“I don’t know what to say,” Gina said.
My heart skipped a beat. “Say yes.”
“It… it’s not that simple.”
“Why…?” I cleared my throat and tried to swallow past the lump. “Why not?”
“Because I’m seeing someone.”
“It’s not serious, is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” I blurted. “You’re not sleeping with him, are you?” Her expression hardened, and I wanted to kick myself. “Sorry,” I said immediately. “It’s none of my business.”
She accepted the apology with a curt nod.
“But if it’s not serious…”
“It’s more than that, Paul. For one thing, I live in California.”
“So?” I said. “We made it work when you lived in Charleston.”
“No, we didn’t,” she said. “Remember?”
I started to argue, but then remembered the truth: Amy Lassiter. “So we’ll make it work this time,” I said instead.
“Can’t we just be friends?”
“But… I thought you loved me,” I said, and hated the plaintive sound of my voice.
“I do, but it’s not that simple.”
“Then I don’t get it.” I didn’t want to get it, either.
“I…,” she began, but trailed off. “I’ll always love you,” she said at last. “But…”—her dark eyes willed me to understand—“not like you want me to.”
I felt like someone had cut my strings.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, as glibly as I could. “It was just a thought. But if you’re seeing someone…”
“Paul… I…” She fell silent for a moment. “I don’t know what to say. I… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was just a thought.”
We fell silent for a long, uncomfortable moment, but then we both spoke at the same time: “We should head back.” “Do you want to keep walking?”
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “I guess we can keep walking.”
“No,” she said softly, “you’re right. We should probably head back.”
We turned and walked back the way we’d come, awkward and silent.
We managed to survive the rest of the evening, but we were both on edge. Chris wanted to show off his new TV, so we watched a movie on Betamax. Gina and I sat next to each other, but we seemed miles apart.
To make things even more awkward, I had to deal with Leah, too. I wanted to avoid her altogether, but I couldn’t do it without being obvious. She caught my eye whenever I looked her way, but I felt like a complete jerk for even smiling at her.
I think our moms understood what had happened. Mine pretended to be tired after the movie, so we didn’t linger, and Elizabeth asked Leah to help fix leftovers for us to take home.
Gina and I hugged goodbye, but I felt the hesitation in her shoulders. I tried to mask the dejection in mine, but I couldn’t, and her dark eyes filled with tears as I turned away.
Mom and Erin went shopping with the Coulters on Friday, so Dad offered to go on a cross-country flight with me, to practice emergency procedures. He was trying to keep my mind off Gina, which I definitely appreciated, but it wasn’t that simple.
I spent most of the flight in a funk, either brooding about Gina’s rejection or berating myself for some screw-up because I was preoccupied. Dad tried to keep me focused, but we would’ve been in trouble if I’d had to deal with real emergencies.
I called Wren on Saturday morning, but only because I’d promised to. Still, she sounded relieved to hear my voice, and asked about my Thanksgiving.
“The usual,” I said. “Yours?”
“Pretty good. Scarlett and her family came over. She asked about you, by the way. I told her you might wanna hang out, but…”
I knew my cue when I heard it. “Are you busy this afternoon?”
“I’d love to!”
“Um… okay. What do you feel like doing?”
“I dunno. Do you wanna see a movie or something?”
“I guess,” I said, and we made plans.
Scarlett and Mitch joined us for the movie, along with Scarlett’s sixteen-year-old sister, Suellen, and her boyfriend.
In a whisper, Wren explained, “Aunt Margaret sort of has a thing for Gone with the Wind.”
“Do they have a sister named Careen?” I whispered back.
Wren blushed. “Um… no.”
“Their brother’s name is Ashley. He’s thirteen.”
I actually laughed aloud, the first time in days.
“What’s so funny?” Scarlett said as they returned with popcorn.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“All right, then c’mon,” Scarlett said. “I don’t wanna miss the previews.”
Wren and I shared a grin, but then I had a sudden thought of Gina. I tried to keep my face from falling, but Wren saw. She didn’t hide her reaction any better, so I felt like a heel. Again.
We saw The Man from Snowy River, but I watched half-heartedly, and Wren sat woodenly beside me. She didn’t know what to do any more than I did, and I hated myself for being so messed up. For the umpteenth time, I wondered if I was a creep or a jerk.
Then again, did it make any difference?
Gina called on Sunday morning. She was packing to fly back to L.A., but she wanted to see me before she left.
“Sure,” I said unenthusiastically. “You want me to come over?”
“Um… I’d better come to your house.”
“Because of Leah?”
She paused. “She really likes you, you know. You could—”
“I don’t want Leah,” I said, a bit tersely. I left the rest unspoken, but Gina understood.
“I know, Paul, and I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“But I want to talk before I go,” she said. “It’s important.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Of course you do. And I’ll understand if you don’t want to.”
“I can’t change the way I feel,” I said. “About you, I mean.”
“Neither can I,” she said softly, sadly.
“Yeah, and that’s the problem.”
“Paul, don’t be like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, but I couldn’t bring myself to sound convincing.
“I mean it,” she said. “If I could make you happy, I would, but…”
“But you’re seeing someone,” I said, and frowned at the bitterness in my voice.
“It’s not that, and you know it,” she said. “Hold on.” She covered the phone, but came back after a few seconds. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. Okay?”
We said goodbye and I hung up.
I watched the clock for an eternity, and almost jumped at the sound of the doorbell. Gina forced a smile when I opened the door, but she looked like she’d been crying. I gestured for her to come in, and we headed to my room. She sat on the edge of the bed and waited until I closed the door.
“I wish I could make you happy,” she said, “but I can’t. You don’t want me. You—”
“Yes I do,” I blurted.
“You don’t,” she said flatly. “You want what we used to have.” She stared at her hands and wrung them silently. “Paul,” she said after a moment, “you’re my best friend, but I don’t want to hurt you again, and I know I will.”
“Just hear me out,” she said. “I still love you, Paul—you have to believe that—but I’m not the girl I was when we first started dating. I’m a woman now, and I know what I want.”
“And you don’t want me,” I rasped.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she said, and looked up, her dark eyes filled with tears. “I’m a different person now. Besides, you wouldn’t be happy with me.”
“But I’d like the chance.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Would you move to L.A.?” she asked, but it was rhetorical. “Change schools? Leave Professor Joska?”
My stomach lurched, but I ignored it. “In a heartbeat.”
“Would you really?” she said. “Think about it, Paul. Leave Professor Joska? He’s the best thing that ever happened to you, and you know it. You might not admit it, but you know it’s true.”
“I don’t love him.”
“You don’t think so?”
I shook my head stubbornly.
“You love what he represents. I know you, remember?” She paused to let her words sink in. “And what about Trip?” she continued. “Would you leave him? Trade your business for me?” She laughed, but it was a scornful sound.
“I would,” I swore.
“Well, you shouldn’t. Besides, you’re not like that.”
“So what should I do? Tell me, and I’ll do it.”
“I need friends more than anything,” she said softly, and wiped her cheeks.
“Is it the other guy?”
“This has nothing to do with… him,” she said impatiently.
“How come you didn’t tell me about him? Does he even exist?”
“Does he—? Have I ever lied to you?”
“No,” I said, albeit reluctantly.
“He’s a first-year medical student,” she said. “We met at the hospital over the summer.”
“I’m not going to talk about him, Paul. That’s not what I came here for. Besides, you have lots of women in your life.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Wren. Christy. Leah.”
“Hold on,” I said abruptly. “What makes you think I’m interested in Christy?”
“I can read between the lines, Paul. I’m not stupid. You draw with her… what? Every Saturday? And you hang out all the time? Your letters are full of things like ‘Christy said this,’ and ‘Christy said that.’”
“Because she’s my friend.”
“Then what about Wren? Or Leah?”
“They’re just friends. Besides, what about the Coulter sisters’ rule?”
“Paul, you’re one of the few men who’s slept with all three of us, so the normal rules don’t apply to you. If you and Leah want to—”
“I told you,” I said, “I want you. Not Leah. Not Kara. You.”
“And I want a friend. I need a friend, Paul.”
“So that’s my only choice? Friendship or nothing?”
She folded her hands in her lap. “I guess it is. I hope…” She paused and swallowed hard. “I mean, I want…” She looked around the room, as if it had the answers. “I know what I want, Paul.”
I saw the steel in her dark, tear-filled eyes, and knew I had to make a choice. Was her happiness more important than my own? I knew the answer, but I didn’t want to face it. I hung my head and pressed a finger and thumb to my eyes. I pressed hard and felt moisture between my lashes.
“Please, Paul,” she whispered, a ragged edge of tears in her voice. “Please.”
