The settings and details varied, but for the most part, my sex dreams involving Bella had been the same since the Thanksgiving before last. We would be in the midst of an impassioned conversation about something relevant, like thirteenth century Sufi poetry or the pentatonic scale. I’d present my opinion so convincingly that Bella would feel compelled to take off her shirt. She’d place my hand on her bare breast and tell me she’d made a huge mistake, that not only was I enough for her, I was everything. She’d tell me that she loved me—then and now—and that I was all she’d ever want or need. I’d tear open my pants and take out my cock, and she’d declare it the finest specimen she’d ever seen. Unable to wait a second longer, I’d lift up her skirt (in my dreams, female undergarments ceased to exist) and drive into her. She was just as hot and wet as I remembered, and though it was nothing we hadn’t done before, it was somehow more significant. She’d yell my name as she came, I’d follow suit, and together we’d bask in the euphoria of experiencing physical satisfaction and emotional fulfillment simultaneously. Then I’d wake up alone, hard, and desperately needing to jerk off.
Except this morning, I wasn’t alone. I opened my eyes to find that Bella really was in my arms—her presence in my bed was not a figment of my sexually-fueled imagination. She was real.
I pulled her more tightly against me. “Good morning.”
Even though I was half-asleep, her sarcasm was not lost on me.
She angled her chin toward my crotch and pushed her hips into my erection. Since she didn’t use enough to force to give either of us physical pleasure, I assumed she wanted to call my attention to that fact I was hard—as if I didn’t already know this.
“Yes, well, that was to be expected.”
It was the understatement of the decade. Given the content of my dream, I was amazed I hadn’t dry humped her in my sleep. Shit, maybe I had. Panicked, I studied her face. She looked confused; surely she’d be angry if I’d assaulted her. Still, she’d never seemed uncomfortable with my morning wood before. I tried to make light of the situation.
“You know how it is—when the cock crows, my cock grows.” When humor failed me, I tried to appeal to her sentimental side. “It just wants you to know that it misses you.”
Her brow creased. “It thinks?”
Sometimes, it even thought on my behalf!
“Does it not have a head?”
“So much for your promise to be a gentleman,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.
“It’s there, and it’s hard. It’s not a big deal.” I laughed when I realized what I’d said. “Actually, that was a bad choice of words. It kind of is a big deal, if I do say so myself, but then again, you already knew that.”
She smacked me on the shoulder.
“What? So my cock made its presence known. It’s not like I’ve asked you to do anything about it.”
She pushed me away, and I wondered if she thought my hard-on was actually a pathetic seduction attempt on my part.
“That came out wrong. What I meant was that erections are involuntary reactions. I didn’t plan this, and I couldn’t control it if I wanted to.”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Do I what?”
“Do you want to control it?”
“Honestly?” I shook my head. “No. Not with you.”
Before she could reject me, I kissed her. It was all too familiar—the heat, the moisture, the texture. When she gasped, I seized the opportunity to press my tongue inside her mouth. We were the closest physically we’d been since we started this new version of our relationship, but still, I needed to be closer. I pushed her onto her back and rolled on top of her. Her legs fell open, and I settled myself between them, intentionally pressing myself against her in a way that would seem unintentional, not because I wanted to manipulate her, but because I wanted her to know. In case this was the last time I would ever taste her as I felt her body pressed against mine, I needed there to be no doubt in her mind what she did to me. She owned me every bit as much as she had that very first night at Art After 5, maybe even more.
When she let out a quiet moan, I knew I needed to stop. I wanted her, but I wasn’t sure I trusted her not to have sex with me out of pity. It was part of a larger issue—I wasn’t sure I trusted her in general. I forgave her, because I understood how fear could manifest itself and that in the context of her past, her fear was not unfounded. I also understood from both Garrett and my mother that it wasn’t possible to unlearn twenty-five years of behavior in eighteen months, regardless of how much a person wanted to change.
I extricated my tongue from her mouth, but couldn’t resist tracing her lower lip as I lifted my face away from hers. “I’m sorry, Bella. Were you saying something?”
