In the eleven minutes I sat waiting for Bella, four paper napkins fell victim to my nerves. I brushed the shredded pieces into my hand and stashed them behind the napkin holder, wanting to conceal the evidence of the extent to which the mere thought of seeing her still affected me. When I looked up and saw her standing just inside the door, I realized what an exercise in futility my fidgeting had been. It might have given me a means through which to channel my nervousness, but it would do nothing to assuage my raging erection. I wasn’t sure who I hated more—Bella for making me feel this way or myself for being too weak to resist.
Bella’s eyes scanned the room; when they met mine, she smiled and began to walk toward me. I’d often wondered how it would feel to see her again and always came to the same conclusion—that I would want to ravish her and rage at her in equal parts. Then again, my feelings for her were never a variable. As she approached, I tried to predict what her first words would be and formulated potential responses so I wouldn’t feel caught off-guard.
The possibility that she’d greet me with a simple “you look different” never once crossed my mind.
If she was content to drive an hour for small talk, far be it from me to deny her.
“So do you. Your hair is short.”
“A few months ago, I had it bobbed and donated it to charity,” she explained. “It’s actually grown back a bit.”
The waitress came and took our drink orders. For several moments, we sat in silence.
“This is awkward,” she said.
“What did you expect?” I forced a laugh.
“Actually, I had no expectations whatsoever.”
“I find that hard to believe; I’m sure you expected that you’d receive a response to your email.”
“Not exactly. To say I expected a response seems to imply that I felt entitled to one, which I didn’t. Somehow, despite that, I knew I would eventually get one. Edward…”
She reached across the table and brushed her fingers against mine, and my body reacted instantly. At least I couldn’t embarrass myself by blushing. It wouldn’t be physically possible; my cock was so hard I doubted I had any blood left to color my cheeks. As amazing as her skin felt against mine, I knew no good would come from it. If I let her continue to touch me, I’d be lost.
“Bella, don’t. Please, just don’t.”
The waitress appeared and placed two mugs of coffee on the table. At some point, we must have ordered, but I couldn’t remember doing so. Therein lay the problem; six minutes in Bella’s presence and I was a fool once again. I couldn’t allow this—if I lost myself in her and then lost her—at best, it would break me and at worst, it would kill me. If I didn’t look out for my own best interests, no one else would.
“You’ve now had a chance to tell me you’re sorry in person. Apology accepted. Is there anything else you want?”
“I’d like to see you.” She offered me her trademark half-smile and a slight shoulder shrug.
I wasn’t sure if her apparent coyness was intentional; I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“You’re looking at me right now.”
“You’d never know I taught English, from my communication skills,” she muttered to herself. “I mean, I’d like to see you again romantically. I’m asking for a second chance with you.”
She wanted to pick up where we left off. Six months ago, I wanted nothing more. Now I knew better. I would never be content with what little of herself Bella offered freely. I wanted her—god, how I wanted her—but I wanted all of her. Self-preservation be damned. I’d gladly allow myself to be consumed by her again, but only if she were equally willing to be consumed by me.
“I’m no longer available to you that way.”
She looked shocked. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Is it so hard to believe that someone would want me? I mean, just because you didn’t…”
“That wasn’t true; I thought I told you that. I just didn’t think…” She stopped speaking and shook her head. “I hope you aren’t compromised by coming to see me today. I got your email and I just thought…I don’t know what I thought. I must have misinterpreted it. I thought you’d meant that you weren’t lying when you said you’d always want me. I now know you meant you weren’t lying when you said I was delusional, which clearly I am. I’m sorry; I won’t bother you again.”
She stood to leave. Of its own accord, my arm blocked her way out of the booth. She sank back into her seat.
“Bella, you left me,” I reminded her in a harsh whisper. “You don’t know what that did to me. You don’t get to play the victim here.”
“Oh, I know. Edward, I know. I don’t deserve to have a second chance with you. I know that, and I didn’t expect you to wait for me. I know it was selfish of me to attempt to resume contact with you. I never doubted your love for me, even though at the time I was incapable of returning it. I know I hurt you and I know I no longer have any claim to you. I know I’m irrational, but I also know I love you and despite distance, time, and the fact that you appear to be currently involved with someone else, it still feels like you belong to me.”
“Don’t you see? That’s the problem. I’ve always belonged to you. You’ve always belonged to you. No one has ever belonged to me.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Edward. God, how I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes. “I won’t keep you any longer. Thank you for listening to me, for letting me apologize. I should let you go before your girlfriend realizes you’re out with your ex.”