I felt like a hole had opened in my heart, but I willed myself to open my eyes and look at her. I swallowed hard and blinked to clear my eyes. Finally, I nodded.
She stood and fidgeted, uncertain what to do. I could read her body language—she wanted to hug me, but she didn’t want to send the wrong signal. I almost laughed at her predicament.
Instead, I pulled her into my arms and hugged her. She relaxed and squeezed me tight, completely familiar, yet completely beyond my reach.
Wren was quiet during the flight home. I wasn’t in a talkative mood myself, so I hardly noticed. I returned the plane keys and log book to the FBO, and we walked out to the Cruiser. Then we drove to short-term parking at the main terminal.
Christy’s flight wasn’t due for another half-hour, so we waited in the deserted gate area. Wren sat silently, lost in thought, while I stared into space and replayed my conversation with Gina.
“You saw her this weekend,” Wren said at last. “Didn’t you?”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“You know who. Gina. You saw her, didn’t you?”
I thought about lying, but I was sick of it all. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to speak.
She read my silence for the admission it was. “That’s what I thought.”
I kept my mouth shut.
“You still have feelings for her, don’t you?” She waited as I wrestled with my conscience. “Well?” she said.
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me the truth,” she said, her voice raw with emotion. “You still have feelings for her, don’t you?”
She let out a breath like someone had punched her. “Well,” she said at last, “at least I know where I stand.”
“It’s not like that, Wren.”
“Then what is it like?”
“I… I don’t know.”
She laughed scornfully. “So now you’re going to be honest?”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but I felt even lower than before.
“I knew what was going on,” she said, to herself as much as me, “but I kept telling myself that you’d never do that. Did you think you could have two girlfriends? Like before?”
“Then… what?” she said sarcastically.
I leapt to my feet. “What am I supposed to say? That I’m a lying scumbag? A jerk? A creep?”
“Well, you are.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I half-shouted. “You think I don’t know what I am? What?” I practically screamed. “You think I don’t know that?”
She fell silent in the face of my tirade.
I looked around, suddenly conscious of my surroundings, but the gate was still empty.
“Then why’d you do it?” she said.
“Because I’m an idiot,” I said harshly. “Because I don’t know when something’s over. Because I don’t know a good thing”—I gestured at her—“when I see it.”
“So she turned you down?” Wren said.
“Of course she did,” I spat. “Wouldn’t you?” I wanted to clench my fists and howl in frustration. “What was I thinking?” I rounded on her. “I’ll tell you what it was. ‘Go for the sure thing, instead of taking a chance—’”
“‘Taking a chance’?” she cried. “You knew how I felt and you still treated me like a back-up plan?”
I bit off an angry response and threw myself into the chair instead. “Pretty stupid,” I said sullenly, “huh?”
“Incredibly stupid,” she said, but without much heat.
We fell into an uncomfortable silence.
“For what it’s worth,” I said at last, “I’m sorry.” I shrugged, angry at myself more than anything. “If you never want to speak to me again, I’ll—”
“What is it with you and melodrama?” she said harshly. “Do you need it to survive or something?”
I blinked in confusion.
“Everything’s so totally black and white with you.” She made a simpering face and mocked me, “‘If you never want to speak to me again, I’ll understand.’ Blah, blah, blah. Total melodrama! Like I’m that simple. Ugh!”
I didn’t understand, and my expression said so. Loud and clear.
She scoffed. “I’ve dated bigger jerks than you.” When I still didn’t understand, she rolled her eyes. “God! How dense can you be?”
“Very, evidently,” I muttered.
“You got that right.”
“So… what?” I said, still confused. “You’re not upset?”
“Oh, I’m upset all right.”
“But you still want to be friends?”
“Not at the moment,” she said flatly, “but I’m not that shallow.”
“Then… I don’t get it.”
“And you never have, apparently.”
Anything I said would make me look worse than I already did (hard to believe, I know), so I kept my mouth shut.
She stood and paced. “I’m not some consolation prize,” she said. “You don’t get to hop into bed with me when your ex-girlfriend turns you down.”
I shot to my feet. “You think I’m that shallow?”
“Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically.
“Now you don’t get it.”
“Like I’m supposed to believe you.”
“Oh, get off your high horse,” I snapped. “You don’t have all the answers. Not any more than I do. If you think it’s just about sex, then you’re the shallow one.” I paused to let my words sink in. “I like you, Wren, and I thought you liked me.”
“So it wasn’t about getting laid?” she said, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. “And you want me to believe you actually like me?” She shook her head in annoyance. “Wait! Can you even tell the difference?”
“Better than you,” I shot back.
She blinked as if I’d slapped her.
“Of course I like you,” I said irritably. “Why do you think I feel like such a miserable jerk?”
“Because you are a miserable jerk?”
“At least we agree on something,” I said sarcastically, although part of me really meant it.
Christy’s flight had arrived, but we ignored the first passengers as they emerged from the jetway.
“So, what do we do now?” I said at last.
“Hey,” Christy said from close by.
Wren and I turned at the same time.
“What’s going on?” Christy said.
Wren and I looked at each other. Her mask of defiance slipped, but not much. “We’re having a fight,” she said at last.
“Oh?” Christy said as another passenger jostled her. “Who started it?”
“I did,” I said.
“Hold on,” Christy said, “you’re serious? You’re really having a fight? Do you want me to give you a minute?” After we both ignored her and continued to stare at each other, she said, “Okay, what happened?”
“I saw Gina this weekend,” I said. “I wanted to get back together, but—”
“That was dumb,” Christy said.
“—she turned me down,” I finished. I broke eye contact with Wren and looked at Christy. “Yeah, it was dumb,” I said, annoyed, “but I’m only human, and I do dumb things sometimes. Okay?”
“Hey,” Christy said, “don’t get mad at me.”
I huffed and looked away. “Yeah, sorry. I guess I’m being a jerk to everyone today.” I turned back to Wren. “I really do like you. A lot. And I hope you still want to be friends, but I’ll understand if—”
“God!” Wren cried. “Not the melodrama again! I can’t stand it when you get all gloom and doom, like it’s the end of the world or something.”
“So that means…?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t dump my friends just because they’re jerks sometimes.”
Christy tried to deflect some of Wren’s anger. “I’m a jerk sometimes,” she said, “and she’s still friends with me.”
Wren looked at her dubiously.
“Okay, so I’m not really a jerk,” Christy admitted, “but I do dumb things sometimes. Like, I can’t even balance my own checkbook. I had to ask my brother to help. We found a bunch of money, though. I’d missed a decimal place. Or two.” She brightened. “Good thing, too, ’cause I wrote a couple of big checks on Friday. You should see what I got, though! They had a sale at…” she saw our expressions and trailed off. “What?”
Wren gave her a look that said, “What do you think? You’re chattering.”
“But it was Bullocks Wilshire,” Christy said feebly. “You don’t understand. Besides, you’re not going to stop being friends because he’s a jerk. You’ve dated guys who were bigger jerks.”
Wren didn’t look away, but she tried to keep a stony expression as I laughed at the irony.
“Well, she has,” Christy said to me. “You’re just an amateur jerk. She’s known some real pros. She has this bad habit of falling for them.” She pretended to look surprised at the idea. “Maybe that’s why she likes you.”
“Maybe,” I said ruefully. Then I looked at Wren. “Still friends?”
She threw her hands in the air. “Ugh!”
“That’s a yes,” Christy stage-whispered.
Wren stormed away, and we hurried to catch up.
“You owe me,” Christy said quietly, in a real whisper instead of a stage one.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said.
“Just don’t do anything stupid.” She shot me a quick glance. “Anything else, I mean.” She shook her head in disbelief. “You wanted to get back together with Gina? Sometimes I think…” She shook her head again. “You really don’t understand women, do you?”
“I thought I did,” I muttered.
“Well, you don’t.”
Our usual group ate breakfast together on Monday, and we talked about our weekends. I was subdued, so Christy drew a caricature of me as a dour statue, complete with pigeons roosting on my head. She took my bleak smile as a challenge, and began adding caricatures of the other people around the table.
Wren was an old woman feeding the pigeons, while Trip was a goofy businessman with a pair of birds nesting in his hat. Jeff and Meredith were star-struck lovers, oblivious to the squirrels mocking them with a spot-on imitation. Ash was an eager photographer who was trying to shoot everything at once.
“Okay, Miss Smarty Pants,” Wren finally snapped, “where are you?”
Christy feigned innocence. “Me?”
Christy thought about it for a second and smirked. With a few quick strokes, she added something to the picture and then turned it to show us. She’d drawn an artist’s hand with a pencil, which was adding the finishing touches to the base of the statue. “There,” she said with satisfaction.
Meredith and Jeff actually applauded, while Ash just smiled. Wren tried to look sour, but Trip nudged her and grinned.
