"Are you sure?" Brandon said.
"More sure than I've ever been in my life," Jane said.
His name was Hugh Stratton. He was tall and handsome and broad-shouldered, with amazing eyes, and when she first walked into the Green Valley Protestant Church, Jane Myers could only look on with longing. If only, if only, she found herself thinking. If only I were tall and beautiful and proud. If only there was glamour on my face, instead of a haze of leftover pimples. If only I weren't short and dumpy and slump-shouldered, my hips too wide and my breasts too small. If only, if only. Then someone like him might notice me.
"Nonsense," her friends said. "It's true that he may be handsome, but that doesn't mean you don't have a chance. Looking like a Greek god doesn't mean he doesn't want someone with brains and talent."
He was handsome, that was to be certain—and, to judge by their interactions, he did want someone with more than half a brain. The rumors went through the church like wildfire: not only handsome, but polite as well, engaging even the blue-haired widows of the congregation in personable and open conversation. Jane, who could not stand to do that herself for more than five minutes at a time, could only marvel. The young, the middle-aged, the teens were equally as enthralled: evidently there was no topic at all on which he could not discourse, be it modern technology or the stock market or the latest episode of American Idol. No less than Maggie Reese, the pastor's six-year-old daughter, was heard to declare in a proud voice that Hugh Stratton was her Prince Charming, and that they would marry in due time and run off to live in a dollhouse together. Hugh, of course, was the target of a fair amount of good-natured ribbing after this pronouncement, but he took it all in good stride. In short: not only was he handsome, but there was more to him than met the eye, and it was clear to Jane that here was a man who would appreciate what she had: brains, and talent.
"But the thing is, I have nothing else," Jane protested.
"That's not true either," her friends said. These were not the friends she'd made at college—not Rita and Marcy and Greg Morse, who were nice people but didn't know anything about Jane Myers, not the real one inside. These were the ones from high school: Brandon and Meredith Chambers, Zach and Christa Crane, Derek Strong and Sajel Malhotra and Arie Chang, the ones who had won her loyalty with love and her love with kindness almost a decade ago. These were the ones who understood her, through and through, and when she met this man, this Hugh Stratton with his marvelous eyes and the boyish charm in his smile, she talked to them about it, and even though she lived an hour away by car (in good traffic) they understood her completely.
"That's not true either," Meredith told her. "Jane, none of us have much to be going on physically, except maybe Arie, and who'd she get married to? Someone she'd been friends with since the first day of college."
"Well, that and the fact that the birth control broke and she wanted to be responsible for once in her life," Brandon interjected as he lumbered through. Behind him on two stubby legs came Laurelyn, the Chambers' daughter. She stumbled to a halt, taking in the scene, and then held out her arms to Jane.
"Anty Kwista?" she said.
"Noooo, not Auntie Christa," Meredith said, scooping up the child. "That's Auntie Jane, Laurie. Can you say, Auntie Jane?"
"Antychane," said Laurelyn. Jane felt a ruddy smile on her cheeks. Evidently that was good enough for her.
"Arie got married, in other words, to someone who loved her for her brains and her personality," Meredith said, "not just the second-biggest pair of breasts any of us can claim."
"Who has the biggest?" Jane asked, confused. Meredith was notoriously slim, Christa hardly less so, and Sajel was average at best.
"You, of course," Meredith said. "What are you, a C-cup on a good day?"
"Sometimes, yeah," said Jane, feeling a little bit uncomfortable. "Depends on, um, on the day, or the brand name." She still wasn't used to discussing this kind of thing—at least, not on the phone where the Chambers' daughter Laurelyn could overhear. Three years old was a little too young for this sort of talk.
"Well, Arie only broke C when she was nursing Rowan," Meredith said. "You're the most well-endowed out of any of us, Jane."
