Long after my breathing returned to normal I continued to lie on top of her, flaccid but unwilling to pull out of her body, mesmerized by the rise and fall of her chest beneath my face as she breathed. The realization that we were now closer than we’d ever been led to a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and for the first time in my life that I could recall, I wasn’t counting or developing algorithms in the back of my mind—I was content just to be.
It was an amazing feeling, until I realized that the absence of my internal metronome meant that I’d lost my internal clock. I had no idea how long she’d been bearing my weight. Though she didn’t appear to mind—her fingers wove through my hair as my head lay in the valley between her breasts—I knew she couldn’t be comfortable. Keeping her in my arms, I pulled out and rolled onto my back. She rested her head on my shoulder and played with the hair around my nipple.
“I don’t remember it being like this.”
“How so?” I asked.
“If you’d asked me yesterday what I remembered about being intimate with you, I would have answered pleasure. Intense physical pleasure.”
I couldn’t contain my laughter. “As opposed to now, where you’re hardly aroused and can’t get off? I don’t consider myself an expert on female orgasms, but you seemed to be enjoying yourself. Of course, if there’s anything you’d like that I’m not doing, I’ll take direction. As always, I am your diligent pupil.” I trailed my hands down her back until they cupped the soft curve of her ass. “So, Ms. Swan…” I squeezed her flesh and pulled her hips against me. “Is there anything…stimulating in your lesson plan? Have you planned any exercises to help me improve my skills? I’m more than willing to be schooled.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your skills.” She folded her hands on my chest and rested her chin on top of them. “The pleasure I experience from being intimate with you is still every bit as intense as it was in our previous incarnation. That being said, I still can’t help but feel as though the past few hours have had nothing whatsoever to do with physical release.”
Though I knew exactly what she meant, I couldn’t resist teasing her.
“Just so you know, you released plenty. You’re lucky this is a king-sized bed, and we have room to spread out. Otherwise, one of us would be sleeping in the wet spot.”
“I’m serious, Edward.” She feigned annoyance, but her smile betrayed her. “Speaking of the sheets, why were they even on the bed? I thought you said no one had been down here in months.”
“I might have called ahead to make some arrangements.”
“My, aren’t we presumptuous? Am I that much of a sure thing?”
“Listen to you. You’d think there was nothing else for us to do here but bonk.”
“Edward, it’s off season. There pretty much isn’t anything else to do.”
“That’s what you think. I had a few things set up for us. In addition to bed linens, which would have been necessary whether or not we were intimate, there’s also food and wine…”
“Wine dulls the senses.” She rolled onto her side and propped herself up on one elbow. “Tonight, I want to feel everything.”
“I hate to be the one to break this to you, but I think you already have.”
“Please don’t make fun of me; I cherish every second I have with you.” She pressed her face into the palm of my hand and closed her eyes. “It wasn’t all that long ago when your touch topped the list of things I thought I’d never again experience.”
I wondered what she was thinking—if non-sexual physical affection still made her feel uncomfortable and if she was still having difficulty trusting me. Logic told me that she had to have doubts—god knows I wasn’t without mine, though it was safe to assume they were nothing like hers. I didn’t question that I loved her or even that she loved me, but our relationship was far more complicated than that. My greatest fear was that she loved me more than she loved herself, and that in the absence of sufficient self-esteem, Bella’s contrition for Thanksgiving would manifest itself in ways that would do nothing but contribute to her own detriment—specifically, that she would martyr herself.
The fact she hadn’t verbalized it didn’t matter; when she opened her eyes, I knew she was still afraid I would leave her. As long as she questioned my commitment to her, the possibility that at some point she’d panic and run wasn’t all that remote. It created a frustrating dichotomy that I couldn’t begin to figure out how to address.
“I don’t ever want to be without you,” I said, hoping to reassure her. “It’s such a clichè to say that life is too short, but if losing my father has taught me anything…”
I struggled to find the right words. I’d always been such an optimist, Bella was bound to interpret my newfound realism as reinforcement of her fatalism. I’d suffer through anything to have her by my side, but only if she were as committed to making our relationship work as I was.
“It’s no longer possible for me to ignore that there are no guarantees, even with the best intentions, even living each day as if it were your last. One morning you’ll wake up, and though you won’t realize it, every opportunity that arises will be your very last chance. I’m no longer laboring under the false assumption that we have all the time in the world. Everything ends, one way or another. As much as I’d like to postpone having this conversation with you and enjoy the moment, I know I really can’t. It’s not fair to either of us.”
Her eyes widened, and her voice was almost inaudible. “Exactly what conversation are you talking about?”
“Your expectations of our relationship.”
She peppered my chest with kisses as she spoke. “That’s easy. Love. Affection. Companionship. Lots and lots of sex.”
None of what she said had ever been difficult for us, yet we self-destructed regardless.
“That’s easier said than done once we get home.”
“I have two years left at Princeton–”
“I’m aware of this,” she said, sighing. “I imagine eventually you’ll want to move back to campus.”
“I have no intention of moving back to campus; I’m not going to leave my mother.”
“For your benefit or for hers?” She moved back onto her side and propped herself up on her elbow. “Your mother doesn’t want you putting your life on hold for her. It’s important to her that you enjoy the rest of your time at Princeton; she’s told me as much. Just so you know, she’s planning on paying for you to have a dorm room next year whether you occupy it or not.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. Whether I live in a dorm or at home does nothing to change the fact that the majority of the issues we had when we dated the first time still exist. From day one, our ideas of what it means to be in a relationship differed greatly.”
