It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wanted James to be happy, and I couldn't see how he could be without-- without a bit more in his life. So I added, but I guess the final result does always end up in two, no matter what numbers you plug in. Maybe by adding, I subtracted myself from the equation. You'd think I could remember the fucking basics to algebra.
It started on the first day we took off together, after one year of dating. "One whole day," I speculated, twining our fingers. "Just for the two of us. We can have sex the whole time, or sleep, or play cards, or go for strolls--"
"I'm not sure we should do any of those for a full twenty-four hours," James said, and I laughed. James' thumb rubbed against the center of my palm. "Ten to one we'll get interrupted, with work paging us, or--"
"Or House accosting us?" I drawled. James smiled sheepishly in admission. "We'll just have to revert to stone-age communication: no pagers, no cell phones... maybe TV."
"We don't need TV," James said, pinning me to the bed. I squealed, and the wrestling match started in earnest. And what do you know, we didn't need that TV one bit.
We slept in, since we'd stayed up all hours having sex, and we treated ourselves to more make-outs when we woke up. I'd have been happy to stay there all day, but James gave me one last kiss before rolling out of bed. "Oh, c'mon, give me one good reason why we can't stay here all day!" I exclaimed.
"Variety is the spice," James said. "C'mon, I'll show you."
Again, James proved himself right by making the best, thickest, richest Belgium waffles. Don't gag, but we fed each other, the syrup dripping on to our clothes, the table, the floor. We gave up on utensils and fed each other with our hands, nibbling at the waffles and then sucking on each other's fingers.
Yeah, I know, too sweet. But what do you want? We were-- are-- in love. Just being with him, sometimes, I feel like I'm overflowing, with-- I don't know. Like I have too much feeling, and it has nowhere to go but to spill out, towards him.
"Ready for more spice?" James asked me once we loaded the dishwasher and cleaned ourselves up.
"Let's have at it," I hooked my arm around him and we went out.
We strolled aimlessly in the afternoon summer sun, going first for long tours around the neighborhood. We eventually reached a commercial area, complete with an electronics store. I looked at him hopefully, and he didn't even need to hear my proposal before saying, "Go for it."
We went in, and he watched from the sidelines while I haggled with the manager for a discount on a 24-inch flat screen, making a scene about James' up and rising software company. When the store packed up the screen, together with a top of the line fridge and an oven toaster, James took my hand and whispered, "And we're returning it all?"
"Yeah," I grinned at him, squeezing his hand.
That evening, James prepared a bath for two. A bit cheesy for a couple already passed their one-year anniversary, but James loves them.
"It's amazing," I told him, pulling him towards me by the collar, grinning. It really was: the candles shone softly over the walls; a light aroma of and incense filled the room; and roses littered the floor.
James grinned back with that soft happiness I only see when we're alone. It's such a fragile happiness, like he doesn't believe it's his and he's half-waiting for it to be taken back to its proper owner. My poor, sweet, silly James. It's things like that that makes me worry about what would happen to him if I left him. I'd be fine on my own, but I'm not so sure about him.
He pecked my lips before he reached for my back, slowly undoing the zipper to my strapless red dress (I look amazing in it. It's not all that comfortable, being one helluva of a tight dress, but it's nice to dress up, sometimes, to get undressed.) It pooled to the floor, matching the roses, and wow, it sounds stupidly extravagant, now.
His lips ghosted over the nape of my neck, and I arched towards that touch; let him run the palms of his hands over my bare sides, opening up to him. James exhaled sharply, his face burrowing itself on my shoulder. Strands of his hair tickled my cheeks, my nose. "You know," he said, nuzzling his face against my skin, "I used to think that getting bored with someone was a part of all relationships, but..." he lifted his head back up, looking down at me. He had on a big, goopy smile, and something warm trilled inside of me. Happiness. "I never get tired, with you."
"That because love isn't boring." I kissed him on the nose, quick and sweet. "Now let's get into that bath before it turns to ice!"
"As practical as ever," he teased.
Am I overdoing the details? Going over this, it's hard to tell what's extraneous, what's vital. I don't want to go overboard with information, but I don't want to paint an incomplete picture, either. I need to compare how loving (from our perspective), or how sickening (from everyone else's point of view), we were. Not that we weren't without our issues.
