Chapter 18 - Alex
Technically, I suppose we went too fast. I mean objectively speaking, according to my wary father and confused, angry friends, we went too fast.
“This asshole cheated on you, Alex, what are you thinking?” asked Gemma.
“You just broke off your engagement,” said my father. “You need to be careful.”
“Explain again what happened with Parker?” demanded Paula.
“Is this that guy who broke up the fight at the bar?” Ian asked thoughtfully.
“That dude was scary,” said Mark. “Fine as hell, sure, but... scary.”
“Did Parker cheat on you or something?” Minnie pleaded with wide eyes. “Oh my God, Aly, did you cheat on Parker?”
Their incredulous mixture of shock and disapproval didn’t do much to slow me down. For two months, Nate and I ate lunch together every week day with the intent of getting to know one another. For two months, I snuck out on Saturday after 10 and spent the night at his house, curled up beside him on a cheap mattress on the floor, and left before the sun rose.
For all that it went fast, it also went very slow.
Those first two months, all we really did was talk and make out. We talked about my time at school while we made out in my car. We talked about books we’d read while we made out in his car. We talked about my more challenging students while we ate, and we talked about his more obnoxious customers while we drank coffee. We talked about the weather, the war, the election, and the environment while we lay under cover of darkness, holding each other against the creeping chill of the night.
In the rekindling of our friendship, we moved quickly. In the rekindling of our romance, we sprinted three steps forward and stopped, teetering, at times unwilling and at times unable to start moving again.
We didn’t have sex, is what I’m saying.
Don’t ask me why. I still haven’t figured it out. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a combination of my guilt and his fear. I didn’t want to take what I wanted because I didn’t think I deserved it. He didn’t want to take what he wanted because to do so would be to give over the last piece of himself he’d been holding at bay.
Blue Bean aside, those two months were almost obscenely happy. February 2nd was Matt’s sixth birthday, and I convinced Nate to have a part at my house. He resisted in predictable fashion, reminding me of the rule about unnecessary charity. I pulled out the big guns and asked if he thought the other parents in Matt’s class would let their kids go to a party at half-furnished home of a convicted felon. I won. It was a good party.
February 23rd was Nate’s birthday. I think he expected me to forget, which made it all the more fun to show up at his house unexpectedly at 10 pm with a shittily-decorated cake in my hands. My real presents, though, were the two small silver studs in my ears. I’d spent three hours on my belly on my bedroom floor, picking at the carpet, looking for a flash of silver. I’d emptied out the vacuum bag and dug through it, searching desperately. I found one earring beneath my bed and the second resting on a clump of dust from inside the vacuum. Crying tears of relief, I’d washed them off and put them in and thought to myself that it was kind of a shame Nate wouldn’t even notice.
He did, though. He took the cake, set it on the counter, and then backed me up against the wall and kissed me so hard that for a second we were one. For a second our hearts beat together and the breath he pulled in filled my lungs, and I couldn’t tell where my body stopped and his began.
Then he pulled back, still pressing me against the wall, and brought one hand up, brushing my hair back and tracing the curve of my ear. His eyes went distant, and he smiled bemusedly, his eyes sliding back to mine.
“Sorta assumed you threw these away,” he said hoarsely, before bowing his head and trailing kisses from my temple to my mouth.
“Of course not,” I said breathlessly. Then, because we’d promised to be honest with each other, I pushed him away and caught his face between my hands. “I tried,” I said, holding his gaze with mine and letting him see every ounce of the truth of my words. “I tried but I couldn’t.”
For a second, I saw a flash of hurt in his eyes. Then relief. Then amusement. “Your willpower leaves a lot to be desired, sweetheart,” he murmured, before capturing my mouth with his.
Thank god for that.
* * *
It was mid March when my phone rang around 5 pm on a Tuesday night, and Nate’s number flashed on the screen. I was walking to my car at the time and I juggled my purse and work tote and barely hit “answer” in time to save him from voicemail.
