Thank you for your superb editing skills, Pixel the Cat. I’m so grateful.
He lives down the hall from me. His hair is shaggy and blonde, sometimes hanging messily over his blue eyes. A scar splits his right eyebrow in half. Tattered jeans and block colored t-shirts appear to be the only clothing he owns.
He moved in a month ago and through gossip I’ve learned he’s an amiable guy, working as a teacher. Mainly he keeps to himself. Something about him disturbs me—the way he walks, how his calculating blue eyes take in everything around him in one rapid swoop, the weird hours he keeps—but my landlady says he’s a Good Guy.
I catch him one day, helping her climb the stairs. He doesn’t speak to her but he gives her a smile before he walks away.
I wouldn’t know what a Good Guy looks like, but I’ll take her word for it.
Everything goes in slow motion—cars passing in the street, mosquitoes buzzing in my ear at night, summer rain tinkling down whenever it gets too hot. Nothing much is happening, but that’s how I prefer my summers.
On dry nights, I sit outside with the kids that live in my building on dry nights, teasing them and playing games. It’s the most fun I have some days.
On this particular night, I’m smiling while a few girls play jump-rope and pretending not to notice the new guy as he ambles up the sidewalk.
The sun just went down but the heat is still hazy and cloying. Little droplets of sweat decorate my forehead, and just as I wipe them away, my eyes catch his. He’s walking up the sidewalk, weaving through blankets of fireflies.
The first time he smiles at me, it’s electric. Every vein sizzles with hot blood, every cell vibrates, and every breath shimmies out unsteadily. It’s not even that he’s good-looking, because I’m not so sure he is, but there’s something about him.
One of the kids runs over with a ball in his hands. “Come play with us.”
The man laughs. “It’s a little hot for that, don’t you think?”
But he takes the ball and tosses it around. I watch them play for a while, feeling strangely panicked. He hasn’t really looked at me, and he certainly hasn’t spoken to me, but I sense something revolutionary is about to happen. I don’t really think I can deal with that. I’m not ready, and I’m not so sure I’ll ever be.
He throws the ball to another child after a while and stands back, letting the kids enjoy their game. The girls giggle when the boys’ game gets too close.
My whole body thrums with energy when he lowers himself down on the stoop next to me.
“They’re great kids,” he says.
“Yeah. Yeah, they are.”
“I see you out here with them a lot. That’s really nice of you.”
“I don’t mind.”
We’re quiet for a few minutes. It makes me a little depressed that I can’t think of anything to say to him.
“You’re a hairdresser, right?”
The question startles me and I look at him, face to face. He seems different close up. His nose has been broken countless times, I can tell, and his lips are almost too big for his face. His eyes are a disconcerting blue- not a crystal blue, but a dark, moody sapphire.
“There are a lot of very talkative ladies in this building. They say you’re really good.” His smile widens. “I could use a haircut.”
“I work downtown.” I take a deep breath and wonder if I should tell him the rest. A little bit of a breeze rustles through, catching his scent on a wave of air. I’ve never felt this way ... So off balance by someone’s presence, and somehow addicted to the feeling. “Sometimes I do cuts in my apartment, though.”
“Hmm. I might have to make an appointment, then.”
I don’t see much of him the next few weeks. We smile when we pass one another in the hall, or on the street, and occasionally he says hello. I don’t dare.
It’s an Indian summer, but a crispness is invading the air, making me at once happy yet aching. I always feel a bit lost in the fall. September has set in, the leaves are beginning to fade, and the kids are back at school. He doesn’t hang around so much anymore, busy with teaching. It dawned on me after we said our goodbyes that night I don’t even know his name. I could ask around, but that feels too sad and clingy. It would undoubtedly get back to him, anyway.
Then, one rare Saturday when I don’t have to go into work, I hear a light knock at the door.
He is on the other side, standing casually when I open it. A small smile curves his lips.
“Are you busy?”
My heart thuds. “Umm, not really.”
“I was wondering if you could give me a haircut.” He runs a hand through his hair, shuffling around the choppy layers, and gives me a big smile. “I’m becoming a bit too alternative for school.”
I smile nervously and gesture him inside. He sits quietly while I gather everything I need, taking longer than usual because his presence knocks me off kilter.
