YOU know when you want, so bad, the exact thing you don’t want?
Well, that was exactly where he had me pinned. Everything I’d worked for, suffered for, striven to attain, stripped away in that moment, by that cruel whisper. Because I took it. Because I wanted his hands—and his control. The whispers came along with it. I let that poison into my blood as it heated under his touch. I let it in.
And now they tell me not to hate myself. That it wasn’t my fault.
But that poison whisper is in my ear, like it’s a part of me now, and I can’t ever hear anything past it.
“Laurie.” Someone called my name.
Not the velvet whisper in my head mocking me. Not that. Something… someone else.
“Laurie, how much have you had to drink?”
“Wha’?” I glanced at the bottle dangling from my hand. Nope. Not dangling. It had fallen and was lying on my rug in an amber puddle. Wasted. Ruined.
“Come on.” Whoever bothered me now tried to lift me off my couch.
“Can’t, buddy. Come on. Get up. You’re going to have a cold shower, or I call an ambulance and get your stomach pumped. Come on.” That voice was getting more and more angry. “How much?”
“Dunno.” I squirmed out of the tight grip on me. Didn’t like tight grips. Not anymore.
“Oh no you don’t. You’re getting up. Now.”
The hands came back, then arms, wrapping around me, and a fog of everything I’d wanted to drink away crowded out the voice and the whispers came back.
I shut my eyes tight. No. I wasn’t going to give the fluttering voice in my head form. No words. Not this time.
“Make it go away.”
Was that really my voice? That couldn’t be me, pleading like that.
“Okay, Laurie. First things first. Shower. Come on.”
“Want a drink.” So maybe I had a one-track mind. I wanted what I wanted. And I wanted a drink. Even though I knew it wasn’t going to keep it away forever and I didn’t really want to pickle myself. I didn’t want to be this slovenly man passed out on his couch. But there it was again, wanting what I didn’t really want….
“Lawrence, please. Look at me.”
The voice was vague. I still couldn’t place it. But the hand on my chin, lifting my face—that was real. That was….
“Ungh.” I capitulated. Like always. The whispers would start soon enough, but oh God, those hands. My knees buckled. I hit the floor with a painful thud, kneecaps crashing into hard tile.
Alarm. Who was alarmed and why?
It was reason enough to focus, just for a moment, and a face came into view.
“Laurie. Thank God. Focus now. How much did you drink?”
I really, really didn’t know. So I shrugged.
“Did you take anything?”
God. I wish. I shook my head.
“Mmm.” Jeff knelt beside me and once again took my face in his hands. It didn’t freak me out this time, though. He was gentle. Not like….
“Jeff.” Something was rattling. The noise inside my head was astronomical, and it took me several minutes to realize it was my teeth clanking as I shivered. “What’s happening to me?”
This was not normal. He was sitting on my bathroom floor. I was sitting on my bathroom floor. Freezing. I had no clothes on, and I had no idea why.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“We’ll get you in the shower, buddy. Can you get up?”
“D-don’t.” And there it was. Or rather, there I was, sprawled in his lap, clinging to his shirt and begging him not to get up. Not to make me get up. I didn’t want to move until the floor had swallowed me and I could forget the past two months had ever happened.
“We’ll go slow,” he promised. “I’ll run you a bath.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Instead of getting up to run the bath, he hauled a thick towel off the bar and wrapped it around me. For a few minutes, we sat there, me shivering, him petting my hair like I was a damn dog. And I liked it. He was my best friend. He was straight. Or might as well have been for all the interest he had in me. And he’d warned me about Nash. Yet here he was, petting my hair and not rubbing my face in the fact that I was a complete disaster.
AWARENESS. I felt as though parts of me had absconded. Not my head. Not my gut, either. Both of those were in hurtful, hateful evidence. But some other, less tangible bit of me had fled the building, and I wondered if I should mourn it. Or even try to figure out what it was.
Sounds slowly filtered into my brain. So my hearing, at least, wasn’t affected by whatever bits of me had fallen away. It took some time to identify the sounds as someone moving about in my kitchen.
No one ever used my kitchen. I certainly didn’t. Wouldn’t know what to do with the pretty appliances lined up along the wall. Nash would never condescend to acknowledge the overpriced food he ordered in even came from a kitchen of any sort. Except once. Way back in the beyond of the beginning of us, when he’d made me hot chocolate. With marshmallows.
Because I’d told him my big brother had always made it for me when we came in off the ski runs.
Pain shot through me. Brian. Brian, whom I’d adored with the worship only a little brother could bestow on an older one. Brian, who made me hot chocolate, bandaged my scraped knees in summer, and taught me to ski in winter. Who’d gone off to fight some war in some desert that shithead politicians wouldn’t even call a war, and who’d never come home.
