Saturday, October 31, 2009

forty-six: one last time

I'm not one to embed videos, but this deserves it:

And onto the story. It's been a hard chapter to write....

Soundtrack Song - Bullet for My Valentine, All These Things I Hate

"Would you like to explain why you're fucking my girlfriend?"

"John!" I yell, shocked and annoyed and angry and pissed off and confused and furious and a million other things, too. I was stunned to see him there, but that off-color comment snapped me back into reality. How dare he come here and say something like that! It's wrong on so many levels. I don't know what to say; there's so much swimming around in my head that I can't concentrate on one. I want to say that I don't have an excuse. That I don't need an excuse. Because I'm not his girlfriend anymore. I left him. He may not have thought I was serious on that day in late spring when I boarded the bus, but didn't he get the hint when I changed my number? Speaking of changing my number, how did he even know where to find me? And why would he think it's okay to just show up here? How dare he!

Max places his arm in front of me, creating a barrier between me and John. It's more symbolic than a physical blockade, showing me that Max wants to protect me and fight for me. "Hold on a second," Max tells him. "She's not your girlfriend."

"Why don't you stay out of this?" John grinds out between his teeth to Max, before turning back to me. "What excuse are you going to give me this time?"

"I'm not staying out of anything," Max growls, demanding John's focus. "You have some nerve showing up here like this."

"I have some nerve? I'm not the one screwing another man's girl. You're the one with some nerve, buddy," John spits.

"I'm not your buddy." Max takes a step toward John. He pushes me behind his back. The situation is quickly escalating, and I need to defuse it. Not because I don't want Max to pummel John—I would like that very much, in fact—but because I can't let him. I've heard through the grapevine all the repercussions Sidney's dealing with after being accused of hitting Noelle, and I can't let Max get arrested for beating the shit out of someone.

I grab a hold of Max's arm and pull him back a little, stepping into the space between them. This line of arguing isn't going anywhere, and this isn't Max's fight anyway. It's mine. "Cut it out, guys. That's enough. I'm not your girlfriend anymore, John, and I haven't been for months. You have no right to show up here like this and say something like that. I don't even know how you could think that would be remotely okay."

"Your mother," John replies, still trying to stare down Max as I stand between them, "led me to believe that you'd be happy to see me."

Of course. My mother loves John, and she would have done anything if she thought it would mean I would get back together with him. She didn't understand why I wanted to leave him or why I wanted to leave Chicago, and I certainly wouldn't put it past her to try something like this in order to patch up our relationship. I owe her a very irate phone call.

"She was wrong. I'm not happy to see you, and I never want to see you again. Just go, John," I tell him, feeling confident with Max there to back me up. I'm absorbing the strength that he's irradiating.

"I'm not leaving until I have answers, Charlotte," he says.

"What else do you need to know?" I holler at him, raising my voice. This man is infuriating in his adamant persistence. To think I used to admire that quality in him. "It's over! And if you didn't believe me before, now we have a witness."

The neighbor across the hall opens her door a crack. "Do you mind?" she calls out. Stupid lady always get in my business.

"Let's do this inside," John suggests, but it's not at all a suggestion. He brushes past me and walks right into my apartment, like I invited him in. It's a bold move, in my opinion, to turn his back on Max, because there's fire in his eyes which he is trying to douse. Max is trying to keep his anger and incredulity in check. But this is typical John; he's assuming he has control and therefore acts that way. I used to like that kind of attitude, that cocky confidence. Max acts that way sometimes, too, but he'd never do something like this. He understands boundaries.

"What an asshole," Max mutters under his breath, but I hear it.

"You're telling me," I scoff. "What am I supposed to do? I don't want him here."

"I can hear you," John calls from the living room. He's sitting on the couch, having set the bottle of wine on the coffee table.

"Good! I don't want you here!" I yell, losing my composure and my sanity.

"Okay, let's take a deep breath and calm down," Max says, rubbing his hands over his eyes. I feel so bad for him, for being dragged into this situation and for it happening right now. "Yelling isn't going to help."

I don't want to be rational and clear-headed right now. "Yes it is! Yelling is going to make me feel a lot better! This is why you don't talk about things like this! It's like he's a demon, and just saying his name conjures him up from the depths of Hell."

"I think that's a bit of an exaggeration. And you did the right thing in telling me."

"So it's just a coincidence that he shows up the day after I tell you all about him? God, what else do I have to do to make it clear to him that I don't want anything to do with him anymore?"

Max shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe you should just try talking to him, calmly, and we can find out why he's here and what he wants. And what it takes to end this, once and for all."

John speaks up again. "We? I don't think so. You're not involved in this. You can leave," he tells Max, ignoring me.

As long as these two guys are in the same room, nothing's going to be resolved. Max knows this, even though I don't want to admit it; I need Max with me, after all. I can't resolve anything without being able to feed off of his strength.

"He's staying," I smugly inform John.

"He's right," Max says meekly behind me. I turn slowly to look at him. I did not just hear him say that. "This is between you and John."

"That doesn't mean you can't be here for me," I whisper, so John can't hear. I don't want him to know that my backbone is breaking and my courage is wavering.

He speaks back in hushed tones. "This is your chance to make him understand. I'm going to run home, take my contacts out and grab some clothes, and I'll be back in fifteen minutes. And when I come back, if I need to, I'll beat it into him."

"Fuck, Max. Don't say things like that. Just stay and back me up. I can't do it without you."

"Yes, you can, Charlotte. You're stronger than you think you are. And you and I both know that nothing will get fixed as long as I'm here. Fifteen minutes. Twelve, if I speed," he says as he looks down at me with a smile he doesn't mean. "Unless you're scared of him."

I look back at John, who's waiting impatiently now that he can't hear our conversation. "No. I'm not scared of him. I just... can't do it alone. Max, I can't."

"You can. Ne t'inquiète pas. Tout va aller bien. Je le promets." He kisses my forehead. "Twelve minutes," he announces, shooting a scowl at John before he turns and leaves, just like that.

For a moment, I just stand there at the closed door, from which Max just left. I can't believe he abandoned me when I need him the most. He may have faith in me that I can do this, but I'm not so sure of that at all. I finally turn around, and John's looking at me and awaiting some type of reaction or move from me. I feel so vulnerable, naked, and raw without my source of strength to draw from. That's when I look down and see that I practically am naked.

"I'm going to put some clothes on, and then you and I are going to have a serious discussion about how you need to leave me the fuck alone," I tell him, heading into my room and closing the door behind me. I know I only have a limited span of time to do this, to convince him of what a jerk he's being, but I need to gather my all my resources to get it done.

I pull on a pair of jeans and then take off my shirt as I reach for a sports bra to throw over my head. As I work, I go over everything in my mind. I need to tell him that we were long over, and that we have no future. We never did, and it's time he realizes it, too. He needs to not talk to my family, and leave us all alone. Leave me alone.

The door opens, and I turn as John steps into my room. I instinctively shriek and cover my chest. I cross my arms across myself. "Get out, John!"

"Why? It's nothing I haven't seen before," he laughs.

"That doesn't matter!" I yell, grabbing something more substantial to provide coverage over my bare top. "You can't act like this anymore! I'm not your girlfriend, so you can't act like you deserve to be here. You don't."

"I put in for vacation time to come out here before my meetings, so I could spend more time with you. I told you I was coming to Pittsburgh to see you—"

"No, you're here for work. You're not here to see me."

"Then why am I here, in your apartment, in your room, if I'm not here to see you?"

"I.... I don't know." I look down at the floor.

"You know, your mother called me to see if I still wanted to come over for Thanksgiving," he says, taking another step toward me. Of course she would. My mom felt so bad that John's parents were dead and that he had spent the holidays alone before I brought him home. She felt that he was a part of our family now, like the son she never had. "But when she said you wouldn't be there, I couldn't imagine being there without you. The holidays should be spent with family and loved ones. I hated to think you were going to be alone in Pittsburgh," he spits out, as if that were a fate worse than death.

"Well, that goes to show you that you shouldn't worry about me. I am spending the holiday with a loved one. And it's not you," I tell him.

That puts a frown on his face as he makes another move closer to me. "What? That guy that doesn't even call you by your name? He loves you?" I nod; even though he hasn't said it, I know he does. He does. And I don't mind at all that he calls me "baby." I like it, actually. "Does he even know your name?"


"Did he make you change? Make you lose the weight? Because you were pretty enough before, Charlotte. You should never have to change for someone else."

"He didn't change me, John. I did that, and I happen to like who I am now."

"You're the same girl inside. The same girl I met at the bar. Does he know you like I do?" he asks, taking another step forward.

"No," I begin, taking a step back to maintain the distance between us, and I keep moving until my back's against the wall. "He knows me a lot better than you ever did. Max treats me a lot better, too. He's everything you aren't."

"You just want to throw away the three years we spent together like they meant nothing? I don't waste my time, Charlotte. I wouldn't have spent that time with you for nothing." He's right in front of me now.

"I don't see it as throwing away three years. I see it as opening up my future for something bigger and better. For someone bigger and better," I say, tossing out that last statement to hurt him. Immature, yes; but it's about time the tables turn.

John reaches out and brushes his fingers against the side of my neck below my ear. I clench my jaw and tighten my grip against the sweatshirt that I'm holding up in front of me. "Does he know how much you like to be kissed right here?"

"Don't touch me," I order. "This is over and done. Why can't you see that?"

He retracts his hand. "Why are you so insistent that we're broken up?"

"Because we are!" I scream, holding nothing back. "I left! I left Chicago! You watched the bus drive away, you saw it with your own eyes! I told you goodbye! I blocked your e-mails and I changed my phone number! What else do I need to do? John, I hate you and I want you to leave me the fuck alone already!

"I came here for you. And this is how you repay me?" He's so calm, even though I'm screaming my head off at him. He makes me feel so crazy, like I'm overreacting.

