My phone buzzed for the hundredth time today, making me seethe. There was no need to check the clock over my head; the ticking bomb that waited outside was eager enough to remind me it was past the end of my shift, probably jamming our discussion thread with all sorts of undecipherable emojis.
The thought of leaving had crossed my mind more than once, but no well-conceived human being could let old Joanne handle the seasonal hustle and bustle of the library by herself. I couldn’t bear the sight of uptight students lashing out at her because of her inability to walk faster and meet their pressing demands only minutes away from their exams. Jerks.
I’d stayed an extra hour or so, just to make sure she was all set for the afternoon. She’d tried many times to kick me out of the front desk, in vain, but eventually won me over when the whole zoo went back to class.
“Off you go, sweetheart,” Joanne said, a warm, wrinkled hand on my arm. “There’s a life out there that needs living. You can’t spend your life taking care of the dead.”
She poked her glasses up her crooked nose, eyes smiling as much as her mouth, and limped away to the office to make her afternoon tea.
“Don’t make me repeat that, I’ll choke before I get the chance to.”
Laughing, I grabbed my leather jacket from the locker next to the steaming boiler and kissed her cheek goodbye.
“Alright, Joe. Please don’t die before Monday, I’m looking forward to our morning chat.”
Although my head was still set on book checkouts and Joanne’s heartwarming company, my legs hungrily strode across the park, warming my body just enough to untie the ball of knots in my neck.
“What were you doing, Avery? I was this close to going home!” Elena’s cranky voice stood out in the crowd, and I wasn’t surprised to find her standing in the middle of the road, hands and eyes glued to her phone.
My only response was a yawn that I didn’t even get to satisfy. It was so suddenly interrupted by a horrifying scream spurting straight out of my gut. A speeding fool honked his way through the narrow, crowded streets of UBC, sending frightened people in the grass upon its passing. As a brutal shot of adrenaline kicked in and coursed through my veins, I rammed my dearest friend against a wall, yelling, “Watch out! Don’t walk and text or you won’t even reach the building!”
It took me a long minute to pant the fright out of my lungs, and Elena got the scowl she deserved. She’d been so obsessed with her phone lately that she’d lost her natural sense of attention. She didn’t even look upset or grateful for the risk I’d just taken for her—she never did. I was her guardian angel, she’d say, sent to earth to save her whenever she was in deep shit. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Angel or not, she could have died right here, right now, and there wasn’t a strand of emotion under her thick layer of makeup.
“Why didn’t you wait inside?” I asked, nodding at the front door of our favorite hangout.
“Something’s wrong with Isaac, again.”
Her eyebrows dropped on each side of her round face in a saddened expression.
“Bullseye,” she spat through gritted teeth, “He dumped me for no reason.”
As much as it pained me to hear that my best friend was hurting, I opted for a poker face reaction that luckily cut the whining short. Comforting her for the billionth time this month was out of the question. I was tired of the melodrama, and nothing she could do or say would turn me against our mutual friend. The man was a romantic sweetheart with poor experience in the field of women, and I pitied him for being so desperately, helplessly entangled in her nets.
Sighing, I walked through the door in a brisk pace, drawn by the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee that I always craved at the end of a busy week. Lee’s feet followed me, but her long straight black hair covered her dark eyes—which reflected off a mix of Facebook and Twitter blue—and she was too late to register that the door had closed before her. When she crashed into it, the whole of Vancouver was honored with her strident cursing.
“Fuck!” she screamed, and timidly kicked her frustration into the heavy glass door with the tip of her expensive high heels. Isaac escaped a nervous chuckle at the ongoing show behind me, and with a spiteful tone, he said, “What a drama queen.”
Still, he watched her strut inside as the crowd parted to the loud click-clack of her heels. For as long as I’d known her, she’d had a flair for the dramatic, and everywhere she went was an opportunity to step on the catwalk. No doubt she’d become a famous actress, someday.
Once the parade ended, Elena came to a pageant halt next to me. She lingered there for a moment, long enough to catch Isaac’s attention, and spun on her heels to sway her curvy hips away from him.
“Hi Avery, the usual?” He asked, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as Lee performed her genius grand finale and sat at the farthest booth available, behind the green vegetation wall. Out of his sight.
I nodded, wondering how they could have wasted three whole years of their lives, devoting their heart and soul to a tiresome push-and-pull relationship. Even I couldn’t.
He thanked me as my coins plinked in his register and turned to the overloaded shelves of cups and glasses to pull two espresso shots from his machine, without much energy. I noticed how huddled up his usually confident posture was today, a sign that his mind was elsewhere. Certainly not anywhere near his upcoming wrestling competition, I thought.
Pouring milk in a metallic jug, he startled me out of my thoughts with a much more irritating subject than Elena’s mood swings.