“It is kinda funny,” he said.
“You weren’t an old woman,” Wren said.
He shrugged. “I had birds in my hat.” He gathered his things. “Anyway, we’d better get a move on. It’s almost eight o’clock.” He looked at Wren. “You coming? Or do you need a cane?”
“I don’t need a cane,” she said, and stood abruptly.
She looked so indignant that the rest of us laughed, even me.
“I’ll get you for this,” she said to Christy. She didn’t mean it, of course, but she still tried to look menacing.
Trip crowed in a falsetto, “And your little dog too!”
The others roared with laughter, and Wren huffed and stormed off.
Trip merely grinned and jogged to catch up with her.
Jeff and Meredith took their leave outside, and Christy, Ash, and I headed toward the A&A building.
“Sorry about the caricatures,” Christy said to us, “but the mood was a little heavy.”
“I thought it was a cute picture,” Ash said. “I wish I could draw like that.”
“And I wish I could take pictures like you,” Christy said.
“Absolutely. You’re really good.”
Ash beamed. “Wow, thanks!” She waved and headed toward the photography studios.
“My job here is done,” Christy said smugly, but then gave me a sly look. “Except for you, of course.”
“Mmm hmm. Wren was right—you are all gloom and doom.” Her blue eyes twinkled as she smiled. Then she feigned a pout. “So serious.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You’re more handsome when you smile.”
“I don’t have much to smile about.”
“Nonsense. You have everything to smile about.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Like me,” she said with a girlish shrug.
I arched an eyebrow.
“If you can’t smile about me,” she said, undaunted, “you can’t smile about anything.” The bell rang for class, and she grinned. “Saved again.”
I actually laughed as she twirled and hurried away. She grinned at me over her shoulder, and I felt my mood lighten. I still didn’t have much to smile about, but for the moment I did, so I enjoyed it.
Wren and I slowly grew more comfortable around each other. We didn’t have much choice, since we spent so much time together. Along with Trip and Christy, we ate together, studied together, and even went to the gym together.
I told Trip about Gina, and the blow-up with Wren. He knew how I felt, so he tried to keep me occupied (to keep me from brooding). Christy did the same with Wren, and they quickly drove us crazy with their relentless good moods.
“She’s like a psycho cheerleader,” Wren complained one morning.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Trip won’t let me have a moment’s peace.”
“I guess it’s ’cause they care, but still… I wish they’d just leave us alone.”
I barked a laugh. “Fat chance of that.”
We walked in silence for a minute, each of us lost in thought, until she asked, “When we first met, did you ever think we’d end up like this?”
“Like what?” I said. “Awkward and uncertain? Annoyed by our best friends? Totally confused?”
She laughed. “No. Well… maybe the last.”
“I’m still angry with you,” she said.
“I probably still deserve it.”
“Eh, maybe. I think I’m angry with myself, too.”
I looked a question at her, and she shrugged.
“I knew what was going on,” she said, “but I lied to myself as much as you did.”
“Sorry ’bout that.”
She shrugged again and we walked in silence for a moment. “I still think about you a lot,” she said softly, “but it’s different now.”
“I can’t explain it. I still think about… you know…” She gave me a furtive glance and blushed. “But I like hanging out with you, too. I guess I’m getting to know you better, flaws and all.”
“Yeah, well, I have enough of ’em.”
“We all do, but that’s not what I meant.” She struggled for words. “I guess I’m getting to know the real you, not the guy I thought I knew.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “It’s like we’ve had our share of drama, so now we’re moving on to friendship. Real friendship, I mean. Like…” I cleared my throat and took a gamble. “Like Gina and me.”
She stiffened at the name, but then forced herself to relax. “Have you talked to her? Since… you know?”
I shook my head.
“Are you still friends?”
“I hope so,” I said softly.
She considered for a moment. “I hope so too.”
“I dunno. I guess because of what it says about you. You know? Maybe we’ll always be friends too. We never really dated, but—”
“Not yet at least.” I shot her a comically hopeful glance.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” she said, but suppressed a grin.
I shrugged and half-hid a grin of my own.
“But you know what I mean,” she continued. “You and Gina went through a lot, but you’re still friends.” She shrugged. “I hope it’s the same for us.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Do you think you’ll ever be friends with Kendall again?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I think it’ll take a long time for her to get over me.”
“Listen to you,” Wren teased.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “It’s not like I’m God’s gift to women or something.”
“You can say that again.”
“But you know what I mean,” I continued. “I’m the one who broke up with her, so I’m not still in shock.” I shrugged. “I don’t think Kendall realized things were so bad. She said she did, but I think she was just placating me. You know? We tried, but we always went back to the way things were.”
Wren nodded quietly.
“Even after we broke up, she kept trying to fix things, to get me back.” I shrugged and thought back to my breakup with Gina. “I guess I did the same with Gina. So I know what Kendall’s going through. I mean, it took me a long time to get over Gina.”
“I’ll say,” Wren said softly, a bit ruefully.
“Yeah, sorry. I guess I fall hard when I fall in love.”
“As long as you fall for the right person.”
“Yeah, and Kendall wasn’t her,” I said. “Gina isn’t either, but I don’t think I’m entirely convinced.” I shot a glance at Wren. “I know that’s not what you want to hear, but I guess you deserve the truth. For a change.”
She smiled, but it was tinged with sadness.
“I guess I don’t know what I want,” I said at last. I shot her a sidelong glance and felt my hopes rise. I covered it with a rueful snort. “I want to get laid, of course—”
“Tell me about it!”
“—but that would probably make things even more complicated. You know?”
“So I guess it’s good that I screwed things up with you and me.”
“You sure have a weird idea of good.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “but would you really want to find out that your hypothetical boyfriend still had feelings for his old flame? Or would you rather find out before things got that far? Between you and me, I mean.”
“Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“So it’s a good thing. Except for the lying and stuff. That wasn’t good.”
She shook her head in agreement.
“So I promise not to do it again.”
“Good. And I promise not to lie to myself.”
I nodded and ventured a smile.
She returned it, and we finished our walk in a comfortable silence.
On Sunday, I took a break from studying to call Erin and wish her a happy birthday. She and a group of friends were going to the mall, so she couldn’t talk long. She thanked me for calling, but I could hear her friends in the background, so I said goodbye and hung up.
I tried to go back to studying, but I couldn’t keep my mind on what I was reading. My thoughts wandered to Gina and stubbornly refused to move on. After twenty minutes of re-reading the same paragraph, I took a chance and called her. She sounded surprised to hear from me, but she also sounded relieved.
“I thought after… you know,” she said, and I could almost hear her shrug.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I really am sor—”
“Can we move on?” I said, too abruptly. “I mean, my ego is bruised enough, and it doesn’t help when you remind me.”
“Sorry,” she said softly. “We’ll talk about something else.”
“So… um…,” she said, “what should we talk about?”
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Yeah, I’m glad to hear yours too.”
“So, what are you up to?” I said, and we began a tentative conversation.
I survived exams and turned in my final projects, and was pretty sure I’d made the Dean’s List. Gracie Fisher was still atop the second-year design standings, but she was gracious about it. Still, I was only two points behind her, and I knew how hard she had to work to stay ahead of me.
Trip had slipped to number twenty, but he was philosophical about it. On the other hand, Freddie had managed to claw his way to 51st, and even thanked me for helping him. He tried to seem casual about it, but I could sense the genuine emotion behind his words.
The weather had turned cold and blustery during exam week, typical for Knoxville in December, so most of us were glad to pack our things for the holidays. Unlike the dorms, the apartments stayed open through the break (although the dining halls were closed), but all of us planned to go home.
Trip left on Wednesday morning, and Wren drove Christy to the airport after lunch. I followed in the Cruiser, and went inside to see her to the gate. She hugged us both, and promised to call Wren when she got home.
Wren and I talked about the holidays as we walked out to our cars, but we didn’t make any definite plans. I still felt the spark of attraction, but neither of us were ready for serious flirting.
She smiled as she got into her car, and then followed as we made our way to the interstate. The drive home was uneventful, and she honked and waved as she took the Dunwoody exit. I waved in return and headed toward my parents’ house.
The next week passed slowly, since I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had a reading list from Joska, but I didn’t feel like spending the holidays with my nose in a book. I took a couple of cross-country flights just to log the flight time, but felt even more alone during the long stretches in the cockpit. Wren and I talked on the phone a couple of times, but nothing too serious or memorable.
I wanted to call Gina— she was still in L.A., volunteering at the hospital during the break—but I decided not to. I didn’t want to seem too eager or desperate, especially before the ski trip. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about it, though, and how I wanted to act around her. I still had dreams of getting back together, and I imagined it a thousand different ways.