“Hey!” I said breathlessly, holding the phone to my ear. “Sorry about that. What’s up.”
“Hey,” he said back, and the low, rolling timbre of his voice made my belly ache. “I got a question for you.”
“What’re you doing tomorrow night?”
“I’d planned on a glass of wine, a rented movie, and a 10 o’clock bedtime. You got better ideas?”
Please, please, please.
“That depends.” There was a smile in his voice, and when I closed my eyes I could see it. “Turns out my kid is abandoning me for a sleepover tomorrow. I was thinking we could get dinner and catch a movie. Maybe bring the party back to my place afterwards?”
Yes, yes, yes.
“I guess I could free up some time,” I said, humming thoughtfully. “I get off work at five. Can you pick me up at 6?”
“I’ll see you then. Oh, and Alex?”
“No ballgowns, okay? It’s a movie, not a Boston fundraiser.”
* * *
I was waiting by the door when Nate’s car pulled up out front. In accordance with his request, I’d decided to forego evening wear, opting instead for jeans that did my ass every favor and a slouchy sweater. It didn’t really matter what I wore. I knew where the night was going and it didn’t involve clothes.
“I’m heading out!” I yelled, yanking my coat off its hook when I saw Nate’s red sedan pull up out front.
“Have fun, sugar!” my father called from the kitchen.
“Is it Nate?” Tom asked, tearing around the corner from the living room.
“Yeah, Tom-tom,” I said.
“I wanna come say hi!” he exclaimed, dropping onto the floor and tugging his boots on. “Just for a sec, I promise.”
“Okay, okay.” I helped him into his coat and he trudged after me down the sidewalk
“Hey, big guy!” Nate said, climbing out of the car and circling around the engine block as we drew close. “What’s new, buddy?”
“Nothin’,” Tom shrugged. “Is Matt with you?” he crouched down, disappointment etched into the lines of his face when he saw the empty back seat.
“Naw, bud, I’m sorry,” Nate said regretfully, clapping him on the shoulder. “But you know we just got a TV, so I was thinking maybe you and your sister should come over this weekend. You can bring your Nintendo and we can teach Matty how to play Mario Cart?”
Tom’s eyes went wide and darted to my face, and I found myself caught between my brother’s eager enthusiasm, Nate’s smirk, and my own warm, fluttering relief. He’d let me into his space a long time ago, and he’d long since given up on keeping my family out of Matt’s life. The fact that he was inviting me into Matt’s space, though, was huge. That was trust I was worried I’d never earn back.
Nate cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow, and I realized Tom was waiting for my response. “Yeah,” I choked out, quickly plastering a smile onto my face. “Yeah, that sounds really fun.”
Nate got a high five, I got a hug, and we both climbed into the car and watched Tom let himself back in the house.
“So where are we going?” I asked as we pulled out onto the road, afraid to draw attention to the massive line we’d just crossed and accidentally send us careening back over it.
“Applebee’s,” Nate said evenly, checking both ways for traffic before turning left out of my neighborhood.
“Oh,” I said, mildly disappointed. We’d been there a lot, and it had become kind of a tradition, but I’d assumed we’d go somewhere a little more exciting for our first real evening date since freakin’ high school. “Cool.”
When he didn’t say anything, I glanced over at him and caught him grinning, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye as he drove.
“You’re so gullible,” he said, laughing when I reached over and slugged him in the arm. “Nah, there’s an Italian place downtown I thought we could try. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of fine dining but it has good reviews.”
“Sounds good. Then what?”
“I’ve got two tickets for the scariest movie in theaters. There’s some pretty compelling research stating that horror movies are a great way to get laid.”
“Oh really?” I asked, biting my lip against the pulsing tingle, low in my stomach, that came to life with his words. “You think you’re gonna get into my pants with a couple cheap movie tickets?”
