CHAPTER 10 – NATE
Her eyes get wider momentarily before she looks away. So quickly deflated.
“I’m really uncomfortable,” she says suddenly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t–”
“No, I mean, this sweater…”
“Oh,” I say, a little taken aback. Maybe I misread her, but I wasn’t thinking this. “Ummm…” Neither of us can look the other in the eye.
“It’s just itchy,” she laughs nervously. “Do you have, like, a t-shirt or something?”
“Sure.” I stumble when I make it to my feet, suddenly needing to get away from her. “Yeah, I’ll be right back.” I can feel the adrenaline coursing through me. Is that adrenaline? I want her.
Fuck. Is she saying she wants me, too?
She looked away. She said she was uncomfortable. She corrected herself, blaming her sweater. She wants to get into something more comfortable. Isn’t that a sign? Isn’t that what they say?
I close my door as soon as I get to my room, tapping my head against it repeatedly. She doesn’t want to be in love. Is that what this is? This feeling? Or do I just want her that badly? I definitely want her. Pushing against the door, I go to my nightstand and pull out the two condoms, pocketing them just in case. I wish I could read her.
I get halfway down the hall before I remember why I came down here in the first place. That would have been embarrassing. Pull it together. I scan the options in my closet, finally settling on an REM t-shirt from their most recent tour. I bet she likes them, too. It’s short-sleeved, though. Will she be warm enough? I can warm her up.
Fuck! Pull it together, Nate!
I force myself to take five deep breaths, and realize my heart is pounding in my chest and the blood is pumping vigorously throughout my body. This could be embarrassing. I need a cigarette. I grab another long-sleeved t-shirt to give her options. While she changes, I’ll smoke. Unless she gives me a sign otherwise.
One more breath, and I start to return to the third floor. I can read her. I know body language. If I just pay attention, she’ll tell me what she wants.
She hasn’t moved an inch since I left her. I can tell from the shape of the blankets that her arms are wrapped around her legs, which she’s pulled into her body. She really can’t be any more closed off than that. I don’t think she wants what I want.
Of course she doesn’t. She told me that already.
“Hey,” I say as I hold the two shirts out to her. I hope I don’t sound like the wreck that I feel like.
“Did you go to that show?” she asks, throwing the blankets off and standing up. “I wanted to go to that so bad!”
“Yeah,” I tell her, handing her the short-sleeved shirt. “Front row.”
“Yeah. I got to meet them after the show.”
“Take me with you next time!” she says. “Please?”
Anytime. Anywhere. “Sure,” I say nonchalantly, balling up the other shirt.
“Can I have that one, too? It’s cold. I can wear layers.”
“Of course.” I smile, giving her the other shirt, as well.
“The bathroom’s down the hall?” she asks.
“Second door on your right.”
“Thanks.” My eyes follow her as she walks away. I definitely want her. I’m glad her back is to me, because my attraction is becoming impossible to hide.
“I’m, uhhh–” I stutter, speaking loudly enough for her to hear. “I’m gonna have a smoke on the patio.” I zip up my leather jacket and pull my cap out of one pocket and my cigarettes out of another. One corner of the patio is protected from the elements, so I wander over there, leaning against the wall of the house and lighting up.
The air is freezing, and breathing it in with the cigarette makes my body feel like it’s shutting down. I take that as a good thing, because I was getting a little too worked up in the house with Emi. Shit.
The outside motion detector picks up on my movements, and casts the west side of the lawn in harsh artificial lighting. I’m surprised to see how deep the snow is. Five inches, maybe? That’s more than the news stations had predicted by morning, and it’s still coming down heavily. What if the snow doesn’t clear tomorrow? What if she has to stay through the day, or another night? I’m not sure I can even make it through tonight with her here, without doing something I’ll probably regret.
Maybe a quick shower would help. I imagine her changing in the bathroom.