Unfortunately, the rational part of me knew that I needed to get over her and move on, so I was glad for the distraction when Trip called.
“What’s goin’ on?” he said.
“Nothin’ much,” I said. “Just bored.”
“Huh? I thought you and Wren would be… you know… hanging out, at least. You patched things up, right?”
“Yes and no. We’re cool, but we’re just friends.”
“Oh, okay. That’s cool.”
“Besides,” I added, “I’ve been thinking about Gina a lot.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said in resignation, “but I just can’t get her out of my mind. I feel like Tantalus.”
“The guy from the myth. He… never mind.” The Tantalus comment was a very “Gina” thing to say, and I wondered why I’d thought of it.
“Like… tantalized?” he said. “Yeah, I think I get it.”
“I figured you would. Anyway, I’ll see her for Christmas, and we’ll be together for a week afterward, so…” I shrugged.
“So you and Wren aren’t…?”
“We’re just friends,” I said again. I knew how I felt about Wren, and it was a lot more than friendship, but I didn’t want to take her for granted.
“Oh,” Trip said. “Sorry to hear that. I guess. I mean… you know.”
He sounded as confused as I felt, so I changed the subject: “So, what’s up with you?”
“I need some help,” he said.
“My dad and Darlene want to take us to Florida after Christmas, but they’ve already done the Disney World thing. It’s kinda last-minute, so we can’t decide where to go. Somewhere on the beach obviously, but the places we called were either booked solid or closed for the season.”
I nodded silently. We had a standing reservation for the chalet in Utah, but the resorts were usually booked months in advance. It was probably the same in Florida.
“I know your grandparents live down there,” Trip continued, “so I thought maybe you could help us out.”
“Actually,” I said, “my grandparents don’t live anywhere near the beach. Well, an hour away, but still…”
“You need to talk to Wren,” I suggested. “Her family has a condo in Destin. She can probably help you out. Do you want her phone number?”
“Um… yeah,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Nah, why would I mind?” I gave him the number and we talked a few more minutes before hanging up. I called Wren to let her know he’d be calling, but her line was busy.
Probably beat me to the punch, I thought with a grin, and set the phone back on the cradle.
The next days passed slowly. I finished my Christmas shopping, and even started my Joska reading, but the hours trickled past like melting ice. I must have looked at my watch a hundred times a day.
Dad was on a week-long trip, and Mom and Erin were out shopping most of the time, so I had the house to myself, which made things worse. I thought about Gina and the ski trip all the time—fantasized, more like it—and my poor dick was sore from jerking off so much.
I finally decided to get out of the house, so I grabbed my car keys, shrugged into my coat, and left a note for Mom and Erin. I drove aimlessly: around the neighborhood, past the high school, around my old hangouts, and back again.
I wanted to keep my mind off Gina, so I looked at houses. Most of them were old, with big yards and mature landscaping. I almost chuckled at my critical, almost professional appraisals. I spotted a few for sale, and even stopped at one to pick up a flyer.
The basement rancher had been empty since October, so I pulled around to the garage and decided to peek in the windows. An empty pool sat forlornly in the back yard, its bottom covered with pine needles and leaves from woods that bordered the yard on two sides. The neighboring house had a thick hedge, which blocked the view of their yard.
Suburban Atlanta could be surprisingly idyllic in places, especially the older neighborhoods, where the houses had been built by different contractors. I studied the rancher for a moment and decided that it was probably thirty years old. It was run-down and dated, but it had good bones.
I folded the flyer and stuffed it in my pocket as I returned to the Cruiser. I could hear the faint noise of a major street nearby, but only because the wind carried the sound. At night, with the sound of crickets in the woods and the breeze through the trees, the house would seem almost rural.
With one last look, I backed out of the driveway and headed home. Mom and Erin were cooking dinner when I returned, and asked where I’d been.
“Just out,” I said. “Driving around. Looking at houses. Nothing much.”
Mom searched my eyes for a moment, but then nodded in understanding. She always knew more than she let on, so I gave her a slight nod in reply.
It was the kind of silent conversation she had with Susan, which made me think of how simple my life had been when I didn’t understand the meaning behind their expressions. I almost sighed with melancholy.
“Will you set the table?” Mom asked, breaking the spell before it had a chance to take hold.
I gave her a jaded smile, but I opened the cabinet and began taking out plates.
“Erin and I were at Lenox today…,” she began, but I listened with half an ear. I appreciated what she was trying to do, but I wasn’t in the mood to be distracted.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know what I was in the mood for.
Christmas finally arrived, and my family spent the morning opening presents. Most of my gifts were clothes and money, which suited me fine. I guess I’d become a clothes horse over the years. For some reason, I found it amusing, especially for a nudist.
Erin and I called our grandparents to thank them for our gifts, and then got ready for lunch at the Coulters’. I wanted to act cool and confident when I saw Gina—like anything but a love-struck imbecile—but I felt jittery and nervous instead. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that we’d been friends for years. She knew my darkest secrets (most of them, at least), and I knew hers.
During the short ride to her house, I thought about what I wanted to say. Chris answered the door, and ushered us into the house. Gina stood in the living room, but my heart lurched when our eyes met and she gnawed her lip. She tried to cover it with a quick smile, but I knew her too well.
She’s just happy to see me, I told myself, although I knew better, deep down.
“Hey,” she said nervously. “Merry Christmas.”
“Um… yeah, Merry Christmas.”
“So, how’re you?”
“Fine! Great!” she said, too quickly. Before I could say anything else, Elizabeth came to her rescue.
“Hello, Paul,” she said, cheerful and bright. “Merry Christmas.” She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
She lingered with an arm around my waist, so I kept one around her. “Was Father Christmas good to you?” she asked.
Gina seemed to relax as Elizabeth and I talked about mundane things, which was probably the whole point. Maybe I gave Elizabeth too much credit, but then again, maybe not. As soon as Gina looked more sure of herself, Elizabeth smiled warmly and excused herself to talk with Mom and Erin.
I shot a wry look at Gina. “What was that about?”
“Um… we need to talk.”
A chill ran down my spine. “About what?”
We moved into the privacy of the dining room, where she dithered for a moment.
“I guess there’s no easy way to say this,” she said at last, “so I’ll come right out with it.” She took a deep breath. “I’m not going to Utah.”
“Brock asked me to spend the week at his parents’ cabin in Tahoe.”
“Brock? Who’s—?” My eyes narrowed. So you’re dating a guy named “Brock”? It was an oh-so-typical California name, and I hated him at once. My voice turned flinty. “He did, huh?”
“Don’t be upset, Paul.”
Ha! Fat chance of that. “I’m not,” I lied.
“This is our first trip away together, and—”
“So you’re ditching your family for him?”
“I’m not ditching anyone,” she shot back. “I hoped you’d be—”
“Happy for you?” I finished incredulously. “Why should I be?”
“I thought we settled this,” she said in a tense whisper. “I’m not your girlfriend anymore.”
“So? You think that means I don’t care? If you’re off in Tahoe sleeping with some guy you just met—”
“I didn’t just meet him, Paul,” she hissed. “Not that it’s any of your business anyway!”
“It is my business!”
“Oh?” she said, almost sweetly. “And what makes you think that?”
“Because I—” I shut my mouth. Unfortunately, Gina knew how my mind worked.
“Because you want to sleep with me?” she mocked. “You—!” She stepped back and huffed in frustration. “This isn’t what I wanted,” she said, to herself as much as me.
My heart still hammered in my chest, but the anger disappeared with a shock that left me cold. What was I doing? Trying to win her back by being a jackass?
“I knew you wouldn’t be thrilled,” she mused aloud, “but…” She shrugged in resignation and looked at me. “What am I supposed to do, Paul? Never move on? Lie about it?” She paused, but it was rhetorical. “Tell me. I’m serious. I don’t want to hurt you, but… I mean, what do you want from me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and blinked back tears of frustration. “I just can’t…”
“I know,” she said softly, almost tenderly.
“I mean, how am I supposed to feel? I want you back.” I held up a hand. “I know, I need to move on, but it’s not that easy.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“And I don’t want to make your life difficult—I really don’t—but…” I fell silent and shrugged.
“You don’t make my life difficult,” she said gently. “You make it… interesting.”
“Challenging… frustrating, sometimes.” She forced a smile, although it was melancholy. “But never difficult.”
“I’m happy for you,” I said at last. “I really mean that. But…” I met her eyes, and something within me snapped as I blurted, “Do you think we’ll ever get back together?”
She hesitated. “Maybe. Who knows? But for now…?”
“Yeah, I know. We’re just friends.” I snorted at a memory.
“I’ve been saying that a lot lately.”
“About Wren and me.”
“Is it true? That you’re just friends, I mean?”
