As soon as I opened the back door, I knew something was wrong. I made my way over to the sofa, where my mother held Bella in her arms, stroking her hair and telling her everything would be okay. When my mom looked up and saw me standing in front of them, she silently mouthed the words, “Comfort her” before gently nudging Bella.
Bella lifted her tear-stained face from my mother’s shoulder and smiled at me sheepishly.
“Why don’t you take her upstairs, dear? Your father should be home any minute and I need to make a few business calls.”
I still had no idea what was going on, and I was starting to get a bit nervous. I took Bella’s hand and led her up the back stairs. We were halfway to my room when she spoke, her voice in barely audible monotone.
“I’ve never been up here.”
“I know. I’m sorry about that.”
Her teasing put me more at ease. If she felt okay enough to joke around with me, whatever happened this afternoon couldn’t be all that bad.
“Actually, yes. I didn’t want you to know I’m really only seventeen and I still live with my parents. In fact, until last week I couldn’t even do my own laundry.”
She let out a small laugh, and I knew my self-mocking was worth it.
“Seriously, it wasn’t intentional. It just makes more sense to go to your house.”
She gave me a blank look.
My cheeks heated at the thought. “We can be pretty…loud, you know.”
I gestured her inside my room, and she sat on the edge of the bed, a curious decision considering my room had a sitting area with both a couch and an armchair. She stared into her lap and I realized she sat on the bed because she was so focused on what she needed to tell me that she didn’t notice her surroundings.
I knew it couldn’t be good.
“Edward, there’s no easy way for me to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there. The reason you haven’t met Alice is because I hadn’t told her about you until tonight.”
Her admission hurt, but I wasn’t surprised. On some level, I knew this. I also knew hiding out relationship from Alice had more to do with how Bella felt about herself than how she felt about me. Emotionally, Bella was small and fragile and needed validation, something my father frequently pointed out to me lest I not figure this out for myself. Alice was the closest thing she had to family. Her disapproval probably shattered Bella’s already brittle self-worth.
“Oh.” I sat down next to her. “I had suspected as much. I’m guessing she doesn’t approve?”
“That would be an understatement. She said some pretty hateful things–all about me, of course. It doesn’t help that she has a brother your age who more or less does nothing but play video games and jerk off all day. Anyway, venom was spewed all around. I may have inadvertently let it slip that Alice had said some less than flattering things about Em and Rose’s age difference, which only fueled the fire. Eventually, I stormed out. I can only imagine what Rose said to Alice after I left. I went home first but when I saw you weren’t there yet, I really didn’t want to be alone so I asked Rose to drop me off here.”
I wasn’t sure which I hated more–the idea that Bella’s best friend could think so little of her or that I wasn’t there to defend her.
“I wish you’d called me, Bella. I would have made sure I was here to meet you.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking straight enough to call you. I was borderline hysterical through most of the drive home. I’d just managed to calm down when we pulled up. Your mother is amazing, by the way. She put a lot of things in perspective for me. I know I’m not blameless in this. I did greatly exacerbate the situation by waiting this long to tell Alice.”
“Or you just postponed the inevitable. We’ll never know for sure. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. Bella, I’m so sorry being with me comes at such high costs for you. I hope for your sake Alice comes around, but I’m not too optimistic.” I lay down on my bed and pulled her into my arms. I wanted more than anything to make her smile. “For the record, despite the fact I’m more than capable of writing the code for them, I’ve never been too in to video games. I will, however, admit to jerking off all day. At least, that’s what I did before we became intimate.”
She rolled her eyes. “I was speaking metaphorically.”
When she let out a small laugh, I was slightly encouraged. “In fact,” I began, “do you remember the night we met?”
“How could I forget? You were adorable.”
“Because you had the day from Hell, I’m willing to tell you something somewhat embarrassing. I beat off in the men’s room before bringing you that glass of wine.”
This time, she laughed in earnest and I knew she was starting to feel better. Still, I hated that she had been upset at all and the idea that her relationship with me was the cause of it killed me.
“Please tell me you washed your hands.”
“Since when does my semen make you squeamish?” I teased. “I’ve watched you suck it off your fingers.”
She was still laughing when she explained herself. “That’s different. That was by choice. Being forced to touch it via trickery through poor hygiene is kind of gross.”
I had to smile. Her logic was so Bella. I suddenly realized that even though she was wrong to lie to me and wrong to hide our relationship from her best friend, I couldn’t hold it against her. I loved her too much.
“You can relax; I always wash my hands.”
Suddenly, even in the midst of her hysterical laughter, tears started streaming down her face. As much as I wanted to delude myself that they were the good kind, I just couldn’t.
I pulled her back into my embrace. “She’s the first, Bella. But she won’t be the last. I just hope you never doubt that we’re worth this.”
She pressed her hand against my cheek. “You are completely worth it.”
“How did you leave things with Alice?”
