like friends and friends like family."
And, she thought, finishing the quote, we're always glad to add someone new to the family.
"So Jane tells us you're in the business world," Meredith said to Hugh.
"Yeah," said Hugh. "I work in brokerage. It's kind of tense sometimes, but the money's good. What about you guys?"
"Healthcare, primarily," Brandon said. "I'm a sort of half-nurse, half-secretary at a clinic, thinking about getting certified to run an X-ray machine."
"You have to get certified?" Hugh said. "How hard is it to press a button?"
"Not too hard," Brandon said, grinning. "It's fixing it when the button doesn't work that takes the training."
"And you?" Hugh asked Meredith.
"Child education," Meredith said, "somewhere between pre-school and daycare. I took it mostly because that way we don't have to pay for baby-sitting on this—" She made a grab for Laurelyn, who had been about to slide off the couch. Laurie giggled and sat still—probably planning her next escape attempt, Jane thought. "—squirming little thing here, but since then I've taken a shine to it."
"Remember when she was first born?" Brandon said. "Like, half my salary went to paying Rachel for baby-sitting—and she was only working, what, like, twenty hours a week?"
"And on Sundays we're music ministers at a local church," Meredith finished. "Cantoring, I don't know if you're familiar with the term—"
"Like Jessie Breeden at our church," Jane told him.
Hugh nodded. "How'd you get into that?"
"Well, it's a bit of extra income," Meredith said, "and we both enjoy the singing. We're there the whole morning, plus some extra meetings during the week to plan and rehearse. He cantors, I play piano. Sometimes we switch."
Hugh shook his head. "Singing. There's something I wish I'd gotten into."
"It's not hard, I'll teach you," Jane said. She knew enough about singing to get along.
"I can't do it," Hugh said.
"Yes you can," Jane said, "I've heard you singing in church."
She thought she saw a moment of alarm in his eyes, but if so he covered it well. "And you're still dating me? You're braver than I thought!"
"Look, you can carry a tune in a bucket," Jane said. "That's all that's really necessary for church."
"Yeah, but I can't make up harmonies like you," Hugh protested.
"Oh, has she started doing that?" Brandon asked.
Jane felt her cheeks heating. "Well... Sometimes... If I know the song well..."
"I'm impressed," Brandon said. "I didn't—no offense, Jane—I didn't think you had it in you. Musically, I mean."
"Well... I've improved a little since we last sang in choirs together," Jane said, still blushing.
"See there, Hugh?" Meredith said. "Jane did it. I'm sure you can as well."
"Yeah, but, she's a miracle worker," said Hugh.
A silence descended. Even Laurelyn looked on. Jane felt her cheeks heating for an entirely different reason.
"Turned you around some?" Brandon asked.
"Some, yeah," Hugh said.
Brandon smiled at her. "Wow, Jane. I didn't know you had it in you."
"What have you been doing up there," Meredith said, smiling. "First you run off to college, then you drag Derek along with you, then you run off to a job at a law firm, and now—"
"Yeah, Derek," said Hugh, and Jane suddenly heard the tone of his voice and realized that, while he might not consider Brandon a threat anymore, Derek was a different matter.
"He's coming to dinner, isn't he?" Jane said.
"I don't know, you invited him," Meredith said, amused.
"Well, I mean, did anyone hear from him whether he's coming or not?" Jane asked. Then, glancing at Hugh's face, she realized that maybe she'd do better not appear so anxious.
But, still: this territoriality of men annoyed her. Wasn't it possible for her to have a male friend with whom she was platonically close?
"He'll probably come," Meredith said calmly. "Just like we answered your invitation. We're all interested in meeting this man you can't stop talking about."
Jane felt herself redden again. Hugh glanced at her, a speculative look and then a little bit of a smirk.
"Who is Derek, anyway," he said.
"Derek?" Brandon said. "A friend of ours. We've all known each other since high school."
"He's... A little lost right now," Meredith said.
"A little?" Brandon grumped. "Try completely."
"What, like, he's bad with directions?" Hugh said, grasping.
"No, he's..." Meredith sighed. "He had a girlfriend."
"Is that all?" Hugh said.
"No, that wasn't all," Meredith said. "You know how, sometimes, you can just really tell that two people will get along? Probably for the rest of their lives?"