“I don’t want anything too drastic,” he tells me. “Just something to make me look professional.”
Normally I’d be amused at the hint of anxiety in his voice; he’s concerned I might take too much off, I can tell. Being in the business this long has helped me decode “I want just a little off” as: “Please keep my hair completely the same.”
He doesn’t chatter while I mess around, and I’m grateful for that. Clients who talk my ear off make me go nuts sometimes. It’s peaceful this way and I find myself relaxing. My shoulders drop, my stomach calms and the whole thing almost feels pleasant. I don’t take too much off the length of his hair.
Then I’m finished. He runs his fingers through it. He takes a peek in the mirror I present him and grins at his reflection.
“Wow, I like it. It’s still me.” His eyes glide to my stare. “Thanks. You’re really good at this.”
I’m probably blushing but I don’t care. “Thank you.”
He puts some bills down on my table- more than I deserve- and stretches. His eyes assess me. The sensation of his cataloguing gaze both thrills and terrifies me.
“Wanna go for a walk with me?”
I blink at the question. I most certainly wasn’t expecting that. Before I can think too hard about it, I hear myself consenting. “Sure.”
“My name is Graham, by the way,” he says once we’re in the late Autumn sun. “I forgot to introduce myself. And you’re Virginia, right?”
“Right.” I’m surprised he knows my name. Maybe the fascination isn’t one-sided. “People call me Ginny sometimes.”
His smile is soft. “Good to know.”
We drift down the sidewalk, crunching leaves below our feet. We don’t need to talk and I like that. It’s a little uncomfortable, but mostly it’s exciting.
He tells me about school after a little bit. He loves being a teacher, but he doesn’t even have to say the words. I can see how his eyes light up, how he uses his hands, how he laughs when he tells stories about his students. Then he says how hard it’s been for him, moving out here to the city, away from everything he knew before.
“I like the city. But it’s so lonely, sometimes, don’t you think?” The way his eyes scan my face tells me he already knows my answer.
“Of course.” I try not to sound too depressed.
“My sister keeps trying to get me to move by her. Some days I’m almost tempted.”
He tells me a bit more about her- how they’re really close, how he considers her his best friend.
“You’re quiet,” he says after a while. “Am I talking too much?”
I stare at the scar on his eyebrow. “Not at all. I like it.”
Shockingly, I do like it. I like the tone of his voice, the way he smiles, how I can picture everyone and everything he talks about just by the descriptive words he uses.
“I’m from a very quiet family. It’s nice to be around someone who doesn’t mind talking.”
Graham throws his head back and laughs. “Is that a polite way of saying I don’t shut the fuck up?”
A small cautious laugh bubbles out of my chest. “Not at all! I really am enjoying your stories. I’m an only child so I never got to experience any of that. The closest I have is a cousin who I pretty much grew up with, but we’re not so close anymore.”
His amusement dies down and his eyes are doing that probing thing. “I’m not so close with the rest of my siblings anymore. I’m one of seven ... We all grew up and scattered across the world. We all have our own lives. One brother is actually in Africa right now.”
“You must miss them.”
He kicks a broken bottle out of our way. “Of course, but I was the youngest. I was kind of used to them not being around anymore. There’s just my sister, Kate ... and even then, she has her own life now.”
We pass by a pretzel cart and he stops, his eyes glowing. There’s boyish delight in his expression and I feel myself grinning.
“Want one? I haven’t tried one yet. I feel like a fraud.”
I look from the cart back to him. “I’ve never had one, either.”
His eyebrow goes up and he snorts in disbelief. “How is that possible? You’re a New Yorker.”
“I’m suspicious of street food.”
His smile turns puzzling as he approaches the vendor. His eyes are still on me when he says, “Two pretzels, please.” The man hands one over and Graham presents it to me.
“To trying something new,” he toasts with a large smile before taking a huge bite out of his own.
“So tell me about you,” he says a little while later. “You close with your parents?”
The sky is a little darker, preparing to drizzle any minute. Thankfully we’re headed back to our building. “Not really. My relationship with my mom is complicated.”
“Hmm.” His expression reeks of pity. I can’t have that.
“No, I mean ... She loves me. A lot. Too much, actually.”