“I told her to let me know if she still wanted me in her wedding. I think what hurt me the most is that nothing she said throughout the whole ordeal was false. Except the bit about my being in a relationship with you because I needed to be in control.”
A small part of me thought Alice may have been right about that. Still, I laughed like it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I was fully aware that as far as Bella was concerned, I was emotionally powerless. It amazed me that she had yet to realize this.
“Hey, I do have some control here,” she insisted, assuming I agreed with her that Alice’s assertion was absurd. “At least I can go on field trips without getting a parental permission slip signed.”
“I’ll grant you that one, yes. But that has more to do with legal liability than control.”
When she spoke again, she was very serious.
“I do understand where she would get her ideas. I mean, I’ve told you how I approached relationships before we met. She lived with me and witnessed it all. But she pretty much called me a slut and accused me of using you to fill a void. She said that your age guaranteed me the upper hand, thus ensuring that you never question me or ask for more than I am willing to give.”
“Interesting hypothesis. She obviously took intro-level psych at some point. If Alice had that rant in front of my mother, she’d have a field day with her. You have to admit her perception of our balance of power is fairly comical. I may spend a lot of time on my knees with you, but I’m far from powerless.”
I did hold power over her, though not in the way she thought I did.
If I were to withhold sex from Bella, I could probably get her to do just about anything. I’d never do that, though. Bella needed sex like most people need oxygen.
I knew exact how she’d up her seduction game. She’d prance around her kitchen in her underwear, and do suggestive things like splash dishwater on her boobs, deep throat popsicles and straddle wooden chairs. I didn’t have to imagine these things, because I personally witnessed them before we consummated our relationship. Back then, I didn’t know what I was missing. If she pulled something like that now and for whatever reason I didn’t allow myself to ravish her immediately, I’d probably spontaneously combust in less time than it took me to come the night I lost my virginity.
Shit, maybe I was powerless.
She smacked me lightly on my chest. “Edward, be serious.”
“I’m just trying to make you laugh. Look, Bella, I don’t want to defend Alice, because a lot of what she said was indefensible. However, in the absence of any actual observation of how we function as a couple, I can see where she would get those ideas.”
She looked at me nervously. “You’re not angry with me for not telling her until now?”
“No.” It wasn’t a lie, as I wasn’t angry. Had she asked me if I were hurt, my answer would have differed greatly. “Her reaction proves you were on to something. I just wish you’d told me. I would have gone with you.”
I felt her exhale in my arms, and when she started studying the contents of my room, I knew she was feeling like herself again.
I realized then exactly how much our surroundings were in stark contrast to her house, which had no personal touches whatsoever. I wondered if that wasn’t intentional on her part, if the absence of decorations in her home was her way of making sure visitors would learn no more of her than what she chose to tell them.
She stopped looking around when she noticed the art on the walls, and instantly zoned in on a lithograph. “Grant Wood?”
“Yes. It doesn’t take much to distract you, does it?”
Bella looked back at the wall and sighed. “It’s real, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” For a reason I could identify only as bourgeois guilt, I found myself strangely embarrassed. “They’re all real.”
“Your bedroom has more furniture in it than my entire house.”
“And your house feels more like home to me,” I said. “Funny how that works.”
She grabbed a tissue, then became still when she noticed her picture framed on my night stand. She wrinkled her face in disgust and slammed the picture face-down on the table.
Hi, I’m Edward. We’re in a monogamous romantic relationship now, but before I knew you, I was so obsessed with you that I cut up my yearbook so I could have your picture handy.
She had every right to be pissed.
“Bella,” I started, trying to come up with an excuse for myself.
She blew her nose before whining, “I hate that picture. It poured rain and my hair frizzed. I can’t believe you framed that. Anyone who comes in here who hasn’t met me is going to think your girlfriend is fug. You know it’s almost three years old, right?”
I laughed at the realization she wasn’t angry, just vain. She reacted the right way for the wrong reason, but that was so Bella.
“I thought you were mad at me.”
“I am mad at you. Had I been able to afford doing so, I would have bought every copy of that yearbook and burned them in my backyard.”
“No, I mean, because it’s obvious I did this before I knew you and given my prior admission…”
Her eyes grew wide, and she picked up the frame and took a second look at the picture. “You jerked off to that?”
My answer came out sounding like a question. “Um, yes?”
“Edward, that’s pathetic.”
I felt completely ashamed of myself.
“My picture the following year was much more wank-worthy.”
Realizing she was kidding, I put my hands under her arms and tickled her. We wrestled on my bed for the next three minutes and twenty-eight seconds while Bella chanted, “Take it down.”
When I had her pinned beneath me, I recognized a unique opportunity.
“I’ll take it down on one condition.”
I rolled off her and sat up.
“Give me a new one I can replace it with. Or better yet, have some taken with me.”
She pushed herself onto her knees and looked at me like I had a third head. “We’ve been dating two months, you want to pose for portraits together?”