Nash had taken that memory, that tiny scrap of my soul, swaddled and protected for years, and twisted it, shaped it to revolve around him, to cause pain now that he was gone. He’d tainted everything and I wanted to hate him for it. I just ached because none of it was even his fault.
Groaning, I rolled onto my side, pulled the pillow up over my head, but the sounds and smells from my kitchen continued unabated. Oblivious. Apparently uncaring that I’d shriveled past the point of needing that kind of mundane sustenance.
“You need to get up now.”
Jeff. My remorseless angel of calm and practicality.
“Ass out of bed, piss tank.”
I flung a pillow in the general direction of the kitchen, cursed—silently—my choice of a studio apartment that didn’t have bedroom walls. The pillow sloughed off the side of the bed, mocking my efforts.
For the next few minutes Jeff just ignored me, cooked, and hummed softly. I didn’t know he hummed. Didn’t know he could even carry a tune. For a while I lay there and tried to figure out what he was humming.
“Mean.” My butch best friend was humming Taylor Swift under his breath, occasionally breaking out the words to her song about… about fucked-up, abusive relationships.
I rolled my ass out of bed and locked myself in the bathroom. And reflected that it must mean something that I recognized the song myself. I turned on the shower, but even that didn’t shut the lyrics out of my head or cover Nash’s voice, still whispering through my being.
You. Are. Nothing. Mine to throw away when I tire of you….
Not “if.” He never said “if I tire of you.” Just “when.” And I hadn’t noticed that fine point until it happened.
I shut off the shower again without getting in.
A soft knock interrupted my thoughts. “Laurie?”
My angel. “What?”
God, did I really sound that gross?
“You spent an hour in the shower last night. I think you’re clean, buddy.”
Filthy. Little. Slut.
I closed my eyes. That self-imposed darkness just brought back the ghost memory of Nash’s hand on my chin, holding me still, with my face turned so he didn’t have to look at it, so he could whisper his derision into my soul without ever looking into my eyes.
“Laurie.” Jeff again. Ever Jeff. Didn’t he need to go away to work or something? “Come out here. Eat.”
Reluctant, I opened the door and shuffled out, unable to ignore the conditioning that made me respond to his soft command.
The floor still tilted under my feet slightly, and I had to catch myself on the doorframe.
“You all right?”
“I’m fine.” I swept his hands away. I was not interested in having anyone touch me. But when I swayed across the expanse of my apartment, he was there again, hand at the small of my back, and it didn’t bite into my ego and crush. It simply held me up and warmed that spot of skin under my shirt.
My knees creaked and complained as I lowered into the chair at the table. “Ow.” I touched fingers gingerly to the left one and winced. “Why do my knees feel bruised all to hell?”
They’d felt that way before, but I knew I hadn’t been on them. Not in the past week. Not for Jeff. He’d never want me in such a position, and Nash…
Well, Nash was gone, wasn’t he?
“Oh.” Jeff set a plate down in front of me. “Yeah. That was my fault. I didn’t think. Sorry.”
“You?” I squirmed in my chair. What wasn’t I remembering?
He tilted his head. “You don’t remember.”
“Remember what?” Queasiness invaded my gut, and I stared without seeing the plate of food in front of me.
“Lawrence….” That voice again, so much like Nash’s, but so much softer and deeper and… more.
He watched me. I could see in his eyes he had things to say and no way to say them. No words. No way to breach a subject he knew I would shut down before he got started.
“What is this?” I couldn’t quite center on the food. Not just that my eyes were misting. My mind slid out of focus. Sideways. Skittered away from confrontation.
“Eggs and butter toast.” He gave the plate a tiny shove in my direction. “Your favorite hangover food.”
“I’m not hungover.”
“No.” He picked up my fork and held it out until I took it. “You’re probably still drunk. Get something into your stomach to soak it up.”
“What are you even doing here?” I asked, forking up a mouthful, unable to resist his order. Did he even know what he was doing? How just the timbre of his voice reached inside and turned me to his will without his having to even try? I doubted it. He wasn’t like Nash.
I glanced up at him. He watched me, steady, calculating, waiting for me to take a bite. I did, and he nodded slightly, his lips twitching into a more relaxed expression, and began to eat himself.
“Andy called me. He said you haven’t been in to work all week,” he said after a few minutes.
“I don’t work there anymore. Remember?”
“You didn’t go in to pick up your personal shit.”
I poked at the food. “What do I want with used staplers and hole punches?”
“Or the two-hundred-dollar pen your father bought you—”
“To celebrate my getting that job? Right. How proud he’ll be when he finds out how I lost it.”
