When I asked Ella to stay, I meant for a few minutes. An hour, at most. How many days has she been here with me now, in this bedroom, trapped with my grief? Three? They’re mostly a blur. I’ve spent a lot of that time sleeping, I think. Or so out of it that I might as well have been unconscious.
I eat when she tells me to eat. Get up and into the shower when she urges me to. I even managed to help her change the sheets once or twice. My sessions with Brian are the only other points of memory over the past few days. Or am I into weeks now? How long has it been since I left the clinic in Boston?
Beside me, Ella shifts. It’s the middle of the night, of that I’m sure. The room is bathed in darkness, the only light coming from the neon glow of the clock on my nightstand. It reads 1:43.
I plant my hands beside me and push myself up to sitting, the sheets falling to my waist as I rest my back against the padded headboard. Ella, sensing movement, rolls over, toward me. The clock provides just enough illumination that I can see her hand reaching out as if in search of me. Her fingers brush against the fabric of my boxers, and she sighs in her sleep and snuggles closer, snaking her arm up and over my waist, draping a long leg over my own. She nuzzles her nose into the skin at my waist and sighs again, breathing deeply, her face a mask of contentedness.
I reach down and run my fingers through her hair. How can I ever thank her for being here like this? For acting as my lifeline? Even though I’ve been out of it, she’s helped. With her here, the loneliness abated. The crushing grief eased a little. Waking up to feel her beside me, to be able to roll over and curve myself around her, to have her cling to me as though she can hold me together through sheer willpower alone has done more for me than I could have ever imagined.
Brian was right. I need her. And not just to use as a crutch or a distraction. But is it fair to need her like this? To ask her to be with someone like me? To potentially tie herself to a man who might lose himself to a debilitating disease? The thoughts leave me unsettled, and feeling…guilty. Like I’d still be using her, or lying to her somehow, or unworthy of everything she brings to the table. Her light. The laughter.
You are worthy, I remind myself, the words sounding out in Brian’s voice. How many times has he told me that? How many more will it take until I actually feel like I am?
I brush a few of the loose strands of hair back from Ella’s face, and she shifts again, hugging me closer.
“Mmm,” she murmurs, sleepily. “That feels nice.”
I cling to that as I continue to run my fingers through her hair. To some way to make her feel good, like I can pay her back for everything she’s done for me the past few days – hell, weeks.
She turns her head upward a little, toward me, her eyes still closed, her lips curling into a lazy smile. “I was having the best dream.”
“Yeah?” I ask, my voice raw from disuse.
“Mmhmm. We were in Hawaii. It was warm out. Remember what warmth is like?” she asks.
I grin down at her. “Vaguely.”
“I miss it,” she says, pulling herself closer to me.
The sheet falls off her shoulder, her skin looking like liquid moonlight in the darkness. She’s topless, the warm, mounded press of her breasts against my thigh prompting a swell of lust to rise in me.
I’m grieving. Ella is grieving. A natural response to that is to crave an outlet that reminds you you’re alive. Sex is the most common of those outlets. It’s only normal. We’ve had sex a few times since she entombed herself in this room with me. Desperate, hard, quick fucking that’s left both of us taxed. Slow, gentle sessions, in which one of us invariably ended up kissing tears off of the other’s face.
What’s still surprising is the sudden raw, aching need I feel for her right now. The overwhelming desire to bury myself inside her and stay there forever.
I wrap my fingers through her hair in a way I’m quickly learning she likes and give the strands a gentle tug. She blinks her eyes open and looks up at me. I don’t know what my expression is in the darkness that makes her lips curl up in such a sinful smile. She shifts her torso a little, rubbing her hardening nipples over my thigh. It unravels what little resistance I had.
“Get up here,” I rasp.
With a fluid movement, she pushes herself to sitting and swings a leg over my waist, straddling me. She lowers herself slowly, so that the V of her thighs settles right over the hardening line of my dick. Her hands go to my cheeks, angling my face up so that she can press her lips softly against mine.
I wrap my fingers around her legs and revel in the feel of the muscles that bunch beneath my grip, the dichotomy of their strength and the softness of the small breasts pressed against my chest.
“Thank you for being here,” I tell her when she pulls her lips away. “You didn’t have to stay so long.”
“Yes. I did,” she tells me. There’s so much in those three words that I actually believe her.
I’m thankful that I still have some strength left to me. That it’s easy for me to sit up straighter, even with her added weight. I take my hands from her thighs to snake them up and around her back to cradle her shoulder blades. Then I lean forward to press a kiss against her throat, her clavicle, her collar bone. She rests her weight against my hands, trusting me to hold her up as she arches her back, offering up her breasts, simultaneously rubbing her sex up the length of my cock.
