My heart beats so fast. I don’t know what to do or say. Tension stretches between us, not the good kind, and it hurts to touch it.
His voice lowers while I press my palms to my hot tears. “I don’t have any right to tell you to stop. That’s not what I’m trying to say, but for this arrangement to work, you have to know your limit. This, hooking up with guys in motels, not answering my calls, and…” he stumbles on the words again, “f**king…two guys. That has to end. What if they hurt you?”
I close my eyes, the tears spilling out the creases. “I don’t remember them.”
“You were drunk,” he realizes, his features darkening. “What’s after this? Orgies? Sexual humiliation?”
“Stop.” I rub my eyes, cringing at the images.
“Where’s your head at?” he murmurs.
I can’t do this again. “I’ll stop, not the sex, but the motels, the unknown texts, Craigslist—”
“Craigslist?!” he yells. “What the fuck, Lily? You know who solicits for sex on those things? Child molesters and perverts, not to mention it’s f**king illegal.”
“I didn’t use it!” I shout back, my cheeks flaming. “I was just looking.”
He holds his hands out, takes a deep, meditative breath, and balls them into fists. “Did you feel like you couldn’t talk to me?”
I’ve never had a problem unburdening myself on Lo. It’s what we’re both good at, but turning to anonymous sex felt like a natural progression once our dynamic started to shift. “Things were changing,” I mutter so softly that I think he’s missed the words.
When he doesn’t ask what I said, I suspect he heard. “I know I can be a royal a**hole. But I love you. You’re my best friend, and the only person I’ve ever told that I have a problem. It doesn’t matter if we’re in a f**king fake relationship. We’re supposed to talk to each other. Come to me before you go off the deep end, okay?”
I wipe the last of my tears and sniff. “How’s Cassie?”
“She hasn’t been in the apartment in days, Lily,” he says, reminding me of all the time I lost in my hazy state.
“What happened?” My chest lightens, and I hate that I’m taking pleasure in his aloneness.
“There’s this girl who ran out of my apartment.” He pauses. “She looked like a bat out of hell. She barely combed her hair, not unusual for her”—he shrugs—“but she seemed pissed, and the only difference in our relationship had been this new blonde girl on a bar stool. So I dumped her, figured it may solve a problem or two.” He waits, tilting his head at me while I process what he just said.
My chest swells.
“Did it?” he asks.
I should be the better person and say no, let him have a normal life with a beautiful blonde bombshell. But I’ve never been good at the morality bit. “Maybe.”
He actually smiles and rests a hand on my neck. He kisses my forehead before I can form thoughts, and when he pulls away, his lips brush my ear. “I’m here for you. Always.”
I take a deep breath, his words enough to guide me into the clinic with my head upright and my shoulders back. I’m going to be okay. Whatever happens, at least Lo will stay by my side.
* * *
After the health clinic, Lo mixes himself a drink at the counter while I make plans to study for an upcoming exam, popping open my laptop and spreading out my notes on the bar. Once I find two weeks of neglected practice problems for economics, I realize how far behind I truly am.
There is an upside. I’m clean. Free of diseases and complicated decisions. Like rehab or abortion clinics. I choked Lo to death when the test came back, hugging the life from him as I cried in relief. I don’t know what I would have done if he didn’t know my secret—if I was alone with the knowledge of my problem.
Long before we started our fake relationship, I helped hide Lo’s addiction on every occasion. I would smuggle him into one of my guest bedrooms at Villanova until he slept off a hangover. I’d kick bottles of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark underneath his bed before the maid lurked around and his father inspected the stateliness of his son’s things.
Back then, he would lie to my sisters about my weekend plans. Most were spent at parties hosted by public school kids. Screwing boys from different schools helped diminish rumors about me at Dalton. I was calculated in the selection.
Then one chilly night in October, I crawled through Lo’s window. With Jonathan Hale at a conference in New York, I could have used the door, but ever since I watched Dawson’s Creek I believed there was only one way to make a proper entrance.
I was seventeen and tear-streaked, and I just had sex. Lo sat on the hardwood floor, his phone in one palm and a Glencairn whiskey glass in the other. He jumped to his feet as soon as he saw my matted hair and smudged mascara.
“Who was it? Did he hurt you?!” Lo frantically scanned my body, looking for wounds.
“No,” I said with a grimace. “He didn’t…it’s not him.”
Leaving Lo confused, I walked to his desk and picked up the bottle of Maker’s Mark. He grabbed it from my hand before I could even uncap it. “This is mine,” he said.
“So now you don’t share?”
“I never do.”
I rubbed my arms, feeling empty and cold. He kept staring at me as if his intrusive gaze would open me up. I guess it kind of did.
“The party was pretty lame,” I muttered under my breath.