I stripped James slowly and we dipped into the tub. The water was just right; that's my James, doing everything perfectly. (House would call it his knack for manipulation, and I hate that he comes to mind so easily. But it's inevitable, I guess.)
James leaned against the back of the tub, and I against him, my back aligning with his chest. His neck and shoulder formed a natural pillow for my head, and I nestled there, the tips of my hair floating on the water. I took a long, deep breath as he wrapped his arms around my stomach. "God, we should do this every day."
"Yeah, soon as we find the time," James sighed. "I barely even see you at breakfast." He didn't not have a point; I do work a lot, trying to put together a killer resume. What he didn't say is that he's the one that spends the strangest hours at the hospital, all because a certain best friend.
But I wasn't in the mood for a fight, so I let it pass. "That's not fair-- you see me at night too, when I make sure you get laid." I felt his laugh all over me as his stomach and shoulders shook. So much better than fighting.
James, kissing along my neck, took the back of my right hand and glided it suggestively towards my crotch. "You won't," I said, "be able to follow through on that promise." As wonderful as my James is, he has his limits. Physical ones, too.
"C'mon," he nudged my ear with his nose. "Let me watch."
"We have to start renting porn," I admonished. "That's how we can sate your voyeurism." But I'd already taken the hint, probing my fingers around my outer lips.
"But I prefer to watch you," he murmured. And with his lips tracing patterns on the back of my shoulders, the hot steam, and me fingering myself, I tingled all over with a familiar sensation.
And that's when the theme to Mission Impossible started to play from inside the medicine cabinet.
I twisted my head back to glare at him accusingly. "James, do not tell me you left your cell phone on."
He winced but despite his guilt, he was already getting up, droplets of water falling over me and the water level dropping as he left the bath. So much for my impending orgasm. "God, I told him to only call if it was an emergency!"
"He'd consider boredom an emergency," I muttered, but to no avail. James got his cell phone out from the medicine cabinet, as if he'd hidden it there expecting a call all along. I can't say I wasn't hurt, but I wasn't surprised, either. I knew better than to think James would cut off all contact with House for more than a few hours.
James answered the cell phone with a bark: "What?" He grabbed a towel with his free hand and wrapped it round himself. Me, I just draped my hands over the edge of the tub, resting my chin on my fists and watched him, sullen. No matter how I looked at it, facts were facts: he'd promised the day for me, and however much James loved me, he couldn't give him up.
James looked all the more exasperated as he walked out, water droplets trailing down his legs and leaving a trail on the floor. House had James hook, line, and sinker, and all he had to do now was now reel him in.
Sighing, I unplugged the bath, got up, and rinsed the suds off with a shower, the water slowly sinking around my feet. I listened to James' soft coming from the living room as I dried myself off, and picked our clothes up off the floor.
By the time he got off the phone, I was in sweats, reading a book in our bed, on my stomach and my feet up in the air. He looked so forlorn, the ends of his hair tapering into wet clumps, barefoot, and dressed only in a rectangle of cotton. He bit his lip, guilt rolling off him like a man in court explaining why stolen an old lady's purse. "House, he--"
I bounced off the bed, landing before him with a skip and a hop to regain my balance. "Go do what you have to." I know friends are friends and I have never, not once, imagined that I could tell James how to pick them, much less how to make them (him) less of a pain in our asses. Things are what they are, and I understood that. But James winced at my tone. "Really, go. Though you'll probably want to get changed, first."
He smiled wryly. "I don't want to go, you know."
I rolled my eyes at him. "Yes, I know you'd rather spend the evening with me turning into two red prunes, but House has cried out for you because-- what's his crisis, this time? He hates himself again, but he'd rather hate you, which is easier to do when you're in the room?"
James' smiles twitched. "Something like that. He's in a bar drinking his weight's worth in booze and I don't want him doing anything stupid."
"Isn't it a bit late for that?" I asked lightly, and James hung his head.
But he left anyway and, alone, I poured myself some wine, unable to keep myself from reflecting about how differently I'd envisioned this evening. I wasn't crying over spilt milk, exactly; just feeling annoyed that I had to clean it up.
