Framed comics line the wall directly in front of me, hanging above his desk. All Marvel: Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Cable and Thor. The bottom corners are signed from our numerous trips to Comic-Con in San Diego.
Last year, we stopped attending the comic book convention when I slept with Chewbacca, or at least a fan dressed as the Star Wars character—one of my more embarrassing conquests. Lo didn’t have a splendid time either. He drank something Captain America gave him. Turns out the Cap imposter wasn’t too noble, having spiked his booze with roofies. Nerds can be vicious too.
“You remember when you slept with Chewbacca?” Lo must have followed my gaze to the same poster. He heads to his desk to make another glass.
I shoot him a look. “At least I didn’t accept drinks from every masked superhero that approached me.”
“Yeah? Well at least I’m not into bestiality.”
My eyes narrow and I grab a pillow off the bed, chucking it at him with all my might. I would never be into something like that. Gross, gross, gross.
Lo dodges the pillow but it collides with a bottle of bourbon, knocking it over like a bowling pin and toppling it to the floor. Lo’s face darkens in contempt. “Watch it, Lily.” He picks up the bottle, unbroken, and reacts as though I hit his child.
I don’t say I’m sorry. It’s just alcohol. And he has plenty more. When my eyes plant on a shelf by his head, my heart nearly drops. “How long has that photo been there?” I spring from the bed. He should have burned it!
He carefully returns his bottles to a safe location and cranes his neck to see what I’m fussing over. I’m so embarrassed by the photo that I shove him from the desk and spread my arms out, failing at blocking his view since the picture sits above me and he far surpasses my height.
He laughs at my lame attempt and plucks the frame off the shelf with ease. I try to reach for it, but he hoists it high above, teasing me further.
“Toss it out,” I demand, my hands flying to my hips, just so he knows I mean it.
“It goes with the posters,” he muses, his eyes twinkling at the memory that’s encapsulated within the frame.
“Lo,” I whine. He’s right that the photo fits in with the others. Also at Comic-Con, Lo and I stand beside cutouts of Cyclops and Professor X. I adorn nothing more than a pair of latex pants, a shiny black bra, and long plastic blades from my knuckles. I look more confident than I let on, mostly because Lo begged me to stop hiding behind his back. It was his fault I was scantily-clad in the first place. He insisted I join him as his favorite X-Men’s love interest. So he dressed up as Hellion—the young new mutant with telekinesis—in a spandex, red and black suit, and like a good friend, I played the part of X-23 for the day, the female clone of Wolverine.
I hate that the photo is in a room with dozens of empty memories. A few frames over, we’re holding hands underneath the Eiffel Tower during a family trip to France. Fake. Another, he kisses me in a gazebo. Fake. I sit on his lap during a boating trip in Greece. Faker. Why do we have to tarnish the real memories in our friendship by placing them with phony ones from our pretend relationship?
“Please,” I beg.
“Where am I going to get better proof that we’re a couple?” he protests, inching towards me just to make this even more awkward. My back hits his desk, and I hope to God we’re not reenacting the earlier kitchen scene. But then I kinda do.
“Technically…” I say, eyes on his chest. “…this is my room too.”
“Yeah?” He sets the photo back on the shelf above me, and before I can turn and snatch it, he clasps my wrists in a tight hold. He stretches my arms behind my back. Oh my God.
“Lo,” I warn.
“If this is your room, then make me believe it.”
“Shut up,” I say instantly. I don’t even know why.
“That’s not very convincing.”
Is he being serious? “This is my room,” I say adamantly, wondering if that’s enough.
“It is?” he plays along, edging closer. “You don’t seem so sure.”
I try to reclaim my hands, but his grip tightens and he widens his stance so his feet trap me against the desk. Yes, this is just like the kitchen, only worse (or better) because I am not in control without my arms. Not one bit.
“Step back,” I try to sound forceful, but it comes off too raspy and too wanting.
“Why do you think this is your room?” he asks. “You don’t sleep here. You don’t f**k here. You don’t eat or drink here. What makes this yours as much as it is mine?”
“You know why,” I breathe. We’re pretending, aren’t we? I’m so confused. What is he to me right now? Friend, boyfriend, something else entirely?
“Once you stepped through that threshold,” Lo says, “you entered my place.” His hot, bourbon-scented breath hits my neck. “Everything in here belongs to me.”
My head lulls dizzily. I hate that I haven’t had sex today. I hate that my body wants Loren Hale. And maybe even my mind too.
I try to concentrate. I have to. “Take it down,” I say again.
“No, I like that photo and it’s staying there.”
Why does he care so much about that stupid picture?!
Before I ask, he spins me around and leans my stomach against his desk but keeps my wrists in his hands, pinning my arms to my back. I try to wiggle out of the hold, but he presses his body to mine, in a position that I’ve fantasized so many times. Just like this (maybe not the submissive part), but with him behind me, his pelvis grinding into my backside. I gape, internally dying. Luckily he can’t see my open-mouthed expression.
