My eyes are closed and my face is leaning on his shoulder, and I can smell the sharpness of his sweat, when he tells me.
“I’m marrying Jolene.”
I open my eyes and pull away. He’s not even looking at me.
“When?” I ask. What I really want to ask is Why?
“That’s … soon.” I try to sound like I don’t care, like I care even less about him than he does about me.
“We’ve been going out for almost a year.” He gets out of bed and starts getting dressed. “I really love her, you know?”
“So, you know, after I’m married. We can’t do this any more.”
Because you’re so honest? I want to say.
“Are you sure?” I say instead.
“I’ll be too busy,” he says, looking down as he pries on his shoes.
I turn around and face the wall. I don’t say anything when he says “See you” and walks out the door.
I’m not actually an idiot. He’s never given any indication that we’re more than friends with benefits. Even the friends part might be a stretch, since he really only calls me when he’s horny and bored. But we’ve had sex a couple times a week ever since the summer after high school. That’s six years.
He doesn’t ever tell me about the people he dates. But I didn’t think about it much. I never thought he’d be serious about anyone. His girlfriends always come and go. At least until Jolene.
I remember her, vaguely, from school. She was really pretty, which made her on top in high school bullshit world, but she never acted aware of it, if that makes sense. She was nice to everyone, no matter what side of town they were from. I remember that she worked after school at her dad’s restaurant. I hear she went back to work there after she came back from college, too.
I’ve seen her around town, but it’s not like we’re friends or anything, so I never said anything to her. She probably doesn’t remember me, and until I found out, I didn’t think much about her either.
Now, it’s different.
Now, I can’t stop thinking about her.
I think about her hair, reddish brown. I’ve seen it in the sun, blazing fire red. It looks soft, and I think about what it would feel like to run my fingers through it, to sleep surrounded by flowing curls of auburn. I think about what he feels as he touches it.
I think about her flawless skin. I imagine his fingertips trailing softly down her cheek, her chest, her stomach, marveling at its smooth perfection.
I think about her eyes, emerald green, about how they look when they’re together, how he can’t look away from her, how he is completely mesmerized by her beauty.
I think about her smile, and the way it warms an entire room.
Those retouched magazine covers don’t have anything on her.
I think all day long about how beautiful she is. I think all day long about how much I hate her.
And when I realize it, I kind of hate myself.
Because I don’t want to be the kind of asshole who hates a girl who doesn’t have any idea what she’s doing to me. I don’t want to hate her because she’s perfect and gorgeous and nice and sweet. Because every time I look in the mirror, I think of her and I feel sick.
I know who I should hate. And it’s not Jolene.
But she has more power over my happiness than anyone ever has, and I can’t help myself. I only have one good thing in my life, and it’s her fault that I won’t have it again.
I never really spoke to him much in high school. I wasn’t that social then, you know? I wasn’t overly picked on or anything, but I didn’t have a regular crowd. You can be from the wrong side of town and have friends, and you can be rich and gay and have friends, but when you’re out and you live on the crap side of the highway, you’re not going to find a regular group.
It started when he came to get his car fixed. I was the only one working the evening shift – still am – and when I told him he’d have to leave the car overnight, he wasn’t happy. I offered to give him a ride home, though, and he took it.
He invited me up to his apartment, a place his dad paid for so he could enjoy his last summer before college. It’s a small town, so even though we weren’t friends, we knew things about each other. He knew I was gay, and I knew he was mostly straight but not entirely.
He didn’t offer me coffee or anything. We got inside his door and he started pulling up my shirt, gently, grinning at me as if he were sure I wanted him.
I did. We kissed, with my back pressed against the wall, the muscles of his arms surrounding me as he leaned forward, his palms on either side of me. I still remember that first kiss. All I could think of was how good he was at this, how I wanted more, how I didn’t want him to change his mind.
We went to his bedroom, still kissing, him walking forward and guiding me backward. He pressed on my chest and I fell back onto his bed. He leaned over and started kissing my neck.
“I smell like engine grease,” I said, apologizing.
“I love the way you smell,” he grunted.
He always did this, I would later realize. He could make you feel like your imperfections were the stuff of dreams. He would sit there with his ridiculous six-pack abs and act like your totally ordinary body was the most glorious thing he had ever touched. It made him almost impossible to say no to.
I pulled his shirt off and started kissing his chest after that. I felt his hand caress my head, softly at first, then pressing my head downward. I did what he wanted.
I always did what he wanted.
The first night we spent together, he let me spend the night in his bed. I slept in his arms, inhaling the scent of sex and sweat and comfort. I think maybe that this was my problem: that I read too much into that night.
In the morning, I drove him back to the garage to get his car. He didn’t thank me, but I didn’t care at the time.
I ignored his texts for a week after he told me about Jolene.
They started out with the usual: “Free tonight? Call me.”
Later, it was: “Why r u ignoring me? Don’t be a dick, you know what this was.”
But then Saturday morning, it was a voicemail, yelling at me that I ruined his entire life and some other shit like that. That was when I got the feeling that I had completely fucked everything up.
The night before, I had been feeling pretty miserable, I had to admit. It was a shitty night.
A five-beer and several-Jim-Beams night.