“Stop it!” I say out loud to myself. I’ve never felt so out of control of this… desire, this need. I dab out the cigarette and put it in the enclosed ashtray tucked in the corner behind a plant. Mom knows I smoke, but I don’t think she knows how often I like to.
When I get back inside, Emi’s standing awkwardly by the cushions I’d set up for her. She’s taken her boots off, and is now in socks, her tight jeans, and both of my t-shirts, which are a little big for her.
“Your shirts make me look like a little boy,” she says, holding out her arms and looking at her chest. I can’t help but laugh at her.
“I apologize. I don’t really have girl clothes here. They’re not so bad.”
She smiles. “Do you ever just slide around the floor in here in your socks?”
“Were you doing that?” I ask, moving the painting of her eye color onto a work bench and setting up a blank canvas.
“Maybe,” she admits.
“Away from the easels?”
“Of course.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Hey, you know they say that smoking stunts your growth.”
“Who says that?”
“The news. Doctors,” she explains.
“So when’d you stop smoking?” I ask her, averting my eyes briefly– but purposefully– to her breasts. In her sweater, they looked ample and pretty, but the shirts do reveal just how small she is. I may not have noticed had she not pointed it out herself.
The look on her face is shock. “What are you implying?” she asks loudly, her eyes bright and playful. “I’m proportionate,” she says, nodding with self-satisfaction.
“Well, I assume that’s where you were steering the conversation. I mean, look at me. Six-two? Does it look like it’s stunted my growth?”
“Height-wise, maybe not,” she says. “But you’re skinny. And who knows what’s under that?” She gestures in my general direction.
I raise my eyebrows at her challenging implication to me. “I know,” I tell her. “Do you want to?” I move my hands to the top button of my jeans, positioning my fingers in a dare.
“No!” she exclaims, laughing and covering her eyes. “I meant, like, muscles.”
I shrug out of my jacket, setting it on the countertop next to the sink, and walk over to where she stands. I remove one of her hands from her face, revealing her still-squinting eyes, and place it on my right bicep. She squeezes tentatively, then moves her other hand down and opens her eyes.
“I guess I’ve seen worse,” she says, trailing her fingers down my arm and over my fingers. I try to catch her hand before it falls, but I’m a split second too late. I don’t think she knows what I was trying to do.
“Just wait until you see my back muscles,” I tell her in a desperate attempt to impress her. “You use a lot of upper body muscles when you paint.”
“Aren’t you freezing already?” she asks, her cheeks becoming blotchy, walking to the counter and picking up my coat. “So maybe smoking hasn’t damaged everything,” she says, handing me the jacket. Her left dimple precedes a sexy grin. I pull the jacket in front of myself quickly, happy to cover up before she sees first hand that smoking hasn’t damaged anything. Misty was very complimentary. I don’t know if there was any truth behind it, but I have no reason to think otherwise. She never really lied to me. She just moved on.
And suddenly, as I had questioned how easy it was for her to leave me behind, I see how it doesn’t have to be difficult when someone else is there instead. She has Clark. Maybe I can have Emi.
“Tired yet?” I ask her.
“Maybe a little. You?”
“Not at all.” Paint before sleep. The routine was ingrained in me. I can rarely sleep without painting first. My mind stays occupied with thoughts until I can empty them out on canvas. Most nights, I’d get between four and six hours. Typically, I’d spend Sundays catching up on my sleep. I decide I can stay up all night, if she can. I’ll have all day to rest. “Mind if I turn some music on?” I ask.
“What do you have?”
“My CDs are over there.” I motion to a large cabinet door. “Pick something.”
She slides over to the far wall in her socks and opens the heavy doors, revealing the stereo and hundreds of albums. “Wow!” She starts shuffling through them, looking at covers and immediately splitting them into two different piles. I’d spent a few hours last weekend arranging them by genre, then artist. I guess she sees no rhyme or reason in my organization. “What do you want? Something ethereal? Pop? Rock?”