A goblet of wine in hand, I went out to the mini-balcony extending from the bedroom and sat in one of the wicker chairs, staring out at the pine trees behind my apartment complex. I felt so pathetic that I almost called my sister Rose (my parents are literal-minded, yes). But I was really in the mood to listen to her.
I'm a radiologist. And, no, that's not a tangent, I'm bringing it up to make a point. A lot of people have no idea what radiology even means, but basically, I read different kinds of images and I analyze them. I find the problems. I'm good at it, too. And that's what I did that night.
I could never ask James to cut House from his life. For one thing, how lame a request is that? For another, I know that I lose, in the priority game. It's a sucky position to be in, as a girlfriend, but there you have it.
Sighing, I tipped my glass back and drained the last of the wine.
I was starting to shiver in the cool of the summer night when my cell phone rang with James' ring tone ("Umbrella," and no, I don't want to hear a single word about my taste). "Aaaaamber," James said, his voice distorted like a melted vinyl record.
Loud, repetitive electronic 'music' blared in the background; so they were at a bar for barely-not-kids. No wonder House had been depressed, if he'd been surrounded by twenty-year old specimens of our species, still mostly untarnished and hopeful. "How are you?" James slurred.
"I'm fine," I said, pulling my feet to the edge of the chair, hugging my knees. "But how much safer are you going to make House's night, if you're that drunk?" Men. Honestly! Even at forty they need baby-sitters. That's why I stopped dating for so long, preferring to just fuck; 'significant other' shouldn't have to mean 'mother.' And James is better about this more than most, but he still has his moments.
"We'll get a cab," he promised. "House needs company, can't do that without drinking."
"Doesn't matter what you do, he'll still be crazy."
"Why, Amber," House's chiding voice came on the line. He must've grabbed the phone. I held it a little farther away from my ear-- it felt like I'd reached into my clothes drawer and pulled out a snake "You're hurting my feelings, here! I thought you liked me." His diction was much better than James'. Had House sobered up?
"Whether I do or not," I said, relaxing again after the surprise at the transfer had passed, "it doesn't change the fact that you're a few screws short, House."
"Oh, if you're flirting with me, then you must like me."
That's House for you: offer him sympathy and he'll treat you like you're an annoying, simpering idiot. Insult him and he'll take it as a come on. It doesn't lead to healthy relationships, but it does make for interesting conversations.
"Your 'James'," House continued, "is making faces. Don't be jealous, Wilson, you've known all along that you're not man enough to hold on to her forever. Of course she was going to be tempted by the tall, mysterious best friend with a dark past."
"You mean the tall, whining, self-sabotaging drag of a responsibility?" I asked.
"Stop it!" He said, pretending to be shocked. "I'm right in front of your love toy, this is obscene! I can't be a part of your infidelity! Unless you're wearing something sexy. Are you?"
"Oh, I couldn't tell you; it's so sexy it'd blow your mind." I got up and stretched; with the wine flowing through me, I felt pliable. "And pass the phone back to James."
He muttered something about being unable to follow up on promises, and then James' voice returned. "'M back. Sorry 'bout that."
"Dogs lick their balls, and House does the social equivalent. You can't apologize for nature."
"You can't, can you." He sounded amused. "I'm gonna be here a while, okay? Don't wait up for me."
"I'll do what I want." I leaned over the balcony's ledge. All was quiet, strangely hushed. Then again, it was late, and a work day awaited everyone tomorrow. All the good Princeton-Plainsboro residents was winding down, getting ready to sleep. Though there isn't really such a thing as "good." That's just another shoved down our throats to make us behave.
"Miss you," James said, then, "I love you."
"Love you, too," I said, and then I hung up on him. I hate it when 'I love you' becomes a substitute for 'goodbye.' Because how much can 'I love you' mean if it's following routine?
I went back in, poured myself a second glass and felt-- not that I'm proud to admit it-- pretty sorry for myself. I loved a man who loved another man more than he loved me, I told myself coldly, like I was looking at some stranger's x-ray. The diagnosis was complete. The next part: deciding on a course of action.
I couldn't sleep, so I stayed up with who knows what book, half-reading, half letting my mind wander. It was well after two when I heard voices: James' (too loud for that hour) and House's (loud as well, but he was probably speaking at that volume just to annoy the hell out of me and the neighbors).