I groan and drop my head to pull her nipple into my mouth. A soft gasp escapes her as I roll my tongue over and around her tight bud. It stiffens further when I clamp it, gently, between my teeth. I release it only to repeat the process with her other one. She mimics my motions, undulating her hips forward and backward in rhythm with my tongue.
Then she sits back a little, even as I continue to ply her nipples, and tugs the band of my boxers down just enough to free my dick. With an impatient yank, she pulls her underwear aside. Her other hand wraps against my shaft, fingers warm and firm as she guides my head to her opening.
She’s wet already, and it makes me wonder just what we were doing in that sunny Hawaiian dream of hers. I stop wondering the moment I feel her start to slide down my length. There’s no stopping and starting now, like our first time. Her body feels like it has already become accustomed to my size, so that she takes every inch of me inside of her in one gloriously slow descent.
“God, I love this feeling,” she says, voice soft as she leans back even further and plants her hands on either side of my legs.
“What feeling?” I ask, because I want to hear her say it.
“Being so full of you I feel like I could burst,” she tells me, arching her back even further as she thrusts her hips forward and then backward, just once, as if to accentuate the words.
“Do that again,” I say, my hands falling to her hips, fingers digging into her ass.
She moves just as slowly as the first time, still a little sleepy, her body supple and languid even as she lifts her hips and flexes her stomach. The fact that she’s taking her time drives me wild. Because it allows me to look my fill of her. To watch her thighs clench. Her breasts rise and fall with each deep breath she takes. To look lower still and stare at where we’re joined, see her sliding down over my shaft even as I feel her inner muscles gripping me tightly, pulling me deeper.
It’s almost too much right now. Feeling overload after I’ve been numb for so long. Instead of letting myself be overwhelmed by it, I let myself be reminded by it. This sensation, this thrill of being vibrantly alive, deep inside a woman who cares enough about me to have literally plastered herself to my side while I’ve been going through one of the hardest moments in my life. This woman who has seen me deep in a depressive state and instead of running away, she brought her light closer, keeping the worst of the darkness at bay.
I don’t have the words to thank her right now, so I let my body do the talking. I take a hand from her hip and let it roam, pausing to cup her breast, ply her nipple, and then fall, fingers splayed, down over the warm, taut skin of her stomach before I press my thumb against her clit.
She moans softly and sits forward to grip my shoulders, still moving in that slow, torturous rhythm. I follow her sounds and her movements, giving her everything, reading the signs her body is sending me.
There, right there, that’s how she likes it. This deep, penetrating angle paired with my thumb stroking her clit.
“Ben,” she breathes, her hips picking up their pace.
“You’re so fucking beautiful,” I tell her.
I memorize the sight of her, back arched, head thrown back, skin electric blue in the light of the clock, shadows and highlights playing over her muscles and softness as she loses the rhythm and comes, calling my name.
The feel of her clenching around me has me tumbling half a second after she does, my hands on her hips so that I can bury myself in her.
Afterward, we’re both out of breath. She slumps forward against my chest, tucking her head beneath my chin. I wrap my arms around her and pull her closer.
I love you, I want
to tell her. But I don’t. Because in this moment, I’m not sure if I can trust
the words, or the feeling. Is it my grief talking? My thanks? This brief
emotional bliss brought on by sex? Or have I really fallen in love with her?
I manage to actually leave my room the next day around noon. Ella slipped from the bed early this morning to make breakfast and I think I must have fallen back asleep after she coaxed me into eating.
It’s the sounds of laughter and barking that pull me up from my mattress. Little, yipping whoofs that I know so well.
The puppies are back.
“They are so stinking cuuuuute. Hani, look at them!” my mother is screaming at my father as I round the corner of the living room.
My parents and the woman I may or may not love are all sitting on the floor between the couch and the fireplace, backs to me as two little living marshmallows tumble over their legs. I lean my shoulder against the frame of the door and watch, letting the scene fill my mind, committing the sight to memory, so that later, maybe in just a few minutes, when my future seems so fucking bleak I feel crushed beneath it, I can remind myself that I can still have good moments.
“Can we get puppies when we get home?” my mom asks, picking Doodle up and burying her face into his side. He immediately tries to eat her hair.
“If we actually commit to training them this time, sure,” my dad says, reaching a big hand out to pull her strands from the puppy’s mouth.
“Ella can help,” my mom says, setting Doodle down. “Benny said she knows all about training dogs. You’d give us some tips, right, sweetie?” Mom asks her.
“Absolutely,” Ella answers.
“Plus, pets have been proven to help combat depression, and God knows we can use all the help we can get right now,” Mom adds.
Ow. Her words feel like a stab wound straight to my heart. I’ve been so busy dealing with my own grief that I’ve completely neglected the thoughts of what this must be doing to my parents. It makes me want to apologize. To beg their forgiveness for putting them through this.