I groan. We're back at square one. "Did you not hear a thing I just said? It's like talking to a kumquat! You shouldn't have just showed up and think that things were going to be okay. I've been ignoring you for weeks now, so I can't believe you didn't get it. You're seriously retarded. What did you think was going on, huh? When I left and stopped talking to you?"

John shrugs, and it's the first time in our entire relationship that he looks indecisive or unaware. "You needed to figure out what you wanted."

If I didn't need to hold something up in front of me, I would have thrown my hands in the air. "I've figured out what I need. And it's not you. Did you think I'd suddenly realize I missed you? That I needed you? Because I don't. I need you to get the fuck out of my life!"

"Three years," he growls, coming back closer to me. His hand balls into a fist and he raises it at his side; I've always known John had a temper, but it's never been directed at me like this before. He usually would just cut me down with his words, and that was enough to whip me into shape and grovel to get on his good side again. Not this time, however. I wasn't going to cower down, and now he doesn't know how to react.

His arm falls back down to his side as he realizes what he was about to do. As much of an asshole as he is, he was never physically abusive. I have the upper hand now, so to speak. "Three miserable years, John." He's more focused on the fact that the time he wasted with me could have spent doing something, or someone, else. He just doesn't get it. I try to explain with cool composure, "We weren't having a good time together anymore. You were constantly reminding me of everything wrong or bad that I did. Not only did that make me feel like shit, but you couldn't have been happy if I was doing things that you didn't like. I don't understand why you want this thing between us to continue. We were a mess, dysfunctional."

"Relationships aren't perfect, Charlotte. So we hit a few bumps in the road—"

"A few bumps?" I laugh. It's not funny, but laughter is my initial reaction. I must be going crazy. "We have very differing opinions on the past three years, apparently."

"Apparently," he says, quietly. "But Charlotte, I miss you."

Those words wash over me and give me goosebumps. I close my eyes and wonder: how many times this summer have I wished to hear him say that? They're three simple words, but they mean so much. I miss you. I dreamt every night that he'd realize what he was lacking when I left, and he'd wake up and snap out of the funk he was in and be that person he once was.

But even if he were willing to change, it wouldn't be enough. Not now. It makes me sad to hear him say that now. And I tell him so. "It's too late, John. I'm over it. I've moved on. And now it's your turn to do so."

"Don't say that. There has to be some way we can fix this."

I shake my head and get angry again. Why won't he just give up and let it go? It may have taken me months to get over him, but once I made the decision, I stuck with it. I didn't run back to Chicago and beg for forgiveness. I may have dreamt and hoped that he'd show up at my door and beg me to take him back.... Well, isn't it funny how these things happen? I finally got what I wanted, only to find out that I didn't want it anymore.

"No, John," I spit. "You can't fix what's irrevocably broken. That's why you should just go."

"And that's it? We can't be friends?"

"No. I want you out of my life. I want to pretend like I never met you, and like you don't exist. So I'd appreciate it if you leave my apartment and leave me alone."

He shifts his weight to his other foot and leans a little closer to me. "What do you say to one last time, huh? I came all this way to find you, so why don't you make this last memory a happy one?"

"You're disgusting," I spit.

"Why? It never bothered you before, when you cheated on me," he says, leering at me.

"That was just kissing. I said I was sorry. You can't keep holding it over my head. No, I won't let you hold that over me anymore. Because what I did stupidly back then doesn't matter anymore. We're over. Get out."

"Once I'm out the door, don't think you can come crawling back," he grunts.

"Oh, believe me, I won't," I laugh. "You'll never have to worry about that."

"You're such a stupid little bitch." Typical John, resorting to name calling. It still cuts me when he talks like this, and I'm so sick of it. Even though I hate him and want nothing to do with him, he can still play with my emotions.

I wonder if this will ever stop. "Yes, I am a bitch. Now get the fuck out!"

His hand comes up again, but he points it in my face. "You're going to regret this day, Charlotte. You're going to regret it for the rest of your life!" Without another word, he turns away and leaves. I don't relax until I hear the door click into place on his way out.

I collapse on my bed and drop the sweatshirt, burying my head in my hands instead. It seems like no matter how often or how hard I cry, I can't completely purge myself of this. Hopefully, though, this will be the last time I'll ever have to do this. After a few minutes, I can hear the door open again, and footsteps back into the apartment.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

forty-five: booby-trap

Short, I know. And I can't guarantee a post for the next couple of days, since I'll be busy. Don't hate me, please, if I leave you hanging.

I'm feeling pretty good. I mean, sure things could have gone better, gone a little more smoothly, but sometimes you just have to take it for what it's worth.

No doubt, I'm in over my head. This feels so different this time around. It's not bad, just very different, and definitely more overwhelming. Are there degrees of love? Can you be more in love with one person when you say you're in love, than you are with another person?

"I'd better get home and change into other clothes. And I need to take my contacts out," Max says as he rubs his eyes. "Do you want to go out for dinner?"

"It's Thanksgiving," I tell him. "Nothing's going to be open. I mean, you'd have to have made reservations already. I have stuff for a make-shift meal. It won't be a conventional Thanksgiving, but it will be good enough for me."

"Okay, baby. If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me." He rolls off me and starts searching for his clothes. Now that I have space to breath again, I take the opportunity to let out a deep breath, exhaling some of my frustration and happiness. I have a feeling that life with Max is going to be a lot like this. Frustrating and happy, all at the same time.

While he begins to change, I swing my legs over the side of the bed and stretch before padding into the kitchen. Since I knew I was going to be spending the day alone, I didn't buy much in the way of Thanksgiving staples, but I had the bare necessities: a frozen turkey breast, gravy packets, instant mashed potatoes, and Stove Top stuffing. Of course, I had bought a pumpkin pie. If I had thought about spending the day with Max, I would have made it from scratch—and when I say from scratch, I mean from a can.

I search the cupboard for a can of corn, and when I find that, I figure our meal will be complete. Except brown-n-serve rolls! Everyone knows it's not Thanksgiving without those.

"Hey, Maxie. Would you mind terribly stopping by one of the stores, if they're open?"

"Sure. What do you need?" he asks, stepping into the kitchen area. His clothes are all wrinkled. I don't remember how he shed them last night, but he didn't hang them up or fold them.

"You look like a ragamuffin," I laugh, reaching out to try and smooth out some of the creases so he looks less like a homeless person and more respectable. His fingers reach out to play with the hem of the tee shirt I'm wearing, because that's all I'm wearing, besides my boy shorts.

"A what?"

"A ragamuffin," I inform him, trying to suppress another giggle as I look at the confusion on his face.


"Never mind," I say. "I don't have any rolls. Would you mind stopping for some?" I move away from him and look for my purse, so I can give him some money.

Max waves his hand in the air, dismissing my action. "Don't worry about it. Give me about an hour?"

"Okay. That's plenty of time." I look at the clock, and it's just after eleven. I can't believe it's that late in the day already. "We'll eat early, like around one?"

"That's early for dinner."

"The point is to eat early, and then eat pie a couple of hours later, and then eat left-overs again after that. At least, that's how we always did things in my family."

He smiles at me and begins to head for the door. "Whatever you say. You're the expert. I'll be right back," he promises.

I very cheesily blow him a kiss as he turns for the door, and then I move back into the kitchen to preheat the oven. I figure I'll jump in the shower while it warms up, and then I can throw in the turkey breast to start cooking. I hear the door open as I check the package before I turn the oven on to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Two and a half hours to cook this little thing? Oh well. I rip off the plastic wrapping to find netting around the frozen breast. Butterball has booby-trapped my turkey. Can I cook it like this? I reach for the scissors to perform surgery and free my turkey.

"Baby?" I hear Max call from the hallway. I thought he had left.

"Yeah?" I call back, wondering what he wants without making a move to see.

"Can you come here for a second?"

I groan quietly and roll my eyes, putting down the frozen puzzle. Cooking would be a lot easier if he wouldn't distract me. I turn the corner and look into the hallway, where I can see Max standing with the door open, looking out into the outside hallway rather than at my approach. "What is it?" I ask, continuing my walk to the doorway.

When I get to the threshold, I look at whatever is captivating Max's attention. There's a man on my doorstep. Like, Max, he's dressed in a suit, although his isn't wrinkled at all. Instead, it's crisply pressed and very professional looking. His dark hair is slick-backed and gelled, making it look almost black instead of brown. His hazel eyes flit from looking at Max to looking at me. When he sees me, the corner of his mouth pulls upward in a dark smirk. He proffers a bottle of white wine. I hate white wine; he knows that.

A few moments pass before I can speak, because I'm stunned silent. "How...? And why? What are you doing here?"

"I didn't want you to be alone on the holiday." Those eyes move up and down, taking in the entire length of my body and noticing that I'm only wearing a big, baggy tee shirt. He then looks at Max. "But it looks like you weren't."

"You know him?" Max asks, looking between the two of us.

"Yes," I whisper, thinking that maybe I'm dreaming. More like having a nightmare.

"Why don't you introduce us?" the other man suggests. His eyes are shining with mischief.

Max looks at me, wanting in our little secret. "Max, this is John. John," I say, with a sigh, "this is Max."

Charlotte blows me a kiss, and it makes me chuckle to myself. It's a silly little display of affection, and I can't believe it makes my heart skip a beat. I consider myself a romantic guy—at least moreso than the rest of my uncultured teammates—but I can't believe that such a simple gesture makes me feel this way.

I leave her in just her tee shirt, knowing I've got to get home and take out my contacts. They're killing me. A scalding hot shower sounds good right about now, too, in order to wash off the layer of sweat that builds up only after a hot night spent together with a feisty cat between the sheets.

Reaching out for the door knob, I throw open the door, but I'm met with someone else on the other side, looking at a piece of paper in his left hand while his right is poised to knock on the door.