“You can love a person too much?” His smile makes me warm. It isn’t a comfortable warmth, but it isn’t unbearable, either.
“Of course. Absolutely. It can be smothering.”
“You could be unloved,” he points out.
I don’t want to tell him I’ve been there, too. It’s sad. I don’t want to be sad today. Something about him cheers me up; I don’t want to waste this high. So I just nod and change the subject and hold on to the good feeling like it’s the only thing tethering me to this earth.
A week later someone knocks on my door. I’m simultaneously hoping and dreading that it will be Graham.
I’ve thought of little else besides our little walk and it’s driving me crazy. I don’t have good luck with men. Actually, that’s an understatement. I’ve been with addicts, losers, abusers and suffocating romantics. I don’t trust anyone anymore, least of all myself.
But when I peek through my peephole and see Graham standing there, I can’t help myself: I smile and blush. Drunken butterflies tumble through my stomach. I feel like I’m sixteen again, riding the back of Tom Daly’s motorcycle. Except Graham isn’t Tom—all pimples and hands where I don’t want them. He’s smiling softly on the other side of my door, waiting for me to open up.
So I do.
“Hey, Virginia. I hope I’m not interrupting anything. I would have called first but I don’t have your number.”
“That’s okay. Come in.”
He steps in but doesn’t come in too far. “What are you doing for dinner tonight?”
My palms sweat and my heart pumps erratically. “I was just going to heat up some Chinese from yesterday.”
“Unacceptable. A new Italian restaurant opened up five blocks from here. My buddy at work told me I have to try it.” He runs a hand through his hair which already looks shaggy, in spite of the haircut I gave him. His blue eyes glitter when he gives me a puppy dog look. “Please don’t make me go alone.”
I want to go with him desperately. I want to be a normal girl who doesn’t have to weigh all the ramifications of saying yes. Unfortunately the scars all across my body, and the scars that burn in my memory, remind me I’m not.
“I don’t know ... I have a few things I have to—”
“Come on. If it sucks, I won’t have anyone to complain with!” His smile is contagious, damn it. My lips tug up reluctantly. “Come with me. You won’t regret it, Virginia.”
A few wines later, I’m relaxed. I know this because my tongue feels swollen and my body feels creamy and warm. I’m also talking—too much.
“So your dad is married to a girl two years younger than you?” Graham looks like he’s trying to decide if that’s funny or sad.
“Yeah. It gets worse, though. She was my college roommate.”
Graham whistles. “That’s rough. What about your mom?”
I wave my hand and swirl my red wine around. “She’s a warrior. Nothing fazes her.”
He looks like he wants to say something but offers one of his smiles, instead. “Are you guys close?”
“Nah. She doesn’t really know how to deal with being a mother. Don’t know if she knew how to deal with being a wife, either.” I sip my wine and narrow my eyes at him. “You’re making me talk too much.”
He puts his hands up innocently and smirks. “Hey, it’s only fair. I think the only thing I haven’t told you yet is the time I paid Joey Crown to moon the whole class in the fourth grade and he got suspended for two weeks. I’ve felt guilty about that ever since.”
Giddy, drunken laughter erupts from me. I smack Graham’s shoulder, loving this feeling. His own tipsy laughter rings out, drowning mine.
He pays the check, ignoring my protests, and grabs my arm to help me up.
“You know,” I tell him, dropping my head back to get a good look at him while we’re this close, “you’re not that bad looking.”
He tries not to laugh. “Thanks, Gin. I appreciate that.”
“No, really.” My brain and tongue aren’t working properly. Everything feels soggy. “I mean ... You are handsome. Kind of. When you want to be.”
“Okay, I think we should take a break from the compliments,” he laughs.
“Graham.” It’s the first time I’ve said his name and we both know it. “You really are. Because you’re not. You know? You’re really beautiful. You don’t have to be nice to me, but you are. You don’t have to play with that obnoxious kid in apartment 2-H, but you do because you know he doesn’t have any friends.”
His smile is all weird. Like he’s forcing it, like he’s really uncomfortable. Oh, God, I’m fucking this up!
“I mean that all your features are kind of mismatched but together they’re so good. Do you know what I mean?”