I draw in a tight breath. “You’re being mean,” I tell him. He knows I haven’t had sex. When we were eighteen, he asked me what it felt like to go without cli**xing for a day, and I told him it feels like someone is burying my head under the sand and pulling my limbs so tight they become taught rubber bands, waiting to be snapped and released. The cravings feel like drowning and being lit on fire at the same time.
He said he could relate to the paradox.
“I know you’re enjoying this.”
Yes, very much so. “Lo,” I breathe. “If you’re not going to have sex with me, you need to back away. Please.” Because I don’t think I can say no. My body wants him so badly that it trembles beneath his weight, but my head has become far more resilient. He’s just teasing me. That’s it. And I don’t want to wake up feeling ashamed about not stopping. He doesn’t like me like that. He couldn’t want someone like me.
He lets go and takes three steps back. I massage my wrists and set them on the desk, not facing him just yet. I collect my bearings—the places inside of me way too tempted right now. When I muster the courage, I spin around, my eyes livid. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He can’t use sex against me, not like that.
His jaw locks, and he spends a great deal of time pouring his next drink. He takes two large swigs and refills it before even beginning to answer me. “Don’t be so serious,” he says lowly. “I was just playing around.”
His words send arrows into my chest. It hurts. I know it shouldn’t. I wanted him to say, it was all real. I meant it. Let’s be together. I know that now, even if being together will bring a whole new set of complications. Instead, he reinforced our façade. It’s all a lie.
“You want to play around?” My body thrums with heat. I storm over to his liquor cabinets, find the magnetic key and open them up quickly.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Lo shouts. I barely pull out two bottles before he has his hand on my wrist, knowing I’m either about to trash them or chuck ‘em out of the window. I haven’t decided which yet.
“Lily,” he growls my name like it’s the most profane word in the dictionary. We’re both furious, and I feel justified in it. I don’t look away. His face sharpens, and I can almost see the gears cranking in his head.
“Let’s talk, Lo,” I say tightly, not moving yet. “How is what I’m doing any different than what you just did to me?”
He inhales a deep breath, eyes narrowing. As always, he calculates each word before speaking. “I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want to hear? I’m sorry that you can’t handle being touched by me. I’m sorry that the very thought of f**king me disgusts you. I’m sorry that every time you’re horny, I’m here.”
And there goes my breath. I don’t understand what he’s trying to tell me. Does he want me or is he pissed that I’m a sex addict? I carefully set the bottles down on the desk and disentangle from his grasp. I slip into his bathroom and lock the door just as he nears it.
“Lily,” he calls.
I lie on the cold tiles and close my eyes, trying to clear my mind. I’m starting to wonder how much I can take of this—of not knowing the truth of our actions, of our relationship. It’s driving me insane.
My body shudders, a small withdrawal from the lack of stimulation today. I keep my eyes shut and try to sleep it off, but the knob jiggles with the click of the lock. The door opens and Lo pockets a bump key.
I don’t move from my resting place, and I train my gaze on the white ceiling.
Lo sits next to me and leans against the Jacuzzi tub. “You shouldn’t be worried if Daisy heard us. Normal couples fight.”
Right, the charade. Silence thickens, and I’m proud of making him suffer a little.
He shifts on the ground and pulls his knees up, arms loosely wrapping around them. “When I was seven, my father took me into his office and pulled out this small silver handgun,” he says and pauses, rubbing his mouth with a small, dry laugh.
I keep my expression blank, even if the story interests me.
Lo continues, “He put it in my palm, and he asked me how it felt to hold it. You know what I said?” He glances at me. “I told him I was scared. He smacked me on the back of the head and said, ‘You’re holding a f**king gun. The only people who should be scared are the ones on the other end of it.’” He shakes his head. “…I don’t know why I just thought of that, but I keep remembering all of it. The way the gun felt heavy and cold in my hand, how I was so terrified of the trigger or of dropping it. And there he was…disappointed.”
I sit up and scoot back on the other wall to face him. He looks visibly upset, and that’s enough of an apology from Loren Hale than I’ll ever need. “You never told me that story before.”
“I don’t like the memory,” he admits. “As a kid, I felt this overwhelming sense of admiration towards the guy, and now it makes me nauseous thinking about it.”
I don’t know what to say, and I don’t think he wants me to reply anyway. So the quiet passes once again. A shudder runs through me, even as I try to suppress it.
“Are you withdrawing?” Lo asks, his eyes heavy with worry. “Do you need something? Like a vibrator?” That’s not awkward…
I shake my head and clench my eyes closed as the pain in my extremities intensifies from being riled up without release. They pull tight and sharp. I’m a rubber band that can’t snap.