“I didn’t say I had a girlfriend. I said I was no longer available to you.”
“You aren’t seeing anyone?”
I wasn’t sure what to make of the unmistakable optimism in her voice, except that it was probably how I sounded to her in the early stages of our relationship. Though I was technically single, I was by no means ready to jump into anything, regardless of how much the thought appealed to me. At the same time, hope equaled pain—I knew this all too well. It would be cruel of me to allow Bella’s hope to go unchecked.
“It’s complicated. You?”
She shrugged. “Does this person with whom you have a complicated relationship know you are out with your ex-girlfriend right now?”
“Yes. She knows all about you. She also knows that I’d like to reopen communication with you, that I can’t stand the thought of letting another year pass without hearing your voice or knowing how you’re doing. She understands that I need you in my life–”
“And she didn’t cut her losses and cross her legs?”
“I told you; it’s not like that.”
“So you’ve said. Tell me, Edward, does she know you’re still in love with me?”
“And she tolerates this? Is she thinking she’s going to fuck her way into your heart? For someone who seems to be so sexually liberated, she is certainly naïve. Either that, or she’s not that bright. What, did her father donate a building to get her into Princeton?”
“Enough.” I was enraged, and only with great effort did I manage to maintain a conversational volume. “I won’t let you bad-mouth someone you’ve never met, nor will I permit you to speak disparagingly of a relationship you are unable to understand.”
“Fine.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “But if we’re going to be friends, I should know your fuck buddy. What’s her name?”
“Kate. She’s not a fuck buddy.”
I didn’t answer because it was any of Bella’s business, but because I wanted her to realize that despite her cruel treatment of me, I was not like her. Sex meant something to me.
“Semantics.” She waved her hand as if she were a monarch and I was nothing more than a subject she could dismiss. “And how do you know Kate?”
“Through Mike’s girlfriend.”
“You don’t love her.”
I wasn’t going to give Bella the satisfaction of knowing that although I did love Kate, I couldn’t fall in love with Kate because Bella had ruined me for anyone else. Furthermore, I was not going to cheapen my relationship with Kate by belittling its significance to Bella. Kate may not have won my heart, but she’d certainly earned my respect.
“Kate has nothing to do with us.”
“Fine, we’ll leave her out of this. You don’t find that at all morally compromising? Being involved in a complicated relationship with one woman while being in love with another? The Edward I knew would never be capable of using someone for sex.”
That was it.
“You god-damned hypocrite! How do you do it? After everything you put me through, you have the audacity to sit there and judge me? You—the woman to whom I willingly gave every bit of myself, only for you to callously inform me I’d been nothing more to you than a good lay.”
“And I’m sorry for that. I don’t know how many times I can tell you I’m sorry!”
“Were you even faithful to me?”
“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.” She rolled her eyes, then softened her demeanor. “I hurt you; I know that. I’m willing to own it, and I’m prepared to apologize until the end of time. Hell, I’ll even grovel. I’ll withstand almost anything, if it’s what it will take for you to forgive me, except that. You do not get to call me a slut.”
“You might not have physically cheated, but you were certainly deceptive enough. Our entire relationship, you knew I felt objectified. There were many ways you could have broken things off with me, but you chose the one you knew would cause the most damage. Meanwhile, you now have the audacity to give me a guilt trip for pursuing other interests after you callously discarded me, though while we were dating you expressed genuine regret that if we stayed together, I would only ever experience intimacy with you.” I knew the hypothetical would be lost on her; that she’d think I was a manwhore, but if it prevented her from fixating on Kate, it was worth it. “If I did date other people—which you always felt was a necessary part of growing up—how dare you make me feel as if I somehow misled the girls who graciously offered me solace in your absence. I haven’t changed that much, Bella. I never lied to any of them, nor have I ever lied to you.”
“You still want me.”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“And you still love me.” Her statement came out sounding more like a question.
“You want me in your life–”
“No, I need you in my life.”
“But you have no interest in a reconciliation with me.”
I nodded. “That’s correct.”
“Edward, that makes no sense.”
It made perfect sense to me, but I was done arguing with her. I gestured for the waitress to bring me the check, and took out my wallet.
“Have you decided this conversation is over?” Bella sounded panicked.
As angry as she made me, I wasn’t ready for my time with her to over.
“Not unless you want it to be. I’d just like to get some air.” I gestured to the exit. “Shall we?”