But that didn't seem to make a difference, ultimately, not in her interactions with Hugh: after a polite and almost dreamy initial conversation, he never seemed to pay Jane more mind than he did any others. Of course, this was not necessarily a bad sign; there were a number of eligible young women who were doing their best to make their interest in him very plain, and he was always polite with them but distant, keeping his thoughts close and never showing any interest one way or the other. Jane, who could not think of any legitimate way to seek him out, never had much contact with him after that first conversation, aside from a smile and a wave every Sunday. "Maybe," whispered the blue-haired crones, "he's one of those newfangled fruits they're always talking about."
"What about you?" Jane asked Meredith. "Didn't you get up to a C-cup when you were nursing Laurelyn?" Meredith's was the opinion she would trust most in these situations.
"Me? C cup?" Meredith said, laughing. "Jane, have you checked your eyesight lately?" Laurelyn, squirming, succeeded in liberating herself from her mother's lap and scampered happily down the sofa.
"Why? I'm not much bigger than you," Jane protested.
Brandon laughed again from over her shoulder. "Yeah right. Jane, you must've done yourself permanent injury, with all your posture problems. Come on, stand up, check this out."
Jane stood up, feeling Brandon's presence behind her, his hands on her shoulders. It was, quite possibly, the first time he'd touched her since high school. Would Meredith mind that she, Jane, her husband's ex-girlfriend?— But no, Meredith was just sitting there, observing them with a serene smile.
She felt Brandon's hands drawing her shoulders back, and then pushing the small of her back. She felt the way her whole body changed orientation, like a piece of curved plastic flipping inside out. Now, instead of coiling forward, her spine was arching back. She felt taller—more capable—in charge.
"See?" said Meredith, gesturing. "Look what's been on the front of you this whole time."
"Whoa," said Jane, staring. I never realized. I honestly never realized...
"It's all there, Jane," Meredith said, smiling. "Now you just have to use it."
But that thought made her shrivel up inside. "Use it? You, you mean, like..."
"No, not like that," Meredith said quickly.
"Good, 'cause, I don't want to, to slut myself up like that just to get attention," Jane said.
"To who?" Meredith said, confused. "Where'd you get that expression?"
"Christ, Jane, I thought we'd gotten you over this," Brandon said, circling around to plunk himself in an armchair to her right. It was secondhand, smelly and rather threadbare—like everything here. The Chamberses were doing better than they had four years ago, when Laurelyn upset all their plans, but that still didn't mean they were doing well. "I thought, after you'd gone through The Program..."
"It wasn't that different," said Jane, though it was a weak protest.
"At least you were seeing shades of grey," Brandon said. "There is a gradation between prim-and-proper and complete skank."
"Well, yes, but..." Jane said.
"Have you done it since then?" Brandon asked, half accusing.
"Brandon!" Jane said. "Your daughter is right there!"
"I don't think she's old enough to understand this sort of thing," Brandon said, which Jane thought was an appalling display of irresponsibility. She looked to Meredith, expecting to find agreement—and so she was surprised when Meredith said, "We should introduce you to our friend Caitlyn. She used to think that way too. 'No compromise' and things like that."
"Of course, Jon's been softening her up," Brandon said. "Last I heard I think they were going to start trying to have a baby of their own."
"Probably not," Meredith said. "She called me just the other day. There was a pretty nasty parking-lot accident and her car got totaled, 'cause it was like ten years old to begin with. Might set them back a year or so financially."
"Still, we should introduce you," Brandon said in a different tone of voice. "I think you'd get along with her."
"The point is, no, Jane, you don't have to let anyone else get up-close-and-personal with your, err, assets," Meredith said. "But they're there... And men are visual creatures, as much as—maybe even more than—they are emotional ones. You can use them, even if you don't let anybody else use them."
"I don't want to let anybody use me anyway," Jane said.
"Sorry," Meredith said. "Bad choice of words. We're not asking you to let anybody use you, Jane."
"No—" said Brandon, vaulting off the armchair. Fifteen feet away, Laurelyn was balanced on the arm of the couch and evidently preparing to jump skyward. "No, no— Laurelyn, what did Daddy tell you? The couch is dangerous. Remember what happened to Wally the Wallaby in the story?"
