The sound of the dogs whining pulls me out of sleep. It’s probably time for them to go out, but I am just so tired. And so warm. But not all that comfortable, I realize, as I creep closer and closer to full consciousness. There’s a crick in my neck. The right side of my face feels like I’m lying on a rack of pork ribs.
What the hell is this pillow made of, rocks?
I punch it to try to smooth it out some, and it moves in response, jerking away from me like it’s alive. Immediately, I’m wide awake. A heavy blanket falls off of me as I jerk upright. I look down to see Ben’s large body reclined beneath me on his side of the couch, feet hanging off the edge of the footrest. His sleepy, white-green eyes meet mine as he rubs his ribs.
Ribs that I just punched.
Oh, God. We must have fallen asleep watching A Christmas Story. The last thing I remember is Ralphie and Randy being bullied by Grover Dill – that little, Napoleon Syndrome-addled shit.
I look up. The TV is off now, and though the fire has burned down to ashes, it’s still dark outside. Fred and Sam push closer to me, sniffing and whining.
One second, boys. Emergency here.
I glance back down to see the middle console with the folding table is back in the upright position, my butt having taken its place. Did I fall asleep this way, or did my unconscious body inchworm its way over here and drape itself half on top of Ben sometime during the night? I think I would remember this level of snuggling, but for the life of me, I can’t.
I must have done it while sleeping. My subconscious is a traitorous bitch.
“Good morning,” Ben says, his deep voice gravelly with sleep.
The sound sends a shiver down my spine.
“I just punched you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure I deserved it,” he says, squinting up at me.
“We fell asleep.” I am queen of the obvious.
He grins. “You first, though.”
His grin widens. “Yup. You woke the dogs up with it. I think they thought a bear was trying to break into the house. You quieted down once you decided I made a better pillow than the headrest, though.”
I throw back the blanket and leap off the couch. My hamstring muscle freezes up on landing and I almost topple over sideways.
“The dogs. They have to go pee-poop,” I declare.
OH MY GOD, SHUT UP.
I snap my mouth closed, horrified that I just let slip the stupid sing-song expression I use when I let them out – You guys have to go pee-poop? – and shamble my way toward the front door like an overripe zombie with rotleg.
“Ella Jones,” Ben says from behind me. “Are you embarrassed?”
“No!” I call over my shoulder as I flee.
His laughter follows me outside.
I shut the door behind me just after Sam’s tail whips past, not stopping until I pass from the spill of porchlight into the darkness at the edge of the decking. My palms hit the railing and I immediately recoil, an image of Flick’s tongue stuck to that pole flashing through my mind.
It’s fricking freezing out here, so cold the wood felt like it seared my skin. I wrap my arms around my chest and shove my hands in my armpits, thankful for my heavy sweater but pissed I didn’t pause to put my boots on first.
I’m not going back in for them. Not yet. Maybe not ever. I’ve seen a lot of car heist movies. I’m sure I can hotwire the truck and peel out of here without ever having to see Ben again.
To answer his question: Yes, I am embarrassed. I have been transmogrified from a human woman into a being made purely of humiliation and regret. So much for keeping my distance. So much for letting him decide things. He invites me over and I just move myself right in. Right on top of him, even.
The door opens behind me. I do my best to disappear into the darkness.
I am night. You cannot see me, mortal. This is not the Ella you are looking for.
Ben walks right up to me, deflecting my jedi mind powers with an ease that makes me fear he might be a Sith Lord in disguise. He’s holding a heavy coat in his hands. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I take it and put it on. It’s one of his, and, God, does it smell good. Like vetiver and sandalwood and frankincense. I want to take a bath in his cologne.
“Ella, where are your boots?” he asks.
Who has night vision this good? What is he, a werewolf?
“Uh…I must have left them inside.”
He goes back in and grabs them, and I awkwardly shove my feet into them, cringing because my sore leg feels like it might snap in half mid-thigh.
“I’m sorry, Ella,” he says.
I want to shout at him to stop saying my name. Hearing it on his lips makes me want to rise up and steal it off of them with my own.
His tone is full of regret when he speaks again. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
He’s too nice. I can’t do this. I’m about to succumb beneath the weight of this crush. My gravestone will read: Beware! Kindness really does kill.
I take a deep, steadying breath, trying to get ahold of myself. “You didn’t embarrass me. I embarrassed myself. I’m sorry I fell asleep. I didn’t plan to. And I’m sorry for, you know, the snoring. And the sleeping on you. And the punching.”