“He’s just worried about you, Laurie. We all are.”
Jeff pushed at the side of my face until I turned my head to the kitchen sink and the collection of empty bottles stacked beside it. Dozens of them—beer bottles, whiskey, wine. My stomach rolled over.
“You are not fine, my friend.”
“How many of those did you dump out?” I asked, finally spearing another bit of eggs, which I picked off the fork with my teeth.
“Not as many as I might like.”
“You know me.” I swallowed and plucked another tiny bite off the plate. “High tolerance.”
“No one has that high a tolerance, Lawrence. I should have taken you to the ER.”
“Now you’re overreacting. It’s not like I drank them all last night. Or even this week.”
Jeff shook his head and went to the stove for the dirty pan. “You deny you’ve been drunk for a week?”
I took a nibble of toast.
“What?” I slammed the fork and toast down. “What do you want me to say? Deny it? You want me to lie to you? Or do you actually think you need me to answer?”
He crashed dishes around in the sink for a few minutes.
“Stop acting like you’re shocked or appalled or something.”
“You drink too much.”
The accusation was barely a whisper. Once again, he’d left me with nothing to say in response. He didn’t want me to agree with him, because he didn’t want it to be true. But he was Jeff, and I would never, ever lie to him. So I kept my mouth shut.
“Maybe you need to talk to—”
“Did you check my underwear drawer?” I asked to cut him off. He was the king of therapy. Given his past and the crap he’d lived through, that was probably a good thing. It was probably the reason he was one of sanest, steadiest forces in my life. But not everyone needed to “talk to someone.”
“Stop acting like it’s a joke!” He whirled on me, and suds and water flew everywhere. Some landed on my plate, and I watched the pile of white bubbles slump and spread towards the eggs.
“Who said it was a joke?” God. That stung. He had no idea how deadening it was to spit that out at him just to shut him up. Just to give him what he wanted. Just to let him save me from myself because we both knew I couldn’t do it alone.
For a long moment he stood there, hands on his hips, and stared at me with what I knew was a wounded, frightened, furious glare. I could feel the heat of his anger issuing from his huge brown eyes. I concentrated on scooping eggs away from the encroaching suds and forcing myself to eat.
After a heavy silence, getting nothing else from me but the serious, honest response he wanted, he stormed off to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and rooted around.
He didn’t quite stifle the curse.
I was only giving him what he wanted—the truth. He just wanted the truth to be something else. We made a great pair that way.
“Check my old cowboy boots in the clos—”
He slammed the dresser drawer. “I already got that one.” Hard as flint. Cold. It was easier when he was mad. I could deal with mad. The thud of his feet on the floor echoed hollowly as he stomped back to the kitchen and poured that bottle down the drain too.
I ate a few scraps of toast.
He washed the dishes, then brought the big blue recycle bin from the foyer closet and started piling bottles into it.
I couldn’t eat even half of what he’d made for me without the risk of bringing it all back up again. I carried my plate to the kitchen and began the ritual of composting the food and wiping down the dishes.
“Soon as you’re ready, we’ll go get your things from the office.”
“You really expect me to troop through there and let everyone watch me pack up a bunch of shit I don’t care about? Listen to them whisper and snicker?”
“You’re a jackass. Andy already packed everything. We’ll call him when we get there and he’ll meet us in the lobby.”
“Big of him.”
“You!” He turned on me then, shining green wine bottle held out like a club. “Have no idea, shithead! He called me because he was worried. Because he didn’t want you to have to walk that gauntlet, but this is the last day he can help you avoid it.”
“I’ll go on Monday. He can do it then.”
“He won’t be there Monday!”
“Why?” I put my utensils in the drainer and finally looked up at him.
“Because he tendered his own resignation the day Nash’s brother fired you. So did Sofia and Jeremy. And Reggie. And she is some pissed at you for not telling her what was going on.”
I stared at him.
“Are you a complete idiot?” At least he didn’t look as mad now. Just confused. “After what he did, do you think any of them were really going to stay there?”
“After what I let him do, you mean.”
“You can’t blame yourself because Nash—”
“Can we not, please?” Talking about it was just making me want another drink. And another until the whispers and the memories were obliterated behind the red haze of perma-drunk.
Thankfully, Jeff nodded. “Get dressed,” he said, his voice quiet and that calm, even cadence instilled in me a strange desire to just do what he wanted. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.”
WE MADE the drive in silence.