“I don’t know,” I said earnestly, and rubbed my eyes again. “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“You know that I love you.”
I snorted. Yeah, but not like I want you to.
“Are there so many women telling you that,” she asked gently, “that you don’t need to hear it from me?”
“I know, it’s not what you want to hear.”
“So things didn’t work out with you and Wren?” she asked, changing the subject.
I gave her an “I know what you just did” look, but she didn’t back down. “No,” I said at last. “Well, not yet. They might. Maybe. I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I knew I’d be spending a week with you, so I didn’t want to move too fast with her.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it.
“That’s because you’re a better person than I am.”
“Not better,” she said. “Just different.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Do you think it’s too late for you and Wren?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I was telling the truth when I said we were just friends.”
Gina smiled. “I wouldn’t worry about that. You usually get what you want.”
She read me perfectly, but she didn’t say anything, so I forced a smile.
“I’ll survive,” I said at last.
“I know,” she said gently. “And I’m glad.”
We opened presents and then ate our usual Christmas dinner. I sat between Gina and Leah, and tried to act like I was enjoying myself. I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s evening, so I followed the conversation around me, and even managed a smile when Mom silently asked how I was doing.
I glanced across the table and saw Elizabeth waiting for the same answer. Not surprisingly, they were in cahoots, and already a step or two ahead of me. I shrugged and feigned a “que sera, sera” expression.
Fortunately, we didn’t make a late evening of it, since we had to get ready for the trip in the morning. Trips, actually, because Gina had to leave too, even though she wasn’t going with us.
Mom stopped by my room as I was packing my things.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you sure?” She wasn’t going to leave me alone until I gave her a better answer, so I met her eyes.
“Would it do any good?” I said.
“Probably not,” she said, with unexpected honesty, “but it’ll make me feel better to know you’re all right.”
“I’m all right, Mom. I’m just… disappointed.”
She nodded and let the silence linger. “Have you talked to Leah?” she said at last. “She still has a crush on you, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Elizabeth and I thought—”
“What? That Leah could be my girlfriend or something?”
“Not girlfriend, but—”
“But… what?” I didn’t wait for her to answer. “Mom, I like Leah—I really do—but…”
“Have you told her how you feel?”
“Not really,” I admitted.
Mom paused and decided to change tack. “Since Sean is coming with us,” she said, “Erin will be occupied most of the time. And since Gina won’t be there, we thought…”
“Are you and Elizabeth matchmaking again?” I scoffed. “I should’ve known.”
“That’s not fair, Paul. We want you to be happy. Both of you. Besides, Leah’s… very lonely… right now.”
“Very horny, you mean.”
“And you’re not?” Mom shot back. “Or did you buy stock in Kleenex?”
My face grew hot.
“That’s what I thought.” She drove her point home with a long silence. “If you’re both frustrated,” she said at last, sounding reasonable, “and you want the same thing…”
But we didn’t want the same thing. I didn’t want a girlfriend who wasn’t Gina. Besides, Leah was still in high school. She was a nice girl, but she wasn’t what I wanted.
“I don’t need you to set me up with Leah.”
Mom closed her eyes and tried to hide her frustration.
I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but I couldn’t change the way I felt.
“All right,” she said at last, but then took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for an argument. “I didn’t want to bring this up now, but I hoped…” She gestured at the air. “Well, you know what I hoped.”
I met her gaze, but I didn’t flinch, which seemed to decide things for her.
“Your father and I talked with the Coulters…,” she began. “Sean knows we’re swingers, but he doesn’t know about the swinging between generations, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
I could sense where she was going, but I didn’t want to believe it. Were they cutting me off completely?
“We don’t think it’s a good idea for the parents to swing with the teens while we’re in Utah.” She read my expression perfectly. “No, it’s not a punishment. It’s a… precaution. Sean doesn’t understand our family.”
“So what you’re saying,” I said, outwardly calm despite my boiling frustration, “is that my options are Leah or nothing?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way, but—”
I bit off a sarcastic reply. Getting angry wouldn’t help, and I knew it. In fact, it would probably earn me a decidedly one-sided “conversation” with my father, so I kept a lid on my temper and took a deep breath.
“Can’t I choose to be one of the adults instead of the kids?” I said at last.
“No, Paul. I’m sorry.”
My anger boiled to the surface. “So basically,” I snapped, “I’m screwed.”
“No, I get it. Leah or nothing. Fine. Whatever.” I didn’t trust myself to say more, so I flopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. The conversation was over.
Life just wasn’t fair.
We loaded the station wagon and drove to the Coulters’ the next morning. Gina’s flight to Reno left twenty minutes after ours, so she rode to the airport with her family. We checked our skis and bags, and then made our way through security to the gates.
I tried not to look sullen as I hugged Gina goodbye, but she could sense my mood. I felt like a jerk when tears filled her eyes, but she forced a smile.
“Have fun,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. “Don’t break anything.”
“You too,” she managed, and then said goodbye to her parents.
Erin’s boyfriend, Sean, had taken an early flight from Charlotte to Atlanta, so he was waiting for us at the gate. Erin nearly knocked him over when she rushed into his arms, and he greeted the rest of us a bit abashedly. I smiled tightly as we shook hands, but I was glad when he turned to the others.
I quit trying to hide my feelings shortly after that. I knew I was acting like a child, but I was too angry to stop myself. When we boarded the plane, Leah sat beside me and tried to strike up a conversation, but I stared out the window and ignored her.
As soon as the pilot turned off the seatbelt sign, Leah left in a huff. She took an empty seat next to Erin and Sean. I glanced at her, but she glared back and turned up the volume on her Walkman.
I stuck my nose in my book and wished the world would go away.
At the Salt Lake City airport, we picked up our rental cars (two Jeep Cherokees), and loaded our things. Park City was about an hour away, and Mom “volunteered” me to ride with the Coulters so Sean could ride with Erin.
Leah hadn’t said a word to me since Atlanta, and I wasn’t feeling much friendlier myself, so I heaved my bags in the back of the Jeep and closed the lift gate. I spent the entire drive brooding. Leah huffed occasionally, but I ignored her and stared at the scenery.
The sky was dark when we arrived at the chalet, and a light snow had begun to fall. We carried our things inside, and went to our usual rooms. The Coulters and my parents took the big bedrooms on the second floor, while the rest of us had rooms on the third.
Sean had probably told his parents he’d be sharing a room with me, but he and Erin planned to sleep in the bigger bedroom, since it had a queen size bed (which had been Gina’s and mine the year before).
That left Leah and me with the smallest bedroom. Fortunately, it had a twin and two bunk beds, so I wouldn’t have to explain why I didn’t want to sleep with her. One of us could have slept on the fold-out couch in the great room, but our parents would have asked too many questions, so we silently—albeit frostily—agreed to share the room.
As we unpacked our things, I thought about why I didn’t think of Leah as girlfriend material: she was like my kid sister in too many ways. Worse, she reminded me of Gina, which was a blessing and a curse.
In reality, I did want to sleep with her, but I didn’t know how I’d deal with the fact that she wasn’t Gina. Besides, without Gina in the picture to prevent her from expecting more, I didn’t want to risk it.
It was a bad situation, and neither of us were happy about it, but I didn’t have a better alternative. I probably should’ve taken Mom’s advice and actually talked to Leah about it, but I didn’t know where to begin. Still, I had to say something to her—we couldn’t ignore each other all week—so I started with an apology.
“Hey,” I said, “I’m sorry I was a jerk on the flight.” She didn’t say anything, so I swallowed my pride and continued. “I guess I’m still hung up on Gina, and I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry.”
She didn’t react.
She whirled and gave me a cold, furious look. Her nostrils flared, but she didn’t say anything. Her dark eyes blazed with hate.
Guilt surged within me. “C’mon, Leah, I don’t want things to be like this between us.”
She slammed her suitcase, turned on her heel, and left without a word.
I woke up the next morning with my usual hard-on. Leah was still asleep, but I didn’t want to jerk off with her in the room—what if she caught me? how awkward would that be?—so I slipped out of the lower bunk and padded to the bathroom.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t even enjoy myself as I whacked off in the shower. Someone knocked on the door and didn’t wait for an answer before they came in.
“Sorry,” Erin said. “I really have to go.”
Listening to her pee was anything but arousing, so I abandoned my dick and angrily squirted shampoo into my palm. I lathered my hair with enough force to make my scalp sting, and finished my shower in a truly foul mood.
My balls had already begun to ache, but I could hear other people moving around, so I knew I wouldn’t have time (or privacy) to finish what I’d started. In the hallway Leah jumped in surprise when I yanked open the bathroom door. She started to say something, but I cut her off.