“How’s it going with your thesis?”
“Ugh, don’t ask,” I started, biting my lower lip. “I’m meeting Sheridan next week to present a detailed project. I have nothing. My head’s a blank page.”
“What kind of film are you supposed to make?”
Before I could answer, the milk steamer went off hissing through the café, making me cringe. Not to Isaac’s displeasure; the fool waggled his eyebrows in pride until utter silence was restored.
“Documentary,” I whispered, out of tune.
I stretched an arm out, blood pressure dangerously crashing as he sprinkled a good dose of cocoa on our shots of caffeine. I didn’t mind. Elena would definitely flip out, though. Cocoa on cappuccino was an insult to her Italian roots, and anyone who dared flouting the no-cocoa rule ended up dead, or so to say. Meaning to object, for his sake, my mouth opened and closed as soon as I met the revengeful look on his angelic face. What the hell, let the cocoa rain. She deserved it.
He handed me a small tray on which laid two full porcelain cups, pursing his lips like he always did when his neurons fumed inside that cute blond head of his.
“I might have an idea,” he blurted.
“I’m all ears,”
Thinking the milk steamer would go off again as Isaac was wiping it clean, I frowned in anticipation. Instead, a grave, suave voice interrupted.
“Isaac, I need your advice. It’s about our summer schedule.”
I looked up to the taller, sexier and manlier version of Isaac. His brother Aaron stood there in front of me, flipping through the pages of a notepad, a pencil between his toothpaste-ad teeth. We’d never officially met. Yet, I’d spent so much time studying here in the peaceful haven he’d built from scratch that our lives seemed intimately tied, in a way.
I suspected he was closer to his thirties than I was—something about the way he carried himself suggested he was past battling the oppressions of social conformity—but I’d stopped guessing other people’s age when I lost count of my own.
Aside from the wild night dreams his athletic body entertained my unconscious with, I presumed he lived alone, not far from campus—just down our street—and knew for a fact that he rode his bike to work every single morning with a tote bag on his shoulder, whatever the weather. The rest of his character was a mystery to me, or the mere product of my unbridled imagination.
My heart skipped a beat. A rough sex appeal radiated through his confident stance and casual appearance, rekindling the memories of our numerous wild nights, the ones we’d only shared in my wacky mind.
He was wearing the same hoodie I enjoyed ripping off his chest. The large computer glasses that I delicately dragged down the edge of his turned-up nose. And those blue eyes that pierced right through mine each time he thrust deep into me. I kissed; I licked; I bit his well-defined lips and gripped his tousled blond mane between my fingers. Whenever one of those dreams occurred, it always ended the same way: I let him fuck me into oblivion and woke up wet in my empty bed.
Before Isaac could notice the beading sweat on my forehead, I ducked away with my cappuccinos, clenching my thighs together all the way down to the booth behind the wall. Why had I come here for coffee? Only a glimpse of him and here I was, fanning the flush off my neck and praying the pool of my juices would wear off fast. Coffee. I needed coffee. With utmost precaution, I pulled up the hem of my skirt a little and clutched my spoon.
Elena eyed me quizzically and her lips rounded in a circle while acknowledging the presence of a tray on our table. She groaned, “Bastardo. I dare him to crawl back to me again,” and aggressively scooped the cocoa and frothed milk out of her cup.
Her jaw dropped open as she watched me pour sugar stick after sugar stick into my coffee with disgust. I could feel her judgmental eyes incinerate my hand on the handle, but nothing could stop me from indulging my thirst, bottoms up. It quickly came to my attention that I was drowning my feelings in sugar again, which she picked up and cleared her throat annoyingly. I just put the empty cup back on its saucer.
“Don’t be too hard on Isaac,” I advised. “Give him some time. He’s younger than you, I’m sure he doesn’t know what he wants yet.”
Elena sank into her seat and crossed her arms, frowning.
“Oh no, he does, actually. He broke up with me the second I popped the question.”
“Again?” I winced. “I thought you were taking it slow this time.”
She straightened back up and aimlessly stirred her coffee with her spoon, her gaze lost in the swirling beverage.
“Moving in together isn’t that big of a deal, you know. It’s been three—”
“On and off,” I interjected. “Stability before commitment. You can’t pressure him—”
She cut off, “When you love someone, you take all of them. On and off. Love, is commitment,” her tone harsh.
She sighed. There was truth in her words, even though I didn’t share her point at all.
“We should go out tonight. That’ll cheer you up.”
The corner of her mouth curled up, and I finally gave in to the urge of glancing at Aaron, who ran about his counter, unloading, drying and stacking a full rack of clean cups.
“Oh, Aaron James, again. I see what’s going on, here,” she said, licking her spoon suggestively.
