“Are you blushing?” Connor asks Rose with a laugh. Connor: 2. Rose: 0. She’s going to kill me.
“Let’s get back to the subject at hand,” I say, trying to cover for her, but the damage is done.
Connor nudges her hip with his elbow. “What is it? Did you fall into the Reflecting Pool?”
“No,” she deadpans, glaring at the wall.
“Did you misquote Abraham Lincoln’s speech?”
“That wouldn’t happen, and that’s not the least bit embarrassing.”
“I would be embarrassed,” he says with raised eyebrows.
“Yeah? Well you’re like a green rooster. If your kind exists, there’s only one of you.”
He grins. “Say that again.”
“I’d rather embowel your cat.”
I laugh. “Ooh, burn.” Bringing Sadie into the arguments always livens things up. Rose has threatened to mutilate his pet about twenty different ways. It’s her main weapon against her boyfriend, but he finds each one as amusing as the next. Apparently, Rose has yet to enter his apartment on account of Connor’s tabby cat that hates women. Since the cat is also full-fledged female, Rose finds the creature as close to a demon as an animal can be.
Connor tries hard not to break into an even wider smile and show defeat. He cocks his head to the side. “Some idiot boy gave you a wedgie, didn’t he? Give me his name; I want to talk to him.”
“It was the sixth grade,” she says with furrowed brows. “You don’t need to go through my history book and attack all the people who have wronged me.”
I chime in, “Yeah, because she’s already castrated most of them.”
Connor lets out a laugh, and I swear, he’s about ready to drop on one knee and propose. He licks his lips to hide his growing pleasure. “So I’m right then? Wedgie?”
“What? No.” Rose jerks back, offended. “I don’t even find it that embarrassing anymore. It actually just chaps my ass, which is why I think we should move on.”
“I don’t want to move on from this, hun. Just let it out. Breathe and release.” He inhales strongly and blows out of his mouth, teasing her a little, and her cat-eyes burn holes in him.
“Fine, Richard.” Oh, she even used his real name. Things are getting serious now. I can’t deny—their tiffs do take my mind off missing Lo and my habits. Sometimes I think that being around Rose and Connor helps take the edge off. Other times, I just feel like they stand in the way of me and my desires. “I was walking through one of the Smithsonian museums, and I stopped in front of a model of the solar system. While I was reading the labels, a group of boys in my class gathered behind me and pointed and snickered before saying, ‘I can see Uranus.’”
Connor doesn’t laugh. “That’s not even clever.”
It gets worse, is all I think.
Rose’s lips twitch, trying to smile, but anger flits in her eyes at the memory. “I ignored them, and then they said, ‘Hey, your anus is bleeding.’”
“I started my period that day.”
I grimace at her pained memory. Those things stay with someone forever. Even if they seem small and insignificant, childhood stories like Rose’s are the ones that last a lifetime.
“Give me their names.” Connor motions to her with two fingers as he takes out his phone and opens the note app.
Rose actually lets out a weak smile. “I yelled at them,” she tells Connor, “that day—I turned around and told them to shut up, and I ran into the bathroom and cried and called my mother.” Her face turns serious. “I never want to have children.”
My stomach drops at the bomb she just exploded in the room. I knew this about Rose, but talking about kids in front of a pretty new boyfriend would be a trigger for them to scamper away.
Clearly, this is a Rose Calloway test.
Connor inhales deeply, as though digesting the sudden proclamation. His face stays blank, accepting Rose’s challenge. She’s practically asking him to run the other way. “After that, I wouldn’t either. Boys should be more respectful about the female reproductive system. It’s what brought those f**kers into the world.”
Rose laughs at this, almost cackling. I can’t help but smile too. “Fuckers?” she repeats.
He shrugs. “It’s better than dipshits.”
“I actually think dipshit is more appropriate.”
My eyes scrunch. “Are you two seriously discussing curse words?”
“Yes,” they say in unison, turning their attention back to me. Rose picks up where she left off on the story involving the therapist. “Anyway, he went through a list and asked me what I preferred, I told him, and he asked how often. Then, he asked me if I tried to stop, but he said it in a way that was completely unprofessional.”
Connor elaborates. “He told her that most women come into his office seeking attention, especially from him since he’s good looking and fit, and that in order to verify her problem, she would need to—and I quote—‘suck c*ck until her mouth bled.’”
My jaw unhinges. “What?” I say in a small voice.
Rose punches him in the side, and he feigns wincing, incensing her more. “I was trying to be brief about it,” she says. “You didn’t need to tell her word for word.”
“I hate paraphrasing. To use your vocabulary, it chaps my ass.”