This stranger gives me an odd look and then double-checks what's written on the paper in his hand. He looks back up at me and says, "I'm looking for Charlotte Bickley. Is this her apartment?"

Something about this doesn't seem right. Today is an American holiday, so this isn't a business call. No one's working today. So why is there a man, dressed in a suit, looking for Charlotte? And he's holding a bottle of wine. Why? She would have told me if she was expecting someone. In fact, she told me she was originally planning on spending the day alone.

I yell back into the apartment, but I never take my eyes off him. The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end, and I'm not sure why. "Baby?"

"Yeah?" she replies, as I hear her work in the kitchen.

"Can you come here for a second?" I ask.

The stranger folds the piece of paper and shoves it into his pocket, seemingly satisfied that he's found the right place. He pulls on the lapels of his jacket and cracks his neck as he waits.

"What is it?" she asks, rubbing her hands against the material of her shirt. I don't answer her, and she walks all the way over to me until she's standing beside me. Instantly, I feel as her body tenses beside me.

Something's definitely not right. He smiles, but it's not a happy expression. I don't want to say it's evil, but there's something wrong about it. This man looks between Charlotte and me, as if he's seeing something he shouldn't or like he's letting himself in on a secret. He stretches out his arm to hand Charlotte the bottle of wine in his hand, which she doesn't make a move to accept.

When Charlotte finally speaks, her voice sounds shaky. "How...? And why? What are you doing here?"

"I didn't want you to be alone on the holiday. But it looks like you weren't," he counters.

I'm missing something. I want so badly to know what these two know that I don't. "You know him?"

"Yes." Her answer is so quiet. All the alarms are going off, the lights and signs are flashing that something's wrong.

"Why don't you introduce us?" the other man suggests. His eyes are boring a hole into her almost; that's how intently he's looking at her. Observing her, like she's a specimen and he's trying to figure out how she's going to react.

She looks at me, looking back at her. Her face is pale and drawn. "Max, this is John. John, this is Max."

Suddenly it makes sense, but yet it doesn't. Now I know why she's so freaked out, but that doesn't explain what he's doing here.

John outstretches his free hand for me to shake. "It's to meet you," he says politely, as I take his hand and shake it quickly. It's cold and clammy. "Would you like to explain why you're fucking my girlfriend?"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

forty-four: ...oops

Soundtrack Song - Lifehouse, First Time

When I wake up in the morning, something's different. The room is the same, and the man beside me hasn't changed. But there is a distinct shift in the atmosphere.

I throw off the covers and try to move over Max, but I wake him up as I try to unpin myself between him and the wall. "And where do you think you're going?" he asks, snaking an arm around my waist and pulling me on top of him. His voice is gruff from sleep and his accent's a little thicker, and I love the way he sounds first thing in the morning.

I put my palms against the flat top of the bed and push myself up so my weight's not crushing him. "I'm getting up."

"And why would you want to do that?" He nuzzles against my neck, and I wonder why I wanted to get up at all. I've suddenly forgotten.

"Mmm, I don't know," I tell him, letting him roll me onto my back and hover over me. I love when he takes control. But he doesn't kiss me or make a move; he just looks down at me, making me squirm a little. "What are you doing?"


"That's my point," I laugh, trying to duck under his arm and escape from underneath him. Max's weight prevents me from being able to. "Either do something or let me get up."

Still he doesn't make a move. "You look beautiful this morning," he whispers, saying it so low that I have to hold my breath to hear it.

I think that's the first time anyone's ever said those words to me. I've heard "pretty" and "cute," but never beautiful. Part of me wants to melt and the other part wants to roll my eyes; not when I feel like I've been whacked in the face with a baseball bat. After crying for half the night, I physically feel like shit.

Before I have to a chance to decide how to react, he brings his mouth down to mine. It's soft and gentle, the complete opposite of urgent. It's nice just to kiss him and not feel like it's heading somewhere else or like it's a means to an end. Moments like these often get passed up and overlooked, but I love this basic simplicity. I love the way his facial hair scratches my chin. How our noses rub together when we tilt our heads in different positions. The way he plants kisses over my closed eyelids so I can catch my breath before our lips touch again. Even how I'm tempted to let go of his shoulders and move my hands lower, but I'm hesitant to do so, because I want to make this moment last forever.

I figure out what feels so different. It's me. I feel calm and relaxed, like after a tough week of finals when I've studied and prepared, did my best, and now I sit back and wait for the results. The ton of rocks has been removed from my chest, and my lungs can work again. I haven't felt this way in years; it's been so long, in fact, that I've forgotten what this feels like. I'm free, untethered, unfettered—evidenced by the fact that I'm willing to look forward, beyond today, and look toward tomorrow, because now I'm released from my past.

Max was so great to me last night. Being able to reach this point in my life was only made possible by him. How am I supposed to put my thanks, my undying gratitude, and my bottomless debt to him into words? And Max was unbelievable throughout it all. Maybe I thought he'd run away or realize that it wasn't worth it to try to stick with me while I crazily worked all this out. When I opened myself up and revealed my old scars, I expected fresh pain. Instead, he reassured me that his feelings hadn't changed and he wasn't going anywhere, reinforcing my conviction that is the most amazing person on this planet. I didn't think God made men like this, and not just because I feel jaded; because even saints pale in comparison to Maxime Talbot. I'll have to thank his mother.

Wow, I can't believe I just thought about that. Meeting his mother. I must be crazy: crazy about this man.

"So, if we're not going to stay in bed all day, what do you propose we do?" Max asks, resting his forehead against mine and looking into my eyes. I love those mesmerizing and captivating blue pools.

My brain is mush. His kisses do that to me, and after the past... forty-eight hours, it will take a miracle to get the synapses in my brain to start firing properly again. I have to wait a few moments to come back to Earth to answer him properly, because my mind is somewhere else completely. "Watch the parade. Eat turkey and pie. Scan the advertisements for really good Black Friday shopping deals."

When Max laughs, the whole bed shakes a little. "That is what you want to do today, instead of stay in bed?"

"Yeah," I chuckle, rubbing his bicep. I love his arms. "We Americans are heavily steeped in tradition, especially when it involves food and overindulgence and gluttony and materialism."

"Maybe we need to start a new tradition," he mumbles, his lips centimeters from mine.

I giggle at his idea of a new tradition as he nibbles on my bottom lip. I love his kisses. Can I hire a doctor to surgically attach my lips to his? I don't want to do anything other than this for the rest of my life—screw eating and breathing. My brain liquefies again, which is probably why I let slip without thinking, "I love you."

Oh, no. Please tell me I didn't just say that. By the way Max's eyes widen and how he repositions himself to straddle me and rest his weight on his knees, I know I said what I think I said. And I can't believe I just did that.

Max just continues to look at me. His eyes quickly move back and forth, like they would during REM sleep, almost as if he was trying to read me like a hockey play on the ice and he's trying to determine his next move. His mouth is ajar, and I keep waiting to hear him say something, anything, because he always has something to say, but he's speechless. I do the only thing I can think of to offset my utter humiliation: I grab the pillow behind my head and cover my face. I'm not an infant, and I know that I don't disappear just because I can't see him, but I really really hope this bed will just swallow me whole and save me from this.

Why did I just say that?! It was like a knee-jerk reaction. Why did I have to take the perfect moment and ruin it? I always do this! My mouth always says things it shouldn't, and it seems like I'm powerless to prevent this from happening.

"Baby," Max says softly. "Don't do that." I can feel as he tries to remove the pillow, but I hold on for dear life, even if it means I'll suffocate. When he next talks, he sounds annoyed. "Come on, Charlotte. Let go."

"No," I tell him, my voice sounding muffled by the cotton.

He stops trying to pull. "Did you mean it? Or are you freaking out because you said it by accident?"

Was it an accident? Absolutely. Those three special words, or special three words, came out of nowhere. Wasn't there supposed to be a defining moment when I realized it prior to saying it? Wasn't I supposed to have this overwhelming epiphany? I didn't know that I loved him when those words popped out of my mouth. On the contrary, I didn't want to love him at all. I didn't think I was ready, and I didn't think I ever wanted to give my heart away to someone who could destroy it again.

But did I mean it? Absolutely. I don't know the how or the why I said it before I was aware that I did, but I absolutely love Max. I'm not sure when it happened or how or why, but maybe this is my defining moment. Once the words left my mouth, it felt so natural and right. "Yes," I admit through the additional layers of fabric. "I meant it."

"Then why are you hiding?" He tries to pull the pillow away again, but I don't relent my grip. "Let go, Charlotte."

"No. I'm embarrassed."

"Merde. Why are you embarrassed? Don't be," he coaxes.

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I didn't even want to fall in love with you, let alone tell you this way."

"What? You didn't want to?" Max sounds hurt, and that's what makes me release my hold and surrender.

I cast aside the pillow and cup his face in my hands. His jaw's clenched, signifying he's mad and upset. "Max, listen to me. I came to Pittsburgh to get over my past. You know that. I didn't expect to meet someone like you. Hell, I didn't want to meet someone like you. I was actively trying to be alone. I thought I needed to get myself right, and I thought I needed to do it on my own. I didn't think meeting someone else was going to help, and I didn't think it could have helped. Maybe if I had met anyone else, that would have been the case, but it wasn't. This is all on you. You came into my life like a force, and you helped me. Max, you made me feel this way. I never had a choice or a say in the matter."

"Say it again," he orders. His voice is demanding, but he's smiling and his eyes are sparkling.

