Thanks go to "CJMasterson" for proof-reading, and to reader Beth F. and "Drenkara" for proofreading and alteration suggestions.
It all started when Clarence e-mailed his ex-wife again.
Robin brought it up casually, as if it was nothing important, while they were having dinner together: "You know, Clarence e-mailed me the other day." Her company of an evening was becoming more and more common lately; she might come over to his place, or he go to hers. Sometimes this would go somewhere, and sometimes not; Robin's barriers, though lower than before, were still in place, and sex was something she just wasn't willing to broach yet. Nor was staying overnight.
Clarence, though, was. "I take it you're just going to ignore him as usual," Nathan said.
"Actually..." she said, toying with her plate. "I was thinking of writing him back."
Nathan took another bite of food to settle his mind, stifle his panic. "You, umm. You do realize the irony of that statement, right?"
Robin had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Well, I ... As you know, he has been e-mailing me now and then."
"And, as you know, I'd prefer it if you ignored him," Nathan said.
"I know," Robin agreed. "And I have been. It just ... Honey, from what he's writing, it sounds like he's really turned himself around. It sounds like he's changed."
Nathan grumbled, "I'll believe it when I see it."
"I'll show you his message," Robin said, standing up to take her plate over to the sink. "I mean, it's not like it was a big deal. So he didn't let me contact ex-boyfriends when I was married to him. So what?"
"I didn't object for my sake," he said. "I just didn't like that he was being so controlling."
Despite the rush of the faucet, her smirk was audible: "And you don't think it hypocritical to do the same thing in reverse?"
Nathan rolled his eyes. "Look, I just don't think he's any good for you."
"And I agree with you," she said. "But e-mailing him isn't marrying him."
With guys like him, it is, he thought, but he kept it to himself. And, to be fair, the e-mail (when he saw it) did seem to be from a man who was getting his life together. Still the same cocksure self-absorbed asshole who thought he knew everything—Nathan, who ran a small computer business, could spot them from a mile off—but at least he had moved back out of his parents' house.
The part Robin wanted to respond to—so how are u babe?—was innocuous enough, and Nathan couldn't think of any reason to turn her down that wouldn't make him seem like an overcontrolling jerkwad. They had a love-hate relationship with that kind of person: when Robin wasn't chewing him out for it, she was complaining that he wasn't being enough of one. What she wanted from him seemed to change from day to day. Nathan kept patience with it as much as he could; it wasn't like he hadn't known that about her since the first time they dated. But patience was a limited commodity. Robin's penchant for flightiness was not.
"Umm..." he said. "Let me sleep on it."
She shot him a look over her shoulder. "So in other words, 'No'."
"No," he said, "let me sleep on it."
"You know I could just write him anyway," she said.
"I know," he said. "But I hope you won't."
"Maybe I don't care about your feelings," she said with a mock pout.
"Maybe you don't," he agreed. "But then I'd have to ask why you were dating me."
"I'm..." she said. " ... Kinda stupid?"
"No you're not." He slipped an arm around her, drew her in for a kiss.
"Well, I married Clarence," she said, her face halting inches from his, "how smart can I be?"
He shrugged. "Fairly. But learning."
She let her lips seek his. "Yes, I am."
They had met in college, courtesy of one of those boring classes everyone needs to take—Appreciation of Art, Appreciation of History, Appreciation of Mongols, whatever. Nathan was a sophomore, Robin a freshman. He didn't think much of her at first: he liked neat, perky blondes, with preppy names like Claire or Missy or June. Robin was simply built differently: tall, stocky, deep-chested, well-fleshed; a polite man would call her 'statuesque, ' a mean one 'chunky.' But they got stuck in a group project together and started talking, and it wasn't long before he was having second thoughts. True, she was fidgety, and sometimes overcontrolling, but the group project certainly benefited from her perfectionism; and there was a top-flight mind in there, one just at home discussing the impact of the Protestant Reformation world history as it was the latest episode of America's Top Model. She wanted to travel to many of the same countries he did, for many of the same reasons he did; she was just as concerned about the future of the human race (and its penchant for lurching merrily over cliffs) as he was. And every now and then she would smile a particular smile, one that brought out the warmth in her face and in her eyes, and he would have to take a moment and remind himself where he was.
When he asked her out, her first reaction was surprise: she thought of him as a friend, nothing more. True, he was attractive, in a slapdash, unkempt kind of way—the uncombed hair and bristly facial hair spoke to her of contempt for social norm—but dating? But she thought she might as well give it a go, and she said yes. And she found that there were hidden depths to this man: he knew exactly what wine went with which dish; he could translate from French (but not back into it, for no reason they could understand), and he seemed to have a knack for saying exactly the right thing to make her melt. And when she kissed him goodnight that evening ... She had dated before, been kissed before, but nothing had ever quite made her that riled up. She didn't touch herself that night, but it was a near thing.
They dated for two years, and they were happy without ever really realizing it. They spent time in each other's company, practically lived together; they took classes together, developed injokes, laughed over things that made their friends shake their heads in puzzlement. To him, she became ever more lovely as the years passed. She hadn't lost weight and she hadn't dyed her brown hair, but when he looked at her, it was as if he was seeing something far more beautiful than mere flesh, and far more precious.
Nathan had no thought of marriage, but Robin did. She wanted to wait. She had been raised in the church, and while by and large she had moved on from that part of her life (she called herself a recovering Catholic, the way AA members called themselves recovering alcoholics), the desire to wait until marriage had stayed with her. She didn't think sex was inherently sacred; she did think she wanted to make it inherently sacred. She knew that taking a lover was a very intimate thing, that he would get to see parts of her body and soul that no one else would, and to her there was something romantic about the idea of only having one such man, ever. Wouldn't it be nice to look at her husband and know, deep in her heart of hearts, that there were secrets they shared with only each other, and with no one else? Wouldn't it be nice to keep some things completely and utterly private, except for her marriage bed? She even understood why some conservative (that is, fanatical) Christians preferred to refrain from kissing until marriage. Though she had no intention of doing so herself. She'd be disconsolate if Nathan couldn't kiss her anymore. And a little more than kissing. Nothing involving hands going under clothing, of course, but ... Well, maybe a little of that. Nathan was a virgin, but that didn't seem to impair him in the least; she had never known her body could be made to feel so good, and it was hard to know how far she should let him take it.
So they dated, and spent time together, and kissed, and things were good; but not always. There were arguments—about the sex, of course, or lack thereof, but also about other things. Stupid things, sometimes, like whether it was okay for him to cancel a date because one of his guy friends had tickets to a concert, or the new Guitar Hero game. Stupid things, like whether she had the right to tell him she didn't like his favorite pair of tattered, broken-in jeans. Stupid things, but in the end they piled up, and the two of them just drifted apart. Still, they stayed friends, seeing each other on occasion, exchanging e-mails.
Nathan graduated and went straight on to pre-law, as he'd always planned. Within a month he knew he'd have to kill himself if he kept on with it. His big break came when every computer in the Law library went down, all at once. Nathan, a hardcore gamer whose computer had been able to run Crysis at full graphics settings without a flutter, had become experienced in tech support due to the demands of his lifestyle, and he volunteered to try and figure out the problem. He not only isolated the hack into the library network, but was able to make hardware suggestions to lower costs, streamline access and prevent this sort of network-wide damage. The Law school faculty paid him a thousand dollars for his services, and Nathan had a career he could stand.
.... There is more of this story ...