Lo nods. “Of course, Lil.”
“So on the days that you drink yourself to sleep before eight o’clock, what am I supposed to do?”
“You’re making a compromise, and it’s only fair that I do the same. We’ll work out our schedules.” He rests his hand on my ankle, sending shivers up my spine. “I want to love you more than I love this”—he waves his bottle—“and I don’t know how else to do it unless there’s something to lose.” The stakes have become much greater. If I fail, that means I cheat on him. If he fails, that means he may drive me to cheat. Either way, we’ll be alone and empty. We’ve never entertained the idea of being together, in part because we were never ready to make small sacrifices, like less drinking, no more one-night stands. I’ll need to find the thrill elsewhere.
Three years later and drowning in lies, we’re suddenly prepared to lose everything for the chance at something real.
“So this is it then.” I skim his features, the firmness of his chest, the darkness in his expression, and the wanting in his eyes. “We wake up tomorrow and become an actual couple. No pretenses. I stay monogamous to you, and you cut back on the drinking to help me. Are you sure you want to do this? There’s no going back. If we break up…” Everything will change.
“Lily.” He sets his glass aside and scoots closer. He cups my face in his hands. His closeness still makes my heart flutter like I’ve never been touched by him before. That’s a good sign. “We’re terrible at so many things—remembering important dates, college, making friends—but the one thing we’ve always been halfway decent at is being together. We owe it to ourselves to try.”
“Okay,” I say in a small breath.
His smile grows and he kisses me hard, cementing our new deal—or breaking our old one. He directs my back into the nautical comforter, and I happily wrap my arms around him, holding on tight, and never letting go.
The rest of the trip, I no longer question the validity when Lo reaches out for my hand or when he slips his arm around my waist. It’s all one-hundred percent, real affection that I can enjoy without constant confusion.
Back in Philadelphia, the clouds replace the sun and the most tropical it gets here are the little umbrellas in fruity drinks. Reality sets in along with the fall season, exams looming as close as the Christmas Charity Gala. Now that I’m back to the land of male bodies, I try to train my mind on Lo and no one else. Not the hot dog vendor on the street or the lawyers entering and exiting the apartment complex.
I can’t cheat on Lo, but sometimes the cannots turn into maybes which become okays. And I’m at a loss of how to control that kind of cascade once it begins. Good thing economics steals my thoughts off Lo and even sex.
I slam my head against the fat textbook. “Die, numbers, die.”
Alcohol bottles clink in the kitchen, a familiar sound that now drives me insane. I blame college. “Lo,” I call from the living room. “Have you done this homework yet? Can you help me?” I must be desperate if I’m requesting his support.
He laughs but doesn’t bother to answer me. Just lovely. I’m going to fail. Like I need another reason for my parents to hound me. The world lies to you. They say that you become this independent, self-sufficient creature when you turn eighteen, severing the familial ties once you enter collegiate society. But in our economy, nine times out of ten, you’re financially dependent on them until you join the real workforce. Even me—daughter of a multi-billionaire tycoon—has to rely on family for support. There’s something vitally wrong with this system, and I don’t have to be f**king good at economics to know it.
I bite my fingernails to the beds and smack my book closed. I watch Lo lean two hands on the counter, his shirt riding up and his eyes narrowed at his computer screen. He clicks some buttons, staring intently at a webpage.
I start to picture him, walking towards me, eyeing me the way he did while at sea. He knows me well enough to take the lead. And he does, willingly, spreading my legs open…
Lo straightens up and shuts the laptop, his movement waking me from my fantasy. Okay, I can’t concentrate on profit margins when all I can think about is something a little more nefarious.
Quietly, I pad over to the kitchen where Lo mixes a drink. He cuts back on quantity, not quality. Bourbon and whiskey, his favorite dark-colored liquors, spread across the counters in droves.
I hover by the fruit bowl and lamely act like I’m examining the apples. In the past two weeks since we’ve been back in the city, I haven’t figured out how to approach Lo without feeling weird. I’m not the type to come out and say: Hey, Lo, can you please sleep with me? The thought of uttering those words sends red spots to my skin. Doing it with strangers is different. I never have to see them again, and I rarely use words. I give them a deep, sultry look, and they follow me wherever I go. Using that Venus fly trap technique with Lo feels cheap and overwrought. So instead, I stand here awkwardly.
I don’t want to ask for sex like I’m ordering something from a bar. Why can’t this be easier?
I try to avoid the uncomfortable conversation with a question. “You do realize we have a test in a week? Are you going to even study?”
“I’ll wing it.” Relaxed, he sips his drink and leans his elbows on the counter. He tilts his head, watching me closely.
Maybe that was a bad question to ask. Now I feel nervous for the both of us.
