I’m nervous when Ben pulls up. I haven’t seen him in five days and I’m worried that all the preparation I’ve done to gird myself against his good looks won’t be enough.
I stay on the bottom porch step as his Jeep rolls to a stop, watching the dogs – now back to their normal, frenetic energy levels – barrel through the snow toward him. He gets out of the Jeep and squats down to greet them. I take deep, bracing breaths in and out, praying that Megan is right and prolonged exposure to him will raise my tolerance, like an assassin taking larger and larger doses of poison, so if an enemy slips her some, it won’t kill her.
Name’s Jones. Ella Jones. The voice in my head sounds disturbingly like Daniel Craig.
Ben rises from his crouch, waves hello, and then pulls a backpack out of the Jeep – probably his snow gear, since he’s in jeans and a flannel jacket. He turns and begins ambling up the driveway toward the freshly-shoveled front walk, backpack thrown over a shoulder, one hand on the strap, the other in his jacket pocket, no idea that he looks like he could be strolling down a catwalk.
Jacket by Tom Ford. Backpack by Ralph Lauren. Body by Battle Ropes.
Don’t think of the battle ropes!
I shift my focus away from his broad chest. The dogs jump around his legs, still saying hello to their new friend. Sam has a red frisbee in his mouth, and the way he’s whining around it can be easily interpreted as throw it, throw it, throw it! I don’t even know where he found that thing. I thought we’d lost it in the snow three storms ago.
Ben slows, takes the toy, curls into himself like an Olympian competing for the gold in discus, and unfurls his upper body, his arm a fulcrum, the frisbee shooting out of his hand at a speed that takes even the dogs back.
They pause for half a second, watching it. If Fred was able to whistle in appreciation, he would be. Then they’re gone, tearing through the yard as they try to keep up with it. The frisbee just keeps going, defying the laws of physics, gliding above the snow like it’s a hoverboard. Yup, we’re definitely going to lose it this time. I’ll probably come across it half a mile deep in the woods during a summer run.
“Good morning,” Ben says from way too close.
I look over to see him paused at the railing. With me on the lowest step, we’re almost at eye level. I’d been so distracted watching the red blur disappear into the trees that I didn’t even hear him approach.
I grin at him in greeting, trying to think of knitting or folding laundry or whatever inane action will keep my mind in a nice, neutral place. He’s wearing a white knitted beanie, pushed back on his forehead, the salt-bleached ends of his wavy locks sticking out from beneath it. His jacket is unzipped a little, exposing the long, muscular lines of his neck.
Vacuuming. Mowing the lawn. Hand washing pots and pans. Think of scrubbing grease, Ella!
“Hi!” I say, belatedly. “Come on in.”
I lead him inside, leaving the dogs to their search for the frisbee. Ben sets his backpack down on the bench and begins taking his jacket off. I glance quickly away.
“This is really nice, Ella,” he says from somewhere overhead. The man is an absolute giant.
I look at the cabin’s interior, spread out before us, trying to see it from fresh eyes. To the right of us is the living room, comfy couches framing a dwindling fire, thick-knit blankets draped casually over them, inviting you to sit down and bundle up. To the left is the kitchen, the hallway that leads to the spare room, and the narrow stairs that climb up to my bedroom tucked beneath the eaves. Ben would probably bump his head on the exposed beams up there.
“Coffee?” I ask, slipping off my boots. In my head, I’m trying to chase the image of Ben out of my bedroom with a broom.
“No thanks. Trying to cut back,” he says.
I will never, ever do that. Coffee is one of my few vices. I’m like a caffeine shark. If I stop drinking it, I die.
“Anything else?” I ask him. “Hot chocolate? Tea?”
“Do you have decaf tea?”
I head toward the kitchen, barely able to make out the soft sounds of his footfalls as he follows.
“No Christmas tree?” Ben asks.
I bark a laugh. “Oh, no. I tried to put one up last year. The dogs were convinced a squirrel was hiding in the upper branches and tore it down within an hour of me getting it decorated. It took me forever to find all the pieces of broken ornaments afterward.”
I thought that visual would get me at least a chuckle out of him. Nothing.
“How was the rest of your visit with your sister?” he asks.