Hugh paused for a moment, and then nodded. Jane thought about saying that she felt that way about him, but decided it might be too embarrassing.
"Well, Derek and Arie didn't," Meredith said.
"Why?" Hugh said. "What happened?"
"We don't know," Meredith said. "They won't tell us. So far as we're aware, the only two people who know are the two of them."
"Yeah, but, at the same time..." Brandon said. "I mean, you saw what happened during his week in The Program. They almost..."
"Well, they'd had it easy before then," Meredith said.
"Yeah. But not so easy that they were able to avoid almost breaking up," Brandon said.
"Brandon, we almost broke up," Meredith said. "And we had it way easier than them."
"Maybe," Brandon said. "I still think our reuniting was half about simply surviving. But my point is, there were cracks in the armor. They weren't... They weren't, like, perfect for each other."
"No, they weren't," Meredith said. "But they learned to cope. Christa and Zach aren't perfect for each other either, but they're close enough that they can make up for that with effort."
"Well, yeah," Brandon said.
"And Arie and Derek were the same." She speared him with a direct look. "Not perfect for each other, but smart enough and in love enough that they could work around that."
"So what broke them up?" Hugh asked. "If what you're saying is true, almost nothing could've done it—but something did. What was it?"
"We've been asking ourselves that for six years," Brandon said.
"Especially because it had such a huge effect on Derek," Meredith said. "He's just... He's kind of sleep-walking through life right now, right, Jane?"
"That's how I'd put it," Jane said.
"Jane probably knows him best out of all of us," Meredith said. "Since they went to college together."
"Does he... Has he ever dated since then?" Hugh said, still grappling, and Jane checked an affectionate smile.
"He has," Meredith said. "But..."
"He just..." Jane shook her head, feeling some of the old concern ebb back. "Like I said, he's sleep-walking. It's like he can't be bothered. Or maybe he's too tired. He never connects with anyone. I mean, yeah, he goes out with them and spends time with them and even sleeps with them, if they'll let him, but, they never..."
"Most of them dump him, probably," Hugh said, in a voice that told her he was seeing some of himself in this absent friend.
"Yeah, exactly," Jane said.
"I think that's what I would've been like," Brandon said quietly, "if we hadn't gotten back together." Meredith reached over and leaned her head against his for a moment. Jane looked away, at Hugh, and saw him startled and blushing, as if loathe to interrupt their moment.
"This, um," he said. "This Arie person. Is she coming tonight?"
"No, unfortunately," Jane said. In truth, she wasn't that upset—she and Arie had never been close, though Jane knew she would not hesitate to lend her aid if there was trouble, out of loyalty if nothing else, and hoped Arie felt the same way. "She's kind of far, anyway: over in Seattle with her husband."
"Ah," said Hugh, nodding, and Jane knew he was not precisely grasping the entire story.
The trouble was, of course, she didn't know it herself. "When did she and Ralph get married, anyway?"
"About a year after we did," Meredith said. "At least we all know what to do if kids come along."
"Kids?" Hugh said.
"There she is," Meredith said, as Laurelyn scampered across the room—probably heading to the bathroom. She had broken loose of her mother's hold some time ago. "Conceived when we were juniors in college, all three of us."
"And Arie's boy Rowan is only about fifteen months younger," Brandon said. "I'm not sure what's going on with birth control amongst our friends, but at least Christa and Zach haven't trotted over with expectant news."
"Don't jinx us, we're meeting them over dinner," Meredith said.
"And you-all are how old?" said Hugh, who was nearly twenty-seven.
"Twenty-three," Brandon said.
"Twenty-two," Meredith said. "And that one over there is three years and five months."
"I think— Jane, you're twenty-four now, right? March?" Brandon said.
"March 17," Jane agreed.
"She's the oldest one here, after you yourself, Hugh," Brandon said.
Hugh was blinking at them with something like amazement. "Boy. All you folks started early."
"Well, we weren't expecting her," Meredith said with a wry smile. "And her little sister or brother isn't coming for—"
"Wait, another one?!" Jane squawked.
"Isn't coming for years," Meredith finished, favoring Jane with an amused glance. Jane felt herself turning red again. Why was she constantly putting her foot in her mouth today? "We're watching the birth control very carefully. And our bank accounts too. As you can probably tell by our surroundings, there's a fairly thin buffer of dollar signs protecting us from real financial trouble."