"Maxime, I love you," I say, and this time I feel the way I think I should feel when I say it: warm and fuzzy, like I've just consumed a mug of hot chocolate with a splash of Bailey's while wrapped in a polar fleece blanket. He tries to use his mouth for kissing instead of for talking. I don't necessarily expect those words back, but I want to hear what he's thinking or how he's feeling. "Max." I place my hand over my lips to deter him. "Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Maybe we need to start a new tradition," I suggest, closing in for another kiss. That's all we've done this morning, just kiss and kiss, but I don't mind. I'm showing her that I'm here for her. The best way to show her would be to tell her, but she said she doesn't want promises, and if she doesn't want words or guarantees, then actions will have to do.

I pull back a little so we can get a move on and start our day. I've got to go home, change clothes, and take out my contacts. I guess we have a parade to watch and some food to eat. I'm about to ask her if she wants to go out for a nice dinner, since I doubt she has an entire turkey stored in her freezer, when she interrupts my thoughts. "I love you."

For a second, I'm not sure if I heard her correctly. I place a knee on either side of her body and shift my weight off her so I can peer at her and get a better look. My brain is searching for words and comes up with nothing. She loves me. That was quite possibly the last thing I expected her to say at that moment, and it's caught me a little off-guard, but she really said it. Charlotte loves me.

Before my elation can find a voice, her face falls and she reaches behind her for her pillow, smashing it over her head. "Baby, don't do that." She should be kissing me and touching me, loving me and not burying herself. I grab at the pillow to uncover her, but she's holding on tightly. My mind thinks back to the day I thought she was sick. I'm seeing a pattern. I get a little irritated with her. "Come on, Charlotte. Let go."

"No," she replies, and I can barely hear her.

"Did you mean it?" I ask, now worried that she said those words without truly feeling that way. It sucks if that's the case, but if it was a mistake, I'll understand. I'll be a little heartbroken, but I'll understand. "Or are you freaking out because you said it by accident?"

She pauses. I'm holding my breath as I wait for her answer. Oui. Please let her say yes. "Yes. I meant it."

I'm ridiculously relieved. She meant it. She loves me. "Then why are you hiding?" I ask, laughing at her. She's crazy and irrational and completely frustrating. I like her in spite of that, or despite of that, or maybe I find it interesting and endearing. She still won't release her death-grip on the pillow, even as I'm trying to rip it away. I want her to look me in the eyes and tell me again. "Let go, Charlotte."

"No. I'm embarrassed."

"Merde. Why are you embarrassed? Don't be," I continue to laugh. She's so self-conscious. She should be as happy as I am.

"It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I didn't even want to fall in love with you, let alone tell you this way."

My heart falls through my chest. "What?" How could she say that? What did she think we were doing spending all this time together? What was the point of getting to know each other if she wasn't interested in falling in love with me, if she didn't want to fall in love with me at all? "You didn't want to?" A thousand thoughts continue to buzz around my head, and none of them are pleasant.

Charlotte grabs my face with her hands and makes me look at her. Something in her eyes makes me take heed. "Max, listen to me. I came to Pittsburgh to get over my past. You know that. I didn't expect to meet someone like you. Hell, I didn't want to meet someone like you. I was actively trying to be alone. I thought I needed to get myself right, and I thought I needed to do it on my own. I didn't think meeting someone else was going to help, and I didn't think it could have helped. Maybe if I had met anyone else, that would have been the case, but it wasn't. This is all on you. You came into my life like a force, and you helped me. Max, you made me feel this way. I never had a choice or a say in the matter."

I know what it's like to not go around looking for love. But my mother always said that love finds you, not the other way around. That being said, I did everything I could to make her want me. That was the reason I promised to be friends. It's nice to know my hard work paid off. I want to reap the benefits. "Say it again."

"Maxime, I love you," she whispers. I feel waves of warmth wash over me. So many emotions. I just want to kiss her. "Max." Charlotte has other ideas, and covers her mouth. "Well?"

I know what she's getting at, but I decide to tease her and make her say it. "Well, what?" I ask, trying to look innocent.

"Well, aren't you going to say something after that? I just bared my soul. It would be nice if you said something."

"Thank you for telling me," I quietly whisper, leaning back down.

"Okay. You're welcome. But... Come on, Max." She fidgets, not wanting to say it. Stuff like this makes her uncomfortable. Still, I'm quiet, making her continue. "If you don't feel that way, I mean, it's fine. But just... tell me what you're thinking. Tell me what you're feeling. Anything, please."

"You know how I feel," I explain. "I told you last night. I show you everyday." Charlotte nods, knowing that I'm right but still looking for that reassurance. It makes me laugh. "I'll tell you. Don't worry. But I'd rather wait for the right moment. You may like to blurt things out with your big mouth, but I want to make it special."

"So, you do? You... love me?" she asks, inspecting my face for a trace of the emotion she's looking for. I grin and nod. I can't believe she doesn't know. "But you're not going to tell me?" This time, I shake my head. Charlotte leans back and grunts. "Do you know how frustrating you are?"

That makes me laugh a little too hard. "Now you know how I feel!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

forty-three: uneven

"You don't know what you're asking me to do. I don't want to do this. Please don't make me," she pleads, so quietly that I have to concentrate to hear what she said. I feel a tug at my heart, and suddenly I don't want to make her do this. It's like I can see her heart breaking in her chest, and I don't want to be responsible to make her hurt anymore.

But I keep my resolve; I have to. If I chicken out, nothing will get fixed. "I know you don't want to. But I need you to tell me, and frankly I think you need to talk about it, too."

"And if I don't?"

I could tell Charlotte that if she doesn't come clean, that I can't do this with her anymore. I could try to threaten her, but I know her well enough to know that won't work. She tries to keep a thick skin, but I know it's really paper thin. There's just no getting out of it this time. We have to do this; she has to talk, open up, and let me in. "That's not an option, Charlotte."

"Fine. Okay," she bites out, succumbing to my request but not sounding pleased about it. She bats my hand away from its place on her knee like she's mad at me. Well, I can't imagine she's happy with me right now, but she shouldn't be mad. Doesn't she know this is just as much as for her own good as much as mine? And did she really think she could avoid this forever? "I can't have you touch me when I think about him," she further explains. I take it for what it's worth and give her a bit of space as she closes her eyes and hides some of her face. "So, what do you want to know?"

"Everything," I tell her. It might be overwhelming, but I want to know it all. "How did you meet him?"

I listen as she begins to talk. And basically, it becomes a one-way conversation. At one point, I want to ask a question, but she stops me before I can get out a word. She's anxious to get all this off her chest, and she seems to be in another world as she spills forth her guts. It's not eloquent or smooth; her speech is emotional and raw. Charlotte almost seems like a fragile China doll as she relays all this information, and not at all like the strong woman who pushed me aside at first, made me wait for her, made me work for her.

I wasn't sure how I was going to feel when she finally told me all this stuff—mostly, I think, because I didn't know what she was going to say. And now that it's happening, I'm still not sure how I feel. I'm jealous that she loved someone who isn't me. I'm mad at him, and I'm sad for her. I feel her pain and frustration, and I want to take all that away and erase it. I want to kill the coward that broke her heart and left her like this.

But then again, I don't wish that things had worked out between them, even if it meant she wouldn't be so upset. Then she wouldn't be mine. I just wish that this whole thing could be easier.

She speaks her peace. I ask her what happened that made her finally decide to leave him. For how much pain he's caused her and how uncomfortable this whole situation has been, Charlotte has told her story with composure. That is, until the very end of her speech. "...I was trying to forget all about him, just like Gina told me I should, but I wasn't sure if I could or if it was worth it. And then... I met you."

At this point, she starts to cry. And not just gets a little teary-eyed; I mean she begins to sob. I'm so clueless as to why. Oh shit. I mean, why is she crying now, once I come into the story? Did I do something that I don't realize I did? Did I make things worse? Because I thought before she said that liked that I didn't know. Does she need me to comfort her? I have no idea what to do. I grew up with two brothers; I don't know how to act in these kind of situations. All I know is that I want to hold her and absorb some of that hurt, so that's what I do: I reach out for her.

Initially, she pushes me away as she begins to take steady breaths again. "I hate you for doing this to me."

"What did I do?" I ask, so confused and a little offended.

"You turned me into this emotional wreck. Don't you get it, Max? John was my everything, and when I left him, I thought I was nothing. But you saved me. I seriously think you rescued me from drowning in my own despair. I couldn't have been able to do it on my own. When I was around you, I forgot about him and got to see the good side of life again. You made me realize that I didn't deserve that." She breaks down into sobs again. "I didn't deserve that."

"No, baby. You didn't," I whisper, and this time, she lets me hold her. I pull Charlotte against my chest and rock her as she cries. What I want to do is find the perfect thing to say that will make her feel better, but nothing comes to mind. "You didn't," I repeat.

Finally, she stills and pulls back a little. I wipe away her tears, which smears her make-up; I know Charlotte well enough to know that if she could see herself now, she'd freak out for not looking presentable. But I don't care. I don't care about her make-up. "I'm sorry. I thought I could get through it without crying. I mean, I did. I'm done crying over him. Apparently, though, I've moved on to crying over you."

"Charlotte, I never want to make you cry," I tell her. I don't know what in the world I did that upset her. Man, I really wish I had a sister. "Whatever I did to make you cry, I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Maxime." I love when she uses my full first name. Usually, she does it during very intimate times, when we talk in whispers at night or going at it in bed. "It's not a bad thing. I never really understood when people said they cried happy tears. Maybe it's more like relief."


"Yeah." I feel her body shake again. My heart palpitates with worry, thinking she's weeping again, but when I bring her face toward mine to examine it, I see that she's laughing. "You must think I'm crazy, but I am feeling relieved. Would you believe me if I said I feel a little better? That now it's out in the open?"

"I'm glad," I tell her. I am glad she feels better now, even though I feel worse.

"I'm glad that you made me tell you, even though I was kicking and screaming all the while. Thank you, Max. For everything."