Laurelyn gave him a face of repentance that Jane, personally, would have been hard-pressed to resist. "Sowwy, Daddy."
"I swear, she thinks she's a sparrow or something," Brandon sighed, to which Laurelyn erupted in a profusion of giggles. "I'm not a birdie, daddy!"
"I'll take our little avian to bed," Brandon said, gathering up his daughter. "B-R-B, as the kids nowadays say it."
"Heehee, B-R-B," said Laurelyn, flashing a smile over her father's shoulders.
"Oh, no, Laurie, not you too," Brandon lamented as he took her down the hallway. Her reply echoed back to them: "Daddy said it first!"
Jane was finding it hard to control a grin. "They really get along."
"They do," Meredith said, beaming. "I lucked out: of all the men in the world, I got the one who loves his daughter."
Looking at her friend's smiling face, Jane was torn. True, Meredith was one of the people she loved most in all the world, and delighting in her friend's happiness was almost too easy... But at the same time, Jane was keenly aware that it could have been her sitting there, married to a man who loved their daughter—her, had she not been foolish enough to turn him down, had she known who he would turn into. Mrs. Jane Chambers. If only, if only.
"Anyway," said Meredith, in such a strange voice that Jane suddenly wondered how much of her thoughts had shown on her face. "Where were we. —Oh, yes. Jane, the first thing you should realize is that your personal attractiveness—whether you have it or not, we could argue about that—is probably an asset in your situation."
"What?" said Jane, completely nonplussed. She had been expecting some veiled criticism pointed at her reticence to join the modern sexual revolution.
"You don't think of yourself as particularly attractive," Meredith said. "That's probably a good thing. If this man Hugh is the shallow, eyes-only type—the kind that goes out with a cheerleader only because they're attractive—you're not going to get along with him. You're the kind of person who wants to be challenged, Jane, and your battlefields are your brains and your talent. If he was just some guy who was handsome, you'd get bored of him so quickly."
"Yeah," Jane agreed.
"So, the fact that you're not, I dunno, super attractive is actually a benefit to you. It means all the empty-headed, vacuous, muscle-man types are going to ignore you, because they know straight off the bat you're not their type. I've known really beautiful women—and a few really hot men—who can't find a smart date to save their life; no one with half a brain even tries talking to them. You've got kind of the opposite problem: no one without half a brain tries talking to you."
"Oh, to have lots of hot women throwing themselves at me," Brandon said, plopping down on the couch next to his wife. Their hands found each other with so little bustle that Jane wondered if they even realized they were doing it. "As problems go, there's worse ones to be had."
"Not to mention that if only smart people come and talk to me, there must not be very many of them at all," Jane said. She had had only two romantic prospects of any sort since breaking up with Jeff, and neither of them had lasted longer than a few months. Jeff had moved on into a job with a major software company and was now on his honeymoon with that woman Rachel, whom Jane had first met during the rehearsal dinner. She liked Rachel—actually, she liked Rachel a lot—and she was happy for both of them, but it stung to see Jeff, who was even less attractive than Jane herself, managing his life out while she was still mired.
"Well, part of it is that we're young," Brandon said. "You're turning twenty-four next, right?"
"That comes after twenty-three, yes," Jane said.
"The way the economy is nowadays, and the education requirements, people don't really start looking for someone to settle down with until around this time in their lives," Brandon said. "Twenty-five, maybe even thirty. You're the kind of woman men will want to marry, but not exactly—no offense intended—the kind of girl guys want to date. And it's all girls and guys dating at this point in our lives."
That much was true. Jane tilted her head to show assent. She knew better than to protest that Brandon had married Meredith when she was nineteen: partially it had been due to Laurelyn, but also because both Brandon and Meredith had been looking for someone to marry—probably even before they knew they'd been looking. It was sheer luck that they had found each other, and that made them the exception that, if anything, proved the rule.