She followed me to cashier and waited patiently as I paid the bill. As she walked through the door, I studied her. Something was different, and it wasn’t just her hair. It came to me when I finally saw her from behind. Her purple dress wasn’t tight or short; it showcased the curve of her ass without hugging it, then fell to her knees. It was a far cry from how I remembered her dressing for work, yet covered much more skin than her typical recreational attire did.
“Did you dress up to come see me?” I asked.
“No. I wore this to work today. Why?”
If she was no longer attempting to appear asexual at work, was she still going around barely clothed off-hours? Asking would only offend her, so I decided to drop it.
“Nothing. It’s just different from what I’m used to seeing you wear to school.” I stopped when I saw we were in front of her car. “I can’t believe that thing is still running.”
“Why wouldn’t it be? I take excellent care of it.”
“That you do. If only…”
If only she’d taken such good care of our relationship. She could be happy, and I would be whole.
She looked at me as if she knew which words had been on the tip of my tongue. I expected her be angry at me again, but the expression on her face was one of regret.
“I’m sorry, Edward.”
“I don’t doubt that you are.”
“Then why do you seem insistent on hurting me back?”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?”
I was at a complete loss. I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t trying to punish her; at the same time, if she broke me again, I’d have only myself to blame. Not knowing what else I to do, I touched her.
I brushed her hair off her shoulder. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if she were bracing herself for inevitable pain. Despite her obvious nervousness, she did not shift away from me. Taking this as encouragement, I tucked her hair behind her ear. When my thumb grazed her cheek, she angled her face into my hand.
It would be so easy for me to kiss her, but it wouldn’t solve anything. I dropped my hand to my side, and when she opened her eyes, they were filled with confusion.
“What now?” she asked. “I feel like we’re at an impasse.”
“We may be. Are you saying that unless I take you back romantically, you want nothing to do with me?”
“I wouldn’t go that far; I just refuse to be one of your fuck buddies.”
I stepped away from her, shaking my head. She was nothing if not predictable —she used sex as an avoidance tactic, therefore she was convinced I did the same.
“I would never think of you, or any woman, that way.”
She appeared unconvinced.
“You’re just as exasperating as ever.” I flailed my arms in frustration. “I knew you’d think I was a manwhore.”
“Actually, I just think of you as a man.”
“As opposed to a child?”
She winced. “I know I didn’t always treat you with the respect you deserved while we were dating, and I’m sorry for that. I don’t expect you to believe me, but it had more to do with my opinion of myself than my opinion of you.” Sighing, she opened her car door. “It’s getting late, and it’s a school night.”
“I don’t have any classes tomorrow.” As exasperating as she was, I wasn’t ready to leave her.
“Yes, but I do.” She sat in her car, but lowered the window before pulling the door shut.
“So what now?” I asked.
“May I call you?”
“Maybe isn’t no.”
The significance of her word choice was not lost on me.
“It isn’t yes, either.” I was intentionally non-committal, but couldn’t shake the feeling that eventually, I would commit—that presented with the option of holding her, I would never be able to hold her at arms’ length.
Though it was only a ten-minute drive to campus, I had a long walk from the parking lot back to Blair. The night air was heavy, and did nothing to clear my head. When I got back to my dorm room, Kate had returned from squash practice.
And my clothes were piled on top of the couch.
“What is this?” I asked.
“I thought it would simplify things if you moved your stuff out all at once, rather than a little at a time.”
My face must have betrayed my shock.
“You didn’t think you could stay here, did you?” Though there was no anger in her voice, it was clear my eviction was not open for negotiation.
“I haven’t had a chance to figure out an alternative.”
“But you had plenty of time to have coffee with Bella.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was being intentionally spiteful.
“You told me to talk to her!”
“And I’m glad you did. I hope it works out for you—truly, I do. But I thought I made it clear that I would not be your fallback girl.”
“I wouldn’t…” I shook my head. “You can’t honestly think I’d play it that way.”
“You saw Bella, then came home to me. What am I supposed to think?”
“You said you’d always be my friend.”
“I am being your friend. Friends don’t share a bed, Edward.” She sighed. “Look, you don’t have to get your stuff out, but you can’t sleep here.”
I was too tired to argue with her, and too emotionally spent to deal with Mike and Tyler. I grabbed my laptop and the books I needed, and made the long trek back to my car.
An hour and sixteen minutes later, I walked through the back door of my parents’ house. To my father’s credit, he refrained from telling me he’d told me so.