I put the tea kettle on the stove and turn to see him plop his mass down on one of the rustic barstools tucked beneath my kitchen island. He’s wearing a dark t-shirt with a band’s logo pulled tight across his chest. The sleeves hug his biceps. He has a traditional Polynesian tattoo starting from the elbow of his left arm disappearing up beneath the fabric. I try to be as clinical as possible in taking this all in and fail spectacularly.
“The visit was good. Pretty uneventful, aside from dinner at Jacob’s house the day after Christmas. All of us crammed into their dining room for a send-off celebration.”
“Send off?” he asks, arching a resting-arched brow even higher in question.
“Jacob spends every January in Somalia, volunteering for a non-profit. Their dry season is just starting, and with the famines having been so bad lately, they need all the help they can get. He splits his time between pro-bono doctor work and digging wells.”
I turn back around and rummage through a cupboard for some tea. “Yup. Jacob is a wow kind of guy. Dave, Jane’s husband, wrote a pretty amazing article about his work last year, and the whole community has come together to donate to the charity he volunteers for.”
“It’s wonderful he has so much support.”
I can’t help but snort in response. “At least some of it is guilt money. Jacob was the first of us to go to school here, and he didn’t have an easy time of it. He was the only black kid in his class. And the fact that he was adopted and our parents are well-off didn’t help.”
“But things are better now?” Ben asks.
“They are. It helps that he’s one of the few local doctors and these people might have to literally put their lives in his hands at some point. And I do think a lot of that initial shittiness was ignorance. It lends credence to those studies about why people in cities are more accepting of those who don’t look like themselves, or pray to the same god, or speak the same language. Exposure to different skin colors and cultures is key. Especially from a young age.”
“I’m sure technology has helped with that up here.”
“It has to some degree,” I say, grabbing two mugs off their shelf. “This part of Maine felt like we were a decade behind the rest of the country when I was growing up. We only had six TV channels until well into the nineties. Now these kids have satellite TV and internet and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. From a young age, they’re exposed to people who don’t look or sound like they do. It’s like everyone is now being raised in one giant virtual global city.”
“Hopefully all this turmoil we’ve had lately is just the death rattle of the older, more intolerant generations.”
“Amen,” I say. I really hope he’s right.
The tea kettle starts to whistle. I turn the stove off and move it to a potholder to cool down. “What kind of tea do you want? I have chamomile, peppermint, rooibos, and honeybush.”
“I’m here for some rooibos.”
I plop a bag of it in one mug, drop a peppermint bag in the other, fill them up with water, and reach across the island to set Ben’s in front of him.
A woof comes from outside, and as my tea steeps, I go to let the dogs in. They don’t have the frisbee with them. It might be my imagination, but they look a little forlorn about that, so I rub them down extra good and tell them that I don’t care that they couldn’t find it, they’re still the best dogs in the whole world. They seem to perk up some after that.
Ben’s back is to me as I re-emerge from the entryway a few minutes later. I let myself look my fill of him as I approach. Maybe if I drink in the sight of his wide back now, the way his jeans hug his ass, and the fact that those shoulders look like they were made to hook your heels over, I won’t keep getting overwhelmed.
Sam plants himself at Ben’s side, and Ben drops a long arm down and begins scratching him behind the ears. Fred follows me into the kitchen. I pause to pick up my tea, and he flops down at my feet. My toes are a little cold, so I lean my butt back into the countertop and then inch my feet forward and tuck them under Fred’s side to warm them up.
I look up at Ben. Our eyes meet. It’s easier this time than it was a few minutes ago. Megan might be right after all. I’m really thankful for that. Because I really like him. Aside from the fact that I find him wildly attractive, he’s just my kind of person. He’s nice, considerate, witty, and intelligent; everything all of my closest friends have ever been. I don’t want to screw this up.
“How much did you get done on the house the past few days?” I ask him. He’s been a ghost on all of his social media accounts, so I assume he’s been working his ass off.
He breaks eye contact to look down toward where Sam is most likely trying to climb into his lap – I swear that dog never grew out of puppy stage. “Not as much as I wanted to.”
“Let me know if you need help. This is a slower time of year for me in the shop. Mostly calendar orders, which I printed a ton of in advance.”