"Also... Jane, I may be alone in thinking this, but I don't think I am," Meredith said. "I believe that beauty is not a gift but an attitude."
"Hah. You tell 'em, baby," Brandon cackled.
"... You totally lost me," Jane said.
"I think beauty is not a gift but an attitude," Meredith said. "I think it's not about how much you have in terms of looks, but about whether you're willing to embrace what you do have."
Jane blinked at her.
"God gave you a lot of things, Jane," Meredith said. "Foremost among those are, yes, brains and talent. And heart. You have a lot of heart, Jane. You don't have as many things that make you physically attractive—which we could argue about a lot, because the simple fact is that you still have more than the rest of us—you don't have as many things that make you physically attractive, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. And if embrace all your gifts as your strengths—not just the attractiveness, not just the brains, not just the heart, but all of it—then you think you are beautiful. And if you think you are beautiful, other people will treat you like you're beautiful."
Jane turned this new thought gingerly over in her mind. She wasn't sure she believed it—and yet it made a strange, elemental sort of truth to her. Certainly it was a hopeful thought: that maybe she wasn't crippled by the hand life had dealt her, that maybe she could actually shape her fate instead of being roped in by whatever random talents or graces God had decided to parcel out to her. Maybe she had a choice.
"It's the truth," Brandon said. "And we don't have to go any farther back than the topic of boobage to prove it. Meredith, as I'm sure you know or at least may have suspected, used to be very insecure about her endowments—or, as she saw it, lack thereof. We finally got her over it. It might have been partially because of the wedding—she was so busy, not to mention tired from lugging Laurie around, that we barely had time to talk, much less have sex, much less entertain insecurities; and I think she finally got out of the habit of stressing over it."
"Well, that, and, they did get bigger, because of nursing," Meredith said. "And they stayed a little bit bigger too, which was really nice."
"But the point is not that they got bigger," Brandon said. "The point is that Meredith accepted what she had, and was able to say, 'Yes, I am beautiful, what God gave me makes me beautiful.' "
"And then, to reward me for saying that," Meredith said, "God gave me Brandon." Her grin grew wicked. "And then He gave me bigger breasts."
"Dude, they only went up by one number interval," Brandon said.
"Hush, don't spoil my mood," Meredith said with an irrepressible smile.
But that still didn't explain why, the very next Sunday, Hugh came up to Jane to speak to her, because Jane hadn't put much (or any) of their advice into effect. In fact, she hadn't even finished deciding whether it was true and helpful or not. And nonetheless, there he was, Hugh Stratton, so calm, so effortless—she'd seen her friends girding themselves to ask someone out, even been asked out a few times before herself, and every other person had been nervous, antsy; one had almost thrown up. But Hugh might have been watching TV for all the sweat he broke. He gave her his smile and his smooth, shining voice, and let her know that he didn't have any plans this afternoon after the service ended, and would she care to brighten his day with her company?
Would she care to? Would she!
On that first outing, Jane was flustered and shiny-eyed by turns. If church gossip was to be trusted, she was the first person Hugh had voluntarily chosen to spend time with—she, plain Jane Myers! And then there was the fact of his sheer physicality: the twinkle of his eyes, the glow of his smile, those broad shoulders, the way he seemed to tower over her even though he had barely a few inches on her. He was not inappropriately affectionate—in fact, he barely touched her at all—but she was constantly aware of his presence, of the mere fact of his existence. She had never before felt such an overwhelming level of physical attraction to another person.
She had the sense to apologize for her scatter-brained manner when he dropped her back at the church. This, probably single-handedly, saved their marriage.
"It's all right," he said, smiling; for the first time, he seemed slightly self-conscious. "Actually, it's a little flattering to have someone so flustered. Everyone else just... Seems to ignore it. Either that, or they're throwing themselves at me, trying to offer me something."
"I... I would never do that to you," Jane said, her face coloring.