"I'm making a lot more than I need," Jane said. "If... If you guys ever need help..." It seemed tactless, but it was the truth—and while it was always nice to have extra money, it was clear to her that Brandon and Meredith needed money a lot more than she did.
Brandon gave her a dim smile. "I keep telling you, Jane, if you offer that too many times we might actually take you up on it." And after that he moved the topic onward, like he always did. Jane made a note to withdraw a bit of money and 'accidentally' leave it somewhere the Chamberses would find it—say, a thousand-dollar bill. This note was reinforced by the look Hugh gave her: warm and glad and smiling, like a thousand years of love.
For Friday night, Hugh and Jane had together booked a fairly large table at a restaurant, enough for everyone who was coming: the three Chamberses, the two Cranes, Sajel and her current boyfriend Scott, Derek, and of course Jane and Hugh themselves. She had also, partially because she had been included at his wedding and partially because they had remained friends for a while after breaking up, invited Jeff and Rachel Gainesborough, but they were busy that weekend and couldn't make it. Her guests arrived in ones and twos, Derek dead on time and the Cranes fashionably late. That was one of the things Jane had always liked about Derek: he took other people's time seriously. When he arrived, he came up to Hugh and shook his hand, with the fake smile he used that always made Jane sad.
"I've heard a lot about you," he said.
"And I about you," said Hugh, his voice neutral but with a testing quality beneath it.
"Jane's... She can't stop talking about you," Derek told him. "It's the happiest I've ever known her to be. So... Whatever it is you're doing, man: don't stop."
His eyes met Hugh's, brown against sky-blue.
"I won't," Hugh said.
"Okay," Derek said.
They released hands, and Derek nodded and went over to talk with the Chamberses.
"Sheesh," said Hugh, half annoyed, half respectful.
Jane, who wasn't entirely sure what to make of that display, said, "I think he's just being protective."
Hugh nodded, made a half smile. "If I had a friend like you, I'd protect her too."
By the time the Cranes arrived, the waitress had been by to take their orders several times, and Jane got everyone else to go while Zach and Christa turbo'd through the menu. "Sorry we were late," Christa said. "There was a, um. A personal matter we had to attend to."
Sajel snickered. "She means, We were doing it and we didn't want to stop."
Christa looked a little embarrassed, but Zach just leaned forward and said, "Yeah, like you've never been in a situation like that."
Sajel glanced over at Scott, a slender black man with a shaved head and a pleasant face, and grinned. "Not when we've got a dinner in half an hour!"
"Hey!" Christa exclaimed. "I'll have you know we had an hour before dinner when we started!"
Jane saw eyebrows go up around the table. The Cranes, by her estimation, had arrived about half an hour late. They lived at most fifteen minutes away from here. How long had they gone on??
"It's all his fault," Christa said, swatting her husband's arm, "he just doesn't finish. Super-long fuse."
Scott laughed. "Boy, what I wouldn't give for a disability like that!"
"You and a billion other men," Sajel cackled.
"Hey, you weren't complaining about it last night!" Scott retorted, and Sajel laughed and swatted his arm much the same way Christa had done. Jane filed that note away for future reference. Sajel was even shyer about her body than Jane herself had been—and with good reason, Sajel having fallen prey to a freak accident that left much of her back and legs covered in scars—so, unlike (say) Derek, or Arie were she still dating, it was less accurate to simply assume Sajel was sleeping with her boyfriend, whoever he might be.
Jane realized that this was the sort of thing she should've known because she'd talked to Sajel, not because she'd noticed it on the spot (though she was rather proud of the noticing). It meant that she had not been a very good friend to Sajel recently. She made a note to change that as soon as she could.
Hugh seemed to have another concern on his mind. "Is it... Umm, I don't mean to be repressive or anything, but is it really wise to talk about these things with a child present?"
Sajel gave a snort. "Like she hasn't heard worse coming out of her parents' bedroom."
Christa laid a pacifying hand on her arm. "It's true that we are... Forward, most of us," she said to Hugh. "You have to remember, almost everyone at this table went through The Naked In School program during high school. We're much more... Relaxed about private matters."
"All of you?" said Hugh, his eyebrows having climbed into his hairline.
"Well, except Laurelyn, she's not old enough," Christa said. "And Scott, he didn't go to school with us. And Sajel, of course—she had other reasons. But myself, Zach—that's how we met, actually—and Brandon and Meredith, and Derek, and Arie, and even your girlfriend."
