“Okay,” I say with a nod. “Then that wasn’t real. Outercourse doesn’t count.”
Relief fills him.
“But,” I continue. “I don’t think we should do it again.” I don’t trust myself.
He drops his hands from my cheeks. “That’s fine,” he says, sounding a little detached. “I just…” he shakes his head. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
“I know.” I can’t let him go with that. “And it was the best present I’ve ever gotten. Honest.”
He smiles and kisses me lightly on the temple before picking his flask up on the desk.
I let out a deep breath. Never again. But as I remember the way he looked at me, commanding and determined and so very powerful, as though making me cry was his sole goal in life—well, I know I may never find that with someone else.
Never again is a very, very large price to pay.
But we’re not really together, after all. We’re just two friends playing make-believe.
A couple months at Princeton and I stopped going to class again. Seeing people walk around campus with smiles and laughs puts knots in my stomach, so I’ve been doing all the course work and attend only for the exams. I’ve been pulling Cs, which is better than failing.
Rose scolds me when I sit at home, moping again. I guess I just feel like February has turned into Day 1 without Lo—all the pain that crushed me from the first moment he left swallows me back in its dark, black abyss. I kept hope that he’d email me by now. And he hasn’t.
But my vibrator keeps me company. My fantasies do too. But I rarely cli**x. It’s like my sadness has eked out any possibility of feeling that high again.
To keep me busy and to lift my spirits, I decide to change my ways a little. For the past three days, I’ve consumed my time at Calloway Couture, making good on a bet that I lost with Connor. I promised him that I’d help Rose at her blossoming fashion company by being her assistant.
Which I’ve quickly found out just means being the errand bitch.
Although I do have my own desk that sits off to the side in a spacious city loft, the room decked out with racks of dresses, blouses, coats, boots, and handbags. Rose glances from her computer in her dictatorial office—a glass cubical that literally overlooks the whole room. She has two other girls manning desks near me in the center. They’re in charge of social media, websites, and inventory.
While they’re productive members of Rose’s company, I’m more like a little hamster running along a stationary wheel. I fetch coffee and file notes. Busy work. But it beats masturbating for a whole two hours without any sort of release. I did that yesterday. Not fun.
After a short minute, Rose exits her office and struts over to my white desk. “Did you get the business card I left you?” She made me a whole box, as though solidifying my position as “Assistant of CEO” for the future.
“Yep, they’re pretty.” They’re even “lily” scented. I asked her if her cards smelled like roses and she shot me a cold look. Apparently, Mom had the idea to scent the business cards, and Rose had to go along with it. Our mother has her claws in Rose’s company in more ways than just one. Rose started the business at sixteen, too young to realize that our mother would deem herself co-founder. She acts like a silent partner, but Rose would rather she wasn’t involved at all, considering the only contribution she makes is painful irritation. She’s a nosy gnat, but she’s also someone easy to love if she agrees with you.
“No, not those cards. The therapist.”
“Oh…yeah, it was taped on the computer screen. Pretty hard to miss.”
“Have you called?”
I lick my dry lips. “No, not yet. I thought you were still researching.”
“No, I’m done. That’s the one. I know she is, but if you don’t like her, then I’ll keep looking. But you should meet her at least. She’s a lovely woman.”
I inhale. “Okay, yeah. I’ll meet her soon.” Maybe she’ll prescribe me some drugs and take these feelings away. That sounds nice.
As her heels clap back to her office, I Hulk-grip the mouse and click my way through Microsoft Excel with efficiency. Rose has detailed my tasks and their importance by numerical code. I realize that calling my therapist is number one. Checking shoe sizes for shipment to Macy’s is number thirty-five.
Just as I reach for my phone to make an appointment, it buzzes on the desk, vibrating across the glass surface. I frown and check the screen, an unknown number popping up. Could it be…? I frantically pick up the cell, my heart hammering. If it’s him, what do I say? I hesitate, words coursing through my brain in overdrive. I don’t know if there’s any right way to start a conversation. Maybe it’s not him. Maybe it’s just hopeful thinking. He’s not even supposed to be calling until March. Isn’t that what Ryke said?
I drown my insecurities and put the receiver to my ear. I inhale a deep breath before saying, “Hello?”
He called me. Lo called me. I let the words sink in with the sound of his deep voice. I lean forward on the desk, putting a hand to my eyes to shield any tears that’ll threaten to fall. I’d rather Rose not see me from her office and end the call before it even starts.
I’ve thought about all the things I would say to Lo in email and on the phone in March, but they’ve breezed out of my mind since the first ring. I’m left with a not-so eloquent reply. “You called.”