He looks back up at me. “I might do that. Jack said you’re pretty good with a hammer.”
“I am. I did a lot of the work in here myself.”
He swivels on his stool to take in open layout. “I bet its nice and toasty even when the power goes out.”
“It is. I bet it’s a bitch to keep yours warm when it does.”
He turns back to me, grinning. “I have a big ass generator.”
“I’m surprised you don’t have one.”
I raise a shoulder in a shrug. “No point. I can just toss the contents of the fridge into the snow to keep them cold, and the house is small enough that I have to carefully monitor the fire or it’ll reach 80 in here and the dogs and I will melt.”
Look at me, having a normal conversation with Benjamin Kakoa and not lusting over him. Hooray for progress!
My new-found platonic mindset continues right through the rest of our small talk – which I dominate – until we finish our tea. Afterward, he heads into the bathroom to change into his snow gear, subbing jeans for long johns, which I know, because as he paces back out, he’s tightening the belt of his snow pants, and his t-shirt is hitched high enough that I catch sight of the top of them. A narrow band of ridged lower abs is also exposed.
I flee from the sight of them, up into my bedroom to put my own snowsuit on.
“How did you know my shoe-size?” Ben asks a few minutes later.
We’re on the back deck, shoving our feet into cross-country ski boots.
“I checked the first time I was over at your place. Because I was confused about whether or not what I was looking at was a sneaker, or a sled designed for infants.”
Ben chuckles in response.
It’s the first time I’ve heard the sound since he came over, and it ends far too quickly. It feels like I’m back to our first meeting, like I’m going to have to do the majority of the work. I’m not upset by that; I don’t mind. I just can’t help but wonder why.
I walk over to where I already have the cross-country skis laid out and begin stepping into mine. I had to rent Ben’s gear in the end, because no one I know is this large.
“Okay, so I saw an elliptical machine in your Basement of Blood, Sweat and Jump Rope.” I pause for laughter and applause. Again, nothing. Hmmm. “Cross country skiing is a lot like being on one. You lift your heel up, move your leg forward, and sort of glide over the snow.”
“I don’t really use that machine that often,” he says.
“Well, then, it’s a lot like regular skiing.”
He shakes his head.
He holds up a hand and counts off fingers. “Skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding.”
“Okay. I’ll start with the basics.”
I help him strap into his skis, hand him his poles, and side step away so I can instruct from a safe distance.
“Wait,” he says. “I told my parents I’d send them a picture.” He pulls off a glove, unzips his fancy winter coat, pulls out his phone, and hands it over to me.
“Say cheese,” I say, taking the picture.
I hand the phone back over, and he sends the picture off.
“Three, two, one,” Ben says.
At one, the phone rings with a FaceTime call. His parents are hilarious.
“Hi, Ben!” I hear his mom say when he accepts the call.
He swivels the phone to me and I smile and wave. “Hi, Klara! Hi, Hani!”
“How’s he doing so far?” his dad asks. “He fall down yet?” He sounds thrilled by the prospect.
I laugh and shake my head. “We just started.”
“Ben, hand her the phone so we can watch,” his mother says.
“This is going to be so embarrassing, isn’t it?” Ben asks, doing as she says.
“Horrifically so, if we’re lucky,” I answer.
His parents cackle together at that like a pair of hyenas. Their son only grins. I raise the phone toward him and hit the icon that flips the screen so they see him and not up my nose.
“Okay, so the best way to do this is to start slow,” I tell him.
Turns out, for all his athletic prowess, Ben is not a fast learner when it comes to skiing. His parents and I laugh and tease him good naturedly for a solid five minutes while he struggles.
“Should have hit that elliptical machine a little harder,” I goad.
“Did you put the breaks down on these things?” he shoots back, exasperated.
I decide to let up on him. We say goodbye to his parents and then get down to the serious business of learning how to ski.
“Are you sure I’m doing this right?” he asks, five minutes later. The house is still visible through the trees. We’ve maybe gone a hundred yards. “Your feet are more turned out than mine.”
“What I’m doing is the advanced version, where you have to push both forward and sideways at the same time while lifting the backs of the skis over each other. You think you’re ready for that right now?”