"Yeah, I'm still not sure I believe that," Hugh said in a wry voice.
"I'm not sure I believe it either," Jane said. "It was a... An interesting time."
"Wouldn't that have gone against... I dunno, your morals, or your faith, or something?" Hugh asked.
"Well, it... Kinda did," Jane said. "In some ways. They really had to convince me—everyone you see here, and then my parents and some of my teachers too—they really had to convince me that it was okay to try. I'd already decided that it wasn't going to become, like, a lifestyle thing, you know?—that I didn't want to be sexually active, except with the right person.—but that didn't change the fact that I didn't, not really, have any idea what 'sexually active' meant. And that was what everyone was telling me, you know: 'Make your choice, and we'll support you, but know what it is you're choosing.' "
Hugh nodded. "And so you..."
"Well... It was..." Jane colored. "It was interesting."
Hugh nodded. He knew all about the hospital stay.
"But I think I changed a lot, and I think I learned a lot, and, I think that—ultimately—it was worth the experience. I don't... I don't know where I would've been if I hadn't gone through it, but, but almost certainly... I wouldn't be here. Not with these friends. Not with you."
"I wouldn't be the kind of person who could appreciate all this," Jane said.
"Yeah," Hugh said.
"So, in answer to your question, Hugh," Christa said, "we actually do talk this way quite a bit, and when Laurelyn is present. We do try to keep a rein on things—young kids, impressionable ears, all that—it took a week to make her stop saying 'Grafenberg spot'—but we don't feel this is something we have to hide from her. If it makes you uncomfortable, of course, we can tone it down," she added, smiling. "We don't want to scare you off or anything."
"Yeah, you only just got here," Zach tossed over.
"Well..." said Hugh. She wasn't sure exactly what was going on in his head, though she could make a guess: on one hand, the desire to impress, balanced against the fear of being judged or found wanting; on one hand, worry about saying or doing something inappropriate, balanced against the topic at hand—after all, this was sex! Even Jane was not (had never truly been) immune to its lure. "Let me listen a little bit, and see if I can fit in. I'm just... Not used to it, that's all."
"It does get some take some getting used to," Christa agreed. "I wasn't sure how to take it either, at first, but— Well, that was after I'd gone through The Program, and everyone at school had seen everything there was to see of me. I guess I decided that there wasn't any point in hiding anything. And nobody's going to judge you."
"She is," Hugh said, pointing at Sajel.
"I'm gonna what?" Sajel asked.
Christa laughed. "That's just how Sajel is," she said. Turning to her friend: "He's scared you're gonna chew him up and spit him out."
"Nah, don't worry about it," Sajel said, "I've got this guy over here for that." She patted Scott on the arm.
"That's me, chew toys for deranged Indian women," Scott said, rolling his eyes.
"Hey, you seemed to like it last night!" Sajel retorted, to which Scott gave her a dirty look, to which Sajel stuck out her tongue at him.
"She's smart enough not to really step over the line," Christa said. "...Most of the time."
"She's actually a real softie at heart," Zach said, "just a lot of bark involved."
"What are you saying about me now?" Sajel demanded from across the table.
"We're telling them how you're actually just a sweet nice lady," Christa said.
"What?" Sajel cried. "You're not supposed to give that away! Bitch, I'm gonna slap you silly!"
"Heehee," Laurelyn said from her high chair. "Bitch!"
All conversation at the table—possibly at the restaurant—stopped entirely. Everyone turned to look at Laurelyn. Then, as one, they turned to look at Sajel—who, judging by her expression, understood what she had just done.
"Oh!" Sajel cried, clapping hands to her mouth. "Oh shit!"
"Heehee," said Laurelyn. "Shit." And then: "Bitch-shit!"
"Thanks, Sajel," Brandon called over in a tired voice, "that's like another month of speech therapy—"
"Laurelyn," Meredith was saying, "no, no, bad, bad word, very naughty—"
"Wow, talk about backfiring," Zach said. "Especially considering what we were talking about with Hugh—"
"Oh my God," Sajel shrieked, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry! I wasn't thinking!"
"Calm down, calm down," Scott said. "You know they know that. They aren't gonna blame you. Sh— Stuff goes wrong at the worst possible time, they all know that—"
Jane couldn't believe it. Hugh was laughing.