In the lobby, Andy met us with relief. He had boxes and boxes of stuff. Most of it was his. His job as a graphic designer entailed a lot more paraphernalia than mine as a personal assistant had, and he was not the world’s most efficient packer. As we loaded the boxes into Jeff’s trunk, Andy told me the girls, Reggie and Sofia, had tendered their resignations the day they all found out I had been fired, and then had called in sick every day since. Andy and Jeremy had packed up everyone’s desks and taken it all away from the firm over the past week. No one in the office had raised even a hint of complaint.
“So.” He picked up the last box from beside the guard’s desk in the lobby and grinned at me through the forest of T-squares and desk guides bristling from the ill-packed box. “We’re all free and clear. Maybe it’s time to start that graphic novel you keep talking about, huh, Laur? Jeff here can write the story, Reggie can draw, I can color. It’ll be like school, but better. We’ll make some money. Sof’s got the first stages of promotion all worked out.”
“Right. And what do I do?” I mumbled as I ducked into the front seat.
“Huh?” Andy glanced from me to Jeff, then clambered into the back. “You run the joint, asshole. Keep us on schedule. Set deadlines, make budgets. You do what you’re good at.”
What I was good at. I snorted. What I had been good at was spreading my legs. Letting Nash lead me around by the nose while he whispered toxic lies in my ear and I believed him.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Jeff said quietly. He started the car and headed downtown toward Andy’s apartment.
“Yeah, well.” How was that for noncommittal?
We’d talked about it so often. Dreamed about it. There was money in graphic novels, if you did it right. If you hit the right market and had the right skills. Between the six of us, we had all the skills we needed and then some. Reggie was pure talent when it came to the manga art style, and Andy genius at bringing things to life with color and placement. Sofia and Jeremy were a marketing dream team, and Jeff never ran out of ideas for plots and their dangerous and sexy twists and turns. I’d seen it all as we’d worked for Nash and his brother, as we gelled as a team doing ad copy and the mundane crap that went along with corporate advertising bullshit.
I’d watched them all strut their stuff in Nash’s employ and stretch their wings in off hours when we hung out, and I knew they were all destined for way better things than that stink hole of an advertising firm. I’d longed to pull them all together, to make the team last and do something that meant more than selling hotdogs and tampons to people who were going to buy the shit anyway.
I suppose what I’d really longed for was a chance at something more important than being a personal assistant and sex doll for a cocky, demanding, and, as it turned out, psychopathic boss in a midlist ad firm. I wanted more, and they were the talent I could use to get it.
“Think about it,” Jeff said, still soft. Still gentle. He glanced at me to see if I’d heard.
I could only offer a shrug. They would do it anyway. Obviously they had talked about it. They didn’t really need me. I was a tagalong. The sympathy recipient of a pointless job so they could feel like we were all still together, like school. Only school was ten years gone, we were all ten years older, and Jeremy and Reggie had a kid to pay for. Some things you could never get back.
Jeff pulled into Andy’s parking lot, and we hauled all the boxes up two flights of stairs to his dinky walk-up bachelor pad.
“Hey, thanks, guys.” Andy took the last box from me and set it on his table. “Lord knows where I’m going to set any of this up.” He glanced at his drafting table, cluttered with folded laundry and a stack of Superman comics. “Guess I’m going to have to clean this dump up.”
Jeff snickered. “Good luck with that.”
“You guys want to stay for a beer?” Andy went to the fridge and pulled out three brews.
I said, “Hell yes.” at the same time Jeff told him, “No, thanks.”
“Your loss,” Andy said, handing one of the beers to me.
Jeff intercepted it and handed it back. “We have to go,” he said to me, not offering even a nook of opportunity for me to argue. “Get your stuff back to your place.”
“It’s not going anywhere.” I reached for the beer again, but he stepped forward and fixed Andy with his hands-on-hips look that said he was not going to back down.
“I found him on his couch last night,” he told our friend. “Passed out cold. Too soused to fucking know his own name. He’s been drunk for a week.”
Andy nodded and set all three beers on the counter. “I’ll make some coffee.”
“Fuck you both!” I headed for the door.
“I’ve watched enough people drink themselves to death,” Andy said in a matter-of-fact voice. He hauled a few more beers out of his fridge and proceeded to pop all the tops and pour them down the drain. “I’m not helping you, Laur. You want to do it, do it somewhere else.”
“You don’t have to waste your beer.”
He stopped and looked at me. “You know how many bottles I found in your desk and your office and your locker at work?”
In fact, I probably didn’t know the exact number. But that was just proof of what they were both saying.
“If the temptation’s not there, we can’t give in to it,” he said, pouring out the last bottle. Methodically, he loaded them into a case of empties and folded the flaps closed. “There.”
He stood in front of the sink, staring at the drift of foam seeping down the drain, but didn’t say anything or look at me.
“You both are overreacting,” I finally said, watching the tense set of Andy’s shoulders.