“What, no cold shoulder?” I sneered. “Never mind. Go ahead and give it to me. I’m pretty much immune by now.”
Her expression went from humble to hostile in a heartbeat, and I wanted to kick myself. She’d been about to extend an olive branch, but I’d bitten her head off. My cheeks colored from more than the hot shower, and I brushed past her in a guilty rush.
I ate breakfast in a funk, and Leah pointedly ignored me. Sean and Erin had a sugary argument about who loved the other more, which made me want to retch. Mom and Elizabeth tried to tease me into a better mood, but they quit when I gave them a flat stare that was practically hostile.
I couldn’t wait to hit the slopes, where I could lose myself in physical exertion. I wanted to forget Leah’s hurt expression outside the bathroom. I wanted to forget Gina’s teary goodbye. I wanted to forget the way she said another guy’s name. I wanted to forget how stupid I’d been for thinking she’d want me back. I wanted… a lot of things I wasn’t going to get.
My cereal bowl clattered into the sink, and I grabbed my snow parka. Without a word, I zipped it up and headed for the mud room downstairs.
“Wait up,” my dad said. “Chris and I’ll go with you.”
I turned and snapped, “Then hurry up. I’m ready to go.” I regretted it immediately.
His eyes tightened, and Mom shot him a wary look, but he forced a smile and grabbed his own parka from the back of the couch. Chris joined him, and we left in a tense silence.
Outside, our breath steamed in the crisp morning air. I feverishly tried to think of a way to apologize, but I was too late. Dad’s big hand descended on the back of the neck, and his grip was anything but gentle.
Chris made a show of checking his skis, which gave us the illusion of privacy.
“Lighten up,” Dad said, deceptively calm, “and lose the attitude. Okay?”
“Yes, sir,” I said immediately.
“We’re here to have fun. I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, but that’s no excuse.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said, and meant it. “I shouldn’t’ve snapped at you.”
“Oh,” he said lightly, “I’m not worried about me. I’ve dealt with worse attitudes than yours. But your mom didn’t deserve the look you gave her earlier.”
“Yes, sir. I know better.”
“Good. Then act like it.”
“I will,” I promised. “Should I go apologize?”
He shook his head. “I think she’ll be okay. Elizabeth too. Just don’t let it happen again.” Then he patted me on the shoulder and turned to Chris, his entire mood relaxed. “Ready to hit the slopes?”
“Absolutely,” Chris said, as if he hadn’t overheard the whole conversation.
“You think you can keep up with us?” Dad teased him.
“What’s this ‘us’ stuff, old man?” I said. I must have been high on adrenaline, because I never mocked him like that, even in jest. He merely laughed it off. I think he understood how nervous I was, and how hard I was trying to get back in his good graces.
“What,” he challenged instead, “you think you can out-ski us?”
I started breathing again. “Any day of the week.”
“I guess we’ll have to show him the error of his ways,” Chris said as we snapped into our skis.
I pushed off and coasted down the hill toward the main ski trails, and the older men followed in my wake. Several inches of fresh powder had fallen the night before, and the woods were quiet as we glided through them. I reached the nearest resort trail and skied around the “Private Property” sign.
We took the main lift to the summit, where I waited for Dad and Chris, who were a couple of chairs behind me. Then I headed for the face of the mountain, where powder-eights from earlier skiers hid the moguls underneath. It was the toughest run on the mountain, one of the few double-diamond trails.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I asked them.
Dad laughed, pure bravado. “You’re not chickening out, are you?”
I shook my head and lowered my goggles. Then I shoved hard and plunged down the mountain. I probably shouldn’t have tried the face on my first run of the season, but I managed to make it without falling. Dad took one spill, and Chris fell twice, but they both made it to where I was waiting.
“Piece of cake,” Dad said, sporting the same stupid grin as mine. (At least I came by it honestly.)
“Yeah,” Chris panted.
They were both lying, and we all knew it. I was the best skier among us, and the run had challenged me, twenty years younger and in top condition.
“Race you to the bottom?” Dad taunted.
“You’re on!” I said, but he was already moving.
Chris yelped and followed, but I tucked my skis together and arrowed for Dad. I skied on the very edge of recklessness, in control, but not far from losing it. I made it to the bottom nearly a minute before they did, and had time to catch my breath before they schussed to a stop beside me.
“All right,” Chris gasped as he leaned on his poles, “you win.”
Even Dad knew he couldn’t keep up with me, but he wasn’t ready to give up. I almost chuckled when I realized that I came by my stubbornness honestly too.
“Ready to go again?” he said, still breathing heavy.
I knew in my heart that he’d race me all day. I also knew that I’d beat him every time. I suppressed a wolfish grin at the thought of doing just that, but then I thought about what Mom would do if I wore him out. She probably had plans for him, and they didn’t include Ben-Gay or a trip to the emergency room.
“I guess,” I said at last. “But I wanna hit that black run off the shoulder. You know the one that turns into a blue trail that flattens out before it turns?”
Dad concentrated and pictured it in his head (another trait I came by honestly). “Yeah, I remember. It’s good and fast.”
“And it won’t kill us,” Chris muttered.
Dad laughed. “Speed is life!”
“Lunatic,” Chris said.
“C’mon,” I laughed, and set out for the lift line. “You guys are slowin’ me down.”
I didn’t kill Dad or Chris, but they probably wished I had. We skied hard all morning, and grabbed a quick lunch at the base lodge. We saw the others a couple of times, and waved as we flew past, but they were always on the easy trails.
To his credit, Dad kept up with me all day, although I stopped pushing hard after lunch. He never complained, but I could tell how tired he was, and Chris was going on guts alone. I missed skiing with someone at my level, but I had fun relaxing with the older men. They probably didn’t think it was relaxing, but they never quit, and it was dark by the time we returned to the chalet.
“We were wondering what happened to you all,” Mom said from the kitchen. She and Elizabeth were working on dinner.
“You didn’t wear them out, did you, Paul?” Elizabeth asked.
“I tried not to, but they’re not as young as they used to be.”
“Tell me about it,” she teased.
Chris sagged against the nearest couch. “How ’bout a little sympathy here?”
Elizabeth rushed to him and pretended to fawn. “Oh, you poor dear, tell me where it hurts.”
“How’re you?” Mom asked Dad quietly.
“I’m good,” he lied. “Piece of cake.”
She managed to look both sympathetic and amused at the same time.
I merely grinned and went upstairs to change into regular clothes. I stripped off my ski bibs and thermal underwear, and hung them in the closet to air out. Then I donned a pair of jeans and a turtleneck. Dad and Chris were just groaning up the stairs as I bounded down again, and I flashed a smile at them.
I volunteered to set the table, and recruited Sean with a glance. He reluctantly left Erin, and we began setting out plates. Erin and Leah fixed drinks for everyone, while Mom and Elizabeth finished the food. Dad and Chris arrived as the women set the last serving bowl on the table.
“Perfect timing,” Dad said.
“Cook!” Chris called. “Where’s my hasenpfeffer?”
We all grinned, except Elizabeth, who merely arched an eyebrow.
“So you’ll be preparing supper tomorrow?” she said, her British accent tart and teasing. “Hasenpfeffer is it?”
“Sure,” Dad said, “we’ll fix dinner tomorrow. Right, Chris?”
“Absolutely. How ’bout that new restaurant on Main Street?”
“You are incorrigible,” Elizabeth said, but then smiled. “Now, let’s eat, shall we?”
Dinner was tasty and filling—beef stroganoff—and I ate two helpings. I wanted more, but I was still trying to watch my weight.
We talked about our day on the slopes, although Leah was quiet and sullen. She’d been with Erin and Sean all day, and I guessed she was feeling a little resentful.
I felt guilty about how I’d treated her that morning, so I tried to draw her into conversation. She merely glared, so I backed off and tried again a few minutes later. She threw her napkin on her half-eaten plate. Elizabeth shot her a warning look, which she ignored.
“May I be excused?” she said. Without waiting for an answer, she stood and stormed upstairs.
“Oh, dear,” Elizabeth said into the silence. “I’ll go talk to her.” She sounded resigned.
I started to say something, but Mom caught my eye and warned me off.
The conversation resumed slowly, and we pretended not to hear Elizabeth and Leah arguing upstairs. We couldn’t tell what they were saying, but the volume definitely reached us.
When Elizabeth finally returned, she looked as flustered as I’d ever seen. She flashed a tight smile that didn’t fool anyone, and went to open a bottle of wine. She poured a glass and downed half in one long gulp. None of us said a word as she stared into space and finished the glass. Then she poured it half full again.
“Would anyone like some?” she asked, as if she were hosting a party.
Much to my surprise, my mom said, “Yes, please,” and crossed to her friend.