“They weren’t cheap.” He shook his head, letting the car glide to halt at a stop light. “These aren’t matinee tickets, Alex, they’re primetime. They set me back seventeen hard-earned dollars. I figure that gets me at least ten minutes.”
“Okay, first of all,” I started as the light turned green and Nate pulled forward into the intersection. “If all you need is ten minutes then I’m having second thoughts about this date. And second of all, are you calling me a prostitute?”
“Of course not, sweetheart,” he returned evenly, reaching over and patting my leg. “You’re gonna sleep with me whether I pay you or not. I just figure you deserve a little foreplay, in the form of some pants-shitting jump scares.”
“Oh, now I get it,” I replied, making my voice low and sultry as I twisted toward him in my seat. “Talk dirty to me, baby.” He shifted uncomfortably as I craned over the center console and pressed my lips to his cheek. “I’m so turned on, just say it again. Say it. Say you’re gonna make me shit my pants.”
Nate barked out a laugh and pushed me gently back into my seat. “You’re gonna make me wreck the car,” he scolded. “Just sit still and let me get you to the restaurant before you start fucking with my brain, okay?”
* * *
The restaurant was nice. Not engagement-ring-in-a-flute-of-champagne fancy, but nice enough that I felt a little underdressed in my jeans and sweater. Then Nate stepped close and draped an arm over my shoulder as he told the hostess we had a reservation and I felt like I fit in just fine.
He got the chair for me, too, and I forced myself to roll my eyes as I sank into it. “You been reading up on chivalry or something?” I asked as he rounded the table and sat down in his own chair.
“I like Cervantes,” he said with a shrug, picking up the wine list and squinting at it.
“What?” Cervantes? That sounded familiar. Was that a white or a red? Or a rose? Jesus, was this going to be like Parker’s wine testing all over again?
“You asked if I read up on chivalry,” Nate said, looking up at me. “I liked Don Quixote but I’m not sure it counts. It’s not like it was an endorsement of the code. The whole point was was to satirize chivalric romance, and...” he trailed off, clearly reading the flabbergasted look on my face. ” I held the chair for you because it was polite. Not to be chivalrous.”
“I need your help now, though,” he leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially and raising the wine list so that it served as a barrier between us and the rest of the small room.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning forward as well.
“What the fuck is a...” he glanced sideways at the list, frowning as he sounded the words out phonetically, “...pie-knot griggy-o? And what’s the difference between that and a pie-knot grease?”
Without sitting back or looking away, I took the wine list and set it on the table, taking both his hands. “Nate, I need you to listen to me very carefully,” I said, trying to sound deadly serious as I fought off a smile. He nodded, frowning as he leaned forward a little more.
“It’s pronounced pinot grigio,” I said, letting go with one hand to take hold of his collar and pull him toward me, kissing the chagrin off his face. “And that’s where my expertise ends. Just order me a grape juice, babe. I won’t know the difference.”
* * *
Dinner was delicious. I think. Maybe it was disgusting. I have no idea. To be honest, I was a bit tipsy and a bit distracted by the man sitting across from me.
He looked so magnificently out of place in the dimly lit restaurant, surrounded by ladies with starched hair and men in suits. He’d done his best to dress up, in dark jeans and a white button up, but he still stood out even worse than I did. I couldn’t decide what turned me on more-- the raw physical power straining at the sleeves of his shirt, the fact that he had probably read circles around everyone else in the room, or the barely-noticeable smudge of engine grease just beneath his ear.
“You’re stupidly hot,” I blurted over desert, shoving a spoonful of gelato into my mouth as he cocked his head at me, frowning.
“Thank you sweetheart,” he said, his frown turning into an indulgent smile as he scooped a small portion of dessert off our shared plate. “You’re pretty moronically gorgeous, yourself.” He stuck the spoon in his mouth and winked at me, and I choked.
