“Take the hoodie off. Please. I’ll only look with my eyes.”
He puts his finger on the zip, and I bite my lip. Then he zips it up to his neck as high as it will go, and I howl.
“Drink your tea, you little pervert.” He tosses something on my stomach. He shuts his bedroom door and after a minute I hear the shower. I hold up a box. It’s a packaged Matchbox car. I can’t help feeling like it’s a reproach. Isn’t being wanted for his body a man’s dream?
I put the ribbon pillow under my neck. It’s a little black car this time, quite similar to his. Is this what he did on his day off? Go and buy me a toy? I open the pack and drive the tiny car on my stomach for a while. I imagine him in the shower with his bar of soap like the little perv I am.
As predictably as night follows day, I begin to fret as the minutes pass. I don’t know why I’m here again. All I know is this couch is my new favorite place on earth. I should put my shoes on and leave. I touch the side of my mug. Not cool enough to drink.
I need to start behaving normally. I got a little overexcited. I think about what kind of girls he probably dates. Tall, cool blondes. I feel it in my tiny undersized brunette bones. I remember once going to a club with Val, back in the day when I actually did things, before the merger, before the loneliness.
We saw these bored, beautiful icy girls. They were standing beside the bar, ignoring all the men who approached them. Val and I spent the rest of the night imitating them on the dance floor, striking aloof poses and making each other laugh with fierce, steely glances. I might try it now.
When his bedroom door opens and he appears again, I am a mature young woman, legs elegantly crossed, flipping through a medical textbook, sipping my tea. He’s got on some soft black sweats, a black T-shirt, and nice bare feet. Can’t he have a flaw?
He sits on the edge of the couch, his hair damp and ruffled in every direction. I turn the page and unfortunately a lurid diagram of an erect penis glares up at me.
“I am trying to be a bit more normal.”
He looks at the page. “How’s it working out so far?”
“I’m glad this isn’t a pop-up book.”
He huffs in amusement. I follow him to the kitchen and watch him cut vegetables into ridiculously neat little sticks.
I nod and glance at his whiteboard. Tuesday: OMELET. I look at what’s for dinner for the rest of the week. I wonder how I can score an invitation back.
“Can I do anything?”
He shakes his head and I watch him crack six eggs into a metal bowl.
“So, how was work? You clearly missed me.”
I put my hands on my face in embarrassment and he just laughs a bit to himself.
“It was boring.” It’s the truth.
“No one to antagonize, huh?”
“I tried abusing some of the gentle folk in payroll but they got all teary.”
“The trick is to find that one person who can give it back as good as they can take it.” He takes out a pan and begins to fry the vegetables in a single, stingy drop of oil.
“Sonja Rutherford, probably. That scary lady in the mailroom that looks like an albino Morticia Addams.”
“Don’t line my replacement up too quick. You’ll hurt my feelings.”
The reminder of the likely outcome of this entire scenario makes me decide to lean against him. The middle of his back is the most perfectly ergonomic place to hide my face.
When it all comes to an end, I’m going to remember this.
“You gotta tell me why you’re here.”
“I got a bit . . . sad today, thinking about everything changing?”
“Doctor Josh diagnoses you with Stockholm syndrome.”
“I know, right.” I snuggle my cheek into the muscle.
“Maybe you fear change, rather than the prospect of sitting alone in there.”
I appreciate he hasn’t automatically said I’d be out job hunting.
“I kept thinking about your blue bedroom. I feel like this is something we need to discuss. Before time runs out.”
I hear the deep sizzle of the egg being added to the vegetables. He covers the pan and turns.
“You’re the sort of person who needs to be eased into things slowly.”
I open my mouth to protest, but he silences me.
“I know you, Luce, and you do. Your freak-outs are pretty impressive. Imagine we have sex right now. Right here, on the counter.” He slaps his hand down firmly on it.
“You’d be so awkward afterward, you’d never speak to me again. You’d quit ahead of the interviews and go and live in the forest.”
“Why would you care? I’d like to live in a forest.”
“I need you to compete with me. And maybe we can find a scenario that doesn’t involve running out of time.” He sighs and checks the omelet. “Do you have one-night stands? Like, do you go to clubs and pick out some hot guy and take him home with you?”