My own night vision has adjusted enough that I can make him out as he leans against the railing beside me. “I didn’t mind.” He looks down at me, white teeth flashing in the moonlight. “Well, maybe I minded the punching a little.”
I don’t respond at first. I’m having an epic internal battle. Do I cling to my shame, an emotion that is so rare for me that it almost seems alien? Or do I take this man at his word and believe that he’s not secretly annoyed that some strange woman just couch-crashed in his super-secret bat cave?
“You want to stay for breakfast?” he asks, unaware of my angst. “It’s almost seven.”
Poof. All other thoughts disappear in response to that declaration.
“In the morning?!”
Oh, no. That wasn’t my eyes adjusting. It was the sun rising. Megan is going to be so pissed.
“Yeah. Are you okay?” Ben asks.
“I stayed out all night and didn’t tell my sister.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, frowning. “I don’t like forcing you to lie for me.”
I wave him off. “I’ve decided not to lie. I’m no good at it. I’m just going to tell her I was at a friend’s and fell asleep. If she gets pushy, I’ll go the “Where I was last night is none of your goddamn business” route. She always hated when Mom and Dad tried to police her whereabouts, and turnaround is fair play.”
“Then I’m sorry I put you in this position,” he says.
“You didn’t. I did. I made the choice to come over here, and to respect your privacy.”
“If it ever gets to the point that it bothers you, let me know. We can stop hanging out.”
“Does that mean that you want to continue hanging out?” I ask, trying to keep the unadulterated hope out of my tone.
“If you do,” he says. “It’s nice having a new friend.”
“I do,” I tell him, giving in to the realization that he was telling the truth. He didn’t mind me staying over.
That’s it. Put a fork in me. I’m done. A total goner. I better not fall asleep on a couch with him ever again or I might try to hump his leg while I’m sleeping.
I hear a scrambling sound and turn to watch the dogs race back up onto the porch, clearly over this cold. Sam barrels straight toward us and wedges his body in between me and Ben’s legs, trembling slightly. You know it’s bad when huskies shiver.
We clean them off and take them inside. They hone in on their rawhides, and while they’re gnawing on them, I go in search of my phone. I left it in the kitchen. The battery is almost dead. I unlock the screen to see a text from Megan from ten o’clock last night that reads: Hope you just fell asleep at a friend’s and aren’t bleeding out on the side of the road somewhere. Not waiting up for you.
Guess she wasn’t worried after all.
Hey, I text her back. I fell asleep at a friends. Just woke up. Sorry for not letting you know I’d be out all night. Be home in a little bit.
She immediately texts back. Kind of nice to have the extended quiet last night. No offense. Love you.
Love you, too.
I set my phone down and look up to see Ben’s back to me. His hair is wild from sleep, and I have the strongest urge to tangle my fingers in it.
This is getting ridiculous.
I tell myself, again, that he came out here for peace and quiet, not to be the object of my lust. It helps clear the fog of hormones. The fog of sleep remains, and I’m thrilled to see him pull a bag of coffee from a cupboard and begin the motions of making a pot.
We stayed up pretty late playing cards and talking. And talking. And talking some more. About everything. Benign topics like where I find inspiration for my greeting cards and if there are trails in the area for him to run on when the snow melts, to deeply serious discussions about race and politics.
It was never awkward, it was never stilted. I didn’t have to hold up the entire conversation on my own. Ben actively participated, without me having to press him too. He freely offered up his own experiences of going to college in the south, of the overt racism he encountered there, and when he traveled as an USFL player, the quieter racism of the north – with the exception of Boston and the time one of his teammates nearly got arrested for punching a Patriots fan that called him the n-word. That revelation led to a lengthy discussion about other athletes claiming Boston is the most racist city they ever played in. Which led to me telling him about how the city and the surrounding urban sprawl is still one of the most segregated areas in the nation.
We spoke like people who have known each other for years and have moved past the fear of saying something that might lead to an argument or drive the other away. I’ve never clicked with someone like this before, or so quickly, and I’m starting to worry that this crush might quickly morph into something more.
A sharp ringing jars me from my thoughts. Belatedly, I realize it’s a FaceTime tone.
Ben scoops up his phone and answers. “Hi, Mom.”
