“Have you heard Oz by Zara Slate?”
My chest constricts and my heart tries to pound free from its cage. The need to remind myself to breathe keeps my mind from being able to conjure her voice in my head.
“It was inescapable.” I rasp.
Radio stations, grocery stores, television shows, movies, and all other conceivable sources of media pushed the song until it took on a life of its own. It punches me in the gut each time I hear it. Even before the pictures of her with the band began to circulate, I knew.
The wizard in question is a charismatic enigma who can do more with a simple smile than most can do with their entire bodies, whose eyes are as green as the city from which they hail, and they used them to make her feel like she was the only person in the room. His most noticeable illusion is the ability to appear to be in two places at once. He was new in town but was rapidly making a name for himself.
I stay away from online gossip concerning his personal life for obvious reasons. America’s sweetheart’s song threw her time with Rhys in my face. I was his first. A sense of possession that I wasn’t aware I had reared its ugly head when she gave me definitive proof that I was no longer his only.
“For what?” I challenge him.
“All of it.” He mutters softly.
I close my eyes to refocus.
My first order of business upon reopening them is putting more distance between our bodies. Locking my eyes on his is my second action.
“We weren’t together. You had every right to stick your wand wherever you wanted. Right now, I want you to tell the truth instead of patting my head and telling me everything’s going to be okay.”
“Pop, I’m s--” He reaches for my hand.
I cross my arms. “I don’t want an apology. I want the story. Start from the beginning.”
“How much of it do you want?”
“All of it.”
“All of it all of it?”
“I don’t want smut novel level of description, but I want a gently worded breakdown of what went down in that room. It’ll prepare me if Zara decides to pen a follow-up song about your performance.” I grit my teeth.
“I didn’t do that.”
“Sleep with her?”
“Go down. That trick is only performed for girlfriends.” He keeps up with the wizard analogy.
“We’ll discuss them later. It might not be the case for you, but I can only handle one at a time.” I snip.
“I’ve only had one girlfriend. And if she must know, I’ve never had a threesome or orgy. They seem like a ton of work.” He matches my level of irritation.
Despite the blush spreading on my cheeks, I’m determined not to shy away from the topic. I convey it by narrowing my eyes at him. “Where did you meet her?”
“A Grammys after-party.”
“Did you sleep with her that night?”
“Who approached whom?”
“Technically, I approached her. Trina, the band’s publicist, introduced us to her. She won an award. We had to be seen congratulating her.”
“Who initiated the flirting?”
“Did you immediately reciprocate?”
“I didn’t start picking up what she was putting down until I was a couple of drinks deep.”
“Where did you go after the party?”
“Where did you go after you were done partying?”
“Her hotel room.”
“Whose idea was it to go there?”
“What did you do once you were there?”
“Kissing, some hand stuff, and the main event.”
“Was there eye contact?”
“No, the lights were off.”
“How drunk were you?”
“Drunk enough to mute my mind, sober enough to be operational.”
“Are you sure you wore a condom?”
“What happened after?”
“We went to sleep. It was late.”
“Did you cuddle?”
“Was there anything emotional about it?”
“Excluding me, what number is she?”
“How long had we been broken up?”
Tears well in my eyes. “What was the date?”
“The morning after the Grammys.” He looks at the floor.
“The date, Rhys.”
“February 16th.” His voice’s riddled with shame and guilt.
The air in my lungs is sucked from my body. I lift a hand to my chest and begin trying to rub away the physical aching sensation.
I shake my head. “You didn’t know I needed you.” I squeak.
“It doesn’t change the fact that you did and I was partying and screwing around with someone else.”
“We were broken up. Six months is a respectful amount of time.” I push away the stray tears that have wiggled free.
“One thing at a time, okay? I want to know what Zara has to do with you not wanting to be with us for three weeks.” I steel myself and return my eyes to his.
“I want to be with you. I will always want to be with you, but I have to see her next week. Zara will do anything for attention. Putting you in the same place is a recipe for disaster. I’m trying to protect you.”
The laugh I emit is humorless. “I’m so tired of not having choices, of being forced to live in survival mode. Don’t shove me into the closet and tell me it’s for my own good.”
