The more time that Heather spends with Ben in the Henrickson home, the more she realizes that Sarah was a product of her environment. Literally. It’s there in the air – that combination of smells that Heather assumed belonged uniquely to Sarah.
In the bathroom, Heather smoothes hand lotion down over her wrists. Cherry blossom, says the bottle. She breathes deep and remembers the occasional times when Sarah’s lotion-softened fingertips touched her – a friendly squeeze of her hand; a playful swipe at her shoulder. She remembers how her skin seemed to burn where it had been touched for days afterward.
One day, Heather wanders past the laundry room and, against her will, she is pulled inside. The scent of fabric softener – the scent of Sarah’s clothes – is intoxicating. On another day, she enters the dining room to find Barb dusting the table. Heather can only manage a small smile in greeting, because the sharp, lemony smell of polish brings back too many memories.
When – late at night, a movie playing in the background – Ben kisses her, he presses her against the couch cushions. Without meaning to, she makes a keening sound in the back of her throat. Ben pulls away, grinning slightly, pleased with himself, and begins kissing her neck. However, she is far, far away, lost in the familiar scent that wafts up from the couch: that same lived-in Henrickson smell that always clung to Sarah.
They kiss for what feels like an hour; slow, gentle making out. She half-listens to the movie (a PG-13 rental that the video store clerk said was funny), but mostly she rehearses what she will do if Ben tries to take things further than kissing. She rehearses a few different reactions – indignation; an abashed sigh; reluctant submission – but it’s all hypothetical, anyway. Ben doesn’t try anything – just kisses, light caresses that don’t stray too close to her breasts. The action of the movie is racier.
Her attention wanders, but she gets the feeling that Ben is distracted, too. She senses that maybe she blurs before his eyes, turning into someone else in his mind.
She wonders if he isn’t attracted to her. She recalls the anxieties of her BYU dormmates: Is he a gentleman or is he just not into me? I mean, it’s not like I’d do anything with him, but I want him to want it. But no, she spies the erection in his pants, poorly concealed by a couch cushion. It seems tightly leashed by his jeans, and for that she is glad. It’s not like her recent date with Ken Calver, whose erection was barely contained by his sweatpants. And who wears sweatpants on a date, anyway?
They are both startled by the silence when the movie ends and the DVD goes dead. Heather looks at the clock: 11:03 p.m.
“It’s late,” she says, “I guess I should get going.”
“You could sleep over,” Ben says and immediately flushes. “I mean, you could stay in Sarah’s room.”
Heather is almost disappointed. She thinks of his trashy high school girlfriend, his casual attitude toward sex and, for a moment, she is annoyed that he’s playing the gentleman with her. She quickly remembers herself: she is chaste and unbroken; this is an essential part of who she is. But, she is forced to realize, she is also 19 and she has never been propositioned; she has never been desired in an “I need you tonight more than air” sort of way.
She smiles demurely and says, “Okay.”
In Sarah’s room, the pictures are gone from the walls. The comforter is different. There are dark spots where furniture has been moved around, revealing the sun-bleached color of the carpet. Even still, it smells like Sarah. And a few of her clothes still hang in the closet, waiting patiently for her return.
Heather lingers over the clothes, rubbing the fabric between her fingers and breathing in (as if the memory of Sarah’s skin inside their folds might have left a permanent aroma). Finally, she extracts a yellow sundress that Sarah used to wear on sultry summer afternoons. She undresses and then pulls on the sundress – she needs something to sleep in, after all – smoothing the fabric over her naked body.
In bed, she buries she face in the pillows – that fabric softener again – and listens to the Henricksons wind down for the night. Bill and Barb have a muted conversation on the landing and they are joined briefly by Margene – harlot, Heather thinks automatically and then chides herself. Ben showers in the bathroom and then treads lightly past her door, back to his own room. She hears Margene again, as she’s leaving, when she stops to talk briefly to Ben. Finally, at past midnight, the house is quiet.
Only when she feels completely alone does she begin to touch herself. She pushes aside the crinkly fabric of the yellow sundress and allows her fingers to find the wet warmth between her legs. This is a new thing. The word ‘masturbation’ still grosses her out; she prefer her dormmates’ hushed description: ‘non-sexual relief’.