I catch a glimpse of her over his shoulder as he reaches down to put the coffee bag away. She’s as beautiful as the pictures. Mid-fifties, dark hair, light golden skin with pink undertones, and the pale green eyes she passed onto her son. Seeing them in another person’s face took me back a little when we first spoke.
“Hi, Ben. I just want you to know that our lawyers are working together to –” Her eyes cut left, and our gazes meet for a brief second. Shit, it’s too late to hide. “Is that Ella behind you?” she asks, her tone filled with shock.
It’s not even seven in the morning, and I’m at his house. We both look like we just woke up. Ben turns toward me in slow motion, his eyes wide, as if he just realized the same thing.
Fuck, he mouths.
Yes, please! I think, before I can stop myself.
“Why is Ella at your house at,” his mother pauses, “six fifty-five in the morning?”
“She came over to drop off my Christmas present,” he says smoothly, much better under pressure than I would be in his shoes.
“Hani, come say hi to Ella,” his mother calls.
“She still over there?” I hear his father say.
Sorry, Ben mouths at me.
“It’s fine,” I whisper.
I get up and hobble over to him, leaning against the bare cabinet top so that we’re both in the frame. Looking back at us on the screen are his parents. It’s easy to pick out the features he inherited from them. His skin color is a mixture of both, several shades lighter than his fathers and darker than his mothers. The shape of his eyes and hue come from his mom. He got his nose and square jaw from his father. Eyebrows from Mom. Hair from Dad. It makes me wonder, just a little, what my own parents passed on to me.
“He’s not holding you there against your will, is he?” Hani teases, the laugh lines that frame his eyes crinkling.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I don’t laugh, but say, my voice sounding strained. I lean a little closer to the phone. “Send help,” I deadpan.
As I hoped, they lose it. God, these two are so easy.
Ben assumes an exasperated expression. “Please don’t encourage her.”
His parents laugh even harder.
I look up at him. Our eyes meet and we grin like co-conspirators.
His mother catches it. “I will gladly encourage anyone that can make you smile like that, Benny.”
Thanks to the screen in the corner of his phone, I get to watch the maniacal grin that spreads over my face in response. “Benny?”
“Don’t even think about it,” he tells me.
My grin transforms to an expression of pure evil. It looks vaguely familiar. Right. Got it. Willow makes this same face when something diabolical pops into her head. Now the troubling question: did I teach it to her, or did she teach it to me? I’m a little worried it’s the latter.
One day she will rule us all.
“Don’t tease him too much about it, Ella,” Ben’s mother says.
“Scouts honor,” I tell her, raising my hand in salute. The look on my face is a dead give away for how full of shit I am. I really need to get better at mastering my facial expressions.
“We can talk about the lawyers later,” Hani says. “You two have fun with each other,” he adds, with a wink.
I have just enough time to wonder if there was a double entendre in there before Ben says goodbye and hangs up.
“Well, they think we’re sleeping together,” he says, tossing his phone on the island and turning away to check on the coffee.
I stare at his back, in shock, unable to unsee the mental image that just popped into my head in response to his words.
I am in way over my head.
“Megan, can I talk to you?” I ask my sister, several hours later.
Stacey just got up to take a shower, much to my relief. I’ve been waiting – impatiently – to talk to Megan alone since I got back from Ben’s, trying to do it in an organic way, so I don’t offend Stacey. I don’t mind if Megan turns around and tells her wife every word I’m about to say, but part of this conversation might be awkward for Stacey to listen to, and I don’t want to subject her to that.
Megan, hearing the tone in my voice, mutes the TV and turns toward me on the couch. “What’s up?”
“You remember that roommate you had freshman year of college?”
“Beth,” she says.
“Were you in love with her?”
She sits back and crosses her arms over her chest, eyeing me. “Yes.”
“But you two were really good friends.”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
I nod. As much as she and I sometimes bicker, she’s the only person in my life that I’ve ever been able to have entirely frank conversations with. Stuff that I wouldn’t say to anyone else, and I doubt that she would either, maybe with the exception of Stacey. She’s the one I talked to about losing my virginity. She’s the one who showed me how racially divided Boston still is, stopping me on a street corner to point at the bodega on our side and the Whole Foods on the other.
“I managed it by fucking other people,” she says.
“And did that help?”
“You betcha. It helped me see that there were other fish in the sea. Queer women who I could have healthy relationships with, instead of an unhealthy one-sided obsession with the straightest woman to ever straight. Eventually, I was able to get over my love of Beth and move on, without torching our friendship.”