Graham takes a deep breath and smiles on the exhale. “Yeah. Thank you. You’re not so bad, yourself.”
We start walking outside but my drunken self feels like she hasn’t made her point—and worse, that she’s insulted Graham. So Drunk Ginny decides to point out her own flaws.
“I have the biggest mole on my back. It’s really gross, actually. When I was fifteen I seriously considered getting it removed.”
Graham’s bellowing cackle is loud and echoing through the street. “Oh yeah? That’s kind of hot.” He squeezes my arm. “You know, I’m impressed how clear you’re able to speak when you’re trashed.”
“I’m not trashed.” My heel decides to trap itself in a crack at that moment. “Just tired.”
He crouches down to patiently maneuver my shoe out of trouble. He breathes out a hot laugh against my leg and I shiver.
“You’re a funny girl, Virginia. A wasted girl, but a funny one, nonetheless.”
We’re having a moment. There’s nothing but the way his dark blue eyes look in the gauzy light, the sensation of his fingertips on my bare ankle and the irregular thump of my heartbeat.
Slowly he stands, keeping eye contact. I’m sure he’s going to kiss me, and maybe it’s the wine or the fun I’m having, but I’m not completely panicking at the prospect. Then he shocks the hell out of me; he steps back.
“We should get back. It’s late.”
The way I’m feeling now is kind of hard to explain. You know how when you’re just drifting off to sleep, into a really fabulous dream, and your whole body jerks awake? It feels like that, only worse because now we have to walk home coated in the awkwardness of our almost kiss. He won’t even look at me.
He tries making small talk on the short walk back, but neither of us is paying attention. Our lit up apartment building is a lighthouse. I can’t wait to run up to my apartment, sink into a hot bath, and try to forget all about the stupid, crushing disappointment. I never should have allowed myself to hope, to depend on another person for companionship.
I have my foot raised to take the first step up to our door when his hand on my elbow stops me.
“Wait. Ginny, wait.”
Like a fool, I do. I can already hear the speech he’s about to make. Maybe he has someone home. Maybe he can’t forget, like me. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it. I can’t make another false start in my life. I won’t.
He isn’t talking. Impatiently I turn my head, about to spew out everything I’m thinking for once, when his hot lips meet mine. It’s a shock and I try to pull back, but he doesn’t stop. He tugs me closer to his body, running his hands up my back. One cups the back of my neck; the other drags over the side of my face.
His tongue flirts across my bottom lip. It’s subtle but I can sense the question here—”Is this okay?”
It is. My mouth sighs and he’s inside, giving and taking. The kiss turns rough and altogether undefinable. He bites and soothes and groans. His hands never stray; he doesn’t touch anywhere inappropriate. Still, the hunger he feels is evident in every tongue stroke, in every deep sound from his throat.
I forget I’m me, I forget about my past, I forget that I vowed I’d never be a “funny girl” to anyone ever again. I forget that I could get hurt, that this isn’t what I want, that I’m terrified of him.
I just forget.
But the next morning I remember.
I glance at my reflection when I wash my hands and see my swollen lips and everything I tried to suppress comes back like a rubber band. And it stings. I’m the woman who had to move to a huge city because she desperately wanted to be swallowed up. I’m the girl who ran away from her boyfriend who thought it was fun to use her as his stress relief. I’m the idiot who bailed exes out of jail, who ignored the depletion of her bank account, who always turned into a fool for love. I can’t do it again. I won’t.
There’s a knock at my door and now I just feel dread. I know who it is and I just want him to go away. He likes me—the pieces I’ve let him see—and I like the pieces of himself he’s shown to me, too. Now I’m going to hurt him. But it’s for the best, really, because soon we’ll have to show all of ourselves to each other and it might be too late.
He comes again that night and calls my name softly from the other side of the door. He leaves a note under it.
My friend suggested an Indian place on the other side of town. Be my date tomorrow night?
Also, here’s my cell number. Can’t believe I keep forgetting to ask for yours.
I throw it out.
The next afternoon, he comes home from work at the same time do. His grin is huge and happy to see me. He’s making it so much harder.
“Hi,” he says. He’s breathless from jogging up to me. “You never called.”
“Sorry. I only saw your note this morning.”