“I’m going to be away from you Monday through Friday. I’ll need some eye candy. Besides, it won’t be a big ordeal. I’ll call our family photographer and he can swing by and take them here. Or even at your house if you’d prefer.”
It wasn’t about masturbation anymore, though I doubted she realized this. Really, I just wanted something tangible with me when I went away to school that would prove she was mine.
“There will be plenty of eye-candy at Princeton, Edward. Trust me on this. You don’t need to commission professional photographs of us to have something to look at.” She pushed her hair behind her ears and added, “You’ll look kind of stupid bringing a photo album into the shower with you anyway.”
When I didn’t laugh, she realized how much this actually meant to me.
She sighed in resignation. “All right.”
That was easier than I thought it would be. Maybe I did hold some power in our relationship.
“Thank you.” I pulled her against me and gave her a chaste kiss.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Bella jumped up from the bed and flew across the room.
I couldn’t believe someone could be so overtly sexual and yet so uncomfortable with the idea of my mother seeing us embrace while fully clothed.
“Come in,” I said, rolling my eyes at Bella’s bizarre hang-ups.
My mother popped her head in the door. “Something came up and I need to run out for a while. I’m not sure when I’ll be home and your father is still in surgery.” She looked at Bella. “Are you feeling better, dear?”
Bella nodded, and smiled shyly. I realized how humiliated she must feel that my mom had seen her cry. I knew how much she hated feeling emotionally exposed.
“Glad to hear it,” my mother said before turning back to me. “Call me if you need anything. And that goes double for you, Bella. You are not alone. As far as Carlisle and I are concerned, you’re part of the family. You’re welcome to stay here if you don’t want to go home.”
Bella ran to my mother and gave her a hug.
“Thank you, Esme. For everything.”
“It’s not a big deal, Bella. Truly. It’s the least we can do for you.” My mother patted Bella on the back and then played with my hair like I was a two-year-old. “Text me or your father if you plan on spending the night at Bella’s.”
My mother stepped out of Bella’s arms and hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Bella stared after her. “Every time I think I am getting used to your mother, she does something else that just blows me away.”
I walked over to Bella. “I told you in the beginning she was very supportive. She meant it, you know. She adores you. They both do.”
“I’m starting to get that. I just don’t understand why.”
“Think about it, Bella. I have absolutely nothing to lose here. Sure, in the beginning my mother needed some time to warm up to the idea that her baby boy was dating a teacher at his school, until it became clear to them that you were willing to risk everything you’ve worked for to be with me You still are.”
She stared at the floor and I nudged her chin up, forcing her to look at me.
“I’m not going to pretend I don’t fully understand that if the wrong person ran into us while we were out together you wouldn’t be completely compromised. No one would ever believe we weren’t involved while I was still a student. You place your livelihood in jeopardy every time you set foot outside of your house with me. I know all about the ambiguous morality clauses of teaching contracts. And you aren’t just risking the ridicule of strangers. Tonight you may have just lost your best friend over me. So you should never question why you have my parents’ unwavering support. You have demonstrated time and time again exactly how much you are willing to sacrifice to be with me. Meanwhile, I haven’t risked losing a thing.”
She took my hand and led me to the bed before nudging me to sit on the edge.
“I can think of something you lost.”
I had no clue what she was talking about, until her eyes trailed down the front of my body, lingering at my crotch.
I felt myself blush, and I wondered if I would ever become comfortable with her constant sexual innuendo.
“That was something I gave to you,” I said, assuming she was referring to my virginity. “Do you want me to take you home?”
She shook her head. “I know there’s no way in hell Alice will show up at my house to apologize, but I know that if I go home I’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t.”
“You heard my mother. You’re welcome to stay here. Let me show you where the bathroom is and get you something to wear to bed.”
Sixteen minutes later, she crawled into bed beside me. I put my arms around her and she climbed on top of me, settling her head against my chest and her hips between my legs.
“Have you ever noticed the water here smells like bleach?”
“At my house?” I asked, stroking her hair.
“In New Jersey.”
“No, I hadn’t noticed,” I admitted.
“It doesn’t have the same smell in Washington, Ohio, or even in Philadelphia. It was the strangest thing to get used to when I moved to Collingswood. Anyway, it’s the same here.”
I couldn’t tell if she was complaining or just stating random fact and wasn’t sure what to say to her.
“Oh, it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s just a weird thing. Anyway, as I was washing up, I smelled the water and thought how great it would be if it did have bleach in it, and if in scrubbing the mascara off my cheeks I could erase all memory of this afternoon. It would make tomorrow so much easier.”
I knew she didn’t blame me, but I still felt awful.
“I’m sorry,” I repeatedly dumbly.
She offered me no absolution, and I wondered if on a subconscious level, she did fault me for the end of her friendship with Alice. Forty-six seconds later, she was asleep. My last cognizant thought was that I would never be able to make it up to her.