"I know," he said. "That's why I asked you out."
It was a whirlwind from then on. Though sometimes it was hard to stifle the various cases of nerves she got in his presence (the giddy, stammering excitement of being seen with him in public, of jaws dropping and staring eyes) (the intellectual jam of having to debate her viewpoints) (her body yearning for him in that private, unspeakable way), soon they were dropping into each other's company like old friends. There was always something to talk about with him, be it history or politics or modern trends or even sports, making Hugh only the second person after J. K. Rowling to make her care about them. He had that rare gift of conversation, the ability to break anything down and make it not only understandable, but interesting as well. He knew so much; Jane had no idea how, except that he must have a photographic memory.
He introduced her to Wikipedia, which blossomed into an all-consuming addiction as she surfed the site voraciously, intoxicating herself on knowledge, correcting pages that were inaccurate, glorying in the sheer vastness of information at her fingertips. He began to take her ballroom dancing, something she had never tried before and still didn't think she was very good at, especially compared to Hugh—but he assured her that it was okay, it was the man's job to do all the work and make the woman look good—and to judge by the occasional compliments she received about what a good dancer she was, he might be right. He even took her golfing a few times, something she had never tried before without the prefix 'mini' attached. She didn't enjoy it all that much, but she didn't mind either: to her, any outing with Hugh was fun, no matter what they did.
She felt selfish at first, feeling as if she hadn't given him anything in return, but after a while she realized that this was not true at all: things would come up in their conversations, and sometimes he'd follow through on them. It started as small things—websites she would suggest, music she'd heard—but when she saw him halfway through the second Lord of the Rings book, which she knew he'd never read and for that matter never had any interest in, she knew. The funny thing was, he never brought these things up, never mentioned them—either they slipped out (like The Two Towers, which she glimpsed in his car) or she had to dig for them.
She noticed early on that, even though they were dating—and, as time went on, dating steadily—he never stopped talking to the other women, the brazen ones, the ones with an agenda that involved his money and their womanly parts. ('In the world, but not of it, ' my fanny.) He was just as receptive to them as before—which wasn't saying much, since he had merely been polite to them before; but it still made her nervous, because it suggested nothing had changed. She wanted to talk to him about it... But a part of her quailed at the thought, terrified at uncovering the idea that this wonderful man was, perhaps, just not that into her. She didn't want to know that. It might be nicer to have the fantasy for a while. But after a few months, it had all come to nothing: he never talked about them personally, never brought them up, never gave any sign that any of them had any purchase on his heart; and they, too, realized that he had no interest in them and began leaving him alone.
He was a maverick. She liked that about him. Oh, it was not that he was a revolutionary or wanted to overthrow the system or did the opposite of what people expected, just to make an impact; it was simply that, when his actions disagreed with what was accepted or normal, he had no problem going his own way. He thought out his consequences, made his decisions, knew what was best for him, and stuck to it. Jane appreciated that: she was much the same way. On the occasions when their opinions of 'the right way' conflicted, they would talk it out in a respectful manner, explaining their viewpoints and deciding jointly. For instance, Hugh felt that it was important to experience sex with a woman before marrying her, as part of the general compatibility testing that was part-and-parcel of the courtship process. Jane, who had had sex with a man who had no intention of being with her for the rest of his life, never wanted to do so again—though, of course, there were many other things they could do together in the meantime.
And do them they did. Oh my, did they. The Jane Myers of high school would never have imagined herself being here: here, in the arms of this immensely magnetic man; here, being kissed this thoroughly and this skillfully... And Jane herself, responding, submitting—wanting more! She was nervous for long time about her lack of talent at kissing, but Hugh was patient, kind, receptive, teaching her without being pretentious about it and convincing her, constantly, that it was okay, she didn't have to be a good kisser, or a good hugger, or any of that stuff—she was perfectly good at it now. Eventually she realized that she wasn't worrying about anymore. She remembered what Meredith had said about her insecurities simply fading away, and decided it was true. And she didn't feel guilty about kissing him, touching him, holding him, not the way she had with Brandon. Of course, she had been a different person back then—and (in all love to Brandon) she had never found him as overwhelmingly physically attractive as she did Hugh.