I hear him shifting, as though adjusting the phone and holding it up with a shoulder to his ear. I picture one hand on the wall and a long line of guys waiting behind him to use the black cord phone. Sort of like prison. I don’t know why I relate them. He’s not in jail. He’s in rehab. The latter of which will help him. I’m sure my new therapist will psychoanalyze that comparison.
“I’ve been doing well, so they’re letting me get in touch with my family.” He pauses. “You’re the first person I called.” He lets out a weak laugh, and I imagine him rubbing his lips. “Hell, you’re the only one I’ll probably call.”
“Not Ryke?” I wonder.
“I’ve seen Ryke,” he explains quickly, brushing over the topic. “How have you been?”
“Why didn’t you email before? Ryke said you’d be able to this month.” Yes, I dodged the question about me. I need to hear him explain this before I can quantify anything going on in my life.
He pauses for a long time. “I planned to. I sat down at the computer and stared at the screen for a full hour.”
I bite my thumbnail. “What happened?”
“I’d write a couple sentences, reread them, and delete. Everything sounded so f**king stupid. I mean, I’m not a writer. So by the end of the hour, all I had was ‘hi’ and I was so pissed that I just walked away.”
Sounds like something he’d do. “I’m not a good writer either.” I glance up at the glass office, and Rose busily talks on her own cellphone, back turned to me. Good. “I’m glad you called.”
“Yeah?” His voice breaks a little, and my breathing deepens. I want things to go back to normal. I don’t want our relationship to change, but I know it has to. I just hope it’s better than before. Not worse.
“What have you been doing there?” I ask “Are you going to come home early? What’s it like? Have you met anyone else? How’s your counselor? Is the food any good?” All these questions tumble from my lips, and I stop for a second, wondering if I scared him away.
“It’s been all right. I’m not done with the program, so I’ll be here for a while still.” He clears his throat. “So, how are you doing?”
“Have you met anyone?” I try again.
“Lil,” he says, pained. “You’re killing me. How are you doing? That’s not such a hard question to answer, is it? Just give me something.”
“I’m okay,” I say. “What are you doing right now? Where are you?” I want to paint a picture of him, not have prison be the backdrop to our conversation.
“I’m sitting on this giant orange chair that looks like something from an Austin Powers movie. It’s so f**king ugly. And then last week some guy drew a penis on it with a magic marker.”
I smile. “You’re sitting on a penis?”
I can almost sense a grin stretching his face. “You would find that amusing.” He pauses. “I miss you, love.”
“Yeah?” My stomach clenches.
“Tell me more.”
“I’m using the facility’s phone in their rec room. There’s a pool table, a couple Fizzle machines, beanbags and a huge television that’s always on ESPN. Most people are eating lunch right now, so it’s pretty quiet.”
Lunch. I glance at my clock. It’s noon here. His rehab is probably located somewhere with the same Eastern Time zone. Maybe he’s close… I shouldn’t ask. Not when we agreed to keep the information a secret. I don’t want to be tempted to drive out to him. I really will be the pathetic girlfriend then.
“I…” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “I tried to ask Ryke about you a few times. He won’t tell me anything. It’s so f**king annoying; you have no idea.” The bitterness seeps from his tone.
I let out a weak laugh. “I think I do.”
“Yeah?” Lo inhales, as though preparing himself for the next batch of questions. “What have you been up to?”
“I’m helping Rose,” I tell him, nodding to myself. “It’s not so bad. She’s been keeping me busy…it’s…it’s worked out for the most part.”
“That’s…good, Lil. So you’re really doing okay?”
My throat begins to close, swollen with a lump. I don’t want him to spend his days worrying about me. Ryke has infiltrated my mind, and I hear him whispering, “You’ll ruin his progress by saddling him with this large burden. You have to separate yourself from him, Lily. Let him go.”
All I’ve ever wanted was for Lo to be happy. I just never thought his happiness would coincide with my depression. It seems stupid and moronic, but in order for him to become healthy, he needs to stop focusing on me so he can worry about his own problems. That’s what Ryke keeps telling me, right?
So I give into Ryke’s constant pleas. I let Lo off the hook. He no longer needs to be my rock. I’ll have to find another one or maybe I’ll be able to stand up on my own.
“Yeah,” I say, my heart constricting as I restrain a wave of emotion. “I’ve been doing really great. I have this new therapist, and I threw out all my porn.” Silent tears begin to brew, and they slowly streak my cheek, but I keep my voice steady so he can’t tell. “I even stopped using toys.” He’ll believe the lie, but I doubt he would if I added, and I stopped masturbating.
“Really?” His voice breaks, sounding on the verge of tears.