When Barry woke up, Ramona was cuddled up to him.
This in itself was a new thing, since they had only recently started sleeping in the same bed. Ramona wanted to take things slow, and though they had been dating for more than a year, it was only in the last few months that she had finally felt comfortable staying overnight. And every time they did, he noticed that she was curled around him in the morning.
It wasn't long before she woke up too, of course, because the thing that had roused him was the alarm, telling them in no uncertain terms that they had to get up or Ramona would miss her flight. She was flying back west in only a few hours.
It was the morning of December 24th.
"Ungh," she said.
"It's time," he said.
"Ungh," she said. "Why did they decide they needed to do things by the afternoon."
"Probably to make up for missing you last year."
"We did give them quite a freak-out. 'Why couldn't you have called, even for five minutes?' Mom was on me for months about it ... Actually, she's still on me about it."
They had met on ski slopes on December 21st, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. By the time the sun set, they both agreed that it had been too short indeed. For the next six days they spent every waking moment together, laughing, learning, talking, touching, kidding, kissing. At the end of the week he felt like he had known her forever—something he planned to keep on doing, forever.
But the upshot was that they missed Christmas. Not only did they kind of forget it was happening, but they canceled all their plans too, preferring to stay with this wonderful new person. Barry at least had the presence of mind to call his folks; by the morning of the 25th, Ramona's voicemail was full of panicked messages. By the time she actually checked her voicemail, on the morning of the 26th, a missing-persons report was already percolating through law enforcement.
So the day after Thanksgiving, her parents called. Are you coming this year? Are you sure you're coming? Of course you can bring your new boyfriend if you want, but if you flake out on us again, we will kill you. So Ramona said that yes, of course she'd come, and Barry would love to as well; but then his parents called, with much the same sentiment. Neither thought their families would forgive them if they missed two Christmases in a row; and, to be honest, neither of them wanted to miss two Christmases in a row. But the downside there was that, for their first Christmas together, they wouldn't be together.
"I guess we could have been a little more responsible about it," he said.
"They really haven't forgiven me," she grumbled. "You'd think none of them had ever fallen in love before."
"Does your family normally do things on Christmas Eve?"
"No, they don't. That's the thing. They're so crazy about me being there that they're, like, making up new stuff to celebrate or something."
"Well ... it's good to be loved."
"Too much loved. 36 straight hours of Christmas. I might go insane."
"36 hours of my family would drive me insane."
"That too," she said, and turned her face up. In the dark, their lips touched.
As they kissed, sprawled out on the bed, he let his hands drift lower, down to her panty-clad hips. Her hand spidered its way down his chest, digging under the elastic of his boxers; at a touch, he felt himself surging to his full length. Here was another thing she had only done a few times; her touch still had the power to make him hard at an instant. He felt the smile against his lips as he came to attention at her call.
He began to kiss his way down her neck, towards her covered breasts. She was there before him, her bra falling away to reveal her breasts, pale in the dim light and capped by wide pink nipples. He loved her breasts—their heft, the smoothness of their skin in his hands—but above all the taste of her nipples, warm and thick in his mouth. He tasted one now, feeling its texture against his lips, the little bumps and ridges; feeling her respond to him, her hand curling around his neck, her chest pressing up to his mouth, offering her breast to suckle. Would he ever get tired of them? He had only had them a few times, but it seemed to him that they were perfect, as beautiful as breasts could be.
Soon her nipples were stiff and at attention, and his hand was wandering between her legs. He was unsurprised to find her wetness already beginning, and begin to kiss his way down, to bring her to full arousal. But her hands prevented him, catching him, pulling him up. She pushed him over onto his back, kissing him, reached down between them; and before he knew it, he was positioned at her entrance, the tip of his cock kissed by her warm wet lips.
"Are you sure?" he breathed.
A long pause.
Though she was not shy about her heart, with her body she was careful. Only since Thanksgiving had she felt comfortable going beyond heavy petting. And so far, sex—actual intercourse—was right out.
She cursed and climbed off him.
(Evidently, it still was.)
"I'm sorry, Bear," she said. "I want to, I just..."
"It's okay," he said, though it wasn't. But you didn't say that to your girlfriend. Not if you still wanted to be breathing in five minutes.
"It's such a big step," she said.
"It is a big step," he agreed. "If you want to save it for something special, I totally don't blame you."
"What do you want to do," she said, catching his eye. Her reddish mane glinted in the light from the windows; her eyes were wide and solemn.
The truth was that he wanted to have sex with her. But what he said was, "I want to do whatever you're comfortable with." And that was also the truth. He knew she would probably yield if he pushed her. He knew she would never forgive him if he pushed her. He knew he would never forgive himself. A man who forced himself on a woman had no right to hold his head high.