This isn’t your fault, Ben, Brian has told me, over and over, as if he knew a moment like this was coming.
I take a deep breath and try to force myself to absorb his words. It’s hard. It’s so fucking hard to not feel the need to constantly apologize to the people you love when you’re the reason they’re in pain or emotional turmoil. Even if that pain was unintended or out of your control.
Hopefully my Mom’s therapist has been telling her the same things that Brian has me. The guilt after Zach’s death nearly crushed them both. My diagnosis must feel like added torture.
How the fuck are we all going to get through this?
One day at a time, Brian has said. Just take it one day at a time for the foreseeable future, Ben. Don’t even think about tomorrow. Focus on the short term for now.
Boots is the first one to see me. He’s in the middle of chasing a squeaky toy when he must catch me out of the corner of his eye. His little head whips up when he does, and he gives a little yip-bark and comes barreling straight toward me, jaws wide, ears forward, tongue lolling out in excitement.
I reach down and scoop him up, snuggling him to my chest. He starts licking my neck, and I’m too happy to have this wriggling, spazzy baby animal in my arms that I don’t even bother to stop him.
“Benny,” my mom says.
I look up from the puppy to see her and my dad staring at me. They look like hell. There’s no easy way to put it. Mom’s eyes are bloodshot and her skin seems pale and paper thin. Dad looks like he hasn’t slept in a week.
I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry, I want to tell them. From the way my mother’s mouth is pinched, it looks like she’s holding in words of her own.
Ella breaks the tension. “Hey there, handsome,” she says, rising to greet me. She leans up on her toes and plants a kiss on my cheek, like this is just another normal day, then ruffles the fur between Boots’ ears. “Jack didn’t want to let these little rug rats go. They haven’t eaten yet. Wanna feed them?” she asks.
A few of my sessions with Brian have been on speaker phone, with her seated next to me. Between him and Ella’s sister-in-law, who it turns out is also a therapist, Ella has been seeking out every possible way to help me she can. She’s employing one of them now: giving me something to take care of aside from myself.
Even though I know what she’s doing, I’m thankful for it, and I take her up on it. “Come on, Doodle,” I say, turning from the room toward the kitchen.
Ella stays behind, again, putting the ownness of caring for the dogs on me alone. I hear muted conversation coming from the room, their voices low like they don’t want them to carry. I’m sure they’re talking about me, but I’m not bothered by it. No doubt I’ll hear a lot of similar murmured conversations in my future. Better get used to them now. These people care about me, whatever they’re saying I’m sure isn’t hurtful, but meant to find some way to help.
I focus instead on the task at hand. On these small simple motions. Taking the puppy food from beneath the cupboard. Picking up their bowls from the floor. Doling out the appropriate servings for their age and size. Setting them back down next to each other. Watching the dogs as they messily inhale their lunch. Cleaning up after Boots when he steps on the edge of his bowl in excitement and sends kibble scattering all over the kitchen floor.
“You hungry?” Ella asks, joining me a few minutes later.
“No,” I say, my gaze on Doodle as he pads out of the room in search of trouble. “But I should eat.”
“What are you in the mood for?” she asks. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her open the freezer. “There’s lasagna, chicken soup, beef stew, chana saag, and chicken parm in here. Or there’s eggs and potatoes, or pancakes, or…” she says, turning away to open a nearby cupboard in search of further options.
I walk over to her and pull her into a hard hug.
“Oof, my ribs,” she says.
I loosen my arms. “Thank you for cooking so much food.”
“You’re welcome,” she mumbles into my chest. “It served as a good distraction for me.”
“Benny?” my mom says from behind us.
Ella and I break apart and turn to see her and my dad in the doorway.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Your dad and I were going to step out for a bit. Maybe grab a bite down in town, if that’s okay with you?”
“Of course,” I tell them. How many days have they been housebound now? They must be desperate to escape, if only for a few hours.
“Mind if we take the Jeep?” Dad asks.
“Go right ahead. The keys should be by the front door,” I answer.
“Make sure you take the back way,” Ella says from beside me. “You still have the directions I wrote out for you? Cell reception can be tricky up here.”
“We do. Thank you, sweetie,” Mom says, smiling.
Sweetie. That’s twice now she’s called her that. She likes Ella, I realize then. Really likes her. Mom only uses pet names and endearments with people she considers to be part of her inner circle. Which means she’s already attached to her. I glance over at Dad and see him smiling at Ella in a way that reflects my Mom’s. It would be terrible if in a few days time Ella realizes this is all too goddamn much for her and bails. For them, and for me. As we say goodbye to my parents, I resolve myself to have a hard conversation with her. One that might end with her in full understanding of what she’d be getting herself into if she stays, or it might end with her walking out of the door and out of my life forever.
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.