Coffee of the Virgin Variety
September 30, 1995
My head is throbbing when I open my eyes. I try to swallow, but my mouth is so dry, my throat muscles stiffen in protest. I may not have been drunk last night, but it’s safe to say I drank too much. I take my time as I sit up, fearful my body will come apart if I move too quickly. Despite the laws of physics, it feels as if it might.
I glance across the room to see if Alice is awake, but she’s not there. For a brief moment I panic, thinking something awful happened to her in the shower. But the sight of Simba sitting on top of Alice’s neatly-made bed implies she came back after I was asleep and left before I woke. I glance at my alarm clock; it’s well past noon. I get out of bed and strip out of my pajamas, hoping a shower will make me feel human. I wrap a towel around my body, grab my bucket of toiletries, and head to the bathroom.
As far as showers go, this is far and away the best one I’ve ever taken. This is quite a statement given the decided lack of privacy of my dorm’s communal bathrooms. Not only is the water pressure pure bliss, but the steamy heat soothes my muscles. When I open the door to my room, I almost feel alive. Then I see a head of thick, auburn hair bent over Alice’s computer keyboard, and I want to die.
Even Edward’s back is beautiful. Without his face to distract me, I’m able to focus on his broad shoulders and the long elegance of his fingers as they wrap themselves around a paper coffee cup. I could watch him forever, except I can’t because I’m naked except for a towel and standing in the hallway. So as much as I don’t want to, I step inside my room and pull the door closed behind me. I take a deep breath. Guys seem to like wet skin, and I’m showing tons of it. I just have to act like I’m cool with this, that I feel sexy. Ever so quietly, I put my shower caddy on the floor beside my feet, which are still adorned with the rubber sandals I wear in the shower to avoid catching the plague. The flops have nubs on their insoles that massage my feet as I walk. They feel good, but they’re about as far from sexy as you can get.
I give up.
“What are you doing here?”
He swings the desk chair to face me, smiling. “Well, hello there. Alice thought you were at the library; she went over there to find you. I’m just here to zap her PRAM. I should be out of your way in a few minutes.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about, just that it sounds like something I’d rather him do to me.
“Given the fact you two are siblings, isn’t that illegal?”
“Cute,” he says, laughing.
I’m wearing nothing but a towel in a room with the star of all my fantasies; I don’t know how I want him to see me, but it sure as hell isn’t ‘cute.’ For the briefest of moments, I wonder how he’d react if I dropped my towel, but I push the thought away. I could never be that forward with someone I wasn’t dating. Who am I kidding? I doubt I could ever be that forward with someone I was dating.
“Apparently,” he says, “Alice sad macked yesterday. This was the big emergency she mentioned on my answering machine, and what compelled me to call you at two a.m. Sorry for waking you up, by the way.”
“When did you wake me up?”
“Last night when I called. It seemed as if you’d been sleeping.”
“Huh. I don’t remember any of it. I must have been drunk.”
“Oh, you were.”
“Was it that obvious?”
He just smiles.
“Fuck,” I mutter.
“I would have known you’d been drinking even if you hadn’t told me, which you did. Wait, that’s not exactly true. You said you thought you were drunk, but you weren’t sure because you’d never drank before.”
My face feels hot even though I’m cold. Clutching my towel with one hand, I raise the other to my cheek, hoping it will cool my face enough that my mortification is no longer quite so obvious.
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed about anything you said to me last night,” he says.
“There was more?”
He doesn’t elaborate; instead, he turns back to Alice’s computer. Seconds later, I hear the familiar sound of an Apple booting.
“See that?” Edward’s back is to me as he points to the monitor. “It’s a happy Mac again. My work here is done.”
He rises to his feet, and walks toward the door. I step out of his way, but he’s close enough to me that I get a whiff of him. He smells like coffee and dryer sheets, but for some reason, I think of sex.
“Nice seeing more of you.” He smiles, and he’s gone.
Despite the presence of massaging nubs, I think he might have been flirting with me.
November 21, 2009
“It doubles as my home studio,” Alice explains as she leads me into the room in which I’ll be staying. “I don’t do much work in it, but it’s not uncommon for me to meet with clients in here. It’s more normal that way.”
“Is that how fashion designers work these days?” I plop onto the bed and turn to my side, propping my head up with my hand. “Conducting business in a boudoir is normal?”
“My clients seem to prefer it; they find it less daunting. Women come here and have a glass of wine. I lay out various clothing options on the bed, and we talk about style for a bit. I take notes and make some sketches. It feels more like getting fashion advice from a girlfriend than ordering clothing from a designer specializing in custom garments for women who’ve lost parts of their bodies.”
“That honestly never occurred to me.”
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me if not for my mother. I remember the first time she needed to attend a company party after her mastectomy. It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry. I couldn’t understand why that made her so upset—why she didn’t fear death as much as she feared she wouldn’t find a cocktail dress that made her feel pretty and feminine. I was eleven years old. I had no comprehension of sexuality or femininity, so I couldn’t grasp the connection. All I knew was that I didn’t have breasts, and I still felt like a girl.”
“Maybe that’s why I can’t walk in heels,” I joke, hoping to make her smile. “My breasts never grew.”
“Mine grew eventually; I just chose to get rid of them.” She points to her boobs then moves her index and middle finger as if they were scissors.