But it was more than that: there was something special at work here. A man wasn't supposed to be the one thinking about permanent arrangements, but the truth was that he did think about them. When he looked into the future, he saw Ramona by his side. He liked seeing that. He hoped she saw the same in her future. And—all moral pontifications aside—was it better to get a little sex now, or a lot of sex for the rest of his life? The answer to that was obvious.
"If you're not ready, we don't do it," he said. "You've always set the rules for this side of things and there's no reason to change that now."
He knew it was the right thing to say by the light in her eyes, by the enormous smile on her face. "Well, there's things I am ready to do," she said, and began to kiss his way down his chest towards his manhood, still at firm attention. And that told him it was the right thing to say too.
The thing was, neither of them were virgins. Barry had had his share of conquests in school, and no matter how Ramona might downplay her level of experience, the quality of her blowjobs gave it away. She knew what she was doing around a cock, and Barry was quite happy to be the beneficiary of her talents.
Her technique was impeccable: she seemed to know exactly which spots of him to attend to, which places to ignore—and not only that but how long, how hard, how swiftly. Whoever had taught her, they had taught her well. Her tongue swished up and down his shaft, around the crown, along the ridge on the underside; her hand circled his shaft, imitating her movements. As he threatened to peak, she backed off, only to increase the pressure as he calmed; and back and forth, again and again. But not only her technique was perfect: she looked up at him throughout, her eyes wide and bright, a look of love on her face—maybe even adoration. It could not have been clearer that she wanted him to enjoy every instant. It was certainly working. And when he came, orgasm rushing volcanic up his shaft to gush forth onto her waiting tongue, she smiled and swallowed every drop.
"Mmm," she said, with that pixie grin he loved so well.
He smiled back. "I love you too," he said. For wasn't that what she had said?—with her mouth, with her body, with her heart?
Then, of course, there were showers to take, breakfasts to eat, last-minute packing to do, a car to drive. Their planes were going in opposite directions, and if they weren't fast, both of them would leave without them. Life, with all its petty cares and demands, reasserted its dominance for a time, and the next thing he knew they were standing in the terminal to go their separate ways.
"Presents after we get back, right?" she said.
"Yeah. I mean, we didn't do them now, so..."
She gave a sly laugh: "Oh good, that'll give me time to find something to give you."
"I'm sure you'll think of something," he said. He had gone the route of traditional bling: a diamond pendant he hoped she would like. Jewelry was a foreign arena to him, but the darn thing had looked nice on the blue velvet display; and it was extravagant, which couldn't hurt. "You don't really have to get me anything," he said, not for the first time.
"Yeah, but I want to," she said, for at least the fiftieth time.
There was a short silence then, as last-minute travelers bustled around them.
"So," he said. "I'll see you in 48 hours."
"Same airport time, same airport place," she said, and leaned up to kiss him. "I love you."
"I love you too. Mer—"
"No," she said. "Don't say it until we're together again."
He shrugged. "Okay."
He watched the ribbon of shining red hair swing back and forth as she strode away. The next time he saw her, he realized, she'd be walking towards him. It was a thought that should have been comforting.
He sighed and set off in search of his plane.
Barry's family did do things on Christmas Eve. It was a compromise they had worked out. A lot of families did things on the morning of Christmas Day, so Barry's extended family had instituted the tradition of meeting the night before, leaving the morning clear for the visiting of other relatives. In-laws had been thanking them ever since.
His sister Ellen was waiting at the terminal; there were smiles and hugs before she led him off to hunt down the next arrival, Cousin Ted and his brood. "Evidently, the news that you'd show up this year was a big deal," Ellen told him as they walked. "All sorts of family is coming out of the woodwork. Uncle Patrick came out—"
"Seriously? With or without Aunt Gladys?"
"Without the shrewbitch," said Ellen. "Uncle Pat says she hasn't forgiven you guys for the thing with the cat."
"That was nine years ago," Barry protested.
"Shrewbitches have long memories," Ellen said. "Grandma may come, but probably not for long if she does. And Cousin Tina came."
"Seriously?" Barry had a pretty big family—his sister Ellen; an older brother, married now and with kids of his own; and somewhere between four and six cousins, depending on how many of them were in town this year. Of them, Tina was his favorite. She had moved way out to Oregon for college and, for all intents and purposes, had not been home since.
"She said it was time," said Ellen. "Ross is old enough to travel, and she wanted him to meet Grandma before she goes."
"And vice versa."
"And vice versa."
Ellen had brought Mom's van, which was good because Cousin Ted's Brood had increased since the last time Barry had seen him at Christmas. With Ellen and Barry in the front seat, Ted and Rosanna in the middle and the car seats in the back, it was a tight fit, but they made it. Barry was glad he'd kept his luggage to a minimum: one carry-on held all his clothes, the other his presents. Good thing I went with MP3 players for everyone.