“It’s only sex if there’s penetration,” they tell her primly. She never dared touch herself before, but her dormmates assure her that it’s okay. They send her web links to articles with cutesy headlines like ‘The Modern Mormon Girl’s Guide to Dating’ (“to avoid temptation in an intimate situation, excuse yourself to find a quiet place to pray, but also remember that God gave you hands to give yourself a hand”).
She is circling close to her climax and wondering whether to stretch it out or just finish quickly, when the door is pushed open a few inches. Her hand stills instantly, but her index finger remains pressed against her clitoris.
“I couldn’t sleep.” (It’s Ben’s voice, and it is he who stands at the doorway.) “I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“I couldn’t sleep either,” she answers honestly.
She sits up, and she’s aware that one strap of the sundress has fallen down, revealing half of her breast and just the outline of her areola, but she doesn’t move to fix it. Ben shuffles inside and closes the door with a quiet click. Dressed in boxers and a t-shirt, he sits down on the bed, but he angles his lower half away from her. Still such a gentleman. It’s dark enough that she can’t read his expression, but his voice sounds husky with desire when he says:
“I can’t believe I never realized how pretty you are, Heather.”
It’s not an all-time-great romantic line. It’s also not what she imagined hearing in this room. In her head, she amends the words:
“You’re beautiful, Heather. And sexy, but not in a cheap way. It’s like I can see your spirit – your beautiful spirit, the way it shines out of you. I never had such a close friend, such an amazing friend who I could always count on. It took me too long to realize how special you are. I don’t really love Scott. It’s you, Heather, it’s always been you…”
Ben leans over and kisses her. Her head still full of foolish fantasies, she kisses back eagerly. She presses her body against him, the way she was afraid to do earlier. The other strap of the sundress falls down, exposing her further, and Ben’s hands find their way to her breasts, cupping and squeezing at her flesh. The pretence of Ben-the-gentleman is gone now and, recognizing the new spark of passion in her, he scrambles closer, half-climbing on top of her.
She guides his hand down between her legs, shuddering when he takes over what she began and starts to finger her. He’s clumsy, rougher with her soft folds of skin than she thought she liked, but she doesn’t care, she just doesn’t want him to stop. The sundress is bunched up around her middle now and the freshly-laundered sheet is twisted and cast aside as the two of them frantically seek out skin-on-skin contact.
She’s close to coming when Ben stops. She makes a strangled sound, but Ben says, “You’ll like this.”
With a look of concentration, he pushes her legs apart, rearranging her so that her knees bend further. And then his head disappears Down There and she feels the new sensation of his tongue lapping between her legs.
It’s sinful and it’s disgusting and it’s… it’s unhygienic and she never wanted this, never ever ever wanted…
Her brain stutters and, as his tongue finds her clitoris, she feels her body relax again, against her wishes.
…and oh Jesus lord in heaven, you teach us that sex is creation, not this profane… licking…
The words unravel in her head and she finds can’t remember her favorite passages from the Bible; the whole of D&C has disappeared from her mind; memories of Temple… gone. All that’s left is the primal urge for blessed release.
She squeezes her eyes shut and imagines she can feel blonde tendrils of hair tickling at her thighs. With this image in her head, she comes, finally.
Afterward, Ben gives her a sticky kiss on the forehead, but she feels too shell-shocked – her body too drained – to react. It doesn’t occur to her that he might want her to reciprocate; she can only lie there, stunned. Her real self is only just beginning to come trickling back.
“I think you’re really great, Heather,” he says, his voice painfully earnest to her ears.
He hesitates before finally turning to leave. She knows she should say something in return – she is always unfailingly polite; isn’t that who she is? – but she is overwhelmed by the feeling that she just wants him gone.
Another hesitation and then he really does leave, tiptoeing back to his room.
She rolls over, burying her face in the pillow once more. The smell of sex is in the air – though it’s only sex if there’s penetration, she reminds herself – but beneath it, she finds the scent of fabric softener on the pillow case. And, on her hands, the scent of cherry blossom lotion lingers. She breathes deep, allowing the smells to mingle and combine. She hooks the sundress back up over her shoulders and sinks easily into the memory of watching a smiling Sarah seated on the grass on a summer day.