Since I don't know what to say, I don't bother with responding to that. Instead, I ask another question. "I'm still a little confused. You say you weren't happy with him before you left. And you're the one who left him—"

"So why was I so hung up on him?" she continues, asking my question for me. I nod, letting her know that is indeed what I want to know. "That's the million dollar question, isn't it? For the longest time, I thought he was going to go back to the way he was when we first met. I wanted to believe that that's the person he was, that charming guy, and not the manipulative little asshole he turned out to be. I thought that he would just wake up one day and be that wonderful person again. I knew the love that he was capable of giving, even if he couldn't give it to me anymore. Does that make sense?"

I nod. Sometimes, you want to see the good in people and overlook their mistakes and changes in behavior. Tanger comes to mind. But, then again, sometimes you have to accept that you can't get back to good.

I'm done asking the big, emotional questions. I think we've both had enough. My next question is if she wants to get some sleep, and she agrees. I lie down and bring her with me, waiting to take my cue from her. She's got to be exhausted. I'm exhausted, and I only had to listen to her. Charlotte doesn't make a move to change her clothes, so I help her out and pull off her jeans for her. Then I strip out of my dress clothes, which are now wrinkled. By the time I get myself down to my boxers, Charlotte's already fast asleep. I curl up around her and pull the covers over our bodies.

At some point during the night, I wake up alone. I rub my eyes and blink, focusing my sight. Really, I should stop sleeping in my contacts. It's a good thing there's no game today, and I can wear my glasses for a while. The clock reads 3:47. I toss back the blanket and head out of her room. The television's on and casting a bluish glow from the living room, where Charlotte's sitting on the couch with a half-eaten pint of Ben & Jerry's. Her face is freshly scrubbed and free of the streaky black marks that painted her cheeks, but I can tell she had been crying again.

"What are you doing up?" I ask, sitting beside her. She's put on flannel pajama bottoms and took off the hoodie, now in a tee shirt.

"Was tossing and turning, and I didn't want to disturb you. Ice cream?"

I shake my head. If she can't sleep and she's eating junk food, I know something's up. "What's bothering you?"

Charlotte sighs. Usually, she'd make up some bull-shit answer, because she doesn't talk openly about stuff like this. I'm surprised she was as free with the information she gave me earlier. But she shocks me by being honest. "So now you know. You know everything I didn't want you to know, and somehow our relationship is going to change because of it. I don't know how, and that worries me."

There's a question in there, somewhere; she didn't ask it, but it's there. "My opinion of you and my attitude toward you doesn't change. You're still the person you were before. I still like you, and I still want to be with you. Charlotte, I—"

"No, Max. That's all I needed to hear. What you want in the present is enough. I don't want either of us to make any promises for the future, or for you to say whatever you think I want to hear. This.... This is enough," she says, gesturing between us, like all that matters is that I'm here with her now.

If she's not going to let me say what I want to, I'm going to act on it instead. I sit beside her and lean toward her to kiss her. I'm not sure what she'll allow me to do, seeing as though she's obviously still upset, but when she kisses back, I take every inch she gives me. Reaching up for her face, I cup her chin and gently push so she'll open her mouth for me. Her tongue tastes of chocolate and is cold as it flicks against mine, sending a rush of blood below the belt.

Reading my mind, she scoots closer to me as I open my arms to her and slide my hands under her shirt to her back, pulling her against me as I lean back. A sudden sensation of cold makes me jerk back; in our jumble of action, her container tilted and spilled liquid, melted ice cream on my bare chest. I look for something to wipe it away with, until Charlotte places her mouth right below my pec and licks it up.

"I don't want to be wasteful," she says, and I can feel her warm breath against my skin.

The differences in hot and cold and the rough feel of her taste buds is too much. I close my eyes and groan. "Oh, Charlotte."

"Oh, Maxime," she mocks me, a little teasingly, a little seriously. "You've been so amazing in how you've dealt with how crazy I am. Will you let me make it up to you? Pay you back and even out the score?"

I know what she's hinting at; it's so obvious, and I would love to take her up on her offer. And I intend to, but I've got to clear something up first. "You will never have to make up anything to me, Charlotte. You don't owe me anything, and I'll never make you feel like you need to. Everything I've done, I did it because I wanted to, not so you would want to balance it out by doing something for me. Okay?"

"See how wonderful you are?" she asks, running her hands down my chest and placing a few kisses along my jaw. "Fine. No paying you back. How about I simply show you my appreciation?"

Her hands slip under the elastic band of my boxers before I can reply, and then no words come to mind at all. She says I saved her. Well, I think I'm the one who needs rescuing now. But if this is drowning, I'll gladly give up breathing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

forty-two: skeleton

Soundtrack Song - Goo Goo Dolls, Black Balloon

I type back my message to Max, letting him know that I'll definitely be waiting after the game to see him. I always do anyway, but I especially can because tomorrow's Thanksgiving and I don't have to work.

"What are you smiling about?" Gina asks me, stepping into the living room. She sees me grinning at my phone.

"I'm going to Max's game tonight," I tell her. "He just invited me."

"Of course he did. He's head over heels for you, you know."

"He's amazing," I sigh, looking back at my phone, as if it's Max's face. For a second, I debate with myself about telling Gina about my horrible gaffe last night and how wonderful he was about it, but I decide not to. She'll only yell at me for it, and I still feel bad about it anyway. "He really is."

She rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I heard all about that last night. You know, Char, I was good about respecting the house rules this summer when you were all moody and bitchy and sullen. And now all of a sudden you've got yourself a boy toy, and the house rules go out the window."

I blush ferociously. "I'm sorry, Gina."

She shakes her head and laughs. "Don't worry. I'll get you back with Kevin sometime. Speaking of, I'm staying over his place tonight before we make our holiday rounds tomorrow. Just letting you know."

I laugh at her earlier comments. "Okay. Anyway, so, can you drop me off at the arena? I'm sure I can ride back with Max."

Gina nods and leaves me with my thoughts as I flip through the channels. I've got about an hour to kill before I grab a quick bite, change into jeans and the Lemieux jersey, and have Gina drive me to the Mellon. I say hello to all the girls and settle in to watch the game between Véro and Erin; however, the game quickly becomes painful to watch. The guys aren't clicking, and something seems off.

I'm worried because I don't know what to say or do when I see Max. I always congratulated him on the wins after the games I was there to watch, but what do I do after a loss? Should I console him? Pretend like it never happened? The girls all seem somber, so I don't ask them. Max doesn't give me a chance to say anything though, because once he emerges from the dressing room, he wraps his arm around my shoulder and leads me toward the door before I can even mutter goodbyes to the girls.

"So, don't you celebrate Thanksgiving?" he asks me as he navigates his way through the arena, almost accusatory in his tone.

I think about tomorrow. My mother practically begged me to come home, but I fed her the excuse that I just couldn't afford it. Really, I couldn't face my family this year; not after taking John home to meet them. I'd never hear the end of how I screwed things up with such a great man and how I can never do anything right. That's old news. It's so much easier to avoid the entire situation. "Of course I celebrate it, I'm just not making a big deal out of this year. It's not worth it to go home, and my grandparents are in Virginia to visit my aunt and her family. Gina invited me out to spend the day with her family because I know them all, but I didn't want to intrude since she's introducing Kevin to them. So I'm just going to enjoy the mini-vacation by myself."

"Oh," he says.

When he doesn't say anything else, I add, "That was kinda random."

"Well, I thought Americans make a big deal of this holiday. I figured you'd be going back to Chicago."

I shrug under the weight of his arm. "Nope. I'm staying here. Why ya so curious?" I giggle and poke him in the ribs, changing the subject to a lighter mood. "Do you wanna be American for the day, and eat cold turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie with me?"

"Maybe," he replies, very cryptically. I'm puzzled, because he's not usually this... quiet and subdued or terse. I don't know if I should ask what's wrong or if something's bugging him, but I figure it's the loss that's weighing on his mind and therefore stay silent.

When we leave the lot, Max leaves the windows up and doesn't stop to sign autographs. I hate to see it bother him so much. "I'm sorry about the game, Max-A-Million, but don't worry. You guys will bounce back, though. Don't be too upset about it," I say, trying to soothe his mood. I reach out and place my hand over his on the stick shift.

"Is it okay that we go back to your place?" he asks, ignoring everything I've just said, including my awesome new nickname for him.

"I kinda like your place better because it feels more open. It's bigger. Why don't we go to your house?"

"No, I think it's best if we go to yours. Charlotte," he says, taking his eyes off the road and turning to look at me, "we need to talk."

I feel like someone just pushed pause on my life. I pull back my hand and cross my arms over my chest. If Max wants to talk, it can only be about one thing: what I called him yesterday. I thought he was over it, that he forgave me and moved on. That's how he acted this morning.

But what did we have to talk about? Nothing. Because Max was going to tell me that we were over. It's obvious to me now that he's still upset, and I did think that he seemed to get over it quickly—too quickly, in fact. I should have known that this wasn't going to be done with so easily. But I apologized, and if that's not enough, then it isn't enough. There's nothing else I can say that's going to make it better. And it makes a lot more sense for him to take me to my place where he can leave of his own volition, rather than for us to go over to his house and then have him drive me home once he breaks my heart.

I spend the rest of the short drive staring out the window, wishing that this trip were longer. Because once we get to my apartment, he's going to tell me he's done with me. God, I'm so stupid for thinking we were done with this. When he parks along the curb, I get out of the bar before he can even turn it off.

Max follows me as I take the stairs up to my apartment, unlock the door, and let us in. He closes the door behind us, and I feel trapped. If he wanted to do this in my apartment where I would feel more comfortable and less like I was being attacked, it's not working. "So, you wanna talk?" I say, toeing out of my shoes. I'm trying to be nonchalant about it, but I'm shaking.

"No. I want you to talk. I want to hear this John guy. Your ex."