“My vote’s Radiohead,” I suggest, remembering the clothes she wore yesterday.
“I love them!”
“I know. You had the Mercury Lounge shirt on yesterday,” I admit. “I was there, too.”
“I figured you did, too. How’d you get the shirt?”
“My sister got in with her boyfriend.”
“Fiancé,” I remind her.
“No, that was someone else. Rich,” she says.
“That concert was only two months ago…”
“Interesting,” I comment.
“She’s kind of a slut.” She takes out the CD and puts it in the stereo, hitting the play button first, but then forwarding through tracks until she settles on one of my favorites. Very ethereal. I love to paint to this song.
“Do you like anyone in your family?” I ask, watching her as she returns to the cushions. She’d taken a handful of CDs with her, and as she settles back in beneath the blankets, she starts to take out the sleeves, opening them up to read lyrics.
A beautiful girl can turn your world into dust.* Suddenly, there’s life in those words. A meaning I’ve understood, by sound and sentence structure, but I’ve never truly felt what they mean. I start arranging my paints hurriedly, anxious to translate these emotions into art.
“You’re not even listening to me.” Her voice startles me. I hadn’t forgotten she was here, but I hadn’t realized she was talking, either.
“What were you saying?” I ask, still visualizing what my first stroke will be. I finally look back at her when she doesn’t answer. “Sorry?”
“You asked me if I like anyone in my family.” I had forgotten that I asked her that.
“I like my brother. And Mom, for the most part, but I hate seeing her like this. Still, she’d do anything for my dad. After all he did, she’d take him back in a heartbeat, and that drives me crazy. Like, have some self-respect,” she rambles.
I think about Misty, realizing last week I’d decided I would take her back if she still wanted me. Tonight, I wouldn’t. Tomorrow, I wouldn’t. I can see better opportunities now. This girl in front of me has shown them to me. “Her time will come, Em,” I say. “Can I call you that?” I ask, realizing I’d shortened her name, and liking the sound of it. I like the familiarity. Already, she feels that familiar.
“Cool. You know… just put your life in someone else’s hands, just once, Em, and I think you’ll see that things aren’t so cut and dry. You can’t turn it off. I think love is greater than us all,” I tell her with a smile. “Sometimes, it traps people, and holds them, frozen in time… for weeks, or months, even years.”
I hadn’t noticed she’d retrieved her purse, but she must have when she went to change. Suddenly, she’s digging through it until she produces her copy of the Canterbury Tales. She opens the book to a bookmark– a ticket stub, it appears– and reads aloud, “He cannot escape love, even at the cost of his own life.”**
“Is that part of your story?” I ask her.
She glares at me, as if the words have offended her. As if they’ve left a bad taste in her mouth. “Yeah,” she answers tersely. “I hate it.”
“I thought it was beautiful,” I try to engage her in conversation.
“It’s just not very timely for me.”
“Or it’s just timely enough,” I suggest. “That knight’s a pretty smart guy. I think he knows what he’s talking about.” She rolls her eyes at me. I wish there was more light on her face. I want to see her eyes again. “Is that as far as you’ve read?”
“Yeah. But I’ve read these two pages about forty times. I just can’t focus beyond that.”
“Try. You should read on. Aren’t you curious to see who you end up with, at least?” I ask, referring to the heroine in the Knight’s Tale as her.
“I hope I end up alone,” she says. “I presume I do. These guys are in jail.”
“Read,” I tell her, this time more sternly. “Although it’s kind of humorous how similar you are to the fair Emily.”
“So pure, and beautiful,” she nearly sings. I laugh.
“She wishes to remain a virgin, a servant to Diana,” I tell her.
“I never said I was a virgin,” she corrects me.
She hesitates, but finally answers me. “No, I am.”
I smile at her response without making a big deal out of it and continue with my thoughts on our assigned reading. “Diana. Goddess of the moon and chastity. Twin of Apollo, leader of the Muses and god of music and poetry…” I see Emi yawn, her attention focused once again on a CD insert, “…and some other things,” I mutter to myself, realizing how pompous I must sound to her. I’ve bored her, anyway.
