Over the past few years, Maggie and I had perfected our getting-dressed-to-go-out ritual. We listened to records, curled our hair, and tried on various outfits until we settled on just the right one. My sister claimed it was about bonding, but I knew better. In reality, she didn’t trust me not to go out in an over-sized T-shirt, slouch socks, and stirrup pants. She insisted no guy would ever want to fuck me if I looked like I had the body of a twelve-year-old boy. The obvious exception was the night of my date with Cullen, when not getting laid was the point.
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Just dress how you would without my influence.” Maggie plunked a record onto the turntable before carefully placing the needle into a groove half an inch from the record’s edge. She smiled diabolically. “Here’s a little inspiration for you.”
As Debbie Harry’s voice came through the speaker, I looked down at my clothing. “Can’t I just wear this?”
“Why not?” I pointed to my enormous Frankie Says Relax top. “This isn’t at all sexy.”
“No, but it will remind him of coming.” She went to my dresser and pulled out my Choose Life shirt. “Wear this. It screams devoutly Catholic. Unless you want to lie and tell him you have a raging case of herpes–”
“I have to see this guy every day in lab, you know.”
“Then having a known pro-life stance is the best protection against below-the-belt action out there.”
“This shirt isn’t about abortion, and you know it.”
“Well, yeah, but do you really think Cullen will? I mean, he didn’t even know what Irish twins were.”
“I think this is a winning ensemble. The Choose Life shirt, stirrup pants, slouch socks, and bobos. It screams loser, but that’s kind of the point. Oh!” She ran over to the record player and turned it up. “Sing with me. ‘One way or another, I’m gonna lose ya. I’m gonna trick ya, trick ya, trick ya, trick ya!’” She threw her arms over her head and jumped around the room as she sang. “This should be your fight song, Esme. Why aren’t you dancing with me?”
She pulled me to my feet, unwilling to take no for an answer. We danced around our tiny living room, stopping only when the record began to skip. Maggie righted the needle as I changed into what was possibly the most hideous outfit I owned.
“Do you think Cullen has a fight song?” she asked. “I’ve always wondered about guys like that—if they just naturally believe they’re that hot, or if they have to psych themselves up for it the way we do.”
“I think it varies. I’m sure some guys whore it up in an attempt to compensate for insecurities, but just as many are legitimate assholes.” I tied my shoelaces and stood up. “How do I look?”
“Like you’re on your way to a sixth-grade birthday party at the local roller rink,” she said, laughing. “As much as I’d love to see the look on Cullen’s face when he sees you, I need to get going.”
As a piano major at the Curtis Institute, Maggie spent most evenings either attending concerts or performing in them.
“I expect a full report when I get home.” She turned off the record player, grabbed her bag, and left.
I pulled my hair back and grabbed the Aqua Net, only to discover the can was empty.
Knowing Maggie would have emergency hairspray in her bag, I opened the door and yelled after her.
“Get in here; I need you.”
“Gladly. But let the record show I had every intention of buying you dinner first.”
I looked up and saw Cullen leaning against the wall in the hallway. Though his trademark cocky smile sent my girly parts a flutter, I was determined not to think of his cock, instead focusing on sizing up the enemy.
There was something different about his appearance, and it went beyond the fact he’d traded in his scrubs for a pair of jeans and a white button-down shirt. Upon careful inspection, I realized it definitely wasn’t his clothes; it was his face.
Did he not realize the stubble was a huge part of his appeal? My mission just got exponentially easier.
“I thought you were Maggie.” I tried not to betray my new-found confidence by smiling.
“And aren’t you glad I’m not? I mean, if we were siblings, I’m fairly sure what you just asked me to do to you would be illegal.”
“Right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “The words ‘get in here’ are always an invitation for sex.”
“In my experience, they usually are.”
“You’re disgusting. Let my willingness to go out with you serve as a testament to exactly how low I’ll stoop to get you to leave me alone.”
He wrinkled his forehead in apparent confusion. “If that’s what you’re into, you don’t have to stoop. Some girls like to bend at the waist.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hit him or laugh my ass off. I settled for laying down the law.
“Just so we’re clear, I have no intention of bending, stooping, or even spreading, for that matter. Your assumption otherwise makes me feel compelled to remind you of our agreement—in exchange for my going out with you tonight, you’re going to stop harassing me in class.”
“Unless you want me to,” he added.
“We’ll see. Our reservation is in fifteen minutes. Why don’t I stay out here while you get changed?”
“That won’t be necessary; I’m ready to go now.” I smiled sweetly. “Just let me grab my bag.”
If Cullen found my choice of attire appalling, he didn’t let on. Ultimately, his opinion didn’t matter. When we walked into the restaurant, I was appalled enough for both of us.
It wasn’t that I was necessarily under-dressed, it was that I was completely out of my league. Casual for me typically consisted of scrubs; my version of casual chic involved scrubs that didn’t smell like death. After surveying the people around me, I made a mental note to visit my mom at Wanamaker’s and use her discount to buy a new outfit before going out with Cullen again.
Wait. What the fuck was I thinking? I hated Cullen, and the whole point of having dinner with him tonight was so he’d stop bothering me. Why was the mere sight of him making me hot and bothered?
The ma√Ætre d’ led us to our table, at which point Cullen pulled out a chair and gestured for me to sit down. He gently pushed my seat toward the table before sitting opposite me. I didn’t start to flip out until he handed me a menu.
“This restaurant is slightly out of my budget.”
The truth was that a single entree cost more than Maggie and I had budgeted to feed both of us for an entire week.
“I invited you, therefore I fully intend to pick up the tab. I thought I explained this would be my treat.”
Our waiter appeared to take our drink order and tell us about their additions to the menu before asking if we had any questions.