"Why?" I stop what I'm doing. I thought he was going to want to do the talking, and I certainly didn't expect this question.

"So I know why you called me by his name. What he did to you that makes you so scared of me."

"I'm not scared of you," I sigh, wondering if that's true. I want to keep this particular skeleton in my closet. I head into my room to pull off this jersey and replace it with a hoodie. "I just don't like talking about him, or what happened. Gina thinks it's best if I just ignore him and forget all about it."

"Well, I think Gina's wrong. You're obviously still hung up on him for some reason. I think I have a right to know."

"You really want to do this?" I ask, my hands on my hips in defiance. He's pushing the issue and pushing his luck, because I can feel my temper rising. "You really want to listen to me talk about my ex and all the sordid details and how it's fucked me up? You want me to go through all that again?"

"Yeah. I think you owe it to me to tell me," Max says.

"Owe it to you? Owe it to you?! What do I possible owe you?" I spit back, very exasperated.

Max comes back at me with just as much attitude. "I've been patient for you. I've waited for you to come around and give me a chance, which you were hesitant to do because of your past with this jerk. And then we have one fight, our first real fight, and you call me by his name. Charlotte, yes, you owe it to me to give me a full explanation."

When he puts it like that, I feel my anger leave me. Have things really been this one-sided all along? I sit on my bed and scoot over to the corner so my back is against the wall and pull my knees up to my chest. Max sits in front of me and rests a hand on my leg and coos, "Come on, baby. Talk to me." His eyes are softly pleading with me.

He's right. I know it; it isn't fair to keep this from him yet make him pay for something he never did. There's just something wrong about having to have this discussion, and talk about one old boyfriend to the guy taking his place. "You don't know what you're asking me to do. I don't want to do this. Please don't make me." I'm backed into a corner, physically and metaphorically.

"I know you don't want to. But I need you to tell me, and frankly I think you need to talk about it, too."

"And if I don't?" I ask. Immediately, I wish I could take that back. I'm asking for an ultimatum, and I don't think I'll like what he has to say.

"That's not an option, Charlotte."

"Fine. Okay." I concede, mostly to get him off my case, and then I push his hand away. Max gives me a pained look. "I can't have you touch me when I think about him," I explain, and he nods and gives me just the right amount of space.

I place the palms of my hands over my closed eyes. I've never told someone the whole story before, from start to finish. The only people that know about John are the ones who have known about him since the beginning of our relationship and heard about what happened as it happened; I've never talked about it after the fact to someone who wasn't already informed. I wait a couple seconds and let all those memories that I've worked so hard to suppress wash over me. Tears already threaten to erupt, and I wonder how I'm supposed to do this.

"So, what do you want to know?"

"Everything," he says, so matter-of-factly. I don't reply, because I don't even know where to start if I have to tell him everything. Max intuitively picks up on this and clarifies, "How did you meet him?"

No better place to start than the beginning. I smile briefly, remembering the initial giddiness I felt that night. "I went out with a couple of my classmates after my public speaking class one night, to this restaurant. I was only twenty at the time, so I couldn't have alcohol, but my friend Lesley spilled her drink and we needed extra napkins, so I went to the bar. And this guy was there. John. He was dressed in a suit and had a briefcase and everything. He looked so professional and mature, and he offered to buy me a drink.

"I was just smitten from the get-go. I definitely wasn't the prettiest girl there, or the hottest, but he wanted to buy me a drink. It was so flattering, and I couldn't believe it. I told him no, that I couldn't drink, and he just said, 'Not even pop?' Like he really, really wanted to have the chance to spend some time with me. So I sat up at the bar with him, drank a diet soda, and just talked to him. He asked for my number before he left, and I was... ecstatic."

"Pardon me, but that doesn't sound like that big of a deal."

I sigh and shake my head. "You don't understand. I was heavier back then, and pretty much a mess. It was toward the end of my sophomore year of college, and no one was interested in me. I hadn't been hit on since my boyfriend in high school, and he was captain of the chess team. To finally have that kind of attention was almost like a relief, and the fact that it was a real man instead of just a stupid college boy was thrilling.

"He was so eloquent, charming, and suave. John knew all the right things to say, and I was naïve enough to believe all the nice things he said. Well, you can believe me now when I tell you I learned my lesson. It's just that he was older, and I thought that that meant he knew what he wanted out of life and was ready to settle down instead of the guys my age that just wanted to fuck around. I bought into every one of his lies.

"The first six months were, like, amazing. He called when he said he would, was never late for a date, paid for everything, and made me feel like I was the only woman in the world. Like I was a goddess in the mortal realm. After two months, he told me he loved me. He said it was love at first sight, and he felt it the moment I walked through the door of that restaurant. Those words, they were like pure poetry! It was like hearing the gospel straight from the Lord's mouth.

"John was so keen on meeting my family right away, too. It seemed like it was happening kind of fast, but I didn't know any better and I thought things were progressing really well. And my family all loved him. My friends adored him, and they called us that perfect, sugar-coated couple, the one that never fights or even disagrees. Everyone was practically planning our wedding already. And I thought all those things, too. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to know him, that I was the lucky girl that got to be with him, the one that he chose. I fully expected that we were going to be together forever."

Max tries to say something. "Don't stop me," I tell him, holding up my hand to cut him off before he even starts. "You wanted me to talk, so let me talk and you can ask questions later." He nods and lets me continue my roundabout, disjointed, stream-of-consciousness explanation.

"So when things started to cool down at first, I just figured that it was because everything happened so quickly. We stopped talking everyday. He didn't want to hold hands in public or even under the table when we went out to dinner. Complained about how he was spending so much money, even though I offered to pay at least my share when we went out.

"He stopped wanting to go out completely. Well, with me anyway. He'd go out with his friends and drink all night with them. You know, one Friday night, he went out with his buddies and told me that he'd call me at the end of the night and stop over to see me. I waited up until three in the morning, calling and texting him to see if he was okay, because I thought something happened to him. I didn't hear from him all weekend. On Monday, he calls and apologizes, telling me that he spent too much money on drinks on Friday, and that pissed him off all weekend so he wasn't in the mood to come see me. But he didn't explain why he couldn't at least call to tell me that so I wouldn't worry about him.

"We didn't see each other for about three weeks after that, because he was wishy-washy about going out or coming over or inviting me to his place. He gave me some lame excuse about wanting to be in the right 'mood' when he saw me, and I got pissed off and then I went out with some friends, got drunk, and made out with some frat boy. I felt so guilty, and I'm ashamed that I ever did that, but when I confessed to John, you'd think I slept with the entire frat house. He just couldn't believe I would do something like that to him, let alone that I did it because I was mad at him. Heaven forbid anyone gets mad at him.

"I tried so hard to make it up to him. I mean, I already would have done anything for him anyway. But suddenly it wasn't enough. I apologized, cried, begged for forgiveness. Just when I thought he was going to wash his hands of me, he said he'd give me another chance. I swore to him that I would never do anything to screw it up again, that I'd never make him regret that decision.

"Then he took me out to this really fancy dinner. And he pointed to a family sitting a few tables away from us and said how nice it would be to have a family like that. I melted all over again and put up with him when he was being distant, because he'd always make up for it somehow by being really sweet again. It was a roller coaster, but the good times with him made it worth it, I thought. I just couldn't guarantee he'd be that way all the time, or that he wouldn't get moody and wall off and disappear again.

"Until he started getting... angry and demanding, like he was suddenly this other person. I know that he was getting a lot of pressure at work with the economy turning bad, and he was worried about losing his job. He wanted to start impressing his bosses, so he brought a lot of work home with him, and I just started helping him with it. In fact, I neglected my classes to help read reports and do research for his company and put together presentations. When I told him I had papers to write, he would say that I was being selfish and that I didn't care about him because I didn't want to help. He'd remind me of what I did, and how I told him I'd do anything.

"He said that it was for us. He needed to do well at his job so he could get a promotion, because he couldn't think about settling down until he was in a better position, making more money. I was such a fool. I thought that it was going to be the answer to everything. Once he got the promotion, he'd go back to his old self. But it just never happened.

"And meanwhile, I gave up everything for him. I completely lost myself in him and surrendered who I was in order to make him happy. But none of it made him happy, and eventually, I realized that it didn't make me happy, either. So, well, I left." I take a deep breath. It all came out in a sticky blob of words, and I'm not even sure that I said what I needed to or conveyed what I wanted.

"So, what made you leave?" Max asks. "I mean, what finally snapped to make you walk away?"

"It was time for me to graduate, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought maybe I could go to grad school, but I still wasn't sure what major I wanted to pick or what I wanted to go into. But John didn't want me to. I don't know what he wanted me to do, but apparently it needed to involve placing my focus on him. But he didn't want to get married yet, he wasn't even ready to propose, and suddenly it hit me that I was the one going the distance, and he wasn't. I gave him an inch, and he took miles. And took and took and took, and he never gave me anything. He wasn't ever going to be ready, and I couldn't wait around anymore for him.

"So I packed my bags and caught a Greyhound. He drove me to the station, kissed my cheek, and waved goodbye as the bus pulled out. And he laughed when I told him goodbye, because he didn't understand how I could possibly want to leave him. At first, I thought maybe we could be friends, but I couldn't do it. I was trying to forget all about him, just like Gina told me I should, but I wasn't sure if I could or if it was worth it. And then... I met you."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

forty-one: game plan

"We're okay, aren't we? I mean, you're not still mad, are you?"

I don't know what to say to that. No, I'm no longer mad, but I'm certainly not over it either. I've done my best to simply ignore that entire section of our evening, and I tried to not let it spoil our time together. I thought I was doing a good job of that, until Charlotte brings it up again.