“C’mon,” Erin said quietly to Sean, “let’s clear the table.”
“I’ll help,” I said.
Dad and Chris joined the women, who had moved to the couches. Erin, Sean, and I talked in low tones as we washed and dried the dishes. I felt guilty for being a jerk to Leah, but Erin shook her head.
“It’s not just about you,” she said. “They’ve been arguing a lot lately.”
“About what?” I said.
Erin shrugged and demurred. “Lots of things.”
“The usual stuff.” She handed a bowl to Sean for him to put away, and gave me a pointed look while his back was turned.
I Got It, and changed the subject. “So, what’re you two gonna do tonight? Big plans? A dance club or something?”
Park City had several, despite the Mormon taboo against alcohol. The drinking age was twenty-one, but most of the local clubs weren’t too strict about checking IDs. It was a resort town, after all, and they made a lot of money selling sin.
“Actually,” Erin said, with a characteristic blush, “we’re gonna stay in.” They shared a knowing look.
I rolled my eyes and felt a stab of frustration. “Is that all you ever do?”
“You should try it some time,” Erin teased. She grinned for a moment, but then turned sober. “Maybe Leah—”
“C’mon, Erin, not you too!”
“Hey, I’m just saying…”
“God!” I blurted. “You sound just like Mom.” I turned and headed upstairs.
“Maybe that’s ’cause we’re both right!”
Leah looked up when I stormed into the room. Her eyes were red from crying, although they hardened with fierce anger. Her music was loud enough to hear (Billy Idol), but I ignored her and scooped up my own Walkman. I wasn’t feeling particularly angry toward her, but her glare was enough to fan the flames of my own resentment.
I threw her a spiteful smile, donned my headphones, and left. I thudded down the stairs to the entrance foyer, where I laced on my boots and snatched my parka from the peg.
“I’m going for a walk!” I shouted to the main level, and left without waiting for a reply.
Outside, the packed snow crunched beneath my feet as I jammed my hands in my pockets. More snow had begun to fall, and the flakes fell thick around me. I tugged my hat from my pocket and pulled it over my head.
I didn’t know where I was going, but I had to get away from my family’s incessant advice. Everyone thought they knew what I should do, but no one bothered to ask me.
I didn’t want Leah as a girlfriend. I wanted Gina. But no one cared what I wanted. They just wanted to play matchmaker, as if I could somehow duplicate what I’d had with Gina in the first place. I couldn’t, but they didn’t understand.
I strode down the driveway to the main road, which wound down the mountain to Park City proper. With my mind still whirling like the snow around me, I started running, my arms and legs working into a rhythm. The hiking boots weren’t the most comfortable running shoes, but they gripped the snow and kept me from skidding down the road.
I ran until my mind cleared, but then I began to feel sorry for Leah. I understood exactly what she was feeling—frustrated, horny, sullen, and more—and why she was upset. We both wanted something we couldn’t have, and were sick and tired of everyone around us trying to fix things. Our families meant well, but they didn’t understand.
What really bothered me was that Leah and I had always been friends. I hated not being able to talk to her, especially since Erin and Sean were joined at the hip. So I was lonely on top of everything else.
Leah probably felt the same way, and for the same reasons. We should have been able to talk about it, but I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea about how I felt about her. I loved her like a sister, but I definitely wasn’t in love with her.
I ran until my legs started to ache. I wasn’t used to the altitude, either, and my breath came in huge gulps. I turned and started back up the mountain, but then I discovered the real problem with my non-plan: I had to run back uphill.
With a snort at my own stupidity, I put my head down, gritted my teeth, and began jogging back up the mountain. By the time I reached the chalet’s driveway, I had a stitch in my side and my legs felt like jelly. I leaned against one of the Jeeps until I caught my breath and the pain in my side eased. Then I pushed myself upright and lurched toward the door.
“Feel better?” someone said.
I turned, surprised, and saw my dad under the awning that covered the firewood. The snow fell silently around us, completely unconcerned with my emotions.
“I almost came looking for you when you weren’t back after thirty minutes,” he continued, “but I figured you needed the time alone.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged.
“That’s okay,” he said philosophically. “How was your run?”
“Long,” I said after a moment.
“You aren’t cold?”
Much to my surprise, he gestured at my hat.
I pulled it off amid a shower of snow. I had another inch of the stuff piled on my shoulders, although I hadn’t even noticed.
“I guess you were thinking,” he said. Then he chuckled at a memory. “I did the same thing during SERE training.” He paused to make sure I understood what he was talking about—military survival training—before he went on.
“We were up in Maine, and it was cold as hell,” he said. “The instructors dropped me in the middle of nowhere at zero dark thirty, and I had to make it to a set of map coordinates by a certain time. It was snowing, of course, and I didn’t have much time, so I had to run almost flat-out.”
He laughed again, his eyes in the past. “I made it in time, but I showed up with a couple of inches of snow on my head and shoulders. I was so warm that I hadn’t noticed.” He fell silent as he relived the memory.
Then he turned sober. “Son,” he said, “I understand you’re not real happy, but that’s too bad.” He paused to let me complain, but I kept my mouth shut. He looked surprised, although he didn’t relent. “Sometimes being an adult means you have to grin and bear it. Life isn’t fair, and being rude to your mom and Erin won’t change things.”
I hadn’t been rude to Mom—recently, at least—but I wasn’t going to argue the point.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“No excuse, sir,” I said. It was a standard military answer, but I wasn’t being entirely ironic, which he understood.
“Then what are you going to do about it?” he said.
“Dad, I have no fucking clue.”
My language didn’t surprise him, but my candor did, although he hid it well.
“I understand how Leah feels,” I said at last, “and I tried to talk to her, but…”
“She’s not in the best mood either,” he finished for me. “That might be different now.”
“She and Elizabeth had a talk.”
“She’s not in trouble, is she?”
“Are you?” he said, and paused to let his meaning sink in. “Now, I let things slide most of the time, but it’s time to put a stop to this nonsense. I really don’t care what you and Leah do,” he went on. “Make up, ignore each other, whatever. But you need to start acting like a grown-up.”
“Good,” he said, and came out from under the shelter of the roof. “Now, I’m cold and tired. Someone ran my ass ragged today, and I have a hot tub waiting for me with two naked women.” He managed to look apologetic. “You’re welcome to join us, but… well, you know the rules.”
Yeah, and the rules suck.
“Sorry ’bout that,” he said, as if reading my mind.
I didn’t want to think about Elizabeth naked in the hot tub, so I changed the subject.
“Dad? When does being a grown-up get easier?”
“When I find out, I’ll let you know.”
Leah lay on her side, curled around herself. My heart nearly broke as I looked at her from the door. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. I was the one person who understood how she felt, but I was the last person she wanted to hear it from.
I stepped into the room and sat on the lower bunk. I clutched my damp hat, as if I could choke the words out of it. The snow in my hair began to melt, and cold trickles ran down my neck.
“You wanna talk?” I said at last.
She didn’t answer.
“Just go away.”
I started to argue, but then shut my mouth and nodded in resignation.
I didn’t go away entirely, but I did leave her alone. I took a long shower, and felt a guilty pleasure in using all the hot water. When I returned to the bedroom, Leah hadn’t moved, and I felt doubly sorry for her.
I didn’t want to make an offer I knew she’d refuse, so I stretched out on the bed and grabbed my current book. I read De Architectura for an hour before Leah stirred. She knew I was there, of course, but she hadn’t said a word the entire time.
She didn’t look at me as she stood on shaky legs and walked out. I thought about following her, until I heard the bathroom door close. She came back a few minutes later, but still wouldn’t meet my eyes. Instead, she pulled back the covers and climbed into bed, clothes and all.
I read for another hour before I turned off the light and climbed under the covers. I lay quietly for a while, listening to the soft sounds of the chalet. Somehow, I knew that Leah wasn’t asleep. I didn’t think she was still angry—more like exhausted and miserable.
“If it makes you feel any better,” I said at last, “I know how you feel.”
She didn’t respond, but she didn’t cut me off, either.
“I feel the same way, I guess.” I paused. “It sucks, I know. I wish things were different, but…”
She still hadn’t moved, but I could feel her listening to me.
“Anyway,” I finished lamely, “I’m sorry.”
I woke up late the next morning. Leah was already awake, but she hadn’t moved. Instead, she was staring at the ceiling, one arm resting on her forehead.
I had to wait for the bathroom, but I could hear Erin and Sean finishing up. They looked disgustingly happy (and sated) when they came out, but I barely spared them a glance. Once I closed the door, I stood over the toilet and waited for my dick to soften. I thought about jerking off to solve the problem, but I wasn’t in the mood.
