Change of Key
I put the top down as soon as we got the car out of valet, knowing that the ensuing noise would make conversation difficult on the drive back to Bella’s house. It wasn’t an avoidance tactic as much as I needed time to process everything she’d admitted this morning. Seventeen minutes later, I pulled into her driveway having no better insight than I had before.
After opening the car door for her, I retrieved her overnight bag from the backseat and followed her to her front door. She fumbled with her keys and missed the lock on her first try. Muttering a curse under her breath, she finally managed to open the door. I went inside the house and put her bag down at the foot of the steps. She dropped her keys and purse on the piano bench and then turned back to face me, her arms crossed as she stood on one foot while tapping her ankle with the heel of the other.
“Are we okay?” she asked.
I didn’t want to lie to her, but I couldn’t pretend her words this morning hadn’t bothered me.
“I don’t know.”
She nodded and pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“I know I hurt you earlier,” she stared at the floor as she spoke, “but I didn’t mean to. I just…” She switched her weight from one leg to the other, sighing.
“I love you.”
I closed the distance between us in two large strides and pulled her into my arms. She hugged me tightly, pressing her face against my chest. Her irregular breathing coupled with the quick contractions of her chest told me she was crying.
My silence in the car hurt her, just as her words earlier this morning hurt me. If our relationship were an equation, both sides would be even. Yet somehow, I felt even worse.
My mom was right; I couldn’t fix Bella. The question was no longer how to balance us; I knew now that would never happen. It came down to whether or not what she could give me would be enough. I didn’t know the answer to that question, so I told her what I did know.
“I love you, too.”
She lifted her head, and her wet eyes met mine.
My answer was automatic because it was true.
“I don’t think you’ll ever realize how much.”
“No, I mean how can you love me?”
I heard my mother’s voice in my head. Loving unselfishly is something we learn from example. Bella hasn’t exactly had anyone to teach her…
I could teach her. I had to believe that I could.
“How could I not?”
When she lowered her eyes, I knew my answer was not sufficient.
“Hey, look at me.” I cupped her face in my hands, forcing her to meet my gaze. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I doubt that.”
“You think when I say I love you, I mean that I love the idea of you and that I love having sex with you, but you don’t believe for a second that I could actually love you.”
“Well, in case I’m right, and I believe I am, allow me to clarify. I’m not pussy-whipped, nor am I compelled by the prestige that comes with having an older girlfriend. Even if I were, those things feed infatuation, not love. They may have attracted me to you initially, but they are not what keep me by your side.”
She appeared curious, so I continued.
“I love your mind and your wit. I love that you crave knowledge as much as I do, and that despite the fact you’re long done with school, you still want to learn new things. I love that you’d rather read a book or go to a museum than do something mindless, and that you appreciate art and culture.”
“None of that is unique to me, though. Everything you said applies even more so to you…”
“Yes and no,” I cut her off. “I’m just going with the flow, and you’re a Robert Browning poem.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid to ask which one.”
“‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for,’” I quoted.
“You did not just liken me to Andrea del Sarto.” Her voice was indignant. “He was a lazy, thieving fuck who…”
“No. I would never.” Laughing, I pulled her more tightly against me. “Though by recognizing the reference, you’ve proven my point. You’ve never taken the easy way; just look at what you’ve done with your life.”
“I teach ninth-grade English. It’s not exactly earth-shattering.”
I wondered how to get her to see that her accomplishments should be a source of pride for her. I decided to draw a comparison.
“My parents went out of their way to feed my curiosity, to cultivate my mind. They gave me books to read, sat me in front of a piano, showed me where to put my hands and brought me to the Art Museum on Sundays. They are intellectuals who hung on my every word, thus making me who I am. Meanwhile, they never let me forget exactly how privileged I am, in both wealth and mental capacity. Outside of a sharp mind, you had none of these advantages, but you valued original thought and creative expression enough to learn these things on your own. You went to college, not because it was expected of you, but because you expected it of yourself. You’ve never let your background limit your potential…”
I paused, not sure if she was ready to hear what I was about to tell her. Ultimately, I decided that didn’t matter; it was something she needed to hear. “…except when it comes to your own self-worth.”