“Damn it. That’s not really an option for me. There aren’t enough other people to sleep with up here. Well, ones that I would be interested in sleeping with, anyway. Because those that I would be, I already have.”
Maybe I can lower my standards. My friend Jen said Nick Haskell was pestering her about me a few weeks ago.
“What’s going on?” Megan asks.
I sigh. “I have a massive crush on a friend that I think will only ever see me in a platonic way.”
“The mysterious Stan?”
I nod. I don’t bother telling her not to tell anyone else, because now that she knows how I really feel, she would never, ever do that.
“Well, fuck,” she says. “Sorry for teasing you about him in front of everyone like a total asshole.”
“It’s okay,” I say, leaning forward to give her a quick hug.
“Why do you think he doesn’t like you back?” she asks when we separate.
“Because he hasn’t so much as flirted with me or even looked at me with anything other than friendship. And he’s totally out of my league.”
She frowns at me. “Since when do you have low self-esteem?”
“No, it’s not that. I guess I didn’t mean out of my league, I just meant the world he comes from is so different than ours.” For Christ’s sake, the last woman he was associated with in the press is third in line for the throne of a European country. I have no idea if the rumors are true or not, but the point stands.
“What do you mean? He from the south or something?” Megan asks in a horrible imitation of a Texas drawl.
I laugh, softly, and Megan grins in response. She has a good sense of humor, too, she just doesn’t deploy it that often.
“No. I can’t really get into it,” I tell her. “Sorry.”
“Well, lets figure out what you can do. Tell me some of his flaws.”
I sit there for five solid minutes in silence.
Megan finally breaks. “Seriously, Ella? The dude has nothing wrong with him?”
“No? At least nothing that I’ve seen so far?”
“Or are you just living that deep in crushville?”
“Okay, so say you broke down and told him how you feel. What do you think would happen?”
“I think he would want to stop hanging out. I don’t think he’s ready for anything other than friendship.”
“And how would that make you feel?”
“Like abject shit. The last thing I want to do is alienate him. And he really seems like he needs a friend right now.”
“Please elaborate how abject shit is good.”
“Because that gives you something to focus on.”
“Yeah, so I’ve tried to focus on similar things when I’m around him, but every time I look at his face, I just -” I lower my hands to either side of my hips and mime my ovaries exploding.
Megan frowns. “What is that supposed to be?”
“All of the eggs getting released when I’m in his presence. He is the best-looking man I’ve seen in real life, by, like, a lot.”
“Is that the bias of your crush speaking?”
I shake my head. “No, no. I could probably show a picture of him to anyone interested in men, and they would try to lick the photograph.”
“Welcome to my hell.”
Megan chews on her lower lip for a second, the same way I do when I’m deep in thought. Funny how alike we are in some ways, even though we’re not related by blood. It lends credence to nurture over nature.
“I think you should hang out with him more,” she says.
“Okaaaaay. In a ploy to win him over with my stunning good looks and irresistible charm?”
She grins. “There’s that self-esteem.”
“I am being serious. When I first met Stacey, it was a real struggle to keep myself from mauling her in public.”
“Stacey is, admittedly, gorgeous, so I get it.”
“And I still think that, but the more we hung out, the less overwhelming being around her became.”
“Because you were mauling her in private?”
She grins lasciviously. “Oh, I mauled her privates.”
“Gross,” I say, covering my ears for a second. “But not because gay. Because sister.”
She rolls her eyes at me. “Think of it like music. You know how you do that annoying thing where when you hear a new song you really like, you play it on endless repeat for a week straight?”
“Yes,” I say, ignoring the jibe.
“Why do you do that?”
“Because of what it does to me. How the sounds sweep me off my feet and fill my head with images. Music to me is transportive. It makes me feel in color, if that makes any sense.”
“It doesn’t, but that’s not the point,” she says. “What happens if you listen to that same song three months later? Do you still feel the same way you did that first week?”
Huh. I have to think about that for a minute. “No. Or if I do, it’s to a much lesser extent.”
“Maybe Stan is like music. The more you hang out with him, the less his physical beauty will overwhelm you. You’ll get used to it, like I did with Stacey. And in the interim, he might manifest a character flaw or two to distract you away from his seeming perfection.”
I stare at her. “You are really smart, Megan.”
She smiles. “No shit.”
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.