Cousin Ted was staying at Grandma's house, but several others had taken up residence at Mom's and Dad's: Ellen, of course, and Roger, his older brother, and his family, which was bad enough to stretch the place to the breaking point. But Roger and Cassie would sleep in Barry's room, the cousins in Roger's room on sleeping bags, and Cousin Tina in Ellen's room. Barry would bet money on the girlish giggles lasting on for hours into the night. In retrospect, it was just as well Ramona hadn't been able to make it; there were quite enough people in this house, too many of them with 'R' as a first initial. The other relatives were staying at hotels, but Grandma's house was going to be cramped tonight.
In all the chaos of wrangling children and shipping people over the river, through the woods and off to Grandma's house, it wasn't until rather later in the day that Barry got a chance to catch up with Tina. By then the larger share of the company had arrived, and the cooking was starting in earnest. Grandma herself was not part of it. Grandma Ruthanne had been a wizard of some repute in the kitchen, but that was years ago; now she was myopic, disoriented, often seemingly unaware of what was going on around her. When Cousin Peter dropped her first grandkid in her lap, she was excited beyond belief; Barry knew now that she wouldn't even react if one of his got plunked there. The bustle and cheer seemed to brace her, but sometimes she seemed to think that Grandpa Tracey was still alive. She certainly didn't seem aware that there was anything special about Barry's presence.
Maybe she'd be excited if Ramona was here.
To everyone else, though, he was the hero of the hour. He lost track of how many people came to say hello and ask him where he'd been last year: Uncle Ben; Cousin Logan; Aunt Trish; Uncle Jorge; his oldest niece Sarah, who would be old enough to have kids of her own soon. It was a sobering thought. Of course, most people knew where he'd been, but some of them tried to make a joke out of it. It got old after the fourth time, and there were more than thirty people at Grandma's house right now.
The most popular question, of course, was where this fabulous mystery girl was. Barry had to point out the paranoia caused by their magic disappearing act last Christmas, and that all of them had been clamoring to make sure he would attend. "Her family did the exact same thing to her," he would say, and the other person would give a knowing nod and make some comment about family. A few of them asked, "Is this going to be a pattern, then, that you only show up every other Christmas," and Barry thought about the ribbon of red hair receding down the terminal and said, "God, I hope not."
Christmas was always chaotic ever since this tradition had started up. Dad was long gone, but both of his sisters were here; and almost everyone was here from Mom's side of the family too. On the rare occasions she'd had to explain it to strangers, Mom had simply said that her in-laws liked her so much that, after the divorce, they kept her instead of their actual family member. Part of that was the family, though: Mom had three brothers and two more sisters, and everyone liked them too. The end result was a mass gaggle of noise and laughter—friends and relatives getting back in touch with each other after months or maybe even a year of non-contact, falling back into old friendships like a pair of well-worn shoes. Kids darted through the mess, screaming and laughing; there were at least ten of them, and a couple more like Sarah (who was all of fourteen) sitting still and trying to be adult about it, giving mature eye-rolls at the antics they themselves might've been up to just last year. Barry could barely hear himself think. To him, this was home. To him, this was family, in as pure and distilled a form as it was possible to get.
He wished Ramona was here.
At the very least, it would've made it easier to explain. The most popular question he got, of course, was, "What's she like," and over and over Barry found himself fumbling the explanation. How could he explain Ramona? Her smile like sunshine, her laughter like rain; the warmth of her in his arms; her hands like butterflies, illustrating every word. There were so many things he couldn't explain about why he loved her.
The best he could do, generally, was a stammering physical description. "Well, she has red hair ... she's about this tall ... she has green eyes..." She's a 34B, he almost said, but stopped himself. That was going a little too far. "Maybe you'll meet her next year," he finished. If only he'd had the brains to bring a picture of her in his wallet; but they'd been seeing each other at least once a week for a year, when they weren't seeing each other once a day. What need had he of a token to remember her by?
Then the food came out, and everyone had other things on their mind. It was in all this chaos that Tina finally managed to approach him and say hi. "It's been too long," she said, her smile as bright as ever. Barry smiled back and kissed her on the cheek.
He and Tina had been closer than most. It had started, as these things sometimes do, just after puberty, when he had started to realize that she was becoming a very attractive girl. It always made him tense inside: weren't you supposed to not look at people that way if they were related to you? Evidently that circuit had been left out of his brain, because he liked her that way—and, to his even greater joy and worry, she seemed to like him back.