Over the course of the dinner, she watched him unlimbering and fitting into the conversation, as smoothly as though he had always belonged there. No longer scared of Sajel, no longer scared of sex, no longer scared of being judged, he was a part of the group, unashamed, unafraid. Jane could only look on in joy: to her knowledge, there was only one other person he had ever taken his mask off for, and that person was Jane herself. And she felt a great glow of pride in her friends, who had won him over so well—and pride in him as well, that he had accepted their acceptance, and let himself become a part of this family.
When he excused himself to use the restroom, Jane sighed and settled back in her chair.
"He's a really nice guy," Christa said.
"Yeah," Zach said. "Thought he might be a stick-in-the-mud at first, but he got into it."
"I think we sometimes forget how intimidating we as a group can be to other people," Derek said. "There's so much history between us."
"Totally," Scott said. "I can only speak for myself—and don't take this the wrong way, you guys have really made me feel welcome, and I really appreciate that. But the simple fact is, there's six or seven years of history between you guys that I don't have, and that makes me... Not as much a member, I guess. Not inner-circle." He shrugged. "And again, I'm not criticizing you; that's not something any of us can get over, but you guys try, and you do a darn fine job as I'm concerned. But there it is."
"He seems to be doing okay, though," Brandon said.
"I think he likes us," Meredith said.
"He likes you," Jane said, beaming. "I can tell."
"So, Jane, bringing him home to meet the family, huh," Zach asked, a boisterous grin on his face.
"He's meeting my family for lunch tomorrow," Jane protested.
"He's meeting your biological family for lunch tomorrow," Zach said.
"So, what, you guys are adopting yourselves as my family?" Jane said—a little bit piqued, if truth be told. Shouldn't that be her decision?
"No, you are," Christa said. "Your family was free tonight, weren't they? You could've invited them here, couldn't you? And yet who are you with? Who did you take him to first? And what does that say about the people you took him to?"
Jane was silent, turning all of that over.
"We're not offended or anything," Brandon said. "If anything, we're honored. We love you very much, Jane, and it's flattering to know you think so highly of us. We just want to make sure you're clear on what you're saying."
"...Yeah," Jane said. She nodded. "Yeah."
"Our point is, if you're bringing him home to meet your family," Meredith said, "either of them, then it must be getting pretty serious."
"Yeah," said Jane. She smiled. "Yeah."
"Like... Serious serious?" Sajel said.
"...Yeah," said Jane, grinning.
"You think maybe it's time?" Derek asked.
Jane was silent for a moment. Her family, who knew what Derek was asking, waited with patience for her answer.
"You know..." Jane said. "You know, I think it is. I think that... Well, maybe not when we get back to your place, Brandon, 'cause, you know. That's kind of, um."
Brandon laughed. "Yeah, could be."
"But... Soon," Jane said. "Some time soon." She smiled. "Maybe even after we get back on Sunday."
Sajel turned to Scott and nodded. "It's serious."
"Jane's gonna give it up," Zach said.
"Well, I'm... Not exactly a virgin," Jane said, blushing a little.
"No, but your first time with anyone is special," Brandon said. "Even if it's not your first time-first time."
"And besides, Jane, you're giving him something a lot more important," Meredith said: "You're giving him your heart."
Jane thought about that.
"...Yeah," she said. She smiled. "Yeah."
"Excuse me," Hugh said from behind her. "I, um. Partially out of thanks for your hospitality, I decided to spring for dessert. You folks have—" He rubbed at the back of his head with one hand. "You've been more than welcoming, and so patient, and so kind, and— I always wondered where Jane gets it, but now I think I know."
Her friends smiled and nodded and murmured appropriately modest replies.
"So, partially out of thanks," said Hugh, and some of the wait staff came forward bearing delicacy. No wonder he took so long in the bathroom, Jane thought, he was setting all of this up.
"But also..." Hugh said, his voice moving to over her shoulder.
When Jane's little cake thing (she never had time actually identify it) landed on the table in front of her, there was something shiny in it. Curious, and somewhat confused, she plucked a diamond ring out of the frosting.
When she turned to look at Hugh Stratton, he was already down on one knee.