Andy didn’t even turn around but remained fixated on the sink for a long, silent moment.
Jeff lifted one of my arms straight out in front of me and told me to hold it there. He let go. “You think so?” His quiet but husky words got Andy’s attention.
We all watched my hand tremble for the few seconds I held it there.
“I AM not going to any twelve-step fucking meeting!” I shouted.
Jeff was carrying my lone box of office detritus—and a large gym bag slung across his chest—into my apartment. I’d tripped rounding the car from my passenger seat to the trunk, and he’d refused to let me carry my own shit. Like I was some sort of useless invalid.
“No one said anything about twelve steps,” he replied, all calm and unruffled. He set the box down and pulled the strap of his bag over his head to drop it on the floor at his feet. “Just that I think it might be a good idea to go see a doctor.”
“I don’t need a shrink.”
Jeff just smiled a smile that might have been considered angelic under other circumstances. “Didn’t say you did. I meant a physician. A GP. You can get something to help you sleep.”
“I don’t have any trouble sleeping.”
“Not when you drink till you pass out, probably not. Where do you want this box?”
“Burn it,” I muttered, flopping onto my couch. I noticed a discolored spot on the hardwood and wondered if he’d had to clean up puke. The realization that I didn’t know sent a cold chill through me, and I studied my shaking hand again. I rubbed my stocking foot over the spot on the floor as he settled beside me.
“Spilled whiskey,” he informed me, as though reading my mind.
“Make you a deal.” He picked up the remote before I could, and held it on his far side. “If you have no trouble sleeping tonight, I’ll drop it. But if you can’t sleep, you come see my doctor. Tell him what’s going on and see if he can help.”
I glared at the blank TV screen. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? It wasn’t like I’d never gone on a drinking binge before, and he’d never said boo about it.
“Fine!” I reached across him and plucked the remote from his hand. “Whatever.”
THERE was no hiding the fact I couldn’t sleep. He was still there, stretched out on my couch while I lay in bed. I could faintly hear the sound of whatever he was listening to on his headset from across the room. If I looked over, I was sure I would see him watching me toss and turn.
I was cold. Not a shocker. My apartment was always cold, and I’d given Jeff one of my comforters. Not that he would accept that as good reason for my sleeplessness.
“You awake?” he asked, his voice drifting over the soft tinkling emanating from the earphones he’d removed.
“What are you listening to?”
I sat up, arranging my pillows against the wall at the head of my bed. “As if.” We were far beyond laughing at each other, I thought.
“Taylor Swift.” He reached over and yanked the cord of his headphones out of the iPad sitting on the coffee table. The last few guitar riffs of something rang through the room, and he sighed. The next song was “Mean” again, and he fumbled to turn the thing off.
“Sorry.” He flopped back so I couldn’t see anything but one knee and one elbow peeking over the back of the couch. “Not my favorite song right now.”
“Is that what you think it was like?” I asked him. My breath caught somewhere in the depths of my chest. I didn’t want his answer so very much. “With Nash, I mean?”
“What do you think?”
“I—” I still couldn’t breathe. I closed my eyes. “I didn’t want to think. I got drunk.” Was that an admission of some sort? I wasn’t sure.
There was rustling. I couldn’t open my eyes, though. I still heard Nash’s smooth-as-chocolate voice in the back of my head. Whispering. Condemning.
“You’re not drunk now.”
God. Was he always so relentless?
“I want to be,” I whispered. Maybe he wouldn’t hear it. If I said it quietly enough, maybe it would slip past.
“But you’re not.” I could tell from the tone of his voice, from the way it dug right into me, that he’d sat up and was looking at me over the back of the couch, probably. Assessing.
I hunkered down. Trying to hide, I supposed. Not that there was anywhere to hide or that he’d actually let me.
“What do you want me to say?”
Jeff walked heavy. His feet thumped on the hardwood-covered concrete, making those hollow, echoing noises as he moved across the room. My bed sank, and I had to readjust my weight so I didn’t fall into him. I was still off-kilter, and I almost did anyway. His hand on my upper arm steadied me.
It was a familiar grip, one Nash liked to employ because, like Jeff’s, his hands were big enough to get a good, tight grip that hurt.
I winced and cringed away before it could. It wasn’t voluntary. There was no way to contain the movement or explain it away. Not to Jeff. He knew that kind of cringing.
“The truth,” he said again. “Laurie, look at me and tell me what he did to you.”
I shook my head.
“It’ll never go away if you don’t.”
“What would you know about it?”
“It wasn’t like that!”
It was his turn to flinch. Raised voices did that to him. Maybe reminders of his violent past did too. It was a shitty thing to do.