“I don’t think that’s a problem.”
“Are you serious?”
“Bella, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it weren’t. You’d believe me when I told you I loved you, without constantly asking me to justify my declaration.”
“I don’t constantly ask you to justify your declaration.”
“Okay, so maybe that wasn’t entirely fair. Sometimes, you fall to your knees and undo my pants.”
“That’s about showing you and not telling.”
She flashed me her trademark sex-smile and I wondered what her previous relationships were like; if she’d always tried to flirt her way her out of everything and if the other parties involved were aware she was doing do. Even as cognizant of her motives as I was, she typically succeeded. She was just that good.
“Oh? What were you trying to ‘show’ me the night of our first date?”
“I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. The answer to my earlier question, not so much.” She seemed more at ease than she was when we first got to her house. “Are we okay?” she repeated.
I was not without my reservations. For only the seventh time in our relationship, she told me she loved me, which was huge progress from this morning, when I was simply “her lover”. It was enough for now, but her words wouldn’t get us through the semester intact unless she reinforced them with her actions.
“Yes,” I answered, surprised that my voice didn’t waiver. “I should get to back to campus.”
“You don’t want to come upstairs?”
It was an invitation to fuck her, and though hormones dictated I would always want to have sex, I didn’t think it was wise for us at that moment.
“I have a new lab partner and I promised her we’d meet before class tomorrow to go over a few things.”
“It doesn’t have to take long. I think…” she paused, and it became apparent all traces of the bravado she’d displayed just two minutes and seven seconds ago were long gone. “I need to have you inside me. I don’t need to come; I just don’t want to start the week like this.”
“Okay,” I conceded before following her up the stairs to her room. When she reached the side of the bed, she faced me and pulled my face toward hers.
“‘I don’t need to come,’” I repeated her words from downstairs. “What the hell was that about?”
“This is me needing to feel close to you,” she said as she unbuttoned my shirt. “I’m not horny; I’m not just trying to get off.”
“Except I like to make you come. I always feel somewhat inept when I can’t.”
She pushed my shirt off before lifting her own over her head.
“It makes me sad that you feel inept.” She reached behind her back and unclasped her bra. “I love it when we fuck. Whether I climax or not, I still get something out of it.”
Her word choice bothered me. Though I admit hearing her say the word “fuck” in certain contexts made me hard, in the context of this morning’s conversation, it just made me feel used. Was that really what she thought we did?
She dropped her bra on the floor and stepped out of her pants and underwear. Standing naked before me, she opened my jeans and pushed them and my boxers over my hips.
“I didn’t come upstairs to fuck you.”
She grasped my erection in her hands. “That’s not what your peen says.”
“When you said you needed to have me inside you, I thought you wanted to feel close to me.”
“I do. It just happens that I feel closest to you while we’re fucking.”
As inappropriate as it was under the circumstances, I hoped she was just talking dirty. Somehow though, I suspected that she wasn’t; that this was what our sex life meant to her.
A quick fuck.
She let go of my cock and lay back on the bed, spreading her legs. I stared into her great divide, almost immobile. I wanted her, but not on her terms. Her own orgasm notwithstanding, if all I wanted to do was fuck her, I would have done so on our first date.
I bent my knees and pulled my pants and boxers up from the floor.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“You might say that.” I reached down and grabbed my shirt, buttoning it in a hurry.
She rolled off the bed and pulled on her robe. “I didn’t mean to pressure you. I mean, if you have to go…”
“I have to go.”
“Fine.” She kissed my cheek. “I’ll see you next weekend?”
I needed to process this weekend before I could think about next weekend.
I hoped the drive back to Princeton would clear my head; it didn’t. I sat in Sunday afternoon shore traffic and by the time I pulled into the student parking lot, it was time to meet Angela, my lab partner. I had to bolt across campus to meet her, and I was still twenty minutes late.