Then the waiters were clapping, and Brandon laughing, and Meredith dabbing at her eyes with a napkin (Christa too), and Laurelyn singing "Happy Birthday," of all things, in rather the wrong key, and forks dropping all over the restaurant as people stared at the commotion, especially Scott and Sajel whooping like banshees; but Jane didn't notice any of it, because she had thrown herself into his arms and was holding on with more strength than she'd known she had. In later years she would realize it was probably uncomfortable for him; but, at the time, she didn't notice at all. Besides, what else was a girl to do?
Besides the obvious.
She snagged Brandon as they filed out of the restaurant, Meredith ahead to keep control of Laurelyn. Quickly, she explained what she had in mind.
"Are you sure?" Brandon said. "I mean, it's an okay set-up for sleeping, but that air mattress is kind of unstable—it's not gonna be very comfortable. Or very romantic, for that matter."
"I know," Jane said, though in truth it didn't seem important at all. "We'll cope." She grinned. "I'm sure we'll cope."
Brandon stopped, and turned to Jane, and took her by the shoulders, his eyes serious. "Are you sure?" he said.
Jane beamed at him. "More sure than I've ever been in my life."
Meredith dashed over to the Cranes' car while Brandon got Laurie settled into the car seat, but Jane didn't notice; she was sitting arm-in-arm next to her man, barely even noticing the discomfort of being in the middle seat. Today, everything was rose-colored. And it must have worked, because when they got back to the Chamberses' apartment, Brandon let them in but did not stray over the threshold himself. "We thought... Well, Zach and Christa have invited us over to their place for a bit of a nightcap, and, if you like, we thought we'd give you a bit of a chance for, ah. Privacy."
She saw Hugh's eyebrows climb into his hair again. He looked over at her. Jane had, in the intervening minutes, prepared herself to put on a convincing smile... But now, in the moment, she discovered she didn't need it. She didn't need to fake any enthusiasm at all.
More sure than I've ever been in my life.
"I, ah," said Hugh. "I think that... Would be nice."
"Alrighty then," Brandon said, grinning. "Oh, and: check the left-side drawer, the middle one: Meredith had a hunch." (This turned out to contain an unopened box of condoms.) "We'll be back, say... Eleven 'o'clock?"
"That sounds... Just fine," Hugh said.
"Then, enjoy," Brandon said, and they were gone.
Hugh looked down at the woman who would be his wife. "Where'd they get an idea like this?"
At the time, Jane couldn't say—in fact, it would be some years before she could admit the truth. At the time, she merely shrugged and said, "They get some strange ideas sometimes." She punctuated this with a slightly giddy giggle. She felt drunk, drunk in the most marvelous way, and she intended to take advantage of it.
"Do you not like it?" she said.
He tilted his head for a moment, considering, and then smiled. "No, I like it," he said, drawing her to him. "I like it just fine."
In point of fact it was closer to 11:30 PM when the Chamberses returned to their apartment. They had spent an enjoyable night with the Cranes, as well as Sajel and her boyfriend; but it was Friday night after a long work week, and Scott, as had before him, had become increasingly displeased with his outsider status as the night passed. There had been some hissed words between them, and Brandon was worried about what they would say to each other once they were in private. If he—or Sajel—didn't have the wits to hold their tongues until they'd both gotten some sleep... Well, Sajel had dealt with break-ups before, and she'd always have her friends to fall back on. That was what friends were for—even if, arguably, they had caused the break-up in the first place.
"Do you think they're done?" he asked Meredith in a whisper.
Meredith leaned her head close to the front door—easier for her, since she didn't have a slumbering three-year-old draped across one shoulder. "Sounds quiet." She opened the door, which made its traditional squeaking noise.
From the outside lights they could see that the living room was deserted, which Brandon had expected—Hugh and Jane would be smart enough to move things to their impromptu bedroom before they got really steamy. Still, it didn't hurt to be cautious. Flicking on the lights, they got to work: Meredith dogging down the remains of the day's supplies, while Brandon put his sleeping child to bed.
For a moment he stood there, his hand on Laurelyn's back, feeling the gentle rise and fall of the tiny lungs. His hand was larger than her head. He had always assumed the feelings of wonder would die off—This is mine, I made this, out of my body and that of my beloved's came this miracle, this child, this innocent magical thing—certainly his own parents had seemed to forget it, had begun to take their only child for granted. He had assumed he would too.
He had assumed wrong.