I start painting, listening to the music and glancing in her direction every once in awhile. Eventually, she curls up on her side, still lying on the cushions and tucked tightly beneath the blankets, and falls asleep.
~ * ~
The sun seems to come up earlier, making its presence known more brightly as it glistens on the snow that covers everything outside. Quietly, I open the two shades that are still down, wanting to let as much light in as possible. A few hours ago, Emi had awoken, confused momentarily by her surroundings. I’d offered to show her back to the guest bedroom, but she just groaned a little, rolled over, and pulled the blankets over her head.
“Shhh!” I try to hush my mom as quietly as I can. I nod to the pile of blankets. Mom looks hard, trying to make out the shape, and then shakes her head, walking toward me.
“She slept there?” she whispers.
“Yeah. She dozed off, and didn’t want to move, I guess.”
“So that’s where the chaise pillows went.” I just smile and focus back on the painting. “Nate, this is stunning.” She puts her arm around my waist and leans her head into my arm. “You were up all night?”
“I couldn’t stop.” I glance down just to see the reproachful expression I know she has across her face. “I can sleep today,” I rationalize.
“Don’t you have homework?”
“A little. But I can bang it out in an hour.”
“That lit project?”
“No, I finished the book. And I know what I’m going to say in class. I just need to get props, but that’ll be easy enough.”
“Okay. It’s warming up, and the snow’s melting fast. I called the service. The car will be here in an hour to take her home.”
“It’s so early,” I argue. “She may not even be awake.”
“We’ll wake her up. Her mother called first thing. She wants Emily home.”
I stare across the room at her, biting the inside of my lip in thought.
“She seems like a nice girl, Nate.”
“She also seems very vulnerable. It sounds like she really needs a friend right now.”
“Don’t complicate things,” she says as she pats me on the back. I look at her as if I don’t know what she’s talking about.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“No? So those are hers?” she asks, pointing to something on the floor. The two condoms. Mom squeezes my forearm as she walks away from me. I pick the condoms up and stash them in my back pocket. Beginning to remember why I brought them up here, I decide now would be a good time for a shower. God, I hope she didn’t see them.
I ride in the town car with Emi as the driver takes her back to her house. I’d wanted to spend more time with her, and I wanted to know where she lived. I hope this won’t be the only time I’m allowed over here. Mom suggested I wear something nicer than the paint-stained t-shirt I’d dressed in when I got out of the shower.
“You’ll probably meet her mother… and she probably doesn’t like you very much right now,” she’d said.
“All I did was help her,” I had argued.
“You were a perfect gentleman,” she says. “Go show her mom who Nathaniel Wilson is.”
I scratch the back of my neck, the starched collar uncomfortable, so close to my hairline. I think Emi’s watching me fidget, but I can’t tell. She’s got her hood over her head and sunglasses on. She was very self-conscious about her hair, and she said she was getting a headache.
“Thanks,” she speaks up, having been silent most of the way. “I really appreciate what you did.”
“You’re welcome. If you ever need to get away, our door’s always open.”
“Except at night, when Donna doesn’t want girls over,” she says with a smile.
“Right,” I agree. “But there are always ways to work around things with Mom. I don’t know if you figured this out, but I’m a little spoiled.”
“No, I did,” she laughs. “You can tell she loves you.”
“What choice does she have?” I tease, blowing off her comment.
“Hey, do you want to come with me to this costume shop near the city on Tuesday? It’s the best one around. We can get stuff for our presentation.”
“Okay, what time can you pick me up?” she asks. She bites her lip before speaking again as I glare at her in mock disbelief. “I told you I don’t drive.”
“Fine. Why don’t we just go after school?”