Since I don't know what to say, I don't say anything at all. I nod, and then I see her reaction as her lips are pursed in a straight line. This isn't how I want her to leave, so I reach out for her to stay, and then assault her mouth with my own. I want her thinking about me, about this, all day, and not that loser and not about what happened last night.

When I pull back, I can see the lust dancing in her eyes. I've accomplished what I wanted. Charlotte gets out of my car with a smile, and I'm glad that she doesn't look back because I wouldn't be able to return that smile even if I wanted to. I cannot so easily forget what happened, although I've given her that impression. I grip the wheel tensely and wait until she disappears past the double doors before putting my car into gear and speeding off for the arena. I'm going to be ridiculously early for the morning skate, but there's no point in going home while I'm already out. Plus, maybe some time in the weight room will do me some good.

I don't want to still be this worked up over what happened. I tried to make it seem to Charlotte like I was over it, okay with it, but I'm definitely not. Would you be? Would you be okay with being called by someone else's name? Sure, there are worse times it could have happened, like mid-coitus. That would have completely ripped my heart out, instead of simply crushing my ego.

Instead, it happened during a fight. Charlotte dissociated. She's supposed to be emotionally invested in our relationship. I'm supposed to be winning her over, which I thought I was, but instead fighting with me makes her think of someone else, someone who she claims to be "over," but apparently she isn't.

Fights are going to happen in any relationship. I don't wish that we hadn't fought, even though it was over something stupid and pointless, in my opinion. Charlotte was upset with me for not appreciating just how much she cared about seeing me again; bottom line is she cared about seeing me again and wanted to make it a special night. That's what I want! Well, maybe I didn't care so much about the "specialness" of the night, but I like knowing that she was just as anxious and excited to get to see me and be with me after that road trip.

I just that she would have been in the present with me, fighting with me and not some ghost from her past. I wish that she would talk about it, so then I would know what I'm up against. It is like I'm fighting against a ghost, an invisible force that I don't comprehend. Charlotte told me he was a jerk, but what else did I know about him and what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Because I have neither forgotten nor forgiven, not yet anyway. I simply compartmentalized and put that moment aside. Charlotte's sorry and upset about it, and I don't want her to feel any worse about it, but I still need to figure out what's going to happen next. I think I have a right to know about her past, especially if I've got to pay for the mistakes of another man. She can't keep avoiding the subject, even though I know she doesn't want to talk about it. Apparently, though, she needs to talk about it, because suppressing it isn't helping.

Sure, I enjoyed the rest of our night, what transpired after dinner: spending the night and showering together in the morning. I love our simple moments like that, when it's just her and me and nothing else to complicate our interactions. It's not always about the sex. I know it sounds so pathetic, but that's when we are at our best. Those blissful memories, however, are not enough to make me forget that one sentence. And that's what this is about. One sentence that ruined my good mood and my peace of mind.

Relationships need to be able to withstand external pressures. It can't just be me and her all the time, without interruptions or outside interference. Shit happens. We need to be a united front against the battle of time and stress. If we can't, then we don't stand a chance. If I can't help her, if she won't let me help her, then we won't last.

I get to the Mellon and head straight for the bench press. I'm still supposed to take it easy on my shoulder; it was a condition of returning to the ice so soon that I not overdo it. But I'm not worried about that now.

I load the bar with weights and get to work, even though there's no one here yet to spot me. I should work on my core or my legs, but I want to feel the strain and burn in my muscles that only the bench press will give me. Without even bothering to count my reps, I just keep lifting until I don't think I can anymore, trying to exhaust my mind.

As much as I'm troubled by this whole situation, I'm also left wondering why this is such a big deal to me. I'm not going to lie; I've accidentally called girls by the wrong name before. But that's because my time with them was like a revolving door system. When you never spend a second night with the same girl, it's easy to lose track of all their names. While they were annoyed with me, that was a part of our unspoken agreement. Those girls weren't looking for more than one night, and neither was I. Now I am looking for more than that, and I'm finding myself in their shoes, being called by another name.

What is this power that Charlotte holds over me? I never expected to find myself in this position. I knew I'd settle down one day and start my search for the woman I'd spend the rest of my life with, but I never expected to want to spend my time with the one person it seems that can rip my heart out. I guess you really know that you care about someone when you give them that power over you. I don't remember giving away that power, though; I think she took it without my knowledge.

The question is: do I make her talk about it, or not? She doesn't want to and she won't want to when I bring it up. But can I move past this if I don't get my answers?

The Kid walks in and disrupts my thoughts. "Hey," he calls as he walks in. "What are you doing here so early?"

I give him a weak shrug as I sit up from my position on the bench press. "I was up early, so figured I'd come in early."

"Oh." Sid doesn't understand. He keeps to a strict schedule and adheres to it no matter what. "You know, tomorrow's Thanksgiving in the U.S."

"Is that so?" I ask, not really caring. I hope he can hear the annoyance in my voice, just so he'll leave me alone.

Sid, of course, can't take a hint if his life depended on it. "Yeah. I'm going home with Noelle. You know, meet the family kind of thing."


He shakes his head in figure-eights, as if nodding and shaking his head at the same time. "Eh. Yes and no. I've met her parents already, but just kinda briefly. The holiday's a really big deal to her, anyway. I don't know why. I mean, it's just Thanksgiving. But we're doing Christmas with my family up in Nova Scotia, so maybe she's nervous. I don't know."

I let out a deep breath, finding it difficult to stay patient. I don't know why he's telling me all this, and I wish he'd just shut up already. How many one-word answers do I have to give him before he realizes I don't want to talk to him? "Maybe."

"What about Charlotte? Are you doing the Thanksgiving thing with her?"

That question gives me cause to hesitate. "I don't know. She's never mentioned it." We were busy last night, but she didn't bring it up at all when we talked on the phone during the previous week, either. Would she be going home to Chicago? Is that why her ex was on her mind, because she'd be seeing him again? Would she go back to him? She said he was a jerk, an asshole, but they obviously had a history, and that counts for more than I think people give credit for.

I hate not knowing any of this stuff! Why do I suddenly feel like I've been hung out to dry?

More of the guys begin to trickle in to get ready for the morning skate. I head to my stall to begin gearing up. I'm quiet, unusually so, as the rest of the guys banter back and forth.

"What's up, Talbo? You're not talking," Staalsy says.

"Do I have to?" I ask back.

"Well, no," he replies.

"Don't act all offended," Tanger adds. "Usually your tongue is flapping in the wind."

I try to hide my scowl by turning toward my stall as I reach for my Under Armour shirt. I chide myself instantly as I hear the catcalls. "I guess your tongue's tired, because it looks like you've been busy!" TK yells out.

Gronk adds, "Man, oh man. And she seemed like such a sweet, nice girl. Guess she's a lady on the street, but freaky in bed, eh?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Plastering on my best smirk, I try to look smug. I pull on my shirt and then get to work on my pads, wanting nothing more than to get out on the ice and focus on the drills rather than having to talk to the guys.

I guess I'm not mad anymore, just incredibly confused and unsure. The more I learn about Charlotte, the more I don't know about her. I've made up my mind. She and I need to have a talk, a big talk; I won't let her avoid this subject anymore. I'm well aware that she doesn't like to discuss her past with this John guy, but that's not an option at this point. After all, I've been the one waiting for her, being patient; now I need to know if all that effort has been for naught.

I throw myself into the drills, skating as fast as I can and focusing on making sure that each time the puck is on my stick, I'm making sure to put it in the net. By the end of the skate around, I'm exhausted. It's probably a mistake to have worked myself so physically the morning of a game, but I had to. It worked for me: now I have a game plan.

After showering, some of the guys and I go out for our pregame meal, and it's easier to get on with them and joke around, now that I know what I'm going to do. I may not know what the outcome is going to be, but at least I have a plan. Once we finish our meal, I head home and take a long, recharging nap. When I head back to the arena, I realize that I never asked Charlotte if she'd be at my game. I whip out my phone and send her a quick text, asking her if she'll come.

Her response makes me frown. If u want me there, sure.

Of course I do. Wouldnt ask if I didnt.

Well, u didnt ask so I didnt think u cared.

I roll my eyes as I type back: I just 4got. Ticket @ will call. C u after?

Absolutely! :D Her response puts a brief smile on my face. If her message is any indication, she'll be happy to see me, but she won't be once I start asking questions.

It's going to be an interesting night.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

forty: wake up

/sigh.... I just didn't know how to move forward after the last chapter, which I was oh so proud of. I know this chapter would be considered extremely late, but maybe I'll have a second up later if I can focus my concentration. Back-to-back hockey games make it hard to write! All the usual, you guys are awesome, thank you bunches, and of course: Let's Go, Pens!

Soundtrack Song - Lily Allen, Who'd Have Known?

When my alarm rings at 6:30 in the morning, I have to reach across the sleeping man next to me to turn it off. When he's asleep, he's dead to the world, impossible to disturb or rouse. Instead of getting out of bed and hopping into the shower like I should, I sidle up next to him and rest my head on top of his chest. The steady sound of his heart beat lulls back to sleep.

I wake back up at quarter after seven. I didn't really mean to fall asleep again, especially for forty-five minutes. Now I'm going to be late for work if I don't get my ass in gear now.

But I'm just so tired. I didn't get nearly enough rest, and my whole body aches. All I want to do is stay beside him in bed. I truly have to force myself to get up and leave the room; not before I look back at him in my bed just to watch him breathe and sleep, his mouth agape and his eyes closed. My heart leaps in my chest just to see Max in my bed like that, and I can't suppress the smile that breaks across my face that no one can see.

I'm stuck in this dreamy, half-awake state that I don't really want to get out of. I don't really want to start my day yet, and waking up will signal the end of that absolutely disastrous but yet strangely blissful night and the start of another day. There's enough light shining through the glass-block privacy windows in the bathroom that I don't bother turning on the light as I take off Max's tee shirt and my panties and turn on the shower head. As I undress, I remember the way Max playfully chastised me for putting clothes back on in the middle of the night, especially teasing me for putting on his shirt, but he sure didn't let that stop him as he made slow, languid love to me again that wasn't as urgent but no less passionate. I can't believe we used up my entire supply of prophylactics in one night. Not that I had that many to begin with, but still....