As he stepped out of Laurelyn's room, he came face-to-face with Hugh, who was stepping bleary-eyed into the bathroom. He was wearing nothing whatsoever. His chest was smooth and almost totally hairless, but there was no mistaking the breadth of his shoulders, the definition in his arms and chest. His penis, red from use, was a thing to behold—probably twice as large as Brandon's, even in its flaccid state. Brandon, who could muster an average physique at best, felt positively shrimpy in comparison. This was a man.
In more ways than one, probably.
"Congratulations," Brandon said to him, giving him a genuine smile.
"Thanks," said Hugh. He seemed mortified, though whether by the conversation or the fact of his nakedness Brandon could not say.
"Well, Hugh's heading to the bathroom," Brandon told his wife. "What do you wanna bet they wake up and do it again?"
"I hope they aren't noisy about it," Meredith said. "They might wake Laurelyn. But then, Jane never struck me as the—what, I don't know, the animal type. More of the romantic."
"Probably," Brandon agreed. "Though you never know."
"And besides..." Meredith said. "Jane? Do it again?" She grinned at her husband and snapped off the light.
Brandon drew her to him, curled up together like shrimp on a rack. They rarely slept unclothed anymore; though the sex had lost none of its sweetness, he felt somehow that they had outgrown it, that their love had transcended mere physicality. The sensation of his wife's skin against his own was just that, a sensation; they had shared more and deeper than that. ...And yet, he realized, his hand was clasping her breast. It always did when they slept like this (which they did, more often than not). It was, of course, a natural handle for him to hold on to, and he liked feeling her heart beat under his palm; but now it was habit too; he didn't know if he could change it if he tried.
And it was her breast, after all—shallow, white, capped with a delicate pink nipple. A breast that had nursed him, and then their daughter, and then him again, each in their turn. Her breast. His breast. Theirs.
Suddenly he was aware of her body in his arms, the warm and strength, like light given form; of her bottom, nestled into the curve of his hip; of her breast, warm and vibrant under his hand; of the smell of her hair, of her body. And he thought: Maybe we aren't as old as I thought we were.
"She might," he said, his brain snapping back to the conversation with unexpected clarity. "She's that type."
"Prudish?" Meredith asked.
"No, not... She's..." He struggled to put the right words in the right places. "She's uninhibited."
She laughed. "This about the girl who wouldn't kiss you for four months?"
"No, she's... Yeah, she didn't. Because she's... Well, maybe uninhibited isn't the right word. Maybe it is. It's... Whatever she does, she does with her whole heart. If it's time to be chaste, it's time to be chaste, and she focuses on that single-mindedly. If, on the other hand, it's time to be sensuous..."
"Which, to judge by her actions, it is."
"Yeah. I think Hugh may have unlocked more than he bargained for. She isn't going to hesitate. It's time to make love to him now, and she'll go into that whole-heartedly too. She'll enjoy it and love it and gobble it up."
He heard her smile, felt her back against him as she giggled. "Do you think he has the strength?"
"I dunno, from what I saw of him when he went to the bathroom, it looks like he's, um, got the necessary goods."
A full laugh this time. "You saw him naked and I didn't?"
"Trust me, the gods are having mercy. If you'd seen him, you'd have defected in an instant."
"He is handsome."
"Which is, again, why you didn't see him. So that I could keep my beautiful wife all to myself."
"What if your beautiful wife wants a look?" she challenged, smiling.
"Then her husband will have to keep her so busy she never has a chance to look."
"Oh?" She twisted in his arms to look at him. "And how do you propose to do that?"
Well, there was only one answer to that question.
Jane knew none of it. Later, after the joys, after the doubts, after the conversations, she would talk with Brandon and Meredith about it, and confirm what he had said—that it was time, and there was no reason to hold back anymore, and did they have any ideas for new things to try?, because she and Hugh had already run their ingenuities dry. And tomorrow morning she would have to face her parents, and show them the ring, and endure their exclamations and consternation and protest that it had only happened, like, eighteen hours ago, when was she supposed to call them? But all of that was to come later. For now, she knew nothing but smiles and sleep, and the sensation of her fiancée’s skin against her own as he held her close, his hand curling around her breast, his chest against her back, his body sheltering her from all other storms; snug and warm and safe, her body content and her heart at peace; and as he joined her she woke just enough to murmur the only thing she needed to say:
"It was time."
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