“It’s okay.” I felt him move from the very edge of the bed where he’d been perched to my other side so he could lean against the wall next to me. “But that I still flinch, even though it’s been a hundred years since I was twelve, it’s just proof. It doesn’t go away. Not really. You just learn to deal. But that doesn’t happen in a bottle, Laurie.”
“You really think I’m a drunk?” Finally I opened my eyes, turned my head just enough to see his lips move as he spoke. No way could I look in his eyes.
“I really think you’re in trouble. Nash might be gone, but his ghost is still here. I can feel him.” His hands moved, drawing my attention to how he picked at the calluses caused from constantly holding a pen. “I’m not trying to be an asshole, Laurie. I’m not.” A flake of thick skin came free, and he held it between thumb and forefinger, like he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t want to drop it in my bed, maybe, or flick it away.
“You’ve seen it all before,” I suggested, handing him a tissue.
“Well.” He took the offering, wrapped up the fleck of skin, and tossed the whole thing in the trash. “You can be flip, or you can agree I might know a little something about alcoholics and watching people drink themselves into doing something stupid. Johnny and me… our foster dad was a perfectly nice guy when he was sober.” He shuddered. “And had a hard-on for Johnny when he wasn’t. Shit goes on in people’s brains they can’t control. I get that. Johnny understood it too, but it didn’t make it any easier to fight the guy off or listen to him yelling at his wife or to my brother crying in the next bed. Knowing it didn’t help Johnny when he had to deal with it all after the fact. Maybe Nash was one of those people—”
“He never set out to hurt me.” I knew it sounded pathetic.
“We’ll never know, Laurie. And it doesn’t matter if he meant to or not. He did it. That’s what’s left. I was too young to help Johnny. It took him a long time to get as bad as he got, and longer to get clean. But he found his way, eventually. It was hell watching him try to kill himself one sip at a time.”
“Do you think Johnny ever thought it out either?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. His twin brother had gone through hell and come out a decently strong person, all things considered. Whatever Jeff thought of his efforts to help his brother, I knew without him, John wouldn’t have survived.
“He only started to get better when he finally admitted to himself what he’d been through, Laur. I might have won a few broken bones, but what he got was so much worse. He wanted so badly to believe that man cared for us. For him. That was the only thing that let him allow it. Knowing he didn’t really care—couldn’t—that it had nothing to do with anything but rotten brain chemistry, that was what nearly killed Johnny.”
“That was Johnny,” I mumbled. “He was twelve.”
“And you’re not. So what? You’re also a lot of things he wasn’t, even then.”
I glanced over at him, and he watched me, steady, so very calm and strong. I could have just melted into him and forgotten about everything else under that stare. So easy to let that look on his face be my whole world. The idea sent a shudder through me, and Jeff’s eyes went a little bit darker. There was no chance he’d missed it.
“What did Nash do to you, Laurie?”
Nothing I didn’t want him to.
I swallowed hard. So many answers crowded into my head at once.
Nothing. Everything. Exactly what I wanted him to do.
Until the end, when he turned into a different person and nothing I did was right or good enough and he was never satisfied.
“Either you can’t actually answer the question, or you don’t want to.” Jeff made to get up, but I moved with him, not willing to let him get away. His proximity might not help me sleep, but it was soothing.
I crawled off the end of the bed as he walked around, back toward the couch. I followed.
“Okay?” He dropped onto the accommodating cushions and looked up at me, that nameless strength still backing the curious expression in his eyes. I drew in a breath, nodding, knowing precisely what he wanted to hear, knowing how to turn the curiosity to pleasure. I knew what he wanted from me.
“I’ll go. To the doctor,” I told him. “Whatever you want.”
He eyed me. “Too easy.”
I stopped in my tracks. “You want this.”
“You want to avoid answering my question.”
My heart rate rocketed up. My breath didn’t catch this time, but it rasped through my throat and heaved my chest up and down. I could look around my own apartment and pinpoint every memory Nash had left behind. I wanted one of them to be pleasant, but they were all tainted by the whispered derision of the last few weeks with him. I could never tell my friend any of that. I could never admit any of the things Nash had done had been forced on me. I’d allowed it all.
I retreated. I didn’t deserve the comfort of Jeff, of the angel who kept flying to my rescue when I didn’t merit his efforts. The backing away landed me at the long expanse of living room window, and I froze in place. The cold of the glass penetrated my thin T-shirt and the cotton of my sleep pants, bringing back memories of being pressed against it without even that flimsy protection.