When I got the voicemail on Saturday, I didn’t remember at first what I had done. I tried to ignore the whole situation. Then, in the middle of Sunday afternoon, I suddenly remembered.
I had drunk dialed Jolene. Got her number from the restaurant, said I was a college friend. Then called her.
I still don’t remember everything I said. But I think maybe I was crying. And yelling.
But I definitely remember asking her not to take him away from me, telling her that she could find someone else, that it would be so easy for her to find anyone else. And I remember telling her that I was fucking him long before she was.
I listened to his voicemail again. The details made more sense now. I could piece together that Jolene had broken up with him for cheating on her.
She had broken their engagement because of me.
I called him, and he didn’t answer. I called him five more times, and he turned his phone off.
Right before midnight, he showed up at my apartment door. I let him in, even though I wasn’t sure if he were there to hear me out or kick my ass.
Neither, it turned out. The door shut behind us and he kissed me, throwing me against the wall. It hurt, but I kissed back, shoving him toward the bed. He pushed me down on it, yanked my jeans down without undoing the button or zip. He wasn’t looking me in the eye, just at my body.
He turned me over and bit me on the shoulder. I wanted to say that it hurt, but I didn’t. He dragged me down and bent me over the bed, and I elbowed him and said, “Condoms.” He pulled a condom and lube from the drawer, and started to get ready.
When it happened, it was fast and rough and the best we’ve ever had.
When it was done, he got dressed and, finally, looked at me.
“You’re a piece of shit, you know that?” he said. He looked like he couldn’t believe that anyone would ever want to betray him.
I felt guilty. I did. But I also felt like maybe, at least a little, he might finally get what it felt like. So maybe I should have apologized, but instead I just said, “Back at you.”
A week later, Jolene shows up at my door. I politely invite her in. I offer her a drink, but she doesn’t want one.
I sit on the opposite side of the sofa and there is a long, very awkward silence.
Finally, she says, “I came to tell you that I’m marrying him. I… took him back.”
“He didn’t tell you?” she says.
“I figured,” she says, with a grimace. “I thought you had a right to know. You shouldn’t have to hear it from the grapevine.”
“Thanks,” I say, nodding. It shouldn’t hurt like it does.
She looks guilty. I’ve been sleeping with her boyfriend for a year, and she looks guilty.
She says, “I know you two have been… together for a long time. I didn’t realize that when this started.”
“I know.” Obviously, he wouldn’t be honest with someone he was serious about.
“I gather that you didn’t know about me, either, not until recently. You had every right to be hurt,” she says. She smiles at me, and it’s a sad smile but even a fool can see that she lights up the room.
She continues, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never… you know… gotten something by taking it from someone else. I’m sorry.”
The pettiest part of me wants to laugh. I want to tell her that that’s how his family got all their money, by taking it from people who had no way to fight. Instead, I say, “It’s not your fault.”
“It’s just, you need to understand, I am going to marry him.”
I’m starting to wonder if this is about to become a speech about staying away from her man. About how she loves him and he’s perfect and this is all my fault. I ask, “Why? He’s been cheating on you. And probably not just with me.”
I see her flinch and I regret it immediately. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t know why I said that.”
She looks at me. “I know who he is.”
She pauses. “His family is going to invest in my dad’s restaurant. Otherwise, it’s going out of business.”
I stare for a long time. Something shifts while I’m looking at her, and suddenly I feel like shit for blaming her. Like she’s just this poor woman who's trapped with someone, knowing full well he’s going to treat her like crap.
“Sorry,” I say.
“That’s not why I agreed to marry him,” she adds, and I believe her.
“That’s just why you can’t call it off at the last minute,” I finish.
She nods, buying time. “You, um… you and he have been going on for a long time, right?” she says. “Years?”
“We’re not even talking to each other anymore,” I assure her. It’s technically true; last time he was here, there wasn’t really talking.
She stares down at her perfectly manicured nails. “I know you love him,” she says, voice breaking. “I didn’t mean to break your heart.”
I wasn’t expecting this. I guess my drunk dial was a lot more revealing than I thought it was.
I don’t say anything, so she continues, “If he’s going to … mess around with someone… I don’t think I can stop him. But in the future… I’d rather not know.” I can see the tightness of her jaw, I can see that she’s trying not to cry, and suddenly I understand: she can’t stop loving him even though she wants to.
I can see now that she’s just like me.
She looks back up at me. “This is not what you wanted, I know. I understand that this is… not even close to what you wanted.”
At first I wonder if she thinks I’m stupid, if she thinks that I’m delusional enough that I imagined that he and I would be together and live happily ever after. But then I wonder just what I said to her when I was drunk.
“Maybe it’s time I broke old habits,” I say. “I don’t think I want to see him again anyway.”
She nods but doesn’t look she believes me. I don’t blame her.
“I’m sorry,” I finally say.
“For what?” she says.
“For telling you. I took away your happiness.”
She smiles sadly. Her hand reaches over and squeezes mine.
“I guess that’s something we have in common,” she says, with resignation but not malice.
We sit there for a moment, quietly. Then she says, “I suppose I should go.”
I nod a thanks, and we both stand up. I watch her as she leaves, the perfection of her, graceful and beautiful in ways I could never be. I watch her perfect hair sway like waves, like fields of ripened grain, as she walks.
I can’t look away.