He swallows and I watch his Adam’s apple bob. “That’s okay. So, what do you think—are we going Indian tonight?”
There are so many things I could say. I know that I want to say yes, but it just won’t work. It won’t stay this way forever. Graham might not be anything like the string of skeletons in my closet, but it’s enough that I have them.
“I’m sorry,” I hear myself saying. The words are flat and dry. “I can’t.”
“We can go tomorrow.” Graham shrugs and ruffles his hair. “No big.”
“I mean I can’t go out with you.”
His expression morphs into one of confusion. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend.”
He shifts his messenger bag to his other shoulder. “Virginia, I just want to get to know you. Just be your friend.” He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “And I’m sorry about the kiss. It was too soon.”
“This isn’t about the kiss. I just—”
“We’ll be friends.” His smile is wide and warm. “Let’s be friends. Please.”
I huff impatiently. “Graham, I—”
“Please,” he repeats. His smile fades and his eyes grow more serious. I look over his features, wondering how I ever thought him anything less than beautiful. “I could really use a friend right now and I think you could, too.”
A part of me bristles at that comment, but another, larger, needier part fucking blooms when he says that. Before I know what I’m doing, I hear myself whisper, “okay.”
His hot lips kiss my cool cheek. It’s dry and short, but it excites me. I feel like I could live through eternity if only I could get a kiss on my cheek every now and then from Graham. And that’s when I realize I’m truly pathetic.
November brings with it an unexpectedly large snowstorm. I play sad music and look at the snowflakes that listlessly drop down in lazy heaps.
The weeks since Graham and I established our friendship have passed slowly and sometimes painfully. It’s strange how I can both crave and dread his company. Nearly every night he shows up at the door of my apartment, either holding take-out or offering to take me out to a new restaurant. It’s confusing to me because of how I feel; I don’t want, or need, more than a friend, but I desire more from him. I don’t want a hug goodnight, or a kiss on my forehead, or a harmless squeeze on my wrist. I’m not entirely sure what I want but it’s more. It’s definitely more.
And that scares the fuck out of me.
More can’t possibly be good for me. Even if it was, I’d never know how to ask for it. I couldn’t. I can’t. So I don’t.
Tonight I’m supposed to be going to this really great new restaurant with him but I have a headache brought on my confusion and my own induced angst. I try to fight against this, but I don’t know what else to do. So I call my mom.
“Ginny?” That’s how she always answers her phone and it makes me feel guilty. It’s the response of a mother who knows her child is constantly in trouble, perpetually sad and in need of a pick-me-up. There’s always worry in that one utterance of my name, with a tinge of hope, like maybe I’m calling to say I’m all better finally. The fear wins out every time, though, because she’s never had a reason to hope for me.
“How are you? You haven’t called in a few weeks.”
She’s not trying to sound accusatory, but I hear blame in her words anyway. Sometimes it’s easier to be angry with someone than to love them.
“I’ve been really busy, Mom,” I sigh. “I’m just calling to ask you something.”
“Anything,” she breathes.
“There’s this boy that lives in my building...”
For the next twenty minutes Mom gives me excited directions, sounding every bit like a sixteen year old girl. I appreciate it, and I tell her so just before Graham is due to pick me up.
“Oh, honey. I’m just so happy that this is what you wanted to ask me. It’s time. It’s definitely time for you and I’m so happy.”
When Graham comes to get me for dinner out at a new Japanese place, I’m still smiling.
He picks up on my mood immediately. His answering grin curls my toes. “Wow, if I knew you had such a thing for sushi I would have brought it up forever ago.”
Dinner is fabulous. It might be the best I’ve eaten in a long time. I know I’m laughing more than usual tonight because Graham is watching me far too closely, drinking in each of my grins with an unnatural amount of satisfaction and affection. I love it, and I’m not about to tell him off for it.
When we’re standing on the steps to our apartment building, I move to kiss him. He welcomes it, running his hands up my back. He pushes me against the door, ignoring the catcall of one of our neighbors smoking a couple of feet down the block.
“Graham.” My gasp of his name makes him shudder. “Maybe we should go inside.”
He all but drags me into the building and up the stairs to his apartment. “Sorry about the mess,” he breathes. I think he meant to laugh.