Of course, it didn't go much further than kissing—not too much further. She let him give her back rubs, easing tension from her shoulders after long days at work, and after a while started trying to give them back. As with the kissing, he coached her, patiently and without ego, giving her ideas to try and feedback about what he liked. Soon she was letting him touch her bare back, which was more sensual than she'd imagined, and it was amazing what he could do to her neck with just his fingernails, or even his lips and tongue. And there were times when her body cried out for release, cried out for his touch, cried out in a voice that had only been awakened by her cataclysmic week in The Program and that, since then, had been nearly impossible to silence.
She didn't go to Brandon and Meredith about that. She didn't go to Zach and Christa either, whom she loved but didn't know nearly as well as she did the Chamberses. No, there was only one person she would trust with something like this.
And of course, his answer was predictable: "You could always use your vibrator. I know Arie meant it as more of a joke, but there it is."
Jane colored. "Derek, you know I don't like that."
"Alternately, you could, you know, play with yourself."
"You know I don't like that either."
"Then try a cold shower. But you know as well as I that those don't work very well."
When Derek and Arie had decided to attend the University of Seattle together, they had had no idea that their relationship would dissolve that summer. Of course, neither had anyone else; by the time anyone knew, it was too late to change plans. But the first thing Derek did once he arrived was apply for a transfer to the nearby Washington State, only to find that he hated that place as well; the climate, he claimed, disagreed with him, and he had only really gone out to Washington because of Arie. After a dissatisfying sophomore year at Mount Hill Community College, he announced that the college experience was unsatisfactory to him and that he would drop out. Jane, at that meeting, had looked around at the others and realized that none of them could help him: Brandon and Meredith, Zach and Christa too tied up with their own adventures, Sajel too distant (having offered to join Arie at Seattle and been accepted), Arie not even here because Derek had convened them. It had been up to her. And to her immense surprise, she had found herself suggesting he come down to Schweitzer with her. He had, and though he hadn't been truly happy there either, having only one friend and having some trouble making more, he was, he declared, Jane's friend for life.
Jane had laughed to herself to hear that: after all, she was his already as well, for the magic of loyalty he and all the others had showed her in high school. And then pondered to herself: that perhaps she had just worked that same magic upon him.
But friend or not, his short, bristly demeanor wasn't any easier to deal with.
Jane had had plenty of practice, after two years in college, and she swallowed her irritation. He's just like this now. Listless. I don't know how he managed to graduate. He was living with his sister Jenny Hughes now, along with her husband Trevor and their eight-year-old daughter Cassandra, and Jane sometimes wondered how he impacted the family. "I wish there was something I could do that would... I dunno, that would take my mind off it."
"There are things, yeah, but it's easier to just, what, humor yourself and get off. Faster, probably." She could not see his face over the phone, but she could imagine it very well.
She sighed. "I guess." It wasn't that she had a problem with, well, stimulating herself, at least not per se; she had done it, and to be honest she had enjoyed it. The problem was, she had also been with men before, carnally, and though neither of her experiences had been ideal, she could never face her own arousal without remembering those times, and feeling just how inadequate it was to be lying here, naked, on her back or on her belly, her hand between her legs, feeling cold and empty playing with herself when, if things were to happen as God had intended it, there would be another warm body here, another voice, another heart, another face. Even when she put the phallus-shaped vibrator Arie had given her inside herself (intended, as Derek had said, as a joke, but still fully functional), it just wasn't the same. It just wasn't the same.
"I want the real thing," she said. It came out more plaintively than she'd intended.
"So do I, " Derek said, "we can help each other out."
Jane laughed. This wasn't the first time he'd suggested that—and, judging by his rather profound state of datelessness, it probably wouldn't be the last. "Thank you, Derek, but... That's not my kind of thing."