Even as he asks the question, his face grimaces. Maybe I’m not the only one who can imagine faceless suitors.
“Of course not. Unless you count. And I can’t even get one night.”
He lightly rubs his palm across my shoulders, as kindly as a friend, and all the wiring holding my muscles together gets an inch looser. I step closer and lean all my weight against him. When I press my cheek on his chest, his heat glows against me.
“I’m trying to make sure that when we do, you don’t have any regrets.”
“I doubt I would.”
“I’m flattered.” He peeks in at the omelet. “Go back to the couch, put the TV on.”
I drop myself into the plush perfection of his couch. I’m going to transform my igloo into a safe, warm little stronghold too. I need lamps, rugs, more shelves, and a painting of Tuscany. I need buckets of paint and a pale blue bedroom. White linen and a fern.
“Where’d you get this couch? I want to get the same one.”
“It’s the only one on earth.” His dry voice floats out from the kitchen.
“Can I buy it from you?”
“What about this ribbon cushion?”
“One of a kind.”
“I think I see your strategy.” I watch TV for a bit and Josh hands me a plate and a fork.
“I’m like a little duchess when I’m here. You don’t have to wait on me.” I kick my shoes off under his coffee table.
“Some horrible monsters secretly enjoy spoiling little duchesses. Should we aim for a two-hour cease-fire? Starting now?”
“Sure, let’s do it. Yum, this looks good.” I can smell fresh basil. How is he still single?
We watch the news and he takes my empty plate. Then he gives me a bowl of vanilla ice cream. He doesn’t have one for himself.
“Why even bother keeping any in your freezer?”
“In case I have unexpected sweet-tooth visitors.”
I can’t help but grin at the thought. “It wouldn’t destroy those abs to have one little spoonful. It’s protein, right?”
He looks at the bowl, and sighs. He takes my spoon from me and steals a huge mouthful. “Oh, lord.” His eyelids flutter.
“You should treat yourself to something small each night. No point in being cruel to yourself.”
“Something small, huh?” He looks at me pointedly. “Okay.”
I take another mouthful of ice cream. The spoon slides against my tongue and the intimacy of it is obscene. His tongue, my tongue. I lick it and he watches me, chest expanding, breath leaving him in a rush.
He unfolds a fluffy gray blanket over me and I lie there like a spoiled child. He sits at the far end, near my feet, and I stare at his side profile as he leans forward on the edge of the couch and picks up the medical text book.
“You look sad.”
“I’m . . . happy.” His expression changes to faint surprise. “Weird.”
“Why do you still have those textbooks? This one has so many dicks in it.”
“I was originally going to go into the family trade. I haven’t managed to part with them, I guess. And a lot of them are my mother’s. They’re pretty old, but she wanted me to have them.”
He flips to the flyleaf and traces his finger across her handwritten name. I want to ask about his parents, but if I know Josh, he’s on the verge of shutting down.
“Doctor Josh, MD. You would have been a sexy doctor.”
“Oh, definitely.” He discards the book and clicks around with the remote.
“All your lady patients would have had pounding heart rates.”
He takes my empty bowl. He kisses the little hinge of my jaw until I gasp, and then finds the pulse point in my wrist expertly.
“Let’s see. Think about me in a white coat, sliding a stethoscope into the neck of your blouse.”
I can almost feel the freezing cold disc pressed against me. I shiver and I feel my nipples begin to pinch.
“You’re giving me a brand-new kink.” I say it like a smartass, but he smiles.
“I could probably work with that.”
My mind leaps to what our theoretical sex life would be like. We’re playing games with each other all day; it stands to reason they’d carry on in bed. The image hits me so powerfully I feel my body squeeze, empty and wanting.
His voice against the back of my ear as we stand in the doorway to his beautiful bedroom.
What shall we play now?
“I’d pretend to be sick every single night.”
“Every night?” He’s still checking my pulse, staring at his watch, his lips moving as he counts. It’s so sexy I know it beats faster. Eventually, he releases me.
“Quite a pounding little heart you got there. And a raging case of Horny-Eye. I think it’s quite serious.”
“Will I die?”
“I prescribe complete couch-rest under my supervision. But it’s touch and go.”
“I’d make a sleazy joke about your bedside manner but it would be a little redundant at this point.” I snuggle back down under my blanket.