As I step under the hot spray, first holding my face up against the water and then dipping my entire head under, I think about how incredible Max is. Not just as a skilled lover and a man, but as a person. I mean, he's phenomenal. Unbelievable. So patient and considerate and understanding, but not in a desperate, forced sense. He's strong, steady, reliable, dependable, like the mast of a ship, and I am just the flimsy sail flapping at the mercy of the wind. Max is constant. Perfect.

Because even when I misspoke, he was the better person and forgave me. I would not have been able to forget and move on like he did. I know that people make the mistake of using other people's names, in worse situations too, but.... I just can't believe I did that. So stupid! Sure, we're not boyfriend-girlfriend, but we did agree to be exclusive. He accepted it was a horrible mistake on my part, the worst social gaffe of all, and I still don't how he could be so magnanimous. I truly don't deserve someone as saintly and, well, as perfect as he is.

It's never a good idea to fall into the line of thinking that someone is perfect. No one is. But right now, I can't even find fault in any of Max's shortcomings and drawbacks. Not after how sweet he was. So what if he's loud and boisterous and pushy and kind of demanding? Are those always bad things?

And since we're asking questions, when will I ever be able to let go of the past and move on? Let me rephrase that last one: when will my past let go of me? I was done with it, done with John, and yet that was still interfering with my capacity to move on and be happy. Because that's what I want: to move on. To move forward. With Max.

I'm pulled out of my thoughts as the light is turned on and the small room is illuminated. My eyes snap shut as my pupils constrict, unprepared for the bright assault. Knowing Max was unconscious in my room, I assume it's Gina barging in on my private moment and, likewise, my thoughts. "Can you turn that off?" I say, still groggy.

"Sorry." The voice is not Gina's. The light is turned back off. "How can you see?"

It's not that dark in here; he's exaggerating. Everything just has a gray tint to it, not to mention my sight is blurred, since I'm not wearing my glasses or contacts. "I can see well enough. I thought you were sleeping," I respond as I grab the bottle of shampoo, but I drop it and it lands on my foot, making me curse.

"I woke up, and you weren't there. I heard the water running." The shower curtain gets pulled back, and Max picks up the dropped shampoo bottle for me. Then I notice that he's naked, stepping into the shower beside me and grinning as he looks at me, all of me. "So I figured I'd join you."

I want to ask him if he walked through my apartment naked into the bathroom. Or if he knew that it was me in here, or else he could have given Gina an early morning surprise. I also want to tell him that he can't be in here now. Showering together sure sounds like a whole heck of a lot of fun, but I have a strict washing routine that I must stick to, and he's going to ruin that. And I refuse to embarrass myself by using my anti-blackhead face wash in front of him. "As positively tempting as this is, Max, I can't do this with you. I'm already going to be late for work."

"Okay," he says, giving me a little pout, and I think I've won. That is, I think I have until he adds, "Then why don't you let me help you speed things up?" He squirts a dollop of shampoo into his palm, rubs his hands together quickly, and then begins massaging my scalp. I'm purring like a contented kitten. My eyes close and I lean against his chest, rendered useless by his soft, gentle, innocent touch.

Max chuckles at me and my compliance. Like I can ever tell this man "no." He continues to wash my hair for me and then moves me back under the spray to rinse out the shampoo. I love the feel of his hands in my hair, using the perfect mixture of his fingernails and the pads of his fingers as he works out the suds. I'm letting him take control in this most vulnerable of situations. I'm letting him take care of me.

My eyes snap open as I realize that. Did I like Max? Yes. Did I care about him? Of course. But letting him take care of me.... I was opening myself up to let him take care of me, and that's a major step. I mean, it's one thing to want to do nice things for him. But being able to accept that he wants to do nice things for me is a whole nother story. It's a recipe for disaster.

Without a doubt, I am a hopeless romantic. I'm a sucker for this sweet shit. Kind gestures. Whispered sweet nothings. I love all that. And Max is Mr. Smooth; he's got that routine down pat, so much so that I wonder how much of it is part of his general charm and how much is genuine. Not that I mind either way, because I enjoy hearing those things and being the recipient of those gestures as long as I knowingly take it with a grain of salt. Which I have done, up until this point.

But this situation is, to me, more personal and intimate than the sex and the cuddling and the hand-holding and the whispered promises made in the heat of the moment. I'm stripped down, exposed, vulnerable, and at his complete and total mercy—but this has nothing to do with sex. It's not about fulfilling each other's physical needs; it's about demonstrating emotional desires and how Max is living up to every one of my possible expectations. This is the kind of thing that can make me fall in love, and that's exactly what I can't allow myself to do.

"Are you okay, baby?" Max asks me, noticing how I've suddenly tensed.

"I'm fine," I reply with a curt smile. "I'm just trying to wake up." In more ways than one.

Max grabs the conditioner and goes through the same motions, working it into my hair, as I lather up my loofah and scrub at my skin. I reach out and begin the same process across his chest, but he stops me with a growl. "Don't start anything you don't intend to finish."

I have to laugh at him, which makes him frown even more. "Oh, how I would love to! But I'm going to be late. Otherwise I'd take full advantage of the fact that you're naked and wet in my shower. Besides, you've got a game today. I should let you get your energy back."

"You are a tease. I hope you're enjoying making me miserable."

I snicker but don't otherwise respond to his joking comment. Instead, I hand him the soapy loofah and step fully under the shower head, rinsing off completely. Then I leave Max in the shower to finish his business as I move to the other side of the curtain and grab a towel to dry off. I wrap it around myself and stand in front of the mirror, using a second towel on my hair.

The water turns off, and Max pulls the curtain back. I see his reflection, dripping wet, and I eye him up and down before I catch his eyes in the mirror. "Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to get me a towel?" he asks.

"I don't know," I counter with a smile. "I kind of like you just like that."

He narrows his eyes at me playfully, as if calculating his next move. Max reaches out across the tiny bathroom and grabs the towel that surrounds my body, ripping it away from me before I can react and stop him. Now we're both naked. "You know, I would really enjoy playing this game with you if I had the time," I tell him.

"Why don't you play hooky then? I have a couple hours before the morning skate," he gladly informs me.

"I can't, Max," I sigh, wishing that I could. "I don't have personal or sick time at my disposal."

"That doesn't seem fair," he says, toweling off quickly, wrapping the material around his waist, and stepping behind me. There's probably more room for us to stand together in the shower stall than there is the tiny bathroom. Max takes the other towel from my hands and takes over drying my hair. I close my eyes and let him, knowing that I shouldn't for several reasons but lacking the willpower to stop him. Instead, I curl my fingers around the cool porcelain of the sink and lean my head backward to give him better access as he rubs the excess moisture from my hair.

I'm not the type of person who can easily keep an emotional detachment from the physical aspect of a relationship, especially when Max can readily anticipate my thoughts and wants. Because when he does that, it's almost like he's a part of me. I know that sounds so sappy, like I ripped it straight from a Harlequin romance novel, but it's so true. I chalk it up to his experience and talents, but when he's being sweet and caring and gentle like this, I feel even more of a connection to him. He is taking care of me, and I like it.

Max stops and rubs the backs of his fingers against my hipbone. I feel a twinge of pain as I look down to see him caressing a fresh black-and-blue mark. "Did I do this to you?" he asks quietly.

I smile. "Isn't it funny what feels so good during the night makes you hurt in the morning?" There are other parts of my body that ache, and I know Max isn't without pain, either. There are still indentations on his shoulder left by my bites and red scratches down his back, dotted by scabs.

"I'm sorry," he apologizes, kissing the back of my neck as he wraps the towel around my body.

"Don't be," I say with another smile. "I'm not." I work on my make-up as he leaves the bathroom, I'm assuming to get dressed in yesterday's clothes.

I sloppily French-braid my hair and then head back into my room. Max is dressed, sitting on my bed, and he watches as I wordlessly slip on my clothes as modestly as I can. "Would you like me to drive you into work? Would that save you some time?"

Glancing at the clock, I reply, "That would be great, actually. I might make it there on time."

"Sure thing, baby. It's probably my fault you're late anyway."

"It is," I laugh. "But I think it was worth it. Do you want breakfast or anything? I don't really have time to cook, but I have cereal. I can make toast."

Max laughs. "That's so tempting, but completely unappetizing. Do you want to stop at Starbucks or something, get a coffee and muffin to go?"

I shake my head. "No, I wasn't planning on eating."

He looks at me with a puzzled expression. "Then why did you offer me breakfast?"

"Because it's a polite thing to do since you spent the night," I say, as if it's the most obvious explanation in the world.


"Well, I think I'm ready to go." I walk into the living room and grab my things. "Are you?" He nods and we head out, and I lock up behind me as we go. With Max driving me to the school, I make it to work with two minutes to spare. I kiss him goodbye. "We're okay, aren't we? I mean, you're not still mad, are you?" I ask.

Max nods wordlessly. It's less than reassuring, but I take it at face value. I have to. I don't want to think about the alternative. He wouldn't have stayed the night if he were mad, would he? He grabs my arm before I can step out of his car and leans over to kiss me again, not appropriate at all for a simple goodbye. When I slide out and close the door behind me, my head is not where it should be. I don't feel like I should be walking into work; I feel like Max and I should be speeding off to one of our places for another romp between the sheets.

As I head for the main doors, with my badge in hand to show the guard, some of the students do a double-take. They certainly don't expect one of their tutors to be driven to their school in a BMW. I smile to myself as they give me subtle nods of respect as I walk by.