“Wait, what?” It’s rude of me to stare at her chest, but I can’t help it. My eyes focus on their own. “Did you have a breast reduction?”
“No. I had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and oophorectomy.”
“I don’t know what the means.”
“It means I had my girly parts removed to reduce my risk of cancer.”
“Two years ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I regret the words as soon as I say them. “Never mind; forget I said that. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.”
I want to tell her that I hate myself for putting my weakness around Edward before my love for her, but it’s not the time. The last thing I want to do is make this about me. The ensuing silence is awkward as I search my mind for the right words, but infinitely preferable to creating unintentional wounds. I sit up and extend my hands to her. She takes them, and when I give a gentle tug, she slides onto the bed beside me.
She doesn’t say it, but she doesn’t have to—I can see it on her face. Though it’s been years—though I no longer deserve her love, I don’t doubt that I have it. I know what I need to say, what she needs to hear. I also know that once I do, it will all be behind us.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. It was selfish and shallow, and I don’t deserve your forgiveness. Nothing I can say would ever come close to justifying staying away from you for as long as I did. But I’m here now, and I love you. If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen and if you don’t, I won’t push.”
Her eyes are wet as she pulls me into her arms. It isn’t long before mine are, too. Time passes; I’m not sure how much. It doesn’t matter. I could stay here forever in the quiet contentment of knowing I have my sister back. When Alice breaks the silence, it’s as if we’ve never been apart.
“I’d rather know what happened on the plane,” she says. “That couldn’t have been easy for you.”
“Talking about your health is more important.”
“As far as my current health is concerned, there’s nothing to discuss. It’s fine. Things were rough for a while, but I got through them. Judging by the way you looked when I first saw you at baggage claim, things are rough for you now.”
“It’s not a big deal. He’s your brother; I knew there was a chance I’d run into him at some point this week.”
“Then why were you crying? Don’t punish yourself for not being there when I needed you by not letting me be here for you now.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. Besides, running into an ex-boyfriend on an airplane is not exactly on par with the prophylactic removal of your female stuff.”
“For you it is.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Because it’s that one thing you fear so much that rational thought ceases to be possible.”
Alice understands me better than I understand myself; she knows exactly what’s coming when I let it go.
So I do.
The energy I’d been putting into retaining my composure leaves me in salty wet streaks. My body loses all rigidity as the familiar taste rolls over my lip into my mouth. I take in as much air as I can, then let it out in measured gusts, willing myself to calm down. My breathing returns to normal, and soon the only evidence of my breakdown is a make-up stain on Alice’s pillow sham.
“I saw a glimpse of him, and he’s real. I thought when I left…I thought I’d never seen him again.”
“Surely you see him on the news–”
“That’s Senator Cullen; I’m talking about Edward.”
“You make it sound as if they’re two separate people.”
With narrowed eyes, she takes a quick breath and opens her mouth. A second or two later, her facial features relax and she exhales, shaking her head.
“I still love who he was,” I say. “I always will. I just can’t handle what he’s become. And seeing him switch so effortlessly between the two makes me wonder if any of it what we had was real.”
“If it wasn’t, I don’t know what is.”
“You and Jasper,” I say, smiling.
“What Jazz and I have is very much real. He was the one to convinced me to have it done—you know, the test that tells you if you’ve inherited the gene mutation that causes cancer. He knew how scared I was that I wouldn’t live to see forty. He thought the results would put my mind at ease, and I’d find out my odds were the same as everyone else’s.”
“Except they weren’t.”
“No,” she says, laughing. “As it turned out, this was one area where my neurosis was fully justified. I knew right away I wanted to go through with the surgery. My only concern was how Jasper would perceive afterward—that even if I managed to still feel sexy, he wouldn’t see me that way. I’m not going to say it wasn’t an adjustment for us, but things are better now than ever.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.”
“You will.” She sits up and rolls onto her feet. “His flight arrives late tonight, but he should be here when you wake up. He was disappointed he couldn’t fix his travel schedule to be here when your plane landed, but it didn’t work out.” She covers her mouth and yawns. “I should let you get some rest; you must be exhausted.”
On her way to the door, she pauses in front of a one-armed dressform. “They won’t weird you out, will they?”
“I’m not that shallow.”
“Oh, I don’t mean because of what they’re meant to resemble. Some people can’t deal.” She shrugs. “They turn off the lights and get sleepy. Then they see a silhouette of a mannequin and freak because they think someone’s watching them.”
I throw my head back, laughing at the irony. “As if that would happen. I can’t remember the last time someone watched me sleep.”
“That used to be the only time I’d let a guy really look at me. If I was unconscious, I couldn’t be self-conscious, you know? Anyway, if you get creeped out, let me know. We’ll figure something out. You’re going to be with us for a week; I want to make sure you’re comfortable.” She walks over to the door. “Sweet dreams.”
“Goodnight, Alice. Thanks for everything.”
She smiles and pulls the door closed behind her.
By the time I unpack and wash up, I feel like the walking dead. I turn down the covers and climb into bed, then turn off the bedside lamp. Alice was right—I feel as if I’m not alone. The difference is I’m not uncomfortable. Instead, I relish in the bizarre camaraderie I share with the figures around me. Nothing in this room is whole.
I close my eyes and tell myself sleep will be my salvation, believing that if I silence my mind, I won’t think of Edward. For a while, I don’t.
Thank you for reading. Now please go feel your boobies.