“Yes. Can we have separate checks?” Paying was going to totally fuck me, but I’d be damned if he confused me for one of his whores.
The waiter looked to Cullen, who nodded assent to bill us separately. Then he ordered a bottle of wine.
“Is this your standard operating procedure?” I asked after the waiter left. “Take a girl out for a pricey meal, get her liquored up, and then move in for the kill?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“Drop the innocent act, Cullen. We all know that if each day we had anatomy lab was an at bat, and every time you got laid counted as a hit, your current batting average would be .897. Considering the median IQ of the women in our class, you’ve got to be working it something fierce. I’d like to know how you do it.”
“Aren’t you going to deny it?”
“Why should I? I mean, you’ve already got me all figured out.”
“More or less,” I admitted. “What I don’t understand why you’re here with me, when I’m obviously onto you.”
“Has the thought occurred to you that I didn’t ask you out so I could seduce you?”
I snorted. “No.”
“Well, in that case, let me make my intentions clear. I like you, Esme.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“I want to know you.”
“Yeah, in the biblical sense.”
“In every sense.”
He seemed earnest enough that I almost believed him. I no longer wondered how his game worked. He was gorgeous and faked sincerity exceedingly well. Outside of the rumors, I knew nothing about him. What was it about enigmas that were so god-damned sexy?
As the waiter poured our wine, I decided that I got Cullen to talk about himself, he’d be far less intriguing. His appeal would diminish exponentially.
“Where did you go to undergrad?” I asked.
He smiled. “So you would be able to show me around my new neighborhood.”
“That depends on where you live. I only moved to University City this year. Outside of my block and the campus itself, I don’t know the area all that well.”
“I live upstairs from you.”
I choked on my ice water.
“Don’t look so surprised. How else would I have gotten to your apartment door unless I had my own key to the building?”
The fact that he was my neighbor made no sense whatsoever. Everything about him—his manners, his alma mater, his choice of restaurant—screamed rich boy, yet he was living in the ghetto? Did I have that aspect of him wrong? Furthermore, if he was rolling pennies to put himself through med school like I was, what the hell was he doing bringing random girls to restaurants like this?
My mother always said you could always tell a man’s class by his hands. If his skin was softer than yours, it was safe to assume he’d never done an honest day’s work in his life.
“Give me your hand,” I said.
Cullen looked at me like I was insane, but reached across the table anyway. His calloused palm was delightfully rough. I raised my eyes to meet his, still unable to figure out what his deal was. The only theory I could come up with was that he’d picked up his affectations at Princeton, came from a background similar to mine, and brought me to restaurant like this because he really did like me.
“I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about you,” he said, “but I’m positive I’ve never met anyone like you. If you believe the rhetoric you spout about me, then you know I’m not hard up for female attention. I swear this isn’t about sex.” He paused and let out a small laugh. “Though I will admit to having a weakness for redheads.”
I rolled my eyes. “How charming.”
“I just want to get to know you.”
Against my better judgment, I found myself wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt.
We sat in silence as I thought about his words. I’d forgotten I was holding his hand until he started rubbing the palm of my hand with his fingertips. The gentle rhythm felt so amazing that I questioned what the harm in fucking him would be. Though I’d only had sex within the confines of committed relationships, my class schedule made it doubtful I’d be in one of those any time soon. I’d have to fulfill my physical needs somehow, and despite my mother’s insistence that nice girls didn’t do that, it was 1986. Nice girls did, and love had nothing to do with it.
I couldn’t be seriously thinking about popping my casual-sex cherry with Cullen. He was probably a carrier for every STD known to man. I studied his face as I tried to silence my inner Tina Turner. Even without the stubble, resiting him was going to be harder than I thought.
When the waiter appeared to take our food order, Cullen pulled his hand away from mine. Though the loss of contact disappointed me, it was nothing compared to how I felt when he made no further attempt to touch me for the rest of evening. He walked me to my door and waited as I fumbled with my keys. I fully expected him to follow me inside my apartment, but he didn’t.
Instead he lingered behind, leaning against the door frame. When he shook his head slightly, I knew it was useless; my face had betrayed what I wanted.
I wanted him.
“Thank you for the pleasure of your company, Esme. As was previously agreed, I’ll leave you alone now.”
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
“No, but I gave you my word.”
Part of me thought there was no way in hell he was really that honorable, and this was nothing more than his ego needing me to say the words. The rest of me didn’t care as long as I got to see him again.
“I’m willing to modify our agreement to include dinner tomorrow as well.”
“Only if you’ll let me pay.”
“That’s not something I typically do, but I’ll make an exception if we go somewhere cheap.”
“Great!” He seemed bizarrely enthusiastic. “I’ll pick you up at six. Goodnight.”
He stepped into the hallway and pulled the door closed behind him.
Thankfully, Maggie came home a few minutes later. After providing her with a summary of my date with Cullen, I asked her how in a few hours I could go from wanting him to leave me alone to feeling disappointed that he didn’t try anything.
She thought for a moment before her eyes widened with realization.
“It’s the cobwebs on your poontang,” she explained. “They’re calling the shots.”
“Thanks, Mag. That’s helpful.”
“I’m serious. How long has it been since you’ve had sex? A year? We went about this all wrong. Who cares if you end up being number seven? Fucking him is the obvious answer. Your cock drought will end, and he’ll lose interest. Everyone wins. Oh my god!” She jumped to her feet and pulled me to her closet. “Dressing you for tomorrow night is going to be so much fun. I think you should wear my black bustier.”
As Maggie rattled on about possible clothing choices, I wondered if I was even capable of the casual sex thing. When I tried to imagine how his calloused fingers would feel on my skin, the ensuing tingle between my legs gave me my answer.
If Cullen was the other party involved, I was capable of just about anything.