Cold. Bare skin gone beyond gooseflesh and hard hands holding me still while he waited for me to agree with his derision, to say what wasn’t true. I didn’t want to tell him what wasn’t true. Couldn’t. The longer I stayed silent, the angrier he got. I would break. We both knew I would, because he was easier to deal with if I just agreed with him. It didn’t matter that it tore at my soul to take those words in and keep them….
“Come here.” Jeff’s calm penetrated the fog of thoughts gone haywire and left of center.
I swallowed and stood there, frozen, lost in a past that was killing me by increments. One I couldn’t escape.
“I said, come here.” Jeff’s voice took on an edge of command, a deeper timbre that exuded safety and warmth and left me no place to wedge in denial.
I blinked at him.
“Laurie.” He held out a hand. “Come over here to me.” Heat dripped out of the words, and his dark eyes were nearly black in the dim light. His broad chest heaved with his deep, steadying breath, and he opened his hand a little wider.
It was the warmth that finally penetrated and let me see past what Nash had left behind. Warmth from his hands on both my arms, gently drawing me away from the window when I hadn’t even seen him move closer, gave me new focus.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“You don’t know that.” I let him lead me to the couch, and fragments of memories from the night before, ones that didn’t circle around Nash, swirled back to me.
“You want a drink?”
“You got me, instead. Tell me.”
The nod turned to a negative motion. “You don’t want to know.”
“Then let me try and piece a bit of it together on my own. You can stop me if I get it wrong.”
He had me sitting opposite him now, so we were awkwardly face to face on the couch. It should have been odd, the way he was holding one hand, pushing hair off my brow. I couldn’t focus on his face. Rather, I didn’t want to focus on his face, look into his eyes, and know if he had a sympathetic expression plastered across his features. I could stand a lot of things. The entire relationship with Nash proved that. But I could not stomach pity from this quarter.
“He made you feel like you were somebody,” Jeff said.
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t do this….
“At first, it was like you were the center of his universe. He was good to you. He made you believe that was how it should be. You don’t even notice the shift, at first. The little slights. The digs. The way his eyes slant away when you thought he’d like an outfit. The times he pushes your hands away only to demand you do something you’re not into. But you do it because he’ll look at you again if you do, and for a little while, it works. He says the almost-close-enough-doesn’t-matter-it’ll-do right thing. Because by then, you’ll take anything. Any tiny nip of kindness to take away the sting of humiliation.”
Jeff’s hand cupped my face. So gentle. So very warm and steady.
I pulled away. It was too close to everything I’d learned meant something else. Something bad.
But the hand returned, curving around the back of my neck, fingers slipping through my hair, and heat wafted across my face. Breath. Soft, whispering words brushing my lips like kisses.
“He isn’t worth this, Laurie.”
“If people knew—”
“They wouldn’t judge you.” His forehead touched mine.
I didn’t need to open my eyes now. He was too close to see anything in them anyway. “I believed him. I was an idiot. Just because I wanted….”
What he did next, I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to. Maybe. Maybe I just didn’t want to. He lifted my chin, and the kisses this time were not mere words. Still soft. Still breath-light on my lips, but those fingers supporting my chin, his lips hot and protective on mine… that was all I knew. All I wanted to know.
I opened when his tongue slid along my lips, moaned when his huge hand closed around my wrist and pulled me closer to him. After Nash, I knew what control felt like. Knew it and welcomed it and melted into it instantly, giving every inch he demanded without question or hesitation.
Because this was Jeff. This was home and safety, and I needed it like air. More than air, because I was panting like a racehorse when he finally stopped, and still leaning into him for more. He could have sucked the life right out of me and carried me around inside himself, and I would have been okay with that. Breathing didn’t matter. Him touching me, kissing me, handling me, did.
“Wanted what?” he asked after I’d gasped and choked on a breath at last.
His voice brought me back into the cool living room. “What’s happening?” I pulled back, hauling in air that wasn’t perfumed by his nearness. “What… is this?”
His eyes went big. Huge, reflecting a kind of inner horror, and I cringed.
“What is this!” I scrambled off the couch. “What? Jeff!”
“I’m sorry!” He jumped up, slammed back down, and covered his mouth. “Oh God, Laurie, I’m sorry. That was….”
I twisted, trying to turn away and not turn away at the same time.
I was shaking for real now. Not the uncontrolled tremors of detox. Full-on shaking of earth-shattering proportions. If he said he hadn’t meant it….
“I came here to help you and I….” His eyes filled and he blinked rapidly. “That is not what you need. I should not have—”
I had started backing away again, and he scrambled to his feet, then collapsed onto the couch, his hands held out like he wanted to grab me and hold me from getting away.
“No, don’t. Listen. Hear me, please. I’m not saying I didn’t mean it. I did. I do.” He got up, and I couldn’t help the comparison to a jack-in-the-box that flitted through my mind. “But… just… not yet. It’s too soon.”