“Nothing’s going on,”
I couldn’t pick up her next words over the annoying scream of Isaac’s steamer. Damn machine. I cringed, asking, “What?”
“You’re horny!” she yelled, but Isaac had already put an end to his steaming business. All eyes around either widened or fixed on us in surprise, including the two brothers’. Shit.
Out of coffee, I floundered about the booth, desperately searching a good hiding spot. Teaching discretion to Elena was like trying to drive her away from acting—a lost cause. By now I should be used to the regular humiliation. Yet I wasn’t. How could a smug smirk widen across her face right now?
“I’m not,” I whispered.
“Don’t lie to me and pretend you’re not leaking.”
She playfully shoved a cold, bare foot in between my legs under the table and giggled.
“When’s the last time you…”
“Does masturbating coun—”
“I don’t know, I…” I forfeited. She didn’t bother to reply but raised her thin eyebrows meaningfully, forcing me to admit that I’d put all nonessential needs aside—such as sex—for the past year at least. I didn’t regret worrying more about my future in the film industry than my buzzing beehive, even though it’d been a real, frustrating hurdle to deprive myself of my deepest needs—but like any ambitious student, it was a choice I’d gladly made. Now that I only had my thesis project and library shifts to think about, maybe I could cut myself some slack and squeeze some sexy fun in my schedule.
“About Aaron,” Elena ultimately said. “One way or another, I’m afraid you’ll have to shag him out of your head. The secret crush has lasted too long.”
Just as I turned on my laptop, she shut the world out and dived her nose deep into the lines of the movie script she had to learn for her own thesis.
There was nothing to discuss here. She was right. The dirtiest thoughts of him had been a much welcome distraction to my overworked mind and had kept me sane during my exams. In time, he’d become an addiction, except I’d never questioned his long-term effects on my heart. Aaron James was a god. Out of my league. I had no other option than to let go of the idea of him and move on.
Was I willing to throw away the last four years of fantasizing, though? No, no, and no.
After hours of inconclusive research for my project, I closed my laptop when the smell of lavender hit my nostrils. I was alone in the sole dim light above my head. All the chairs were properly stacked up on tables and the moonlight—flooding through the windows—shimmered on the wet floor. Shoot, what time could it be?
Elena’s fancy bag was on the table. She couldn’t have gone far without it, and I’d seen her go to the restrooms so many times that I started to believe she’d moved there.
“Elena?” I called as the oversized door screeched open. No sign of life.
Did they lock me up inside and leave? Why would she go without telling me, and without her purse? In a panic, I rushed back to the booth, determined to call her.
The screen of my phone wasn’t wide enough to display all my unread texts. Ten were from Elena, harassing me out of work, and another ten were from my dad, sharing too many pictures of his blooming flowers in Edmonton. Before I pressed the call button, my phone buzzed, informing me of yet another incoming text, this time from an unknown sender.
You are cordially invited to the launch party of The Love Shack 2020 edition, tonight at 11pm. Dress up for the occasion and join us there: 1402 Anderson Street, Vancouver, BC. All aboard – Shh, it’s a secret. Cheers, The Love Shack team.
I sat down to read the text again and knew in my gut Elena was behind it. She knew me too well: Friday nights were better spent out. What was The Love Shack, though? Nothing I’d ever heard of. I just hoped she hadn’t signed us into some orgy or SM meetup. She was an expert at misinterpreting ads and we’d crashed the weirdest parties of Vancouver more than once.
I was weighing the pros and cons of going to that party when a loud thud echoed through the empty coffee shop. The door to Aaron’s office was slightly open, yet wide enough for me to see the bright neon light on his desk. Was Elena there? I shuffled inside and closed the door behind me to the energetic pitter-platter of water, which perverted my imagination. Great. Lee was having makeup sex with Isaac in the changing room, and I’d have to wait. Again.
This time, instead of leaving the room, curiosity glued my feet to the wooden floor. I wanted to know. Never mind the risk of losing the fantasy. I needed to know. The world was full of those anyway. My heart needed to know. So, I rambled in this cupboard of an office, imbibing the smallest details of Aaron’s things, a mere yet valuable one-shot of his personality.
I laughed at the framed motivation quotes and pictures of his trips to Mexico that hung on the only cleared wall. Like me, he was his own cheerleader and kept his most precious memories close to his eyes, frozen reminders of his ambitions.
I stepped behind his tired desk and frowned, intrigued by his leather-covered notebook. His notes, mainly work-related, bore the consequences of a heavy hand on paper. His rounded letters had bent and scratched through multiple sheets all at once. I wondered just how many erasures and doodles it took one to scribble out the pain of their tortured soul. The more I turned the pages, the darker and larger his doodles, which eventually turned into dark drawings of the local wilderness, the perfect replicas of the tattoos on his arms. Of all people, I could only agree with nature being an effective medicine worth having inked under one’s skin.