“Thank you,” I coughed, reaching for my wine glass and drowning my half-swallowed gelato in ‘pie-knot grease’. “What time does the movie start?” I needed to change the subject, because that exchange had lit a fire in his eyes that burned in tandem with the one in my core. If we didn’t tone it down we’d have to miss the movie, and I didn’t want to do that. He’d already spent the money, after all, and part of me was excited to let him protect me against make-believe dangers.
“Eight ten,” he said, glancing at his watch. “It’s at the theater right down the street, so we got a few minutes.”
We ate our dessert without further incident, and I obligingly let Nate pay the bill. Then we walked two blocks to the theater, where he generously allowed me to pay for the popcorn.
“These prices are so fucking inflated we’re basically even,” he said, glaring up at the board. It wasn’t true, but it made me smile.
The theater was packed, but we found two seats in the back and by the time the third preview ended our popcorn was gone and I was cringing in my seat with my eyes squeezed shut.
“This was a terrible idea,” I hissed as Nate’s arm came to rest over my shoulders. “You’re not gonna get laid. You’re gonna have to spend the whole night sitting in a brightly lit room with me, wielding a butcher’s knife.”
“Aw, sweetheart,” he tugged me close, pressed a kiss to the top of my head, and then whispered in my ear. “Knives can’t protect you against ghosts.”
Even if I hadn’t been half-drunk and distracted by sex, I wouldn’t have remembered what movie we saw. I spent the entire first half of it with my face buried in Nate’s chest, one ear trained on the eery mood music, the other soaking in the gentle vibration of his stifled laughter every time I flinched.
At one point, during a deceptively quiet scene, I pulled back just enough to get a glimpse of his profile in the darkness. He was watching the screen intently, flickering gray-green light playing across the planes of his face. Then the music blared, the light turned bright, and the entire theater screamed out in unison. Even I flinched, and I wasn’t even watching the screen.
Nate just tightened his arm around me, and I let him pull me closer, pressing my ear to his chest and listening to his heart pound, slow and steady. I guess when you’ve been through hell of the human variety, bullshit jump scares and CGI monsters don’t seem so bad. I raised my head and released my death grip on his shirt to reach up and turn his face toward me.
“You okay?” he mouthed, frowning at me. I nodded, tipping my chin up to let him know what I wanted. He didn’t hesitate, and together we made the crowded theater, the jarring movie, and the ugliness of the past disappear.
* * *
“You mind waiting?” Nate asked, gesturing at the men’s room as we exited the theater in a flood of chattering, giggling viewers.
“Of course not,” I said, waving him off as I leaned against the opposite wall. He disappeared into the bathroom and I pulled out my phone, and found two unread messages.
Papa Preacherman: What time will you be home tonight?
Gemma: Use protection! He’s already knocked up one unsuspecting girl. You don’t wanna be the second.
I rolled my eyes in exasperation and answered my father’s text.
Me: Probably not until late. Don’t wait up.
Then I answered Gemma.
Me: I’m 24 years old, I know what I’m doing.
It killed me that I couldn’t tell Gemma the truth. She’d been there to pick up the pieces back when Nate first went away, and she hated him with a burning passion. Our reunion baffled her, worried her, and pissed her off in equal measure. I’d have to talk to Nate, again, about telling her the truth--
“Holy fuckin’ shit, guys, look who it is.”
That voice sent chills traveling down my spine and I looked up to find Pat Curry towering over me. He’d hadn’t gone to seed, I noticed with a hint of disappointment. Most old football players sprouted beer bellies and neck beards the second they realized high school fame wasn’t going to carry them through life.
Pat seemed to be doing alright, though. He was still tall, still built, and still annoyingly, boyishly good looking. Even his full head of wheat-colored hair seemed to be holding up.
His friends, fortunately, seemed to be faring a little poorer. Isaac Campbell’s hairline was receding, and Mark Weatherman had a paunch that hung over his belt.
“Hey,” I said, smiling weakly and waving a hand. They were drunk. I could smell it on them. Placation was the smartest route. “How’re you guys?”