They talked at the door, their words muffled. They were there for so long I wondered why they didn't come in, but James' broke out into an uncontrollable fit of giggles, and I understood. Stupid drunk men. Sighing-- I did mention how I'm not into mothering my men, right? -- I got to my feet and unlocked the door for them. Good thing, too, because I think they'd have stayed there for an eternity otherwise, with James digging through his pockets and House supporting him, his left arm around his waist. He didn't have his cane.
It was like a revelation, stumbling on to that private moment-- or maybe House meant for me to see it, to stake his claim? I don't know-- with James giggling into House's side, dead drunk and relaxed and trusting, like he was in good hands. I just-- I understood at that moment. No. That's not right. I'd known all along. A radiologist who blinds herself to the evidence right before her very eyes... Well, who ever said that love makes us rational?
And don't think that I missed the way that House held onto this trusting, drunk James-- he didn't even have his cane, for crying out loud. Like in supporting James, he'd found a better walking aid. House was completely sober-- I could tell, I can always tell-- and before he smoothed his expression into calculated standoffishness, he looked at James dopily. Like, like-- like the way I'd probably been looking at James until House's phone call, a few hours earlier.
Though, to be honest, House's feelings for James were no great revelation.
James was still patting his jeans. "They're here somewhere," he swore. "Just have to find some-- I mean, where--"
"Thinks that's redundant now," House said.
James looked up and stared at me, his whole face squeezed into a frown. "Izzat--" he lit up with recognition and a wide grin. "Amber! Amber, I missed you!"
The uninhibited joy in his voice and his garbled attempt to reach out for me-- if he didn't fall, it was because I caught him in time-- went a long way in making me feel better about what I'd just realized. If nothing else, I hadn't been wrong to think that he loved me. You can't fake such a flawless a lie when you're drunk, you just can't. In those seconds, his love for me was so clear it hurt me. Why hurt? Because it meant everything was still so very, very complicated.
While I tried to keep both myself and James upright, and as he nuzzled my neck, muttering incoherencies which I'm sure he meant as sweet vows, I transferred my irritation to House. "So tell me," I asked, shifting to distribute James' weight better, "how did he end up shit faced when it was your drunk ass he'd went to comfort?"
Yeah, I worded that well. Freudian slip, I guess.
House shrugged. "Don't blame me. I sobered up, he drank to excess. By the way, he left his car at the bar's parking lot." It was only after he'd vanished into the elevator that I realized I had no idea what bar they'd gone to. Typical House, that, holding on to whatever cards he can.
"Asshole," I muttered. I shuffled back to our bedroom, holding James up with his arm around my shoulders.
"Wha?" he asked blearily. James' happiness had worn off and he was descending back into a drunken blur.
"Nothing. Here's the bed. Think you can lie down?" With some help from gravity, I got him on it and he flopped, stretching with the kind of inhibition you can only get when you forget all the details.
"It was great," he rambled. Drunks, so honest; he wouldn't have admitted to that so easily if he weren't flooded with booze. "House can be so funny-- when he's not in one of his moods, that is." I tried to figure out where to put myself. Eventually I took the awkward position of kneeling in the center of the bed and started to undress him for the third time that day. No, not for seduction-- he was in no condition to get or give pleasure-- but to get him ready for sleep. "I wish you'd been there." He smiled sloppily at me-- he really meant it-- and I smiled back.
Remember the idea I mentioned, earlier? Yeah. It came to me then, with a James who seemed so fantastically happy with so little, but what I alone couldn't provide for him. And that's why I said it. It came out easier than pulling his shirt over his head. "We should have sex with House."
Like I said, it made sense at the time.
James' languid jubilance fled the scene. He sat up, staring at me. He looked comedic, really, because with his poor motor skills and that glare, he looked like he was imitating a cartoon villain. And his hair was so tousled it was hard to take him seriously. "What?"
"You heard me." I ran my fingers around his abdomen, exaggerating the movement of my lips. It gets him going when I do that, if you know what I mean. Even drunk as he was, it still had an effect on him. "A threesome: you, me, House."