“I asked if you wanted to stay instead of telling you.”
“You did it under the guise of making sure we’re not suffering from tour burnout. The truth is you asked because it’s easier for you.”
“Being away from you would be torture, but it beats giving her the chance to exploit you by a long shot.” He exasperatedly argues.
“Our daughter would be devastated if she were unable to see you for almost a month. She talked about you all day. We left Boston so that you could be together. That should be your priority!”
“What if Zara sees her, huh?What happens then?” He rebuts with the same amount of passion.
“Protect her! I don’t care what you have to do to do it.”
He deflates. “What about you?”
“I don’t need a hero. When you try to pull stuff like this, it leads me to believe you think I do.”
“That’s not what I think. I’m trying to make up for the times I should’ve protected you.”
"All I wanted was for you to hold my hand, not fight the entire battle.”
There is a prolonged silence. Rhys’s looking down at his hands and meddling with them. “Can I hold you?”
He looks at me. “Literally. I need to be close to you.” His voice’s as soft and vulnerable as his expression.
I nod, needing it too.
He scoots over to me and wraps both arms around me. I do the same and breathe in his familiar scent.
“The last thing I want is to dictate your life more than I already have.” He rubs my back.
“I was a very willing participant in Harper’s conception.”
“Harp was an accident, not a mistake. I love you, of course, but before her, I didn’t know it was possible to love a person with all that you are. The timing wasn’t the greatest, but she is.”
“She was created in a greenhouse to Radiohead. It would be impossible for her to anything but awesome.”
I smile. “You remember?”
“I don’t remember what we were wearing or anything, but I remember the highlights. I used to consider it the happiest day of my life.”
“What is it now?” I snuggle closer.
“The day you returned to my life and Harper entered it. I can’t imagine not having a daughter with my best friend.”
“You have a baby with Taylor, too? How did you manage that? It defies the laws of science. Not to mention it would’ve required committing incest. ”
“He’s my other half. I can’t be friends with an extension of myself. That’s just sad.”
I giggle. “I’m going to tell him.”
“He’ll say he knows and tell you Ian’s his. Kyle stood in for you for the past couple of years, but he’s cool with being bumped. He gets to make MILF and future stepfather jokes now.”
“Are you scared I’m going to leave you for him?”
“A little. His teeth fascinate you. How can I compete with that?”
“Your hair does, too. You look like you just walked off the set of a shampoo commercial every single day. What’s your secret? No, don’t tell me. It’d dim its splendor.”
His chest rumbles with laughter. “So, you’re a hair girl?”
“Very good to know.” He kisses the top of my head.
“We’re way off-topic.”
“We tend to do that. It’s kind of our thing.”
“Let’s make planning for next week our thing.”
“What do you want to do?” His tone transitions to somber.
“Go. I’ll keep Harper occupied with fun activities all day. We can stay at a different hotel. Our things on the bus can be stowed in the luggage bin.” I trace the stitching of his shirt's collar with my fingertip.
“Her crib is bolted to the wall.”
“Say Lindsey visited and it was installed for Courtney. ”
“What about the concert?”
“What about it?”
“When we’re on the road, Harper demands her ‘big usic time.’”
“I’ll wear her out. She’ll sleep through the night instead of waking up midway through for your show. I’ll tell her we missed it the next morning.”
“Is it okay if I get you a room on a different floor instead of a different hotel? I want to give her a kiss goodnight.”
“No, Zara will notice if you disappear for a while.”
“If you’re in the same hotel, I can make it quick. I can be in and out in five minutes.”
“Five minutes. No staying to talk to me.”
“2 ½ minutes for her goodnight, 2 ½ for yours. Unless you want me to kiss you for that long, you have to talk to me.”
I smile. “I’ll give you that one.”
“But it’s not a total win. I will ask what you did with her.”
“I can answer that now. Nothing.”
“You can’t.” I lift my head from his shoulder. “She could catch you off guard, ambush you with a kiss or intimate touch. People could see you together and start speculating.”
“How will you react to that?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that I’ll handle it better than I would’ve if you had left me in the dark. It would’ve been relationship-ending.”
“Are we in one of those?” His fingers ghost across my skin to get stray hairs out of my face.