“This is me,” Emi speaks up louder to the driver. “Sounds good,” she says to me as I look out the window. The apartment building is newer, and the units look more like town homes. The car pulls up to the curb, and the driver steps out to open the door for Emi. I get out on the other side. “What are you…”
“I just want to make sure you make it in alright,” I tell her with confidence, hoping she won’t try to change her mind. She doesn’t say it’s okay, but she doesn’t stop me either.
Emi takes out her keys and opens up the blue door to her unit. Three people stand up from the living room furniture, looking at us.
“What were you thinking?!” her mom says as she rushes to her side and hugs her tightly.
“I’m sorry I hit you, Emi,” the other woman, who must be her sister, says. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I think I hear Emi mumble.
“You,” her brother says as he looks me over. “You were at the pizza place, right?”
I just smile and offer him my hand. “Nate Wilson. I have a class with Emi.” Chris looks at me sideways, but finally shakes my hand.
“Chris Hennigan,” he says.
“Mom, Jen,” Emi says after clearing her throat and tucking her finger under her lenses to wipe her eyes. “Nate’s in my art class at school. He found me wandering last night and his mom let me sleep in a guest room,” she says. It’s a tiny lie, but I’d prefer it that way.
Neither of the women approaches me. Instead, they both just stare at me, looking suspicious.
“Nice to meet you both,” I say.
“She’s never allowed to do this again,” her mom says.
“I’m sure my mom will say the same thing about me,” I assure her. “I’m just glad she had somewhere to stay.” I start to walk backwards toward the door, feeling a bit unwelcome.
“I’ll walk you out,” Emi says. Her mom doesn’t let go of her hand. “I’ll be right out front, Mom. Just a second.” She finally releases her. Emi opens the door for me and guides me out.
“I’m okay,” she tells me.
We look at one another, and just as I start to take a step toward the car, she stands on her tiptoes and puts her arms around my neck, putting her head against my chest. Stunned, it takes me a couple of seconds to hug her back, but when I do, it’s tight, and I hope it feels as comforting to her as hers does to me.
“See you tomorrow in art,” she says, the sound muffled in my jacket’s sleeve. I can’t wait until art. I can’t wait to see her again, and I smile as I hold her, until she finally pulls away.
“Wait, Emi?” I stop her, my voice quiet. “Can I…” I don’t finish my question, but instead lift my hands to her sunglasses, removing them from her face slowly. I step to the side, removing my shadow from her face. She continues to look up at me, and she swallows hard. I study her eyes, trying to understand every facet in the few seconds that I have. I’d been waiting for this moment all night.
“I don’t want to,” she whispers. “I think you’re great, but this isn’t what I want.”
I lift my eyebrows at her, wondering what she thought I was going to do. When I catch on, I just start shaking my head and smiling. “I am not that confident,” I admit to her, putting my thumbs on her eyebrows and trying to open her eyes a little wider.
“Oh, god, I feel so stupid–” she says.
“Don’t,” I stop her from continuing. “I wouldn’t be a healthy teenage guy if I said I didn’t want to, but that’s not what I’m doing.”
“Okay… because I don’t want to,” she repeats.
“I understand. I’m not going to. I just wanted one glimpse of these eyes in the sunlight. They’re, like, the color of the sea in Indonesia. That was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen,” I tell her. “Maybe until right now.”
“Oh,” she says, biting back a smile. “Well, then, thank you.”
I nod, satisfied, not at all feeling awkward. “You think I’m great?” I ask her.
“A little,” she says, scrunching her nose. I put her sunglasses back on her ears.
“Well, I like you, Emi.”
Her smile is sweet, and happy. It’s the first time I’ve really seen her happy. She starts toward the door, turning back once she gets to the steps.
“Like ya, Nate!” she calls out to me casually.
I wave to her, in somewhat of a daze. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this happy.
©2012 Lori L. Otto
*Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong ©1994 by Radiohead
**The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling ©2009 by Peter Ackroyd
Do you like what you’ve read so far? This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series. You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!