“Fine,” Pat said, grinning a little too wide as he stepped forward, his friends flanking him so that I was backed up against the wall. As subtly as possible, I shifted sideways, circling around so that I had the entire corridor behind me. Most of the crowd had dwindled, and those few patrons who still mingled outside the bathroom didn’t seem very interested in what was happening.
Really, I tried to tell myself, I wasn’t in any danger. We were in a public place. What were they going to do?
“How are you doing, beautiful?” Isaac asked, stepping forward and stealing a hug that lasted too long. “Haven’t seen you since that badass graduation speech.”
“I’ve been good,” I said, pulling away from him and taking another two steps back. Pat’s smile faded and Isaac sneered.
“You still think you’re too good for us, then?” Pat asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “I heard you were sluttin’ it up in college. Figured you might want to sample some of the local vintage, but I guess that’s a little beneath your taste.”
The crowd had dispersed and I was alone. They advanced on me, and I backed up another step. My heart was flailing in my chest so I didn’t notice when they stopped advancing, or when their faces went pale. I didn’t even notice we weren’t alone until my back struck something solid. I spun around and sagged in relief. Nate.
Then I went rigid with alarm. Last time we played this game, it had ended in blood, and he couldn’t afford that again.
“Hey, guys,” Nate said easily, draping his left arm over my shoulder and pulling me close. “Good to see you.”
Pat gaped. Isaac and Mark took a step back. I wrapped my arm around Nate’s waist and held on tight. If I hung on to him, he wouldn’t be able to go berserk on them without hurting me. Ergo, he wouldn’t go berserk on them. I just had to hold on.
“I said hi,” he said, waving a hand in front of their faces as if to capture their attention. “What happened? You fellas waste all your sweet talk on my girl?”
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Pat snarled, his fists clenching by his sides.
“We’re at a movie theater, Pat,” Nate said, his arm tightening around me. “We were seeing a movie.”
“You know what I mean.” Pat was practically spitting, his face splotchy with rage. Men will always baffle me. One beatdown, all those years ago, and he was still holding a grudge. “You’re supposed to be locked up.”
“That’s not what I was tracking,” Nate said, looking around as if bewildered. “Last I checked I was out on good behavior.”
Understanding lit up Pat’s eyes, and my gut sank as he grinned, displaying two rows of too-white, too-straight teeth. “You’re on parole,” he said, turning to both of his friends and shrugging his shoulders, shaking out his arms. “It would be a shame if you got in a fight and got locked back up, wouldn’t it? Poor Aly would be all alone!”
The hand on my shoulder shifted, and suddenly I was standing at Nate’s back, peering around him at the advancing trio.
“Nate...” I muttered warningly. I could see the tension in his shoulders, in his hands which were balled into loose fists, but I couldn’t hear it in his voice when he spoke.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” he said, reaching back with one arm and squeezing my hand.
I didn’t believe him. I wasn’t scared that he was going to get hurt, obviously. He was outnumbered and leaner than his opponents, but I knew he could handle himself. Nor was I afraid for Pat and his cronies. As far as I was concerned, they deserved whatever beating they had coming.
More, I was just afraid of what would happen to Nate when it was all said and done. What if he unleashed and couldn’t talk himself back down? What he if he hurt someone? What if he went back to prison?
“C’mon, fucker,” Pat taunted, stepping closer. “Let’s see if you’ve still got it.” I clung to the back of Nate’s shirt and willed him to spin around and sprint for the emergency exit, dragging me with him.
But that wasn’t Nate’s style.
“I’m not gonna fight you, Pat,” he said tiredly, reaching back without turning around and pulling my hands loose from his shirt. “It’s not worth my time. Please get out of the way so Al and I can leave.”
“Fuck you,” Pat hissed, puffing out his chest. Mark just looked afraid, and Isaac tugged on his friend’s sleeve.