“We have a friendship. I’ll even go as far as to call you a best friend, but we can’t become more until our Harper fight happens.”
“I said what I needed to say at the diner.”
“That was before you met and fell in love with her. She might not exist or belong to another family; that carries significantly more weight. You’re going to be angry. It just hasn’t hit you yet.”
“I don’t think it will.”
“But you don’t know. Until we hash it out, there’s too high a probability that you’ll change your mind a few years down the line and demand a divorce.”
He tilts his head to the side, a smile slowly spreading on his face. “Did you just propose to me, Penelope?”
“No, I – no. It was just a hypothetical, an example of a devastating scenario. I don’t even know if I want to get married in general. The divorce rates are so high, and what is a piece of paper, anyway? More kids. We’ve agreed on wanting those. What if you realize you can’t be with a person who did what I did after we have more children?” I ramble, undoubtedly looking like a deer caught in headlights.
His smile widens. “I vote we elope in Vegas or have a small garden wedding. Doing both could be fun. Either way, I’m getting a ring tattoo instead of an actual one. So, you’re off the hook for not presenting me with one tonight.”
“I’m not proposing to you.”
“You can. This is an equal opportunity relationship. You said so yourself.”
“Getting a tattoo removed is a lot harder than taking a ring off, not to mention painful.”
“Marriages shouldn’t be easy to throw away and divorces are painful. Boom -- metaphor.”
I shake my head, fighting a smile. “Okay.”
“Okay, we’re dating?” His face lights up.
“Okay, I’m not going to fight you on the ring tattoo or your desired wedding venues if we end up getting married. You have done a fantastic job of wooing, but you almost betrayed my trust tonight. ‘Okay, are we boyfriend and girlfriend?’ That’s a ‘no’ from me, dawg.”
“You just crushed my dreams by quoting American Idol-era Randy Jackson. I can’t even be mad at you.”
“2002 is too close to the 90s.”
“You’re using the way I understand the world against me. Mean and impressive.”
“Can we end our date now?” I suggest.
“Depends. Are you asking because you’re mad at me or because you want to end the ‘no kissing on the first date’ rule?”
“What if it’s the first one?”
“I’ll stall. I can talk for hours about loosely related topics. You’ll be too busy trying to make sense of them to remember all the things fueling your rage. You’ll go to bed mildly irritated instead of full-blown angry.”
“And if it’s the latter?“
“It’s better shown rather than told.”
“Can I be mildly irritated and want to kiss you?”
“That’s an acceptable combination.”
“Door #2, please.”
Rhys releases me from the warm cocoon of his arms. He stands from the couch and offers me his hand. I give him mine and he hoists me to my feet.
“Where are we going? We decided it made the most sense for me to spend the night.” I ask once we leave his room.
“Ending our date. Is your overnight bag in the car?”
“No. Shoot. I knew I’d forget something. I was too nervous not to. Do you have clothes and a toothbrush I can use?”
“It’s a good thing you forgot it. Taylor buys toiletries in bulk and you know how I feel about you wearing my clothes.” He scans my body with lust-filled eyes.
“We’re not going past kissing.”
“I mean it.” I point at him.
“Yeah, I know. I don’t even want to do it. I don’t want our second first-time to be make-up sex. It technically would be if we did it tonight.”
“You’re not wrong.”
We reach a paned-door on the first floor of his wing of the house.
“Kevin, turn on patio #2’s lights.” Rhys requests.
I look at him with a raised eyebrow. “What are we doing?”
“You’ll see.” He opens the door and ushers for me to exit first.
I step out onto the brick patio. Lounge furniture and a firepit are on it. Hedges enclose the area, adding much-needed greenery to their modern home.
I let go of his hand and go check them out. “Dwarf Burford Hollies were a good choice. They do well in Seattle’s climate zone.” I run my thumb over one of the shrubs’ waxy leaves. “They look very healthy. They should yield plenty of flowers come spring. How did they bloom last year?”
“There were white flowers on it; well, I guess.”
“Have they been pruned this year? It’s perfectly fine if they haven’t. As long as it gets taken care of by early winter, they’ll thrive.” I lower onto my hands and knees to check the soil’s texture.