He tried to put a hand over mine to stop me from caressing him, I guess, but he lost his balance and fell onto his back. "I knew I drank too much," James blinked, staring up at the ceiling.
"I'm serious!" I lay down next to him, propping my head up with my hand. My other hand found his and squeezed it. (I love touching him, love feeling his writing callus, the way his finger joints slightly swell.) "We should sleep with House. All three of us, together."
James groaned like a bear growling at the bees keeping him from the honey and shut his eyes tightly. I knew better than to press the issue further... that night, anyway.
I didn't want to lose James-- or in general-- but love isn't about who's the best, the fastest, the smartest. It just is. I know it is. And when I saw James being that way with House, when I thought of what I knew about their history together, I-- I got scared. I saw myself losing. And, for once, I was willing to settle for a tie.
That next morning, James was curled tightly in bed with a pillow and a half over his head. He gurgled at me when I came in with a breakfast tray. "C'mon," I prodded him. "You have work soon, and you'll feel worse if you don't eat at all."
He moaned piteously, which actually made me smile. He'd dug this grave all on his own. But, in retrospect, I wasn't really in a position to mock him, since by then I'd started to dig one of my own. "Who hated humans so much they invented alcohol?" he asked.
"We did, apparently." I set the tray on my bed stand. "But we evolved from monkeys, so what do you expect? We don't have a knack for making the best decisions."
He made some noise-- it certainly didn't sound like human speech-- and slowly peeled one of the pillows off his face, peering at the bowl I held. "That doesn't smell revolting."
"Yes, that's exactly what I aimed for: not-revolting." I crossed my legs and pushed the oatmeal towards him (something simple for his currently weak stomach).
James half sat up, shoving behind him the long, blue pillow that had been his provisional helmet, and picked out a miniscule portion onto his spoon. The face he made when he put it in his mouth wasn't too bad. "You've succeeded," he wheezed.
"Hey!" I ruffled his hair, sat next to him, and slid an arm around his shoulder. "Aren't you a bit too hung-over for sarcasm?"
"Maybe I was just pretending to be hung-over." I guess he was encouraged by not having thrown up the first bit, because his next portion was literally a spoonful.
"Don't forget to drink," I handed him the glass I'd left on the tray. He obediently took a few sips. (He always listens to what I say. This is both a good and a bad thing.)
Maybe-- maybe it was because I felt so secure, taking care of him, maybe it was the soft morning light streaming through the closed purple curtain, maybe I wasn't thinking right, having a mini-hangover of my own. Whatever it was, I blurted out: "Did you think more about having sex with House?"
He choked on the water, spitting about half of it back into the glass and maybe a third on his skin and bed sheets. He couldn't answer until he'd coughed and had another sip of the water he'd just spat out. "God," he choked, "I thought I'd made that part up."
"Oh, you actually remember." I squeezed his shoulder. "Then it must've stuck out for you; I bet you don't remember anything else from last night." He didn't contradict me. "And you haven't answered my question. Did you?"
"I'm supposed to dignify that with a reply?!" He was suddenly flushed, burning up. "It's crazy, Amber! What are you thinking?!"
I pouted. (Immature, yes, but it gets results.) "Most boyfriends would die to have their girlfriends suggest a threesome."
James-- rudely-- shoved the bowl onto the bed. "If you invited another woman, maybe."
I snorted. "I've seen the way you look at him-- hey, where are you going? You barely ate!" He was gingerly slipping out of the bed and, from his grimace, clearly feeling some aches and pains.
"Not hungry anymore," was all he said. He got to his feet and stood tall, as if he wouldn't be lurching all over the place once he started to walk. With a deep breath, the kind that doesn't ever make difficult things any easier to say, he looked down at me. (His eyes were almost crossed; it's one of the effects of his lazy eye). "Amber, I know you mean well, and I'm sure you think it's a generous offer, but no. Never. Please don't ever bring it up again." He nodded once, like someone who'd just accomplished something great, and retreated, half-bent, to the bathroom.
Not once did he say he didn't want a threesome with House. He'd said "no," and "never," but those side-stepped the question of what he wanted. So, yeah, no matter what he'd just said-- or maybe because of it-- the gears were still turning in my mind. James' 'no' had been green light to me.