I nodded. “Too soon.”
I changed my course and put the bed between us. “Stay on the couch.”
He agreed, still looking like he’d been bitchslapped.
“Of course.” Back to that quiet calm. The angel voice. The one that hid what he really wanted.
Only now I knew, and there was no carefully constructed box in my universe that fit Jeff the lover, Jeff the dominant lover. Only now the box that should have housed Jeff the friend was startlingly empty, and here in my living room was this wildly out of place entity that I didn’t know what to do with.
THERE was no dawning awareness this morning. I’d never slept, and likely, Jeff knew it. I don’t think he did, either. More than once he disappeared into the bathroom. I’m pretty sure it was just to get away from the silent sounds of me watching the dark and waiting for the next thing to happen, the next shocking surprise from someone I thought I knew but that didn’t have a name or a label.
First Nash had turned on me, and now Jeff was sliding out of the reality I knew into a nether space where I couldn’t quite follow or see clearly.
He rose for good some time before the sun did, and I watched him, listened to his oddly heavy footsteps take him to the bathroom, then back across the apartment to the kitchen, where the sounds of dishes clattering softly told me he was making a pot of coffee.
He was bare, waist up and ankles down, dressed only in his sleep pants. He’d never been heavily muscled. He wasn’t built that way, but there was not a pinch of softness or extra pudge on his frame. Lean, long, ropey, I suppose was what he could be called, and easily a head taller than I was. With the wide shoulders and narrow hips of a swimmer, he wasn’t small, either. In the semidark, lit only by the stovetop light, I couldn’t see the dusting of hair across his chest, though I knew it was there. He was my best friend. We played tennis together, swam laps together, changed in the locker rooms together. I knew what his body looked like.
Now I knew what his lips felt like, tasted like. Tender. Sweet. If care had a taste, it was Jeff. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
He leaned on the counter and munched on a few handfuls of Toasted Oat Os from the cereal canister as he waited for the coffee to brew. Two mugs sat on the counter at his hip. A giant blue one I’d bought for him when I’d first rented the place, since before Nash, he’d spent as much time here as he did in his own basement dump. Beside his mug was a pink one he’d given me for my seventeenth birthday. A week after we’d met. It had “16 candles” written on one side in bold black letters and a faded “+1” on the other written in his drunken Sharpie scrawl.
Once the coffee was brewed, he poured his own mug full, emptying half the pot, and left the carafe on the counter next to my mug and the sugar bowl. He settled at the table then, plugged his headset into his iPad, and hauled out his notebook. When it came to his creative process, he was old-fashioned; I’d never known him to type up a rough draft. He’d taught himself to write with his left hand, though, so when his right got sore, he could switch. He had calluses on both of his middle fingers, and an old pen his grandfather had given him that always leaked and left ink stains on his hands.
I saw more of him, there in the dark, writing by the light of an LED reading lamp, than could be explained away by simple friendship. I knew what his lips tasted like. I knew how it felt when he ran his fingers through my hair and the way his voice softened when he saw me on my knees and unraveling.
He was humming again. I didn’t recognize the song this time. Under that soft sound was the scratch of his pen nib across the page and the occasional scrape of his coffee mug on the old wooden table.
Domestic. It felt… comfortable. Like he belonged there.
Winter-gray light smudged across the sprawl of my place, rubbing out the blurred shadows and softening the harsh edges around Jeff. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been working, or how long it had been since I’d had the thought that something fundamental in my universe had changed because he’d chosen to stay. Hours, it seemed like. At some point, he began tapping his iPad periodically, and I eventually realized he was checking the time.
“I’m up,” I told him, just loud enough to be heard through his music.
He glanced over at me. “Coffee’s ready.” He bent his head back to his words.
Shuffle, stumble, shuffle. Best I could do. I was cold and shaky and didn’t think the coffee would help much, but he’d set it all out already—my favorite mug, even remembered I liked brown sugar over white. I fixed a cup and turned to face him.
He had his phone in his hand, waiting.
I shrugged and sipped. “I said I would. Make the call.”
“It’ll be today or tomorrow.”
“Not like I have a job to work around. The sooner I get in to see him, the better, right? Let’s get it over with.”
“It’ll help, Laurie.”
“Telling a stranger I’m such a lush I need a babysitter so I don’t curl up in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and stay there is going to make me feel better?” I took another too-big sip of scalding coffee. “If you say so.”
“Actually, I was talking about the prescription he’ll give you to even your moods out, but yeah, that too.” He turned his attention back to his phone and made the call.
Three that afternoon would mark my official diagnosis: fucked-up drunk asshole.