“What was that?” she asked, still out of breath.
I answered as if it should be obvious. “That was a kiss.”
“I know it was a kiss, but it seemed to just come out of nowhere.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“The kiss? I enjoyed it immensely.”
“No, I mean the fact that you completely caught me off guard.”
She couldn’t be serious.
“Come on, are you honestly surprised that I kissed you?”
“No, I never thought you would…that we’d…You said you weren’t available to me that way.”
“I’m not,” I confirmed.
“Then why did you…gah!” She covered her eyes, groaning in frustration. “I am so incredibly confused right now.”
“I meant that I didn’t want to go back to how things were—a constant struggle to be your equal only exacerbated by the fact that you viewed me as your sexual plaything.”
“I don’t see you that way.”
“You don’t now, but we both know you did.”
She reacted as if I’d slapped her.
“Am I wrong?” I asked.
“No,” she said, sighing. “That’s why it’s so hard for me to hear.”
“It doesn’t bother me anymore. Besides, in all fairness to you, I’m equally culpable. I wanted you so badly I was willing to take you any way I could have you, even if it meant my own objectification and detriment.”
She turned her face away and spoke into my pillow. “Wanted. Past tense.”
“Bella, look at me.” I stroked her cheek, and her eyes met mine. “I still want you. I still love you more than I can express, but I think it’s fairly obvious that our relationship in its previous incarnation was destined to fail. It was intense and passionate and whereas both of those things are integral to make a relationship last, it takes so much more. I sacrificed so many of my needs thinking that I could change you, that my love could somehow heal you and make you whole. It was incredibly naïve of me. When you broke up with me, you told me you weren’t capable of love. Despite your subsequent insistence to the contrary, I think that was in fact true.”
“It isn’t…well, not anymore. The past week has shown me that. At the funeral, when you were talking about your favorite memories of your father…” She paused, as if she was afraid to mention him.
“You can talk about him. It actually helps me.”
“Nothing you said registered because I was too emotionally connected to you. There was a tight ache in my chest and it became hard for me to breathe. I felt actual physical pain for you. ”
“I noticed you were crying.”
“Was I? I didn’t notice. I was too focused on how you managed to retain your composure, when I knew on the inside you were screaming. I realized at that moment how much my feelings for you had changed. Self-preservation be damned. I would have sacrificed myself to ease your pain, even if only for a moment.”
“I know,” I said, sighing.
“I am capable of love. I just didn’t understand what it was.”
Her fingers stroked the top of my head, soothing me much as they had the night before last when I appeared at her front door, sobbing and broken. The comfort she offered me then felt unfamiliar and right in equal parts, and I wondered if it would be the same now. I shifted down the bed so I could rest my face between her breasts. Her soft warmth went well beyond solace; it was like coming home.
“My father always used to tell me life was a gift. I just never realized how quickly it could end. I spoke to him on the phone earlier that day…the day of the accident. The last words I said to him were ‘I love you.’ Mike was in the room at the time and called me a pussy.”
She rolled her eyes. “Mike would.”
“Yes, well, he apologized after the funeral. I told my dad I loved him nearly every time I spoke with him. So did my mom. Growing up, I never thought there was anything unusual about it. We were just always like that as a family…very affectionate. When I realized that not every family was like ours, I asked my dad why we were different. He said that from the time they were dating, he and my mom never ended a conversation without an ‘I love you,’ and when I entered the equation, they extended this to include me. He was right. Even in the midst of intense arguments, they’d always remind each other how they felt.”
“I can’t picture your parents fighting.”
“Are you kidding?” I couldn’t contain my laughter. “You should have heard the way they’d yell at one another. You’re talking about two very passionate people, one of whom is incredibly stubborn.”
“I never thought of your father as stubborn.”
“He wasn’t. My mother, on the other hand…” I shook my head. “You can’t imagine.”
“Oh, I have a fairly decent idea. Let’s see. You inherited your mother’s hair, eyes…and her disposition. It all makes sense now.”