A heart picture frame stood next to his computer, and as my gaze landed on it, my mouth dried out and my heart wilted. Aside from being a thriving businessman and a talented artist, Aaron James was also a boyfriend—or a husband—and a father to two children, a girl and a boy, both blond, his smile on their faces.
There I had it, my antidote. Freshly delivered. There was no decision to make. Like Elena had said, the secret crush had lasted too long, and with this new piece of information in mind, I doubted I could ever get high on his body again. Besides, family should always come first. I hoped he cherished it. He was too perfect to be real, anyway.
“Are you looking for something?” Aaron asked from across the small room, his deep voice shaking me out of my grief. I looked up to his damp, athletic body and stumbled on his tote bag. Seconds later, I was down on my butt, cursing, “Dammit,” loud enough to make him sneer.
For some reason, the stars refused to align tonight and were determined to test me. The proof being that when I gripped the edge of the desk, mostly for balance, my face met with his bulge—protruding through his tight boxers—which only hung a couple feet away. Some things I hadn’t imagined wrong.
No, Avery. Family, family, family.
“I thought Elena, um…”
He walked up closer and shoved me against the filing cabinet. His soft, glistening skin diffused an unbearable heat that caused me to blush hard. Too close. What was he playing at? He didn’t even know me. Placing his hands on each side of my face, he tilted his head to the side, eyes pressuring mine for an answer. Dominance and anger oozed from his stiff posture, just like his drawings, and it didn’t take him a second to see how turned on I was, despite the disillusion in my eyes. I had no plausible explanation to give, and my heart pounded so fast that all I could focus on was its beating down my wet core. Confused, I cleared my throat and stuttered, “I-I-I—.” How stupid. I couldn’t even spit out the truth, let alone come up with a lame excuse.
Without a word, Aaron crouched at my feet, his hair brushing my thighs.
“What are you doing?” I gasped.
“Dressing up,” he answered plainly, and got to rummaging through his messy tote bag, from which he retrieved all his gear: shirts, shorts, protein packs, and clean clothes. I took a deep relaxing breath. This was the perfect moment to leave.
Unfortunately, before I could order my legs to move, up on his feet he was. The breeze that followed his sudden movement was charged with the fresh aroma of his shower gel, which sent my inside walls into a frenzy. His eyes plunged into mine as he jumped in his jeans and forced the jammed zipper up against my belly, giving me a feel of his hardness.
Panting, I asked,“Where’s Elena?” paralyzed, trying to look away from the long, sharp collar bones that floated in the sea of muscles under my nose. He dropped his index finger on my lips, and answered, “outside.”
Slowly, as my hot breath ricocheted on his chest, his fingers trailed down my chin, neck, and in between my breasts. They perked up under his touch, betraying my broken heart. I was out of breath, but still managed to mumble, “I need to go,” hoping it would put an end to my sweet misery.
He stopped at the hem of my skirt, clenched his teeth, and with an impassive composure, whispered, “Then why are you still here, Avery?”
Hearing my name coming out of his filthy mouth sent a wave of chills down my spine, forcing my eyes to blink frenetically.
Exactly, what was I doing here? On his wise words, I slid myself under his arms and ran out of his shop in a fury. Judging by the quizzical expression of his face, this wasn’t a turnout he’d expected. Me neither. My body roared for him, but my heart cried.
I didn’t know if I was more upset at him for playing with me or at myself for letting him. Four goddamn years of pure ignorance, and here he was, trying to get his way under my skirt. How naïve of me to fantasize on a man who took pleasure in breaking hearts while his belonged elsewhere, somewhere safe. And how could he seize the first opportunity to betray the ones who loved him so much? The bastard had no honor.
I was done with Aaron James. No more feelings. No more waiting. I was hungry for revenge, for freedom, for lust, and all the sex I’d missed out on because a part of me had been too busy hoping for a sign. I’d had my sign, all right, but fuck, I didn’t want it anymore.
When I reached the dark, empty street, I screamed my guts out, as loud as I could, thus erasing all images of him from my memory. After a couple of deep breaths, I finally exhaled the last molecules of his euphoric cologne that still stuck on my lungs. Nothing could ever tie me to him anymore, mentally or physically.
“Everything alright?” Elena asked, smoking on the sidewalk, her peace disturbed by my unusual fuse blowing. I nodded, deciding not to tell her about Aaron. She had enough on her plate with only one of the James brothers, and I badly needed to forget the final chapter of my secret-crush story.
“How about we go to that love shack party?”
As I took a whiff of her cigarette, filling my lungs with cleansing smoke, my best friend’s eyes softened, and a bright smile stretched across her face. It was all the answer I could have hoped for. Let’s unleash the beast, I thought.