“Yes?” I sift through dirt with my fingers, making sure it is conducive for optimal health.
“It’s super hot when you talk plants and I’m already dying to kiss you. Please stand up so we can end our first date.”
“You’re a nature knowledge guy, huh?” I look up at him from my spot on the ground.
“Oh, yeah. Outdoors is the best doors.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I rise to my feet and dust my hands on my pants. “If not to show me the plants, why did you take me out here?”
“I’m walking you to the door. It’s called being a gentleman.”
“By all means, keep it up.”
He takes my hand.
“Sorry, it’s dirty.”
“We’re messy. Let’s embrace it.” He intertwines our fingers, ignoring the dirt that’s still clinging to my palm.
We turn to face each other once we reach the door.
“I had a good time tonight.” He slides his hands into his front pockets.
“Me too.” I smile.
“Would you like to go out again sometime?” He rocks on his heels.
“I’d like that very much.” I stifle a laugh at his pretend nervousness.
“See you later.”
“You sure will.” I step close and press a soft kiss to his lips.
I wave goodbye and go into the house, smiling from ear to ear, and feeling as giddy as I did after our real first date.
Rhys makes it very clear that our first date retcon is over by surging through the door. He pulls me close and crashes his lips to mine. We share a long kiss that leaves us panting.
“Do you want to go back outside?” He separates his body from mine.
“Not tonight. The bricks are still damp from earlier’s rain. They made my pants wet. I’d like to swap them out for dry ones. I should’ve thought about the weather before diving for the ground.” I soil by jeans further by wiping my dirt-speckled hands on them.
He does a silent scan of my appearance.
“You knew I was like this before asking me out.” I blurt.
A smile creeps onto his handsome face. “The first and second time. I’m just as into it, maybe more. It’s refreshing.”
“I’ve noticed you buff out your stranger quirks in public now.”
“Yeah, I—” He rubs the back of his head. “I have to gauge them to make myself palatable. There’s endearing weird and uncomfortably odd. They want to make sure I never cross that line around fans. It lowers my appeal.”
“That’s why I love being with you so much.”
“As long as you keep being a complete weirdo with me, I’ll be one with you.” I extend my hand.
“Deal.” We shake hands.
“I kind of like that I get you all to myself -- get to have real Rhys instead of theirs,” I say we are on our way to his room.
“He’s happy to be back.”
“Were you him with your family?”
“Can we pause this conversation?”
“Yeah, sure. I didn’t mean to upset you.” I faulter.
“You didn’t. It’s information my best friend should know. The location is all wrong. Deep talks shouldn’t be done on the stairs.”
“Can they be done in a blanket fort?”
“Do you want to take a shower?” He asks once we reach the room.
“Solo. I know you like to shower at night. You’re a creature of habit. I wouldn’t be opposed to joining you if you ask nicely.”
“I’ll take one on my own, thanks.”
“Suit yourself. I guess I’ll set up your boring shower.”
“There’s no nudity in the friend zone.” I follow him to the bathroom.
“But there’s making out?”
“We can stop if you want.”
“I take back my question.”
“That’s what I thought.”
The bathroom is as stylish as the rest of his home. There’s a spacious glass shower, deep soak tub, and twin sinks. All of the fixtures are industrial; the floors and walls are rustic. The duality is a style I didn’t know I loved.
“Do you have a preference on what you wear to bed?” He asks.
“A t-shirt and boxers, please.”
“Do you have a particular t-shirt in mind?”
“I’m cool with whatever you’re willing to spare. I’m not picky.”
“I’ll be right back.” He presses a kiss to my forehead. “The towels and toiletries are in there.” He points to a door on his way to the walk-in closet connected to the bathroom.
I collect a towel, washcloth, toothbrush, and deodorant as I wait for him.
He wasn’t kidding about needing help using all the personal hygiene products. He could run a store out of his bathroom.
“What happens if your bunker supplies expire before the apocalypse?” I tease.
“I’ll steal Taylor’s.”
“Knowing him, he’s probably already planning for that to be the case.”
“As he should. Here are your PJs.” He holds up the garments I requested. “Shower or Bath?” He puts them on the counter.