My bladder eventually sent a message to my hormones, and my erection subsided enough to pee. When I returned to the bedroom, Leah hadn’t moved, so I decided to make another attempt at conversation.
“You skiing with Erin and Sean today?”
“Wanna hit some trails with me?” I didn’t want to spend the day on the bunny slopes, but I wasn’t going to give up that easily.
“I think I’ll take it easy today,” I said as I made my bed. “I mean, I’m still worn out from yesterday.”
Erin and Sean headed downstairs, giggling and teasing one another.
Leah’s eyes flicked in irritation, her first reaction all morning.
“You wanna shower first?” I asked.
“You sure? Bathroom’s all yours if you want it.”
“Okay, I’ll go first.”
More silence, so I pulled out the big guns.
“Wanna join me?” I didn’t know what would happen if we showered together, but I was willing to risk it, if only she’d respond.
“No,” she said coldly.
It’s a start. “But I need someone to wash my back.”
She rolled away from me.
Whatever, I thought, and shook my head in resignation.
When I finished my shower, I dressed slowly and tried to talk to her one last time. She merely pulled the covers tighter around herself, so I gave up and headed downstairs.
“Is Leah coming down?” Elizabeth asked. When I shrugged, she frowned and headed upstairs. She returned a few minutes later and forced a smile. “She’ll be right down.”
As if to prove her point, we heard the shower upstairs.
My dad changed the subject: “So, you want to ski with us today, Paul?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m gonna see if Leah wants company.”
“Good luck,” Elizabeth muttered, uncharacteristically cynical. She picked up her spoon, but took one look at her soft-boiled egg and pushed it away. “I give up,” she said. She wasn’t talking about breakfast.
Chris tried to comfort her. “Still wanna move to Jamaica?”
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“We don’t have to tell the girls.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
We finished breakfast in an uncomfortable silence. Erin and Sean said goodbye and fled for the slopes. I felt even more awkward than before, so I stood and came to a decision.
“Why don’t you all head out,” I suggested. “I’ll wait for Leah.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Elizabeth said.
“No, I’m fine. Go on. We’ll meet you for lunch. Noon at the main lodge?”
“Really, Paul,” Elizabeth said, “I need to talk to her.”
All of a sudden, my mom said, “No, Paul’s right. Let’s go enjoy ourselves. This is supposed to be a vacation, right?”
“Some vacation,” Elizabeth said, but Chris ushered her downstairs to don her boots and parka.
I listened to them go with half my attention, the other half focused on the sounds from upstairs. Leah came down ten minutes later, to find me cooking eggs.
“Mornin’,” I said. “Over easy, or hard?”
She ignored me and looked for the others.
“They headed out already,” I said. “Toast?”
Once again, she ignored me, but she looked a little shocked that everyone had left without her.
“You want orange juice?” I slid the eggs onto the plate and buttered the toast. Then I poured a glass of orange juice and set everything on the table. “Breakfast…,” I said theatrically, “is served.”
I’d already had my cereal, but I poured myself a glass of juice, if only to be sociable.
Leah ignored the food and merely glared at me.
I gestured at her plate, unperturbed. “It’s gonna get cold.”
Her stare turned flinty, and she stalked toward the landing. She stomped around in the mud room for a minute or two, and I belatedly realized that she was getting ready to leave. I jumped up and ran downstairs.
I caught her on the trail to the main slopes. She looked back, saw me, and poled forward. At the main lift line, she entered the singles lane and I followed. She glared when she realized her mistake: she couldn’t get away without ducking under the guide rope, and we’d probably end up in the same chair anyway.
On the ride up the mountain, she threw up an icy wall of silence, but I chatted blithely. I even pointed out Dad and Chris when they zoomed beneath us. At the summit Leah tried to get away before I could lower my goggles and get a grip on my poles.
I didn’t need them to catch her, so I skied after her and settled them on the move. She threw a glance over her shoulder, and her expression drew into a defiant line. Then she turned away from me, and…
…went over the face!
I pushed hard with my outside ski and crested the ridge in time to see her go flying. The fresh blanket of snow cushioned her fall, and she picked herself up before the cloud of white had time to settle. I plunged after her, my legs absorbing the shocks as I took the moguls.
She fell again, and I shot past her before I could stop myself. As I turned to look back up at her, she stood and doggedly skied past me. She almost fell a third time before we reached the bottom of the run.
Our only options down the mountain were another black diamond trail, or a difficult blue one. Both were beyond her ability, although she could manage the blue trail if she stayed in a wedge. She surprised me again when she turned down the black trail.
I followed and caught her easily. “What’re you doing?” I shouted.
She glared. Then she lost her balance and plowed into the snow.
My skis threw up a shower of white as I turned hard to brake my speed. Note to self: don’t talk to her when she needs to be skiing.
She picked herself up and started down the hill again. I followed at a safe distance, but I never let her out of my sight. She eventually worked her way back to the easy trails on the side of the mountain, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t done yet. With a furtive look over her shoulder, she took an abrupt turn onto the trail that led to our chalet. She probably thought I’d shoot past the opening, but I was a much better skier than she was. I carved a turn to follow, and used my speed to coast back up the gentle hill.
I turned into the private trail in time to see her dart another glance over her shoulder. She frowned when she saw me following, but pulled herself together and took a hard right turn, straight into the woods.
I shook my head in disbelief—the deep snow usually hid some nasty surprises. Sure enough, Leah plowed into something about forty feet from the trail. She went flying, and landed in the soft, virgin snow. I followed in her tracks and stopped before I hit the same fallen log.
She had managed to roll to her back, but she couldn’t get enough leverage to pull herself out of the deep powder. Instead, she lay there panting in frustration, with one ski still attached to her boot.
I deliberately took my time as I popped my bindings and stepped out of my skis. Then I climbed over the log and stood looking down at her. She swung her leg with the ski, and the tip nearly clocked me. My face grew hot with anger as I snatched her leg. I wrenched the ski from her boot and tossed it aside.
With a look of pure hatred, she tried to stab me with her pole. I jerked back in surprise, and my foot caught on the log. I flailed my arms and almost managed to stay upright, but the snow had trapped my boots.
Leah’s eyes flew wide as I fell toward her. I managed to shove her pole aside, but I couldn’t catch myself before my full weight hit her. I ended up between her legs, face to face and breathing hard.
I pushed up, raised my goggles, and stared at her. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“Get off me,” she grunted, and bucked her hips.
A fresh surge of anger made me growl.
She tried to push me away, but I was too heavy. “I said get off me!” She swung a fist at my head, so I caught her arm and pinned it to the snow. Then I grabbed the other arm—the one with the pole—for good measure. The air between us fogged as we panted in anger.
“What’s your problem, Leah?” I said at last.
She set her jaw and glared.
“Oh, gimme a break,” I snapped. “I’m trying to be nice to you.”
“I don’t need your charity,” she said, dripping sarcasm.
My temper flared again. “It’s not charity, you—!” I caught myself before I said something I’d regret, and took a deep breath instead. When I felt calm enough, I looked her square in the face. “What do you want from me?”
She squirmed again. “I said get off me!”
I was acutely conscious of her groin rubbing against mine, but I pushed the thought aside. “Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”
She stared back defiantly, but I waited, my weight safely pinning her down.
Her dark eyes flashed. “You!” she said at last. “That’s what’s wrong.”
Like I didn’t know. “Okay,” I said, as calmly as I could. “What about me?”
“All I wanted was a little attention. But no! You wouldn’t give me the time of day.” She dared me to deny it.
“Leah, I’m really sorry. I know what you want, but I can’t give it to you. I’m sorry. I just don’t feel that way about you.”
“You think that’s what this is about?” she said. “That I’m in love with you or something? Ha!” She tried to throw me again, but my hips were planted squarely between her legs.
I ignored her thrashing. “Then what do you want from me?”
“I just wanted to be friends. But no! You—”
“Hold on,” I blurted. “You don’t want a relationship?”
Her eyes widened in genuine surprise. “Why would I want that? What kind of idiot do you think I am?”
“Then…” I shook my head in bewilderment. “Then what do you want?”
“Weren’t you listening? I want things the way they used to be, when we were friends. But y—”
“You just wanna be friends?” I said, a hysterical note in my voice. “You’re kidding. That’s all?” The anger sluiced out of me like someone had opened a floodgate, and I snorted in self-reproach. “Jeez, Leah, I’m sorry.”
She blinked, and her anger slowly turned to confusion. Guarded confusion, but confusion nonetheless. The silence stretched between us, although it was better than the tension from before. Finally, her defiance crumbled, and she looked up at me with a mixture of hurt, fear, and morbid curiosity.
“Am I so repulsive that you don’t want anything to do with me?” she asked.
“No! Nothing like that.”
I hung my head and realized how stupid I’d been.