About this time, I’d be sporting a glittery tank top and heading for a club, even if it’s only the evening. Now that I’m monogamous, I only have one option, and he happens to be fulfilling his own obsession by downing a bottle of bourbon.
Should I even pull him away from that? Does it make me the needy, selfish person in the relationship?
His voice cuts into my thoughts. I stop pacing. Holy shit, when did I start pacing?
“I’m fine.” I go back to the fruit.
“You seem awfully fascinated by those apples.”
“Okay, enough.” He sets down his glass and edges close to me. “Ever since we returned from the Bahamas, you’ve been nervous and jittery whenever you obviously need sex. You do realize you used to tell me when and where you would have sex every night?”
“That was before it was with you,” I defend.
“So this should be easier,” he says, perplexed.
“It’s not. I don’t like asking for it. The guys I bed want to have sex with me.” I cringe. That didn’t come out right. “What I mean is,” I say hurriedly as my arms flush, “they’re actively looking for a hook up too. Not relaxing on the couch or surfing the internet. I don’t want this to be a chore or for my problems to invade your personal life.”
“I assure you, hav**g s*x is not a chore, especially not with you. As for your problems, well, that’s what being in a relationship is about, Lil. Your problem is now my problem. In fact, it’s almost always been my problem. Now I just get the reward instead of watching some douchebag take it.”
“But you don’t need me to drink. You don’t have to ask me to fix a whiskey sour. Your addiction doesn’t infiltrate my life like mine does yours.”
“Yes it does, just in other ways. And do you really think I walked into this blind?” He twirls a piece of my hair in his finger. “I know how much sex you have. I know that when you’re not having it, you’re browsing porn. I’m not an idiot, Lil. I’ve been your best friend for years, and I haven’t lost that knowledge now that I’m your boyfriend.”
He makes solid points. “Okay, but I still feel weird asking for it.”
Lo hooks his fingers in the waist of my jeans, eyeing the sliver of skin that peeks beneath my blouse. “Then don’t,” he tells me, his hand spindling across the small of my back. “If you want me to choose when we do it, I can. But I didn’t want to take that from you.”
His hand rises up my spine and he skillfully unclasps my bra. I stagger back in surprise, heat blooming on every part of me. He hooks his arm underneath mine, putting me in a lock so I can’t squirm away. Our bodies touch from top to bottom, his hard chest pressing into my soft. I can barely breathe.
Lo presses his lips to my temple and then he whispers, “Do you trust me?”
I swallow hard, trying to focus. Do I trust him? “Yes,” I say. “But…you can’t wait too long.” My words tumble out, more frantic than I anticipated. “It has to be more than two times and spaced out. When I get stressed, I may need more and—”
His lips find mine, shutting me up. My shoulders droop and I melt almost instantly. He loosens his hold so my arms can fly around his neck. We’re dancing. And yet, our feet don’t move, but I feel lighter than air, suspended above the clouds while performing the waltz Beauty and the Beast style.
Gradually, he breaks the kiss and keeps his forehead to mine. I sway from the aftereffects. My lips on his. The surprise of it all.
“You’re not losing anything,” Lo tries to assure me. “You’re gaining spontaneity. How did that feel?”
I open my mouth but can’t form the words.
His grin widens, satisfied. “That good, huh?”
“Mmm-hmm.” I’ve resorted to mumbles.
“You could be doing dishes in the kitchen,” he whispers, his lips tickling my ear, “and I could come right up and....”
His hand slides down my back and below my jeans, in between my thighs...
I remove my shirt, my bra already unclipped. And he easily lifts me up and places me on the counter. I see something in his eyes—a desire that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s filled with determination, as though convincing me that he’s enough.
I hope and pray and wish that he is. Only time will tell.
* * *
The smell of garlic bread and tomato sauce stimulates my hunger. I wiggle in my seat and tug on the hem of my black cocktail dress that rides up my thighs. Since college, the nicest place I’ve dined at is a pub that serves expensive cheeses and pistachios. The only instances when I read menus with a minimum hundred buck taste-testing course is during family dinner parties, my mother forcing me into high heels and pinching my arm to smile.
The incredulous stares are not helping me feel any more welcome. Middle-aged and elderly aristocrats shoot judgmental glares our way, waiting for us to dine-and-dash at any moment. Lo must sense the unkind speculation from our ages. Wrinkles have permanently creased his forehead.
He made the reservation a week ago, citing that we need to have our first “real” date. I sip my wine slowly. When he ordered us the house Merlot, I held in my surprise. He hasn’t had wine—what he refers to as “subservient” alcohol—in months. And even though Nola drove us to La Rosetta, Lo rarely orders alcohol for me. Of any kind.
Now an official couple, I thought I’d stop overanalyzing his gestures, but I start thinking way too much, mostly about the differences in our relationship. Sometimes I wish for a remote control to pause my brain. Just for a moment of peace.