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The Stories We Tell

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She'd been angry with herself, irritated that she wasn't home working the way she'd expected to be. She could, would, get the work done here, that wasn't the problem, here was the problem. Here was the problem and she couldn’t tell Don that.

It wasn't his fault, the stupid rules she made up: never more than two nights in a row, never both days on the weekend. She always spent at least one weekend night alone stubbornly refusing to consider the alternative because she wasn't going to do that again. She wasn't going to fall for a nice guy who turned out to be a not so nice guy, who, it turned out, didn't mind hurting her as much as he'd led her to believe.

She trusted Don.

She didn't trust men, didn't trust herself, not without the rules, not without the flimsy excuses he never argued with but almost always refuted, because his place was quieter than hers, and less drafty, better lit, less crowded and he did leave her alone to get her work done. He always left her alone when she asked him to, although sometimes he would ask quietly, without pretense, when she thought she might want a break.

There was no right answer to that particular question. She could tell him never, she didn't need a break, and he’d accept that but she tried to be reasonable, tried to accept that whatever he suggested about her needing a break or about her work might be true, which was why she was here in his apartment against her better judgement, because his place was quieter and better lit, and he was leaving her alone, unconcerned with her mountain of work or so she'd thought.

He had asked her about taking a break. Uncharacteristically, he’d pushed her a bit, but she'd been too distracted at the time, too caught up in the pile of papers she should've already graded, the articles she needed to get back to colleagues to pay any attention.

All the work, the mountain she was currently drowning in was her fault. She never should have agreed to teach the summer term. She'd intentionally avoided it in the past, but the department had found itself short an instructor at the last minute and it’d seemed like the perfect distraction back in the spring when things had seemed to be coming apart at the seams, before it had all been turned on its head, turned into something far worse.

She felt bad using it as an excuse to push Don away but it's become such a habit, so unconscious, that she'd forced herself to reconsider, let his rebuttal sway her into another night, just one more. She could spend the whole weekend grading papers, he'd made that clear, he just wanted to be able to feed her, which she knew meant keep an eye on her, or so she'd thought until she'd walked into the kitchen curious about what it was he kept stocked in his fridge when she hadn't been around in a while.

She’d walked into the kitchen but she’d never made it to the fridge. She’d never made it to the fridge because she’d spotted the cookies on the cooling rack next to the stove and burst into tears, the sniveling kind that meant she can only shake her head at Don when he appears from the bedroom.

“What happened?” He asks again, close enough now to brush his fingers lightly against her wrist.

“You.” She manages before swallowing as he leans in to brush his lips against her cheek.

“I made you cookies.” She feels his lips curve up into a smile. “Are these tears of happiness?”

They aren’t, but it’s not because of the cookies, not directly anyway, although she can’t find a way to put that into words right now. She hadn’t been expecting the cookies, hadn’t even considered that he’d remember.

It’d been a silly story. Something she’d told him months ago about an old roommate of hers, the four of them cramming for midterms, each of them missing home in their own way. Although what Sloan had been missing at the time had been more about belonging than home, more about the way she never fit in rather than anything else. She hadn’t mentioned that though and yet, Don had seemed to know, had remembered, had seemed to know how surprised she’d been at being included, how happy she’d been. She hadn’t shared the other girls’ nostalgia for the warm gooey cookies, her mother hadn’t known how to make them, but she’d learned then how comforting they could be, the respite they could provide.

“They’re cold.” She sniffs and he pulls back a bit, squeezes her arm, then reaches to grab a pair of cookies.

It’s a couple of seconds and a couple of sharp beeps before he’s presenting them to her.

“They’re hot now.” He smiles again, holding them out to her carefully folded in a napkin as she wipes at her face.

“I ruined it.” She feels her bottom lip tremble and she draws it in, trying to make it stop.

“You didn’t ruin anything.”

His assurance is soft as he reaches for her hand, but she can’t believe that, can’t believe that his gesture should go so crassly unmarked.

“You made me cookies and they got cold.” She laments achingly skeptical.

“Because I didn’t interrupt you. I could have.” He reminds her. “I could have brought some over.”

“You didn’t.” Her confusion at this calms her down a bit and she takes a couple of deep breaths before studying the cookies he’s still holding.

“The cookies could wait. They’ll be around for the next couple of days. They should be good for a week. Although the test batch only lasted two days. I ate them.” He grins at her. “You were away at that conference for the weekend. I thought I should practice. I didn’t want to feed you cardboard again.”

“I like your cardboard.” A flicker of a smile slips out with that.

“Maybe wait to say that until you've tried one.” He's joking, but she takes the cookies from him and nibbles on one anyway, smiling as the soft crunch melts smoothly in her mouth.

“Better?”

She nods silently, taking another bite before sighing, a bit of contentment bubbling up. It wouldn't last long, only as long as the cookies, but it's enough to distract her from the constant nagging that had cluttered her head.

She’d been more distracted than she'd realized, so distracted she hadn’t noticed the time. It's later than she'd thought it was, she'd have to go to bed soon if she wanted to get up in the morning without setting an alarm and waking Don, but she could finish a couple of papers before she had to come up with something witty to say, something to goad Don into teasing her into bed, so she heads back to the couch.

Don trails behind her, depositing himself next to her, the stack of paper that had occupied the spot perched neatly in his lap.

She could let him sit there, she didn't have to say anything. He'd stay as long as she didn't mind, but she turns to lean into him, propping a paper against the arm of the couch, red pen in her freehand, nibbling at a cookie.

“It's like they think I've never seen a primary source.”

“Philistines.”

“Lazy.” she corrects. “They think they can get away with it. They forgot primary sources are my job.”

“Should I put that on a t-shirt?”

“Posters might be better.”

He hums considering, then brushes at an invisible crumb off her leg, letting her settle in. “Next weekend: arts and crafts.”

“Next weekend: food, your bed and maybe a drink.”

“Oh my favorite.” She can feel his shoulders twitch in silent laughter. “But first the drudgery of the unenlightened.”

“It’s not so bad.” She says as though that might be true and he sighs, that quiet happy sound she knows he thinks she doesn’t notice. “I have cookies and my red pen is almost out of ink. No one’s failing tonight.”