Rose holds up a hand to his face, ignoring him and telling him to shut up in one swift motion. Her eyes meet mine and they soften considerably. “I learned later that he had never treated a female sex addict before. I’m trying to find a woman who understands your condition. And I promise, she will not only be respectful but she’ll be intelligent and know more than Connor and me put together.”
“That’s impossible,” Connor tells her. “We’re the two smartest people in the entire world. You put us together, and you get a superhuman.”
Rose rolls her eyes dramatically, but she’s actually smiling. “You’re an idiot.” She nods to me. “Okay?”
I believe Rose. I trust her more than anyone else in the whole world, maybe even more than Lo. He would be so offended if he heard me say that, but in this moment, I think it’s true. He’s not here. But I have her.
There’s something beyond comforting about that. “Thanks, Rose.” I give her a hug and hope that no matter how horrible I am, no matter how much I bitch and regress, she’ll forgive me.
2 YEARS AGO
My wedges dangle in my hand. My bare feet touch the dirty sidewalk. I’m running. Well, more like chasing. As I try to catch up with Lo, a freshman dormitory looms in the background, cop cars swarming the brick building. Underage drinkers cuffed or given a not-so pleasant citation.
Lo spins around, slowing and shuffling backwards at the same time. He’s so good at running away from things. At eighteen, I still struggle to keep up with him.
“Faster, Lil,” he tells me, but he has a goofy smile on his face. As if this could be considered a new adventure. Racing from the cops during our first week of college. Me, chasing after him.
“We’re…going…up a…hill,” I huff, my pace between a walk and a jog. Something sticky glues to the bottom of my foot, and I cringe with a downturned frown. I hope that was just gum.
“I’m going to leave you,” he threatens, but I hardly believe him. Especially with the way he nearly laughs at me. And then he picks up speed again, sprinting forward, hoping that I’ll gain the strength to finally reach him.
I never do. But it’s a nice thought.
My knees bend beneath me, and I use the last ounce of my energy to dart towards him up the steep hill, traffic on the left side of us as cars return from the clubs and bars. The dorm party we attended wasn’t even that fun. The beer sucked, as Lo put it. There was no room to move, and the halls were so crammed with people that a weird smell permeated in the air. Like weed and sweat mixed together. Gross.
But I don’t regret it. Because Lo was there, and we’ll have something to laugh about later.
His black shirt begins to mold to his taught back and chest and arms, outlining the shape of his lean muscles, giving me an idea of what lies beneath. When he runs, he looks beautiful. As though no one can touch him, as though he’s leaving behind a burning world and heading towards a peaceful one. His cheeks will sharpen; his eyes will narrow in determination. Of course I can’t see any of that.
I just have a nice view of his ass.
That’s not too bad to look at either.
And then I begin to fall. Pain shoots up my ankle so excruciating that I let out a cry. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I sit on my butt and inspect the bone. It’s not protruding from my skin, but the muscle feels tight and strained.
“Lil?” Lo rushes back to me, nearly skidding down the hill with a face full of worry. He bends to my ankle, and inspects the bone just as I did. His fingers lightly touch my skin. “How bad does it hurt?”
“Bad.” I grimace.
“As bad as when you broke your arm?” he asks, reminding me of the bully on the playground when we were little. Harry Cheesewater.
I shake my head, and he puts his hands underneath my armpits, hoisting me up like I’m a little doll. I try to put some pressure on my foot to test it, but the pain intensifies like a thousand sharp needles. My eyes begin to water, and I wipe them with a furious hand. Pissed that I fell. Especially with police sirens blaring in the distance.
Lo does not need to be thrown in jail. The last time he was in there, his father threatened to ship him off to a military academy. The only thing that changed his father’s mind was my promise to help “fix” Lo, which was solidified with our fake relationship. Even if I wanted to help him, I can’t. He glared at me tonight just for suggesting he should switch to beer. I still wonder if he would have left me alone at the party if I told him to stop altogether. The best I can do is try to convince him not to drink an extra bottle. That’s in my power, and I use it as often as I can. But the only way he’ll truly get better is if he wants to first.
And clearly, he’s nowhere near that point. I’m not even sure what it will take.
He drank so much that his eyes glaze over. He’s still present—he’s still here—but I see the hunger to drink more, to lie down and just sleep with the drift and ease that liquor offers him.
“You probably sprained it,” Lo says, his gaze falling to my foot again.
“I can limp there,” I tell him. We should call Nola to pick us up. We hate cabs enough to risk being seen by a cop, but we still have my family’s driver. And Lo’s. But Anderson would be a last resort. For some reason, neither of us suggests our drivers as an option. It’s late, and I really don’t want to wake Nola to save us.
“That sounds like a stupid idea,” he says.
I look over my shoulder, the red and blue lights flashing in the distance. “Just go without me. I’ll catch up.”
And then his cheeks sharpen as they always do. “That sounds even shittier.”