“Apparently enough to make you cry,” Lo said bitterly. He cringed at the sound of his own voice and took a swig from the bottle. Then stepped forward, eyes softening as he rubbed his mouth. “You know you can tell me anything, Lil. I’m not going anywhere.”
Lo knew most of my dirty secrets by then. The sex. The porn. The constant self-love. But telling him about this had been the hardest part of our friendship. It felt like admittance to something unnatural.
I sank down on the mattress while Lo stood holding the bottle by the waxy red neck, waiting for me to start.
“It was fine. The sex was fine.”
Lo rubbed his temple in distress. “Lily. Spit it the f**k out. You’re driving me crazy.”
I stared down at the floorboards, unable to meet his eyes, and said, “Afterwards, I thought it would be the same. But as I was grabbing my clothes, he stopped me.”
I glanced up and Lo’s cheekbones looked like sharp glass. I continued quickly before he cut me off with a slew of vulgarities. “He didn’t hurt me. He just asked me a question.”
I took a shallow breath and twisted the bottom of my shirt in my hands. Then I opened my mouth and struggled to produce the rest, eating air.
“Should I guess?” Lo asked. His chest rose and fell with hurried concern. Before I could respond he was pacing the length of the room and spouting off questions. “Were you a virgin? Have you done this often? Do you want to do it again?” He stopped and ran a shaky hand through his hair. “What the hell did he ask?!”
“Want to f**k my friend?” I said in barely a whisper.
Lo dropped the bottle and it landed in a loud thunk on the hardwood floor.
“I thought it would be fun. He left and his friend came in. And that was that…” My bottom lip quivered as the shame wedged a crevice in my heart. “Lo,” I choked his name. “What’s wrong with me?”
He came closer and bent down to my height on the bed. Carefully, he cupped the back of my head, his fingers intertwining in my brown locks. His deep amber eyes filled mine. “Nothing is wrong with you,” he said. He brought my head to the crook in his shoulder, his arm encasing me in a comforting hold, and held me for a while.
When he pulled away, he brushed my hair behind my ear and asked, “Are you scared of getting hurt?”
“Sometimes. But it doesn’t stop me.” I blinked back tears. “Do you think…do you think I’m like you?”
We had never openly acknowledged his dependence on alcohol before, or how he abused the drink more than any average teenage boy.
He slowly ran his finger over the lines in my palm before he looked up at me with haunted eyes. One kiss on the head and then he straightened up. With a tight voice, he said, “I found my old Amazing Spider-Man edition the other day. We should have a reading marathon.” I watched him tensely walk to his cedar chest, unclasping the brass locks.
That night, he never truly answered me.
But I got it anyway.
That was the first time I realized I wasn’t just another promiscuous girl in school. I didn’t just have sex for fun or because it made me feel empowered. I liked the high, the rush, and how it seemed to fill an emptiness that kept growing inside of me.
At night, I return to clubs and bars, my regular dwellings, without formulating anonymous meetings. Surprisingly, Lo accompanies me most of the time, drinking at the bar while I sneak to the backrooms or toilet seats to hook up. Still, I crave the adrenaline rush and thrill of daytime anonymity. I fear these past weeks pushing my addiction to a new extreme has ruined me a little.
I try though. I’ve deleted all my unknown numbers and anytime the urge to log into Craigslist surfaces, I think about the terrible morning waking up in bed with two faceless men. It helps.
I zip up a black nighttime romper when my phone buzzes. Normally, I would chuck it at my pillow and let the ring die out, but this is Lily 2.0.
So I press the green button. “Hey, Daisy.”
“Lily!” She sounds as shocked as I am that I answered.
“I need a favor,” she hesitates to continue.
I guess I’m not really the go-to sister for favors. Rose would be the first one to call, literally willing to drop her entire day’s plan if we need her to. Then Poppy, almost as sisterly, but she has a daughter that eats her time and blocks out her schedule. I’m the least reliable, least available, least everything-sister.
“So,” she eases in, “Mom and Dad are going at it. They’ve been screaming about the decoration budget for the Christmas Charity Gala. I know Mom’s going to come up and start rehashing their argument to me, and I’d rather not be involved.” She pauses. “Do you think I can come over and stay the night in the guest bedroom?”
I frown, wondering if she already asked Rose, or even Poppy and Sam who have plenty of extra space. Will it be rude to question? I think it will, especially if she’s reaching out to me. I take a trained breath. “Sure.”
She squeals. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou! I’ll be over in a half hour.” That soon? The line clicks, and I glance at my room…the guest bedroom. Where she’ll be sleeping. Shit.
“LO! LO!” I scream, frantic.
Ten seconds later, he runs into the room, eyes suddenly sober. “What’s wrong?” he says, panic-stricken.
“Daisy is coming over.”
His muscles slightly relax, and he combs shaking fingers through his hair. “Jesus, Lil. I thought you were hurt. Don’t call my name like that unless you’re bleeding.”