"Gotta be with Hugh, right?"
With someone with whom she felt attraction, yes. Derek was a good man, and she loved him dearly, but just not... In that way.
"Well, you know your choices on that score, " Derek said. "I mean, you're the one who said that you'd know when it was time, and that when it was time, you wouldn't hold back."
"I know. But... It's not time, Derek. I know it's not time. I've always known when it's time to—to be sexual, and, it's just... Not..." She trailed off.
"Why isn't it? It sounds like you two are really getting along together. About half the stuff we talk about is Hugh this or Hugh that. You're really into him, Jane."
"I know, but..." I'm not sure he's into me.
She didn't say it, but Derek heard it. Best friends were like that. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, we..." She'd been mulling over this for months, and now she thought she had an answer. "We never talk about him. You know? He... We have these great conversations, and we do stuff together, and I really like spending time with him, and— And, I mean, we're already making plans to come down soon and meet everybody."
"Huh. Moving fast. You haven't been dating him for six months, and you're already taking him home to meet the family?"
Jane blushed. "I meant my friends. You guys. Brandon, Meredith. The Cranes. Sajel. You. I meant my friends."
"So did I."
Jane paused over that one. It was certainly true that she spent more time on the phone to Brandon than to Lisa and her parents combined—and he was the third closest of her friends, after Meredith and Derek. But that was neither here nor there. "My point is, we spend a lot of time together and I like his company and we have great conversations—"
"And he kisses well."
"Yeah, and all that other stuff. But, like... I don't know anything about him. He's like a wall of facts, but he doesn't talk about himself."
"Well, he might feel the same about you. I remember that Brandon broke up with you because you weren't letting him have a piece of you physically or emotionally."
It stung, the way he said it, but that didn't make it any less true. "Yeah, but, I'm not doing that anymore. I've been telling him about me. I've been letting him in. I—" She trailed off.
Derek, as always, heard. "You love him, " he said.
"No, I... I want to say that. But, I can't, really. I don't know him, how can I love him? But... I want to know him. I've been letting him know me, and hopefully he likes me—"
"Probably, or you guys wouldn't've lasted this long—"
"But I don't know him, and that means..."
There was a period of silence.
"I don't remember where I heard this, I think it was Contemporary Views on Scripture." That was a class they had taken together, Jane out of interest and Derek more out of idle curiosity. "But, back in the Bible, whenever a man and a woman slept together, they described it as 'Bob knew Sue.' Adam knew Eve, David knew Bathsheba, Abel knew a goat, whatever. Which is really archaic, really, but, I think there's something to that. To... The knowing of someone. That there's some things you can only know about a person if you sleep with them."
"Yeah, and... I want to know him, you know, that way."
"You want to know his penis in your vagina, " said Derek, ever the soul of tact.
Jane blushed, but held her course. "I want to know him carnally. But, before that, I have to know him personally. I have to, you know, know the other parts of him first."
"And so you'll know it's the right time to know him... "
"When I know him."
There was another nodding silence.
"Kind of ironic. When Brandon dumped you, it was because you wouldn't let him know you in any way shape or form. Now someone's doing the same to you."
"Yeah, and I'm the guy that's got to reach out."
"How worlds turn, " Derek said. She wasn't sure where he'd gotten it, but it was sort of his catch-phrase now: his way of commenting on anything new or interesting.
"How worlds turn," she agreed.
So it was that, on their next date (which turned out to be the next afternoon), Jane asked him. "You know what we never talk about?"
"No," said Hugh, smiling, "what do we never talk about?"
"We never talk about you," she said.
She saw the smile drip from his face and hoped she hadn't just made the biggest mistake of her life—because, now that she had said it, she certainly wasn't going to back down.