“It’s easy to use. Press the green button on the touchscreen for on; red is for off. These arrows control the temperature; these control the water pressure. Tell Kevin if you want music. The soap, shampoo, and conditioner dispensers are labeled alphabetically. Remember that and you don’t have to spend time squinting at them. Any questions?”
“No, that should do it. Thanks.”
“And you’re sure you don’t need me to stay and wash your back?”
“Yes, get out.” I playfully push him in the direction of the door.
“Are you this violent with all your friends?”
“Should I be flattered or scared?”
“Nice.” He nods with a hint of a smile.
“Leave.” I point to the door.
“Leaving.” He takes his sweet time moseying out the room.
I don’t worry about locking the door.
Rhys is a tease, not a pervert.
I order Kevin to play a singing in the shower playlist, knowing Rhys most certainly has one. I’m treated to the perfect blend of contemporary and songs of yesteryear as I cleanse my hair and body. I exit the steamy glass chamber refreshed and relaxed. I’m humming along to the music still playing as I prepare for bed using all the items he provided me with plus his hairbrush.
Folding my clothes gives Queen time to finish performing "Bohemian Rhapsody". I stroll out the bathroom humming it.
“Wow, you’ve been busy," I remark.
Rhys has constructed a fort using sheets, floor lamps, chairs, and a comforter. He’s arranging pillows inside of his creation.
“You were in there for a long time. I was about to knock to make sure you hadn’t fallen and couldn’t get up.”
“Kevin isn’t equipped with Life Alert? That is a dangerous oversight.”
“The oldest person in my life is Grams. She would kill us if we invested in it for her. I would have had to check in on you the old-fashioned way.”
“I lost track of time. Your shower is amazing. It was like getting a water massage and Kevin provided me with great tunes. It’ll never happen again.”
“It can’t. My water consumption was terrible for the environment. It was a one-off.” I place my stack of folded clothes on the couch.“Do you need any help?” I crawl into the fort.
“You can turn on the lantern.” He nods to the portable camping light in the corner.
I do and move it to a more central area. “Kevin, turn off the lights in Rhys’s room and the music in his bathroom.”
Kevin proves just how smart he is by doing it without further clarification.
“It looks we’re about to tell ghost stories.” Rhys lounges on the comforter he spread on the ground.
He’s wearing sleep attire too.
“Aren’t we?” I join him in the pillowed area.
“Excellent point.” His smile is nervous.
“Would you like to hold me?”
Just like his daughter, he is privy to human contact.
We arrange ourselves so that my head’s on his chest and his arms are around me.
“I’ve fantasized about this for years -- you in my clothes, in my room, and in my arms.”
“Was there a blanket fort in your dream?”
“No, but you tend to surpass those.” He kisses the top of my head.
“Tell me your spooky story, Wilde.”
“Keep in mind that my circumstances are different back then. I lost my best friend and I didn’t have our little girl. I love my life. You’re not at risk of losing me.”
I lift my head to look him in the eye. “Wh—”
“Baby, I’m okay. I’m right here.”
“But you might not have been.” My voice cracks.
“I didn’t have a suicide plan in place or anything. I was just...more reckless.”
“Otherwise known as gambling with your life.” Tears flood my eyes.
“Taylor never would’ve let me get too close to the edge.”
“You said you were hiding things from your family.”
“I could never get away with getting something past him. When I’m in pain, he feels it. He looked out for me just as he always does.”
“Anytime you feel down or overwhelmed, pull me aside and lay it all out there. You’re allowed to be sad and upset; that’s part of being a human being, but I need you to lean on me. ” I vow as I make a mental note to give Tay a bone-crushing hug the next time I see him.
“I will.” Rhys clears my face of stray tears.
“I meant it. If you try to pull some macho, ‘I’m a man, I don’t share my feelings’ bullshit, I will wrestle you to the ground and force them out of you.”
“If you’re trying to incentivize me to talk to you about my problems, you’re doing a terrible job. You wrestling me to the ground sounds amazing, especially if you’re wearing your current outfit. Aside from nothing, this is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen you in.” He hand slides to my rear-end.
“Stay focused.” I swat his chest. “This is very serious.”