“Pat, c’mon,” he said. “He didn’t do anything. Let’s just go.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Pat said, whirling around. “This fucker murdered a man in cold blood, you little prick. You want him walking your streets? You have a daughter, man. What do you think he’ll do to--”
“That’s enough,” Nate growled, and I heard the threat in the rumble of his voice. “I’m a murderer, not a pedophile, you fucking idiot. Just get the hell out of the way so we can--”
I cried out as the sound of flesh-on-bone echoed through the corridor, and Nate’s head jerked to the side. Pat stood before us, shaking out his hand, purple faced, chest heaving as if he’d just run a marathon. His expression was fierce, but there was a manic fear in his eyes, as if he’d just realized what he’d unleashed.
I probably had the same look in my eyes as I clung to Nate’s shirt, terrified of the impending slaughter.
Nate didn’t explode, though. He just shook his head and worked his jaw, turning back to Pat.
“You punch like a four year old, Pat,” he said evenly. “You really should be more discerning about the fights you pick. You’re gonna get yourself hurt.”
“Fuck you!” Pat said again, practically vibrating with energy. There was another punch coming, I could feel it. I loosened my grip on Nate’s shirt. Maybe if I could get between them...
“Don’t even think about it, sweetheart,” Nate muttered, holding out an arm to stop me as I tried to step in front of him. “Listen, Pat, I get what you’re trying to do, but just hear me out, okay? There’s a camera over there,” he jerked a thumb behind us. I turned to follow his gesture and saw a small black dome affixed to the wall between the bathrooms. “And another one behind you,” he pointed to the matching dome on the ceiling above the exit. “And a third over there,” he pointed toward the emergency exit. Pat didn’t look but his cronies did.
“If you want to start shit, be my guest,” he went on, ignoring my squeak of protest, “but I’m not gonna fight back. When the cops show up they’ll have three different angles of you and your moron friends putting the beat down on a guy for no apparent reason. Assault consummated by battery carries a pretty hefty prison sentence if you get the wrong judge. And Pat,” he took a step forward, and the three other men staggered back. “Prison rape is not going to be a good look on you, man.”
Pat glared. For a second I thought he wasn’t going to back down, and I was, as Nate had promised earlier that night, pants-shittingly terrified. Fortunately, Isaac and Mark shared neither Pat’s bloodlust nor his bravery.
“This is bullshit, man,” Isaac said, stumbling away. “Let’s just get outta here.”
Pat glared, but his cronies were falling away, Mark dragging him by the sleeve of his shirt.
“This isn’t over, you prick,” he hissed as his friends pulled him away. “There’s plenty of spots in this city that don’t have cameras.”
Nate didn’t answer. He just stood there in the hallway, watching them leave, his shoulders rising and falling with slow, rhythmic consistency. I counted, trying to calm my own breathing. Five seconds in. Hold two seconds. Five seconds out. Five in. Hold two. Five out. Almost like he was...
“Sorry about that,” he said, turning to face me as soon as Pat and his goons disappeared. “You know I wouldn’t have let them hurt you. I’d have kicked their asses, but I can’t--”
I swallowed his apology with a kiss, throwing myself at him, wrapping my arms around his waist, and squeezing so tight he grunted in protest.
“Jesus, Al,” he gasped, reaching down to loosen my grip. “Calm down. We’re fine.”
“I love you,” I said, unable to stop myself as the words spilled out of my mouth. I hadn’t said them since that first night, cued by my notecards. I’d been waiting, withholding that part of me until we were sure it was going to work out.
That night I was sure.
Standing on my tiptoes, I pressed a kiss to the fresh, reddish bruise on his jaw and smiled up at his shocked expression.
“I love you,” I said again. “And that was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen. But I’ve got about thirty minutes of patience left, and if you don’t get me home right now we’re gonna be fucking in the backseat of your car. Got it?”
Judging by the way he grabbed my hand and dragged me from the theater, yeah.
He got it.