“I admitted to myself that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you in rare moments of complete honesty. I was not reluctant to verbalize this to you because I had doubts regarding your integrity. Telling you that I loved you and that I wanted you forever made me feel so vulnerable. It still does, to some extent, but I’m learning to cope with it. Though I feel completely exposed around you, I know you would never hurt me intentionally.”
“You once said you didn’t believe in marriage.”
“I said I never saw myself as ever getting married. I know you interpreted that statement as disparaging to you, when really it wasn’t. At that point in my life, I was unable to wrap my mind around the idea that anyone would choose to stay with me, especially in the presence of other options.”
“Has this changed?”
“No. Yes. Kind of.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I’m still in therapy. I’m working on it. I hope that if the circumstances were right, I would be able to make that leap. I know though that if the situation presented itself tomorrow, I’d panic and withdraw into myself. I guess it’s progress that I’m now self-actualized enough to recognize my behavior for what it is. I’m sorry. I know that’s not the answer you wanted. Our first relationship ended with a lie. I can’t allow our current incarnation to begin with one.”
The fact that she didn’t make a condescending comment about how I shouldn’t even think about marrying her until I can legally order a drink was progress in and of itself.
“I appreciate your honesty. I have one other question.”
“Okay.” She drew out the last syllable, betraying her nervousness.
“Are you willing to be seen in public with me?”
She started to laugh. “I already have been.”
“You know what I mean, Bella.”
“Look, I haven’t sent a mass email to the school district notifying them of our relationship, but I haven’t denied we are close friends when it has come up in conversation. I didn’t feel compelled to elaborate because I would never discuss my personal life at work; it had nothing to do with you. You graduated two years ago. I seriously doubt it would be an issue.”
There was no time like the present to start behaving like a normal couple.
“I’m glad to hear you say that. I have a formal next weekend, and I would love for you to attend it with me. Before you ask, there will be underage drinking and illegal substances present at this event.”
“Will this function be held on private property?”
“In that case, I would love to escort you.”
Though her assent seemed to come more from resignation than enthusiasm, it was significant nonetheless. It gave me hope that she was finally starting to get over our age difference. I threw my arms around her and hugged her tightly.
“Thank you. I know this makes you uncomfortable, but it won’t be forever. We only have two more years before I’ll be legal.”
“By then you’ll be finished college and heading off to medical school.”
“I’m not sure I can go through with that.”
She put her head on my shoulder and tightened her embrace. “I’ll follow you anywhere. You know that, right? ”
“I know you would, but that’s not what I’m talking about; I’m just not sure I want to pursue medicine.”
“Really? What changed?”
“I’m not even sure I can describe it. It’s not like I had any illusions about what practicing medicine actually entails. I’ve watched both my parents come home after losing patients. It starts to be…almost normal after a while. My dad never seemed any more put out by it than you are when you have a bad day teaching.
“Intellectually, I understood what a doctor’s responsibilities are when a life is lost on his watch. I knew that it’s typically the attending physician who would inform the patient’s family, but I never actually about how it would feel to be that person…” My eyes filled with water when I remembered sitting in the hospital waiting room beside my mother. “To stand there and dispassionately inform a woman she had lost her husband…to tell an eighteen-year-old man he lost his father, until I was on the receiving end. The doctor came to find us, scrub cap in hand, looking defeated. I can’t even remember what he said, but I’ll never forget my mother’s screams. She fell to her knees begging before she eventually collapsed on the floor in shock. The doctor prattled on to me about how Dad lost too much blood, meanwhile, my mom’s hair was so red against the gray linoleum floor, it looked like she was one who was bleeding.”
She pulled my head into her breasts and held me, stroking my neck and my hair until I was able to speak again. I sat up and rested my back against the headboard, and Bella curled into my side.
“I know the trauma surgeon who operated on my dad thought he’d failed us, that he’d failed my mother. I could see it in his eyes. Still, when his shift ended, he probably drove home and ate dinner with his family like it was any other day. I know he did; I’d watched my dad do the very same thing more times than I can count. I’m not judging him for it. There’s a certain emotional disconnect a person needs in order to be effective in medicine, and I don’t have it.”
“I doubt your father had it at eighteen, either. Sadly, I imagine it’s one of those things that’s gained solely through experience.”
“That’s experience I can do without. I don’t want to become desensitized, to be able to shrug off the loss of human life. I’m grateful there are people out there who can do that, who don’t mind. I doubt I’ll ever be one of them. Furthermore, I’m not altogether sure I want to be.”
“Not to state the obvious, but you can still work in the medical field in other capacities. Lots of people attend medical school and never practice.”
“True. I have no intention of changing majors, so I could certainly pursue that path if I decided it appealed to me. Really, I think I may want to take some time off and compose a bit. I can always apply to medical school later if I change my mind. I mean, it’s not like money is an issue.”
She brushed her fingers across my nipple. “Just so you know, musicians are incredibly sexy.”
“Are they sexier than doctors?”
“That depends on a variety of factors. I would need to know which instrument the musician plays, as well as what color scrubs the doctor is wearing. Though doctors have steady hands, musicians also have skills. Bagpipers can hold their breath for minutes at time. Imagine the uses I could find for your mouth.”
Cue my fourth hard-on of the afternoon.
“I just want you to be happy,” she continued. “How you spend your days is of little importance to me as long as you find it fulfilling. I’m far more concerned with how you spend your nights.”
I flipped her onto her back and settled myself between her legs. “And if I want to spend them like this?”
“I wouldn’t object.” She reached between us and stroked my frenulum, causing my cock to twitch.
“So, is this what happens when we go home?”
“Actually, I was kind of hoping to spend the rest of my life with you.”
I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t eventually change her mind; I only knew I wouldn’t change mine. I entered her and lost myself in the only place I’d ever wanted to be.