He shakes his head.
“Let’s just focus on moving forward any way possible then,” I tell him. I use my poles to slide myself back toward him. When we’re even, I lift them in my hands. “These things are your best friends. Don’t use them one at a time like you have been. It’ll unbalance you. Try sticking them both in the ground on either side and using them to shove off.”
He plants his poles in the ground, then raises his gaze to mine. “Okay”
We shove off together. Or, I shove off. I don’t know what the hell Ben does that has him suddenly lurching sideways toward me.
If this were a movie, Ben and I would fall together in slow-mo, with more than enough time for him to – with seemingly superhuman agility – turn in mid air so that it’s his large body that absorbs the impact of the ground instead of mine. We’d land together in the snow, artfully splayed out, our limbs conveniently intertwined, our faces just inches apart. The perfect set-up for a kiss.
This is not a movie.
I have just enough time to realize that he’s falling to let go of my poles. My stupid skis prevent me from diving sideways out of danger. I jerk in them, trying to get away, all of my skill lost to my panic. Ben jerks in the same direction, and I take his shoulder to the chin.
And then we’re stumbling, tripped up by our skis, trying to grab onto each other for balance, but just making everything so much worse. There is a lot of swearing. Ben pops free from one of his bindings, and the sudden unexpected forward momentum seals our fate.
We lose the battle and down we go.
Ben doesn’t turn mid-air. Our limbs are not artfully splayed. I take an elbow to the left boob during the fall. I’m pretty sure that’s his squishy bits I just bashed my knee into. The air explodes out of my lungs as he lands half on-top of me. I’m left gulping like a fish out of water, trying to pull in a full breath. It feels like I turned an ankle popping free from my own bindings. Good thing I set them loose and we both came out of them. You can break a leg if you fall with them on.
Instead of leaning in for a kiss, we roll away from each other, both groaning in pain.
“Goddamn it,” I gasp, clutching my ribs. I think he might have seriously bruised a couple.
“Ow, fuck,” Ben says, curling into himself.
Yup, I definitely nailed him in the balls. And not in a good way.
The dogs descend upon on us, yipping and barking and whining and licking our faces because we’re too slow to cover them and they’re too excited that we’ve finally come down to their level to play.
“You opportunistic little shit,” I wheeze up at Fred, pushing him away from me.
“Sam, no, boy,” Ben says, rolling back toward me.
Our eyes meet. We freeze.
“Sooo,” I say in a weak, sing-song voice. “How’s your morning going?”
Ben loses it. He rolls over onto his back, arms splayed by his sides, and laughs until tears start to stream from his eyes. Sam flails all over him, and Ben finally bear hugs the dog and gently pins him to the ground. Sam’s tongue lolls out of his head like this was his goal all along.
I’d laugh along with Ben, but I’m afraid of doing that. My ribs are screaming. Instead, I grin at his profile, reveling in the feeling of making him belly laugh again. The small little smile lines that appear around his eyes make them crinkle up just like his dad’s.
“God, I needed that,” he says when he calms down. He cranes his head sideways to look at me. “You okay?”
“It’s a good thing my tits aren’t fake, or you would’ve just popped one. You?”
He winces. “I think my left testicle has ascended back into my body cavity.”
I snort out a laugh before I can catch it, then clutch at my side. “Ow, don’t make me laugh.”
He immediately sobers. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I don’t think anything’s broken. And I’m sorry, too.”
“Want to call it?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah. I’m done.”
Ten minutes later, we’re back in the house, sitting on the couch drinking hot chocolate. I have a bag of frozen peas pressed to my ribs – Ben insisted. He’s sitting beside me manspreading in a way that tells me its less about taking up space and more about giving his crotchal region room to recover.
“What about snowshoeing?” he asks.
“Yeah, we could definitely manage that.”
“But not today.”
“No, definitely not today. What do you want to do instead?” I try and likely fail to contain my wicked grin. “We could listen to some music.” I raise the remote from the coffee table and hit play, hoping the song I queued up earlier is still ready.
Elton John’s voice immediately rings out through the overhead speakers. “She’s got electric boots, a mohair suit, you know I read it in a magazine. Oh, oh.”