Or, at least, she was willing to experiment. He was her first kiss. Who else was she going to kiss?, she asked him—even at that young age, she could tell that her actual contemporaries had only one thing on their minds. Besides, she trusted him. So he was her first kiss, and she his; and then more, as they began to experiment. Training, she called it, for when she met a boy she actually liked. That was what hurt most of all, because he was one of those boys (oh yes he was), and sometimes wondered what she'd say if he asked her to ... But no, that would never work. His parents would never allow it. Her parents would never allow it. It was almost a relief when Tina got asked out by some boy; and from that point on she never lacked for men, and their juvenile fumbling was over.
But even then, they stayed friends. When Tina needed advice on how to please Seth—and, for that matter, how to make it clear that certain parts of her were hands-off—she called upon Barry. When Barry found himself smitten (against his will) by a strawberry-blonde slip of a girl named Heather, Tina provided him with guidance and advanced recon (which wasn't hard; Heather was one of her school friends. Years later he would realize Tina had set them up). They kept no secrets from each other, and the friendship lasted well into Tina's college years; he was the last person she drifted away from, and the first she called when she found out she was pregnant by her then-boyfriend (who, of course, fled at the first hint of anything, the jerk). And now, today, he found all the old habits kicking in, the old friendship still alive.
With one difference, of course: today his heart belonged to someone else.
Of course she asked about Ramona. She hadn't been here last Christmas—actually, Tina hadn't come to the last five or six Christmases—and while she'd heard rumors, she wanted the straight story. "And don't feel like you have to censor any of the salacious details," she said, grinning that familiar grin. "If you fell on top of her in a compromising position, you can tell me."
So he started from the beginning, with the skiing. It had been pure chance: packed into the lounge, rubbing elbows with strangers due to the lack of room, they had reached for the same coffee cup. It took another five minutes to sort out whose cup it actually was (his) and where hers had gotten to (off to the other side, possibly grabbed on accident by the people there, meaning she had to get a new one). It might have gone faster, but Barry's tongue had a habit of knotting in the face of beauty. Later, coffee consumed and selves sufficiently warmed, he had had a burst of insane courage and asked if she had a skiing partner. "Wouldn't want to be alone on those slopes if something happens," was how he put it. And she smiled, and asked him who he had in mind, and that was that.
"So she lives near you?" said Tina.
"Yeah, about fifteen minutes away."
"You guys must see each other pretty frequently."
"What do you think of her?"
"Uhh ... What do you mean?"
Tina re-settled her arms on her knees, leaning in. "Well, I mean, you're together, right?"
"Yeah. Except for right now."
"So you like her."
"So, where do you see this going? It's not just, like, sex, is it?"
"Haha. No, not hardly." He thought about what had passed between them in bed earlier today (had it really been only this morning?). "Not that she's, like, bad at sex, but ... She's a little shy."
"And ... Well, and she's kind of saving herself."
"Ohh?" Tina combed hair from her face. "Not really your type, then. Surprised you're still with her."
"Well, it's not like we don't ... I mean, we've done everything but. Heck, we've almost. But she just..." He shrugged, unable to articulate.
"And you're okay with that?"
"Well..." He shrugged again. "Yeah."
Tina gave him a long look, her eyes crossing his face as though searching for some clue. Then she smiled. "Oh boy. You've got it bad."
"So what if I do?" he said. "She's not ... This is something different, Tina. She's not just someone. I've never met anyone like her."
"Why? What do you like about her?"
For a moment Barry was stunned, mostly by the scope of the question. What do I like about her? What do I not like about her! "This could take a while."
Tina laughed. "So, you think she's pretty."
"I think she's beautiful," he corrected. " 'Pretty' is just diner-waitress material. Ramona is..." Again, he ran out of words.
"And nothing about her personality bugs you?"
"Well, she isn't, like, perfect, but ... I mean, all the big things, we get along. It's great. If I tell her, I want to jump in the car and go to the beach this weekend, she's not like, Oh, great, now I have to cancel all my plans, she's like, What should I pack?"
"Ooh, someone who isn't turned off by your impulsive streak."
"Yeah. I mean, she almost has me beat there. She'll see something and just be like, Ooh, let's go, and sometimes I have to hold her back. Which is a big change, let me tell you."
Tina smiled. "So, are you gonna pop the question?"
Barry thought about it. It was a startling question. Marriage? Already? But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. "You know what? I am."
"Even though it's only been a year?"
"I don't care about that. I don't think she does either. Tina, from the moment we met, it just ... It's like, neither of us has said a wrong word since." He thought again about this morning and their sexual contretemps. "Even when we disagree, we're not fighting."
"She's okay with your career? What does she do for a living?"
"She's the marketing star at a mid-size start-up. People have been trying to steal her away to their companies for months. You remember that ad with the chicken that won't stop talking? That was her idea."
"Wow, really? Ross loves that ad, he laughs every time he sees it. And that company is advertising software and other Internet services, so she can get you a programming job."
"Yeah, the thought has crossed our minds."