She sighed when she saw me. “Just so you know, I have no intention of doing all the work then letting you take half the credit. I got my fill of that in high school, thank you very much.”
“I don’t expect you to do all the work. I actually take my studies seriously. I just…”
“Got trashed at your room party last night?”
“Wait; there was a party in my room last night?”
“No, I didn’t get trashed at the party in my room last night. I went home this weekend and spent most of this morning fighting with my girlfriend. I’m having a shit day for a variety of reasons, not one of which has anything to do with drinking or smoking up last night. I’m sorry if my lateness gave you the impression I don’t care about my classes. I care.”
“You have a girlfriend at home?” she asked. “That has to be hard, being here with her still in high school.”
“How did you know she was at high school?” I shot back defensively.
“Well, if she’s at home and you’re here, it’s a logical conclusion to make.”
“You think she’s a high-school student.”
Maybe Mike’s mouth wasn’t as big as I thought it was.
“She’s not in high school; she teaches high school.”
“Oh. Well, you being away is an adjustment, regardless. My boyfriend, Ben, is at Columbia. It’s not too far and totally doable by train, but I still don’t see him as much as I’d like. I’m sure it will get easier, for both of us.”
I nodded silently.
“I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions about why you were late.”
“It’s okay, Angela.”
We didn’t waste any more time talking about our respective relationships, and I was more than grateful to spend the next two hours and thirty-six minutes occupying my mind with science, where there were laws and procedures and everything made sense.
In a way, I was glad Angela filled me in on my roommates’ activities while I was with Bella. It made seeing our common room completely destroyed that much less shocking. I stepped over the wreckage and went into the bedroom, where I found a plastic soda bottle filled with yellow liquid on my desk and Mike stretched out on his bed.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing the bottle.
“I’ll get rid of it,” he promised.
“Fine. But what is it?”
“Tyler said I couldn’t piss out the window anymore.”
Mike’s choice of verbiage implied that at some point last night, he was pissing out the window. I was never so thankful to have a girlfriend off-campus.
“So instead of going to the bathroom and pissing in a urinal, you piss in an empty soda bottle and leave it on my desk?”
He pulled his pillow over his face. “The bathroom is too far away. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Get it the fuck off my desk. Now.”
Laughing, he threw his pillow aside. “Did you just say ‘fuck’?”
“I’m not kidding, Mike. I want all traces of your bodily fluids removed from any and all of my possessions by the time I get back, or I’ll piss on your weed.”
“You’d never defile quality herb.”
I left our room and as I trekked across campus to Firestone, I weighed the pros and cons of commuting. If I gave up the college experience—something sacred in Bella’s eyes—it might be enough of a sacrifice to convince her I took our relationship seriously. The whole not finding Mike’s urine on my stuff thing would be an added bonus.
I found a vacant table and opened my laptop. I should have been relieved to find an email from Bella, but instead I was just annoyed. I opened it anyway.
From: Isabella Swan
Date: September 21, 2009 3:23 PM EST
To: Edward Cullen
I can’t stand the thought of leaving things like this for an entire week. I know you left because you felt I was using sex to make you forget about my blunder this morning, and maybe on a subconscious level I was. I know I fucked up utterly and I’m sure it won’t be the last time. But if you love me as you claim you do, you have to believe me when I tell you I’m sorry.
In some ways our age difference puts me at a disadvantage, though I know you’d never see it that way. You expect me to know what to do, and I just don’t. This is new to me, too.
From: Edward Cullen
Subject: Re: Um…
Date: September 21, 2009 4:47 PM EST
To: Isabella Swan
I love you more than I can possibly express. The rest will work itself out.
Fifty-four minutes later, I returned to my residential college for dinner, after which I bravely returned to my room. The common area had regained some semblance of normalcy, and when I went into the bedroom, the bottle of piss had been replaced with the sterile scent of disinfectant.
It would be an adjustment; this much I knew. But I also knew I could figure it out.