I turn toward Ben and open my mouth.
“Don’t you dare,” he warns.
“B-B-B-Benny and the jets,” I sing at him.
“You are the absolute worst,” he says, shaking his head at me, his grin ruining the chastisement.
My laughter is maniacal. “This is nothing, my friend. Nothing, I tell you.” I have so much planned.
“You know, you’re kind of scary when your face gets like this.”
I use the remote to cut the music off. “I think I learned it from Willow.”
“That’s a frightening thought.”
“Hopefully she will be a kind and benevolent overlord.”
“When she grows up and takes over the world, you mean?”
I nod. “Okay, but seriously though. Do you want to stay and watch a movie or something? I won’t be offended if you say no.”
He shoots me a sly look. “We never did finish A Christmas Story.”
I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. “I told you to never bring that up.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Consider this your warning, then.”
“What about that new spy-thriller?”
“Yeah, I’d be down for that.”
I pull up my Amazon Prime account through the TV, find the movie, and order it. We talk through the whole damn thing, shooting the breeze, doing stupid voice overs, and calling bullshit on all the inaccuracies, like we know anything about international espionage.
We keep an eye on the weather throughout, and he leaves in plenty of time to get home safely before the storm hits. When he’s gone, I take a minute to congratulate myself. That went way better than our first few interactions.
Well, minus the whole almost putting each other in the hospital thing.
“Can you come over? I need those nimble little fingers of yours,” Ben asks me a week later.
I’m halfway through the kitchen, about to put a plate in the sink, and his words make me stumble and nearly fall flat on my face.
“I’m having a hell of a time trying to tile behind the toilet,” he says.
“Oh,” I blurt.
“What did you think I meant, Ella?” I can hear the smile in his voice. Thankfully, he isn’t here to see the blush on my face.
“Nothing! I’ll be there in a few,” I tell him, hanging up before he can tease me.
We’ve seen each other nearly every day since New Year’s Eve. Mostly over at his place, working on the house, but he’s been by here again to go snowshoeing. That worked out much better than skiing did. It had been a perfect, sunny day. Ben had a blast exploring the woods. He went home and immediately ordered himself a pair of snowshoes so he didn’t have to borrow my spare pair again – which are far too small for his boat-sized feet.
The next night, we’d met at Jack’s for dinner and drinks and cards. Ben had abstained from beer. Apparently, he’s doing a “New Year, New Me” cleanse or something. I have no idea why. The man looks like he’s carved from marble, but who knows, maybe he’d been imbibing a little too much lately. I kept my mouth shut about it, because I’m still not trying to press him about anything personal and I have no idea what his history with alcohol is. Part of me is a little worried that I might have been too encouraging about it when we first met, and I’ve resolved myself not to bring it up again or drink in his presence, on the off chance that he’s a recovering alcoholic.
It’s getting easier and easier to hang out with him. The conversation flows free and fast, covering a wide range of topics, most of which we agree on. The few arguments we’ve gotten into have been more like civil discourse where we logic each other into corners that neither of us can get out of. He’s so rational that I easily see where he’s coming from. And him me, I think. It’s maddening how similar our debate styles are. God help us if we ever really get into it. It’d be a three-day event where nothing is conceded at the end and everyone goes home feeling fully respected but no less frustrated. The utter lack of passion in our arguments makes it a little easier to see that we’re probably better suited to being friends after all.
And becoming friends we are. Our banter game is solid. Our reno projects have proven that we work really well together. It’s no longer a constant struggle to keep my head out of the gutter when I’m around him. It’s only when he catches me off guard that I slip up. Like telling me he needs my nimble fingers. Or, like yesterday, tugging his sweatshirt off before I have time to look away. I got another tantalizing glimpse of lower abs before I turned my head. And every now and then, he says something that I swear is meant to be flirtatious, or leading, but I’m pretty sure that’s just my subconscious trying to sabotage all the progress I’ve made.
“Fred, Sam,” I call. “Want to go to Mr. Ben’s?”
The dogs leap up from near the fireplace and trot over toward the front door in answer.
I put my dish in the sink, bundle up, load them into the truck, and head over to his place.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.