"We talk about other things all the time. We talk about me—yeah, we do that sometimes. You know a lot about me. We talk about your job, about the things you do, about the things that interest you. We talk about the most random things. And don't take me wrong: I like talking about those things with you." Her voice softening now. "I enjoy every minute we spend together, Hugh. I really, really like you. I want to tell you that I love you... But I can't, because I don't know you well enough to love you."
He was looking at her with cautious eyes, but he had not got up and bolted yet, so she felt emboldened enough to finish her thought.
"So let's talk about you a little bit. Who are you? Where did you come from? What do you want? Where are you going? What can you tell me about the individual mishmash of genes and upbringing and circumstances and training that produced Hugh Stratton?"
Hugh was silent for a moment, his normally cheerful face slack and still. He toyed with a saltshaker. "That's... That's a lot of material to cover."
She laughed. "That's true."
"Can you... Sheesh, can you break it down a little?"
"Well, all right," she said, smiling. "How about this one: Why did you decide to ask me out?"
Hugh gave her a look that made her a little apprehensive. It was rare to see him this self-conscious. "Well... I guess... Because you're so independent. You know? All the... I mean, all the people throwing themselves at me. They all think I'm such hot stuff." Jane had to stifle a giggle at the double meaning; as a rule, she knew, Hugh wasn't a fan of that sort of double-talk. "Whereas you, you're... I mean, you just kind of ignored me, you know?"
She did laugh then. "And you found that attractive?"
"Well, I... I knew you were stable. You know?" His sky-blue eyes pierced her. "I knew you were sensible. I knew you weren't going to, what, to slut yourself up and try and get a piece of me."
"To who?" Jane said, aback. "Where'd you get that expression?"
He shrugged. "I dunno, it... Just seemed appropriate."
"It kind of is," she said.
"But, so... Yeah," he said. "That's, um. That's kind of why." And he looked at her with his eyes like sunlit skies and sun-drenched hair and the slump of his shoulders and she suddenly realized that Hugh—Hugh!—wanted her approval, wanted to know if he had somehow passed her test.
And she reached out and covered his hand with hers—either her hands were large or his were small, maybe both, but they were almost the same size—and said, "Well, I hope I haven't disappointed your initial impressions yet."
He smiled—a real, true smile—and suddenly she realized that the thing he pasted on was not a smile after all, just a mask to hide his true feelings, and that maybe (it was entirely possible) she had never before seen him actually, really smile.
"You're doing pretty well, I think," he said, still smiling. "We've gone on longer together than I have with anyone else before. I'm... Not so keen about this whole telling-you-about-me thing, though." The smile slid off his face, leaving something crooked behind.
She tilted her head. "Oh? Why not?"
"Well, just... Well, previously, we were just sort of going on, you know? We'd hang out, and have fun, and spend time together, and, you know, just be. There wasn't... There wasn't any pressure involved."
"I'm not trying to pressure you now," Jane said.
"Jane, think about what you just asked me," Hugh said, and Jane felt a sheepish smile grow on her face. "I like that there wasn't pressure. I like that, you know, we just hang out sometimes. I like that you aren't, you know, trying to... Trying to hook me in or something. I mean, all these people..." He sighed and rubbed his face with his hand. "I've been like this since high school, you know? My parents are kinda rich, and, I've got all the brains and stuff—and then I turned out to be kind of handsome too. And suddenly people who weren't giving me the time of day are all draping themselves over me. Because they want—"
"They want what you have," Jane said. "They want the meal ticket."
"Yeah, and, just... I have to be careful about those people. You know? I have to... I have to keep my guard up."
"Yes, you do," Jane said. Some part of her mind, the detached part, was keeping up with his conversation very well. The rest of her was awash in doubt. The face that he had shown her—so calm, so comfortable, so warm, so masculine—had fooled her completely. He had exuded confidence like a warm balm, a confidence that had enveloped her too. It was so convincing that she had never even once questioned whether it was his real face. Even now she felt her senses introduce doubt. There's no way someone could do that. There's no way someone could... Not that well. Not that strongly. He's beguiled everybody. The mask that he put on...