“I’ll talk to you; not doing it was part of the problem. You’re back, the miniature female version of me is with you, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep it this way. I’m good, I swear.”
“Pinky.” He offers his little finger.
We fail miserably at being adults by pinky swearing in a blanket fort, but hey, it’s us.
I kiss his lips before returning my head to his chest. “Talk to me.”
He sighs heavily. “I didn’t want my family to worry, so I tried my best to pretend to be myself. If they knew just how bad things were getting, they would’ve made me stop working. I needed to keep going for all the people who depend on it for money and because staying busy gave me less time with my thoughts.”
“What were those about?” I hold him tighter.
“I hurt the person who never doubted that I’d be that one in a million to please people who don’t give a shit about me. Every time they’d show their true colors, I’d remember how much you cared and all the ways you proved it while we were together. The memories came with regret and guilt. They were eating me alive.”
“When you called to ask me for a break, what did you expect to happen?”
“You’d say you valued our friendship too much to cut off all contact. We’d be platonic for a while and get back together once things slowed down for me.”
“Did you anticipate that I’d be seeing other people too during that time?”
“Ideally, you wouldn’t have, but even as self-centered and stupid as I was back then, I knew that asking you to save yourself for me would’ve been unfair.”
“What if I had met someone and we were happy? Would you have let us be or barged in?”
“I’d like to say I’d set you free.”
“But…” I coax.
“But, there’s only one you. I’ve been all over the world and have met countless people, but no one has ever come close to making me feel the way you do. It would’ve been an awful thing to do, but I would’ve made sure you knew that before fully committing to him.”
“Would you have dramatically interrupted my wedding?”
“I have more tact than that. I’d have put boombox over the head, stood outside your window the night before your wedding, and proclaimed my love through a song.”
“Which song would you have played?”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“Why not just sing 'Field'?”
“Is that what John Cusack does in Say Anything? No, it is not. I would’ve put my heart on the line as myself.”
“Would you have been nice to my fiancé up until that point?”
“Again, I would like to say I would.”
“That’s why we couldn’t have been friends.”
“Would your answer have been different if you weren’t pregnant?” He loses his playful air.
My answer comes easy. I've had three years to concieve it. “No, it would have been too hard to move on with my life. There’s only one you. Being forced to watch you with other girls with a supportive smile would’ve been painful, maybe more than what actually happened.”
“How close were you to that? Moving on?” He timidly asks.
“I accepted that I’ll always love a part of you when I decided to keep Harper. I also reached the point of no longer being angry with you for choosing them over me. I wasn’t actively seeking dates, but I was open to them.” I reply with honesty.
“Do you feel obligated to give me a chance because we share a child?”
“Harp makes me love you more, but I wouldn’t be able to be with you if we didn’t have a connection. We do. It’s weird, but it’s ours -- just like her.” I truthfully relay.
“Do you feel pressured to go back to MIT?”
“It’s a great school and you’re willing to pay for it. I’d be stupid not to jump on the opportunity to attend.”
“I thought it was your dream school. That’s the only reason I was pushing it. Pick any school, anywhere, and we’ll go.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t want you to go to a school where people were mean to you. Those asshats were. I’m more than cool with you switching things up this time around.” Rhys rests his hand on top of the one I have on his chest.
He kisses my fingers. “Stop thanking me for things I want to do. I love you and I promised Harper I would do a better job of proving it. She might not have understood what I was talking about; She said, ‘I pwomise’ in response, but I think my vow is still valid.”
“When did you have that conversation?”
“The day we met. You were in the basement.”
“Was she on Pinky?”
“Her being on a unicorn added to the conversation.”
“The conversation where she repeated everything you said?” I tilt my head upward to look at him.
“She was supportive and agreeable. What are technicalities?”
“I like you.” I kiss him.
“I love you, so I win.”
We spend the night talking, cuddling, and occasionally kissing. We end up falling asleep in our fort in each other’s arms.
Harper’s serving as her grandma’s elf when Rhys and I arrive at Claudia’s house the next morning. He helps Harp with holiday prep while I change out of the clothes I wore the night before. The three of us spend the day the way we promised.
As much fun as we have, I can’t shake the ominous feeling that overcomes me each time I think about the week ahead.