“Go ahead, Bella. Mock me while I’m bereaved.”
“I was partially joking…”
“I know. Anyway, even while they were fighting, my mom would end phone conversations by saying things like, ‘I’m furious and would smack the shit out of you if you were standing in front of me, but I still love you more than life itself.’”
“Somehow, I have no problem visualizing your mother saying that.”
“Well, you know how she is. My point is that they never took the other one for granted, never stopped telling each other how much they were cherished. My mom has said repeatedly that this is her only source of comfort right now, besides the fact that my brother is no longer alone. At least my father never doubted how much we loved him.”
We lay in silence for several moments. I listened to her heartbeat as her fingers played in my hair.
“Why did you kiss me?” she asked.
“I’ve spent the past six months pretending I’m not still in love with you. It’s been exhausting, and for what?” I lifted my head from her chest and rolled onto my side, propping myself up on my elbow so I could see her face. “Despite what I believed in the beginning, our first attempt at a romantic relationship didn’t work because it wasn’t a joining of equals based on mutual admiration and respect. I’ve since realized that it only seemed as if you were treating me as your equal because my age didn’t compel you to disregard my intellect. Still, the moment I declared my love for you, you began to trivialize my feelings.”
“It wasn’t because of your age.”
“I thought we were beyond lying to spare each other’s feelings.”
“I’m not lying. Obviously, your inexperience came into play, though since spending more of the past two years in therapy, I now know there were other issues at work. Contrary to what you might think, I didn’t make light of your feelings for me because you are so much younger than me. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you loved me; it was that I didn’t believe I was lovable. How could I, when I didn’t even love myself?”
“Is that meant to be past tense or hypothetical?”
She took a deep breath. “Past tense, but still a work in progress.”
I smiled, realizing that I could finally tell her how I felt about her without also feeling compelled to illustrate why. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” A smile formed on her lips. “So what now?”
“I’d like to kiss you again.”
“I won’t object, but I would like to know what to expect when we come up for air.”
“I suppose we should get dressed and check on my mom. As much as I’d like to spend all day in bed with you, it’s just not practical.”
“No, I meant with regard to us.”
As much as I wanted to believe that her when she said that she finally understood what love was and that she loved me, I couldn’t just take her word for it. Only an extreme narcissist would deny a friend in need the week his father died; Bella was not that cruel. I tried to explain why I was unwilling to pick up where we left off the best way I could without hurting her.
“I told you I didn’t want a reconciliation, and that remains true. It just wouldn’t work. We’re both too different from who we were. However, if you are so inclined, I would like to date you and this time proceed slowly enough that we don’t question the other’s motivation.”
“I’m fine with slow.”
“I mean slow both physically and emotionally. I should probably warn you that if you decide to drop your dress after our first date, I’m going to throw you down to fuck you senseless. As much as we’d both enjoy that, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our long-term success.”
If she was finally whole, it wouldn’t be fair for me to offer myself to her while I was broken—nor would it be fair for me to take her when I still wasn’t sure I trusted her. This time, we needed to be equals.
“I promise to keep my clothes on. Though just last night, you saw me in my underwear and somehow managed to restrain yourself.”
“You have no idea what that did to me. It’s been so long since I had your nipples. I wanted to pinch them, to lick them, to suck them…” My gaze drifted from her face to chest, where her erect nipples and darkened areolas were plainly visible through her top. “I’m willing to wait to do that, provided you let me do other things.”
“Such as?” she asked.
“May I kiss you?”
For the second time that morning, I kissed her as if it was the last chance I’d ever have to do so. The events of the past week only reinforced what I’d already learned from Kate—that regardless of intention one way or another, there would always be a last kiss. That was what made this kiss different from the one Bella and I shared twenty minutes earlier. Though the possibility existed that it would be our last, the chance that it would be so because of Bella seemed to be increasingly remote. It was easy for me to put everything I felt for her into our kiss—my passion, my respect, my love, and my optimism.